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Sources for the Early History of Islam. Islamic History: the First 150 Years. © Abdur Rahman 2006-2007. Session Plan. The Early Development of Arabic/Islamic Historiography Understanding Pre-Islamic Arabia The Advent of Islam: the Impact of the Quran Islamic Historiography: Key Features

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sources for the early history of islam

Sources for the Early History of Islam

Islamic History: the First 150 Years

© Abdur Rahman 2006-2007

session plan
Session Plan
  • The Early Development of Arabic/Islamic Historiography
  • Understanding Pre-Islamic Arabia
  • The Advent of Islam: the Impact of the Quran
  • Islamic Historiography: Key Features
  • The Rise of Historical Writing
  • The Impact of Islam: the Prophetic Example
  • Quranic ‘History’
early islamic historiography
Early Islamic Historiography
  • Explore origins of this picture
  • Focus on origin, nature and development of early Islamic historical writing
  • Survey first 300 years or so
  • Size of task means we will chart main developments only
what is historical writing
What is Historical Writing?
  • What is Arabic/Islamic historiography?
  • Subject too vast to discuss now
  • Working definition…

Writing about the past from within the Islamic tradition, very broadly defined

  • Aim…
  • Brief survey of early Islamic historical writing
  • Explore that tradition’s key features
the past in pre islamic arabia
The Past in Pre-Islamic Arabia
  • Literacy?
  • Overwhelmingly Oral Culture
  • Oral ‘Literature’ or Poetry
  • Al-Ya`qubi

‘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’ (Tarikh 1.262)

the past in pre islamic arabia6
The Past in Pre-Islamic Arabia
  • A tribal society
  • Kinship (real and imagined)
  • Bani Hashim & Quraysh
  • Stateless Environment
  • Blood feuds
  • The ‘Age of Ignorance’ (al-Jahiliyyah)
the past in pre islamic arabia7
The Past in Pre-Islamic Arabia
  • Loyalty to the tribe of paramount importance
  • Abu Tamim Habib ibn Aus

‘I am of the Ghaziyya: if she be in error, then I will err; and if Ghaziyya be guided right, I go right with her!’

‘Take for your brother whom you will in days of peace, But know that when fighting comes, your kinsman alone is near. Your true friend is your kinsman, who answers your call for aid, With good will , when deeply drenched in bloodshed are sword and spear. Oh never forsake your kinsman even when he does you wrong, For what he has marred he mends thereafter and makes sincere’

(Both quoted in Firestone, 1999, 31 & 145)

the past in pre islamic arabia8
The Past in Pre-Islamic Arabia
  • ‘Boasting’
  • Hatim al-Ta’i

‘We are the noble ones, and no other clan is our equal;

From our number kings [are raised], and among us temples erected.

How many clans we have overpowered during [our] raiding!

It is [only] a surfeit of might [such as ours] that finds imitators…’

(Both quoted in Firestone, 1999, 31)

the past in pre islamic arabia9
The Past in Pre-Islamic Arabia
  • Concepts of Time…

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’

(quoted in Khalidi, 1994, 3)

the past in pre islamic arabia10
The Past in Pre-Islamic Arabia
  • Concepts of Time…

Sulmi ibn Rabi’a

‘Time (dahr) is change, Time’s fool is man,

Wealth or want, great store or small,

All is one since Death’s are all’

Hatim al-Ta’i

‘The young man runs, but his fated death (himam al-mawt) reaches him.

Every day brings the fixed term nearer to him.

I know that my day will once reach me

And I shall not care for my world any more’

(Both quoted in Firestone, 1999, 29)

the past in pre islamic arabia11
The Past in Pre-Islamic Arabia


‘O my friends, a respected death

Is better than an illusory refuge;

Anxiety does not ward off the decree (qadar)

But endurance is a cause of victory.

Death (manaya) is better than vileness,

And having death before oneself is better than having it behind.

Thus, courage! There is no escape from death ’

(Quoted in Firestone, 1999, 29)

the past in pre islamic arabia12
The Past in Pre-Islamic Arabia

Living for 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’ (Quoted in Khalidi, 1994, 4)

the past in pre islamic arabia13
The Past in Pre-Islamic Arabia
  • Ayyam al-Arab Literature (‘Battle Days of the Arabs’)
  • Pre-Islamic poetry generally only survives in Islamic sources
  • Possible implications?
the impact of the quran
The Impact of the Quran
  • A Cosmic Event

‘If We sent down this Quran upon a mountain, you would see it humbled, shattered by the fear of God’ (59:21)

  • Use of dense, symbolic language
  • Considered miraculous in itself (more later)
  • Radically different from the Bible
  • Not a New Testament-style ‘history’
  • Considered to be the actual speech of God (kalam Allah)
history in the quran
‘History’ in the Quran
  • Creation ordered, purposeful and linear
  • Definite beginning and definite ending
  • Pre-Islamic ‘Fate’ and ‘Time’ rejected…

‘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 ignorant’ (45:24-26)

history in the quran16
‘History’ in the Quran
  • History marked by Prophets: i.e. 24:11
  • Muhammad the final Prophet
  • Exact role unclear
  • Provided an orientation towards the past
  • Moral significance of action
  • Israiliyyat
the prophet s example
The Prophet’s Example
  • Muhammad’s ideas about God provoked heated discussion amongst friend and foe

‘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…’ (Siddiqui, 1993, 2-3)

the prophet s example18
The Prophet’s Example
  • The Muslim desire to record Prophet’s teaching and career another factor in rise of ‘history’
  • Prophetic Traditions (more later)
  • Vast amount of material
  • Highly disparate quality
a brief pause
A Brief Pause
  • Turn to the person next to you and spend a couple of minutes summarising the lecture thus far.
  • Questions?
the rise of historical writing
The Rise of Historical Writing
  • Urwa ibn al-Zubayr & al-Zuhri
  • Ibn Ishaq & Ibn Hisham
  • Al-Baladhuri
  • Al-Tabari
key features
Key Features
  • Conversational framework

‘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’ (Bukhari no. 1580, 5:190)

key features isnad
Key Features: Isnad
  • The ‘Chain of Narrators’ (Isnad)

‘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…’ (Quoted by Rippin and Knappert, 1986, 73)

  • Muhammad ibn Sirin

‘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’ (Quoted by A`zami, 2000, 213)

key features matn
Key Features: Matn
  • The Text itself (Matn)
  • Great variation in length
  • Often without wider context
  • Known as Hadith, Khabar or Akhbar
  • All mean, more or less, ‘news’ or ‘report’
  • In other words, oral transmission
  • The most socially privileged form
  • Ibn Sa’d
  • If Muslim sources late, can they be trustworthy?
  • Does the existence of partisan bias, etc mean the sources are useless?
  • Modern Approaches…
  • Sceptical
  • Historical ‘core’
  • Sources Misunderstood
  • Hagarism – Crone & Cook