Writing History In The Medieval Islamic World
How do you make sense of an important part of the past which produced grand architectural projects, art and material culture, but left behind no real archive?
Such a question might seem entirely modern with an emphasis on genuinely trying to understand what actually did happen, a question few ancient minds troubled themselves with when producing grand works of history, or so many modern historians argue.
This issue is made worse if there are no surviving contemporary accounts of the event, episode of dynasty in question and all we know of them today is what an author wrote about them 300 years after the event or dynasty has passed.
The Fatimid Caliphate dynasty (909-1171) poses such a challenge for specialists in Islamic medieval history, apart from the physical evidence they left behind, most of what we know about them comes to us from later dynasties such as the Ayyubids (1171-1260) and the Mamluk Sultante (1250-1517), and much of what these dynasties produced was in line with their own interests and prejudices, thus the works of history they produced need to be read with caution.
The narratives are unreliable but the reference to documents made in them are useful as they can tell us what archive was available and might have existed in the past.
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But these are just some of the assumption Fozia Bora hopes to overturn in her new book Writing History In The Medieval Islamic World: The Value Of Chronicles As Archives.
The aim of the book is bold it is looking to help us look at knowledge production in the medieval Muslim world in a new light and resolve the tension of the supposed lack of Fatimid archive.
Late fourteenth century Cairo was a bookish culture with a well-established scholarly community, who were deeply concerned with the pursuit of truth from the historical past.
Sophisticated historiographic methods that dealt with how to study the past were well developed and had produced great thinkers such as Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) and al-Maqrizi (1364-1442), both of whom had produced encyclopaedic works of history.
But there was another scholar Ibn al-Furat (1334-1405) who is a central figure in Bora’s book. The History of Dynasties and Kings by al-Furat is a forensic and document-laden tour de force according to Bora, his work is so meticulous in fact that although he lived long after the Fatimids, his book should be considered part of the corpus of the Fatimid archive.
His book is not only useful for understanding what sources were available in his age, but the whole book including its narrative is part of the source too. In other words the book is not only working from archive but should be considered part of the archive itself.
Ibn al-Furat was not alone and is not the only figure whose works can be considered to be in this category, but he is the case study in which to examine Bora’s argument.
Ibn al-Furat lived in an interesting period, Mamluk Egypt was obsessed with creating archives of official documents, letters and other texts for the historical record. Thus they were churning out scholars who were archive minded and employed a scrupulous approach towards it.
But ibn al-Furat was not mindlessly reproducing reports that survived from the Fatimid period, the archiving process did not only include preserving and reviving them, it included trying to critically understand what they meant to the people who produced them.
Writing History In the Medieval Islamic World takes us down a number of avenues by exploring ibn al-Furat’s work, through employing Boria’s approach we can better understand the idea of change and continuity within Egypt during this period.
The functionality of the text is thus beyond what survived from Fatimid history, it teaches us the sociology and social production of knowledge that will be useful for students and scholars alike looking at other periods of Islamic history or other regions of the late Muslim medieval world.
Through this text you not only gain insight into what was produced but the historiographic questions medieval historians were asking themselves, which could well overturn assumptions about pre-modern historic works. Bora’s is to be commended for her contribution to global medieval studies, her book could become a key for others to explore these texts in new ways.
Usman Butt is a multimedia television researcher, filmmaker and writer based in London. Usman read International Relations and Arabic Language at the University of Westminster and completed a Master of Arts in Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.