Early Sources for Abu Bakr bin Abi Quhafa

Guest post by Richard Heffron, doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago and an experienced Arabist. He collects here the earliest Syriac sources for Abū Bakr, which are, as far as I know, the earliest dated sources in any language for this figure.

Abū Bakr was the first caliph after Muhammad. Similar to the case of ʿUmar bin al-Khattāb, we have few early references to Abū Bakr outside of the late-8th/9th century Arab-Islamic historical tradition. Unfortunately, unlike the Arabic inscription we have for ʿUmar, we currently have no documentary evidence for Abū Bakr. The references we do have are brief in nature and are only preserved in later fragments and manuscripts. Below I’ve listed the three earliest attestations to Abū Bakr’s reign in Syriac.

(1) Fragment of the Charts of Jacob (James) of Edessa (691/92)

Jacob of Edessa’s (d. 708) Syriac chronological chart lists the reigns of Roman, Persian, and Arab rulers. In it, we find:

296 [= 620-21] Muhammad, the first king of the Arabs reigned for 7 years …
303 [= 628-29] Abū Bakr, the second king of the Arabs, ruled for 2 years, 7 months

The dating of this text comes from Elias of Nisibis who stated that Jacob wrote his chronicle in 692. The text is preserved in BL Add. 14,685 “A chronicle in continuation of that of Eusebius of Caesarea composed by Jacob ‘lover of toil’”, 10th/11th century, f. 23 (Palmer, Seventh Century in the West-Syrian Chronicles; Hoyland, Seeing Islam as Others Saw It, 160-64).

(2) A List of Caliphs (705)

The second reference to Abū Bakr comes from an anonymous Syriac chronology of Arab rulers that ends with the ascension of Walīd ibn ʿAbd al-Malik to the caliphate.

Again a report giving information about the kingdom of the Arabs and how many kings they produced and how much land each of them held after his predecessor previous to his death.
Muhammad came upon the earth in 932 of Alexander son of Philip the Macedonian; he reigned for seven years.
After him Abū Bakr reigned for two years.
After him ʿUmar reigned for twelve years. …

Robert Hoyland has noted that the list is found “in a late ninth-century manuscript of very varied contents, sandwiched between select sentences from the proverbs of Solomon and extracts from the discourse of Isaac of Antioch on prayer” (Hoyland, Seeing Islam, 394-95; Wright, Catalogue, 2.992-93, no. 861). The text is preserved in BL Add. 17,193, fol. 17a.

(3) A List of Caliphs (724)

The final early Syriac reference to the first caliph comes from another short list that appears on the last folio of the Chronicle of Thomas the Presbyter. Similar to the list above, it is dated to 724 AD since it ends with the reign of Yazīd b. ʿAbd al-Malik.

A notice of the life of Muhammad, the Messenger (the word r…ā/rasūl is effaced) of God, after he had entered his city and before he entered it three months, from his first year; and how long each king who subsequently arose over the Hagarenes (Muslims) lived once they had come to power; and for how long there was dissension between them:
The months before Muhammad came.
And Muhammad lived (another) ten years.
And Abū Bakr b. Abī Quhāfa, 2 years, 6 months.
And ʿUmar b. al-Khattāb, 10 years, 3 months. …

Palmer and Hoyland have suggested that this list is likely a translation of an Arabic original given the text’s usage of specific names and terms of office in addition to its use of the Arabic words rasūl and fitna. It is also interesting to note that Muhammad’s reign has been “corrected” in this list from seven years (as seen in the lists of 692 and 705) to ten years and ʿUmar’s reign has been reduced to ten years. The text is preserved in BL Add. 14,643, 13th century, last folio (Palmer, West Syr. Chron., 49-50; Hoyland, Seeing Islam, 395-6).

Do you know of any other seventh- or eighth-century sources for Abū Bakr? Send them our way!

Ian D. Morris

Ian D. Morris

Historian and occasional human, powered by tea and cat videos.

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