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HAIDER Najam, The Rebel and the Imam in Early Islam,

Cambridge University Press, 2019, ISBN 9781107026056
Enki Baptiste
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HAIDER Najam, The Rebel and the Imam in Early Islam, Cambridge University Press, 2019, ISBN 9781107026056

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1This book, the third one of Najam Haider, who has been working on early Shī‘īsm for more than a decade, is an inquiry dedicated to Islamic historiography. In the last two decades, many studies have been published on this topic (Borrut, 2011; Donner, 1992; Shoshan, 2016), though few of them focused on the first centuries of Islam (El-Hibri, 2010). The historical sources composed during this period, between the rise of the ‘Abbāsid dynasty and its weakening, at the end of the 4th/10th century, are chronicles, often universal, like those of al-Ṭabarī or al-Ya‘qūbī. Written at least two centuries after the events they describe, these texts have been tough to entangle, because they have been perceived as (semi)fictional literary work, populated by parabolic anecdotes, rather than historical sources.

2Haider provides a new insight into this thorny corpus by showing they have value as historical sources. Moreover, the authors argues that Shī‘ī sources are no more and no less historical than Sunnī sources. Apart from Mohammed Ali Amir-Moezzi in his recent books, scholars have tended to deny the general interest and value of Shī‘ī texts commonly described as more sectarian and thus more biased. One can hope that Haider’s contribution will bring about a major change in the field.

  • 1 For example, why ruling out Khalīfa b. Khayyāṭ, who speaks on the rebellion of Mukhtār in his Tārīk (...)

3In his book, Haider undertakes a review of narratives related to three case studies. Gleaning information from Sunnī and Shī‘ī sources, he constitutes a large corpus – sometimes not clearly argued1. The selected sources are characterised by a common use of some historiographical tools, as the annalistic or akhbārī patterns.

4The main concern of Haider is neither the Imāmate nor the rebellion in early Islam. These themes are alibis. The aim of the book is to make clear how historiography is a rhetorical process. The first chapter is dedicated to the explanation of his methodology. Haider relates to Boaz Shoshan but seems to be unaware of the articles and book of Antoine Borrut, even though the French scholar appears in the bibliography. The appraisal on how to deal with those polemical sources brings Haider to argue that one must bypass imperial historiography – in other words, al-Ṭabarī. This leads the author wondering how far Shī‘ī and Sunni historiographies are different in their composition. To answer this question, Haider identifies three components, namely the “core structure” (the skeleton), the “narrative elements” (smaller units of text that populate the core structure) and the “interpretive framework”. Each of them, he assumes, deserves a close analysis.

5One can easily understand that the “narrative elements” lie in the heart of the writing process. Haider shows how writers embellish the account, add elements in order to create new meaning. As Haider argues, this step of composition is the one where a single story, known by the readers, is arranged to fit the writer’s context.

6This approach helps the scholar considering sources without a sectarian interpretive framework and to emphasize intertextuality between Sunnī and Shī‘ī authors, at least as far as the core structure is concerned.

7Haider examines the narratives on al-Mukhtār b. Abī ‘Ubayd al-Thaqafī’s rebellion, in 61-7/680-7, the life and death of Mūsā al-Kāẓim (d. 183/799), the seventh Imām of the Twelver, and the rebellion and death of Yaḥyā b. ‘Abd Allāh (d. 187/803), a Zaydī Imām.

8In each case, the scholar draws up a list of sources and their key narratives. He summarizes his conclusion in tables to help comparison between the accounts of a same event and their internal variations. In Mukhtār’s case, the analysis sometimes lacks clearness. The chapter would cry out for a brief conclusion that would highlight the aim of each source. Haider leaves us with long descriptions of the narrative elements, repeating the exercise for each source with the same head titles and quite the same accounts. This part is clearly not the best of the book. The author sometimes falls into awkward paraphrasing which does not offer a better understanding on how medieval sources embodied the figure of the rebel throughout centuries.

9Haider never binds the sources and their variations to the historical context of their composition. He barely asks: why do we have so many variations of a same account throughout time? Yet, these discrepancies reveal the aim of each historian, which is always linked to the writing context. For instance, in the case of Yaḥyā b. ‘Abd Allāh’s life, Haider brings to the fore that al-Irbilī (d. 717/1317) largely quotes al-Mufīd’s (d. 413/1022) Irshād but unfortunately he never explains why in the light of the historical context.

10Regrettably, these analyses do not establish a larger chronology of Islamic historiography which would have been a great achievement for the Shī‘ī field. Here, the concept forged by Borrut of “historiographical filter” (filtre historiographique) (Borrut, 2010; 2011: 61-109) would have been useful, putting sources into perspective and showing how far each period of composition provided a specific framework to the writer and lead to the formation of a new meaning.

11Nonetheless, the third and fourth chapters bring a very interesting viewpoint on Shī‘ī historiography. Haider better grasps the articulation and evolution of this kind of historiography. Moreover, one can find a suitable conclusion at the end of the fourth chapter where Haider identifies different layers within sources and argues that Shī‘ī texts are underlined by discussions around the substantial qualities required to become an Imām. Through biographies and small textual units, the writers endeavoured to create archetypes that could be called upon in time of crisis or serve as models for the community. At the same time, Sunnī sources do not provide the same perception of the characters and are not populated with the same narrative elements, though being written along the same core structure.

12This book provides an interesting inquiry inside Islamic historiography and contributes to this increasing research field. The conclusion opens new gates, offering a new framework for studying Shī‘ī historiography, and beyond any kind of Islamic historiography.

13For instance, the repetition of some backbone narratives such as the importance of imprisonment is easily noticeable in early Islamic historiography. The Imām discloses his ability to be the leader of the community through his open confrontation with the Caliph and thanks to his respectable and ascetic attitude during his imprisonment.

14As Haider nicely argues at the end of his book, when we work on Islamic historiography, we must bypass the traditional opposition between fiction (namely unhistorical fact) and history (that is, factual). This dichotomy forces scholars to either make a use of these sources or to reject them. Sunnī sources do not provide a more reliable narrative than Shī‘ī sources. Both follow the same process of composition and aim at providing a meaning that obeys the same imperative: to create meaning out of historical development.

15Thus, such or such text “was neither a ‘fictional’ account nor a ‘factual’ rendering of the past. It was simply historical writing”. This conclusion is perhaps the major achievement of Haider’s book.

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Borrut Antoine, 2011, Entre mémoire et pouvoir. L’espace syrien sous les derniers Omeyyades et les premiers Abbassides (v. 72-193/692-809), Leyden, Brill.

Borrut Antoine, 2010 « La memoria omeyyade : les Omeyyades entre souvenir et oubli dans les sources narratives islamiques », Borrut Antoine & Cobb Paul M (éd.), Umayyad Legacies. Medieval Memories fron Syria to Spain, Leyden, Brill, pp. 25-63.

Donner Fred M., 1998, Narratives of Islamic Origins. The Beginnings of Islamic Historiography, Princeton, Darwin Press.

Shoshan Boaz, 2016, The Arabic Historical Tradition and the Early Islamic Conquests. Folklore, Tribal Lore, Holy Ware, Londres & New York, Routledge.

El-Hibri Tayeb, 2010, Parabole and Politics in Early Islamic History. The Rashidun Caliphs, New York, Columbia University Press.

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1 For example, why ruling out Khalīfa b. Khayyāṭ, who speaks on the rebellion of Mukhtār in his Tārīkh? One can legitimately raise the question.

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Enki Baptiste, « HAIDER Najam, The Rebel and the Imam in Early Islam, », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 148 | décembre 2020, mis en ligne le 09 septembre 2020, consulté le 14 juin 2021. URL :

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Enki Baptiste

Université Lumière Lyon 2, CIHAM UMR 5648, CEFAS USR 3141

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