KETĀB AL-FOTUḤ (or Taʾriḵ al-fotuḥ), an important early Arabic historical text by Ebn Aʿṯam Kufi (d. 314/926?), which was translated, at least in part, into Persian towards the end of the 6th/12th century. Though the Persian translation enjoyed considerable popularity and has long been well known to Western scholars, the original Arabic text fell into obscurity and has only recently been recovered and edited. Research on this work is thus still very limited, and much remains in question about its provenance and significance.

The Author. Virtually nothing is known for certain about the life of Ebn Aʿṯam. Yāqut (Odabāʾ, I, p. 379) says his name was Abu Moḥammad Aḥmad b. Aʿṯam Kufi Aḵbāri. Ḥāji Ḵalifa (II, col. 1239) referred to him as Moḥammad b. ʿAli, apparently mistaking the name of the copyist of a manuscript as that of the author. Modarres Tabrizi (VII, pp. 386-87) identified him as Aḥmad or Moḥammad b. ʿAli Aʿṯam and suggests that Aʿṯam may have been the honorific (laqab) of ʿAli. To add to the confusion, one of the Arabic manuscripts (Gotha 1592) gives the name as Luṭ (?) Aḥmad b. Moḥammad b. Aʿṯam Kufi, while another (Aḥmad III 2956) has Abu Moḥammad Aḥmad b. Aʿṯam Kufi. It is thus somewhat difficult to be sure whether Aʿṯam is a proper name or title and whether it should be applied to Ebn Aʿṯam’s father or grandfather (or even to the author himself, as his work is sometimes referred to as Tāriḵ-e Aʿṯam Kufi). According to Lawrence Conrad (1998), Aʿṯam Kufi was the author’s father and “one of the students or tradents of the sixth Imam, Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq (d. 148/765),” but the documentation to support this claim has apparently not yet been published (see bibliography, below).

These inconsistencies in naming, though minor, have some implications for establishing the dates of the author’s life and his work. Although several of the early bio-bibliographical sources (e.g. Yāqut, Odabāʾ I, p. 379; Ṣafadi, VI, p. 256) have notices about the author, they provide no birth or death dates. According to Ferdinand Wüstenfeld, Ebn Aʿṯam died in 1003/1504 (not 393/1003 as given in Conrad, 1992, n. 90), but this is totally implausible and based on the erroneous date found in Gustav Flügel’s edition of Ḥāji Ḵalifa (Kašf al-ẓonun IV, p. 380). Christian Fraehn, without citing any evidence, proposed a death date of 314/926-27, and this has been followed by other scholars such as Charles Storey (I/1, p. 207), Fuat Sezgin (I, p. 329), and Modarres. Recent research by Ilkka Lindstedt has also supported Fraehn's dating for several reasons, most notably the presence in Sahmi's Tāriḵ Jorjān of a tradition attributed to "Abu Moḥammad Aḥmad b. Aʿṯam b. Naḏir b. Ḥobāb b. Kaʿb b. Ḥabib Azdi Kufi, who was in Jorjān and related it," supposedly on the authority of Abu ʿOmar Emām Ḥarrāni (d. 266/880) to Ebn ʿAdi Ḥāfez (d. 365/976). On the assumption that this individual is the same as the author of the Ketāb al-fotuḥ, Lindstedt (p. 17) argues that the "information preserved in the isnād places, with high probability, Ebn Aʿṯam's date of death to the first half of the fourth/tenth century. In any case, Fraehn's date can certainly be taken as a reasonable terminus ante quem, since Ebn Aʿṯam’s work was known to the mid-4th/10th century historian Abu ʿAli Sallāmi Bayhaqi (Yāqut, I, p. 379, says he quoted one of Ebn Aʿṯam’s verses), and his Fotuḥ is very likely the work by that title, which is cited in the Tarjama-ye Tāriḵ-e Ṭabari by Abu ʿAli “Amirak” Balʿami (d. ca. 363/974; e.g., Balʿami, tr. Zotenberg, IV, p. 150; mistakenly given in Balʿami, ed. Rowšan, II, p. 824, as Tāriḵ-e Abu’l-Fotuḥ).

However, there is reason to believe that Ebn Aʿṯam was writing at an even earlier time. M. A. Shaban, for example, has argued in favor of a revised dating (EI2 III, p. 723; idem, 1970, p. xviii). As he noted, Ebn Aʿṯam’s most important source is ʿAli b. Moḥammad Madāʾeni (d. 225/840), and in quoting him Ebn Aʿṯam often uses the phrase ḥaddaṯani, implying that he heard accounts directly from him and not from intermediaries or written sources (Lindstedt, p. 15, questions whether Ebn Aʿṯam really employs the term in so systematic a way). His list of other proximate authorities (Ebn Aʿṯam, 1968-75, II, pp. 147-49) is consistent with that same time period, including such figures as the historian Moḥammad Wāqedi (d. 207/823), the genealogist Hešām b. Moḥammad Kalbi (d. 204/819 or 206/821), and (perhaps less plausibly) the traditionist and historian Abu Meḵnaf (d. 157/774) and the Shiʿite traditionist Naṣr b. Mozāḥem (d. 212/827). If Ebn Aʿṯam did in fact study with all these authorities, he must have been writing at a time no later than the second quarter of the 3rd/9th century. Conrad (1998) has also dismissed the death date given by Fraehn as “an old Orientalist error.” Assuming Conrad is correct about the identity of Aʿṯam Kufi, it is indeed unlikely that the father of a 4th/10th-century author would have been a contemporary of Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq. Moreover, the Persian translation (p. 3) says specifically that “Ḵᵛāja Aḥmad b. Aʿṯam wrote the Ketāb-e fotuḥ in the year 204/819.” Conrad (1992, p. 349 n. 90) initially suggested that the translator may have misread 204 for 254/858, but this is unlikely since dates in manuscripts are usually spelled out instead of written using numerals; he later (Conrad, 1998) revised this view and accepted 204/819 as an accurate date for the first recension of the text.

The Arabic Text. Yāqut (I, p. 379) says that Ebn Aʿṯam was the author of a Ketāb al-maʾluf, a Ketāb al-fotuḥ that went down to the time of Hārun al-Rašid (r. 170-93/786-809), and a Ketāb al-taʾriḵ that was “essentially an appendix” covering the period from al-Maʾmun (r. 198-218/813-33) “to the last days of al-Moqtader” (r. 295-320/908-32). Yāqut notes that he had seen the “two books” himself, but he was likely misled by problems arising from the process of textual transmission. One of the two main surviving manuscripts, Gotha 1592, begins with an account of the deliberations at the saqifa of the Banu Sāʿeda leading to the accession of Abu Bakr as caliph and ends with an unusual account of the conquest of the island of Arwād and a brief note that the caliph ʿOṯmān was killed “in this year.” A note at the end of the manuscript indicates that it was the first of two volumes, with the second being about the caliphate of ʿAli b. Abi Ṭāleb. The Istanbul manuscript, Aḥmad III 2956, commences more or less where the Gotha manuscript ended, with accounts of the last years of ʿOṯmān’s caliphate (r. 23-25/644-56). However, the introduction and listing of authorities in its first folios certainly give the impression of the beginning of a new work rather than a continuation of one. It also extends well beyond the caliphate of ʿAli. After a very brief mention of Hārun al-Rašid, there is a notation that “the Ketāb al-fotuḥ ends” (fol. 236a; VIII, p. 244 of the printed text). However, the manuscript continues with an account of an interview between Hārun and Imam Šāfeʿi the jurist and brief notices of various events down to the caliphate of al-Mostaʿin (r. 248-52/862-66). This material is so out of character with the rest of the work that it must have been added in whole or in part by another author or authors. The three titles mentioned by Yāqut would thus seem to correspond to the three sections of these manuscripts, one on the early caliphate, one on the caliphate down to time of Hārun al-Rašid, and the probably spurious appendix (of which yet another version may have extended to the caliphate of al-Moqtader as claimed by Yāqut).

The Persian translation. There is nothing to suggest that Ebn Aʿṯam’s work was ever of much influence in the western parts of the Muslim world; it was unknown to bibliographers such as Ebn al-Nadimand not mentioned by Ṭabari or other classical Arabic historians, but it must have been more popular in the Islamic East to have been used by Sallāmi and probably Balʿami, as well as being mentioned in Abu Naṣr Aḥmad Boḵāri’s Tāj al-qeṣaṣ (Kurat, p. 275). Its prestige was such that it was eventually translated into Persian. The preface to the translation indicates that it was begun by Moḥammad b. Aḥmad Mostawfi Heravi as commissioned in 596/1199-1200 by a dignitary on whom he lavishes honorifics and styles “the glory of the grandees of Chorasmia and Khorasan” (efteḵār-e akāber-e Ḵᵛārazm wa Ḵorāsān). According to Mirza Kazem-Beg (p. xx), this was none other than ʿAlāʾ-al-Din Moḥammad Ḵᵛārazmšāh, but the evidence for this is doubtful. (It may have been suggested only by the date or by indications in the manuscript he used; the honorifics in the lithograph text, for instance ṣadr al-ṣodur, seem to suggest a minister.) Whether the patron was the Ḵᵛārazmšāh himself or a lesser official, the main themes of the translation, namely its interest in the wars against the “infidels” (koffār) and its sympathies for the Shiʿite Imams ʿAli b. Abi Ṭāleb and Ḥosayn b. ʿAli, would seem to parallel the anti-caliphal and militaristic policies of the late Chorasmian period. Mostawfi Heravi died shortly after beginning work on the translation, which was then finished by another Moḥammad b. Aḥmad, whose nesba is garbled in the manuscripts but seems to be Mābižanābādi (see Kazem-Beg, p. xx; Storey, I/2, p. 1260).

The Persian translation is clearly based on the Arabic text as it has now been recovered, but there are important differences between the two. The most obvious is that, whereas the Arabic text covers the period from the death of Prophet Moḥammad down to at least the early years of the reign of Hārun al-Rašid, the translation ends with a long account of the martyrdom of Imam Ḥosaynat Karbalāʾ. The translator gives no indication that the text was to continue beyond that point, so it is impossible to know whether the translation was not finished, part of it has been lost, the translator was working from an incomplete manuscript, or, as Conrad has suggested, he was using a copy of the first recension of the text that had ended at that point. The Persian text is also by no means a literal translation of the corresponding parts of the Arabic text, and there are quite a few places where it includes material either lost from or have not ever been part of the Arabic original, especially in the case of the sections dependent on the highly defective Gotha manuscript: They include accounts of the campaigns of ʿEyāż b. Ḡanem; Moʿāwia’s campaigns in Syria; the conquests of Nubia, Eṣṭaḵr, Nišāpur, Ṭus, Marv, Herat, Bušanj, Saraḵs, Nasā, Fāryāb, Ṭālaqān, Sistān, Marv al-Ruḏ, and Balḵ; and some correspondence between ʿOṯmān and his commanders (passages from the Persian translation which can fill in such lacunae have been included in the notes to the edition of the Arabic text).

Significance of the texts. Perhaps the chief interest of the Fotuḥ to modern researchers is the antiquity of the text. There is, as noted above, a distinct possibility that Ebn Aʿṯam was a historian of the early 3rd/9th century, not the 4th/10 century as often thought, and the Ketāb al-fotuḥ should accordingly be ranked as one of the oldest Arabic historical texts to have survived more or less intact. This would mean that the author should be seen as a precursor, rather than a contemporary, of the major classical Arabic historians, not only Ṭabari but also Balāḏori and Yaʿqubi; and his work thus provides an important means of assessing the later generation’s use of the sources common to both them and Ebn Aʿṯam. Moreover, if Ebn Aʿṯam was indeed writing in 204/858, it would mean that he was active at an exceptionally important moment in the history of the caliphate, the very year that al-Maʾmun entered Baghdad and abandoned his philo-ʿAlid policies, a circumstance which, as Conrad suggested, may explain the apparent revision of the text as well as some of its other characteristics.

Yāqut (I, p. 379) says explicitly that Ebn Aʿṯam was “a Shiʿite and a poor authority” (kāna šiʿian wa howa ʿenda aṣḥāb al-ḥadiṯ żaʿif). At least in terms of the author’s Shiʿism, this perception has certainly been reinforced by the peculiarities of the Persian translation (because of its apparently exaggerated interest in the events leading to the Battle of Karbalāʾ), and it has to some extent been reinforced with the availability of the full Arabic text. Both the translation and the Arabic text can certainly be characterized as pro-ʿAlid and critical of the Omayyads. Virtually all of the proximate sources named by Ebn Aʿṯam, with the notable exception of Madāʾeni, were regarded as sympathetic to the Shiʿite cause, and he occasionally cites a source that he identifies as the ḥājeb of Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq, lending some credence to Conrad’s assertion of a connection between Aʿṯam and that Imam. If, however, Ebn Aʿṯam was writing as early as 204/819, there remains some question about exactly what kind of “Shiʿism” he was reflecting. It should be noted that even the Persian translation speaks respectfully about Abu Bakr, ʿOmar, and ʿOṯmān, and it preserves a surprising amount of information about the military exploits of Moʿāwia. The Arabic text goes on to display a definite interest in the revolt of Moḵtār Ṯaqafi, the activities of Moḥammad b. Ḥanafiya, and the life of the poet Komayt b. Zayd Asadi (e. g., Ebn Aʿṯam, 1968-75, VI, pp. 73-288 passim; VIII, pp. 82-107), all of which arouse suspicions of an affiliation with the Kaysāniya or Hāšemiya and distinctly militant varieties of Shiʿism. At the same time, it gives a unique and rather positive account of al-Saffāḥ’s assumption of the caliphate and has virtually nothing to say about any of the anti-ʿAbbasid Shiʿite movements. It might also be noted that Ebn Aʿṯam’s primary sources, again excepting Madāʾeni, were not only Shiʿite but Kufan, and Ebn Aʿṯam reflects both perspectives: He is clearly philo-ʿAlid, but he is also interested in anything having to do with Kufa. Of course, the two often overlap, as in his account of ʿAli lavishing praise on the virtues of the congregational mosque in Kufa (Ebn Aʿṯam, 1968-75, I, pp. 286-87). Further research is really needed to clarify the author’s sectarian orientation and the light his work may shed on the formation of Shiʿite historiography.

Finally, the Ketāb al-fotuḥ, true to its title, is a work of considerable importance for the history of the Muslim conquests, especially in the east and when they involved Kufan forces. The most important of these accounts, as has been noted by several scholars (e.g., Kazem-Beg; Kurat), are those that deal with the wars in Armenia and the Caucasus and against the Khazars. These can now be identified with some confidence as the ultimate source of similar information found in the histories of Balʿami and Ebn al-Aṯir.



Lawrence I. Conrad, “The Conquest of Arwād: A Source-Critical Study in the Historiography of the Early Medieval Near East,” in Averil Cameron and Lawrence I. Conrad, The Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East I: Problems in the Literary Source Material, Princeton, 1992, pp. 317-401.

Idem, “Ibn Aʿtham al-Kūfī,” in Julie Scott Meisami and Paul Starkey, eds., Encyclopaedia of Arabic Literature, 2 vols., London and New York, 1998, I, p. 314 (the documentation referred to in this article is the author’s Ibn Aʿtham and his History, Winona Lake, 1997, but this book does not seem to have actually been published).

Ebn Aʿṯam Kufi, Ketāb al-fotuḥ, ed. M. ʿA. Khan et al., 8 vols., Heyderabad, 1968-75; the old lithographs of the Persian translation by Moḥammad b. Aḥmad Mostawfi Heravi (e.g., Tarjama-ye tāriḵ-e Aʿṯam-e Kufi, Bombay, 1883; repr. Tehran, n.d.) have now been replaced by al-Fotuḥ, ed. Ḡolām-Reżā Ṭabāṭabāʾi Majd, Tehran, 1993.

Cristian M. Fraehn, Indications bibliographiquesrelatives pour la plupart à la littérature historico-géographique des Arabes, des Persans et des Turcs: spécialement destinées à nos employés et voyageurs en Asie, St. Petersbourg, 1845, p. 16.

Ḥāji Ḵalifa Kāteb Čelebi, Kašf al-ẓonun, ed. Gustav Flügel, 7 vols., Leipzig, 1835-58; ed. Serefettin Yaltkaya and Rifat Bilge, 2 vols., Istanbul, 1941-43.

Mirza A. Kazem Beg, Derbend-Nâmeh or The History of Derbend, St. Petersburg, 1851.

Akdas Nimat Kurat, “Abū Muḥammad Aḥmad b. Aʿtham al-Kūfī’s Kitāb al-Futūḥ and Its Importance Concerning the Arab Conquest in Central Asia and the Khazars,” Ankara Üniversitesi Dil ve Tarih-Coğrafya Fakültesi Dergisi 7, 1948, pp. 274-82.

Ilkka Lindstedt, "Appendix: When Did Ibn Aʿtham al- Kūfī Live?," in idem, The Transmission of al- Madāʾinī's Material: Historiographical Studies, Helsinki, 2013, article iv, pp. 15-26.

Ḵalil b. Aybak Ṣafadi, al-Wāfi be’l-wafayāt VI, ed. Sven Dedering, Wiesbaden, 1972, p. 256.

M. A. Shaban, “Ibn Aʿtham al-Kūfī,” in EI2 III, 1971, p. 723.

Idem, The ʿAbbāsid Revolution, Cambridge, 1970, pp. xvii-xix;

Ferdinand Wüstenfeld, Die Geschichtschreiber der Araber und ihre Werke, Göttingen, 1882, p. 85 no. 541.


Originally Published: February 29, 2012

Last Updated: January 10, 2014