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Historians

The Islamic tradition of writing history dates back to the 700s. Muslim historians have produced compilations of hadith, biographies, digests, epic poems, collections of anecdotes, and descriptive chronicles. In the twenty-first century, the study of history continues as a major scholarly pursuit throughout the Islamic world.

Early Historians.

The first Muslim historians depicted the rise of Islam and gave an overview of its principles. They used the Qur'an and hadith to write biographies about the Prophet, creating sirah (historical accounts of Muhammad's life) and akhbar (stories or narratives about Muslim conquest and other heroic events). Biographers worked to determine the accuracy of their sources, rejecting hadith that seemed of dubious origin. They often incorporated aspects of Christian and Jewish history into their work, including the lives of the prophets, of whom they considered Muhammad to be the last. The Qur'an itself contains much Jewish and Christian lore, which Muslim historians used in their writing.

Other historians focused on certain regions or on various caliphs. Some created works based on the teachings of certain Islamic sects. In the 800s, the Ismailis (a Shi'i group) developed a cyclic view of history. They claimed that seven prophets would appear on earth, each followed by seven imams. Muhammad served as the sixth prophet, and Ismail was the last imam. Ismail's son would return at the end of the world to serve as the seventh and final prophet.

Pioneering Persian historian Ibn Jarir al-Tabari ( 839 – 923 ) produced a 30-volume history that provides a wealth of information on the early Islamic world, beginning with the Creation and ending with the early years of the Abbasid caliphate. Al-Tabari reportedly planned to write a 300-volume work, but modified his plan to spare his students. The Persian poet Firdawsi produced another history, the Book of Kings, in 1010 . This epic poem includes an account of Persian kings dating back to mythical times and a biography of the great hero Rustam, who fought many mythical monsters and married a princess. It is said that the sultan Mahmud of Ghazni (Afghanistan) bought the epic, paying Firdawsi only enough for a bath and a drink. This prompted the author to write a satire about Mahmud's stinginess, which he sold for five times the amount he had received for the epic. Just as Mahmud was about to make amends by sending him a large gift, Firdawsi died.

Possibly the best known Muslim historian is Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun ( 1332 – 1406 ), who served as an official in various North African states. Ibn Khaldun developed many theories of history and society, concentrating especially on nomadic populations and the qualities that enabled them to survive. He presented highly influential ideas on the nature of rulers and the laws that govern communities in the introduction, or Muqaddimah, to his multivolume universal history.

Other historians concentrated on particular dynasties or eras. Mughal kings hired historians to write about their conquests. Ottoman rulers similarly used historians to link their rule with a glorious past, as well as to record everyday court and military events. Mustafa Ali ( 1541 – 1599 ) is among the most prominent Ottoman historians. His most famous work, Kunh al-Akhbar, covers ancient world history, early Islamic society, a history of Turkish peoples, and the rise of the Ottoman Empire. In the 1500s and 1600s, several Egyptian writers also produced local histories, while other Islamic authors described such subjects as the conquests of Alexander the Great and the voyages of Sinbad. Many wrote in verse, using such forms as the rhyming couplet.

Introduction of New Research Methods.

In the modern era, increased intellectual interaction between Europeans and Muslims influenced Islamic historical writing. Europeans had developed new research methods and writing techniques and had brought them to the Muslim world during colonial expansion. The first influential European text came from a team of scholars sent to Egypt with Napoleon's army in 1798 . They produced the massive Descriptions de l'Egypte, which influenced the study of ancient history in both Egypt and the West.

Reforms in education also led to changes in historical writing. In the early 1800s, the Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali worked to modernize education. He encouraged scholars to translate European works, including histories by Montesquieu and Voltaire, into Arabic and Turkish. Cairo became the center for the development of a new historical style. Scholars combined old and new methodologies, as illustrated in Ali Mubarak's 20-volume encyclopedia of Egypt.

In the years following World War I ( 1914 – 1919 ), a growing number of Muslim historians traveled to Europe to study in Western universities. They began to produce works in multiple languages, writing in French or English for European readers, and in Arabic, Persian, or Turkish for a Muslim audience. Their work often raised significant questions about interpretation. For example, Taha Husayn's analysis of the authenticity of pre-Islamic poetry generated fierce controversy over a culturally revered body of literature. Some new works, however, became enormously successful. Muhammad Husayn Haykal combined modern historical methods and traditional sources to create a biography of the Prophet that continues to be read around the world.

Modern historical writing reflects issues affecting the authors' homelands. Many writers voiced their concerns about the threat that Western influence posed to the Islamic identity. Egyptian historians described the political struggles in their country following the arrival of the Europeans in the 1800s. Other Muslim historians produced landmark works, such as Kemal Inal's biography of the last 37 grand viziers of the Ottoman Empire and Kurd Ali's history of Syria.

Contemporary Historical Writing.

Historical writing continued to evolve in the late 1990s. Muslim historians moved beyond the framework of foreign domination. Influenced by Marxism, they began to include the concepts of class and class struggle into their works.

The use of professional standards also increased among Muslim historians. Many institutions of higher learning grew after World War II ( 1939 – 1945 ). Universities needed professors to teach the flood of students, and professors needed advanced research degrees. Muslim historians flocked to Europe and the United States to earn their doctorates. These scholars produced dissertations on a wide range of Islamic topics.

The academic study of history continues to expand. Several Muslim countries developed or improved their research archives, and Muslim historians secured teaching positions at American and European universities. Beginning in the 1970s, some Muslim historians began to criticize elements of early Islamic society as well as the accuracy of early historical writings. In many countries, rulers suppressed these writings and discouraged Muslim historians from publishing controversial material. See also Arabic Language and Literature; Ibn Khaldun ; Muhammad ; Universities.

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