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.
At the end of his epochal “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” Peter Brown cites a papyrus text that “sums up both the late antique revolution and its untold consequences.”1 This document—a bilingual Greek and Arabic protocol from the late first/seventh century—includes the Islamic shahāda, the assertion both of the oneness of God and of Muḥammad's identity as God's messenger.2 As Brown seems to imply, this emphasis on both “One God and His man” well situates early Islam within the larger world of Late Antiquity, a period characterized by diverse forms of veneration of holy persons. Similar to the saints of other late antique monotheistic traditions, the Prophet Muḥammad emerged within early Islam as a holy person par excellence, “a kind of supersaint.”3 In addition to his identity as the recipient of the Qur'anic revelation and the model (sunna) for Islamic ritual performance,4 Muḥammad's holiness was enacted by early Muslims in the stories of miracles that appear in his earliest biographies,5 visitations to his tomb and related spaces in Mecca and Medina,6 and rituals involving his corporeal and non-corporeal relics.7 Veneration of Muḥammad was central to early Islamic sacred history and practice in ways comparable to the roles of sacred persons within other late antique monotheisms.8
However, Muḥammad was far from the only saintly figure pivotal to early Islamic narrative and ritual. Veneration of the caliph ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib and his descendants, especially his martyred son al-Ḥusayn, were defining traits within emergent Shīʿī Islam, with pilgrimage to al-Ḥusayn's tomb at Karbalāʾ in Iraq developing as a central sign of Shīʿī identity already in the second/eighth century.9 Within proto-Sunnī Islam,10 the early followers of the Prophet Muḥammad—his “Companions” (ṣaḥāba)—similarly emerged as figures who, “not divine themselves, were nonetheless holy people.”11 As with Muḥammad and the Shīʿī imāms, veneration of the Companions manifested in several forms, including in hagiographical literature that portrayed them as “saintly and military heroes,” and in visitation of their tombs throughout the Near East.12
Positive conceptions of the Prophet's Companions were not, however, universally shared among early Muslims, and questions of individual Companions' holiness or uprightness were tied to definitions of, and divisions within, the Islamic community. Describing the formation of sectarian groups within early Islam, Scott Lucas writes that the divisions between these groups “arose out of irreconcilable historiographies rather than theologies.”13 In large part these different historiographies hinged upon divergent interpretations of, and narratives about, the Companions' actions in the years following the Prophet's death, the events of which were core to “the distinctive identities of various groups (parties, sects) within the Islamic community.”14 Indeed, utilizing Margaret Somers' work, Adam Gaiser and Thomas Sizgorich have drawn attention to the important part that these foundational narratives played in early Muslims' definitions of their communal identities, in terms both of intra-Muslim sectarian debates and of early Muslims' (dis)identification with Jews and Christians.15
In this article, I explore the effects of these sectarian disagreements on early literary representations of a Prophetic Companion about whom early Muslim groups distinctly disagreed: Ṭalḥa b. ʿUbayd Allāh, a Meccan convert to Islam who immigrated with the Muslim community to Medina in 1/622. For Sunnīs, Shīʿīs, as well as Khārijīs, Ṭalḥa was a controversial figure. Alongside the Prophet's wife ʿĀʾisha bt. Abī Bakr and the Companion al-Zubayr b. al-ʿAwwām, Ṭalḥa launched a challenge to the caliphate of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib, an uprising that culminated in the Battle of the Camel near Baṣra in southern Iraq in 36/656, at which Ṭalḥa and al-Zubayr were both killed.16 Within Islamic historiography, this rebellion—known as the First Fitna or Civil War—appears as a central point of contestation and embarrassment, as it found the Prophet's Companions battling against one another over the right to lead the Islamic community. As Josef van Ess summarizes, “The crux in explaining the events was that those who had killed each other during the first Fitna gradually became, as ṣaḥāba, the model for future generations. They had sinned. How should one put up with this fact?”17
Reflecting the different answers to this question reached by Sunnīs, Shīʿīs, and Khārijīs, Ṭalḥa's reputation within Islamic biographical and historical texts is a mixed and complicated one, with his alternating rehabilitation and vilification by different Muslim groups. I suggest that these sectarian perspectives manifest within early texts in the variable guise of a highly potent symbol: Ṭalḥa b. ʿUbayd Allāh's dead body.18 Following his death at the Battle of the Camel, Ṭalḥa's corpse was buried in Baṣra, where its narrativized experience was nearly as variable as were the perspectives on his character. Some reports (akhbār, sing. khabar) draw upon late antique hagiographic topoi to present Ṭalḥa as a martyr whose saintly body lay undecayed in his grave; conversely, other reports depict the decay of Ṭalḥa as he disintegrates in the dirt. I argue that these variant representations of Ṭalḥa's corpse embody the politico-religious divisions among the Muslims who composed and transmitted these histories in the second/eighth and third/ninth centuries. The divergent reports about Ṭalḥa b. ʿUbayd Allāh's death, burial, and afterlife demonstrate how sectarian arguments about Islamic sacred history and communal identity were narratively mapped onto this Companion's corpse.
These differing conceptions of Ṭalḥa and his role in Islamic communal history were not only embodied in narratives, but were also enacted by early Muslims through ritual performances of sectarian identity and memory. Stories of the discovery and reburial of Ṭalḥa's miraculously undecayed corpse overlap in our sources with reports of second/eighth- and third/ninth-century Muslims praying and receiving miracles at Ṭalḥa's grave in Baṣra. Here—much like at other late antique pilgrimage locations—narrative, ritual, and space interacted in the creation of an early Islamic “site of memory” that commemorated the death and burial of one of the Prophet's prominent Companions.19 Yet the narrative offered by Ṭalḥa's tomb was a potentially divisive one: I suggest that Ṭalḥa's symbolic value as a participant in the Civil War against ʿAlī allowed his tomb to stand as a proto-Sunnī counterpoint in Baṣra to the devotional spaces of other early Islamic sects that emerged in second/eighth-century Iraq. Just as Shīʿīs and Khārijīs memorialized their sacred histories at ritual sites in Iraq, proto-Sunnīs developed Ṭalḥa's tomb in Baṣra to practice their own version of Islamic communal history and memory.
Ṭalḥa's Incorruptible Body and Late Antique Hagiographic Discourse
Developing in closely adjacent oral, literary, and cultural environments to those that produced late antique stories of Christian and Jewish holy men and women, early Islamic texts exhibit clear engagement with the ideas about, and characterizations of, sacred figures that circulated among these other late antique religious communities.20 Early Islamic literary representations of prophets, imāms, and martyrs often exhibit clear echoes of the hagiographic characteristics displayed within Jewish and Christian texts by saints, patriarchs, and rabbis. Among such shared manifestations of holiness is the incorruptibility of holy persons' dead bodies: within late antique texts, the holy person's corpse often shows no signs of death, looking as though it is simply sleeping and exuding sweet odors rather than the stench of death.21 A notable adaptation of these late antique topoi occurs in several descriptions of the discovery of Ṭalḥa b. ʿUbayd Allāh's corpse, uncovered free from decay following his death at the Battle of the Camel. Drawing upon several features of the late antique hagiographic discourse, these narratives create an early Islamic version of a relic invention, “an important aspect of the developing cult of the saints.”22
Christian texts from across the late antique Mediterranean world include descriptions of saints' bodies that display no decay after their deaths. In his homily On Theodore, for example, the fourth-century bishop Gregory of Nyssa states that Theodore's martyred body “is in many respects different from other bodies: it was not dissolved by the death that happens to everybody, though it is composed from similar matter.”23 The special nature of saintly bodies is often dramatically conveyed by the discovery (or inventio) of a holy person who, though long dead, looks “as though he had died that very day” (ὡς σήμερον τελειωθείς).24 An early example appears in the fifth-century Latin Life of Ambrose, which describes the discovery of the ancient martyr Nazarius's body, covered in blood “as fresh as if it had just been shed,” with his decapitated head “entire and incorrupt [integrum atque incorruptum], still with its hair and beard.”25 In a later case, the Syriac biography of the seventh-century bishop of Qartmin Mār Gabriel relates that when Gabriel's corpse was uncovered some 130 years after his death, “The hair of his body, his flesh, and his beard were all preserved.”26 Descriptions of similarly uncorrupted bodies are found in the biographies of many other famous Christian holy men from across the Mediterranean world, such as Symeon Stylites in Syria,27 Sabas in Palestine,28 and Cuthbert in England.29
Late ancient Jewish sources also refer to the incorruptible bodies of several holy personages.30 Rabbinic midrash presents invulnerability to decay as part of the paradisiacal state of humanity's original creation “in God's image”: for example, in a list of the changes that Adam experienced with his expulsion from Eden, the Abot de Rabbi Nathan states that one of Adam's new attributes is that “the worm and maggot will have power over him” (ששלטה בה רמה ותולעה).31 Several biblical patriarchs and matriarchs' bodies are similarly characterized in a tradition of the Babylonian Talmud, which states that “our rabbis taught that there were seven over whom the worms had no power, and they were Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and Benjamin son of Jacob.”32 In Sifre Deuteronomy, Rabbi Eliezer b. Jacob maintains that Moses' undecayed state continues into the present, saying that “if anyone should touch the flesh of Moses, its natural force would even now spring forth in all directions.”33 While rabbinic sources most often associate such corporeal incorruptibility with biblical figures, some stories also depict Rabbi Eleazar b. Rabbi Shimon's corpse similarly surviving for years impervious to “the worms” and even producing fresh blood when hair is plucked from the rabbi's head.34
Emerging in dialogue with these late antique conceptions of holy persons' sanctity, early Islamic texts similarly present the unchanging corpses of certain persons as evidence of the righteousness and sacred status of these individuals. Paralleling the Talmud's ascription of invulnerability to the biblical patriarchs, a ḥadīth from the Prophet Muḥammad states, “God has forbidden the earth to eat the bodies of the prophets,” “prophet” being the category in which Islamic tradition places many of these same biblical figures.35 A concrete example of this doctrine appears in a story set in the period of the Islamic conquest of Iraq and Persia in the 20s/640s: inside the treasury of the city of Tustar, the Muslim conquerors discover the body of the biblical prophet Daniel. Daniel's corpse exhibits no decay, “except for some little hairs on the back of his neck, for the earth does not decay the flesh of the prophets nor do wild beasts eat them,”36 the latter being another hagiographic characteristic known among late antique saints.37 Similarly, when John the Baptist's decapitated head is found during the construction of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus in the early second/eighth century, “the flesh and hairs upon his head had not changed.”38 In addition to these more ancient figures, Muḥammad's own body displays his blessed prophetic status in stories about the preparation of his corpse for burial. Dressing the body, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib exclaims, “How fragrant you are, both alive and dead!” and it is narrated that “nothing was observed on the Messenger of God of what is usually observed on the dead.”39
In addition to prophets, several martyrs and Companions are also discovered lying in their graves in an undecayed state in Islamic stories strongly reminiscent of Christian inventio narratives. For example, in the days of the caliph ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb (r. 13–23/634–644), a corpse is discovered in southern Arabia: it is identified as ʿAbd Allāh b. al-Thāmir, one of the Christian martyrs of the sixth-century massacre at Najrān. Miraculously, ʿAbd Allāh's body is like new, with blood flowing from a still-fresh wound on his head that—like the blood-soaked bodies of long-dead Christian martyrs discovered in late antique inventiones—demonstrates “the continued potency of the martyred body.”40 Several Companions martyred at the Battle of Uḥud (3/625) are similarly unearthed during the rule of the Umayyad caliph Muʿāwiya b. Abī Sufyān (r. 41–60/661–680), some forty years after their deaths. The martyrs' bodies are brought out undecayed and so fresh that, when a shovel strikes the foot of one of them, blood flows from the new wound.41 When one these martyrs, ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿAmr b. Ḥarām, is uncovered, his son Jābir finds ʿAbd Allāh lying in his grave “as though he were sleeping, with nothing having changed in his condition, either large or small.”42 Alternatively, in a version that echoes the description of the Prophet Daniel's corpse having lost some “small hairs on the back of his neck,” ʿAbd Allāh is said not to have changed at all “except for some little hairs in his beard that were near the ground.”
Several of these hagiographic characteristics also appear in stories about the uncovering of Ṭalḥa b. ʿUbayd Allāh's corpse. One such report is recorded in ʿAbd al-Razzāq's (d. 211/826) ḥadīth collection, al-Muṣannaf, where Ṭalḥa's status as a martyr is indicated by his story's placement in the “chapter regarding prayer upon, and washing of, a martyr” (باب الصلاة على الشهيد وغسله).43 There ʿAbd al-Razzāq reports:
A family member of Ṭalḥa b. ʿUbayd Allāh saw Ṭalḥa in a dream saying, “You've buried me in a place where water has come in. Move me from it!” So they moved him. When they removed him from the grave, which was like an aqueduct [سلقة (silqa)], nothing had changed upon him except some small hairs of his beard.44
Here, the flooding of Ṭalḥa's grave necessitates a message to one of his relatives, asking them to fix the situation. When the grave is uncovered, it is found to be full of water, a veritable aqueduct: but like the Christian saints who look as though they had “died that very day,” and the Islamic prophets whose bodies cannot be consumed by the earth, Ṭalḥa's holy body is not affected by time or the water that seeped into his grave. Even the small parts of him that do exhibit some change, the “small hairs of his beard,” echo stories about the corpses of the prophet Daniel and the martyr ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿAmr, both said to have lost some “small hairs.”
In addition to Ṭalḥa's undecayed body itself, other narrative features of its discovery also echo late antique hagiography. Within the variant versions of this narrative found across several texts, Ṭalḥa's exhumation is almost invariably occasioned by his appearance in a dream. This dreamer sometimes goes unnamed, as in ʿAbd al-Razzāq's report of a nameless relative of Ṭalḥa receiving a visit from Ṭalḥa. Often, however, Ṭalḥa's daughter ʿĀʾisha is specified as the one who receives Ṭalḥa's message and who, as a result, unearths her father's body. For example:
ʿĀʾisha bt. Ṭalḥa b. ʿUbayd Allāh saw her father—Ṭalḥa b. ʿUbayd Allāh—in a dream. He said to her, “O daughter, remove me from this place! The moisture has annoyed me.” She reported this thirty years or so after [his death]. She removed him from that place and he was fresh (طرياً) with nothing changed upon him.45
In another version, an unnamed man describes his dream of Ṭalḥa complaining about his flooded grave to ʿĀʾisha bt. Ṭalḥa, who uncovers the body and finds that “he had not changed, except for some little hairs on one side of his beard or head.”46 While the dreamer varies, all these versions depict Ṭalḥa's body being uncovered as a result of his appearance in a dream, demanding that he be moved to a new location.
This recurrent theme strongly recalls late antique relic inventiones, in which a deceased holy person commonly appears in a dream or vision to guide someone to his or her relics in order to translate them to a new location.47 For example, the Passio of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste recounts how—after their charred remains are dumped in a river—the forty martyrs appear to a bishop and tell him, “Our relics are hidden in the river: come at night and get us out!”48 In the Syriac life of the Mesopotamian monk Benjamin of Nehardea, Benjamin visits the famous monasteries of Mount Izla, where the buried saint Mār Awgin (the traditional founder of Mesopotamia monasticism) appears to him in a vision, saying:
The foul heresy of Nestorius and Bar Sawma—servants of men, not of God—will, in the future, hold rule over our monastery and the land of the east. So take my body and the bodies of the ten blessed ancients that lay buried with me in my monastery on Mount Izla. Take them and place them in the monastery of Mār Solomon, below the monastery of Noṭpo, near Mardin, towards the east.49
The saints' expressed reasons for wanting to be moved vary in these different texts, ranging from the Forty Martyrs' desire to be saved from a watery grave to Mār Awgin's heresiological concern about who might have control of his burial place. In all these cases, the movement of the saint's relics is precipitated by a dream or vision, demanding that a new location be found for the endangered saintly remains.
Like the stories about the incorruptible corpses of the Prophet Muḥammad and other early Islamic figures, these narratives about Ṭalḥa b. ʿUbayd Allāh utilize late antique hagiographic topoi in order to illustrate his status as a holy man in the mold of saints, patriarchs, prophets, and martyrs. A comparable engagement with late antique traditions occurs in Islamic narratives about the discovery of John the Baptist's head during the construction of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus: noting the strong affinities with Byzantine literary and iconographic representations of the head's discovery, Nancy Khalek writes, “the transmitters of these reports or the authors who complied their narratives were drawing upon the visual cues in Christian imagery in order to, rather literally, illustrate their own Islamized version of the event.”50 The Muslim raconteurs of Ṭalḥa's story, too, were literate in the late antique hagiographic koine and drew upon its symbols in creating an early Islamic inventio narrating the uncovering of Ṭalḥa's blessedly undecaying body.
Undecayed, or Faceless and Green: Sectarian Depictions of Ṭalḥa's Corpse
In other accounts of Ṭalḥa's exhumation, a very different description of his corpse appears. While these accounts closely parallel the narratives about Ṭalḥa's unearthed body just discussed, instead of depicting a perfectly preserved corpse, they describe, in often morbid detail, the corpse's rot and decay. Standing in contrast to one another, these divergent representations of Ṭalḥa's corpse offer a window, I suggest, into early Islamic intra-religious debates in the sectarian environment of Iraq in the second/eighth and third/ninth centuries. In this period, different politico-religious groups used the foundational history of Islam as a vehicle to articulate their arguments about more contemporary political and religious leadership and community, “shaping an identity by reconstructing its past.”51 As different early Muslim groups and individuals created and/or related these stories, they used Ṭalḥa's corpse to illustrate their differing conceptions of the sacred history (and present) of the Islamic community.
In one widely attested report, a brief description of Ṭalḥa's death and burial during the Battle of the Camel is followed by a narrative flash forward to the time of his exhumation:
A family member of Ṭalḥa saw him saying, “Won't you deliver me from this water? I have sunk!” Three times he said this. They excavated him from his grave, which was green, as though it were chard [سلق (silq)], and they drained the water from it. Then they brought out Ṭalḥa and, behold, the earth had consumed his beard and face.52
Like the narratives studied above, Ṭalḥa comes to a family member (seemingly in a dream) and requests that they remove him from his moist grave. The family member complies, but what is then found inside Ṭalḥa's grave is rather different from the body uncovered in the previously examined versions of the story. While those narratives mention the water that filled the grave like an aqueduct (silqa), here the text emphasizes the brackishness of the water, saying it is green (أخضر) like a leafy vegetable (silq).53 Moreover, the earth and water have eaten away Ṭalḥa's face and beard: Instead of the miraculously preserved body of a saint, prophet, or martyr, Ṭalḥa here is a moldering corpse, falling apart in the process of decay.
A similarly unflattering image of Ṭalḥa appears in a version in which Ṭalḥa appears in the dreams not of a family member, but of a mawlā (servant/client) of his.54 Reversing the traditional patron-client relationship, Ṭalḥa here seeks the aid of his former dependent and “complained to him of the cold” that he feels in his grave. After three consecutive nights sending this message, the mawlā finally exhumes Ṭalḥa and “found that the parts of his body near the earth had turned green and that his hair had fallen out.” Here it is Ṭalḥa's body itself—rather than the water filling the grave—that displays a brackish green color, ravaged by the process of decay. Additionally, all of his hair has fallen out of his head as his body falls apart. Ṭalḥa's appearance here is miserable, his green flesh and loss of hair standing in stark contrast to the traditions in which holy people's bodies lay undecayed and lose only a few “small hairs,” if any at all. Indeed, begging his mawlā for help and complaining of the cold in his grave, Ṭalḥa further signals his torment after death.
These variant representations of Ṭalḥa's corpse recall the warring historiographic images of other hotly debated late antique figures, such as Nestorius of Constantinople or the Prophet Muḥammad. Nestorius and Muḥammad—both of whom were alternatively venerated as foundational figures and vilified as heretics by different late antique religious communities—are represented in either hagiographic or horrific forms in the different literary descriptions of their dead bodies.55 While East Syrian (Nestorian) texts present Nestorius as a “martyr of Christ” who died peacefully in his monastic cell and delivered miracles from beyond the grave,56 Chalcedonian and Monophysite texts instead depict Nestorius as a heretic who died on the toilet with his internal organs leaking from his anus or with his tongue falling off as his mouth was devoured by worms.57 Similarly, while we saw above the stories about the Prophet Muḥammad's blessedly undecaying body, other early traditions in both Christian and Islamic texts depict the putrid decay of the Prophet Muḥammad's corpse.58 The polemical value of a founder's saintly body—or a heretic's rotting corpse—meant these stories could easily slip into the differing historiographies of different religious communities.59
Much as the variant representations of Nestorius reflect the competitions and differing self-understandings of late antique Christian sects, the different images of Ṭalḥa can similarly be understood as propaganda in the historiographical polemics of rival Muslim groups of the second/eighth and third/ninth centuries. During this period, early Muslim scholars used narratives about the period of the Prophet Muḥammad and his Companions “as a means of justifying one's claims to status or leadership in the community.”60 As noted above, the events of the Civil War were particularly significant foundational stories, drawn upon by early Muslims to burnish their respective group's version of events and, thus, conception of the Islamic community, “link[ing] the question of legitimacy directly to particular historical events, by means of a narrative.”61 Due to Ṭalḥa's place in these acrimonious events, the fate of his corpse functioned as a charged symbol for later Muslim storytellers to draw upon in making arguments about the nature of Islamic communal history and leadership.
While precisely dating these historical traditions is difficult, their isnāds—the lists of oral transmitters that precede the actual narrative of each report—offer clues into where, when, and among whom these historiographic debates were occurring.62 As Khalid Keshk has observed, the transmission history of akhbār indicates that “early narrators of akhbār material were the ones who shaped (‘colored’ if you will) the story according to their interest.”63 Indeed, the isnāds for the reports about Ṭalḥa's corpse offer an interesting example of this phenomenon (see Figure 1). In several of the reports cited above, the first two tradents are identical, with Qays b. Abī Ḥāzim (d. ca. 84–98/703–17),64 the earliest narrator, transmitting this tradition to Ismāʿīl b. Abī Khālid (d. 145–46/762–63).65 After Ismāʿīl, however, the line of transmission splits in three directions: (1) the version with Ṭalḥa's unchanged body is reported from Sufyān b. ʿUyayna (d. 196/811–2);66 (2) the version with Ṭalḥa's decayed face and beard is reported from Abū Usāma Ḥammād b. Usāma (d. 201/816–17);67 and (3) the version with Ṭalḥa's green and hairless body is reported from ʿAlī b. Mushir (d. 189/805).68 Based on the different narrative details present in each of these reports, one or more of these transmitters seemingly either “misheard” what Ismāʿīl b. Abī Khālid said or (more likely) deliberately altered the narrative to fit his ideological preferences, “shaping” or “coloring” the story through slight variations.
While it is impossible to tell which version of the story came first, this branching of the isnād indicates that very different narratives were being transmitted about Ṭalḥa's body by the late second/eighth century. The impetuses for these diverging stories can perhaps be deduced from examining the backgrounds of the stories' various narrators. As noted, the versions describing Ṭalḥa's decayed corpse are reported by Abū Usāma and ʿAlī b. Mushir, who were both Kūfan ḥadīth transmitters of the late second/eighth century. Kūfa was a Shīʿī stronghold in this period, with the Muslim scholars there often characterized as displaying Shīʿī proclivities, most prominently reverence for ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib and preference for him over his caliphal predecessors, especially ʿUthmān b. ʿAffān (d. 36/656).69 Perhaps, then, Abū Usāma's and ʿAlī b. Mushir's reports convey a Kūfan and/or Shīʿī-leaning version of the story of Ṭalḥa's body: Ṭalḥa's decay would be satisfying for a Shīʿī audience that regarded him (and the other participants in the Battle of the Camel) as rebels whom the caliph ʿAlī's forces rightfully fought and killed.70 Indeed, the fourth/tenth-century Shīʿī scholar al-Shaykh al-Mufīd would come to cite precisely this image of Ṭalḥa's decaying body in his book on the Battle of the Camel.71
Moreoever, reports within prosopographical literature suggest that the transmitter Abū Usāma may have favored just such a defamatory representation of Ṭalḥa. Although generally portrayed as a proto-Sunnī in biographical sources, there are occasional indications that Abū Usāma—a mawlā of the Banū Hāshim, the clan of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib—harbored some Shīʿī leanings. Such ideological proclivities are well displayed in the report that:
Abū Usāma said, “One who gives precedence to ʿUthmān over ʿAlī—may God be pleased with them both—is a fool.” Abū Usāma also said, “My mother was one of the Shīʿa.”72
This report attributes to Abū Usāma the trademark Shīʿī preference of the caliph ʿAlī over ʿUthmān (though notably not a complete rejection of ʿUthmān), and suggests that Abū Usāma had inherited this sectarian inclination from his mother. In another report, Abū Usāma purposefully carries some of this ideology into his transmission of ḥadīth: “Whenever Abū Usāma saw ʿĀʾisha [bt. Abī Bakr's name] in a text, he would scrape it and obscure it.”73 Here Abū Usāma executes a sort of damnatio memoriae against one of Ṭalḥa's fellow rebels at the Battle of the Camel, altering texts to mar ʿĀʾisha's name. Perhaps Abū Usāma similarly altered the story of Ṭalḥa's corpse to delegitimize another enemy of ʿAlī.
The narrative depicting Ṭalḥa turning green and losing his hair likewise appears to have been transmitted by at least one person with a strong affiliation with Shīʿism. The individual who received this tradition from Ismāʿīl b. Abī Khālid—ʿAlī b. Mushir—was a Kūfan scholar appointed as judge over Mosul. While ʿAlī b. Mushir is not reported to have had any particular Shīʿī inclinations, the person to whom he reported the tradition about Ṭalḥa, ʿAbd al-Salām b. Ṣāliḥ (d. 236/851), certainly did.74 ʿAbd al-Salām b. Ṣāliḥ studied with both proto-Sunnī and Shīʿī teachers,75 but is remembered within Shīʿī sources as a close follower of the Shīʿī imām ʿAlī b. Mūsā al-Riḍā (d. 203/818) and the author of a book on the latter's death.76 Indeed, while ʿAbd al-Salām is mentioned positively in Sunnī biographical texts, this praise appears with the caveat that he is “reliable and honest, except for his Shīʿism” (ثقة صدوق إلاّ يتشيّع).77 While Sunnī sources claim that ʿAbd al-Salām was not excessive in his Shīʿism and spoke of the Prophet's Companions positively, they also describe him secretly relating traditions of a Shīʿī cast unpalatable to Sunnī ears. The transmission of a tradition critical of ʿAlī's enemy at the Battle of the Camel certainly seems to match the purported activities of this Shīʿī believer.
Finally, in contrast to the grotesque images of Ṭalḥa reported by these scholars, the last of the three transmitters from Ismāʿīl b. Abī Khālid—Sufyān b. ʿUyayna—instead reported a tradition about Ṭalḥa's undecayed body. While details of Ibn ʿUyayna's life are limited, biographical sources strongly associate him with the proto-Sunnī “Ḥadīth party” or “Traditionalists” (aṣḥāb al-ḥadīth) of the second/eighth century.78 Unlike the negative image conveyed in the stories of Ṭalḥa's decaying corpse, Ibn ʿUyayna's report of an incorruptible Ṭalḥa well reflects the proto-Sunnī veneration of the Prophet's Companions. While membership in the aṣḥāb al-ḥadīth was relatively politically and ideologically varied in this early period, what characterized the group as a whole was their basing their legal views on traditions (i.e., ḥadīths or akhbār) about the actions of the Prophet Muḥammad, related through the testimony of the Companions. Due to their role in transmitting traditions about the Prophet, as well as the assumption that they themselves embodied the Prophet's sunna, the Companions came to be considered by the aṣḥāb al-ḥadith as collectively rightfully-guided.79 Emergent Sunnī groups thus excused the participants in the Civil War such as Ṭalḥa and al-Zubayr, with explanations ranging from agnostic suspensions of judgement on the Companions' actions80 to claims of deathbed repentances over their sinful acts.81 By the late second/eighth century, this apologetic effort among proto-Sunnī groups led to a narrative of the Civil War in which, rather than infighting among the Companions, it was the devious machinations of Shīʿī schismatics and other uncouth elements that actually sowed this discord within the early Islamic community.82
The attractiveness of stories about Ṭalḥa's undecayed body for proto-Sunnīs like Ibn ʿUyayna is confirmed by examining who else transmitted reports about Ṭalḥa's undecayed body (see Figure 2). As noted above, several reports describe the uncovering of Ṭalḥa's undecayed body after his appearance in a dream, reported on the authority of either ʿĀʾisha bt. Ṭalḥa herself or another witness to the disinterment, an unidentified woman named Āmina.83 Notably, many of the individuals who transmitted these narratives are from Baṣra: in contrast to Shīʿī-leaning Kūfa, the sectarian environment of Baṣra in the second/eighth century contained a strong current of “ʿUthmāniyya,” i.e. adherence to the righteousness of the caliph ʿUthmān over (and sometimes to the exclusion of) that of ʿAlī.84 In some circumstances, members of the ʿUthmāniyya appears to have been loyal to the Umayyad caliphate (r. 41–132/661–750) and thus directly opposed to Shīʿī claims of the ʿAlid family's right to the caliphate.85 By the mid-second/eighth century, ʿUthmānīs appear to have advocated a politically quietist stance that harmonized the differences between the Companions and accepted all of them as religious and legal authorities, a proto-Sunnī position closely related to that of the Ḥadīth Party.86
Such a point of view is ascribed to several of the Baṣrans who transmitted the traditions about Ṭalḥa's undecayed body, including Ḥammād b. Salama (d. 167/783) and ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Mahdī (d. 198/813). These and other Baṣran ḥadīth transmitters are described as being among those who “adhere to all of the Companions of the Prophet and do not disassociate from any of them.”87 This conciliatory perspective on the Companions appears in other traditions transmitted by Baṣran scholars that explicitly absolve of guilt the participants in the Civil War. For example, Baṣrans transmitted the story of a prayer uttered by the Companion Burayda b. al-Ḥuṣayb asking God to forgive ʿUthmān, ʿAlī, Ṭalḥa, and al-Zubayr and stating they were “a people concerning whom God had a preconceived plan. If he wishes to forgive them for what was preconceived for them, he will do so.”88 A similar message is conveyed in a story told by ʿAlī b. Zayd b. Judʿān (d. 127/744 or 131/747)—one of the Baṣrans whose name appears in the isnād of a tradition about Ṭalḥa's undecayed body—in which God miraculously changes the face of a man insulting Ṭalḥa, Zubayr, and ʿAlī.89 These apologetic traditions advocate that the participants in the Civil War not be judged or insulted: Such a positive understanding of Ṭalḥa certainly would have allowed, and encouraged, his portrayal as a person whose holiness manifested in his body's lack of decay.
A proto-Sunnī—and perhaps more specifically anti-Shīʿī—impetus likely also informed the two Baghdādī ḥadīth scholars who transmitted the stories of Ṭalḥa's undecayed corpse from the Baṣrans just discussed. Abū Khaythama Zuhayr b. Ḥarb (234/848-9) and his son Ibn Abī Khaythama Aḥmad b. Zuhayr (279/892) were ʿUthmānī scholars, with the father mentioned among those Baghdādīs who “do not consider ʿAlī's rule to have been correct … they reject him and maintain that his rule was civil war (fitna).”90 This anti-ʿAlid tendency appears in traditions narrated by, and about, the two of them, such as their avoidance of ʿAlī's name when enumerating the righteous caliphs.91 Traditions about the body of Ṭalḥa—who fought ʿAlī at the Battle of the Camel—lying undecayed in the grave may have been useful in opposing pro-ʿAlid currents. Perhaps for this reason, Abū Khaythama and his son appear as central nodes in the transmission of these traditions, receiving them from the Baṣrans and reporting them onwards to other ḥadīth scholars.
As these different stories attest, Ṭalḥa's body was a useful symbol for early Muslims, displaying either his holiness or his villainy, depending on the version of the story told. Due to Ṭalḥa's status as an enemy of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib, the versions of the story favored by transmitters with Shīʿī affinities depicted Ṭalḥa as a decaying, bloated corpse. Conversely, the stories of Ṭalḥa's incorruptible body provided a useful image of his virtuous status that fit within the proto-Sunnī reverence for the Companions. It is likely for this reason that proto-Sunnī scholars such as Sufyān b. ʿUyayna, Ḥammād b. Salama, and Ibn Abī Khaythama transmitted reports describing the exhumation of Ṭalḥa's fresh body: indeed, as we will see below, proto-Sunnī scholars appear to have been keenly interested in Ṭalḥa's reinternment in Baṣra.
Memory and Tradition at a Proto-Sunnī Shrine
The hagiographic stories of Ṭalḥa's undecayed body may have participated in a broader agenda than the positive representation of one of the Prophet's Companions: these narratives appear to have been used in cultivating Ṭalḥa's gravesite within Baṣra as a place of veneration and, perhaps, a proto-Sunnī “site of memory.”92 Ṭalḥa's grave in Baṣra offered a memorial to a particular conception of the Islamic past: his body in the tomb—still pristine, despite his death in a fratricidal battle—offered a useful representation of the virtuous Islamic community that, in the imagination of proto-Sunnīs, had existed among the Companions. Yet this idea of the past Islamic community was also an implicit rejection of the alternative historical memories that other Muslim groups within the sectarian milieu of second/eighth- and third/ninth-century Iraq themselves held.93 Similar to the ways that Shīʿī and Khārijī groups physicalized their own sacred histories in space through the commemoration and veneration of their own sacred figures, proto-Sunnīs commemorated a particular understanding of Islamic sacred history through veneration of Ṭalḥa's grave.
In several versions of the uncovering of Ṭalḥa's undecayed body, the corpse's discovery is connected to the location of Ṭalḥa's grave. For example, a report in the third/ninth-century historian Aḥmad b. Yaḥyā al-Balādhūrī's Ansāb al-Ashrāf states:
Abū al-Yaqẓān and other Baṣrans say: Ṭalḥa was buried near the Qurra bridge in Baṣra. After thirty years, ʿĀʾisha bt. Ṭalḥa saw him complaining of the moisture and ordered that he be taken out: he was found like new. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Salāma al-Tamīmī was in charge of taking him out. He was buried among the hijriyyīn and his grave is well-known there.94
Here al-Balādhūrī reiterates the story of the discovery of Ṭalḥa's body and provides further details about his reburial, including that he was buried “among the hijriyyīn” (i.e., those who had made the hijra from Mecca to Medina with the Prophet Muḥammad) and that his grave there is “well-known” (معروف).95 A note of officialdom is added with the mention of the individual credited with the exhumation, a man named ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Salāma al-Tamīmī.96 Ascribed to Abū al-Yaqẓān, a Baṣran scholar who reportedly died in 190/806, al-Balādhūrī's report suggests that the tomb may have been venerated already by the late second/eighth century.97
The early fourth/tenth-century Andalusian scholar Ibn ʿAbd Rabbihi's al-ʿIqd al-Farīd gives a more detailed image of what veneration of Ṭalḥa's grave at Baṣra may have entailed. In the version of the inventio recorded here, after uncovering her father's perfectly preserved corpse, ʿĀʾisha bt. Ṭalḥa “bought an open lot in Baṣra, buried him there, and built a mosque/prayer space [مسجد (masjid)] around it.” It is then reported:
I have seen a woman of Baṣra carry a long-necked bottle of ben tree oil and pour it upon the grave until she emptied it. She did not cease from doing that until the soil of the grave reeked of musk.98
This iteration of the story makes explicit how the site of Ṭalḥa's burial has become a sacred space, with a religious building placed over the grave. Moreover, in an explicit act of veneration, a woman anoints Ṭalḥa's grave with fragrant oil, a ritual act of the late antique cult of the saints evidenced within both hagiography and material evidence.99
Other rituals reportedly were carried out at Ṭalḥa's grave by Baṣrans in the second/eighth and third/ninth centuries. The prominent Baṣran scholar al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (d. 110/728) describes how, among water carriers, “his grave is a place of refuge … one of them will place his water skin by the grave and his wish is fulfilled,” seemingly indicating that the container is then miraculously filled. Al-Ḥasan notes, “I have never seen anything more marvelous than these people!”100 A report from another Baṣran, Abū Bakr Ibn Abī ʿĀṣim (d. 287/900), states:
I have seen many of the people of knowledge and the people of excellence—when one of them considers a matter—turn towards [Ṭalḥa's] grave, wish peace upon him, and call upon his presence. After this, he knows the answer.101
The report indicates that scholars (أهل العلم وأهل الفضل) made ritual usage of Ṭalḥa's grave, turning towards it as a place of special significance when making decisions. Commenting further, Ibn Abī ʿĀṣim states that “our shaykhs report that they have seen those from long before them do this,” claiming that this is a practice rooted in Baṣran precedent.
Why did Ṭalḥa's tomb become a place of veneration within Baṣra? On the one hand, it is fitting that Baṣran Muslims transmitted narratives of the uncovering and reburial of Ṭalḥa's miraculously preserved body decades after his death, as well as stories of the rituals and miracles associated with the space. This celebration of a local shrine is comparable to tomb and relic cults found in other late antique environments, what Richard Payne describes as “the Christian construction of holy places through narrative, ritual, and cultic buildings that took place throughout the Near East and the Mediterranean from the late fourth century.”102 As Payne notes, narrative, ritual, and place often interacted in the creation of such sacred spaces, including in the circulation of stories celebrating the site. Indeed, the stories of Ṭalḥa recall narratives of the recovery of the bodies of Christian (and, later, Islamic) saints that were often used to provide mandate for the saint's veneration in a particular place.103 Evidence suggests that, by and large, veneration of saints was of a highly local nature in late antiquity, with most pilgrims coming from the shrine or tomb's immediate vicinity.104 We might explain the proliferation within Baṣra of traditions about Ṭalḥa's body within the context of the presence of his tomb there and the support for a local shrine.
On the other hand, Ṭalḥa's tomb may have functioned not only as a local Baṣran holy space, but also as a site of proto-Sunnī (and, perhaps, specifically ʿUthmānī) memory, similar to the memorial sites and veneration practices that were emerging among other Muslim sects in second/eighth-century Iraq. Najam Haider has drawn attention to the ways in which “a distinct Imāmī [Shīʿī] identity was increasingly reflected in a practice that combined ritual and space, specifically pilgrimage to sites of religious importance.”105 Over the course of the second/eighth and third/ninth centuries, pilgrimage to and rituals at al-Ḥusayn b. ʿAlī's shrine in Karbalāʾ were defined as central components of Shīʿī practice, identified as part of the “specific characteristics that distinguish an Imāmī from the wider mass of Muslims.”106 The tomb of ʿAlī in Kūfa similarly became the object of Shīʿī pilgrimage, as did the shrines of other ʿAlid family members and sites associated with Shīʿī sacred history in both Iraq and Arabia.107
Another early Islamic sect—the Khārijīs—similarly developed the tombs of their own martyrs in Iraq as sites of sectarian memory. Distinct from both the Shīʿa and the proto-Sunnīs, the Khārijīs tied their origins to the events of the Civil War: like the Shīʿa, the Khārijīs saw Ṭalḥa and his fellows at the Battle of the Camel as rebels but, unlike the Shīʿa, the Khārijīs came to see ʿAlī as a disbeliever to be fought as well.108 Over the first/seventh and second/eighth centuries, different Khārijī groups rebelled against the ruling authorities in Iraq and the tombs of some of these Khārijī fighters emerged as powerful Khārijī communal spaces. Khārijīs preparing for battle would reportedly travel to the tomb of Ṣāliḥ b. Musarriḥ (d. 76/695) near Mosul in northern Iraq, where they would then ritually shave their heads, a distinct Khārijī identity marker.109 When another Khārijī leader was buried in Baṣra in the late first/seventh century, the cemetery's owners reportedly “hated this … fearing that the Khārijīs would make the grave into a place of pilgrimage” (مهاجراً).110 These and other reports suggest that the tombs of Khārijī leaders were significant spaces in Iraq for Khārijīs' performance of their specific sectarian identity.
Just as the formation of late antique Christian communities was facilitated in part by pilgrimage to the tombs of martyrs and other foundational figures of Christian history, visitation of Shīʿī and Khārijī tombs and remembrance of the lives of the primordial leaders buried there were aspects in the creation of distinct early Islamic communities. Catherine Bell notes that commemorative ritual of the sort that the Shīʿa performed at Karbalāʾ “turns the events of a historical narrative into a type of cyclical sacred myth … generating powerful images and activities of corporate identity.”111 Intimately connected with the sense of community created by these spaces and their attendant rituals, however, there was “another, rather obvious, component of pilgrimage and, particularly, of pilgrimage places: namely, the formulation of communal identity vis-à-vis another group, a real or created ‘collective other.’”112 Pilgrimages to the shrine of the martyred Shīʿī imām or Khārijī rebel leader thus function as “a polemic [sic] device to construct boundaries of identity and exclusion.”113 Through both ritual and narrative, these spaces materialized imagined boundaries: incorporating those within, while excluding those without.
Like the Shīʿa and the Khārijīs that utilized the graves of their heroes in crafting their sectarian communities, proto-Sunnīs may have used Ṭalḥa's grave as a space for the articulation of their own Islamic sectarian identity. In his study of early Arabic historiographical texts about the Civil War, Erling Petersen suggests that the Companion al-Zubayr “appears to have become a kind of Uthmanite patron saint of Basra.”114 While the evidence is patchy, Ṭalḥa b. ʿUbayd Allāh similarly appears to qualify as an ʿUthmānī Baṣran “patron saint.” The circulation within Baṣra of inventio narratives (complete with a dream apparition and a miraculously undecayed body), a grave among the hijriyyīn, and even (according to some reports) a mosque surrounding the grave all suggest the significance of Ṭalḥa's burial site. The reports of a woman scenting the grave, water carriers receiving miracles there, and scholars turning to the grave for aid indicate that rituals were taking place at the gravesite. Moreover, there are strong indications that people were performing pious travel there by at least the fourth/tenth century, when the Sunnī scholar Ibn Ḥibbān al-Bustī (d. 345/956) describes Ṭalḥa's grave as “famous and visited” (مشهور يزار) and the Shīʿī historian al-Masʿūdī (d. 345/956) similarly says “his grave and his mosque in Baṣra are famous up to today” (قبره ومسجده بها مشهور الى هذا الغاية).115
Due to Ṭalḥa's role in the Civil War, any visitors to his grave were almost certainly proto-Sunnīs, who understood Ṭalḥa as one of the Prophet's righteously guided Companions: a perspective rejected by both Shīʿa and Khārijīs. An incident in fourth/tenth-century Baghdad dramatically illustrates the sectarian valence of veneration of Ṭalḥa and the other participants in the Battle of the Camel. In 363/973 during the month of Muḥarram—the month in which the Shīʿa commemorate al-Ḥusayn's martyrdom at Karbalāʾ—some Sunnīs in Baghdad held a counter-memorial:
A group of Sunnīs placed a woman on a camel and called her ʿĀʾisha, while someone took the name Ṭalḥa and another took the name al-Zubayr. They said, “We are going to battle the followers of ʿAlī!” As a result of this, many from both sides were killed.116
According to this account, a group of Baghdadi Sunnīs (جماعة من أهل السنة) seemingly responded to the Shīʿa's tribute to a foundational event of their sectarian identity with the commemoration of a distinctly non-Shīʿī event, the Battle of the Camel, leading to a “great riot between the Sunnīs and the Shīʿa” that left many dead. While there is no evidence that this was a regularly occurring celebration, the Sunnī commemoration of the Battle of the Camel described here indicates how divisive—and useful for sectarian identity—this history was for Iraqi Muslims in a slightly later period than that studied in this paper.
Within the sectarian swirl of Iraq in the second/eighth and third/ninth centuries, an anti-Shīʿī impetus similarly may have informed proto-Sunnī cultivation of Ṭalḥa's grave as a site that memorialized the fight against ʿAlī.117 Indeed, we find that ʿUthmānī proto-Sunnīs were some of the vocal proponents of Ṭalḥa's grave. For example, Ibn ʿAbd Rabbihi's al-ʿIqd al-Farīd cites the story of the woman anointing Ṭalḥa's grave from the second/eighth-century Iraqi ḥadīth scholar Sufyan al-Thawrī (d. 161/778).118 Such a report celebrating the tomb of Ṭalḥa fits the ideology ascribed elsewhere to al-Thawrī, who is often portrayed as having been pro-Umayyad and opposed to the Shīʿa.119 In several reports, Sufyān al-Thawrī is said to have criticized Shīʿī devotion to ʿAlī, saying, “Whoever gives precedence to ʿAlī over Abū Bakr and ʿUmar makes a mockery of the Companions of the Messenger of God.”120 Similarly, when discussing the righteous caliphs, “Sufyān al-Thawrī would say, ‘Abū Bakr, ʿUmar, and ʿUthmān’ and then fall silent,” leaving ʿAlī off the list.121 From the opposing side, Shīʿī historical memory is equally antagonistic towards al-Thawrī, presenting him as a liar and a member of the oppressive Umayyad police force (shurṭa) that killed the Shīʿī martyr Zayd b. ʿAlī in 122/740.122
This anti-Shīʿī image of Sufyān is complicated by reports that state that he “preferred ʿAlī over ʿUthmān” or explicitly classify him as a Shīʿī.123 Yet whatever Shīʿism Sufyān may have harbored was reportedly weakened by time in Baṣra later in his life:
Sufyān used to follow the opinion of the Kūfans, giving precedence to ʿAlī over Abū Bakr and ʿUmar [the first two caliphs]. But when he arrived in Baṣra, he turned away from that and preferred Abū Bakr and ʿUmar over ʿAlī.124
Thus, while Sufyān had earlier held the Kūfan position of celebrating ʿAlī over the other caliphs, his stand on this issue is said to have changed in Baṣra, moving in a proto-Sunnī direction.125 Indeed, according to another report, Sufyān's encounter with two Baṣran proto-Sunnīs—ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿAwn (d. 151/768) and Ayyūb al-Sakhtiyānī (d. 131/748–49)—explicitly caused him to “leave Shīʿism” (فترك التشيّع).126 Perhaps related to this change of heart, Sufyān reportedly said, “The Shīʿī extremists (الروافض) have left me, and I am loath to mention the merits of ʿAlī.”127 The association of al-Thawrī's “conversion” with his time in Baṣra points to the dominant presence there of non-Shīʿī voices in this period. Indeed, the Baṣran scholars who “converted” al-Thawrī away from Shīʿism both appear to have had extensive Umayyad connections.128
Proto-Sunnism of an ʿUthmānī cast is likewise found among several other individuals interested in Ṭalḥa's grave. Ibn Abī Khaythama—one of the anti-ʿAlid Baghdādī scholars who transmitted stories of Ṭalḥa's undecayed body—notes that he personally visited Ṭalḥa's grave in Baṣra, suggesting his patronage of the site.129 The third/ninth-century Syrian historian Abū Zurʿa al-Dimashqī (d. 281/894) mentions that “the scholars maintain that Ṭalḥa's and al-Zubayr are buried in Baṣra” and cites this information about Ṭalḥa's and al-Zubayr's “martyrium” (مشهدهم) from individuals associated with the Umayyads in Syria, including Ibn Shihāb al-Zuhrī (d. 124/742) and Yūnus b. Yazīd al-Aylī (d. 159/776).130 Finally, Ibn Abī ʿĀṣim, who reported that scholars would look to Ṭalḥa's grave when making decisions, was a member of the “people of sunna and ḥadīth” and is said to have composed a book on the merits of Muʿāwiya b. Abī Sufyān, the progenitor of the Umayyad caliphate and enemy of the Shīʿa.131
Thus, in several cases the individuals most vocal in our sources about Ṭalḥa's grave are not only proto-Sunnīs, but also anti-Shīʿa. This suggests that the grave may have functioned as a counterpoint, or at least alternative, to the Shīʿī memorial sites elsewhere in Iraq. Because the Civil War was such a touchstone of ideological conflict between different Muslim groups, veneration of the grave of one of the war's participants—and, according to some, one of its martyrs—was likely an ideologically charged act. Within the hodgepodge of Muslim groups present in Baṣra (and Iraq more generally), the veneration of Ṭalḥa likely stood as a visible ritual performance of proto-Sunnī and perhaps ʿUthmānī identity.
The different images of Ṭalḥa b. ʿUbayd Allāh offered by the narratives of his exhumation demonstrate early Muslim groups' usages of late antique literary topoi in illustrating their alternative perspectives on this divisive figure. As noted above, the image of the decaying body was drawn upon by late antique groups to vilify their enemies: Christians, for example, portrayed the Prophet Muḥammad's body decaying to illustrate what they saw as Muḥammad's false prophecy and, thus, Islam's falseness as a tradition. For some early Muslims—especially the Shīʿa, who regarded Ṭalḥa as a betrayer of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib—the stories of Ṭalḥa's body being eaten by the dirt or turning green likely fulfilled a similar polemical function, with Ṭalḥa's immorality viscerally embodied by his corpse's decay. In contrast, other reports of Ṭalḥa's corpse are steeped in the language of late antique hagiography, with his story reading like an inventio of a long-lost saint, prophet, or patriarch. These reports were almost certainly spread by proto-Sunnī Muslims, for whom Ṭalḥa's incorrupt body testified to his status as a sacred figure and embodied an understanding of Islamic history friendly to the Companions, such as Ṭalḥa, who were elsewhere vilified by Shīʿī and Khārijī polemics.
In combination with these hagiographic stories, Ṭalḥa's grave became a space for the performance of a proto-Sunnī understanding of Islamic communal history. Performed by Muslims of the second/eighth and third/ninth centuries who understood Ṭalḥa as a righteous Companion of the Prophet Muḥammad, the rituals at his grave were avenues for the remembrance of a specifically proto-Sunnī holy person, rejected by other Muslim sectarian groups of this period. Like veneration at the shrines of Shīʿī and Khārijī martyrs—as well as at those of Christian and Jewish martyrs among these other late antique communities—worship at Ṭalḥa's grave offered an opportunity to perform membership in a specific religious community. At this location, proto-Sunnīs could remember the contentious history of the First Civil War in such a way as to unite their own community around a sacred figure, even as these rituals and stories simultaneously rejected the memories of other early Muslim groups.