Narrative History or Non-Fiction Historical Novel?

by Aasem Bakhshi

Why does an apple fall when it is ripe? Is it brought down by the force of gravity? Is it because its stalk withers? Because it is dried by the sun, because it grows too heavy, or the wind shakes it, or because the boy standing under the tree wants to eat it? ‘None of these is the cause. They only make up the combination of conditions under which every living process of organic nature fulfills itself. In the same way the historian who declares that Napoleon went to Moscow because he wanted to, and perished because Alexander desired his destruction, will be just as right and wrong as the man who says that a mass weighing thousands of tons, tottering and undetermined, fell in consequence of the last blow of the pickaxe wielded by the last navy. In historical events great men – so-called – are but labels serving to give a name to the event, and like labels they have the least possible connection with the event itself. Every action of theirs, that seems to them an act of their own free-will, is in the historical sense not free at all but is bound up with the whole course of history and preordained from all eternity.

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

After-the-prophet-iiWouldn't you visualize Livia Drusila the wife of Roman emperor Augustus as a cunning and venomous political mastermind if your sole introduction to ancient Roman history is Robert Graves' engrossing autobiographical tale of emperor Claudius? Haven't you always visualized the last Roman emperor of Julio-Claudian dynasty, the infamous Nero, playing fiddle while Rome was burning in 64 AD? Can anyone have a more predominant image of Abu Sufyan's wife Hind Bint Utbah than the one represented by Irene Papas through her revengeful eyes and blood-dripping lips in the film The Message (1976) when she was shown chewing the liver of Prophet Muhammad's uncle Hamza after the Battle of Uhud?

These are all overpowering images, sustained over time, and hard to erase from the slate of our memories. It doesn't matter much if we argue, for instance, that it was not Hind but the black slave Wahshi who actually gouged out Hamza's liver according to a traditional Muslim historian Ibn Kathir's narrative or else that the earliest recording of the incident by the historian Ibn Ishaq is a dubious attribution because of broken chains of narration. Similarly, does it matter that fiddles were non-existent in first-century Rome and it is probably an anciently preserved metaphor, as Nero was famous for his love of extraordinary indulgence in music and play? It would not transform these images the least if we juxtapose the contradicting accounts of Suetonius, Cassius and Tacitus and present evidence that Nero even returned immediately from Antium and organized a great relief effort from his own funds, even opening his palaces for the survivors. And it is pretty much futile to argue ― after BBC popularized Graves' autobiographical account of Claudius by adapting it into a TV series ― that Livia might not be a such a thorough Machiavellian character, and in fact it was not her favorite pastime to scheme political upheavals and poison every other claimant to Roman throne.

Thus after centuries of dust settling over innumerable layers of narratives, the quest for historical certainty, for that which actually happened, is overpowered by popular images that refuse to erase themselves from collective memory.

And this, of course, is also the single most important contribution of British-American psychologist Lesley Hazleton's narrative history of Shia-Sunni split: refreshing and reinforcing some already held soppy images.

But this is not about reviewing Hazleton's reading of the perennial sectarian split at the heart of Islam per se; rather, using her as a
template to locate the increasingly blurred lines between narrative history and historical fiction. In the wake of this relatively new genre taking a sharp modern turn, where must a reader not well-rooted within the whole literary tradition of the respective historical current place his sensibility regarding authenticity of the historical truth?

That Hazleton is more interested in psychological characterization and building a juicy and well-coherent narrative, rather than objective historical analysis and criticism, is easily evident even from a cursory look through the text. Even though, the characterization and speculative psychological insights are evenly distributed all over the text, Hazleton surely has her pivotal choice of heroes and villains to build a gripping narrative. Well-meaning heroes, who are eventually destined to be gypped, and pernicious villains, who are designed to exploit. As Hazleton's publishers must have carefully put it in the title, it has to be marketed for the reader as an 'Epic Story', an epic Game of Thrones adventure intricately built around the desire for power.

Therefore, right from the beginning, the narrative essentially revolves around the struggle for accession to this proverbial throne. The opening part supplies images in which Prophet Muhammad, who according to the author, was perhaps leading a life of celibacy after the death of his most beloved wife Khadija is dying and the community is not yet ready to grapple with his evident death. In an authorial figment of imagination, all of his wives surely did try to get pregnant by him in order to bear a son and it was Ayesha who was specially haunted by her childlessness. Understandably so, as her readers naturally having modern sensibilities and this being a medieval monarchical structure, Hazleton must logically supply reader with an image where the community is fragile enough to disintegrate in the absence of an immediate political center. Hence, as they say, the stage is set in the opening part for the power play amidst usual chaos depicted in a medieval folklore,

What did he intend to happen after his death? This is the question that will haunt the whole tragic story of the Sunni-Shia split, though by its nature, it is unanswerable. In everything that was to follow, everyone claimed to have insight into what the Prophet thought and what he wanted. Yet in the lack of a clear and unequivocal designation of his successor, nobody could prove it beyond any shadow of doubt. However convinced they may have been that they were right, there were always those who would maintain otherwise. Certainty was a matter of faith rather than fact.

Subsequently, in this cheesy narrative pivoted around power struggle, Ayesha is depicted as a charming and impudent young brat who, as she gets older, essentially acquires a Livian element with a soft Machiavellian composition, which Hazleton carefully imparts as if there is enough historical truth to substantiate her psychological make-up beyond reasonable doubt.

How could a teenage girl possibly compete against the hallowed memory of a dead woman? But then who but a teenage girl would even dream of trying? Charming she must have been, and sassy she definitely was. Sometimes, though, the charm wears thin, at least to the modern ear. The stories Ayesha later told of her marriage were intended to show her influence and spiritedness, but there is often a definite edge to them, a sense of a young woman not to be crossed or denied, of someone who could all too easily switch from spirited to mean-spirited.

Throughout her narrative, this Machiavellian composition of Ayesha is carefully pitted against composed and well-balanced demeanour of Muhammad's cousin Ali, whom Hazleton portrays something closer to an Arthurian legend with Excalibur (book has a reference to Excalibur too comparing it with Ali's famous sword Al-Zulfiqar). And because it is naturally a demand of a stronger narrative, Hazleton never fails to speculate even when there is little room to supply a tinge of any imagined political conflict between Ali and other challengers of succession to Prophet Muhammad, namely Abu Bakr and Omar

The meaning was clear: in a society where to give was more honorable than to receive, the man who gave his daughter’s hand bestowed the higher honor. While Abu Bakr and Omar honored Muhammad by marrying their daughters to him, he did not return the honor but chose Ali instead.

But if there is a true Livian character in this tale, it is Muawiyah, the powerful governor of Syria whose promised reinforcements Muawiahdidn't arrive to avert the assassination of third caliph Othman, according to some of Hazleton's sources.

Certainly he was no one-dimensional villain, though it is true he looked the part. He had a protruding stomach, bulging eyes, and feet swollen by gout, but as though in compensation for his physical shortcomings, he was possessed of an extraordinary subtlety of mind […] Eight centuries before Niccolò Machiavelli wrote The Prince, Muawiya was the supreme expert in the attainment and maintenance of power, a clear-eyed pragmatist who delighted in the art and science of manipulation, whether by bribery, flattery, intelligence, or exquisitely calculated deception […] The famed image of Hind cramming Hamza’s liver into her mouth worked to his advantage. Any son of such a mother could inspire not just fear but respect, and Muawiya commanded both. Except from Ali […] Poison has none of the heroics of battle. It works quietly and selectively, one might almost say discreetly. For Muawiya, it was the perfect weapon.

For an informed reader, therefore, authorial intention easily protrudes from the text, rather it is the subtext itself which lays bare Evening_of_ashoora the intent to give a chilling speculative quality to the whole story as it is told. Hence, it is usually through the subtext that we see Muawiyah and his associates, among them Amr Bin Al Aas, poisoning, deceiving and when it is necessary, battling their way to the throne. From the point of view of an impartial author who doesn't have a possible conflict of interest, Hazleton carefully chooses her sources ― her chief source being the Annals of Tabari ― and claims not to prefer less authentic ones over the stronger. However, using her authorial right to choose among various versions of the same incident, she intelligently prefers the most chilling and controversial version over the casual and discreet ones. This is the primary reason why the readers who are generally unacquainted with classical Muslim sources such as those of Tabari, Ibn Saad, Ibn Athir and Masudi etc would find Hazleton's accounts of Battles of Siffin, Jam'l and subsequent events of Karbala in Yazid's reign simply unputdownable. However, such readers must understand that the chief success of Hazleton's work lies in its ability to create an extremely readable and gripping narrative with psychological insights of a bystander looking piercingly into her historical subjects.

Moreover, if the text is read carefully, she is able to present a decent popular point of view, drawing from both sides of history as well heresiography. What she fails to make emphatically clear is that historical certainty and objectivity must not be compromised for the flair of narrative. From a sheer academic point of view, the text is absolutely unworthy of attention primarily because it doesn't live up to its promise of linking the present Shia-Sunni conflicts in contemporary Syria and Iraq to its alleged historical roots. There is a lot more to the Shia-Sunni conflict then a supposed Game of Thrones and it certainly has as much to do with the global politics during post-formative periods of Islam, not to mention another more interesting conflict between two different theological meta-narratives.

Hazleton neither has the historical insight of William Dalrymple, nor has she the profundity of Orlando Figes to produce a useful narrative-history for widely informed audience. In the absence of footnotes and textual references, it is extremely hard to trace her contentions and speculations to original sources. Furthermore, the distraught and superficially agitated nature of the narrative is generally distasteful to a serious reader, who might not be interested in an over-dramatized good vs evil story. At the most, Hazleton's account must be read as a riveting historical novel adapting real characters and actual events. Unfortunately for a serious student of history, it has nothing much to chew.

Therefore, as a reader who is certainly not a history buff but have at least this much interest to have an occasional monthly drift towards the genre, this leaves me baffled about the whole genre, and I am compelled to raise a question about the balance between imagining a narrative or creating one from the sources. Of course, latter has its downside as well since there has to be a certain degree of selective bias in choosing the particular sources to support the preconceived line of enquiry; however, a committed reader can always point that out after a little hard-work.

From a Christian point of view, a somewhat similar case in point is Reza Aslan's reconstruction of life and times of Jesus of ZealotNazareth. One can argue that from a particular kind of revisionist Christian setting Aslan does a decent act of balancing the historical Jesus, that is of Nazareth, with the theological one that is Christ and Savior. However, from the standpoint of all the hype that it created due to generally misplaced Islamophobic critiques and the authorial defenses centered on a presumably academic unbiased historical work, shouldn't it be considered a mediocre work when placed into narrative history genre?

Let us see how. Aslan's basic idea: disentangle historical Jesus from the theological one by contending that the former was a radicalized anti-Roman zealous Jew. The claim is not alarmingly novel, at least from a Muslim standpoint, however, Aslan's work merely moves on the fringes of the arguments. In my humble opinion, its neither a rebuttal of classical orthodox Christian position and nor a critical challenge to it. To achieve any of that Aslan had to delve deep into the theology and scriptural interpretation of last 20 centuries, from which he deliberately distanced himself by calling his work a 'historical study'. However, on the chronological scale that he is working, its nearly impossible to disentangle history from theology and the work obviously suffers not recognizing that. Even a Muslim reader would struggle to grapple with Aslan's portrait of Jesus and in the end it would only prove to be a gripping read for his non-religious audience.

In a nutshell, Aslan claims to engage himself in the domain of critical history (drawing from a rich archive of secondary revisionist sources) rather than literary analysis but the grandiose claims that he makes belong as much to the latter. I do not even have an amateur reading in Biblical studies but my reader's hunch says that a Biblical scholar would accuse him of cherry-picking from selective ancient sources, such as Josephus. As far as his flat reconstructions of Jewish resistance into a formal zealotry is concerned, well, one can only leave it to a more informed reader; a more or less equally informed reader, as I am in the case of Hazleton.

Coming back to my original motivation of producing this seemingly agitated tirade against writers whom I otherwise adore, where should one position himself as a reader while accessing narrative history? More specifically, where is the exact boundary between the idealized narrative history and the nonfiction historical novel? Historians know best, but from a reader's point of view, it is probably not so much an art of failure to separate the tendency, rather impulsive proclivity, to sensationalize the reader from the will to inform him about history. Since more and more lay-historians are embracing the sensationally imaginative version of narrative form, it is perhaps time to call it a nonfiction historical story rather than proper narrative history.