Reinterpreting Islamic Historiography: Harun al-Rashid and the Narrative of the Abbasid Caliphate

  • Book Title:
 Reinterpreting Islamic Historiography
  • Book Author:
Tayeb El-Hibri
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A Monetary History of the Ottoman Empire



Reinterpreting Islamic Historiography Ha¯ru¯ n al-Rash¯ıd and the Narrative of the ‘Abba¯ sid Caliphate. The history of the early ‘Abba¯ sid caliphate in the eighth and ninth centuries has long been studied as a factual or interpretive synthesis of various accounts preserved in the medieval chronicles. Tayeb El-Hibri’s book breaks with the traditional approach, applying a literary-critical reading to examine the lives of the caliphs.

By focusing on the reigns of Ha¯ru¯ n al-Rash¯ıd and his successors, al-Am¯ın and al-Ma’mu¯ n, as well as on the early Sa¯ marran period, the study demonstrates how the various historical accounts were not in fact intended as faithful portraits of the past, but as allusive devices used to shed light on controversial religious, political, and social issues of the period, as well as on more abstract themes such as behaviour, morality, and human destiny.

The tragedy of the Barmakids, the great civil war between the brothers, and the mih· na of al-Ma’mu¯ n are examined as key historical moments which were debated obliquely and in dialogue with the earlier Islamic past.

The analysis also reveals how the exercise of decoding Islamic historiography, through an investigation of the narrative strategies and thematic motifs used in the chronicles, can uncover new layers of meaning and even identify the early narrators.

This is an important book which represents a landmark in the field of early Islamic historiography.

Historical background and introduction

At its height in the ninth century AD, the ‘Abba¯ sid caliphate covered an extensive realm that stretched across the African and Asian continents, from the western reaches of Carthage on the Mediterranean to the Indus River Valley in the east, spanning prime regions over which the Greeks, Romans, Persians, and Turks had gone to war during the previous thousand years. This empire had come into existence as a result of of conquests that began under the early Islamic caliphate centered in Medina and its successor dynasty of the Umayyads (AD 661–750).

But it was with the ‘Abba¯ sids that the process of social and cultural symbiosis and economic integration began to take root in this new state, giving shape to a new society characterized by the cohesive powers of a common language and currency and a unifying religio-political center.

The ‘Abba¯ sids, partly due to their rise as a religious millennial movement, were more conscious of their universal pretensions to power than their prede- cessors had been.The new caliphs, kinsmen to the Prophet through the line of his uncle al-‘Abba¯ s, held messianic titles that pointed to their spiritual gifts as ima¯ms and underlined their distinct historical role in guiding the mission of Government

.Titles such as al-Mans·u¯ r, al-Mahd¯ı, al-Ha¯ d¯ı, and al-Rash¯ıd were variant expressions of their claims to a divine right to rule, as well as to their charismatic power, and this message was given poetic expression in the shape and definition that the ‘Abba¯ sids gave to their new capital. Baghdad, better known as “the City of Peace” (mad¯ınat al-sala¯m) in the official parlance of the day, was built to be the ideal city of the new state.

At the time of its origin in 762, it was built in a round shape with four gates, pointing midway between the cardinal directions, in a layout intended to reconcile cosmological concep- tions of the disc of the heavens with the vision of the four quarters of the known world.The Round City encircling the palace of the caliph mirrored the rotation of the constellations about the fate of the world, making Baghdad a new symbolic center in political and religious terms

As great an impact as this empire had on the fortunes of peoples and regions it ruled, however, we know few details about how it was administered and defended, what shaped the policies and motives of its caliphs, and how its sub- jects viewed their rulers.

Medieval Arabic chronicles and literary sources provide us today with abundant anecdotal and narrative material about the lives of the caliphs, and historians have used these sources repeatedly to con- struct biographies of the caliphs. However, the intertwining lines of fiction and fact in these works have never been clearly separated. What did the narratives about the caliphs signify in their times? How did anecdotes convey various levels of thematic meaning?

To what extent were literary tropes appreciated and detected by the medieval audience? These are some of the questions that the study of medieval Islamic historiography will gradually have to answer. This study represents an attempt in that direction.

It explores the elusive nature of medieval Islamic narratives, and tries through a new reading of the sources to reposition our view of the classical intention behind the lit- erary accounts, moving that intention from one providing direct chronology to one offering historical commentary and seeking the active engagement of readers and narrators, listeners and dramatizers. To set the stage, we shall

examine here the historical background of the ‘Abba¯ sid caliphate, and survey those significant moments in its history that would color the memory of later historical narrative and contribute to the crafting of a particular spectrum of themes. We will then sketch in broad terms the method and approach of the present critique.

Historical overview

The ‘Abba¯ sid dynasty has traditionally been seen as arising immediately fol- lowing the fall of the Umayyad caliphate in Damascus in the year 750. The Umayyad caliphate fell in the face of a popular revolution that swept its way from Khura¯sa¯ n, the frontier province on the north-eastern border of the Islamic empire. Yet in reality it took the ‘Abba¯ sid family until at least the year 762 to consolidate its hold on power and push out other contenders to the throne. In the years that led up to the revolution the ‘Abba¯ sids had been one among several branches of the Prophet’s family in whose name the revolt was made that had seemed likely candidates for the new caliphate.

Throughout the years of organizing the revolution the leadership issue remained open, partly because participants in the movement were united behind a slogan that ambig- uously called for the succession of “one agreed upon [or worthy] of the house of Muh· ammad” (“al-rid· a¯ min a¯ l-Muh· ammad ”).2

Socially this was a complex revolutionary movement, for it brought together diverse segments of Khura¯ ring various…

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