Historiography of early Islam

The historiography of early Islam refers to the historiogaphic study of the early history of Islam during the 7th century, from Muhammad's first revelations in 610 until the disintegration of the Rashidun Caliphate in 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

  • 692 – Qur'anic Mosaic on the Dome of the Rock.
  • The Book of Sulaym ibn Qays, attributed to Sulaym ibn Qays (death 694–714). The work is an early Shia hadith collection, and it is often recognized as the earliest such collection.[1] There is a manuscript of the work dating to the 10th century.[2] Some Shia scholars are dubious about the authenticity of some features of the book,[3] and Western scholars are almost unanimously skeptical concerning the work, with most placing its initial composition in the eighth or ninth century.[4] The work is generally considered pseudepigraphic by modern scholars.[1]

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 (some of the sources provide an account of early Islam which significantly contradicts the traditional Islamic accounts of two centuries later). The date of composition of some of the early non-Islamic sources is controversial. In 1991, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook disavowed a portion of the views that they presented in this book[5][6]


Analysis of a sandstone inscription found in 2008,[8] 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.[9]

Traditional 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. I. A. Ahmad writes:[10]

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

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,[11] and the philosophy of history, especially for his historiographical writings in the Muqaddimah (Latinized as Prolegomena) and Kitab al-Ibar (Book of Advice).[12] His Muqaddimah also laid the groundwork for the observation of the role of state, communication, propaganda and systematic bias in history,[13] 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."[14]

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.[15] His historical method also laid the groundwork for the observation of the role of state, communication, propaganda and systematic bias in history,[13] and he is thus considered to be the "father of historiography"[16][17] or the "father of the philosophy of history".[18]

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.[19] Along with his Researches on India, Biruni discussed more on his idea of history in his chronological work The Chronology of the Ancient Nations.[19]

Famous Muslim historians

Modern academic scholarship

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

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

Another pioneer of Islamic studies, Abraham Geiger (1810–1874), a prominent Jewish rabbi, approached Islam from that standpoint in his "Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen?" (What did Muhammad borrow from Judaism?) (1833). Geiger's themes continued in Rabbi Abraham I. Katsh's "Judaism and the Koran" (1962)[20]

Establishment of academic research

Other scholars, notably those in the German tradition, took a more neutral view. (The 19th-century scholar Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918) offers 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 as pious fiction. Such scholars included:

The revisionist challenge

In the 1970s the Revisionist School of Islamic Studies, or what has been described as a "wave of sceptical scholars",[21] 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. They argue that "Islam was like other religions, the product of a religious evolution".[22] The idea that there was an abrupt "discontinuity between the pre-Islamic and Islamic worlds", from Persian and Byzantine civilization to Islamic religion, governance, culture "strains the imagination", but if "we begin by assuming that there must have been some continuity, we need either go beyond the Islamic sources or ... reinterpret them".[23]

The oldest of this group was John Wansbrough (1928–2002). Wansbrough's works were widely noted, but perhaps not widely read. Donner 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. [24]

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 traditional early history of Islam is a myth, generated after the Arab conquests of Egypt, Syria, and Persia to give a solid ideological foundation to the new Arab regimes in those lands. Hagarism suggests that the Qur'an was composed later than the traditional narrative tell us, and that the Arab conquests may have been the cause, rather than the consequence, of Islam. The main evidence adduced for this thesis consisted of contemporary non-Muslim sources recording 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 defended the use of non-Muslim sources saying that "of course these sources are hostile [to the conquering Muslims] and from a classical Islamic view they have simply got everything wrong; but unless we are willing to entertain the notion of an all-pervading literary conspiracy between the non-Muslim peoples of the Middle East, the crucial point remains that they have got things wrong on very much the same points."[22]

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[25] and Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam,[26] 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,[27] which also cites early Islamic sources as authoritative.)

In 1972 construction workers discovered a cache of ancient Qur'ans – commonly known as the Sana'a manuscripts – in a mosque in Sana'a, Yemen. 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 the early part of the 8th century. Puin has not published the entirety of his work, but has noted unconventional verse orderings, minor textual variations, and rare styles of orthography. He has 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.[28]

Karl-Heinz Ohlig has also researched Christian/Jewish roots of the Qur'an and its related texts. He sees the name Muhammad itself ("the blessed", as in Benedictus qui venit) as part of that tradition.[29][30]

In their study of the traditional Islamic accounts of the early conquest of different cities -- Damascus and Caesarea in Syria, Babilyn/al-Fusat and Alexandria in Egypt, Tustar in Khuzistan and Cordoba in Spain -- scholars Albrecht Noth and Lawrence Conrad find a suspicious pattern whereby the cities "are all described as having fallen into the hands of the Muslims in precisely the same fashion". There is a

"traitor who, ... points out a weak spot in the city's fortification to the Muslim besiegers; a celebration in the city which diverts the attention of the besieged; then a few assault troops who scale the walls, ... a shout of Allahu akbar! ... from the assault troops as a sign that they have entered the town; the opening of one of the gates from inside, and the onslaught of the entire army."

They conclude these accounts can not be "the reporting of history" but are instead stereotyped story tales with little historical value.[31]

Contemporary scholars have tended 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 to bridge the divide between Islamic and Western-style secular scholarship. They have completed both Islamic and Western academic training.

See also


  1. Bayhom-Daou, T (2015). "Kitāb Sulaym ibn Qays revisited". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 78 (1): 105–119. doi:10.1017/s0041977x14001062.
  2. Clarke, L. (2005). Todd Lawson (ed.). Reason and Inspiration in Islam: Essays in Honour of Hermann Landolt. I.B. Taurus. p. 59. ISBN 978-1850434702.
  3. Sachedina (1981), pp. 54–55 * Landolt (2005), p. 59 * Modarressi (2003), pp 82–88 * Dakake (2007), p.270
  4. Gleave, R. (2015). Early Shiite hermeneutics and the dating of Kitāb Sulaym ibn Qays. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 78(01), 83–103. doi:10.1017/s0041977x15000038
  5. Political Islam: Essays from Middle East Report. Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. 1997. p. 47.
  6. David Waines (1995). Introduction to Islam. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press. pp. 273–274. ISBN 0-521-42929-3.
  7. Gent, R.H. van. "Islamic-Western Calendar Converter - frame layout".
  8. "Current events on Seeker - Science. World. Exploration. Seek for yourself".
  9. "The Inscription Of Zuhayr - The Earliest Dated Hijazi Inscription, 24 AH / 644 CE".
  10. Ahmad, I. A. (June 3, 2002). "The Rise and Fall of Islamic Science: The Calendar as a Case Study". Faith and Reason: Convergence and Complementarity (PDF). Al Akhawayn University. Retrieved 2011-05-07.
  11. Mohamad Abdalla (Summer 2007). "Ibn Khaldun on the Fate of Islamic Science after the 11th Century", Islam & Science 5 (1), p. 61-70.
  12. S. Ahmed (1999). A Dictionary of Muslim Names. C. Hurst & Co. Publishers. ISBN 1-85065-356-9.
  13. H. Mowlana (2001). "Information in the Arab World", Cooperation South Journal 1.
  14. Historiography. The Islamic Scholar.
  15. Ibn Khaldun, Franz Rosenthal, N. J. Dawood (1967), The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, p. x, Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-01754-9.
  16. Salahuddin Ahmed (1999). A Dictionary of Muslim Names. C. Hurst & Co. Publishers. ISBN 1-85065-356-9.
  17. Enan, Muhammed Abdullah (2007). Ibn Khaldun: His Life and Works. The Other Press. p. v. ISBN 983-9541-53-6.
  18. Dr. S. W. Akhtar (1997). "The Islamic Concept of Knowledge", Al-Tawhid: A Quarterly Journal of Islamic Thought & Culture 12 (3).
  19. M. S. Khan (1976). "al-Biruni and the Political History of India", Oriens 25, p. 86-115.
  20. 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.
  21. Donner 1998 p. 23
  22. Crone, P., Slaves on Horses, Cambridge, 1980, 15-16
  23. statement of the July 1975 Fifth colloquium of the Near Eastern History Group of Oxford University, cited in Ibn Warraq, ed. (2000). "1. Studies on Muhammad and the Rise of Islam". The Quest for the Historical Muhammad. Prometheus. p. 55.
  24. Donner 1998 p. 38
  25. Crone, Patricia (2002). Roman, Provincial and Islamic Law: The Origins of the Islamic Patronate. Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization. 8. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521529495. Retrieved 2018-04-14.
  26. Crone, Patricia (2004) [1987]. Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam. Gorgias Islamic studies. 6 (reprint ed.). Gorgias Press. ISBN 9781593331023. Retrieved 2018-04-14.
  27. Cook, Michael (2004) [2001]. Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781139431606. Retrieved 2018-04-14.
  28. Atlantic Monthly Journal, Atlantic Monthly article: What is the Koran Archived 2006-02-02 at the Wayback Machine ,January 1999
  29. 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
  30. Der frühe Islam: eine historisch-kritische Rekonstruktion anhand zeitgenössischer Quellen, Karl-Heinz Ohlig, p.333, Verlag Hans Schiler, 2007
  31. Noth, A.; Conrad, Lawrence I. (1994). The Early Arabic Historical Tradition: A Source Critical Study. Translated by Bonner, Michael. London. p. 19. cited in Ibn Warraq, ed. (2000). "1. Studies on Muhammad and the Rise of Islam". The Quest for the Historical Muhammad. Prometheus. pp. 53–4.


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