Tabari on the Companions of The Prophet: Moral and Political Contours in Islamic Historical Writing

Albrecht Noth's landmark study, recently (1994) expanded with the collaboration of Lawrence Conrad and translated from the German by Michael Bonner, identified a number of motifs in early Islamic history writing. One of these was the way in which the doctrine of the status of the Prophet's companions became a dominant theme featured in the accounts of the riddah and fitnah wars. Following this historiographical support, Sunni thought posited the companions as models of piety, steadfastness, and bravery in early Islam. I want to argue in this paper that a close reading of Tabari's presentation of the companions in the first fitnah (the Battles of the Camel and Siffin) reveals a more nuanced view of this dominant conception. I suggest that this was a reflection of Tabari's unique place in Baghdad society, and his mastery of the use of sources in presenting early Islamic history.


My analysis of Tabari's presentation of the companions in the fitnah assumes an authorial intention which calls for some discussion and justification. For one, Tabari himself rejects such deliberate control over the reports he cites. Moreover, the overwhelming modern scholarly opinion on early Islamic historiography argues that such texts ought not to be regarded as unified works displaying the political, social, or religious views of their authors. Noth first presented this now well known thesis in 1973. He demonstrated that Islamic historical texts contained contradictory reports on crucial religious and political events, making it difficult to say with any degree of certainty that any one work extolled or supported a particular religious group or was produced in a particular region. In his view, early Muslim historians were collectors before they were synthesizers (Noth 1994, 8-10). Noth argued against a theory of early Islamic historiography first presented by Wellhausen that posited the presence of distinctive historiographical "schools" in Medina and Iraq. Without denying regional developments, Noth rejected the notion that the entire works of individuals like Ibn Ishaq (d. 151/767) or Sayf b. Umar (d. 180/796) represented their regions of origin. Noth believed that greater attention should be paid to the forms of historical reports instead of their socio-political and religious biases. He argued for the presence of a limited range of themes, motifs, and schemata which dominated the reports of early Islamic historiography.

Noth's close attention to the basic forms of Islamic historiography presents a better means of appraising the historical works than relying on their religious, political, and regional prejudices, and his far-reaching conclusions have been accepted by a number of other scholars in the field (Landau-Tasseron 1990; Conrad 1987; Leder 1992; Lassner 1986). The following statement by Lassner is typical:

The greatest chronicles describing early Abbasid history are composite works that do not bear the clear stamp of an acknowledged author. Compiled from accounts drawn from earlier treatises, these impressive texts give the impression of having been assembled by an editor supported by numerous assistants. Even with frequent references to chains of transmissions, where several accounts appear in sequence, it is often difficult to determine whether the order of presentation should be credited to the original author or to a later editor (Lassner 1986, 25).

However, by itself, the theory does not preclude the identification of the author's intentions and peculiarities regarding key events or issues. Lassner, in particular, uncovered the political bias of the literature, and showed how the biographies of early Abbasids and their ancestors were gradually altered by historians to construct ideal founders of the revolution. Under the historian's craft, Abbasid Hashimite genealogy was carefully reconditioned and given glorious military honors. According to Lassner, then, even though the early Abbasid compilers like al-Baladhuri (d. 279/892) and al-Mada ini (d. 225/839) may have collected highly composite works, their apologia for the Abbasid ruling dynasty was unmistakably present. It seems that by choosing a contemporaneous theme, such as Abbasid power and authority, Lassner was able to follow the tendencies of Islamic historiography in a particular period. I want to explore the idea of such a key theme or event in identifying the idiosyncrasies of a single author.

The significance of a particular author's presentation has been evaluated by others, as well, in different ways. Humphreys and Hodgson, in particular, have explored the non-historical, paradigmatic nature of Islamic literature. Humphreys suggested that different kinds of questions ought to be asked of the Islamic historiographical tradition. He also argued against both the Noth and the Wellhausen theories as being "ultimately concerned with old issues: the authenticity of allegedly early reports, the factual accuracy of these narratives, and the influence of partisanship and ideology on Islamic historiography" (Humphreys 1989, 272). Humphreys suggested that the historical recollection of certain key events, and excessive concentration on them in Islamic literature, may be interpreted within a framework of sacred history of covenant, betrayal, and redemption (Humphreys 1989, 27576). Moreover, Tabari displayed "a studied ambiguity, a determination to show that the religious and political problems posed by Uthman's reign might be resolved in a number of different ways" (Humphreys 1989, 279). In another article, Humphreys (1992) suggested that an examination of Baladhuri's account of the selection of Uthman revealed how the Muslim historian used akhbar to engage contemporary debates on the nature of the caliphate. Much earlier, a similar analysis by Hodgson of Tabari's account of the murder of Uthman showed the Muslim historian trying to reconcile the demands of power and moral responsibility (Hodgson 1974, 354-57; 1965, 55-56). Thus it is possible to decipher contemporary religious, political or socio-moral questions and issues by scrutinizing the early Islamic historical literature.

Lassner's analysis of the apologia in the historical literature revealed Abbasids' need of legitimacy at the time, and Hodgson's and Humphreys' analyses appreciated and appraised the intellectual-moral project with which historians were then involved. In the following analysis of Tabari's presentation of the first fitnah, I would like to combine these methodological insights in order to show how Tabari presented, in Baghdad, a unique perception of the companions. I want to argue that the doctrine on the status of the companions of the Prophet was an important part of the Islamic worldview then being constructed by historians such as Tabari. For ninth-century Baghdad, this motif in the literature was not only of historiographical concern, it was debated in other scholarly circles because it had profound implications for the meaning and nature of Islam. In his inimitable way, Jahiz tells the following anecdote that reveals the importance of key companions in religious debate two hundred years after their demise:

One of our friends questioned Abu Luqman, the fool, about the "indivisible particle." "The atom," he replied, "is Ali b. Abi Talib." Abu al-Aina asked him: "Are there no other atoms in the world?" " Indeed there are: Hamza and Ja far." "What about al- Abbas?" " He is an atom." "What do you say about Abu Bakr and Umar?" "Abu Bakr is divisible and Umar is divisible." "And Uthman?" "He is doubly divisible, and so is Zubayr." "And what do you say about Mu awiya?" " He is indivisible." (Pellat 1969, 149)

Jahiz tells us that the fool had overheard scholars speaking about the "indivisible particle" and had become confused. I believe that the fool had probably also heard religious scholars debating the merits of the key companions involved in early Islamic conflicts, and simply put the two together.

The companions of the Prophet played a vital role in the religious and political consciousness of Muslims in ninth-century Baghdad. Sunni, Shi i, and Abbasid apologists each held opinions about the companions, in general, and certain companions, in particular. The Hanbalis, in particular, and the hadith scholars, in general, tended to favor the idea that all the companions were equal in merit. In contrast to the ritualized cursing of some of the companions by the Shi is, they adopted a view of universal respect and pious reverence toward them.(2) The position of Mu awiyah among the ranks of the illustrious founders of Islam was a point of contention. While hadith scholars seemed to have no problem in accepting him as a companion like all the rest, Abbasid apologists could not be so magnanimous toward the founder of the Umayyad dynasty. Jahiz, who wrote a treatise on the caliphate for Ma mun in 200/815-16, again gives us an inkling of this debate in his own maligning of the Hanbali supporters: "[They say] 'Do not curse Mu awiyah! He was one of the Companions of the Prophet, and to curse him is a (blameworthy) innovation; whosoever hates him contravenes the sunna.' In other words, the sunna requires us to pardon those who specifically repudiate the sunna" (Pellat 1969, 84).

Jahiz rhetorical stroke clearly indicates that one's view of Mu awiyah had direct political and religious implications in contemporary Baghdad. Support for Mu awiyah's status as a companion meant a thinly disguised rejection of the Abbasid claims to authority as the rightful heirs to the Prophet. It was not as emphatic as the Shi i arguments that the new caliphs had usurped the authority of the descendants of the Prophet, but it indicated a certain disdain for the great Abbasid revolution. Support for Mu awiyah as a companion was also crucial in the religious methodology adopted by hadith scholars at the time. The rejection of the companion-status of any person who met or saw the Prophet implied the undermining of the authority of isnads in hadith.

Tabari had to deal with these political and religious dilemmas. He arrived too late in Baghdad to be a student of Ibn Hanbal, and probably emerged as an adversary of subsequent Hanbali scholars. According to Makdisi, Tabari's view that Ibn Hanbal was a great hadith scholar and not a jurist was directly responsible for attacks against him. In a city claimed by Hanbali populism, Tabari dared to hold opposing doctrines. His house was once destroyed by a mob and he himself requested that his work on variants in the recitation of the Qur an (qira at) be published only posthumously (Makdisi 1981, 9; Tayob 1989). And yet, Tabari's intellectual project was not diametrically opposed to that of the Hanbalis. As a religious scholar, Tabari was committed to akhbar and hadith, whose foundations depended on the integrity of individuals in the chains of transmission. This paper seeks to investigate whether Tabari's methodological and political differences with the Hanbalis were reflected in his History. What was his view of the key companions involved in the conflict? How did Tabari, the religious scholar, deal with material that Tabari, the historian, came across? How did a historical work in ninth-century Baghdad strike a balance between two demands: the availability of reports that cast aspersion on the moral integrity of the companions, and the demands of a religious methodology committed to the same?


A close examination of Tabari's presentation of the events of the fitnah reveals a judicious use of earlier historical sources. In particular, Sayf b. Umar for the Battle of the Camel and Abu Mikhnaf (d. 157/774) for the Battle of Siffin are the dominant sources around which Tabari builds his narrative. However, his use of other sources is important for an understanding of his approach. Using his sources carefully, Tabari projects a hierarchical ranking of the companions of the Prophet, and appraises the political choices facing Muslims during the fitnah as well as in ninth-century Baghdad.

Sayf b. Umar, whose material Tabari apparently possessed in written form, dominates the presentation of the Battle of the Camel.(3) Sayf has come under criticism from both early hadith scholars and modern historians. The formers' view of Sayf, in particular, raised questions about Tabari's reliance on such a dubious authority, but studies on this issue have argued that we need to take another look at the material. Against most modern historians, Landau-Tasseron argued that Sayf should be treated exactly like other sources; that is, he should not have to bear any more blame for unreliability and inaccuracy than other Muslim historians. Her analysis suggested that Tabari may have used Sayf as he used any other source, and that his blemished reputation among hadith scholars did not warrant special attention (Landau-Tasseron 1990). My analysis reveals that Tabari used Sayf and other sources extremely judiciously, and not always for their reliability. Recent remarks by Donner and Blankinship have pointed out the relationship between Sayf's and Tabari's perceptions of early Islam. While Donner regarded Sayf's accounts as providing different perspectives on the events, Blankinship doubted Sayf's reliability. Both, however, believed that Sayf may have provided Tabari with a theologically more acceptable version of early Islam (Blankinship 1993, xxvii; Donner 1993, xvii). I believe that Tabari may have used Sayf because of Sayf's particular attitude toward the companions, but this was not what Tabari himself believed. The presence of contradictory reports, and sometimes damning evidence against certain companions, suggested that Tabari's editorial work was more sophisticated. The following examination of Tabari's use of sources for the Battle of the Camel and the Battle of Siffin explores his more nuanced perceptions of early Islam.

It would be a mistake to assume that Tabari simply repeated the Sayf version of the fitnah with some minor variations. With respect to the Battle of the Camel, Tabari supplemented Sayf's material with alternative historical tidbits from Abu Mikhnaf and Mada ini, and some hadith material on the behavior of the individuals involved. I will show in examples that the supplementary reports played as important a role in Tabari's presentation as his primacy sources. In fact, I believe that they provide us with important clues to understanding how the dominant Sayf narrative should be read. I will then turn to the Battle of Siffin and show how Tabari used Abu Mikhnaf as a dominant source in a way that almost neglected Sayf altogether.

Not unexpectedly, the status of the companion is a major preoccupation of Tabari's story of the fitnah. Sayf, in Tabari's account, provided an overall justification for the actions of the companions by blaming "the youth, the rabble and the crowds" for causing the fitnah, and then for preventing its amicable resolution. The non-Sayf sources, on the other hand, suggested that the companions of the Prophet were themselves involved in a bitter power struggle. For example, Sayf states that Uthman b. Hunayf, governor of Basrah who resisted A ishah, Talhah, and Zubayr, was supported mainly by the assassins of Uthman b. Affan. The Mada ini reports, on the other hand, suggested ulterior political and economic motives on the part of A ishah, Talhah, and Zubayr. In one particular report, Mada ini attributed the following statement to Zubayr: "It came to our notice that you are wealthy, so we wanted to share [your wealth] with you" (Tabari, 6:3136). This statement casts an extremely negative aspersion on the companion. Tabari leaves the reader in some doubt, deliberating between materials that blame the rabble-rousers, and others that point to the scourge of political ambition. However, it is interesting to note that the Sayf accounts do not so much address the accusations as deflect them from the companions onto other factors.

In some cases, Tabari's use of hadith scholars provided an important link between the Sayf and non-Sayf reports. Generally, we find that the hadith reports focus more directly on the character of the companions, and suggest that everybody should have abstained from involvement in the conflict. From Ya qub b. Ibrahim we are told how the Basran Ahnaf b. Qays reminded A ishah, Talhah, and Zubayr of their earlier approval of Ali. They responded by stating that Ali had changed his position, but accepted Ahnaf b. Qays' withdrawal from the conflict (Tabari, 6: 3169-71). In another report from Ahmad b. Mansur traced to Yahya b. Ma in (d. 233/848), a hadith scholar, and Musa b. Uqbah, a maghazi composer with impeccable hadith credentials, Urwah b. Zubayr was sent back from the battlefield because of his youth. Yahya b. Ma in and Musa b. Uqbah also provided a sketch of Talhah's piety along with his trepidation as to his personal financial obligations were he to die in battle. Both reports confirm Talhah's righteous conduct (adalah), expected of hadith transmitters and, generally, all companions (Tabari, 6: 3103, 3137). The hadith scholars appeared to promote a quietistic approach to the conflict, with which the Sayf reports - that focus on blaming non- companions for any problems - concur. In addition, they also focused more directly on the personal religious duties that preoccupied the companions of the Prophet, in spite of the grave political conditions facing them. Clearly, fidelity to the norms and patterns of contemporary shari ah thought was being invoked. This seems to be Tabari's position, and accords well with his own position in Baghdad. He did not join the Abbasid apologists like Jahiz, nor the dominant, populist Hanbalis. As a consummate scholar, he explored the dimensions of proper Islamic behavior in terms of jurisprudence and moral conduct, and avoided direct involvement in social and political movements.

The delicate balance between Sayf, non-Sayf, and hadith reports is repeated in a number of other events and stages of the fitnah as well. In each case, the behavior and status of the companions became the prism through which the various reports were refracted. Each provides an excellent illustration of how Tabari marshaled the sources to present a historical account, a political philosophy, and character appraisals. Tabari opens his account of the fitnah with a Sayf report that showed Ali's concern about consolidating his position. Narrated with different chains of authorities, but all leading to Sayf, six reports insisted that only six or seven Badr combatants had anything to do with the entire civil war (Tabari, 6: 3095). The merit of the conflict between Ali and his opponents turned on the presence of those who had participated in the crucial battle between the Prophet and the Quraysh, the so-called Badriyyin. Tabari's multiple reports insisted that the Badriyyin opted for neutrality. This political assessment, represented as a lack of distinguished support for Ali, could easily be read as a crisis of legitimacy for Ali's authority, but Tabari did not explore this line of inquiry. Later in the account, in fact, Tabari used Abu Mikhnaf to suggest the support of some eminent Medinese (Umm Salamah and Abu Qatadah) (Tabari, 6: 3101). In the final analysis, then, Ali enjoyed support in Medina, but it did not include too many of the eminent Badr combatants. Using multiple reports, Tabari seems to have presented a strong case for neutrality without directly casting doubt on the legitimacy of Ali's authority.

The issue of Ali's authority was taken up by his son Hasan, who had been reluctant to enter the conflict and tried to dissuade his father from going into battle. Hasan approached his father, complaining that he paid no heed to his advice. At one level, the report seems to fall clearly within Tabari's refrain of reports that posited neutrality, but Ali reacted angrily to Hasan's recommendation, reproaching him as a constant source of irritation: "You whimper like a young woman!" However, a Sayf report showed Ali arguing that he had no choice but to deal with the situation, and that he was acting on behalf of the Medinese: "This matter belongs to the people of Medina, and we would not like it to be lost." Tabari followed with a third report(4) in which Ali said that he had long been waiting to take his rightful place in Islam (Tabari, 6: 3107-8, 3110-11). Sayf's report clearly tried to reconcile the difference between father and son, two eminent members of the family of the Prophet, and hinted at the non-Shi i basis of Ali's legitimacy. The report was carefully placed between one in which Hasan, a Shi i imam, favors neutrality, and another, which hints at Ali's Shi i right of succession. The Sayf view of Ali's legitimacy was counterbalanced by political options presented in the other reports.

For rising up against a legitimate authority, ishah's position in the fitnah was somewhat more difficult to justify. While Tabari could not show that she favored neutrality, he was able to reconstruct her political decisions as moral ones. A ishah was returning from Mecca when she heard the news of Uthman's assassination. She went back and used her position as the widow of the Prophet to protest publicly against the murderers of Uthman. One Mada ini report suggested that she had been opposed to Uthman at the end of his reign, but Sayf has the final word, and reports that the noisy and sinful rabble had taken control of Madina (Tabari, 6: 3098). Sayf's account thus provides a justification for A ishah's protest - again without dealing directly with the gist of the Mada ini report. The rehabilitation of A ishah is evaluated more emphatically at the level of personal morality, involving a hadith of the Prophet in which he cautioned his wives not to be the object of barking dogs at Haw ab.(5) During the fitnah and on the way to Basrah, A ishah heard dogs barking and was told that the place was called Haw ab. Recalling the hadith, she decided to turn back to Madina, but was dissuaded by someone who swore an oath that the particular place was not Haw ab. Tabari reports that the person responsible may have been Abd Allah, the son of Zubayr: "It is claimed that he Abd Allah b. Zubayr) said (to her): 'Whoever said that this is Haw ab is lying.' He persisted until she agreed to move." A ishah was determined to turn back on account of the hadith, but was dissuaded from doing so on the basis of false testimony. The report clearly presented her as responding to a religious duty that she fulfilled. Tabari does not leave the matter there, however, but provides another report of the incident, which stated that A ishah's decision not to return to Madina was changed by the news of Ali's rapidly approaching army. Taken in its entirety, Tabari presents a measured appraisal of an eminent companion of the Prophet who was perhaps misled by those around her, but who did not emerge morally unscathed in the fitnah.

The other major personalities in the Battle of the Camel, Talhah and Zubayr, also come under considerable scrutiny. Tabari related a report where they defend their positions by stating that they pledged allegiance to Ali under duress and fled Madina as soon as they could. We are also introduced to a host of reports that deliberate whether, in fact, Zubayr ever pledged allegiance to the new caliph (Tabari, 6: 3070, 3091, 3093-94, 3099). The rereadings of the event, tailored to favor the eminent companions and their loyalty, are clearly evident. Tabari's variant reports on this matter contributed to the perception of confusion in the city when Ali became caliph, including a Sayf report that presented the ubiquitous rabble as an aggravating cause (Tabari, 6:3104, for example). Both companions, like A ishah, were rehabilitated, to a degree, because of their moral commitments. I have mentioned Talhah's character reference above; Zubayr's action comes under scrutiny as he responded to a hadith of the Prophet. Ali reminded him in the thick of battle that the Prophet had reportedly told him: "You will certainly fight Ali and thus act wrongfully toward him" or, as in another version, addressed Ali, and said: "Your cousin will right you and thus wrong you." At the time the Prophet uttered this statement, Zubayr had reportedly taken an oath that he would not fight Ali (Tabari, 6: 3176, 3185).(6) When Zubayr was now reminded of his oath, he decided to leave the battlefield, but changed his mind when his son taunted him for acting like a coward. Zubayr then broke his vow, freed a slave for expiation, and reentered the battle absolved of the burden (6: 3176). As in the case of A ishah, Tabari does not completely absolve Talhah and Zubayr. These two companions had pledged allegiance to Ali, the rightful ruler, and then reneged. Even though the matter was aggravated by the presence of sinister forces, some blame had to be borne by them. Both A ishah's and Zubayr's involvement in the fitnah was reduced to a deliberation on their religious responsibilities toward prophetic hadith.

On the Battle of Siffin, Tabari does not agonize over the status of the eminent companions. Unlike A ishah, Talhah, and Zubayr, Mu awiyah was rehabilitated neither on a political nor on a moral, religious level. From this, it seems that Tabari did not accept the moral equivalence of all the companions of the Prophet. ln particular, he does not appear to have accepted the Hanbali support for Mu awiyah which Jahiz mocked (mentioned above). Moreover, there are not too many reports proposing restraint in the conflict, indicating that Ali's legitimacy never became a subject of doubt. On the Battle of Siffin, Abu Mihknaf provided most of the material and one complete story unfolds beginning with Amr b. al-As, a scion of the old Quraysh, deciding to join Mu awiyah. Other sources like Waqidi (d. 207/823) and Sayf were used, but they tended to consolidate and support the main story of the event.

Tabari opens with two Sayf reports on how Amr b. al- As decided to join Mu Awiyah. Sayf's accounts provide two reasons why Amr b. al- As, rejected Ali. In the first, he sought redress for Uthman's murder, and in the second, made it clear that he feared that the Quraysh would lose control under Ali (Tabari, 6: 3250-52). Both, the second more directly than the first, indicate his clearly tribal motivation in the Battle. A Waqidi report that follows is more damning of Amr b. al- As: he tells Mu awiyah that he knows in his heart that "they will fight that person whom you [Mu awiyah] know to be eminent, virtuous and close [to the Prophet], but surely we want this world" (Tabari, 6: 3254). If the first Sayf report appears to present a legitimate motive for Amr, the subsequent reports in quick succession leave no doubt that we are dealing with a political opportunist. The tone and moral censure in Waqidi's report continues throughout the rest of the account, which is dominated by Abu Mikhnaf as the source:

Mu awiyah doggedly refused to accept Ali's caliphate until the latter dealt with the assassins (Tabari, 6: 3275),

He tried in vain to persuade the supporters of Ali to join him or at least abandon Ali (Tabari, 3: 3276),

Amr b. al- As and Mu awiya raised the Qur an on lances merely as a strategy to avert their imminent defeat (Tabari, 6: 3293).

In contrast, Ali appealed to his soldiers to uphold the morals of warfare, but was the victim of his supporters, who forced him to accept arbitration and an arbitrator in spite of his better judgment. In Tabari's account, Ali was highly suspicious of Amr b. al-As and Mu awiyah, and lacked confidence in Abu Musa al-Ash ari's ability to negotiate on his behalf (Tabari, 6: 3282, 3329, 3334). In Abu Mikhnaf's reports, then, the ulterior political motives and tactics of Mu awiyah and Amr b. al- As contrasted poorly with Ali's hopeless but virtuous bid to consolidate his authority.

True to Tabari, however, there are glimpses of other moral and political choices open to those involved in the conflict. In spite of Tabari's consistent narrative in favor of Ali, we are still reminded of the variety of positions taken by other companions of the Prophet. As in the Battle of the Camel, Hasan, the son of Ali, again appears less than willing to plunge into battle and tries to dissuade Ali from doing the same (Tabari, 6: 3293-94). In general, though, in comparison with the Battle of the Camel, Tabari's account does not exhibit a need to justify Mu awiyah or any of the individuals opposed to Ali. Whereas Tabari clearly agonized over the role and status of A ishah, Talhah, and Zubayr in the Battle of the Camel, he reveals no concern for the position of Mu awiyah. In relation to the latter, the legitimacy of Ali was never questioned.


I have tried to show that a methodical reading of an event discloses the intentions and strategies of an astute Muslim historian such as Tabari. The key to such disclosure is the identification of a contemporary debate in which the author or compiler was involved and which had historical and historiographical implications. A question in the past which held important clues for contemporary political and religious debates was, as we would expect, picked up by historians. Like Lassner's focus on the question of Abbasid legitimacy, I have tried to illustrate how the debate on the status of the companions of the Prophet, and in particular Mu awiyah, was reflected in Tabari's presentation of the first fitnah. Tabari proves to be an extremely skillful compiler who maintains a careful balance among major companions, and who projects a political philosophy for scholars in Baghdad. At the same time, Tabari does not seem at all concerned about protecting Mu awiyah's status.

In addition to the focus on the key event or issues involved, a prerequisite for understanding what was happening in historical works is an appreciation of the akhbar methodology of ordering, arrangement, and juxtaposition. In his interesting work on the akhbar as a literary device, S. Leder (1992) has called attention to the apparently factual nature of the reports. While Leder himself wanted to show the extremely tendentious nature of these reports, I want to recall their availability for historians such as Tabari as a means by which to present historical accounts and to enter into contemporary debates. Even as fabrications abounded, and clever additions and amendments to the reports proliferated, a case could still be made for understanding reports as cultural devices for explaining the past. In contrast to the brute facts of historicism, the brute report was the basic building block of Muslim historiography. Tabari belonged to a tradition for whom the akhbar unlocked the past.

Tabari's "editorial manipulation, arrangement, and omission" (Donner 1993, xiv) was very clear in the manner in which the author presented both the Battle of the Camel and the Battle of Siffin. In both cases, the legitimacy of Ali was never in doubt. However, when Ali was faced with opposition from eminent companions of the Prophet (A ishah, Talhah and Zubayr), Tabari used Sayf to ascribe blame to the "mobs" involved in the conflict. The Sayf reports on the Battle of the Camel, however, did not directly address the critical elements in the damning accounts. Instead of addressing the political and social issues raised by Mada ini and Abu Mikhnaf, Sayf simply deflected these difficult questions. While there were no easy religious answers to these issues, Tabari's own preference appears to be to focus on the personal, moral responsibilities of the companions involved. In this instance, the measure by which all Muslims ought to be judged in terms of the Shari ah was applied to the first companions as well. Leder has pointed out the preoccupation of Islamic historical material with personal matters. I suggest that in the case of the Battle of the Camel it appears that this preoccupation provided a Shari ah frame for understanding a difficult period of early Islamic history. In the battle of the Camel, Tabari's preference for political restraint is presented without having explicitly to apportion blame to A ishah, Talhah and Zubayr. With the Battle of Siffin, Tabari's religious dilemmas disappear as he presents Amr b. al- As and Mu awiyah as the moral culprits in the conflict.

Tabari was certainly using akhbar to present a view of the status of the companions more nuanced than the one emerging from within Hanbali ranks. Sayf's approach to the companions was a useful foil for Tabari's Hanbali contemporaries and adversaries, while Tabari himself developed a more subtle and varied position. In the Battle of the Camel, he used Sayf to absolve the companions of political mistakes, but left sufficient traces and signs that they had erred at a personal, moral level. In the Battle of Siffin, on the other hand, Mu awiyah does not benefit from mitigating reports on either moral or political counts. For Tabari, political power had to share the limelight with the foundations of proper conduct as determined by the scholars. Like his contemporaries, Tabari was creating a moral universe out of the reports of personal political choices in the stories of eminent companions. Faithful to the discipline of a report-based history, he had both to record the past and project a vision of society. His faithfulness to the past was couched in his commitment to let the reports speak for themselves. His faithfulness to the moral and ideological commitments expected of a scholar of his time demanded that he carefully point out the moral choices available to his contemporaries. Naturally, Tabari left out numerous dimensions of the past, in spite of the universalist pretensions of his work. He was merely reflecting the narrow concerns of a scholarly elite, just as we in modern institutions do in our own work.

A version of this paper was presented at the conference "Tabari: Life and Works," held at the University of St. Andrews in September 1995. I would like to thank the Centre for Science Development (South Africa) for making it possible to attend. Thanks also to the coordinator, Dr. Hugh Kennedy, and the participants, particularly Stephen Humphreys and Ella Landau-Tasseron, for their comments. Naturally, views expressed in this paper reflect neither the views of the Centre, nor of participants at the Conference.

2 Such a trusting position toward the companions was taken by no less a person than al-Bukhari. See his section "Fada il al-Sahabah," which begins, "Whoever has seen the Prophet, is a companion." Ibn Hajar's commentary deals extensively with the problems caused by this simplistic view (Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, 7: 3-5).

3 Sayf's account is narrated primarily by his two students, Muhammad b. Nuwayrah and Talhah b. al-A lam al-Hanafi. Ta rikh al-rusul wa 'l-muluk, ser. I, 6: 3111, 3122, 3128, 3177, 3178, 3181, 3190. Tabari also narrates from Sayf on the authority of Amr b. Muhammad and Sha bi, and on the authority of Mikhlad b. Qays. Ibid., 6: 3095, 3098, 3154. There is another explicit statement in the Ta rikh al-rusul wa 'l-muluk (6: 3184) to show that this was a chief source of Tabari: "The khabar of the Battle of the Camel from another narration: Abu Ja far (Tabari) said that other than Sayf, there are others who have narrated (this) . . . contrary to what Sayf said on the authority of his two companions." The written nature of Sayf's material is evident: "Al-Sirri wrote (katab) to me on the authority of . . . Sayf." Tabari appeared to have one other document of Sayf's account through Ali b. Ahmad: "In it, Nasr b. Muzahim mentioned on the authority of Sayf. . . . "Tabari, Ta rikh al-rusul wa 'l-muluk, 6: 3091, 3094, 3095, 3098, etc.

4 The report is traced from Isma il b. Musa al-Fazari to Ali b. Abis to Abu 'l-Khattab al-Hajari to Safwan b. Qabisah al-Ahmasi to an al- Urani, the person from whom A ishah's camel was purchased (Tabari, 6: 3108).

5 Ibn Hanbal, in his Musnad (6: 52, 97), offers two versions of the hadith, one directed at A ishah, in particular, and the other directed at the wives of the Prophet, in general: ". . . The Messenger of God said to her (A ishah) one day: 'Beware! The dogs of Haw ab will bark at you'"; and "The Messenger of God said to us (the wives): 'Which one of you will the dogs of Haw ab bark at?'"

6 The collections of hadith record versions of this statement of the Prophet, directed to either Ali or to Zubayr: see, for example, Ibn Hanbal, 2: 161, 164, 206; and 4: 5, 22, 28, 91.


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Publication Information: Article Title: Tabari on the Companions of the Prophet: Moral and Political Contours in Islamic Historical Writing. Contributors: Abdelkader I. Tayob - author. Journal Title: The Journal of the American Oriental Society. Volume: 119. Issue: 2. Publication Year: 1999. Page Number: 203.  

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