Were Early Islamic Historians the First to Embrace Post-Modernism?


Lesley Hazleton's most recent book is After the Prophet:  the Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam (Doubleday, 2009)

    I love early Islamic historians. They're much more fun to read than modern ones.  Long before the self-congratulatory concept of modernism, they were the first post-moderns. 

    Reading them, you immerse yourself in multiple realities, each one as persuasive as the next.  It's like sitting in the middle of a vast Middle Eastern grapevine, a dense network of intimate seventh-century knowledge defying the limitations of space and time. 

    This is oral history recorded, and it has the vividness of the spoken voice, often in shockingly vivid language.  It's not at all what one expects from conventional history, let alone from religious piety.  You can almost hear the inflection in people's voices and see their gestures as they speak.  Their accounts have the smack of vitality, of real people living in tumultuous times, and they evoke very human reactions.  You find yourself laughing or gasping in surprise, saying things like "He said what?" and "She didn't...!" 

     Mere gossip, charge some modern critics.  These are not contemporary accounts, the complaint runs.  They were written long after Muhammad's lifetime -- the best known, Ibn Ishaq's biography of Muhammad, some 150 years later.  They're distorted by faith and piety, more on the level of legends than factual reports.  They're intrinsically unreliable.  

     There's a certain sneer in the tone of such criticism -- one you rarely find when it comes to notoriously unreliable "fathers of history" such as Herodotus and Josephus.  It seems odd that historians should demand that history be written on the spot (isn't that the job of journalism?).  And odder still that these same critics seem unaware that early Islamic historians openly acknowledged the problems of writing oral history.  In fact they turned these problems into part of their method.

     None did this better than al-Tabari (Abu Jafar Muhammad Ibn Tarir Al-Tabari in full, though al-Tabari will do just fine).  In the late 9th century, he traveled throughout the Muslim empire to interview descendants of major figures of the past, recording their memories to compile a vast history of Islam up to his own time. 

    He wasn't looking for a single source of truth.  On the contrary, the more the better.  As he saw it, realities are multiple, so that the closest one might come to objectivity would be in the aggregate.  Al-Tabari worked with the clear understanding that human truth is always flawed.  

    He saw the problems of eyewitness accounts as clearly as any modern police investigator.  He knew how malleable memory can be -- knew that it's always subject to the human need to make narrative sense, or to the censorship of faith and desire, or to the pressure of received opinion.  And he realized how such pressures could alter memory as it was passed down from one generation to the next.  So like Ibn Ishaq and others before him, he established the chain of communication of each account he recorded -- basically, its provenance. 

    The isnad, they called it, given up front by prefacing each speaker's words in the manner of "I was told this by C, who was told it by B, who was told it by A who was there when it happened."   Follow the chain, and you follow how history is communicated and established, from one person to the next. 

    One source may remember the general gist of an event.  Another quotes the principals involved, often in extraordinarily down-to-earth speech.  Yet another might focus on very specific details, even something as minor as a broken sandal strap on a young man going out to die in single combat.  

    Some accounts exaggerate -- impossible feats of battlefield valor, for example -- while others are clearly worked over, their language ornate and heavy with piety.  But most have the cadence and feel of fact, not fiction.  They're not cleaned up as fiction is.  They have that messy, human haphazardness that speaks very much of real life.

     Western readers used to tight structure and a clear authorial point of view might feel lost until they realize that the medieval history they are reading is in fact post-modern.  The same event or conversation may be told from a dozen different points of view, making the narrative thread weave back and forth in time.  The multiple versions overlap and diverge, each one opening out in another direction, each one claiming equal validity.  Is there a single truth here?  Is a single truth possible?  Al-Tabari would say not.

     He combined his oral sources with written ones whenever he could.  In a way, he was too successful.  His own work soon superseded earlier histories, many of which were no longer copied or saved.,  His detailed account of what happened at Karbala in the year 680, for example -- the massacre of Muhammad's grandson Hussein and nearly all the male members of his family, which sent shock waves throughout the Muslim empire and would become the crystallizing event of the Shia-Sunni split -- drew heavily on a book written by a local Iraqi historian just fifty years after Karbala, a debt al-Tabari fully acknowledged.   

     "In everything which I mention herein," he wrote in the introduction to his huge history, "I rely only on established [written] reports, which I identify, and on [oral] accounts, which I ascribe by name to their transmitters....  Knowledge is only obtained by the statements of reporters and transmitters, not by rational deduction or by intuitive inference." 

     Is this a historian throwing up his hands in helplessness, or intellectual honesty?  An abandonment of the historian's role, or an acknowledgment of the complex and human ways in which "what happened" becomes history?  Is it an inability or unwillingness to delve deeper and establish the facts, or a challenge to the idea of fact as provable only by physical evidence?  (And if no physical evidence is possible?  When Hussein was killed, for example, Karbala did not exist.  Today's holy city was just a desolate stretch of stony sand which was named -- "the place of trial and tribulation" -- only after the massacre.)   

     What, in short, constitutes fact?  And perhaps the most uncomfortable question of all these days:  If al-Tabari were relating any history other than Islamic, would his modern critics in the West value his work more? 

     They should.  Al-Tabari gives us the vibrant stuff of what Clifford Geertz called "thick description" -- living, breathing history that defies academic boundaries, reaching out into sociology and anthropology, psychology and political science.  Dismiss such work as unreliable and history risks being reduced to the unthinking recitation of established fact.

     And what exactly is "established fact"?  Read Christopher Beckwith on "the Barbarians" in his new book Empires of the Silk Road, and you'll see how the very idea may be an oxymoron.  What is "established" may simply be what we are willing to believe -- a reflection not of fact, but of modern biases and stereotypes.

     Single realities make the world simpler.  But as al-Tabari knew, multiple realities are what make it human. 


-- Al-Tabari's "History of the Prophets and Kings" (Ta'rikh al-rusul wa'l muluk)  is available in English as The History of Al-Tabari,  edited by Ehsan Yar-Shater, in thirty-nine volumes (State University of New York Press, 1985-99).

-- Ibn Ishaq's "Story of the Messenger of God" (Sirat Rasul Allah) is available in English as The Life of Muhammad, translated by A. Guillaume (Oxford University Press, 1955).


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Anthony Heffron - 11/30/2009

Tabari has in no way been undervalued by modern scholars of early Islamic history (He is the Herodotus of early Islamic history!). The past 150 years of scholarship on the field has been practically a recapitulation of his historical chronicles (why else would 39 volumes be translated into English).

I feel that the recent source critical approach to Tabari (which I believe you are referring to) and our other early sources (Baladhuri, Athir, Waqidi, etc) is essential in the historian's attempt to keep searching for that ever so elusive kernel of truth. Furthermore, the increasing "criticism" of Tabari's chronicles is a natural result of more and more early material finally being edited and published in the Arab world (ie. Ibn Asakir's History of Damascus, 80 vol.), which allows modern scholars to contrast Tabari's works with other chronicles from the period.