Peeking Backstage: Shattering the Narrative and Parabolizing the fitna in Ibn al-'Adim's Bughyat al-Talab fi Ta'rikh Halab

By Aaron Hagler
Submitted to Session P4493 (Literature and/or history? Analyzing literary elements and narrative strategies in Arab historical writing, 2016 Annual Meeting
Saudi Arabia; Syria;
7th-13th Centuries; Historiography;
Ibn al-'Adim's biographical dictionary of the city of Aleppo, Bughyat al-Talab fi Ta'rikh Halab (“Everything Desirable about the History of Aleppo,” or the Bughya), presents a description of the life and careers of notables who are connected to the city of Aleppo (which is defined rather broadly to include much of Syria). In this work of history, focused as it is on such people rather than on events, the standard well-known synthetic narrative of the first fitna becomes essentially homeless within the text, and appears only in a form that is fragmented, dispersed across multiple entries, and slanted (where it does appear) towards each individual's experience of events in the fitna. The narrative space thus shifts from the "main action" to what may be termed the backstage scenes—conversations between characters before and after key events, or Ibn al-'Adim's own commentary on those characters, rather than the overviews that are common in more standard narrative forms. This paper will explore how changing the space of the presented action from the fitna’s events to its participants creates a unique picture of the fitna, one in which Ibn al-'Adim deploys characters as parables in the service of arguing his take on political and sectarian issues contemporaneous to him. Drawing upon the pioneering methodology of James Lindsay and others (who examined Ibn 'Asakir's Ta'rikh Madinat Dimashq, a major source for Ibn al-'Adim), as well as the work of Khoury (on Ibn al-‘Adim’s autobiography), Morray (on the Bughya), and Humphries (on the histories of Aleppo and Damascus), this study will scour the Bughya for reference to the fitna, paying special attention to its discussion surrounding individual experience of critical narrative moments, including the election of ‘Uthman; his assassination; the Battle of the Camel; the Battle of Siffin; and the ascension of Mu’awiya ibn Abi Sufyan as the first Umayyad Caliph. This study will demonstrate Ibn al-‘Adim’s narrative strategies; the contemporaneous concerns that motivated his narrative choices; and some of the methodological difficulties that arise when dealing with a source approximately 75% of which is lost.