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History as Political Thought: The Saqifa Meeting and the Sunni Theory of the Caliphate
The meeting that took place under the portico (saqifa) of the Banu Sa'ida clan immediately after the Prophet Muhammad's death in 632 is of momentous significance in the Muslim political imagination. The heated debates that ensued between various Arab clans jockeying for power eventually culminated in the election of Abu Bakr as the first caliph of the fledgling Muslim community. While there has been much scholarly discussion in the field of Islamic historiography about how medieval Muslim historians reported and narrated the Saqifa meeting to fit their own ideological ends, not much attention has been given to its role in political discourses. This paper fills that gap by examining how Sunni jurists and theologians from the tenth to the twelfth century utilized reports of various episodes in the Saqifa meeting as legal precedents in constructing the Sunni theory of the caliphate, especially with regard to subjects such as the necessity of the caliphate, the qualifications of the caliph, the methods of appointing a caliph, and Sunni-Shi'ite polemics regarding the legitimacy of Abu Bakr and 'Ali as rightful successors to Muhammad. Through a close reading of legal and theological works such as al-Mawardi's al-Ahkam al-sultaniyya, Abu Ya'la's al-Mu'tamad fi usul al-din, and al-Nasafi's Tabsirat al-adilla, I argue that the Saqifa meeting lent itself to varying interpretations over time, such that a given report on a particular episode of the meeting could be used to argue for radically contrasting positions regarding the caliphate. For instance, the anecdote in which Abu Bakr urged those present at the meeting to pledge the oath of allegiance to either 'Umar b. al-Khattab or Abu 'Ubayda b. al-Jarrah has been used by some writers to justify the legality of appointing a less excellent candidate (al-mafdul) as caliph; others, however, viewed this episode as demonstrating the need to support only the most excellent candidate (al-afdal) for the caliphate. Such varied interpretations of the Saqifa meeting were rooted in different visions of ideal Islamic rulership upheld by various Sunni schools of law and theology. By tracing the diverse ways in which medieval Muslim thinkers deployed historical narratives in constructing political discourses, this paper ultimately sheds light on the fluid boundaries between historical writing and political theorizing.
Geographic Area
Islamic World
Sub Area
7th-13th Centuries