This article is a critique of prevailing readings of al-Tabarî’s history as essentially religious, and therefore different from modern history. Because it consists of historical reports (akhbâr) transmitted by generations of scholars, the dominant view is that it reflects an Islamic scholarly culture of “traditionalism” where knowledge is authoritative only as imputed to a collective, never to an individual. The transmitted authoritative view of society is, it is claimed, that of an organic whole created and ruled by God, not as a man-made complex of different classes, institutions, and interests. The historical analysis compatible with this view of society is moral, i.e. whether or not man complies with God’s commands.
The counter-argument made here is that Tabarî analysed social causes of imperial strength and decline. “God” in his history symbolises the contract-theory of covenant. On the social level, covenant refers to a system of vassalage, which balances the economic interests of a central imperial government, its civil administration, and military. Thus although covenant is symbolised by God, it does not exclude a view of society as complex and with conflicting human interests. In Tabarî’s history, covenant is the objective principle which transcends and reconciles subjective interests through a specific tax system which balances the interests of all social groups concerned. If the central government implemented this tax system, the caliphate would be strong, and if not, it would succumb to the forces of decentralisation. It is thus concluded here that Tabarî’s history contains an historical analysis grounded in a theory of society as consisting of groups and institutions with potentially conflicting interests.