Sunnifying ʿAlī: Historiography and Notions of Legitimacy in Ibn Kathīr’s Kitāb al-Bidāya wa-l-Nihāya

By Aaron Hagler
Submitted to Session P4082 (Making History: from Tabari to Tahrir, 2015 Annual Meeting
13th-18th Centuries; 7th-13th Centuries; Historiography; Mamluk Studies;
The act of (re)writing Islamic history to justify political action did not begin (nor shall it end) with the Arab Spring of 2011-14. The paradigmatic events of early Islamic history have long functioned as an intellectual battleground, as the early Islamic narrative is creatively framed, re-ordered, elaborated, and elided, all in the service of political ideology. This process is overt in Ibn Kathīr’s (ca. 1300-1373) annalistic history Kitāb al-Bidāya wa-l-Nihāya. Ibn Kathīr’s fervent Sunnism and local Syrian pride (not to mention his Syrian patronage) led him not only to “innovate” the early Islamic narrative in a manner that was more sympathetic to his Sunni worldview and to place the Syrian contribution to Islamic history (especially the Umayyad dynasty) in a rehabilitated light, but also to confront some of the proverbial “sacred cows” of Shīʿism—in particular the character of ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib. The iniquitous usurpation of ʿAlī’s right to succeed the Prophet Muḥammad as the leader of the umma being the central complaint of Shīʿite claimants, Ibn Kathīr finds in his presentation of ʿAlī a useful weapon for the intellectual battle of the early Islamic narrative, and a counterpoint to the pro-Shīʿite or ʿAlid-sympathizing representations of ʿAlī’s life and character. By exploring the changes (both in terms of content and in terms of literary style) Ibn Kathīr employs in his presentation of ʿAlī from his (usually ʿAlid-sympathizing) source material, this paper will highlight how the reframing of the paradigmatic early Islamic narrative reflected the evolving notions of political and religious legitimacy of Ibn Kathīr’s time.