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The Classical Biography (Sira) Of the Prophet Is More of a Story than a Historical Record – It Is a Highly Embellished History


By Muhammad Yunus, New Age Islam

Co-author (Jointly with Ashfaque Ullah Syed), Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009

The caption may greatly shock and disturb all Muslims as the Sira of the Prophet plays a very important role in Islam and raising a question mark on its authenticity is like questioning the very essence of their religion. However, greater shock is in store for them if they deny the fact that the Sira contains materials that a Western scholar can piece together to project the Prophet of Islam as “a man that slaughtered captives, robbed caravans, sold women and children into slavery, had sexual relations with captive women, tortured prisoners, married a nine-year-old, forced his adopted son to divorce his wife so Muhammad could have her as a wife, mandated war against non-Muslims, and who had some of his critics and rivals assassinated [1]. Drawing on the Sira, another Western scholar writes: “The examples and command of the Prophet, critics believe, have left a terrible legacy for Islam and cast a lurid light on the history of that religion. Time and again we read accounts on how the enemies of Islam were slain without mercy. And often the victors first inflicted atrocious penalties – lopping off limbs, gouging off eyes, cutting off tongues, noses, ears, fingers, hands, feet, testicles, and disembowelling not only with knives but with instruments first made red hot over fire” [2].

The truth is, in the backdrop of recent explosive growth of Islam critical scholarship and anti-Islam campaign, the veneration of the Sira with all its embellishments and accretions as an authentic religious discourse, purports to appropriate cunning, barbarism and immorality in Islam. This, in turn feeds the frustration of critical and rational Muslims against their faith, fuels the ongoing internal war in Islam and grievously damages the image of Islam to the detriment of the global Muslim community. Besides, it increases the religious sensitivity of the Muslims against blasphemous materials rooted in the Sira. They feel ashamed, insulted and outraged as they perceive them as an attack on their religion and cannot ignore them as purely hatemongering stuff. This may also feed the recent trend of periodic outburst of violence and mayhem in the Muslim world, every time a writer, publisher, cartoonist, film producer or anyone aspiring to get rich and popular in the easiest way produces a historically simulated material on Islam that reeks of blasphemy. Hence, the Muslim scholarship must bite the bullet, call a spade a spade, a story a story. If it turns story into theology, i) it overturns Islam from a religion of peace to a cult of violence, ii) overshadows the expansive, liberating and energizing notion of the greater jihad (25:52) by a highly restrictive and violent ideology to kill opponents regardless of religion; iii) brings shame, disgrace, division and anarchy to the Muslims, iv) fans the ongoing clash of civilization and v) most grievously pins down a segment of Islamic scholarship to only those few cryptic verses of the Qur’an that can be speculatively interpreted to malign the Prophet, and to those aspects of the Sira that project him as the antithesis of the Qur’anic title, rahmat al lil ‘alamin (21:107). Ironically, an obsessive appeal for the slanderous elements of the Sira virtually blinds the renegade section of its intelligentsia to the noble aspects of the Prophet’s persona as testified by the Qur’an, and instead of leaving faith, they like the Munafiqun of Medina, cling to it but vociferously campaign and conspire against it polluting and stagnating the horizon of intellectual scholarship in Islam, and holding it back from any forward march. Hence this piece of ijtihad on the back of the Qur’an.          

Historical Accuracy of the Qur’anic Text.

As a first premise it must be understood, the Qur’an was recorded in full light of history – that is, it was memorized by the Huffaz, recorded on the suhuf (indigenous writing materials) ‘which were held in reverence’ (80:11-16), and recited in public at the same moment in history. Therefore, those of its records that pertain to the existential aspects of his mission - like the glimpses of armed encounters, the allusions to the different aspects of his personal life and behavior, his treatment of his enemies and those who defied and conspired against him, and his conjugal matters must be necessarily true. If the revelation contained anything false, untrue, forged or fabricated relating to contemporaneous issues that his audience could readily verify, their suspicion of his being an impostor (30:58), insane (44:14, 68:51), insane poet (37:36), forger of lies (34:8, 34:43, 38:4), and fabricator of tales (11:13, 32:3, 38:7, 46:8) would have been confirmed, and the Prophet’s claim to the revelation would have been falsified. But this never happened. To the contrary, in spite of immense and unrelenting opposition from his powerful enemies, he continued to win converts.   

Furthermore, the Qur’an projects itself as a discourse of immense weight and significance (33:72). It declares that it was not up to Muhammad to alter the revelation in any way (10:15), and vehemently dismisses any notion of a mortal corrupting its text. Its following warning to the Prophet in the wake of community pressure to accommodating their deities in the revelation best reflects its concern and seriousness to ensuring the integrity of its text:

“If he (Muhammad) attributed to Us any false speech (69:44), We would seize him by the right hand (45), then We would sever his aorta (46) and none of you could prevent it (69:47).

As the Prophet’s followers virtually venerated him, the gravity of this warning, however symbolic it may be, heightened their spiritual consciousness to ensuring the integrity of the revealed passages as they memorized and recorded them. The passage also stands out as a loud and living testimony to the divinity of the Qur’an. Had Muhammad authored the Quran, he could never put in that passage, as no writer can ever claim to stick word for word to a running discourse he is evolving over a long and uncertain span of time, as was the case with the revelation.

Could the Qur’anic text be edited or modified during the twenty years that elapsed before the first authenticated text was compiled?

As there was a gap of some twenty years between the conclusion of the Qur’anic revelation (5:3) towards the end of the Prophet’s life (632) and the preparation of Uthman’s authenticated text, theoretically there remains a possibility of at least a marginal alteration or tampering in the interim period as has been voiced by some quarters based on various hadith accounts. But human memory, particularly in relation to a rhythmic narration as the Qur’an, gets indelibly engraved in the brain. It can fade over time but unlike a written record, it cannot lend itself to a partial deletion or corruption without any detection by the memorizer. In the case of the Qur’an, the huffaz (the memorizers) must have been reciting the Qur’an regularly through those 20 years as any hafiz does this very day. So, there is absolutely no likelihood for any of them to corrupt or forget any word or verse of the Qur’an. Hence, as John Burton, a renowned scholar of Islam confirms: “The text which has come down to us in the form in which it was organized and approved by the Prophet ….What we have today in our hands, is the mushaf (manuscript) of Muhammad.” [3] Maxime Rodinson, yet another distinguished biographer of the Prophet of this era records that the Qur’an “does provide a firm basis of undoubted authenticity. [4]  Thus, the Qur’anic records, as we have to this day, of the social, moral and political setting of the revelation, and its references to contemporaneous events and the personal life and behaviour of the Prophet must be necessarily true.

The Early Biographic Accounts (Sira) of the Prophet.

 Ibn Ishaq (d. 151/768) is regarded the as first biographer of the Prophet, who is reported to have pieced together his manuscript about 125 years after the Prophet’s death. His only source material, however, was the oral accounts in circulation transmitted down the generations from the Prophet’s era. But these accounts were left mostly by popular poets who excelled in creating compelling poetic imageries, rather than leaving hard facts for the posterity. The manuscript was edited and published by Ibn Hisham (d. 218/834) around the close of the 2nd century of Islamic calendar. Practically all scholars in the subsequent centuries used this work, or any of its versions that came to their hands, as the primary source material on the Prophet’s personal life and mission. However, the work has some graves limitations:

i. All events, as well as dialogues (between the Prophet and his disciples) are based entirely on verbal accounts, originating from one or a few individuals, traced back to the Prophet’s lifetime through a chain of oral transmitters. So they must have inevitably been embellished and distorted as happens with all oral accounts passing from mouth to mouth down a historical timeframe. .  

ii. It was compiled in an era when myth and fantasy dominated human mind, and narrators turned simple events into legends through, what we shall today call, gross exaggeration and bizarre embellishment. Thus, quoting from contemporaneous sources, i) King Solomon is reported to have bedded with all his one hundred wives one night [5], and ii) Sir Key of King Arthur’s court is described to have thrown a stone ‘as large as a cow’ to dislodge the ‘stranger’, who had leaped up to the top of a tree, two hundred cubits high in a single bound [6].

iii.  The work inevitably suffered internal incoherence as different poets left differing accounts and it was simply impossible for the early biographers to produce a coherent record from the materials on their hands. Thus quoting from Ibn Hisham’s work:

·         One section of the work shows a martyred companion of the Prophet, Khabib, articulating his deep parting emotions in a poetic imagery as he stood on the gallows just before he was hanged [7]. Another section contradicts this imagery suggesting that the martyr was weeping unceasingly as he stood on the gallows [8].

·         The work quotes the parting dialogue between the propagandist poet Ka‘b Ibn Ashraf and his wife, just as he was coming out from ‘under the blanket’ at the call of Abu Naila, who had gone to his house to kill him [9]. The poet was killed suddenly, and it is inconceivable that his widow would even remember, let alone tell the parting words of her husband slain moments later to those who killed him. The quoted words were obviously speculative.

Taking all these factors into account, it will be a grievous error to regard the work of Ibn Ishaq as an historical document. The same holds for the works of al-Waqidi (d. 206/822) and Ibn Sa‘d (d. 230/845) In fact, these early biographers have been sharply criticized by many Muslim scholars of their own era [10].

Pernicious impact of early accounts on modern scholarship.

Through constant repetition down the centuries, the works of the early biographers of the Prophet have become part of the institutional history. Thus, the modern scholarship on the Prophetic mission is virtually laden with materials that, in today’s objective vocabulary, can be termed speculative, imaginative, exaggerated and even legendary and not supported by the Qur’an as illustrated below.

i.  There are scores of reports about miracles attending the birth of the Prophet, his childhood and the later years of his life, though the Qur’an repeatedly attests to the Prophet’s incapability to showing any miracles (6:37, 11:12, 13:7, 17:90-93, 21:5, 25:7/8, 29:50), while asserting that the literary grandeur (2:23/24, 17:88, 52:34), inimitability (10:37/38, 11:13, 52:33) and the inter-consistency (4:82, 18:1, 39:23, 39:38) of the Qur’an were the proofs of its miraculous nature.

ii. Three Qur’anic verses have been subjected to virtually endless speculations to spin colourful stories about the Prophet’s marriage with Zainab bin Jash (33:37) and to fabricate divergent reports on his ‘vision,’ (17:1, 17:60). The following extract on the Prophet Muhammad’s conversation with Adam in the first heaven that combines the twin themes loudly testifies to its apocryphal character:

“Then I saw men with lips like those of camels. In their hands were balls of fire which they thrust into their mouths and collected from their extremities to thrust into their mouths again. I asked, ‘Who are these O Gabriel?’ He said, ‘these are men who robbed the orphans.’ I then saw men with large bellies the likes of which I have never seen before even on the road to the house of Pharaoh where the greatest punishment is meted out to the greatest sinners. These are then trodden upon by men who when brought to the fire run like maddened camels. Those whom they tread upon remain immobile…. I then saw women hanging from their breasts and asked, who are these, O Gabriel? He said, ‘These are women who fathered on their husbands’ children, not their own.’… He then took me into Paradise where I saw a beautiful damsel with luscious lips. As I was attracted by her, I asked her, ‘To whom do you belong?’ She answered, ‘To Zayd Ibn Harithah.’” [11]      

iii. In their effort to lionize the Prophet, the biographers down the centuries have drawn on the various versions of the Prophet’s Sira to describe the Prophet as an epitome of all human qualities they thought most befitting of their Prophet such as the first Light that God created [12], paragon of nobility, a political and military genius par excellence and a prodigal strategist and manipulator of events, though the Qur’an affirms that he was not a man of importance from the two cities (43:31), and that all his life prior to the revelation he had not drawn any attention of the community for commanding brilliance in any field (10:16, 12:3, 42:52) – except that he was known to being faithful to his trust (amin, 81:21)  

iv. Then there is the story of the Satanic verses: the Prophet allegedly uttering verses venerating the chief pagan deities under Satanic influence, and later expunging them from the Qur’an [13]. Down the centuries, this story (summary in the footnote) has been picked up by the Prophet’s critics to challenge his integrity and genuineness, and has triggered extensive research by Muslim scholars to proving its fictitious nature. The obvious thing is, had there been an iota of truth in the story, that is timed at an early stage of the revelation, the shrewd Quraysh (the Prophet’s Meccan enemies) as well as Muhammad’s followers would have seen a charlatan in him and dismissed him outright as a false prophet and his name and mission would have been lost into oblivion.

v. Then there is the traditional account of the background of the Badr expedition, projecting the Prophet as a raider of a home coming Meccan trading caravan, rich with merchandise, passing by Medina’s neighbourhood. This also contradicts the Qur’anic records. The verse 8:5 that captures the mindset of the Prophet’s followers as he left home (Medina) states ‘fariqam minal mumina likahirun:’ ‘a faction of the believers were averse to it;’ while the verse 8:7 attests that the Prophet’s followers did not know whether they were heading for the trading caravan or fully fledged army. Had the Prophet left Medina to raid the caravan, his followers would have been enthusiastic about the mission, rather than averse to it.

vi. Last but not the least, there is a propensity to projecting the Prophet as a ruthless person when it comes to dealing with enemies. Thus on the strength of Ibn Ishaq, Maxime Rodinson cites the examples of vindictive killing of five named persons [14] and the massacre of some eight hundred to nine hundred adults of Banu Qurayzah Jewish tribe at the Prophet’s command [15]. It is indeed anybody’s guess whether the Prophet gave his consent for the elimination of the poets as reported by Ibn Ishaq. Even otherwise, the incidents are reported out of historical context and proportion, and are sprinkled with vindictiveness that was alien to the Prophet’s temperament as testified by the Qur’an. As for the Banu Qurayzah, the Qur’an does record that some of them were slain, some were taken captive, and their lands and houses and goods were seized (33:26/27). However, the figure quoted by Ibn Ishaq, appears grossly exaggerated on the following grounds.

·         Ibn Ishaq describes the alleged massacre in a cursory manner in a small paragraph, furnishes only four names: three males and one female against this alleged massacre of some eight hundred to nine hundred people.

·         There is no evidence of any poet, Muslim or Jewish, referring to this event of allegedly mass killing, which must have been the first of its kind in the entire history of Arabs, as traditionally the victors took captives and refrained from any mass or major killing.

·         There is no reference of this alleged massacre in any of the subsequent agreements with the Jewish communities, settled in other parts of Arabia.         

·         Only sixty-three horses are mentioned as the booty from this affair. If indeed the entire adult community of some eight to nine hundred men and women were slaughtered, an enormous amount of gold and cash, and a few thousands of minor captives would have come to the hands of the Muslims; but, there is no reference at all of any such enormous booty or captives. 

·         Had the alleged massacre taken place, Muslim rulers in the subsequent generations would have wiped the entire Jewish community out of the Islamic world. But this did not happen. On the contrary, the Jews were protected and supported in the Islamic world.

·         As reported by Rafiq Zakaria, quoting Barakat Ahmad: “It is not normal for Jews not to record their misfortunes. There is no mention of this massacre in Samuel Usque’s book, A Consolidation for the Tribulations of Israel, third Dialogue, which is a classic of Jewish martyriology [16].

In view of all these compelling considerations, taking the figures quoted by Ibn Ishaq on its face value will be as fallacious as many other figures left by Muslim historians. Al-Khatib boasted of some 27,000 public baths in the days al-Muqtadir (908-32), and even 60,000 in other times; but ibn-Battutah, who visited Baghdad in 1327, found two to three baths in each of the thirteen quarters that constituted the western side of the city [17].   

In sum, there are many speculative and legendary reports in the classical biography of the Prophet that are no more than embellishments, parables and conjectures, and must be treated as such. The most accurate insight on the life of the Prophet and his mission can only be obtained from the Qur’an and that is preserved until eternity in its pages and captured in a recent article [18].

The truth is, as in all ancient religions, theological discourses are embedded with legends, fantasies, fables, tales, parables and all forms of embellishments, characterized by the era in which they evolved. The embellishments were incorporated as part of the literary culture and paradigms of the era - to aggrandize and lionize the founder of the religion and its leaders, to demonize the perceived enemies, to fire the imagination of common-folk and to fill them with awe and admiration for their prophet/ religious leaders. Islam has been no exception. The only exception is that all major religions have, for all practical purposes, leapfrogged the theological phase of their faiths and are now focusing on the core and universal message intrinsic to their faiths as required by the today’s globalised high paced world. But the Muslims are tenaciously clinging to their theological roots and turning a blind eye to the core, universal and humanistic trajectories of their faith, which fortunately for them, is preserved in the Qur’an. As a result, they are going round and round like the oxen of a medieval oil Mill – in the poetic imagery of Altaf Hussain Hali [19], debating exactly the same thing century after century and never moving forward – as polemics overwhelm the mind and prevent any advancement of thoughts. It is therefore high time for the Muslims to focus on the universal dimensions of their faith and shift their theological disciplines to the margins of their religious thoughts so as not to lose their bearing by the crooked machinations of the knave.      


1.     Andrew J. Stanch, American Lawyer, in his posting April 01, 2010, in under, John Esposito’s book, Future of Islam.

2.     Benjamin Walker, Foundation of Islam, The Making of a World Faith, Peter Owen Publishers, U.K. p. 316.].

3.     John Burton, The Collection of the Qur’an, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1977, p.239/240.].

4.     Maxime Rodinson, Muhammad, English translation, 2nd edition, London 1996, p.x [Foreword].

5.     Sahih al-Bukhari, (23 above), Vol.7, Acc. 169.

6.     Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, USA 1988, p. 23.

7.     Ibn Hisham, Sirrat un Nabi, Urdu translation by Gholam Rasul, Delhi 1984, Vol.2, Chap.124, p. 197.

8.     Ibid., Vol. 2, Chap.124, p. 198.

9.     Ibid,, Vol.2, p. Chap.109, p. 35.

10.   To quote Rafique Zakaria:

“He (Ibn Ishaq) has been sufficiently meticulous in the collection of facts, but sometimes he does not distinguish between facts and fiction. That is why many of his contemporaries denounced him... Malik, one of the founders of four schools of Muslim theology, who was a contemporary of Ibn Ishaq, called him ‘a devil’. Hisham bin Umara, another prominent theologian of the time said, ‘the rascal lies.’ Imam Hanbal, one of the greatest jurists of Islam refused to rely on the traditions collected by him. There were many other learned men who held similar views about Ibn Ishaq’s works. The same is more or less true of his successors like al-Waqidi, Ibn Sa‘d…” - Muhammad and the Qur’an, London 1992, p. 12.

11.   Muhammad Husayn Haykal, The Life of Muhammad, English translation by Ismail Ragi, 8th edition, Karachi 1989, p. 143.

12.   Maxime Rodinson, Muhammad, English translation, 2nd edition, London 1996, p. 304.

13.   Tradition related by Ibn Ishaq (d. 151/768) in his original manuscript, and reported by al-Tabari (d. 313/926) suggests that as the Prophet was preaching to a Quraysh audience, he followed up the recitation of the verses 53:19/20 with the following underlined words venerating three most popular pagan deities:  

"Have you considered al-Lat and al-‘Uzza (53:19), and another, the third (goddess), Manat (53:20)". These are the exalted birds whose intercession is approved.”

The story further suggests that these (underlined) words were later expunged from the Qur'an and replaced with what we find in the Qur'an today:

“What! For you the male sex and for Him the female (53:21)? Behold, such would indeed be the most unfair division” (53:22).

Ibn Hisham (d. 218/834) omitted this episode in his final edited version and the compilers of the traditions make no mention of it, indicating that Ibn Hisham and his contemporaries must have been suspect of its genuineness. Some Muslim scholars have, however, accepted the episode on the basis of the Qur’anic verses 22:52/53, but the latter relate to Satan influencing the desires (tamanna) of the prophets and messengers in general and not about Satan tampering with the revelation. Therefore, the connection is untenable.

14.   The reported vindictive killings were:

·         The Jewish poetess Asma bint Marwan of Banu Khatama, slain while asleep by ‘Umair Ibn ‘Adi.’a

·         The poet Abu Afak, killed while asleep by Salim Ibn ‘Umayr.b

·         The poet Ka‘b Ibn al-Ashraf, killed by his foster brother in a secret meeting, and then the latter carried his severed head to the Prophet and threw it at his feet.c

·         Sufian Ibn Khalid, the head of Banu Lihyan tribe, killed in a very conspiratorial manner while asleep, and his severed head, carried by Abdullah and flung at the feet of the Prophet, who was pleased at this.d  

- Maxime Rodinson, Muhammad, English translation, 2nd edition, London 1996, p.171 [a], 172 [b], 176 [c], 189 [d].

15.   Ibid., p. 213.

16.   Rafiq Zakaria, Muhammad and the Qur’an, London 1992, p.36.

17.   Philip K.Hitti, History of the Arabs, 1937, 10th edition; London 1993, p. 338

18.   The Noble persona of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as mirrored in the Qur’an

19.   “They are no better than the oxen of the Oil Mills – They tread all their life, but stay where they are.” Altaf Hussain Hali, madd-u-jazare islam - 235th stanza

 Oct.05, 2012.

Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.