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Islamic concept of History

Encyclopaedia of Ismailism by Mumtaz Ali Tajddin

According to the Koran, "We tell you stories of the prophets, which will strengthen your heart, and thus bring you the truth, and exhortation and a memorial for the believers" (11:120) and "Say (O'Prophet) travel through the earth to find out surely the consequences of those who denied the truth" (3:42). Of particular significance is the repeated reference to asatir al-awwalin means stories of the ancients, a term occurs nine times in the Koran (6:25, 8:31, 16:24, 23:83, 25:5, 27:68, 46:17, 68:15, 83:13). The word asatir corresponds exactly to Latin historia. The word asatir is derived from satar meaning to write and therefore asatir also means record.

The Arabs do not seem to have a word for history in pre-Islamic period. They had a few stories without any concept of history. They however held the idea of ethnology. The advent of the Greek literature in Arabian territories also made no impact in the field of history. The Arabs developed a sense of history as a result of the Prophet's mission.

The two technical terms by which the concept of history is commonly denoted in Arabic are al-akhbar and al-tarikh. The word akhbar (pl. of khabar) means informations, while the word tarikh means date or era. The Islamic calendar began under caliph Umar, and the word tarikh also introduced from 643 A.D. Later, the word tarikh acquired the meaning of historical work and afterwards that of history. The Arabs produced many important historians, who had sense of history and defined it in following words: - "History refers to events that are peculiar to a particular age or race" (Ibn Khaldun). "History gives information about what once took place in the world" (Makrizi). "History is a science of learning which investigates time-sections and circumstances prevailing in them." (al-Kafiyaj). "History is a science which involves the knowledge of the condition of the ancients" (al-Marasi).

The Rasail Ikhwan as-Safa for the first time classified the sciences including history. It figures among the practical science, which comprises (a) reading and writing (b) lexicography and grammar (c) commercial counting (d) poetry and prosody (e) kinds of divination (f) magic and alchemy (g) profession and crafts (h) commerce, agriculture and animal husbandry (i) biography and history (ilm as-siyar wal akhbar).


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