The Early Development of Arabic/Islamic Historiography
We concluded yesterday’s lecture with a very brief look at early Islamic history. The purpose behind this very brief tour was twofold. The first purpose was quite simply to introduce you to some of the key episodes in Islam’s formative period. As we shall see, the early years of Islam were of crucial importance in a number of ways. As we shall see in later weeks, the diverse ways in which Muslims understand the origins, development and composition of their community are all predicated, in one way or another, on a certain vision of this pivotal era. Thus in Lecture Four, we will look closely at the origins and significance of the Sunni-Shi’a divide.
The second purpose of our overview was to provide us with a framework in which our subsequent discussions could take place. That is, in order to question and explore received wisdom, we first need to understand its ideas, concerns and preoccupations. However, having such a conceptual ‘peg’ is useful only insofar as we understand its limitations. That is, this framework offers a beginning and no more.
Given, then, that yesterday’s introduction was nothing more than a very short excursion into the history of Islam, I want to begin today’s session by recapping and extending on yesterday’s overview. Then, in the second half of the lecture, I want to begin exploring the Arabic and Islamic historiographical tradition, which underpins the traditional account, in some detail.
During yesterday’s lecture, we looked at the key themes of the course: Identity, Authority & Law. We will be referring to these themes throughout today’s lecture. Indeed, attempting to locate some of these broad themes is a good way of focusing on our topic.
Thus, in today’s lecture we will look at how understandings of the past have contributed towards the formation of Muslim identity. We will also see how constructions of past history have been used to discuss authority (whether ‘legal’, ‘moral’ or ‘religious’) within the early Islamic context.
The Early History of Islam
As we saw yesterday, the first century of Islam witnessed a vast series of conquests, in effect amounting to the birth of a new civilisation. By this time, the newly founded Muslim empire controlled a territory stretching from Spain to the borders of China. Quite naturally, therefore, this was a period of intense change. Three key events helped to shape the history of Islam during this period. The first of these was the conquest period itself, directed by the first four of Muhammad’s successors (or Khalifa – Caliph). This era is seen as a golden age by Muslims, as the time when the Prophet’s teachings were still adhered to. We will look again at this period next week, so we will leave the details for now: the key point is that this time is known by Sunnis as that of the Khulafa’ al-Rashidun (the Rightly Guided Caliphs/Successors).
This ‘golden age’ came under pressure during the time of Uthman (the 3rd of the four). It seems that Uthman favoured his relatives, the Umayyad clan of Quraysh, and placed them in important governorships, the most important of these being Mu`awiya in Syria. Latent tensions regarding wealth and its apparent misappropriation eventually led to a rebellion and Uthman’s murder. The next Caliph Ali (Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law) seems to have inherited a certain amount of stigma and hence his time was marked by the revolt of Mu`awiya. This revolt led to a major intra-Muslim battle at Siffin in Iraq. Shortly after, Ali was himself assassinated. This first civil war (or fitna in Arabic) was of immense significance for Islam – for in it the Sunni-Shia divide was born (as we shall see next week).
Mu`awiya and his descendents (the Umayyad dynasty) thus ruled the nascent Muslim empire. Those who had supported Ali (his Shia or ‘party’) were aggrieved at this and the increasingly worldly lifestyle of certain Caliphs added fuel to the flame. The Umayyad dynasty was thus marked by a number of revolts aiming at restoring the rule to the family of Ali. These eventually culminated in the overthrow of the Umayyads by another branch of Quraysh (the Abbasids). Once in power, the Abbasid caliphs (from a Shia background) gradually drew away from their Shia roots, provoking yet more revolts.
These are some of the principal events of the first 200 years or so of Islamic history. Again, it is worth emphasising that this is only an overview. The full story is much more complex.
The Early Development of Arabic/Islamic Historiography
Having taken a brief whistle-stop tour of early Islamic history, I’d like to focus now on examining the origins of this picture. That is, I want to look more closely at the sources of early Islamic history. That is, in this lecture we will explore the development of historical writing during the first 300 years or so of Islam. In particular, I want to concentrate on exploring the nature, origins and development of Islamic historical writing. However, the sheer scale of such a task means that today we will merely attempt to chart some of the major developments and key features of the early Islamic historical tradition.
Questioning Our Sources
Whilst we are discussing these topics, I want you to hold in mind some of the questions we asked about historical sources yesterday, as we will be looking at them more closely in this week’s seminar. By asking such questions, we will be able to understand some of the processes at work in the development of early Islamic historiography.
Transmission of Sources
These are not the only questions which could be asked of our material; they are intended merely as a starting point. At any rate, as we investigate early Islamic historical writing, you should have these questions at the front of your minds.
What do we mean by Historical Writing: Definitions?
What, though, do we mean when we refer to Arabic and Islamic historiography? Or, more basically, what do we mean by historical writing? This is a complex question. Fortunately, answering it is well beyond our scope here. For our purposes today, I use the term ‘historical writing’ to refer to writing about the past in general. This broad scope allows us to utilise a very wide range of materials.
The aim of this part of the lecture is twofold. Firstly, it is to survey the development of Arabic-Islamic historical writing and then secondly, to explore some of this tradition’s most important features. The purpose here is to reveal the wide diversity of sources for the study of early Islam and the principal methodological issues involved in their usage.
Before we begin, it is important to realise that, given the limited time available to us, this survey represents a simplified account. Moreover, the reconstruction offered here is one of a number of possible alternatives. Those interested in exploring these questions in greater detail are referred to the bibliography (which will be posted on Blackboard later today).
The Past in Pre-Islamic Arabia
Perhaps the first question we need to ask is: in what social and cultural contexts did Islamic historical thought emerge?
The first point to bear in mind is that pre-Islamic Arabia was almost completely non-literate. Reading and writing were rare abilities; indeed, some traditions relate that at the birth of Islam, there were a mere 17 literate people in the trading city of Mecca. In other words, we are dealing with an almost exclusively oral culture. As we saw last semester in relation to the transmission of early Buddhist texts, oral ‘literature’ (if we may use such a term) imposes its own unique set of conditions.
The chief medium of ‘high culture’ in Arabia was poetry. As Khalidi makes clear, eloquence was considered a ‘gift of the gods, a cause of wonder and dread’. Intricate rules of metre, style and form governed the composition of such poetry, which was used to convey ethical guidance, morality, culture and ideas of the past. Al-Ya`qubi, writing in the tenth century CE, has this to say:
‘For the Arabs, poetry took the place of philosophy and most of the sciences…In fact, the Arabs had nothing to refer to for their opinions and actions except poetry. It was with poetry that they fought; it was poetry they quoted; in it they vied in virtue, through it they exchanged oaths and with it they exerted themselves against each other; in it they were praised or blamed’.
Pre-Islamic Arabian society was also dominated by the tribe. Based around small family groups, these tribes were arranged in an ascending network of kinship groups (both real and imagined) – said to be descended from a common ancestor. Thus Muhammad belonged to the Bani Hashim (or ‘sons of Hashim), which was one of the clans of the Bani Quraysh, so called because the whole tribe were believed to be the descendents of Quraysh.
In the stateless environment of Arabia, loyalty to the tribe was paramount. The only defence against indiscriminate violence was the blood-feud, in which conflicts could (and did) last for generations. The later Islamic age characterises this period as one of barbarism (indeed, it is known as the age of jahiliyyah or ‘ignorance’).
The insecurities of pre-literate, tribal society bred an outlook on life that was both deeply pessimistic and focused on the ‘vivid present’. The poetry of the time gives eloquent testimony to this and is replete with references to an impersonal and ever-changing Time (Dahr) which ultimately destroys everything. As Khalidi makes clear, Dahr is ‘an abstract, faceless power against which there is no appeal’. References are also made to blind Fate (al-Manaya):
‘I saw the Manaya strike blindly, whom they hit
They slay, whom they miss lives on to weak old age.
He who dreads the ropes of Manaya, they snare him
Even were he to ascend the ropes of heaven on a ladder.
And he who does not defend his fort with his weapons
His fort will be destroyed; and he who does not oppress
Will himself be oppressed.
But when the arrows of the Manaya are aimed at a man
Neither medicine nor magic avails him’
Small wonder then that much of this period’s poetry revels in the pleasures of the moment:
‘Roast flesh, the glow of fiery wine
To speed on camel fleet and sure
As thy soul lists to urge her on
Through all the hollows breadth and length;
White women statue-like that trail
Rich robes of price with golden hem,
Wealth, easy lot, no dread of ill
To hear the lute’s complaining string –
These are Life’s joys. For man is set
the prey of Time [Dahr], and Time is change’
Poems bemoaning the intransigence of fate or otherwise extolling earthly pleasure are not, however, the whole story. As we have seen, the tribal unit was the focus of personal loyalty. The stronger the tribe, the more secure its members were. Tribal boasting, or propaganda, was another important theme of pre-Islamic poetry. Known as Ayyam al-Arab (literally the ‘Days of the Arabs’), this literature gave vivid descriptions of tribal alliances, enmities and battles. As with virtually all pre-Islamic poetry, the Ayyam literature was only written down after the emergence of Islam.
The Impact of Islam: the Quran
It was this environment into which the Quran emerged. Although we will focus more closely on the Quran in lecture five, it is important that we understand some key points now. Firstly, the Islamic tradition holds that the Quran is the actual speech of God, revealed piecemeal to Muhammad over a period of some 23 years. As an apparent revelation from God, the Quran describes its own arrival in earth-shattering, cosmic terms:
‘If We sent down this Quran upon a mountain, you would
see it humbled, shattered by the fear of God’
Secondly, the Quran is ‘written’ in dense, figurative and richly symbolic Arabic. Muslim tradition holds that the Quran’s literary form is a miracle (mu’jiza) in itself. The historical record (though written within the community) argues that Muhammad’s contemporaries were struck by the rich, allusive language of the Quran.
Thirdly, the Quran is radically different from the Christian Bible, in terms of both structure and organisation. It is not a work of ‘history’ in the New Testament sense: unlike the Gospels, which could be considered as the human recollection and recording of the life of Jesus (albeit acting under apparent divine inspiration), the Quran sees itself as the collected speech of God, arranged in its own ‘divine’ order.
In other words, for the early Muslim community, the Quran occupied a distinct place: its pronouncements were held to be completely accurate, its ethical values were held to be normative and its rulings and prohibitions were considered legally binding. To understand early Muslim attitudes to history, it is important to understand (albeit briefly) Quranic attitudes to history.
According to the Quranic view, creation (and humanity within it) came into existence by God’s command, at a definite point in time. Moreover, creation will likewise come to an end, also at a definite point in time. Creation is thus ordered and purposeful. The Quran posits a view of time as linear and thereby, it rejects pre-Islamic ideas of Time and Fate:
‘They say: there is nothing but our earthly life. We die, we are born and only the Dahr destroys us. But they have no knowledge of this for they are only guessing…Say: It is God who gives you life, then makes you die, then restores you to life upon the Day of Resurrection, of which there is no doubt. But most of mankind is
God is thus seen as the directing force behind history, which is portrayed in the Quran as a recurring pattern of divine guidance and revelation, followed by human wilfulness and ignorance. As bearers of divine guidance, the prophets of the Quran are universally met with scorn, ridicule and persecution:
‘Then We sent Our messengers, one after another. Whenever its messenger came to a nation, they called him a liar. So We caused them to follow one another and made them parables. Away with a people who do not believe!’.
Indeed, in this sense, Quranic narratives regarding prophets are virtually interchangeable, as one commentator makes clear:
‘The prophets of the Quran are types of moral life. They reveal essentially the same message and their lives follow closely similar patterns. Theirs is the story of the lonely voice crying out against the injustice or indifference of his community and undergoing similar social, political and spiritual crises’.
The Quran’s judgement of the past is thus deeply moral; ‘history’ is evoked with a moral lesson in mind, addressed to ‘a people who understand’.
Although the exact extent to which the Quran influenced the development of historical writing is unclear, it played an important role in providing an outlook on and orientation towards the past. Now, with the rise of Islam, the past (and the future) became suddenly important; actions thus carried a moral significance beyond the moment. The desire to understand history, as the expression and fulfilment of the Divine plan, may also have given rise to an important early ‘historical’ genre, the Israiliyyat. Literally meaning ‘tales of the tribes of Israel’, Israiliyyat refers to the use of legendary material drawn from the Judaeo-Christian tradition to pad out verses of the Quran. That is, it was used to help explain Quranic narrative in the light of biblical tales. Thus, where the Quran might refer to the story of Moses and Pharaoh in fairly plain terms, material drawn from the Israiliyyat tradition would supply the names of Pharaoh’s bodyguards and attendants.
The Impact of Islam: the Prophetic Example
According to the traditional Muslim understanding, Muhammad’s preaching brought about a spiritual crisis in his native Mecca. His ideas about the nature and sovereignty of God, and more particularly what that meant for Meccan social relationships, caused heated discussion and eventually outright violence, as Siddiqui makes clear:
‘To his enemies, he was a revolutionary bent upon destroying the whole fabric of their society, whose activities had to be keenly watched if the progress of his mission was to be suppressed…If his enemies took a close interest in his statements and actions, the interest of his followers was more intense still. They had accepted him as their sole guide and prophet…All his actions served them as an ideal, and hence a precedent (sunna); every word which he uttered was a law to them…’.
Thus the desire amongst the early Muslim community to record Muhammad’s teachings for posterity also seems to have been influential in the rise of Islamic historical writing. However, this is not to say that everything so written (or spoken) was (or was intended to be) ‘factual’. As we shall see when we look at the Prophetic Tradition literature, there has been widespread forgery in Muhammad’s name (a fact freely acknowledged by Muslim scholars themselves). Rather, we should understand that such authorities had other purposes, other than historical fact in a modern western sense.
The Rise of Historical Writing
The need to understand and explain both the Quran and the Prophet’s teaching were thus both important in developing the beginnings of historical writing within the early Muslim community. However, as the newly formed Muslim world began to establish itself, other kinds of writing began to make their presence felt.
During the late first century hijri (by that I mean the first century after Muhammad’s emigration to Medina) writers such Urwa ibn al-Zubayr and al-Zuhri began to assemble chronologies from the various word of mouth reports and scattered documents. Thus as time moved further away from Muhammad’s days, Muslims grew increasingly interested in understanding their community’s past. Unfortunately, nothing survives of either writer’s work. This is partly due to the perishable medium in which they wrote; paper decays very quickly in the hot sun of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. It is also partly due to their method. That is, although they did write their ideas down, they did not write fully connected histories as we would understand them today. Rather, they seem to have produced short monographs on particular topics, particularly on the life of Muhammad at Medina. This literature is known as Maghazi literature and literally means ‘raids’, though it seems to have dealt with much wider topics than that.
Politics was another significant driver. As we have seen, the first century after Muhammad was marked by a number of major intra-Muslim conflicts. The various factions involved in this disputes all seem to have publicised their own versions of events. The Umayyad caliphs particularly were keen to do so. Thus the important Caliph Abd al-Malik patronised al-Zuhri and sponsored his work.
This early work allowed the development of more complex narrative forms. Thus during the second century hijri (the eighth century CE) complete historical accounts begin to emerge. The earliest and most influential work was that of Ibn Ishaq. He was a pupil of al-Zuhri and wrote an entire life of Muhammad. This is the earliest complete biographical account to survive and dates to approximately 150 years or so after Muhammad’s time. However, Ibn Ishaq’s work only survives in the recension of his own pupil, Ibn Hisham. In point of fact, Ibn Hisham’s edition is more like a reworked version. It is therefore important to bear this point in mind: the earliest complete work dates to about 150 years after the event, in a reworked edition of an even later period. Nevertheless, Ibn Ishaq’s work is an invaluable source and where it is possible to check, it is a very reliable source.
The late second and third centuries witnessed a further development in historical writing, with the growth of coherent and fluid narrative accounts. These histories tended to concentrate on a number of key topics. These included accounts of Muhammad’s life, as well as treatments of the early conquests. Local histories were also written. Histories of Syria and Egypt were thus written, which have generally not survived however. As you might expect, in the tribal environment of Arabia genealogy was another favourite topic. The voluminous writings of al-Baladhuri are an early example. Written in the late second/early third century, al-Baladhuri wrote a work on the early conquests called Futuh al-Buldan (literally ‘the conquest of the lands’) which offers a connected account of the early period with invaluable information on a wide range of topics. He also wrote a work on genealogy, called Ansab al-Ashraf (literally ‘genealogies of the nobility’), which also survives.
But arguably the most important work from this period was that of Abu Ja’far Muhammad al-Tabari. A Persian by descent, al-Tabari wrote a universal history of the world which survives in a complete form (entitled Tarikh Rusul wa al-Muluk, ‘History of Prophets and Kings), as well as a commentary on the Quran (which also survives). This work begins with God’s creation of the world and Adam and concludes in Tabari’s own time. Its scope is thus universal and thus aims to place the life of Muhammad and the emergence of Islam at the pinnacle of world history. That is, the birth of Islam is seen by al-Tabari as the culmination of world history. Tabari is thus immensely important for the early history of Islam. We also hold a complete translation of his History of Prophets and Kings in the library. I recommend you glance through it, as it will give you a valuable insight into the methods and outlooks of Islamic historians.
Islamic Historiography: Key Features
Muhammad’s example and teaching, in conjunction with the community’s early history, generated a large amount of material, the majority of which seems to have been oral. The emphasis on oral transmission (even in written form) had a huge impact on the development of Islamic historiography. Reports about the past were placed within what might be called a conversational framework. It is perhaps easiest to illustrate this by looking at an example:
‘Narrated Ibn Abbas (May God be pleased with him): Allah’s Messenger (May God bless him and grant him peace) was divinely inspired at the age of forty. Then he stayed in Mecca for thirteen years and was then ordered to migrate and he migrated to Medina and stayed there for ten years and then died’
The phrase ‘may God be pleased with him’ is a traditional Sunni Muslim phrase commonly said after the name of a Companion of Muhammad. We will look more closely at the Companions and how they are referred to when we look at the Sunni-Shi`a divide in lecture four. The phrase ‘may God bless him and grant him peace’ is the traditional Muslim blessing said after mention of Muhammad’s name.
The report itself is divided into two main parts. The first is the isnad, or the ‘chain of narrators’. The example quoted above only cites one authority. A further example shows the isnad more fully:
‘Ismail ibn Abdullah told us that Malik ibn Anas told him on the authority of Ishaq ibn Abdullah ibn Abi Talha from Anas ibn Malik, may God be pleased with him, who said…’.
As you can see, the isnad is a list of the individuals through whom this piece of information has been transmitted. As time passes, and the number of people through whom the report passes grows, so does the isnad. Indeed the list of names can be confusing. Moreover, the number of overall reports grows, as each person’s report is counted separately. In other words, it is designed to act as a means of authenticating the text to which it is attached. The origins of this system seem to be early, although the exact origins are a matter of debate. Muhammd Ibn Sirin, a scholar of the late first century (late seventh-early eighth century CE) has this to say:
‘They did not ask about the isnad, but when civil war …broke they said, ‘Name to us your men’; those who belong to Ahl al-Sunnah, their traditions were accepted and those who were innovators their traditions were neglected’.
We will look again at isnad when we look at Prophetic Traditions, but for now it is important to note Ibn Sirin’s remark. In other words, sectarian affiliation played also played a significant role. We will see this more clearly when we discuss the origins of the Sunni-Shia split.
The second feature of the report mentioned above is the text itself, or the matn in Arabic. Such texts can be either very short (in some cases no more than a few words) or very long (extending to several pages of text). The matn often deals with a very specific incident, often without a wider context. This is an important point and worth noting. Without knowing something of the wider narrative pattern (and by that I mean the traditional story) establishing the context of a particular report is difficult and in some cases impossible.
These isnad-matn ‘pieces’ were then used in the construction of more coherent narratives (such as al-Tabari’s History). In some works, the names of individual authorities survive (sometimes in a truncated form), whilst in others they do not.
This isnad – matn format is the basic building block of virtually all narrative text and, as such, it is important that we familiarise ourselves with it. As we shall see later on, this is also the same format used in the Prophetic Traditions. These texts are known by a variety of names (largely depending on context). The most prominent term is hadith (which literally means ‘report’), although others include khabar (‘news’) and akhbar (the plural of khabar). All these terms convey the sense of ‘news’, ‘narration’ and ‘story’. In other words, they all primarily denote oral transmission.
Although oral transmission was not the only means of passing on historical lore, it was certainly the most privileged socially. Oral narration was long felt to be the most secure method, both in terms of accuracy of information and in terms of accuracy of ‘theology’. Isnad narration, with its concentrated focuses upon the reliability, ‘orthodoxy’, memory and known truthfulness of each link in the chain, led to a wider growth in historical biographies. Such works, known as tabaqat (or ‘layers’), provided detailed biographical information about transmitters of hadith and other more broadly historical narratives. Although not history in exactly the way we understand the term, this emerging discipline (known ilm al-rijal) proved an important tool for Islamic historians. In time tabaqat-style works were written on poets, authors, mystics and others: though not strictly in the same genre, the Fihrist (or ‘Encyclopaedia’ you might say) of the tenth century Ibn al-Nadim gives details of a vast array of scholars and other influential people, whilst the famous Tabaqat al-Kabir (or ‘Great Tabaqat’) of Ibn S`ad presents a wealth of information on early companions of the Prophet and others.
Questions & Problems
In this final section of the lecture I want to pose a few questions regarding the sources for the study of early Islam. As budding historians of Islam, we need to clearly understand these issues and the questions they raise. Moreover, at this stage, the asking of questions is more important than providing ready answers.
If the works of Ibn Ishaq, al-Tabari and al-Baladhuri (amongst others) are our earliest surviving historical coherent sources (written at least a century or so after the events they describe) then what impact does that have on what the Islamic sources can tell us about this early period? Furthermore, what does the existence of partisan bias, anachronism and distortion mean for our attempts to understand the formative era of Islam? In other words, can we actually claim to know anything concrete about this period?
This question is an important area of contemporary debate and there is a very wide range of scholarly opinion on the matter. Before we conclude, I want to explore some of these approaches briefly.
Early European scholarship was critical of our sources. Scholars such as Caetani and Wellhausen adopted a critical approach and were doubtful of the veracity of significant bodies of material. This led to the rejection of much of the traditional picture.
Other later scholars, such as Montgomery Watt, argue that there is a recoverable core at the heart of Islamic history. His works on the life of Muhammad (Muhammad at Mecca and Muhammad at Medina) thus argue accordingly. Despite significant qualifications, Watt’s approach is closer to the Islamic tradition.
A number of scholars argue that Muslim sources have been fundamentally misunderstood in the West. Authors such as Azami and Abbott (amongst others) have attempted to argue that, in general, the Muslim sources are sound when understood correctly.
A similar view has also been expressed by writers such as Rubin and Noth. Although they do not accept the traditional picture, they share the view that our sources are misunderstood. That is, they argue that modern writers are asking the wrong questions of our sources. Because much of the source material contains tendentious editing, they argue that early texts cannot tell us ‘what really happened’; rather, they illustrate the concerns of the early Muslim community itself.
Perhaps the most controversial view of recent times argues that Muslim sources should be almost entirely rejected as independent witnesses. That is, because they emerge from within the tradition (and are either late or otherwise shows a sectarian bias) Muslim accounts should only be used to verify the statements of ‘outsiders’. In this week’s seminar we will look more closely at this idea, which has emerged from a book called Hagarism: the Making of the Islamic World by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook.
 Ibn ‘Abd Rabbih `Iqd iv.157, quoted in A`zami, 2000, 1
 1994, 2
 Al-Ya`qubi Tarikh 1.262, quoted in Khalidi, 1994, 2; cf. Robinson, 2003,
 Khalidi, 1994, 3
 1994, 3
 Quoted in Khalidi, 1994, 3
 Quoted in Khalidi, 1994, 4
 Khalidi, 1994, 9
 27:52. Phrases like this are common in the Quran.
 Siddiqui (1993), 2-3
 Bukhari no. 1580, 5:190
 Bukhari, quoted by Rippin and Knappert, 1986, 73
 Quoted by A`zami, 2000, 213