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Medieval Arabic Historiography: Authors as Actors.

By Konrad Hirschler. SOAS/Routledge Studies on the Middle East, vol. 5. London: Routledge, 2006. Pp. x +181. $160 (cloth); [pounds sterling] 22.50, $39.95 (paper)

I approached this book with great interest and some excitement, and was not disappointed. Hirschler's volume, based on his Ph.D. dissertation, sets out to be a close reading and analysis of the works of two important Syrian historians of the mid-thirteenth century: Abu Shama (d. 1268) and Ibn Wasil (d. 1298). Over the years, I have studied large sections of works by both authors for the heady events of the 1250s and 1260s in Syria and the surrounding countries: the end of the Ayyubid rule in Egypt, the establishment of what would become the Mamluk sultanate, the coming of the Mongols to the region and their repulsion by the Mamluks, and the early years of Mamluk rule in Syria. In my readings of these works, al-Dhayl 'ala l-Rawdatayn by Abu Shama and Mufarrij al-kurub fi akhbar bani ayyub by Ibn Wasil, I found that both authors not infrequently refer to themselves in their rendition of historical events. I confess that this encounter with authors as real people in the historical narrative was for me a thrilling experience. The appearance of historians as historical actors has long fascinated me, whether the information is "autobiographical" or from other sources (often mentioned en passant). We now have a full-blown monograph that takes on the subject of these two personalities, generally from the same social and intellectual milieu, but of different character, outlooks, and occupation. We learn much about the authors themselves--their character, activities, and world-outlook--along with the writing of history in Arabic at this time and the social and intellectual history of this key period. I should note, however, that while the author deals with the entire career of these two authors, his historiographical analysis is based mainly on the treatment of the great rulers Nur al-Din (d. 1171) and Saladin (d. 1193) in two works: the hitherto mentioned Mufarrij al-kurub and the Kitab al-Rawdatayn fi akhbar al-dawlatayn al-nuriyya wa-l-salahiyya by Abu Shama. I will return to the choice of subject matter at the end of this review.

The book opens with some theoretical considerations, most importantly the explanation of the term "agency," which here refers to how each author chose to work the material at his disposal, in consideration of the relevant "facts" and the rich historiographical tradition that had developed in Muslim Syria. This sets the scene for the volume as a whole: how two authors of ostensibly similar background, writing about the same subject, produce such different works in form and content. Following this is a chapter giving the historical and historiographical background, and we are first introduced in a serious way to our authors and their works. The next two chapters ("Social Contexts" and "Intellectual Contexts") probe deeper and wider into the lives, personalities, and works of Abu Shama and Ibn Wasil. The latter had a successful career as a teacher and judge in his native Hama, in Egypt, and elsewhere, and dedicated his mainly dynastic histories, the most important being the Mufarrij, to princely patrons from the Ayyubid family. The author looks closely at Ibn Wasil's relations with various patrons and colleagues, using a "network approach" to understand better his intellectual and public activities. Indeed, Ibn Wasil was well connected, and he can clearly be seen as someone on the periphery of the political and military elite, enjoying high status and support while generally maintaining his independence from rulers. While the Mufarrij has been described as a panegyric to the Ayyubid dynasty, Hirschler suggests that this is a simplistic reading; rather, Ibn Wasil was embedded in the establishment, and his chronicle reflects the view of an establishment figure. Ibn Wasil also had an interest in the rational sciences, particularly logic (one work on this subject was devoted to Manfred, the Hohenstaufen ruler of Sicily, ca. 1261). For someone who spent a good part of his career as a judge, Ibn Wasil demonstrated little intellectual interest in the religio-legal sciences, but rather devoted himself mainly to two "secular" fields: history and logic.

Unlike Ibn Wasil with his connections to the military-political class, Abu Shama moved mainly in a scholarly milieu in Damascus, although not necessarily its main stream. His intellectual pursuits were almost exclusively in the realm of religious learning, and he adopted an approach that today would be called conservative: while he believed in a limited form of ijtihad, he was nevertheless a follower of the idea of taqlid, and opposed innovations and tajdid. He liked to see himself as a scholar withdrawn from public and political life, although to a certain degree this self-portrait is overdrawn. Indeed, Abu Shama attacked the "post-holders," i.e., those 'ulama' who took up official positions. Yet, here and there, he himself held teaching positions in madrasas. However, he never took up "any of the most prestigious and influential postions in the town, such as a judgeship or a kharibship: he never took or received one of these important religio-positions, in clear contrast to Ibn Wasil's chief judgeship in Hama" (p. 33). Abu Shama could allow himself this luxury of both criticizing his peers and purporting to keep his distance from power and important positions since he was independently wealthy, owning much land. By choice or necessity, he associated mainly with relatively marginal figures within the civilian elite, such as immigrants from the Maghrib. His somewhat contrarian personality also put him at the edges of the scholarly leadership. Abu Shama was a fairly controversial personality and there are indications that this may have resulted in violence towards him that led to his death. His struggles with his peers and his sense of isolation from them find expression in his Dhayl. In fact, Hirschler notes that this and Ibn Wasil's work were less depersonalized than often thought in modern scholarship. This is an important insight for the study of late medieval historical writing. I would also like to note that Hirschler has succeeded admirably in reconstructing the inner life of Abu Shama, thanks to his careful and sensitive reading of the autobiographical material in his writings. This is probably the best we can hope for in probing the depths of the soul of a premodern Muslim, the result of a reasonable historical record and a perceptive study.

The final two chapters are devoted to the works themselves: why two contemporary Syrian authors dealing with the same material (Saladin's career and the events leading up to it) show such variation in emphasis and presentation (or "emplotment," as the author refers to it), indicative of differing interpretation not only of the hero's life, but even the meaning of history. Basically, Ibn Wasil is a proponent of the approach of "Process," while Abu Shama adopted that of "Stasis." Hirschler understands the latter as follows: "the historical field surveyed was static, homogeneous and constantly reiterating its invariability." Abu Shama "represented his material as the re-enactment of an ahistorical pattern, which constantly reproduced itself. Change occurs in this mode only as a sudden transition between clearly opposed periods of good and evil" (p. 64). In the present context, this means that the reigns of Nur al-Din b. Zangi and Saladin were basically re-enactments of early Muslim history, the idealized formative period. After Saladin's death, there is a relapse into a period of darkness, from which there had been no recovery until Abu Shama's own time. In other words, at best, humans could hope for periodical returns to times of relative good (i.e., Islamic) rule, but much of human history was a reversion to less-satisfactory behavior by rulers and ruled, certainly from a Muslim perspective. I am not sure that the term "Stasis" is the appropriate one to describe such a worldview, but Hirschler's presentation of Abu Shama's historical vision is clearly understood.

Ibn Wasil, on the other hand, employed the opposite mode of "Process." For him, there was constant movement in the historical field. "In contrast to Abu Shama's circularity, his material was emploted in the form of factual linearity" (p. 65). Ibn Wasil was not concerned with the comparison to a supposed golden age of Muslim history, but rather looked for the good rulers over the course of history, including in recent times. Thus, his history of the Ayyubids is one where many--perhaps most--of the many members of this family were morally good rulers. The basis message of his chronicle is the "ongoing existence of good rule with slight variations."

One is certainly tempted to see these two approaches to the writing of historical chronicles as not only reflecting two different worldviews, but also the background and personality of each author: Ibn Wasil, the establishment figure and religious bureaucrat, finds much in recent history (and contemporary life?) that is positive from a Muslim point of view; Abu Shama, a contrarian religious scholar on the fringes of the higher scholarly society, projects his dissatisfaction onto the historical record of the generations before him and in his own time.

These two views of history are reflected throughout the works of these two authors. Hirschler suggests that the use of the title Kitab al-Rawdatayn ("Book of the Two Gardens") is in the spirit of the mode of Stasis; this metaphor "depicted the periods treated [i.e., the reigns of Nur al-Din and Saladin] as enclosed unities" (p. 67), separate in their moral quality from those before and after them. The title Mufarrij al-kurub ("The Dissipater of Anxieties") by Ibn Wasil strikes a positive note, and the second half, fi akhbar bani ayyub, refers to the open-ended nature of his chronicle, which charts the development of an entire dynasty (whose cadet branch in Hama was still thriving to some degree in the author's time, and under whose patronage he wrote) and the transition to Mamluk rule. I give here an imperfect summary of a rich and nuanced discussion, but hopefully have succeeded in providing the reader an idea of Hirschler's intention. He then discusses how each author ends his chronicle: Abu Shama with Saladin's death, indicating that this was an end of an era (although in another work, al-Dhayl cala l-Rawdatayn, events are brought up to his lifetime; this work is hardly discussed by the author in this context); Ibn Wasil abruptly in the first years of the rule of Baybars. There are no concluding remarks in the latter chronicle, although perhaps they were planned or have been lost. In any event, from the structure of his chronicle, it appears that Ibn Wasil did not accord Saladin (and a posteriori Nur al-Din) and the Ayyubids any special moral force. There is then a discussion on how each author historicizes the protagonists in his chronicle. Abu Shama, seeing his two heroes as moral paradigms, has constant reference and comparisons to the early period of Islam--of course seen as a golden age--while Ibn Wasil, who views his period and recent times to be overall of sound ethical foundation, has little need to have recourse to the early period: his protagonists stand on their own moral feet.

These general considerations are then followed by the close examination of several incidents of how each author organized (and padded, I might add) their material. Ibn Wasil's style is linear, presenting a fairly coherent and integrated narrative. On the other hand, Abu Shama in the Kitab al-Rawdatayn adopted a less linear approach, with bits of information more fragmented and discrete, at times repetitive, and with more digressions (such as the previously described references to early Islamic history). Abu Shama was capable of adopting the more narrative, coherent style, as seen by his Dhayl, so Hirschler suggests that this was a deliberate choice of writing, perhaps to reinforce points and to help create a case for the moral quality of Saladin (and his illustrious predecessor Nur al-Din), and for his positive comparison with earlier figures in classical Muslim history; to the author's mind, this is a style appropriate to the mode of Stasis. Examples given are Saladin's campaign to Mosul in 578/1182; Zangi's attack on Qal'at Ja'bar in 541/1146 (Zangi, having taken Edessa two years before, was now clearly a mujahid figure, and I presume that he was included as he leads up to Nur al-Din, although one has to work hard to prove his moral stature); and, finally, a story--relatively unimportant in itself--of Mr al-Din having a ring returned by his estranged brother Nusrat al-Din ca. 560/1165, from which appropriate moral lessons are to be drawn by both authors, although Abu Shama is wordier and thus more explicit, bringing into his discussion the matter of the ideal ruler, a matter that concerns him throughout his work.

This section is concluded by an interesting discussion that attempts to put both works into a larger context of developing Islamic political thought, although explicit formulations of this new theory really only appear in the early fourteenth century (taking into account the destruction of the caliphate in 1258 by the Mongols), with Ibn Taymiyya and his belief in the need for the criterion of Shari'a-orientation as the basis for rule, while Ibn Jamaca gives more importance to any Islamic rule (what Hirschler calls "legitimate rule qua rule"). Abu Shama and Ibn Wasil in their chronicles are harbingers of these views, a thought-provoking suggestion that puts both authors in the larger stream of intellectual development.

On the whole, this is a well-argued and well-written study of an important aspect of the intellectual and cultural history of Syria in the thirteenth century, with implications for other areas and period. I, for one, will now read Abu Shama and Ibn Wasil with a different eye, and I think that I will henceforth use their works more effectively. I have only one complaint of substance, and with it I really am being a little churlish; after all, we should criticize--if at all--what the author wrote, not what he did not write. However, I cannot refrain from noting that another area of interesting comparison between the two authors would have been the events in mid-thirteenth-century Syria: the conflicts between the Ayyubids and the nascent Mamluk regime in Syria, the coming of the Mongols and their occupation of the country (Abu Shama was a witness to their rule in Damascus), and establishment of Mamluk rule there. How would the difference of intellectual and literary approaches between the two authors, about which we have learned so much in this volume, have played out in the description of the earth-shattering events of 1260? Perhaps an enterprising young student will take this on as an M.A. thesis (or more).

Finally, a note to the publisher. I cannot fathom why it has been decided to print books in such a miniscule font, which makes reading uncomfortable. I am unable to figure out if this is to save paper or to push us all over to digital publishing, where we can adjust the size of the font to suit our needs and age. More thought to book design would have fitted this worthy and interesting monograph.

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Author:Amitai, Reuven
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2010
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