AS we enter the twenty-first century, there are over 1 billion Muslims living in all parts of the world. They are citizens of different nations, speak different languages, and dress differently. The processes by which they became Muslims were varied, and so were the circumstances in which they went their separate ways. Yet, the Islamic community has its roots in a more unified past which unfolded roughly 1,400 years ago in the Arabian peninsula. In this chapter we are going to read about the rise of Islam and its expansion over a vast territory extending from Egypt to Afghanistan, the core area of Islamic civilisation from 600 to 1200. In these centuries, Islamic society exhibited multiple political and cultural patterns. The term Islamic is used here not only in its purely religious sense but also for the overall society and culture historically associated with Islam. In this society not everything that was happening originated directly from religion, but it took place in a society where Muslims and their faith were recognised as socially dominant. Non-Muslims always formed an integral, if subordinate, part of this society as did Jews in Christendom.
Our understanding of the history of the central Islamic lands between 600 and 1200 is based on chronicles or tawarikh (which narrate events in order of time) and semi-historical works, such as biographies (sira), records of the sayings and doings of the Prophet (hadith) and commentaries on the Quran (tafsir). The material from which these works were produced was a large collection of eyewitness reports (akhbar) transmitted over a period of time either orally or on paper. The authenticity of each report (khabar) was tested by a critical method which traced the chain of transmission (isnad) and established the reliability of the narrator. Although the method was not foolproof, medieval Muslim writers were more careful in selecting their information and understanding the motives of their informants than were their contemporaries in other parts of the world. On controversial issues, they reproduced different versions of the same event, as they found in their sources, leaving the task of judgement to their readers. Their description of events closer to their own times is more systematic and analytical and less of a collection of akhbar. Most of the chronicles and semi-historical works are in Arabic, the best being the Tarikh of Tabari (d. 923) which
has been translated into English in 38 volumes. Persian chronicles are few but they are quite detailed in their treatment of Iran and Central Asia. Christian chronicles, written in Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic*), are fewer but they throw interesting light on the history of early Islam. Besides chronicles, we have legal texts, geographies, travelogues and literary works, such as stories and poems. Documentary evidence (fragmentary pieces of writing, such as official orders or private correspondence) is the most valuable for writing histories because it does not consciously refer to events and persons. It comes almost entirely from Greek and Arabic papyri (good for administrative history) and the Geniza records. Some evidence has emerged from archaeological (excavations done at desert palaces), numismatic (study of coins) and epigraphic (study of inscriptions) sources which is of great value for economic history, art history, and for establishing names and dates. Proper histories of Islam began to be written in the nineteenth century by university professors in Germany and the Netherlands. Colonial interests in the Middle East and North Africa encouraged French and British researchers to study Islam as well. Christian priests too paid close attention to the history of Islam and produced some good work, although their interest was mainly to compare Islam with Christianity. These scholars, called Orientalists, are known for their knowledge of Arabic and Persian and critical analysis of original texts. Ignaz Goldziher was a Hungarian Jew who studied at the Islamic college (al-Azhar) in Cairo and produced path-breaking studies in German of Islamic law and theology. Twentieth-century historians of Islam have largely followed the interests and methods of Orientalists.
They have widened the scope of Islamic history by including new topics, and by using allied disciplines, such as economics, anthropology and statistics, have refined many aspects of Orientalist studies. The historiography of Islam is a good example of how religion can be studied with modern historical methods by those who may not share the customs and beliefs of the people they are studying.