Adam Gaiser, Muslims, Scholars, Soldiers. The Origin and Elaboration of the Ibadi Imamate, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010, par Cyrille Aillet

A concise but depthful essay on Early Islamic political thought, based on the study of the Khārijite and Ibāḍī Imamate theory. This work will certainly contribute to enhance scholars’ interest in the intellectual legacy of this forgotten Islam.

It has to be reminded that the name Khawārij points to a « deviance » from the right way and was probably labelled by the triumphant Umayyad orthodoxy to designate the inheritors of the self-called Muḥakkima, who seceded from ʻAlī’s party during the battle of Ṣiffīn (36/657), refusing the arbitration and proclaiming « No judgment’s but God’s » (lā ḥukm illā li-lāh). This third way within Islam was mainly characterized by the promotion of an anti-absolutist model of Califate or Imāmate, rooted in the promotion of religious knowledge and piety, the monitoring role of the community (umma) represented by its ʻulamā’, and the legitimacy of rebellion against any impious leader.

Far from being united, the Khāriji early movement was a constellation of sub-sects, gradually polarized by two mainstreams. The activist stream (Azāriqa, Najdāt…) considered revolt against the tyrants a religious duty and classified the other Muslims as unbelievers (kuffār) or polytheist (mushriqūn) whose lives, family and belongings could legally be captured. They led the first uprisals but hardly survived Ummayad repression after the first Islamic century. On the contrary, the quietist stream (Ibāḍiyya, Ṣufriyya…) developed a strategy of dissimulation and secrecy (kitmān), along with the acceptation of coexistence with other Muslims, considered as « hypocrites » (munāfiqūn) but still included into the Islamic community (p. 39).

The beginning of the 8th c. saw the emergence of Ibāḍiyya as a specific school, efficiently organized in Baṣra by its third Imām Abū ʻUbayda Muslim b. Abī Karīma (pp. 67-69), foundator of the « Knowledge Bearers » (ḥamalāt al-ʻilm), a secret proselytizing organization that exported the doctrine to North Africa. During the last decades of Umayyad’s rule, Ibāḍism succeeded into creating several independant Imāmates from Ifrīqiyya to Persia and South Arabia. Some of them survived the Abbassid takeover, particularly in Oman where the Abbassid reconquest in 280/893 did not put an end to the Ibāḍī Imāmate, several times restored until its abrogation in 1958. In North Africa, the Rustumid dynasty founded a brilliant state in Tāhart (160-296/777-909) but was finally swept away by the Fatimids. Nonetheless, the collapse of the Rustumid state gave way to a mosaic of self-organized local communities, until today scattered from Eastern to Central Maghrib (Jabal Nafūsa, Jerba, Wādī Mzāb, Wargla).

A. Gaiser’s great merit consists in crossing systematically Omanese and North African sources, giving us a precise idea of how juridical theories were being formulated by Early Khārijites, exported to the Islamic West and adapted there to local political realities (pp. 10-11). Reconstructing the Early Khārijiyya and Ibāḍiyya is a difficult task, and the vanishing of direct testimonies about other dissident sects makes scholars binding mainly on Sunnī and Ibāḍī sources. It is well known that Sunnī historiography and heresiography strongly contributed, by excessive focusing on the extremist Azāriqa, to the black legend of Khārijism as a form of violent anarchical Islam. Such polemical topics have been repetedly condemned by the Ibāḍiyya, whose intellectuals presently claim their school to be the fifth one of Sunni Islam. Yet the author skilfully avoids a sterile debate by making a clear difference between the Khārijī nebula and its late Ibāḍī avatar. Rejection of any form of « exceptionalism » is a key for deciphering this complex evolutive corpus : « the perceived uniqueness of the Khārijites obscures the ways that the early Khārijites received traditions of religious and political authority » (p. 5-6). Khārijī and Ibāḍī Imāmate tradition is then filtered through the screen of Early Islamic political thought, from Coran to the Abbassid building of orthodoxy. Similarly, a great attention is paid to how Ibāḍī communities have constantly rewritten their origins and traditions during Medieval times (pp. 9-12).

The best example of how this past has been reinterpreted is the classical Ibāḍī distinction between four religious stages : manifestation (ẓuhūr), secrecy (kitmān), sacrifice (shirā’) and defence (difāʻ). A well documented lexical and semantical research throughout Ibāḍī juridical writings shows that this pattern has been created by North African Medieval scholars, while Omanese tradition is slightly different. A. Gaiser investigates on these four notions, trying to put the light on the « underlying aspects of authority » (p. 142) and their interaction with Pre-Islamic and Islamic political fields. Dedicated to the « prototypal » imām al-ẓuhūr, chap. 1 insists on the « institutionalization of moral rectitude as the paramount and exclusive characteristic of leadership » in this group (p. 47). Chap. 2 explores the notion of « secrecy », associated in North Africa with a renonciation to the Imāmate in favor of the ʻulamā’ collegial authority, or founded elsewhere (Baṣra, Oman) on a balance between the two poles of power. Authority and knowledge (ʻilm) are then strictly connected. Chap. 3 reveals another distinctive feature, the importance of sacrifice (shirā’) and martyrdom as a political model, first enhanced in Khārijī poetry and the Founding Fathers’ life before being institutionalized and neutralized by Ibāḍī Medieval thought. Finally, the possibility of an « imām of defence » is compared to the Omani notion of a « week imām » (imām al-ḍaʻīf) (chap. 4). The obsession for limiting the leader’s authority by imposing him collective consultation and control is compared with tribal and anti-authoritarian traditions in Islam.

Actually, this book provides us with a bulk of suggestive ideas and with a fresh approach to a largely ignored corpus of sources, many of them recently edited. However, some important points should be precised in future works : the legacy of Pre-Islamic culture cannot be asserted only through vague references to the tribal ethos and the archetypal figure of the sayyid ; the influence of Muḥammad’s biography is so commonplace in Early Islamic political thought that its use in Ibāḍī culture would deserve a specific study ; the Ibāḍī conception of knowledge, piety and moral rectitude could also be illustrated by all the topics contained in biographical material. In fact, political theory can hardly be separated from literary representation and mise-en-scene of the political sphere. Decoding the Imām’s perception and image in Ibāḍī literature would naturally complete this investigation. North African biographic production, including Ibn Sallām’s and al-Barradī’s siyar (overlooked by the author), contains a rich material to that end.

Finally, it is worrying to note that former studies in European languages except English seem to be simply obliterated. H. Djaït’s excellent work on the Great Fitna is quoted only once in an Arabic translation. P. Cuperly’s essay does not appear, like other references in French. W. Schwartz’s monography on the origins of Ibāḍism in North Africa, J. Van Ess’s works on Early Islamic theology (including Khārijism and Ibāḍism) are also forgotten.

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