Islamic Historical Writing, Eighth through the Tenth Centuries

Chase F. Robinson, "Chapter 12: Islamic Historical Writing, Eighth through the Tenth Centuries." The Oxford History of Historical Writing: 400-1400, 2012: 238-266. He is the author of Islamic Historigraphy (which I read), and also an editor of the New Cambridge History of Islam Volume 1 (which I want to read for quite some time now). Surprising, in this article, he wrote quite a few things that is quite controversial in my view.



- On Al-Tabari "He was born a generation after a civil war between 809-13, and his primary education took place against the backdrop of what our sources call the mihna, a period of over twenty years when a succession of caliphs attempted to impose a measure of theological uniformity through persuasion and coercion. The attempt failed, and what emerged from the mihna was a more assertive Sunni establishment of scholars whose theological and legal views the caliphs were increasingly forced to follow." (p.240)

- "He was surveying two interrelated processes. The first, well under way by his death in 923, was the emergence of a Sunni scholarly elite that anchored its religious authority in its command and guardianship of Prophetic Traditions, and championed traditionalist culture against the views of rationalists... The second process, still incipient, was the dissolution of an imperial order... What is clearer is that the shift of economic dynamism and political power to Egypt and Iranian Khurasan and Transoxiana during the ninth and tenth centuries redirected the surplus resources and ambitions that had underpinned Iraqi history-writing towards those new centres of patronage and consumption: by any reasonable standard, al-Tabari had been a spectacular one-off, but Baghdad after his death would produce only lesser historians in reduced numbers. In the Arabic-speaking world, the future of historiography lay mainly in Syria and Egypt." (p.241)

- "Early Islamic Syria, it seems, possed a reasonably robust tradition of historical writing during the eighth century; but much of this was drowned out by the rising din of Iraqi historiography during the late eighth and ninth centuries." (p.245-6)

- "In part because of the sheer volume of material, in part because of its reassuring details, the frequent assertions of veracity and (apparently) careful preservation of alternative, complementary, and sometimes contradictory accounts, in part because authorities occasionally throw unflattering light on protagonists who are in the main revered by the tradition ... , and, lastly and perhaps most fundamentally, because of the stubborn positivism that underlay Orientalism in general and the study of early Islam in particular, many scholars have been inclined to accept not only the bulk of the traditional accounts ... But about all of this industry, development, and prolixity, especially insofar as they give rise to the impression that seventh-century history was transmitted continuously into the late eighth and ninth, reservations and qualifications must be expressed." (p.246) [Comment: I have to say after this point the essay raises some points that I find it somewhat over the top]

- "Readers unfamiliar wiht early Islamic historiography ... the most striking feature of the tradition is what might be called the atomistic and compound quality of narrative ... In part this was because oral transmission enjoyed great prestiage, and ... because written transmission was often mediated by orality. ... So while contemporaneous historians writing in Syriac or Greek were generally reluctant to cite their sources, with the isnad, Muslim historians can be said to have elevated source-citation into a principle of narrative composition: the khabar-isnad unit is the essential building block of the early historical traditiona as we have it preserved in the extant sources from the ninth and tenth centuries." (p. 246-7)

- [This is a clearly western-biased passage.] "Put another way, 'authorship' turned less on the quality of one's prose, originality of one's vision, or depth of forensic research, than it did upon the judiciousness or comprehensiveness of one's material and the narrative organization in which all the accounts were placed. The operating principles of authorship thus lie somewhere between what we would regard as 'writing' -- that is, 'composing'-- and 'editing' or 'redacting'." (p.248)

- [Then comes some vague comments.] "What is distinctly Islamic is not that the past was revered or transmitted by learned men wiht long memories and carefully honed techniques or oral-aural transmission; it is the scale and creativity with which the past was engaged in traditionalist historiography." (p.248) [Is the 'accusation' here the scale of creativity meaning 'massive make-believes'?]

- "The Islamic traditional being the dominant political tradition Muslim traditionalist-historians had two things that their Jewish counterparts lacked: a powerful motive-- the legitimizing imperative that came wiht political power-- and the cultural resources that came with belonging to the political elite: al-Tabari was far from a court sycophant, but his intellectual social universe was an Abbasid creation." (p.248) [What does this mean? Don't trust any histories written by any 19th-c. Britons or by a 20th-c. Americans?]

- "traditionalism was a creature of the late Umayyad and early Abbasid period. ... Insofar as a pre-traditionalist phase of historiography can be discerned, in at least some instances it featured longer and more coherent accounts, some reflecting precisely the kind of colorful narrative that one would expect of oral history" (p.250) [These are useful statements to understand the tradition.]

- "Historians ... collected accounts of the past, especially concerning the religio-political and military events of the past, because these, too, had lessons to teach, morals to deliver, models to exemplify, precedents to set, and entertainment to provide. More than that, the past was a record worth keeping." (p.250)

- [Another vague, yet clearly biased, set of statements] "Some historians did have what one might call forensic interests; and many had at least an implicit epistemology that underlay their attitudes towards corroboration and contradiction: Ibn Khaldun was exceptional, but he looked back upon, and learned from, a historiographical tradition that featured tenth-century outliers to the traditionalist establishment whose literary and philosophical ambitions were considerable, such as al-Mas'udi and Ibn Miskawayh. Perhaps more important, this tradition had broken its traditionalist moorings during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. By Ibn Khaldun's time, the writing of contemporary history had grown more secure and confident, especially as practiced by biographers and autobiographers, a development that bears some relationship to the framing of historiography as a discrete discipline in its own right, one practiced by self-described 'historians'. All this said, throughout early Islam historiographical standards remained low by early modern or modern standards, for all that they copare favourably to contemporaneous European and Byzantine ones." (p.250-251) [This actually is interesting, in that Robinson thinks historiography as a discrete discipline is considered a good thing, but this needs to have roots in literary and philosophical ambitions. Is such historiogaphy, like those of Ibn Khaldun, or early modern historians say Machiavelli or Voltaire, treating history as a discrete discipline, or just a stepping stones or data for other adjacent by distinct fields?]

- Then comes the standard Robinson's discussions of 3 genres: biographies, prosographies, chronographies.All 3 genres originate in the 8th (rather than the 7th) century.

- al-Tabari's history "freely mixes prescription and description, polemics and facts, myth, legend, and sterotype." (p.255-256)

- "al-Tabari's Ibn Ishaq, for example, is notably different from the recension of Ibn Ishaq that was expurgated by Ibn Hisham." (p.257)

- [Below are the various points of criticisms of the early Islamic Traditionalist historiographical tradition] "Insofar as it suggests the essential accuracy of the eighth- and ninth-century tradition, the evolutionary model that was outlined at the beginning of this contribution is less than persuasive." "For the oral foundations upon which written transmission was based are demonstrably shaky, and those practices of transmission evolved over time." "The criticisms are old-fashioned in the sense that they address veracity." (p.257-8) "the form in which we have this history is not merely late, but so riddled wiht inconsistencies, contradictions, implausibilities, and absurdities that identifying a purported 'kernel' of truth is itself absurd." (p.259) [This is a distrust of oral transmission; but I would submit that if one read selected accounts from newspaper about current events, later historians distrusting the current Western journalism will also make the same type of accusation.]

- "the doctrine of Prophetic sunna (Muhammad's paradigmatic conduct) emerged only during the second Islamic century (the early eighth to early ninth centuries AD) ... the construction of Muhammad as legal exemplar post-dates his death by about a century. ... The criticism ... had shown, inter alia, how second- and third-century controversies, doctrines, and literary forms had shaped the historical memory of the first. Details that were unavailable to eighth-century Muslim authorities were somehow known to ninth-century ones: the increased biographical precision, it has been argued, was the product of secondary developments -- serial attempts to extract sense out of a morass of details -- rather than the resideues of authentic memory." (p.259) [The tradition may happen after one century; but given the known among of losses of the works written in the eighth century -- e.g. Ibn Ishaq, Abu Mikhnaf and Sayf b. 'Umar, all mentioned on p.244-245 -- the possibility that those works are lost because the useful data points are mostly incorporated into 9th and 10th c. works like al-Tabari's has to be entertained.]

- "This -- the generating 'history' by assigning historical circumstances to verses, these circumstances being drawn from the stock of stories that had circulated orally -- is the exegetical version of a more widespread historicization of primitive Islamc that took place in the eighth and ninth centuries, as historians, almost certainly in contact wiht non-Islamic historical writing of late antiquity, raised the standard of their work by generating narrative details and inferring chronologies." (p.260) [This is equivalent to saying that in the establishment of historiographical tradition, the early accounts should not be trusted. Then this raises the question as to why should Herodotus or Thucydides be trasted - and Robinson seems aware of it and try to address - in my view feebly in what comes next.]

- "Sayf b. 'Umar ... is notorious advocate of Kufan tribal interests; others had discernibly Shi'ite, Umayyad, or Abbasid pre-commitments." (p.260) [ok, the same would clearly apply to Herodotus or Thucydides.] "

- [Knowing that the argument is not convincing] "Of course late antique historians writing in Latin, Syriac, and Greek provided something other than purely disinterested accounts of the past; they, too, were given to exxaggeration, polemic, bias, and literary invention. Embedded rhetoric is a case in point ... In the Islamic milieu, what appears to be genuine documentary material issuing from caliphal courts can be traced back to the middle of the eighth century, but apparently no earlier ... whereas the 'writerly' authorities of early Abbasid Kufa and Basra had to rely so heavily upon oral circulating stories, lists, and other scraps of material, authors such as Ammianus Marcellinus, Prokopios, or 'Joshua the Stylite' -- to mention only three -- could draw upon deep historiographic traditions that guided their practices and conditioned their reception. ... it is in no small measure because many of these authors were participants in or witnesses to the events that they describe in their accounts are so useful to modern historians: they may not be disinterested, but at least they were informed and contemporaneous. ... But Muslim historians were starting from scratch: their practices and traditions of history-writing crystallized a good century after the events that these practices and traditions came to 'record', and those who put them in place were professionalizing scholars, rather than caliphs, commanders, or governors' commanders." (p.261) [The first part is a continued distrust of orality at the foundation of ANY historiographical tradition; the second part try to place contemporary late antiquity in an advantaged position vs. Islamic historiography; but what is meant by "informed," really just mean "heard and know", I argue this is no different from orality - and there is a dig on the fact that the scholars are not participants; and "contemporaneous" - is really limited to the events that happen within the generation of the authors. So to take this position to the logical end - it would feel to me that this position suggest that writings such as memoirs of say a Churchill, in later generations would be more useful to later historians than scholarly histories written about WWII right now. Does this really say much? How about the possibility that later generations can take into account and absorb various versions of the same events and triangulate, like the Islamic historians have done?]

- early Muslim history are "'salvation history' -- a set of narratives, originally set down during the eighth and ninth centuries, that posit what amounts to a foundation myth of God's providential direction of human affairs ... the framework of historical understanding was thoroughly religious, much as the constitutional framework of the state was thoroughly religious ... To call these narratives 'salvation history' or 'myth' is not to say that they necessarily fail to preserve passages ... that are genuine ... Nor is it to suggest that elements cannot be historically accurate, in the sense that they present events in ways that inspire confidence because they are subject to implicit or explicit corroboration and conform more generally to appropriate models," (p.263) "In sum, the sources can tell us much, but one must listen carefully" (p.264) [I think this conclusion is the right take - but the argument does not really take the route this essay did in hauling biased criticism on the tradition. But this is informative to me in any case as it lays bare some of the systematic western historiographical bias inherent in current contemporary historical research.]    



- 820 Death of al-Shafi'i, systematizer of Islamic law and eponym of the Shafi'i law school

- 855 Death of Ahmad b. Hanbal, eponym of the Hanbali law school and compiler of the Musnad (which collected 28,000 Prophetic traditions in fifty volumes)

- 870 Death of al-Bukhari, first of the six 'canonical' hadith collectors

- 923 Death of jurist, exegete, and historian, al-Tabari (b. 839)


Historical works mentioned:

- Al Tabari's Ta'rikh al-rusul wa'l-muluk [History of Prophets and Kings], ends 914-915

- Futuh al-buldan [Conquest of the Lands] by Ahmad b. Yahya al-Baladhuri

- early 10th c. historian and geographer named al-Ya'qubi, whose Ta'rikh, a compendious world history in two volumes, eschewed isnads for a prefacing bibliography. The books left scarcely a trace upon the tradition. (work is extant)

- Futuh Misr [Conquests of Egypt] by an Egyptian named Ibn 'Abd al-Hakam

- Ibn Hisham, al-Sira al-nabawiyya - a redaction, expurgation, and recasting of what is conventionally championed as the first large-scale Prophetic biography, which belonged to Ibn Ishaq. Translated by Alfred Guillaume as The Life of Muhammad (London, 1955)

- Kitab al-maghazi [Bookd of Raids] of al-Waqidi

- biography of Ahmad b. Hanbal (d. 855) by his son Abu Fadl Salih

- biographies of Abu Hanifa (d. 767)

- biography about living men (from 12th c. onwards), e.g. Ibn Shaddad's for Saladin (d. 1193)

- Ibn Sa'd's Kitab al-Tabaqat al-kabir [The Book of the Major Classes] - draws upon numerous sources and assembles biographies in a schema that is both chronological and geographic. Partial translation by Aisha Bewley as The Women of Madina (London, 1995)

- Al-Bukhari's 9th c. al-Ta'rikh al-kabir [The Large History] includes entries on ~12,000 Traditionalists

- al-Azdi, Ta'rikh al-Mawsil - arguably the most sophisticaled local chronography; only 2nd of 3 parts survives.

- Khalifa b. Khayyat - author of the earliest extant annalistic history; and also author of an early tabaqat work

- Muruj al-dhahab [Meadows of Gold] by the cosmopolitan rationalist al-Mas'udi - along wiht al-Tabari "can reasonably be called one of the greatest monuments of pre-modern historiography in any language." (p.255)

- (long annotated book list) The Fihrist of al-Nadim (translated by Bayard Doge, New York, 1970)


Selected Bibliography:

- Hugh Kennedy (ed.), Al-Tabari: A Medieval Muslim Historian and His Work (Princeton, 2008)

- Fred M. Donner, Narratives of Islamic Origins: The Beginnings of Islamic Historical Writing (Prionceton, 1998)

- Fred M. Donner, Muhammad and the Believers at the Origins of Islam (Cambridge, MA, 2010) - controversial "traditional" reading of early Islamic history

- Boaz Shoshan, The Poetics of Islamic Historiography: Deconstructing Tabari's History (Leiden, 2005)

- Andrew Marsham, Rituals of Islamic Monarchy: Accession and Succession in the First Muslim Empire (Edinburgh, 2009)

- Khalidi, Tarif, Islamic Historiography: The Histories of Mas'udi (Albany, 1975)

Comments: 1 (Discussion closed)
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