By M Aamer Sarfraz
October 28, 2018
Islam was supposed to be a simple and practical religion. Unfortunately, it has fallen prey to similar challenges, which have marred other religions over time. The main source of angst has been how and what we have received as early Muslim history. This has confused some and detracted others; but definitely put off many from the religion itself. It presents an illustration of events and personnel, which is in sharp contrast to what is expected or is notified in the Quran. As a result, one is left wondering what to trust and what not to believe.
It is a fact that very few original sources that could shed light on early Islam are available now-a-days. Some of it is due to natural calamities, but most of it is due to multi-pronged conspiracies unleashed against Islam from the day it was promulgated. Except Quran, as verified once again by an original copy found in Birmingham Museum, not a lot of significant material seems to be available in its original form or as artefacts. The situation is so serious that some scholars in the West are now questioning the reality of Islam by insinuating that it was created retrospectively by caliph Abd al-Malik and others. Let us consider some of our second hand or indirect resources from where we have drawn our current understanding of Islam.
Muhammad bin Ishaq bin Yasar (704-767 CE) was the first to collect oral traditions that formed the basis of a biography of Prophet Muhammad (SAW). His grandfather had converted from Christianity in Kufa after being captured by Hazrat Khalid bin Walid.
He was eventually driven out of Medina after reporting Hadees from a woman he had never spoken with. He was accused of being Jewish and a closet Magian at different points in his life. He went travelling to Egypt, Iran and elsewhere before finding patronage in the court of caliph al-Mansur who commissioned him to write a comprehensive book of history – the biography of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) formed a part of that. That book was kept in the Baghdad court library but somehow disappeared.
It miraculously appeared in slightly different versions in Ibne Hisham (50 years later) and in al-Tabari’s (150 years later) works among some others. Most of his sources were reportedly fickle, Magian and Jewish. His contemporary, Imam Malik, considered Ibne Ishaq to be a liar. Imam Hanbal rejected his opinions on Jurisprudence and Imam Bukhari rarely included his Ahadees in his collection.
Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri (50-124 AH) is a central figure among the early Muslim historians and narrators of Ahadees. He is a mysterious character who was supposed to have left Medina and found employment in Damascus with the caliph Abd al-Malik and continued to serve the Umayyad rulers until his death.
When he died, Abbasid authorities buried Tabari in secret as they feared violence. Tabari has relied on other historians eg, Abu Mihnaf, Sayf bin Umar, Ibn al-Kalbi and on oral accounts circulating at the time. He wrote early history of Muslims relying mostly on Ibne Ishaq (except contriving ‘Satanic Verses’) approximately three hundred years after those events. In some accounts Tabari’s name is given as Ibn Jareer bin Rustam and in others Tabari bin Yazeed; both were historians though with the same dates of birth and death
No linked account of al-Zuhri’s life is available as there is no proof that he ever again lived in Medina. He was considered unreliable because, among other reasons, if asked anything, especially in writing, he would deliberately give three contradictory answers to the same question. He reportedly descended from the Zoroastrians who had settled in the Iraqi cities of Kufa, Basra and Baghdad after the conquest of Persia. He was the one who broached the idea of different renderings of the Quran and that some Ayats abrogate others, decorated disputes between companions of the Prophet (SAW), and narrated dubious accounts of their communal battles.
Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (839-923 CE) is the foremost historian in Islamic history. Tabari was fifty years old when al-Mu’tadid took him under his patronage. He was over seventy years old when his History of the Prophets and Kings was published in thirteen volumes. Subsequently, he was famous but a controversial character whose house was regularly pelted with stones. When he died, Abbasid authorities buried Tabari in secret as they feared violence. Tabari has relied on other historians e.g., Abu Mihnaf, Sayf bin Umar, Ibn al-Kalbi and on oral accounts circulating at the time.
He wrote early history of Muslims relying mostly on Ibne Ishaq (except contriving ‘Satanic Verses’) approx. three hundred years after those events. In some accounts Tabari’s name is given as Ibn Jareer bin Rustam and in others Tabari bin Yazeed; both were historians though with the same dates of birth and death. Tabari has literally been copied by all historians who came after him.
He writes, “I am writing this book as I hear from the narrators. If anything sounds absurd, I should not be blamed or held accountable. The responsibility of all errors or blunders rests squarely on the shoulders of those who have narrated these stories to me.” So, did Tabari write mostly from hearsay?
Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406 CE) is considered as a forerunner of modern history due to his book, the Muqaddimah. He wrote that the Muslim historians had made a mockery of history by filling it with fabrications and senseless misrepresentations. However, it was highlighted by Shah Abdul Aziz (1746-1824 CE) that six pages of Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah have been deliberately removed since the earliest times.
These pages had reportedly raised questions about the most critical juncture of Islamic history ie the Emirate of Yazeed and the incident of Karbala. Even in some modern editions, it is mentioned in the foot-notes that those pages have been inexplicably missing. Abdul Aziz has also criticised Jalaluddin al-Suyuti (1445-1505 CE) for the writing of Tareekh-ul-Khulafa as the prime example of how our historians have acted as if they were collecting firewood in the dark of the night. Al-Suyuti was about to be declared a Mujtahid of the ninth century before an uproar from the scholars and officials who questioned, among other things, how the Sufi lodge was financially sponsored.
(To be continued)
M Aamer Sarfraz is a Consultant Psychiatrist and visiting Professor.