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Interview with Donald S. Richards – The Chronicle of Ibn al-Athir

Donald S. Richards is retired as lecturer in Arabic at the Oriental Institute, and is emeritus fellow of St Cross College, University of Oxford.  He has numerous books and articles to his credit, the latest being The Chronicle of Ibn al-Athir for the Crusading Period from al-Kamil fi’l-Ta’rikh. We interviewed Mr. Richards about this book and his future projects.

Your latest publication is a translation of the chronicle of Ali Izz al-Din Ibn al-Athir, who wrote his history of the Middle East and further regions in the mid-13th century. Why did you choose to do this project?

To be quite straightforward, in purely personal terms I thought such a project would give me something to keep me mentally active in my retirement and I was also encouraged to take it on by colleagues. However, there were also wider motives. Well over half a century ago scholars, notably such as Sir Hamilton Gibb, stressed how desirable it was that Arabic historical sources be made accessible for researchers who lacked the linguistic expertise to consult them directly. Gibb was thinking above all of westerners engaged in Crusade studies, although the principle had a wider application. Much progress has been made but in the case of Ibn al-Athir’s chronicle, which is accepted to be an important source, previously existing translations into various European languages are either somewhat old or, more importantly, limited, in the sense that they are translations of selected passages. I admit that my latest translation is itself not a translation of the whole chronicle, which, granted that it starts with the Creation, would have been a mammoth task. However, it begins with the first intimations of the Crusade and from then on does give a complete translation of Ibn al-Athir’s text. This is an important consideration because only the full translated text can allow an appreciation of the place that Crusade affairs occupied in relation to the history of the wider Islamic world. I suppose one should add that it was also my hope that the translation would prove useful for students who are in the process of getting to grips with the original text.

How would you describe Ibn al-Athir as a historian and writer?

Ibn al-Athir, as an historian, is part of a long tradition of Arabic historiography, according to which past accounts are absorbed and preserved and then carried on with accounts of recent or contemporary history. His ambition was wide, to cover within one work the whole sweep of Islamic history. He has been criticized for his failure to identify his sources but pragmatically we should applaud him for preserving for various periods of Islamic history material that would otherwise have been completely lost. Conversely, he has been praised for taking in certain matters an unusually wide and insightful view, above all in his remarks on the geographical extent of the Christian challenge to Islamic powers. It must be said that he was not absolutely original in this respect. However, his role is not merely that of a preserver of previous historians’ writings. He does attempt to explain events through character, ambition and politics, although, like any mediaeval historian, God’s will is also invoked to explain outcomes. One feature of his account of events close to, or contemporary with, his own lifetime is his partiality for the Zengid dynasty, which members of his family had served. The resultant hostile tone observable towards Saladin is not absolute. He clearly had mixed feelings about that ruler. All this adds life to his record and makes him more than just a compiler. As a writer, Ibn al-Athir exhibits a sober style. His prose is generally clear, almost unexciting. He avoids the highly-coloured, poetic style of his contemporary Imad al-Din al-Isfahani, although he is not averse to the inclusion of dramatic anecdotes. A notable feature of his chronicle is his practice of giving comprehensive overviews of certain subjects, which involves a breaking of the strict annalistic framework. Special mention should be made to his excursus on the background to the coming of the Mongols. One might say, in short, that his literary style is rather that of a judicious religious scholar, which of course is just what he was.

Finally, I was wondering what new projects you are working on?

At the moment I have no new translation project in mind. I have reverted to a long-term interest of mine, the publication of Arabic archival material, in particular material from the library of St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. Apart from working on a few interesting individual pieces, I hope to publish a study of a group of documents issued in favour of the monks by various officials of the Mamluk state other than the sultan.

We thank Professor Richards for answering our questions.

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