Oral History and Oral Writing in Historical Texts (Relying on Tarikh-e Beyhaghi)

Abolfazl Hassanabadi

Translated by: Mohammad Baqer Khoshnevisan

"The past accounts are categorized into two parts and there is no third one; they should be heard from someone or read from a book." [1]

One of the issues that has not been paid attention deeply in Persian historical resources is the creditability of the contents of historical subjects, classification of narrated news origins and how that news have reached to the author. A look at the post-Islam historical texts shows that the authors have mostly used three main resources in their books: 1- personal observations, 2- indirect quotations, and 3- using other historical resources and documents.

Reviewing each of the above cases in terms of the subject importance and content validity requires deep research in different sources, and definitely, there are few books in which their authors have written significant works by using all three above mentioned sources and full domination toward their goal. However, the books like Tarikh-e Beyhaghi, Tarikh-e Jahangosha-ye Joveini, and Jame'-at-tavarikh are considered in the category of such works. Here, we are not about to address the mentioned categorization, but we are going to explain about the valuable status of "Abolfazl Beyhaghi", one of the most important and original historians in historicism and his correct understanding of oral history, through presenting a general definition of oral history and comparing its elements with oral writing.

It is fair to say that the status and position of Abolfazl Beyhaghi and his historical thoughts have not been recognized and introduced properly, at least among the history researchers. Tarikh-e Beyhaghi is a valuable source in its period and a model for the next centuries. The review of written sources and the content of the book show that they have been his own observations authored with full preciseness through the years, or from the data that he has obtained from informed people and dignitaries. Significantly, by using the resources, he comments correctly about the events and incidents with his special acuity and skill. Here, we are not going to discuss about the historical thoughts of Abolfazl Beyhaghi; it needs a long time, but we address that part of Tarikh-e Beyhaghi in which he himself terms as one of original and trueborn resources. It means the parts that he has heard from others or oral narrations to which is said oral history today, and his thinking framework towards the elements of oral history, such as interviewer, interviewee, compiled subjects, and so on.

In order to measure the comparativeness Beyhaghi's thinking and book with oral history frameworks, firstly we look at the background of oral history and its important definitions of and main elements.

The scientific and methodical backgrounds of oral history date back to the recent century. However, its history goes back to the time before the invention of writing. Oral history emerged in the form of story and legend generation after generation and race after race since the human started to talk. The first findings about oral history go back to the handwritings of Zhou Dynasty in China about 3,000 years ago.[2] Centuries later, Thucydides conducted interviews with those who had participated in Peloponnesian War. In the Islamic history, the prominent example of the importance and status of oral history should be seen in traditions, Hadiths and the narration of the first Islamic century incidents. The time when writing Hadiths was banned and oral history was the only way to keep them.[3]

Deliberate oral history in the form of official written interviews shaped since 1775, after Lexington and Concord Wars.[4] Then it extended to California[5] and New York[6]. The twentieth century is the age of oral history formation and expansion. Since 1930, valuable data gathered from the survivors of the US immigrants.[7] The invention of tape-recorder caused the oral history to enter a new stage. Oral history has so far weathered various stages and taken high steps in the way toward its evolution.[8] Today researchers in relevant subjects use it as a valuable research historical method.[9] Hundreds of universities, associations, and institutions are busy working in this field. Different individuals have defined and explained Oral History in various forms. Some of the most important definitions are as follows:

1- A disciplined, conscious dialogue between two people about some aspects of the past [10]

2- The method of collecting and keeping memories and personal opinions about the historical events, which is shaped through interviewing with the participants in the past events [11]

3- Collecting past data through interviewing people [12]

4- A way for involving people in creating their own history [13]

5- A way for democratization of history [14]

6- A liberal interpretation of social meaning of history [15]

7- Mutual anthropology [16]

The elements of oral history

1- Interview:

It is the outcome of the connection between the interviewer and narrator in order to access historical truth [17] in which the ideas and thoughts of important figures or the opinions of ordinary people about different matters are asked.[18] In fact, interview is not a mere dialogue and the interviewer should record the memoirs of the people and encourage them to talk.[19]

2- The interview subject and domination over it:

Interview subject is determined based on importance of an event and the interview is in line with it.

3- Interviewer:

The conductor of an interview should obtain precise historical data and requirements regardless his/her personal goals and interests by the help of some characteristics such as having the knowledge about the subject, [20] good listening, and describing skills. [21]

4- Interviewee:

Interviewee is an informed person who has observations or direct involvement in an event. Interviewee should be selected from the correct and exact individuals who are related to the subject. [22]

Beyhaghi and Oral History

Many human affairs take place without leaving any trace or sign. Any event in the past is lost after leaving limited signs. Historical writings portray only a small part of what has happened. The people, who have observed a happening, would remember only a small part of it. Only a small part of what has been remembered is recorded. A small part of recorded texts remains. The parts noted by historians are reliable and only a part of what is reliable is understandable. [23]

These phrases are meaningful sentences about recording and transferring historical events of a period. We have very limited information about some of our historical points. Moreover, they are transferred to future very imperfectly. One of the prominent examples is Tarikh-e Beyhaghi. Unfortunately, most of the transcripts of this book no longer exist. Here, we look for the concepts of oral history amidst the remaining pages of this great work by Beyhaghi. He has perfectly showed his skillfulness by introducing himself as interviewer, interviewee and sometimes as a user of oral history. Some of the most important cases are as follows:

1- Awareness and domination over the subject:

One of the most important elements of oral history is the knowledge of interviewer about a subject and using the opportunity for obtaining data and its presentation in the correct time. Beyhaghi as a strong interviewer who has narrated the events or supervised the narration deserves all peculiarities:

"… Therefore, I took the job instead of them. If I had stopped and waited for them to do this, it would not have been done and as the time passes, people would forget them and there would be no one to do this by the knowledge and the way that I do." [24] or "… and I wrote this story in order to inform others how it was and bring benefits to the readers and make them know the truth of the past stories." [25]

Or in Khawrazm sermon, he brings some lines about the importance of history and shows his insight and knowledge about the job.

2- Correct observation: one of the conditions of the correct documentation of the events in oral history is the precise recognition of data resources and the selection of the people who have witnessed the event and have been confidant. This condition has been ignored in some ways and less paid attention to in most of history books. In mentioning the subject related to an event, the individual should first explain about his observations and data and then uses the data of the individuals who have been involved directly in that event or witnessed closely. For example, Beyhaqi mentions, “When I decided to write this history I forced myself to write what I am sure about or what I have heard from a reliable person.” [26]

Beyhaghi consciously considers his observations superior to all the other observations and then quotes from others' observations. He also mentions the conditions for this narration, which is not found in other resources. He writes: "… and the past accounts are categorized into two parts and there is no third one; they should be heard from someone or read from a book The condition is that the narrator should be honest and also the individual should confirm that he is right". [27] The main point is that he considers the confidentilaity of the individual as a main condition and regards the acuity and wariness of the listener or interviewer in correct understanding of the subject and searching for its accuracy or inaccuracy as another condition.

3- Lack of prejudgment, respecting justice and sensitivity towards others' judgments: One of the factors that should be considered in oral history is avoiding prejudgment and involving personal viewpoints of the interviewer or the performers of oral history projects in the facts. All interviewers before starting a work are recommended to prevent from any personal comment without documentary backing, involving trends and thoughts, and partiality and bigotry while interviewing. Beyhaghi observes this point in mentioning oral narrations very well. He stresses many times that he has never been prejudiced in mentioning the narrations and has always tried to follow the right way, especially in cases in which there had been a tension between him and that person, he had been very careful. As he writes about Bu-Sahl-e Zoozani, he just considers him as a bad tempered man and writes, "… and I wrote that because if the Mahmoodi & Mas'oodi elders were informed, they would not blame on me." [28] or in another place, he writes, "and I do not write it because Bu-Sahl has done many wrongs to me; since he is gone and all those people and I know there are not many days for me to live. I write the truth and I know the wise people and elders would not blame on me for what I wrote" [29] and in another place he writes about Bu-Sahl Zoozani, "and it is some years that Khawdjeh Bu-Sahl-e Zoozani has died and he is about to answer for his deeds and we have nothing to do with them. Although I do not like him, but since I am about 65 and about to leave this world, I should write the history without prejudice; because the readers may say shame on me!" [30] In this way, he shows his just insight about Bu-Sahl Zoozani and finishes his words about his in this way, "…this Bu-Sahl was a son of Imam and modest. He was knowledgeable and literate. But, he had some inequalities and mischief in his nature."[31]

One of oral history standards, which are regularly mentioned to the interviewers and executors of oral history projects, is considering the community of resources users and observing the moral issues in recording and transferring it. The issue which is prominent in all the mentioned quotations from Beyhaghi, is the importance of the readers and their viewpoints for Beyhaghi and his effort in showing that he had observed this important task; something which can be hardly found in other historical resources.

4- Taking the responsibility of the writings and not insisting on the certainty of one's narration: The interviewee or narrator should accept all the responsibility of his or her words about the issues and individuals and at the same time, in expressing the events, should not consider him/herself as honest and others and unjust. He/she should let the reader not to accept the subjects with certainty and investigate about their verity. In his book, in cases which he has not witnessed himself or has doubts especially in narrations which he quote from others, Beyhaghi uses the phrase, "God knows the best". For instance, when he talks about prophet Suleiman who welcomes Khawjeh Ali Mikael, he uses this phrase; since his data was neither based on his own observations nor a just man. [32]

5- Introducing the resources and honesty in the narration of events: One of the most important points in oral history interviews is to use prominent and reliable interviewees. This doubles the importance of the collected data. Sometimes in an interview, the interviewee may mention the name of other persons who have given data to him, in addition to his own observations. Since the interviewer has no idea about those individuals and their information, or possibly that those who are quoted from may not be living, the interviewee should present more explanation about these individuals and determine which part belongs to him and to what extent he has borrowed from others. Beyhaghi has realized and observed this importance well. For instance, when narrating the marriage of Mohammad, son of Mahmood, he writes, “I, Bu-fazl, heard from a lady close to the king that…” [33] or about the story of Esma’il, son of Shahab, write: “I heard from Ahmed, son of Abu-Daavood, who was a colleague of the jugde.” [34]

About Abd-ul-Ghaffar, that he quotes so much, writes: “… he is the reliable man that whatever he narrates is needless to be investigated, because he has been in the service of this king since he was 14 and has experience many things in his court.” [35] Some other examples are as follow:

- “As I heard from Abd-ul-malek, the painter that one day in past, Sarhang Bu-Ali Kootval said: …” [36]

- “and then I heard from my friend, Ab-ul-Hassan Kharbaki, who was a close friend to Bu-Sahl.” [37]

-“I heard from Abd-ul-malek Mostofi in Bost in 456 A.H. who was a noble and literate and reliable and professional in accounting.” [38]

-"Sharif Ab-ul-Mozaffar Ben Ahmad Ben Abi-qasem Al-Hashemi, known as Alavi told me that in 450 A.H. and he is a pious and noble and knowledgeable and highborn." [39]

-"… and Bu-Nasr-e Bosti, who is alive today, is a strong man and perfect secretariat and has a good handwriting." [40]

5- Separating observation from quotation and narrating an event or incident: A necessary tasks in oral history interviews is the classification of the obtained data from interviewee and non-interference in their subjects. It means that for the user of interviews' data, the interviewer must determine where he/she has witnessed the event directly, when he/she has heard and when he/she has not had direct relation with the subject. Thus, documenting should is more paid attention to, while the value of the given data is determined. Beyhaghi has observed this importance well:

- About the Indians defeat he writes, "I, Bu-Fazl, had gone with the king to the garden." [41]

- About Khawjeh Ab-ul-Mozaffar Borqashi he writes, "I, Bu-Fazl, saw this Ab-ul-Mozaffar in Neyshaboor." [42]

- "I, Bu-Fazl, heard the killing of Qa'ed Monjooq, more reliably from Khawjeh 'Abd-ul-Samad." [43]

- "When my teacher was dying, he could not talk correctly and would say sentences that wise men did not like. Once we were passing a cemetery and I was with him…" [44]

- About the coming of King Mas'ood to Gorgsn, he writes, "I, Bu-Fazl, made sure that it has happened." [45]

- About forgiving Ab-ul-Fat'h Bosti and Bu-Nasr Moshkan, he writes, "I, Bu-Fazl, was a neighbor and went there to them sooner than others." [46]

- About Khawjeh Ahmad, when becoming a minister, he writes, "What I say is from what I saw and my knowledge and my calendar." [47]

- About the hunting by King Mas'ood in Herat, he writes, "When he came to his tent, he drank, and I, Abd-ul-Qaffar, was standing there." [48]

- "When Mika'il, the draper, came and then they brought the spanners and opened the vats, I, Abd-ul-Qaffar was standing there." [49]

- About the friction between Mahmood and Mas'ood, he writes, "I, Abd-ul-Qaffar was ordered to make them swear and then return." [50]

- About the narration of Bu-Nasr about King Abu-Shoja' Farrokhzad, he writes, "I, Bu-Fazl, heard from my teacher and then everyone went." [51]

Documenting the narrations and quoted subjects

A fault found with oral history is the weakness of memoirs and quoted subjects that may happen due to the issues like the narrator's unjustness, lack of domination over the subject, lack of access to documents, thought bigotry and prejudice and so on. Beyhaghi's access to documents and administrative letters and working as a secretariat would let him dominate over most of the subjects that he was explaining, such as:

- "Bu-Nasr Moshkan wrote a letter and it was so rare." [52]

- About the letter by Mas'ood to the Caliph and the copy of the Caliph of Qayem to Mas'ood, that he has brought the Persian and Arabic text together and it shows he had access to them. [53]

- "The reports of spies reached the court one after another." [54]

- "The people returned; the king stood and then sat on his throne; Ab-ul-'ala became a minister. My teacher took and read all the letters and the orals that had been written down." [55]

- "On Tuesday, 9th of Dhu al-Hijja, a letter received that said the herald named Soleymani had reached to Shooristan." [56]

7- Careful description of events and preventing from circumlocution: Expressing the subjects in a way that the listener becomes familiar with the circumstances of the event is one of the skills of interviewee. An issue that is less seen in our historical works. Beyhaghi in his work sometimes observes brevity very elegantly according to the word suitability and importance of the subject, and sometimes goes through the details of a subject very skillfully.

- "If the readers of this book say, 'what a circumlocution Bu-Fazl ha made', my answer is that I am writing the history of fifty years that takes thousands of papers."[57]

-"I have brought the text of this affidavit and agreement the articles chapter of Maqamat-e Mahmoodi, which I have written before and I do not bring it here in order not to make circumlocution." [58]

- About becoming a minister, he writes, "Khawjeh stood and then kissed the ground and went toward the throne. Then, he presented a necklace of jewels to the king whose price was about 10.000 Dinars. Then, King Mas'ood said, 'This ring is mine, and now I gave it to you'." [59]


The comparison of Beyhaghi's work with his coeval historians and pre or post ones reveals some features about him which are less seen or not seen in others. Honesty and truthfulness, paying attention to explain the subjects very precisely, separating and documenting them, measuring the value of the content of historical subjects, paying attention to the nature and goal of the work, using others' quotations correctly and documenting the subjects by using historical events are among his positive points. Reviewing historical resources reveals that one of the most important data resources of the old historians has been the use of others' quotations in mentioning the events. The circumstances and reasons of this usage is one of the issues that have overshadowed the data value of the works. Beyhaghi should be considered one of the greatest historians who knew various historical news resources as well as the rate of the value of each and the way of adding this validity and, rightly, he is one of the most complete resources, which has used documentary and correct narrations in his book.

In terms of comparing Beyhaghi's historicism elements with oral history factors, Beyhaghi should be considered an oral historian who with his deliberate oral historiography has noticed and addressed many aspects and margins related to his historicism very carefully.


1- Abolfazl Beyhaghi, Dr. Fayaz and Dr. Ghani, Entesharat-e Bank-e Melli, Tehran: 1334, p. 666.

2 - William W. Moss "Oral history. What is it and Where Did it Come From", The past Meets Present, Essay On Oral history, David Striklin and Rebbecca Sharpless (Eds.), Lanharng, Md: University Press Of America, 1988, p.5

3- Tucyides, History of the Pelonnesia War, New York: Penguin, 1972, p.48

4- For more info, see Morteza Nouraee, Fasl-nameh Tahqiqati Tarikhi-ye Ganjineh-ye Asnad, V.13, 1st and 2nd issues, spring and summer, 1382, p. 66

5- David Hackett Fischer, Paul Reveres Ride, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 327

6- Donald A Ritchie, Press Gallery, Congress and the Washington Correspondents, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991, pp. 81 – 83

7- Donald A. Ritchie, "Oral history in Federal Government," Journal of American History, V.74, September 1987, pp. 587 – 595

8- Daivid K. Dunway, The Interdidciplinarity of Oral History, In Oral History An Interdidciplinarity Anthology, Daivid K. Dunway and Willa K. Baum (Eds.), Second Edition, Altamira press, 1996, p.8

9- For more info about oral history and its meanings, see Abolfazl Hassanabadi, Tarikh-e Shafahi dar Iran, Sazman-e Ketabkhane-ha, Mooze-ha va Markaz-e Asnad-e Astan-e Qods-e Razavi, Mashhad, 1385

10- LindaShopes, "What is Oral history" http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/

11- http://www.iraian-i-o-history.com/tarikh.htm

12- An Oral History Primer' libray.ucsc.edu/reg-hist/ohprimer.html,p3

13- Frisch, Michael, "Quality in History Programs," A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History , Albany, NY: Statue University of New York press, 1990, p.188

14- Ronald J. Grele, interviewed by Studs Terkel, "It's Not the Song, It's the Singing: Panel Discussion on Oral History." Grele, Ronald J., Envelopes of Sound: The Art of Oral History, 2nd ed. Chicago: Precedent Publishing, 1985, p.87

15- http://Alexander Street Press Oral History Index. Htm, p.1

16- Rouve Alicia J. "Colaborative Oral history in a correctional setting: Promise and Pitfalls" The Oral history Review, V.30, No.1, Winter-Spring 2003, p.61

17- Susan Ron, Shive-ha-ye Mosahebeh dar Matboo'at, (Tr.) Ali Isari Kasmaee and Yunis Shokrkhah, Entesharat-e Mo'assesseh Iran, Tehran, 1381, p. 13

18- Kazem Mo'atamednejad, Rooznameh-negaari, with Dr. Abolqassem Monsef Sepehr, Tehran 1368, p.187

19- http://www.oham.org/Interview/htm.

20- Evaluation Guidelines, http://omega.diskinson.edu/organization.p4

21- Janet Sims-Wood, how to conduct An oral History Interview

22-Abolfazl Hassanabadi, Me'yar-haye Jahani-y Tarikh-e Shafahi, Ganjineh-ye Asnad, 14th year, 3rd book, Autumn, 1383, no. 55, p. 11

23- Donal Ritchie, Doing oral History Doing oral History, Oxford University Press, 2003, p.1

24- Abolfazl Beyhaghi, Tarikh-e Beyhaghi, pp. 108-9

25 - Ibid, p. 640

26 - Ibid, p. 667

27 - Ibid, p. 666

28 - Ibid, p. 602

29 - Ibid, p. 54

30 - Ibid, p. 179

31 - Ibid, p. 179

32 - Ibid, p. 48-287-356

33 - Ibid, p. 396

34 - Ibid, p. 73

35 - Ibid, p. 110

36 - Ibid, p. 499

37 - Ibid, p. 188

38 - Ibid, p. 204

39 - Ibid, p. 201

40 - Ibid, p. 157

41 - Ibid, p. 431

42 - Ibid, p. 358

43 - Ibid, p. 331

44 - Ibid, p. 590

45 - Ibid, p. 459

46 - Ibid, p. 171

47 - Ibid, p. 129

48 - Ibid, p. 127

49 - Ibid, p. 129

50 - Ibid, p. 136

51 - Ibid, p. 146

52 - Ibid, p. 457

53 - Ibid, p. 302

54 - Ibid, p. 488

55 - Ibid, p. 509

56 - Ibid, p. 286

57 - Ibid, p. 198

58 - Ibid, p. 154

59 - Ibid, p. 59

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