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PHD Thesis: The Memory of Ali b. Abi Talib in Early Sunni Thought

Pro-‘Alid sentiment (al-mayl ilā ‘Alī, tashayyu‘) is a prevalent, trans-sectarian tendency (i.e. among Sunnīs and Shī‘īs) to venerate ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib (d. 40/661) and his family. In contrast, Muslims expressing anti-‘Alid sentiment (naṣb) historically viewed ‘Alī and his descendants with contempt.

In a literary and social world of binary sectarian characterizations, this dissertation argues that medieval authors conflated early pro-‘Alid sentiment with Shī‘ism. First, this dissertation examines both the biographies and literary contributions of pro-‘Alids who were marginalized as too “Shī‘ī” centuries after their deaths in Sunnī literature. Second, it locates and contextualizes the literature of anti-‘Alids who historically opposed pro-‘Alid sentiment and criticized ‘Alī as a heretic and criminal. Each of these studies documents the contributions, declining popularity and eventual demise of a minority theological tradition in early Sunnism to consider problems related to the politics of identity, history writing, and the formation of orthodoxy. By the third/ninth century, an emerging Sunnī orthodoxy sought to minimize early partisan divisions within the community by actively criticizing pro-‘Alid and anti-‘Alid tendencies among scholars and rejecting their literary contributions. Furthermore, influential Sunnī scholars attempted to develop an image of ‘Alī that suited orthodoxy in their ḥadīth collections and commentaries. This study explores the methods in which these scholars rehabilitated ‘Alī’s image from the third/ninth to seventh/thirteenth centuries.

The literary contributions of both zealous pro-‘Alids and anti-‘Alids to Sunnī historiography have largely been lost over the centuries. Previous research has overlooked the “erased” histories of these groups due to a dependency on later Sunnī meta-narratives that mostly excluded their perspectives. However, this study demonstrates that many influential texts possess an understudied undercurrent of early authorities who once upheld views of ‘Alī contrary to the sect’s later established tenets. This dissertation contributes to studies of Muslim historiography, Sunnī ḥadīth, Shī‘ism, and the impact of early theological debates on the formation of communal boundaries in religion.

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