Tales of Ibn Saba
In The Caliph and the Heretic: Ibn Saba and the Origins of Shi'ism, Sean Anthony explores the differing accounts of Ibn Saba and their development over time when deployed for different historio-theological agendas. He finds that the oldest layer of the Ibn Saba tradition is simply the account of a soldier who, hearing of the assassination of Ali, insisted that the news could not be true, and that the caliph whom Shi'ites would come to see as the first imam, or rightful leader of the Muslim community, would yet triumph over his enemies and bring justice to all. Most of the later tradition evolved as elaboration of this core narrative.
Anthony suspects this version of Ibn Saba is real, but even if he wasn't, he certainly stood in for a common attitude in the 660's. Recent research has called attention to the apocalyptic expectations of the Middle East in the 7th century, expectations set against the ravages of the Justinianic Plague, the war between the Byzantines and Sasanians which almost wiped out the former and effectively did the latter, and the Zoroastrian year 1000. It is in this context that Muhammad appears as a prophet whose message is that of a final warning before Judgment Day. Anthony's original Ibn Saba makes sense in that some of those who followed Ali could easily have seen him as a promised messiah-figure, of a sort that would continue to appear across religious boundaries even into the 700's.
Ibn Saba lent his name to a sect called the Saba'iyya, who in the reign of Mu'awiya, in whose hands Ali's death left the leadership, believed in Ali's return and triumph. During the second civil war of the 680's, they joined al-Mukhtar, and apparently disappeared into the groups which sprang up in his aftermath. Ibn Saba, however, gained the reputation as Islam's arch-heretic, such that when Twelver Shi'ites developed a belief in the return of the 12th imam in later centuries, they began accentuating strains of the Ibn Saba tradition which claimed he believed that Ali was divine since their own beliefs were uncomfortably similar to what Ibn Saba believed about Ali.
Anthony's book, together with Najam Haider's work showing that there were distinct Shi'ite practices in Kufa in the early 700's, makes 2011 an important year in the growth of our understanding of what the sectarian landscape was like in Islam's first century, as well as how it was articulated and how it slowly evolved into the more established Sunni and Shi'i Islam of the 800's. Both Anthony's and Haider's works are landmarks in their use of tradition critical methods to understand the formation of our primary sources for the time period, and hence using them to reveal something of what it was like.