Ajam Podcast #25: Rebels, Imams, and Problems of History in Early Islam

To download the episode, subscribe to us in the iTunes store,  Spotify Podcasts, and Google Play.

In this episode, Rustin and Ali are joined by Professor Najam Haider, Professor of Religion at Barnard College, to talk about his recent book, The Rebel and the Imam in Early Islam: Explorations in Muslim Historiography.

The lack of contemporary sources for the first century of the Islamic period poses many challenges for historians past and present. Engaging with many of the impasses that still animate the study of early Islam, Professor Haider proposes that one way forward is to explore the rules that governed historical writing among early Muslims as well as their intended audiences. Instead of remaining preoccupied with 19th century European standards of historical writing, such as the search for veracity, he argues that the historians of the early Islamic period worked in continuity with the traditions of Late Antiquity. They were not interested in what “really happened,” but rather, they played with known narratives to make competing claims for contemporary audiences.  After a personal anecdote about his own interest in the subject, Haider walks us through the example of the seventh Twelver-Shi’i Imam, Musa al Kadhim, explaining how sources over the centuries have told and retold his biography in keeping with their own theological and political concerns.


Najam Haider is a Professor in the Department of Religion at Barnard University.  His research interests include early Islamic history, the methodology and development of Islamic law, and Shi‘ism. His first book, The Origins of the Shi‘a, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2011 and focused on the role of ritual and sacred space in the formation of Shī‘ī identity. His second book, Shī‘ī Islam, published by Cambridge University Press in 2014, offered a comprehensive overview of three branches of Shī‘ī Islam – Zaydī, Twelver, and Ismā‘īlī – through a framework of theology and memory. His most recent book, The Rebel and the Imam in Early Islam, published by Cambridge University Press in 2019, interrogates the question of what it mean to write history in the pre-modern Islamic world by drawing on the Late Antique historical tradition.

Najam Haider (@nhaider74) on Twitter


Ali Karjoo-Ravary

Ajam Editor. Josephine H. Detmer & Zareen Taj Mirza Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at Bucknell University.

Ali (@alikarjooravary) on Twitter


Rustin Zarkar

Ajam Editor / Middle East & Islamic Studies Librarian at UNC Chapel Hill.

Rustin (@RustinZ) on Twitter



Episode No. 25
Release Date: 12 October 2020
Recording Location: New Orleans, Louisiana.
Produced by Rustin Zarkar and Ali Karjoo-Ravary
Audio editing: Lindsey Stephenson and Nicholas Gunty
Music: Yavaran (Intro: “404 day in heaven” Outro: “Har Chi“)
Cover Image: Silsilat al-dhahab (Chain of gold) by Jami (d. 1492); Imam Zayn al-Abidin visits the Ke’ba, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery S1986.44.1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *