…(Hāshem) clan of Quraysh named Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib. One of their own, he accomplished what the Quraysh had started, first by working against them, later by working with them. When he was born, around 570, the potential for pan-Arab unification seemed nil, but after he died,…
The Qurʾān yields little concrete biographical information about the Islamic Prophet: it addresses an individual “messenger of God,” whom a number of verses call Muhammad (e.g., 3:144), and speaks of a pilgrimage sanctuary that is associated with the “valley of Mecca” and the Kaʿbah (e.g., 2:124–129, 5:97, 48:24–25). Certain verses assume that Muhammad and his followers dwell at a settlement called al-madīnah(“the town”) or Yathrib (e.g., 33:13, 60) after having previously been ousted by their unbelieving foes, presumably from the Meccan sanctuary (e.g., 2:191). Other passages mention military encounters between Muhammad’s followers and the unbelievers. These are sometimes linked with place-names, such as the passing reference to a victory at a place called Badr at 3:123. However, the text provides no dates for any of the historical events it alludes to, and almost none of the Qurʾānic messenger’s contemporaries are mentioned by name (a rare exception is at 33:37). Hence, even if one accepts that the Qurʾānic corpus authentically documents the preaching of Muhammad, taken by itself it simply does not provide sufficient information for even a concise biographical sketch.
Most of the biographical information that the Islamic tradition preserves about Muhammad thus occurs outside the Qurʾān, in the so-called sīrah(Arabic: “biography”) literature. Arguably the single most important work in the genre is Muḥammad ibn Isḥāq’s (died 767–768) Kitāb al-maghāzī(“Book of [the Prophet’s] Military Expeditions”). However, this work is extant only in later reworkings and abridgements, of which the best known is ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Hishām’s (died 833–834) Sīrat Muḥammad rasūl Allāh (“Life of Muhammad, the Messenger of God”). Ibn Isḥāq’s original book was not his own composition but rather a compilation of autonomous reports about specific events that took place during the life of Muhammad and also prior to it, which Ibn Isḥāq arranged into what he deemed to be their correct chronological order and to which he added his own comments. Each such report is normally introduced by a list of names tracing it through various intermediaries back to its ultimate source, which in many cases is an eyewitness—for example, the Prophet’s wife ʿĀʾishah. Variants of the material compiled by Ibn Isḥāq, as well as further material about events in Muhammad’s life, are preserved in works by other authors, such as Abd al-Razzāq (died 827), al-Wāqidī (died 823), Ibn Saʿd (died 845), and al-Ṭabarī (died 923).
The fact that such biographical narratives about Muhammad are encountered only in texts dating from the 8th or 9th century or even later is bound to raise the problem of how confident one can be in the sīrah literature’s claim to relay accurate historical information. This is not to suggest that there was necessarily an element of deliberate fabrication at work, at least at the level of a compiler like Ibn Isḥāq, who was clearly not inventing stories from scratch. Nonetheless, some accretion of popular legend around a figure as seminal as Muhammad would be entirely expected. At least to historians who are reluctant to admit reports of divine intervention, the problem is reinforced by the miraculous elements of some of the material included in Ibn Isḥāq’s work. Moreover, some of the narratives in question are patently adaptations of biblical motifs designed to present Muhammad as equal or superior to earlier prophetic figures such as Moses and Jesus. For example, before Muhammad’s emigration to Medina he is said to have received an oath of allegiance by twelve inhabitants of the city, an obvious parallel to the Twelve Apostles, and during the digging of a defensive trench around Medina Muhammad is said to have miraculously sated all the workers from a handful of dates, recalling Jesus’ feeding of the multitude. Finally, it is distinctly possible that some reports about events in Muhammad’s life emerged not from historical memory but from exegetical speculation about the historical context of particular verses of the Qurʾān.
By carefully comparing alternative versions of one and the same biographical narrative, scholars have been able to show that a certain number of traditions about Muhammad’s life—for instance, an account of the Prophet’s emigration from Mecca to Medina—were in circulation already by the end of the 7th century. An important collector of such early traditions was ʿUrwah ibn al-Zubayr, a relative of ʿĀʾishah who was probably born in 643–644 and who is plausibly viewed as having had firsthand access to former companions of the Prophet. Moreover, a number of rudimentary details about Muhammad are confirmed by non-Islamic sources dating from the first decades after Muhammad’s traditional date of death. For instance, a Syriac chronicle dating from about 640 mentions a battle between the Romans and “the Arabs of Muhammad,” and an Armenian history composed about 660 describes Muhammad as a merchant who preached to the Arabs and thereby triggered the Islamic conquests. Such evidence provides sufficient confirmation of the historical existence of an Arab prophet by the name of Muhammad. Certain tensions with the Islamic narrative of the Prophet’s life remain, however. For example, some of the non-Islamic sources present Muhammad as having still been alive when the Arab conquerors invaded Palestine (634–640), in contrast to the Islamic view that the Prophet had already passed away at this point.
All things considered, there is no compelling reason to suggest that the basic scaffolding of the traditional Islamic account of Muhammad’s life is unhistorical. At the same time, the nature of the sources is not such as to inspire confidence that we possess historically certain knowledge about the Prophet’s life that is as detailed as many earlier scholars tended to assume. Especially the customary chronological framework for Muhammad’s life appears to have been worked out by later transmitters and collectors such as Ibn Isḥāq, rather than being traceable to the earliest layer of Islamic traditions about Muhammad. Thus, statements of the sort that on March 21 of the year 625, Meccan forces entered the oasis of Medina are inherently problematic. The following section will nonetheless provide a concise digest mainly of Ibn Isḥāq’s version of the life of the Prophet. This digest does not aim to separate historical fact from later legend. For instance, unlike many earlier Western accounts, no attempt will be made to remove supernatural elements from the narrative in the interest of transforming it into an account that appears plausible by modern historiographical standards.
Biography According To The Islamic Tradition
Muhammad is born as a member of the tribe of Quraysh and the clan of Hāshim. His hometown of Mecca houses an ancient and famous pilgrimage sanctuary, the Kaʿbah. Although founded by Abraham, worship there has over time become dominated by polytheism and idolatry. Muhammad’s conception is preceded by a dramatic crisis: his grandfather ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib narrowly fails to implement a vow to sacrifice his favourite son and Muhammad’s future father, ʿAbd Allāh, an obvious adaptation of the biblical story of the binding of Isaac (Genesis22). Muhammad himself is born in 570, the same year in which the South Arabian king Abraha attempts to conquer Mecca and is thwarted by a divine intervention later alluded to in sūrah 105 of the Qurʾān. Muhammad’s father passes away before his birth, leaving him in the care of his paternal grandfather, ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib. At the age of six Muhammad also loses his mother Āminah, and at eight he loses his grandfather. Thereupon responsibility for Muhammad is assumed by the new head of the clan of Hāshim, his uncle Abū Ṭālib. While accompanying his uncle on a trading journey to Syria, Muhammad is recognized as a future prophet by a Christian monk.
At the age of 25, Muhammad is employed by a rich woman, Khadījah, to oversee the transportation of her merchandise to Syria. He so impresses her that she offers marriage. Khadījah is said to have been about 40, but she bears Muhammad at least two sons, who die young, and four daughters. The best known of the latter is Fāṭimah, the future wife of Muhammad’s cousin ʿAlī, whom Shīʿite Muslims regard as Muhammad’s divinely ordained successor. Until Khadījah’s death some three years before Muhammad’s emigration (hijrah) to Medina in 622, Muhammad takes no other wife, even though polygamy is common.
Muhammad’s prophetic initiation occurs at the age of 40. During a period of devotional withdrawal atop one of the mountains in the vicinity of Mecca, the angel Gabriel appears to him in an awe-inspiring encounter and teaches him the opening verses of sūrah 96 of the Qurʾān: “Recite in the name of your Lord who creates, / creates man from a clot! / Recite for your lord is most generous….” Muhammad is greatly perturbed after this first revelation but is reassured by Khadījah and her cousin, Waraqah ibn Nawfal, a learned Christian who confirms Muhammad’s prophetic status. Muhammad continues to receive revelations but for three years limits himself to speaking about them in private. When God finally commands him to take up public preaching, he initially encounters no opposition. However, after the Qurʾānic proclamations begin to deny the existence of gods other than Allāh and thereby to attack the religious beliefs and practices of the Quraysh tribe, tensions arise between Muhammad and his small circle of adherents, on the one hand, and the remaining inhabitants of Mecca, on the other. As a result, some of Muhammad’s followers are forced to seek temporary refuge with the Christian ruler of Ethiopia. For some years, the other chief clans of Mecca even refuse to trade and intermarry with Muhammad’s clan, since the latter continues to offer him protection. Sometime after the end of this boycott, one of the most famous events in the Prophet’s ministry takes place: his so-called Night Journey, during which he is miraculously transported to Jerusalem to pray with Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets. From there Muhammad continues to ascend to heaven, where God imposes on him the five daily prayers of Islam.
About 619, both Khadījah and Muhammad’s uncle Abū Ṭālib die, and another uncle, Abū Lahab, succeeds to the leadership of the clan of Hāshim. Abū Lahab withdraws the clan’s protection from Muhammad, meaning that the latter can now be attacked without fear of retributionand is therefore no longer safe at Mecca. After failing to win protection in the nearby town of Al-Ṭāʾif, Muhammad secures a pledge of protection from a representative number of the inhabitants of the oasis town of Yathrib, also known as Medina (from its Qurʾānic appellation al-madīnah, “the town”). This promise enables Muhammad and his followers to leave Mecca for Medina, which, unlike Mecca, is partly inhabited by Jewish tribes. Together with Abū Bakr, the future first caliph, Muhammad is the last to depart. It is only because he is warned by Gabriel that he narrowly escapes an assassination plot by the Quraysh.
At Medina, Muhammad has a house built that simultaneously serves as a prayer venue for his followers. He also drafts a covenant that joins together “the Believers and Submitters [or Muslims] of Quraysh and of Yathrib” as well as some of Medina’s Jewish tribes into a community(ummah) recognizing Muhammad as the “Messenger of God.” However, relations with the Jews of Medina steadily worsen. Eighteen months after the emigration, a revelation bids the Muslims to pray in the direction of the Meccan Kaʿbah, rather than to continue facing toward Jerusalem as is Jewish practice. At about the same time, the Medinan Muslims begin raiding Meccan caravans. When, during one of these raids, they are surprised by a Meccan relief force at Badr in 624, the Muslims, aided by angels, score a surprising victory. In response, the Meccans try to capture Medina, once in 625 in the Battle of Uḥud and again in 627 in the so-called Battle of the Trench; both attempts to dislodge Muhammad are ultimately unsuccessful. After each of the three major military encounters with the Meccans, Muhammad and his followers manage to oust another of the three main Jewish tribes of Medina. In the case of the last Jewish tribe to be displaced, the Qurayẓah, all adult males are executed, and the women and children are enslaved.
In 628 Muhammad makes the bold move of setting out to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca. The Meccans are determined to prevent the Muslims from entering the city, and Muhammad halts at Al-Ḥudaybiyyah, on the edge of the sacred territory of Mecca. A treaty is concluded between the two parties: hostilities are to cease, and the Muslims are given permission to make the pilgrimage to Mecca in 629. Two months later Muhammad leads his forces against the Jewish oasis of Khaybar, north of Medina. After a siege, it submits, but the Jews are allowed to remain on condition of sending half of their date harvest to Medina. The following year, Muhammad and his followers perform the pilgrimage as stipulated by the treaty of Al-Ḥudaybiyyah. Subsequently, however, an attack by Meccan allies upon allies of Muhammad leads to the latter’s denunciation of the treaty with the Meccans. In 630 he marches a substantial army on Mecca. The town submits, and Muhammad declares an amnesty.
After his return to Medina, Muhammad receives deputations from various Arabian tribes who declare their allegiance to the Muslim polity. Still in 630, Muhammad embarks on a campaign to the Syrian border and reaches Tabūk, where he secures the submission of various towns. Muhammad personally leads the pilgrimage to Mecca in 632, the so-called Farewell Pilgrimage, the precedent for all future Muslim pilgrimages. He dies in June 632 in Medina. Since no arrangement for his succession has been made, his death provokes a major dispute over the future leadership of the community he has founded.
Status In The Qurʾān And In Post-Qurʾānic Islam
Unsurprisingly, the figure of Muhammad plays a seminal role in Islamic thought and practice. In certain respects, his post-Qurʾānic standing markedly surpasses the way in which he is presented in scripture. For example, the Qurʾān emphasizes that Muhammad, like earlier messengers of God, is a mere mortal (e.g., 14:11, 17:93), whereas Sufithinkers of a speculative bent, such as Sahl al-Tustarī (died 896), describe him as the incarnation of a preexistent being of pure light, the “Muhammadan light” (al-nūr al-Muḥammadī). The Qurʾān also enjoins Muhammad to ask God for forgiveness of his sins (40:55, 47:19, 48:2), and one passage (80:1–10) bluntly reproaches him for disregarding a blind man who “came to you eagerly / and in fear [of God]” and preferring to attend to someone who haughtily “deemed himself to be self-sufficient.” In contrast to such scriptural statements, in later centuries there emerged the doctrine that Muhammad and other prophets were free of sin (although there was disagreement as to whether they could commit minor and unintentional infractions) and the belief that Muhammad exemplified “the perfect human being” (al-insān al-kāmil).
Another contrast between Qurʾānic and post-Qurʾānic images of Muhammad concerns the issue of miracles. The Qurʾān cites Muhammad’s opponents as demanding that he demonstrate his prophetic credentials by various miraculous achievements, such as being accompanied by an angel (e.g., 11:12, 43:53). In response, Muhammad is instructed to disclaim any pretense to “possess the treasures of God,” to “have knowledge of the unseen,” or to be an angel (6:50) and is described as a mere “warner” (e.g., 11:2). Thus, the Qurʾān patently does not present Muhammad as a miracle worker. The later tradition, however, frequently depicts him as having possessed extraordinary knowledge of commonly inaccessible matters—often said to have been mediated by the angel Gabriel—and as having performed sundry supernatural feats. Thus, the enigmatic reference to a splitting of the Moon in Qurʾān 54:1 is interpreted to mean a confirmatory miracle that Muhammad performed in response to a challenge by the Meccan pagans. As a matter of fact, classical Islamic theologians routinely adduced Muhammad’s miracles as one of the arguments establishing that he was a true prophet.
In other respects, however, there is significant and crucial continuitybetween the Qurʾānic and post-Qurʾānic visions of Muhammad. Certain parts of the Qurʾān, normally dated to the Medinan period of Muhammad’s life, ascribe a much more elevated status to him than do earlier layers of scripture. Thus, the Qurʾān demands “belief in God and His Messenger” (emphasis added; e.g., 49:15), and one verse (9:128) ascribes to Muhammad two attributes—kindness and mercy—that the Qurʾān otherwise reserves for God. Furthermore, “God and His Messenger” must not be insulted (e.g., 9:61, 33:57), a demand that foreshadows the view of medieval Islamic jurists that insulting the Prophet is a punishable offense (even though the Qurʾān does not demand that such insults be avenged by humans).
Of particular importance are the frequent scriptural commands to obey “God and His Messenger” as well as the unequivocal statement that to obey Muhammad is to obey God (4:80). One Qurʾānic verse even describes Muhammad as an “exemplar” (uswah) to the believers (33:21). Such pronouncements form an important impetus for the later view that the “custom” (sunnah) of Muhammad holds normative significance for all Muslims and that in working out God’s commandments Islamic scholars are to rely on Prophetic precedent to supplement and interpret the relatively limited amount of legislation contained in the Qurʾān. Al-Shāfiʿī (died 820) influentially insisted that the Prophetic sunnah was to be accessed by recourse to a specific corpus of texts—namely, extra-scriptural reports about the utterances and actions of Muhammad, the so-called Prophetic ḥadīth. The challenge of determining which of the multitude of such traditions could be deemed to be authentic already exercised premodern Islamic scholars and led to a sophisticated philological weighing of the material, even though modern Western scholarship takes a rather less optimistic view of the feasibility of establishing the Prophetic origin of specific ḥadīth reports. Sunni Islam recognises six quasi-canonical collections of authentic ḥadīth, of which the most famous are those by al-Bukhārī (died 870) and Muslim ibn al-Ḥajjāj (died 875).
Even beyond the strictly legal purport of Muhammad’s example, the imitation of the Prophet has functioned as an important vehicle of ethical and spiritual growth for many Muslims across the centuries. Thus, pious Muslims through the ages have endeavoured to follow Prophetic precedent even in such seemingly mundane matters as using a toothpick or not trimming one’s beard. The presence of Muhammad in popular Islamic piety is also anchored in festive commemorations of his birth (mawlid) on the 12th or 17th of Rabīʿ al-Awwal (the third month of the Islamic calendar), during which the most famous panegyric on the Prophet, the so-called Mantle Poem by al-Būṣīrī (died 1295), is traditionally recited in many Islamic countries. Other festivals associated with Muhammad are the commemoration of his Night Journey to Jerusalem and ensuing ascent to heaven, celebrated on the 27th day of Rajab (the seventh month of the Islamic calendar), and his receipt of the first Qurʾānic revelation toward the end of the fasting month of Ramaḍān. Muhammad’s presence also extends to eschatology, for he is believed to have the power to intercede with God on behalf of the members of his community on the Day of Judgment.
The confrontation of the Islamic world with modern Western imperialism, science, and historiography from the early 19th century onward has led to manifold re-readings and re-imaginings of Muhammad’s biography in scholarship, literature, and even film. A particularly influential 20th-century biography of Muhammad is Ḥayāt Muḥammad (1935; “The Life of Muhammad”) by the Egyptian writer Muḥammad Ḥusayn Haykal (died 1956). Haykal emphasizes the rationality of Muhammad’s teaching and of the Qurʾān and aims to clear the traditional Islamic sources on the Prophet’s biography of what he perceives to be superstitious aspects. Muhammad remains an ideal character, although the ideals represented by him are strongly modernized. A much more daring literary adaptation of Muhammad’s biography than Haykal’s is Awlād Ḥāratinā (1959; Children of the Alley) by the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz (died 2006), an urban allegoryof the history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Common motifs in modern and contemporary writings about Muhammad by authors from the Islamic world are the Prophet’s political and social vision, issues of gender, the nature of the revelations received by him, and his attitude toward the use of violence. Problems of historical authenticity and reliability as well as the covert ideological tendencies underlying early Islamic sources are treated, for example, by the Moroccan sociologist and feminist Fatema Mernissi (died 2015) and in the Tunisian historian Hichem Djait’s (born 1935) works on the biography of Muhammad.
In striking contrast to the standard Muslim view of the Prophet as a perfect embodiment of virtue and piety, medieval Christian polemicists like the Dominican monk Riccoldo da Montecroce (died 1320) condemned Muhammad as a deliberate imposter and a downright diabolical figure. Stock motifs in such polemics were Muhammad’s recourse to violence, the number of his wives, and the allegedindebtedness of his religious message to a Christian heretic. This attitude changed only in the 18th century, when various Western scholars—for instance, the Dutch theologian and Orientalist Adriaan Reland (died 1718)—began calling for a more impartial assessment of Muhammad. The gradual shift is illustrated by the British Orientalist George Sale’s (died 1736) translation of the Qurʾān into English (1734): even though its declared objective is polemical and the Qurʾān is dismissed as “so manifest a forgery,” Sale at least leaves it open whether Muhammad’s preaching sprang from genuine religious “enthusiasm” or “only a design to raise himself to the supreme government of his country.”
To call Muhammad an enthusiast was to imply that he had been genuinely convinced of the truth of his message and of his own prophetic calling, rather than having deliberately ensnared the Arabs in false doctrines in order to satisfy his craving for power. Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, the idea of Muhammad’s subjective truthfulness and sincerity increasingly spread. A particularly emphatic rejection of the erstwhile predominant view that Muhammad practiced conscious deception is found in Thomas Carlyle’s (died 1881) On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841): given that a “greater number of God’s creatures believe in Mahomet’s word at this hour than in any other word whatever,” Carlyle wrote, it would be incorrect to dismiss Muhammad’s preaching as a “miserable piece of spiritual legerdemain.”
The valorization of the Islamic Prophet was intimately tied up with the beginnings of modern Western scholarship on Muhammad and the Qurʾān. According to Abraham Geiger (died 1874), whose Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen? (1833; “What did Muhammad Borrow from Judaism?”) constitutes the ancestral monograph of modern Western Qurʾānic studies, Muhammad was a
genuine enthusiast, who was himself convinced of his divine mission…. He so fully worked himself into this idea in thought, in feeling and in action, that every event seemed to him a divine inspiration.
Similar ideas were expressed by the German scholar Theodor Nöldeke(died 1930), author of the seminal Geschichte des Qorâns (1860; The History of the Qurʾān). Thus, the reconceptualization of Muhammad from a devious heretic to a sincere enthusiast paved the way for a novel scholarly interest in Muhammad as a major historical protagonist and in the Qurʾān as an important document of human religious experience. This is so even if older Orientalist scholarship is by no means devoid of some residues of traditional Christian polemics.