A Brief of Arab Historiography
Arab historiography has been continuously, as an art, cultivated for several centuries since the emergence of Islam. Slowly but steadily it assumed the form of a science of high proportions and acquired an importance that can hardly be underestimated. However, the evidence is not sufficient to show how this art progressed and became deep rooted among Arabs.
The earliest Arab society of which we have knowledge was that of the nomads, and there were some permanent settlements of which we have very scanty information. In South Arabia, some inscriptions have been found which reveal existence of four states before 1200 B.C. The head of the state had temporal as well as divine status. Although, these inscriptions are religious in content, yet some of these indicate the historicity of other human activities. The North Arabians did not lack information about Arabs of ×Êrah, their genealogy and their kings. They preserved accounts related to their deities, social happenings, battles and genealogy through oral tradition. These writings were known as the ÑAyyÉm literature.
However, it was not historian alone to whom we owe the first record of events of the Arabs of the past. It was the imagination of the poet, inspired by he valiant deeds of his tribe in the past which gave expression to these feelings in poetry. Ancient Arabic poetry may probably be regarded as the first attempt at preserving the happenings in the past. With the advent of Islam, the discourses of the Prophet MuÍammad (SAW) threw ample light on the activities of the Arabs, their position in history and the mission which they were called upon to carry out. The first generation of Muslims was led by natural drive of curiosity and piety to collect records and reports regarding the Prophet’s life and his struggles. The records of what the Prophet (SAW) said, did and approved in the course of his mission were eventually gathered together and systematized as collections of his ÍadÊths. Thus, Islamic law and rules along with the art of historiography were developed.
The biography (al-SÊrah) of MuÍammad (SAW) and his companions provided a firm ground for the development of early Islamic history. The method of ‘isnÉd in recording the ÍadÊths and their chronological order was so impressive that it became part and parcel of Muslim historiography for generations. The prominent scholars, who wrote al-SÊrah and al-MaghÉzÊ on the above mentioned pattern are: AbbÉn b. ÑUthmÉn b. ÑAffÉn of MadÊnah (d. 105 A.H.), ÑUrwah b. al-Zubayr of MadÊnah (d. 92 A.H.), ShurajÊl b. SaÑd of MadÊnah (d. 123 A.H.), Wahb b. Munabbih of Yemen (d. 110 A.H.), Ibn ShihÉb al-ZuhrÊ of Makkah (d. 124 A.H.), ÑÓÎim b. ÑAmr b. QatÉdah of MadÊnah (d. 120 A.H.), ÑAbd AllÉh b. AbÊ Bakr b. ×azam of MadÊnah (d. 135 A.H.), MËsÉ b. ÑUqbah (d. 141 A.H.), MuÑammar b. RÉshid (d. 150 A.H.), Ibn IsÍÉq (d. 152 A.H.), ZiyyÉd al-BakÉ’Ê (d. 183 A.H.), Ibn HishÉm (d. 218 A.H.), al-WÉqidÊ (d. 207 A.H.) and Ibn SaÑd (d. 230 A.H.).
The most outstanding SÊrah and MaghÉzÊ writer was Ibn IsÍÉq. He divided his work into three parts. The first was called al-MubtadÉ’, in which he gathered information from the creation of the universe up to the proclamation of the prophethood of MuÍammad (SAW). The second part is known as KitÉb al-MaghÉzÊ, which starts with the proclamation of the Prophethood of MuÍammad (SAW) up to his death, meanwhile the third is KitÉb al-KhulafÉ’ which deals with the periods of the pious caliphates and the early of Umayyad reigns. Ibn IsÍÉq is often criticized for some of his artistic lapses which, according to the critics, include his fabricated verses in KitÉb al-SÊrah, carelessness in quoting isnÉd, glaring mistakes in recording genealogies and his reliance and unjustified confidence in Jewish and Christian reports. But in spite of objections the credit goes to him for integrating the story of early Islam under the Prophet (SAW), his caliphs and the Umayyad rulers, and the early prophets as one whole. Later on, it was Ibn HishÉm who deleted all the fabricated and doubtful information and verses particularly from the MubtadÉ’ section, and thus prepared an abridged edition of al-SÊrah al-Nabawiyah.
Second in importance was al-WÉqidÊ (d. 207 A.H.). He was interested in the MaghÉzÊ, SÊrah and general history. According to KhaÏÊb al-BaghdÉdÊ, he did not leave any descendant of the companions of the Prophet (SAW) without inquiring about his ancestors’ participation in battles and his place of death or martyrdom. To authenticate his statements, he would record a particular event. Ibn NadÊm has mentioned twenty-eight titles of his works, out of which twenty-four dealt with history. So far, only KitÉb al-MaghÉzÊ (3 vols.), Futuh al-ShÉm (2 vols.), FutËÍ al-ÑAjam and FutËÍ MiÎr have been published. Critics seem divided and confused in forming a single opinion on what al-WÉqidÊ put forth for coming generations. There are some who go to the extent of calling him a liar and an untrustworthy reporter while there are others who not only hold him in great esteem but also acknowledge and appreciate what they consider his contribution to history.
MuÍammad b. SaÑd b. ManÊÑ (d. 230 A.H.), worked as secretary to al-WÉqidÊ and thus got the opportunity to study Islamic history in depth. His well known work ÙabaqÉt al-KubrÉ available in eight volumes is a standing proof of his stamina as a scholar of great caliber. The significance of the whole book lies in the fact that it records the life of the Prophet (SAW), his Companions, TÉbiÑÊn and their followers right up to his own age. When he completed the first two volumes of the ÙabaqÉt on the SÊrah, he added a chapter on those people who gave verdicts in MadÊnah in the Prophet’s time. He then recorded the biographies of the Companions and TÉbiÑÊn in order of their status and the last volume is completed with the biographical accounts of distinguished women. Thus, the ÙabaqÉt is considered among the foremost works in the subject which became one of the earliest works of RijÉl literature.
The ÍadÊth literature records not only the biography of the Prophet (SAW), but also the earliest event occurring in the nascent Islamic community after the death of the Prophet (SAW). It describes the foundations and the aims of the Islamic state and the victories of Muslims beyond the limits of Arabia. As regards the events connected with early Islamic society, since the time of the pious Caliphs, including the process of expansion and state affairs, we find two groups of scholars who have contributed a lot to widen the scope of the subject: one group belonged mainly to MadanÊ School and the other to the Iraqi School of history writing. In this school a group of erudite antiquarians like AbË Miknaf, Sayf b. ÑUmar and al-MadÊnÊ composed a series of works in a special monographic form about the early Arab conquests, the activities of the Muslim masses within the limits of the Islamic Empire, depicting the different tendencies and the confrontation of views within the community.
For instance, ÑAlÊ b. MuÍammad al-MadÊnÊ (d. 225 A.H.) was born in BaÎrah and afterwards settled in Baghdad. The influence of the method of isnÉd is visible in his writings. He has contributed 245 works in this field. Some of his books are; (1) KitÉb AkhbÉr al-KhulafÉ’ al-KabÊr, (2) KitÉb al-Dawlah al-ÑAbbÉsiyah, (3) FutËÍ al-KhurasÉn and (4) TÉrÊkh al-BaÎrah. He has earned praises for his critical approach to the events and their transmitters. Since he did not represent any particular political group, he tried to maintain a balance in the selection of his material.
In the pre-Islamic period, the Arabs generally preserved their genealogy in poetry. The poets would prefix some prose to elucidate and explain the abstruse or infamous events relating to their tribes. This provided important information to the historian. AÍmad b. YaÍyÉ al-BalÉdhurÊ (d. 279 A.H.) was one of the important genealogists. His well known work is AnsÉb al-AshrÉf, available in five volumes, is a masterpiece in genealogical literature. This book is considered to be an important source of Islamic history. He not only excelled genealogy, but also wrote on topics connected with history such as (1) AÍad ArdashÊr, (2) FutËÍ al-BuldÉn and KitÉb al-BuldÉn al-KabÊr.
His AnsÉb al-AshrÉf is genealogically arranged and begins with the life of the Prophet (SAW) and the biographies of his kinsman. The last portion of the work consists of the biography of al-×ajjÉj. It is one of the characteristic features of AnsÉb that biographies of the caliphs of the historical accounts connected with their lives are given chapter wise under a suitably allotted title. Badruddin Bhat views in outward appearance the book seems to be connected wholly with the AnsÉb literature but in reality its style resembles the ÙabaqÉt of Ibn SaÑd. Other scholars of this group are; MuÍammad b. SÉ’ib al-KalbÊ (d. 146 A.H.), MasÑab b. ÑAbd AllÉh b. MasÑab b. Zubayr (d. 233 A.H.) and AÍmad b. AbÊ YaÑqËb b. JaÑfar (d. 284 A.H.) known as al-YaÑqËbÊ.
Ibn Qutaybah, ÑAbd AllÉh b. Muslim (d. 276 A.H.) wrote KitÉb al-MaÑÉrif and ÑUyËn al-AkhbÉr, which contain historical information of a universal nature. His KitÉb al-MaÑÉrif is a compendium of historical information largely consisting of lists and facts connected with the holy Prophet (SAW), genealogical tables, the names of the sects and the like. The utility of the book is unquestionable, but it can scarcely be called history in the true sense of the term.
The most important historian of this type was AbË JaÑfar MuÍammad b. JarÊr al-ÙabarÊ (d. 310 A.H.). His TÉrÊkh al-Rusul wa al-MulËk (The History of The Prophets and Kings) is a voluminous history starting with a discussion on the creation of the universe. He gave detailed account of Islamic history from genealogy of the Prophet (SAW) up to the year 302 A.H. Al-ÙabarÊ depended mostly on the narrations which had already found their way into the works of his predecessor rather than collecting only those narratives which were according to his liking. He wrote in detail about each particular event without giving his opinion. Al-ÙabarÊ’s history has remained the most important and authentic source of al-MasÑËdÊ , Ibn Miskawayh, Ibn AthÊr, Ibn KhaldËn and furthermore, it continues to be so floor the researchers of the Islamic history even today.
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