The Memory of al-Qadisiyyah & Its Uses


A review of Qādisiyyah, Then and Now: A Case Study of History and Memory, Religion, and Nationalism in Middle Eastern Discourse, by D Gershon Lewental.

D Gershon Lewental’s dissertation examines the memory of the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah, the process through which the narrative of the Battle was constructed in early Islamic historiography, the “metamorphosis of the event into legend,” and the “abuse and manipulation of the battle’s memory” by Ṣaddām Ḥusayn during his rule of Iraq (p. v). In two expansive volumes, Lewental marries a careful deconstruction of the Qādisiyyah narrative through a deep reading of the early Islamic conquest literature with a magnitudinous exploration of the meanings, intersections, and roles of history, memory, time, religion, nationalism, and identity in the modern Middle East.

The dissertation begins in Volume 1, Part 1, by reviewing “the ‘traditional’ account” of the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah that took definite shape during the ninth and tenth centuries” (pp. 1, 9). Lewental rightly emphasizes the difficulty of the task, as the original narrative has been submerged in “layers of religious, political, and nationalistic meaning,” “embellishment and even distortion” piled on by time, story-tellers, traditionists, historians, and political leaders (p. 7). Therefore, Lewental describes how he was able to identify several criteria that defined the traditional account, and then goes on to present the account itself (pp. 9-14).

Part 2 begins the formidable task of “recovering al-Qādisiyyah” (p. 15). To do so, Lewental divides his examination of the Qādisiyyah literature into six chapters. The first reviews early Islamic historiography, including its major themes and scholarly debates. It includes a discussion of the early oral transmission of the narrative by quṣṣāṣ (story-tellers) and the evolution of “history” from the sayings and traditions of Muḥammad and his Companions (ḥadīth) (pp. 17-19); a foray into the debate on how early Islamic history should be understood and analyzed (pp. 21-30); the sources upon which Lewental relies for his examination of al-Qādisiyyah (pp. 30-46); and a focused analysis of the Conquest (Futūḥ) literature (pp. 46-53). The third section of this first chapter, on the sources of the study, is particularly impressive. The sources are extraordinarily varied, not only in language (Arabic, Persian, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Hebrew), but also in sectarian identity, purpose, geography, date of composition, authorship, and subject matter. Further, the presentation of the primary sources in chart form (pp. 32-37), complete with color coating to highlight the authors’ ethnic backgrounds in the chronological list, helps guide the reader through the subsequent sections and can generally be considered a service rendered to the field.

The second chapter of Part 2 examines the topoi (features) that appear in the Qādisiyyah narrative, which builds on the discussion of the topoi that characterize the Conquest/Futūḥ literature contained in the final section of the preceding chapter. Lewental analyzes four of these topoi in depth: (1) Tales of heroism featuring specific individuals and tribes, including those of ‘Amr and other archetypal warriors; the Herculean al-Qa‘qā‘ of the Tamīm tribe; the tribe of Bajīlah, the numerical extent of its participation in the battle, and an intricate isnād-cum-matn analysis of the tale’s transmission; and instances of one-on-one combat (pp. 62-83). (2) Accounts of the Muslim emissaries who visited the Sāsānian leaders to offer them the option of peacefully submitting to Islam before embarking on the attack that resulted in Battle of al-Qādisiyyah, including the plausibility of the various accounts, the colorful story of al-Mughīrah, and an analysis of the message the envoys carried (pp. 83-98). (3) Omens and symbols employed to advance the idea that the Arab victory at al-Qādisiyyah was divinely- or pre-ordained, particularly that of a powerful westerly wind, and their connections to Quranic and Biblical stories (pp. 98-110). And (4) depictions of the Arab conquerors as naïve, pious, and innocent, which revolved around their unfamiliarity with the riches they captured in battle (pp. 110-14). For each, Lewental analyzes how the topoi formed and developed over time, which gives us significant insight into both the Qādisiyyah narrative itself and early Islamic historiography more generally. He also points out how his findings relate to those of other scholars, particularly in the chapter’s final section on the uniqueness of the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah (pp. 115-20).

In Chapter 3 of Part 2, Lewental explains this uniqueness by setting out the distinctive elements in the Qādisiyyah narrative that largely do not appear in the accounts of other Futūḥ battles. These include (1) the geography of the battle site, which plays a significant role in the accounts and in Sāsānian defenses (pp. 121-40); (2) criticism of the Arab general Sa‘d for his non-participation in the battle, reportedly due to his cowardice and infirmity (“a gout-like illness that caused boils on his posterior,” p. 141) (pp. 141-63); (3) the contrasting of Sa‘d with the heroic accounts of Abū Miḥjan ath-Thaqafī, a relatively minor poet and warrior and major oenophile and philanderer, who breaks free from the castle in which Sa‘d had imprisoned him, steals his captor’s horse, and rides into battle (pp. 163-79); (4) the performance and death in battle of the Sāsānian commander Rostam, the principal figure in the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah and a renowned hero in Iranian history, the accounts of whom are particularly euphuistic and literary (pp. 179-97); (5) the participation of elephants in the battle on the side of the Sāsānian forces, whose inclusion in the Qādisiyyah narrative suggests both the importance of the battle and the mark of quṣṣāṣ eager to amuse their listeners (pp. 197-208); and (6) the Arab seizure of the Sāsānian royal emblem (derafsh-e kāveyān), along with accompanying descriptions of Rostam’s throne and its defilement and a grand Persian carpet taken as booty (pp. 208-31). Lewental does a noble job of engaging, rather than shying away from, the complexities and contradictions in the accounts, which further deepens the analysis (see, e.g. pp. 143-44).

Chapter 4 (pp. 232-63) of Part 2 examines “one of the greatest cruxes surrounding the Qādisiyyah narrative”: the uncertainty regarding the date on which it took place and the sizes of the forces that fought in the battle, which were recorded in numerous contradictory accounts. Though Lewental asserts that trying to make the conflicting accounts more coherent is an exercise in futility that would neither produce more exact answers nor considerably add to the historiography of the battle, he proceeds to examine both issues in order to shed further light on how al-Qādisiyyah was recorded and perceived.

In Chapter 5 of Part 2 (pp. 264-301), Lewental turns to the non-Muslim sources that recount the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah in order to provide a “vertical examination” of the battle that compares specific accounts of the battle “across all sources” (p. 264). In addition to the Muslim (Arab and Persian) sources examined in the previous chapters, the non-Muslim accounts include Syriac and other Christian, Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Caucasian sources, and Lewental examines each in order. Though the non-Muslim sources are notable for their lack of detail, Lewental identifies several recurring themes in their accounts of the battle (the importance of divine intervention and punishment, depictions of Islam as transient, the failure of Persian archery, the appearance of a well-armed Sāsānian warrior being chased by a naked Arab fighter, and the Arab massacre of Christian worshipers at a religious festival), and argues for their utility in understanding the Qādisiyyah narrative.

In Chapter 6 (pp. 302-26), the final chapter of Part 2 and of Volume 1, Lewental summarizes what his examination of the Qādisiyyah narrative tells us about early Islamic historiography more generally and what we can take from the narrative itself. He also warns against viewing the battle as intrinsically involving a “clash of civilizations,” in part because the accounts suggest that it was not well-planned, against accepting claims of Muslim historians that the battle was decisive, and against the plausibility of establishing “kernels of truth” in the Qādisiyyah narrative.

Having comprehensively catalogued and analyzed the sources that compose the core of the Qādisiyyah narrative, Lewental moves on in Volume 2 to examine the evolution of the narrative, first in the centuries following the battle (Part 3) and then in the religious and nationalist rhetoric of the twentieth century (Part 4).

As is shown in Part 3 (p. 327), it was during the first centuries of Islam, the several hundred years after the battle, that early chroniclers compiled the essential elements of the Qādisiyyah narrative, including its classification as the pivotal battle in the Muslim conquest of Iran, thus giving it the distinct and definite shape that survives today. In Chapter 1 (pp. 328-37), Lewental examines the development of the narrative by focusing on “history and memory,” a framework that allows him to “learn how the first generations of Muslims remembered (or chose to remember) the battle,” and focuses particularly on how early historians compared it to later clashes in the conquest of Iran (pp. 328-29). Chapter 2 (pp. 338-61) looks at the role of early Islamic historiography in the contentious process of “constructing an ‘Islamic identity,’” which simultaneously served to define and legitimate Islam (p. 339), how that process is reflected in the Qādisiyyah narrative, and how Sāsānian and biblical precedents influenced the historical literature. Finally, in Chapter 3 (pp. 362-74) Lewental examines the “fate” of the physical site of al-Qādisiyyah where the battle took place and contraposes its otiosity with the dynamism and vitality of the Qādisiyyah narrative.

In Part 4 (pp. 375-76), Lewental elaborates on that final point by describing how the Qādisiyyah narrative has remained crucial and compelling in Arab-Muslim history and collective memory, in part through “recasting.” Chapter 1 (pp. 377-87) brings the narrative into the modern era, revealing that, even in the age of nationalism, it maintained its formulation as a battle between Muslims and unbelievers and did not assume a “clash of civilizations” guise.

That is, until, as Chapter 2 (pp. 388-450) brilliantly begins, “02 April 1980, after the passage of 1340 years, [when] the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah started all over again.” On that day, Ṣaddām Ḥusayn, then president of Iraq, resurrected the battle and recast it as an ethnic clash between Arabs and Persians, with, as Lewental shows, dramatic results for the ensuing eight-year Iran-Iraq War. Ṣaddām’s all-out campaign to confront the new Islamic Republic of Iran in his own Qādisiyyah transformed “a political-ideological disagreement,” one that had not yet erupted into a full-scale armed confrontation, into a conflict with deep historical roots and significance.

Though Ṣaddām’s Qādisiyyah injected ethnic conflict and nationalism into the narrative, it also revealed the power and appeal of religion in the modern Middle East, even for the ruler of a secular state. Lewental examines that dynamic both in several sections of Chapter 2 and more broadly in Chapter 3 (pp. 451-65), which looks at how radical Islamists have used the Qādisiyyah narrative. In the process, he provides a fresh, nuanced perspective on the “fusion of religion and nationalism” (p. 452) in the modern Middle East.

Finally, in Chapter 5 (pp. 466-98), Lewental clearly summarizes how the preceding analysis ties into and sheds light on important themes in the study of history, Islam, and the Middle East. He rightly returns to the title of the dissertation, which makes clear the breadth and magnitude of what is covered—history, memory, religion, and nationalism.

One of Lewental’s greatest contributions with the dissertation is that his analysis clearly demonstrates the importance and value of narrative as a subject most worthy of serious historical examination. As he notes, historical accounts with narrative, literary, or propagandistic elements should not be dismissed or only mined for remnants of objective truth and facts, because analyzing such accounts provides precious insight into the authors and societies that produced them.

Throughout the dissertation Lewental pays careful attention to the process through which history is written and analyzed, going beyond most scholarship by earnestly grappling with the major methodological questions of our field (see, e.g., pp. 27-30, 39-40, 53). In writing a dissertation about how history is written, Lewental has showed us how it should be done.

Annie Tracy Samuel
Graduate School of History, Tel Aviv University
Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Primary Sources

Accounts of the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah in Arabic and Persian
Additional primary source materials in Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, and Hebrew
A wide selection of the Futūḥ literature
BBC Summary of World Broadcasts

Dissertation Information

Brandeis University. 2011. 532 pp. Primary Advisor: Avigdor Levy.


Image: ‘The Battle of al-Qādisiyyah,’ in Firdawsī, Shāhnāma. Wikimedia Commons.

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