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MUHAMMAD.peace be upon him [This entry focuses on the Prophet, or the Messenger of God, from whose activity the religion of Islam developed. It comprises three articles:

Life of the Prophet Biographies

Role of the Prophet in Muslim Thought and Practice The first treats the historical details of his life and work; the second surveys the biographical literature on him; and the third considers him as the paradigm of the ideal person in Muslim thought and practice.]


Life of the Prophet

The Prophet of Islam was a religious and social reformer who gave rise to one of the great civilizations of the world. From a modern, historical perspective, Muhammad was the founder of Islam. From the perspective of Islamic faith, he was God’s Messenger (rasul Allah), called to be a “warner,” first to the Arabs and then to all humankind.

Reconstructing the life of “the historical Muhammad” is one of the most difficult and disputed topics in the modern study of Islam. The most valuable source for modern biographers of Muhammad is the Qur’an, the Islamic scripture, which records what he recited as revelation during the last two decades or so of his life. The Qur’dn responds constantly and candidly to Muhammad’s historical situation, but it is not in chronological order, and most surahs contain recitations from different parts of his life, making it difficult for nonspecialists to interpret as a historical source. Muhammad in the Qur’an is a real person, whose fears, anxieties, hopes, and eventual power show forth with clarity to the critical reader.

The fullest accounts of his life, however, are in the traditional biographies called collectively the sirah. The most influential works in this genre are by Ibn Ishaq (d. 768), al-Waqidi (d. 822), and Ibn Hisham (d. 834). The shah is often supplemented by the hadith collections, which contain thousands of accounts of things Muhammad is reported to have said and done, allegedly going back to the “Companions of the Prophet,” a technical expression that refers to those who were Muslims during Muhammad’s lifetime. and thus were trustworthy eyewitnesses. The most respected hadith collections, which have a canonical status second only to the Qur’an, are by al-Bukhari (d. 870) and Muslim (d. 875). Similar accounts appear in the general histories by Ibn Sa’d (d. 845) and al-Tabari (d. 923). These four types of writings-the Qur’an, the sirah, the hadith accounts, and general histories-provide the source material for modern biographers and also for traditional views of Muhammad. The last three contain miracle stories and other accounts that are inconsistent with statements and teachings about Muhammad in the Qur’an (see below).

The nature of the sirah accounts changes dramatically over three main stages of Muhammad’s life. (i) For the period Before the earliest passages in the Qur’dn, legends predominate; they probably arose after Muhammad’s death and have little historical value for the modern biographer. (2) For the period from the earliest Qur’dnic passages up to the Hijrah, the migration of Muhammad and his followers from his native Mecca to Medina in 622 CE, exegetical stories, based on ambiguous or cryptic passages in the Qur’dn, are the most distinctive literary type. (3) It is only for the Medinan period, from the Hijrah to the Prophet’s death in 632, that the life of the “historical Muhammad” can be reconstructed with a moderate degree of certainty.

Early Meccan Period. The sirah and hadith literatures contain legends regarding Muhammad .that begin even before his birth. It is said that his father, called `Abd Allah, was on his way to the home of Aminah to marry her when a woman standing in her doorway begged him to come into her house and make love. He refused, continued to Aminah’s house, and consummated the marriage. Later, he passed by the house of the first woman, who this time said nothing to him. He turned back and asked why she had not invited him in again, and she said, “When you walked by before, a light shone from your face and I knew you were going to be the father of a prophet. Now, the light has disappeared from your face and I no longer desire to have you” (Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Sa’d). Several stories say that throughout Aminah’s pregnancy with Muhammad a light or glow beamed from her face. During Muhammad’s birth, as he was emerging, a bright light beamed forth and lit up the city of Busra (Bostra) in Syria (Ibn Ishaq). When Muhammad was a young boy taking care of flocks of sheep and goats, a cloud formed over him and created a cool area that protected him from the heat of the sun. When he was twelve years old (Ibn Sa’d), or some say nine (Tabari), he traveled with his uncle Abu Tdlib on a caravan journey to Syria. When they arrived at Busra, a monk named Bahird provided a meal for everyone and then announced that Muhammad was going to be a prophet (Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Sa’d, Tabari). In another version, it was on the way north to Syria, before reaching Busra, that the caravan stopped at a restingplace, and the monk Bahira saw certain physical signs on Muhammad’s back and proclaimed that he was going to be a prophet. He warned Abu Talib not to take the boy to the land of the Byzantines (that is, Syria), since they would kill him (Tabari). Another story says an unnamed monk made the same prediction, but warned that Jews in Syria would kill the boy if they knew who he was (Ibn Sa’d). It is said that when Muhammad was twentyfive years old, a well-to-do widow named Khadijah hired him to be in charge of her goods on a caravan to Syria. When the caravan arrived in Busra, Muhammad sat beneath a tree to rest, and a monk named Nastur came out of a nearby monastery and said, “No one has ever sat beneath this tree before except prophets.” He asked Khadijah’s servant some questions about Muhammad and then announced that he was going to be a prophet (Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Sa`d, Tabari). When Muhammad was thirty-five, the Ka’bah was repaired by men of the leading tribes in Mecca. When they got to the final task, lifting the Black Stone and replacing it in one corner of the Ka’bah, the men quarreled over which tribe would have the privilege. After a while they agreed that the next person to enter the sanctuary would decide. The next one to enter was Muhammad, who listened to each tribe’s claim and then said that the stone should be placed on a blanket and that one person from each tribe should assist as they lifted it and set it in place together (Ibn Ishaq, Tabari).

These are representative sirah and hadith legends set in the period before Muhammad’s first vision or revelation. The stories usually stand alone, without any connecting narrative. Occasionally, narrative accounts or simple biographical statements appear between stories, for instance reporting the deaths of Muhammad’s mother and grandfather. Some of the narrative accounts and biographical reports are no doubt historical, but most are impossible to date, and differing details of the same event are often given.

Among the reports that can be accepted as historical are the following: that Muhammad grew up as an orphan (see surah 93.6) in the clan of Hashim; that an uncle Abu Talib was his guardian; that he had other uncles named Hamzah, al-`Abbas, and `Abd al-`Uzza (nicknamed Abu Lahab); and that he married a well-todo widow named Khadijah who bore him four daughters who grew to adulthood-Zaynab, Ruqayyah, Umm

Kulthum, and Fatimah. Questions remain, however, regarding most of the alleged events of this early period of his life. The exact year of his birth is not known, but the early 570s appear likely. He could not have been born in the Year of the Elephant (Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Sa’d), since this expedition led by Abrahah, the ruler of southern Arabia, is now known to have occurred in the 550s or early 560s. Muhammad’s given name at birth is not certain. Ibn Sa’d reports that Aminah was told by God to name the child Ahmad, a name that also occurs for Muhammad in the Qur’an (61.6). He is also often said to have been called Amin before the revelations began. The name given his father, `Abd Allah, is possibly a later, orthodox substitution for an original pagan name. The events of Muhammad’s infancy and early childhood are variously reported; for instance, several different women are said to have been his wet nurse. The accounts that say he lived with a desert tribe until after his mother’s death are also highly suspect.

From the time of the legends of his childhood journey to Syria with his uncle Abu Talib, the sources mention only one or two other events in Muhammad’s life until the time of his marriage to Khadijah, when he is said to have been twenty-five. They agree that he was twenty at the time of the Battle of Fijar and the so-called Oath of al-Fudul. Some say he was present at this battle and took part in the oath (Ibn Sa’d), while others do not (Ibn Ishaq, Tabari). Finally, the number and names of Muhammad’s sons by Khadijah, all of whom died in infancy, are uncertain. Besides al-Qasim, the eldest, two other names are mentioned (al-Tahir and al-Tayyib, “the modest” and “the good”-Tabari) but each boy is sometimes said to have been called `Abd Allah, and other evidence suggests that one of the names may be a nickname for the other son.

Period of the Meccan Revelations. As mentioned above, the striking feature of this period in the shah works is the presence of exegetical stories based on cryptic or ambiguous verses of the Qur’an. A few examples will illustrate this type of shah account.

Surah 96 begins: “Recite (iqrd’): In the Name of your Lord who created. . . . Recite: And your Lord is the Most Generous, who taught by the Pen, taught Man what he knew not.” From this arose the story that when Muhammad was forty or forty-three years old [Tabari], Gabriel appeared to him and said “Iqra’ ” (“read” or “recite”), but Muhammad responded, “I cannot read.” This exchange was repeated two more times, and then Gabriel recited surah 96 to him. Although often taken as historical, with the corollary belief that this surah was the first to be revealed, this story has the obvious purpose of affirming Muhammad’s illiteracy, a doctrine that arose in later Islamic theology and is not supported by an analysis of all the relevant passages in the Qur’an.

Surah 74 begins: “0 you shrouded in your mantle, arise and warn!” From this verse a story arose saying Gabriel came to Muhammad’s house, saw him sitting outside wrapped in a shroud (a custom of soothsayers and prophets while waiting for inspiration), informed him that God was calling him to be a prophet, and then recited this surah, which other sources say was the first to be revealed.

Surah 94 begins: “Did We not expand your breast for you and lift from you your burden, the burden that weighed down your back?” A story with several variations arose from this surah, saying that two angels (or Gabriel, or two birds) came to Muhammad, “opened his breast,” and removed or opened his heart. They “cleansed it like a receptacle” and “took the pollution of Satan out of it.” Then they removed something black, washed it, and replaced it-or, according to other versions, they threw it away. Then they sewed Muhammad’s breast back up. This story is placed at different points in Muhammad’s lifetime: when he was a child, at the time of his first vision or revelation, and just before the Hijrah (Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Sa’d; Bukhari, Muslim). Harris Birkeland (The Legend of the Opening of Muhammed’s Breast, Oslo, 1955) has reconstructed the stages in the development of this legend during the century following Muhammad’s death.

One of the most fascinating exegetical legends is based on surah 53.19-20, which mention three goddesses who were popular in and near Mecca: “Have you considered al-Lat and al-`Uzza, and Manat, the third, the other?” The story says that immediately following these two verses Muhammad recited two others: “These are the high-flying ones (ghardniq), whose intercession [on the Day of judgment] is to be hoped for.” This was taken by the Meccan polytheists as a sign that Muhammad had accepted their goddesses into his belief system. A short time later, Gabriel informed Muhammad that the two gharaniq verses had been placed in his mouth by Satan (leading Europeans to call this “the Story of the Satanic Verses”), and thus they were deleted from the Qur’an (Waqidi, Tabari).

The story of Muhammad’s Night journey (isra’) and Ascension (mi’rdj) to heaven grew from the opening verse of surah 17: “Glory be to Him, who carried His servant by night from the sacred place of worship (almasjid al-hardm) to the farthest place of worship (almasjid al-aqsa), the precincts of which We have blessed, that We might show him some of Our signs.” The earliest explanation of this verse says Muhammad ascended to heaven directly from the sanctuary in Mecca. The expression al-masjid al-haram became the name of the sanctuary and later of the Great Mosque in Mecca. Later al-masjid al-aqsa), came to be associated with the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and a mosque by this name was built at its southern end. At about this time, another story based on surah 17.1 arose: Muhammad’s Night journey (isra’) from the sanctuary in Mecca to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. His Ascension (mi’raj) was then transferred from Mecca to Jerusalem and placed after the Night Journey. This combined story is placed at different points in Muhammad’s career, usually shortly before the Hijrah (Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Sa’d), but occasionally at the time of his first vision or revelation (Tabari). [See Mi’raj.]

These are just a few representative exegetical stories that characterize the sirah for this part of Muhammad’s life. To conclude that they are legends in their present form does not preclude the possibility that historical events might lie behind some of them. For instance, the basic elements in the story of the ghardniq or “the Satanic Verses” are consistent with many other statements in the Qur’an that date from the time of its setting (see A. T. Welch, “Allah and Other Supernatural Beings,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 47 [1979] 733-753).

Very few historical facts are known for certain regarding events in the life of Muhammad for the period of his public ministry in Mecca. One difficulty in reconstructing his life in Mecca is that major events reported in the sirah for this period are not mentioned or even alluded to in the Qur’an, whereas major events reported for the Medinan period are not only mentioned, but are discussed at length and are often corroborated in Medinan passages. For instance, the Qur’an is silent on the emigration of Muhammad’s followers to Abyssinia (Ethiopia), the boycott of his clan of Hashim, the deaths of his wife Khadijah and his uncle and protector Abu Talib, the loss of his clan protection, his visit to al-Td’if to seek refuge there, and, most surprising of all, the Hijrah to Medina-all of which are presented in the sirah as major events of this period. Since dates are not given for most of these events, and since the sirah and hadith accounts vary in significant details, we are left with more questions than answers regarding their causes and circumstances.

Certain facts about Muhammad’s life and situation in Mecca can be known, however, from the Qur’an. He proclaimed himself to be a “warner” (nadhir) to the Arabs, called by the God of the Jews and the Christians to recite in “a clear Arabic recitation (qur’an)” the same revelation that was brought by earlier Messengers (rusul). The similarity in form of his early recitations to the messages of the soothsayers caused the Meccans to accuse him of being inspired by the spirits called jinn rather than by God. Preaching against the wealthy for not sharing with the poor brought severe persecution, especially to his followers. Valuable insights into Muhammad’s character and personality can be seen in the section that follows below.

The list of unanswered questions regarding this period in Muhammad’s life is long, and only a few examples can be given. Muhammad’s age at the time of his first vision or revelation is variously given, usually as forty or forty-three. This difference cannot be resolved by the alleged fatrah or “gap” in the revelations, usually said to have lasted three years, since this concept most likely was an invention of later biographers used to reconcile the different accounts. Also unknown are the causes of the “First Hijrah” to Abyssinia, where more than simple persecution must have been involved. Several unanswered questions also surround the boycott of Hashim, where the traditional accounts differ in several significant aspects. Finally, Muhammad’s activities during his last two years in Mecca before the Hijrah are largely unknown. The few events that are reported for this period could not have taken up more than a fraction of his time.

Contrary to the images of Muhammad that dominate the sirah and hadith literatures, the glimpses of Muhammad in the Meccan parts of the Qur’an consistently portray him as fully human with no supernatural powers. His opponents frequently challenged him to perform miracles: “We will not believe you until you make a spring gush forth from the ground” (17.90); the Qur’an responds by commanding Muhammad to say, “I am only a human being (bashar) like you” (18.110 and 41.6). He also had no supernatural knowledge. When his opponents challenged him to reveal things of the invisible world, the Qur’an instructs him to say, “I do not know the Unseen (al ghayb)” (6.50); and when they ask him when the end of time would come, the Qur’an responds, “Say: Only my Lord has knowledge of it and

He will not reveal it until its proper time” (7.187). His humanness is seen clearly when he is frequently comforted in times of persecution or disappointment”Your Lord has not forsaken you [Muhammad] nor does he hate you” (93.3); in times of grief-“We know indeed that the things they say grieve you” (6.33); and in times of doubt “By your Lord’s blessing you are not a soothsayer, nor are you possessed by jinn” (52.29). That he suffered periods of uncertainty and impatience in Mecca, when his message was met with rebuke and the people taunted him with accusations he could not refute, is shown by the many passages that urge him to be steadfast and patient: “So be patient . . . and do not let those who do not have sure faith make you unsteady” (30.6o); “So be patient, for indeed God’s promise is true” (40.55). According to the Qur’an, Muhammad’s primary role in Mecca was simply that of “warner,” usually nadhir but sometimes mundhir: “He [Muhammad] is a warner (nadhir) of the warnnes of old” (53-56); “Now they marvel that a warner (mundhir) has come to them from among them” (38.4). This role appears frequently in the rhyme phrase, “I am/He is a clear warner (nadhir mubin)” (for instance, in 7.184 and 29.50).

Medinan Period. The life of Muhammad can be reconstructed with much more confidence for the Medinan period. In addition to a wealth of biographical data in the Qur’an, we have extensive reports of maghdzi (“military expeditions”) that Muhammad led or organized and sent out. After the Qur’an and some of the poetry preserved in the sirah, modern historians regard the maghdzi works as the oldest sources for the life of Muhammad and the foundation of the Medinan portions of the sirah, which are fuller and more trustworthy than the Meccan portions. Also, the Qur’an and the sirah frequently corroborate each other for the Medinan period.

Narrative form in the Medinan part of the sirah. For the period after the Hijrah, Ibn Ishaq includes a detailed “chronological frame narrative” that gives the dates for Muhammad’s military expeditions and for the time he spent in Medina. This narrative form is seen in the following example that covers the one-year period from the end of the battle of Badr until the beginning of the battle of Uhud (pages 360-369 in Guillaume’s 1955 translation):

The Messenger left Badr at the end of Ramadan or in Shawwal [in AH 2]. He stayed only seven nights in Medina before he led a raid against the Banu Sulaym. He got as far as their watering place called al-Kudr and stayed there three nights, returning to Medina without fighting. He stayed there for the rest of Shawwal and Dhu al-Qa’da. . . . Abu Sufyan made the raid of Sawiq [“barley meal”] in Dhu al-Hijja. . . . When the Messenger returned from the raid of alSawiq he stayed in Medina for the rest of Dhu al-Hijja, or nearly all of it. Then [in Muharram] he raided the Najd, making for [the tribe of] Ghatafan. This is the raid of Dhu Amarr. He stayed in the Najd through the month of Safar, or nearly all of it, and then returned to Medina without fighting. There he remained for the month of Rabi` I or a day or two less. . . . Then he made a raid on Quraysh as far as Bahran, a mine in the Hijaz. . . . He stayed there for the next two months and then returned to Medina without fighting. . . . After his arrival from Bahran the Messenger stopped [in Medina] for the months of the Jumada II, Rajab, Sha’ban, and Ramadan. Quraysh made the raid of Uhud in Shawwal of AH 3.

The precise dates that are given in Watt’s Muhammad Prophet and Statesman (1961) are taken from al-Waqidi rather than Ibn Ishaq. The two dating systems differ in detail but agree in assuming that the later Islamic calendar was projected back to the time of the Hijrah.

Muh ammad’s problem with the Meccans. Soon after his arrival in Medina, Muhammad, following the Arabian custom at that time, began to send out razzias or raiding parties against Meccan caravans. A wronged party was expected to take goods by force from an oppressor tribe. Muhammad and his followers believed that the Meccans had forced them out of their homes and businesses and thus owed them redress. When a group of Muhammad’s men captured a Meccan caravan at Nakhlah in late 623 or early 624, this gave warning to the Meccans. Thus on their next trip north, in the spring of 624, the Meccans stayed together in Syria until everyone was ready to return home in one huge caravan led by Abu Sufyan, a wealthy and powerful leader of Mecca. Muhammad led about 300 men out to intercept this caravan, and the Meccans sent a force three times as large to protect it. Abu Sufyan evaded Muhammad and arrived safely back in Mecca, while Muhammad’s men and the Meccan force encountered each other by chance at Badr, where caravans stopped for water. The two forces engaged in battle and Muhammad’s men defeated the much larger polytheist army, killing about seventy Meccans. The Muslim victory at Badr (mentioned by name in surah 3.123) was taken by many as a sign that God was on Muhammad’s side, and this led to a large number of converts. A year later, in the spring of 625, Abu Sufyan led another Meccan army north to Medina for revenge. The two forces met on the hill of Uhud, just north of the Medinan settlement, and Muhammad and his men suffered a near disaster. After a fatal mistake by a flank of his archers, Muhammad was injured but was able to rally his forces. Abu Sufyan, seeing that about seventy Muslims and their allies had been killed, declared a victory and returned to Mecca (surah 3.121-179 treat the battle of Uhud). Two years later, in the spring of 627, the Meccans, again under the command of Abu Sufyan, made their last attempt to stop Muhammad by force. This time the Muslims dug a trench across exposed areas into the settlement, which was sufficient to deter the Meccans and their allies, who withdrew after about two weeks (treated in 33.9-25). By this time Muhammad was in complete control of Medina, and bedouin tribes in the surrounding area were making alliances with him and becoming Muslims.

Muhammad’s problem with the Jews. It is clear from the Qur’an, seen especially in surah 2, that Muhammad expected the three main Jewish clans in Medina to accept him as a prophet sent by their God (2.40-41). Since Islamic beliefs and practices were just being formulated in the Qur’an, flexibility within the nascent community allowed for the adoption of certain Jewish practices, some becoming permanent in Islam, while others were temporary. The Jewish fast on the Day of Atonement, called the `Ashura’ fast, was adopted during the first year in Medina (Bukhari and Muslim say Muhammad followed the example of the Jews in adopting this fast), along with food restrictions that are close to those of the Jews (surah 2.1’72-173). The Muslims even adopted the Jewish qiblah, or direction one faces when performing the daily prayer rituals, facing north toward Jerusalem. About a year and a half after Muhammad arrived in Medina, it became clear that the Jews there were not going to accept him as a prophet. The so-called “break with the Jews” thus occurred, marked dramatically by a “change of the qiblah, when the Muslims began to face south from Medina toward the Ka’bah in Mecca (2.142-150).

After each of the three battles mentioned above, one of the main Jewish clans was expelled from Medina. The primary justification was their failure to support Muhammad, marked by their collaboration with his enemies in Medina and their possible conspiracy with the Meccans. After the battle of Badr, the clan of Qaynuqa` was forced to leave Medina, and some of the Emigrants (muhajirun), Muhammad’s followers from Mecca who had made the Hijrah, took over their marketplaces and soon controlled trade within the settlement. The clan of al-Nadir was expelled after the battle of Uhud; they owned rich groves of palm trees that were distributed among Muhammad’s poor Emigrant followers and others (surah 59.2-io). The treatment of the third and last Jewish clan, the Qurayzah, was much harsher because of evidence of a conspiracy during the battle of the Trench in which they made plans to attack Muhammad’s forces from the rear. If this fifth-column plot had been carried out, it could have ended his career. After a siege of their strongholds, they surrendered and Muhammad put them on trial, appointing a judge from an Arab tribe that was allied to them. The verdict was that all the men of the clan were to be executed and the women and children were to be sold as slaves (surah 3326-27). In this one action of his career, Muhammad followed the customs and expectations of his day rather than his usual magnanimous treatment of his foes after battles and intrigues.

Muhammad’s last years and his death. In the spring of 628, guided by a dream or vision, Muhammad led a massive group of Muslims on the 270-mile journey from Medina to Mecca to perform the pilgrimage ceremonies. They camped at al-Hudaybiyah on the edge of the Haram, the sacred territory that surrounds Mecca. There Muhammad negotiated a treaty in which he agreed not to press his claim to complete the pilgrimage ceremonies that season, while the Meccan leaders promised to open the city to the Muslims the following year. They also agreed to a ten-year truce when neither side would attack the other. In the spring of 629, Muhammad led the first Muslim pilgrimage, an `umrah or “Lesser Pilgrimage” to Mecca. Later that year, a clan allied to the Meccans attacked a clan allied to Muhammad, thus breaking the treaty. Abu Sufyan and other Meccan leaders rushed to Medina to dissuade Muhammad from attacking their city, and they apparently agreed to surrender Mecca to him peacefully. Late in 629 Muhammad and his forces set out for Mecca, and early in 630 his native city surrendered to him without a fight.

Just weeks after the surrender of Mecca, with Muhammad now in command of all of west-central Arabia, a large confederation of tribes from south and east of Mecca made one last attempt to stop him by force. Muhammad’s 12,000 men fought an army twice that size at Hunayn (mentioned by name in the Qur’an, 9.25), and once again the Muslims and their allies defeated a much larger force of polytheists. After dividing up the spoils, Muhammad and his followers from Medina returned home, where he consolidated his position. In the spring, a son named Ibrahim (Abraham) was borne to Muhammad by his Christian concubine, Mariyah the Copt, said to have been a gift to him from an Egyptian ruler. During the last part of 630, he undertook his largest and last military expedition, with a force said to number 30,000 men, to Tabfik, near the Gulf of ‘Agaba. Muhammad encountered no army, but this show of force demonstrated his intention to challenge the Byzantines for control of the northern part of the caravan route from Mecca to Syria. Ibn Ishaq and alWaqidi record twenty-seven expeditions, including pilgrimages to Mecca and the expulsions of the three Jewish clans, that Muhammad led himself, but they say he actually fought in only nine. In addition to these, he organized and sent out more than fifty other expeditions. (For a complete list of these expeditions, see Watt, 1956, pp. 339-343.)

The following year, 631, is called “the Year of Deputations.” Envoys from tribes all over Arabia traveled to Muhammad’s headquarters in Medina and surrendered to him. Some tribes may have seen these treaties as normal Arabian tribal alliances, but Muhammad regarded them as including acceptance of Islam. The year 632 began on a sad note for Muhammad with the death of his young son, Ibrahim. Later that spring the Prophet led to Mecca the largest number of Muslim pilgrims ever assembled during his lifetime on what came to be called his “Farewell Pilgrimage.” On the return trip to Medina, Muhammad contracted a fatal illness and knew his days were numbered. He appointed his longtime friend, Abu Bakr, to lead the daily prayers and the weekly worship service. Then he asked permission of his wives to be relieved of his duty of nightly rotation so he could spend his last days in the apartment of his youngest wife, `A’ishah, the daughter of Abu Bakr. It was there that he died, at about age sixty, in June 632.

Glimpses of Muhammad in Medinan parts of the Qur’dn. Muhammad is portrayed in terms just as personal and candid in Medinan passages as in the Meccan ones cited above. The Qur’an continues to stress his completely human nature and limitations. Even after his victories over the Meccans and his success in winning converts among the tribes of the Hijaz (Hejaz), Muhammad still agonized over those who did not believe: “O Messenger, let them not grieve you who vie with one another in unbelief’ (5.41). A significant Medinan theme that is stated explicitly in several passages is Muhammad’s need to seek forgiveness for his sins: “[Muhammad,] ask forgiveness (ghafr) for your sin (dhanb), and for [those of the] the believers, men and women” (47.19); and “Surely We have given you [Muhammad] a manifest victory that God may forgive you your former and your latter sins and complete His blessing on you” (48.1-2). The later Islamic doctrine of Muhammad’s sinlessness has no foundation in the Qur’an. His humanness is also seen in passages on his mortality: “You [Muhammad] are mortal (mayyit) and they are mortal. Then, on the Day of Resurrection before your Lord you will dispute” (39.30-31). The candidness of the Qur’an is striking in a number of Medinan passages on another aspect of Muhammad’s humanness, his attraction for the good things of this fife, including women, wealth, and children: “Thereafter women are not lawful for you [Muhammad], neither for you to take other wives in exchange for them, though their beauty please you, except what your right hand owns [female slaves, who may be taken as concubines]” (33.52); and “Do not let their wealth and their children please you [or cause you to desire to have them]” (9.85).

The most prominent difference between the Meccan Muhammad and the Medinan Muhammad involves his roles within the two communities and the explicit Medinan references to his considerable power and authority. One indication of this change in Muhammad’s circumstances is seen in his titles, especially where he is mentioned along with God. Contrary to popular belief, Muhammad is never explicitly called a “prophet” (nabi) or “the Messenger of God” (rasul Allah) anywhere in Meccan passages of the Qur’an. The Qur’anic usage of Muhammad’s various titles and other evidence show his humility in that he is only gradually, and explicitly only after the Hijrah, portrayed as a “Messenger of God” equal to the great prophets of the past. Sometime after the battle of Badr a primary Medinan motif began to appear, for instance in 4.13: “Whoever obeys God and His Messenger will be admitted to gardens in which rivers flow [Paradise], therein dwelling forever”; this is coupled with a threat in verse 14, “But whoever disobeys God and His Messenger and transgresses His bounds will be admitted to a Fire, therein dwelling forever.” An even stronger statement of this motif occurs in 4.8o: “Whoever obeys the Messenger thereby obeys God.” A frequently occurring variation on this theme occurs in 4.136: “0 believers, believe in God and His Messenger and the Book He has sent down [revealed],” stated more strongly in 48.13: “We have prepared a Blaze [the hellfire] for whoever does not believe in God and His Messenger.” The height of Muhammad’s power is portrayed nowhere more clearly than in several passages where he is told to be harsh in his treatment of those who oppose him, as in surahs 9.73 and 66.9, where the same statement occurs verbatim: “0 Prophet, struggle with the unbelievers and the hypocrites, and be harsh with them. Their refuge is Gehenna [Hell], an evil homecoming!”

Even in the context of this new power and authority, Muhammad’s humility and even shyness continue to be portrayed vividly. As is often the case, it is the Qur’an that instructs the believers on personal matters pertaining to Muhammad, as in 49.2: “0 believers, raise not your voices above the Prophet’s voice, and be not loud in your speech to him as you are loud to one another”; and in one of the most fascinating verses in the Qur’an on Muhammad’s character, 33.53 “0 believers, do not enter the apartments of the Prophet, unless you are given permission for a meal, and wait for the proper time. But when you are invited, then enter, and when you have finished your meal, then leave. Do not linger for idle talk, for that would be an annoyance to the Prophet, and he would be shy to ask you [to leave].” What a graphic picture of the personality of the most powerful ruler in Arabiai.

Concluding Comments. The verses quoted above as “glimpses” of Muhammad in the Qur’an represent only a small sample of the hundreds that provide insight into his life and character. Throughout these verses the single characteristic of his personality that predominates from the beginning to the end is his sincerity. Through periods of persecution and doubt, then reassurance, and finally complete confidence in his mission, there is no hint of deceit or dishonesty. Yet Muhammad is often criticized by modern writers; the two accusations most often made against him involve his Medinan militarism and his alleged lasciviousness.

Regarding the first, it must be remembered that Muhammad was a man of his time. The razzia or raiding party was a characteristic feature of life in Arabia in Muhammad’s time, so that his attempt to stop the Meccan caravan that resulted in the battle of Badr was accepted by all as customary and within his rights. Most other major battles in which he fought were initiated by the enemy, and the majority of the other expeditions he led did not make contact with any enemy tribe but were largely demonstrations of his growing power to the neighboring bedouin tribes. It is best to see Muhammad as using the customs of his day to mold a new social community. The idea of founding a new religion or being solely a religious leader would have been totally foreign to him. He was administrator, legislator, judge, and commander in chief as well as teacher, preacher, and prayer leader.

As for the second criticism, it must be remembered that Muhammad had only one wife, Khadijah, until her death when he was about fifty years old. Shortly thereafter he married Sawdah, the widow of a Muslim who died in Abyssinia. It was only natural that he remarry after Khadijah’s death, since he had a large household, with children, servants, and many duties that were usually assumed by the wife. These two were his only wives in Mecca before the Hijrah. In Medina most of his marriages fall into two categories: those with political significance, as when they established bonds between the Prophet and important tribes and clans; and those that resulted from his responsibilities as head of the Muslim community, as when he married widows of Muslim men who died in battle. He is usually said to have had fourteen wives in the proper sense, of whom nine survived him. Mariyah the Copt, as the mother of Ibrahim, had a special place in Muhammad’s life but was not regarded as a wife.

The quest for “the historical Muhammad” is a modern task that is still in its infancy. Volumes on “the traditional Muhammad,” the exemplar for Islamic faith and practice, who was created in the process of the establishment of Islamic orthodoxy and orthopraxis, are as old as Islam itself. The Muslim world also knows many “popular Muhammads,” who vary from culture to culture and combine features of the traditional Muhammad of Muslim faith and those of the ideal man or the shaman or priest of the various cultural areas. This Muhammad is often a miracle-worker or a fortuneteller who can communicate with and control the spirits, and can call upon supernatural powers to heal or otherwise aid the believers. The glimpses of Muhammad in the Qur’an cited above make it clear that such beliefs, while worthy of study as part of popular Islam, are inconsistent with the teachings of Islamic scripture, which happens also to be the ultimate source in the quest for the historical Muhammad.

[See also Biography and Hagiography; Hadith; Mecca; Medina; Prophethood.]


Sources: The Qur’an (in English)

Arberry, A. J., trans. The Koran Interpreted. 2 vols. London and New York, 1955. Reprinted in one volume, but paginated as two. The most readable translation in English and, despite its title, the most literal.

Bell, Richard. The Qur’an Translated, with a Critical Re-arrangement of the Surahs. 2 vols. Edinburgh, 1937-1939. Intended only as a preliminary, critical analysis of the composition of the Arabic text of the Qur’an, this ground-breaking study has never been followed up except in peripheral works. Remains essential for any critical study of the chronology and composition of the Qur’an. Invaluable for the quest for “the historical Muhammad.”

Pickthall, M. M. The Meaning of the Glorious Koran: An Explanatory Translation (1930). New York, 1953. Solid translation utilizing modern scholarship, while sometimes reading later, orthodox meanings into the text. A bilingual edition called The Glorious Koran (Arabic and English; London and Albany, N.Y., 1976) contains the Egyptian Standard text of the Arabic, with a renumbering of the English verses to agree with the Arabic.

Yusuf Ali, Abdullah, trans. The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation, and Commentary. 3d ed. Lahore, 1938. Solid translation, influenced by earlier European ones, with extensive notes, often on Muhammad but more frequently of a devotional nature or arguing for a later, orthodox interpretation of a verse or a key word.

Sources: Sirah, Hadith, and General Histories

Bukhari, Muhammad ibn IsmAII al-. Sahih al-Bukhari: The Translation of the Meanings of Sahih al-Bukhari (Arabic and English). 9 vols. Translated by M. M. Khan. 3d rev. ed. Chicago, 1979. The most highly respected of all the hadith collections (see comments on Muslim, below).

Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad. The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah. Translated with introduction and notes by Alfred Guillaume. London and Karachi, 1955. Ibn Ishaq’s Strah or Maghdzi is extant in two recensions, one by Ibn Hisham, used by Guillaume and often listed as the “author” of this translation, and another by Yunus ibn Bukayr (d. 814). Guillaume has attempted to reconstruct Ibn Ishaq’s original work by beginning with Ibn Hisham’s recension, placing all of his additions in the back as notes, and then inserting long excerpts that were deleted by Ibn Hisham, but have been preserved in works such as al-Tabari’s Ta’nkh.

Ibn Sad, Muhammad. Ibn Sa’d’s Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir (The Large Book of the Generations). Translated by Syed Moinul Haq, assisted by H. K. Ghazanfar. Karachi, 1967. Contains more variations of multiple accounts than Ibn Ishaq’s work, and also many anecdotes that have parallels in the canonical hadith collections. Volumes i and 2 treat the life of Muhammad.

Muslim ibn al-Haijaj al-Qushayri. Sahih Muslim: Being Traditions of the Sayings and Doings of the Prophet Muhammad as Narrated by his Companions and Compiled under the Title al -Jami` -us-Sahih. 4 vols. Translated by ‘Abdul Hamid Siddiqi. Lahore, 1976. Often considered with al-Bukhari’s Sahih as the two “canonical” hadith collections, they are regarded as authoritative and definitive in matters of Islamic ritual and law.

Tabari, Muhammad ibn Janr al-. The History of al-Tabari (Ta’rikh alrusul wa-al-muluk). 38 vols. Edited by Ehsan Yar-Sharer. Albany, N.Y., 1985-. The most important universal history produced in the Islamic world. Four volumes treat the life of Muhammad, one of which (volume 8) has not yet been published. See volume 6, Muhammad at Mecca, translated and annotated by W. Montgomery Watt and M. V. McDonald (1988); volume 7, The Foundation of the Community: Muhammad at al-Medina, A.D. 622-626IHijrah-4 A.H., translated and annotated by Watt and McDonald (1987); and volume 9, The Last Years of the Prophet: The Formation of the State, A.D. 630-632/A.H. 8-11, translated and annotated by Ismail K. Poonawala (1990).

Waqidi, Muhammad ibn `Umar al-. Kitab al-Maghazi lil-Waqidi. 3 vols. Edited by Marsden Jones. London, 1966. Fundamental work on the life of Muhammad, which unfortunately has not been translated into English. Julius Wellhausen prepared an abridged German translation, Muhammed in Medina: Das ist Vakidi’s Kitab alMaghazi [sic] in verkurzter deutscher Wiedergabe (Berlin, 1882).

Modern Biographies and Other Literature on Muhammad Andrae, Tor. Mohammed: The Man and His Faith. Translated by Theophil Menzel. London and New York, 1936. Rev. ed. New York, 1955. Translated from the German, Mohammed: Sein Leben and Sein Glaube. Gottingen, 1932. Originally published in Swedish. Translated into several languages, this classic study emphasizes the religious aspects of Muhammad’s life and, using insights from psychology, elucidates his experience of revelation.

Bint al-Shati’ [`A’ishah `Abd al-Rahman]. The Wives of the Prophet. Translated with an introduction by Matti Moosa and D. Nicholas Ranson. Lahore, 1971. Translated from the Arabic, Nisa’ al-Nabi. Cairo, 1961. Exp. ed. Cairo, 1973. Vivid portrayals of the traditional views of Muhammad’s wives.

Buhl, Frants. Das Leben Muhammeds. Translated by H. H. Schaeder. Leipzig, 1930. Rev. and exp. German translation of the original Danish, Muhammeds Liv. Copenhagen, 1903. Remains the best historical-critical analysis of the sources, although dated in places. No English translation exists, but a summary is available in Buhl’s “Muhammad,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. 3, pp. 641-657 (Leiden, 1913-).

Buhl, Frants, and Alford T. Welch. “Muhammad.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 5, pp. 36o-376. Leiden, 1960-. Completely revised and updated version of Buhl’s article in the first edition, omitting long discussions of outdated topics. The co-author shares Buhl’s conclusions on many major issues, which thus remain among the basic conclusions of the revised article.

Glubb, John Bagot. The Life and Times of Muhammad. London and New York, 1970. Demonstrates keen insight into the customs of desert life and warfare in Arabia that shed light on key events in Muhammad’s life.

Hamidullah, Muhammad. The Battlefields of the Prophet Muhammad, with Maps, Illustrations, and Sketches: A Contribution to Muslim Military History. Hyderabad (Deccan), 1973. Originally published as `Ahd-i nabvi he maiddn-i jang. The only extended study of the topic, based on field research at the locations where Muhammad’s expeditions occurred.

Haykal, Muhammad Husayn. The Life of Muhammad. Translated by Isma’il Raji al-Faruqi. [Indianapolis], 1976. Translation of the eighth edition of the Arabic, Haydt Muhammad. 1st ed. Cairo, 1935. One of the most popular twentieth-century Arabic biographies of Muhammad. Despite the author’s claim to follow modern critical methods, this work presents the familiar traditional narrative of Muhammad’s life, interspersed with strong condemnations, although not refutations, of views by European scholars that differ from orthodox and traditional beliefs about Muhammad.

Lings, Martin. Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources. London and New York, 1983. Exceptionally well-written account of “the traditional Muhammad” as depicted in the classical sirah and hadith works, with no critical analysis. Contains material not found in other modern biographies of Muhammad.

Schimmel, Annemarie. And Muhammad Is His Messenger: The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1985. Author’s own translation of the original German, Und Muhammad ist Sein Prophet. Dusseldorf, 1981. The most penetrating study to date of “the popular Muhammad” and his roles in Muslim piety, containing chapters on topics such as Muhammad’s physical beauty, his miracles, his role as intercessor, and his place in Sufi thought and ritual. Also contains valuable translations of modern poetry on devotion to Muhammad from several South and West Asian languages.

Watt, W. Montgomery. Muhammad at Mecca. Oxford, 1953. First of a two-volume work that constitutes the most recent major scholarly study of the life of Muhammad, based on a thorough analysis of the Arabic sources. Adopts an intermediate position between those of Buhl and Lings regarding the sources by accepting as historical all accounts that cannot be refuted by strong evidence.

Watt, W. Montgomery. Muhammad at Medina. Oxford, 1956. The second of Watt’s two-volume work goes far beyond a biography by including exceptionally valuable chapters on topics such as the tribes Muhammad encountered in various parts of Arabia, the internal politics in Medina, the character of the new Islamic state, and Muhammad’s reform of the Arabian social structure. Twelve additional excurses, on topics such as marriage and family life in pre-Islamic times, Muhammad’s marriages, and a list (with dates and page numbers in Ibn Ishaq and al-Waqidi) of all the expeditions Muhammad led and those he sent out, add to the value of this volume.

Watt, W. Montgomery. Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman. London and New York, 1961. Essentially an abridgment of the author’s two-volume biography, except that the chronological order of Muhammad’s life is followed more closely and material that does not deal specifically with Muhammad is omitted.

Welch, Alford T. “Muhammad’s Understanding of Himself: The Koranic Data.” In Islam’s Understanding of Itself, edited by Richard G. Hovannisian and Speros Vryonis, Jr., pp. 15-52. Malibu, Calif., 1983. Study of Qur’anic portrayals of Muhammad in Meccan and Medinan contexts that provides analysis and additional references regarding topics treated in the present article.

Wensinck, A. J. Muhammad and the Yews of Medina. Translated by Wolfgang Behn. Freiburg im Breisgau, 1975. Translation from the original Dutch, Mohammed en de Joden to Medina. Leiden, 1908. Despite its age and a number of later books on related topics, this classic continues to present the clearest, most concise view of the relationship between Muhammad and the Jewish clans of Medina.



The “Life” of Muhammad (c.570-632) has been one of the most important genres in the Islamic literary tradition from the earliest periods of Islam to the present. Numerous biographies exist in all Islamic languages in prose, poetry, and recently on film. Muhammad’s companions began collecting information about him while he was still alive, particularly about his military exploits (maghdzi) after the Hijrah (622). This material consisted of short prose accounts (hadith, khabar) centered on one theme and sometimes accompanied by the name of a witness. The reports were anecdotal and modeled on the heroic genre of the pre-Islamic “Battle Days of the Arabs” (Ayydm al-`Arab), although there was little poetry in the early collections. Very little about Muhammad’s childhood and early life can be found in the first biographies. No formal editions were made of this material until much later, and there is no evidence that any of it was put in chronological order before the middle of the first Islamic century.

The death of Muhammad in 632 CE, the crises of succession, and the expansion of Islam beyond Arabia had a profound impact on the biographies of Muhammad. In the social and religious turmoil of the first Islamic century, when Islam expanded to present-day France in the west and India in the east, many groups began to collect and organize real and fictitious traditions about Muhammad to serve their religious, political, and social needs. Genealogical closeness to the Prophet or to his family played an important role for many groups, not the least of whom were the ShNs. To this day, claiming to be a descendant of Muhammad’s tribe or family carries political or religious prestige in many parts of the Islamic world. By the end of the first Islamic century, claims to political power were being made not only on the basis of membership in the Prophet’s family, clan, or tribe, but also on contending views that Muhammad had designated ‘Ali, his closest male relative, or Abu Bakr, his father-in-law and close adviser, as his successor (khalifah, caliph).

Intergroup accusations of falsification of traditions and the need to establish a solid basis for religious and political claims promoted an increase in the collection of stories about Muhammad, his wives, and his companions. Muslims interested in establishing a basis for proper conduct and understanding of the Qur’an insisted on making citations about Muhammad more exact and scholarly. By the beginning of the second Islamic century and the `Abbasid revolution, all traditions were expected to have a sound chain of attribution (isndd) reaching back through recognized and reliable transmitters. This requirement led to the collection of biographical data about the companions and subsequent transmitters of traditions as well as the writing of heresiographical treatises in which the reliability of individuals and groups was judged by their adherence to one religious norm or another. Because Sunni and Shi’i doctrines were only forming during this early period, many collections reflect attitudes that were later rejected. In spite of increased scholarly attention, or maybe because of it, traditions of dubious authenticity entered the major collections. This fact, coupled with the inevitable loss of historical material over time, has presented problems for both classical and modern scholars in reconstructing a picture of the historical Muhammad. Some Western scholars are so skeptical as to deny the possibility of knowing anything about Muhammad’s biography. These problems were also faced by the early collectors of traditions: for example, the collector al-Bukhari (d. 870) is said to have chosen only about 7,275 traditions as reliable from more than 600,000. Issues of the reliability of traditions and the veracity of transmitters remain a central issue in Muslim legal discussions and in intercommunal disputes between Sunni and Shi’i.

Toward the end of the first Islamic century, biographical materials about Muhammad began to be grouped into two distinct types of collections-one historical, discursive, and narrative, called sirah, and the other discrete, anecdotal, and ahistoric, called sunnah. The two terms had been used interchangeably but now came to designate separate functions for the sacred biography within the Islamic communities. Sirah came to be used exclusively for narrative histories of Muhammad and other prophets to whom he was compared. As a result it became the basis for the Muslim views of history. The sirah written by Muhammad ibn Ishaq (d. 767) was an apology for the `Abbasid revolution and a model for subsequent universal histories, such as that by the famous al-Tabari (d. 923). It started with the creation and chronicled the history of the world up to Muhammad, demonstrating how Muhammad’s life was the fulfillment of the divine mission. In this form, it matched Jewish and Christian hagiographic and apocalyptic works with which it shared many features. Muhammad’s life was compared to previous prophets and holy men in the Jewish and Christian traditions, in keeping with the Muslim view that Islam is the culmination of divine revelation. The comparisons served to aid Muslim missionary activities but also led to accusations among Christians that Muhammad’s similarity to Jesus meant that he was the Antichrist. A shorter form, edited by Ibn Hisham (d. c.827), rapidly became the standard biography in the Islamic world and the basis for most subsequent works.

Sunnah developed as the basis for Islamic law, shari’ah, in which Muhammad became the paradigm for proper behavior. In this genre, Muhammad is represented ahistorically as explaining or acting out some aspect of correct behavior. Even in those traditions that can be dated to some part of Muhammad’s life, the emphasis is more on the universality of the action rather than on the historical specificity of the event. The Islamic use of sacred biography as a model goes beyond that found in Christianity or Judaism. As an example, we know in detail Muhammad’s favorite foods (honey and nuts), that he would not wear silk or gold, and when and how he performed oral hygiene. Many Muslims today will eat sweets made from honey, consciously aware that Muhammad did so, and Muslim men will not wear silk and will cleanse their teeth as religious acts. Through sunnah (or more properly, through hadith) it is possible to reconstruct a detailed picture of Muhammad’s life-but not a historical picture.

The few biographical references to Muhammad found in the Qur’an can be fully understood only by means of the independent biographical traditions, so the biography of Muhammad serves in part as a commentary on the Qur’an rather than the Qur’an being a historical source for Muhammad’s life. The technical relationships between verses of the Qur’an and hadith are matters of Islamic legal theory, but by the second Islamic century, most Muslims had agreed generally on when passages of the Qur’an appeared in Muhammad’s life. For the believing community, Muhammad, conceived of as freed or protected from sin and error, was the key to understanding the difficulties in the sacred scripture. Even the legendary stories regarded with skepticism by pious Muslim scholars served a didactic function in the popular imagination and hence were preserved, embelfished, and fixed in the biographical traditions.

Popular narrative and poetic biographies have long been associated with the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday (`Id al-Milad or Mawlid). Such celebrations can include readings from the Qur’an, recitations of poetry, songs, and the preparation of food, which is dedicated to Muhammad and then donated to the poor. In South Asian Islamic communities some of the celebrations incorporate characteristics of the local culture. Some condemn these practices as non-Islamic innovations; for example, several fatwdhs have been issued by religious authorities in Saudi Arabia against the practice of women reciting poetry addressed to Muhammad that implies that Muhammad will be at least spiritually present at the celebration. Even the government-sponsored conference on the biography of Muhammad held in Pakistan in 1982 was condemned by some Saudi religious authorities because it celebrated the Prophet’s birthday. Other examples of adaptation of Muhammad’s biography to local literary forms can be seen in the “infancy poetry” (pillaittamil) written in Tamil in Southeast India, in which Muhammad is depicted in the same manner as an infant Hindu god.

Biographies of Muhammad proved to be as susceptible to the influences of modernism and colonialism as other Islamic institutions. In the face of Western scientific inquiry into the “historical” Muhammad, many Muslims adopted either accommodationist or rejectionist attitudes toward such biographies. William Muir’s The Life of Muhammad From Original Sources provoked strong reaction in the Indo-Muslim communities, presaging the recent reaction to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. While the first work purports to be a scholarly inquiry into the historical Muhammad and the second a work of imaginative fiction, they both share in their offense to the sensibilities among some Muslims that the “Life” of Muhammad is almost as sacred as the Qur’an. Similar criticism, although not so violent, has been leveled at Muhammad Husayn Haykal’s The Life of Muhammad. One contributing factor to crystallizing the biography of Muhammad has been the uses to which it has been put for Islamic modernism (tajdid), for example in the establishment of a Sufi Tariqah Muhammadiyah or “Way of Muhammad” in the eighteenth century.

Until modern times, Western views of Muhammad have, with rare exceptions, been hostile. (A contrary example is Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History.) The tendencies of Islamic biographies to portray Muhammad as a spiritual isomorph of various prophets, including Jesus, have been seized on by Western polemicists who claimed that Muhammad was merely a deceiver and that Islam started as a Christian (or Jewish) heresy. This bias is so pervasive that the reader must be cautioned about finding it in much material available in Western languages written before the mid-twentieth century. Some recent Western scholars, following an antipositivist interpretive stance, deny that we can know the historical Muhammad at all and contend that all of his biography is a hagiographic fiction. [See Islamic Studies, article on History of the Field.]

Biographies of Muhammad continue to be one of the most popular forms of literary expression among Muslims. They provide spiritual models for the individual Muslim and paradigms for community formation among emerging Islamic republics. Interest in the West has increased to include popular as well as scholarly biographies. Attempts to portray Muhammad in film have been discouraged by opposition within Muslim communities, although a 1976 Lebanese film, The Messenger, starring Anthony Quinn, was widely distributed. Probably its most noted feature was the fact that no image of Muhammad was shown, in keeping with an Islamic aniconic tradition. If past trends and current increases in the number of Muslims throughout the world are any indication, one can expect the popular and resilient genre of Muhammad’s biographies to incorporate most modern literary forms.


Abbott, Nabia. Aisha, the Beloved of Mohammed. Chicago, 1942. Sympathetic view of Muhammad based on original sources from the perspective of his favorite wife.

Crone, Patricia, and Michael Cook. Hagarism. Cambridge, 1977. Analysis of early Islam that strongly questions the reliability of available sources.

Haykal, Muhammad Husayn. The Life of Muhammad. Translated by Isma’Il R. al-Faruqi. Indianapolis, 1976. English translation of an Egyptian journalist’s biography of Muhammad.

Ibn Hisham, `Abd al-Malik. The Life of Muhammad. Translated and edited by Alfred Guillaume. Lahore, 1967. Reconstruction and translation of the earliest biography of Muhammad.

Newby, Gordon D. The Making of the Last Prophet. Columbia, S.C., 1989. Study of the early development of Muhammad’s biography, with bibliography.

Schimmel, Annemarie. And Muhammad Is His Messenger: The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1985. Sympathetic discussion of the role of Muhammad in popular Muslim piety.

Watt, W. Montgomery. Muhammad at Mecca. Oxford, 1953. Readable scholarly analysis of Muhammad’s early life, based on original sources.

Watt, W. Montgomery. Muhammad at Medina. Oxford, 1956. Noted Western Islamicist’s analysis of Muhammad’s later career. Readable and accurate.

Waugh, Earle H. “Following the Beloved: Muhammad as Model in the Sufi Tradition.” In The Biographical Process, edited by Frank E. Reynolds and Donald Capps, pp. 63-85. The Hague, 1976. Explains the role of Muhammad as a paradigm for behavior among Sufis.


Role of the Prophet in Muslim Thought and Practice

During the first three centuries of Islamic thought, Muslims cast the prophet Muhammad around key religious images. For the scholars of Islamic law, the Prophet was the legislator-jurist who defined the limits and possibilities of ritual observance; for the mystic, he was the ideal seeker on a journey to spiritual perfection; and for the philosopher and the statesman, he was the role-model of both a resolute conqueror and a just ruler. For most ordinary Muslims, the Prophet was a beautiful model, a source through whom flowed God’s grace and salvation (Waugh, 1985; Schimmel, 1987).

These various images for the Prophet have since been repeated and refined in a continuing “biographical process” (Frank E. Reynolds and Donald Capps, Introduction to The Biographical Process, The Hague, 1976, pp. 1-33). Scholars have continuously refashioned the Prophet in extensive biographies, of which the earliest extant work is that of Muhammad ibn Ishaq (d. AH 150/ 767 CE) edited by Muhammad Hisham (d. 238/833). Most ordinary Muslims, however, have learned about the Prophet at his birthday celebrations (mawlid), the commemoration of his Night Journey and Ascension, and other special gatherings. On such occasions, the virtues, physical beauty, and spiritual position of the Prophet are extolled in prose, poetry, and even ritual movement.

In the modern period, the image of the prophet Muhammad has undergone key changes in direct response to the rise of the powerful West and a corresponding decline in the material fortunes of Muslim society. From being the supreme symbol of a powerful and dominant civilization, the prophet Muhammad has had to adapt to a community embattled on all sides.

Muslim conceptions of the Prophet have also been challenged by the rise of historicocritical scholarship in the West. The relentless search for the historical Muhammad redeemed him from the vilified stereotype of Christian theology. At the same time, however, he is now viewed from an array of critical, often reductionist, perspectives; instead of being a Christian impostor, he was now a psychopath or a mere product of the material forces of seventh-century Arabia (Saunders, 1954).

These new developments in modern scholarship have influenced the new images constructed within the Muslim community by Muslims at the crossroads between the West and traditional Islam. It is these scholars who have refashioned the older images of the Prophet and produced new ones that have gradually affected ordinary Muslims’ perceptions of the last Prophet of Islam. There are at least three identifiable images in modern Islamic thought: the universalization of the Prophet as a unique model of civilization in Muslim apologetic; the Prophet as a model of sociopolitical ideologies; and the deemphasis of the Prophet as the supreme spiritual font and presence.

The “universalization” of the prophet Muhammad begins with the modernist reformers at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. The works of Syed Ameer Ali (Spirit of Islam: A History of the Evolution and Ideals of Islam, i 890), and Muhammad Husayn Haykal (Hayat Muhammad, 1935) are representative examples of modernist castings of the Prophet. In their hands, he becomes the ideal personality manifesting the values of modern civilization (Waugh, 1985, p. 53). They used the Prophet Muhammad to claim the values they admired in the powerful West. This resulted in numerous volumes of apologetic in response to both the Christian theological images of the Prophet and the historicocritical theories of Western scholars.

Haykal’s work discloses the mechanism of this universal and apologetic image of the Prophet. Haykal’s decision to write a biography of the Prophet Muhammad was a direct response to Emile Dermenghem’s biography La Vie de Mohamet (Paris, 1928). The Egyptian novelist wanted to reproduce the latter’s favorable approach to the Prophet Muhammad in contrast to other more critical writings emerging from Europe (Smith, 1983, p. 115). In addition, Haykal was happy to blame the misrepresentations of the prophet Muhammad on the fertile imagination and uncritical scholarship of earlier Muslims, particularly the `ulama’ (Smith, pp. 14116). In this way he could freely excise or reinterpret those aspects of the Prophet’s life that were embarrassing to modern Muslims; aspects such as polygamy and slavery receive ingenious interpretations to maintain an esteemed image.

Although not all Muslims have felt the need to rebut the European image of the Prophet, there has been a general caution in approaching traditional Muslim sources. For example, Muhammed al-Nuwayhi (1970) warns against the irresponsible use of Muslim sources and appeals for a reevaluation of the Prophet on the basis of “reason” and “good will.” Not quite as modern, Shibli Nu`mani’s Sirat al-Nabi (Pakistan, 1970) also searches for a historical Muhammad without the medieval accretions.

This universalistic view was incorporated in the second image of the Prophet as a model for sociopolitical development which received greater attention by Muslims during the period of nationbuilding, ranging from the struggles for independence to the call for an Islamic state. This image deemphasizes the apologetic of the early modernists. Now, however, there rages a battle over the particular ideology that the Prophet championed.

Muhammad Iqbal rejected the idea of nationalism within the particular Islamic notions of commitment and universality in Muhammad’s teachings. At the same time, however, he speaks of the ummah (Muslim community) inheriting the function and responsibility of the Prophet. This then become the basis of a special “Islamic nationalism” witnessed in, for example, the Islamic state of Pakistan (Schimmel, 1962, pp. 124-125). Later, under the impact of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s socialist experiment in Egypt, the prophet Muhammad was seen as a socialist revolutionary in Muhammad Sharqawi’s Muhammad rasul al-hurriyyah (Muhammad, the Prophet of Freedom, 1962). This sociopolitical image has reached its climax in the work of Zakaria Bashier. In his Sunshine at Madinah (Leicester, 1990), Bashier deals mainly with the evolution of the state in the Prophet’s time. It is an outstanding reflection of revivalist Islam’s quest for an Islamic state.

The universal and sociopolitical images of the Prophet are accompanied by the suppression of his spiritual significance. Under the modern reformulations the Prophet loses his central spiritual station in material reality. Earlier modernists did in fact emphasize a hazy moral and spiritual legacy of the Prophet in the service of their secularist project. Under these conditions, however, the Prophet is granted spirituality on condition that he depart from the center stage of history.

In spite of the numerous biographies by Muslims in this century, then, there lurks a deep question about the religious presence of the Prophet. It is not surprising that the rise of the Ahmadiyah (Qadianis), who accepted Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908) as a new Prophet, accompanied strong modernist inclinations. Some Muslim thinkers have expressed this deep malaise in artistic form. Iqbal, for example, spoke of the Prophet as supreme doubter; he even suggested that the belief in the finality of the prophet Muhammad carries the seed of its “own abolition.” The Egyptian playwright Nagib Mahfouz (Najib Mahfuz) also addressed the issue in Awldd haratind (The People of Our Quarter, 1959), an allegorical account of religion and the end of religion, including Islam, in modern times.

Finally, these modern images have had an effect on the perception of the Prophet among ordinary Muslims participating in the birthday celebrations (mawlid), Night Journey and Ascension commemorations, and other gatherings. The image of the Prophet as the universal political hero takes its place alongside his presence as the spiritual center of the universe. More progressively, there is some evidence that the nature of the traditional patterns persists in modern reformulations. Both Tapper (1987) and Antoun (The Muslim Preacher, 1989, pp. 219-229) have shown the spread of the Prophet’s image as a rational statesmen building a nation for the marginalized Muslims of the world.


Nuwayhi, Muhammad al-. “Towards a Re-Evaluation of the Muham-. mad: Prophet and Man.” Muslim World 6o (1970): 300-313. A plea by a recent Muslim modernist on the image of the Prophet.

Saunders, John J. “Mohammed in Europe: A Note on Western Interpretations of the Life of the Prophet.” History 39 (1954) 14-25. Concise account of Western interpretations of the Prophet, including the period after the emergence of historico-critical thought. Schimmel, Annemarie. “The Place of the Prophet of Islam in Iqbal’s Thought.” Islamic Studies 1.4 (1962): 111-130. Excellent analysis of the rich repertoire of images in Iqbal’s thought.

Schimmel, Annemarie. And Muhammad Is His Messenger. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1985. Exhaustive compendium of prophetic imagery in Muslim religious life.

Smith, Charles D. Islam and the Search for Social Order in Modern Egypt: A Biography of Muhammad Husayn Haykal. Albany, N.Y., 1983. Comprehensive account of the background and nature of the most widespread biography of the Prophet.

Tapper, Nancy, and Richard Tapper. “The Birth of the Prophet: Ritual and Gender in Turkish Islam.” Man 22 (1987): 69-92. Analyses of the gender differentiation of contemporary prophetic images in Turkey.

Waugh, Earle H. “Images of Muhammad in the Work of Iqbal: Tradition and Alteration.” History of Religions 23.2 (November 1983): 156-168. Analysis of how a modernist changes the traditional images of the Prophet.

Waugh, Earle H. “The Popular Muhammad: Models in the Interpretation of an Islamic Paradigm.” In Approaches to Islam in Religious Studies, edited by Richard Martins, pp. 41-58. Tucson, 1985. Excellent use of models for understanding the changing interpretation of Prophet among Muslims.

Wessels, Antonie. “Modern Biographies of the Life of the Prophet Muhammad.” Islamic Culture 49 (1975): 99-105. Focuses on the biographies of the Prophet in the Arab world.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/muhammad/

  • writerPosted On: August 18, 2014
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