Biography and Hagiography

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Islamic civilization from an early period gave importance to various biographical genres, for example, the life (sira) of the Prophet, works establishing priority in joining the Muslim community, and lives of saints, but rarely, until the modern period, autobiographies.

Particularly important is the relationship between early biography and the hadith collections. The ˓ilm al-rijal, or "science of the men," was a branch of Islamic historiography verifying the reliability (ta dil) of hadith transmitters according to criteria such as their direct acquaintance with the Prophet and their veracity and virtues. The qualities (fada˒il) and special merits (khasa˒is) of important persons constitute a subsection of most hadith collections and reveal early Muslim concepts of charisma, character, or religious authority. Another hadith topic that blossomed into a genre of biographical literature is asceticism (zuhd). Compilations on this subject provide insights into the early development of Sufism and how ascetic behaviors established rankings of merit and authority.

Muslim religious biography and hagiography were composed in specific genres. One of the most important biographical forms is the tabaqat (ranks or classes). This name refers to the system for the arrangement of biographical notices according to notions of contiguity, rank, or virtue. The earliest extant example is the Kitab al-tabaqat al-kabir of Ibn Sa˓d (d. 845), which contains some 4,250 biographical notices of men and women of the first Islamic generations. The inclusion of ordinary persons in the classical biographical dictionaries indicates how the history of the Islamic community was understood in this period as being constituted, to a large extent, by the contribution of individuals to building up and transmitting its specific worldview and culture.

The telling of lives in traditional Islamic biographical forms does not present a series of events or cumulative reflections as contributing to character development. Rather, biographical notices serve to establish origins and display a person's type or example through presenting his or her discrete actions and sayings. The tabaqat genre, which is most popular in Arabic, might focus on certain religious professions such as the biographies of jurists, judges, Qur˒an reciters and memorizers, or Sufis. Other tabaqat works chronicle individuals from a particular city or region, and some represent "centennial" biographies that record all prominent Muslims who died in a particular Islamic century.

Tadhkira (memorial) works are collections of the lives of persons engaged in scholarly or religious activities. They are more common in later periods, especially in Iran, the Ottoman Empire, and South Asia.

Malfuzat are records of audiences of notable scholars or Sufis. This genre is indigenous to South Asian Islam where the early Indian Sufis are known largely through records preserved in this form. Malfuzat as a biographical genre often provides a more spontaneous, authentic flavor of the person and his circle in contrast to the more idealized portrayals of the tadhkirat. Individual biographies (tarjama, pl. tarajim) and autobiographies were less common in earlier periods although a small number may be found. Notable is al-Ghazali's Deliverance from Error (d. 1111) a narrative of his spiritual search for truth. One should not neglect to mention the biographical significance of other related genres, for example, letters and travel accounts, such as those of the famous Ibn Battuta (1304–1369).

In the medieval period bio- or autobiographical notices were sometimes prefaced or appended to a scholar's works and read like a curriculum vitae, that included the individual's teachers, places visited, and works studied, transmitted, or composed. Medieval Muslim autobiography and biography often featured accounts of dreams or visionary experiences indicating that the tradition considered such events as important and meaningful.

More recently, Western literature has influenced biographical and autobiographical writing in many Islamic societies. 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 efforts to combine Islamic and "modern" learning embodied in the Aligarh movement. Most significant among this trend are the writings of Shibli Nu˓mani (1857–1914), who prepared a series of monographs on "Heroes of Islam" including studies of the caliph ˓Umar, the jurist Abu Hanifa, the poet Rumi, and the theologian al-Ghazali, as well as the Prophet. This new style of biography was marked by critical evaluation and a rationalist treatment of the subject.

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 poetry written in free verse over traditional biographical forms. With the decline in the popularity of Sufism, the audience for collective memorials and devotional biographies has also decreased. In most regions the traditional Islamic biographical forms have declined in importance as secular, literary life stories take precedence and may provide inspiration for serialization as televised historical dramas.

Traditional genres of religious biography still persist in religious contexts and in more traditional segments of Muslim societies. In the modern period, however, a number of new developments have occurred. Among the most striking are: an increased use of religious biography for personal edification; its use in reinforcing symbols of national or regional identity; and its functioning to inspire or legitimate political action and Islamist identifications.

For example, in Iranian Shi ism the lives of the imams have been a source of inspired poetry and performances of commemoration. A significant and instructive trend in their modern use is that during the prerevolutionary period in Iran, the focus of Husayn's biography shifted from his role as tragic martyr to portraying him as an activist challenging the unjust social order.

The role of females also receives increased attention. Traditional Muslim scholars now present 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 defiance of supposed cultural norms. Zaynab al-Ghazali, a contemporary Egyptian activist in the Muslim Brotherhood, offered her prison memories in Hayati (My life) in the form of a heroic narrative with hagiographic undertones. Islamist autobiographies and convert narratives of American and European Muslims open up further possibilities for hybridization in biographical accounts.

See alsoArabic Literature ; Genealogy ; Historical Writing .


Hermansen, Marcia. "Interdisciplinary Approaches to Islamic Biographical Materials." Religion 18, no. 4 (1988): 163–182.

Lawrence, Bruce B. Notes from a Distant Flute: The ExtantLiterature of Pre-Mughal Indian Sufism. Tehran: Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy, 1978.

Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. Medicines of the Soul: Female Bodies andSacred Geographies in a Transnational Islam. Berkeley: University of California, 2001.

Mojaddedi, Jawid. Sufi Biographies from Al-Sulami to Jami:Reworking Time Past. Richmond, Va.: Curzon, 2000.

Roded, Ruth. Women in Islamic Biographical Collections: fromIbn Sa'd to Who's Who. Boulder, Colo.: L. Rienner Publishers, 1994.

Marcia Hermansen