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Historiography of early Islam

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The historiography of early Islam refers to the study of the early origins of Islam based on a critical analysis, evaluation, and examination of authentic primary sources materials and the organization of these sources into a narrative timeline that is subject to scholarly methods of criticism.

Western academic historians have come to believe that the traditional Islamic version of those events is problematic. The Islamic sources are from a period dating between 100 and 150 years after the events being referred to had taken place. There are very few surviving primary sources for the period. There are few surviving manuscripts and inscriptions, and only sketchy archaeological data. Islamic history seems to have been primarily transmitted orally until well after the rise of the Abbasid Caliphate. Islamic scholars then sifted and recorded the traditions. They did so in an extremely politicized context, just after one dynasty, the Umayyads, had been overthrown, and when the groups that eventually became the Sunni and Shi'a sects of Islam were putting forth rival histories of Islam.

Modern Western scholars are much less likely than Islamic scholars to trust the work of the Abbasid historians. Western historians approach the classic Islamic histories with varying degrees of circumspection. A consideration of oral transmissions in general with some specific early Islamic reference is Jan Vansina's "Oral Tradition as History."

History of Muslim historiansEdit

Science of biography, science of hadith, and IsnadEdit

Muslim historical traditions first began developing from the earlier 7th century with the reconstruction of Muhammad's life following his death. Narratives regarding Muhammad and his companions from various sources, it was necessary to verify which sources were more reliable. In order to evaluate these sources, various methodologies were developed, such as the "science of biography", "science of hadith" and "Isnad" (chain of transmission). These methodologies were later applied to other historical figures in the Muslim world.

Ilm ar-Rijal (Arabic) is the "science of biography" especially as practiced in Islam, where it was first applied to the sira, the life of the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, and then the lives of the four Rightly Guided Caliphs who expanded Islamic dominance rapidly. Since validating the sayings of Muhammad is a major study ("Isnad"), accurate biography has always been of great interest to Muslim biographers, who accordingly became experts at sorting out facts from accusations, bias from evidence, etc., and were renowned throughout the known world for their honesty in recording history. Modern practices of scientific citation and historical method owe a great deal to the rigor of the Isnad tradition of early Muslims. The earliest surviving Islamic biography is Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah, written in the 8th century.

The "science of hadith" is the process that Muslim scholars use to evaluate hadith. The classification of Hadith into Sahih (sound), Hasan (good) and Da'if (weak) was firmly established by Ali ibn al-Madini (161-234 AH). Later, al-Madini's student Muhammad al-Bukhari (810-870) authored a collection that he believed contained only Sahih hadith, which is now known as the Sahih Bukhari. Al-Bukhari's historical methods of testing hadiths and isnads is seen as the beginning of the method of citation and a precursor to the scientific method which was developed by later Muslim scientists. I. A. Ahmad writes:[1]

"The vagueness of ancient historians about their sources stands in stark contrast to the insistence that scholars such as Bukhari and Muslim manifested in knowing every member in a chain of transmission and examining their reliability. They published their findings, which were then subjected to additional scrutiny by future scholars for consistency with each other and the Qur'an."

Other famous Muslim historians who studied the science of biography or science of hadith included Urwah ibn Zubayr (d. 712), Wahb ibn Munabbih (d. 728), Ibn Ishaq (d. 761), al-Waqidi (745-822), Ibn Hisham (d. 834), al-Maqrizi (1364–1442), and Ibn Hajar Asqalani (1372–1449), among others.


Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (838-923) is known for writing a detailed and comprehensive chronicle of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern history in his History of the Prophets and Kings in 915.

Along with his Researches on India, Biruni discussed more on his idea of history in his chronological work The Chronology of the Ancient Nations.[2]

History of scienceEdit

Al-Saghani (d. 990) wrote some of the earliest comments on the history of science. These included the following comparison between the "ancients" (including the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks and Indians) and the "modern scholars" (the Muslim scientists of his time):

"The ancients distinguished themselves through their chance discovery of basic principles and the invention of ideas. The modern scholars, on the other hand, distinguish themselves through the invention of a multitude of scientific details, the simplification of difficult (problems), the combination of scattered (information), and the explanation of (material which already exists in) coherent (form). The ancients came to their particular achievements by virtue of their priority in time, and not on account of any natural qualification and intelligence. Yet, how many things escaped them which then became the original inventions of modern scholars, and how much did the former leave for the latter to do."[3]

Historiography, cultural history, and philosophy of historyEdit

The first detailed studies on the subject of historiography itself and the first critiques on historical methods appeared in the works of the Arab Muslim historian and historiographer Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), who is regarded as the father of historiography, cultural history,[4] and the philosophy of history, especially for his historiographical writings in the Muqaddimah (Latinized as Prolegomena) and Kitab al-Ibar (Book of Advice).[5] His Muqaddimah also laid the groundwork for the observation of the role of state, communication, propaganda and systematic bias in history,[6] and he discussed the rise and fall of civilizations.

Franz Rosenthal wrote in the History of Muslim Historiography:

"Muslim historiography has at all times been united by the closest ties with the general development of scholarship in Islam, and the position of historical knowledge in MusIim education has exercised a decisive influence upon the intellectual level of historicai writing....The Muslims achieved a definite advance beyond previous historical writing in the sociological understanding of history and the systematisation of historiography. The development of modern historical writing seems to have gained considerably in speed and substance through the utilization of a Muslim Literature which enabled western historians, from the seventeenth century on, to see a large section of the world through foreign eyes. The Muslim historiography helped indirectly and modestly to shape present day historical thinking."[7]

In the Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun warned of seven mistakes that he thought that historians regularly committed. In this criticism, he approached the past as strange and in need of interpretation. The originality of Ibn Khaldun was to claim that the cultural difference of another age must govern the evaluation of relevant historical material, to distinguish the principles according to which it might be possible to attempt the evaluation, and lastly, to feel the need for experience, in addition to rational principles, in order to assess a culture of the past. Ibn Khaldun often criticized "idle superstition and uncritical acceptance of historical data." As a result, he introduced a scientific method to the study of history, which was considered something "new to his age", and he often referred to it as his "new science", now associated with historiography.[8] His historical method also laid the groundwork for the observation of the role of state, communication, propaganda and systematic bias in history,[6] and he is thus considered to be the "father of historiography"[9][10] or the "father of the philosophy of history".[11]

World historyEdit

See also: Sociology in medieval Islam: History

Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (838-923) is known for writing a detailed and comprehensive chronicle of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern history in his History of the Prophets and Kings in 915. Abu al-Hasan 'Alī al-Mas'ūdī (896-956), known as the "Herodotus of the Arabs", was the first to combine history and scientific geography in a large-scale work, Muruj adh-dhahab wa ma'adin al-jawahir (The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems), a book on world history.

Until the 10th century, history most often meant political and military history, but this was not so with Persian historian Biruni (973-1048). In his Kitab fi Tahqiq ma l'il-Hind (Researches on India), he did not record political and military history in any detail, but wrote more on India's cultural, scientific, social and religious history.[2] Along with his Researches on India, Biruni discussed more on his idea of history in his chronological work The Chronology of the Ancient Nations.[2]


The study of Egyptology began in Arab Egypt from the 9th century. The first known attempts at deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs were made by Dhul-Nun al-Misri and Ibn Wahshiyya in the 9th century, who were able to at least partly understand what was written. Abdul Latif al-Baghdadi, a teacher at Cairo's Al-Azhar University in the 13th century, wrote detailed descriptions on ancient Egyptian monuments.[12]

The first known attempts at deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs were made by made by Arab historians in medieval Egypt during the 9th and 10th centuries. By then, hieroglyphs had long been forgotten in Egypt, and were replaced by the Coptic and Arabic alphabets. Dhul-Nun al-Misri and Ibn Wahshiyya were the first historians to be able to at least partly decipher what was written in the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs,[12] by relating them to the contemporary Coptic language used by Coptic priests in their time.[13]

The Egyptian Muslim historian Mourtadi wrote an Arabic book on ancient Egyptian monuments, which was later published in France and Britain in the 17th century. Ibn Wahshiyya's Arabic book on Egyptology, in which he deciphered a number of Egyptian hieroglyphs, An Arabic manuscript of Ibn Wahshiyya's work was later read by Athanasius Kircher in the 17th century, and then translated and published in English by Joseph Hammer in 1806 as Ancient Alphabets and Hieroglyphic Characters Explained; with an Account of the Egyptian Priests, their Classes, Initiation, and Sacrifices in the Arabic Language by Ahmad Bin Abubekr Bin Wahishih, 16 years before Jean-François Champollion's complete decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs.[13]


Until the 10th century, history most often meant political and military history, but this was not so with Persian historian Biruni (973-1048). In his Kitab fi Tahqiq ma l'il-Hind (Researches on India), he did not record political and military history in any detail, but wrote more on India's cultural, scientific, social and religious history.[2] Biruni is considered the father of Indology for his detailed studies on Indian history.[14]

Islamic sourcesEdit

Traditional Islamic sources for early Islamic historyEdit

See also: List of Islamic texts

7th Century Islamic sourcesEdit

7th Century non-Islamic sourcesEdit

There are numerous early references to Islam in non-Islamic sources, many have been collected in historiographer Robert G. Hoyland's compilation Seeing Islam As Others Saw It. One of the first books to analyze these works was Hagarism authored by Michael Cook and Patricia Crone. Hagarism concludes that looking at the early non-Islamic sources provides a much different and more accurate picture of early Islamic history than the later Islamic sources do, although its thesis has little acceptance. For some, the date of composition is controversial. Some provide an account of early Islam which significantly contradicts the traditional Islamic accounts of two centuries later.

7th Century ambiguous sourcesEdit

Famous Muslim historiansEdit

Modern secular scholarshipEdit

The earliest Western scholarship on Islam tended to be Christian translators and commentators. They translated the easily available Sunni texts from Arabic into European languages including German, Italian, French, or English, then summarized and commented in a fashion that was often hostile to Islam. Notable Christian scholars include:

All these scholars worked in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Another pioneer of Islamic studies, Abraham Geiger (1810–1874), was a prominent Jewish rabbi and approached Islam from that standpoint in his "Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen?" (1833). Geiger's themes were continued in Rabbi Abraham I. Katsh's "Judaism and the Koran" (1962)[16]

Other scholars, notably those in the German tradition, took a more neutral view. The late 19th century scholar Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) is a prime example. They also started, cautiously, to question the truth of the Arabic texts. They took a source critical approach, trying to sort the Islamic texts into elements to be accepted as historically true, and elements to be discarded as polemic or pious fiction. These scholars might include:

In the 1970s, what has been described as a "wave of sceptical scholars" (Donner 1998 p. 23) challenged a great deal of the received wisdom in Islamic studies. They argued that the Islamic historical tradition had been greatly corrupted in transmission. They tried to correct or reconstruct the early history of Islam from other, presumably more reliable, sources such as coins, inscriptions, and non-Islamic sources. The oldest of this group was John Wansbrough (1928-2002). Wansbrough's works were widely noted, but perhaps not widely read. Donner (1998) says:

Wansbrough's awkward prose style, diffuse organization, and tendency to rely on suggestive implication rather than tight argument (qualities not found in his other published works) have elicited exasperated comment from many reviewers. (Donner 1998 p. 38)

Wansbrough's scepticism influenced a number of younger scholars, including:

In 1977, Crone and Cook published Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World, which argued that the early history of Islam is a myth, generated after the conquests of Egypt, Syria, and Persia to prop up the new Arab regimes in those lands and give them a solid ideological foundation. According to their theory the Qur'an was composed later, rather than early, and the Arab conquests may have been the cause, rather than the consequence, of Islam. The main evidence adduced for this thesis was based upon a contemporary body of non-Muslim sources to many early Islamic events. If such events could not be supported by outside evidence, then (according to Crone and Cook) they should be dismissed as myth.

Crone and Cook's more recent work has involved intense scrutiny of early Islamic sources, but not total rejection of those sources. (See, for instance, Crone's 1987 publications, Roman, Provincial, and Islamic Law and Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, both of which assume the standard outline of early Islamic history while questioning certain aspects of it; also Cook's 2001 Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought, which also cites early Islamic sources as authoritative.) One writer claims that they have in fact disavowed the work ([1] [2]) but in the absence of direct comment from Crone and Cook, it is difficult to know what to make of his claims.

In her book Meccan Trade And The Rise Of Islam, Crone states:

If one storyteller should happen to mention a raid, the next one would tell you the exact date of this raid, and the third one would furnish you even more details. Waqidi (d. 823), who wrote years after Ibn Ishaq (d. 768), will always give precise dates, locations, names, where Ibn Ishaq has none, accounts of what triggered the expedition, miscellaneous information to lend color to the event, as well as reasons why, as was usually the case, no fighting took place. No wonder that scholars are fond of Waqidi: where else does one find such wonderfully precise information about everything one wishes to know? But given that this information was all unknown to Ibn Ishaq, its value is doubtful in the extreme. And if spurious information accumulated at this rate in the two generations between Ibn Ishaq and Waqidi, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that even more must have accumulated in the three generations between the Prophet and Ibn Ishaq.[17]

Claims for the late composition of the Qur'an have also been reinforced by the 1972 discovery of a cache of ancient Qur'ans in a mosque in Sana'a, Yemen. The German scholar Gerd R. Puin has been investigating these Qur'an fragments for years. His research team made 35,000 microfilm photographs of the manuscripts; Puin has not published the entirety of his work, but he has stated that there were 2 versions of the text in the manuscript, one written over the other, thus putting into the question the Muslim beliefs in the invariancy of the Qur'an. He has dated the documents to the early part of the 8th century.[18]

Contemporary scholars have begun to turn to the study of the Islamic sources in a sceptical mood. They tend to use the histories rather than the hadith, and to analyze the histories in terms of the tribal and political affiliations of the narrators (if that can be established), thus making it easier to guess in which direction the material might have been slanted. Notable scholars include:

Bridging the divideEdit

A few scholars have managed to bridge the divide between Islamic and Western-style secular scholarship.[citation needed] They have completed both Islamic and Western academic training.

Historiography of Islamic scienceEdit

The history of science in the Islamic world, like all history, is filled with questions of interpretation. Historians of science generally consider that the study of Islamic science during and after the Islamic Golden Age, like all history, must be seen within the particular circumstances of time and place. A. I. Sabra opened a recent overview of Arabic science by noting, "I trust no one would wish to contest the proposition that all of history is local history ... and the history of science is no exception."[19]

Some scholars avoid such local historical approaches and seek to identify essential relations between Islam and science that apply at all times and places. The Pakistani physicist, Pervez Hoodbhoy, portrayed "religious fanaticism to be the dominant relation of religion and science in Islam". Sociologist Toby Huff claimed that Islam lacked the "rationalist view of man and nature" that became dominant in Europe. The Persian philosopher and historian of science, Seyyed Hossein Nasr saw a more positive connection in "an Islamic science that was spiritual and antisecular" which "point[ed] the way to a new 'Islamic science' that would avoid the dehumanizing and despiritualizing mistakes of Western science."[20]

Nasr identified a distinctly Muslim approach to science, flowing from Islamic monotheism and the related theological prohibition against portraying graven images. In science, this is reflected in a philosophical disinterest in describing individual material objects, their properties and characteristics and instead a concern with the ideal, the Platonic form, which exists in matter as an expression of the will of the Creator. Thus one can "see why mathematics was to make such a strong appeal to the Muslim: its abstract nature furnished the bridge that Muslims were seeking between multiplicity and unity."[21]

Rather than identifying such essential relations between Islam and science, some historians of science question the value of drawing boundaries that label the sciences, and the scientists who practice them, in specific cultural, civilizational, or linguistic terms. Consider the case of Nasir al-Din Tusi (1201–1274), who invented his mathematical theorem, the Tusi Couple, while he was director of Maragheh observatory. Tusi's patron and founder of the observatory was the non-Muslim Mongol conqueror of Baghdad, Hulagu Khan. The Tusi-couple "was first encountered in an Arabic text, written by a man who spoke Persian at home, and used that theorem, like many other astronomers who followed him and were all working in the "Arabic/Islamic" world, in order to reform classical Greek astronomy, and then have his theorem in turn be translated into Byzantine Greek towards the beginning of the fourteenth century, only to be used later by Copernicus and others in Latin texts of Renaissance Europe."[22]


  1. Ahmad, I. A. (June 3, 2002), "The Rise and Fall of Islamic Science: The Calendar as a Case Study" (PDF), Faith and Reason: Convergence and Complementarity, Al Akhawayn University,, retrieved 2008-01-31
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 M. S. Khan (1976). "al-Biruni and the Political History of India", Oriens 25, p. 86-115.
  3. Franz Rosenthal (1950). "Al-Asturlabi and as-Samaw'al on Scientific Progress", Osiris 9, p. 555-564 [559].
  4. Mohamad Abdalla (Summer 2007). "Ibn Khaldun on the Fate of Islamic Science after the 11th Century", Islam & Science 5 (1), p. 61-70.
  5. S. Ahmed (1999). A Dictionary of Muslim Names. C. Hurst & Co. Publishers. ISBN 1850653569.
  6. 6.0 6.1 H. Mowlana (2001). "Information in the Arab World", Cooperation South Journal 1.
  7. Historiography. The Islamic Scholar.
  8. Ibn Khaldun, Franz Rosenthal, N. J. Dawood (1967), The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, p. x, Princeton University Press, ISBN 0691017549.
  9. Salahuddin Ahmed (1999). A Dictionary of Muslim Names. C. Hurst & Co. Publishers. ISBN 1850653569.
  10. Enan, Muhammed Abdullah (2007), Ibn Khaldun: His Life and Works, The Other Press, p. v, ISBN 9839541536
  11. Dr. S. W. Akhtar (1997). "The Islamic Concept of Knowledge", Al-Tawhid: A Quarterly Journal of Islamic Thought & Culture 12 (3).
  12. 12.0 12.1 Dr. Okasha El Daly (2005), Egyptology: The Missing Millennium: Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings, UCL Press, ISBN 1844720632. (cf. Arabic Study of Ancient Egypt, Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation.)
  13. 13.0 13.1 Dr. Okasha El Daly, Deciphering Egyptian Hieroglyphs in Muslim Heritage, Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.
  14. Zafarul-Islam Khan, At The Threshhold (sic) Of A New Millennium – II, The Milli Gazette.
  15. Twenty-three new inscriptions on Memory of the World Register of Documentary Collections - UNESCO, inscription reads "In the name of God (Bismillah), I Zuhair wrote the date of the death of Umar the year four and twenty (AH)"
  16. Online text: "Judaism And The Koran Biblical And Talmudic Backgrounds Of The Koran And Its Commentaries (1962) Author: Abraham I. Katsh". Internet Archive. Retrieved on 2007-04-18.
  17. Patricia Crone, Mecan Trade and the rise of Islam, (1987), pp. 223-224
  18. Atlantic Monthly Journal, Atlantic Monthly article: What is the Koran ,January 1999
  19. A. I. Sabra, Situating Arab Science: Locality versus Essence," Isis, 87(1996):654-70; reprinted in Michael H. Shank, ed., The Scientific Enterprise in Antiquity and the Middle Ages," (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Pr., 2000), pp. 215-231.
  20. F. Jamil Ragep, "Freeing Astronomy from Philosophy: An Aspect of Islamic Influence on Science," Osiris, topical issue on Science in Theistic Contexts: Cognitive Dimensions, n.s. 16(2001):49-50, note 3
  21. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Science and Civilization in Islam.
  22. George Saliba (1999). Whose Science is Arabic Science in Renaissance Europe?


  • Donner, Fred Narratives of Islamic Origins: The Beginnings of Islamic Historical Writing, Darwin Press, 1998
  • Hoyland, Robert G. Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam, Darwin Press, 1997
  • Vansina, Jan "Oral Tradition as History," University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1985

External links Edit

  • [3] and following; an Islamic view of the development of the academic study of Islam

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