The raw material of this book is the work of the early Islamic historians, who traveled throughout the Middle East in the ninth and tenth centuries to gather oral accounts passed down from parents, grandparents and great grandparents. They took great care to record the source of what they heard by detailing the chain of communication. The isnad, they called it: the provenance of each memory, given up front by prefacing each speaker's account in the manner of "I was told this by C, who was told it by B, who was told it by A, who was there when it happened."
This was the method used by Ibn Ishaq in his biography of Muhammad; by Abu Jafar al-Tabari in his magisterial history of early Islam; by Ibn Saad in his sometimes deliciously gossipy collections of anecdotes, and by al-Baladhuri in his "Lineage of the Nobles." It is an extraordinarily open process, one that allows direct insight into how history is communicated and established, and that is deeply respectful of the fact that, Rashomon style, if there were six people there, they would have six similar but subtly different accounts.
Al-Tabari was Sunni, but his vast history is acknowledged as authoritative by Sunni and Shia alike. Its length and detail are part and parcel of his method. He visits the same events again and again, almost obsessively, as different people tell their versions, and the differing versions overlap and diverge in what now seems astonishingly post-modern fashion. Al-Tabari understood that human truth is always flawed -- that realities are multiple, and that everyone has their biases, so that the closest one might come to objectivity would be in the aggregate, which is why he so often concludes a disputed episode with that time-honored phrase, "Only God knows for sure."
Reading these voices from the seventh century, you feel as though you are sitting in the middle of a vast desert grapevine, a dense network of intimate knowledge defying the limitations of space and time. As they relate what they saw and what they heard, what this one said and how that one replied, their language is sometimes shocking in its pithiness -- not at all what one expects from conventional history. It has the smack of vitality, of real people living in earth-shaking times, and it is true to the culture, one in which the language of curse was as rich and developed as the language of blessing.
For anyone who delights in the Middle Eastern style of narrative, al-Tabari is a joy to read, though Western readers accustomed to tight structure and a clear authorial point of view may be disconcerted at first. Sometimes the same event or conversation is told from more than a dozen points of view, and the narrative thread weaves back and forth in time, with each separate account adding to the ones that came before, but from a slightly different angle. This use of multiple voices creates an almost post-modern effect; what seems at first to be lack of structure slowly reveals itself as a vast edifice of brilliant structural integrity.
Where al-Tabari offers conflicting versions of an event from different sources, I have noted the difference, and followed his example in reserving judgment. "In everything which I mention herein," he wrote in the introduction to his history, "I rely only on established [written] reports, which I identify, and on [oral] accounts, which I ascribe by name to their transmitters... Knowledge is only obtained by the statements of reporters and transmitters, not by rational deduction or by intuitive inference. And if we have mentioned in this book any report about certain men of the past which the reader finds objectionable or the hearer offensive... he should know that this has not come about on our account, but on account of one of those who has transmitted it to us, and that we have presented it only in the way in which it was presented to us."
Al-Tabari's monumental history Tarikh al-rusul wa'l muluk has been translated into English in a magnificent project overseen by general editor Ehsan Yar-Shater and published by the State University of New York Press in thirty-nine annotated volumes between the years 1985 and 1999 as The History of al-Tabari.