Friday, May 19, 2006

Sacrifice as Assertion: Plutarch and the Spartan Woman

Peace, one and all...
Whilst I was working on some stuff last night, I came across an essay I wrote for my MA in Ancient History. I haven't read it in a long time and so I thought I'd post it here...
Ma'as salama,
Abdur Rahman

Sacrifice as Assertion: Plutarch and the Spartan Woman

Plutarch is, perhaps, an inescapable figure in ancient history and thought. He was born as Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus in the Greek city of Chaeronea during the mid forties CE, to a family which had been important there for a number of generations. In keeping with such a ‘pedigree’ Plutarch underwent a thorough education in rhetoric and philosophy, before eventually becoming a priest at Delphi
[1]. Plutarch was a pragmatic man, coming to terms with his knowledge of the glories of the Greek past and its present weakness[2]. He was also a prolific author: writing a vast corpus on everything from philosophical treatises to rhetorical ‘manuals’ and biographical accounts.

In the past, he has been severely criticised. He has been castigated for his ‘distance’ from classical Greece. Whilst this ‘lateness’ is a disadvantage in many respects, his accounts are generally plausible, if occasionally anachronistic
[3]. He has also been accused of a ‘lack of historical perspective’[4]. Plutarch answers this himself: ‘…I am writing biography, not history…’[5].

Plutarch is one of our main sources for the history of Sparta. This small, yet widely influential, city in the Peloponnese held sway in Greece during the late fifth and early fourth centuries BCE. Whilst little of its history remains uncontroversial, it does seem to have differed from other Greek cities in some important respects. Spartan society was divided into three major classes: the homoioi (or ‘peers’) who held full citizenship and property rights; the perioikoi (‘dwellers around’), ‘free’ but with less wealth and therefore less status; the helots, bound labour with few rights

Spartan administration is imperfectly understood. The city was nominally ruled by two kings with limited powers subject to check by ephors (or magistrates) and gerousia (or ‘council of elders’), although the relationship of these posts to one another is not fully known. The (in)famous education system (the agoge), which took boys from their parents at seven and gave them a military education in ‘barracks’, was designed to improve the city’s readiness for war. The success of which is shown by Spartan military pre-eminence (until the battle of Leuctra in 371BCE)

The women of Sparta are similarly elusive. In the ancient world, at least, Spartan women were thought to be far more ‘liberated’ than the rest of their Greek sisters (though, it must be said, that this belief was defined by its apparent difference from ‘general’ Greek norms). The growth of ‘feminist’ literature (which, amongst other things, seeks to understand the historical parameters of female experience) has made a re-evaluation of ancient attitudes towards Spartan women and their supposed ‘freedom’ both important and relevant. This essay aims to consider Plutarch’s use of the Spartan woman as an example of female ‘virtue’ in general.

Before we begin our investigation we should appreciate the limitations of our evidence. There are practically no surviving Spartan accounts of (or by) women
[8]. Most of the (roughly) contemporary literature comes from Athens, Sparta’s chief rival for most of the classical period, and has, therefore, a somewhat biased regard for its achievements. Plutarch, writing approximately 400 years after Sparta’s heyday, spent much of his ‘working life’ at Athens itself and viewed it as a major cultural centre, so bias and anachronism are perhaps inevitable. We should bear these points constantly in mind.

We should also take a moment to ponder what we mean by sacrifice. For the purposes of this essay, sacrifice refers to the voluntary act of relinquishing something in order to gain some ‘higher good’. In other words, sacrifice is not only financial. It can also be emotional, spiritual and physical. We are not so interested, therefore, in the social position of the person giving but rather in what their giving represents to Plutarch.

To answer the question in brief, then: whilst Plutarch’s conception of women’s role in ‘civilised’ society shares many features with that of his (mainly Athenian) ‘contemporaries’, it is different in some important respects. Like many ancient authors, he divides gender roles into active and passive and defines ‘virtue’ as how far a person accepts this division
[9]. This acceptance requires practical application; in a female context this means sacrifice. The stereotypical figure of the Spartan woman is used by Plutarch as a means of expressing this idea: those who attempt to utilise it are portrayed in glowing terms whilst those who do not are castigated. Also those who do sacrifice should use their moral superiority to educate their children, thereby ensuring the community’s growth.

The operation of this essential quality can be seen on several levels: firstly, a woman should sacrifice the possession of and desire for ‘unsuitable’ power (that is, ‘male’ authority). Secondly, this initial sacrifice should be paralleled by an attempt to control and balance her extremes of feeling. Thirdly, a woman should extend this by, where necessary, relinquishing her own personal ‘honour’ in the further service of virtuous ends. By not giving free rein to her ‘wilder’ impulses, a woman becomes more ‘virtuous’ and her effect on those around her grows in proportion. The women who reached this ‘pinnacle’ of sacrifice are not, as might be expected, meek and timid: indeed, they are portrayed as having a direct impact on the lives and well-being of not only their families but also the wider world in general. Thus, for Plutarch, Spartan womanhood offers an important example of how women in general should (and conversely, should not) act.

Whilst it is well beyond the scope of this paper to enter the important debate on female experience in the Greek world, we can perhaps draw together some key points as being (fairly) representative of some (principally Athenian) male views.

The ‘normative’ Greek view of women, or at least that initiated by Plato and Aristotle and later developed by others, saw Man as a unique animal in his possession of reason. Men, therefore, did and should attempt to mould and shape his surroundings, both behavioural and physical. Women, by contrast, being of this same essence but in a somewhat lesser degree, were there to be provided for and taught ‘fitting’ roles; in other words, to be shaped and acted upon

In general, Greek society was patriarchal; that is, legitimate authority was largely defined by and for men. Thus within the family new children had to be accepted by the father before being allowed to live
[11]. Property and the right to inherit were also largely in male hands[12]. Female education was mostly limited to ‘women’s duties’ such as housework and child-rearing. Aristotle remarked that while pregnant ‘… the body should be exercised, the intellect should follow a more relaxed regime…’[13]. This lack is confirmed by the existence of some women of greater learning, usually of an aristocratic background, who stand out in stark contrast to the majority (such as the poetess Sappho)[14].

On a broader level, women played no official part in politics; in most cases they could not hold office
[15]. The general sensitivity regarding female ‘participation’ is emphasised by its widespread condemnation. Such a ‘rule by women’ is equated with inevitable decline, as Aristotle argues: ‘An inevitable result under such a constitution is that esteem is given to wealth, particularly in cases where men are dominated by the women’[16].

An area of particular concern was female sexuality. In a patriarchy, the legitimacy of children becomes essential. Thus philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, went to great pains to decide the appropriate age for marriage and the ‘proper’ way to have children
[17]. Adultery laws sought to prohibit promiscuity: with punishments ranging in severity from monetary fine to summary execution[18]. On a somewhat more ‘popular’ level, (male) literature attempted to demonise those who, for whatever the reason, went against the norm. Simonides of Amorgos berates the woman who will‘…welcome any male friend who comes around with sex on his mind’ and praises she who ‘…does not take pleasure in sitting among the women when they are discussing sex’[19]. Whilst it seems certain that such attitudes were by no means universal, the desire to restrict female sexual activity was a key feature of Greek society.

To keep women from ‘straying’ it was felt better for them to remain at home. Sophocles exhorts women to ‘be women’ and stay inside, whilst Thucydides argues that ‘…the greatest glory for a woman is to be least talked about by men, whether they are praising you or criticising you’

Such ideas help explain the magnetic quality of the Spartan woman in ancient literature. The belief in their apparent ‘freedom’ exercised a major influence on much (principally Athenian) thought
[21]. Criticism about their active role in society was balanced and complicated, by their apparent beauty. Playwrights reflect this complex attitude. Thus Euripides accuses Spartan girls of being somewhat unstable and unchaste, whilst Aristophanes refers to their captivating appearance[22]. Again, it is not the purpose of this essay to examine ancient views of Spartan women or to open a discussion of this supposed ‘liberty’. It is enough to note that ancient views of women were characterised by a complex and sometimes negative attitude[23].

Plutarch remarks that ‘virtue is the same in man and woman’
[24]. Whilst the actual quality itself appears in both sexes, the division into specific gender roles means that its operation is not. In other words, ‘virtue’ for Plutarch is seen as how far a person adheres to their particular role and how they control themselves within it[25]. Men, as the active force, should initiate and take the lead, in external and internal affairs; ‘…the husband should rule the wife, not as a master rules a slave, but as the soul rules the body’[26]. Thus male control of society was seen as a natural feature of life[27]. Those men who ‘repudiate’ this essential cross the boundary of manhood into effeminacy. Plutarch accuses Egyptian men of this ‘crime’; ‘It is certainly no surprise that women take control of these men who shun liberty’[28].

Women were, by contrast, conceived of as inherently passive: ‘If they submit to their husbands, they are praised. If they try to rule them, they cut a worse figure than their subjects’
[29]. Thus Plutarch has Megisto, leader of the imprisoned wives of Elis, answer her captor, Aristodemus, in this manner; ‘If you were a man of sense…you would not be talking to wives about their husbands; you would have sent word to them, for they are our masters…’[30]. A good woman was, therefore, one who lived her life through her husband; ‘… a wife should have no feelings of her own, but share her husband’s seriousness and sport, his anxiety and his laughter’[31]. Those who deny or repudiate their natural part in life therefore lack ‘goodness’. A domineering woman is criticised for her character;

‘Women who dominate fools rather than obey men of sense are like people who would rather guide the blind on the road than follow the sighted man who knows the way’

Plutarch uses the evocative figure of the Spartan woman to reinforce this point. The female opposition to Agis IV is portrayed in terms of greed and lust, whilst his supporters are lifted to the heights of virtue
[33]. The figure of the newly married, and ‘suitably’ passive, Spartan girl is another example. Her demure response receives glowing praise:

‘A Spartan girl, when asked if she had yet come to her husband, replied, ‘No, but he has come to me’. This is how the true housewife should be; she does not … take the initiative herself’[34].
To explore how and in what way Spartan women were seen by Plutarch as ‘good’ is, therefore, to understand his wider view of women in general.

Plutarch believed that this moral superiority required practical application in the wider world
[35]. In other words, women should instil the ‘correct’ gender role into their children. The educational influence of women, which Plutarch sees as vital, is thus a feature of all of his more ‘virtuous’ characters. The moral rectitude of king Agis is implicitly seen as the product of his mother and grandmother’s teaching (this is further emphasised by the care which Agis takes to win them over to his reform)[36]. Agiatis, the wife of Cleomenes, moulds her young husband’s nebulous ideas for reform into a concerted plan, whilst the salvation of the Chian exiles is credited to their wives, who ‘… taught them to be brave’ [37]. Chilonis’ passionate plea for the life of her husband is portrayed by Plutarch as an educational piece of rhetoric (of the type he himself liked to give)[38]. Cornelia, the mother of the Roman Gracchi brothers, is yet another important example. She is said to be directly responsible for their strict upbringing[39].

In contrast to much (Athenian) Greek thought, Plutarch believed it was possible for a woman to be educated in ‘higher’ learning
[40]. He attributes a trained and active intelligence to several key women. Thus during the preamble to his Virtues in Women he consoles the recently bereaved Flavia Clea with these words:

‘And so, when our good Leontis died, you and I had much talk, talk rich in philosophical consolation and now, in accordance with your wish, I have written up what was left over from our discussion…’[41].
Obviously Plutarch felt that Flavia was able to understand philosophical argument as well as read his subsequent account[42]. Timoclea of Thebes is another example, making a speech in defence of her city to Alexander[43].

Furthermore Spartan women are often portrayed by Plutarch as educated. This may well reflect a commonplace of Greek thought. Herodotus, in a story about espionage during the Persian Wars, relates that only the Spartan king’s daughter, Gorgo, could decipher the meaning of a message hidden within a bronze tablet
[44]. The speech which Plutarch puts into the mouth of Chilonis, daughter of king Leonidas and wife of king Cleombrotus, provides us with another example. In this passage Chilonis delivers a long and successful plea for her husband’s life, very much in the style of a professional orator[45]. Whilst it is true that speeches do not say much the about level of female education in ‘real life’ they do say a great deal about Plutarch’s perception, that he felt it possible and worthwhile and that he equates such learning with morality.

It is noteworthy that even in a passage without an overt reference to education Plutarch credits the Spartan woman with an inherent power to teach. Alcibiades, the enigmatic Athenian general, is said to have had a Spartan nursemaid as a child, implying that he owed some of his martial prowess to her
[46]. The same idea also underpins Plutarch’s account of the nudity of Spartan girls. He praises it for its ability to help young men find attractive brides and because ‘… there was no hint of immorality’ it serves to encourage the young men to compete with each other in ‘virtue’: ‘… so that they filled the youngsters with a great sense of ambition and rivalry’[47]. Guidance can thus be seen to have operated on several levels.

Above all, Plutarch believed that education should be practical: that is, it should offer women a moral example to follow. Indeed, he is critical of ‘…philosophers who exhort but offer us no instruction or suggestion. They are no better than people who trim their lamps but don’t put the oil in’
[48]. Indeed, much of his own writing was didactic in purpose[49]. In marriage such philosophy was designed to promote harmonious relations between a husband and his wife. Education was supposed to have a lasting effect: ‘If she knows geometry, she will be ashamed to dance’[50]. This meant that the husband had to understand and apply his dominant position. He should be the one to set the moral example for the woman to follow. Force, however, was a last resort[51]. Thus Plutarch plays up the importance of persuasion[52]:

‘The ancients set Hermes at Aphrodite’s side, knowing that the pleasure of marriage needed his word more than anything, and with them they set persuasion and the Graces, that married couples might have their desire from each by persuasion, not in conflict or quarrelsomeness’[53]
And again:
‘When their husbands take away their luxuries and extravagances, they fight and quarrel; but if they are persuaded by reason, they lay them aside without complaint and behave with moderation’[54].
Education for a woman was, therefore, directly related to an understanding of her passive role:
‘… there are many fine subjects of discourse, but none more important than marriage, whereby philosophy charms those who come together to share their lives, and makes them gentle and amenable to each other’[55].
This brings us to the motif of sacrifice: what did it signify and how did it operate?

Plutarch’s belief in female passivity is paralleled by, and perhaps springs from, his concept of religion. The two ideas being inextricably related in his mind. To relinquish something valuable to a deity brings the dedicatee a degree of divine influence. Indeed, to gain the ear of a particular god through expensive and valuable gifts, was the central feature of Graeco-Roman worship
[56]. The Vestal Virgins at Rome sacrificed their sexual lives in order to ensure the pax deorum, whilst Prometheus sacrificed his freedom for knowledge[57]. Plutarch reflects this idea in the Moralia:
‘In destroying the belief in immortality, the Epicureans destroy the sweetest and greatest hopes of the mass of mankind. What are we to believe of the good, who have lived pious and upright lives and expect no evil yonder but only things most lovely and divine? Athletes receive their prizes not during the contest but after they have won’[58].
This belief in an evolving and practical wisdom meant, in a female context, sacrifice. Primarily this meant relinquishing ‘male’ power (either power achieved, as position, or power desired, as ambition). By complying with the natural order and not entering the ‘risky’ world of politics a woman achieves respect and thus influence[59]. The figures of Agesistrata and Archidamia (Agis’ mother and grandmother) in the Life of Agis are significant in this respect. Despite their enormous wealth and influence, these two women become Agis’ principal supporters once convinced of the need for reform:
‘…inspired by the young man’s aspirations, the ladies…were filled with such great enthusiasm that together they urged Agis on and told him to proceed faster’[60].
Indeed, their aid proves crucial both in terms of the wealth at their disposal and their ability to mobilise female support[61]. Whilst the tone of this passage, and indeed the whole Life, suggests a rather more political motive for their support, Plutarch’s account seeks to emphasise the virtue in their ‘sacrifice’[62]. Thus when events come to a head and Agis is murdered, the deaths of Agesistrata and Archidamia are transformed into moral paradigms[63]. Plutarch has Agis’ mother die with the words ‘May this only be of service to Sparta’, whilst his grandmother is executed first because she ‘…she enjoyed the highest esteem amongst Spartiate women’[64].

Cratesicleia is given similar treatment. Upon being told of her assignment to Egypt as a hostage, she submits to her fate (not only passively but almost joyfully):
‘Was it this which you frequently meant to tell me but lacked the courage? Why ever don’t you hurry to put me on board ship and send me off wherever you think this old body of mine will be of the greatest service to Sparta, before old age disposes of it as it just sits here?’[65].
Her sacrifice is given religious sanction by Plutarch; ‘This is all that lies in our power; but our fortunes must be as heaven ordains’[66]. The short passage with which this life is drawn to a close again illustrates this point; her ‘virtue’ is referred to as being equal to that of men[67].

Perhaps the central figure in this respect is Chilonis. As the daughter of one king (Leonidas) and the wife of another (Cleombrotus) she not only held power but was used to wielding it. Thus when conflict ensues and her father is driven into exile she accompanies him and becomes a supplicant of Athena
[68]. When Leonidas returns in triumph, she chooses to plead for her husband’s life. Plutarch’s treatment of this episode is important. In this long rhetorical speech he dwells on the size of her sacrifice:
‘When now you enjoy the triumph of again being king in Sparta, must I then accept life in this sad plight, or am I to put on a glittering royal costume after witnessing the slaughter of the husband I married when I was young?’[69].
Indeed, her sacrifice is directly portrayed as an effective, assertive correction to Cleombrotus’ crimes:
‘…as both wife and daughter it has been my role to share the misfortunes and disgrace of those close to me. In my husband’s case, even if he did have some justification, I deprived him of it when I took your side…’[70].
It not only won her the reprieve of Cleombrotus but ‘Everyone was astonished and moved to tears at the woman’s goodness and devotion’[71]. Thus sacrifice can be seen as the means by which a woman could affect the male world. That Plutarch equated such sacrifice with virtue is illustrated by his remark concerning Chilonis’ husband. Because he could not, or did not want to relinquish his ambition, he fails to see in his life that which has true worth:
‘As a result, if Cleombrotus had not been totally consumed by futile ambition, he would have realised that because of his wife his exile was of greater value to him than the kingship’[72].
Indeed, Plutarch places Chilonis above her husband here, demonstrating how sacrifice was supposed to elevate women. Even when subject to such men this ideal could be put into practice[73].

Agiatis, the widow of Agis, was forced into the marriage by Leonidas. Plutarch informs us that after some initial protest she sacrificed her independence and ‘…made the young man a loving wife’
[74]. As we have already seen above, she is portrayed as being directly responsible for his ‘virtuous’ lifestyle[75]. This sacrifice and attention to duty caused Cleomenes’ frequent return from campaign (which was considered unusual enough for direct comment)[76]. His method of coping with her death reveals Plutarch’s satisfaction at her ‘training’ of him:
‘Though he was stricken with grief…he in no way disgraced or abandoned his resolve and loftiness of mind …when day came he went down to Sparta, and after discharging his grief at home with his mother and children, he at once turned to making plans for the welfare of the state’[77].
The sacrifice of grief, inherent in Cleomenes’ stoic display, typifies another feature of this motif in Plutarch. Emotional control helps the woman to develop a particularly potent character. Thus, as he points out:
‘It is not only ‘in Bacchic revels’ that a good woman should avoid corruption; she should also realise that the distress and emotional disturbance of mourning stands in need of control not in order to resist feelings of affection … but to resist licence’[78].
Cratesicleia is an excellent illustration of such moral power. When she has to depart to Egypt as a hostage she sacrifices her own sorrow and urges Cleomenes to do likewise: ‘Come now, king of the Spartans. When we emerge we want no one to see us in tears nor doing anything unworthy of Sparta’[79]. Plutarch sums up his opinion of sacrifice in his encomium of Panteus’ wife: ‘… her discretion endured in death, and she maintained the watch over her person which she kept in her lifetime’[80].

In certain circumstances, the emotion of honour (or time) should also be relinquished for the sake of ‘virtue’, particularly where sex or patriotism were concerned. In his Sayings of Spartan Women Plutarch describes a girl who had become pregnant (although involuntarily) and had induced a miscarriage without uttering a sound; ‘For the encounter of propriety with impropriety served to override her tremendous pain’
[81]. This quality is seen as firmly embedded in Spartan society:
‘We must remember that the Spartans, whenever any question of honours arises, always give first place to their country’s interests; they refuse to … understand any other conception of justice, except for such action as they believe will make Sparta great’[82].
We should also remember that Plutarch credits Spartan success to the education of the young, which is again firmly credited to the women. It is worth remembering that it is a Spartan woman who hands her son his shield and warns him to return ‘… either with this or on this’[83]. Other disappointed mothers have gone so far as to kill their disappointing offspring[84]. The sacrifice of children (the future ‘honour’ of the family) is here portrayed as one of the most noble and is performed by a Spartan woman.

In an episode which strongly asserts his mother’s training, Cleomenes refuses to commit suicide after the battle of Sellasia; ‘…my opinion is that neither you nor I should abandon our hopes for our country’

The relinquishing of a minor honour for the sake of greater virtue is a recurrent theme in the Life of Cleomenes. Thus Cleomenes himself, no doubt remembering the teachings of Agiatis, refuses to take a cup of wine upon returning from a battle: ‘… he would neither allow himself to take a drink despite a raging thirst, nor though utterly exhausted to sit down’
[86]. That he also refuses to allow his concubine to attend to him is, perhaps, another indication that Plutarch is trying to emphasise the importance of Agiatis.

The importance of emotional discipline is underlined by Plutarch’s criticism of those do not have it. He criticises women who cannot, or will not, take their grief ‘in hand’:‘… the cries and wailing with which they polish and sharpen the edge of pain and never let others reduce it’
[87]. Such emotional ‘indulgence’ goes against the very root of Plutarch’s ideal of feminine passivity; the ideal woman being a reflection of her husband’s mood[88]. Likewise, Circe fails to understand this cardinal point, for all her power. Plutarch’s remark is illustrative. These are the consequences of a lack of true understanding:
‘Circe had no profit from the victims of her potions, for she could not use them for anything when they became pigs and asses; it was Odysseus, the man of sense, who consorted with her wisely, whom she loved so much’[89].
‘Uncontrolled’ women are hereby equated with greed and selfishness. The devout Plutarch warns his readers of this ‘danger’ by recalling an apparently well known oracle concerning the dangers of greed to Sparta: ‘They should rather remember the earlier oracles which instructed them to beware of avarice as fatal to Sparta’[90]. We have seen how Plutarch uses the metaphor of sacrifice as an acid test of feminine ‘virtue’, he uses the reverse to signify female ‘vice’.

Thus a woman who crosses the gender boundary can never attain what she truly desires. Those who want a recognised role in society, like Agis’ opponents, can never have it because they are unable to make a ‘leap of faith’, as it were. It is only by the sacrifice of wealth, influence and even their very lives which lifts these women above their opponents in Plutarch’s eyes
[91]. Likewise, those fail to overcome their desires fall into greed and lust, as is illustrated by his description of the motivations of Agis’ female opponents, who are only concerned to protect their privileged position; ‘… which seemed to them with their lack of taste to be true happiness…’[92]. Timaea, wife of an earlier Agis, falls into a similar trap by having an illicit affair (resulting in a unwanted pregnancy) with the Athenian Alcibiades[93].

Furthermore, behind the figure of Epitadeus (whom Plutarch credits with responsibility for the land problems which began the whole episode) such women can be recognised, as those who welcomed his proposals ‘…out of greed’, with the effect that ‘… wealth was concentrated in just a few hands and the city was generally impoverished’
[94]. Indeed, the fall of Agis is explicitly said to be due to Agesilaus’ avarice, whose grasping nature portrays the opposite of male ‘nature’ as the women of Sparta show that of women[95]. The decline of Egypt is also attributed to ‘uncontrolled’ women. Ptolemy IV was ‘… completely preoccupied with his women and festivities and revelry…’, so much so that during his father’s reign ‘… the kingdom was plunged into such a lax, drunken state, with women wielding extensive power’[96].

If Plutarch’s belief in the inherently active and passive natures of men and women seems rather old-fashioned, we should bear in mind that such a distinction underpins much of our own values. Even in our own society, women and men are seen as inherently different and, although it may not always be consciously stated, men are still widely held to be more active, as women are felt to be more passive. The desire to place limitations and restrictions on female sexuality is still a feature of our own times. A recent, and somewhat trivial example being the Spice Girls. By portraying the band members as outspoken, brash and extrovert, ‘Girl Power’ reminds us that, for many women, the reality is different.


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[1] Hornblower & Spawforth; 1996; p.1200 (also for bibliography). Jones; 1971; pp.14-27.
[2] See his Rules for Politicians; Russell; pp.1993; pp.140-182 (henceforth referred to as Rules).
[3] Nikias 21-23 in Scott-Kilvert; 1960; Cf. Thuc. 7.42-50.
[4] Hornblower & Spawforth; 1996; p.1201.
[5] Alexander 1in Scott-Kilvert; 1973; p.253.
[6] The meaning of the word helot is unclear. Cartledge; 1981; pp.84-105; Martin; 1996; pp.75-79.
[7] Hornblower & Spawforth; 1996; p.1623.
[8] With the single exception of Alkman’s fragmentary Partheneia. Indeed, the ancients seemed to have generally believed Sparta to be illiterate (Plato Protagoras 342aff.; Isokrates Panath. 209; cf. 251). This view has been largely undermined by Cartledge; 1978; 25-37.
[9] It must be noted that Plutarch’s very division still confines female participation to what a man thinks it should be.
[10] It cannot be overstated that this is a highly condensed summary of one possible ancient view. The modern conception of Greek views of women is a hotly debated and controversial area. For discussion and bibliography see Pomeroy; 1975 & Hawley & Levick; 1995.
[11] Represented by the Amphidromia ceremony which ‘introduced’ the child to its new family and household gods (Pomeroy in Hawley & Levick; 1995; p.114).
[12] Property ownership in Ancient Greece is a tricky subject. In some places women could own property and inherit. Usually, however, this was often only where no male heir was available or when a widow became responsible for her husband’s property (see ibid; p.115; Pomeroy; 1975; p.73). Sparta seems to have been unusual in that women seem to have been able to inherit and own property in their own right (see Hodkinson in Powell; 1989; pp. 79-121, for notes and bibliography).
[13] Aristotle Politics 7.16.1335b12; p.442.
[14] Hornblower & Spawforth; 1996; p.1623-4. The royal women of Sparta are a good example (see Hdt. 7.239; p.488).
[15] Though in Plato’s utopian republic women over forty could (Laws 6.785; p.269).
[16] Aristotle Politics 2.1269b29; p.141.
[17] Aristotle Politics 7.1334b29; p.440; Plato Laws 6.775; p.255.
[18] Monetary punishment at Gortyn (Pomeroy; 1975; p.40): summary execution (ibid; p.81-82). Solon argued that an adulterous woman should be enslaved (ibid; p.86), whilst Plato suggests a more social punishment by ‘infamy’ (Laws 6.785; p.268).
[19] Quoted in Pomeroy; 1975; pp.50-51. Euripides Andr. 595f; 724f.
[20] Ant. 578ff; in Hornblower & Spawforth; 1996; p.1623; Thuc. 2.46; p.151.
[21] Aristotle devotes a lot of attention to this subject: Politics 2.1269b12; p.142; 1269b39; p.143. Also Whitby in Powell & Hodkinson; 1994; p.104.
[22] Euripides: Andr. 804f; 831; 919; 595f; 930f. Aristophanes: Lys. 78-80; 1306-15 in Harvey in Powell & Hodkinson; 1994; p.38.
[23] For an investigation see Rawson; 1969; pp.32-56; Cartledge; 1981; pp.84-106.
[24] Virtues in Women 243; Russell; 1993; p.305 (henceforward referred to as Virtues).
[25] Moralia 452e, 459b & 528c in Russell; 1973; p.90.
[26] Advice on Marriage; ibid; 33; p.292 (henceforth, Advice).
[27] As do most other Greek authors such as Plato and Aristotle.
[28] Cleo. 37; p.103.
[29] Advice 33; p.291. Reputation is important for Plutarch. See Moralia 170a in Russell; 1973; p.81.
[30] Virtues 15; p.319.
[31] Advice 14; p.287. See also ibid; 9; p.286; 12; p.286; 39; p.290-2; Virtues 242; p.305.
[32] Virtues 6; p.285.
[33] Agis 7; p.59; 7; p.58.
[34] Advice 18; p.287.
[35] Thus Plutarch’s belief in the importance of details becomes clear (see Moralia 82b in Russell; 1973; p.87).
[36] Agis 4; p.56; Agis 6; p.58.
[37] Cleo. 3; p.72; Virtues 3; p.308.
[38] Agis 17; pp.66-7.
[39] Tib.Gra. 1; Scott-Kilvert; 1965; p.154. Although she is not Spartan the connection is underlined by Plutarch’s twinning of these two lives with his account of Agis and Cleomenes. One should also remember that Cornelia was the daughter of the famous Roman philhellene, Scipio Africanus.
[40] Pomeroy; 1975; p.74.
[41] Virtues 242; p.305.
[42] For an examination of Spartan female literacy see Cartledge; 1978; pp.31-32.
[43] Virtues 27; p.263.
[44] Hdt. 7.239; p.488.
[45] Agis 17; Talbert; 1988; pp.66-7.
[46] Lyk. 16; p.24.
[47] Lyk. 15; p.26; 14; p.24.
[48] Rules for Politicians 1; ibid; p.142.
[49] Alexander 1; p.253.
[50] Moralia 145c in Russell; 1973; p.91.
[51] The truly wise did not need to force their opinions on others: ‘The lover of beauty and wisdom, who in his actions consorts with virtue and follows her ways, may be expected to keep his lofty thoughts to himself, and to need no panegyrist or audience’ (Moralia 80e in Russell; 1973; p.87).
[52] Stafford; forthcoming; p.17.
[53] Advice 4.; p.284-5.
[54] Advice 12; p.286.
[55] Advice 138; p.284.
[56] Beard et al; 1998; pp.112-3; 215-6; 297f.
[57] Van Hooff; 1990; p.116f; Hornblower & Spawforth; 1996; pp.1253-4.
[58] Moralia 1105c in Russell; 1973; p.80.
[59] Agis 2; p.53.
[60] Agis 7; p.58.
[61] Agis 6; p.58.
[62] Agis’ main supporters are his uncle Agesilaus, his mother Agesistrata and his grandmother Archidamia, implying that their motives were not perhaps as altruistic as Plutarch would have us believe. For this kind of idea see Hodkinson in Powell; 1989; p.112.
[63] Agis 19-21; pp.69-70.
[64] Agis 20; p.69.
[65] Cleo. 22; p.90.
[66] Cleo. 22; p.90.
[67] Cleo. 39; p.105.
[68] Agis 11; p.62.
[69] Agis 17; p.66.
[70] Agis 17; p.67. Also see Virtues 15; p.319f and the story of Megisto.
[71] Agis 17; p.66.
[72] Agis 18; p.67.
[73] Virtues 19; p.325.
[74] Cleo. 1; p.71.
[75] Cleo. 3; p.73.
[76] Cleo. 22; p.89.
[77] Cleo. 22; p.89; also 29; p.96.
[78] Consolation 4; p.298.
[79] Cleo. 22; p.90.
[80] Cleo. 38; p.104.
[81] Sayings Unknown 26; p.162.
[82] Agesilaus 37; p.65.
[83] Sayings Unknown 16; p.161.
[84] Sayings Unknown 1; p.159; 5; p.160.
[85] Cleo. 31; p.98.
[86] Cleo. 29; p.96.
[87] Consolation 7; p.300.
[88] Advice 14; p.287.
[89] Advice 5; p.285.
[90] Agis 10; p.60.
[91] See van Hooff; 1990; passim for a discussion of the ultimate sacrifice of suicide.
[92] Agis 7; p. 59.
[93] Agisilaus 3-8; pp.25-37.
[94] Agis 5; p.57. Especially since Plutarch sees much Spartan wealth being concentrated in female hands (see ibid 7; p.58).
[95] Agis 13; p.63.
[96] Cleo. 33; p.100; 33; p.99. See also 13; p.37.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Islamic History: the First 150 Years...

Peace, one and all...

I'll be posting some information shortly, insha Allah, on my forthcoming course on Umayyad history. I'm currently putting together the teaching materials for the first session. This course will be run over 4 saturdays in May, June and July 2006. I'm really looking forward to it, though it'll be hard work. Insha Allah, it'll be a motivated and enthusiastic group.
As this overlaps with my other blogs, I thought I'd post some links...

Matters Educational

The Corner

Ma'as salama,

Abdur Rahman

The Early Development of Arabic/Islamic Historiography

Peace, one and all...
In my first substantive post in this new blog, I wanted to add the text of a lecture I recently gave on the Early Development of Arabic/Islamic Historiography. It was given to a first year undergraduate audience, as part of a module entitled 'Islamic Traditions: History, Law and Practice'. As such, it is important to bear in mind two key points. Firstly, this represents a basic introduction to the topic and no more. Secondly, this text is, in many ways, still a work in progress.
However, with points considered, please enjoy and feel free to add your comments...

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
Source Criticism
Historical Context

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
[1]. 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’
[2]. 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’[3].

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’
[4]. 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’[5]. 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.

Quranic ‘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!’[10].

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’[11].

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’[12].

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…’[13].

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’[14]

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…’[15].

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’[16].

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.

[1] Ibn ‘Abd Rabbih `Iqd iv.157, quoted in A`zami, 2000, 1
[2] 1994, 2
[3] Al-Ya`qubi Tarikh 1.262, quoted in Khalidi, 1994, 2; cf. Robinson, 2003,
[4] Khalidi, 1994, 3
[5] 1994, 3
[6] Quoted in Khalidi, 1994, 3
[7] Quoted in Khalidi, 1994, 4
[8] 59:21
[9] 45:24-26
[10] 23:44
[11] Khalidi, 1994, 9
[12] 27:52. Phrases like this are common in the Quran.
[13] Siddiqui (1993), 2-3
[14] Bukhari no. 1580, 5:190
[15] Bukhari, quoted by Rippin and Knappert, 1986, 73
[16] Quoted by A`zami, 2000, 213