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The Past is a Foreign Country; They Do Things Differently There

‘Why does an apple fall when it is ripe? Is it brought down by the force of gravity? Is it because its stalk withers? Because it is dried by the sun, because it grows too heavy, or the wind shakes it, or because the boy standing under the tree wants to eat it? ‘None of these is the cause. They only make up the combination of conditions under which every living process of organic nature fulfills itself. In the same way the historian who declares that Napoleon went to Moscow because he wanted to, and perished because Alexander desired his destruction, will be just as right and wrong as the man who says that a mass weighing thousands of tons, tottering and undetermined, fell in consequence of the last blow of the pickaxe wielded by the last navy. In historical events great men – so-called – are but labels serving to give a name to the event, and like labels they have the least possible connection with the event itself. Every action of theirs, that seems to them an act of their own free-will, is in the historical sense not free at all but is bound up with the whole course of history and preordained from all eternity.’

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace


Wouldn’t you visualize Livia Drusila  the wife of Roman emperor Augustus  as a cunning and venomous political mastermind if your sole introduction to ancient Roman history is Robert Graves’ engrossing autobiographical tale of emperor Claudius? Haven’t you always visualized the last Roman emperor of Julio-Claudian dynasty, the infamous Nero, playing fiddle while the Rome was burning in 64 AD? Can anyone have a more predominant image of Abu Sufyan’s wife Hind Bint Utbah than the one represented by Irene Papas through her revengeful eyes and blood-dripping lips in the film The Message (1976) when she was shown chewing the liver of Prophet Muhammad’s uncle Hamza after the Battle of Uhud?

After the Prophet layoutsThese are all overpowering images, sustained over time, and hard to erase from the slate of our memories. It doesn’t matter much if we argue, for instance, that it was not Hind but the black slave Wahshi who actually gouged out Hamza’s liver according to Ibn Kathir’s narrative or else that Ibn Ishaq’s recording of the incident has broken Isnaad at first place.

Similarly, does it matter that fiddles were non-existent in first-century Rome and it is probably an anciently preserved metaphor, as Nero was famous for his love of extraordinary indulgence in music and play? It would not transform these images the least if we juxtapose the contradicting accounts of Suetonius, Cassius  and Tacitus and present evidence that Nero even returned immediately from Antium and organized a great relief effort from his own funds, even opening his palaces for the survivors.

And it isn’t much fruitful to argue ― after BBC popularized Graves’ autobiographical account of Claudius by adapting it into a TV series ― that Livia might not be a such a thorough Machiavellian character, and it was not her favourite pastime to scheme political upheavals and poison every other claimant to Roman throne.

Thus after centuries of dust settling over innumerable layers of narratives, the quest for historical certainty, that is what actually happened, is overpowered by the popular images that refuse to erase themselves from collective memories of individuals.

And this, of course, is also the single most important contribution of British-American psychologist Lesley Hazleton’s narrative history of Shia-Sunni split. Refreshing and reinforcing some already held images.

That Hazleton is more interested in psychological characterization and building a juicy and well-coherent narrative, rather than objective historical analysis and criticism, is easily evident even from a cursory look through the text. And even though, the characterization and speculative psychological insights are evenly distributed all over the text, Hazleton surely has her pivotal choice of heroes and villains to build a gripping narrative.

Well-meaning heroes, who are eventually destined to be gypped, and pernicious villains, who are designed to exploit. As Hazleton’s publishers must have carefully put it in the title, it has to be marketed for the reader as an ‘Epic Story’, an epic Game of Thrones adventure intricately built around the desire for power.

Therefore, right from the beginning, the narrative essentially revolves around the struggle for accession to this proverbial throne. Therul-jus-islamic-period-09 opening part supplies images in which Prophet, who according to the author, was perhaps leading a life of celibacy after the death of his most beloved wife Khadija is dying and the community is not yet ready to grapple with his evident death. In an authorial figment of imagination, all of his wives surely did  try to get pregnant by him in order to bear a son and it was Ayesha who was specially haunted by her childlessness. Understandably so for her readers naturally having modern sensibilities, since its a medieval monarchical structure, Hazleton must logically supply reader with an image where the community is fragile enough to disintegrate in the absence of an immediate political centre. Hence, as they say, the stage is set in the opening part for the power play amidst usual chaos depicted in medieval folklore,

What did he intend to happen after his death? This is the question that will haunt the whole tragic story of the Sunni-Shia split, though by its nature, it is unanswerable. In everything that was to follow, everyone claimed to have insight into what the Prophet thought and what he wanted. Yet in the lack of a clear and unequivocal designation of his successor, nobody could prove it beyond any shadow of doubt. However convinced they may have been that they were right, there were always those who would maintain otherwise. Certainty was a matter of faith rather than fact.

Subsequently, in this narrative pivoted around power struggle, Ayesha is depicted as a charming and impudent young brat who, as she gets older, essentially acquires a Livian element with a soft Machiavellian composition, which Hazleton carefully imparts as if there is enough historical truth to substantiate her psychological make-up beyond reasonable doubt.

How could a teenage girl possibly compete against the hallowed memory of a dead woman? But then who but a teenage girl would even dream of trying?

Charming she must have been, and sassy she definitely was. Sometimes, though, the charm wears thin, at least to the modern ear. The stories Aisha later told of her marriage were intended to show her influence and spiritedness, but there is often a definite edge to them, a sense of a young woman not to be crossed or denied, of someone who could all too easily switch from spirited to mean-spirited.

Through out her narrative, this Machiavellian composition of Ayesha is carefully pitted against composed and well-balanced demeanour of Prophet’s cousin Ali, whom Hazleton portrays something closer to an Arthurian legend with Excalibur (book has a reference to Excalibur too comparing it with Ali’s famous sword Al-Zulfiqar). And because it is naturally a demand of a stronger narrative, Hazleton never fails to speculate even when there is little room to supply a tinge of any imagined political conflict between Ali and other challengers of succession to Prophet Muhammad, that is Abu Bakr and Omar

The meaning was clear: in a society where to give was more honorable than to receive, the man who gave his daughter’s hand bestowed the higher honor. While Abu Bakr and Omar honored Muhammad by marrying their daughters to him, he did not return the honor but chose Ali instead.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut if there is a true Livian character in this tale, its Muawiyah, the powerful governor of Syria whose promised reinforcements didn’t arrive to avert the assassination of third caliph Othman, according to some of Hazleton’s sources.

Certainly he was no one-dimensional villain, though it is true he looked the part. He had a protruding stomach, bulging eyes, and feet swollen by gout, but as though in compensation for his physical shortcomings, he was possessed of an extraordinary subtlety of mind […] Eight centuries before Niccolò Machiavelli wrote The Prince, Muawiya was the supreme expert in the attainment and maintenance of power, a clear-eyed pragmatist who delighted in the art and science of manipulation, whether by bribery, flattery, intelligence, or exquisitely calculated deception […]  The famed image of Hind cramming Hamza’s liver into her mouth worked to his advantage. Any son of such a mother could inspire not just fear but respect, and Muawiya commanded both. Except from Ali […] Poison has none of the heroics of battle. It works quietly and selectively, one might almost say discreetly. For Muawiya, it was the perfect weapon.

For an informed reader, therefore, authorial intention easily protrudes from the text, rather it is the subtext itself which lays bare the intent to give a chilling speculative quality to the whole story as it is told. Hence, it is usually through the subtext that we see Muawiyah and his associates, among them Amr Bin Al Aas, poisoning, deceiving and when it is necessary, battling their way to the throne. From the point of view of an impartial author who doesn’t have a possible conflict of interest, Hazleton carefully chooses her sources ― her chief source being the Annals of Tabari ― and claims not to prefer less authentic ones over the stronger. However, using her authorial right to choose among various versions of the same incident, she intelligently prefers the most chilling and controversial version over the casual and discreet ones.

evening_of_ashooraThis is the primary reason why the readers who are generally unacquainted with classical Muslim sources such as those of Tabari, Ibn Saad, Ibn Athir and Masudi etc would find Hazleton’s accounts of Battles of Siffin, Jam’l and subsequent events of Karbala in Yazid’s reign simply unputdownable. However, such readers must understand that the chief success of Hazleton’s work lies in its ability to create an extremely readable and gripping narrative with psychological insights of a bystander looking piercingly into her historical subjects. Moreover, if the text is read carefully, she is able to present a decent popular point of view, drawing from both sides of history as well heresiography.

What she fails to make emphatically clear is that historical certainty and objectivity must not be compromised for the flair of narrative; and from a sheer academic point of view, the text is absolutely unworthy of attention. Primarily because it doesn’t live up to its promise of linking the present Shia-Sunni conflicts in contemporary Syria and Iraq to its alleged historical roots. There is a lot more to the Shia-Sunni conflict then a supposed Game of Thrones and it certainly has as much to do with the global politics during post-formative periods of Islam, not to mention a theological meta-narrative.

Hazleton neither has the historical insight of William Dalrymple, nor she has the profundity of Orlando Figes to produce a useful narrative-history for widely informed audience.  In the absence of footnotes and textual references, it is extremely hard to trace her contentions and speculations to original sources. Furthermore, the distraught and superficially agitated nature of the narrative is generally distasteful to a serious reader, who might not be interested in an over-dramatized good vs evil story. At the most, Hazleton’s account must be read as a riveting historical novel adapting real characters and actual events. Unfortunately for a serious student of history, it has nothing much to chew.

2 thoughts on “The Past is a Foreign Country; They Do Things Differently There

  1. The other book by Barnaby Rogerson on the same subject is more comprehensive and balanced. But i personally believe that in this case the popular narrative will more often look favorably towards the side which lost out in the end than that which came out winner.

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