Early Muslim Historians

History, and the study of it, has existed as a highly respected science for literally centuries, and has managed to grow with the efforts of its scholars to envelop a broader range of considerations. This short article details some of the lesser known Historians of the Early Muslim period and their contributions to the flow of knowledge.

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Figure 1. An artistic impression of Muhammad Ibn Ishaq (Image from www.faithfreedom.org)

Extracted from the full article:
Muslim Historians by Salah Zaimeche

A strong regard for history has existed throughout a great many centuries up to the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him – pbuh) and beyond. From accounts relating to the Prophet (pbuh) and later Khulafa (leaders after the Prophet pbuh) we also learn of knowledgeable individuals who were held in high regard for their expertise in history. For example, an-Nadr b. al-Harith was famed for his expertise on heroic Persian sagas, while Makhrama b. Nawfai az-Zuhri and Aqil b. Abi Talib (the brother of Ali b. Abi Talib) were commissioned by Umar b. Al-Khattab to register all known Arab tribes. Later still, Daghfal an-Nassaba excelled as a Genealogist in the time of Mu'awiya.

The historiography of the Muslims is characterised by a continuous narrative in which each event is set out in the words of contemporaries and eye-witnesses. Memorisation was the most popular and honoured style of learning prevalent at the time of the Prophet (pbuh) and prior still. Learned people were those who had committed knowledge to memory and would then impart their knowledge through recitation to the audiences. This however meant that in effect there was very little critical analysis, as is the norm of much western education. On the other hand, remitters were of course able to exercise the right of selection in choosing their authorities. On more complex issues such as resolving somewhat undecided points within the teachings of the Prophet (pbuh), schools were established to provide for this, the earliest being in Medina. Within such schools, memorisation was complimented with minimal jottings such as those of Hasan al-Basri (d. A.D. 728). Oral traditions, however, remained paramount both in practice and prestige.

However, in the second century, from A.D. 719 to 816, books, as we understand them, began to appear; production received a definite impetus by the practice of studying genealogy, particularly in relationship to the Prophet (pbuh). It is from this point that we have the beginnings of written Muslim history from which it is possible to arrive at an authentic narrative of events. This is but one of many examples demonstrating the birth of another Islamic science; a birth that has a direct relationship to the Islamic faith, in particular the life of the Prophet (pbuh).

Ibn Ishaq (d.768) and Ibn Hisham (d. 218/833)

Early Muslim historical writing was primarily concerned with the biography of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) (Sirat Rasul Allah) and the first wars of Islam (Al-Maghazi). Muhammad Ibn Ishaq related the first known biography (Sira) of the Prophet (pbuh). This work no longer exists in its original form, but has been preserved in at least two recensions, one of these recensions being authored by Ibn Hisham, thus Ibn Hisham's work represents one of the best existing authorities on the life of the Prophet (pbuh). The Arabic text was published at Gottingen in three volumes by F. Wustenfeld, 1858-60, and a German translation by G. Weil, The Historian of the Caliphate, appeared at Stuttgart in 1864. It is this latter work which is perhaps better known in the West, and is now more conveniently read in the English translation of the late A. Guilaume.

Alfred Guillaume also provided an English translation of an attempted reconstruction of Ibn Ishaq's work. This was produced largely by translating what Ibn Hisham reports from Ibn Ishaq, adding quotations from the latter that are included by al-Tabari (mainly the material that Ibn Hisham omitted) and placing Ibn Hisham's comments on Ibn Ishaq's work at the end of the translation in a section called "Ibn Hisham's Notes" (pp. 691-798). The page numbers suggest that Ibn Hisham's comments constitute about 15% of his recensions of Ibn Ishaq's work.

Ibn Hisham's (d.833) work contains information concerning the creation of the world, Biblical Prophets, and the advent of Islam. The actions and deeds of the Prophet (pbuh) are meticulously noted, and his battles described in great detail. Ibn Hisham's Sirat Muhammad rasul Allah is considered by Dunlop as one of the best existing authorities on the life of the Prophet (pbuh).

Ibn Sa'ad (d.845)

With Ibn Sa'ad, a pupil and secretary of Ibn al-Waqidi, begins a new genre which initiates biographies of Tabaqats (classes). His treatise Kitab al-tabaqat al-Kabir (the great book of classes) deals with the biographies of the Prophet (pbuh) and his companions and later dignitaries of Islam till 845. Ibn Sa'ad elaborates on the qualities of the Prophet (pbuh), and the main traits of his mission. It is the first major example of religious biography, universal in scope, trying to include all the religiously relevant persons of Islamic history, comprising 4,250 entries, 600 of them women. Ibn Sa'ad died in Baghdad in 230/845, and with his work ends the series of early, or at least comparatively early, native Arabic texts on which, for the most part, we depend for information regarding the life of Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) and the beginnings of his mission. Ibn Sa'ad's work can be found in a Sachau edition and in others.

Al-Azraqi (d. 219/834)

Around this time others focussed their efforts on describing and detailing the histories of towns and cities. One of the earliest examples of such work is that of al-Azraqi in his Akhbar Makka al-M'usharrafa (Chronicles of Mecca the Glorious). A generation or two later there appeared the Ta'rikh Baghdad (History of Baghdad) of Ibn Abi Tahir Tayfur, a voluminous writer (d.280/893). Most of his works however are lost. Book 6 of the History of Baghdad, dealing with a part of the Caliphate of al-Mamun, was edited and translated into German by H Keller, and also translated into English by Kate Chambers Seelye.

Ibn Qutayba (d.276/889)

Ibn Qutayba's Kitab al-Ma'arif or 'Handbook of History' as it was entitled by its nineteenth-century editor, deserves mention, as it is one of the oldest surviving purely historical works of the Arabs. It deals with the pre-Islamic as well as Islamic history of the Arabs, and is still useful as a reference book, for genealogical and biographical matters in particular. Another point of interest that can be drawn from this work concerns the sets of issues that the widely esteemed and highly orthodox author deems important or relevant enough to mention, and perhaps equally important, the issues that the author omits (of course this is in the context of a comparatively short book; 330 pages of Arabic text in Wustenfeld's edition).

Abu Hanifa ad-Dinawari (d.889)

Abu Hanifa ad-Dinawari (better known in botany, see relevant chapter) was also a historian, and well known for his Kitab al-Akhbar at-Tiwal (Book of Long Narratives). This work deals in principle, as the title suggests, with selected episodes which interested the author, chiefly from Islamic history, but also the pre-Islamic period is not completely disregarded. In this latter regard ad-Dinawari provides accounts of Alexander the Great, and detailed information regarding the Sasanid Kings down to Yazdagird, the last of the Sasanids. His account of the Muslim conquest of Iraq is picturesque, and includes many interesting and apparently reliable details, notably for the battle of al-Qadisiyya. Another interesting section recounts the later days of Umayyad rule in Khurasan and the defeat and death of Marwan II, the last Umayyad Caliph. The narrative is brought down to the death of al-Mu'tasim in 227/842, i.e. it continues to the author's own times.

Al-Tabari (d.923)

According Ibn Khalikan (see entry on Damascus at Muslimheritage.com), the History produced by at-Tabari, the work which Europeans usually refer to as the Annals of Al-Tabari and of which the original title was Ta'rikh ar-Rusul wa'l-Muluk (history of the Apostles and Kings), was the soundest and most reliable work of its kind.

Al-Tabari was born at Amul, north of the Elburz range in the coastal lowlands of the Caspian Sea then called Tabaristan, and died in Baghdad. He was a precocious student who was, as he himself states, a hafiz (a person who has successfully memorised the entire Qur'an) by the age of seven, qualified as an Imam or leader of the Muslim worship aged eight and studied the Prophetic traditions aged nine (it seems well-authenticated that he left home aged twelve). After several years spent as a poor wandering scholar in Arabia, Syria, and Egypt, he settled down as a jurist in Baghdad. He was now able to follow a multiplicity of branches in search of expanding his knowledge. His acquisition of knowledge was to embrace not only history, Qur'an exegesis, Hadith and Fiqh, but he also possibly wrote in the field of ethics and had an educated person's interest in Arabic poetry. In Ta'rikh ar-Rusul wa'l-Muluk, a work that took forty years to complete, Al Tabari looks at Antiquity and the Islamic period up to 915. As an objective historian, he hardly expresses any judgment, and keeps a global vision of history. What survives fills fifteen large volumes; we are told that the original was ten times as long. His method is chronological, describing events year by year, and usually traditional—tracing the narratives through one or more chains of Hadith to an eyewitness or contemporary of the incident, and his method has the virtue of stating sources carefully. Indeed, his principal authorities for history are not, in general, any of the books, but chains of tradition going back wherever possible to eye-witnesses of the various occurrences. This was the method already employed in Al-Tabari's time by the experts in the science of Hadith. The method was applied with rigour by the best of these experts (muhaddithun), who had employed strict criteria for estimating the value of the different traditions, with which Al-Tabari as a distinguished student of the religious sciences was perfectly familiar (his Tafsir or Qur'an Commentary has been as highly regarded by Muslims as his History, as well as his extensive work Tahdhib al-Athar on Hadith). The application of this method on the widest scale might seem to give an almost irrefragable guarantee of truth to a historical narrative. This was no doubt a paramount reason for its adoption by Al-Tabari. On the whole, according to Dunlop, with the exception of Ibn al-Athir (whose great work Al-kamil, had not been translated in its entirety by the time Dunlop was writing, i.e. in the early 1970s), the Annals of al-Tabari is the best work in Arabic for information concerning the historical development of Islam and the Caliphate.

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Figure 2. Bal'ami's 14th century Persian version of Universal History by al-Tabari (Image from www.wikipedia.org)

His comfortable, if not luxurious, financial and economic circumstances were curbed by his habit of eating temperately, dressing modestly and generally to avoiding excess in all things. Anecdotal evidence suggests that he never accepted any official employment (such as that of judge, for which he would have been abundantly equipped), although his post as tutor to the son of a vizier would doubtless have given him the entrée to such a career had he wished. These stories stress his high moral standards and his great probity, with a reluctance to accept costly gifts in return for services which he did not feel he had earned or for which he could not give equally valuable presents in return.

Al-Sûlî (Abu Bakr Muhammad b. Yahya – d.335/946 or 356)

Al-Sûlî a skilled chess player and a descendant or at least a great-nephew of the Turkish Prince, Sul Tigin of Jurjin, is a figure of some importance. He authored a literary history, Kitab al-Awraq fi Akbar Ahl al-Abbas wa sha'rihim (Book of Pages on the History of the Abbasids and their Poetry), was a courtier of the Caliphs al-Muktafi and al-Muqtadir, and later enjoyed a great deal of court favour. His Kitab al-Awraq appears to have been divided originally into five or six parts, of which four have survived. J. Heyworth Dunne edited the last of these in 1934 under the title Kitab al-Awrak, a section on Contemporary Poets. An edition of the whole work was planned and has perhaps been carried out in Haidarabad. Another portion of his work was also edited by Dunne, the Akhbar ar-Radi wa'l-Muttaqi bi'llah (History of the Caliphs ar-Radi and al-Muttaqi) and later translated by M. Canard. This is a good history on the court and the capital. Al-Suli's forte no doubt, as Canard indicates is politico-literary biography.

Abdus al-Jahshiyari (d. 942)

Abdus al-Jahshiyari authored Kitab al-Wuzara' wa'l-Kuttab (Book of the Viziers and Secretaries), an extensive work which began in pre-Islamic times, and gave an account of the secretaries of the Prophet (pbuh) and the secretaries of his successors down to the end of the Umayyad Caliphate. The narrative constitutes a history of the administration of the Islamic land until the advent of the 'Abbasids. What survives of the work is estimated at about one-third. The importance of the Kitab al-Wuzara was first shown, as was appropriate and natural, by an Austrian Orientalist, A. von Kremer in his paper Ueber das Budget der Einnahmen unter der Regierung des Harun alrasid, and contributed to the proceedings of the 7th International Congress of Orientalists. It can be read with profit for a view of the finances of the Abbasids in Harun's time.

Most recently Michael Awad has published a useful little work, Lost Fragments of Kitab al-Wuzara, compiled from manuscripts and printed sources. Though quite short (118 pages), this publication forms a useful supplement to the editions.

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