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British Society for Middle Eastern Studies

An Approach to Islamic History Author(s): Derek Hopwood Source: Bulletin (British Society for Middle Eastern Studies), Vol. 7, No. 1 (1980), pp. 24-32 Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Stable URL: . Accessed: 02/03/2014 01:25
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A.D.600-750 M.A.Shaban his Islamic (A.H.132): History published He had previously in 1971. A New Interpretation (C.U.P.) and he has in 1970, The 'Abbasid Revolution (C.U.P.) published A New in Islamic continued his History: chronologically survey 2. A.D.750-1055 1976). (C.U.P., (A.H. 132-448) Interpretation, and North Africa One more work is promised so as to cover Muslim Spain. Here I shall be concerned only with his Islamic A.D.600-750. History and often has been strong, times there justified, The Orientalists. the work of the traditional has attracted of Islam 1970) (2 vols., C.U.P., Cambridge History In this I shall censure.1 therefore, paper, particularly strong have and Arab authors to define how Orientalists attempt Shaban's Islamic and to show in what sense approached history The very least 'A New Interpretation' is justified. sub-title the that works is that of Shaban's they represent may be said -- something that is consistent overall view of one scholar of Islam. in the Cambridge History lacking conspicuously division it is to his credit he makes no false that Moreover, between and social economic history. political, In recent criticism of to view that it is important It almost goes without saying -before Shaban's book in the light of what has been written and modern, classical both the writing of history by Muslims, one and a half the first and by Europeans who were studying and most vital is to say its of Islamic that centuries history, the life that includes It is also the period formative period. with that of Muhammad, but works which deal topic specifically Hourani 'Islam are not considered The articles here. by Albert 'Islam in and M.M.Badawi and the Philosophers of History'2 on this Modern Arabic Literature'3 subject. may be consulted in their What were the earlier Muslim historians saying of the is the manifestation historical That history writing? it was the and that divine of mankind for the government plan in Islamic umma with which this plan was bound up, at least of to the study Sunni doctrine. was a supplement History was This view of history the Qur'an and hadith. revelation, there of Islam. held during three centuries the first Later, and the older came a relative of history, secularization of annalistic in favour was disregarded theological concept and on the rulers There was a tendency to concentrate writing. of the the bias reflected on the court, and such writing often to serve. was historian towards those he was trying History and evil with virtuous also offered as being of moral value, as examples But such historical actions to future generations. own ends, and the historians' could be adapted to suit examples Shaban that are the sources this these is of relevance because the actual had to use, in which he had to try to distinguish This and the polemical. from the imagined, the partisan is,


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however, be turn, of point

available and may, in its the only material usually either with a certain made use of by others writing of a theory. view or under the influence

which European are those historians These Muslim texts began tradition had itself declined to use, when the Arab historical in an attempt to The texts were used scientifically somewhat. line of this Shaban is in the direct establish the facts. of view of European the points not in following tradition, Until use of the texts. but in his close historians, main tendencies World War three are the First approximately of Islamic treatment in the European distinguishable history. -- from the Middle Islam One was that Ages onward -- of viewing false. from the as a heresy which had to be proved Then, simply the Islamic world began to of the Enlightenment onwards, period be viewed area or as a curiosity. in the as a romantic Thirdly, of certain racial under the influence nineteenth century to that as a civilization inferior Islam was viewed theories, known to Europe, the inferiority of the East to the West. in the seventeenth Serious developed historiography really texts and eighteenth when the number of published centuries a move away from Christian Arabic increased. There was also Islamic In and to broader themes. histories to Muslim texts continuous narrative in 1718 Simon Ockley the first published of the Saracens, of the early The History English Caliphate, such as which was based and unpublished sources on published the criteria of later and Ibn al-Athir. His work lacks Tabari to paint a full and he attempts historical picture scholarship, of details. the accuracy for But, rather than to investigate and the Muhaad the Prophet is the 'great imposter' Ockley, Arab conquests his history 'that However, calamaty'. grievous of Arab history move away from the study is noteworthy for its -- the belief the as an ancillary that to ecclesiastical history Church -- towards the Arabs were the first ruin of the Eastern of Arab history for its own sake. study An influential in nineteenth-century European concept as of scientific historical was that writing historiography, Karl Ranke. and foremost first followed by the German historian His critical and his wide method aimed at historical certainty, of an historical enabled the reliability him to assess knowledge of based on the accounts He wrote his histories authority. immediate documents.He and the most genuine eye-witnesses of prejudice. and the influence tried to avoid both theorizing He claimed to find out how things was 'simply that his object he dealt was that occurred'. His limitation only with the history of the people to ignore and tended political history of and social One of the first and economic disciples problems. in Ranke was Gustav der Chalifen who wrote his Geschichte Weil, of Ranke's Die rtmischen after the publication 1846-62, just of the an elaboration It is a large work and virtually Pipste. and is based as Muslim histories, and unpublished, published such as Abu Mikhnaf much as possible on contemporary accounts, in the field the first He was really transmitted by Tabari.


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He and consequently had little his work with. to compare of sources, of the difficulty 'disfigured by... complained of the Sunnis who and Muslim orthodoxy', political partisanship of the Rishidiln, and 'threw veil the defects', a thick over all deck out 'All...with the Companions of Muhammad. 'The Shi'ites the caliphs estimate all .Pious virtues.. Muslims... imaginable it is possible so that of piety, to their only according degree and the utilisation sources of the different only by comparison which of their weaknesses and ineptitudes, they through basis'. to gain a sure historical themselves, betray frequently most of the sources which Weil had collected volume, By his second for writing a history historians would consider necessary today the influence of Ranke in of the Caliphate. Weil shows clearly to the political himself his work, in confining especially in his writing,and, This made for dullness of history. externals or indirectly of other it is the basis, works, directly although become popular and it has never Muir's histories) (especially been translated. historical of nineteenth The classical statement century Wellhausen's Das theme is Julius on an Islamic scholarship of which is a pioneer und sein arabische Reich Sturz (1902) study the traditional at a reaction the Umayyads and an attempt against It proved to be the of Umayyad history. &Abbasid presentation of basis it is very much a product for much later work, although is mainly concerned its For Wellhausen time and place. history for power among them. with nations, and struggles states, persons well The best is the aristocratic, worlds of all possible and its such a state ordered The Umayyads ruled nation-state. meant the end of Arab domination. defeat in power politics and the TabarI Wellhausen Abu Mikhnaf used as a source through in great events detail. numerous chain of witnesses who mention in the foreground. and speaking They are the characters acting is of Abu Mikhnaf There is constant but the virtue repetition, which the sources of variants from different his collection to judge what is certain. can compare in an attempt historian on Iraq which Abu Mikhnaf concentrates the battle of Siffin After seem to have His sympathies as a centre of opposition. developed of are but other sources lain and with with 'Ali, available, Iraq Wellhausen which can be used as a counterweight. lesser quality, and when is insufficient when the material admits, however, of inquiry. the place statements have taken positive and social are that he largely faults Wellhausen's ignores tends in the text of courses and the discussion economic factors, His or narrative. to disturb the flow of the argument of version concentration on the Arabs led to his, long accepted, revolution. Iranianism over the Arabs in the "Abbasid triumphing of the As he wrote, over with the rule was decidedly all 'it vanished'. Arab and non-Arab between Arabs -- the distinction These were later modified statements historians, by other work has had considerable Wellhausen's influence, although from him in almost who quoted on C.Brockelmann literally notably Shaban confirms his Geschichte V5lker (1939). der islamischen


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that his a reaction There


directly it. against








other to early did develop, Islamic however, approaches the under influences of the new in the twentieth century history of Weber, Comte and Durkheim. and of the theories sciences social and dynastic rivalries were no In such works national struggles was to and more attention economic main the themes, paid longer warfare. Three even to class and social upheaval, change new approach, for this were historians chiefly responsible men with different L.Caetani and V.Barthold, C.H.Becker, namely to Islamic but with a similar history. approach backgrounds the proposition the that advanced in a number of studies, Becker, the reason for the new religion of Islam was not in itself was the fundamental cause of the Arab empire. formation Rather, directed for -- the hunger of the Arab tribesmen economic as its He and using slogan. religion political purposes as in economic to Islam also conversion terms, largely explained taxation. the ruling to join the desire group and to escape of Muhammad as a statesman, drew a picture Caetani stressing Islamic rather in early factors and economic history political laid the Russian than religious. scholar, Barthold, similarly accused and economic on social stress by Soviet factors, being falsification in the direct of engaging scholars for his pains of history! see how he has work we shall Shaban's When we come to consider and which is political to history, an overall approach attempted But there is factors. to economic and social yet pays attention he has been As a historian to the picture. also the Muslim side Arab historical and to contemporary both to European exposed have contributed histories and to some extent European writing, or of Muslim Shaban is a Muslim own self to the Arab's image. Islam can of early of the history and the writing background, is so Islam to a Muslim. difficulties Early present particular an era of special of his religious much a part heritage, towards his attitude has to define and the historian sanctity, Guided' or the towards Rashidiin, Caliphs 'Rightly Muhammad, for in the search block can be a stumbling title (the very led which and Mu'awiya the split between towards 'Ali truth), a not to assume it is difficult that to such a deep division which organized The umma was the religious community position. There was no the faith. in order to maintain itself politically the history in writing and state. of church division Therefore, of of the the history one is writing of early 'community Islam, that its held belief There is the deeply God on earth'. early is made plain This belief Islamic were the ideal society. years that and mujaddidun, claimants of Mahdist in the messages only their can save Islamic a return to the norms of early society back to this Of course, and society. looking generation of view. the historian's can affect idealized point picture form is a ideal ever existed in this the community Whether to relevance but of great to the mujaddid, irrelevant question or existed how things to establish the historian really seeking happened. 27

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I am exaggerating the difficulties, think such is the of Islam. But there the early is surrounding years the use of -to all historians facing history danger, In early a point Islamic of view, or as propaganda. propagate or the Shi'ites, were supporters the there of the Sunnites history and so on. or the Umayyads, or the Iraqis, the Syrians 'Abbasids the fog of centuries of The Muslim historian has to try to dispel of view, his own point Shaban attempts to minimize polemics. bias. We it is possible a slight to detect although Egyptian the value must take his point of view when assessing into account -- that a self-image of his history, or what others have termed and its in has of himself, his image the historian society place the world. what he writes No historian can be totally objective; is coloured this harks For a Muslim historian by his self-image. -- the self-image back to the difficulties of mentioned already what he and his world his world but also of what he imagines are, for is or would like it to be, a reflection of his aspirations for the his This points to a further difficulty society. in an historian who is a citizen often of a developing country, to and who may be tempted ex-colonial or post-imperial situation, use history to further for example, the aims of his society; as an ideal to Islam socialist society, trying early picturing or certain establish on historical traditions foundations, The self-image nationalism. to strengthen territorial perhaps in the image the past to try to recreate may push the historian of what he wants the present and future to be, and it can when he looks into the influence him in what he wants to find for him between to his own There is a struggle being loyal past. as he finds them. convictions and to the facts (or self-image) If his in a then his work can result self-image predominates, of the objectives for in the service of history reinterpretation This then is. not history believes it lives. which his society as propaganda. but history as a message, per se, of is to the work of Shaban as The concept relevant self-image in the nationalist a role he is an Arab, an Egyptian, who played and he occasionally succumbs (but only rarely) movement, (perhaps It is, to the temptations of using history. subconsciously) of are numerous and there however, examples very easy to succumb, and polemical for political other Arab writers using history addressed An article in Majallat al-Azhar, purposes. by Ahmad or Nasser, Hassan 'Abd al-Nasir, is to Jamal al-Zayyat Ideal'. of the Traditional 'The Survival entitled significantly The author in which out three golden ages of Arab history singled of those civilization flourished and life namely progressed, Harun al-Rashid and of II in Cordova, in Baghdad, of al-Hakam in Cairo. a period of decline until al-4Aziz There then followed a fourth an age in age was inaugurated golden by 'Abd al-Nasir, Other ages had which the principles of Islam were applied. but not believed in them; or had these understood principles to history believed in them, but not applied This approach them. of writing under the influence is an extreme by al-Zayyat sample of a self-image. sanctity another

I do not


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as a series Islamic of sees (Mones) history to show that at pains the and is therefore episodes and from the from the Rashidun, different Umayyads were totally he did Mu'nis used this because and so on. 'Abbasids, approach If to an Arab-Islamic a commitment not want to emphasize past. then a developing with the past, there were no ties country models. Mu'nis could make a new start, by different inspired individual wished to stress identity. Egypt's al-Husri Sati4 historian The Arab nationalist naturally opposed in the Arab-Muslim this He found a historical view. continuity had to take the future who shaped those world of which he believed but rather as an as an Egyptian, He was not writing account. the path the ideas about who had clear of Turkish outsider origin follow. should Arab world Husayn unconnected Mu'nis as a means of who use history of those Taha Husayn wrote only this was an that and recognized ancestors their glorifying of a newly in the development inevitable almost independent phase in the it lacks to it of past -- the attribution glories country are al-Hakim such as al-'Aqqad, Writers Tawfiq Haykal, present. for specific but writers not really historians, history using that the hamish Taha Husayn admitted (In .Ala al-sira, purposes. had -'it or historians for scholars work had not been written most clearly In Husayn's to do with history'.). nothing to remove history he attempted al-Fitna historical al-kubra, work, to and of religious from the arena identify partisanship rather than to lay the blame on circumstances impersonal to he was able as a creative men. writer, misguided Perhaps, a strict and not look through into events imaginatively penetrate He wrote about use of them. and a critical on sources reliance of interit from the causes to remove the fitna in an effort of the ideal the uniqueness and to demonstrate Muslim dispute than the was more important To him this order. Islamic facts. elucidation of dubious has to come to terms Islamic Arab Muslim history writing Any In addition, that Shaban no less with these any other. problems, the Muslim outside that he is writing the fact he has to face to correct that he is writing world and he admits specifically his work 'A New He sub-titled Wellhausen. and supplement the same sources he is using because basically Interpretation', and have used, and writers as other historians Tabari) (largely that sources of these the interpretation it is therefore only to in earlier What he objects can be new or different. European or missionary colonialist their is what he terms historians of on the basis events In his view they explained mentality. He conflicts. or irrational tribal personal jealousies imaginary as of the Arabs in history claims that they saw the actions delusions. or fanatical hatred on personal based whimsical, human with the normal Shaban wishes to see the Arabs as people were The Arab statesmen to new circumstances. to adapt capacity of their with the success concerned leaders primarily responsible the Arab mentality to understand to be able He claims policies. of these behaviour The political better than an outsider.


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must be understood of policy as logical leaders and the changes of their in the pursuit (Is his objectives steps self-image to such an approach I think to one cannot here?). showing object attention to the even if it errs in paying too little history, of man's behaviour, or otherwise. irrational side political is solidly based on the Islamic Shaban's sources method, then, in the compilers' He has grounded himself thoroughly only. style, in their and brief use of words, remarks. in the use of hints of certain Care has been taken the precise to ascertain usage the compilers' terms and phrases. Once having established point of view, he tries or to understand what they are saying directly, It is this to mention. or what they have omitted at, hinting that rather than any him his approach to Islamic gives history The dangers in the approach, or framework. preconceived theory a certain esoteric are clear. The author can claim however, detailed who have made a similar shared knowledge by those only of the sources. can be founded Whole trends study upon the It can lead of a single word (e.g. the qurra'). interpretation to dogmatism as firm which can only be and to stating conclusions informed There are also too many dogmatic a little guesses. -qualifications 'irrevocable', 'ludicrously impractical', On the other and 'hopelessly 'inevitable', hand, unprepared'. the book. and no does have a refreshing note of authority, without held notion is accepted for example question; previously and 'Uthman. of Siffin, the.interpretations jizya, as that Islamic Shaban sees the main problem of early history of the rapid new territory, of the Arabs into an expansion of establishing which a on them the necessity expansion imposed new political of assimilation. and of facing the problem system He believes the that have severely underrated earlier historians a capacity of the Arabs to adapt to new circumstances, capacity as the Bedouin than that of some other perhaps peoples greater of the desert. Arabs had had to adapt conditions to the harsh it is possible to point to some under topic Briefly, headings, of what is new in Shaban's work. 1. Pre-Islamic Arabia; Muhammad

to the of Islam Watt in the Cambridge History points Montgomery in understanding the reader difficulties for the Western 'grave are no less for the Muslim, historical role of Muhammad'. These and they have already Watt in the Cambridge been touched upon. in Muhammad's life. factor no stress on the economic History lays Shaban accepts the secular but stresses Muhammad as a prophet, -- that side of his career and especially the economic background of trade in which Arabia between Sassanians and the Byzantium an important were interested in The Byzantines played part. with the Meccans to guarantee the flow of in order treating trade. to think of Mecca in As Shaban wrote: 'It is impossible -- the shrines, terms other than trade'. sacred months, Religion and so on -- was inseparable Muhammad's from trade. Hashim, of international had established a system great-grandfather, trade This was which had led to the dominance of the Quraysh.


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a situation which was thereby creating by other groups, to disaster for Mecca and its trade. leading Only Muhammad a solution, of the Quraysh to some extent that suggested sharing wealth and power. further their This caused resentment among the and Muhammad was saved an invitation from Quraysh, by accepting the Medinans who wanted to use his expertise in commerce. Trade with Muhammad's enemies. was the reason for the Jews' The siding Arabs turned to raiding the Mecca/Medina which during disputes, then led them unintentionally of an empire. to the acquiring resented What but the members as this, forms. He took 2. Muhammad achieve? Not the creation of a new religion, the of of application principles cooperation among all of the new urma. There was nothing novel in inherently it was Arab, based on Arab traditions and shaped in Arab nor unite Muhammad did not establish a state, the Arabs. over an existing and modified it. regime did

The Rashidun

Abu Bakr emerged in 'true and because Arab tradition', of this it was designated as his successor is improbable that 'Ali by because of the Arabs''traditional reluctance Muhammad; and also Abu Bakr was to entrust young men with great responsibility,' and had no religious He leaders only one of several authority. of office but his powers were limited to had the title of Khalifa those of an Arab chief. but was following weak nor corrupt, 4Uthman was neither the more authority He tried than he was to assume wrong policies. the problem to solve of Kufa and He failed to possess. supposed down the distinction its and he disastrously broke domains, Shaban attempts, tribesmen. between and pre-ridda ridda fairly as ordinary men trying to to show all four Rashidun successfully, The of with sometimes swiftness cope insuperable problems. left them unprepared for empire. expansion 3. Siffin

a much clearer Shaban presents of the supporters of 'Ali picture and shows why his support the disintegrated. By comparing Bernard Lewis and the studies of Wellhausen, Brockelmann, are gradually it becomes clear how they History Cambridge that Shaban's (One should however, note, analysis. approaching his analysis has been disputed by M.Hinds.) 4. Social/Tribal Background of Islamic Shaban shows how most of the early history problems but through or politics arose not through per se, personalities Arab tribal of assimilation, of fitting the difficulties society The amsar, caused a new framework. into Kufa, especially and of discontent and it became a focus troubles, continuing The for of assimilation became 4Ali. problems support in Merv, and eventually led to in Khurasan, acute particularly revolt. the 4Abbasid 5. Here Economics Shaban pays continuous attention to the economic factors in


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-- to the division of booty, to salaries, Islamic early history to taxation. arose Once again, troubles the Arabs amongst when the late-comers received treatment with themselves, equal tribesmen who had fought from the start. those He also attempts to clear of jizya and kharaj -- poll-tax and up the problems land tax. 6. Politics

The main political of establishing was that government problem and leadership. two political trends -Shaban distinguishes the Arab and the Islamic. as expressed The Arab solution, by was to increase of the amir the secular 'Uthman, powers as an Arab chief, and the al-mu'minin favouring segregation The Islamic solution was of the Arabs. continuing supremacy first of giving the amir both advocated and was that by 'Ali the towards and secular religious power and of tending assimilation of non-Arabs. -- in favour of segregation The Arab solution and prevailed of the Arabs remaining outside structure the social of the Arabs agreed with this Not all solution conquered populations. and disagreement led to inter-Arab over the attitude to quarrels be adopted towards non-Arabs. The Arabs did not establish institutions to cope with the political situation,and they were therefore a coalition of Arabs unable to resist the 'Abbasids, and non-Arabs the Islamic solution. favouring Shaban set out to re-interpret Islamic to view early history, Arab leaders as ordinary men placed in an extraordinary to clear and of hagiography situation, away the mists To me, the leaders come out more clearly now as partisanship. to their and men, human beings, backgrounds reacting according but never towards solutions, personalities, really groping all. One may disagree with individual solving interpretations and emphases but overall I find and it a stimulating all controversial and,like intellectually study, satisfying has aroused and research, for example further works,it study the articles of Juynboll and Hinds. Notes 1. Cf. R.Owen, Journal of Interdisciplinary 4, ii History, and (1973), Orientalism, E.Said, pp.287-98 pp.302-305. This criticism to heart: U.P. has has been taken Cambridge review critical which commissioned a new version. (A highly and which merits out serious in scholarship defects points mention is that here because it is apt to escape attention, XVII in the Journal of Semitic Studies, by J.D.Latham (1972), pp.294-300). 2. 'Islam and the Philosophers of History', Middle A.Hourani, East Studies, 3 (1966-7), pp.206-68. 3. 'Islam M.M.Badawi, of Arabic Literature, in modern Egyptian Literature', 2 (1971), pp.154-77. Journal


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