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Review of Chase F. Robinson, Islamic Historiography

Kent Schull, University of California Los Angeles

Islamic Historiography.  Chase F. Robinson

In Islamic Historiography, Chase F. Robinson attempts to place Islamic historiography into its social and cultural context.  According to his article, “The Study of Islamic Historiography: a Progress Report” (which acts a precursor to this book) he describes his approach to critiquing and explaining the development of Islamic historiography as “a question of cultural rather than intellectual history.”  His goal, as explained in his preface of Islamic Historiography, is not to survey the corpus of Islamic historical writing, as F. Rosenthal did in A History of Muslim Historiography, or to interpret it, as T. Khalidi did in Arabic Historical Thought in the Classical Period, but to make this body of literature and genre of writing “comprehensible” by answering the questions of how and why Muslim historians wrote.   Robinson attempts to answer the two aforementioned questions via two methods.  First, he attempts “to describe the production of historiography within the sociology of learning” through a discussion of the motivations for writing such as state patronage, educational background, transmission of information, religion, traditionalism, etc.  Second, Robinson proposes “a three-part typology of historiography- chronography [writing genres that explain events according to chronological order in time], biography [biographical narratives of single-subject works that relate the life of person in a representational form], and prosopography [known conventionally as biographical dictionaries which cover individual biographies of many individuals usually belonging to the same group].”   According to Robinson, these three categories are not to be taken as concrete, but are supposed to act as basic divisions in order to make sense of a voluminous literature and to provide a general idea of the development of Islamic historiography.  Taken in conjunction with his aforementioned article, Chase Robinson is clearly situating himself within the scholarly camp that is critical of the validity of the early sources, but still accepts that a ‘kernel’ of truth can be retrieved from them by utilizing source critical approaches and methodology.

Besides having an excellent bibliography, suggestions for further reading, maps, and an very informative chronology for the Islamic historiographers of the formative and classical periods, Robinson’s argument has many merits as a piece of social and cultural history.  His book fills an important gap in the scholarly literature concerning Islamic historical writing.  He spends the majority of his study describing the social and political context in which Islamic historiography emerges to include the practice and importance of oral transmission, the backgrounds, education, and working/living circumstances of the actual authors, their patrons, etc.  In short, Robinson focuses on the writers of this tradition and their religious, social, professional, economic, political, cultural backgrounds, and historical settings.  Instead of spending all his time looking at what they wrote (many scholars have already spent much time doing this), Robinson spends his time looking at why and how they wrote.  Robinson’s argument and approach to Islamic historiography and the questions he asks can be broadly applied to other fields of literary inquiry other than just the classical Islamic tradition.

By way of criticism Robinson’s approach seems overly state and religiously driven.  Similar to Fred Donner’s discussion of the impetus of the Islamic conquests of Syria and Iraq,  Robinson argues that the origins of Islamic historical writing are centered in religious motivation during the seventh and eighth centuries because these early Muslims possessed “both political dominion and a cultural confidence born of religious certainty, Muslim Arabs could resist involuntary assimilation into the sophisticated cultural tradition of the Near East...”   This assertion is very problematic because Robinson anachronistically retrojects a monolithic Sunni Islamic doctrine to the seven and eighth centuries that was not developed until much later.  Regardless of the quotations he provides from the Qur’an as proof of this religious impetus, one has no way of knowing how exactly these passages were interpreted during the first two centuries of Islam. 

In addition to his focus on religious ideological motivation his argument is too state centrist and state driven.  Robinson argues, in the final paragraph of his book, that, “It is this- the mutual attraction of historians and ambitious states- that explains the shape of the chronology of historians standing at the beginning of this book.  In starting in Iraq and ending in Egypt, the chronology traces the path of the caliphate itself, from early Abbasid Kufa and Basra, to Ayyubid and Mamluk Cairo.”   It is irrefutable that state patronage has always been important to historical writing, but there have always been other forms of patronage that are outside the bounds of the state, especially in times of strife, civil war, or revolution.  Robinson fails to point out the difference between history written for the purposes of political patronage and history written in response to or as a result of political issues.  In short he makes the state too hegemonic and monolithic in its power and influence over historical writing. 

Robison also appears to have limited himself to the Arab Sunni Islamic paradigm that so many scholars of early and medieval Islam have restricted their inquires to.  The alternate voices of the Kharajites, Shi’ites, and various other Sunni writers that were not state sponsored are not taken into account in this work.  In addition to these Islamic groups he also does not take into account the Coptic, Syriac, and later Armenian histories and historians that deal with “Islamic” issues and topics.  Indeed Robinson’s work would have been better entitled ‘Arab Sunni Islamic Historiography.’    Notwithstanding these criticisms, this book is an exceptional and incredibly important work that firmly places the development of Arab Sunni Islamic historiography within its social, cultural, and historical context.  This work is an achievement that has been long overdue.    


Center for Near Eastern Studies