Authority and Identity in Medieval Islamic Historiography

Persian Histories from the Peripheries

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Mimi Hanaoka
Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , September
     316 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Mimi Hanaoka’s Authority and Identity in Medieval Islamic Historiography is what she herself calls a “non-positivist” study of “how … Perso-Muslim individuals and communities understood and expressed their hybrid identities,” using “an innovative method of approaching local histories of the Persianate world.” The aim is to turn, “dreams, fanciful genealogies, and suspect etymologies … from data-poor curiosities into rich sources of information about identity, rhetoric, authority, legitimacy, and center-periphery relations” (3). The focus of Hanaoka’s attention are five local histories in Persian—Taʾrīkh-i bukhārā, Taʾrīkh-i bayhaq, Taʾrīkh-i qumm, Taʾrīkh-i sīstān, and Taʾrīkh-i ṭabaristān—extending the ambit to include five late Anatolian compositions as comparanda in the penultimate chapter. Hanaoka casts her net wide in an attempt to make use of “theories and methods in historiography, social history, rhetoric, material culture, and literary criticism” (7), but this ambitiousness, perhaps inevitably, renders the project incapable of delivering on its promises for the most part.

The discussion opens with a methodological introduction, after which there follows an introduction to the works themselves, their authors, and the historical context of their composition. The next chapter deals with the function of dreams and dreaming in local histories and how they could be used to surreptitiously advance particular claims. The fifth and sixth chapters investigate the importance of worthies of the past (sayyids, sharīfs, and companions) in the collective memory of local communities and their importance in establishing a region’s place in the world of Islam. The seventh chapter analyses the significance of foundation myths and local shrines of saints and the cults associated with them to peripheral regions, followed by the author’s attempt to unravel the interests behind the sacred, albeit ultimately factitious, etymologies proposed for some nomina locorum in these local histories in the eighth chapter.

Hanaoka presents her reader with a thorough survey of the methods used by mediaeval historians for “centering” their peripheral homelands. It is, however, very unfortunate that this survey is plagued by all sorts of problems and shortcomings, and that the author’s arguments occasionally hinge upon contrived reasoning. The gist of the chapter on dreams, for instance, is about a dream narrative in the Taʾrīkh-i bukhārā in which a Qur’an reciter hosts the prophet Muhammad in a dream and, when reciting the Qur’an before Muhammad, finds him not objecting to his reading. This trivial story, which is most likely meant to underscore the sheikh’s mastery of the science of reading the Qur’an (ʿilm al-qirāʾa), is far more significant for the author, who takes it to constitute evidence that “the reading of the Qur’an common in Bukhara differed from Qur’an readings elsewhere” (96). However, the existence of such a reading peculiar to Bukhārā is, of course, unattested, and the interpretation of the dream proffered too tenuous. Hanaoka does make a reference to orthographic peculiarities of the Samarqandī codex attributed to ʿUthmān to justify this contention, but these peculiarities are not at all regional in the sense that she interprets them.

In the chapter on sayyids and sharīfs, Hanaoka confides to the reader that “a sample of non-related sayyids in Iran as well as non-related sayyids and sharifs of Indian and Pakistani origin in the UK lack a biological basis for their claims to be sayyids” (106), notwithstanding the author’s earlier claims that she is only concerned with processes of identity construction. This clearly trespasses the bounds of scholarly impartiality, especially given that it has no relevance for a study of the importance of such claims as a method of carving out identities in the mediaeval Persianate world, regardless of their genuineness. At another point we read that “Tārīkh-i Bayhaq’s claims that a certain ṣaḥāba [sic] lived in the city does not constitute that reality if it did not actually happen” (29). One cannot agree more with this statement, as the material issue in a study preoccupied with identity construction in mediaeval writings is not the authenticity of such claims, but their importance for those who make the claim. In spite of this, in the chapter dealing with ṣaḥāba and tābiʿūn, the question whether this ṣaḥābī—one al-ʿAbbās ibn Mirdās—actually visited Bayhaq or not becomes central to the chapter, and Hanaoka, in her wild goose chase for coming up with an answer, seems to suggest that he did so at a time when he was still in contact with the prophet (144)! Those more familiar with the history of the period would know that this is impossible, as Muhammad died well before the onset of the Muslim conquest of the Near East, and certainly long before the conquest of Khurāsān in northeastern Iran. It might be that I have failed to appreciate the book’s offerings, hailing as I do from this so-called positivist school myself, but it must be said that I started reviewing it with great enthusiasm, hoping to learn from it how to do social history of subjective issues, only to find less-than-persuasive analyses of a few short, trivial narratives in it. The staggering number of mistakes in readings of Arabic and Persian texts were hardly of any help in regaining my trust in Hanaoka’s project.

The quality of the volume’s production might have somewhat assuaged the shortcomings in its arguments, but, sadly enough, it is riddled with errors of not only fact, but also of grammar, transliteration, etc.—to the extent that, at times, it is impossible to make sense of whole sentences. The author, despite claiming that she is following the transliteration scheme adopted by International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies (ix), fails to consistently follow any one system, resulting in curious renderings, such as Fakhr ud-Dawla b. Rukn al-Dawla (20, 55), and occasionally the same word appears in different forms on the very same page. She also fails to adopt, and stick to, a certain set of nomenclatures, constantly switching between the Arabic, Persian, and Anglicized forms of proper nouns, which results in strange constructions like “Jurgan” (!), a fusion of Persian Gurgān and Arabic Jurjān, (50, 159) cropping up here and there in the book. Unfortunately, such mistakes are not limited to the few cases enumerated here, and, consequently, the volume makes for very tedious reading.

Hanaoka’s book offers a number of intriguing insights on certain recurrent themes and topoi of mediaeval Persian historiography, but the editors of the series Studies in Islamic Civilization should have refused to publish it in its present form.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mehdy Shaddel is a scholar of Islamic history.

Date of Review: 
March 30, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mimi Hanaoka is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Richmond, where she is a scholar of history and religion. Her publications include scholarly journal articles on Persian and Islamic history and historiography. Her work as a social and cultural historian focuses on Iran and the Persianate world from the tenth to fifteenth centuries, concentrating on issues of authority and identity. In the field of global history, she concentrates on interactions between the Middle East and East Asia, focusing on the history of Iran-Japan relations.


Add New Comment

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.

Log in to post comments