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How did the descendants of the Prophet, known as the ‘Alids, become the
“one indisputable nobility in Islam” (p. 1)? What did they do to attain and extend
their influence? Is ‘Alid-ness only for men? And, how did their status influence
the Jews? Teresa Bernheimer answers these questions, and more, in
this first detailed study on their sociopolitical history in early Islam.
This study is distinguished by a cross-sectarian and holistic approach, in
that the author examines the ‘Alids independent of whether they were Sunni
or Shi’i, rich or poor, or rebellious or quietist. While the study focuses on ‘Alids
from the Abbasid to the Saljuq eras, as well as those in the eastern part of the
Islamic empire, she presents her conclusions in the light of this social phenomenon
throughout the Islamic world, both past and present. In doing so, Bernheimer
highlights how members of this group saw themselves and were seen
by others as a single body that transcended sectarian or cultural boundaries.
After introducing the main question – how the ‘Alids attained and extended
their influence – the author explores it from four angles, each in a separate
chapter. She begins with chapter 2, “Genealogy, Money, and the Drawing
of Boundaries.” Here, she argues that ‘Alid genealogies do not merely continue
the pre-Islamic Arab genealogical tradition. Instead, while those genealogies
looked to the past, ‘Alid genealogies focused on the present – namely,
the need to determine inclusion in and exclusion from the group because of
“tangible and intangible” benefits, such as gifts (p. 31), as recorded in an illustrative
account of a wealthy but stranded ‘Alid hajji. In that regard, she sees
‘Alid genealogies as being more akin to the dīwān instituted by Umar ibn al-
Khattab (which Tabari felt had origins in Byzantine custom) in that both practices
assigned social rank along with financial benefits based on tribe.
Chapter 2 also addresses the topic of false claimants. Bernheimer does not
attempt to sift out false ‘Alids on the grounds that “[w]hat matters is that […]
the sayyids themselves as well as the rest of society believed that they were ...