Organising Disagreement in the Long Ninth Century: On the Use of the Term ‘iḫtilāf’ in the ʿAbbāsid Period

Responsible for the postdoc project: Dr. James Weaver
Funded by: URPP Asia and Europe (2012–2013) / SNSF Project funding (2013–2016)
Project duration: September 2012 – October 2016
Research Field: Concepts and Taxonomies


Islamic heresiographical literature of the ninth and tenth centuries presents various categorisations of the diverse factions and doctrines of the Islamic community in the early period. It is not always straightforward to interpret such categorisations as taxonomies. Although the common taxonomical structure of the nested hierarchy is present in some works of this tradition, it is only one of several ways in which the divergences of the community are conceptualised and represented in textual form. The most prevalent formal organisation of Islamic factions and doctrines is based, rather, upon the notion of iḫtilāf, which translates most neutrally as 'disagreement'. This term is employed to introduce distinct theological questions, disagreement about which defines positions on the broad spectrum of opinions that can legitimately be called 'Islamic'.

These questions thus become nodes around which the Islamic community can be arranged and understood. However, it seems that iḫtilāf as the foundation of an organisational system is not confined to the heresiographies; it is a key component in early Islamic legal literature and is also deployed, albeit to a lesser extent, in the construction of the Arabic 'pseudo-translations' of Greek doxographies of ancient philosophy. This project investigates ninth century uses of iḫtilāf as a textual and conceptual device for the categorisation of divergent opinions across Arabic textual genres. Moreover, it explores the emerging tension over whether the presence of disagreement within the Islamic community is a conceivable, a permissible, or even a valuable phenomenon that made the concept of iḫtilāf the subject of a discourse in its own right throughout the long ninth century.