Formative Years of Islamic History

Isabel Toral-Niehoff on Tobias Andersson

The emergence of Arabic history-writing in early Islam is a complex phenomenon. On the one hand, it drew on the human impulses of remembering and commemorating the past and on the social practice of constructing and imagining a community with the help of meaningful narratives. On the other hand, these historiographic tendencies were culturally inflected, with history-writing in the Arabic world specifically dedicated to a concern for the life of the Prophet and the emergence of the umma [the Muslim community] and to providing guidance on moral, religious, and political principles. Depending on their scope, these narratives had different points of reference – either the diverse Arab tribes, or the pre-Islamic empires that were considered as predecessors to the Islamic umma, or the umma itself, the Prophet and his community. In terms of textual traditions, one will have to assume a combination of autochthonous Arabic models of oral history and the influence of chronographic writing from Late Antiquity. 

Tobias Andersson presents a historiographical study of the oldest Islamic chronological history still extant, the Chronicle (Tarikh) of Khalifa b. Khayyat (d. 854 AD). Khayyat was a hadith scholar and historian who lived and worked in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, which was one of the main centers of learning in the Islamic world at the time. The Chronicle is significant since it allows a unique glimpse of the formative years of Muslim historiography and was compiled before the development of the master narratives of Islamic history in the early tenth century. Furthermore, the Chronicle features a peculiar structure and selection of topics that indicates a significant interaction between the study of hadith [reports of the prophet’s words and deeds], akhbar [early collections of historical notices], and tabaqat [biographical dictionaries of transmitters]. Thereby, it reflects a hadith-centred, early Sunni compilation of Islamic history.

By the term “early Sunni”, Andersson refers to those scholarly groups of the early ninth century that were characterized by a hadith transmission and text-based approach to Islamic law and belief. This belief was in addition to a firm commitment to the collective authority of the Prophet’s Companions and the special merit of the so-called Four Rightly Guided caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali), who succeeded the Prophet as leaders of the Muslim community. These hadith scholars already used to call themselves “ahl-al-sunna” and constituted the basis of the later classical Sunni consensus of the tenth century. The monograph is divided into eight chapters. After an introduction to the subject and terminology, as well as a brief outline of the extant manuscripts, Andersson presents in the first chapter the transmission history of the text. There are two recensions, the first by the transmitter Baqi b. Makhlad (d. 889 AD), a famous Andalusian hadith scholar, and preserved in a unique manuscript dated 1084 AD. The second one, by Musa al-Tustari (d. before 900 AD), a scholar from Basra, is only preserved as scattered citations in later sources. Andersson’s book has an appendix with a translation of the fragments of the Chronicle in Tustari’s recension cited in al-Bukhari’s (d. 870 AD) canonical hadith collection. Andersson concludes that the Chronicle was most likely transmitted based on written notes of lectures heard at different times, which explains the difference between both recensions, but that Khalifa was responsible for the general form and content.

Tobias Andersson, Early Sunnī Historiography. A Study of the Tārīkh of Khalīfa b. Khayyāṭ. Leiden; Boston: Brill 2018. Series: Islamic History and civilization, volume 157. ISBN 9789004383166. 324 pp. Hardback: $160.

In the second chapter, he outlines Khalifa’s biography, education, and works. He came from a Basran family renowned for its hadith scholarship and studied under the leading Basran hadith scholars of the time; he seems to have never left his native city. He likewise taught and transmitted hadith to numerous scholars of the next generations, the most famous being the celebrated author of the Sahih, al-Bukhari. Andersson also adds a survey on the reception history until the fifteenth century, and shows that the Chronicle was quoted in a wide array of sources of diverse genres (biographical dictionaries, histories, and adab).  In al-Andalus, it was the recension of Baqi b. Makhlad that became popular, whereas in Greater Syria and Egypt, it was the recension by al-Tustari. The citations show that Khalifa was used mainly for biographical and chronological information and remembered in Sunni scholarship primarily as a reliable expert in history, genealogy and biography.  

In the third chapter, Andersson delineates the social and intellectual context in which Khalifa composed his Chronicle. He emphasizes that the Chronicle was compiled before the increasing disintegration of Abbasid political authority in the second half of the ninth century, which explains several peculiarities (“unique moment in scholarly writing”) when compared to later chronicles. Andersson also shows that Khalifa belonged to the scholarly milieu of the early Sunni Basran hadith scholars and that his work reflects interests and needs among this same audience. 

In the fourth chapter, Andersson reconstructs and meticulously analyses Khalifa’s sources, which confirm his affiliation with the Basran hadith circles. He then analyses the methods of transmission and compilation in the fifth chapter. According to Andersson, Khalifa compiled his Chronicle to outline the chronology and political-administrative history of the Muslim community as accurately as possible, based mainly on the hadith scholarly tradition. He also concludes that while Khalifa adopted certain hadith conventions (particularly the chain of transmitters – isnad), his method depended on the material transmitted. The main types of material that lack isnad are administrative lists and Khalifa’s own summaries.   

In the sixth chapter, Andersson examines the title, introduction and structure of the Chronicle. He suggests that Khalifa’s introduction serves to justify chronography as a scholarly occupation to an audience of mainly hadith scholars. In terms of structure, he outlines that Khalifa combined annalistic and caliphal chronology. He argues convincingly that the latter thereby foregrounds the continuity of the caliphate throughout the Rightly Guided caliphs, the Umayyad and Abbasid periods. The seventh and eighth chapters are dedicated to the examination of the main themes in the Chronicle, based on Fred Donner’s notion of “themes” in the Early historical tradition [Narratives of Islamic Origins, 1997]: Prophethood, Community, Hegemony, Leadership and Civil War. Khalifa’s take on these themes indicate his Basran and early Sunni perspective – particularly recognizable by his focus on the caliphal and community-centred perspective, the importance of communal unity and his idea of critical loyalty to political leaders. For instance, Khalifa smooths over the highly controversial issues of succession, avoids moral evaluations and focuses concisely on basic facts and the outcomes of the crises. Unlike earlier studies, Andersson illustrates that chronography had indeed a place in hadith circles, where it functioned as expression of the emergent sense of Sunni communal identity; it was a way to coherently present early Sunni perspectives concerning what happened in the past. As Andersson highlights in the conclusion, a more detailed study of Khalifa’s Tabaqat and that of other works of the early Sunni historical tradition would complement this contribution.

Andersson’s study is a readable, well-organized and clearly structured book, commendable for scholars interested in the early stages of Islamic historiography and the emergence of the Sunni tradition. It highlights the relevance of detailed studies of the structure, composition and selection of sources and themes for understanding the evolution of history-writing, and it shows the connectedness between historiography and the construction of collective identities. For a broader readershiper, however, the book might be a cumbersome read because of the frequent use of technical terms and concepts. 

Isabel Toral is a professor of Arabic Studies at the Free University of Berlin where she is also deputy head of the ERC project, “Kalīla and Dimna – AnonymClassic.”