Ibn Khallikan: Shaping Islamic History through the Lens of a Kurdish Scholar
March 18, 2024

Zhilwan Tahir || 18 March 2024

In the realm of Islamic history, several individuals emerge as notable for their significant influence and valuable achievements. Ibn Khallikan, a prominent Kurdish historian, stands out as a noteworthy character whose writings have had a lasting impact on the comprehension of Islamic culture. This introduction provides a foundation for exploring the life, accomplishments, and lasting impact of Ibn Khallikan, highlighting his crucial contribution to establishing the account of Islamic history. Ibn Khallikan, also known as Shams al-Dīn Abū al-ʿAbbās Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad Ibn Khallikan al-Ṣāʿī, was born in 1211 in Erbil, which is now the capital of Kurdistan, under the Ayyubid dynasty. His Kurdish ancestry had a substantial influence on his viewpoint and methodology in recounting historical accounts, offering a distinct perspective through which he saw the occurrences and individuals of his day. The cultural and intellectual traditions of the area where he was raised likely had a significant impact on his academic interests and his commitment to safeguarding the historical heritage of the Islamic world. Ibn Khallikan’s Kurdish heritage as a historian brings a unique element to his writings, showcasing the intricate and multidimensional nature of Islamic history with great subtlety and depth.

During his early childhood, he had a strong desire for information and a profound intellectual curiosity, demonstrating advanced intelligence and a fervour for studying from a young age. Ibn Khallikan’s insatiable need for knowledge compelled him to deeply engage himself in several disciplines of study, including literature, philosophy, and history. Commencing in local schools in Erbil, his first education established the groundwork for his subsequent scholastic endeavours. At 18 years old, he began his official studies in prestigious educational institutions, immersing himself in the writings of notable academics and philosophers of that era. He pursued a diverse array of disciplines throughout his studies, including religion, philosophy, languages, and scientific sciences. This provided him with a comprehensive intellectual skill set that would later influence his approach to historical study and writing. Engaging with other academics and mentors throughout his studies was vital in moulding his intellectual growth, enhancing his comprehension of many academic fields, and fostering a commitment to rigorous scholarship and critical analysis. Ibn Khallikan’s formative years and scholarly training established the foundation for his subsequent significant contributions to the subject of Islamic history, propelling him towards attaining a position of great renown as a historian during his day. His work as a historian was marked by an unwavering devotion to academic research and a steadfast determination to safeguard the historical heritage of the Islamic world.

Ibn Khallikan’s extensive masterpiece, “Wafayāt al-Aʿyān wa-Anbāʾ Abnāʾ az-Zamān” (The Obituaries of Eminent Men), serves as a witness to his thorough investigation and deep comprehension of the influential figures who played a significant role in shaping Islamic history. Ibn Khallikan’s biographical dictionary has more than 800 comprehensive profiles of prominent individuals from several domains. It showcases his meticulous observation and profound understanding of the intricacies of human existence. With his biographical sketches, he documented the accomplishments and impacts of notable individuals, while also providing a glimpse into their personal lives, character traits, and intellectual pursuits. This allowed him to capture the true nature of the era they lived in and reveal the cultural, social, and political forces that shaped their lasting influence. Ibn Khallikan’s dedication to precision and objectivity in the field of historiography established a lofty benchmark for historical study, garnering him much praise from his peers and future generations of historians. His rigorous methods and precise attention to detail enabled a well-rounded and thorough study of the past, enhancing our knowledge of the many individuals who influenced the Islamic world. Ibn Khallikan’s deep admiration for the personalities he documented, together with his unyielding drive to acquire information, emphasized his steadfast commitment to safeguarding the historical heritage of Islamic culture. His contributions to Islamic historiography have a lasting impact, providing a significant resource for researchers and enthusiasts interested in delving into the intricate details of Islamic history. Ibn Khallikan’s rigorous investigation, erudite compositions, and comprehensive understanding of the lives of prominent individuals have had a lasting impact on the discipline of historiography, motivating successive cohorts of historians and biographers to explore the intricacies of Islamic history more extensively. His impact and lasting effect persist, moulding the trajectory of historical research and underlining the lasting importance of his contributions to the study of Islamic history.

Ibn Khallikan’s writings have had a substantial impact on the discipline of historiography, namely in the domains of biographical writing and historical studies. His fastidious commitment to research, rigorous technique, and deep insights into the lives of significant persons have established a lofty benchmark for historical writing and motivated future generations of historians. An essential element of Ibn Khallikan’s impact is in his focus on rigorous investigation and painstaking attention to detail while recording the biographies of notable individuals. His meticulous examination of original documents, meticulous confirmation of information, and all-encompassing methodology in composing biographies have motivated historians to maintain exacting criteria of inquiry and precision in their endeavours. In addition, Ibn Khallikan’s exhaustive methodology in writing biographies, as seen in his gigantic opus “Wafayāt al-Aʿyān,” has highlighted the significance of including the whole of an individual’s life and achievements. Through the provision of comprehensive narratives about individuals from a wide range of disciplines, he has emphasized the depth and intricacy of human existence, enhancing our comprehension of the past. Furthermore, Ibn Khallikan’s works often situate the lives of people within the wider historical, cultural, and intellectual framework of the Islamic world. His analysis of the social and political dynamics of his era provides significant viewpoints on the interdependence of persons and historical occurrences, underscoring the need to comprehend historical context in the field of historiography.

In addition, Ibn Khallikan’s thorough record-keeping of the lives and accomplishments of prominent individuals has been crucial in safeguarding the historical recollection of the Islamic world. His unwavering commitment to documenting the legacies of influential persons guarantees that their achievements are not lost to history and serves as a significant asset for future generations of historians and scholars. In general, Ibn Khallikan’s literature has had an enduring influence on the field of history, shaping the methodologies used by historians in doing research, producing biographies, and safeguarding historical recollections. His reputation as a thorough and careful researcher and preserver of culture continues to influence the field of history and motivate a new cohort of historians to maintain the utmost levels of academic investigation and narrative.

Ibn Khallikan’s approach to writing historical biographies is characterized by thorough investigation, extensive verification, and a commitment to precision and intricacy. His manner of writing biographies exemplifies a meticulous academic approach that has set a standard for historical study and documentation. An essential element of Ibn Khallikan’s approach is his dependence on sources. He thoroughly immersed himself in historical records, manuscripts, and stories to collect knowledge about the people he featured. Ibn Khallikan secured the validity and dependability of the material in his biographies by giving priority to sources. In addition, Ibn Khallikan’s technique involves a rigorous process of verification and cross-referencing. He meticulously verified data and facts from several sources to ensure their truth and coherence, so bolstering the legitimacy of his biographical narratives. Ibn Khallikan used a complete methodology in his biographical writings. His objective was to provide a comprehensive perspective of the persons he depicted by including information about their history, education, achievements, and social impact. This thorough approach enhanced his biographies and offered readers a broader comprehension of the individuals he portrayed. Moreover, contextualization was a vital factor in Ibn Khallikan’s technique. He stressed the need to place the lives of people within the wider historical, cultural, and intellectual framework of the Islamic world.

Through the provision of this contextual framework, he enhanced readers’ understanding of the social, political, and cultural forces that influenced the lives of the persons he documented. Furthermore, Ibn Khallikan’s adeptness in storytelling was a perfect match for his meticulous approach. The author’s intriguing narrative and vivid portrayals breathed life into the characters, capturing readers and enhancing the accessibility and allure of the historical facts.  Ibn Khallikan’s approach to historical biographical writing is characterized by meticulousness, comprehensiveness, and contextual richness. This is achieved by extensive use of primary sources, rigorous verification methods, and skilful storytelling. His meticulous approach has not only enhanced the lasting significance of his work but has also shaped the criteria for historical investigation and record-keeping in the discipline of historiography.

Ibn Khallikan, a renowned Islamic scholar and historian, pursued a remarkable judicial career that demonstrated his profound knowledge of Islamic law and his substantial contributions to the legal and academic domains of his day. He started his career as an aide to the head judge of Egypt, where he acquired significant expertise in legal affairs and the management of the judicial system. In 1261, Ibn Khallikan was appointed as the qāḍī al-quḍāt, or head judge, in Damascus. In this role, he was responsible for supervising judicial procedures, interpreting Islamic law, and ensuring justice in the province. He employed his legal skills in his judicial duties by following the Shāfiʿī branch of Islamic law, which is noted for its methodical approach and reliance on the Qur’an and Sunna. In 1271, Ibn Khallikan, despite his successful tenure as the chief judge of Damascus, was confronted with removal. Afterwards, he transitioned to teaching in Cairo, where he imparted his expertise in Islamic law and jurisprudence to students and academics. His teaching position enabled him to pursue his scientific interests and be intellectually engaged throughout this time. By demonstrating unwavering commitment to his legal profession and academic pursuits, Ibn Khallikan successfully reclaimed his position as a judge and went back to Damascus in 1278, where he resumed his responsibilities as the principal judge. His reinstatement signified a notable phase in his judicial career, during which he consistently upheld the tenets of Islamic law and made valuable contributions to the legal framework of the area until his death on October 30, 1282, in Damascus. Ibn Khallikan’s progression from a judge in Egypt to the principal judge of Damascus, his strict adherence to the Shāfiʿī school of law, his encounters with termination and instruction in Cairo, and his eventual comeback to Damascus highlight his deep involvement in Islamic jurisprudence, his ability to withstand difficulties, and his lasting impact as a scholar and legal expert in the medieval Islamic realm.

Ultimately, the 13th-century Kurdish historian Ibn Khallikan had an everlasting impression on Islamic history. In addition to his substantial function as chief judge in Damascus, his thorough and methodical approach to historiography exemplifies his multidimensional impact. The lasting effect of Ibn Khallikan on research standards and the distinctive viewpoint he brought to our knowledge of Islamic culture are the foundations of his legacy. His work as a historian has an impact that goes far beyond his lifetime, encouraging people to learn about and value Islamic heritage.

Zhilwan Tahir obtained his Bachelor’s degree in General History from Salahadin University in Erbil, Kurdistan Regional Government, Iraq. In 2021, he completed his Master’s degree in History and Civilization at the International Islamic University of Malaysia. Currently, he is pursuing a PhD in the Philosophy of History as a candidate at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC-IIUM).

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Updated version: 2.39-20231022