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Can we draw a portrait of the historical Muhammed?

The figure of Muhammad casts a shadow across the world and through the annals of time. His significance is especially poignant to adherents of Islam, who uphold him as the supreme and final prophet of God. But what can truly be known about him? Traditional accounts of his biography appear problematic in light of modern methods of historical investigation.

In this essay, following a preamble on modern historical-critical methodology, I shall briefly outline the portrait of Muhammad as it is traditionally painted, then discuss the adequacy of the sources on which this portrait is based; the hadith, the sīra literature, and the Qur’an. I shall then conclude with a tentative answer to the question of whether the search for the historical Muhammad using the commonly accepted tools and rules of historical investigation results in an undermining of the confidence in the traditional conception of who Muhammad was?

Over the years philosophers of history have developed criteria for uncovering authentic kernels of information on saying and deeds of historical figures. The positive criteria include such things as historical fit, independent early sources, dissimilarity, embarrassment, enemy attestation, coherence, and frequency.[1] Negative criteria include contradiction of authentic sayings, environmental contradictions, and tendencies of the developing tradition.[2]

We now turn to a brief sketch of Muhammad, and then an evaluation of the source material for the traditional portrait of Muhammad.

The Portrait of the Muhammad of Faith

The traditional portrait of Muhammad is one where he is revered as Prophet and God’s final messenger to all mankind. This conception is Islamic, and views him as the best of all humanity.[3] A narration of the events of his life according to Islamic tradition are well documented elsewhere and not the burden of this paper. A bare-bones outline would include his birth in 570 C.E. that was accompanied by signs and wonders, his call as a prophet in a dream at the age of forty,[4] and the many audible revelations he would receive piecemeal throughout the next twenty-three years of his life. These he referred to as Qur’an, the arabic for “The Recitation” or “The Reading,” referring both to single passages and the whole. It would include his emigration (Hirja) with other persecuted followers to Medina,[5] his military exploits accompanied with miracles and angels in The Battle of Badr (624 C.E.), The Battle of Uhud (625 C.E) and the Battle of the Trench (627 C.E.), the Treaty of Hudaybiyya in 628 C.E. which would lead him to peacefully conquer Mecca in 630 C.E., and his final “farewell pilgrimage” in 632 C.E. with his death soon afterward.

Reinforcing this construction of Muhammad is the assurance Muslim’s place upon the sources that testify to his life. The religious milieu in which this portrait thrives does not lend itself easily to self-criticism and subverting one’s historical and ideological biases. There are however some good reasons to suspect the reliance placed upon such source material is unwarranted. We will now briefly turn to an analysis of what historical value the hadith, sīra and Qur’an as sources to the life of the historical Muhammad have.

Hadith

Hadith are reports of the words and deeds of Muhammad and are largely considered a source of revelation second only to the Qur’an. By the time of the ninth century, however, there were an inordinate amount of hadith, such that no one truly believed Muhammad had said and did all the things that were attributed to him. Some hadith contradicted others. Some granted qualities to Muhammad that later scholars believed proper for religious piety, and others attributed to him supernatural signs to prove his status as Prophet. Other hadith visualised Muhammad’s appearance for curious Muslims for whom drawing and paintings of the Prophet were forbidden. Some hadith were evidently fabricated to give contemporary religious or political concerns an authority their proponents lacked.[6] The temptation to authenticate one’s personal view with a falsified saying or deed of the Prophet was at that time too easy, and one too difficult to resist.

George Tyrell, the Jesuit priest commented in 1910 on the search for the historical Jesus, saying scholars looked down the long well of history and saw his own face reflected at the bottom.[7] It seems the same is true for the Muhammad of history. Later Sufi works would make Muhammad a mystic, who experienced unity with God and taught others to value the hidden mysteries of Islam. Who Muhammad appears as to be seems to depend on the faith of the Muslim you ask.[8]

To show the authenticity of each report, it is preceded by a chain of transmission (isnad) going back to an eyewitness. Islam, then, is no stranger to verification of its historicity. Bukhari (d. 870 C.E.), the compiler of the most authoritative collection of hadith, is said by his biographers to have collected over 600,000 hadith, about 2,600 of which were determined by him to be authentic on examination of the isnad alone. That is, each person in the sequence composing the isnad transmitting the tradition were examined in terms of their moral virtue, geographic location and dates of birth and death. However, on the basis of the tradition’s content, as Goldziher argues, there are some hadith that are inventions after Muhammad’s death. For instance, in one hadith the Prophet is said to say, “It is better to have a tyrannical government for a time than to have a period of revolution.” There is however no occasion for such an instruction of the lips of the Prophet, especially since he is a supposed to be sinless and pious messenger of God. There is reason however to think that this hadith, and others like it, originated in the period of the Umayyad when the Caliph Mu‘awiya and son Yazid, being accused of impiety, needed to convince the populace to remain docile.

Sīra

The sīra literature is biographical information on Muhammad. Originally it was stories on military expeditions but in later centuries expanded to include other genres. Their value as reliable sources are also questionable. According to Wim Raven it is often noted that a coherent image of Muhammad cannot be formed from the literature of sīra.[9] The following arguments against the authenticity of sīra.

The most important criterion in historical research is multiple and early independent attestation, but the sources for the biography of Muhammad are apt to leave the objective researcher with considerable uncertainty. Ibn Ishaq, the earliest biographer of Muhammad with extant work, is said to have died in 767 C.E., well over a century after Muhammad’s death.[10] His works survives only by his editors Ibn Hisham (d. 834) and Yunus b. Bukayr (d.814-815). Ibn Ishaq does not list any documentary evidence for the information he gives, but rather relates a story pieced together from collection of other stories he received third or fourth hand.[11] For instance, for the Battle of Badr the attestation provided comes from multiple authorities, but the chain barely qualifies as independent attestation given their information is from a common source, namely the two master authorities on Islamic tradition, ‘Urwa b. al-Zabayr and Ibn ‘Abbas. ‘Urwa was born over twenty years after the Battle of Badr to the the well-known son of al-Zabayr, a companion of the Prophet, and Asma’ daughter of Abu Bakr. Ibn ‘Abbas gained a reputation as the greatest authority on the life of the Prophet and the teaching of the Qur’an despite being five years old at Battle of Badr, an age which renders his recollection suspect even in the unlikely event he had been present.

Early sources are more valuable in historical research than later ones. In searching for the Muhammad of history this is especially the case, given later sources appear more elaborate with details on which the earlier sources are vague, increasing the chances of legendary development. There are also many discrepancies found in different narrations of sīra works, as well as when compared to non-Muslim sources.[12] Ibn Ishaq, for instance describes Muhammad’s night journey to Jerusalem as physical, but also quotes tradition in which ‘A’isha insists that his journey was in spirit only. The tradition found in Bukhari Muhammad goes instead to heaven where his chest is opened and his heart is washed with water by the angel Gabriel.[13] However, if there are discrepancies there is also agreement and similarities in the core details.[14]

Wim Raven also criticises the accounts of miracles in the sīra as not fit as sources for scientific historiographical information apart from showing the beliefs and doctrines of his community. However, wholesale methodological naturalism in historical research should be rejected on the grounds that it is either inconsistent with a supernatural worldview or that it lets philosophy determine history rather than letting history determine philosophy.[15]

Finally, there is the difficulty in knowing whether the sīra really is independent source material or is invention to explain passages in the Qur’an. Authors of sīra, such as Ibn Ishaq, wrote with motives that were not purely historical, but also for exegesis: to explain how references and allusions in the Qur’an can be understood in the context of Muhammad’s life, as well as for apologetics: to present Muhammad in a way that responded to the disbelief of Jews and Christians. Evidence in support of sīra as exegesis include multiple and differing traditions explaining Qur’anic phrases. For instance, for the phrase “Our hearts are sealed [ghulf],” alternatively rendered “Our hearts are containers [ghuluf],” (Q. 2:88; 4:155) have two competing explanations. One tradition links it to the refusal of the Jews in Medina to listen to the Prophet’s preaching, another tradition links it to the Jews of Medina flaunting the religious wisdom of the Torah. If its possible they said either or both, its also possible they said neither. Evidence in support of apologetics in the sīra includes the various miracles to convince are divided on the extent to which the sīra literature can be trusted to relay show his credentials as a prophet and convince skeptics. Some miracles stories show how Muhammad was better than biblical prophets; at Jesus’ birth a star in the sky shone brightly, but at Muhammad’s birth a light shone from his mother Amina’s body so she could see the castle in Syria, and while Moses produced water from a rock, Muhammad produced water from his fingertips.[16] By rendering Mecca a pagan city and Muhammad as illiterate, Muhammad’s credentials of prophethood are once again demonstrated.[17] The presence of Christians, such as Bihara, the good king of Ethiopia, and Salman in Muhammad’s biography recognising the Prophet as a “true Christian” may also have been invented to combat the rejection of the Prophet by Ibn Ishaq’s Christian contemporaries such as John of Damascus (d. c. 750).[18] Scholars are thus divided on the extent to which the sīra provides authentic history, though most accept the general outline of Muhammad’s prophetic career.[19] Few who are critically-minded defend every detail of the sīra, and as Donner notes, in light of the overwhelming evidence that the sīra does contain interpolations of later attitudes and needs, it can be questioned whether those who do are critically-minded.

Taken all together what this means is that the credibility of the traditional portrait of Muhammad and his career is unascertainable.[20]

Qur’an

The Qur’an is the sacred book of Islam, purportedly communicating in its original Arabic language the very words of God, who used the Prophet Muhammad as his instrument for dictation.[21] Muslim tradition emphasises the oral transmission of these revelations as well as emphasising scribes and written transcripts, however neither of these need exclude the other. Their eventual codification is set during the reign of ‘Uthmān, c. 644-656 C.E. though many questions remain about the relationship between ‘Uthmānic text and the original revelations given by Muhammad, due to the existence of variant readings, and the relationship of the ‘Uthmānic text to the text we have today due to it being written in a script that allowed variant vocalisations. These 30 suras of varying length contain very little biographical information on Muhammad, yet remains the best source for the life of Muhammad given that it comes from the period of Islam’s origin while the hadith and sīra do not.

Many Western approaches to the Qur’an have followed the lead of traditional Muslims by constructing their portrait of Muhammad from the sīra literature.[22] This is the methodology of Theodor Nöldeke’s Geschichte des Qorans[23] in 1860 whose influence on subsequent Western scholarship has been profound. It is also the method of William Mongomery Watt in Muḥammad; prophet and statesman,[24] Francis Peters in Muḥammad and the origins of Islam,[25] and M. Gaudefroy-Demombynes in Mahomet.[26] However, if the sīra literature was invented biography seeking to explain passages in the Qur’an, then any argument for the Muhammad of history will always be precisely circular. Thus Reynolds adopts an atypical approach which is distinctly Qur’anist.[27] Rather than trying to understand the Qur’an in light of the biography of Muhammad: connecting sura and verse to a historical context of early, middle and late, or “Meccan” or “Medinan”, he looks at the Qur’an alone and asks what can be discovered about the origins of Islam and the biography of the historical Muhammad.[28]

Results from this method suggest Christianity and Judaism play a greater role in the religious and cultural background during the formation of the Qur’an than the sīra literature suggests. If Muhammad had only incidental association with Christians—Mecca being entrenched in paganism and only a few Jewish communities occupying Medina—it is surprising how little the Qur’an reflects that religo-cultural setting, and all the more remarkable for its familiarity of biblical and para-biblical traditions and in its emphasis on haranguing Christians for their trinitarian and Christological theology. We have here a contradiction in an environmental condition, such that, with this negative criterion fulfilled, the probability of Muhammad’s religio-cultural environment as rendered sīra literature is considerably less. This indicates Christian doctrine was not incidental after-all, but of great popular interest in the milieu in which the Qur’an arose.

Adopting this same method Gerald Hawting makes a case for the idea that Qur’anic references to ‘polytheists’ (mushrikiin) are in fact not evidence of an actual pagan background after all but the products of intra-monotheist polemics.[29]

Conclusion

In this essay I have assessed the sources upon which the portrait of Muhammad in the Islamic tradition has been constructed, namely the hadith, sīra and Qur’an. This assessment was using modern historical-critical methods, namely the accepted criteria historians use to uncover kernels of authentic sayings and deeds. These sources, it was found, often fail to fulfil the positive criteria of multiple and early independent attestation, and coherence, do fulfil the negative criteria of environmental contradictions and legendary tendencies of the developing tradition. More extensive investigation into specifics sayings and deeds is required. Greater knowledge of the religio-cultural milieu in Arabia would also prove invaluable, offering more opportunity to apply more criteria, such as the criterion of historical fit and dissimilarity. On this preliminary analysis it appears to be difficult to know just how much of the traditional narrative of Muhammad is the Muhammad of history, and the prospects for significantly changing that assessment are not optimistic. This leaves a wide open door ready for historical revisionists. Questions of warrant also arise when religious knowledge that is supposed to be beyond doubt cannot be established to a high degree of certainty when critical historical research is conducted.

Footnotes

  1. For a helpful bibliography, see the notes of J. P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 185-95, esp. note 7.
  2. In point of fact, “criteria” is a misnomer. The better term would be “Signs of Authenticity,” for they are sufficient and not necessary conditions. Positive criteria signify, where S is some saying or event, E is evidence of a certain type, and B is the background information, all things being equal, Pr(S | E&B) > Pr(S | B). When S satisfies multiple examples of evidence types, the cumulative probability escalates, such that Pr(S | E1&E2&B) > Pr(S | B). Some criteria are more highly regarded than others, such that Pr(S | E1&B) > Pr(S | E2&B). For instance, the criterion of Dissimilarity is regarded as coming close to rendering S unquestionably authentic. The limited usefulness of this criterion is its weakness, being only applicable to a small number of examples. Negative criteria seek to establish a texts inauthenticity, such that Pr (S | E&B) < Pr (S | B).
  3. “The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ‎ was a perfect examples of an honest, just, merciful, compassionate, truthful, and brave human being. Though he was a man, he was far removed from all evil characteristics and strove solely for the sake of God and His reward in the Hereafter. Moreover, in all his actions and dealings, he was ever mindful and fearful of God.” I. A. Ibrahim, Edited by William Peachy, et. al., eds. A Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam. (2nd ed. Houston, TX: Darussalam, 1996). www.islam-guide.com.
  4. Some sources say at the age of 43.
  5. Yathrib was a city approximately 260 miles to the north which would come to be known as madinat al-nabi “The City of the Prophet”, now known simply as Medina.
  6. I. Goldziher, Muslim Studies. (ed. S. M. Stern; trans. C. R. Barber and S. M. Stern: New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2006); (translation first published 1867, 1991; original German first published 1889, 1890).
  7. George Tyrell, Christianity at the Cross-Roads (London: Longman, Green, 1910), 44, quoted in William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2003), 218.
  8. G. S. Reynolds. The Emergence of Islam: Classical Traditions in Contemporary Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012).
  9. W. Raven,”SĪRA” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, (vol. 9. 2nd ed., Brill Academic Publishers), 660–3.
  10. Compare this to the biographers of Jesus; three no more than a half a century and all canonical sources well within living memory.
  11. “Muhammad b. Muslim at-Zuhri and Asim b. ‘Umar b. Qatada and ‘Abdullah b. Abu Bakr and Yazid b. Ruman from ‘Urwa b. al Zubayr, and other scholars of ours from Ibn ‘Abbas, each one of them told me some of this story and their account is collected in what I have drawn up of the story of Badr.” Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad (trans. A. Guillaume; London: Oxford University Press. 1955), 289.
  12. S. A. Nigosian, Islam: Its History, Teaching, and Practices (Indiana; Indiana University Press, 2004).
  13. M. al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari. The Translation of the Meanings of Sahih al-Bukhari (trans. Muhammad Muhsin Khan; Medina: Dar al-‘Arabiyah, 1981), 1:435.
  14. M. Cook, Muhammad. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 73–74.
  15. In the absence of an overwhelming argument for philosophical naturalism, methodological naturalism in historiography should be rejected, especially if claiming adherence to a supernaturalistic worldview. It would be hypocritical indeed to suddenly adopt methodological naturalism in historical research of the life and ministry of Muhammad when one does not do so for the life and ministry of Jesus, his disciples, or any other miraculous figure. Methodological naturalism is wise in that the miraculous is, by its very nature, not what usually occurs. But in with extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, extraordinary things may well occur. It is therefore wise to evaluate both Jesus and Muhammad according to the same historical criteria outlined above, preferring naturalistic explanations until supernaturalistic explanations recommend themselves as the better hypothesis.
  16. Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad, 69.
  17. This is the point of ‘Abd al-Jabbar, a tenth-century Muslim. “You will also find that [Muhammad] – God’s blessing and peace be upon him – related the truth of [Christian] teachings. Yet he was not a bebater or a diviner. He did not read [Christian] books or encounter [Christians]. He was not a rehearsed man. [Christians] could not be found in Mecca or the Hijaz [the reagin around Mecca] at that time” ‘Abd al-Jabbar, The Critique of Christian Origins, (ed. S. K. Samir. translated by G. S. Reynolds. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2010), 3.
  18. “Muhammad, the founder of Islam, is a false prophet who, by chance, came across the Old and New Testament and who, also, pretended that he encountered an Arian monk and thus he divided his own heresy” John of Damascus, On Heresies. Quoted in Daniel J. Sahas, John of Damascus on Islam, (Leiden: Brill, 1972), 73.
  19. F. M. Donner, Narratives of Islamic Origins: The Beginnings of Islamic Historical Writing, Studies in Late Antiquity and Early Islam 14 (Princton, N.J.: Darwin Press, 1998).
  20. S. A. Nigosian, Islam: Its History, Teaching, and Practices (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004).
  21. According to Islamic theology the Qur’an has an eternal heavenly archetype, such that the Qur’an is not to Muslims the equivalent of the Bible to Christian, but more akin to the Logos.
  22. For instance R. V. C. Bodley, The Messenger: The Life of Mohammed (London: Robert Hale Limited, 1946).
  23. Usually referred to today in expanded and revised edition, T. Noldeke, F. Schwally, G. Bergstrasser, and O. Pretzl eds. Geschichte des Qorans (Leipzig, 1909-38), 3:26.
  24. W. M. Watt, Muḥammad; prophet and statesman (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961). See also Muḥammad at Mecca (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953), and Muḥammad at Medina (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956).
  25. F. E. Peters, Muḥammad and the origins of Islam (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994).
  26. M. Gaudefroy-Demombynes, Mahomet (Paris: Albin Michel, 1957).
  27. G. S. Reynolds, The Emergence of Islam: Classical Traditions in Contemporary Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 91.
  28. “Once they began to interest themselves in Muhammad’s life, they took up the task of matching the Qur’anic versus with remembered incidents of the Prophet’s life. Or perhaps it was the other way around: the Qur’anic verses, repeated over and over again, promoted wonder at what was happening behind the naked revelation.” F. E. Peters, Jesus and Muhammad: Parallel Tracks, Parallel Lives (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), 28. This is the procedure adopted in W. M. Watt, Muhammad’s Mecca: History in the Quran (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1988).
  29. G. Hawting, The idea of idolatry and the emergence of Islam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

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