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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 source materials and the organization of these sources into a narative timeline.
Muslim historical traditions first began developing from the earlier 7th century with the reconstruction of Muhammad's life following his death. Because narratives regarding Muhammad and his companions came 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 attempted to sort out facts from accusations, bias from evidence, etc. The earliest surviving Islamic biography is Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah, written in the 8th century, but known to us only from later quotes and recensions (9th–10th 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:
"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.
Reliability of ahadith has mostly been considered under a skeptical angle by non-Muslim historians, who have observed that forgery of the chains of transmission (isnads) may be just as frequent as inaccuracy of the content (matn).
This is, in particular, the opinion of Ignaz Goldziher, who can be considered as the first Western scholar to conduct a systematic analysis of the corpus of Islamic ahadith.
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, and the philosophy of history, especially for his historiographical writings in the Muqaddimah (Latinized as Prolegomena) and Kitab al-Ibar (Book of Advice). His Muqaddimah also laid the groundwork for the observation of the role of state, communication, propaganda and systematic bias in history, 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 sociology—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."
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. His historical method also laid the groundwork for the observation of the role of state, communication, propaganda and systematic bias in history, and he is thus considered to be the "father of historiography" or the "father of the philosophy of 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. Along with his Researches on India, Biruni discussed more on his idea of history in his chronological work The Chronology of the Ancient Nations.
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.
It is worthwhile pointing out that caliph Umar bin al-Khattāb died on the last night of the month of Dhūl-Hijjah of the year 23 AH, and was buried next day on the first day of Muharram of the new year 24 AH, corresponding to 644 CE. Thus the date mentioned in the inscription (above) is authentic and conforms to the established and known date of the death of ʿUmar bin al-Khattāb.
The earliest Western scholarship on Islam tended to be Christian and Jewish 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)
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 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.)
In 1972 a cache of ancient Qur'ans in a mosque in Sana'a, Yemen was discovered – commonly known as the Sana'a manuscripts. 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, which he dated to early part of the 8th century. Puin has not published the entirety of his work, but noted unconventional verse orderings, minor textual variations, and rare styles of orthography. He also suggested that some of the parchments were palimpsests which had been reused. Puin believed that this implied an evolving text as opposed to a fixed one.
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:
A few scholars have managed to bridge the divide between Islamic and Western-style secular scholarship. They have completed both Islamic and Western academic training.
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