Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Wilferd Madelung : The succession to Muhammad

This has to be the worst book of history I've ever read -- and amazingly enough -- I made it all the way into the final postscripts.

The subject is complex and fascinating, and the author has immersed himself into a variety of source material.

But with it's life-or-death demand for absolute truth and authority over political as well as spiritual life, Islam has had a very contentious history which has been the ongoing subject of controversy ever since the Prophet's death, 1,380 years ago.

Madelung belongs to the Shiite school, and he's too partisan to even feign objectivity. So to an outsider like myself, it feels like being dropped into a bitter family feud that's been bickering over minutiae for generations - beginning with the details of the Prophet's funeral and the accession of the first caliph - details that were described quite differently by the Sunni scholar who wrote the previous book I read.

Since Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib is the great Shiite hero - his opponent, Muawiyah, is the great villain whom Madelung accuses of ruthless scheming and utterly corrupting Islamic political life down to the level of a secular empire like ancient Rome.

If even half of the plots attributed to him are true, Muawiyah would have made Machiavelli proud. Most memorable was his escape from military defeat at the great battle of Siffin (657) by ordering his warriors to hoist copies of the Quran on top of their spears in order to keep his more pious opponents from finishing him off. He then obtained a truce that gave him more time to isolate Ali through bribery and terror.

Also memorable was a subsequent caliph, Marwan, whose consistent treachery was only equaled by his heavy wife who smothered him with a feather pillow by sitting on his face while attendants held his arms and legs.

My only dispute with this catalog of misbehavior is whether Ali or even Mohammed himself behaved any better in their quests for despotic power.