Sectarian History and the Straitjacket of Theology

By Hussein Abdulsater
Submitted to Session P3680 (Texts and Contexts in Pre-Modern Shi'ism, 2014 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
7th-13th Centuries;
It is famously said that the Imāma is the question that caused most discord in Islamic history. Deep divisions going beyond the formation of schools of theology (kalām) into the maturation of sects are grounded in the Imāma controversy. Nevertheless, history is prior to theology in the respective sectarian positions on the question. Theologians try to view history from a perspective that suits their theoretical framework, constructing a historical narrative which cleanses history from ‘impurities’ that obstruct its assimilation into a legitimate sectarian narrative. Theology being a primarily apologetic endeavor intended to preserve the beliefs of a community, the historical narratives eventually drift toward different versions of ‘sacred history’.

This paper discusses two of the earliest and most comprehensive attempts to construct a historical narrative by theologians, namely the Muʿtazilī ʿAbd al-Jabbār (1024) and the Imāmī al-Murtaḍā (1044). The former dedicated the last part of his summa, al-Mughnī, to promote a view of history that defends the integrity, both moral and political, of the early Muslim community. His aim, beyond the preservation of the sectarian narrative, is to assert the connection between the salvation of the individual and his membership in the community. He employs his knowledge of historical sources, theology, jurisprudence and even realpolitik considerations to attain his purpose.

Murtaḍā’s response, al-Shāfī, was soon produced in four volumes. Murtaḍā appeals to historical accounts, quoting sources and questioning his opponent’s integrity. In theology, he utilizes his mastery of Muʿtazilism to highlight inconsistencies or misrepresentations. This approach confines Murtaḍā to ʿAbd al-Jabbar’s techniques, with more emphasis on theology to portray history as a record of a community that strayed due to its failure to accept the Imams’ authority.

The paper examines the polemical discourse, analyzing the various arguments and their implicit hierarchy in relation to Islamic sciences. It also seeks to investigate the extent to which the corresponding sectarian narratives are still indebted to these contributions in terms of their standard versions of sacred history on the one hand, and of the primary ‘filters’ used in reading historical accounts on the other. It will also serve toward analyzing a much later and more nuanced episode of this debate taken up by the Muʿtazilī Ibn Abī al-Ḥadīd (1258), for which a separate study is dedicated.