Between the seventh and ninth centuries C.E., different Muslim sectarian groups fashioned their respective communal identities through differing rituals, narratives, and conceptions of Islamic history. This article explores these early Islamic divisions through the lens of literary depictions of, and rituals involving, a strongly potent object within the late antique world: a holy person's corpse, in this case that of the prominent early Muslim Ṭalḥa b. ʿUbayd Allāh. A Companion of the Prophet Muḥammad, Ṭalḥa had a contested legacy among different Muslim groups, being venerated by Sunnīs and vilified by the Shīʿa and Khārijīs. These contesting conceptions of Ṭalḥa are reflected in the variable images of Ṭalḥa's body after his death that appear within early Islamic texts: while some stories portray Ṭalḥa as a saintly martyr whose body lay incorrupt in his grave, others depict Ṭalḥa as a decaying corpse disintegrating in the dirt. Standing in vivid contrast to one another, these variant representations of Ṭalḥa's body exemplify early Muslims' usages of the foundational narratives of Islamic history to make competing claims about politico-religious leadership and community. Yet the sectarian significance of Ṭalḥa's body was exhibited not only in texts, but was also ritually enacted through worship at Ṭalḥa's grave. A site of prayer and miracles, Ṭalḥa's grave emerged as a proto-Sunnī counterpoint to the tombs of other holy persons visited and venerated by the Shīʿa and Khārijīs. The stories and rituals involving Ṭalḥa b. ʿUbayd Allāh's body demonstrate how Islamic communal identity was mapped onto this Companion's corpse.
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Research Article| May 01 2018
A Holy Heretical Body: Ṭalḥa b. ʿUbayd Allāh's Corpse and Early Islamic Sectarianism
Studies in Late Antiquity (2018) 2 (2): 147–179.
Adam Bursi; A Holy Heretical Body: Ṭalḥa b. ʿUbayd Allāh's Corpse and Early Islamic Sectarianism. Studies in Late Antiquity 1 May 2018; 2 (2): 147–179. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/sla.2018.2.2.147
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