Power-Knowledge in Tabari’s «Histoire» of Islam
Politicizing the past in Medieval Islamic Historiography
Table Of Contents
- About the authors
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Prologue: An Elaboration of the Authors’ Position
- Chapter 1 About The History: History versus Histoire
- Chapter 2 Late Antiquity Horizons of Knowing: Reviewing the Context of Tabari
- Chapter 3 The History as Political Myth: Nativity Narratives and Semiotics
- Chapter 4 Narrative and Myth as Common Sense: Theorization of Islamic Pastorality
- Chapter 5 Common Sense and Formation of the Maalé: The Phenomenon of “Other” in the Religious Weltanschauung
- Conclusion: Looking into the Present
- Appendix Analysing the Text: The Nativity Narration
- Series index
Tabari’s Histoire of Islam
Politicizing the past in
Medieval Islamic Historiography
Oxford • Bern • Berlin • Bruxelles • New York • Wien
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ISBN 978-1-78874-703-5 (print) • ISBN 978-1-78997-169-9 (ePDF)
ISBN 978-1-78997-170-5 (ePub) • ISBN 978-1-78997-171-2 (mobi)
© Peter Lang AG 2019
Published by Peter Lang Ltd, International Academic Publishers,
52 St Giles, Oxford, OX1 3LU, United Kingdom
A. Moghadam and Terence Lovat have asserted their right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as Authors of this Work.
All rights reserved.
All parts of this publication are protected by copyright.
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This publication has been peer reviewed.
A. Moghadam is a conjoint academic at the University of Newcastle, Australia. His PhD thesis was on the power and knowledge dynamics in the medieval historiographies. He also works on historical narratives, the problems of historical consciousness, and violence.
Terence Lovat is Emeritus Professor at the University of Newcastle, Australia, and holds honorary positions at Oxford and Glasgow Universities in the UK and Royal Roads University, Canada. He has researched and written widely in the area of Islamic theology and education.
About the book
Muhammad al-Tabari’s History, written about 300 years after the establishment of Islam, is one of the religion’s most important commentaries. It offers important insights into the early development of Islam, not so much for its history as for the ways it was interpreted and understood. Through application of modern historiographical analysis and scriptural exegesis, the book explores the space between factual history and interpretive history, or histoire. The focus is especially on the ways in which al-Tabari himself understood and interpreted Qur’anic evidence, employing it not so much for literal as for political purposes. In this sense, his work is best understood not as a reliable history in the modern sense but as a politically-inspired commentary. Granted that his work has often been relied on for Islam’s historical claims, this book offers important new insights into the ways in which power and politics were shaping interpretations in its first three hundred years.
This eBook can be cited
This edition of the eBook can be cited. To enable this we have marked the start and end of a page. In cases where a word straddles a page break, the marker is placed inside the word at exactly the same position as in the physical book. This means that occasionally a word might be bifurcated by this marker.
Prologue: An Elaboration of the Authors’ Position
About The History: History versus Histoire
Late Antiquity Horizons of Knowing: Reviewing the Context of Tabari
The History as Political Myth: Nativity Narratives and Semiotics
Narrative and Myth as Common Sense: Theorization of Islamic Pastorality
Common Sense and Formation of the Maalé: The Phenomenon of “Other” in the Religious Weltanschauung
Conclusion: Looking into the Present
Analysing the Text: The Nativity Narration
Index←v | vi→ ←vi | vii→
Prologue: An Elaboration of the Authors’ Position
The criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into criticism of right and criticism of theology into criticism of politics.
— Marx (1970)
This book centres on the idea that ideology can construct the entity we call “history” and, conversely, that the thing we call history can work to support a given ideology. It is about the blurring of lines between history and myth for political reasons, most especially by means of what we describe as “formative narratives”, those texts and discourses that can often be presented as history but whose primary aim is to instil beliefs, values and identity for the group in question. For any society or group, formative narratives serve the same purpose of forming and endorsing the knowledge regarded as essential for that society or group. Among other things, they establish for the group in question what comes to be regarded as the “already known”, that which is beyond question or debate concerning collective foundational beliefs, values and identity. Seen from a political standpoint, these narratives serve as foundations for those ideologies that produce and express the discourses that determine who is powerful and who is not, who is included and who is excluded, who is a believer and who an infidel. Accordingly, in shaping its own collective identity, Islamic formative narrative provides its subjects with an ideology that assures requisite power structures as well as postures of “self” (foundational Muslim identity) versus “other”. As a significant force in our era, this narrative and its associated ideology is as significant today as it was in Islam’s formative era.←vii | viii→
Despite such an important role, our understanding of Islamic formative narratives appears to be inadequate and mostly affected by prejudice and/or what we refer to as “initial realism”, an unsophisticated grasp of reality for an era characterized generally by a sophisticated level of knowledge making. The current crisis in Islamic societies, spilling over and affecting the perception of Islam in Western societies, includes its association with terrorism, revolutions and counter-revolutions, positioning Islam as a potential threat to global stability. The blatant and persistent use of religious narrative in the present discourses of violence heightens concern about such levels of unsophisticated knowledge and lack of understanding, underlining the need for sound and informed education to address these matters locally, nationally and internationally.
Accordingly, among the many perspectives that might be brought to bear on this situation, this book proposes that the illiteracy identified above, a veritable lack of understanding of Islam’s sacred past (its historical and mythical elements and the space in between) by a generally literate population is an exacerbating factor in the major socio-political problem concerning Islam that currently faces the world. Such lack of understanding emanates partly from the failure of the West’s political, media and educational outlets to deal with knowledge of Islam in a concerted, balanced and informing way but it also results from an element of fear in both Muslim and non-Muslim outlets, including their scholarly communities, of taking a critical approach to the study of Islam. In turn, this overly uncritical approach is leading to the hegemony of revivalist, neo-traditionalist and/or revisionist discourses in the scholarship and pedagogy pertaining to Islam. Hence, there is a need for an epistemological project that can serve to free the study of Islam so to allow it to be treated like any other educational topic rather than one that is somehow exempt from serious critical analysis concerning its origins, beliefs and practices.
This book is not interested in the debate about whether the given events or characters offered by Islamic formative narrative are historically factual, non-factual or partly both. In other words, it is not concerned with neo-traditionalist versus revisionist debates. Its focus is on these formative narratives, real or imaginary, being used for the political purposes identified←viii | ix→ above, in other words in shoring up power, justifying exclusion and, finally, motivating and fueling violence.
In response to such a goal, this book aims to provide alternative foundations for the study of Islamic historiography by considering especially the political and ideological contexts and interests that developed in the late Umayyad and early Abbasid era. Accordingly this book takes into account that early Muslim scholars, such as Abu Hanifa,1 only accepted a handful of accounts about the early Islamic era, whereas most of the accounts provided by later narrators were utilized mainly for legal and political pragmatics. These facts tend to justify approaching early Islamic historiography as a largely political project. Therefore, analysing the given foundational narratives by means of a hermeneutical methodology, one might come to see this essential political element in the formative narratives. As part of this hermeneutic, the book explores the interplay between what we refer to as history (the record of factual events) and histoire (creative interpretations of past events) and the political implications of such interplay in Muslim settings. Accordingly, the current enquiry will employ modern methods of textual criticism, including those of Bruce Lincoln and others, but principally the critical textual analysis method proposed by Roland Barthes, Muhammad Arkoun and Bart Ehrman, in order to analyse major Islamic formative narratives and so to distinguish between the history and histoire contained in these texts.
As suggested above, by this distinction, we refer to “history” as those elements of the text that relate to recorded facts as the modern day historian would understand them, while “histoire”, as found in the literature, relates to more creative interpretations of reality, invariably presented as facts. The method applied is one of a number of such methods that has successfully been applied to the texts of the Judaeo-Christian Bible in helping to discern the distinction between history and histoire in those texts. In Judaeo-Christianity, greater understanding of this distinction←ix | x→ has helped in sharpening the difference between scholarly and informed interpretation of the Bible, on the one hand, and more fundamentalist interpretations, on the other hand. This has allowed mainstream Jewish and Christian scholarship, and related authorities, to distance themselves where necessary from fundamentalist interpreters and their influence. The intention of this book is to assist in achieving the same for Islam.
It will be contended throughout the book that part of the problem in Islamic studies today is that the blurring between history and histoire by both mainstream Islamic scholarship and Radical Islamist discourse leaves too little room for the former to distance itself from the latter. One of the pungent forces behind Radical Islamist discourse lies in its grounding in mainstream interpretation of major Islamic texts, an interpretation overly devoid of the history/histoire distinction. The Ehrman Method is proposed as a way of ameliorating this situation. Acknowledging earlier versions of Ibn Ishaq (d.771), Ibn Hisham (d.833) and Waqidi (d.823), the focus in this book will be on the History of Tabari.2 This focus is owing to the comprehensiveness and high level of influence on the future of Islamic historiography to be found in Tabari’s work, arguably the ninth-century histoire that finally established the tradition known as Islam. The context and purpose of Tabari’s work will be analysed using critical textual analytic methods, with particular attention paid to the texts construction of the Prophet’s nativity.
The book tends to show how the mainstream traditions of Islam delivered by Tabari’s work are employed in constructing identity and meaning for Muslims, both individually and institutionally. Furthermore, it illustrates how these concepts have been utilized by “modern” Radical Islamist discourse in constructing its own “self-other” dichotomy in motivating violence. The blurring between history and histoire will be seen as crucial in the construction of such a dichotomy and its effects, both of which serve to alienate mainstream Muslims and have them appear to Western observers as belonging to an inherently violent tradition, complete with sacred texts that justify such violence. Herein, we see that the lack of updated textual criticism of Islamic texts, such as identified as both a problem and the central←x | xi→ purpose of this book, can be seen as relevant to the difficulty experienced by mainstream Muslims in separating out and distinguishing themselves from Islam’s radical manifestations. The ramifications of this situation for Islam as a viable participant in the modern world, along with allied issues of global security, will be identified. Finally, the book will propose a pedagogy employing the ways of knowing theory of Jurgen Habermas as an educational means that could facilitate textual criticism of the Ehrman kind being integrated into Islamic Studies at the higher education level, with concomitant forms of religious and theological education at school and community levels.
According to the line of scholarship that this book proposes, it is acknowledged that objective analysis is difficult because everyone will bring a different learned and experienced background with them, and the current enquiry is no different in that regard. A critic of the work might therefore find it overly subjective and/or revisionist; depending on their own background and beliefs, some might even find it distasteful or distressing. All we can offer in response is: first, we acknowledge the subjective element including that our own background and experiences of the Muslim polity have inevitably influenced our analysis; second, we have not intended in any way to offend anyone’s else’s beliefs but merely to offer as clear and scholarly an interpretation of the Islamic archetypal past as a work of the politics of the medieval era, leaving aside the issue of faith that it might also be rooted in a sacred source that lies beyond such analysis. As above, there is no intention to become embroiled in debates about the historically factual or otherwise dimensions of Islamic historiography. Above all, we do not claim that ours is the one and only valid interpretation but merely one such interpretation among many. In the spirit of academic and personal freedom, we leave it to the reader to assess the plausibility and usefulness of our approach.
So, we consider this work one among many readings of Islamic formative narrative and its consequences. The book represents an experiment in opening a new line of approach towards Muslim “truth”, as normally assumed. In opening up this new line of approach, one must acknowledge that just as there are clearly different experiences of and reflections on Islam in the Muslim world, so there must also be different and sometimes←xi | xii→ opposing interpretations of and reflections on the sources that all Muslims share. This work is not intended to rival other interpretations – least of all those interpretations that inspire love, harmony, progress or other positive features in the Islamic sources, but it is to offer an alternative view of how it, as a human construct, can also function dangerously, especially when what is assumed of it is not open to or held accountable by normal scholarly methods of textual criticism.
The phenomenon that is of utmost concern in this book is the use of formative narratives in the normalization and banality of systematic, cultural and direct violence against the undesired “other” and/or its cultural representations. Such normalization is a matter of concern since it can not only inspire radicals to commit crimes but, most dangerously, make the general public apathetic to oppression of both themselves and of “others”. This is a status that ironically links the subject of Muslim space3 to the phenomenon of Muselmann (Levi, 1959).4 In such a setting, the subject becomes incapable of action, the phenomenon that in many debates is referred to as the “silent majority”. In the silence, if not the cooperation of the public, no matter who the “other” is, the loud minority (sometimes but not always in the form of Muslim authorities) exercise repression, destructive bio-politics and Kulturpolitics while society becomes more and more apathetic in the face of unimaginable forms of violence.
- XXIV, 284
- ISBN (PDF)
- ISBN (ePUB)
- ISBN (MOBI)
- ISBN (Softcover)
- Publication date
- 2019 (June)
- Islamic History Interpretive History Qur’anic exegesis
- Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2019. XXIV, 284 pp.