Research Proposal

Title and Keywords:

‘The Nihayat al-Irab fi Akhbar al-Furs w’al-‘Arab: a historiographical study’. Iran — origin of Islam — Sasanian dynasty — Arabic — Persian — Late Antiquity — historiography — Muslim universal history — source criticism
Background and Aims:

My doctorate, to be published as al-Dinawari’s Kitab al-Akhbar al-Tiwal: a Historiographical Study of Sasanian Iran by Res Orientales, was a philological and comparative investigation of al-Dinawari’s Kitab al-Akhbar al-Tiwal. That text is the first Muslim universal history blending together biblical narratives from the creation of the world onward, Iranian legend and history, and an account of the rise of Islam, and the Arab conquest of Iran. Mine was the first translation of that text into a European language, and mine is the only commentary on it yet written that I know of. My study of it built on my MPhil, published as Three Neglected Sources of Sasanian History in the Reign of Khusraw Anushirvan by Studia Iranica, which was a detailed study of three important texts dealing with Iranian history under the Sasanid dynasty. 

Al-Dinawari’s Kitab al-Akhbar al-Tiwal is strikingly similar to an anonymous text of uncertain date called the Nihayat al-Irab fi Akhbar al-Furs w’al-‘Arab. For the first time, I will translate this text, subject it to deep historiographical study, and explain its relationship to al-Dinawari’s work. There have been very few, and only cursory studies on the Nihaya since E. G. Browne published a series of notes on it in 1900. My study of it will be the longest and most detailed yet, and mine will be the first translation of it.

The Nihaya corresponds closely to many parts of al-Dinawari’s pre-Islamic material, but is about three times longer than that portion of Kitab al-Akhbar al-Tiwal. As Browne argued, it is also probably a forgery. It purports to have been composed in the late seventh century for the Umayyad caliph ʿAbd al-Malik, as though the man who built the Dome of the Rock, and who brought Islam to North Africa would have troubled himself to preserve the legends of pagan Iran. The Nihaya presents many fascinating historical and chronological problems noted in passing by Zeev Rubin and Hugh Kennedy. And yet the first critical edition of the Nihaya came out only in 1997, prepared by Iranian scholar Danesh-Pazhuh — and this despite the attention paid to it by Browne and Italian scholar Mario Grignaschi.

The Nihaya deserves its own study, and based on my past work I believe that I am best poised to do it. Testing and verifying the Nihaya will involve a great deal of comparison to texts in Latin, Greek, Persian, Arabic, Syriac, Armenian, and Classical Chinese. I have all these languages to a high standard but the last, and I have already identified the appropriate primary sources (including translations of Chinese sources), as well as the cardinal secondary authorities and modern studies.

Method and Programme:

Historians need to be able to use the Nihaya with confidence. This means painstaking analysis of every detail of that text, however trivial it may seem. So I propose to examine the Nihaya like a pathologist, and explain what it is made of and how it is put together.

A historian is likely to have discovered the truth when he finds that two or more texts, which have not influenced one another and which do not have sources in common, report identical or similar notices or adduce similar or complementary causes for one and the same event. The same applies to archaeological corroboration for a literary source.

I need no more than a year to complete this project. Translating the Nihaya will take six months, and another two will be needed to polish and perfect the translation. All the cardinal primary and secondary texts have already been identified, and I already have copious notes on all of them. It will take the balance of the year to synthesize all the relevant research and connect it with the Nihaya in the form of a detailed commentary and a series of expository essays accompanying it. I take as my model Nöldeke’s Tabari and LeComte’s study of Ibn Qutayba and his life and work.

The main sources to which I will compare the Nihaya were products of the cultures that abutted Iran in Late Antiquity (c. 3rd to 7th centuries AD): Roman (written in Greek, Latin, or Syriac), and Armenian sources. Ammianus Marcellinus, Procopius, Agathias, Menander Protector, Theophanes of Byzantium, Theophylact Simocatta, Łazar P‘arpec‘i, Pseudo-Joshua the Stylite, John Malalas, Sebeos, Ełiše, Moses Xorenac‘i, and Moses Kałankatwac‘i are the main authorities. But this is not exhaustive, and a full list of sources may be found in the bibliography here.


Results and Relevance:
Investigation of the Nihaya’s sources, its date, and the identity of its author will tell us much that is new about the first generation of Muslim historians, their intellectual climate, and the literature to which they had access. It will shed light on the transmission of Iranian myth, history, and romance into Arabic history and the Thousand and One Nights genre. This study will also reveal historical and literary details which are found nowhere else. Furthermore, because the Nihaya purports to quote authors of the Muslim era and is rich in names and descriptions of persons in pre-Islamic times, the study will enrich our knowledge of Late Antique and Islamic prosopography.

We live in an age in which Pope Benedict XVI’s quotation of a Byzantine Emperor caused an international uproar, and in which a new ‘Caliphate’ has declared itself master of an important portion of the Levant and Middle East. And so knowledge of the Middle East and its main cultures is arguably more important now than any time in the past two decades. And yet historians and policy makers often have little to work with, as I discovered during my time in politics. Though many valuable works on Islamic historiography have been written, individual works of history only rarely get scholarly attention. Strangely, scholarship on Muslim historiography presents a great many fascinating opportunities and it is almost a blank slate, and yet the study of neglected texts goes forward at a snail’s pace, or not at all, because so few are competent in the relevant languages. I want to take advantage of this state of affairs and add substantially to our knowledge of Iran’s past and the rise of Islam. In the context of modern foreign affairs and policy formation, these two topics will command attention from many angles.

The project outlined here is a long-standing goal of mine. Ideally it would be pursued within the context of a junior research fellowship or post-doctoral programme, but I intend to undertake it one way or another eventually. I welcome other scholars' recommendations, suggestions, and criticisms on the proposal.