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 SCORE team considers acts of rebellion from a fresh perspective that does not prioritise religion as an explanatory factor. We address these source issues with 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.
For instance, 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 language 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.