Throughout centuries, there has always been a strong regard for history, with memorisation being the most common, popular and honoured style of learning. Knowledgeable people who memorised narrative accounts would recite to others. Islamic historiography is characterised by a continuous narrative so that each event is set out in the words of contemporaries and eye-witnesses. Some narrators were experts in certain areas like Persian wars or Arab tribes and later geneology became an important aspect.
This scenario, however, left little or no space for critical analysis, unlike Western education. For complex issues, such as resolving certain points within the teachings of the Prophet (PBUH), schools were established where memorisation was complimented with minimal jottings but oral tradition remained the principal method of learning.
Three historians contributed significantly to Muslim historiography. Tabari’s (d.923AD) most influential and best known works are Tafsir al Tabari, a commentary on the Quran and Tarikh al Rusul wa al Muluk (History of the Prophets and Kings), which is a historical chronology that has become a great source of knowledge of history. Although he collected voluminous material, he did not critically analyse and assess its veracity. Another characteristic of his book is that he extensively quoted passages from other sources, such as Ibn Ishaq.
Al Yaqubi (d.897AD) also travelled widely and collected material from each country, mentioning the people, their habits, customs and rituals. Al Masudi (d.956AD)’s book Muruj al Dhahab is a collection of his travels and observations on the history, geography, and culture of those countries which he visited. These three historians take the credit for a radical change in historiography. For example, Yaqubi did not recognise most of the historical stories attributed to the Sassanid period as valid. Tabari collected historical accounts of different historians for a single event without his own comments, allowing readers to make their own decisions as to who was closer to the truth. Masudi not only discussed his travelling experiences but also gave importance to political and cultural history of the countries that he travelled to. One also finds glimpses of philosophical ideas in his writings. He pointed out the similarity between nature and human action. Further, in his writing, the process of life and death is reflected in the rise and falls of civilisation.
As time progressed, so did the various formats for documenting the past
Besides these three historians, there were others who observed history in a wider perspective. Al Dinawari (d.896AD) in his book Akhbar al Tiwal, dealt exhaustively with the history of Persia. He left the account of India and China for want of sufficient material.
Ibn Miskawayh (d.1030AD), Persian scholar, adopted the secular style of writing history, with the objective of presenting history in a way that people could learn from it. He was one of the first and foremost Muslim historians to write a chronicle of contemporary events as an eyewitness.
He gave a detailed account of Persian rulers and argued that as history was the outcome of human experiences and actions, human history should be emphasised. In this way, he became one of the first Muslim scholars to describe the idea of evolution, as reflected the title of his book Tajarib al-umam (Experiences of nations).
In his book, Hamzah al Isfahani (c.961 and 971) pointed out the various chronological styles and methods practiced by different nations. Ibn Qutaybah’s history fulfilled demands of the officials of the existing administration. After integrating Ayyam (the pre-Islamic tribal history) with world history, he introduced a new form of historiography.
Famous philosopher and historian Al Biruni (d.1048AD) added philosophy, science and linguistics to the historical narratives, thereby expanding its scope. His judgment followed an analysis of historical events.
The concept of universal history began from Adam to the emergence of Islam where events were mentioned in chronological order. It was not comprehensive world history, but only as it was known to the Muslim historians. Therefore, it included the history of the Jews, the Christians, and the Persians but there was no mention of the Greeks, the Indians and the Chinese.
Some later historians wrote the history of other nations where they emphasised cultural aspects but avoided politics. For example, Yaqubi overlooked the political history of the Greeks and only focused on their contribution in philosophy. Similarly, Indian and Chinese politics were ignored and intellectual contribution was highlighted.
The dilemma of the Muslim historians was how to deal with the achievements of pre-Islamic nations and how to reconcile their contribution to Islam in order not to undermine its role and at the same time care was taken not to distort historical events. Al Masudi made an attempt to solve this problem by explaining that the pre-Islamic philosophers, writers and intellectuals may not have been Muslims, yet they created knowledge that benefitted people and left behind them a rich cultural heritage and wisdom to guide communities and nations to the right path. He recognised their role in the development of civilisation and tactfully accommodated it with the Islamic historiography.
In the 9th and 10th centuries, the Mu’tazila movement emerged judging everything according to reason and rational thought and influencing history as well.
The importance of history declined when in the 10th and 11th centuries when the institution of madressah was established throughout the Muslim world. The curriculum of the madressah based on the Quran, Hadith, and Islamic jurisprudence, reduced the importance of history because it could not support religious education. Gradually, history disappeared from their curriculum.
Its scope was further curtailed when historians began to serve rulers and under their patronage wrote the history of ruling classes to appease and please them.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 17th, 2016