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Biography and Hagiography

Religious biography assumed a large importance in Islamic civilization from the earliest period, when various biographical genres enumerated the virtues of the Prophet Muḥammadʾs associates, established priority in joining the Muslim community, and traced tribal genealogies and affiliations. Particularly important is the relationship between early biography and the ḥadīth collections. The ʿilm al-rijāl, or “science of the men,” was a branch of Islamic historiography verifying the reliability (taʿdīl) of ḥadīth transmitters according to criteria such as their direct acquaintance with the Prophet or one another and their virtues and activities as individuals. Shīʿī writings also elaborated these proofs of piety and authority.

The virtuous qualities (faḍāʿil) of important persons constitutes a subsection of most ḥadīth collections and reveals early concepts of charisma, character, or religious authority. A related genre lists the special merits (khaṣāʿiṣ) of the Prophet and his Companions. Each of these types demonstrates the pattern of virtue that is established through relationship and contiguity. A further division of ḥadīth themes that blossomed into a genre of biographical literature consists of books on asceticism (kutub al-zuhd). These provide insights into the early development of Sufism and how ascetic behaviors established rankings of merit and authority. Excellence and precedence were Qurʿānic concepts that translated into political authority as well as the framing of individual qualities.

Types of Biography.

Coupled with the wide dispersal of biographical information in Islamic writings, there exist a significant number of what might be termed specifically biographical genres. Religious biography and hagiography often took the form of one of these major Islamic biographical genres.

Sīrah (pl. siyar) conveys the idea of manner of conduct or behavior. Although sīrah usually refers to the biography of the Prophet Muḥammad, the lives of saints may also be dealt with under the term siyar, although in this case they are often collective biographies structured in notice form.

Ṭabaqāt is the form usually referred to as the “biographical dictionary.” The designation ṭabaqāt (ranks or classes) refers to the system for the arrangement of biographical notices in these often voluminous works. The earliest extant example is the Kitāb al-Ṭabaqāt al-Kabīr of Ibn Saʿd (d. 845), which contains some 4,250 biographical notices of men and women of the first Islamic generations. An individual notice in Ibn Saʿd's work may range from a brief mention of two lines to a number of pages. The general pattern of a notice is: a person's genealogy, marriage(s), children, acceptance of Islam, declaring allegiance to the Prophet (bayʿah), various reports about the person in ḥadīth form, (that is, with a chain of transmitters narrating a specific event, comment, or saying of the person), death, funeral, who prayed at the graveside, and so on. The inclusion of ordinary persons in the classical biographical dictionaries indicates how the history of the Islamic community was understood in this period as being constituted to a large extent by the contribution of individuals to building up and transmitting its specific worldview and culture.

Recent Western concepts of life tend to be diachronic, linear, stretching from birth to death, and related so as to reveal character development. In contrast, the typical life in Ibn Saʿd's Ṭabaqāt begins far back in genealogical determinants and may stretch into a point in the afterlife through establishing a rank in or promise of paradise. From the earlier material up to the present time, the telling of lives in much Islamic biographical material does not present a series of events or cumulative reflections as contributing to character development. Rather, biographical notices serve to establish origins and display a person's type or example through presenting his or her discrete actions and sayings. The ṭabaqāt genre, which is most popular in Arabic, might focus on certain religious professions such as jurists, judges, Qurʿān reciters and memorizers, or Ṣūfīs. Other ṭabaqāt chronicle individuals from a particular city or region, and some represent “centennial” biographies that record all prominent Muslims who died in a particular Islamic century.

Tadhkirah means “memorial.” Tadhkirah collections of the lives of poets, mystics, or scholars are more common in later periods, especially in Iran, the Ottoman Empire, and South Asia. Tadhkirāt are similar to ṭabaqāt in presenting lives through anecdotes, although they may also offer further narrative biographical material on the person. They do not, however, necessarily incorporate ranking systems, although in the Persian context, generational, alphabetical, or other factors of ordering by affinity or family relationships may be used. Both the ṭabaqāt and tadhkirah forms were used for prominent persons in nonreligious fields, such as poets or calligraphers.

Malfūẓāt are records of audiences and the question-and-answer sessions of notable scholars or Ṣūfīs. These sessions may be presented chronologically and dated rather like a diary. This genre is indigenous to South Asian Islam, where the early Indian Ṣūfīs are known through records preserved in this form. Issues raised in the scholarly study of early malfūẓāt collections include the authenticity of these works and the principles of selectivity on the part of the compiler.

Malfūẓāt as a biographical genre often provides a more spontaneous, authentic flavor of people and their followers in contrast to the more idealized portrayals of the tadhkirāt. Although their conventions are less obvious than those of more formally structured biographies, the malfūẓāt are a valuable source for their historical surroundings, and for information about teachings and attitudes, if not of the purported originator, at least of a subsequent but still early period.

Manāqib is the genre recording the merits and miraculous actions of holy persons. Their emphasis on the miraculous as a source of authority means that the social and doctrinal context of the period will greatly shape the presentation of saintly lives. For example, Muslim saints may variously be contrasted with non-Muslim detractors, other saints, or doubting Muslims. At the same time the types of miracles recounted will reflect specifically Islamic symbols of the sacred. Thus, a distinction will be made between karāmāt (ways in which the saint confirms his or her high rank) and barakāt (blessings emanating from the saint), which indicate refinements in the conception of saintly charisma. Notions of saintly hierarchy, territory, and patronage are often embedded in these texts.

Individual biographies (tarjamah) and autobiographies were less common in early periods, although a small number may be found, including the notable work of al-Ghazālī, Deliverance from Error. The biographical significance of related genres should also be mentioned, for example, travel accounts, such as those of the famous Ibn Bāṭṭūṭah (d. c.1370). Early Muslim autobiographies in Arabic were most thoroughly studied by Rosenthal, who proposed that a Greek model had been transmitted to the Arabs through Hunayn ibn Isḥāq (d. 877). In the medieval period biographical or autobiographical notices were sometimes prefaced or appended to a scholar's works and read like a curriculum vitae, including the individual's teachers, places visited, and works studied, transmitted, or composed. The isnāds, or chains of transmission, established through this or through related material such as ijāzahs (certificates giving the holder permission to teach a specific work or a general body of knowledge) have proved valuable sources in tracing Muslim scholarly networks for the transmission of ideas.

Muslim autobiography and biography often feature extensive accounts of dreams or visionary experiences. These accounts reflect the rich cultural tradition that considered such events important and meaningful.

Western Influence.

More recently, Western literature has influenced biographical and autobiographical writing in many Islamic societies, although the choice and presentation of material needs to be examined in order to assess how the two traditions are combined. Most academic studies by scholars in Muslim societies who deal with contemporary biographical writing focus on works written under the influence of Western models, rather than on the traditional forms.

In South Asia innovations in the tradition of religious biography were related to the development of Urdu as a modern prose language in the late nineteenth century and efforts to combine Islamic and “modern” learning embodied in the Aligarh movement. Most significant among this trend are the writings of Shiblī Nuʿmānī (1857–1914), who prepared a series of monographs on “Heroes of Islam,” including studies of ʿUmar, Abū Ḥanīfah, Rūmī, and al-Ghazālī, as well as the Prophet Muḥammad. This new style of biography was marked by critical evaluation and a rationalist treatment of the subject matter influenced by the biographical canons of European, in particular English, literature.

Religious and Ethical Function in the Context of S.ūfī Orders and Shrine Culture.

The subjects of religious biography include Sunnī and Shīʿī scholars, the early personages of Islam, and of course Ṣūfī saints. The concept of the Prophet as a model for all Muslims is to a degree extended by the biographical tradition, so that all learned and pious persons are potential exemplars of the tradition. This is explicit in the idea of a shajarah or lineage “tree” that may be scholarly or saintly as often as it is genealogical. Diagrams of these lineage relationships figure prominently in Ṣūfī biographical compendia and are frequently displayed in the form of posters on the walls of Ṣūfī lodges. They are also used performatively during group recitations of the lineage. One could also cite the Shīʿī recitations of the tragedies of the imams, in particular Ḥusayn, as aspects of enacted biography.

The form of collective biography was especially popular among the Ṣūfīs in the classical and pre-modern period, with some of the better-known examples being ʿAṭṭār's (d. 1220) Tadhkirāt al-Awliyāʿ, Jāmī's (d. 1492) Nafaḥāt al-Uns, and ʿAbd al-Ḥaqq Dihlavī's (d. 1642) Akhbār al-Akhyār. Although these Ṣūfī compendia often memorialize Ṣūfīs of a particular order or region, they were also appreciated as edifying moral literature by a wider public and were often abridged, imitated, and translated into regional languages. The influence of the biographical genre in traditional settings was much broader than the presence of manuscripts or printed texts might indicate, because the lives of the saints and the prophets comprised a major category of folk literature and performance that sustained popular knowledge of Islam, especially in rural areas. In such settings bards, those with religious status, or simply literate persons, might perform aspects of biography for this wider audience.

Religious Biography in the Contemporary Period.

Many of the traditional genres of religious biography persist as the dominant forms in religious contexts and in more traditional segments of Muslim societies. In the modern period, however, a number of new developments have occurred. Among the most striking are an increasing use of religious biography for personal edification, its use in reinforcing symbols of national or regional identity, and its functioning to inspire or legitimate political action. The increased sense of the modern individual as agent, whether influencing surrounding events, as in the life accounts of leaders and heroes, or as choosing to “convert” from one persuasion or affiliation to another, has also become more prominent in recent life accounts.

For example, in post-colonial Pakistan, many medieval and pre-modern Persian compendia of saints’ lives are being translated into Urdu, published, and widely distributed. In addition to reflecting the importance of saint veneration among the majority of Pakistanis and the social and political importance of the Barelwī interpretation of Islam in Pakistan, such publications may indicate the new role of the saints as symbols of Pakistani nationalism. Since many of these publications, from inexpensive chapbooks to gold-embossed tomes, are subsidized by the hereditary custodians of the various Ṣūfī shrines, additional motives for their publication and distribution seem to include the legitimization of the authority of the current shrine custodians and the affirmation of family and social linkages. It is not unusual for a living Ṣūfī master or his immediate successor to publish lists of authorized deputies and prominent disciples, a practice that indicates an additional social and economic basis for some of the impetus behind producing biographical literature today.

Successive governments of Pakistan have also taken an interest in portraying popular saints’ lives so as to reinforce their specific policy objectives. For example, they may distribute pamphlets or encourage journalistic articles that deliberately emphasize the role of a particular saint as either an Islamic activist or a social reformer and populist.

In Shiism the lives of the Imams have been a source of inspired poetry and performances of commemoration. A recent significant and instructive trend in the use of biography occurred during the pre-revolutionary period in Iran, when the focus of Ḥusayn’s biography shifted from his role as tragic martyr to his activism in challenging the unjust social order.

During the same period the biographical genre was strategically employed by the influential Iranian intellectual ʿAlī Sharīʿatī (d. 1978). He composed inspiring biographies of early Islamic figures such as Fāṭimah, Zaynab, ʿAlī, and Abū Dharr, in order to render the role models of the past more relevant to the younger generation. These biographies, which combined the use of traditional Islamic sources with a more “Western” existential focus, were written in an edifying and inspirational way that often explicitly linked the events and challenges of the past to the problems facing contemporary Iranians.

Female Biography.

Female biographies were featured even in the earliest ṭabaqāt compendia, where they were usually grouped in a separate section at the end of the collection. The modern period has seen increased attention given to the lives of early Muslim women in heroic roles. For example, Bint al-Shāṭīʿ (ʿĀʿishah ʿAbd al-Raḥmān), a Egyptian woman religious writer, specializes in retelling the biographies of early Muslim heroines.

Traditional male Muslim scholars such as Ashraf ʿAlī Thānvī (1864–1943), Sayyid Sulaimān Nadvī in Heroic Deeds of Muslim Women, and Muḥammad Zakarīyā Kaandhlawi in Stories of the Sahaabah, presented early Muslim heroic women in ways that honor their contributions to Islamic history while reinforcing traditional patterns of female behavior. In contrast, the Moroccan feminist historian Fatima Mernissi takes a revisionist look at the lives of a number of prominent early Muslim women, which attempts to recover their independence in action and defiance of patriarchal cultural norms. Scholarly efforts to recover the experiences of those further from the light of history, such as women, have increasingly mined court and waqf records to piece together details of their social and personal lives. Other scholars of female biography observe a shift in contemporary Egypt from nationalist themes in female biography to a recent focus on female piety and even abandonment of secular lifestyles in favor of pious “Islamic” ones.

Current Trends.

The importance of the biographical pattern is evidenced by the fact that today even leaders of a more Islamist persuasion have begun to participate in the biographical and autobiographical tradition. Although one biographer of the archconservative Abū al-ʿAlā Mawdūdī (d. 1979) explicitly eschewed the “sanctification” of his subject hile preparing an extensive study of Mawdūdīʾs life, the preexisting cultural expectations of saintly lives have inevitably influenced many biographical treatments. Similar developments have occurred in both formal and informal Iranian tellings of Ayatollah Khomeinīʾs story which increasingly assimilate his role to that of the Shīʿī imams. Zaynab al-Ghazālī, a contemporary Egyptian female activist in the Muslim Brotherhood, offered her prison memories in Hayātī (My Life) in the form of a heroic narrative with certain hagiographic undertones. The “voice from prison” genre is a classical form in Islamic poetry, and post-imprisonment narratives have emerged from secular representatives such as Egyptian feminist Nawal al-Saadawi as well.

In fact, the return to or embracing of Islam and the escape from tradition are competing themes represented in modern autobiographies that increasingly follow the genre of “conversion” narratives. Muslims or “post-Muslims” in diaspora contexts have added their voices in Western languages in some notable examples, including The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Muḥammad Asʿad'sThe Road to Mecca and, post-2001, the controversial “escape-from-Islam” narratives Infidel (Hirsi Ali) and What's Wrong with Islam (Irshad Manji).

As the forces of Westernization have increasingly penetrated many Muslim societies, the canons of “modern” literature have tended to favor the novel, short story, and poetry written in free verse over classical biographical forms. With the decline in the popularity of Sufism, the audience for collective memorials and devotional biographies has also decreased. In Turkey and the Arabic-speaking world, the traditional Islamic biographical forms have declined in importance, while secular, literary, and even English-language biographies are now being produced, albeit in relatively small numbers. Religious biography has adapted to these new circumstances in the ways cited above.



  • ʿAṭṭār, Farīd al-Dīn. Muslim Saints and Mystics. Translated by A. J. Arberry. London, 1966.
  • Auchterlonie, Paul. Arabic Biographical Dictionaries. Durham, N.C., 1987. A useful survey of the best known Arabic biographical dictionaries. Includes an annotated bibliography of classical works and relevant Western scholarship.
  • Cooperson, Michael. Classical Arabic Biography: The Heirs of the Prophets in the Age of al-Maʿmūn. Cambridge, U.K., 2000.
  • Donner, Fred. Narratives of Islamic Origins: The Beginnings of Islamic Historical Writing. Darwin Press, 1998.
  • Eickelman, Dale F., and James Piscatori. Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination. Berkeley, Calif., 1990. A collection of scholarly articles.
  • Ewing, Katherine P.“The Politics of Sufism: Redefining the Saints of Pakistan.”Journal of Asian Studies42, no. 2 (February 1983): 251–268. Describes successive governments’ use of Ṣūfī biography to legitimize policy.
  • Fay, Mary Ann, ed.Auto/biography and the Construction of Identity and Community in the Middle East. New York, 2002.
  • Fernea, Elizabeth Warnock, ed.Remembering Childhood in the Middle East: Memoirs from a Century of Change. Austin, Tex., 2002.
  • Hafsi, Ibrahim. “Recherches sur le genre ṭabaqāt dans la littérature arabe.”Arabica23 (1976) and 24 (1977). A review article of sources.
  • Hermansen, Marcia K.“Interdisciplinary Approaches to Islamic Biographical Materials.”Religion18, no. 4 (1988): 163–182. A review article on biographical genres and critical scholarship, including an extensive bibliography.
  • Hoffman, Valerie. “An Islamic Activist: Zaynab al-Ghazālī.” In Women and the Family in the Middle East, edited by Elizabeth Fernea, pp. 233–254. Austin, Tex., 1985.
  • Kaandhlawi, Muḥammad Zakarīyā. Stories of the Sahaabah. Johannesburg, 1987.
  • Lawrence, Bruce B.Notes from a Distant Flute: Pre-Mughal Indian Ṣūfī Literature. Tehran, 1978.
  • Lawrence, Bruce B., ed. and trans. Morals for the Heart: Conversations of Shaykh Nizam ad-Din Awliya Recorded by Amir Hasan Sijzi. New York, 1992. An example of an important thirteenth-century malfūẓāt work from South Asia.
  • Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. Medicines of the Soul: Female Bodies and Sacred Geographies in a Transnational Islam. Berkeley, Calif., 2001. A study of female Islamist autobiographies from Egypt.
  • Mernissi, Fatima. Women in Islam. New York, 1991. A revisionist look at the role of women in early Islamic history by a Moroccan feminist.
  • Mojaddedi, J. A.The Biographical Tradition in Sufism: The Ṭabaqāt Genre from al-Sulamī to Jāmī. Richmond, U.K., 2001.
  • Nadvī, Sayyid Sulaimān. Heroic Deeds of Muslim Women. New Delhi, 1985.
  • Qadi, Wadad al-. “Biographical Dictionaries as the Scholars’Alternative History of the Muslim Community.” In Organizing Knowledge: Encylopaedic Activities in the Pre-Eighteenth Century Islamic World, edited by Gerhard Endress, pp. 23–79. Leiden, Netherlands, 2006.
  • Rosenthal, Franz. “Die islamische Autobiographie.”Studia Arabica1 (1937): 1–40.
  • Zaidi, Mujahid Husain. “Biography in Modern Urdu Literature.”South Asian Digest of Regional Writing5 (1976): 99–120. Survey plus extensive bibliography.
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