- Illustration courtesy of Khuda Bux Abro
- Illustration courtesy of Khuda Bux Abro

In the early period of Islamic history, the most important and significant task was to collect material on the life of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). His personality was the centre of important events which happened during his lifetime in the early period of Islam. Efforts were made to preserve all his actions for the guidance of the Muslim community. Firstly, Hadith or traditions were collected and carefully examined and verified through a method known as asnaad. This methodology was also applied in writing history.

Historians divided the material on the life of the Prophet into three categories. The first category covered the time period from Hazrat Adam to Hazrat Ismail. The second covered the period from Hazrat Ismail to the death of the Holy Prophet, and the third category dealt with the events which occurred during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet. The sources of the material were the Old and New Testaments, the Holy Quran, Traditions of the Holy Prophet and the history of the Arab tribes.

Ibn Ishaq (d.768 AD) was the first historian to collect material on the life of Holy Prophet, producing it in the form of his book, Seerat-i-Rasulullah. The book however, wass considered lost work, but extensive passages quoted by subsequent historians from the book provided modern historians the opportunity to reorganise it, and it is now available.

An important characteristic of Ibn Ishaq’s book was that the events were presented in a simple form without exaggeration. Since he was tolerant in his views, he praised and admired the role of those who opposed Islam, making the book a reliable source of information on early Islam.


With time, history writing evolved with different themes and cultural trends


Ibn Hisham (d.833AD), who revised Ibn Ishaq’s book, distorted it by deleting passages that he did n’t approve of. In the absence of Ibn Ishaq’s manuscript, the availability of Ibn Hisham’s book became the only source of material on the life of the Holy Prophet.

Another prominent historian, Umar Alwaqidi (d.82AD) wrote Kitab-al-maghazi, a well-known work on the military campaigns and wars fought in the early period of Islam. He concluded his history up to the period of Haroon al Rashid, the Abbasid caliph. Ibn Saad (d.845AD) further extended the scope of historiography by introducing the genre of tabaqaat. The first tabaqa focuses on the life of the Holy Prophet, the second on the lives of the companions of the Holy Prophet and the third one covered the lives of Tabaeen (the generation which followed the companions of the Holy Prophet. This division of historiography helped the readers to understand the process of history.

New material included the Prophet’s orders, letters, writings and documents about his habits, manners, and the signs of his prophethood. This pattern became standardised and was followed by the later historians.

The third important theme of historiography was with regard to the spread of Islam, as a result of wars and the conquests of Syria, Iraq, Iran and Sindh. Yahya al Baladhuri (d.892AD) recorded these conquests in his book Futuhul Buldan. His other book, Ansab al Ashraf, is a geneology of the nobles who fought for the glory of Islam.

The conquests of new territories and the conversion of non-Arabs to Islam brought about innovation to history writing. The newly-converted people retained their memories of the past and continued to have an emotional association. Therefore, these were included in Islamic historiography, creating a conflict between the Arabs and the Iranians, each wanting to assert the superiority of their culture and history over the other.

The Arabs included pre-Islamic history known as Ayam and Akhbar to Islamic historiography, claiming that for them, it was a significant factor throughout their history. On the other hand, the Irani nationalists countered the Arabs to prove their cultural superiority. The conflict enriched the history writing and historians collected new sources of material from both sides.

After the ninth century, history writing further changed as the Abbasid dynasty established an absolute form of kingship. In the new political system, the ulema were replaced by Iranian bureaucrats as influential classes and these bureaucrats took up the responsibility of writing history on the basis of state documents, which were at their disposal. The new form of historiography changed its character. It became secularised and was no more dominated by religious themes. As a result, two groups of historians emerged — court historians, who recorded happenings of the royal court and the ulema, whose writings were confined to religious themes. From then on, history writing began to follow two new formats, religious and secular.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 3rd, 2016

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