Najam Haider, The Rebel and the Imam in Early Islam (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Najam Haider (NH): When I first began graduate school back in 2001, I was obsessed with debates in early Islam over the nature of the early sources. This was a time when a new school of historians was calling into question the reliability of historical sources concerning the earliest period of Islamic history. Suddenly “facts” that were generally accepted about the first century of Islam were contested. I was motivated to defend the veracity of the source material but struggled to find a method that would withstand scrutiny. This eventually led me to write my first book, which attempted to validate historical narratives through a different corpus of material, namely texts dealing with ritual. It was a small intervention, but it did not get at larger questions about historical writing. It was only in the last few years that I have returned to this topic with the hope of shifting the very nature of the debate that first interested me.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

NH: The book is mainly concerned with what it meant to write history in a different time and place. We often implicitly assume that the intellectual constructs that inform the modern world are universal. In the case of the early Muslim world, I contend that the rules and epistemological assumptions that governed “history” privileged meaning (or “truthiness”) over a documentary rendering of the past. Such an approach was not singular to the early Islam but rather a continuation of a “rhetoricized” historical tradition that permeated Late Antiquity (and even the Classical period). In addition to Late Antique studies, I draw heavily on literary studies that are interested in the construction (and meanings) of historical narratives.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

NH: In my first book, I tried to test the validity of sectarian origin narratives (taken from standard historical works) through a method that relied on ritual sources. The idea was that the ritual sources—if mined properly—could provide evidence for the reliability of chronicles which were then being critiqued by a number of skeptical scholars. In the ten years since, I have begun to think of Islamic history in different terms. Specifically, I have come to the realization that questions about veracity/fabrication are fundamentally problematic in that they view early Islamic historical material through the lens of a modern European understanding of history. The better question is how early Muslim writers understood the project of history. So, in a sense, I have gone from being a pawn in the debate over the reliability of early Islamic historical writing to a critic of the very nature of this discourse.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

NH: The first and last chapters of the book are very much a call to rethink the way we approach historical sources in the early period of Islam. This is a very general discussion that I think can be grasped by anyone interested in Islamic history. At the end of the first chapter, I propose a model for tackling historical sources that I feel better reflects the nature of the sources themselves. The middle chapters are probably better suited for specialists. Here, I try to demonstrate the utility of my model. These are primarily intended as proofs of concept. In terms of impact, my real intention is just to shift the nature of the debate over this material and encourage scholars to ask a different set of questions. I would very much like someone to come along with a better model! I am more invested in changing the conversation than in being absolutely correct.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

NH: My current projects involve raising two children. Hamza is three, and Fizza is one. But seriously, I have written three quite different books over the last nine years and I am taking a little break to read and really consider what I would like to do next. The idea that most interests me at the moment involves a reconstruction of the social geography of Zaydi Shi‘i communities in the third/ninth century in Kafa through a set of legal sources that remain relatively unstudied.

J: Is this a book about Shi‘ism?  

NH: Given the fact that a lot of my scholarship focuses on Shi‘ism and that my previous book was an introductory work that examined Shi‘ism through the lens of memory, it might be a little puzzling that this current book makes no mention of Shi‘ism in the title. The reason is that I have come to be less comfortable with scholarship that isolates Shi‘ism from the larger study of Islam. This is a tendency that—in my opinion—marginalizes Shi‘ism as an object of study. Having said this, the second and third case studies in my book spend a lot of time on Shi‘i historical sources in order to demonstrate their similarity to non-Shi‘i sources. The point here is that the dichotomy between Sunni and Shi‘i history is a very modern construct that does not withstand any careful scrutiny.


Excerpt from the book

Chapter Five: Reconsideration 

Imagine wandering through a bookstore on a lazy Saturday afternoon. The books are arranged on the shelves under different subject headings. A quick glance in the fiction section reveals stories drawn from the imagination, while the popular science section promises complicated truths in accessible form. The history section contains considerable ambiguity, with books documenting events through the perspectives of historians. It is understood that these authors reproduce the past through the lenses of their own experiences, but their work is still evaluated based on their fealty to facts. In other words, history, a scholarly construct, is evaluated against a standard of accuracy.

This modern European understanding of history has permeated contemporary scholarship on early Islam. In the past half-century, it has helped produce remarkable insights into premodern Muslim societies. Scholars – myself included – have devoted countless hours to disentangling contradictory reports of a given conflict or incident. Much of this work has involved tracing accounts back to their sources, with figures such as al-Wāqidī (d. 207/822) and al-Madā’inī (d. 225/840) occupying a central place in the reconstruction of early historical narratives. Questions pertaining to chains of transmission and mechanisms for the transfer of knowledge have spawned complicated and passionate debates between historians. This kind of careful, detailed research has allowed scholars to peek into the early Muslim community in its formative stages. More recent iterations of this approach have further complicated and enriched our understanding of this period through the introduction of novel sources such as non-Arabic texts and archaeological evidence. These are all welcome developments, with great potential for the advancement of the field as a whole.

This book, however, is concerned with a different set of issues. If we place our hypothetical bookstore in Kūfa in the third/ninth century, what assumptions could we make about the content of specific categories of writing? In the case of science, for example, contemporary scholars have challenged longstanding claims about the plague in the early modern Muslim world while also documenting differences in the categorization of certain types of knowledge. This sensitivity reflects a fairly obvious truism: societies conceptualize information in distinctive ways. In light of this fact, it is unlikely that modern European understandings of history match the attitudes of early Muslim historians. This disconnect raises a number of important questions about the craft of historical writing in the early period. What were the underlying assumptions and rules that governed the composition of historical works? Did historians place a premium on the verbatim, almost photographic, preservation of past events? Did they differentiate between multiple genres of historical writing? It is easy to imagine that precision in reports of the Prophet’s actions or of the circumstances surrounding the revelation of Qur’ānic verses held a particular significance, but can we say the same of a conversation between an Umayyad caliph and a captured rebel? The former carried normative weight in myriad fields, whereas the latter represented a struggle for political and perhaps religious legitimacy.

Another set of pertinent questions concerns the audience for historical writing. Were historical texts aimed at a broad public? In the case of the tales of storytellers (quṣṣāṣ), they clearly were, but what about the grand historical narratives constructed by al-Ṭabarī or al-Khaṭīb al-Baghdādī? If we assume – as seems likely – that these latter works were composed for scholarly elites, did historians assume a baseline of knowledge in their audience? This appears to have been the case in late antique historiography, where writers played off the ubiquity of certain narratives among the elite. For such an audience, was it permissible, or even expected, that historians would create meaning by embellishing existing reports and creating new ones? Again, in the late antique world, it was fairly common and accepted for writers to rework meaningful narratives for polemical ends.

A final set of questions involves the methods employed by early Muslim historians. Did they create their reports wholesale, or did they have access to sets of preexisting reports that they then altered or embellished? The pervasiveness of key figures such as al-Madā’inī in the historical tradition supports the latter possibility, with authors making their own interventions through the addition of small details, the insertion of dialogue, or the creation of context. Such changes could lead to dramatically different interpretations of a given event. The repurposing (literally) of these reports became more apparent after the fifth/eleventh century, as historians wove existing accounts into new, composite narratives. It is also possible, however, that early historians felt authorized to create reports that conveyed the importance of a given event instead of documenting its exact details. An exchange between a court official and a prisoner, for example, was meant to establish the stakes at a critical moment. It was not a verbatim reproduction of an actual conversation. It is unlikely that audiences expected such a reproduction.

These questions have no clear or easy answers. The prospects for reconstructing the scholarly presuppositions of a preindustrial Near Eastern society a thousand years ago in the absence of abundant source material seem bleak. But this alone should not prevent us from considering such issues, which are routinely discussed by historians of other periods. In this book, I attempt to address this lacuna for the study of early Islam by proposing and modeling a different way of thinking about early historical writing. Its aim is not to replace other kinds of scholarship, but rather to provide an alternative space for interrogating the material that is perhaps more resonant with premodern attitudes toward historical writing.

The model presented in this book embodies an understanding of history that was prevalent in the late antique period and bears similarities to ideas in other premodern societies. Specifically, it rests on the premise that early Muslim historians were more concerned with preserving the meaning of a given event than they were with recording its specific details. In practice, this focus meant that authors were free to embellish and elaborate narrative elements (within certain bounds) in order to endow an event with significance. The baseline for such elaboration was the shared core structure of an event or a biography that was familiar to the scholarly audience. In the context of late antique studies, this kind of meaningful and ubiquitous narrative might be referred to as a myth. As described in Chapter 1, the core structure provided the skeletal outline for a story that was then populated with narrative elements either created by the historian or taken from existing sources and embellished appropriately. The resulting text was shaped by an interpretive framework that conveyed the author’s purpose. This was neither a “fictional” account nor a “factual” rendering of the past. It was simply historical writing.

The most striking aspect of this model is its fluidity. The individual steps (core structure, narrative elements, and interpretive framework) function as malleable guidelines applicable to a range of approaches that operate outside the binary of fact vs. fiction. This flexibility is evinced by the diversity of structures and analytic methods utilized in the three case studies. These differences, in fact, embody one of the central premises of this book: namely, the rejection of a singular explanation or approach to early Muslim historiography.


The three case studies gesture toward a few important observations about our view of historical writing in early Islam. Most importantly, they demonstrate the value of new approaches to the source material that transcend the methods and assumptions embedded in many contemporary studies. In other words, they point to a need for creativity, emerging from a realization that our particular notions of history do not necessarily translate to other societies in different periods. It is exceedingly difficult to reconstruct the scholarly presuppositions of the early Muslim world, but this difficulty does not make the exercise meaningless. A basic consideration of these complications has proven invaluable to scholars in other disciplines. This book provides a first foray in this direction for early Islam, anticipating that others will follow suit with innovative and – hopefully! – better methods and models.