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 Arabic Historical Thought In The Classical Period
  • Book Author:
Tarif Khalidi
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Historians may be informative in either of two very different ways: for what they may or may not teli us about the past or for what they tell us about thinking about the past.

 My own interests have for some years now been centred on this latter aspect of historiography – one which, where Arabic-Islamic culture is concerned, has clearly not received the attention it merits. it also seemed to me, when I began to investigate the historiographic corpus, that historians in general do not concern themselves too much with the theoretical dimensions of their work and that the epistemic canopy under which a historian normally shelters is furnished, generally speaking, by the neighbouring social sciences.

The ‘data’ or ‘events’ or ‘archive’ which historians for the most part examine come to them already refracted, most often by other historians. That process of refraction dooms most historical writing to be second-hand but is also of course compounded by the fact that historians are themselves conditioned in their manner of receiving, filtering or transmitting the past.

Accordingly, in attempting to trace the development of historical thought in the Arabic-Islamic tradition, it quickly became apparent that the net must be cast wide, to include not only the historians themselves but the various conceptual frameworks within which they operated. ünce these epistemic canopies were determined, it was also important to show how these were, in turn, implanted in social and political developments.

But even when all these problems became less obscure, there stili remained the daunting obstacle of the size of the historiographic corpus. When the full range of historical writing in classical Arabic-Islamic culture, that is to say from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries – the approximate temporal boundaries of this work – is spread before us, one is confronted with a body of writings in the order of several hundred thousand volumes.

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 Inevitably, one has to select and to hope that such selection will be a ‘fair’ sample of both the majority of bread-and-butter historians who did not systematically reflect upon the epistemic implications of their work as well as the small minority of historians who did.

Books, once begun, often take ona life of their own, as many novelists at least would confirm. This work, too, tended as it progressed to organize itself a little too neatly for my liking. it is therefore necessary to point out that this division into four dominant epistemic canopies or modes should be qualified in four important respects. in the first place, the succession of these canopies broadly reflects the order of their appearance in time.

Thus, Hadith cast its shadow over historical writing approximately from the lst-4th/7th-10th centuries, Adab from the 3rd-5th/9th-llth centuries, Hikma during the 4th-5th/10th-llth centuries and Siyasa from the 6th- 9th/12th-15th centuries. But this division does not mean that these canop­ ies were entirely separate from one another. in point of fact, they overlap but with some difference in time of first appearance. Stili less can one classify historians rigidly in accordance with this division for it is clear that many historians shelter under more than one canopy. 1 do not seek to impose such a division artificially upon ali historians.

Rather, 1 attempt to determine the epistemic framework within which they operated in order to understand the full range of their diverse historical styles and methods. in the second place, the dates suggested for the ends of each of these epistemic divisors do not of course mean that the influence of this or that canopy ended in this or that century.

They are meant only to delimit the period during which such influence reached its furthest theoretical extent. My ultimate purpose is to show how historical writing evolved in step with the expanding horizons of Arabic-lslamic culture through the attempt to understand the nature and causes of the evolutionary process itself.

In the third place, the historiography of any culture or age is subject not only to dominant currents of thought and belief but also to the dictates of political life in the widest sense of the term. in choosing purely epistemic divisors, it was not at ali my intention to ignore or downplay the manner in which the configuration of political structures and events affects the nature and purpose of historical writing. 1 have therefore attempted throughout this study to show how the sphere of politics helped to shape the historical outlook, the !ast chapter being the most explicit atteınpt in this direction.

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I have also attempted to understand the social background of the historians examined and the development of history as a craft prac­ tised by succeeding generations. it was lbn Khaldun who first recognized that the arts and sciences were not abstract entities but crafts produced by diverse periods of an ever-developing human culture (‘umran). This connection between the arts and sciences on the one hand and the marketplace on the other is an insight which intellectual history can ignore only at its peri!.

in the fourth place, it seemed to me that one important way in which a partjcular historian or group of historians could be distinguished from another lay in the manner in which their ‘inherited background’ deter­ mined their attitude to truth and falsehood. in suggesting a scheme of four major episteınic canopies or divisors,

 1 hoped to clarify the nature of that background and hence to exemplify the theoretical range of speculation on the meaning and method of history. I have little doubt that other, equally suitable, canopies might be proffered, and do not daim for mine any methodological fınality. If mine have any merit, it lies in whatever capacity they may possess to provoke further inquiry into the history of Arabic historical thought.

  • Accordingly, this study is constructed in two tiers: in each chapter I fırst examine the epistemic canopy and then turn to the historians who may be said to represerrt its most obvious indwellers.
  •  In my choice of fıgures to represent both tiers of the analysis, I was guided by no particular principle of selection other than my own estimate of their influence or typicality. However, I was determined to include more quotations from the sources than is perhaps the norm in such studies, partly because I wanted to lend the work an anthological semblance but also because the works of Arabic historians are stili very largely inaccessible to non-Arabists.

This work was begun in Oxford and fınished in Cambridge. As a Senior Research Associate at St Antony’s and with a very generous grant from the Muhammad Salam Educational Fund, I spent an initial year of reading and planning. in Cambridge, I was elected to an Overseas Visiting Scholar­ ship at St John’s, which made it possible for me to fınish the bulk of the writing.

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 To ali these institutions my gratitude is profound. Three people in particular read portions of this work or discussed its basic assumptions: Muhammad Ali Khalidi, Tamima Beyhum Daou and Basim Musallam. The first read chapter 4 and suggested basic changes in structure and argument. The second read chapter 2 and helped to clarify many of its obscurities. The friendship of the third was constantly abused to test out pet arguments or theories. No author could wish for more perspicacious critics. To ali three my debt is enormous and my thanks are whole-hearted….

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