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Medieval Islamic Historiography: Remembering Rebellion.

Medieval Islamic Historiography: Remembering Rebellion. By HEATHER N. KEANEY. Routledge Research in Medieval Studies. New York: ROUTLEDGE, 2013. Pp. xx + 187, maps. $125.

In this short but ambitious book Heather Keaney examines the historical treatment of the caliph 'Uthman over five centuries and in several genres of sources. Through her careful comparison of various scholars' treatment of the controversial caliph, Keaney exposes the different agendas pursued by court historians and the ulama, as well as the underlying sectarian tension between Sunni and Shi'i scholars. Her chronological approach allows her to contextualize each of the many works she examines, illustrating both the development of Arabic historiography over time and the sometimes subtly changing agendas of historians writing from different perspectives.

Keaney divides the work into an introduction and four chronological chapters. In the introduction she distributes 'Uthman's life over four "chapters." She begins with his sir a, by which she means primarily the descriptions of 'Uthman as a Companion, then moves to the shuru, his caliphate, and finally accounts of the siege that precipitated his murder. Keaney then describes four "debates" that she will trace through the sources over time. The first of these is the tension between history and hagiography, which underlies the generic difference between chronicles and universal histories on the one hand and the fada'il literature on the other. She then turns to the obvious Sunni vs. Shi'i debate, which is most evident in the shura narratives. Next is the question of religious vs. political authority, a focus of the caliphate "chapter." Lastly she addresses the debate about whether the unity of the umma is more important than justice, which pervades interpretations of the siege and murder. In general, and not surprisingly, Keaney finds that fada'il works focus more attention on 'Uthinan's sira, while chronicles give more details about his caliphate. However, as the chapters that follow demonstrate, the distinctions between the genres are more nuanced and the debates are more complicated.

Each of the remaining four chapters begins with a brief description of the historical context in which the sources were written, followed by a short explanation of the works to be discussed. Keaney then turns to each source's treatment of the "chapters" of 'Uthman's life, highlighting the debates she identified in the introduction. In chapter two Keaney analyzes the representation of 'Uthman in sources from the third/ninth century. She emphasizes the impact that the mihna and the rise of Turkish slave armies had on the outlook of scholars writing about the earlier Islamic period, pointing, for example, to the parallels between accusations against Uthman and contemporary complaints about Turkish military rule. Her analysis of the sources is complex, revealing how the selection of sources (akhbar vs. hadith) and the inclusion or omission of controversial topics served the authors' agendas. Keaney explains in some detail how authors' preferences for the narratives of Sayf b. 'Umar or al-Waqidi shaped, or perhaps reflected, their images of Uthman, a topic to which she returns in later chapters. Her analysis covers most of the major sources, though the exclusion of Khalifa b. Khayyat's Tabaqat is surprising, particularly since minor differences between it and his Ta'rikh (which is discussed) would have bolstered her argument that the fada'il literature had a more hagiographic tone.

Refreshingly, Keaney avoids the frequent mistake of assuming that the third/ninth-century synthesis marked the end of creative historical writing about the early period. Her third chapter, covering sources from the next three centuries, demonstrates how historiographical trends begun in the third/ninth century continued, but were also shaped by the changing historical and religious context in later centuries. In particular, she argues that al-Tabari's influence was less extensive than often assumed--she shows that later chronicles edited and redacted their citations of his work and that the fada'il literature largely ignored his Ta'rikh altogether. Keaney illustrates how significantly the growing rift between Sunnis and Shi'is affected historical writing, while also showing how chroniclers took an increasingly secular view of 'Uthman, focusing on his political errors and incompetence rather than ascribing divine significance to his reign. The list of sources Keaney includes in this chapter is impressive, both in number and in diversity. It is particularly refreshing to see Andalusian sources, such as Ibn 'Abd al-Barr's al-Ist'ab fi ma'rifat al-ashab, brought into the discussion.

In chapter four, aptly titled "Retrenchment," Keaney addresses the tumultuous seventh/thirteenth century, which was marked by the arrival of the Mongols and the rise of the Mamluks. She argues that writers in this period differed from their predecessors in important ways. Early in the century there was a rediscovery of earlier sources that produced more complex interpretations of 'Uthman and other early figures. She rejects the assertion that Ibn al-Athir and others simply parroted al-Tabari, and demonstrates their extensive editing and selective use of his material. Keaney also points to the dramatic shift that occurred in the second half of the century. While Sunni-Shi'i antagonism was rather muted in early seventh/thirteenth-century sources, later sources became suddenly vitriolic and partisan. She attributes this change to the Mamluks' vigorous defense of Sunnism and to accusations that the Mongols were in fact Shi'i. This sudden transition reflects how significantly the political and social turmoil surrounding the Mongol invasions and the rise of the Mamluks affected scholarly work.

The final chapter, describing the eighth/fourteenth century, surveys the impact of a post-caliphal world on the Muslim community's understanding of 'Uthman. The long list of sources Keaney discusses here is a reminder that the production of historical writing did not suffer as a result of the political turmoil of the previous century; in general these sources followed the contours of earlier works. Fada'il-influenced works relied on hadith to idealize the Companions, chronicles focused more specifically on questions of 'Uthman's competence, and both pro- and anti-'Uthnian works were produced. While the same tensions and debates continued, there was an increasing emphasis on stability and rejection of rebellion, even in the face of an unjust ruler. The fact that both pro-and anti-Shi'i works reject rebellion reflects the impact of the previous century's turmoil. What is most striking about this chapter is the contrast between Ibn Khaldun and his contemporaries. This underscores both the revolutionary nature of his approach and the need for further research about the relationship between his work and that of his contemporaries and immediate predecessors.

By and large, this book presents an impressive and detailed reading of the sources and a nuanced explanation of the evolution of 'Uthman's image over several centuries. Keaney successfully demonstrates how 'Uthman's image was revised to reflect later historical and religious conflicts and to synchronize with later scholars' paradigms. The recurring debates she describes were at the core of central disputes over the nature of the religious and political community of Islam; and despite her thoroughness, each of these debates and their implications could have been explored more fully. For instance, the discussions of questions of unity vs. justice and religious vs. political authority overlook the Umayyad period entirely. Later historians, especially in the third/ninth century, had to grapple with these debates in the context of justifying the 'Abbasid revolution on the one hand, while rejecting 'Alid claims grounded in the legitimacy of resistance to 'Uthman on the other. More discussion of how later authors addressed or evaded these issues would have added another layer of complexity to her argument and underscored just how cleverly later historians manipulated their sources and how nuanced their explanations could be.

Along these lines, a longer, more comprehensive conclusion addressing the larger historiographical implications of her findings would be helpful. Keaney has analyzed a tremendous amount of material in a very meticulous manner, but like her sources she sometimes leaves it to the reader to draw broader conclusions. These deficiencies are minor, however. Keaney's work is an important addition to the historiographical literature and will be a starting point for further discussion.


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Author:Judd, Steven C.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2015
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