Muhammad; Rereading Historical Sources

Muhammad; Rereading Historical Sources


Edited by :

Mohammadreza al-Khaghani



This work is the first in a series of books under publication by the Shiʿi Studies Department at the ICSS with the aim of making international readers more familiar with the biography and teachings of the Fourteen Infallibles.  The high status of the Prophet (s) and the Ahl al-Bayt (a) as well as the ever-increasing requirements and necessities of scholarship require continuously studying different aspects of their lives and personalities and producing updated works about them in different levels. In the compilation of this series, we have tried as much as possible to provide brief, readable accounts of the Infallibles’ lives based on reliable sources and scholarly standards.

We express our gratitude to all the colleagues who contributed to the preparation and completion of this work, especially Muhammad Reza al-Khaghani who composed and compiled the content of the book. We are grateful to Ali Tabatabai Yazdi, Muhammad Baqer Malekian, and Muhammad Reza Farahmand, who had a significant part in initiating and advancing this project in its earlier stages,

and to Hamed Fayazi for his revision of the entire work.


Sayyid Mohsen Mousawi

Director of ICSS, Qom Branch

September 2022



A Glance at the Historical Background of the Prophet’s Biography

The historical path of Islam originated with the first revelation (biʿtha) of Muḥammad b. ʿAbd Allāh (s) on Rajab 27, 610 AH (December 12, 1213) and then developed into an influential movement in its subsequent history. With the pivotal role of a Prophet connected to divine revelation, the religion of Islam began to spread from the cities of Mecca and Medina to major parts of the world at the time. The Prophet’s centrality is evident in all aspects of Islam. It was to him that the Quran as the holy scripture of Islam was revealed from God, which he was charged with the task of conveying, teaching, and explicating. Furthermore, his practice, conducts, commands and prohibitions, as well as the individual and social rulings he communicated to his followers constituted the foundation of an ethical practical guideline for Muslims throughout the history.

The Prophet’s centrality was also reflected in Islamic historiography. The pre-Islamic Arabian community, whose historiography was confined to anecdotes of its triumphs and heydays, now had a leader in whom it could take pride. The Prophet’s life thus turned into a subject worthy of being recorded and documented, a practice that came to be known as al-Sīra al-nabawiyya (the prophetical course of life). In all likelihood, the first works written about the Prophet’s life go back to the first century AH (seventh century).[1] Thereafter, Muḥammad b. Isḥāq (d. 151/768) wrote his al-Siyar wa al-maghāzī on the history of the Prophet’s life, which counts as the oldest biography of the Prophet.[2]

The Prophet’s biographies were written throughout the fifteen centuries after the initiation of the Islamic call in a variety of styles and with all sorts of motivations.[3] Given the Prophet’s pivotal role in Islam, it does not seem surprising that the history of his life attracted so much attention. What sticks out in those historical works is a political portrait of the Prophet’s life as a political leader, which is but part of the prophetical mission, brushing aside the divine, ethical, and mystical dimensions of his character. On top of that, political and theological (kalāmī) tendencies played a part in eliminating, adding to, abridging, and elaborating upon narratives of the Prophet’s life, leaving an impact on how it was portrayed. Since most of those works were written by Sunni scholars, they show obvious traces of their predilections about the issue of caliphate and other pertinent matters. Al-Masʿūdī (d. 346/956) hints at some of the theological (or denominational) biases that led to concealments or distortions of historical truths,[4] which might be illustrated by the following examples. Abān b. ʿUthmān b. ʿAffān (d. 105/723) dedicated a prophetic biography he had collected to Sulaymān b. ʿAbd al-Malik (d. 99/717) when he was the caliph’s heir apparent. After consultation with his father ʿAbd al-Malik (r. 65-86/685-705), Sulaymān ordered that the book be burned down because it addressed the virtues of al-Anṣār (the Helpers).[5] In later periods, parts of prophetic biographies continued to be censored at different levels. In the introduction of his book, Ibn Hishām (d. 213/833) makes it explicit that he eliminated part of history that “is too shameful to talk about” (yushnaʿ al-ḥadīth bih) or “offend some people.”[6] In other cases, censorships were conducted by transcribers. Marsden Jones, the editor of al-Maghāzī by al-Wāqidī (d. 207/823) says in a foreword to the book that certain manuscripts of the book censor the names of those who had fled the Battle of Uḥud by replacing them with the word fulān (a placeholder name for a person), while other sources, including Ansāb al-ashrāf[7] and Sharḥ Nahj al-balāgha[8], cite those names as quoted from al-Wāqidī’s work. He then concludes that the original manuscript of the work contained those names, which later transcribers replaced with the word fulān.[9] Another example is al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923) who, in his Tārīkh al-umam wa al-mulūk, refuses to cite the story of al-Ghadīr, which is cited in many reliable sources of hadith and history.[10]

Contemporary Sunni works on prophetic biography tend to exhibit the same approach. For instance, a major contemporary Arabic work, Ḥayāt Muḥammad, by Mohamed Hassanein Heikal (d. 2016), makes no mention of the Event of al-Ghadīr.[11]

In contrast, Shīʿī scholars have tried to produce prophetic biographies free from such political-theological biases and partialities. Early Shīʿī examples of this sort include Iʿlām al-warā bi aʿlām al-hudā by Faḍl b. al-Ḥasan al-Ṭabrisī (d. 548/1154) and Kashf al-ghumma fī maʿrifat al-aʾimma by ʿAlī b. ʿĪsā al-Irbilī (d. 692/1293).[12] Contemporary Shīʿī scholars and researchers have also produced works in Arabic and Persian, which try to portray the parts of the Prophet’s history that tended to be neglected or utterly omitted in Sunni sources due to denominational-political leanings. Although these works have effectively offered a fair picture of the Prophet’s life, they still suffer from certain shortcomings. These include failure to comply with high-standard research methods, such as proper references to first-hand sources, as well as excessive elaborations of several alternative historical accounts, which makes it onerous for the reader to obtain the outlines of Prophet Muḥammad’s life. In addition, there are other works in which the Prophet’s biography is overshadowed and marginalized by extravagant historical analyses. Some other works seek to apply issues of the day to prophetic life and practice, which nolens volens imposes their authors’ personal opinions on the history of the Prophet’s life.

Perhaps the most extensive effort to rediscover the historical portrait of the Prophet (s) in keeping with the Shīʿī intellectual and doctrinal context is the book al-Ṣaḥīḥ min sīrat al-nabī al-aʿẓam by Jaʿfar Murtaḍā al-ʿĀmilī (d. 2019). Drawing on both Sunni and Shīʿī sources of history and hadith, the work made a rare or even unparalleled endeavor to deliver the most accurate account of the Prophet’s life. Nevertheless, the work is not apt for a primary introduction to the prophetic life because of its huge length (over thirty volumes) and its predominantly analytic orientation that overshadows the core narrative of the Prophet’s life.

Things are not much better in Western works on the Prophet’s life. Western scholars went through different stages of prophetic biography as far as their approaches, sources, and writing styles are concerned. In the early stage, they viewed Muslims as threats to their territory and religion, which led them to portray the Prophet as an odious ungodly figure. This escalated to the utmost during the Crusades, and remained prevalent in Western works until about the nineteenth century. As Orientalists began to develop more acquaintance with Islam, and the West expanded its commercial ties with the East, the approach was progressively rectified. Of course, there remain traces of the pessimistic view of the Prophet (s), his practice, and Islam in the contemporary English works.[13] Overall, prophetic biography has center stage in the Western research on Islam to the point that some people believe Orientalist studies of Islamic jurisprudence and hadith were indeed intended as means of an enhanced understanding of the Prophet’s life.[14]

The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, marked a new era of Western, particularly English, writings on Prophet Muḥammad’s life. Academicians, journalists, and intellectuals embarked on writing works on Islam in general, and the Prophet in particular. To a large extent, the works evinced a positive view of the Prophet’s life.[15] As successful as they might have been in providing a balanced picture of Islam and the Prophet’s character, they nevertheless were not without drawbacks. These include failure to comply with high research standards, lack of expertise in history on the part of some authors, preponderance of fictional elements over historical authenticity, and finally failure to refer to first-hand sources.

Features of the Book

The present volume aims to overcome the above drawbacks, and to those interested in the life and practice of the Prophet, it offers a text with the following features:

A Shīʿī perspective on the prophetic life: This book presents a biography of the Prophet from a Shīʿī perspective, but this is not to say that it deviates from the standards of historical research as it tries to consider the reliable accounts cited in Sunni sources of history and hadith as well. Besides, it eschews unreliable, weak, or contradictory historical accounts. What is more, it seeks to take into account what is neglected in historical sources due to political or sectarian motivations. In this way, the book comes up with a more comprehensive and accurate picture of the Prophet’s life and character.

A text of moderate length for introduction to the Prophet’s life: Some of the works on the prophetic life provide different accounts of historical events, which might impede the goal of obtaining a general picture of the Prophet’s life and character. The present volume recapitulates various historical accounts and then yields a unified text concerning major events of the Prophet’s life, without engaging in unnecessary irrelevant details. Given its structure and size, the Prophet’s biography in this work fits academic courses on introduction to the Prophet’s life based on primary sources.

First-hand sources and proper citations in the text: There are two kinds of deficiencies in references of many of the Prophet’s biographies: failure to cite relevant sources when a citation is required, and reference to secondary sources. In the present volume, all historical accounts draw on reliable, and to the extent possible, first-hand or primary sources. It is noteworthy that, when it comes to key issues, outstanding research as well as encyclopedias and other reference books are also taken into account.

Avoidance of in-detail quotations and analyses of historical accounts: In some works on the Prophet’s life, analyses are so prevalent that they sometimes overshadow the biography. The present volume rests content with reliable historical accounts, and only when necessary, it presents brief analyses of events. In some cases, cursory analyses appear in footnotes that refer the reader to further readings. As for the dates of events, widely accepted reliable dates are mentioned, without addressing controversies over the dates.

This book is intended for a wide range of readers: Shīʿī and Sunni Muslims as well as non-Muslims who are interested in the Prophet’s life. Accordingly, the text avoids technical terminologies and uses a simple prose to enable non-experts to learn more about the history of Islam and the Prophet’s life.

The book is structured into three parts: “The Life and Practice of the Noble Prophet,” “Articles,” and “A Selection of Prophetic Hadiths.” The first is devoted to the history of the Prophet’s life, and the second paves the path for a better understanding of certain dimensions of the Prophet’s life history. The second part begins with an article titled “Sources of the Sīra of the Prophet Muḥammad (s),” in which chief sources of the Prophet’s biography are thematically classified and then briefly introduced. The article introduces over eighty major sources of history, hadith, and literature, which are helpful for research on the prophetic life. This is followed by a selection of “Glimpses of Characteristics and Demeanor of the Prophet of Islam (s)” (Sunan al-Nabī) by the late ʿAllāma Ṭabāṭabāʾī. This section addresses the Prophet’s personal and social practice as mirrored in Shīʿī sources of hadith. The next article is “The Prophet’s Role in the Formation of Islamic Theology,” which considers the Prophet’s role in expounding theological or doctrinal teachings under the five pillars or principles of the religion (monotheism, divine justice, resurrection, prophethood, and imamate). The article titled “The Companions of the Prophet (s) and Their Integrity” studies and criticizes the origins of the theory of justice or righteousness of the Prophet’s companions, offering a sketchy account of the social context of the Prophet’s era. The article “A History of the Prophet’s Mosque” depicts the history of a key place in the Islamic era, i.e. al-Masjid al-Nabawi or the Prophetic Mosque, from its origin to the present. It also addresses various parts of the mosque, which witnessed significant historical events. On the whole, the articles in this part aim to enable the readers to obtain a better understanding of the Prophet’s time. The third part is devoted to a selection of prophetic hadiths, where the Prophet’s hadiths are selected from Shīʿī sources.

In the end, I would like to express my gratitude to all my colleagues and friends who have contributed to the fruition of this work. In particular, I thank Hujjat al-Islām Dr. Sayyid Mohsen Mousavi and Dr. Hamed Fayazi for their valuable comments, and I am grateful to Hujjat al-Islam Sayyed Hashem al-Milani, the president of the center, for his kind, unwavering support.

I hope this work pleases God and the Seal of Prophets Muḥammad al-Muṣṭafā (s).

Mohammadreza al-Khaghani

May 2022



[1] A glimpse of Fuat Sezgin’s precious work reveals that people such as Saʿīd b. Saʿd b. ʿUbāda (d.?) and Sahl b. Abī Ḥathama (or Khaythama or Khathama) (d. during the reign of Muʿāwiya: 41-60/661-680) were the first to compile collections on the history of the Prophet’s life (see Sezgin, Geschichte Des Arabischen Schrifttums, 1:275-76).

[2] See al-Dhahabī, Tārīkh al-Islām, 9:13. It should be noted, however, that this account does not describe Ibn Isḥāq’s book as the first book on the Prophet’s biography, but as an independent work that is structured into parts and sections. The account points out that, prior to this work, there were unstructured or unordered (ghayr murattaba) books (ṣuḥuf) on Islamic jurisprudence, hadiths, and history.

[3] For more about the sources of the Prophet’s biography, see the paper, “Sources of Prophetic Biography,” in the second part of the present volume.

[4] Masʿūdī, al-Tanbīh wa al-ishrāf, 198.

[5] Zubayr b. Bakkār, al-Akhbār al-muwaffaqiyyāt, 331-33.

[6] Ibn Hishām, al-Sīra al-nabawiyya, 1:4.

[7] Balādhurī, Ansāb al-ashrāf, 1:326.

[8] Ibn Abī al-Ḥadīd, Sharḥ Nahj al-balāgha, 15:24.

[9] Wāqidī, Kitāb al-Maghāzī, Introduction: 18.

[10] The story of al-Ghadīr appears in historical sources before al-Ṭabarī. ʿAbd al-Ḥusayn al-Amīnī has listed the transmitters of Hadith al-Ghadīr, including the Prophet’s companions (ṣaḥāba), his companions’ companions (tābiʿūn), and Sunni scholars in different periods. Moreover, he studies written works on al-Ghadīr (Balādhurī, Ansāb al-ashrāf, 2:108-12; Yaʿqūbī, Tārīkh, 2:112; Amīnī, al-Ghadīr, 1:325-41).

[11] Haykal, Ḥayāt Muḥammad, 483-93.

[12] For a brief account of these two books, see the article “Sources of the Sīra of Prophet Muḥammad (s)” in the second part of the present volume.

[13] For more information about the history of Sīra study in the West, see Buhl et al., “Muḥammad,” EI2 7:377-88؛ Rubin, The life of Muhammad, xiii-xlvi؛ Hoyland, “Writing the Biography of the Prophet Muhammad: Problems and Solutions,” 581-602; Karimi-Nia, Sīra pajūhī dar gharb, 11-20.

[14] Motzki, Hadith, xviii-xxxiii.

[15] Ali, The Lives of Muhammad, 222.

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