Shurāt Legends, Ibādī Identities

Martyrdom, Asceticism, and the Making of an Early Islamic Community

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Adam R. Gaiser
  • Columbia, SC: 
    University of South Carolina Press
    , October
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ibāḍī Islam today is a peripheral community that exists primarily in Oman, but it has a medieval history in Iraq and North Africa as well. The current Omani government promotes it as a tolerant and moderate form of Islam, however its genealogy is interconnected with the Kharijites, the early hardline sect responsible for the assassination of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet’s cousin and the first imam of the Shiites. The term Kharijite is a polemical term these days, particularly in its use describing Islamic militants. Understandably, the Ibāḍīs of Oman are keen to avoid being associated with the term.

In Shurāt Legends, Ibāḍī Identities: Martyrdom, Asceticism, and the Making of an Early Islamic Community, Adam Geiser deftly negotiates these points. The term “Khārijite” is a heresiographical creation that lumps together a number of groups—the Azāriqa and Najdāt among others—that, unlike the relatively quietist Ibāḍīs, were prone to violence and to the repudiation of fellow Muslims (takfīr). The core of these movements was a group known as shurāt (the sellers of their souls), an idiom meaning “martyrdom-seeking.” This book is a study of these Iraqi shurāt, and their appropriation in Ibāḍī tradition.

The four chapters of the book seek to explain the late antique context of early shurāt narratives as well as the Ibāḍī appropriations of these early martyrs’s stories for their own community. The first chapter surveys the hagiographical conventions of the late antique Near East, along with a survey in the same period of the state of the Arabian Peninsula. Anyone who has read Syriac hagiography or a book similar to Robert Hoyland’s Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam (Routledge, 2001) will be familiar with the material covered. There are two main points—conventions like the interrogation of the Christian martyr by some authority figure will reappear in shurāt narratives; and the shurāt can thus be seen as the simultaneous product of a pre-Islamic Arabian background and the eastern Christian milieu they inherited in Iraq and Iran after the Islamic conquests.

Chapter 2 examines chronologically the main shurāt events and figures—their conflicts with ʿAlī and Muʿāwiya during the first Islamic civil war at the battles of Ṣiffīn, Nahrawān, Nukhayla, and then against the Umayyads, particularly their governors of Basra, Ziyād ibn Abīhi, and his son. Poetry attributed to or about shurāt figures is discussed with an emphasis on how these narratives make use of late antique conventions, and Gaiser is clearly aware of the methodological pitfalls of the source material (Iraqi chroniclers like al-Balādhurī [d. 892 CE] and al-Ṭabarī [d. 923 CE]). For those not specializing in pre-modern Islamic history, this chapter—especially the section from pages 47–70—along with the text from pages 115–122 would be good starting places. However, a downside to these sections is that the reader gets the impression, especially regarding the Basran shurāt, of an unending parade of martyrs persisting in senselessly annihilating themselves in the face of superior Umayyad forces. Their motivation remains unclear. There were clearly factors dealing with the tribal system of distributing payments within the military at play, but these are only mentioned in passing.

The third chapter explores the boundary construction between shurāt-groups and other Muslims. Gaiser’s chief argument here is that the “Kharijites” were not born as full-blown (“reified”) takfīrīs, expounding a legal notion of kufr or infidelity by which a Muslim is deemed a non-Muslim, prone to violence and killing. Instead, theirs was a polemical takfīr akin to what G.R. Hawting describes as taking place in the Quran in his The Idea of Idolatry and the Emergence of Islam: From Polemic to History (Cambridge, 1999). There are weaknesses to this argument. First, Gaiser is unsure whether to blame the Azāriqa sub-sect or the heresiographers for the reified takfīrī image of Kharijites; in other words, is reified takfīr the creation of an early, but non-Ibāḍī, group, or is it entirely a retrojection? Secondly, he has difficulty advancing a clear alternative dynamic or chronology. For example, Gaiser cites evidence from al-Balādhurī in support of his argument that it was actually Sahm ibn Ghālib who introduced takfir“ six full years after Nahrawān” in 44/664 (101). This is still quite early! Nevertheless, there is no doubt Gaiser’s concept of reified takfīr is useful and his overall narrative, that an amorphous blend of later heresiographical polemic and Umayyad-era accusations of sin or disobedience to God eventually evolved into reified takfīr, is broadly true.

Gaiser’s final chapter deals with the Ibāḍī appropriation of early shurāt­-narratives and with later chronicles from Oman (such as the 12th century CE al-Qalhātī) and North Africa (al-Barrādī in the 14th century CE). The martyrs from chapter 2 are again presented in chronological order, and Gaiser makes a cogent argument regarding the various elisions, emphases, compressions, and expansions that Ibāḍī authors subjected shurāt material to in order to emphasize the moderation and ascetic virtue of the founding figures they claimed for their tradition.

One of the most important aspects of this book is that it takes poetry seriously as a historical source. As most secondary literature on Arabic poetry focuses on the stylistically sophisticated courtly qaṣīda (polythematic ode), ignoring the kind of political and extemporaneous verse Gaiser deals with, chapter 2 could be used in undergraduate courses on Arabic literature. While “Khārijite” poetry has been particularly accessible in Arabic since Iḥsān ʿAbbās’s compilation, Shiʿr al-Khawārij (Beirut, 1974), it has not received extensive attention.

Gaiser’s translations are usually accurate, but in a few occasional places the English is unnecessarily clumsy. For example, a dirge for ‘Ali’s assassin, Ibn Muljam, reads:

            We buried Ibn Muljam under [the cover] of darkness,

            Successful, when to each soul comes its reward [lit. its book].

            Abū Ḥasan took a blow to the head

            By a blessed hand, and after death, the recompense.

The Arabic is:

            dasasnā la-hū taḥta l-ẓalāmi bna Muljamin

                        jazāʾan idhā mā jāʾa nafsan kitābuhā

            Abā Ḥasanin khudh-hā ʿalā l-raʾsi ḍarbatan

                        bi-kaffi karīmin baʿda mawtin thawābuhā

I will spare the read my philological justifications and submit that the following is clearer:

In the darkness, we buried Ibn Muljam,

            invoking God’s mercy upon him

                        now that his ordained end had come.

Take that sword-strike to the skull, ʿAlī!

            at the hand of a noble man,

                        given his due reward after death.

Nonetheless, it is commendable to see poetry used in a historical study rather than being simply ignored, as is often done by historians of Islam, a serious problem since pre-modern Arabic chronicles are some of the most poetry-addled texts known to humanity. 

While Shurāt Legends, Ibāḍī Identities is a valuable addition to the field, the publisher should have provided better proofing. There are several transliteral and typographical errors that require attention. For example, “the ʿAlī” (1), “the stabling of ʿAlī” (51) instead of “stabbing,” and “al-ʿAjalī” for al-ʿIjlī (58, 135)—the tribe is called ʿIjl and a member of that tribe al-ʿIjlī. These caveats aside, this book tackles a significant and overlooked subject. Its coverage is comprehensive and its analysis compelling and combined with Gaiser’s first book (Muslims, Scholars, Soldiers: The Origin and Elaboration of the Ibādī Imamate Traditions, Oxford University Press, 2010), Shurāt Legends makes a sophisticated and important introduction and contribution to the study of Ibāḍism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nathaniel A. Miller is a Leverhulme Early Career postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge.

Date of Review: 
April 17, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Adam R. Gaiser is Associate Professor of religion at Florida State University, where he teaches classes on Islamic studies. His research interests include early Islamic sectarianism, the Khārijites, Ibādiyya, and early Shīa. Gaiser is the author of Muslims, Scholars, Soldiers: The Origin and Elaboration of the Ibādī Imāmate Traditions.



Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.