Khalifa ibn Khayyat was born in the southern Iraqi city of Basra in the 770s AD and in his lifetime Iraq grew into a thriving centre of culture and trade and one of the most populous and prosperous regions of the world.
He was one of a generation of scholars who gave concrete form to Islamic religion and culture and bequeathed to us the first books that can be said to be distinctively Islamic.
Khalifa's History is the earliest extant work of Muslim historiography and this alone makes it deserving of greater recognition. It carefully records the key events in the life of the Muslim community from the prophet Muhammad to Khalifa's own day.
The section on the Umayyad dynasty (660-750), which occupies about half of the work, is noteworthy because it gives a more positive assessment of the Umayyad caliphs than later narratives.
Over time they were increasingly censured for having corrupted the purity of early Islamic society, and yet it was they who had overseen the conquest of cities as far afield as Seville and Samarkand and established Muslim rule over all the lands inbetween.
They built the magnificent mosques of Medina and Damascus that still stand today and the palaces that litter the desert margins of modern Jordan and Syria.
Khalifa's History helps us to better evaluate the achievements of this dynasty and also to analyze the beginnings of the discipline of Arabic historical writing in the framework of Islamic civilization. This study and translation was originally submitted by Carl Wurtzel as a doctoral thesis at Yale University in 1977 under the supervision of Franz Rosenthal, one of the greatest Orientalists of modern times.
It has now been prepared for publication, with a Foreword and updated bibliography, by Robert Hoyland, professor of Islamic History at Oxford University.