The Crisis of Muslim History Religion and Politics in Early Islam by Mahmoud M. Ayoub (Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications, 2003. 179 pages.)

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Junaid Quadri

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Abstract

A host of recent events – well known to all and not in need of rehearsal here
– have had, among a variety of other consequences, the unexpected effect of focusing the world’s attention on the diversity of Muslims and the Islamic tradition.
The constant talk of “Sunni triangles,” “Shi`ite clerics,” and “Wahhabi
radicals,” however, raises important questions about what precisely divides
the Muslim community along these lines. For Ayoub, the roots of this sectarianism
can be found, at least in part, in the crucial historical time period
known as the Rashidite (or “Rightly Guided”) caliphate. It is the “political
and socio-religious crisis” (p. 4) of this era (stretching from the death of the
Prophet until `Ali’s assassination) and its implications for subsequent generations,
that form the subject matter of this book.
Ayoub envisions his work as filling a void found in most general introductions
to Islam, which for all their other merits, often fail to provide a clear
account of this formative period of Islamic history. As for those who have
ventured to write in the area, Ayoub considers the works of both Muslim and
western scholars to be fraught with the political and theological biases of
their authors. His desire to avoid this pitfall motivates him to adopt the
novel approach of letting the “primary sources of Muslim thought and history”
(p. 4) speak for themselves, a tack not unlike the one he uses in his
important contribution to tafsir studies: The Qur’an and Its Interpreters.
Using this methodology, Ayoub seeks to construct and present a balanced
account of the major historical events of the Rashidite era in an effort
to explore the interaction between considerations of religion and politics in
early Islamic understandings of the nature of authority. His analysis of the
various claims to the caliphate advanced by Abu Bakr, `Umar, `Uthman,
and `Ali, as well as by less successful contenders, is aimed at supporting his
central assertion that because “the Prophet died without leaving a clear
political system” (p. 22), the Companions did not agree – indeed they vehemently
disagreed – on answers to questions of political authority: ...

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