Brief notes on the changes in the Arabic historiographical tradition in the 11th and 12th centuries


With the formation of a large number of local dynasties in all parts of the Islamic world a new trend in the form of dynastic history writing emerged. This trend more pronounced from 11th century onward supplements the traditional historiography which continued during the period.

This introduced a personal element in history writing as the rulers began to engage and patronize historians to write the history of their dynasty as per their wishes exaggerating their achievements. Now history became a work of artifice full of rhetoric and an involved style replaced simple narrative. This style was popularized by Tarikh al-Yamini, composed by Al-Utbi (died in 1035) in writing the history of Subuktigin and Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna.

The writers of such accounts may not be guilty of deliberately distorting facts but their style showing servility and lack of any critical analysis places their work in the category of poor history. These works are in no case be regarded as representative of Islamic History of the classical period which had been patiently built up as a science by the early generations of Muslim scholars.


One significant point to be taken note of is that the subject matter of such historical writings, produced under the patronage of the Sultans is more political than politico- religious. The element of religion is brought in them only for a specific purpose as and when required. More often it finds a place only when the patronage extended by a Sultan to the Ulama (religious divines) is to be highlighted or when the Sultan’s God fearing nature and religiosity are to be praised.

This at times led to the growth of a historiography both in Arabic and Persian from the eleventh century to glorify the actions of Sultans for the cause of Islam. It was at this unfavorable juncture that historical works began to be written in Persian. Before passing to discuss the nature of Persian historiography a brief reference should be made to the histories of Abu Raihan al-Biruni (died in 1048) and lzuddin Ibn al-Asir (died in 1293).

Al-Biruni applied mathematical and astronomical science to the determination of chronology in his Asar al-Baqia, while Ibn al-Asir’s history marks the re-emergence of the scholar-historian alongside the official historian. Ibn al-Asir’s history, called Al-Kamil is remarkable for its compiler’s attempt to give less static presentation of history, by means of grouping the events into episodes within an annalistic framework.

The elegance and vivacity of his work acquired for it almost immediate celebrity, and it became the standard source for later compilers. It is also worth-mentioning that in his account of the ruling dynasties outside Arab lands, Ibn al-Asir incorporates popular tales which were devoid of historical basis. Lastly, mention should be made of the world famous historian, Ibn Khaldun (died in 1406).


As a chronicler his work is sometimes disappointing. He is however, held in high esteem as a historical philosopher. His Muqadima (an introduction to history) is a treatise on the philosophy of history. It has been rendered in different modern languages for its importance.

It is a pity that, in spite of the brilliant school of Egyptian historians in the following centuries and the vigorous cultivation of history in Ottoman Turkey (where a translation of Muqadima was made in the 18th century), no historian was influenced by his philosophy. There is no indication that the principles which he put forward were even studied, much less applied, by any of his successors.

As for the significance of Ibn Khaldun’s Muqadima, the sociological aspects of his historical theory, described therein are important. The originality of his Muqadima is to be found in his objective analysis of the political, social and economic factors underlying the establishment of political units and the evolution of the state. It may also be mentioned that the materials on which his analysis rests were derived partly from his own experience and partly also from historical sources relating to the history of Islam.

The difference between him and his predecessors is that the latter begin from the global conception of human society; where as he (Ibn Khaldun) begins from a dynamic conception of human association. His principles are not theocentric, and his views on causality and natural law in history are in blunt opposition to the Muslim theological view. He treats religion as no more than one factor, however important it may be.


According to him, the law of the state may be derived from religion, but the state abstracts itself in practice from the whole compass of its validity and follows its own aims. The state exists for the protection of people and ensuring the order in the kingdom. It may also be added that he was not an irreligious man. He was a devout Muslim.

However, in propounding his theory, Ibn Khaldum tries to reconcile the ideal demands of the Sharia (Islamic law) with the facts of history. He believes that economic development and prosperity can be achieved if the ordinance of the Sharia is observed. To him the caliphate in Islam was an ideal state.

He discusses in detail the organization associated with the caliphate. He explains in the course of discussion the gradual transformation of the caliphate into an ordinary kingship due to the force of asabiya (love of kindred) during the later Umayyad period, the later Ummayyad caliphs had their family members regain ascendancy over the religious enthusiasm. In short it is his Muqdima that lifts him to the rank of a great philosopher of history.

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