Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Tarikh al-Khulafah (History of the Caliphs) – Jalal al-din Abd al-Rahman al-Suyuti


The family of Suyuti were of Persian origin settling in Upper Egypt during the Abbasid reign. An orphan from early age, Jalal al-din Abd al-Rahman al-Suyuti (1445-1505 AD) studied the Islamic sciences rigorously and was an Islamic theologian, jurist, historian, philosopher and teacher. Having studied under more than 150 teachers, many of them leading figures of his time, Suyuti mastered jurisprudence, foundations of jurisprudence, Arabic grammar, Quranic exegesis, tradition and eloquence. Considered to be right on the edge of the historical period of classical Islam Suyuti lived in a period of considerable consolidation. The sheer volume of works penned by Suyuti, over 500 in number, make him one of the most prolific writers in Islamic history.

Suyuti wrote considerably in the areas of history and biography before writing Tarikh al-Khulafah, al-Shamarikh fi Ilm al-Tarikh being particularly a noteworthy addition on the theory of history.

Fundamental Ideas

Suyuti’s Tarikh al-Khulafah (History of the Caliphs) pieces extracts from a number of earlier historic sources to provide a coherent history of the Caliphs who lead the Islamic civilisations from the death of the Prophet through to the contemporary world of Suyuti. (He utilises the works of Dahabi to the year 700, Ibn Kathir to 738, Masalik to 773 and Ibn Hajr to 850 as well as the works of al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Ibn Asakir, Abu Nuaym, al-Dinawari, al-Mubarrad and Thaa’lab.)

Suyuti commences his introduction by addressing why the Prophet left no political successor, an important question in Shiite political thought. He cites a number of traditions from the Prophet and the companions starting with the hadith of Hudayfah where the Prophet said, “Verily did I appoint a successor over you and were you to rebel against the successor appointed by me, punishment would come upon you.” He then moves on to consider the necessity of the Imams being from Quraysh and provides brief discussions on the traditions prophesising of the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphate.

Suyuti then commences his profiles with Abu Bakr, the first Caliph in the history of Islam. He considers Abu Bakr’s background and ancestry before the advent of Islam and his services to Islam during the life of the Prophet. He details the factors that distinguish him from the other companions, lists the verses and ahadith that mention him and indicate his preference for the position of Caliph. The historic events following the death of the Prophet, the gathering of the companions to select a Caliph before the Prophet was buried and the final election of Abu Bakr are treated in detail. This is followed by the key events that happened during his reign, including the contentious despatch of the army of Usamah, the slaughter of the apostates Musaylamah the liar and the collection of the Quran. The profile ends with the death of Abu Bakr and his selection of the next Caliph, Umar ibn al-Khattab.

For the remaining Caliphs from the companions, Suyuti provides similar detailed histories, covering Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman bin Affan, Ali bin Abi Talib and Hasan bin Ali.

The Caliphate then evolves to the Banu Ummayyah dynasty, and Suyuti reduces the level of detail for each Caliph; he provides sketches for each caliph, including summaries of their characters, how they came to power, key events during their rule and their demise.

Suyuti explains how the Ummayad dynasty began with the first Ummayad ruler Muawiyah bin Abi Sufyan who handed it to his son Yazid who handed it to his son Muawiyah who ruled for 40 days before civil disturbances led the companion Abdullah bin Zubayr to temporarily become Caliph. Ibn Zubayr’s rule was violently cut short by the Ummayad ruler Abdul Malik bin Marwan who was then succeeded by his sons until the last Ummayad ruler, Marwan al-Himar (the ass) was replaced by Abu’l Abbas al-Saffah, the first in a long line of Abbasid rulers, in 750 AD. The history of the Abbasids follows a similar pattern to the Ummayads, switching to the Egyptian Caliphate in 1261 following the Mongol occupation of Baghdad, and ending with Suyuti’s contemporary Caliph, Mustamsik Billah.

Suyuti ends his Tarikh al-Khulafah with a two page overview of the rulers of the Umayyad dynasty of Spain.


Tarikh al-Khulafah is praiseworthy for its selective compilation and editorial commentary rather than any particularly new content. It allowed for the preservation of a number of older texts which no longer remain extant and for this alone it is noteworthy. Furthermore, Suyuti’s work follows a structure that has informed most later views of the period.