Book Review: The Reports of Abū Mikhnaf in al-Tabarī’s History: The Era of the Rightly Guided Caliphs

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Book Review: The Reports of Abū Mikhnaf in al-Tabarī’s History: The Era of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, a Critical Appraisal

Reviewed by Muntasir Zaman

[Marwiyyāt Abī Mikhnaf fī Tārīkh al-Tabarī: ‘Asr al-Khilāfah: al-Dirāsah Naqdiyyah, by Yahyā ibn Ibrāhīm al-Yahyā, Riyadh: Dār al-‘Asimah, 2011, 528 pp., $9.50 (hardback), ISBN 978-603-8057-11-7]

Introduction

The rapid expansion of Islam’s borders from a fledgling state to a massive empire is arguably one of the greatest military feats. By 30 AH/650 CE, the entire Arabian Peninsula and the area spanning from Egypt on the west to the Iranian plateau on the east were all under Muslim rule.[1] The annals of Islamic history are replete with extraordinary accomplishments by Muslims throughout this vast landscape. In the same breath, however, one comes across pages blemished with internecine conflict and political strife. Reports of this nature prima facie are clearly troubling, but this can be assuaged to a considerable extent by probing their authenticity.[2] Sieving the reliable from the unreliable is of greater importance in regards to the formative period of Islam,[3] particularly the Prophet’s life and the decades that immediately proceeded his demise, as it serves as a window to Islam in its most pristine form.[4]

One method of carrying this out is to critically examine influential historians who played a key role in shaping the dominant narrative of early Islamic history, specifically those who were the center of heated contention, such as Muhammad ibn Ishāq (d. 151 AH),[5] Sayf ibn ‘Umar al-Tamīmī (d. ca. 180 AH),[6] and Muhammad ibn ‘Umar al-Wāqidī (d. 207 AH).[7] To this end, Shaykh Yahyā Ibrāhīm al-Yahyā in his landmark study Marwiyyāt Abī Mikhnaf fī Tārīkh al-Tabarī sets out to examine a historian of ill repute, the Kūfan Abū Mikhnaf (d. 157 AH). The present study—based on the author’s M.A dissertation submitted to the Islamic University of Madīnah under the supervision of the renowned historian, Dr. Diyā’ al-Umarī—analyzes the historical accounts of Abū Mikhnaf in al-Tabarī’s History, with specific reference to the era of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs (r. 11-40 AH). This short review aims to summarize the author’s research, explore certain points of importance, and make brief comments in the relevant footnotes. The driving impetus for this review is to draw the attention of students and scholars to this phenomenal study; hence, a digital copy of the book is provided here.

Summary

After the introduction (pp.5-22), the book consists of two chapters. The first chapter comprises of four sections; the first explores the life and times of Abū Mikhnaf (pp.25-87), followed by three sections which analyze his accounts of the reign of the first three caliphs, viz. Abū Bakr, ‘Umar, and ‘Uthmān (Allah be pleased with them) respectively—a total of 18 reports (pp.89-185). Considering the extensive material on the fourth caliph ‘Alī (Allah be pleased with him), the author dedicated the second chapter to reports about his reign. This chapter also comprises of four sections, viz. his ascendance to the caliphate, the Battle of Jamal, the Battle of Siffīn, and the Arbitration—a total of 126 reports (pp.189-484). He then concludes the book by recapitulating its key findings (pp.487-491)[8] and follows this with the relevant indices (pp.491-512). The author discusses copious insights throughout the book; by way of illustration, this review will delineate essential aspects from the introduction and select passages in order to provide an overview of his study.

By applying a stringent set of criteria in assessing the status of these prolific historians, one may object that a large portion of history will be lost since early Muslim scholars were lenient vis-à-vis historical reports. There are three reasons why this objection is unacceptable. First, history books are not the sole repository of historical reports; there are countless anecdotes recorded in the Hadīth, exegetical, and prosopographical literature, from which an authentic sketch of early Islamic history can be drawn—obviously, in addition to reliable reports in history books.[9] Second, as the purpose of reading history is to derive practical lessons from actual occurrences, it is pointless to collate unreliable reports. Third, that scholars adopted a relatively lenient stance in respect to historical reports is not to say they accepted the reports of all and sundry; though a non-Hadīth transmitter’s retention, for instance, is not required to the degree of a Hadīth transmitter, the same is not true for his probity (p.8).

The author highlights five points he believes are imperative for students of history to bear in mind, such as reading history through the lens of the society whose culture one seeks to explore[10] and analyzing a report about/from someone against what is already established regarding him (pp.9-11).[11] This is followed by a brief outline of al-Tabarī’s modus operandi, e.g. despite the voluminous nature of the book, he included chains of transmission, but, in the same vein, he did not ensure the authenticity of the reports therein (pp.11-14).[12] His focus on Abū Mikhnaf is convincing as he is of questionable probity yet occupies a significant part of al-Tabarī’s repertoire: roughly 600 reports spanning the period from the Prophet’s demise to the fall of the Umayyads in 132 AH/750 CE, undoubtedly the most crucial years in Islam’s history (p.6). Since they lived about a century apart, al-Tabarī obviously narrated material from Abū Mikhnaf via intermediaries; to be precise, he did so through five channels, some of which are problematic (pp.58-63).

Abū Mikhnaf: His name was Lūt ibn Yahyā al-Azdī, born in ca. 90 AH in the city of Kūfah. He hailed from a family deeply involved in the political affairs of the city: they accompanied ‘Alī ibn Abī Tālib (Allāh be pleased with him) during his campaigns and occupied important offices. He passed away in 157 AH (pp.27-32). Apart from a vague epithet “authority of historical reports in Kūfah” from a Shī‘ite source, there is a dearth of information on his educational upbringing. Nearly fifty titles are attributed to him, mostly covering the history of ‘Irāq, such as K. Futūh al-‘Irāq and K. Maqtal al-Husayn. Though his works were incorporated into later sources, none of them are extant in their original form. He can be analogized with a journalist who seeks out news from multifarious sources, particularly first hand witnesses, which is why his informants are many but not a few of them are unknown (pp.47-57).[13]

That a one’s environment profoundly influences his Weltanschauung goes without saying. Abū Mikhnaf is therefore to be assessed against the theological, scholastic, and socio-political milieu of his hometown, Kūfah. The prosperous southern ‘Irāqī city founded in 17 AH under the auspices of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattāb hosted well over a thousand Companions, among them the likes of Ibn Mas‘ūd and ‘Alī, and produced some of the greatest Muslim scholars.[14] The intellectual florescence and scholarly currents in Kūfah notwithstanding, it became a center for Shī‘ite thought, at first as an innocuous admiration for ‘Alī and his descendants but later it evolved into extreme veneration (ghulūw).[15] The Battle of Siffīn (37 AH), inter alia, left an indelible mark on the people of Kūfah whereby it instilled within them resentment towards the Umayyads and henceforth set the tone for posterity. Nevertheless, two major developments concern us here: (1) extreme veneration—even deification—of ‘Alī in tandem with animosity towards the Companions[16] and (2) widespread fabrication of reports (pp.33-41).[17]

Given his family history and environment of upbringing, it comes as no surprise that Abū Mikhnaf was categorically considered a Shī‘ite. And, more seriously, his beliefs had a direct bearing on his portrayal of early historical accounts. Hadīth scholars impugned him in no uncertain terms: Ibn Ma‘īn (d. 233 AH) said he is unreliable, Abū Hātim al-Rāzī (d. 277 AH) said he is abandoned in Hadīth, and Ibn Hibbān (d. 354 AH) said he was a Rāfidī who cursed the Companions and related fabrications from reliable informants—to name a few. Conversely, Shī‘ite scholars like Ahmad al-Najāshī (d. 450 AH) and Ibn Mutahhar al-Hillī (d. 726 AH) have embraced him, for the most part, with open arms (pp. 41-46).

One should not, however, be quick to reject the Mikhnafian corpus en bloc, since in some instances these accounts are attested by other sources (e.g. Khālid’s letter to the Persians, p.143). That being said, the general assessment of Abū Mikhnaf’s oeuvre turns out to be terribly negative. In the reports examined by the study under review, he narrated unattested accounts (e.g. ‘Umar striking Abū Shajarah, p.150), included unverified details (e.g. the incident of Saqīfat Banī Sā‘idah, p.122) and even engaged in deliberate interpolation (e.g. ‘Alī taking the pledge of allegiance, p.191). All of this reinforces the author’s thesis that Abū Mikhnaf is a disreputable source. Even if his deficiencies as a transmitter are dismissed, and we assume a tabula rasa, his reports are almost always defective with interruptions in their chains or transmitted from unreliable informants (p.488).

Conclusion

Few books have managed to serve a pivotal role in portraying early Islamic history as al-Tabarī’s opus, Tārīkh al-Umam wa al-Mulūk. Considering its potential impact in shaping our understanding of history, there is a pressing need to verify the major sources this voluminous work relied upon. [18] Yahyā al-Yahyā’s Marwiyyāt Abī Mikhnaf fī Tārīkh al-Tabarī is a welcome contribution in achieving this goal. His detailed examination of Abū Mikhnaf’s reports vis-à-vis the era of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs (r. 11-40 AH) demonstrates the need to revisit a number of accounts and sources that have hitherto largely been taken for granted. The author is to be recognized for engaging his readers with practical case studies—not a mere theoretical expose of scholarly opinions, ubiquitous in contemporary literature—arguably the most effective method to arrive at a conclusive judgment. By synthesizing theory with application, the present study offers a trajectory for further academic research in a genre still in its nascent phase. It is the duty of scholars to follow his cue by replicating this framework on other influential historians—students of historiography look forward for such projects to materialize.


[1] Cook, David (2015) Understanding Jihad, California: University of California Press, p.11. To quantify this statement, consider that by the end of ‘Uthmān’s reign in 35 AH, a total of 3,500,000 sq. miles of territory came under Muslim rule. See: Hamīdullah, Majmū‘at al-Wathā’iq al-Siyāsiyyah, p.499; al-A‘żamī, Mustafa (2003) The History of the Qur’ānic Text: From Revelation to Compilation, Leicester: UK Islamic Academy, p.38.

[2] Abū al-Yusr ‘Abidīn mentions a number of reasons mistakes creep into books of history, such as an overly good opinion of certain sources, human error, impartiality to one’s school, and more recently the preponderance of printed material and news that lack a rigorous process of authentication. See: Abū al-Yusr, Muhammad (2006), Aghālīt al-Mu’rrikhīn, Damascus: Maktabat al-Ghazālī, pp.17-21.

[3] The formative period of Islamic history is said to have ended around the 3rdAH/10thCE century. See: Robinson, Chase (2003), Islamic Historiography, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.xviii. However, the ‘formative period’ varies based on the given context; see, for instance: Shamsy, Ahmad (2012), The Canonization of Islamic Law, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press pp. 2 ff., 168-169.

[4] See: al-Kawtharī, Kalimah ‘an Khālid ibn al-Walīd wa Qatl Mālik ibn Nuwayrah in al-Maqālāt, Cairo: al-Maktabah al-Tawfīqiyyah, p.399. His concise yet valuable comments on early historians is a worth read in: ibid., pp.400-401.

[5] On Ibn Ishāq see: Ibn Sayyid al-Nās, ‘Uyūn al-Athar, Damascus: Dār Ibn Kathīr, vol.1, pp.54-67; Ma‘bad, Ahmad (1988), Footnotes on al-Nafh al-Shadhī fī Sharh Jāmi‘ al-Tirmidhī, Riyadh: Dār al-‘Asimah, vol.2, p.697 ff.

[6] On Sayf ibn ‘Umar, see: Blankinship, Khalid (1993), The History of al-Tabarī, Translator’s Forward, New York: State University of New York Press, vol.11, p.xvi ff.; Anthony, Sean (2011), The Caliph and the Heretic: Ibn Saba’ and the Origins of Shi’ism, Leiden: Brill, p.9 ff. Recently, some of Sayf’s works have been discovered, such as his K. al-Riddah wa al-Futūh and K. al-Jamal wa Masīr ‘A’ishah wa ‘Alī; both were edited and annotated by Qāsim al-Samarrā’ī.

[7] On al-Wāqidī, see: Ibn Sayyid al-Nās, ‘Uyūn al-Athar, vol.1, pp.67-73; al-‘Umarī, Diyā’ (1994), al-Sīrah al-Nabawiyyah al-Sahīhah, Madīnah: Maktabat al-‘Ulūm wa al-Hikam, pp.61-63.

[8] His findings are summarized in eleven points. To name a few: (i) Abū Mikhnaf is unanimously unreliable, and he deliberately distorts information; (ii) al-Tabarī’s reliance on Abū Mikhnaf for reports concerning the Battle of Siffīn, for instance, to the exclusion of other available works does not mean he preferred Abū Mikhnaf’s account; he was possibly unaware of sources; (iii) that Abū Bakr’s son Muhammad had a hand in ‘Uthmān’s assassination is false.

[9] For instance, the account of Saqifah Banī Sā‘idah is reported by leading authorities like al-Bukhārī (d. 256 AH), Ahmad (d. 241 AH), Ibn Abī Shaybah (d. 235 AH) among others, and therefore, a full description of the incident can be constructed from these sources. The author bemoans the nonchalance with which many history books, in spite of the aforementioned fact, choose to include only the account of Abū Mikhnaf (p.488).

[10] Accordingly, it is disingenuous to criticize the marriage of our mother ‘A’ishah at a young age based on modern marital ethics. Despite the lengths his most ardent critics would go to criticize him, the Prophet’s marriage (peace and blessings be upon him) with ‘A’ishah was never considered problematic since marriage at a young age was socially acceptable. This does not seem to be an issue until the early 1900s with the Orientalist David Margoliouth (d. 1940). See: Brown, Jonathan (2014), Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy, London: Oneworld Publication, p.144; idem (2011), Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford Press, p.76.

[11] For instance, one should examine negative reports about Imām Abū Hanīfah against what is widely transmitted about him. As al-Kawtharī says, “authentic isolated reports cannot overrule what is widespread (al-mustafīd al-mashhūr), let alone what is mass transmitted (mutawātir).” See: al-Kawtharī, Ta’nīb al-Khatīb, p.31. A practical example is reports concerning Ibn Mas‘ūd’s exclusion of the mu’awwidhatayn in his copy of the Qur’ān. Reports of this nature cannot be accepted as they conflict with what is widely related that Ibn Mas‘ūd taught these sūrahs to his students, as is transmitted via six of the ten modes of Qur’ānic recitation. See: al-Kawtharī, Masāhif al-Amsār in al-Maqālāt, p.16; ‘Awwāmah, Footnotes on al-Madkhal, vol.1, p.349.

[12] Ibn Hajar writes, “Most Hadīth scholars of the past—from 200 AH onwards—believed that citing a hadith with its chain of transmission absolved one of the responsibility [of analyzing it].” See: Ibn Hajar, Lisān al-Mīzān, vol.4 p.125; cf. ‘Awwāmah, Footnotes on Tadrīb al-Rāwī, vol.3, pp.519-520. Zayn al-Dīn al-‘Irāqī explains that although citing a hadith alongside its problematic chain without expounding on its defects is reprehensible, to do so without citing its chain at all is worse. See: al-‘Irāqī, Sharh al-Tabsirah wa al-Tadhkirah, vol.1, p.313; Brown, Jonathan, Did the Prophet Say It or Not? The Literal, Historical, and Effective Truth of Hadīths in Early Sunnism, Journal of the American Oriental Society (2009), pp.281-282.

[13] In al-Tabarī’s History, Abū Mikhnaf has 148 informants (p.87).

[14] On the academic standing of Kūfah, see: al-Kawtharī, Fiqh Ahl al-‘Irāq, pp.51-65. A translation of this section is available here.

[15] It is unfair, as the author himself points out, to place the entirety of Kūfah throughout its history into one category. On the negative statements by Hadith scholars concerning the hadiths of Kūfah, see: ‘Awwāmah, Footnotes on Tadrīb al-Rāwī, vol.2, pp.248-255.

[16] As Wadad Kadi points out, the distinguishing traits of the early Shī’ah were “attribution of supernatural abilities to ‘Alī and his descendants, and hatred towards the Companions and the first three caliphs.” On the other extreme, some Umayyads vilified ‘Alī and his party. Sunnī scholars from Kūfah, however, struck a balance: they rejected both tendencies by revering all the Companions despite their mutual differences—this was a quintessential hallmark of the Sunnī Weltanschauung. See: Kadi, Wadad, The Development of the Term Ghulāt in Muslim Literature; Stodolsky, Volkan (2012), A New Historical Model and Periodization for The Perception of the Sunnah of the Prophet and His Companions, (Unpublished PhD – ProQuest), pp.195-196.

[17] It should be remembered that these fabrications did not go undetected. ‘Abd Allah ibn al-Mubārak said, “If a person tried to fabricate a hadīth at night, by dawn people will announce: so and so is a liar!” And when he was asked, “What to do with these forgeries?” he replied, “The critical scholars live for this.” See: Al-Rāzī, al-Jarh wa al-Ta‘dīl, vol.1, p.3; Ibn al-Jawzī, al-Mawdū‘āt, vol.1, pp.38-39.

[18] On al-Tabarī’s sources, see: ‘Alī, Jawwād (2012), Mawārid Tārīkh al-Tabarī, Ch.1; Rosenthal, Franz (1989), The History of al-Tabarī, Translator’s Forward, New York: State University of New York Press, vol.1, pp.5-10, 53-54.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Reports of Abū Mikhnaf in al-Tabarī’s History: The Era of the Rightly Guided Caliphs

    Abdullah Moolla said:
    December 26, 2016 at 3:21 am

    Assalamu Alaykum
    Jazakumullah u Khayran for the brilliant review. We hope to see great works forthcoming from you Insha Allah. We would appreciate a great service to the scholarly world by giving us a review or synopsis of Al I’lan bit Tawibikh liman Dhamm at Taarikh of Sakhawi, as this field seems to be greatly neglected, i.e. history of historiography, especially in English. Also, if you could post articles on this subject, it would be greatly appreciated. May Allah accept you to fill this vacuum and enlighten us on this subject and let us benefit from your knowledge and spirituality. May Allah reward you abundantly. Ameen

    m7ia said:
    December 26, 2016 at 5:25 pm

    Very interesting review and notes. Jazakum Allahu khayra.
    Imran Ahmed

    Abdul Haq Abdul Kadir said:
    December 28, 2016 at 4:28 am

    Very thought-provoking articles, reviews and notes. Jazaakum Allahu khayran.
    Much appreciated. May Allah reward you and keep giving us some genuine food for thought.
    Abdul Haq Abdul Kadir – http://www.ummahreflections.co.za

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