EBN AL-AṮĪR, ʿEZZ-AL-DĪN ABU’L-ḤASAN ʿALĪ b. Moḥammad Jazarī (b. Jazīrat Ebn ʿOmar [modern Cizre, in eastern Turkey] 4 Jomādā I 555/13 May 1160; d. Mosul, Šaʿbān 630/June 1233), major Islamic historian and important source for the history of Persia and adjacent areas from the Samanids to the first Mongol invasion.

Life and works. Ebn al-Aṯīr’s family were landowners and officials of the Zengid dynasty in Mosul. His elder brother, Majd-al-Dīn (d. 606/1209), was an administrator and author. His younger brother, Żīāʾ-al-Dīn (d. 637/1239), was a vizier and literary critic. There is no evidence that he himself held any official position. Writing about Ṭabarī, he mentions approvingly “his contentment with his income from a village in Ṭabarestān left him by his father” (Ebn al-Aṯīr, VIII, p. 136). Some similar arrangement may have allowed Ebn al-Aṯīr to follow his scholarly career. He studied in his home town and Mosul, and, after a pilgrimage to Mecca in 576/1181, in Baghdad. After the recovery of Jerusalem, he was for a while with Saladin in Syria. From 584/1188 until his death he alternated between Mosul, where he enjoyed the patronage of Badr-al-Dīn Loʾloʾ, and Syria, where the atabeg of Aleppo, Šehāb-al-Dīn Ṭoḡrol, supported him (Ebn Ḵallekān, ed. ʿAbbās, III, p. 349).

Ebn al-Aṯīr wrote two histories: al-Kāmel fi’l-taʾrīkò (The complete history), a universal history ending in 628/1231, and a monograph on the Zengid dynasty, al-Taʾrīḵ al-bāher fi’l-dawlat al-Atābakīya (The brilliant history of the Atabeg dynasty, ed. A. A. Tolaymat, Cairo, 1962). The latter was written sometime between 609/1212 and 615/1218, when its patron, the Zengid Sultan Qāher, died. It has much in common with the corresponding parts of the Kāmel, but, being didactic and dedicated to the dynasty, it is more partial and selective. It deals mainly with events in Mesopotamia and Syria. Two other works of Ebn al-Aṯīr survive: al-Lobāb fī tahḏīb al-ansāb, a revised version of Samʿānī’s famous manual of nesbas, and Osd al-ḡāba fī maʿrefat al-ṣaḥāba (Lions of the thicket concerning knowledge of the Prophet’s companions; GAL I, pp. 402, 422-23, S I, p. 587).

Ebn al-Aṯīr on Persian history. The Kāmel is an important source for Persian history, both for Ebn al-Aṯīr’s times and for preceding centuries. In it he made intelligent use of a wide range of sources, many of them no longer extant. Its first draft, entitled al-Mostaqṣā fi’l-taʾrīḵ (A study of history), was completed in about 600/1203. At the command of Badr-al-Dīn, Ebn al-Aṯīr revised, enlarged, and retitled his chronicle in about 620/1223. Five years later he probably made further additions and then did so regularly until the end of 628/1231 (Richards, pp. 76-84).

In his detailed introduction Ebn al-Aṯīr says that he intended to create a single convenient compilation from the writings of Ṭabarī and his continuators, aiming at a balanced coverage of the whole Islamic world. His style, while sensitive to literary effect, avoids over-elaborateness. He tried to give his narrative a flowing character, conflating his sources into a single consistent version whenever possible and often devoting an extended section to connected events stretching over a number of years. This breaking of the strict annalistic form was not his own innovation, although he has at times been given exaggerated credit for it. On the other hand, he has been criticized for his general failure to identify his sources. Even when it is possible to make lexical and structural comparisons with extant works or with what is thought to have been the content of lost works, one can never be sure whether Ebn al-Aṯīr used texts directly or through intermediary compilations, possibly some unknown to us.

For Ebn al-Aṯīr the whole of human history is an unfolding of God’s purposes for mankind. All actions are subject to the will of God, which is the ultimate explanation of all events. Without taking account of the contradictions involved in his constant invoking of God’s sovereign will, Ebn al-Aṯīr also applied moral judgements to history. He looked upon history as a source of “good example” (ʿebra) and a moral proving ground, in which those who adhere to Islamic norms win just rewards and lasting repute (Richards, pp. 93ff.). In practice, the Kāmel takes account of political aims and interests.

Ṭabarī was his fundamental source for early periods, supplemented by other sources. For pre-Islamic Persian history the Kāmel follows Ṭabarī, but Ebn al-Aṯīr expresses disdain for the “inane fabrications of the Persians.” He only includes them to show “the folly of the Persians,” who affect to despise the ignorance of the Arabs, and because there would otherwise be a blank in the record (I, p. 66; cf. pp. 76, 166, 247). Ebn al-Aṯīr’s history of the Islamic east down to the 3rd/early 10th century is also based on Ṭabarī’s history, which ends in 302/915 (Ebn al-Aṯīr, I, p. 3). For the later years, sketchily treated in Ṭabarī, he begins to rely on the fuller accounts of such continuators as Meskawayh. Ebn al-Aṯīr gives us concise and usable accounts of Samanid and Buyid history (vols. VII-IX). He probably used the history of the Samanids by Sallāmī, for Gardīzī’s Persian quotations from it resemble Ebn al-Aṯīr’s account (Barthold, Turkestan3, pp. 10-11). Basic to the historiography of the 4/10th century and the first half of the 5/11th century are the writings of members of the Ṣābeʿ family, whose interests centered on Iraq and the ʿAbbasid caliphate. Ṯābet b. Senān, the first of them, was probably known to Ebn al-Aṯīr through the Tajāreb al-omam of Meskawayh, which he names four times, mostly to dispute a point (VII, p. 118; VIII, pp. 86, 186, 321). Cahen speculated that Ebn al-Aṯīr’s detailed account of the first half of the 5/11th century was based directly on the work of Ṯābet’s successor, Helāl Ṣābeʾ (Cahen, 1962, p. 60).

For the Great Saljuqs (5/11th-6/12th centuries), who did not have their own dynastic historians, Ebn al-Aṯīr gives the most complete and continuous account available (IX, p. 473-XII, p. 108). He used the continuators of the central ʿAbbasid tradition, whom he often characterizes simply as “the Iraqis,” although he names Ebn al-Jawzī (d. 597/1200; Kāmel XI, p. 333). For the semi-legendary early history of the Seljuqs, Ebn al-Aṯīr used an Arabic version of the Malek-nāma, originally written in Persian for Alp Arslān (Cahen, 1949). The lost Mašāreb al-tajāreb of Ebn al-Fondoq Beyhaqī was probably an important source for his account of the Seljuq decline in the east and the rise of the Ḵᵛārazmšāhs. Unfortunately, the only explicit citation of this work concerns the events of 568-595/1172-1198, although Beyhaqī is thought to have died in 565/1166. Cahen has argued that this work would have been particularly valuable for Ebn al-Aṯīr because it was written in Arabic, and there is no real evidence that he knew Persian. However, his younger contemporary, the historian Nasawī, citing the scope of Ebn al-Aṯīr’s coverage of eastern lands, speculates that he must have had Persian-language sources (Nasawī, p. 34). There is no obvious Arabic source, for example, for his detailed information on Ghurid history for the period 559-604/1163-1207.

His celebrated account of the initial Mongol attack on the Islamic east is based on first-hand accounts of merchants, envoys, and refugees. In one of his set-pieces he vividly expresses the horror of these events (XII, pp. 358-68). He did not, however, attach eschatological significance to the coming of the Mongols, seeing them as a passing scourge and viewing the Franks as a greater danger to Islam.


Bibliography: (For cited works not given in detail, see “Short References.”)

Ebn Ḵallekān, ed. E. ʿAbbās, III, pp. 348-50.

Nasawī, History of Djalāl ed-Dīn Mankobirti, ed. H. H. Hamdi, Cairo, 1953.

Ṣafadī, al-Wāfī be’l-wafayāt, ed. R. Baalbaki, Wiesbaden, 1983, XXII, pp. 136-37.

The standard edition is al-Kāmel fi’l-taʾrīḵ, ed. C. J. Tornberg as Ibn-el-Athiri Chronicon quod Perfectissimum Inscribitur, Leiden, 1851-76; repr. Beirut, 1385-87/1965-67, the ed. used here. Another ed. was published in Cairo, 1303/1886.

An incomplete Persian tr. exists: Kāmel, tārīḵ-e bozorg-e Eslām o Īrān, tr. ʿA. Ḵalīlī, Tehran, n.d. An English tr. of the section on the Saljuqs is being prepared by D. S. Richards.

Studies. Claude Cahen, “Le Malik-nameh et l’histoire des origines seljukides,” Oriens II, 1949, pp. 31-65.

Idem, “The Historiography of the Seljuqid Period,” in B. Lewis and P. M. Holt, eds., Historians of the Middle East, London, 1962, pp. 59-78.

D. S. Richards, “Ibn al-Athīr and the Later Parts of the Kāmil. A Study of Aims and Methods,” in D. O. Morgan, ed., Medieval Historical Writing in the Christian and Islamic Worlds, London, 1982, pp. 76-108.

(D. S. Richards)

Originally Published: December 15, 1996

Last Updated: December 2, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. VII, Fasc. 6, pp. 671-672