In the case of pre-Islamic society, the Arabs were divided into different tribes. There was no state, or its institutions, or legal system that could unite and bind them. Therefore, each tribe had a history, culture, customs, traditions, rituals, and a past which maintained the continuity of its identity.

The common events remembered were tribal wars and festivals, which provided them with an opportunity to unite. The famous festival of Okaz in particular, which was held annually in Taif, would bring together all the tribes that were scattered in far off places. Besides commercial activities, a poetic competition would also be organised and the best poem would be hung up in the Kaaba as a symbol of honour for the poet (Mu’allaqat).

This pre-Islamic past is known as Ayyam (days). This genre of historiography remained popular among the tribes even after their conversion to Islam.

When the Arabs conquered Syria and Iraq, they found cantonment towns of Kufa and Basra, where poets and storytellers would recite tribal history to gatherings of soldiers to inspire them with their glorious tribal past. The past events were verbally passed on from one generation to another, as they were narrated in poetic form which charged the listeners emotionally, creating in them a pride for their tribes. Later, the Arab conquest of Islam was included in the historiography of Ayyam. Therefore, it became a historical source of not only pre-Islamic, but also of the early Islamic period.

In the absence of original manuscripts, court narratives are described as history

On the contrary, unlike Arab society, Yemen had a state, institutions, as well as a legal system, which united all tribes of the society as one. In the first century Hijri (Islamic calendar), the history of Yemen was written down, marking the beginning of historiography in Islamic tradition. In pre-Islamic Arab tribal society, each tribe had a genealogist who traced the history of the tribe and the origin of the families and their ancestors. Besides him, there was a ravi or narrator who would describe important historical events verbally. In its present meaning, it was used for the first time in the 9th century of the Christian era, therefore the task of history was to determine the occurrence of events, their time and era chronologically.

History books written before the year AD750 are not available any more. However, there is evidence of some historians’ work but these books are not accessible in their original form. Later on, when history became popular, their pupils and admirers popularised history written by them on the basis of memory. All historical sources of the Umayyad period were either destroyed by the Abbasids or disappeared with the passage of time. Therefore, the systematic writing of history started during the Abbasid period.

Historiography radically changed after the Muslim conquest of Iraq and Iran. When the people of other nations and races converted to Islam, they also brought along with them not only their cultural values and norms but also their history. This expanded the boundaries of history and included in it the non-Arab historical past of other nations. In ancient Arabia, the word Khabar or news was used to transmit historical and important information and those who narrated it were called as Akhbari and Ravi. Akhbari historians collected important pre-Islamic events in order to prove the cultural and political domination of the Arabs, in view of the growing influence of the Persian culture.

When Islamic power extended and number of events increased, the method of Khabar could not convey them easily to everyone; therefore, a new genre known as Annals was introduced through which important events of a year were collected and written down, taking care that these events related to each other and expressed context. In this way, society acquired historical consciousness.

Historiography further changed with the expansion of Islamic states and the emergence of new political, social and economic institutions. To handle past sources of history, a new system, known as Tabaqaat, was devised and in each Tabaqa the history of every ten years was described. It was also customary to write the history of poets, ulema and scholars related to a century, such as poets of the 8th century and ulema of the 4th century.

With the establishment of kinship in Islamic society, historiography became dynastic. In dynastic history, court historians focused their narratives on activities of the rulers, the aristocracy and scholars.

Historiography reflects the social, cultural and economic conditions of a society. If a historian is patronised by the royal court, his observations are limited to the activities of the rulers and aristocrats and he only depicts the high culture of his time.

On the other hand, an independent historian covers events beyond the royal court and highlights the contribution of common people and portrays the popular culture of a society. However, an active and dynamic society contributes academically and militarily, providing history with plenty of material to narrate and analyse. But if a society is stagnant and sterile, history becomes barren and unattractive.

Dynastic history covered only those events which related to the ruling classes such as wars, administration, and contribution of literature, music, paintings and architecture. Common people generally remained absent from their narratives.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 19th, 2016


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