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Analyzing Historical Documents: A Guide for Understanding Islamicate History

Situate Your Document Historically


- Papers should be at least 1200 words long. In your analysis, address the following aspects of the text: 

a. Situate your document historically
• What is this document? 
• Why was this document created? What is its purpose? 
• Who created this document? What do we know about the author and his/her perspectives and biases? 
• When/where was this document created?
• Who is the intended audience? How might the audience have shaped what the author writes? How might the audience have reacted to the document? 

b. Analyze your document and its historical significance: 
• Reflect about the choice of words and tone of the document. How do they reflect the author’s historical context and the audience? If the document makes an argument, what strategies does the author use? 
• Context: How does the document reflect the time when it was written or created? 
• Historical significance: How does this document contribute to your understanding of this historical period? What other information might help you better understand the significance of this document?
• Bias: Was the author in a position to have reliable knowledge of the event or phenomenon he/she describes? Does the form permit accurate reporting? Does the author have any reason to avoid telling the truth as he or she saw it? 
• Comparison: how are the tone, perspective, and purpose of the document similar or different than others you have read on this topic? 

c. Unanswered questions 

• What questions does the text leave unanswered? And what other sources could a historian use to try to find answers to these questions? 

- Some of these questions will apply better to some documents than others. Choose those that you think can best be used to analyze the historical significance of your document. You can also choose to answer questions by asking more questions. 

- The best way to approach the assignment is to begin your analysis by identifying and analyzing authorship and the protagonists in the text. Understand the basic contextual information first: figure out when the document was created, by whom, and about whom. 

- Your tone should be fairly historical, detached, and objective. You can use the first person but this is not meant to be a personal reaction essay explaining why you agree or disagree with the document. Nor is it merely a summary, but a critical analysis about the document’s significance to understanding Islamicate history. 

- To be able to do your analysis, you will need to consult reliable academic sources. The easiest starting point is to find the source in which the text is translated. All sources are noted in the text and I have uploaded the introduction or the original translation to Quercus. While you can of course also rely on course readings, I suggest also consulting the Encyclopedia of Islam (usually this is the best place to begin!) or the New Cambridge History of Islam. 

- Please properly cite all of your sources using Chicago style footnotes. Your TAs will briefly review this in tutorial, but please ask them any questions about citations before you submit your assignment; proper referencing will form part of your grade for this assignment. A bibliography is not necessary.

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