The Origins of the Shia: Identity, Ritual, and Sacred Space in Eighth-Century Kufa. By NAJAM HAIDER. Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization. New York: CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2011. Pp. xvii + 276. $99.
Religions and their scholars have a fascination with questions of origins. Religious traditions provide detailed explanations to explain the creation of the universe and humanity--ways of helping us understand our ontological reality in relation to the ineffable unknown, tools for helping us to understand what it means to be human. Scholars ask questions of how religions developed, and they historicize how religious communities with their social, religious, political, cultural, and aesthetic traditions originated. In the field of Islamic Studies, the question of origins has produced a considerable body of scholarship, much of it focused on the Prophet Muhammad and the early Muslim community. Najam Haider's The Origins of the Shia treats the emergence of Imami and Zaydi Shi'ism in eighth-century Kufa. His historical and methodological inquiry asks us to reconsider the classical origins narratives that have shaped Islamic Studies scholarship for the past century, and to ask new questions of our sources; and his approach highlights the remarkable religious diversity of the early Kufan Muslim community and reveals the complex processes through which sectarian differences were legally debated, ritually performed, and spatially mapped by the first Imami and Zaydi Shi'ites.
The book is divided into three sections. In part one Haider interrogates the standard and now canonical narratives of the emergence of Shi'ism in the eighth century. He argues that these are based on unreliable sources such as heresiographies and theological works that retrospectively attribute the crystallization of the theological, doctrinal, and legal components of Shi'ism to this early period, which is better characterized by discourses and practices that underwent frequent and sometimes significant shifts in perspective.
In chapter one, "Kufa and the Classical Narratives of Early Shi'ism," Haider proposes a "methodological approach through which [...] seemingly ahistorical (and primarily legal/ritual) sources are mined for historical information" in order to propose an alternative narrative for "the birth and development of Shi'i sectarian identity in 2nd/8th century Kufa" (p. 12). What is not entirely clear is how Haider defines historical versus ahistorical writing in the early Islamic period. Are legal texts not inherently historical because scholars are responding to and crafting jurisprudence based on social, cultural, religious, and geographical (in the case of this study, eighth-century Kufa) contingencies? Beyond stating his methodological objectives, Haider deconstructs the classical...