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What were the characteristics of Arabic tradition of history writing?

 Question - What were the characteristics of the Arabic tradition of history writing?

Answer - Arabic was the language of the Islamic world so the earliest available historical writings of the period were written in Arabic. K.A. Nizami rightly puts it, that ‘The Arab tradition …cherished democratic ideals and treated history as a biography of nations.’ Thus their narratives not just revolve around the story of the rulers, political happenings and camps; instead they speak of the life of the common man. Arabic historic tradition encompasses the socio-economic, cultural, religious, along with the political and military events thus was more democratic in approach. Arabic history tradition can truly be referred to as history of the ‘age’. The ‘chain of narrators’ (isnad) was another important feature of the Arabic historiography. To pen down the Holy Quran in its pristine form, the collected oral traditions required to be critically sifted to arrive at the ‘most pious Truth’. The need for this validation and a deep desire to present the ‘Truth and the only Truth’ the tradition of isnad evolved and got invented. In this context AlBaladuri’s (d. 892) Futuh-ul Buldan is classical in this context. Baladuri narrates every event ‘with reference to the chain of narrators and every reliable sources’ (Siddiqui 2014: 3). With Al-Masudi (d. 956-57) a new dimension of adding history with geography got introduced. Masudi, himself was a great traveller who even visited India and Sri Lanka, while penning down his work he added his own travel experiences and geographical knowledge on various regions; thus making geographical environment a vital component at the backdrop of history, correlating the geographical facts with human historical developments; applying ‘cause and effect’ thus adding ‘interpretation’ which is an important component of scientific history. In the eleventh century another dimension got added to Arabic historiography that officers and scholars associated with the court began writing the histories of their rulers, events. This drastically changed the tone and form of Arabic history writing; it added the component of personal biases, jealousies, likes and dislikes of the ruling aristocracy and centre started tilting towards ‘court’ politics and elites than on common men which is clearly reflected in the writings of Al-Musabbihi (d. 1029; on history of Egypt) and Al-Qurtubi (d.1076-77; history of Andulasia [Spain]). Gradually with royal patronage, Arabic histories also became more and more tilted towards dynastic histories, eulogising their patrons’ deeds paving way to another element, rhetoric. This is especially evident in the writings of Al-Utbi (d. 1035) in his Tarikh-i Yamini dealing with Subuktigin and Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna. However, Al-Biruni, who was also associated with the court, nonetheless followed the old classic Arabic tradition of history writing. In the Arab context Ibn Khaldun’s (d. 1404) Muqaddimah conceives dynamism of the human society, human associations (ijtima) with emphasis on causality. He attributes the spirit of solidarity (asbiya) of the clan as the chief factor behind the strength of the rulers/dynasties. Persian historiography narrowed down the scope of history and centered around political history and life of the rulers and nobility than a socio-religious history of the age. Thus, Persian histories were ‘dynastic histories’; histories of the ‘kings’ and ‘aristocracy’. Persian historians preferred to dedicate their work to the ruler considering necessary to ‘enhance the value of their work’. Minhaj-i Siraj Juzjani dedicated his Tabaqat-i Nasiri to Nasiruddin Mahmud, Ziauddin Barani dedicated his Tarikh-i Firuzshahi to Firuz Shah Tughlaq, Arif Qandahari dedicated Tarikh-i Alfi to Akbar. Similarly, Mu’tamad Khan dedicated his Iqbalnama-i Jahangiri to Jahangir. Persian histories largely lack the discussions on literati, scholars and saints and their mention is made generally in the context of rulers. Minhaj’s period was vibrant in sufi activities of great Chishti and Suhrawardi saints (Muinuddin Chishti, Bakhtiyar Kaki, Hamiduddin Nagori); but, they are largely missing from his narrative. However, though Barani’s history also fell largely in Persian historiographic tradition, in his writings a subtle change is evident. He does mention scholars and sufis, though occasionally. While depicting court life mention is made of musician-dancers Nusrat Bibi, Mihr Afroz; similarly though he looked down upon low born, in that process he mentions about them reaching the highest position – Ladha, the gardener, Babu Nayak, the weaver, Manka, the cook. Abul Fazl further radically modified and combined in his writings both the Arabic and Persian styles of history writings. Later, generally all historians started including the narratives of scholars and literati and the sufis along with their political narratives. The Arabic historic tradition remained prominent till the tenth century; Persian renaissance under Firdausi and later under Sheikh Sa’di gradually took over the Arabic tradition of history writing. No sooner Persian had taken over Arabic and became the vehicle of communication and those of the Sultans and the nobles and the literati. In India it was the Persian historic tradition that dominated the Persian writings. Chachnama that focuses on Muhammad bin Qasim’s India (particularly Sindh) was written in Arabic style. Hasan Nizami, when asked to compose in Persian (Taj-ul Ma’asir) felt disappointed for he considered Arabic as the only proper language to write.

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