The Prophet's Heir
The Life of Ali Ibn Abi Talib
- ISBN: 9780300229455
- Published By: Yale University Press
- Published: February 2021
Hassan Abbas’ The Prophet’s Heir: The Life of Ali Ibn Abi Talib offers a biography of Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 661), the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and a key figure of early Islam, whose story is especially crucial to the disputes over authority and history that underpin distinctions between Sunni and Shi‘i Muslims. An authority on contemporary international relations, Abbas has written a life of Ali for the nonspecialist, adding to the increasing volume of literature recounting Muhammad’s succession and the origins of Sunni-Shi‘i relations aimed at the general reader.
Abbas’ narrative is distinguished by the extent to which it follows the pattern of (mostly) Shi‘i hagiographies of Ali over the past millennium, threading the main events of Ali’s life through episodes that illustrate his unique virtue and legitimacy. Thus, the book supplies readable retellings of Ali’s birth within the Ka‘ba, his wondrous heroics at the battles Badr and Khaybar, his wise, Solomon-esque judgments in the face of difficult family disputes, his unique closeness to Muhammad himself, and the exploits of their shared grandfather Abd al-Muttalib. Along with this material’s inevitable overlap with the Prophet’s biography, the last chapter also gives an overview of sectarian formations in the centuries following Ali’s death. The effect is enriched throughout by Abbas’ bountiful range of sources: he draws from oral, kerygmatic, and poetic traditions, as well as the early textual record.
Beyond this summary, The Prophet’s Heir is a difficult work to review in an academic setting. Curiously for a publication from an illustrious university press, Abbas’ book operates largely outside the expectations of a historically grounded biography such as it presents itself to be. This is, instead, a hagiography in a largely traditional mold, presenting an Ali who does not make mistakes, who performs miracles and who communicates with the divine, with vanishingly little concession to readers for whom angelic intervention is not the stuff of history. Though Abbas claims to prioritize sources common to both Sunni and Shi‘i traditions, the resultant narrative adheres resolutely to versions of events preferred by Shi‘is.
More importantly, Abbas’ account progresses with only very occasional acknowledgements of any disagreement in the source material; regardless of one’s assessment of its overall accuracy, to tell so contested a history as Ali’s without due recognition of competing versions does a grave disservice to the reader. One might expect this approach to be pitched in rebuttal to the revisionist excesses of the 1980s and 1990s and their (now often discredited) near-total rejection of traditional narratives, but if this is Abbas’ intent, then he never voices it. He does plead briefly and inconclusively for the historical value of oral traditions, but in practice he still relies largely upon translations of the usual hadith-based textual sources, without much account of how he evaluates them. An eclectic set of historians are cited as and when they support Abbas’ portrait of perfection, but The Prophet’s Heir is, for the most part, a work that does not so much fall short of the standards of the relevant scholarly disciplines as proceed as if they did not exist.
The book’s erasure of historiographical complexity is coupled with an often-pontificating moral simplicity that gives little attention to characters’ possible motivations and interests. Just as Ali is perfect, so his adversaries like Muawiya and Marwan are straightforwardly, irredeemably evil, while the Khariji beliefs that motived his assassin are described only as precursors to modern violent extremisms. This feature seems exacerbated by a stated objective of the book: to promote Ali as a unifying figure in the face of the destructive divisions bedeviling some contemporary Muslim contexts. Accordingly, the inner lives of figures like the second caliph Umar and Muhammad’s wife Aisha—revered by Sunnis but denounced by Shi‘is for their treatment of Ali—are left conspicuously blank, leaving unasked many central questions surrounding Ali and his peers’ competing perspectives. How did Ali and others understand their relationship with the Prophet? What was distinctive about Ali’s view of the Muslim community and its governance? How were his aspirations shaped by the vast imperial expansion undertaken between the Prophet’s death and his own eventual accession to the caliphate? Such biographical pivots find no answers here.
Abbas’ unifying project may also explain his oddly flat account of Ali’s charisma. Little attention is given to the immense significance of Ali’s status as Muhammad’s kinsman, or to the broader medley of beliefs around his soteriological status that first emerged soon after Ali’s death, if not before. Instead, the fascination that Ali provoked in his contemporaries and in later generations is put down almost entirely to his education by the Prophet, and his inherently wise and saintly character. Similarly expunged are the developed concepts of imamate that imbue Abbas’ sources, and the awkward result is a narrative ineluctably shaped by complex, historic theological considerations that are never themselves enunciated. As portrayed in The Prophet’s Heir, Ali’s infallibility is neither due his consanguinity with the Prophet, his being created from the same cosmic light, nor to his constituting the guaranteed guidance to humanity necessarily supplied by a just God; instead, he just happens to be infallible. Gone, too, are the mimetic cruxes that typically lend Shi‘i hagiographies their dramatic tension: questions of how an infallible, omniscient character falls foul of the vicissitudes of history, and the gulf between what the imam’s followers know of him and what he knows of himself.
The Prophet’s Heir retains value as a rich repository of stories about Ali, and as a partial introduction to his significance. Nevertheless, it is badly compromised by colliding ambitions that together fail to do justice either to the historiographical stakes of the story it tells or to the imaginative and interrogative depth of the traditions upon which it draws. While there may well be a role for re-evaluations of Ali in contemporary Muslim intercommunal conversations, a biography that simply elides points of controversy offers little serious basis for dialogue, and also ends up strangely lifeless. Meanwhile, whether supplying generally accessible histories or resources for the faithful, other authors have been much more successful in pursuing these goals without sacrificing historical intelligibility.
George Warner is a research associate in the Centre for Religious Studies at Ruhr-Uni. Bochum, Germany.George WarnerDate Of Review:June 18, 2022