HOW DO WE know about the life story of the Final Messenger of Allah, Muhammad ﷺ? How do we know if the stories we know are accurate? Especially when it is a generally accepted fact by the scholars that much fabricated material (ḥadîth as well as sîrah) was added to the correct and straightforward accounts, how can we tell which accounts are right or more probable than others?
Finally, there is a third risk, which is to consider every detail of what was said and done in the past by our predecessors perfect and unquestionable—thus stop thinking critically and stop acting to change our condition. A reasonably accurate understanding of, and balanced approach to, our Islamic history and tradition, therefore, is necessary for us to live Islam correctly and share it with others—as is our mission as the Muslim Ummah.
Why the Prophet’s Words and Deeds Were Preserved
Words and deeds of any great man become a matter of curiosity and pride for his successor generations. And there is a complete consensus of scholars, Muslim and non-Muslim, that no man in history—conqueror or saint, prophet or teacher—has exercised the influence and commanded the love and respect as the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ did. Naturally, the information about him and connection to him must have been a prized possession to the generations following him.
Equally important to consider in understanding his impact is that the Message he brought explicitly required its preservation, and the proactive attitude towards life he preached made his followers take action to guard their interests and not to passively leave things for Allah to do. Allah had promised in His book,
It is We who revealed this Reminder, and We shall surely guard it. [Sûrat Al-Ḥijr, 15:9]
So several mechanisms came into play that aided an accurate and meticulous recording not only of the Quran but also of the context in which it was revealed.
On a moral and ethical level, Islam emphasized the virtues of truthfulness and integrity and warned its followers against exaggeration, particularly in the matter of the Prophet’s figure—lest they turn their love for him into idolatry in the way that the Christians did for Jesus. On a technological level, literacy and writing were actively encouraged and praised by the Quran and the Prophet. On a social and cultural level, the habits of critical evaluation of reports and news were highly emphasized [Sûrat Al- Ḥujarât, 49:6].
In short, the coming of the Quran had fundamentally transformed Arabian society (particularly in Madinah) —from a pagan, parochial, indulgent, and narrow-minded culture with little sense of history and little regard for accuracy and truth– to a monotheistic, universal, God-loving and God-fearing culture with a tremendous sense of God’s favor and a tremendous concern for the truth. The Quran bears witness to this change in those around the Prophet:
Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah and those who are with him are strong against Unbelievers, (but) compassionate amongst each other. You see them bow and prostrate themselves (in salah), seeking Grace from Allah and (His) Good Pleasure. On their faces are their marks, (being) the traces of their prostration… [Sûrat Al-Fatḥ, 48:29]
But the first century of Islam was also tainted by many a sedition, turmoil and civil war—the causes of which have been attributed to a number of reasons, ranging from lust for power and revival of tribal rivalries of pre-Islamic jahiliyya to conspiracies of the new religion’s many enemies. After the first thirty years’ rule of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, which was marked by justice, shûra (consultation) and piety, came the rule of the Umayyad which soon degenerated into a dynastic kingship based on the habits of pre-Islamic Arab tribalism. The tribal rivalries of the northern tribes –that had existed since before Islam, and were kept in check by the piety, justice and administrative policies of Abû Bakr and Umar– began to be revived and aggravated during the time of the Caliph ‘Uthman, and further worsened during the Ali-Mu’awiya conflict and the eventual ascension to power of the Umayyad. The elitism, parochialism, and anti-Alid tenor of the Umayyad led to increasing anti-Umayyad feeling, especially in the two newly established Iraqi cities of Kufa and Basra—which were inhabited primarily by the Azdi Arab tribes (of northern Arabia— including those regions that had apostatized during Abû Bakr’s Caliphate). Madinah, the city of the Prophet, no longer the seat of Caliphate since the time of Ali, remained relatively isolated from these political upheavals, and its scholars remained devoted to the legacy of the Prophet. Another important region at the time marked by great cultural legacy was southern Arabia— Yemen.
Within the first century and a half of the beginning of Islam, three distinct traditions of historical writing came into being:
- Madinan School: Ḥadîth (Maghâzi and Sîrah)
- Iraqi School: Tribal partisan Lore (known for Ayyâm Al-ʿArab— glorifying the pre-Islamic events and victories)
- Yemeni Approach: Folklore and Biblical Narratives (Isrâ’îliyyât)
The Madinan School was focused on developing knowledge about Islam—in the form of reports about the Prophet’s life and teachings (ḥadîth) and practical understanding of how to apply Islamic teachings in life (fiqh). Under the direct influence of the teachings of the Prophet, the Madinan scholarship at this time was rigorous and investigative (isnâd system), God-fearing, straightforward (lacked embellishment or exaggeration of facts). While the plain Islamic perspective prevailed in Madinah, the amṣâr (pl. of miṣr, meaning the garrison cities) of Kufa and Basra were home to the tribal influence and conflicting currents that were now turning into an established tradition. The advantage of this tradition was that it provided the tribal background and pre-Islamic Arab poetry necessary to fully understand the context and language of the Qur’an for later scholars and interpreters; the disadvantage was that the tribal historians may have selectively presented or exaggerated certain accounts for their own purposes. A third perspective, which later influenced both, was from Yemen, particularly that of the famous Wahb ibn Munabbih, the brother of Abû Hurairah’s student, Hammâm ibn Munabbih. Unlike his brother, Wahb collected a lot of Isrâ’îli folklore from the Biblical literature, and thus became one main conduit of Biblical influence on later Sîrah writings.
With the establishment of the Abbasid Capital Baghdad in mid-second century as the center of Islamic and scientific learning for the entire Islamic world, all of these narratives, styles and methodologies were brought together there. And while the development of isnâd criticism around this time made it possible to separate various streams of narratives, not all authors knew or applied these methods well, especially when it was a matter of ‘harmless’ exaggerations, or when one’s tribal or ethnic pride led them to do otherwise. Fortunately, as a deeper study of this period will show, careful scholars of Islam always refrained from these exaggerations and always insisted on critically evaluating any report about the Prophet. Building upon this great tradition, it remains quite possible for us to arrive at an objective account of the Sîrah of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ and the Rightly Guided Caliphs. In the next few episodes, we will inshâ’Allah explore in greater detail these various strands of historical writing during the first centuries of Islam.