Social Contexts of Rebellion in the Early Islamic Period (SCORE)
Research group leader: Hannah-Lena Hagemann
Current Job Postings
The project will study social contexts of rebellion in the early Islamic period, from the reign of ʿAbd al-Malik (c.692-705 CE) until the defeat of the last major ‘Alid revolts in c.815-816 CE. This ‘long 8th century CE’ (692-816 CE) saw a high frequency of rebellions across the entire Islamic Empire. The research group will focus on four categories of revolt: ashrāfī rebellions, led by tribal notables (ashrāf); revolts that made claims to power in the name of the family of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib (d. 661 CE); Khārijite rebellions; and non-Muslim/mixed rebellions. The project’s scope is limited to the empire’s central lands; regions like Transoxania or North Africa are outside its purview.
Scholarship on rebellion in this period is surprisingly scarce, and much of what there is emphasizes its religious aspects. Many studies thus analyse rebels and revolts in the framework of heterodoxy, martyrdom, and millenarism; the social contexts of rebellion remain poorly understood. In contrast, the underlying premise of the project is that religion constitutes only one among many markers of identity and (thus) only one among many factors that influence social action, here participation in rebellion. The research group will therefore investigate the selected rebellions in the period of study specifically with regard to their socio-political and economic dimensions.
The project pursues three main objectives: i) improving our understanding of rebellion in the 8th century CE by liberating it from the primacy of religion, also through the inclusion of non-Muslim/mixed revolts; ii) creating a typology of rebellion in the early Islamic period that responds to the lack of a theoretical underpinning of Islamicist discourse on revolt; and iii) advancing a more nuanced picture of early Islamic society, its social strata and inter/intra-communal relationships, which also includes the (changing) mechanisms and processes of power distribution. The focus on a ‘long 8th century CE’ allows for a diachronic analysis that tracks (changing) patterns of rebellion independent from common periodization, i.e. the separation of the 8th century CE into an Umayyad (pre-750 CE) and an ʿAbbāsid (post-750 CE) period, which is unsuited for the study of long-term developments.
The project operates on two levels: individual case studies conducted by team members are intended to shine a new light on the social composition and (thus) motivation of particular revolts, with ramifications for the broader contexts in which these were situated. The critical comparison of these studies over the course of the project will enhance our grasp of the macro level of rebellion in the early Islamic period. In sum, while religious dimensions of revolt can and will not be disregarded, the planned project will lead to a more complex and profound understanding of why and how people in the early Islamic period chose to engage in rebellion.
In re-evaluating instances and categories of rebellion in the ‘long 8th century CE’, the project has the following three main objectives:
To ‘liberate’ rebellion from the primacy of religion and re-assess deep-rooted narratives in the scholarly understanding of revolt in the early Islamic period. Of key importance here is the investigation of the socio-political and economic contexts of specific revolts. This will not only shed light onto often understudied instances of rebellion, but also challenge the notion of Islam and confessional identities as (self-)explanatory paradigms. As a corollary, the proposed project will offer further insight into discourses of legitimacy as well. Rebels and their opponents were engaged in ideological conflicts, which again influences the way scholarship has perceived particularly the former. Labelling is a crucial aspect of this discourse as manifested, for instance, in the close connection between rebels and bandits (luṣūs, ṣaʿālīk, surrāq) made in the written sources, a mechanism that denies the validity of rebel claims and actions. This connection can also be observed in early Islamic punitive practice: the classical Islamic law that distinguishes between rebellion (baghy) and banditry (ḥirāba) only crystallised after the 10th century CE, and 8th-century CE rebels were subject to much the same punishment as bandits.
Another important re-assessment concerns the investigation of non-Muslim/mixed rebellions, which have often been ignored by Islamicists working on the early Islamic period. The focus on Islam in Muslim-led rebellions, for example, obscures the fact that and the reasons why some of these were mass phenomena and/or enjoyed local non-Muslim support, while also disregarding that most regions of the ‘Islamic’ Empire remained majority non-Muslim until well after the 8th century CE. A result of this is that scholarship often does not account for the complexity of communal identities, which could be more fluid than is often assumed and did not necessarily conform to simple dichotomies based on religion or denomination (or, indeed, other markers of identity). The combined analysis of Muslim and non-Muslim revolts will thus give new insight into socio-political, economic, and cultural structures and patterns shared across communal boundaries.
The second objective is the establishment of a more differentiated vocabulary and typology of rebellion based on sets of criteria developed over the course of the project. One example is the distinction of political rebels – those who seek to install a rival claimant to power or hope for personal gains, but do not question the system as such – from (attempted) revolutionaries, who try to overturn a particular system. The lines between the two are fluid, of course, and original motivation (if it can be reconstructed reliably) can differ from eventual result and/or long-term consequences. The ʿAbbāsid takeover, often termed a ‘revolution’, is an interesting example here – to what extent were the fundamental changes that followed the overthrow of the Umayyads actually intended and by whom, considering the diversity of the ʿAbbāsid followership? Depending on the answers given, evaluations of this successful rebellion can differ substantially. The creation of a ‘catalogue’ of rebellion nevertheless represents major progress as more theoretical definitions and discussions are noticeably absent from Islamicist discourse. This will enable us to more accurately describe and thus understand rebellion as a social phenomenon.
The final objective flows from the first two and centres on arriving at a more nuanced picture of early ‘Islamic’ society/ies. The general lack of a comprehensive social history of the early Islamic period is partly due to the particular focus of the sources, but we also do not have anything comparable to the Geniza documents, the endowment deeds of Mamlūk times, or the archives of the Ottoman period for the early Islamic era. Consequently, many studies of this subject are dedicated to doctrinal or religious divisions. The socio-economic potential of the source material has not been fully utilised yet, however. The research group thus constitutes an important step towards a better grasp of the social strata and inter/intra-communal relationships that characterised early Muslim society/ies, as well as (changing) mechanisms and processes of power distribution within the early Islamic imperial rationale.
Research Approach and Methods
The relative dearth of scholarship on rebellion in the early Islamic period has several reasons, chief among them the well-known problems regarding the source material for this period and a lack of manpower: Islamic history is still a small field compared to other disciplines like medieval European history, and the extant source corpus is vast. The works of the Islamic tradition were generally put into writing only from the late 8th century CE onwards and so stand at quite a remove from the events they purport to describe; they are also fragmentary, especially for the pre-ʿAbbāsid period, in many cases full of contradictions, and abound with literary motifs.
Scholars are confronted with difficulties not just regarding what the sources say, but also how these impart their information. The particular language they employed, partaking as they did in the late antique koiné of decidedly religious symbols and narratives, frequently disguises somewhat more prosaic motivations. In the case of rebellion, this general characteristic is exacerbated by increasingly systematised notions of revolt as a violation of God’s order and the development of Islamic jurisprudence regarding rebels, which heavily influenced the way the sources describe instances of revolt. Non-Muslim sources are neither less ‘religious’ in tone nor less biased: conflict with the Arab/Muslim rulers is often presented as religious persecution against non-Muslims and Arabs/Muslims are repeatedly portrayed as harbingers of the End Times. This partly explains why much scholarship conceives of certain (categories of) rebellions in sectarian terms and why non-Muslim revolts are regularly presented as resistance to oppressors of a different faith and ethnicity.
The research group will consider acts of rebellion from a fresh perspective that does not prioritise religion as an explanatory factor. The source issues just outlined will be addressed through a combination of research methods and approaches that offer a way around some of these problems and serve to mediate the sources’ religious tenor. These methods include an emphasis on biographical and prosopographical analysis; the use of new technologies developed in the Digital Humanities; testing the applicability of insights regarding rebellion from other disciplines to the case studies of the proposed research project; and the consideration of documentary evidence.
The exploration of a rebellion’s socio-political and economic contexts requires the study both of the broader historical setting and of biographical and prosopographical contexts. Islamicists have long recognised prosopography as an important tool, but few studies on the early Islamic period have employed it to date. The research group will use biographical and prosopographical inquiry to explore tribal affiliations and family connections, genealogy, mobility (geographical, occupational, social), and questions of ethnicity, language, and also religion, among other factors. Where such detailed information is only available for the leaders of a revolt, aspects like the geographical distribution of a revolt as well as its coinage (if available) may be able to offer up hints as to followership and/or audience.
The prosopographical analysis will be based primarily on the rich biographical dictionaries of the Islamic tradition, the most important source corpus for ‘social’ data of the early Islamic period. This includes both the oldest extant works such as Ibn Saʿd’s and Khalīfa b. Khayyāṭ’s Ṭabaqāt from the first half of the 9th century CE and later compositions like al-Ṣafadī’s (d. 1363 CE) al-Wāfī bi-l-wafayāt. While these are often focused on religious scholars, other groups of people are included as well, and we can gather a wealth of details pertaining to personal backgrounds and networks as well as social and geographical mobility from the individual biographies. Moreover, while religious authority figures often feature as the main subjects of interest, the information provided is often less encumbered by religious overtones. The biographical dictionaries will be complemented by chronicles, local histories, nasab works (genealogies), and like sources.
The study of written sources in general will benefit greatly from recent technological developments pertaining to the study of texts that the research group will utilise. The on-going mass digitisation and collection of Arabic and (less so) Persian works in repositories such as al-Maktaba al-Shamela or EShia now allows us much easier and more comprehensive access to the source material upon which our study of historical phenomena is based. This enables us to investigate and re-assess early Islamic revolts and rebels across different types of texts and on a significantly expanded source base, promising intriguing new insights that would be difficult to achieve otherwise.
Due to the rapid development of Digital Humanities we now also have tools at our disposal that greatly facilitate the mining of our sources. In the framework of the ERC project ‘The Early Islamic Empire at Work’ (2014-2019) based at Hamburg and led by Prof. Stefan Heidemann, a digital toolbox was developed for the corpus of texts stored in al-Maktaba al-Shamela, although this corpus was expanded significantly by the project team. This toolbox, Jedli (‘find for me’), allows the researcher to run highly customized contextual queries against (a selection of texts from) the corpus at a fraction of the time needed for a manual search. This opens up new avenues of research because it vastly improves our ability to track actors and events across genres, regions, and periods, an investigation that would otherwise prove largely unfeasible due to the labour-intensive and time-consuming work required.
While more theoretical and conceptual discussions of rebellion in the early Islamic period are largely absent from Islamicist discourse, other disciplines have developed approaches to the question of rebellion and related issues such as brigandage that in some cases might be usefully applied to the early Islamic case. One example is the concept of ‘social banditry’ developed by Eric Hobsbawm. His work, despite criticism, has led to a rapid increase in studies of brigandage, often in connection with rebellion. Another example is the work of sociologists like Charles Tilly, whose concept of ‘contentious politics’ has proved influential for understanding social upheaval. Roman history has produced a range of approaches to rebellion and related phenomena (e.g., religious violence, ‘heterodoxy’, banditry) that appear promising for the study of rebellion in the early Islamic period: scholarship on centre-province dynamics, connections between revolt and brigandage especially in a military context, issues of private vs. public violence, environmental and geographical factors, as well as the influence of state formation offers a fruitful point of departure for thinking about rebellion in the early Islamic period in a more structured manner. Similarly, there is a vast literature on rebellion, the question of violence as a form of politics, as well as the connection between revolt and religion/religious violence in medieval Europe, sometimes expressing similar concerns about the ‘religious perspective’ on pre-modern (popular) uprisings. Most of this scholarship remains underutilised in studies of the early Islamic period. In contrast, the research group will evaluate and make use of suitable theories and concepts from other fields for the conceptualisation of rebellion in the early Islamic period.
Finally, material evidence will be a major resource for the research conducted by the group members as well. Coinage in particular is of utmost importance in investigating and understanding rebellion. Coins can carry a wealth of information regarding the time, place, identity, and self-representation of the minting authorities, serving as public forums for political and/or ideological messages. Despite the significance of this medium, historians of the early Islamic period often do not make full use of the rich information offered by coinage and numismatic studies, even though catalogues and online databases are readily available. These resources will therefore constitute an integral part of the research conducted by the project team.