History of the Saracens/Introduction

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


In our first volume[1] we have given an account of the wonderful success of the Saracens in the speedy conquest of Syria, Persia, and Egypt. The particulars of the sieges of Damascus, Alexandria, Aleppo, Antioch, Jerusalem, and several other places of great importance, as delivered by their own authors; the foundation of the destruction of the Grecian empire, and the establishment of that of the Saracens under the government of Abubeker, Omar, and Othman, the immediate successors of Mohammed.

But, if the reader expects in this second volume such a particular account of their foreign conquests as is to be found in the first, he will find himself deceived. When the Saracens first undertook the conquest of the universe, everything beyond their own bounds was new to them, and their achievements were no less matter of surprise to themselves than to their neighbours. Afterwards, however, when they were grown considerable enough to quarrel among themselves, and when their foreign enemies were removed so far from the centre of the government, that, let success prove which way it would, it was not likely to affect the vitals of the empire; their historians begin to pass over those distant transactions very cursorily, seldom descending to particulars, unless there happens to be something very extraordinary; and, what is more remarkable still, seldom take any notice of them, unless the bare mentioning of them can be reckoned as such. Not but that there are in several of their libraries particular accounts from whence many circumstances might be gathered relating to Africa, and also entire histories of the conquest of Spain; while, for the eastern parts of their empire, the Persian historians are the best.

Instead of such exact accounts of foreign affairs, we are in the present period entertained with a quite different scene. Here their historians dwell principally upon those terrible divisions among themselves which, originating with the succession of Ali and his family, the abdication of his son Hasan, and the death of Hosein, have laid the foundation of perpetual discord among the followers of the prophet. For the dissensions between Ali’s followers (of whom the Persians are chief), and the Traditionists (of whom are the Turks, and whose creed we have inserted at the end of the Life of Mohammed), seem never likely to be reconciled so long as Mohammedanism itself shall exist. Some of the Turks, indeed, interpret that fable of Mohammed’s having divided the moon, and, after holding one half of it for some time in his sleeve, joining it again to the other, as prefiguring the division of the professors of Mohammedanism (whose standard is the new moon) into those two great sects, and the re-union of them after a certain period of years.

These things, together with the changing of their government from an elective monarchy as it was left to them by Mohammed, into an hereditary one, as commenced by Moawiyah, and firmly settled in the reigns of his successors; as well as the account of the immense and rapid extension of their empire, form the principal contents of the second volume. And although we have not arrived at the conquest of Spain, nor the learned age of the Arabians, yet we have brought the Saracen empire to an established settlement, and written the history of fourscore years, in which the Saracens conquered very much more than the Romans did in four hundred.

I designed, when I first set about the present portion of my work, to take in the whole of the contemporary affairs of the Christians; but, upon second thoughts, it appeared to me to be foreign to my purpose. Every one may satisfy himself, by reading this history, how regardless during its course the Saracens were of any European powers; they were wholly taken up with their domestic quarrels. The proposed way of proceeding must have occasioned a great many discourses to be intermixed through the whole, in order to reconcile the accounts of the Greeks and Arabians, which widely disagree both in the facts and the dates. By such discussions the narrative of Arabian affairs must have been frequently and unseasonably interrupted. A man might as well undertake to write the history of France for the present time, out of our newspapers, as to give an account of the Arabians from Christian historians. The Arabians (and it is their history we write, and no other) are the most likely to give the best account of things performed among themselves. Wherefore all that we promise, is, to fix our chronology to a day.

Then, as to the Greeks, whom, in the early part of our history, we see sufficiently broken by the irresistible prowess of the victorious Saracens; it was not in their power to offer any considerable opposition to such foes. For so great was their intrepidity that there was not a single deputy-lieutenant or general among them that would not have thought himself worthy to be branded with indelible disgrace, if he should have suffered himself to have been intimidated even by the united forces of all Europe. And if any one asks, why the Greeks did not exert themselves more towards the extirpation of these insolent invaders? to say, that Amrou kept his residence at Alexandria, and Moawiyah at Damascus, is a sufficient answer to any person that is acquainted with the characters, of those men.

But what a great many persons, otherwise of no contemptible reading nor abilities, wonder at, is the vast difference between the occurrences in our present history and those that are found in others. But whosoever considers the briskness and activity of the Arabians (the effect of the warmth of) their climate, temperance, and constant exercise), joined to their enthusiasm, will find an easy solution of those extravagant actions that seem to distinguish them from the rest of mankind.

For this reason no one ought to wonder if I have accommodated my style to the humour of the people of whom I write. To write of men in their circumstances, who were all humorists, bigots, and enthusiasts, in the same style as becomes the sedateness and gravity of the Greeks and Romans, would be most unsuitable and unnatural. In such a case you put them in a dress which they would no more thank you for than a Roman senator would for a long periwig, or Socrates for a pair of silk stockings. You rob them of all their merit; the very things for which you laugh at them are what they most value themselves upon; and it is most certain, that the nearer you bring a man that is singular to the rest of mankind, the farther you remove him from himself, and destroy the very being of his singularity. This will, I hope, satisfy the judicious reader, that, if I have deviated from that way of writing which was first established by the ancients, and always admired and imitated by the wisest of the moderns, I have done so not of choice, but of necessity. For otherwise I should have abused both the Arabians and my readers: the former by putting them into a disguise under a pretence of dressing them; my readers, by defrauding them of the humour of that enthusiastic nation. Wherefore I have let them tell their own story their own way; and I have abstained as much as possible from intermixing reflections of my own, unless where there appeared a necessity of illustrating something that might not be obvious to persons unacquainted with oriental affairs.

I must confess that some of the particulars seem very odd and ridiculous; but the stranger they are, the more they illustrate the character of the people of whom we write. Besides, there is a vast deal of difference between being a reader and a spectator. The things that make us laugh now, would have made us tremble then. The habit, the manner, the gravity, sobriety, and activity of that conquering people, are not beneath the observance of the greatest genius. What we find in them to laugh at is the difference of their manners. But this is but a childish reason, and the very same which makes ignorants laugh at scholars; fools, at wise men; boys, at old ones; atheists and debauchees, at persons of virtue and religion. However, I do not deny, but that I have here and there inserted a relation wherein the matter of fact itself contains nothing very extraordinary; nevertheless, I could not make up my mind to omit it, because the circumstances appeared to be highly characteristic of the humour and genius of that tragi-comical people.

Who would not rather have the details of a siege omitted, than lose the description of Ali’s inauguration? Of the former a man may form some notion by himself, but he could have no idea of the latter without good authority. Many cities have been taken under nearly the same circumstances, but very few emperors, I believe, were ever proclaimed in such style as Ali. A great many other little incidents there are, very useful and entertaining in themselves, that may be properly enough inserted in writing a life, which would not so well come into a universal history, whose course goes on like a vast river, sometimes overflowing its banks, sometimes keeping within its bounds; sometimes with a great, impetuous fall, sometimes with a smooth and almost imperceptible motion. But, in writing the lives of monarchs, the course of the narrative is frequently interrupted, and the historian must detail several little particulars pertaining to his particular person, his humour, friends, enemies, passions, affections, dangers, deliverances, apophthegms, and the like, not properly belonging to the history of the people. Such is the difference between Suetonius and Livy.

But, to write after the manner of the most celebrated universal historians, all little circumstances and trivial discourses must be omitted; the language must be all of the same thread, and the whole carried on in a nervous, eloquent, and flowing style; and, when the subject calls for it (as i??? any very extraordinary case), proportionable ornament must be added; the images magnified beyond the life, and embellished to that degree sometimes, that the historian puts on the orator before he is aware: and speeches must be made suitable to every occasion, according to the abilities of the author. Throughout the cadence must be smooth and easy, and the periods full: nothing must be inserted that falls beneath the dignity of history; otherwise, between the style and the matter, it must of necessity oftentimes happen, that a great deal of nature is lost. The whole composition must be uniform, and managed as regularly as a well-built edifice. In short, such a round turn must be given to everything, that the facts shall seem to be made on purpose to embellish the history, rather than the history for the relation of the facts. He, therefore, that reads for delight, and loves to be entertained with artful compositions, will choose this way; he that studies nature, will be better pleased with the other. That is one reason why persons of the greatest severity and exactest judgment delight in comedy, not only because it diverts them, but because it lets them into the humour of mankind, and paints it in all conditions of life as it really is. Now, why an historian, whose business is truth, should, for the sake of imitation, smother every thing that is characteristic and distinguishing of the people concerning whom he writes, I cannot understand. Wherefore, let Livy make speeches for his people, and Tacitus invent politics, it is the glory of our Arabic historians to represent the naked truth as handed down from their ancestors in its native simplicity. So that, as much as we are exceeded by other authors in their elaborate expression, and the strength and artifice of their composition, so much at least do we hope to exceed them in the unaffected plainness and sincerity of our relation.

Some critics were pleased to object to the first part of my history, that it was the strangest story they had ever heard since they were born! They never met with such folks in their lives as these Arabians! They never heard too, they said, of these things before, which they of course must have done, if any body else had. A reverend dignitary asked me, if, when I wrote that book, I had not lately been reading the History of Oliver Cromwell! They say that the Arabians are given to romance; and for that reason I suppose they are not to be believed (according to Aristotle) when they speak truth. And above all, that a history will never go down in this nice age, that contains only a relation of battles, but that the very, quintessence of a history consists in the politics.

Now for my own part I must confess, that I am of such an indolent disposition, that if I can but fairly get rid of this last grand objection, I care not one rush for all the rest. I confess that a history without politics comes into the world in very unfashionable circumstances, especially in a generation wherein, if fortune had not envied our merit, we should all have been plenipotentiaries, secretaries of state, or privy-councillors! What affects me most is, that this objection should be made by these enlightened gentlemen, whom every body would have supposed to have been so well skilled in analytics, as upon the first sight of any action to have made an infallible guess at the springs of it. Besides, I should have run a great risk on the other side, for it is an insufferable affront in an author to leave nothing to his intelligent reader, but to be always feeding him with a spoon; and teaching him to read with a fescue! Who would ever have imagined but that it was the peculiar talent of these gentlemen, upon first sight of the event to trace back the springs of the action; and surely it required no great discernment to trace the course and issue of events, in an enthusiastic tyrannical government, held by persons entangled in family quarrels entailed upon them from generation to generation, and not extinguished, whatsoever they pretended, by their being united in the same profession of Mohammedanism. For it was from these antecedent divisions that arose those terrible convulsions in the state which, had it not been very well supported by their aversion to Christianity on the one side, and to idolatry on the other, must soon have rendered them a prey to their common enemies. Add to this, that those persons who had enjoyed the greatest share of their prophet’s favour when alive, were treated with proportionable respect after his decease. To such a height was this carried, that if any person had been any way familiar with Mohammed, he was reckoned among the companions[2] though he was never so young; and so great was the respect paid to them, that their authority would turn the scale in almost any debate. For the Saracens preferred to go to a very great extremity, rather than reject the advice of a companion of the apostle—of course I mean if that counsel were urged on the prevailing side; for notwithstanding their allegiance to their prince, it is evident they were no bigots to indefeasible right.

But if the not having heard of this history before be such a terrible objection against it, what would the having heard of it before have been? I must confess that objection lies strong against the veracity of it to persons who would take it as an affront to be supposed capable of being ignorant of such a considerable part of history as this pretends to be. What I wonder most at is, that those very gentlemen who formerly were better acquainted with the rivers Jaxartes and Oxus, Indus and the Ganges, than with the Thames itself which they swam in every holiday; who discoursed of Asia as if they had been surveyors to Alexander the Great; who would have disputed every foot of ancient geography with no less eagerness than if it had been a paternal inheritance; and could pronounce concerning the oracle of Jupiter Ammon with no less certainty than the oracle itself, should on a sudden prove so indolent as not only to suffer those delicate provinces to be ravished out of their hands without so much as venturing a suit about them, but even express an ungrateful displeasure of those who too officiously proffer their service to restore them gratis. However, these critics are of the kinder sort; they neither mean nor do any great hurt they only make themselves a little sport with those things which they do not very well understand; and, if they carry on the humour upon that foot, bid fair for the reputation of the merriest company in the world.

I have not omitted to make every use of the learned labours of Monsieur D’Herbelot, whose Bibliothéque Orientale deserves the highest esteem from all that have a true taste for oriental learning. After I had made my collections, I found him so accurate in the life of Ali, in the history of the Saracens, that I have chosen sometimes to transcribe him paragraph by paragraph, rather than to spoil what was already well done, by affecting to make it my own.

To him I owe whatsoever is quoted from the Persian authors. How often have I endeavoured to perfect myself in that easy and delicate language; but my malignant and envious stars have still combined to frustrate my attempts. However, they shall sooner alter their own courses than extinguish my resolution of quenching that thirst, which the little taste I have had of it, hath so hotly excited.

I am as yet ignorant of Turkish; which I should not be so much concerned at, were it not for five volumes in that language in our public library, which I behold with delight and concern at the same time: with delight, because they are ours, and so not to be despaired of: with concern, because I do not myself understand them. They are a translation of the great Tabari, who is the Livy of the Arabians; the very father of their history. As far as I could find by inquiry his original work is given over for lost in Arabia. I formerly inquired of my predecessor, Dr. Luke, concerning him, who told me he had never met with him in the east, and that he believed there was no hope of finding an Arabic copy of his book Monsieur D’Herbelot says the same. And there is this good reason for it, that this being the standard of their history, and upon that account translated from the very first out of Arabic into Turkish, the value of the Arabic copy must of necessity have fallen more and more in all those territories where Turkish is better understood than Arabic; for it would not be worth the bookseller’s while to be at the charge of transcribing it. However that we might not imagine it lost because of its extreme scarcity, I luckily found a piece of it in folio amongst archbishop Laud’s manuscripts (it is unfortunately imperfect), accurately written and with all the points, and no doubt for the use of some great person. Without the assistance of which copy I must oftentimes have been left in the dark. Had I not been destitute of similar aids; had I not been forced to snatch everything that I have, as it were out of the fire; our history of the Saracens should have been ushered into the world after a different manner. Now, gentlemen, though critics and readers, I hold you in very particular respect, yet pardon me if I choose rather to point out my own deficiencies than leave them for you to find out; for I fear lest, notwithstanding your candour, a fault should be ascribed to my laziness or negligence that ought more justly to be attributed to the influence of inexorable necessity. Wherefore, in the first place, I will confess that could I have been master of my own time and circumstances, I would never have published anything of this kind, till I had perfectly finished the first part of it according to the natural division which the circumstances of the Saracen empire suggested to the Arabian historians. This era would have extended, from Mohammed’s birth to the ruin of the house of Ommiyah by that of Abbas, which was effected in that part of the year of the Hejirah one hundred and thirty two, which answers to part of the year of our Lord seven hundred and fifty. And this period would consequently have included several other conquests, besides that of Spain.

But these were things rather to be desired than hoped for; and if I had waited till I could have made all this preparation, I should never have published any of it as long as I lived. The ancients oftentimes thought a life well spent in polishing one single book; and they certainly were very much in the right of it, if (as most certainly they did) they intended to perpetuate their memories to posterity, and eke out perishing mortality with an access of glory. We moderns on the contrary can no sooner propose anything though it requires never so much care and application, but we are daily importuned to know when it is to come out. This however is our comfort, that the ancients are in their graves, and though we can, when we find leisure, read their books, they shall never arise from the dead to read ours.

But that we may not affectedly attribute to the ancients all excellence exclusively, we must observe that modern taste is not always so corrupt. Monsieur Petit de la Croix, (that famous oriental interpreter to the late Louis XIV. of France, ) when commanded by the great Colbert to write the life of Jenkizchan, did not think, as his son acknowledges in the preface, ten years too much time to employ upon it; though he neither wanted books, leisure, abilities, nor encouragement. It is not the mere following those authors who have made their business to write the lives of such or such princes that is sufficient; but it is also necessary to gather up the scattered remains that occur in other historians; to consult the commentators upon the Koran; to consult the scholiasts of their poets; also their medals, inscriptions, and lexicographers. The historian must also trace the originals of customs, surnames, tribes, and the like; and in a word, must dispose all the materials with such judgment that every part may fall naturally into its proper place, and add a lustre to the whole.

But my unhappy condition hath always been such as was far from admitting of such an exactness. Fortune seems only to have given me a taste of it out of spite, on purpose that I might regret the loss of it. Though perhaps I might accuse her wrongfully for befriending me with an excuse for those blemishes that would have admitted of none had I been furnished with all those assistances and advantages, the want of which I now bewail. If that was her meaning, she hath been very tender of my reputation indeed, and resolved that my adversaries should have very little reason to accuse me of the loss of time. The first part of my work cost me two journeys to Oxford, each of them of six weeks only, (inclusive of the delays upon the road, and the difficulty of finding the books without any other guide than the catalogue, not always infallible.) But my chief business being then with one author,[3] it was so much the easier to make a quick despatch; because it is of no small moment in affairs of this nature to be once well acquainted with the hand of the manuscript, and the style of the author.

But in my second undertaking I found the appearance of things quite different in more respects than one. Either my domestic affairs were grown much worse, or I less able to bear them, or, what is most probable, both were the case.[4] What made me easy as to my journey and charges during my absence, was the liberality of the worshipful Thomas Freke, Esq. of Pennington, Wilts; to whom the world is indebted for whatsoever is performed at present in this second work; I mean with regard to the expenses: which kindness however would not have answered the end be designed, if I had not been indulged with all possible conveniences of study, first by the favour of my much honoured friend, the incomparable Dr. Halley, who, with the consent of his learned colleague Dr. Heil, allowed me the keys of the Savilian study. In the next place I have to express my thanks to the reverend and learned Dr. Hudson, principal librarian of the Bodleian; who according to his wonted humanity permitted me to take out of the library whatsoever books were for my purpose; otherwise, though I had five months, time, much could not have been done, considering the variety and difficulty of the manuscripts. Besides all which I was forced to take the advantage of the slumbers of my cares, that never slept when I was awake; and if they did not incessantly interrupt my studies, were sure to succeed them with no less constancy than night doth the day.[5] Though it would be the height of ingratitude in me not to acknowledge that they were daily alleviated by the favours and courtesies which I received from persons of the greatest dignity and merit in that noble university; too numerous to be all here inserted, and all too worthy (should I mention any one of them) to be omitted.

Some such apology as this will always be necessary for him that undertakes a work of this nature upon his own bottom, without proper encouragement. If any one should pertly ask me, why then do you trouble the world with things that you are not able to bring to perfection? let them take this answer of one of our famous Arabian authors;[6] what cannot totally be known, ought not to be totally neglected; for the knowledge of a part is better than the ignorance of the whole.

Original footnotes[edit]

  1. The edition from which the present is printed is in two volumes, published at intervals, in 1757. This introduction was prefixed to the second volume. Ed.
  2. Ziyad was of this number: he was born in the year of the Hejirah, and was but eleven years old when Mohammed died.
  3. Al Wakidi.
  4. “Ingenuous confession! fruits of a life devoted, in its struggles, to important literature! and we murmur when genius is irritable, and erudition is morose!” —D’Israeli’s Calamities of Authors.
  5. “This is the cry of agony. He who reads this without sympathy, ought to reject these volumes (Calamities of Authors) as the idlest he ever read; and honour me with his contempt” —D’Israeli.
  6. Abulfeda, Præf. ad Geograph.