A letter from ʿAlī on the history of the caliphate: A key source text

On May 31st 2023, Dr. Nebil Husayn led a research seminar examining an early pro-ʿAlid epistle attributed to ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib (d. 40/661) that defends his claims to leadership and critiques his rivals. The epistle emerged in the context of intra-army disputes after ʿAlī’s companions were murdered. While the work survives primarily in Twelver Shīʿī sources like those of al-Qummī, al-Kulaynī, Ibn Rustam al-Ṭabarī, and Ibn Ṭāwūs, some Sunni historians like al-Balādhurī also referenced it, indicating early circulation. Dr. Husayn analysed both the transmission and contents of this epistle, interrogating the relationship between the oral and written and the text’s role in shaping pro-ʿAlid identity and early Shi’ism. The seminar also provided an annotated English translation of the epistle to shed light on its persuasive style and rhetoric.

In the discussion period, attendees explored the epistle’s historical context, literary form, intended audience, and influence in consolidating factional perspectives in Islam’s formative period. The seminar illuminated how early pro-ʿAlid textual production helped crystallise political and theological viewpoints.

Watch the seminar

Speaker bio

Dr Nebil Husayn is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and a faculty affiliate of the Center for Global Black Studies at the University of Miami. He will be a Visiting Research Fellow at Al-Mahdi Institute between May and June 2023. His research explores authoritarianism in the Middle East, debates on the caliphate, and the development of Islamic thought. Husayn also serves as a Senior Research Advisor for Mipsterz, an arts and culture collective curating, enabling, and amplifying artists of marginalized backgrounds through illustration, film, and music. He is the recipient of a Fulbright award and the University of Miami Fellowship in the Arts and Humanities. Husayn obtained his Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University and an M.A. in Arabic and Islamic Studies from Harvard University. He is the author of Opposing the Imam (Cambridge University Press, 2021), which examines the history of early Muslims who were hostile to Islam’s fourth caliph, Ali, and his descendants.