Historiography of early Islam

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The historiography of early Islam refers to the study of the early history of Islam during the 7th century, from Muhammad's first revelations in AD 610 until the disintegration of the Rashidun Caliphate in AD 661, and arguably throughout the 8th century and the duration of the Umayyad Caliphate, terminating in the incipient Islamic Golden Age around the beginning of the 9th century.

Primary sources

7th-century Islamic sources

7th-century non-Islamic sources

There are numerous early references to Islam in non-Islamic sources many have been collected in historiographer Robert G. Hoyland's compilation Seeing Islam As Others Saw It. One of the first books to analyze these works was Hagarism authored by Michael Cook and Patricia Crone. Hagarism contends that looking at the early non-Islamic sources provides a much different picture of early Islamic history than the later Islamic sources do, although its thesis has little acceptance. For some, the date of composition is controversial. Some provide an account of early Islam which significantly contradicts the traditional Islamic accounts of two centuries later. In 1991, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook disavowed the views that they presented in this book[3][4]


Analysis of a sandstone inscription found in 2008,[6] determined that it reads: "In the name of Allah/ I, Zuhayr, wrote (this) at the time 'Umar died/year four/And twenty." It is worthwhile pointing out that caliph Umar bin al-Khattāb died on the last night of the month of Dhūl-Hijjah of the year 23 AH, and was buried next day on the first day of Muharram of the new year 24 AH, corresponding to 644 CE. Thus the date mentioned in the inscription (above) conforms to the established and known date of the death of ʿUmar bin al-Khattāb.[7]

Traditional Muslim historiography

Further information: Muslim historiography

Science of biography, science of hadith, and Isnad

Muslim historical traditions first began developing from the earlier 7th century with the reconstruction of Muhammad's life following his death. Because narratives regarding Muhammad and his companions came from various sources, it was necessary to verify which sources were more reliable. In order to evaluate these sources, various methodologies were developed, such as the "science of biography", "science of hadith" and "Isnad" (chain of transmission). These methodologies were later applied to other historical figures in the Muslim world.

Ilm ar-Rijal (Arabic) is the "science of biography" especially as practiced in Islam, where it was first applied to the sira, the life of the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, and then the lives of the four Rightly Guided Caliphs who expanded Islamic dominance rapidly. Since validating the sayings of Muhammad is a major study ("Isnad"), accurate biography has always been of great interest to Muslim biographers, who accordingly attempted to sort out facts from accusations, bias from evidence, etc. The earliest surviving Islamic biography is Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah, written in the 8th century, but known to us only from later quotes and recensions (9th–10th century).

The "science of hadith" is the process that Muslim scholars use to evaluate hadith. The classification of Hadith into Sahih (sound), Hasan (good) and Da'if (weak) was firmly established by Ali ibn al-Madini (161–234 AH). Later, al-Madini's student Muhammad al-Bukhari (810–870) authored a collection that he believed contained only Sahih hadith, which is now known as the Sahih Bukhari. Al-Bukhari's historical methods of testing hadiths and isnads is seen as the beginning of the method of citation and a precursor to the scientific method which was developed by later Muslim scientists. I. A. Ahmad writes:[8]

"The vagueness of ancient historians about their sources stands in stark contrast to the insistence that scholars such as Bukhari and Muslim manifested in knowing every member in a chain of transmission and examining their reliability. They published their findings, which were then subjected to additional scrutiny by future scholars for consistency with each other and the Qur'an."

Other famous Muslim historians who studied the science of biography or science of hadith included Urwah ibn Zubayr (died 712), Wahb ibn Munabbih (died 728), Ibn Ishaq (died 761), al-Waqidi (745–822), Ibn Hisham (died 834), al-Maqrizi (1364–1442), and Ibn Hajar Asqalani (1372–1449), among others.

Historiography, cultural history, and philosophy of history

Further information: Muqaddimah and Ibn Khaldun

The first detailed studies on the subject of historiography itself and the first critiques on historical methods appeared in the works of the Arab Muslim historian and historiographer Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), who is regarded as the father of historiography, cultural history,[9] and the philosophy of history, especially for his historiographical writings in the Muqaddimah (Latinized as Prolegomena) and Kitab al-Ibar (Book of Advice).[10] His Muqaddimah also laid the groundwork for the observation of the role of state, communication, propaganda and systematic bias in history,[11] and he discussed the rise and fall of civilizations.

Franz Rosenthal wrote in the History of Muslim Historiography:

"Muslim historiography has at all times been united by the closest ties with the general development of scholarship in Islam, and the position of historical knowledge in MusIim education has exercised a decisive influence upon the intellectual level of historicai writing....The Muslims achieved a definite advance beyond previous historical writing in the sociology

— sociological understanding of history and the systematisation of historiography. The development of modern historical writing seems to have gained considerably in speed and substance through the utilization of a Muslim Literature which enabled western historians, from the seventeenth century on, to see a large section of the world through foreign eyes. The Muslim historiography helped indirectly and modestly to shape present day historical thinking."[12]

In the Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun warned of seven mistakes that he thought that historians regularly committed. In this criticism, he approached the past as strange and in need of interpretation. The originality of Ibn Khaldun was to claim that the cultural difference of another age must govern the evaluation of relevant historical material, to distinguish the principles according to which it might be possible to attempt the evaluation, and lastly, to feel the need for experience, in addition to rational principles, in order to assess a culture of the past. Ibn Khaldun often criticized "idle superstition and uncritical acceptance of historical data." As a result, he introduced a scientific method to the study of history, which was considered something "new to his age", and he often referred to it as his "new science", now associated with historiography.[13] His historical method also laid the groundwork for the observation of the role of state, communication, propaganda and systematic bias in history,[11] and he is thus considered to be the "father of historiography"[14][15] or the "father of the philosophy of history".[16]

World history

Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (838–923) is known for writing a detailed and comprehensive chronicle of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern history in his History of the Prophets and Kings in 915. Abu al-Hasan 'Alī al-Mas'ūdī (896–956), known as the "Herodotus of the Arabs", was the first to combine history and scientific geography in a large-scale work, Muruj adh-dhahab wa ma'adin al-jawahir (The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems), a book on world history.

Until the 10th century, history most often meant political and military history, but this was not so with Persian historian Biruni (973–1048). In his Kitab fi Tahqiq ma l'il-Hind (Researches on India), he did not record political and military history in any detail, but wrote more on India's cultural, scientific, social and religious history.[17] Along with his Researches on India, Biruni discussed more on his idea of history in his chronological work The Chronology of the Ancient Nations.[17]

Famous Muslim historians

Modern Academic scholarship

The beginnings

The earliest academic scholarship on Islam arose in Western countries and tended to be Christian and Jewish translators and commentators. They translated the easily available Sunni texts from Arabic into European languages including German, Italian, French, or English, then summarized and commented in a fashion that was often hostile to Islam. Notable Christian scholars include:

All these scholars worked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Another pioneer of Islamic studies, Abraham Geiger (1810–1874), was a prominent Jewish rabbi and approached Islam from that standpoint in his "Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen?" (What has Muhammad borrowed from Judaism?) (1833). Geiger's themes were continued in Rabbi Abraham I. Katsh's "Judaism and the Koran" (1962)[18]

Establishment of academic research

Other scholars, notably those in the German tradition, took a more neutral view. The late 19th century scholar Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918) is a prime example. They also started, cautiously, to question the truth of the Arabic texts. They took a source critical approach, trying to sort the Islamic texts into elements to be accepted as historically true, and elements to be discarded as polemic or pious fiction. These scholars might include:

The revisionist challenge

In the 1970s, the Revisionist School of Islamic Studies, or what has been described as a "wave of sceptical scholars" (Donner 1998 p. 23) challenged a great deal of the received wisdom in Islamic studies. They argued that the Islamic historical tradition had been greatly corrupted in transmission. They tried to correct or reconstruct the early history of Islam from other, presumably more reliable, sources such as coins, inscriptions, and non-Islamic sources. The oldest of this group was John Wansbrough (1928–2002). Wansbrough's works were widely noted, but perhaps not widely read. Donner (1998) says:

Wansbrough's awkward prose style, diffuse organization, and tendency to rely on suggestive implication rather than tight argument (qualities not found in his other published works) have elicited exasperated comment from many reviewers. (Donner 1998 p. 38)

Wansbrough's scepticism influenced a number of younger scholars, including:

In 1977, Crone and Cook published Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World, which argued that the early history of Islam is a myth, generated after the conquests of Egypt, Syria, and Persia to prop up the new Arab regimes in those lands and give them a solid ideological foundation. According to their theory the Qur'an was composed later, rather than early, and the Arab conquests may have been the cause, rather than the consequence, of Islam. The main evidence adduced for this thesis was based upon a contemporary body of non-Muslim sources to many early Islamic events. If such events could not be supported by outside evidence, then (according to Crone and Cook) they should be dismissed as myth.

Crone and Cook's more recent work has involved intense scrutiny of early Islamic sources, but not their total rejection. (See, for instance, Crone's 1987 publications, Roman, Provincial, and Islamic Law and Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, both of which assume the standard outline of early Islamic history while questioning certain aspects of it; also Cook's 2001 Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought, which also cites early Islamic sources as authoritative.)

In 1972 a cache of ancient Qur'ans in a mosque in Sana'a, Yemen was discovered – commonly known as the Sana'a manuscripts. The German scholar Gerd R. Puin has been investigating these Qur'an fragments for years. His research team made 35,000 microfilm photographs of the manuscripts, which he dated to early part of the 8th century. Puin has not published the entirety of his work, but noted unconventional verse orderings, minor textual variations, and rare styles of orthography. He also suggested that some of the parchments were palimpsests which had been reused. Puin believed that this implied an evolving text as opposed to a fixed one.[19]

Karl-Heinz Ohlig researched as well Christian/Jewish roots of the Qur'an and its related texts. He sees the term Muhammad itself (the blessed, as in Benedictus qui venit) as part of that tradition.[20][21]

Contemporary scholars have begun to turn to the study of the Islamic sources in a sceptical mood. They tend to use the histories rather than the hadith, and to analyze the histories in terms of the tribal and political affiliations of the narrators (if that can be established), thus making it easier to guess in which direction the material might have been slanted. Notable scholars include:

Scholars combining traditional and academic scholarship

A few scholars have managed[according to whom?] to bridge the divide between Islamic and Western-style secular scholarship.[citation needed] They have completed both Islamic and Western academic training.

See also


  1. ^ See:* Sachedina (1981), pp. 54–55 * Landolt (2005), p. 59 * Modarressi (2003), pp 82–88 * Dakake (2007), p.270
  2. ^ http://www.hurqalya.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/BIBLIOGRAPHY-HYP/08A-SHI%60ISM/IMAMOLOGY.htm
  3. ^ Political Islam: Essays from Middle East Report. Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. 1997. p. 47. 
  4. ^ Introduction to Islam, Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-521-42929-3, pp 273–274. 
  5. ^ Gent, R.H. van. "Islamic-Western Calendar Converter - frame layout". 
  6. ^ "Current events on Seeker - Science. World. Exploration. Seek for yourself.". 
  7. ^ "The Inscription Of Zuhayr - The Earliest Dated Hijazi Inscription, 24 AH / 644 CE". 
  8. ^ Ahmad, I. A. (June 3, 2002). "Faith and Reason: Convergence and Complementarity" (PDF). Al Akhawayn University. Retrieved 2011-05-07.  |contribution= ignored (help)
  9. ^ Mohamad Abdalla (Summer 2007). "Ibn Khaldun on the Fate of Islamic Science after the 11th Century", Islam & Science 5 (1), p. 61-70.
  10. ^ S. Ahmed (1999). A Dictionary of Muslim Names. C. Hurst & Co. Publishers. ISBN 1-85065-356-9.
  11. ^ a b H. Mowlana (2001). "Information in the Arab World", Cooperation South Journal 1.
  12. ^ Historiography. The Islamic Scholar.
  13. ^ Ibn Khaldun, Franz Rosenthal, N. J. Dawood (1967), The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, p. x, Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-01754-9.
  14. ^ Salahuddin Ahmed (1999). A Dictionary of Muslim Names. C. Hurst & Co. Publishers. ISBN 1-85065-356-9.
  15. ^ Enan, Muhammed Abdullah (2007). Ibn Khaldun: His Life and Works. The Other Press. p. v. ISBN 983-9541-53-6. 
  16. ^ Dr. S. W. Akhtar (1997). "The Islamic Concept of Knowledge", Al-Tawhid: A Quarterly Journal of Islamic Thought & Culture 12 (3).
  17. ^ a b M. S. Khan (1976). "al-Biruni and the Political History of India", Oriens 25, p. 86-115.
  18. ^ Online text: "Judaism And The Koran Biblical And Talmudic Backgrounds Of The Koran And Its Commentaries (1962) Author: Abraham I. Katsh". Internet Archive. Retrieved 2007-04-18. 
  19. ^ Atlantic Monthly Journal, Atlantic Monthly article: What is the Koran ,January 1999
  20. ^ Ohlig, The Hidden Origins of Islam: New Research into Its Early History, Muhammad as a Christological Honorific Title 2008 interview http://www.qantara.de/webcom/show_article.php/_c-478/_nr-756/i.html
  21. ^ Der frühe Islam: eine historisch-kritische Rekonstruktion anhand zeitgenössischer Quellen, Karl-Heinz Ohlig, p.333, Verlag Hans Schiler, 2007


  • Donner, Fred Narratives of Islamic Origins: The Beginnings of Islamic Historical Writing, Darwin Press, 1998
  • Hoyland, Robert G. Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam, Darwin Press, 1997
  • Madelung, Wilferd (1997). The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-64696-0. 
  • Vansina, Jan "Oral Tradition as History," University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1985

External links

  • [2] and following; an Islamic view of the development of the academic study of Islam
  • Muslim historiography an article by online Britannica
  • Islamic Awareness, Dated Texts Mentioning Prophet Muḥammad From 1–100 AH / 622–719 CE
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