Distinctive features of Muslim history—l

Distinctive features of Muslim history—l


n the Muslim epistemology, the knowledge of the past is referred to as tarikh, which is derived from the Arabic word arkh. Generally, tarikh has two meanings, a day or date, an era or epoch and a chronicle and a book of annals. As a branch of knowledge, tarikh had a distinctive character. Its trajectory of evolution, too, was markedly different from other sciences.

I have brought this fact into a sharper focus in one of my previous columns. In this write up, I aim at unraveling the discipline of tarikh by bringing out its sub-disciplinary branches (or sub-genre), most of which had Arabic antecedents. Tabaqat, siyar and futuh are some of the sub-genres.

Tabaqat is a genre of Islamic biographical literature organised by the century in which notable individuals, such as scholars and poets, lived. Each century or generation is referred to as a abaqah, the plural being abaq t. These writings chronicle the history of a specific tradition of religious affiliation or scholarship, following a chronological structure that spans from an authoritative starting point to the generation immediately preceding the author.

The Tabaqat literature originated in the late Eighth and Ninth Centuries. Another account suggests that the abaq t format gained popularity during the early period of hadith transmitter critics, as part of the effort to identify, classify and evaluate transmitters in the discipline known as ilm al-rij l.

These works served as tools for muhaddiths (the compilers of the traditions of the prophet (peace be upon him)) in their efforts to classify hadith transmitters and assess the quality of particular asnad (the plural of sanad). The asnad system, used to authenticate the memory of the prophetic period, required righteous, honest and competent transmitters in each generation.

Biographical entries in abaq t literature typically provide evaluations of the personal, religious and intellectual qualities of their subjects. Tabaqat-i-Nasiri by Minhaj-us Siraj is an evident elucidation of this sub-genre.

Siyar is the plural of the noun sira, which literally means path or way of walking. In its singular form, sira refers to an individual’s life or biography, focusing particularly on their conduct. In Islamic traditions, siyar is a discipline of Islamic law that addresses issues related to the law of war and international relations, describing the interactions between Muslim states and communities of both believers and non-believers.

The term siyar dates back to the late Umayyad period, when it referred to the “position of the school or sect” or “opinion” on a creedal or political question. This genre was well known among Islamic groups that opposed the Umayyads, such as the Muhakkimah, Zaydis, Murji’ites and Ibadis.

Most of the siyar convey the perspective of a particular school of thought and consist of homilies and epistles addressed to the community of believers. These epistles, read aloud by preachers, outline what should or should not be believed and what actions should or should not be taken.

The exhortations at the beginning of the siyar are relatively lengthy and reflect the social context of their time. The siyar that have been reviewed and edited so far are mostly from the Basra period, primarily written in Iraq. Some were produced during the “regional period,” which refers to works created outside Iraq.

Mustafa Darir’s Siyar-i Nabi (The Life of the Prophet) produced in the Topkapi Palace atelier in 1003 AH/ 1594-1595 AD is a prominent illustration of this sub-genre.

Sawaneh is an Arabic word in its plural form, the singular being saniha, meaning event, incident or accident. The sawaneh genre is a relatively recent addition to South Asian Muslim historiography. It gained popularity when Urdu became a significant medium for recording history, particularly after writers like Maulvi Zakaullah and Shibli Naumani began writing historical accounts in Urdu in the second half of the 19th Century.

Abul Kalam Azad’s Tazkara is also a notable work that contributed to the establishment of sawaneh nigari as a preferred method of historical writing. In the literature pertaining to religious history in South Asia, sawaneh is deployed with recurring frequency.

In Urdu, sawaneh has broadened its meaning to include biography, often used in the compound phrase sawaneh-i-hayat, which translates to “life events.” For example, Sawaneh Maulana Rum (Rumi) refers to the detailed account of the significant events and incidents in the life of the famous mystic and poet. Similarly, Sawaneh-i-Hayat of Quaid-i-Azam chronicles the pivotal moments and experiences in the life of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. This usage illustrates how sawaneh can provide comprehensive insights into the personal and public lives of notable individuals.

The term tuzk, also transcribed as tuzuk, is a Persian word referring to the diary of a king. This term is associated with several significant autobiographies, including Tuzk-i-Taimuri, the supposed autobiography of Timur; Tuzk-i-Babri, the autobiography of Babur; and Tuzk-i-Jahangiri, the autobiography of Jahangir.

These works provide a detailed account of the reigns, personal experiences and reflections of these historical figures. For instance, Tuzk-i-Babri offers insights into Babur’s thoughts and conquests as he established the Mughal Empire in India. Tuzk-i-Jahangiri, on the other hand, reveals Emperor Jahangir’s views on governance, his artistic inclinations and the intricacies of court life during his rule. These diaries not only document historical events but also offer a glimpse into the personal lives and philosophies of these rulers.

In classical Islamic literature, the term fut refers to the early Arab-Muslim conquests of Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia, which facilitated the spread of Islam and Islamic civilisation. Derived from the Arabic word fat , meaning “opening” or “liberation,” fut conveys a positive bias towards these conquests, suggesting their beneficence and legitimacy.

Historian Bernard Lewis elucidates this concept in classical Islamic thought, stating that these conquests were not viewed as mere territorial acquisitions but as the overthrow of impious regimes and illegitimate hierarchies. The term implies the “opening” of these regions’ peoples to new revelations and dispensations.

This usage is akin to the 20th-Century use of the verb “liberate” and is sometimes replaced by the verb arrara in modern Arabic writings on early Islamic history. In contrast, the Arabic verb ghalaba, (that also is used in Urdu) meaning “conquer,” with its implication of overwhelming force, is used sparingly and primarily in the context of actual military operations.

The notion underpinning this terminology is the perceived essential rightfulness or legitimacy of the Muslim advance, coupled with the illegitimacy of Muslim retreat before infidel conquest. Hence, the expansion of Muslim power is seen as an opening or liberation, providing scope for a divinely implanted propensity.

Many historical accounts from the classical period of Islamic civilisation that focus on these early conquests include fut in their titles and are considered part of a distinct genre known as fut literature. These fut reports are a blend of various genres and materials, including administrative, religio-legal, philosophical, and edificatory content.

A common feature of the genre is the depiction of an opposing ambassador’s first impression of the Arab army, often highlighting the primitive virtues of early Muslim warriors and implicitly criticising the luxury and over-refinement of the author’s own era.

Notable examples of fut literature include:

Fut Misr (Conquests of Egypt) by Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam

Fut al-Sham (Conquests of Syria) by al-Azdi

Fut al-Iraq (Conquests of Iraq) by al-Waqidi

Fut al-Habasa (Conquests of Abyssinia) by Sihab ad-Din Ahmad ibn Abd-al-Qadir

Futuh al-Buldan (Conquests of the Lands) by Al-Baladhuri

These works provide invaluable insights into the early expansion of the Muslim world and the ideological and cultural underpinnings of these historic conquests.

(To be continued)

The writer is a professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

Distinctive features of Muslim history—l