Sira - Muhammad's biographers

December 2020

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Although the Quran may be said to be the key-stone to the biography of Muhammad it contains comparatively few references to the personal history of the Prophet. The earliest interest in the biography of Muhammad was concerned on the one hand, with fixing the regular practice of worship and religious law as found in the hadith and on the other hand celebrating, after the fashion of pre-Islamic Arabia, the warlike exploits of their chief.

The traditional biography of Muhammad is called in Arabic Sira – Sirah Rasul Allah (Life of the Apostle of God) or Sirat Nabawiyya (Life of the Prophet). In the majority of references relating to the early production of Arab literature the plural form siyar is used and refers to the term maghazi ’military expeditions.’

The Arabic term sira is said to mean travel or journey and so includes a variety of materials covering the journey of Muhammad centring on such matters as political treaties, military enlistments, and assignments of officials. The sira literature, unlike the hadith, was not used as an authoritative source for Islamic law yet together they constitute what is call the Sunna.

Early non-extant biographers

The first literary redactions of the Sira have grown up from the stories as told by the kussas, the professional story-tellers. The first, who attempted to compile an account of Muhammad in the form of a history was az-Zuhri, who died in A.H 124, aged 72; he is mentioned in the biographical dictionary of Ibn Khallikan (d. A.H. 681).

Zuhri made separate collections of the traditions concentrating on certain episodes of Muhammad’s life, particularly those relating to his military career where his expeditions and battles are recorded. He lived at the court of the Umayyad Caliphs, and there is therefore every reason to believe that his accounts are unbiased. There is nothing of Zuhri’s work extant in independent form, but he is largely quoted by subsequent biographers; and their account of Muhammad’s military operations is probably in great part the reproduction of materials collated by him.

Other early maghazi literary productions which have not survived include Urwah ibn al-Zubair (643-712), son of the famous companion of Muhammad and a descendant of Asma. Abban ibn Uthman 642-723), the second son to the Caliph, and Wahb ibn Munabbih al-Yamani (654-728).

Extant Biographies

The earliest biographical writers, whose works are extant more or less in their original state, are 1) Ibn Ishaq A.H. 151.  2) Ibn Hisham A.H. 218.  3) Waqidi, and his secretary.  4) At-Tabari A.H. 310. Then there are more recent biographies such as those by Ibun’l-Asir, A.H. 630, and Ismail Abu’l-fida’ A.H. 732.

These works were contemporary with those tradition-gatherers who travelled land and sea in search of any trace of Muhammad yet lingering in the memories, or in the family archives, of his followers.

Early Biographers

1) The Sira of Ibn Ishaq approx 150 A.H. (767 A.D)

Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah is the earliest surviving traditional biography, and was written just over 100 years after Muhammad’s death. He wished to compose a work of greater scope than the maghazi which were written before him although his use of the isnad was corrupted in such a way that the scholastic tradition refused him the worthy title of muhaddith. His work marks the clear separation between historical and purely doctrinal hadith.

Ibn Ishaq was the first to place Islam and its founder in the scheme of universal history. The rise of Islam, according to him, is the continuation and conclusion of the Jewish and Christian faith while Muhammad appears as the most glorious representation of Arabism, through whom the age of Arab domination in the world is to be opened.

Unlike his predecessors he supplements his sources with the use of poetry and in the narrative parts he supplies an abundant number of genealogical and antiquarian notes. This explains the success of his work through the centuries even overshadowing the later work of Ibn Sa’d.

Ibn Ishaq initially was in Medina but came in conflict with the representatives of religious and legal tradition which dominated public opinion in the town, notably with Malik b. Anas who decried him as the inventor of many legends and poems. He therefore left his native land and went first of all to Egypt and then to Iraq.

However, his work was published for the use of the Abbasid Caliph Al Mansur and there seems no ground for believing that he was less careful than other traditionalists. The fact of his being uniformly quoted with confidence by later authors, leave little doubt that the aspersions cast upon him have no good foundation.

Testimonies abound in favour of Ibn Ishaq in the Muslim world, and of his general respectability as a writer. Al Shafi said: ’ Whoever wishes to obtain a complete acquaintance with the early Muslim conquests, must borrow his information from Ibn Ishaq.’

No copy of Ibn Hisham’s biography, in its original form exists but the materials have been used extensively in the recension of Ibn Hisham 833 A.D and later was embodied and re-produced in the most part by al-Tabari 922 A.D in his two great compilations Tarikh and Tafsir. There are a few important differences between these, however, for example, al-Tabari includes the Satanic Verses while Ibn Hisham does not.

2) Ibn Hisham (‘Abdul-Malik b. Hisham)

He made the labours of Ibn Ishaq the basis of his biography of Muhammad and his work is the fullest and oldest surviving of its kind. The fact remains however, that Muslims do not refer to the early original sources but prefer the modern biographies with their marvellous tales.

He was celebrated for his learning, and possessed superior information in genealogy and grammar. He lived in Egypt but his family were from Basra. He composed a genealogical work on the tribe of Himyar and its princes and it is said that he wrote another work, in which he explained the obscure passages of poetry cited in ibn Ishaq’s biography of the Prophet. His death occurred in Old Cairo A.H. 213/828.

There is reason to suspect that Ibn Hisham was not quite as honest as his great authority Ibn Ishaq. Certainly one instance throws suspicion upon him as a witness, disinclined at least to tell the whole truth. We find a subsequent biographer, Tabari, making a quotation from Ibn Ishaq, in which is described the temporary lapse of Muhammad into idolatry; and the same incidents are also given in Waqidi from other general sources. But no notice whatever of the fact appears in the biography of Ibn Hisham, though it is professedly based upon the work of Ibn Ishaq. His having thus studiously omitted all reference to so important an incident, for no other reason apparently than because he fancied it to be discreditable to the Prophet, cannot but lessen our confidence generally in his book. Still, it is evident from a comparison of his text with the quotations made by Tabari from the same passages of Ibn Ishaq that whatever he did copy from his author his quotations were faithfully and accurately quoted.

The arrangement and composition of Ibn Hisham are careful, if not elaborate although frequent fusion of traditions occurs. The traditions are well classified, and his narrative proceeds with much of the regularity of an ordinary biography. An abridged version of Ibn Hisham’s work was made in Damascus in A.H. 707 (A.D. 1307), by Ahmad ibn Ibrahim. The omissions generally have to do with the non-inclusion of the series of witnesses to the traditions.

3) Al-Waqidi 130-207 A.H (797- 874 A.D.)

Muhammad ibn Umar al-Waqidi was born at Medina and studied and wrote exclusively under the Abbasids. He enjoyed their patronage, and passed a part of his life at their court, having in his later days been appointed a Qazi of Baghdad. In judging therefore of his learning and prejudices, we must always bear in mind that the influence of the Abbasid dynasty bore strongly and continuously upon him.

Al-Waqidi was a tireless collector of traditions and the author of many books not-withstanding the extraordinary fertility of his pen, none of the works of Waqidi have reached us in their original form, with the exception of the Maghazi, or ‘History of the Wars of the Prophet,’ of which a copy was discovered in Syria and was published in the Bibliotheca Indica. An abridged translation was made by Wellhausen and published under the title Muhammad in Medina, Berlin 1882.

He was the author of some well-known works on the conquests of Muslims, and other subjects such as an account of the apostasy of the Arabs on the death of Muhammad and of the wars between his followers and Tuleiha and Museilama, the false prophets.

4) Ibn Sa’d, (230 A.H/845 A.D.) Waqidi’s secretary

It is through Waqidi’s secretary that the most important results of his labours are preserved. Ibn Khallikan describes him: ‘Muhammad Ibn Sa’d was a man of the highest talents, merit and eminence. He lived for some time with Al-Waqidi in the character of a secretary, and for this reason became known by the appellation The Secretary of Wackidi.” He composed an excellent work in fifteen volumes on the different classes of Muhammad’s Companions and the Successors; it contains also a history of the Caliphs, brought down to his own time. His character as a veracious and trustworthy historian is universally admitted. It is said that the complete collection of Waqidi’s works remained in the possession of four persons, the first of whom was his secretary, Muhammad ibn Sa’d. This distinguished writer displayed great acquirements in the sciences, the traditions and traditional literature; most of his books are the treatment of the traditions and law. He died at the age of sixty-two at Baghdad in A.H. 230, and was interred in the cemetery outside the Damascus gate.

In his fifteen volumes he is supposed to have embodied the researches of his master, together with the fruits of his own independent labour. The first volume has, fortunately for the interests of literature and truth, been preserved to us in an undoubtedly genuine form. It contains the Sirat or ’Biography of Muhammad,’ with detailed accounts of the learned men of Medina, and of all the Companions of the Prophet who were present at Bedr. This manuscipt is written in an ancient but very distinct character, it was transcribed at Damascus in A.H. 718 (A.D. 1318), by a scholar named Haqqari.

The traditions received from al-Waqidi are considered of feeble authority, and doubts have been expressed on the subject of his veracity. He has been frequently criticized by Muslim writers, who claim that he is unreliable. Imam Shafi‘i says that, “the books written by Al-Waqidi are nothing but heaps of lies”. Alternatively, Al Mamun testified a high respect for him, and treated him with marked honour.’

Waqidi is said to have been a follower of the Alyite sect. Like others, he probably yielded to the prevailing influences of the day, which tended to exalt the Prophet’s son-in-law as well as the progenitors of the Abbasids. But there is not the slightest ground for doubting his character. Waqidi’s secretary’s work has also been well vindicated. His work contains nearly as many miracles as those we find in Ibn Hisham but we remind ourselves that they were only compilers of current traditions; and these if attested by respectable names, were received, however fabulous or extravagant, with a blind and implicit credulity

Later Biographers of Muhammad and other eminent Muslims

After al-Waqidi, the Sira is not dealt with again for some centuries in works of great importance.

1) Ya’kubi about 292 A.H (905 A.D) – He was the author of a history in two parts, pre-Islamic and Islamic. Published at Leyden 1883.

2) Ibn al-Athir 630 A.H ( 1233 A.D) – The author of a universal history, published at Leyden and in Egypt.

3) Ibn Khallikan (1211-1282) A well-known 13th century Kurdish biographer on Islam. He was born at Arbelah, Iraq but after a brief stay in Damascus settled in Cairo, where he gained pre-eminence as a jurist, a theologian, and a grammarian. He returned to Damascus in 1269 where he became the chief Qazi. His biographical dictionary has been translated was English by Baron de Slane (Paris 1843). It contains, in alphabetical order, the histories of many eminent Muslims but does not mention Muhammad, the orthodox caliphs or the sahaba the Companions of Muhammad. After his death his dictionary received numerous additions from subsequent writers.

4) Ibn Hajar (1372 – 1449) He wrote the Isabah, a dictionary of persons who knew Muhammad (4 volumes). In spite of its late date his work is historically valuable owing to the fact that it embodies matter taken from sources which are no longer accessible. He possessed an extraordinary library.

5) Diyarbekri (982 A.H. (1574 A.H) The author of a life of the prophet, followed by a sketch of Islamic history, called Tarikh al-Khamis, published Cairo 1302 A.H.

6) Nur al-Din al-Halabi (1567- 1634 A.D) The author of a Life of Muhammad, called Insan al-’uyun, Cairo 1292 A.H.

Message4muslims 2014