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The True New Testament: Sealing the Heart’s Covenant in al-Tabarî’s Ta’rîkh al-Rusul wa’l-Mulûk
Uppsala University, Humanistisk-samhällsvetenskapliga vetenskapsområdet, Faculty of Theology, Department of Theology.
2001 (English)Doctoral thesis, monograph (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

This study is an interpretation of the Muslim jurist Abû Ja‘far Muhammad b. Jarîr al-Tabarî’s (d. 923 C.E.) universal history The History of Messengers and Kings (Ar. Ta’rîkh al-Rusul wa’l-Mulûk). It is one of the most frequently consulted sources in studies of Islamic history, yet only recently have scholars begun to conceive of it as a literary unit, held together by discourses not considered by historians who have nevertheless based their con-clusions on it. Thus my study aims at contribut-ing to the understanding of al-Tabarî’s history by a comparative histo-riographical interpretation.

The interpretation departs from the thought of Michel de Certeau, historian of French religious history. Certeau approaches historiography as a scholarly operation which takes place in an interrelation between an institution and a discipline, which produces a scholarly practice, and a subjective discourse. The result of such operations is to assign to a historical period, or event, or source, a specific ‘place’ in the existing body of historical writings which, taken together, make up history as it is preserved. Since the ‘place’ assigned to a historical period is the product of a histo-riographical operation, there is a correspondence between it and the ‘place’ of the operation. This holds true for all historiography, religious or secular, pre-modern or modern. The significant difference concerns modes of intelligibil-ity and practice, which are related to social expressions of identity and legitimacy. This expression is practiced in writing through acts of relating and separating ‘selves’ and ‘others.’ From this viewpoint, secular studies of religious history express institutional, disciplinary, and subjective identities in relation to, and separation from relig-ious history. Certeau thus interprets historical religious discourses by relating them to the ‘places’ of their authors as well as of the interpreting historian.

Certeau’s method also involves reflecting on the meaning of ‘religion’ in writings separate from us in terms of practice and mode of intelligibility. I have therefore begun by describing my subjective values in relation to my discipline, History of Religions. On this basis I proceed to a critical evaluation of the practices of the specific branch of Islamic studies termed ‘Orientalism.’ The purpose is to arrive at a more complex understanding of the issues of culture and rationality involved in studies of Islamic history, histori-ography, and al-Tabarî. I argue that the comparative studies of the Bible and Islamic writings practiced in History of Religions in Uppsala contribute by shedding new light on the meaning of religious sym-bols and discourses in relation to social institutions and scholarly disciplines. In order to bring out the many levels of reference of the term ‘religion’ as applied to my sources, I have formulated an operative definition.

The title ‘The True New Testament’ expresses my twofold assumption, that the Hebrew Bible, the Christian New Testament, and al-Tabarî’s history are ‘testaments’ to the universal justice of the imperial governments of respec-tively Iran, Rome, and Islam, and that al-Tabarî wrote his history as ‘The True New Testament’ to make the Prophet Muhammad and the caliphate the fulfillment of the Hebrew Bible’s prophecies of a Saviour and a kingdom of peace and justice. On the basis of comparisons with the Hebrew Bible, I interpret discourses on ‘the covenant’ and ‘the prom-ised land’ in al-Tabarî’s history in relation to a system of vassalage connected to a Persian legacy of imperial government. I suggest that ‘covenant’ refers to a social contract, concerning religious communities and legislation, administration, military, and peasants, and their relations to the sovereign political power, the Abbasid caliphate. In this system of vassalage, legal principles and practices of land assignment concern all social groups, whence the sym-bolism of ‘the promised land.’ In al-Tabarî’s historiographical operation, ‘the promised land’ refers also to Sufi juris-tic ethics and hermeneutics, founded on a Neoplatonic ontology and theory of correspondences between God and man, with reason as the point of communication. Reason is seated in the heart, where it coincides with identity. The new covenant of the heart thus signifies for al-Tabarî the change in imperial identity and legitimacy, and enlighten-ment of reason which takes place in the mission of the Prophet Muhammad.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis , 2001. , 0 p.
Keyword [en]
Religion, al-Tabarî, Islamic history, Islamic historiography, Islamic Bible exegesis, Orientalism, comparative religious studies, covenant, promised land, testament, redistributive justice, Abbasid caliphate
Keyword [sv]
National Category
Religious Studies
Research subject
History Of Religions
URN: urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-1392ISBN: 91-506-1505-XOAI: oai:DiVA.org:uu-1392DiVA: diva2:160892
Public defence
2001-10-05, Gustavianum minus, Uppsala, 10:15
Available from: 2001-10-03 Created: 2001-10-03Bibliographically approved

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