Analysis of Wilferd Madelung’s book “The Succession to Muhammad”

Written by Farid 
Posted by 13S2010

بسم الله الرحمن الرحیم

As promised, here are some thoughts on the book “The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate” by Wilferd Madelung. Refer to the wikipedia article for a brief bio about the man:

To start off, Madelung relied on Abu Mikhnaf, Al-Mufeed, and Nasr bin Muzahim extensively. He also said that Al-Waqidi is the more reliable source when it came to the crisis in the caliphate of Uthman (p. 373). Ironically, Madelung, often mentions that the witness of certain reports were pro-Ali or pro-Uthman, and thus, their narration supports their view, so it should be considered unreliable. This is a positive step forward. However, Madelung rarely applies this to the base sources. He will never reject a narration from Nasr bin Muzahim’s Waq’at Siffeen that depicts Mu’awiyah as a bloodthirsty war monger even though Nasr was a rafidhi. Instead, he will rely on these sources blindly. Due to this, Madelung relied on Nasr bin Muzahim continuously for tens of pages without casting any doubt on the contents of the narrations. This is extremely problematic especially since Madelung, in most cases, assumes that narrations attributed to witnesses should be accepted as authentic unless there is something seriously wrong with the matn. Due to this, he rarely ever accuses someone in the chain of attributing a false view to a narrator.

On pages 18-27, Madelung quotes several contradictory narrations attributed to A’isha and Ibn Abbas. Instead of attempting to either weaken the ones with weak chains, he chooses to assert that both are liars that fabricated narrations that supported their own views. He also drew a picture that they both hated each other. He says (p.22): “It will be seen that both of them were prepared to invent stories to bolster their claims and to discredit their opponents.” However, we only have to go as far as Fadha’il Al-Sahaba by Al-Imam Ahmad to see that they both praised each other and saw each other in a great light.

I also found another thing ironic about his approach. He was hell-bent on proving that the shaikhain were two faced. Take for example the bay’ah of Abu Bakr (p. 39-40). Every knows that Abu Bakr didn’t want the khilafa for himself and he would rather be a follower and follow Omar or Abu Obaida. I’m not aware of a difference of opinion from the sources that suggest this. Madelung, instead, argues that Abu Bakr knew that nobody would accept Omar or Abu Obaida as khalifa, and he was hinting for them to give bay’ah to him. In other words, Madelung twisted the obvious and clear meaning of the narration to one that suited a hypocritical Abu Bakr. Was this because Madelung has approached this issue with preconceptions in mind? Was it because he had his mind filled with non-sense from all the Shia historical writings that he’s been eating up? Wallahu a’alam.

Similarly, Madelung implies that Omar did not want Ali to become the khalifa (refer to the section titled “Umar: Commander of the Faithful). How is this accurate when Omar himself appointed six people up for shura and included Ali as one of them? According to the narration in the Saheehain, Omar was asked by the Muslimeen to appoint a leader. He said to them that istikhlaaf was practiced by Abu Bakr, and that Abu Bakr is greater than him, but that leaving the matter without specifying a single person was the way of the Prophet (pbuh), and thus, he chose that option. So, once again, Madelung against the clear and obvious narration and uses his baseless interpretation to change the outlook of the reader regarding this historical event.

Rarely, we will see Madelung attempt to take a page out of the book of the Muslims by using their terms and supposedly attempting their version of historical criticism. One time (p. 127), he argues that an isnad is excellent. However, when we take a closer look, we realize that Al-Waqidi is the main narrator of the chain.

He also seems to be ignorant when it comes to marifat al-ruwaat (knowing who the narrators are). For example, he states that Al-Hussain bin Isa, the shaikh of Amr bin Hammad, is Al-Hussain bin Isa bin Muslim Al-Kufi, when in reality, he is Al-Hussain bin Isa bin Zaid bin Zain Al-Abideen. This is clear when one examines the qara’in that surround who he narrated from and who narrated from him.

Furthermore, my biggest issue in the book is that the author rarely gives any weight to the Sunni version of history, and more importantly, he attempts to re-invent the wheel by introducing this new methodology of historical criticism. Moreover, he completely disregards accusations of forgery against the Shia historians. Mind you, these accusations have nothing to do with rejecting the innovator for the sake of his innovation, but rather, due to clear evidences that so-and-so is in fact a liar. As we are all aware, there are thiqaat from the Shia, and yet, we rarely find quotes from them in this book.

His tone and word choice, at times, seem childish, especially when describing Mu’awiyah. He mentions things that have nothing to do with the text, for example, referring to him as a taleeq, or a coward with no battle experience. He also goes on to examine the psyche of Mua’wiyah when he makes his decisions regarding war preparation and politics instead of simply doing the job of the historian, which is to state the facts in an orderly fashion. At times, I feel like I am reading a novel instead of an academic historical work.

Most importantly, I did learn from this that Sunnis are light years ahead of Orientalists when it comes to judging the basis of historical material. See the works of Sulaiman Al-Oda and Yahya Al-Yahya for example, wa lillahi al-hamd.


Filed under Articles, History, Rebuttals

21 responses to “Analysis of Wilferd Madelung’s book “The Succession to Muhammad”


    From your absolutely negative analysis as expected it becomes crystal clear that either you are not literate enough to understand English or too biased to digest the truth . The Writer is a devout Christian, not a muslim, neither a shia nor Sunni , why he should be partial to be favouring one sect and condemning the leadership of the other sect altogather . It seems that the truth is too bitter to sink in and therefore your analyser does not seems to be pleased with any view of his inferences he came out after extensive studies and researches of the contemporary History much of which was earlier written on the tip of the sword or at best with near vision of the hanging of the Sack of Gold and silver coins .


  2. qarib

    Just give me one good reason why he should be Biased towards Shia verson of history as you put it and not the other way around… ?? Just one good reason why..??

    • The reasons are given in the article. Please read it. Don’t comment without reading the article.

    • ibadat

      If any one could not understand him-self that who is she or he really than how is possible to know the real-facts of historical events which is just like a blind-man searching black ant in a dark room,for the real understanding we have to go beyond the historical-information which is full of biased-ocean but we have to see the things with the inner-eye not with the eye of face,as our beloved Prophet MPBUH graciously guided that don’t see the things as you are but try to see the things as they are.

  3. L. H. Zaidi

    Prof Madelung perhaps is not fully aware that from the very day prophet Mohd (PBUH) dies the so called Muslims of the day started the slander manufacturing factories against ALI (AS) and this continued for 70 Years after the death of ALI (AS). The available literature today reflects that. To know such fine discrepancies one has to be from within.

  4. Abu Amaan

    One good reason for Wilferd Madelung’s bias towards the shi’a position could simply be that he came to the conclusion it was the better position. But the problem is after that you cannot say he is objective. He has written much on Ismalis, Ziadis and other shi’a and is a Senior research fellow at the Institute for Ismaili Studies. Surely one can see that his face is more firmly rooted towards the Shia rather than that of the Sunni.

  5. brother

    Salaam, thank you for your review, brother. I’m currently compiling some books and materials on the history of the early caliphates. Could you please list the best English books (original or translation) on this area? Thank you again.

  6. Muslim

    I don’t like to identify myself as either a Sunni or a Shia which are sects that evolved and developed and elaborated doctrines over time. I identify myself as a Muslim. I reject the exaggerations and distortions that Shias do for Ali and the blessed progeny of the blessed Prophet through the blessed Ali and the blessed Fatima. And I don’t like the character assassinations that Shias do for anyone who did not support Ali. But I also reject the factually baseless idea that anyone who was a confessional Muslim at the time of the Prophet was a super-righteous person above any ill intentions.

    With that said, it is clear from an objective research of Sunni, Shia, Orientalist works that Ali ibn Abi Talib was the best leader for Islam and the Muslims. Ali was the most wise, the most pious, the most brave, the best fighter, the most knowledgeable, the best orator, the most honest, the most trustworthy, the one who worked hardest for Islam from day 1 and who accomplished the most in bringing victory for the Prophet (through of course ALLAH swt) and many other characteristics one can think of.

    However, because of tribalism he was not chosen. Abu Bakr and Omar were good Muslims but they were not brilliant interpreters of the Qur’an like Ali nor were they as great exemplars like Ali. May Allah reward Uthman for accepting Islam but it is clear from the evidence we have that he was more nepotistic than some of the corrupt rulers of today….of course this was a culture a thousand years ago but it is still sad that Uthman did not take counsel from Ali. Ali absorbed the Islamic ethos from the Prophet more than anyone else.

    Regarding Muawiyah, it is tragedy that people can even look up to him. Allah speaks very negatively about him and the rest who converted at the brink of being overtaken (see 5: 33-34). It is about time we speak sensibly. May Allah guide us to rise over our sectarian egos.

    It is about time we stop a sectarian mindset based on ahadith which usually do not fulfill Allah’s criteria in the Qur’an (2:282).

    Let us submit to Allah and leave sectariainism behind and focus on the Qur’an and work for reaching paradise.

    • اسلام علیکم
      بسم الله الرحمن الرحیم

      Objective research?

      Abubakr was chosen because of his great status not because of tribalism for he belonged to a small and weak tribe while Ali belonged to one of the biggest and powerful tribe Bani Hashim. So your claim is false.

      It is proven from Mutawatir narrations from Ali who said “The best people after the Prophet (saw) are Abubakr and Omar”.

      As far Uthman rule is concerned that He appointed his close ones. The same is the case with Ali who appointed many of his relatives as governors etc.

  7. farasat altif

    Wilfred madelung is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Ismaili Studies in London. He has tried to reconstruct the history using only those sources that fit his version of events.


  8. Arzoo

    People accepted Islam for two reasons. One as a political power other as a way of life – in pure essence of divine religion.
    The absence of all Khulafa E Rashidin from the final rites and burrial of the Prophet while everyone was present in the city, clearly shows and proves their real intentions.
    Any number of criteria and qualities that can be envisage in a person to head any state even in modern times rather the Islamic state established by the Prophet in his life time, were only possessed by one person – Ali Ibn Abutalib.
    There is no need to sweat on taking about the authenticity of historians or narrators or the believes of Wilferd Madelung. The way the caliphs were “appointed” and they took and used the titles for themselves were not even uniform.
    The list of Quoranic definite orders that were disobeyed and violates by the first three Caliphs are well documented without any doubt by all, authentic and ‘non-authentic’ historians and narrators of events. The changes made and put it Islamic Laws, mentioned in Quoran and practiced by the Prophet are entirely against the Quoran. Abolition of Temporary Marrage is one.
    Use your own intellect and wisdom to seek the truth. Only requirement is you have to be unbiased. Truth will appear like a sun.
    Dr. Arzoo

    • Salam Alaikum,

      Dr. Arzo,

      You have no idea what you are talking about. The Khulafa Rashideen ALL prayed the funeral of the Prophet (saw). It was Abubakr who told Muslims to bury Him (saw) in the place He (saw) died, the house of mother of believers Aisha Siddiqa (ra) (because he heard the Prophet (saw) saying Prophets are buried in the place where they die).

      Your whole sect claims the only good person was Ali while the rest were of bunch of hypocrites and later apostates. This is the Takfiri and deviant belief of Sabait sect of Imamiya Ithna Ashariya.

      Abubakr deserved the caliphate more than anybody else as he was the best of the Sahaba, better than all Sahaba, better than Umar, better than Ali etc. Abubakr faced bigger challenges during his 2 year rule than the challenges Ali faced and he defended Islamic capitals Madina and Makkah from powerful apostate tribes and paved the way for conquests.

      Muta was declared Haram by the Prophet (saw) as narrated by Ali bin abi Talib (ra).

      • Arzoo

        To the hiding person..(whom so ever he is)

        I have no comment to say. Please read any of the ‘the seven true books”. Without that it would be better to keep your mouth shut. Don’t expose your ignorance of the irrefutable facts.

        The Prophet’s last prayers and burial was done when the meeting in Saqeefa was going on.

  9. S.Hasan

    I completely agree with you, Dr Arzoo. For some, truth is a bitter pill. But in the end, it is truth which will prevail.



    There were some who supported Abu Bakr (r) and some who supported Ali (r). We at this point should accept all four caliphs and pay respect to them.

  11. wim

    is all this about the right for leadership after the prophet SAW?

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