One of the most confusing periods of Islamic history is early Islamic history. Those of us who grew up as Muslims almost certainly received a somewhat comprehensive education of the seerah. Weekend school and general reading provided a good overview of the lives and times of the four khulafah. But the era right after this is a big black box for many of us.
Much to the detriment of Muslims wanting to know their history, this particular period of Islamic history is often glossed over. One of the reasons this era is pushed aside is that it is an extremely murky period of history. Not only is the narrative a strong point of contention between Sunnis and Shi’as, it is often not well understood even by those with some formal religious education. Some people prefer to not talk about the events at all, attempting to forestall any criticism of the sahabah. An unintended consequence of this approach, however, is that many Muslims conclude that there is a cover-up and that orthodox Muslims want to hide the true events of early Islamic history.
This short series of articles will demystify early Islamic history. I’ve tried to strike a balance between giving enough information that you can properly speak about these events and not giving so much information that this becomes a book.
Part I: Historiography
When speaking about early Islamic history, a lot of time must first be spent on historiography. What are our sources? How do we know which sources are reliable? Which facts can be relied upon to construct a narrative. Many people will say that you simply choose one version of history on faith. There’s a “Sunni history” and a “Shi’a history”. The problem with this is that taking an approach on faith means suspending critical thinking skills. This is fine for those who simply want a basic understanding of history so that they can go about their daily lives. However, it is not an approach that can be taken by a historian. A new, pseudo-intellectual approach, is to say that we should take a “secular history” so that we are “un-biased”. Muslims without a firm Islamic foundation find this approach enticing even though it is fundamentally flawed.
What exactly is an “un-biased” point of view? The idea that we can write “unbiased” history by simply listing facts is an outdated concept. It was propagated by the 19th century historian Leopold Von Ranke, his wie es eigentlich gewesen or “the way it actually was”. The idea was that “facts speak for themselves” and that “objective” historical writing protects against propaganda. The actual truth is that all history is the product of subjective interpretation. The presence of facts does not mean something is objective. This concept is easier to understand if, instead of history, I give an example from the present. Just facts. I’ll let them speak for themselves:
There are many outreach programs aimed at preventing the spread of STDs via safe sex education and use of condoms. It’s helped curbed the rates of STDs amongst white people but not blacks. Nope, blacks, who make up 13.6% of the US population, still account for 50% of diagnosed cases of HIV despite targeted outreach measures in their communities. Although the importance of having a father in a child’s life is well documented, 72% of black mothers are unmarried. Many black fathers will knock up young black women and walk away, leaving them to raise the child on their own. This is so common it’s become a running joke. Education, that’s not better either. I had several black kids in my high school who laughed about going to college, they weren’t able to read at a middle school level. With affirmative action and scholarships, if they had worked even at an average level, they could have gone to college for free at a reputable institution. But nope. And even after that, well, less than 50% of black students who enter college graduate. And those who don’t turn to a life of crime. 60% of people in jail are black. This is despite making up only 13.6% of the total population.
Not a single thing I wrote above is false. All statistics are accurate and all anecdotal information is true. It is factual and nothing but facts. Yet hopefully you see it as a pile of racist trash. Why is that, if it’s only facts?
Choosing facts is itself making a subjective call. I chose to neglect mentioning the history of oppression, that blacks were counted as 3/5ths of a person at the founding of the country, the fact that chattel slavery existed in this country until a civil war was fought over the issue, that segregation was institutionalized until one generation ago, that until 1972 the US Public Health Service withheld information about the treatment of syphilis from its black research subjects in Tuskegee because they wanted to continue their human experiment, and that until the year 2000 the leading Protestant university in America had a policy against interracial relationships. When I chose to not mention those facts and mention other ones, I made a subjective call. And all history requires such calls to be made. You can not include every single fact. I don’t mean it’s boring, I mean, literally, you can not. You can’t write a book on American history by listing every single person alive in America at the time. George Washington is someone you write about. Whoever made his wigs, not so much. And there’s no end to it. Say, for argument’s sake, you begin a book on American history by writing about every person alive in America at the time. That’s still not all the facts. Who were their parents? Who influenced them to influence their children? Which people did they interact with as children?
So history is subjective. That does not mean history is false or that we can not determine the truth of something. On the contrary, we very much can. Either blacks in America are inferior to everyone else or there is a history of oppression and circumstances which have resulted in the deplorable state of affairs in the country. One of those is true.
When talking about early Islamic history, refusing to take a stance is not a sign of intellectualism or moral superiority. It is akin to saying, “Well, I’m unbiased, I’m not going to say whether blacks are inferior to whites or not. I think there’s evidence for both sides.”
I won’t go into too much detail on this issue, but am simply pointing out the problem with the assumption that there is a such thing as objective history and that such histories are better to read. That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession by Peter Novick is a good book on the subject.
I’m making it clear from the beginning that when writing this narrative, I am taking a stance that the sahabah were of upright character, that their motivations were pure, and that any disagreements between them were due to misunderstandings or differences of opinion, not hate. This is not a stance based on “faith”. Rather, it’s the only internally consistent way to view Islamic history. It is a far bigger leap of faith to believe that men and women who sacrificed everything for the Prophet ﷺ and lived a life of asceticism for decades suddenly turned traitor and became power hungry at his death.
Books of History vs Books of Hadith
One of the biggest historiographical pitfalls people make when studying Islamic history is equating narrations in books of hadith with narrations in book of history (tarikh). Although both genres are crucial to studying history, they must be approached differently. In statistics, there’s a concept of sensitivity and specificity. This is a useful model to use when thinking about hadith works vs tarikh works.
Ahadith are narrations upon which we base our religion. Our theology, our acts of worship, our understanding of right and wrong. All of these are based on ahadith. Considering the gravity of what we’re dealing with, it’s extremely important that we only use things which we absolutely know come from the Prophet ﷺ. Towards that end, we’ve developed a rigorous authentication process that is unparalleled in human history. I’ve gone into detail about that process here. So for ahadith, we have a very high specificity. We put the emphasis on rejecting false narrations. In the process, certain statements of the Prophet ﷺ which he actually did say are labeled weak or unreliable. We’re willing to make this trade-off, however, so that when we do say a hadith is reliable, we can be very certain that it is indeed originating from the Prophet ﷺ.
Now comes books of tarikh like that of ibn Ishaq and al-Tabari. To a person unfamiliar with Islamic writing, these are no different than books of hadith. Nothing could be further from the truth. These are works in a completely different genre. Ibn Ishaq and al-Tabari are not writing these books as muhaddiths (although both were muhaddiths), they’re writing them as historians.
And for history, everything changes.
When we’re examining history, sensitivity is the name of the game. We’re looking for as many narrations as possible, findings bits and pieces from every person who knows anything about an event. Here, the goal is not to ferret out false narrations. The goal is to collect all true narrations. In the process, certain narrations of history which are false are collected into these books. We’re willing to make that trade-off, however, so that true narrations are not lost to the sands of time. Later historians can attempt to discern which narrations are true and are corroborated by other sources and which contain anachronisms and logistical impossibilities and thus are likely false.
Now, people who are unfamiliar with the differences (and people who are familiar but need to push a certain agenda), will mix the two together and quote Tabari and ibn Ishaq the way people quote a hadith. Or, they may dismiss Bukhari and Muslim the way someone might dismiss a narration in Tabari and ibn Ishaq. It’s important to keep the differences in mind so that you can appreciate each set of works in their respective lights.
Bukhari and Muslim wrote their books so that everything contained within the pages are authentic. Other hadith scholars similarly applied a stringent criterion to their books and even when they included weak narrations, the isnad is present for later scholars to critique. Books of history, on the other hand, are written to collect narrations. Al-Tabari describes it eloquently in the introduction to his history book:
“Let him who examines this book of mine know that I have relied, as regards everything I mention therein which I stipulate to be described by me, solely upon what has been transmitted to me by way of reports which I cite therein and traditions which I ascribe to their narrators, to the exclusion of what may be apprehended by rational argument or deduced by the human mind, except in very few cases. This is because knowledge of the reports of men of the past and of contemporaneous news of men of the present do not reach the one who has not witnessed them nor lived in their times except through the accounts of reports and the transmission of transmitters, to the exclusion of rational deduction and mental interference. Hence, if I mention in this book a report about some men of the past which the reader or listener finds objectionable or worthy of censure because he can see no aspect of truth nor any factual substance therein, let him know that this is not to be attributed to us but to those who transmitted it to us and we have merely passed this on as it had been passed on to us”
Later, ibn Khaldun would criticize the uncritical approach historians were taking to narrations and introduced a historical-critical method to Islamic historical writings. However, the basis he worked off of is the same: that books of history contain lots of true narrations but will contain fabrications as well. Ibn Khaldun brought in additional tools to help ferret out the fabrications. A new trend in certain Islamic circles is to dismiss all narrations of history if they do not meet the rigorous standards of hadith authentication. This is a ludicrous way to study history. If we applied this standard to any other civilization’s history, we would be left with no history of any society before the modern age. No other society had a concept of an isnad that they used to preserve narrations. The entire historical field exists to solve the issue of how we can discern the truth of the past using sources of varying levels of veracity. When a hadith is sahih, we know it has happened. It is precisely in the grey zone of narrations that have a weak isnad (or no isnad at all) that a historian’s skill set comes to play. This is where the historian applies his or her craft and casts a critical eye on books which have mixed in fact with fiction. What separates a true historian from a passive transmitter of narrations is this skill.
As ibn Khaldun puts it:
The reporter merely dictates and passes on (the material). It takes critical insight to sort out the hidden truth; it takes knowledge to lay truth bare and polish it so that critical insight may be applied to it….Therefore, today, the scholar in this field needs to know the principles of politics, the (true) nature of existent things, and the differences among nations, places, and periods with regard to ways of life, character qualities, customs, sects, schools, and everything else. He further needs a comprehensive knowledge of present conditions in all these respects. He must compare similarities or differences between the present and the past (or distantly located) conditions. He must know the causes of the similarities in certain cases and of the differences in others. He must be aware of the differing origins and beginnings of (different) dynasties and religious groups, as well as of the reasons and incentives that brought them into being and the circumstances and history of the persons who supported them. His goal must be to have complete knowledge of the reasons for every happening, and to be acquainted with the origin of every event. Then, he must check transmitted information with the basic principles he knows. If it fulfills their requirements, it is sound. Otherwise, the historian must consider it as spurious and dispense with it.
A good historian must be familiar with not only historical texts but also with psychology, sociology, politics, and theology. Drawing upon facets of all these branches of knowledge, s/he can then construct a history from narrations found in books of hadith and books of tarikh. Without this skill, the historian is worse than useless. In the words of ibn Khaldun:
Thus, they presented historical information about dynasties and stories of events from the early period as mere forms without substance, blades without scabbards, as knowledge that must be considered ignorance, because it is not known what of it is extraneous and what is genuine.
With that lengthy introduction to Islamic historiography, insha’Allah next week we will begin with an overview of the immediate succession of the Prophet ﷺ.