Any notice of a historical personage is intrinsically an attempt to re-create a portrait of the subject. The artist sketching the image is the author and the depictions of the personage’s character traits and deeds are the colours. The tendencies of the author define whether the image will be dull or bright, and his biases shall reflect in his writing techniques and careful language manipulations. A historian of late Antiquity accurately said “the biographical process of creating an ideal character out of the historical data of a man’s life suggests that it is the philosophical and historical stance of the biographer, rather than the subject himself, that dominates the composition of the biography” (Robinson, 2003: 63). To a critical reader this means that any portrayal of a historical subject will only act as an interpretation which may not be accurate and shall always be subject to objective study. With editors and copyists standing between the reader and the author, questions regarding the ‘textual integrity’ as well as ‘author’s intention’ become even more serious and the consequential effects of a polluted manuscript tradition on the author can be injurious.
Some medieval Arabic biographies are of this nature. Medieval biographies of early Muslim scholars are more than just a repository for biographical notices and depictions of historical persons; they are in fact vehicles for praise and polemic (Douglas, 1977: 115) that sometimes advocate hagiography of a personage or promote damnation. There are many interesting aspects to the surviving manuscripts of these biographies and even more to the published editions. It is this line of interest that urges me to critically examine a biographical work written during the medieval period and investigate how the abovementioned realities are illustrated in it.
Read this fascinating piece of work coming soon to uncover the truth of the notoriously controversial biographical entry on Imam Abu Hanifah in Khateeb Baghdadi’s Tarikh Baghdad.