Who was Muhammad?  The name is familiar to most people, but it conjures up different images to different people.  For some he was just a clever politician who built for himself first a nation and then an empire.  For others he was a holy man of prayer who spoke with God and received revelations.  For others he was a gifted preacher who knew how to stir up the religious feelings of people and make them his devoted and fanatical followers.  Some consider him a deceiver; others think he was sincere but misguided.

Yet for the generality of Muslims he was a prophet of God, the last and greatest prophet, who brought to perfection the universal religion that will last until the end of time.  In Muslim belief Muhammad was in one way a nobody, since Islam is said to be founded by God and Muhammad was merely his mortal spokesman.  On the other hand Muhammad was the greatest some­body, because no one could perform a greater role in history than to usher into the world God’s definitive guidance, the Qur’ân.  And so Muslims believe that no specimen of humanity could ever be as perfect and good as Muhammad.  Conse­quently he is taken as the exemplar for all mankind, and all his words and actions are considered sunna, that is, a model for all to follow.

A non-Muslim or Christian student may be eager to form his own judgement about Muhammad, since the challenge of Islam cannot leave him feeling indifferent.  Yet this book does not attempt to argue for any reli­gious judgement.  A Christian student can do this in the light of the Bible.  What concerns us here is only the historical narrative.

Although there are many books about Muhammad, his life is not easy to know.  The Qur’ân makes many references to incidents in his life, but these are vague and impossible to piece together into a biography, unless we first know the progress of his life from some other source.  Unfortunately the oldest written informa­tion about his life dates from 125 years after his death.  That is the Sîra or biography by Ibn-Ishâq, who died in 768.  Yet the original of this biography is lost, and we only know it through the amplified edition of Ibn-Hishâm, who died in 833, two centuries after the death of Muhammad.[1]  Then came the Maghâzî of al-Wâqidî (d. 822),[2] the Akhbâr Makka of al-Azraqî (d.c. 835), the Tabaqât of Ibn-Sa%d (d. 845)[3] and Ta’rîkh ar-rusul wa-l-mulűk of at-Tabarî (d. 922).[4]  In addition there are the bio­graph­ical details of Muhammad scattered throughout the Hadîth collections of al-Bukhârî, Muslim etc., which are arranged according to legal topics.

How authentic or accurate are the stories these writers narrate?  They all depend on oral traditions passed on by the Companions of Muhammad to succeed­ing generations.  Any story changes in the telling and the longer the distance from the event the less reliable the story.  The time gap of 125 years before the first of these biographies is the first major reason for making us cautious against believing everything in them.

The second reason for caution is that these writings reflect the political and legal debates of their time and do not hesitate to put companions of Muhammad who are the ancestors or patrons of their own camp in a good light and others in a bad light.

Thirdly, these writings have at once an Arab and an Islamic apologetic viewpoint of history.  Arab legends (often reflected in the Qur’ân) are accepted without question and given fanciful elaborations - for example, the stories of Abraham building the Ka%ba and the battle of the elephant.  Miracles and omens are woven into the life of Muhammad even contrary to the teaching of the Qur’ân which has Muhammad claim no other miracle than the Qur’ân itself.[5] Debates with Jews or Christians are reported as an apologetic monologue (with certain notable exceptions, such as the statements of %Ubayd­allâh ibn-Jahsh in Ethiopia), and in every conflict, for example with the Jews, the Muslims are portrayed as completely righteous and their opponents as simply treacherous and wicked people.  We have no other side of the story.

In spite of these limitations, the main outline of Muhammad’s life seems reasonably credible.  At one time Orientalists were excessively skeptical and rejected most of the stories about Muhammad as pure legend.  Today the opposite trend seems to be in vogue, that of romanticizing his life, sweeping under the carpet some unpleasant details and representing the legends as pious history.[6]  I would like to follow a middle-of-the-road approach, neither assuming that Muhammad is a perfect spokesman of God and interpreting all the data accordingly, nor discounting all divine influence and judging everything as base or satanic.  Frankly, I look primarily for what is human: the personal and social psychological factors, and the cultural, economic and political dimen­sions.

The method I follow basically is to present passages from Ibn-Ishâq’s Sîra as presented by Ibn-Hishâm, the basic and earliest biography, omitting or just summariz­ing material that has little relevance to the main developments of Muhammad’s life, but may be important for further detailed study.  I supple­ment this from other sources when neces­sary, and wherever possible link Ibn-Isâq’s descrip­tions with Qur’ânic passages which are likely connected with the events, thus giving some direct contemporary witness.  The first and last chapters are necessary to understand the background of Muhammad’s life and its effect on history.

Ibn-Ishâq’s own method is to quote oral tradition from a variety of sources.  Frequently he simply places side by side different accounts of the same story.  In this case I have selected the one that seems the more informative or more readable.  In any passage of Ibn-Ishâq necessarily there will be mixed what is factual and what proceeds from the imagination of the tradition relator he is quoting.  Sometimes I point this out.  Mostly I leave to the reader to decide to what extent the story represents an actual event.  I see no need to purge Ibn-Isâq from what is legendary, because all that he says gives us a good picture of what people wanted to believe about Muhammad at a very early date, and thus gives us some idea of the impact Muhammad had on the minds and imaginations of people.  To this extent my approach is phenomenological, but I go further to raise questions and observa­tions that some Muslims might not raise.[7]

In preparing this book I had several aims in mind.  One is a readable life of Muhammad of reasonable length for university students.  Another is to use as far as possible excerpts of Muslim sources, mainly Ibn-Ishâq, so that readers can get a feel for the thinking and attitudes of these sources rather than retell the story as most biographies do at the price of reconceptualizing the narrative.

Interpretative comments, however, are necessary, and I freely acknowledge my indebtedness to the introduc­tion to Alfred Guillau­me’s translation,[8] the works of William Montgomery Watt,[9] and many articles in The Muslim World.  Nevertheless, I have carried these reflec­tions further in two areas.  One is in economics: how the situation of Arabia called for a strongman to unite the peninsula under one rule, particu­larly along the Yemen-Mecca-Syria trade route, but how this aim was completely altered by changes in the Byzantine­-Persian balance of power at the end of Muhammad’s life.  I also note the effects of economic change: the social disloca­tions of urbanization and international exposure which shook the traditional religion and called for a new religion.

The second area of reflections are in social psycholo­gy: Muhammad’s developing sense of his own mission and the political measures he took to make his authority felt and accepted.

These reflections are not all in one place or fully developed, but interwoven with the source narratives with the idea that the reader him or herself can test in the sources the validity of my suggested interpreta­tions.

All translations, unless acknowedged otherwise, are my own.  I omit all isnâds, and for names of people omit names more than of the father.  I follow the translitera­tion system I met in the University of Edinburgh, but took the liberty to compress common names such as %Abdallâh.


Azr       al-Azraqî

I.I.        Ibn-Isâq, as presented by Ibn-Hishâm

IS         Ibn-Sa%d

Q         Qur’ân, according to the Cairo numeration

T          at-Tabarî, with volume and page referenc­es to the Cairo edition

Unspecified numbers in parentheses following citations in the text refer to the ash-Shiqâ’s edition of Ibn-Hishâm.  For example, 1:230 means volume 1, page 230.

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Early Islam

Chapter 1 --»


[1]As-Sîra an-nabawiyya, edited by Mustafâ ash-Shiqâ, 2 vols. (Cairo: al-Muhallabî, 1955).

[2]Kitâb al-maghâzî li-l-Wâqidî, ed. Marston Jones, 3 vols. (London: Oxford U.P., 1966).

[3]I did not have access to Arabic editions of the latter two works, but used citations in W.M. Watt, Muhammad at Mecca (Oxford: Clarendon, 1953) and Muhammad at Medina (ibid., 1956), and in Nabia Abbott, Aishah the beloved of Mohammed (University of Chicago Press, 1942).

[4]I used the edition published by Dâr al_Ma`ârif (Cairo: 1969).

[5]For a Muslim who argues against accepting many of the myths and legends surrounding Muhammad, cf. Mohamed al-Nowaihi, “Towards a re-evaluation of Muhammad”, Muslim World, 60 (1970), pp. 300-313.

[6]A recent example is Martin Ling, Muhammad, his life based on the earliest sources (London: Allen & Unwin, 1983).

[7]Cf. James E. Royster, “The study of Muhammad: a survey of approaches from the perspective of the history and phenomenology of religion”, The Muslim World 62 (1972), pp. 49-70.

[8]A. Guillaume, The life of Muhammad (Oxford U.P., 1955), pp. xiii-xlvii.

[9]See note 3.