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Biography 24.3 (2001) 609-613

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Michael Cooperson. Classical Arabic Biography: The Heirs of the Prophets in the Age of al-Ma'mun. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. 217 pp. ISBN 0-521-6199-4, $59.95.

There is currently underway a trend of reexamination of early Islamic historical narrative (political, religious, and biographical) among medieval Islamic scholars, and this book will be remembered as a pioneering step in that direction. The story of the Arab caliphate and outline of its religious history, long thought to have been successfully synthesized by orientalists in the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century, is undergoing a more focused study, with attention to literary, polemical, artistic, and historiographical aspects. Cooperson's work takes biography as the focus of analysis for a range of figures from the ninth century which includes the caliph al-Ma'mun (r. 813-833); 'Ali b. Musa al-Rida (770-818), Shi'i imam and one-time nominee of al-Ma'mun for succession to the caliphate; Ahmad b. Hanbal (780- 855), Hadith scholar and leader of the traditionist movement that resisted al-Ma'mun's famous inquisition to enforce Hellenically inspired methods of rational speculation to Islamic theology; and Bishr al-Hafi (767-840), Sufi and ascetic from the ninth century who attracted pious and hagiographic deference in Islamic memory as a role model mystic.

This richly documented and thorough study reflects a linguistic competence in Arabic and depth of reading that have become increasingly rare with the decline of area study specialties over the past two decades. The author succeeds in revisiting well-known sources and in bringing to light hitherto ignored anecdotes about these figures. Great effort is made to reach to the [End Page 609] general reader, with a full glossary at the outset of the book, translation and explanation of Arabic and Islamic terms in the course of each chapter, and a very user-friendly introduction about the fundamentals of early Islamic historical narration. The introduction delineates the famous division between two types of historical/religious reports in Islamic historiography--the hadith and the khabar--that parted ways definitively at the beginning of the ninth century. Hadith came to refer to authentic reports dealing with the Prophet's biography (the Sira)--or more accurately Muhammad's statements, verified by a well-borne chain of oral transmitters (isnad)--while khabar came to refer to loosely reported historical accounts of political, social, or biographical material that lacked a serious chain of transmission and had coloring of a folkloric, entertaining, or edifying character. The division inevitably had to come if Islamic law, still fluid and malleable until the inquisition of al-Ma'mun in A.D. 833, was going to have a stable base of hadith underlying its rulings, and an official circle of hadith and fiqh (legal) scholars forming checks and balances on each other as well as on the state which upheld the religious law (sharia). The study of hadith gradually came to be mainly a study of isnads, and spun off a voluminous science of religious biographical dictionaries (Tabaqat) entirely devoted to ranking the reputations of transmitters, describing their education, naming their mentors, and describing their journeys across the Islamic world in search of specialized knowledge. To avoid creating the impression that detailed biographies appear in these Tabaqat works, we should note that the format of these entries of information was usually brief and highly formal. Rarely does one obtain a glimpse of non-religious information, such as economic background, social class, personal behavior, or information on non-religious social connections.

This was the case for biographies of hadith scholars, primarily a Sunni circle; it was also the case for a separate set of biographical dictionaries of Shi'i imams and theologians. There is almost no crossover between Sunni and Shi'i memory about the narratives of early Islamic political controversies as they affect the image of the first caliphs (companions of Muhammad), and especially of 'Ali, and the line of 'Alid successors (imams), who would come to...


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