Silzell on Keaney, 'Medieval Islamic Historiography: Remembering Rebellion'

Heather N. Keaney
Shari Silzell

Heather N. Keaney. Medieval Islamic Historiography: Remembering Rebellion. New York: Routledge, 2013. xx + 187 pp. $125.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-415-82852-9.

Reviewed by Shari Silzell (History Department - University of Texas at Austin) Published on H-Mideast-Medieval (April, 2014) Commissioned by Christine D. Baker

Assassinating ‘Uthman: Writers, Rebellion, and Medieval Historiography

In Medieval Islamic Historiography: Remembering Rebellion, Heather N. Keaney examines narratives about the revolt against the third caliph ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan (d. 656) to trace trends in Islamic historiography from the ninth through the fourteenth centuries. She argues that medieval historians were in dialogue with one another, debating the fluctuating tensions that arose from the disparity between religio-political ideals and the realities of the period in which they wrote. Keaney challenges the conventional wisdom that the failure of ninth-century historians to reconcile religio-political principles and practice resulted in centuries of Islamic historiography that was merely an abridgement of the ninth-century universal histories, particularly al-Tabari’s (d. 923) Tarikh al-Rusul wa-l-Muluk (The History of Prophets and Kings). Keaney joins the recent tide of scholarship that examines medieval Islamic historical literature as a reflection of the milieu in which it was written rather than as a narrative of “what really happened” or as a quest for a “kernel of truth.” In this, Keaney’s work intersects with that of number of recent scholars who have uncovered authorial intent behind the histories written during the medieval period, including Denise Spellberg’s Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of ‘A’isha bint Abi Bakr (1994) and Tayeb El-Hibri’s Reinterpreting Islamic Historiography: Harun al-Rashid and the Narrative of the Abbasid Caliphate (1999).

Keaney, however, goes several steps further than El-Hibri by examining the political and ideological concerns of authors in subsequent centuries and situates their work--specifically, their narratives of the life and assassination of ‘Uthman--as a reflection of the specific tensions and controversies prevalent in the time and location in which they wrote. She contends that, rather than merely compiling previous sources, Islamic historians used the same type of editorial choices as their ninth-century predecessors in order to “communicat[e] specific religio-political positions” (p. 2). Keaney also contends that this creative summarization of al-Tabari, generally seen as conservative, was actually as bold as the ninth-century accounts that contradicted the pious, ideal image of the Companions of the Prophet propagated in hagiographical literature. Lastly, Keaney argues that the remarkable aspect of medieval Islamic historiography is not the reliance on al-Tabari, but rather the replacement of this type of history in the twelfth century by sacred biographies and the reappearance of universal histories in the fourteenth century. “Certain historical moments,” Keaney states, “encourage different types of historical remembering,” in both form and content (p. 2). A close comparative reading of the ‘Uthmanic narratives “provides clues of contemporary context and concerns” (p. 100). This, in turn, provides a better understanding of historiographical development. 

Medieval authors, Keaney argues, participated in four interrelated debates: history versus hagiography; Sunni versus Shi’i; religious versus political authority; and preservation of unity versus pursuit of justice. Keaney supports her arguments with a comparative analysis of ‘Uthmanic narratives from the ninth century, the tenth through twelfth centuries, the thirteenth century, and the fourteenth century, assigning a chapter to each period. She begins each chapter with a brief overview of the religious and political history of the century, followed by an introduction to each of the authors whose work is analyzed in the chapter. In each chapter Keaney divides ‘Uthman’s life, and therefore the narratives, into four sections: sira (the years that ‘Uthman was a Companion), shura (the council that elected ‘Uthman to the caliphate in 644), caliphate, and siege and murder (656 CE), and uses each biographical phase of the narratives to analyze a corresponding ongoing issue. Thus, in each chapter, Keaney uses the sira portion of the narratives to categorize the work as either chronicle or fada’il (praise or hagiographic literature), what Keaney delineates as either “Companion or caliph-oriented history.” The shura narratives are analyzed through the lens of the Sunni-Shi’i discourses of the period, while the caliphate narratives are examined for the light they can shed on the issue of religious versus political authority. Lastly, the siege and murder narratives are used to analyze the debate about preserving unity versus pursuing justice. This relatively rigid structure facilitates a remarkable control of a very large body of literature.

Keaney examines the works of more than thirty medieval Islamic authors. Some, such as Ibn Sa’d (d. 845) and Ibn Khaldun (d. 1405) are well known to many modern scholars, while others like Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr (d. 1070) and Ibn Abi al-Hadid (d. 1258) are less so, although all of the works examined are published. Keaney draws mainly from universal histories and fada’il works. She does not, however, allow herself to get boxed in by genre. Ibn Sa’d’s Tabaqat, for instance, takes the form of a biographical dictionary but has the substance, Keaney rightly reasons, of fada’il literature. 

The book’s shortcomings are minor. The five maps present in the text are of low quality and have little relevance to the text. The reader unfamiliar with this period and its literature would, perhaps, be better served with tables providing at-a-glance information about authors, works, dates, and a sentence or two on their approach to the issues covered. While Keaney does provide some extended quotes from the literature, the inclusion of excerpts for comparison, especially from fada’il works, would have been very beneficial to readers, even those familiar with the literature from this period. Keaney has given herself a very difficult task in tackling so many centuries and authors in so few pages. Each chapter could benefit from a more extensive and nuanced historical overview, but the author would have run the risk of overwhelming her readers with too much history and literature. Keaney instead makes her points with abundant but concise primary source material and manages to tell the same story again and again without being repetitious, which, of course, underscores her argument about what story these authors were actually telling. 

Keaney demonstrates outstanding knowledge of the literary genres unique to the medieval Islamic world and this monograph is a significant contribution to the fields of Arabic literature and medieval and Islamic history. 

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Citation: Shari Silzell. Review of Keaney, Heather N., Medieval Islamic Historiography: Remembering Rebellion. H-Mideast-Medieval, H-Net Reviews. April, 2014. URL:

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