The Heirs Of Muhammad: Islam’s First Century And The Origins Of The Sunni-Shia Split, by Barnaby Rogerson
Although the author does not consider himself a scholar and he uses some terminology that scholars would frown at relating to Islam and the early figures in it in order to make his writing more accessible to Western audiences, this is quite an impressive book as a narrative history. The author quotes someone in this book to the effect that it’s hard to write about Islam to a contemporary general audience because one’s potential readers are either bored or afraid, but this book is neither boring nor does it inspire fear among its readers. There are, of course, those of us who at least occasionally read books about Islam , and this book is written to an audience of people who may not know much about Islam but have an interest to learn about its early history and how that relates to contemporary problems within Islam. Although the story of this book is not well-known in the West, I found the story a fascinating and gripping and even tragic one, leading me to feel a great deal of compassion for at least a few of the people written about here.
In a bit more than 350 pages the author tells the story of the period of the rightly guided Caliphs and how Muslim history took a tragic turn very early in its history. At the core of this story is a complicated set of connections between a small group of elites whose starkly different visions of Islam and of their rightful place within it led to a remarkably quick fall from the moral purity of the early days of Muhammad’s rule in Medina. The first part of the book provides some context to the story, looking at the importance of Medina as the oasis capital of the early Muslim state, introducing Ali and his importance in early Islam, discussing Arabian soldiers of the seventh century, and discussing the role of Aisha and other mothers of the faithful. The second part of the book then looks at the character and achievements of the first four “rightly guided” Caliphs (Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman, and Ali), finding them to be a complex lot, before closing with a discussion of the corrupt chieftain Muawiya and the fates of Ali’s sons Hasan and the martyred Husayn. The book close with a couple of appendices that look at the fate of Muhammad’s political heirs after the disaster at Kerbala and a look at the role of Aisha and other women in translating the hadiths so important to Sunni Islam, as well as some complicated family trees.
Of particular interest here is the way that the author makes a couple of melancholy points. One is that the Sunni-Shia split was prefigured by the disputes between Ali and Aisha and their different approaches to Islam after the death of Muhammad. Additionally, the author has a profound interest in the tragedy that good men find it hard to rule in this present evil world because they are too noble, while the wicked prosper. The author tells many stories of obscure but wicked early Muslim leaders and the complex ways in which the foibles of early Muslim leaders led to patterns of rule that remain relevant in contemporary Islam. The author is also generous in his praise of Medina as a city which took its responsibility of remembering and recording the lives and deeds of the early Muslims seriously, allowing us a better understanding of these times than we otherwise would. This is an account that tells a compelling but sad story of the ideal being crushed by the sordid and the real.
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