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Biography

Written exclusively for Salaam by al-Maktabi

There is a substantial literature in Muslim and European languages that fall under the broad rubric of biography. Its forerunner is the tradition of hagiography or sacred biography that deals with the lives of the Prophets and saints. This genre of writing celebrates lives and deeds - often focussing on the miraculous - holding them up as models for emulation. Hagiography is concerned not so much with description as with redefinition, with a ways of re-orienting lives and re-focusing readers or an audience. The multi-volume 'Saviours of the Spirit of Islam' by Mawlana Abul Hasan Ali Nadvi, first written in Urdu and published in the 1950s contain biographies very much in the hagiographic vein. The author's purpose was precisely to inspire, not to attempt critical scholarship or reveal a personal or idiosyncratic appreciation of each figure.

Modern biography is rather different. There are many different styles of biographical narrative, among which is prominently the detailed studies of famous individuals. Politicians who have left behind large archives are often the subjects of such detail studies, but avant garde writers and artists have also earned close study. The overwhelming detail of a serious biography of such figures often limits its appeal.

There can never be one definitive study of a historical figure for every age sees her/him in a different light. Some of this scholarship is aimed at the general reader, others at the specialist. A writer such as Thackeray, for instance, or the composer Berlioz, would be rather unexciting subjects to be concerned with since the work of an artist is mostly quiet slogging at the desk or piano or in a studio. Yet, they have earned a great deal of attention; Berlioz, a two-volume biography, of which the second volume was short-listed for the 1999 Whitbread Prize!

The biographies of the noble messenger Muhammad (S) fall somewhere between hagiography and biography. There are various approaches to his life; and among modern works there are good examples that come from specific perspectives: the broadly spiritual (Lings), and the social and political (Haykal), are two clear demarcations. From the earliest efforts at writing his life (Ibn Hisham & Ibn Ishaq) these divergent approaches seem to have been around. However, the attention to the veracity and credibility of certain genres of sources was the central feature of classical Islamic biographical writing. In medieval times a whole genre of biographical dictionaries appeared. Throughout the ages significant figures of Islam have earned hagiography or sometimes, derisory biography - depending on the position of the figure under study vis--vis the scholar. Think of the legacy of Ibn Arabi, for instance; and on the other hand, in more recent times, Muhammad ibn abd al Wahhab.

The first half of the twentieth century witnessed an outpouring of biographical studies of the life of the noble prophet by Muslim scholars, outnumbering all the studies done in all the centuries before. The rise of orientalist historicist criticism stimulated this movement.

Biographies of Muslim men and women of the last 100 to 150 years should be the current focus of our historical studies. This should combine the tools of critical historical writing with the sensitivity to the interior texture of Islamic cultures. Respect and responsiveness do not deter from rigorous, critical scholarship.

There are glaring gaps in our libraries of studies of some of the significant men and women of our times. Some figures could have largely local significance in the first instance, while others may have a pervasive presence. About the latter the biography of Allama Yusuf Ali by M.A.. Sherif is a model. Yusuf Ali is a household name in the world of Islam where English is spoken yet very little was known about the man until this superb study.

As in the case with all history and biography, no issue or figure can be so completely examined as not to warrant more research and study. In time another biography of Yusuf Ali could well appear drawing on the same sources but interpreting them differently, and perhaps using additional newly discovered sources. Oral testimony, for instance, from Yusuf Ali's children would add immensely to deepen our understanding of the man. We need a biography of Shaykh Quilliam, of Muhammad Asad, of Kalim Siddiqui, of so many others.

Intellectuals from Muslim communities in the West need to look closely at the general history of Islam in modern times and the histories of their communities. Biography presents a valuable way to begin to understand our histories and to give significance to men and women who wrote, built, and fostered our presence wherever we are. They will never get a place in formal, national histories but we should save them from neglect of memory. In the process some uncomfortable facts may emerge, myths may have to be exploded. But biographies are always open to re-interpretation, and re-writing.