Islamic Historiography Research Paper

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‘Islamic historiography’ is a useful but somewhat misleading term commonly applied to the historical writing produced in the predominantly Muslim societies of Asia and Africa between the rise of Islam (post-622 CE) and the mid-nineteenth century. In contrast, history written after that point may have a distinctive regional or cultural orientation, but increasingly it falls within the post-Enlightenment historiographic discourse established and dominated by Western Europe. The term is useful because it allows us to discern the degree to which the enormous historical literature produced within Muslim dominated societies and polities embodies an unbroken (albeit complex and constantly changing) tradition of debate over the meaning and interpretation of the past. It is misleading insofar as it beguiles us into thinking that this literature was produced entirely by Muslims, or that it is exclusively grounded in Islamic doctrine and focused on religious issues. In fact non-Muslims produced important works (admittedly a small proportion of the total) within the ‘Islamic’ historiographic tradition. More importantly, much historical writing by Muslims focuses on decidedly nonsacred topics and presents these topics in a manner that owes little to Islamic religious concepts and concerns.

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1. History As A Form Of Knowledge And A Profession

Quite apart from the ambiguity of the term, Islamic historiography represents an intriguing paradox. Historical works were produced in great profusion from at least the mid-eighth century on, and it is evident from the number and distribution of manuscripts that these works were widely read. Technical terms for historical writing emerged very early and remained in constant use thereafter: ta’rikh (literally ‘dating,’ hence ‘chronicle’), akhbar (‘recitals of events’), and less commonly, sirah (‘biography’). ‘Ta’rikh,’ the most common term, referred not only to chronologically organized works but to historical writing of every kind, including alphabetically arranged biographical dictionaries. However, even though historical writing permeated medieval Islamic culture and was universally seen as a distinct form of knowledge and literary practice, it never achieved the status of a ‘science’ (Arabic, ‘ilm’)—i.e., it never became a formal subject of study and training in the scholarly curriculum. Within the normative classification of knowledge constructed by medieval Islamic culture, history remained always on the margins of scholarship and literature. For religious specialists it was ancillary to the core disciplines of legal studies ( fiqh), Prophetic tradition (hadith), and Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir). Secular writers might well regard history as magister itae, a trove of practical wisdom, but only rarely did they regard it as the foundation for a systematic investigation of politics and society. Even in the humble roles of handmaid and schoolmaster, however, history still generated many works of great literary and methodological sophistication. The political (and occasionally social and economic) analyses of the best Muslim historians yield nothing to their counterparts in the ancient, medieval, and Renaissance West. All this suggests that history played a much more fundamental role in defining Islamic self-understanding than that culture’s spokesmen knew how to articulate. History showed Muslims how God was working his purposes out in the deeds and sufferings of the community of believers; in particular, it measured the fidelity (or lack thereof ) of the believers to the revelation brought by Muhammad. History challenged Muslims to measure their progress on the path to salvation or perdition as the inevitable Day of Judgment approached.

Historians were in effect self-taught amateurs, bureaucrats, or religious scholars who composed ta’rikh in their spare time. They learned how to do it not through formal study with established masters, but simply by reading the works of other historians and adapting the forms and approaches of these writings to their own purposes. Some histories were written at the behest of rulers anxious that their deeds be properly memorialized for future generations, but even these do not represent a true professionalization of history. We do find official court historiographers under the Ottomans between the sixteenth and midnineteenth centuries, but for the most part the job was handed over on an ad hoc basis to any member of the ruler’s entourage who was thought to possess sufficient political acumen and literary skill.

Two outstanding scholars did attempt to make history into a generally recognized formal science, but in spite of their great prestige and influence, neither achieved his goal. The Qur’anic exegete, jurist, and historian Abu Ja’far al-Tabari (838–923) tried to demonstrate in his Chronicle of Prophets and Kings (Ta’rikh al-rusul wa’l-muluk) that historical reports could be deployed according to the rigorous criteria applied to hadith (the dicta ascribed to the Prophet). However, very few followed him down that path, even though his reconstruction both of pre-Islamic history and of Islam’s first two centuries provided an authoritative framework for almost all later chroniclers. Far from adopting al-Tabari’s strict method, most of his successors simply condensed and paraphrased his work. Five centuries later, the North African Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406)—a gifted legal scholar and logician as well as a historian—argued in his famous Muqaddimah that history was the science of society and as such ought to be treated as a branch of philosophy. Again, his argument did not suffice to move historiography up to that exalted status, in spite of the substantial circulation and influence that his work enjoyed.

2. The Producers Of Historical Knowledge

As we have seen in Sect. 1, history was written (and read) by highly literate men with some time on their hands. Given the social and educational structures of medieval Muslim societies, that means it was written chiefly by chancery secretaries and religious scholars (Arabic, ‘ulama’). It is tempting to describe these two groups in terms of well-defined ideal types and thus to posit opposing historical perspectives of palace and mosque. In reality these perspectives overlapped in complex and constantly changing ways.

Throughout Islamic times the ‘ulama’ were given state appointments as judges or mosque officials, though it is true that many of the most prestigious scholars prized their independence and refused to accept such positions. But after the mid-eleventh century, even the independent-minded found it difficult to refuse professorships in the burgeoning religious colleges (madrasahs) that were endowed and to some degree controlled by the rulers and their senior military commanders. However scrupulous they might be, scholars could hardly avoid some entanglement with the princely courts. Quite apart from questions of material interest, most also had a profound fear of social disorder—as a popular dictum had it, one night of anarchy was worse than sixty years of tyranny. Thus they seldom challenged or even questioned the underlying political order of their societies, however severely they might criticize particular rulers.

On the other hand, their relations with the princely courts were always ambivalent. They knew that rulers came and went like the clouds. They might collaborate with the regime in power but rarely identified themselves closely with it. Their job was to embody Islamic beliefs and values in their own lives and to propagate these within society at large. Religious scholars came from a wide range of social backgrounds and interacted constantly with the urban population. They indeed derived much of their prestige (the only solid basis of their social influence) from their accessibility to all.

As historians, then, the religious scholars were the spokesmen for the community and its concerns. As such, they stood not so much against the princely courts as apart from them. They naturally placed the rulers and their doings at center stage in their historical writing, since the rulers were the heads of the Muslim community within the territories they ruled— responsible not only for defense, public order, and justice, but also for ensuring that Islamic religious practices and moral norms were maintained. Without a Muslim ruler, however incompetent or corrupt, an authentic Islamic way of life was impossible. However, they did not regard rulers as the sole guardians of these matters. On the contrary, scholar–historians asserted the indispensable role of their own class by recording the lives and words of eminent men of religion in countless biographical dictionaries.

In contrast to the religious scholars, chancery secretaries were men of the regime, who shared and indeed articulated its perspectives on rulership and society. The middle and upper ranks especially tended to live in a world apart from the people they governed. Their lives and fortunes were held at the whim of an autocrat, whose purposes and moods were of far greater importance to them than the life of the larger society outside the palace walls. In spite of their narrow focus, the secretaries often took a surprisingly critical view of the regimes they served. They typically judged them in accordance with the political traditions of pre-Islamic Iran, though these were often blended with specifically Islamic values. Iranian political tradition emphasized the crucial obligation of the ruler to uphold justice within his realms. In practice that meant respect for established social hierarchies, equitable taxation, enforcing right religion, and mastery of the army. The chancery secretaries might well be sincere Muslims, but for them the ruler and his senior officials were the sole actors who really counted. Hence their historical writing was strongly focused on the court and on the struggle for power. The best historians provide searching analyses of this struggle, to be sure, but with a few notable exceptions they portray it as the affair of a few score individuals, not of broad social groups and forces.

3. The Problem Of Origins, 622–825 CE

Islamic historiography was born in obscurity. The earliest historical texts that we now have only acquired their present form in the late eighth century. For earlier stages of development we are reduced to inference or, more accurately, speculation. We can at least be sure that Islamic historical writing emerged within Arabophone Muslim circles, for the most primitive elements in this literature are couched in archaic Arabic and reflect almost exclusively the internal concerns of the Muslim community. Islamic historiography emerged out of the triumph and trauma of the seventh century: the sudden rise of a new religion among the peoples of Arabia, the vast conquests which they made under the banner of that religion, the profound changes which religion and empire wreaked on their traditional culture and sociopolitical organization, and the bitter civil strife which rent a unified community of believers into hostile sects and factions. To make sense of these tremendous events, early Muslims had to devise some way of recalling, ordering, and interpreting them.

By the early eighth century they had come to believe that the Qur’an held the key to the underlying meaning of these events. The Qur’an (the collection of the revelations received by Muhammad between his call to prophethood ca. 610 and his death in 632) is far from a historical record of the earliest Muslim community. It alludes to a few crucial events which formed that community but does not narrate them. Rather, it places Islam within the long sequence of prophetic messages through which God has repeatedly called his creatures back to obedience. In the Qur’an, Muslims could see how a prophet had been sent to every people, bearing the promise of salvation for those who believed and the threat of damnation for those who refused. Most peoples rejected their prophets and suffered destruction for their obduracy. In contrast, a very few (most notably the Jews and Christians) did accept their prophets and prospered so long as they adhered to the messages these prophets had brought them. Over time, however, even these believing peoples tended to fall away, and God called them to repentance by periodic chastisement and humiliation. Through this repeated pattern the Qur’an laid down a paradigm which could explain the course of historical events. This paradigm contained three elements: the covenant offered by God to his people, the ever-present threat that this covenant might be betrayed by its recipients, and the desperate hope for redemption even after betrayal. In the circumstances of the seventh and eighth centuries, the Qur’anic paradigm of Covenant– Betrayal–Redemption was very compelling indeed.

Paradigms do not create literary genres. To recount the things that had befallen them, the early Muslims developed short prose narratives (Arabic, akhbar, singular, khabar) focused on discrete events. The earliest historical narratives about the seventh-century conquests and the internal struggles within the community of believers sprang up in a spontaneous, uncontrolled manner. They represented the contradictory memories and claims of innumerable tribal spokesmen and sectarian advocates, not a master narrative propounded by official spokesmen of the caliphal court. They were originally (and perhaps remained for some decades) oral accounts, and changed constantly as they were told and retold. Moreover, highly partisan narratives inevitably provoked counter-narratives. With a very few exceptions, it is no longer possible to recover the primitive form of any of these early narratives. That was no doubt the case even by the early 700s.

The earliest methodical effort to identify and collect the most reliable (i.e., religiously and politically acceptable) of these floating, infinitely plastic narratives took place around 700 under the aegis of the Umayyad caliphs. But the Umayyads could impose no monopoly on the process of collection and redaction; indeed their version of Islam’s first century was nearly obliterated when they were overthrown by the Abbasids in 749–50 and subjected to a systematic damnatio memoriae. Between 750 and 830 a group of scholars with informal ties to the Abbasid court did generate a stable corpus of historical narratives. This corpus represents what we now regard as the ‘mainstream’ version of early Islamic history. But competing versions produced by rivals and opponents of the Abbasids survive, albeit in fragmentary or masked form. However obscure the realities of early Islamic history may be, the historical debate of the late eighth and early ninth centuries is very well known.

The narratives collected, redacted, or (sometimes) created in the early Abbasid period were usually gathered in ‘monographs’ devoted to a single event (typically a battle) or category of information (e.g., lists of provincial governors). However, this period also witnessed the first major syntheses. Ibn Ishaq (d. 767) produced his famous biography of the Prophet Muhammad, the oldest complete work of Islamic historiography to reach us, and the following decades saw a host of works on the early conquests, the first caliphs, etc. Structurally, these syntheses are compilations of discrete narratives (akhbar), not continuous integrated narratives. On the other hand, the editors shaped their compilations in accordance with a conscious (though usually unstated) design and agenda. Mid-range syntheses of this kind dominated Islamic historiography down to the late ninth century, and they never ceased to be produced altogether.

The early Abbasid period also witnessed a plethora of efforts to develop a reliable absolute chronology, though the first essays in this direction seem to have been made under the later Umayyads. Chronographers naturally used the hijri calendar, traditionally instituted in 642. But of course events that had occurred before 642 had to be backdated, while the precise dates for a host of later events could only be guessed at. Nevertheless, Muslim historians quickly came to feel that precise dating was an essential element of their craft; the effort to pin things down and put them in the correct chronological order became a permanent characteristic of Islamic historical practice. By the 850s at latest, we begin to see chronicles of the kind long familiar in Byzantine historiography—viz., a year-by-year calendar of significant events (usually recounted in very summary fashion), beginning at a fixed point and coming down to the present. In the Byzantine tradition, that fixed starting point was typically the Creation, while early Muslim historians favored the Hijra (622 CE). The annalistic structure of the chronicle was a rigid but useful way of ordering events, and by the eleventh century it had become by far the most widely used format in Arabic-language historiography.

The early ninth century witnessed the appearance of one last genre of synthetic historiography, the bio-graphical dictionary. The first major work of this class was the Great Book of Generations (Kitab al-tabaqat al-kabir) of Ibn Sa’d (d. 845). His goal was to compile concise biographies of all those persons who had transmitted Islamic religious knowledge from generation to generation, beginning with the Prophet himself. These biographies seldom provided a detailed account of the events of a person’s life, let alone any effort to probe his personality. Rather, they aimed at evaluating his religious standing and his reliability as a scholar. Ibn Sa’d had clearly addressed a deeply felt need, for succeeding centuries (including the twentieth) saw a profusion of such works. In addition to countless dictionaries dedicated exclusively to religious scholars, there were dictionaries dealing with poets, men of letters, mystics, physicians, bureaucrats, and ultimately all those (including numerous women) who had earned a place within the cultural memory of Islam.

By the last quarter of the ninth century Muslim historians produced a series of grand syntheses, which claimed as their subject matter all of Islamic history, or even the history of the world since the Creation. Among many remarkable works, pride of place undoubtedly belongs to al-Tabari’s massive Chronicle of Prophets and Kings, a work still in progress at his death in 923 (see Sect. 1). Apart from its methodological rigor, al-Tabari’s compilation is distinguished by its vast scale, its meticulous attention to biblical and Iranian (though not Roman) history, and its inclusion of conflicting perspectives on the critical events of Islam’s first 250 years. Al-Tabari was a somewhat controversial figure in his own time, but his authority among later generations was immense. Most of his successors were content simply to abridge and condense his account of early Islamic history, but from him they did learn to place Islam within God’s plan of creation and salvation by linking it to the religions and empires which had preceded it.

4. The Mature Tradition, 950–1800

By the time al-Tabari died, the Covenant–Betrayal– Redemption paradigm that had shaped historical discourse throughout the eighth and ninth centuries seemed only remotely connected to the new crises confronting the Islamic world. Historians now had to grapple with the collapse of the unitary caliphate and the rise of a host of warlord-dominated regimes throughout the Islamic lands—in short, the political disintegration of the community of believers. Moreover, the religious conflicts which had arisen in Islam’s first two centuries could no longer be healed; indeed, by the mid-tenth century what had been fluid if bitterly contested allegiances were transmuted into rigidly defined sectarian divisions. Political and religious fragmentation were unwelcome facts, but facts they incontrovertibly were, and they deeply shaped the historical writing of the following centuries.

First of all, the new environment provoked a change in subject matter. In striking contrast to al-Tabari and his predecessors, historians began to focus on recent and contemporary events rather than the community’s early history. Likewise, they increasingly framed their work in local and regional rather than universal terms; their subject was more often the history of Isfahan or Damascus than of the Islamic world as a whole. This emphasis on recent and local events encouraged historians to adopt dynastic history as a framework for their narratives, for dynasties (and the warlords who created them) were the most visible political reality in their world. The turn to dynastic history was linked to new interpretive concerns. For historians observing the rise and fall of the warlord states, the central problem was not a ruler’s role in the grand drama of salvation, but rather the reasons for the success or failure of his regime.

Within this new historiographic culture, universal history—i.e., history which claimed to include the whole Islamic world since the time of the Prophet, or even the Creation—continued to be written. But even the finest work of this genre, the Complete History (alKamil fi al-ta’rikh) of Ibn al-Athir (1160–1234), is strongly inflected by the distinctive concerns of its era. Within its strict annalistic framework is imbedded a quite visible sequence of dynastic histories. It covers all the lands of Islam with remarkable balance and detail, but it does so by examining each region seriatim as it surveys the events of each year. Finally, its primary focus is the mundane political process and the pragmatic lessons that can be inferred from that process.

Two other universal histories of great originality are equally products of their time and place. The Comprehensive Chronicles (Jami’ al-tawarikh) composed under the supervision of the vizier Rashid al-Din (d. 1310) is a work which symbolizes the aspirations to universal rule of the Mongol rulers for whom it was written, for it deals with the history of every people about whom Rashid al-Din could obtain any information. Even the usually despised and neglected Franks are included within his vast tableau. It is an irreplaceable encyclopedia of the historical knowledge available to Iranian scholars in the early fourteenth century. Finally, the Book of Examples (Kitab al-’Ibar) of Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) is distinguished not only by its famous introductory volume (al-Muqaddimah) but by its analytic survey of peoples and cultures and its author’s grasp of the socioeconomic structures which shaped events.

Apart from these shifts in subject matter and emphasis, the mid-tenth century witnessed the bifurcation of historical writing into two linguistic branches. Arabic (the traditional language of Islamic scholarship) was now joined by Persian, the language spoken at the emerging princely courts of Iran and Muslim Central Asia. Arabic continued to be used throughout the Iranian cultural zone (which came to include Central Asia, Anatolia, and much of South Asia) for the religious sciences, but Persian rapidly supplanted it in other arenas: secular and religious poetry, government administration, didactic prose, and history. The use of Persian was more than a linguistic phenomenon, for Persian historiography quickly developed distinctive characteristics of its own—e.g., a preference for lengthy continuous narratives, an explicit appeal to the political precepts and institutions of ancient Iran, a certain vagueness or carelessness about chronology. By the eleventh century Arabic and Persian historiography clearly embodied two distinct traditions, each developing in its own way. This picture was further complicated by the emergence of Turkish as a vehicle of literary expression in the late fifteenth century. From that point down to the mid-nineteenth century Turkish-language works were composed throughout the Middle East—no surprise, since the political and military elites from the Nile to northwest India were overwhelmingly of Turkish origin during that period. However, the main centers of Turkish literature were located in predominantly Turkish-speaking areas—i.e., Uzbekdominated Central Asia and the core Ottoman lands in Anatolia and the eastern Balkans. In spite of some specific characteristics of its own and many works of outstanding quality, Turkish historiography tended to model itself upon the Persian tradition, and in some regions the two languages coexisted on almost an equal basis as vehicles of literary expression.

5. The Transition From Islamic To European Models, 1800–2000

By 1800 the Muslim peoples of Asia and North Africa faced severe military and economic challenges from Europe. However, most Muslim polities (with the important exceptions of the Mogul Empire in India and the sultanates of Java) still retained their political independence, and the deep-rooted societal and cultural structures of the Islamic lands seemed intact. By 1900, however, almost every Muslim state had been swallowed up or made a client regime, and Muslim societies were enmeshed in massive, uncontrollable transformation on every level.

Change on such a scale inevitably compelled the creation of a radically new historiography, though the process was slow and complex. Works of great merit continued to be produced within the existing traditions throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. Indeed, excellent historical scholarship of a decidedly traditional cast was being written well into the twentieth century. Nineteenth-century historians were fully cognizant of the new world they inhabited, but for many decades traditional historiographic forms and approaches seemed adequate to the task. By the 1870s that was no longer the case. First, existing models of historical writing simply did not possess the analytic tools that were needed to address the profound cultural and ideological problems created by the European challenge. For this purpose a new historiography was essential. No less important, by this time many Muslim intellectuals had studied in Europe or with European teachers, and they felt the powerful allure of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought. To them it was self-evident that European military and economic power was grounded in the power of European ideas. Just as Muslim armies needed to adopt European weapons and tactics, so Muslim intellectuals had to appropriate European concepts and methods of inquiry.

European ideas and literary models were easier to perceive than to internalize, and the later nineteenth century witnessed a difficult struggle by Muslim intellectuals and scholars to develop new ways of writing history. Most late nineteenth-century historiography is thus a hybrid product. The point is illustrated by two major works, both marked by broad scope, critical use of documents, and awareness of European scholarship. Ahmet Cevdet Pasa’s history of the Ottoman Empire (12 Vols., 1855–84) adheres to the traditional chronicle form, while ‘Ali Mubarak’s historical geography of Egypt (20 Vols., 1886–88) is modeled on a classic work by the fifteenth-century Cairene scholar al-Maqrizi (d. 1442). A model for historiography in a modern (i.e., European) style was provided by the History of Islamic Civilization (Ta’rikh al-tamaddun al-islami, 5 Vols., 1902–6) of Jurji Zaydan, a Syrian Christian novelist and man of letters. For both political and cultural reasons, however, Zaydan had no immediate imitators, and only after World War I did Middle Eastern historiography begin to internalize contemporary European modes of research and presentation. This shift was first visible in works dealing with modern history, but by the end of the 1930s the same trend had taken hold for studies of early and medieval Islamic times. The ‘Europeanization’ of historiography affected not only research methods and literary structure, but also the kinds of questions that Muslim scholars asked about their past. Even where (for a wide range of scholarly, political, and religious reasons) they rejected the specific analyses and interpretations of Middle Eastern and Islamic history asserted by European historians, they could not ignore the problems to which these scholars had called attention.

This transformation coincided with the professionalization of history after World War I—a sharp departure from traditional practice in the Islamic world. This process began with the establishment of European-style universities in Cairo and Istanbul just before the war, along with the creation of officially sponsored societies for historical research. Simultaneously, history was enlisted in the struggles for national independence and cultural autonomy of the interwar and postwar periods. Finally, by World War I a few Muslim scholars were taking advanced degrees from the leading universities in Europe, and their numbers increased greatly in the following decades. The prestige and authority that these foreign-trained scholars enjoyed when they returned home in effect imposed a new model of historical thought and writing on their students.

Cross-cultural influence in historiography has not flowed in a single direction, however. Even in the 1920s and 1930s, a few Muslim scholars published their work in Western languages, and since the 1950s this trend has grown enormously. A growing number of scholars from Islamic Asia and Africa have not only taken their advanced degrees in Europe and North America, but have also been appointed to many of the most prestigious teaching posts there. This situation has begun to create a real dialogue among a plurality of theoretical and cultural perspectives. The history of the Islamic world is increasingly in the hands of its own scholars—the natural state of things, perhaps, but one which was hardly the case in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


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