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The study of the history of the Ismāʿīlī religion, which for long had depended largely on the polemical and often distorted accounts of its opponents, has been transformed since the time of the First World War by the discovery of large private collections of authentic Ismāʿīlī works in the Soviet Union and India. Many of the original texts, previously kept secret from outsiders by the Ismāʿīlī communities, have now been published or are accessible in manuscript to scholarly research. Although a relatively small number of scholars in the East and the West have actively pursued such research, progress in uncovering the story of the Ismāʿīlī movement in its various branches and the development of Ismāʿīlī religious thought has been steady. The major aspects and characteristics of this thought and its transformations in the course of often catastrophic events affecting the scattered Ismāʿīlī communities have become evident. There are, to be sure, still large gaps left in our knowledge of these developments, some of which may prove difficult to fill because of a lack of sources. Moreover, on some fundamental questions, especially concerning the early stages of Ismāʿīlism, consensus has not yet been reached among scholars. Yet these problems must not obscure the remarkable advances made in the study of Ismāʿīlism, which provide both a general outline of the history of one of the major branches of Shī'ī Islam and a sound basis for further detailed research.
No event in history has divided Islam more profoundly and durably than the succession to Muḥammad. The right to occupy the Prophet's place at the head of the Muslim community after his death became a question of great religious weight which has separated Sunnites and Shi'ites until the present. The issue of right and wrong in the matter has long since been settled in their minds. For Sunnites, the first caliph, Abū Bakr, was the only rightful successor since he was the most excellent of men after the Prophet. Although Muḥammad had not explicitly appointed him as his successor, his preference for him was indicated by his order for Abū Bakr to lead the Muslims in the prayers during his final illness. The consensus reached by the Muslims in favour of Abū Bakr merely confirmed what was ultimately God's choice. For Shi'ites it was Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law 'Alī who, on account of his early merits in Islam as well as his close kinship, had been appointed by the Prophet as his successor. His rightful position was then usurped by Abū Bakr with the backing of the majority of Muḥammad's Companions.
In spite of the fundamental importance of this conflict for the history of Islam, modern historians have devoted relatively little effort to the study of the background and circumstances surrounding the succession. This general lack of interest is evidently grounded in the view that the conflict between Sunna and Shī'a, although revolving around the question of the succession, in reality arose only in a later age.
In a comprehensive study of early Islamic history, Wilferd Madelung examines the conflict which developed after Muhammad's death for the leadership of the Muslim community. He pursues the history of this conflict through the reign of the four 'Rightly Guided' caliphs to its climax in the first inter-Muslim war. The outcome of the war, which marked the demise of the reign of the Early Companions, resulted in the lasting schism between Sunnite and Shi'ite Islam. Contrary to recent scholarly trends, the author brings out Ali's early claim to legitimate succession, which gained support from the Shi'a, and offers a convincing reinterpretation of early Islamic history. This book will make a major contribution to the debate over succession.Wilferd Madelung's book The Succession to Muhammad has been awarded the Best Book of the Year prize by the Islamic Republic of Iran for the year 1997.