The 'Alids: The First Family of Islam, 750-1200.

Author:Gaiser, Adam
Position:Book review

The 'Alids: The First Family of Islam, 750-1200. By Teresa Bernheimer. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013. Pp. vii + 119. $110, 65 [pounds sterling].

Building on the work of Kazuo Morimoto and others on the role of the Prophet's family in Islamic history, Teresa Bernheimer here offers a social history of the 'Alids, covering the centuries between the second/eighth and sixth/twelfth centuries (i.e., the period from the 'Abbasids to the Seljuqs) and focusing specifically on the Islamic East. As such, her work sheds light on the relatively unexplored medieval institutions of 'Alidism, defined as "a distinctly cross-sectarian reverence and support for the Prophet's family," as opposed to the "political and religious claims made by some members of the Prophet's family or by others on their behalf" (p. 1) that constitute Shi'ism. Although this definition of "'Alidism" might lead a reader to expect an investigation of different modes of "reverence" accorded to the family of the Prophet (perhaps a la Annemarie Schimmel's And Muhammad Is His Messenger), the work is in fact concentrated on the social institutions that developed in and around Prophetic families: the maintenance of their genealogies, regulation of their marriages, "headship" of their families, and their membership in local nobilities.

Rarely utilized Talibid genealogies (meaning the 'Alid descendants of Abu Talib, usually through 'Ali and Fatima, as opposed to those claiming descent from 'Abbas) provide much of the primary source material for Bernheimer's work, especially for the initial chapters, and allow her to narrate the institutional solidification of the 'Alids as the "first family" of Islam. The concern with Talibid genealogy indicated the growing prestige associated with membership in the family of the Prophet; it also came with benefits, such as being able to accept monies from certain taxes, benefit from endowed properties (sg. waqf), or receive gifts or payments from local leaders or even caliphs. The fraudulent claims of descent that frequently plagued the genealogists' attempt to establish proper 'Alid lineage were another indicator of the importance of 'Alid descent in the medieval Islamic East.

Following logically from this examination of genealogy, Bernheimer's third chapter explores 'Alid marriage patterns. While noting some early exceptions of marriages with the Banu Makhzum and al-'Abbas, she charts how marriage became increasingly endogamous among the two...

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