One of Islam’s major dilemmas has been the political division between Shi‘ites and Sunnis, a split that gained immense attention over the centuries, and which allowed outsiders to manipulate Muslims with great skill. The rift originated after the Prophet Muhammad, passed away in the city of Medina on June 8, 632, without appointing a successor. There are controversies over the postponed decision, with arguments insisting that this was a deliberate action, perhaps to better streamline the process in a traditional tribal setting. In the event, the wrangling led to a momentous fissure, and it is this tragic story that Lesley Hazleton brings to life in her “epic story of the Shia-Sunni split in Islam.”
Though highly readable, the British psychologist has produced a piece of historical entertainment, rather than a serious study. Some of the best passages in the book, in Hazleton’s inimitable style, are nearly impossible to ascertain even if she relied on several key works by classical historians, such as the 10th century chronicler Abu Jafar Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (839–923) and Wilferd Madelung. Hazleton declares that she is “indebted to a man [she] never met and never could have,” because he “died in Baghdad in the year 923” (p. 213), but whose “History” she mined for details. Luckily for the author, Tabari’s unique Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk [History of the Prophets and Kings] is now fully translated in 39 volumes, which brings to life what is murky to non-Arabic speakers. Madelung’s authoritative account of the tangled Quraysh family events, rendered in a magisterial piece of scholarship, The Succession to Muhammad, is peerless. This, too, was excavated to the hilt. Unlike Hazleton, however, neither Tabari nor Madelung romanticized their prose because neither sought to identify a female protagonist. After the Prophet depicts ‘Aishah as such a heroine with excessive literally freedoms that delve into psychology rather than serious reportage.
Not only was ‘Aishah the Prophet’s third, and for some interpreters, favorite, wife but she was also Abu Bakr’s daughter. Was it therefore a coincidence that Abu Bakr was named Caliph after Muhammad? Did this political decision embitter the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali? Why was ‘Ali passed over for the Caliphate twice more, as ‘Umar and ‘Uthman, the other two sahabah (companions) led the community? Was this a monstrous injustice? When ‘Ali finally acceded to rulership in 656, why was his claim so vociferously contested? Was his assassination in the Kufa mosque in 661 a carefully planned act to extinguish religious debates? Finally, what were the roles played by several family members, including ‘Aishah, in all of these tragic developments?
Hazleton’s fluid narrative provides many insights, selectively drawn from Tabari and Madelung, with murders that pitted Muslims against each other, massacres galore, the collapse of several dynasties, and even the family intrigues that involved the Prophet’s honor. Her accounts are not limited to [End Page 320] historical matters but reverberate to present day struggles as she brings to life the ghastly bombing of the Shi‘a Mosque in Karbala in March 2004, and the equally devastating attack, allegedly by al-Qa‘ida, of the ‘Askariyyah Mosque in the Iraqi city of Samarra in February 2006. Both of these assaults were supposedly the works of Sunni extremists who targeted Shi‘a shrines that perpetuated millennial disputes.
In the event, Hazleton describes the assumed antagonism between ‘Ali and ‘Aishah in terms that are somewhat controversial too, namely that the reason why ‘Ali pursued a separate line of authority was because of his loyalty to Khadijah, the Prophet’s first wife. The author writes that for ‘Aishah, “Ali’s devotion to Khadija’s memory was a constant reminder of the one rival she could never conquer” (p. 38), but was this really the case? Given that neither Tabari nor Madelung wrote about the putative rupture, how does Hazleton know such a significant fact? This is not the only such elaboration in...