The primary source for Islamic doctrine is the Koran, however, the Koran is not a biographical text. This means that it tells us very little about the historical Muhammad. In its final form, as we have it now, it was not completed and collected until many years after his death. Prior to its completion it was based primarily on oral communication and brief written records. Though the Koran refers to Muhammad numerous times we have very little in the way of biographical information on him, according to David Wood, “the Qur’an is not biographical in nature, and it tells us practically nothing about Muhammad,” and to “learn about Muhammad, we must turn to other sources – the Hadith and the Sira literature” (1).
The Hadith sources are collections of sayings and deeds of Muhammad (2). Muslim scholars often regard the Hadith sources to be important for understanding the Koran, especially since the Hadith writers aimed to describe what Muslims should do in any given situation by example of their prophet. These sources were only gathered into collections in the 8th and 9th centuries thus making them quite late given that Muhammad died in 632 AD. Many scholars likewise question the authenticity of the Hadith’s as authoritative sources for learning about Muhammad (3), as Bernard Lewis, Professor of Near Eastern Studies, explains:
“The collection and recording of Hadith did not take place until several generations after the death of the Prophet. During that period the opportunities and motives for falsification were almost unlimited” (4).
However, the Sira authors, on the other hand, attempted to chronicle wider accounts of the life of Muhammad which gives them a similar feeling to biographies. However, the time gap between Muhammad’s life and the writings of the Sira texts is substantial, according to Wood, “Here we encounter a significant problem for our historical investigation. The primary Hadith collections were written more than two centuries after Muhammad’s death, and even the earliest extant Sira work (Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah) comes from more than a century after the life of Muhammad (and Muslims themselves typically reject this source)” (5). In agreement with Wim Raven argues that it is not possible to sketch a coherent historical portrait of Muhammad from the Sira literature (6).
The implications of this are troublesome for the historian because it means there are no historical sources of any detail on Muhammad’s life that fall within a century, and no source trusted by the majority of Muslims within two centuries. Wood explains that “Such a time gap calls much of Muhammad’s life into question, and some scholars hold that we can know virtually nothing about him,” but Wood’s maintains that we shouldn’t “be quite this skeptical” (7).
For the purposes of this article it is worth noting that according to scholar Sherwin White we can use the Greek historian Herodotus to test the tempo of myth-making. The point being is that the longer the gap of time between purported historical events and the texts in which they are detailed is, the more chance that myth and unhistorical data can impugn the text. White found, upon studying the life of Herodotus, that “two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition” (8). Beyond this (two generations equaling +- 70 years), however, embellishments may become a cause for concern. This suggests that when it comes to the Sira literature (200 years removed from Muhammad), the only texts that purport to chronicle Muhammad’s life in detail, they become questionable. This is not to deny that there would be a historical nucleus within the literature itself.
However, concerning the basic fact of Muhammad’s existence the Islamic historian Patricia Cone argues that there is “irrefutable proof” that Muhammad was a historical figure (9). Likewise the historian Michael Cook believes that historical evidence “precludes any doubts as to whether Muhammad was a real person” (10). Although one can be confident that this is established one may tend to be less comfortable on any detailed analysis of the historical Muhammad’s life.
1. Wood, D. Historical Muhammad: The Good, Bad, Downright Ugly. Available.
2. Brown, J. 2009. Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World.
3. Hallaq, W. 1999. “The Authenticity of Prophetic Ḥadîth: A Pseudo-Problem” in Studia Islamica. p. 75–90.
4. Lewis, B. 1967. The Arabs in history. p. 37.
5. Wood, D. Ibid.
6. Raven, W. 1997. “SĪRA” in Encyclopaedia of Islam 9 (2nd ed.). p. 660-3.
7. Wood, D. Ibid.
8. White, S. 2004. Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. p. 190.
9. Cook, M. 1983. Muhammad. p. 73-76.
10. Crone, P. 2008. What do we actually know about Mohammed? Available.