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A Venture in Critical Islamic Historiography and the Significance of Its Failure

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The concern to acquaint the Muslims of India with the earliest history of Islam, and to help them become better Muslims, has characterised the Nadwat alUlamā's historical scholarship since its inception in 1894. This paper concentrates on a monumental study of the life and achievement of the Prophet, the Sīrat al-Nabī, (7 vols., 1918-1980), produced by two distinguished scholars associated with the Nadwa. Planned as an authoritative presentation of the Prophet Muhammad's life, the Sīrat al-Nabī sought to answer Western scholarly criticisms on the Prophet, and remove all religious doubts perceived as having an unsettling effect on Muslims in British India. A clearly reformist concern, viz. to invigorate the Muslims' religious identity by reaffirming their link with their sacred history, guided the conception and execution of the project. Although there initially was a conspicuous concern to maintain high standards of critical historiography, it was gradually nudged out by the reformist outlook. By the time the Siyar-i Sahāba series was initiated in the 1930s-with the purpose of showing how the Prophet's life and conduct shaped those of his Companions, who in their own right could thus serve as moral guides-virtually all pretensions to critical historiography had manifestly been abandoned. Historiography had given way, the more glaringly in the Siyar-i Sahāba, to hagiography. For all its methodological and other deficiencies, however, the Sīra historiography of the Nadwa is of importance for two main reasons: it has served as a vehicle for the expression of reformist concerns, a way of responding to the dilemmas which the authors of these works perceived as confronting Indian Muslims; and it has been a medium through which a continuing effort has been made to acquaint Muslims with their sacred past, and with Islam itself.


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Affiliations: 1: Institute of Islamic Studies McGill University 3485 McTavish Street, 319 Montreal, PQ, Canada H3A 1Y1


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