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Iv. Shaban & His New Interpretation

Among the latest work by the western scholarship on the history of Islam is M A Shaban's Islamic History AD 600-750, subtitled `A New Interpretation,' in which the author claims not only to use newly discovered material but also to reexamine and reinterpret material which has been known to us for many 


15 Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1953, see under 'Ghadir Khum.' 


decades. Shaban, a lecturer of Arabic at SOAS of the University of London, is not prepared to even consider the event of Ghadir Khum. He writes: 'The famous Shiite tradition that he [the Prophet] designated Ali as his successor at Ghadir Khum should not be taken seriously.' Shaban gives two 'new' reasons for not taking the event of Ghadir seriously:


'Such an event is inherently improbable considering the Arabs' reluctance to entrust young untried men with great responsibility. Furthermore, at no point do our sources show the Madinan community behaving as if they had heard of this designation."16

Let us critically examine each of these reasons given by Shaban.

(1) The traditional reluctance of the Arabs to entrust young men with great responsibility. First of all, had not the Prophet introduced many things to which the Arabs were traditionally reluctant? Was not Islam itself accepted by the Makkans very reluctantly? This 'traditional reluctance,' instead of being an argument against the appointment of Ali, is actually part of the argument used by the Shi`as. They agree that the Arabs were reluctant to accept Imam Ali as the Prophet's successor not only because of his young age but also because he had killed their leaders in the battles of Islam. According to the Shi'as, Allah also mentions this reluctance when after ordering the Prophet to proclaim Imam Ali as his successor CO Messenger! Convey what had been revealed to you ...'), He reassured His Messenger by saying that 'Allah will protect you from the people' (5:67). The Prophet was commissioned to convey the message of Allah, no matter whether the Arabs liked it or not.


Moreover, this 'traditional reluctance' was not an irrevocable custom of the Arab society as Shaban wants us to believe. Jafry, in The Origin and Early Development of Shea Islam, says: 'Our sources do not fail to point out that, though the 'Senate' (Nadwa) of pre-Islamic Makka was generally a council of elders only, the sons of the chieftain Qusayy were privileged to 


16 M A Shaban, Islamic History AD 600-750, Cambridge: University Press, 1971, p 16. 


be exempted from this age restriction and were admitted to the council despite their youth. In later times, more liberal concessions seem to have been in vogue; Abu Jahl was admitted despite his youth, and Hakim ibn Hazm was admitted when he was only 15 or 20 years old.' Then Jafry quotes Ibn `Abd Rabbih: 'There was no monarchic king over the Arabs of Makkah in the jahiliyyah. So whenever there was a war, they took a ballot among chieftains and elected one as 'King,' were he a minor or a grown man. Thus on the day of Fijar, it was the turn of Banu Hashim, and as a result of the ballot Al-Abbas, who was then a mere child, was elected, and they seated him on the shield.'17


Thirdly, we have an example in the Prophet's own decisions during the last days of his life when he entrusted the command of the army to Usama ibn Zayd, a young man who was hardly 20 years of age.18 He was appointed over the elders of the Muhajirun and the Ansar, and, indeed, many of the elders resented this decision of the Prophet.19 If the Prophet of Islam could appoint the young and untried Usama ibn Zayd over the elders of the Muhajirun, then why should it be 'inherently inprobable' to think that the Prophet had appointed Imam Ali as his successor?


(2) The traditional reluctance to entrust tried men with great responsibility. Apart from the young age of Imam Ali, Shaban also refers to the reluctance of the Arabs in entrusting 'untried men with great responsibility.' This implies that Abu Bakr was selected by the Arabs because he had been 'tried with great responsibilities.' I doubt whether Shaban would be able to substantiate the implication of his claim from Islamic history. One will find more instances where Imam Ali was entrusted by 


17 S H M Jafry, The Origin and Early Development of Sea Islam, Qum: Ansariyan Publications, n.d., p 22.


18 M H Haykal, The Life of Muhammad, tr Al-Faruqi (n.p., American Trust Publications, 1976, p 492.)


19 See the Tabaqat of Ibn Sa'd and other major works on Seerah. 


the Prophet with greater responsibilities than Abu Bakr. Imam Ali was left behind in Makkah during the Prophet's migration to mislead the enemies and also to return the properties of various people which were given in trust to the Prophet. Imam Ali was tried with greater responsibilities during the early battles of Islam in which he was always successful. When the declaration (bara` at) against the pagan Arabs of Makkah was revealed, first Abu Bakr was entrusted to convey it to the Makkans, but later on this great responsibility was taken away from him and entrusted to Imam Ali. Imam Ali was entrusted with the city and citizens of Medina while the Prophet had gone on the expedition to Tabuk. Imam Ali was appointed the leader of the expedition to Yemen. These are just a few examples which come to mind at random. Therefore, on a comparative level, Ali ibn Abi Talib was a person who had been tried and entrusted with greater responsibilities than Abu Bakr.


(3) The behaviour of the Medinan community about the declaration of Ghadir. Firstly, if an event can be proved as true by the accepted academic standards (of the Sunnis, of course), then the reaction of the people to that event is immaterial.


Secondly, the same 'traditional reluctance' used by Shaban to discredit the declaration of Ghadir can be used here against his scepticism towards the event of Ghadir. This traditional reluctance, besides other factors which are beyond the scope of this paper,20 can be used to explain the behaviour of the Medinan community.


Thirdly, although the Medinan community was silent during the events which kept Imam Ali away from the khilafah, there were many among them who had witnessed the declaration of Ghadir Khum. On quite a few occasions, Imam Ali implored the sahaba of the Prophet to bear witness to the declaration of Ghadir. Here I will just mention one instance which took place in Kufa during the khilafah of Imam Ali, 24 years after the Prophet's death. 


20 For more details, see S S A Rizvi, Imamate, Tehran: WOFIS, 1985, pp 120-121. 


Imam Ali heard that some people were doubting his claim of presidency over the previous khulafah, therefore, he came to a gathering at the mosque and implored the eyewitnesses of the event of Ghadir Khum to verify the truth of the Prophet's declaration about his being the lord and master of all the believers. Many sahaba of the Prophet stood up and verified the claim of Imam Ali. We have the names of 24 of those who testified on behalf of Imam Ali, although other sources like the Musnad of Ibn Hanbal and Majma' as-Zawa'id of Hafiz alHaythami put that number at 30. Also bear in mind that this incident took place 25 years after the event of Ghadir Khum, and during this period hundreds of eyewitnesses had died naturally or in the battles fought during the first two khulafah' s rule. Add to this the fact that this incident took place in Kufa which was far from the centre of the sahabas, Medina. This incident which took place in Kufa in the year 35 A.H. has itself been narrated by four sahaba and 14 tabi'un and has been recorded in most books of history and tradition.21


In conclusion, the behaviour of the Medinan community after the death of the Prophet does not automatically make the declaration of Ghadir Khum improbable. I think this will suffice to make Shaban realize that his is not a 'new' interpretations: rather it exemplifies, in my view, the first stage of the classical response of the Sunni polemicists - an outright denial of he existence of an event or a hadith which supports the Shi`i views - which has been absorbed by the majority of the western scholars of Islam. 

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