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The source I have relied on most heavily is al-Tabari (839–923), generally acknowledged throughout the Muslim world as the most prestigious and authoritative early Islamic historian. His monumental work Tarikh al-rusul wa-al-muluk (History of the Prophets and Kings) starts with biblical peoples and prophets, continues with the legendary and factual history of ancient Persia, then moves on to cover in immense and intimate detail the rise of Islam and the history of the Islamic world through to the early tenth century. It has been translated into English in a magnificent project overseen by general editor Ehsan Yar-Shater and published in thirty-nine annotated volumes between the years 1985 and 1999 as The History of al-Tabari. Specific volumes are cited below. Al-Tabari is the source of all direct quotes and dialogue in this book unless otherwise stated in the text itself or in the Notes before this section.

The Tarikh is outstanding for both its breadth and its depth, as well as its style. Al-Tabari—his full name was Abu Jafar Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, but he was known simply as al-Tabari after his birthplace in Tabaristan, on the southern shore of the Caspian Sea—was a Sunni scholar living and writing in the Abbasid capital of Baghdad. His work is so inclusive as to make extremist Sunnis suspicious that he may have had “Shia sympathies.” He made extensive use of oral history, traveling throughout the empire to record interviews and documenting them in detail so that the chain of communication was clear, always leading back to an eyewitness to the events in question. The Tarikh thus has an immediacy that Westerners tend not to associate with classic histories. Voices from the seventh century—not only those of the people being interviewed but also those of the people they are talking about, whom they often quote verbatim—seem to speak directly to the reader. The result is so vivid that you can almost hear the inflections in their voices and see their gestures as they speak. All other early Islamic histories seem somewhat dry by comparison.

Al-Tabari combined these oral accounts with earlier written histories, fully acknowledging his debt at every step. He did this so faithfully and skillfully that his own work soon superseded some of his written sources, which were no longer copied or saved. His detailed account of what happened at Karbala in the year 680, for instance, is based in large part on Kitab Maqtal al-Hussein (The Book of the Murder of Hussein), written by the Kufan Abu Mikhnaf just fifty years after Karbala from firsthand eyewitness accounts, including that of Hussein’s one surviving son.

For anyone who delights in the Middle Eastern style of narrative, al-Tabari is a joy to read, though Western readers accustomed to tight structure and a clear authorial point of view may be disconcerted at first. Sometimes the same event or conversation is told from more than a dozen points of view, and the narrative thread weaves back and forth in time, with each separate account adding to the ones that came before, but from a slightly different angle. This use of multiple voices creates an almost postmodern effect; what seems at first to be lack of structure slowly reveals itself as a vast edifice of brilliant structural integrity.

Given his method, it should come as no surprise that some of the dialogue quoted in the present book is given several times in al-Tabari, as recounted by different witnesses and sources. While the general drift of these accounts is usually the same, the wording obviously differs according to who is speaking, as do the details: one person remembers this detail; another, that. My sole criterion in deciding which of multiple versions of a quote to use was the desire for clarity, eschewing more ornate and worked-over versions for clearer, more direct ones and opting for detail over generality.

Where al-Tabari offers conflicting versions of an event from different sources, I have noted the difference and followed his example in reserving judgment. “In everything which I mention herein,” he writes in the introduction to the Tarikh, “I rely only on established [written] reports, which I identify, and on [oral] accounts, which I ascribe by name to their transmitters … Knowledge is only obtained by the statements of reporters and transmitters, not by rational deduction or by intuitive inference. And if we have mentioned in this book any report about certain men of the past which the reader finds objectionable or the hearer offensive … he should know that this has not come about on our account, but on account of one of those who has transmitted it to us, and that we have presented it only in the way in which it was presented to us.”

I have made especially heavy use of the following volumes:

The Foundation of the Community, tr. and annotated W. Montgomery Watt and M. V. McDonald, Vol. VIII. Albany: State University of New York Press,1987.

The Victory of Islam, tr. and annotated Michael Fishbein, Vol. VIII. Albany: State University of New York Press,1997.

The Last Years of the Prophet, tr. and annotated Ismail K. Poonawala, Vol. IX. Albany: State University of New York Press,1990.

The Crisis of the Early Caliphate, tr. and annotated R. Stephen Humphreys, Vol. XV. Albany: State University of New York Press,1990.

The Community Divided: The Caliphate of Ali, tr. and annotated Adrian Brockett, Vol. XVI. Albany: State University of New York Press,1997.

The First Civil War: From the Battle of Siffin to the Death of Ali, tr. and annotated G. R. Hawting, Vol. XVII. Albany: State University of New York Press,1996.

Between Civil Wars: The Caliphate of Muawiyah, tr. and annotated Michael G. Morony, Vol. XVIII. Albany: State University of New York Press,1987.

The Caliphate of Yazid b. Muawiyah, tr. and annotated I. K. A. Howard, Vol. XIX. Albany: State University of New York Press,1990.

The earliest biography of Muhammad is that of Ibn Ishaq, whose Sirat Rasul Allah (Life of the Messenger of God) is the basis of all subsequent biographies of the Prophet. Like al-Tabari’s work, it is regarded as authoritative throughout the Muslim world, and al-Tabari drew on it heavily for his own account of Muhammad’s life.

Muhammad ibn Ishaq was born in Medina around the year 704 and died in Baghdad in 767. His original manuscript no longer exists, since it was superseded by an expanded and annotated version by the Basra-born historian Ibn Hisham, who lived and worked in Egypt. Ibn Hisham’s version of Ibn Ishaq’s biography has been translated into English as The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, tr. Alfred Guillaume (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955).

Two other early Islamic historians demand special note. The work of al-Baladhuri complements that of al-Tabari. Born in Persia, Ahmad ibn Yahya al-Baladhuri lived and worked in Baghdad, where he died in 892. His Kitab Futuh al-Buldan (Book of the Conquests of Lands) has been translated by Philip Hitti and Francis C. Murgotten as The Origins of the Islamic State (New York: Columbia University Press, 1916–24). His Ansab al-Ashraf (Lineage of the Nobles), which covers the reigns of the early caliphs and includes thousands of capsule biographies, is not yet available in English translation.

Muhammad ibn Sa’d (spelled “Saad” in this book) was one of the earliest compilers of biographies of major figures in early Islam, and his work proved a major source for later historians, including al-Tabari. Born in Basra in 764, he lived in Baghdad, where he died in 845. Abridged selections from two Volumes of his nine- Volume collection Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir (Great Book of Generations) can be found in The Women of Madina, tr. Aisha Bewley (London: Ta-Ha Publishers, 1995) and The Men of Madina, tr. Aisha Bewley (London: Ta-Ha Publishers, 1997).

I have worked with three English versions of the Quran (I use the word “version” rather than “translation” since a basic tenet of Islam is that the Quran as the word of God cannot be translated, only “interpreted” in other languages):

The Koran, tr. Edward H. Palmer. Oxford: Clarendon Press,1900.

The Koran Interpreted, tr. A. J. Arberry. New York: Macmillan,1955.

The Koran, tr. N. J. Dawood. London: Penguin,1956.


This book is especially indebted to the work of the following scholars, listed here by area of expertise.

The Early Caliphate

Wilferd Madelung’s The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) is a magisterial study of the caliphates of Abu Bakr, Omar, Othman, and Ali, based on close reading of original sources. Extensively and fascinatingly footnoted, it emphasizes Ali’s claim to the succession.

Marshall G. S. Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization is a three- Volume study of the historical development of Islamic civilization, with numerous tables of time lines. The Classical Age or Islam, Vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961) covers the rise of Muhammad to the year 945.

W. Montgomery Watt’s The Formative Period of Islamic Thought (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1973) examines developments within Islam from the khariji Rejectionists to the establishment of Sunnism.

Shia Islam

S. H. M. Jafri’s The Origins and Early Development of Shi’a Islam (London: Longman, 1979) provides a detailed and deeply sympathetic examination of Shia history and theology from the time of Muhammad through to the twelve Imams.

Vali Nasr’s The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future (New York: Norton, 2006) is an excellent and highly readable overview of the Shia-Sunni conflict in the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.

Moojan Momen’s An Introduction to Shi’i Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi’ism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985) is far more detailed than one might expect an “introduction” to be, and is especially good on Shia theology.

The Iranian Revolution

Anthropologist Michael M. Fischer’s work, in particular Iran: From Religious Dispute to Re Volution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), is outstanding. Also his essay “The Iranian Re Volution: Five Frames for Understanding,” in Critical Moments in Religious History, ed. Kenneth Keulman (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1993) and, in collaboration with Mehdi Abedi, Debating Muslims: Cultural Dialogues in Postmodernity and Tradition (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990).

Nikki Keddie ’s Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Re Volution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003) is rightfully regarded as essential reading, as should be almost all the essays in an anthology edited by Keddie: Religion and Politics in Iran: Shi’ism from Quietism to Re Volution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).

Ali Shariati’s lectures can be found in translation at His most influential lectures have been published in English as What Is to Be Done: The Enlightened Thinkers and an Islamic Renaissance (Houston: Institute for Research and Islamic Studies, 1986) and as Red Shi’ism (Teheran: Hamdani Foundation, 1979). His lectures on Hussein and martyrdom can be found in Jihad and Shahadat: Struggle and Martyrdom in Islam, ed. Mehdi Abedi and Gary Legenhausen (North Haledon, N.J.: Islamic Publications International, 1986).

Ashura Rituals and Karbala Imagery

Peter J. Chelkowski, editor of Ta’ziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran (New York: New York University Press, 1979), provides invaluable insight into both the content and import of Karbala Passion plays, while Staging a Re Volution: The Art of Persuasion in the Islamic Republic of Iran, by Chelkowski and Hamid Dabashi (New York: New York University Press, 1999), is a superb visual survey and analysis of the collective symbols used in the Iranian Re Volution and the subsequent war with Iraq.

David Pinault provides on-the-ground understanding of the emotive and theological power of the Karbala story in The Shiites: Ritual and Popular Piety in a Muslim Community (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992) and in Horse of Karbala: Muslim Devotional Life in India (New York: Palgrave, 2001).

Kamran Scot Aghaie’s detailed work on Shia symbolism and ritual can be found in The Martyrs of Karbala: Shi’i Symbols and Rituals in Modern Iran (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004) and The Women of Karbala: Ritual Performance and Symbolic Discourses in Modern Shi’i Islam (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005).


Nabia Abbott’s Aishah: The Beloved of Muhammad (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942) is the classic biography in English, drawing on the earliest Islamic histories and in particular on al-Tabari, Ibn Saad, and al-Baladhuri.

Denise A. Spellberg’s Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of Aisha bint Abu Bakr (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994) provides a detailed exploration of the multiple ways in which Aisha has been perceived and interpreted over the centuries, both positively and negatively.

The following is a select bibliography of additional books that have been particularly helpful in both specific details and general background:

Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press,1992.

Ajami, Fouad. The Vanished Imam: Musa al Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon. Ithaca: Cornell University Press,1986.

Ajami, Fouad. The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq. New York: Free Press,2006.

Akhavi, Shahrough. “Shariati’s Social Thought.” In Religion and Politics in Iran, ed. Nikki Keddie. New Haven: Yale University Press,1983.

Al-e Ahmad, Jalal. Occidentosis: A Plague from the West, tr. R. Campbell from the 1962 Farsi Gharbzadegi. Berkeley: Mizan Press,1984.

Allen, Charles. God’s Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad. Cambridge: Da Capo,2006.

Al-Mufid, Shaykh. The Book of Guidance into the Lives of the Twelve Imams, tr. I. K. A. Howard of Kitab al-Irshad. London: Muhammadi Trust,1981.

Arjomand, Said Amir. The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam: Religion, Political Order and Societal Change in Shi’ite Iran from the Beginning to 1890. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1984.

Aslan, Reza. No God but God: The Origins, E Volution, and Future of Islam. New York: Random House,2005.

Ayoub, Mahmoud. Redemptive Suffering in Islam: A Study of the Devotional Aspects of Ashura. The Hague: Mouton,1978.

Beeman, William O. “Images of the Great Satan: Representations of the United States in the Iranian Re Volution.” In Religion and Politics in Iran, ed. Nikki Keddie. New Haven: Yale University Press,1983.

Berkey, Jonathan P. The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 600-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,2003.

Cockburn, Patrick. Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq. New York: Scribner,2008.

Cole, Juan. Sacred Space and Holy War: The Politics, Culture and History of Shi’ite Islam. London: I. B. Tauris,2002.

Cole, Juan. Ongoing informed commentary on Middle Eastern politics at

Cole, Juan, and Nikki Keddie, eds. Shi’ism and Social Protest. New Haven: Yale University Press,1986.

Cook, David. Understanding Jihad. Berkeley: University of California Press,2005.

Crone, Patricia, and Martin Hinds. God’s Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1986.

Dodge, Toby. Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied. New York: Columbia University Press,2003.

Enayat, Hamid. Modern Islamic Political Thought. London: I. B. Tauris,2005.

Flaskerud, Ingvild. Standard-Bearers of Hussein: Women Commemorating Karbala. DVD for academic and research distribution only., University of Tromsö,2003.

Geertz, Clifford. Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1968.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books,1973.

Grant, Christina Phelps. The Syrian Desert: Caravans, Travel and Exploration. London: A. and C. Black,1937.

Halm, Heinz. Shi’a Islam: From Religion to Re Volution. Princeton: Markus Wiener,1997.

Heck, Gene W. “Arabia Without Spices.” In Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 123. 2003.

Hegland, Mary. “Two Images of Husain: Accommodation and Re Volution in an Iranian Village.” In Religion and Politics in Iran, ed. Nikki Keddie. New Haven: Yale University Press,1983.

Hjarpe, Jan. “The Ta’ziya Ecstasy as Political Expression.” In Religious Ecstasy, ed. Nils G. Holm. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell,1982.

Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,1991.

Humphreys, R. Stephen. Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry. Minneapolis: Biblioteca Islamica,1988.

Humphreys, R. Stephen. Mu’awiya ibn Abu Sufyan: From Arabia to Empire. Oxford: One World,2006.

Kennedy, Hugh. The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the Sixth to the Eleventh Century. London: Longman,1986.

Kennedy, Hugh. The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In. Cambridge: Da Capo,2008.

Kenney, Jeffrey T. Muslim Rebels: Kharijites and the Politics of Extremism in Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press,2006.

Khomeini, Ruhollah. Islam and Re Volution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini, tr. Hamid Algar. Berkeley: Mizan Press,1981.

Kurzman, Charles. The Unthinkable Re Volution in Iran. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,2004.

Lammens, Henri. “Fatima and the Daughters of Muhammad.” In The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, ed. Ibn Warraq. Amherst: Prometheus Books,2000.

Levey, Martin. Early Arabic Pharmacology. Leiden: E. J. Brill,1973.

Levey, Martin. Medieval Arabic Toxicology: The “Book on Poisons” of Ibn Wahshiya and Its Relation to Early Indian and Greek Texts. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society,1966.

Lewis, David Levering. God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe. New York: Norton,2008.

Mernissi, Fatima. The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam. New York: Basic Books,1991.

Mernissi, Fatima. The Forgotten Queen of Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press,1993.

Moin, Baqer. Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah. New York: Thomas Dunne,1999.

Morony, Michael G. Iraq After the Muslim Conquest. Princeton: Princeton University Press,1984.

Motahhary, Morteza. The Martyr. Houston: Free Islamic Literatures,1980.

Mottahedeh, Roy. The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran. Oxford: One World,1985.

Musil, Alois. The Middle Euphrates: A Topographical Itinerary. New York: American Geographical Society,1927.

Musil, Alois. The Manners and Customs of the Rwala Bedouins. New York: American Geographical Society,1928.

Nakash, Yitzhak. Reaching for Power: The Shi’a in the Modern Arab World. Princeton: Princeton University Press,2006.

Nakash, Yitzhak. The Shi’is of Iraq. Princeton: Princeton University Press,1994.

Packer, George. The Assassins’ Gate. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,2005.

Pelly, Lewis. The Miracle Play of Hasan and Hussein, Collected from Oral Tradition. London: W. H. Allen,1879.

Qutb, Sayyid. Milestones [Ma’alim f’il-Tariq, 1964]. Karachi: International Islamic Publishers,1981.

Rahnema, Ali. An Islamic Utopian: A Political Biography of Ali Shariati. London: I. B. Tauris,1998.

Richard, Yann. Shi’ite Islam: Polity, Ideology, and Creed. Oxford: Blackwell,1995.

Robinson, Chase F. Islamic Historiography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,2003.

Rodinson, Maxime. Muhammad. New York: Pantheon,1971.

Rogerson, Barnaby. The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad. London: Little, Brown,2006.

Rosen, Nir. In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq. New York: Free Press,2006.

Ruthven, Malise. Islam in the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press,2000.

Sachedina, Adulaziz Abdulhussein. Islamic Messianism: The Idea of Mahdi in Twelver Shiism. Albany: State University of New York Press,1981.

Shadid, Anthony. Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War. New York: Henry Holt,2005.

Stark, Freya. Baghdad Sketches. New York: Dutton,1938.

Stark, Freya. East Is West. London: John Murray,1945.

Taheri, Amir. The Spirit of Allah: Khomeini and the Islamic Re Volution. Bethesda: Adler and Adler,1986.

Taheri, Amir. Holy Terror: The Inside Story of Islamic Terrorism. London: Hutchinson,1987.

Thaiss, Gustav. “Religious Symbolism and Social Change: The Drama of Hussein.” In Scholars, Saints, and Sufis: Muslim Religious Institutions in the Middle East Since 1500, ed. Nikki Keddie. Berkeley: University of California Press,1972.

Thaiss, Gustav. “Unity and Discord: The Symbol of Husayn in Iran.” In Iranian Civilization and Culture, ed. Charles J. Adams. Montreal: McGill University Institute of Islamic Studies,1972.

Watt, W. Montgomery. Muhammad at Mecca. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953.

Watt, W. Montgomery. Muhammad at Medina. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956.

Watt, W. Montgomery. “The Significance of the Early Stages of Imami Shi’ism.” In Religion and Politics in Iran, ed. Nikki Keddie. New Haven: Yale University Press,1983.

Young, Gavin. Iraq: Land of Two Rivers. London: Collins,1980.

Zakaria, Rafiq. The Struggle Within Islam: The Conflict Between Religion and Politics. London: Penguin,1988.

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