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Christians in Medieval Shī‘ī Historiography: From Legend to History

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AbstractOver the course of the early medieval period, Shī‘ī authors collected historical reports of conversations with Christians and included them in their compilations. Beginning as legendary accounts transmitted via oral tradition, the reports and stories of imams were later compiled in “historical” collections as a way to promote the Shī‘ī historiographical tradition. Utilizing motifs from the Qur’an as well as their own interpretive traditions, medieval Shī‘ī writers collected, adapted, and/or composed these encounters in order to connect past leaders with the historical vision of their community. The texts were also a method for shaping Shī‘ī communal identity within the religiously plural society of the early Islamic Middle East. This article uses examples from some dialogues with Christian participants to illustrate these key features. Some texts promoted Shī‘ī historical claims about the imams by producing hagiographical memories of the past for contemporary communities. Other reports utilized polemical strategies of biblical polemics and dialectical reasoning to construct Islamic historiographies of Christianity. It appears that most Shī‘ī historical reports about Christian figures were not interested in contrasting Shī‘ī faith with Christianity, but sought rather to highlight Shī‘ī concepts of prophetic succession, legitimate authority, and authentic community against Sunnī historical views. While this feature appears to be the consensus among the reports, some dialogues may reflect real religious encounters. In sum, the historical reports made use of Christian figures and beliefs as a vehicle for Shī‘ī historical and theological projects in the medieval Middle East.

Affiliations: 1: History Department, University Hall Building 3050, University of Illinois at SpringfieldOne University Plaza, Springfield, IL 62703-5407USA


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