The Echoes of Fitna: Developing Historiographical Interpretations of the Battle of Siffin

By Aaron Hagler
Submitted to Session P3175 (Formulations of ‘Alid and Shi‘i Communal Identity in the Formative Period of Islam, 2012 Annual Meeting
Arabian Peninsula; Iraq; Syria;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The Battle of ?iffin (36/657) is the flash point in the emergence of sects within Islam. The presentation of the ?iffin story in Arabic historical writing therefore changed over time as the sectarian split among Sunnis, Shi’is and Kharijis became increasingly defined. This paper will demonstrate how and why Na?r ibn Muz?him’s Waq?at ?iffin emerged as the “vulgate” text in the manner suggested by Borrut in his recent book Entre Memoire et Pouvoir, despite the existence of at least one surviving contemporaneous alternative. It will also trace the development of the presentation of the ?iffin story in Arabic histories across developing Sunni and Shi’i identity crystallization, as well as literary and stylistic developments in the field of Arabic historical writing.
Categorizing the primary sources presents an initial difficulty, but the most useful distinction in tracing the evolving presentation of the ?iffin story must be both chronological and stylistic; therefore, although these categories are necessarily approximate, the works will be divided roughly according to the schema articulated by Robinson in his book Islamic Historiography. The works to be examined include (but are not limited to) akhb?r? authors such as al-D?nawar? and al-?abar?; mu?arrikh? authors such as al-Mas??d? and Ibn al-Ath?r; the biographical dictionaries of Ibn ‘Asakir and Ibn al-?Ad?m; and finally, Ibn Kath?r’s Kit?b al-Bid?ya wa-l-Nih?ya, the fervently Sunni perspective of which demands that it be in its own category. One byproduct of this article will be to provide a documentation of the evolution of Arabic historical writing styles, using the ?iffin story as a lens.
The article will demonstrate that, in accordance with Borrut’s explication of the Arabic vulgate text, the limits of what events could be presented as a part of the ?iffin story were set at the time of the composition of Waq?at ?iffin, but no limits were placed on the room for personal interpretation by the historians. By tracing the changes in the story from the vulgate text through the akhb?r? historians (who employed the vulgate to solidify the ?iffin story’s events and general flow), the mu?arrikh? historians (whose more verbose style allowed for the expansion of the story’s details), the composers of the biographical dictionaries (who used the story as a site for explicit argumentation) and finally, Ibn Kath?r, whose fervent Sunnism engendered a distaste for the ?Alids that encouraged him to use the story to defend the most vilified Syrian action at ?iffin.