History of the Saracens/Author's Preface

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History of the Saracens by Simon Ockley
Author's Preface

AUTHOR’S PREFACE.

The Arabians, a people but little noticed by the Greek and Roman authors, notwithstanding the nearness and the extent of their country, have, since the time of Mohammed, rendered themselves universally remarkable, both by their arms and learning. The understanding, therefore, of their affairs seems no less if not more necessary than a knowledge of the history of any people whatsoever, who have flourished since the decline of the Roman empire. Not only have they had as great men, and performed as considerable actions, as any other nation under heaven; but, what is of more concern to us Christians, they were the first ruin of the eastern church.

It might reasonably have been expected, that the Greeks, who bore the greatest share of that grievous calamity, and whose vices and divisions, it is to be feared, brought it upon the Christian world, would have taken particular care to have given a just account of it. But, on the contrary, they have been more jejune and sparing in this particular, than is allowable in any tolerable historian, even when relating matters at the greatest distance. Not to enumerate a long catalogue of their defects, I shall content myself with producing the words of an ingenious author,[1] who was well aware of the imperfections of the Greeks with relation to this history, and fully expresses the true sense of that matter in these words: “This,” says he, “in substance, is the account of those wars, and of the beginning of the Saracenic empire, which is left us by the Grecian writers of that age; who are justly accused of brevity and obscurity, in a subject that deserved to be more copiously handled; for undoubtedly it must needs have been various as well as surprising in its circumstances, containing no less than the subduing of whole nations, altering ancient governments, and introducing a new face of affairs in the world.” There is nothing more just than this observation; and what lame accounts must we then expect from those who compile histories of the Saracens out of the Byzantine historians?

I was no sooner convinced of this, but, having, by the study of their language, fitted myself in some measure for reading their authors, I felt a great desire to communicate some part of this hitherto unknown history to the world; being equally affected with wonder and concern, that, considering the multitude of learned men which the last age produced, it should have been so long neglected. The reason of this is, I conceive, that the very few who were masters of the Arabic learning were otherwise employed, spending their time in publishing such books as were absolutely necessary to pave the way for posterity to attain a competent skill in that difficult language. Others, insufficiently acquainted with that nation, have entertained too mean an opinion of them, looking upon them as mere barbarians and this mistaken notion hindered all further inquiry.

As for those great men who, in this last age first restored to us Europeans that learned, copious, and elegant language; I mean Erpenius, Giggeius, Golius, Sionita, and our incomparable Dr. Pocock; we cannot express how much we are indebted to them for their learned labours, without which the Arabic tongue would still have been inaccessible to us. But as there are other persons of a different taste, who, for want of due information, have conceived a wrong opinion of the Arabians, it will not be amiss, before we give a particular account of our present undertaking, to say something concerning that people.

Before Mohammed’s time they were idolaters. They were always a warlike people, seldom being at peace either with one another or their neighbours. They were divided into two classes; some of them lived in towns and villages; others, having no fixed, settled habitations, lived in tents, and removed from one part of the country to another, according as their necessities compelled, or conveniences invited them. Their chief excellence consisted in breeding and managing horses, and the use of bows, swords, and lances. Their learning lay wholly in their poetry, to which their genius greatly inclined them. Mohammed and his successors soon rooted out idolatry, and united those jarring tribes in the profession of that new superstition, which he pretended to have received by inspiration from God, delivered to him immediately by the angel Gabriel.

For about two hundred years, little else was cared for but war, except what concerned the interpretation of the Koran, and the sects and divisions among themselves which arose therefrom, and daily multiplied. But there was as yet no curiosity about foreign learning, nor desire of being acquainted with the arts and sciences. At last, in Al Mamoun’s reign, who was the twenty-seventh after Mohammed, and was inaugurated caliph in the 108th year of the Hejirah,[2] learning began to be cultivated to a very great degree especially mathematics and astronomy. And, in order to promote learning and science, that noble caliph spared no cost, either to procure such Greek books as were serviceable to that purpose, or to encourage learned men to the study of them. Nor did the sagacity and application of that ingenious, penetrating people in the least disappoint the designs of their munificent benefactor; their progress in learning, after they had once entered upon it, seeming no less wonderful than that of their conquests; for in a few years’ time they had plenty of translations out of the Greek, not only of mathematicians and astronomers, but also of philosophers, naturalists, and physicians. And this love of learning was not confined to the eastern parts, but diffused throughout the whole dominions of the Saracens, being first carried into Africa (where they erected a great many universities), and from thence into Spain: so that when learning was quite lost in these western parts, it was restored by the Moors, to whom was owing whatever of philosophy was understood by the Christians of these times. For Greek was not understood in this part of the world till the taking of Constantinople by the Turks, A.D. 1453, when several learned Greeks escaping with their libraries, and coming westward, that language was restored; therefore the philosophers and schoolmen, before this date, were obliged to content themselves with Latin translations, not only of Averroes, Alfarabius, and Algazali, and other Mohammedan authors, but also of Aristotle and other philosophers, which translations of Greek authors were not made out of the original Greek, but out of Arabic versions.

Had the Arabians, after having taken the pains to learn the Greek tongue, applied themselves with as much care to the historians, as they did to the philosophers, and studied Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and the other masters of correct writing which that language furnished, we might have expected from them a succession of historians worthy to write the great actions which were performed among them. But they never turned their thoughts that way, studying the Greek merely for the sake of the sciences, and valuing neither that nor any other language as compared with their own. And, though it must be granted that the Arabic is extremely fine and copious, so as to afford words sufficient to express with elegance and propriety every subject, it is, nevertheless, not sufficient of itself, any more than any other language, to make a man an author; there being a manifest difference between language and style, insomuch that a man may write the best language in the world, and use the most proper and significant words, and yet not be worth the reading. For besides propriety of expression, a certain justness and exactness (not only with respect to the choice of materials, but to the composition), must shine through the whole; and this is not to be attained without being well acquainted with the best authors.

The great esteem which I have for eastern learning makes me heartily wish that we had not too much cause in this respect to complain of our Arabic historians. For in this way they have deprived us of a great deal of the pleasure, and sometimes profit, which we might otherwise have derived from reading them. They have not sufficient regard to the due qualifications of an historian, but tell things after a careless manner, often stuffing their works with many trifling matters, at other times jingling upon words, and, to show the copiousness of their language and variety of expression, spinning out a trifling incident into a long story. It is, therefore, a work of difficulty to follow or compile these authors, and yet the task, nevertheless, deserves well to be undertaken, and will abundantly recompense the pains.

For in these authors is contained an account of all the most remarkable actions done in the east, and other parts, for above one thousand years. During this period, Asia and Africa were the scene of as great achievements as ever were performed in the times of the Roman empire, to which that of the Saracens was, in many respects, equal.

In order to carry out my design, after I had made a draught out of Elmakin, Abulfaragius, and Eutychius, I went to the Bodleian Library, which is, without question, the best furnished with oriental manuscripts of any in Europe. Besides a great number of the best authors, purchased by the University of Oxford, out of the libraries of Dr. Hyde, Dr. Huntington, and Dr. Pocock; not to mention Mr. Samuel Clark’s, Gravius’s, or Selden’s, there is in the Bodleian an invaluable collection given by that incomparable prelate and martyr of blessed memory, Archbishop Laud; of whose great virtues it would be superfluous to say anything here, they being so well known and admired by all that know how to set a just value upon learning and piety.

But this prelate’s princely munificence and zeal in restoring oriental learning in these northern climates, both by purchasing an excellent collection of eastern authors, and in encouraging men of abilities to apply themselves to that study, cannot, without the greatest ingratitude, be passed over in silence by any one that has any due regard to oriental learning. But I especially owe him this acknowledgment, as it was among the manuscripts of that reverend prelate that I found the best copy[3] of that author which I have here endeavoured to make speak English, and of whom I am now going to give an account.

His name is Abu Abdollah Mohammed Ebn Omar Al Wakidi. As to the time in which he lived I have not been able to find any authentic information, nor could I, by the diligent reading of him, discover any token by which I could give a probable guess.

Though I cannot precisely fix his age, it is most certain that he lived above two hundred years after the matter of fact which be relates. For, page 313, he mentions Al Motasem, the caliph, whose reign began in the year of our Lord 833; and, if so, it is the same thing as if he had lived six hundred years after. For that author that lives one thousand years after any matter of fact, is as much a witness of it as he that lives but at two hundred years’ distance. They are both of them obliged to take upon trust, and if there be no loss of good authors during that interval, he that writes latest is as credible an historian as the first.

Besides, the particulars relating to the first rise of kingdoms and empires are generally obscure. The reason of which is, because arms take rule of all, and a government must be well established before learning, can got room to breathe in it. Wherefore, in these cases, it is allowed by all, that those accounts, which have been handed down from time to time, and received by the best judges, ought to be looked upon as authentic. Never was there any person yet that inquired after the age of Livy, in order to know how far he might be accounted a competent relator of what was done in the reigns of Romulus and Numa Pompilius.

In these cases it is, as that excellent author very well observes: Famærerum standum est, ubi certam derogat vetustas fidem, “When a long interval of time has set things at too great a distance, we must be content with the current report, and rest satisfied with the best account we can get.” However, that author consults his own reputation, and his readers’ satisfaction most, who does not indifferently set down everything he meets with, but uses as much caution as the circumstances of the matter will admit. Our author, Al Wakidi, has not been wanting in this particular. Sometimes he ushers in a story after this manner: “I have been informed by a credible person.” In another place, he says: “We are informed by Moses Ebn Asem, who had it from Jonas Ebn Abdallah, who had it from his grandfather Abdarrhaman Ebn Aslam Arrabii, who was in the wars of Syria.” In that place where he gives an account of Derar and some others, who were put into chests at Arrean, he says: “I was informed by Ahmed Al Matin Al Jorhami, who had it from Raphaa Ebn Kais Al Amiri, who had it from Saiph Ebn Jabalah Al Chatgami, who had it from Thabet Ebn Al Kamah, who said he was present at the action.” These expressions (not to insinuate that they may afford a trace which may lead to a guess at the author’s age) are most evident proofs that he was as careful as he could, neither to be imposed upon himself, nor to deceive his reader. And though there are a great many such like expressions dispersed throughout his whole work, yet I have not thought fit to intermix them in my history, because it is so different from what the are used to. Here, however, I thought it necessary to give a taste of it, for the vindication of my author. And certain it is, that such things as these, nay of less consideration, were thought a good defence of Herodotus against Plutarch’s objections, by no less a person than the learned Harry Stephens.

Al Wakidi’s design was not to write the life of any particular caliph, but to give an account of the conquest of Syria. I should have been very glad if he had given me an opportunity of comparing him with some noble Greek or Latin historian, but his manner of writing will not allow it. He is chiefly valuable for this, that we find materials in him which we have no where else, and he is not so sparing of them, but there is liberty enough to pick and choose. How I have succeeded in this performance must be submitted to the judgment of the learned reader. Only I must take the liberty to say, that though I have not transcribed my author in every particular, yet I have done him no injury in anything that I have related; nor have I taken a liberty of writing carelessly, in hopes of being secure from discovery (the language not being generally understood), but have used the same diligence as I would have done were I sure that every one of my readers would instantly have collated my book with the manuscripts.

The archbishop’s copy, which I chiefly used, is two hundred and fifty years old, being written in the year of the Hejirah 863, of our Lord 1458. There is another copy of it among Dr. Pocock’s MSS. D’Herbelot says there is one in the library of the king of France; which are all that I know of in Europe.

Simon Ockley

Original footnotes[edit]

  1. Echard’s Roman History, vol. ii. p. 304.
  2. A.D. 813.
  3. MSS. Laud. No. A. 118.