Ibn Asakir’s history of the city of Damascus: The great achievement in the Muslim historiography

  • Ahmet Alibašić, dr.


This work is an attempt to present one of the great achievements in the Muslim historiography, Ibn Asakir’s History of the city of Damascus. After the author’s short biography, the work analyzes the content of History, its methodology, structure of biographies, its sources and im- pact on later Muslim historiography. Contemporary of Nuruddin ez-Zenki and Salahuddin Ejjubi, Ibn ‘Asakir (d. 1176) was a historian, great traveler, Shafi’i lawyer, poet, activist, Ash’arite theologian, professor of daru ‘l-hadis (school of hadith) and, above all muhaddis. Apart from his hometown Damascus, he was educated in Mecca, Medina, Kufa, Baghdad, Horasan, Isfahan, Transoxani, Merv, Tabriz, Bejhek, Nishapur, Herat and Mosul. He had over 1300 male teachers (shejks) and around 80 female teachers, which in fact were the sources of his Tarih. He authored 143 works. Ibn ‘Asakir started to write Tarih between years 525 and 529 of Hijra and he was doing it until the last days of his life. Just before his death he wrote the introduction to this work. His son Qasim did the last editorial work on Tarih which is, apart from other, incorporation of the ‘Asakir’s notes from the margins into the main text.

This eighty- volume work with about 7000 biographies has been only partially published, thanks to the effort done by Academy of Ara- bic language from Damascus, but still none of the works have been completed yet. The Academy has published around twenty volumes (with 353-527 pages without introduction and indexes which, usually had around the same number of pages). Lately, publishing of this work has been taken over by the publishing house Mu’essesetu ‘r-risale from Beirut, with whom quality of the publication became visible. If they continue with such rhythm, today’s Muslim institutions will need some hundred and thirty years to complete the preparation and publishing of work, which was written by one person in the 12 century! Tarihu medineti Dimasq ve zikru fadliha ve tesmijetu men halleha mine ‘l-emasil ev idstaze bi nevahiha min varidiha ve ehliha is a biographic vocabulary similar to Tarihu Baghdad of El-Hatib el-Bagdadi. Tarih could be divided into two parts: introduction about importance, topography and history of Damascus and general remarks about history as a science, and main part, which began with the biography of Prophet (p.b.u.h.). Generally, Ibn ‘Asakir prefers to give information rather than comments. The biographies are different in length. In principle, one biography posses the following elements: full name (if it is known), some of hadith which that person transmitted, news about his appearance and behavior, something about social and political relations, the activities of the person and date of death. Very often in the first transmission after the name of a particular person Ibn ‘Asakir gives reason why such person has been included in Tarih. Mostly the biographies are long because of the long citation of different seneds which does not give much new information. Tarih is the one of the last works that gives the citation of seneds for transmission.

While preparing Tarih Ibn ‘Asakir has used hundreds of sources but he did not mention their titles. Instead of that he usually gives sened, which is according to hadith methodology. Tarih was very influential in Islamic historiography, what is visible through wide circulation of this work, the fact that Muslim scholars were full of praise for him and the emergence of a few summaries of this work as well. We are fortunate that we have today preserved and already published a summary of History, which was prepared by a well-known lexicographer Ibn Menzur.

Even though, by structure this work belongs to the category of biographical dictionaries, Ibn ‘Asakir’s work is in fact the cultural history of the whole of Syria from its early days to the last days of the authors’ life and as such, it presents indispensable source for the history of that part of the Muslim world.