Since the publication in the West last century of a major Sunnī work on the Islamic sects, those interested in the early firaq have found themselves dependent on the heresiographical tradition. Islamicists have had little choice in the matter; most writing and thinking produced in circles later deemed heterodox has not been preserved, and to a large extent is available only through the mediation of the heresiographers. While material of other sorts has not gone unstudied, it has for the most part been the heresiographers who have shaped the way we look at early Islamic sectarianism.
This marriage of modern scholarship and medieval heresiography is, however, a distinctly uncomfortable one. As indispensable as the firaq material may be, questions about its reliability persist. The difficulties which characterize this literature are well known, and hardly need to be rehearsed here: it is late, highly schematic, and frequently hostile to the doctrines and groups which it describes. To these might be added one other problem noted less frequently: most of the books in general academic circulation have passed through Ash'arite and/or Mu‘tazilite hands. If, as we shall see, the tradition is not entirely synoptic, there are at least powerful forces at work which militate against a diversity of perspectives.