Parable and politics in early islamic history: the rashidun caliphs.

Position:Book review

Parable and Politics in Early Islamic History: The Rashidun Caliphs. By TAYEB EL-HIBRI. New York: COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2011. Pp. xiii + 466. $60.

Tayeb El-Hibri is well known to most scholars who work on Islamic historiography through his essential monograph Reinterpreting Islamic Historiography (Cambridge, 1999), in which he investigated lucidly the "allusive power" of the historical accounts for the early 'Abbasid period. Now he has published another important contribution to the field; following a similar approach he treats in this volume the period of the so-called rashiclan caliphs (Aba Bakr, 'Umar, cUthman, and 9k11), and includes a short epilogue on the Umayyad caliphs Mu awiya and (Abd al--Malik. El-Hibri argues for an "an alternative reading of this history as a largely parabolic cycle of literary narrative" (p. ix) and alleges that all the fragmented accounts (akhbar) found with 'Abbiisid historians once formed a unified story with a particular plot line, which he characterizes as an "originally well--structured drama" (p. ix), composed in a close intertextual dialogue with other texts (mostly Quran, sira, and biblical narratives). According to El-Hibri, all the historical narratives of the late ninth century drew on this earlier parabolic narrative and narrowed the use of history or of historical characters to a "mere factual reporting to support one official version or another" (p. ix), i.e., the Shigte or Sunni version of the events.

This study is a comprehensive, very inspiring, and innovative treatment of each of the rashidun biographies--which center on their intertextual connections to other texts and personalities--and delin--eates convincingly their further functionalization within the Islamic historical master narrative, whether the Shicite or Sunni version. As El-Hibri emphasizes, such a critical study of the history of the early caliphs has not yet been undertaken, although there are indeed important precursors, as, for instance, Julius Wellhausen and Albrecht Noth. Several of El-Hibri's interpretations are particularly convincing: the matching of the pair of Abu Bakr and Muhammad with that of Harun and Moses (p. 65); the identification of 'Umar with "Arabness" and of 'Ali with "Iran" (p. 90ff.); 'Uthman's depiction as "a prophet in trouble" (pp. 133ff.); and the linking of the biography of 'Ali with several prophetic lives (Saul, David, Moses, John the Baptist, and Muhammad, pp. 211ff.).

El--Hibri presents a close and...

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