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BIOGRAPHY AND HAGIOGRAPHY. Religious biography has held great importance in Islamic civilization from the earliest period, when works in various genres enumerated the virtues of the Prophet’s associates, established priority in joining the Muslim community, and traced tribal genealogies and affiliations. Particularly important is the relationship between early biography and the hadith collections. The `ilm la-rijal, or “science of men,” was a branch of Islamic historiography verifying the reliability (ta`dil) of hadith transmitters according to such criteria as their direct acquaintance with the Prophet or other transmitters and their virtues and activities as individuals. Shi’i writings also elaborated these proofs of piety and authority.

The virtuous qualities (fada’il) of important persons constitutes a subsection of most hadith collections and reveals early concepts of charisma, character, or religious authority. A related genre lists the special merits (khasa’is) of prophets or companions. Both types demonstrate a pattern of virtue established through relationship and contiguity. A further theme in the hadith that blossomed into a genre of biographical literature is found in the books on asceticism (kutub al-zuhd), which provide insight into the early development of Sufism and how ascetic practices established rankings of merit and authority.

Traditional Genres. Biographical information is widely dispersed in Islamic writings, but there also exist a significant number of specifically biographical genres. Religious biography and hagiography often took the form of one of the following major genres.

The term sirah (pl. siyar) connotes a certain manner of conduct. Sirah usually refers to the biography of the prophet Muhammad, but the lives of saints may also be termed siyar; in this case they are often collective biographies.

The tabaqat is the form usually referred to as the “biographical dictionary.” The designation tabaqat (“ranks” or “classes”) refers to the system of arranging the biographical entries in these often voluminous works. The earliest extant example is the Kitab al-tabaqat al-kabir of Ibn Sa’d (d. 845), which contains some 4,25o biographical entries for men and women of the first Islamic generations, ranging from two lines to a number of pages. The general pattern of an entry includes the person’s genealogy, marriage(s), children, acceptance of Islam, declaration of allegiance to the Prophet (bay’ah), and various reports about the person in hadith form (with a chain of transmitters narrating a specific event, comment, or saying of the person), ending with the death and funeral and a list of the mourners. The inclusion of ordinary persons in the classical biographical dictionaries indicates that the history of the Islamic community was understood in this period as being constituted to a large extent by the contributions of individuals to building up and transmitting its specific worldview and culture.

Recent Western concepts of what a life is tend to be diachronic and linear, stretching from birth to death, and the fife is related so as to reveal character development. In contrast, the typical life in Ibn Sa`d’s Tabaqat begins far back in genealogy and may extend into the afterlife by establishing a rank in or promise of paradise. From the earlier material up to the present time, the telling of lives in much Islamic biographical material does not present a series of events or cumulative reflections as contributing to character development. Rather, biographical entries serve to establish origins and display a person’s type or example by presenting his or her discrete actions and sayings. The tabaqat genre, which is most popular in Arabic, may focus on a certain religious profession, collecting, for example, the biographies of jurists, judges, Qur’anic reciters and memorizers, or Sufis. Other tabaqat chronicle individuals from a particular city or region, and some are “centennial” biographies that record all prominent Muslims who died in a particular Islamic century.

Tadhkirah means “memorial.” These collections of the lives of poets, mystics, or scholars are more common in later periods, especially in Iran, the Ottoman Empire, and South Asia. Tadhkirat are similar to tabaqat in presenting lives through anecdotes, although they may also offer further narrative biographical material on the person. They do not necessarily incorporate ranking systems, although in the Persian context, generational, alphabetical, or other types of ordering by affinity or family relationship may be used. Both the tabaqat and tadhkirah forms were also used for prominent persons in nonreligious fields, such as poets or calligraphers.

Malfuzat are records of audiences and the question and-answer sessions of notable scholars or Sufis. These sessions may be presented chronologically. and dated, rather like a dairy. This genre is indigenous to South Asian Islam, where the early Indian Sufis are known through records preserved in this form. Issues raised in the scholarly study of early malfuzat collections include the authenticity of these works and the principles of selectivity used by the compiler. Malfuzat often provide a more spontaneous, authentic impression of the subjects and their circles than do the more idealized portrayals of the tadhkirat. Although their topoi are less obvious than those of more formally structured biographies, the malfuzat are a valuable source for their historical context and for information about teachings and attitudes-if not of the purported originator, at least of a subsequent but still early period.

Manaqib is the genre recording the merits and miraculous actions of sacred persons. Their emphasis on the miraculous as a source of authority means that the social and doctrinal context of the period shaped the presentation of saintly lives. For example, Muslim saints may be variously portrayed in these narratives as opposed to non-Muslim detractors, other saints, or doubting Muslims. At the same time, the types of miracles recounted reflect specifically Islamic symbols of the sacred. Thus a distinction is made between karamat (ways in which the saint confirms his high rank) and barakat (blessings emanating from the saint), indicating refinements in the concept of saintly charisma. Notions of saintly hierarchy, territory, and patronage are often embedded in these texts.

Individual biographies (tarjamah) and autobiographies were less common in early periods, although a small number may be found. One should not neglect to mention the biographical significance of related genres-for example, travel accounts like those of the famous Ibn Battutah (d. 1368). Early Muslim autobiographies in Arabic were thoroughly studied by Franz Rosenthal (1937) who proposed that a Greek model had been transmitted to the Arabs through Hunayn ibn Ishaq (d. 877). In the medieval period biographical or autobiographical notices were sometimes prefaced or appended to a scholar’s works in the form of a curriculum vitae including the individuals’ teachers, places visited, and works studied, transmitted, or composed. The isnads or chains of transmission established through this or related material, such as ijazahs (certificates that the holder had a teacher’s permission to give instruction about a specific work or a general body of knowledge), have proved valuable sources in tracing Muslim scholarly networks for the transmission of ideas.

The subjects of religious biography include Sunni and Shi’i scholars, the early personages of Islam, and Sfifi saints. The concept of the Prophet as a model for all Muslims is to a degree extended by the biographical tradition so that all learned and pious persons are potential exemplars and instantiators of the tradition. This is explicit in the idea of the shajarah or lineage tree, which may be scholarly or saintly as often as genealogical. Diagrams of these lineage relationships figure prominently in Sfifi biographical compendia and are frequently displayed in the form of posters on the walls of Sufi lodges. They are also used performatively in the form of group recitations of the lineage.

The form of the collective biography was especially popular among the Sufis in the classical and premodern period; some of the best-known examples are `Attar’s (d. 122o) Tadhkirat al-awhyd’, Jami’s (d. 1492) Nafahat al-uns, and `Abd al-Haqq Dihlavi’s (d. 1642) Akhbar alakhyar. These Sufi compendia often memorialize Sufis of a particular order or region, but they were also appreciated as edifying moral literature by a wider public and were often abridged, imitated, and translated into regional languages.

The influence of the biographical genre in traditional settings was much broader than the presence of manuscripts or printed texts might indicate, because the lives of the saints and the prophets comprised a major category of folk literature and performance that sustained popular knowledge of Islam, especially in rural areas. In such settings bards, those with religious status, or any literate persons might perform aspects of biography for this wider audience.

Modern Developments. Western literature has increasingly influenced biographical and autobiographical writing in many Islamic societies. Most academic studies by scholars in Muslim societies who deal with contemporary biographical writing focus on works written under the influence of Western models rather than on the traditional forms.

In South Asia innovations in the tradition of religious biography were related to the development of Urdu as a modern prose language in the late nineteenth century and to the efforts to combine Islamic and modern learning embodied in the Aligarh movement. Most significant in this trend are the writings of Shibli Nu’mani (1857-1914), who prepared a series of monographs on “Heroes of Islam” including studies of `Umar, Abu Hanifah, Rumi, and al-Ghazali, as well as of the Prophet. This new style of biography was marked by critical evaluation and a rationalist treatment of the subject matter influenced by the biographical canons of European and in particular English literature.

While many of the traditional genres of religious biography still persist as the dominant forms in religious contexts and in more traditional segments of Muslim societies, in the modern period, a number of new developments have occurred. Among the most striking are the increasing use of religious biography for personal edification and its use to reinforce symbols of national or regional identity and to inspire or legitimate political action.

In the post colonial period in Pakistan, for example, many medieval and pre-modern Persian compendia of saints’ lives have been translated into Urdu, published, and widely distributed. In addition to reflecting the importance of saint-veneration among the majority of Pakistanis and the social and political importance of the Barelwi interpretation of Islam there, such publications may indicate the new role of the saints as symbols of Pakistani nationalism. Since many of these publications, from inexpensive chapbooks to gold-embossed tomes, are subsidized by the hereditary custodians of the various Sufi shrines, additional motives for their publication and distribution seem to include the legitimization of the authority of the current shrine custodians and the affirmation of family and social linkages among affiliated groups of individuals. It is not unusual for a living Sufi master or his immediate successor to publish lists of au thorized deputies and prominent disciplines, a practice that suggests an additional social and economic basis behind the current production of biographical literature. Successive governments of Pakistan have also taken an interests in portraying popular saints’ lives in such a way as to reinforce their specific policy objectives-for example, by distributing pamphlets or encouraging journalism that emphasizes biographical elements that confirm a particular saint as either an Islamic activist or a social reformer and populist.

In Shiism the lives of the imams have always been a source of inspired poetry and performances of commemoration. A recent significant trend in the use of biography was evident during the prerevolutionary period in Iran, when the focus of Husayn’s biography shifted from his role as tragic martyr to portraying him as an activist challenging an unjust social order. During the same period the biographical genre was strategically employed by the influential Iranian intellectual `Ali Shari’ati (d. 1977), who composed inspiring biographies of early Islamic figures such as Fatimah, Zaynab, `Ali, and Abu Dharr, in order to make the role models of the past more relevant to the younger generation. These biographies, which combined the use of traditional Islamic sources with a more Western existential focus, deliberately linked the events and challenges of the past to the problems facing contemporary Iranians.

Female biographies were featured even in the earliest tabagat compendia, where they were usually grouped in a separate section at the end of the collection. The modern period has seen increased attention given to the lives of early Muslim women in heroic roles. Bint al-Shati’ is an Egyptian woman religious writer who specializes in retelling the biographies of early Muslim heroines. Traditional Muslim scholars such as Ashraf `Ali Thanvi (1864-1943), Sayyid Sulaiman Nadvi in Heroic Deeds of Muslim Women (New Delhi, 1985), and Muhammad Zakariya Kandhalavi, Stories of the Sahaabah (Johannesburg, 1987) have presented early Muslim heroic women in ways that honor their contributions to Islamic history while reinforcing traditional patterns of female behavior. In contrast, the Moroccan feminist historian Fatima Mernissi has presented a revisionist look at the lives of a number of prominent early Muslim women that attempts to recover their independence of action and their defiance of supposed cultural norms. [See the biography of Mernissi.]

The importance of the biographical pattern is evidenced by the fact that today’s Islamist leaders have begun to participate in the biographical and autobiographical tradition. Although one biographer of the reformer Abu al-`Ala Mawdudi (d. 1979) explicitly eschewed the sanctification of his subject in his extensive study of Mawdudi’s life, the preexisting model of saintly lives has inevitably influenced many biographical treatments. Similar developments have occurred in both formal and informal Iranian tellings of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s story, which increasingly assimilate his role to that of the the Shi’i imams. Zaynab al-Ghazali, a contemporary Egyptian female activist in the Muslim Brotherhood, offered her prison memories in Haydti (My Life) in the form of a heroic narrative with noticeable hagiographic undertones. [See the biography of (Zaynab) alGhazali. ]

As the forces of westernization have increasingly penetrated many Muslim societies,the canons of modern literature have tended to favor the novel, short story, and free verse over biographical forms. With the decline in the popularity of Sufism, the audience for collective memorials and devotional biographies has also decreased. In Turkey and the Arabic-speaking world the traditional Islamic biographical forms have declined in importance while secular, literary, and even English-language biographies are now being produced, albeit in relatively small numbers. Religious biography has adapted to these new circumstances in the ways discussed above.

[See also Muhammad, article on Biographies; Sainthood; and Sufism, article on Sufi Shrine Culture.]


Auchterlonie, Paul. Arabic Biographical Dictionaries. Durham, N.C., 1987. Useful survey of the best known Arabic biographical dictionaries. Includes an annotated bibliography of classical works and relevant Western scholarship.

Eickelman, Dale F., and J. P. Piscatori, eds. Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1990. Collection of recent scholarly articles.

Ewing, Katherine. “The Politics of Sufism: Redefining the Saints of Pakistan.” Journal of Asian Studies 42.2 (February 1983): 251-268. Describes successive governments’ use of Sufi biography to legitimize policy.

Farid al-Din `Attar. Muslim Saints and Mystics. Translated by A. J. Arberry. Chicago, 1966.

Hafsi, Ibrahim. “Recherches sur le genre Tabaqdt dans la litterature arabe.” Arabica 23 (1976): 227-265, and 24 (1977): I-41. Review article of sources.

Hermansen, Marcia K. “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Islamic Biographical Materials.” Religion 18.4 (1988). 163- 82. Review article on biographical genres and critical scholarship, with an extensive bibliography.

Hermansen, Marcia K. “The Female Hero in the Islamic Religious

Tradition.” Annual Review of Women in World Religions, no. 2 (1992): III-143. Material on traditional and recent treatments of heroines in religious literature and folklore.

Hoffman, Valerie J. “An Islamic Activist: Zaynab al-Ghazzali.” In Women and the Family in the Middle East, edited by Elizabeth W. Fernea, pp. 233-254. Austin, 1985.

Kooij, C. “Bint al-Shati’: A Suitable Case for Biography.” In The Challenge of the Middle East, edited by Ibrahim A. A. El-Sheikh et al., pp. 67-72. Amsterdam, 1982.

Lawrence, Bruce B. Notes from a Distant Flute: Pre-Mughal Indian Sufi Literature. Tehran, 1978.

Mernissi, Fatima. Women and Islam. Oxford, 1991. Revisionist look at the role of women in early Islamic history, by a Moroccan feminist. Metcalf, Barbara D. Perfecting Women: Maulana Ashraf ‘Ali Thanawi’s Bihisti Zewar. Berkeley, 1990.

Nizamuddin Auliya. Nizam ad-Din Awliya: Morals for the Heart; Conversations of Shaykh Nizam ad-Dim Awliya Recorded by Amir Hasan Sijzi. Translated and annotated by Bruce B. Lawrence. New York, 1992.

Roded, Ruth. Women in Islamic Biographical Collections: From Ibn Sa’d to Who’s Who. Boulder, 1994. Roded surveys the historical development of the genre using both quantitative and qualitative approaches to assess women’s roles in kinship, seclusion, and Islamic religious life.

Rosenthal, Franz. “Die Islamische Autobiographie.” Studia Arabca I (1937): 1-40.

Zaidi, Mujahid Husain. “Biography in Modern Urdu Literature.” South Asian Digest of Regional Writing (Heidelberg) 5 (1976): 99120. Survey plus an extensive bibliography.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/biography-and-hagiography/

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