Historiography of Early Islam

The historiography of early Islam refers to the study of the early history of Islam during the 7th century, from Muhammad’s first revelations in AD 610 until the disintegration of the Rashidun Caliphate in AD 661, and arguably throughout the 8th century and the duration of the Umayyad Caliphate, terminating in the incipient Islamic Golden Age around the beginning of the 9th century.

Primary sources

7th-century Islamic sources

  • 692 – Qur’anic Mosaic on the Dome of the Rock.
  • The Book of Sulaym ibn Qays, attributed to Sulaym ibn Qays (death 694–714). The work is an early Shia hadith collection, and it is often recognized as the earliest such collection.[1] There is a manuscript of the work dating to the 10th century.[2] Some Shia scholars are dubious about the authenticity of some features of the book,[3] and Western scholars are almost unanimously skeptical concerning the work, with most placing its initial composition in the eighth or ninth century.[4] The work is generally considered pseudepigraphic by modern scholars.[1]

7th-century non-Islamic sources

There are numerous early references to Islam in non-Islamic sources. Many have been collected in historiographer Robert G. Hoyland’s compilation Seeing Islam As Others Saw It. One of the first books to analyze these works was Hagarism authored by Michael Cook and Patricia Crone. Hagarism contends that looking at the early non-Islamic sources provides a much different picture of early Islamic history than the later Islamic sources do (some of the sources provide an account of early Islam which significantly contradicts the traditional Islamic accounts of two centuries later). The date of composition of some of the early non-Islamic sources is controversial. In 1991, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook disavowed a portion of the views that they presented in this book[5][6]

  • 634 Doctrina Iacobi
  • 636 Fragment on the Arab Conquests
  • 639 Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem
  • 640 Thomas the Presbyter
  • 640 Homily on the Child Saints of Babylon
  • 643 — 25 April PERF 558 [7]
  • 644 Coptic Apocalypse of Pseudo-Shenute
  • 648 Life of Gabriel of Qartmin
  • 650 Fredegar
  • 655 Pope Martin I
  • 659 Isho’yahb III of Adiabene
  • 660 Sebeos, Bishop of the Bagratunis
  • 660 A Chronicler of Khuzistan [1]
  • 662 Maximus the Confessor
  • 665 Benjamin I
  • 670 Arculf, a Pilgrim
  • 676 The Synod of 676
  • 680 George of Resh’aina
  • 680 The Secrets of Rabbi Simon ben Yohai
  • 680 Bundahishn
  • 681 Trophies of Damascus
  • 687 Athanasius of Balad, Patriarch of Antioch
  • 687 John bar Penkaye
  • 690 Syriac Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius
  • 692 Syriac Apocalypse of Pseudo-Ephraem
  • 694 John of Nikiu
  • 697 Anti-Jewish Polemicists


Analysis of a sandstone inscription found in 2008,[8] determined that it reads: “In the name of Allah/ I, Zuhayr, wrote (this) at the time ‘Umar died/year four/And twenty.” It is worthwhile pointing out that caliph Umar bin al-Khattāb died on the last night of the month of Dhūl-Hijjah of the year 23 AH, and was buried next day on the first day of Muharram of the new year 24 AH, corresponding to 644 CE. Thus the date mentioned in the inscription (above) conforms to the established and known date of the death of ʿUmar bin al-Khattāb.[9]

Traditional Muslim historiography

Science of biography, science of hadith, and Isnad

Muslim historical traditions first began developing from the earlier 7th century with the reconstruction of Muhammad’s life following his death. Because narratives regarding Muhammad and his companions came from various sources, it was necessary to verify which sources were more reliable. In order to evaluate these sources, various methodologies were developed, such as the “science of biography”, “science of hadith” and “Isnad” (chain of transmission). These methodologies were later applied to other historical figures in the Muslim world.

Ilm ar-Rijal (Arabic) is the “science of biography” especially as practiced in Islam, where it was first applied to the sira, the life of the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, and then the lives of the four Rightly Guided Caliphs who expanded Islamic dominance rapidly. Since validating the sayings of Muhammad is a major study (“Isnad”), accurate biography has always been of great interest to Muslim biographers, who accordingly attempted to sort out facts from accusations, bias from evidence, etc. The earliest surviving Islamic biography is Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, written in the 8th century, but known to us only from later quotes and recensions (9th–10th century).

The “science of hadith” is the process that Muslim scholars use to evaluate hadith. The classification of Hadith into Sahih (sound), Hasan (good) and Da’if (weak) was firmly established by Ali ibn al-Madini (161–234 AH). Later, al-Madini’s student Muhammad al-Bukhari (810–870) authored a collection that he believed contained only Sahih hadith, which is now known as the Sahih Bukhari. Al-Bukhari’s historical methods of testing hadiths and isnads is seen as the beginning of the method of citation and a precursor to the scientific method which was developed by later Muslim scientists. I. A. Ahmad writes:[10]

“The vagueness of ancient historians about their sources stands in stark contrast to the insistence that scholars such as Bukhari and Muslim manifested in knowing every member in a chain of transmission and examining their reliability. They published their findings, which were then subjected to additional scrutiny by future scholars for consistency with each other and the Qur’an.”

Other famous Muslim historians who studied the science of biography or science of hadith included Urwah ibn Zubayr (died 712), Wahb ibn Munabbih (died 728), Ibn Ishaq (died 761), al-Waqidi(745–822), Ibn Hisham (died 834), al-Maqrizi (1364–1442), and Ibn Hajar Asqalani (1372–1449), among others.

Historiography, cultural history, and philosophy of history

The first detailed studies on the subject of historiography itself and the first critiques on historical methods appeared in the works of the Arab Muslim historian and historiographer Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), who is regarded as the father of historiography, cultural history,[11] and the philosophy of history, especially for his historiographical writings in the Muqaddimah (Latinized as Prolegomena) and Kitab al-Ibar (Book of Advice).[12] His Muqaddimah also laid the groundwork for the observation of the role of state, communication, propaganda and systematic bias in history,[13] and he discussed the rise and fall of civilizations.

Franz Rosenthal wrote in the History of Muslim Historiography:

“Muslim historiography has at all times been united by the closest ties with the general development of scholarship in Islam, and the position of historical knowledge in MusIim education has exercised a decisive influence upon the intellectual level of historicai writing….The Muslims achieved a definite advance beyond previous historical writing in the sociology

— sociological understanding of history and the systematisation of historiography. The development of modern historical writing seems to have gained considerably in speed and substance through the utilization of a Muslim Literature which enabled western historians, from the seventeenth century on, to see a large section of the world through foreign eyes. The Muslim historiography helped indirectly and modestly to shape present day historical thinking.”[14]

In the Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun warned of seven mistakes that he thought that historians regularly committed. In this criticism, he approached the past as strange and in need of interpretation. The originality of Ibn Khaldun was to claim that the cultural difference of another age must govern the evaluation of relevant historical material, to distinguish the principles according to which it might be possible to attempt the evaluation, and lastly, to feel the need for experience, in addition to rational principles, in order to assess a culture of the past. Ibn Khaldun often criticized “idle superstition and uncritical acceptance of historical data.” As a result, he introduced a scientific method to the study of history, which was considered something “new to his age”, and he often referred to it as his “new science”, now associated with historiography.[15] His historical method also laid the groundwork for the observation of the role of state, communication, propaganda and systematic bias in history,[13] and he is thus considered to be the “father of historiography”[16][17] or the “father of the philosophy of history”.[18]

World history

Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (838–923) is known for writing a detailed and comprehensive chronicle of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern history in his History of the Prophets and Kings in 915. Abu al-Hasan ‘Alī al-Mas’ūdī (896–956), known as the “Herodotus of the Arabs”, was the first to combine history and scientific geography in a large-scale work, Muruj adh-dhahab wa ma’adin al-jawahir (The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems), a book on world history.

Until the 10th century, history most often meant political and military history, but this was not so with Persian historian Biruni (973–1048). In his Kitab fi Tahqiq ma l’il-Hind (Researches on India), he did not record political and military history in any detail, but wrote more on India’s cultural, scientific, social and religious history.[19] Along with his Researches on India, Biruni discussed more on his idea of history in his chronological work The Chronology of the Ancient Nations.[19]

Famous Muslim historians

  • Urwah ibn Zubayr (died 712)
    • Hadith of Umar’s speech of forbidding Mut’ah
  • Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri (died 742)
    • Hadith of Umar’s speech of forbidding Mut’ah
    • Hadith of prohibition of Mut’ah at Khaybar
  • Ibn Ishaq (died 761)
    • Sirah Rasul Allah
  • Imam Malik (died 796)
    • Al-Muwatta
  • Al-Waqidi (745–822)
    • Book of History and Campaigns
  • Ali ibn al-Madini (777–850)
    • The Book of Knowledge about the Companions
  • Ibn Hisham (died 834)
    • Sirah Rasul Allah
  • Dhul-Nun al-Misri (died 859)
  • Muhammad al-Bukhari (810–870)
    • Sahih Bukhari
  • Muslim b. al-Hajjaj (died 875)
    • Sahih Muslim
  • Ibn Majah (died 886)
    • Sunan Ibn Majah
  • Abu Da’ud (died 888)
    • Sunan Abi Da’ud
  • Al-Tirmidhi (died 892)
    • Sunan al-Tirmidhi
  • Abu al-Hasan ‘Alī al-Mas’ūdī (896–956)
    • Muruj adh-dhahab wa ma’adin al-jawahir (The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems) (947)
  • Ibn Wahshiyya (c. 904)
    • Nabataean Agriculture
    • Kitab Shawq al-Mustaham
  • Al-Nasa’i (died 915)
    • Sunan al-Sughra
  • Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (838–923)
    • History of the Prophets and Kings
    • Tafsir al-Tabari
  • Al-Baladhuri (died 892)
    • Kitab Futuh al-Buldan
    • Genealogies of the Nobles
  • Hakim al-Nishaburi (died 1014)
    • Al-Mustadrak alaa al-Sahihain
  • Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī (973–1048)
    • Indica
    • History of Mahmud of Ghazni and his father
    • History of Khawarazm
  • Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi (13th century)
  • Ibn Abi Zar (died 1310/1320)
    • Rawd al-Qirtas
  • Al-Dhahabi (1274–1348)
    • Major History of Islam
    • Talkhis al-Mustadrak
    • Tadhkirat al-huffaz
    • Al-Kamal fi ma`rifat al-rijal
  • Ibn Kathir (1300-1373)
    • Al-Bidāya wa-n-Nihāya
    • Al-Sira Al-Nabawiyya
  • Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406)
    • Muqaddimah (1377)
    • Kitab al-Ibar
  • Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani (1372–1449)
    • Fath al-Bari
    • Tahdhib al-Tahdhib
    • Finding the Truth in Judging the Companinons
    • Bulugh al-Maram

Modern academic scholarship

The earliest academic scholarship on Islam in Western countries tended to involve Christian and Jewish translators and commentators. They translated the readily available Sunni texts from Arabicinto European languages (including German, Italian, French, and English), then summarized and commented in a fashion that was often hostile to Islam. Notable Christian scholars included:

  • William Muir (1819–1905)
  • Reinhart Dozy (1820–1883) “Die Israeliten zu Mecca” (1864)
  • David Samuel Margoliouth (1858–1940)
  • William St. Clair Tisdall (1859–1928)
  • Leone Caetani (1869–1935)
  • Alphonse Mingana (1878–1937)

All these scholars worked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Another pioneer of Islamic studies, Abraham Geiger (1810–1874), a prominent Jewish rabbi, approached Islam from that standpoint in his “Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen?” (What did Muhammad borrow from Judaism?) (1833). Geiger’s themes continued in Rabbi Abraham I. Katsh’s “Judaism and the Koran” (1962)[20]

Establishment of academic research

Other scholars, notably those in the German tradition, took a more neutral view. (The 19th-century scholar Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918) offers a prime example.) They also started, cautiously, to question the truth of the Arabic texts. They took a source-critical approach, trying to sort the Islamic texts into elements to be accepted as historically true, and elements to be discarded as polemic or as pious fiction. Such scholars included:

  • Michael Jan de Goeje (1836–1909)
  • Theodor Nöldeke (1836–1930)
  • Ignaz Goldziher (1850–1921)
  • Henri Lammens (1862–1937)
  • Arthur Jeffery (1892–1959)
  • H. A. R. Gibb (1895–1971)
  • Joseph Schacht (1902–1969)
  • Montgomery Watt (1909–2006)

The revisionist challenge

In the 1970s the Revisionist School of Islamic Studies, or what has been described as a “wave of sceptical scholars” (Donner 1998 p. 23), challenged a great deal of the received wisdom in Islamic studies. They argued that the Islamic historical tradition had been greatly corrupted in transmission. They tried to correct or reconstruct the early history of Islam from other, presumably more reliable, sources – such as coins, inscriptions, and non-Islamic sources. The oldest of this group was John Wansbrough (1928–2002). Wansbrough’s works were widely noted, but perhaps not widely read. Donner (1998) says:

Wansbrough’s awkward prose style, diffuse organization, and tendency to rely on suggestive implication rather than tight argument (qualities not found in his other published works) have elicited exasperated comment from many reviewers. (Donner 1998 p. 38)

Wansbrough’s scepticism influenced a number of younger scholars, including:

  • Martin Hinds (1941–1988)
  • Patricia Crone (1945-2015)
  • Michael Cook (1940- )

In 1977 Crone and Cook published Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World, which argued that the traditional early history of Islam is a myth, generated after the Arab conquests of Egypt, Syria, and Persia to prop up the new Arab regimes in those lands and to give them a solid ideological foundation. Hagarism suggests that the Qur’an was composed later, rather than early, and that the Arab conquests may have been the cause, rather than the consequence, of Islam. The main evidence adduced for this thesis consisted of contemporary non-Muslim sources recording many early Islamic events. If such events could not be supported by outside evidence, then (according to Crone and Cook) they should be dismissed as myth.

Crone and Cook’s more recent work has involved intense scrutiny of early Islamic sources, but not their total rejection. (See, for instance, Crone’s 1987 publications, Roman, Provincial, and Islamic Law[21] and Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam,[22] both of which assume the standard outline of early Islamic history while questioning certain aspects of it; also Cook’s 2001 Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought,[23] which also cites early Islamic sources as authoritative.)

In 1972 construction workers discovered a cache of ancient Qur’ans – commonly known as the Sana’a manuscripts – in a mosque in Sana’a, Yemen. The German scholar Gerd R. Puin has been investigating these Qur’an fragments for years. His research team made 35,000 microfilm photographs of the manuscripts, which he dated to the early part of the 8th century. Puin has not published the entirety of his work, but has noted unconventional verse orderings, minor textual variations, and rare styles of orthography. He has also suggested that some of the parchments were palimpsests which had been reused. Puin believed that this implied an evolving text as opposed to a fixed one.[24]

Karl-Heinz Ohlig has also researched Christian/Jewish roots of the Qur’an and its related texts. He sees the name Muhammad itself (“the blessed”, as in Benedictus qui venit) as part of that tradition.[25][26]

Contemporary scholars have begun to turn to the study of the Islamic sources in a sceptical mood. They tend to use the histories rather than the hadith, and to analyze the histories in terms of the tribal and political affiliations of the narrators (if that can be established), thus making it easier to guess in which direction the material might have been slanted. Notable scholars include:

  • Fred M. Donner
  • Wilferd Madelung
  • Gerald Hawting
  • Jonathan Berkey
  • Andrew Rippin

Scholars combining traditional and academic scholarship

A few scholars have managed to bridge the divide between Islamic and Western-style secular scholarship. They have completed both Islamic and Western academic training.

  • Sherman Jackson
  • Fazlur Rahman
  • Suliman Bashear


  1.   Bayhom-Daou, T (2015). “Kitāb Sulaym ibn Qays revisited”. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies78 (1): 105–119. doi:10.1017/s0041977x14001062.
  2.  Clarke, L. (2005). Todd Lawson, ed. Reason and Inspiration in Islam: Essays in Honour of Hermann Landolt. I.B. Taurus. p. 59. ISBN 978-1850434702.
  3.  Sachedina (1981), pp. 54–55 * Landolt (2005), p. 59 * Modarressi (2003), pp 82–88 * Dakake (2007), p.270
  4.  Gleave, R. (2015). Early Shiite hermeneutics and the dating of Kitāb Sulaym ibn Qays. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 78(01), 83–103. doi:10.1017/s0041977x15000038
  5.  Political Islam: Essays from Middle East Report. Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. 1997. p. 47.
  6.  Introduction to Islam, Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-521-42929-3, pp 273–274. templatestyles stripmarker in |title= at position 75 (help)
  7.  Gent, R.H. van. “Islamic-Western Calendar Converter – frame layout”.
  8.  “Current events on Seeker – Science. World. Exploration. Seek for yourself”.
  9.  “The Inscription Of Zuhayr – The Earliest Dated Hijazi Inscription, 24 AH / 644 CE”.
  10.  Ahmad, I. A. (June 3, 2002). “The Rise and Fall of Islamic Science: The Calendar as a Case Study”. Faith and Reason: Convergence and Complementarity (PDF)Al Akhawayn University. Retrieved 2011-05-07.
  11.  Mohamad Abdalla (Summer 2007). “Ibn Khaldun on the Fate of Islamic Science after the 11th Century”, Islam & Science 5(1), p. 61-70.
  12.  S. Ahmed (1999). A Dictionary of Muslim Names. C. Hurst & Co. Publishers. ISBN 1-85065-356-9.
  13.   H. Mowlana (2001). “Information in the Arab World”, Cooperation South Journal 1.
  14.  Historiography. The Islamic Scholar.
  15.  Ibn Khaldun, Franz Rosenthal, N. J. Dawood (1967), The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, p. x, Princeton University PressISBN 0-691-01754-9.
  16.  Salahuddin Ahmed (1999). A Dictionary of Muslim Names. C. Hurst & Co. Publishers. ISBN 1-85065-356-9.
  17.  Enan, Muhammed Abdullah (2007). Ibn Khaldun: His Life and WorksThe Other Press. p. v. ISBN 983-9541-53-6.
  18.  Dr. S. W. Akhtar (1997). “The Islamic Concept of Knowledge”, Al-Tawhid: A Quarterly Journal of Islamic Thought & Culture 12(3).
  19.   M. S. Khan (1976). “al-Biruni and the Political History of India”, Oriens 25, p. 86-115.
  20.  Online text: “Judaism And The Koran Biblical And Talmudic Backgrounds Of The Koran And Its Commentaries (1962) Author: Abraham I. Katsh”. Internet Archive. Retrieved 2007-04-18.
  21.  Crone, Patricia (2002). Roman, Provincial and Islamic Law: The Origins of the Islamic Patronate. Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization. 8. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521529495. Retrieved 2018-04-14.
  22.  Crone, Patricia (2004) [1987]. Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam. Gorgias Islamic studies. 6 (reprint ed.). Gorgias Press. ISBN 9781593331023. Retrieved 2018-04-14.
  23.  Cook, Michael (2004) [2001]. Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781139431606. Retrieved 2018-04-14.
  24.  Atlantic Monthly Journal, Atlantic Monthly article: What is the Koran Archived 2006-02-02 at the Wayback Machine. ,January 1999
  25.  Ohlig, The Hidden Origins of Islam: New Research into Its Early History, Muhammad as a Christological Honorific Title 2008 interview http://www.qantara.de/webcom/show_article.php/_c-478/_nr-756/i.html
  26.  Der frühe Islam: eine historisch-kritische Rekonstruktion anhand zeitgenössischer Quellen, Karl-Heinz Ohlig, p.333, Verlag Hans Schiler, 2007

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