Confronting the Caliph: ‘Uthmân b. ‘Affân in Three ‘Abbasid Chronicles
By Heather Keaney
Studia Islamica, nouvelle édition/new series, Vol. 1 (2011)
Introduction: Until relatively recently medieval Islamic chroniclers were viewed by modern historians in much the same way that Muslims view Muhammad – as transmitter rather than author. While Muslims view the disjointed nature of the Qur’an as one of the proofs of its divine origin, scholars regarded a chronicle’s collection of disparate historical accounts from earlier authorities (khabar, pl., akhbâr) as evidence that chroniclers were not writing their own narratives or imbuing their texts with contemporary concerns. Consider, for example, Franz Rosenthal’s assertion in his work on Islamic historiography: “History was not used as a means for the propagation of ideas, or, more exactly, historians as a rule did not consciously intend, in writing their works, to reinterpret historical data so as to conform to the ideas they might have wished to propagate.” And although this perspective was at the time coming under attack by the work of Marshall Hodgson and Albrecht Noth, it would be several years, if not decades, before Islamic historiography fully embraced the idea of chroniclers as authors.
The very structure of Islamic chronicles that made them resistant to traditional historiographical analysis, made them particularly receptive to new approaches in literary criticism. For example Hayden White’s work on “form-as-message” seems especially applicable to medieval Islamic chronicles. He observes, “once we are enlivened to the extent to which the form of the text is the place where it does its ideologically significant work, aspects of the text that a criticism unsensitized to the operations of a form-as-message will find bewildering, surprising, inconsistent, or simply offensive… themselves become meaningful as message.” Such insights have borne much fruit in Islamic historiography leading established scholars such as Fred Donner to marvel at what is revealed about a text and its author by focusing on “strategies of compilation.” In particular Donner mentions the strategies of selection, placement, repetition and manipulation and concludes his article by asserting that coming to grips with these strategies “must be at the top of our agenda when examining such compilations.”