After the decline of the Abbasids, new independent regional dynasties surfaced. The changing political climate also led to the emergence of different social classes. The tradition of penning universal history in the Islamic world came to an end because people were now more interested in local and current affairs rather than foreign issues or those of the past.
Historiography hence underwent radical changes, with the focus now being on topics that had not been explored so far. A variety of historical narratives were constructed. For instance, history of the localities or cities, history of ruling dynasties or of the social classes, biographies, autobiographies, history of administrative affairs, and of the rules and regulations that governed the state. Moreover, history was also written on literature, architecture, art and science. This new material enriched historiography and the role of historians became important in society.
The ruling regional dynasties that emerged were keen to preserve their memories for the upcoming generation. Consequently, they began to patronise historians in order to get their achievements written about and to be presented as ideal rulers.
Court historians fulfilled rulers’ ambitions, adopting a style of writing which described the personality, administration and justice system of the ruler in a complex, ornate and exaggerated manner. As most of the rulers either read it or listened to the account being read out, it was impossible for historians to criticise or write anything against them. It reduced history writing to mere sycophancy.
An impact of the downfall of the Abbasids was that the people’s loyalties lay with their local rulers and a sense of belonging increased to the cities where they lived most of their lives.
Historians began to write history of the cities, bringing to light the historical role and cultural contribution of the cities in a unique way. For instance, the histories of Baghdad, Mosul, Alexandria, Bukhara, Qom, Isphahan, Tabaristan, Wasit, Herat and Behaq were documented.
Another novelty was the introduction of writing biographies of famous individuals. Facts about the events of a person’s life were collected and narrated chronologically, emphasising his field of interest. Biographies of people belonging to different professions and social classes were written down including ministers, aristocrats, ulemas, jurists, saints, judges, poets, thinkers, philosophers, scientists, officials, traders, physicians, teachers, famous women and chess players.
The Iranian and Indian historians emulated this genre of literature which was introduced by the Arabs. This diverted the focus of writing history from the rulers to important individuals in society. The inclusion of these individuals and their role broadened the scope of historiography. This kind of history writing reflects the socio-cultural structure of society, formation of different socio-economic groups, economic activities and literary and artistic development in the society.
Persian language was patronised by the rulers of the independent ruling dynasties established in the Eastern part of the caliphate and eventually replaced Arabic in history writing, while some Arabic literature was translated into Persian. The successive dynasties of Central Asia such as the Samanids, Ghaznavids and Saljuqs revived the Persian language and historians were employed at their court to compose the history of their reign in Persian.
Firdausi’s (d.1020AD) Shahnama traced the myth and history of ancient Persia, inspiring the Persians with details of their past glory. Shahnama became the most popular book in the Persian-speaking world. Even today, the Shahnama is recited in Iran to revive the memories of the past.
In the 13th century, the Mongols invaded the Muslim world and the Abbasid caliphate finally came to an end in 1258, after the occupation of Baghdad and the assassination of the last caliph. The historiography further changed as the influence of Arabic language and Arabic culture came to end in the eastern part of the caliphate.
The Mongols retained the Persian language for administration as well as history writing. Two important historians recorded the Mongol history such as Ata Malik Juvaiyni (d.1283AD) whose book Tarikh-i-Jahankusha covered Halaku’s conquest of of Baghdad.
The other was Rashid al Din Hamadani (d.1318 AD) who wrote Jami al-Tawarikh, which was initially a history of the Mongols and their dynasty but gradually it expanded to cover history from Adam to the writer’s own time period. The scope of historiography characteristically changed to become secular.
When Timur (r.1370–1405) came into power, he took a keen interest in the documentation of history. It was his daily routine to carefully listen to the accounts written by the court historians. His successors continued this practice and during their rule, Herat became a centre of the prominent historians, such as Hafiz-i-Abru and Mir Khwand. As court historians for Humayun, the Mughal emporer, Mir Khwand and his grandson Khwand Mir took the tradition of history writing to India.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 31st, 2016