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Opposing the Imam: The Legacy of the Nawasib in Islamic Literature

July 26, 2021 at 12:19 pm

Opposing the Imam: The Legacy of the Nawasib in Islamic Literature
  • Book Author(s): Nebil Husayn
  • Published Date: April 2021
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Hardback: 240 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-1108832816

It is safe to say that Ali Ibn Abi Talib is one of the most important figures in early Islamic history, recognised as the fourth Rightly Guided Caliph by the majority Sunni sect and the first Imam by the Shia. He is also highly revered by Sufis for whom most spiritual orders can be traced to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) through his cousin and son-in-law, Ali.

However, this virtually universal adulation for Ali among Muslims was not always the case, as Nebil Husayn explains in his book, Opposing the Imam: The Legacy of the Nawasib in Islamic Literature. In reality, he points out, the positive perceptions of Ali among Muslims today “obscures centuries of contestation and the eventual rehabilitation of his character.”

This is due to an enduring legacy of the Nawasib, some early Muslims who for mainly political reasons expressed animosity and disdain towards Ali, his descendants (Alids) and, by some definitions, his Shia partisans. Although the group is generally presumed to have died out around the ninth century, there are some claims, particularly in polemical discussions, that such extremist ideology still lingers, albeit as a fringe minority view.

This book is concerned with the impact that the Nawasib had on the nascent Sunni community. Despite the orthodox positions of both Sunnis and Shias condemning nasb (anti-Alid sentiment) in the harshest tones, the Nawasib, says Husayn, “made literary contributions that subsequent Sunni authorities transmitted, and circulated about Ali that later Sunnis partially accepted as accurate.”

According to the Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Miami, the widespread love and respect for Ali among the majority sect was “a later development”, with anti-Alid sentiments having been reduced to “an erased history in Sunni Islam”. By the end of the ninth century, proto-Sunnis had come to reject the propaganda against Ali and his character assassination, owing to an arduous process of “rehabilitating” him by scholars, following “three centuries of contestation”. We read, for example, that many pro-Umayyads considered the dynasty’s founder Muawiyah Ibn Abi Sufyan and not Ali to be among the four rightly guided caliphs.

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As the Nawasib have not survived as an independent sect, they remain an understudied subject in Islamic history, especially within English-speaking academia. Drawing on hadith, historical, biographical and theological literature, Opposing the Imam… explores and analyses how early Muslims contested the personality of Ali, and discusses the methods employed by later Sunni scholars to reverse the impression left by anti-Alid propaganda. Husayn says that the erasure of such sentiments “consisted not only of its disappearance, but also of a denial that it had ever existed.”

In this original scholarly work, the author provides the reader with a helpful framework for understanding the various attitudes towards Ali among early Muslims. There’s a spectrum ranging from radical anti-Alids who were openly hostile and polemicists opposed to special veneration of Ali, to those holding exaggerated, deified beliefs about Ali (ghulat). Having defined who the Nawasib were, acknowledging the difficulty in this task and the nuances involved, the book focuses on important and influential personalities in Islamic history who, in accordance with the author’s framework, harboured anti-Alid sentiments, or at the very least were sympathetic towards them.

This section starts with the so-called Uthmanis, those early Muslims who accepted the succession of the first three caliphs as legitimate but who doubted or opposed Ali’s claim. Then there was the Umayyad dynasty which followed Ali’s assassination and among whom were the most vehemently opposed to the Alids and their supporters. Under their rule, says the author, ritual cursing of Ali and his sons were institutionalised.

Owing to competing factions within Sunni literature, the book emphasises that pro- and anti-Alid propaganda was both circulated and censored. Part of the tensions, Husayn argues, arose out of debates on tackling anti-Alid sentiments on one hand, while their existence among important Islamic personalities when engaged in anti-Shia polemics was denied on the other. This conflict is best depicted in the chapter on the Mutazali theologian, Al-Jahiz, who appears to be conflicted in his own works to the extent that he devalued arguments used by pro-Alids as evidence of Ali’s pre-eminence over other Companions, while in other works he “stridently defends Ali’s sagacity and piety as a caliph.”

Of equal interest is the book’s coverage of the career of influential and controversial jurist Ibn Taymiyyah who, writes Husayn, was committed to refuting Shi’ism and “showed no compunction in discrediting nearly all pro-Alid doctrines and texts that appeared in Sunni literature.” Thus some of his detractors accused him of advocating anti-Alid sentiments; in turn Ibn Taymiyyah accused his critics of unintentionally supporting unorthodox ideas and beliefs.

Husayn also brings into the equation the historical perspectives about Ali held by the often over-looked Ibadi sect, described as a reformed offshoot of the Khawarij (who were arguably the first breakaway sect and notorious for their extremist views). Contrasting the Ibadis with the Uthmanis, Umayyads and pro-Alids, all of whom used narratives to elevate their respective leaders’ profiles and justify their positions, the Ibadis position was “chillingly pragmatic”, whereby individuals were praised “only for their deeds and their commitment to justice” and not for their closeness or loyalty to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

Opposing the Imam… is well researched and manages to remain objective throughout despite the sensitivity of the topic, illustrating the many grey areas of the not-so black-and-white early Muslim community and the plethora of attitudes towards Ali Ibn Abi Talib. It is worth mentioning, however, that the book reads like an academic thesis and, as such, is probably not aimed at the general reader with a modest interest in Islamic history. That said, the study of the Nawasib is one that is often neglected. Hopefully this scholarly contribution will pave the way for further publications catering to a more mainstream audience.

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