Embedded in the literature of Muslims, Christians, and Jews are historicized narratives that purport to rationalize and contextualize the place of minority and sectarian groups in medieval Islamic society. Among these are those that, at first reading, tell the story of an intentional fictionalizing of history on the part of a minority group with the intent to deceive Muslim authorities and thereby gain advantage. A prototype for this narrative strategy is observed in the Book of Joshua, wherein the “pagan” Gibeonites employ a ruse to secure recognition and protection from the conquering monotheistic Israelites, who had been commanded by God to exterminate pagans. Three case studies (on the Sabians of Ḥarrān, Karaite Jews, and Khaybarī Jews) reveal that similar stories in medieval Islam are often the result of co-production, a phenomenon which constitutes a kind of cultural negotiation between the dominant culture and a sub-culture; between rulers and subject peoples, between Muslims and non-Muslims, and even between competing subaltern groups. Reshaped narratives about the caliph al-Ma‘mūn, the Prophet Muḥammad, or other key figures offered narrativized permission for the dominant Muslim religion and culture to tolerate the existence of groups whose theologies or practices challenged Muslim assumptions of collectivity, and correspondingly, might or might not be otherwise deemed unacceptable. These narratives also provided subalterns a kind of myth of origin for their place in Islamic society. What is at stake in these complex interweavings of memory, history, and literary construction are the rights and duties of the subordinate groups.

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