Book review: The Succession to Muhammad

I have just finished reading the book The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate by Wilferd Madelung (Cambridge University Press, 1997) and highly recommend it. I found out about it from reading Sen's book Church and State. Sen refers to Madelung's book quite a bit in his discussion on the succession of Muhammad and how it bears on the church and state issue.

I'm not much of a reader; I am dyslexic to some extent, which means among other things that I read slowly. I have to choose my books wisely because I can read only a few of them. But I decided to give Madelung a go because I wanted to understand better the business of what happened after Muhammad died. I discovered that the book was compulsive reading. It is 350 pages long, crammed full of long Arabic names. Like with the Dawn Breakers, I had to bypass the names in order to keep abreast of the story. But I got the general idea and found it amazing.

In the Introduction, Madelung explains that he decided to write the book because he thought Western academics had followed the Sunni accounts too slavishly. He went back over the hadith and looked at it from as impartial a view as possible. Of course, he had to balance the accounts and decide what was most likely to have happened. But even given that, the book gives an extraordinary insight into the events after Muhammad's death and the cultural context in which they happened.

I was enthralled. The book is well written. I was impressed with how Madelung managed to put real drama into a story with so much complexity, dealing with the difficult names in the process. I kept saying to Steve: the West doesn't know what it's missing not knowing this story. It had everything epics are made of - politics, intrigue, plotting, deception, betrayal, devotion, chivalry, murder, war, poetry, even a prophet! In future, I can see mini series after mini series made about it (all horrible betrayals of the real events, of course).

Also in the Introduction is Madelung's discussion on who Muhammad thought was his successor - his cousin, Ali. Why? He argues that the obvious place to look for Muhammad's view on this matter is in the Qur'an. He launches into a commentary on the Qur'an and explains how it tells the stories of the prophets of old and how they were succeeded by their offspring or close kin. He also shows how the Qur'an gave a high station to the Prophet's family.

"The Qur'an thus accorded the ahl al-bayt [lit. people of the house] of Muhammad an elevated position above the rest of the faithful, similar to the position of the families of the earlier prophets. God desired to purify them from all defilement. ...

Insofar as the Qur'an expresses the thoughts of Muhammad, it is evident that he could not have considered Abu Bakr his natural successor or have been pleased by his succession. The Qur'an certainly does not fully reflect Muhammad's views about the men and women surrounding him and his attitude toward them. Yet he could not have seen his succession essentially other than in the light of the narrations of the Qur'an about the succession of the earlier prophets, just as he saw his own mission as a prophet, the resistance of his people with which he met, and his ultimate success by divine grace in the light of the experience of the former prophets as related in the Qur'an. These earlier prophets considered it a supreme divine favour to be succeeded by their offspring or close kin for which they implored their Lord. ...

The Qur'an advises the faithful to settle some matters by consultation, but not the succession to prophets. That, according to the Qur'an, is settled by divine election, and God usually chooses their successors, whether they become prophets or not, from their own kin." (pp16-17)

And so, having established in the Introduction who Muhammad probably imagined his successor was, Madelung spends the rest of the book outlining the events that led to Ali failing to get the succession and the consequences of that. The result was the terrible irony of the Muslim community being ruled by the very people who fought Muhammad when he was alive and opposed his religion. Their descendents ended up ruling his community in a tyrannical fashion and claiming to do so in the name of Islam.

"[The Arabs] had now, as Ali had warned them, the rule of Caesar and Chosroes. Those still remembering their former freedom and their brotherhood and respect for Muslim life under the Prophet and the early caliphs might wonder what Ummayyad state Islam had in common with the message preached by Muhammad. Seeing the odious little impostor posturing as the Vicegerent of God on earth, they could well believe that their Prophet had pronounced the hadith attributed to him: 'When you see Mu'awiya on my pulpit, kill him!'" (p 327)

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