The biography (sīra) of the Prophet Muhammad represents something intuitive for most Muslims in the world today, at least within the general framework of this biography and in its major events. Sections of the sīra are studied in school curricula, religious study circles, and emphasis is laid upon it in religious sermons. But the confidence of this Islamic mindset in the soundness of the narrative of the Prophet’s sīra is at times severely shaken by the studies of Orientalists and the new methodologies of historical textual criticism and of linguistic and philological analysis.


IN ITS FINE DETAILS the Prophet’s sīra constitutes a basis for fatwas (juristic ruling concerning Islamic law) and provides the paradigm to emulate as regards preaching, fighting and human interaction and indeed several other arenas, including that of medicine (the ‘medicine of the Prophet’). The strong religious conviction of the generality of Muslims see the texts of the Prophet’s sīra as something that is self-evident, and something that may make categorical claim to the truth of the events related and the soundness of its text. Consequently this conviction yields entirely to the sequence of the sīra and to its historicity.

But the confidence of this Islamic mindset in the soundness of the narrative of the Prophet’s sīra is at times severely shaken by the studies of Orientalists and the new methodologies of historical textual criticism and of linguistic and philological analysis. In this context of Orientalist critique, which took methodological shape from about the middle of the 19th century, the texts of the sīra – along with the hadith associated with the Prophet Muhammad and the texts of early histories of Islam (particularly in the first century AH) and along with it the accompanying Islamic mechanisms such as the chain of transmission (sanad) and what is termed al-jarh wa-taʽdīl [1] – are faced with a systematic, methodical criticism. What this has revealed, at least from the point of view of Orientalists, is that we do not actually know anything about the Prophet Muhammad other than some very basic fragments. We therefore cannot form any real image about his life or any of the events in it, or any details about his preaching, let alone have any possibility of constructing an integral biography of him, such as the one we read today in many Islamic sources.

The same goes for the Prophet Moses and Jesus the Messiah, in that none of the history recounted in the Torah (the five books of Moses) and the Gospels – whether the four that are recognised by the Church or the others – constitute a “history” that occurred in fact but rather, as the Orientalist and student of monotheistic traditions David Strauss put it, relate:

“nothing else than the clothing in historic form of religious ideas, shaped by the unconsciously inventive power of legend, and embodied in a historic form” [2].

But in the view of the writer of this article the process of ‘mythologizing’ historical personalities is not always done “unconsciously”. In this way, and again taking the Orientalist point of view, the texts of the Prophet’s sīra suffer from the same shortcomings. This article is a very abridged introduction to some of the works that these Orientalists, and those who adopt their methodology, draw from, in addition to the published efforts of the present writer in his own work Naqd Nass al-Hadīth. [3].

Muslims see the texts of the sīra as something that is self-evident, and yield entirely to its historicity

The sīra of the Prophet as we read it today suffers from two problematic issues which are placing its historical events within the reach of criticism. The first issue is the fact that the traditions associated with the life of the Prophet Muhammad, his words and his deeds, were transmitted orally for a period of at least a hundred years before Muhammad Ibn Ishāq undertook to record the first Prophetic sīra in writing. Subsequently, however, all copies of this sīra disappeared and, lo and behold, to this day no complete manuscript of the sīra of Ibn Ishāq has been discovered. The second problematic issue is that the era in which the events of this sīra were orally circulated without being written down, was politically and doctrinally a troubled era, one that was neither neutral nor averse to employing violence and extermination against any conception that conflicted with the politically popular image of the life of the Prophet Muhammad.

Regarding the first issue, the topics of criticism divide themselves up into very many lateral issues, some of them relating to the nature of the oral reporting – its transmission, alteration, revision and exposure to forgetfulness, delusions, fantasies, distortions, amplifications and deletions. Some of them relate to aspects of ambiguity that raise doubts concerning the relationship of the sīra of the Prophet to the life stories of the prophets of the Old Testament. Still others relate to the ‘fabric of the reporting’ itself or to its contents, in that we can see how the narrative reprises content that refers to religious or doctrinal conflicts that preceded by far the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad. This is in addition to other topics and ramifications since we can see, for example, some truly astonishing and fascinating elements of similarity between the account of the life of the Prophet Moses and the sīra of the Prophet Muhammad. To take some examples:

  1. Moses goes to a mountain to receive the ‘word’ of God inscribed upon slabs – Muhammad goes to a mountain cave to receive the ‘message’ of God, and an angel bids him “Read!”;
  2. The followers of Moses in Egypt undergo great suffering – the followers of Muhammad in Mecca undergo great suffering;
  3. Moses flees to ‘Madyan’ – Muhammad emigrates to ‘Madīna’;
  4. Moses with his followers departs from Egypt – Muhammad with his followers migrates from Makka;
  5. Representatives of the 12 tribes of Israel appear before Moses – in Aqaba the 12 Nuqaba of the Ansār (al-Khazraj) appear before Muhammad;
  6. Moses strikes the rock in the desert and water issues from it so that the sons of Israel may drink – water issues from between the hands of Muhammad in the desert so that the Muslims may drink;
  7. An uninterrupted rain of bread and meat falls (al-mann wal-salwā [4]) for Moses – a never exhausting plethora of food issues from a single dish for Muhammad;
  8. Pharaoh and his army are slain by means of drowning – the grandees of Quraysh and some of their army are slain at the Battle of Badr;
  9. Moses is confronted with internal strife amongst the Israelites to the point that some commit apostasy and worshipped a cow – Muhammad is confronted with internal strife amongst the Muslims so that they are accused of being hypocrites (munafikeen) and of secretly harbouring disbelief;
  10. The angel of the Lord goes forth before Moses and his tribe so as to destroy the Amorites, the Hittites and the Canaanites – angels fight so closely alongside the Muslims that their voices and the neighing of their horses can be heard;
  11. Out of fear the parents of Moses do not bring him up as a child – since he is an orphan the parents of Muhammad do not bring him up as a child;
  12. Moses tends sheep – Muhammad tends sheep;
  13. Pharaoh intends to kill every child of the Israelites including the infant Moses – the Jews wish to kill the Prophet Muhammad as a child and the monk Bahīrā warns his uncle Abū Tālib of this;
  14. Pharaoh’s army pursues Moses as he departs from Egypt – the Quraysh pursue Muhammad as he emigrates;
  15. Moses chooses 70 elders to ascend the mountain with him to meet the Lord – at Aqaba 70 Ansār pledge their allegiance to Muhammad.

These are some of the elements of similarity between the two stories as they feature in the Torah and the Prophet’s sīra. What appears from this, at least as an early conclusion, is that the oral transmitter of the events of the Prophet’s sīra before it was written down weaved together some of the events of the life of the Prophet Muhammad on the pattern of what he had read in the books of the Old Testament (specifically the Torah). This indicates that, for one reason or another, he was ignorant of the actual events in many parts of the Prophet Muhammad’s sīra and attempted to fill the gap or – as a second possibility – he wished to fill the gap resulting from some deliberate deletion in the sequence of this sīra and relied upon some previous knowledge of the life of the Prophet Moses.

The process of ‘mythologizing’ historical personalities is not always done unconsciously

But the elements of similarity in the Prophet’s sīra do not stop at the texts of the Torah as they relate to the Prophet Moses. They extend to making extracts from old legends and tales of the Arabs from their heroic age and subsequently relating them to the biographical events of the Prophet Muhammad. The writer of this article in his work A Critique of the Hadith Text has adduced a number of examples. Here is one of them:

“The author of the work Al-Aghānī, along with other sources of tales of the Arabs, tells us of the wars of the age of Jāhiliyya [5] known as The Wars of Al-Fijār. They were named Al-Fijār because they took place during the sacred months, the months when fighting amongst the jāhilī Arabs was forbidden. This continued to be the case under Islam when they desecrated these months by their fighting. Abū Faraj al-Isfahānī writes:

On the second day of the first Fijār: the origin of this was that some of the young men of Quraysh and Banū Kināna who were of a passionate disposition caught sight of a beautiful and graceful woman of the Banū ‘Āmir as she was sitting at the ‘Ukāz market dressed in a long, trailing, flowing robe and a burqa. She was talking with some Arab youths when the Banū Kināna and Qurayshi youths surrounded her and asked her to unveil herself. She refused, whereupon one of them sat behind her, untied one end of her gown and fastened it above her waist with a thorn unbeknownst to her. When she stood up her robe left her buttocks exposed, at which they laughed.

This tale was the cause of one of the battles of the Arab jāhiliyya period prior to Islam, yet here we read in thebiographyof the Prophet Muhammad (as included in the sīra of Ibn Hishām who related a summary of the sīra of Ibn Ishāq) of the cause of the Prophet’s war against the Jews of the Banū Qaynuqāʽ:

What happened with the Banū Qaynuqāʽ is that an Arab woman had brought milk to sell in the market of the Banū Qaynuqāʽ and had sat down with a jeweller. They started to ask her to unveil herself, and she refused. The jeweller then took the end of her robe and knotted it further up her back, so when she stood up her private parts were exposed, at which they laughed”.

The matter extends beyond this to the legends of ancient Yemen, as related by Wahb ibn Munabbih in the work Al-Tījān fī Mulūk iushām Himyar. This work bases itself on the report of Ibn Hishām, the same reporter whose accounts were abridged and deleted from the sīra of Ibn Ishāq after the loss of the original. Ibn Hishām brought out a revision of the sīra, and this is the one we now have and which bears the title: Ibn Hishām’s Sīra of the Prophet. The following excerpt comes from the present author’s book A Critique of the Hadith Text:

“When we compare the two books – the Al-Tījān and the Sīra of the Prophet – we come to a very interesting conclusion: the two books (the two accounts by Ibn Hishām) bear striking similarities in more than one axis … Here Ibn Hishām preserves from Wahb the following account of what happened to ‘Ābir ibn Shālikh:

‘Ābir saw in a dream a door open up to him in the sky through which an angel came down, took hold of him and made him stand up. The angel then split open his breast and extracted his heart, opened it up, washed it, closed it up again and returned it in one piece just as it was. He then replaced it in his breast and it resumed unimpaired.

This is what Wahb related concerning ‘Ābir ibn Shālikh. But we see in the sīra the Prophet Muhammad saying:

Two men came unto me dressed in white robes bearing a golden dish full of snow, and they took hold of me and split my abdomen and extracted my heart. They opened it and extracted out of it a black blood clot which they cast away. Then they washed my heart and my abdomen with the snow until they had fully  cleansed it.

Wahb then goes on to relate to us the tale of ‘Ābir as well:

He seemed to see an angel coming to him and he took his hand and made him stand up and then said: “Take the page, ‘Ābir.” And so ‘Ābir took hold of the page whereupon the angel said to him: “Read, ‘Ābir.” Then ‘Ābir said: “What shall I read?”

But this is the same story as the famous account of the angel Jibrīl and the Prophet at the beginning of the Revelation: and he said “Read!” and I said “What shall I read?”. Wahb also tells us that Yaʽrib saw a vision that instructed him to dig a hole in “the land of Barhūt in the West”. And, sure enough, we read in the sīra of Ibn Hishām:

While ‘Abd al-Muttalib ibn Hishām was sleeping upon the stone it [i.e. a dream or a vision] came to him and commanded him to dig the well of Zamzam.

Wahb then tells us of King Al-Saʽb Dhū al-Qarnayn ibn al-Hārith al-Rā’ish:

And behold he saw a vision of someone coming towards him, holding his hand and walking with him until he took him up a great and lofty mountain which none other had dared climb out of fear of what he might see. It overlooked Gehenna groaning beneath them with its waves crashing, and where there were blackened people attacked by fires on all sides. And Al-Saʽb said to him: “Who are these people?” To which he replied “the oppressors.”

This is the tale of [the Prophet Muhammad’s miʽrāj, [6] although it is to be noted that the Qur’ān never mentions the word miʽrāj, at least not overtly. Wahb then completes his narrative of legends and says:

And then on the second night he saw as if a ladder was set up for him to the sky, and he climbed up it and continue to climb until he reached the level of the sky, whereupon he drew his sword and hung it unsheathed upon the Pleiades. Then he grasped the sun with his right hand and took hold of the moon with his left hand.

If we leave aside the obvious inspiration for the miʽrāj, we read in Ibn Hishām’s sīra the words of the prophet Muhammad to his uncle Abū Tālib:

By God, if they put the sun in my right hand and the moon in my left hand…

[1] Al-jarh wa-taʽdīl  refers to the process of testing the probity of the hadith reporters as an indicator of their reliability. (Ed.)

[2] Ibn Warraq, The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, p. 76

[3]    Hasan Mohsen Ramadan, نقد نص الحديث : جهيمان العتيبي واحتلال الحرم المكي كمدخل (‘A critique of the Hadith Text: Juhaymān al-ʽUtaybī and the Occupation of the Meccan Mosque’), Dār al-Hasād, Damascus 2010.

[4] ‘The manna and the quails’ comes from from Qur’ān II, 57: And We caused the white cloud to overshadow you and sent down on you the manna and the quails, (saying): Eat of the good things wherewith We have provided you.

[5] See Glossary.

[6] The miʽrāj  (a word that literally means “ladder” refers to account for the ascension of the Prophet on the back of the horse Buraq to the heavens, where he tours the seven circles of heaven, and speaks with the earlier prophets such as Abraham, Moses, John the Baptist, and Jesus. (Ed.)

Main image: Muhammad and the monk Bahīrā from the engraving by Lucas van Leyden (1508)

David Strauss (1808-1874): religious ideas in the guise of  ‘history’
Moses, like Muhammad, conjures water from the desert: Oil on canvas by Francesco Bachiacca (1494-1557)