The Rise of Historical Writing in Islam (2): The Role of ‘Urwah ibn Al-Zubayr

The Rise of Historical Writing in Islam (2): The Role of ‘Urwah ibn Al-Zubayr

WITHIN THE FIRST century and a half of the beginning of Islam, three distinct traditions of historical writing came into being:

  1. Madinan School: Hadith (Maghazi and Seerah)
  2. Iraqi School: Tribal partisan Lore (known as Ayyam Al-‘Arab–glorifying the pre-Islamic events and victories)
  3. Yemeni Approach: Folklore and Biblical Narratives (Israiliyyat)

(1) The Madinan Tradition of History—The ‘Maghazi’ Phase

As we mentioned in Part 1, the Madinan School of scholarship was focused on developing and compiling the knowledge of the Prophet—in the form of reports about the Prophet’s life and teachings (Hadith) and practical understanding of how to apply Islamic teachings in life (fiqh). Under the direct influence of the teachings of the Prophet the Madinan scholarship at this time was rigorous and investigative (isnad system), God-fearing, straightforward (lacked embellishment or exaggeration of facts). While the plain Islamic perspective prevailed in Madinah, the amsar (pl. of misr, meaning garrison cities) of Kufah and Basrah were home to the tribal influence and conflicting currents that were now turning into an established tradition. A third perspective, which later influenced both, was that of the Yemeni folklore, particularly that of the famous Wahb ibn Munabbih. With the establishment of the Abbasid Capital Baghdad in A.H. 132 as the center of Islamic and scientific learning, all these schools of thought and methodologies were brought together. More will be said about these other schools of historical writing in succeeding article.

Along with the study, memorization and recording of the instructions and judgments of the Prophet (i.e., Hadith)—a process which has started already in the life of the Prophet—there started in Madinah a tradition of writing about the military campaigns and public dealings of the Prophet. This latter literature became known as maghazi (military expeditions in which the Prophet took part).While the Hadith scholars generally studied Hadith with a view to obtain guidance about practical aspects of life, some focused on producing a historical account of significant events in the Prophet’s life—a field which started with accounts of his military expeditions (maghazi) and later grew to include all aspects of his life, including the Makkan period and the period before Prophecy (bi‘thah).The pioneers of maghazi were scholars of Hadith—and the value of their accounts depended on the worth of the narrators (ruwat, sing. rawi) included in the isnad (chains of authorities).

Naturally, residing in Madinah were many descendants of the Companions of the Prophet who had inherited from their parents the cherished memories of the life with the Prophet—it must have been a matter of household conversation, evening chats, stories and recitals. Systematic studies of the Prophet’s maghazi began, along with the studies of Hadith, with some descendants of his close Companions. These academic studies were collective endeavors—the activities of individual scholars were part of a particular school and tradition, and teaching of these materials took place in masajid—where dedicated students as well as common Muslims attended these lectures.

One pioneering scholar was Abban ibn ‘Uthman (d. 95A.H.), son of the third Caliph and a scholar of Hadith inclined towards maghazi. The references to him, however, are found more in Hadith literature than in the maghazi literature. The first scholar, as far as we know, to focus on the life story of the Prophet, was ‘Urwah, the nephew of the Prophet’s wife, ‘Aishah, and son of Asma’ bint Abi Bakr and Al-Zubayr ibn Al-‘Awwam. His father, Al-Zubayr, was one of the ten Companions promised Paradise in this life.

‘Urwah ibn Al-Zubayr—the Pioneer of the Maghazi Literature

What is now called Seerah, the biography of Prophet Muhammad, started at first as maghazi. The founder of maghazi studies seems to have been a Tabi‘i, ‘Urwah ibn Al-Zubayr (A.H. 23-94 A.H.). As we have seen, he came from one of the noblest families—his mother was Asma’ bint Abi Bakr, so ‘Aishah, the Mother of the Believers, was his maternal aunt. He grew up in Madinah, though he lived in Egypt for eight years and visited Damascus (the Umayyad capital at the time) a few times. His courageous brother, ‘Abdullah ibn Al-Zubayr (born in the first year of hijrah), had rebelled against the corruption and illegitimate practices of the Umayyad, and established his own Caliphate in Makkah for a short time (9 years) but was ultimately defeated. ‘Urwah, however, wished only to learn and teach, and while there is evidence that he disliked the Umayyad corruption, he did not agitate against them and even wrote them letters to teach them various aspects of the life of the Prophet. Ibn Khallikan reports him as saying, “My wish is to be abstinent in this world, to gain [Paradise] in the next, and to be among those from whom learning is handed down.” He lived a life of worship. Ibn Hisham says of him, “He used to fast all the time except on the two days of Eid (Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha), and when he died he was fasting.” Al-‘Ijli said, “He was a trustworthy and upright man who took no part in discords.” His life was that of learning and teaching and passed down reports from such eminent women and men of Madinah as ‘Aishah, Usamah ibn Zayd, ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Amr ibn Al-‘Aas, Abu Hurairah, and ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas.

‘Urwah ibn Al-Zubayr was regarded as one of the greatest scholars of Madinah in his time—one of the most trustworthy narrators of Hadith and a profoundly knowledgeable and pious faqih (jurist). He was one of the famous “seven jurists” of Madinah. ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd Al-‘Aziz said of him, “There was no one more learned than ‘Urwah ibn Al-Zubayr,” and his student, Al-Zuhri, said, “‘Urwah was a sea that buckets never muddied.”

He compiled many books, but none of them have survived except as excerpts quoted in the work of later scholars such as Al-Tabari (d. 310 A.H.), Ibn Sayyid Al-Nas and Ibn Kathir. ‘Urwah’s style of writing is typical of Madinan veracity and integrity, far removed from affectation and exaggeration. Because of his noble family lineage, he must have had access to some precious written documents. He also uses references to the Quran while explaining events. He wrote about the Rightly Guided Caliphs, Ridda (Apostacy) Wars and the battles of Qadisiyyah and Al-Yarmuk. This shows that the scholars of Islam took an interest in, and wrote about, these events—as one would expect—contrary to some orientalists’ claims that interest started much later.

‘Urwah is so distinguished because he took material from most trustworthy and honorable authorities of the time. His best source was his aunt, ‘Aishah, the Mother of the Believers, the important of whose reports is well known to all. He also narrates on the authority of his family, the Zubayrid, and others such as Usamah ibn Zayd, ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Amr ibn Al-‘Aas, and Abu Dharr Al-Ghifari (all these reports can be found in Ibn Hisham and Al-Tabari).

‘Urwah’s methodological rigor and carefulness was like that of Hadith scholars even when relating other material—for example, he relates on the authority of ‘Aishah that “when the Negus (Najashi, the Abyssinian king) died it was said that there would always be light on his tomb.” In this case, ‘Urwah’s care in reporting is evident as he carefully specifies ‘it was said’—kana yutahaddath—when reporting something he had not seen. Similarly, when reporting the case of the Muslims’ capture and interrogation of the Quraysh water-bearers before the battle of Badr, he specifies ‘they alleged’—za‘amu. This kind of accuracy of the early Muslim scholars is indicative of their reasoned and critical approach and concern for truthful reporting. As we will see, some later scholars and narrators lacked this sense of accuracy and were more prone to adding pietistic lore and exaggeration to their accounts. Fortunately, there have always been concerned, trustworthy, and critical scholars in the ummah, whose writings have reached us, which makes it possible for us even today to separate the actual accounts from the adulterated or biased ones.


The work of ‘Urwah ibn Al-Zubayr, may Allah be pleased with him, was extremely important, since he gathered many historical hadiths into the maghazi (biographical) literature, and laid the foundations for an authentic method to write Islamic history as an independent subject.

Written By

Uwaymir Anjum is the Imam Khattab Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Philosophy, University of Toledo. He is also professor of Islamic Intellectual History at Qatar University. He studies the connections between theology, ethics, politics, and law in classical and medieval Islam, with a subfocus on its comparisons with western thought. Related fields of study include Islamic philosophy and Sufism. His dissertation, published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press, is entitled Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment. His translation of Ibn al-Qayyim's Madârij Al-Sâlikîn is forthcoming.

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