The texts of the Prophet’s sīra (biography) contain within them a multiplicity of problems. These related to their late date of composition, lax editorial criteria, censorship, pious tendentious revision and anachronisms. Yet they are employed as raw material for legislation and fatwas. Modern critical historiography is calling into question their value as objective history.


IN THE ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF ISLAM, Dr. Wim Raven wrote an entry on the sīra. What he says in his introduction characterises the Orientalists’ position on the texts of the biography of the Prophet Muhammad. He writes:

The sīra materials as a whole are so heterogeneous that a coherent image of the Prophet [Muhammad] cannot be obtained from it. Can any of them be used at all for a historically reliable biography of Muhammad, or for the historiography of early Islam? Several arguments plead against it:

      1. Hardly any sīra text can be dated back to the first century of Islam.
      2. The various versions of a text often show discrepancies, both in chronology and in contents.
      3. The later the sources are, the more they claim to know about the time of the Prophet. [Compare, by way of example, the abridgement of the sīra by Ibn Ishāq (ob.171 AH) with the Maghāzī of al-Wāqidī (ob. 207 AH), and then compare all these with the work Imtāʽ al-Asmāʽ by al-Maqrīzī (ob. 845 AH)] [1].
      4. Non-Islamic sources [on the life of the Prophet or the period of early Islam [2] are often at variance with Islamic sources (see P. Crone and M. Cook, Hagarism).
      5. Most sīra fragments can be classed with one of the genres mentioned above. Pieces of salvation history and elaborations on Koranic texts are unfit as sources for scientific historiography.

One principal aspect of difficulty follows from the fact that the first written sīra on the life of the Prophet Muhammad has only reached us in fragmentary form. This was the work undertaken by Muhammad Ibn Ishāq about 120 years or more after the events which it describes (Ibn Ishāq died in 151 AH). All this material consists of details of the Prophet’s sīra that were transmitted orally and not recorded in written form. What is worth noting is that ʽAbd al-Malik ibn Hishām (ob.218 AH), following his encounter with Ziyād al-Bakkā’ī al-Kūfī (ob. 183 AH) – a student of Ibn Ishāq who had a copy of his sīra – proceeded to abridge Ibn Ishāq’s sīra and wrote as follows of the reasons for his abridgement:

In this book I have left out some of what Ibn Ishāq wrote which does not refer to the Prophet of God or which the Qur’ān revealed nothing about, or which is not relevant or which does not provide an explanation for things or provide a witness source for them, or verses of poetry recognised by no poetry specialist as far as I can see, or things which are repugnant to discuss, or matters that some people might find objectionable, or things that al-Bakkā’ī did not allow me to relay.

Ibn Hishām basically cast doubt upon some of the details of the first written biography of the Prophet and therefore decided to omit them, as well as delete other details due to their being – in his opinion – ‘repugnant to discuss, or matters that people might find objectionable.’ What is more strange and surprising, as mentioned earlier, is that the original text that Ibn Hishām abridged (Muhammad Ibn Ishāq’s work and the first written biography of the Prophet Muhammad) vanished entirely, its place taken by the abridgement that Ibn Hishām compiled.

Wakīʽ’s ordeal gives us a splendid example of how it is doctrine that decides what should be written as history

The second issue which brings the texts of the Prophet’s sīra within the reach of criticism is that the time-frame in which the events of this sīra were orally circulated before finally being written down was politically and doctrinally a troubled age. It was an era 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. In his work Asbāb al-Nuzūl (‘Circumstances of the Revelation’) Bassām al-Jamal writes:

Modern studies have shown that the narrative of the oral recounting changed continually, and this makes the idea of a definitive version impossible. This changeability takes many guises, the most important being improvisation upon the original tale, on the one hand adding or subtracting from it, and on the other pushing back or bringing forward in time some of its philological constructions. What is more, the narrator of the tale was consciously or unconsciously subject to what was imposed upon him by the world he historically inhabited. Thus events during which the oral account finally took shape are deeply reflected in the meaning, a meaning that for the large part differs from that which the original source tale intended.

If what has been said earlier in this article provides a clear indication of some of the reported adaptations of the text, I can vouch for the validity of what remains with two examples that confirm that the Prophet’s sīra underwent conscious, deliberate revision as a result, on the one hand, of social pressures, and on the other hand of pressures stemming from violent political interests. There is no doubt that these resulted in the ‘omission’ of parts of the Prophet’s sīra from the oral record and therefore explain the need of the narrators – whether as a result of this deliberate omission or the prevailing political and social environment – to fill these gaps in the sīra one way or another.

Wakīʽ ibn al-Jarrāh (129-197 AH), one of the master narrators of hadith, was described by al-Dhahabī in his work Biographies of Prominent Nobles as “an ocean of knowledge and one of the masters of prodigious memory”, while Ahmad ibn Hanbal says of him: “I never saw anyone of growth and learning or greater memory-capacity than Wakīʽ.” His hadith are featured in the Sahīh works of al-Bukhāri and Muslim. This same Wakīʽ was subjected to an ordeal which almost killed him due to an account which he narrated concerning the death of the Prophet. Al-Dhahabī records this ordeal:

Wakīʽ’s ordeal, while strange, was something he became entangled even though he had nothing but good intentions. But nevertheless, he should have been silent in this particular issue. For it was the Prophet who said: “It is sinful enough for a man that he should speak of everything he has heard.” (…) ‘Alī ibn Khushrum reports that Wakīʽ [ibn al-Jarrāh] narrated … that Abu Bakr came to the Prophet after he had died and threw himself upon him and kissed him saying: “By my father and mother, how savor [3] was thy life and thy death!” Wakīʽ then said… “And he was left there for a day and a night until [the Prophet’s] belly distended and his little finger shrivelled.” Ibn Khushrum then records that “when Wakīʽ narrated this hadith in Mecca, the tribe of Quraysh gathered en masse intent on crucifying him and set up a post for his crucifixion.” (…)  ‘Alī ibn Khushrum adds, “I heard this hadith from Wakīʽ after they wanted to crucify him and I was amazed at his audacity.”

Al-Dhahabī then relates:

This is the faltering of a scholar. For what is the corroborating authority for this repudiated and unsound account narrated by Wakīʽ? His soul almost fell into error and those who proceeded against him are not only to be pardoned but indeed rewarded. For they considered that the circulation of such a repudiated tale would impugn the Prophet’s prophethood, since the Prophet differed from all others of his people in that he did not waste away, nor did the earth consume his body, nor did the aroma of his body alter, but rather is now, and remains, finer than musk. For he lives on in his sepulchre, and in the state of Barzakh [4] his life goes on –  a life more perfect than that of any other of the Prophets … Were it not for the existence of this event in a number of books such as the History of Ibn ‘Asākir and the Al-Kāmil of Ibn ‘Udayy, it would have been dismissed altogether … The matter was turned over to [the governor of Mecca] al-‘Uthmānī who proceeded to imprison him with the intent of executing him. He set up a post at outside the Mosque … But Sufyān [ibn ‘Uyyayna] went to see al-‘Uthmānī, the governor of Mecca, and spoke with him … and he was persuaded by Sufyān’s words and thus ordered the man’s release … The Meccans wrote the following to the Medinans concerning Wakīʽ: “If he should come to you do not refer the matter to the governor, just stone him to death” … We then sent a message to Wakīʽ warning him not to go to Medina but to pass by the Rabdha road. He had already passed the crossroads but when the dispatch reached him he turned back and proceeded to Kufa.

Wakīʽ’s ordeal gives us a splendid example of how it is doctrine that decides what should be written as history. In the early and mediaeval Islamic mindset there was certainly no intention to write a ‘history of doctrine’. Al-Dhahabī censures Wakīʽ for ‘not being silent’ and prescribes ‘reward’ for anyone who wished to kill him. Were it not for the recording of this narration in other books, al-Dhahabī would have ignored it and it would have entirely disappeared from memory or from any written record of the Prophet Muhammad’s life.

No one after Wakīʽ dared to relate the story or at least confirm that such a narration “had been said” concerning the Prophet’s death. But the question that persists in the critic’s mind regarding this account is: how many other orally circulated narrations are there which have been revoked and deleted from memory for going against a doctrine that it was intended should prevail?

This second example concerns the intervention by the political authorities of the time in the process of suppressing many aspects of the Prophet’s sīra. Al-Zubayr ibn Bakkār (ob.256 AH) in his work Al-Akhbār al-Muwaffaqiyyāt (‘Corroborated Accounts’) records another story that patently indicates the intervention by the Umayyad authorities in the texts of the sīra and in the historiographic process:

In the year 82 the Crown Prince Sulaymān ibn ‘Abd al-Malik passed our way whilst on pilgrimage and entered Medina. People came out to greet him and he rode out to visit the shrines where the Prophet prayed, and to the graves of Uhud where his companions suffered affliction. With him were Abān ibn ‘Uthmān and ‘Amr ibn ‘Uthmān and Abū Bakr ibn ‘Abd Allāh ibn Abī Ahmad. They brought him to the Qubā’ Mosque, the Fadhīkh Mosque and the Mashraba of Umm Ibrāhīm and to the mountain Uhud. He asked them about everything and they told him of all that took place there. He then commanded Abān ibn ‘Uthmān to write up the biographies of the Prophet and his military campaigns, to which Abān replied: “I have them in my possession, edited by those whom I trust.”

He then ordered that these should be copied and distributed to ten scribes who duly wrote them down on parchment. When they were delivered to him he noticed in them an account of the Ansār in al-‘Uqbatayn and Badr, and said: “I do not see these people as deserving such merit; for it means that either my ancestors wrongly undervalued them or that they were simply not as described … Why do I need to have this copied and recounted before the Commander of the Faithful [‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwān]? It may be that he will be opposed to this. So he gave orders for the book to be burnt.” When Sulaymān returned and told ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwān of Abān’s sīra he replied: “What need do you have of presenting a book in which we do not have any merit, and what need do you have in telling the Syrian people of things we do not wish them to know?” And Sulaymān replied: “That is why, O Commander of the Faithful, I ordered the burning of that which I had had copied, pending my seeking the opinion of the Commander of the Faithful. And he concurred with him.”

What we may conclude from this is that the texts of the Prophet’s sīra as we read them today contain within them a multiplicity of problems. These problems are not merely confined to one of a mentality that yields uncritically to all that is given it, whereby the texts will reflect only individually or in a limited sense. Instead they wield a more serious influence – where these texts are adduced as evidence in legislation and fatwas.

If the influence of the work of Orientalists – which in many aspects pioneered the critiquing the Islamic texts – still remains limited within the Islamic world, there is no doubt that this influence will in the future influence us to take a new look at many of the Islamic concepts which we see operative around us today.

[1] The text between [ ] is added by the present writer and it is not to be found in the original text.

[2] See the note above.

[3] The intention of this story is to emphasis the point that even at death the body of the Prophet did not suffer from decomposition and what might result in form or smell as a consequence.

[4] In Islamic eschatology, Barzakh (‘partition’, ‘barrier’) is a state after death where the soul separates from the body and remains in this intermediate state  until the Day of Judgement. The term appears in Qur’ān XXIII,100: and behind them is a partition until the day when they are raised.

Main picture: MSS of Al-Sīra al-Nabawiyya by Ibn HIsham, 13th-14th century Andalusian copy.

Dr. Wim Raven: ‘No coherent image of the Prophet can be obtained from the sīra materials’