The Sira literature contains various Muslim biographies of the Prophet Muhammad (570 – 632 AD) penned between 713 and 761 AD. Alongside the Koran and Hadiths, the Sira is said to hold historical information on Muhammad with much of this information being stories of military expeditions led by him and his companions. The Sira includes assignments of officials, military enrolments, messages to foreign rulers, and several of Muhammad’s speeches. It has also, within Muslim scholarly circles throughout Islamic history, played second fiddle to the Hadiths (1). However, today Muslim apologists, especially within the west, have been seen to defend the evidential value of the Sira (2).
The historical value of the Sira leaves much to be desired. For example, scholars have questioned the historical value of some of the Sira literature, especially that of Hassan ibn Thabit’s, because of the use of poetry commemorating certain events and battles (3). How historical the details of such narratives are, for example, remains uncertain. Some parts of the Sira literature elaborate on events mentioned in the Koran. This elaboration was developed precisely to give the Koran a kind of back-story and thus does not independently confirm the Koran’s veracity. Further, the time gap between Muhammad’s life and the writings of the earliest Sira text (the Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah) is a century or more (4). This gap makes it quite late as a witness to the historical Muhammad. Scholar Sherwin White used the Greek historian Herodotus as a study to test the tempo of myth-making. 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 narrative. White found that “two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition” (5). Beyond this (two generations equaling 70 years (6)), however, embellishments may become a cause for concern. This suggests that when it comes to the Sira literature (100 years and more removed from Muhammad), the only texts that purport to chronicle Muhammad’s life in detail, they lose a fair amount of historical value.
1. Raven, W. 1997. “SĪRA” in the Encyclopaedia of Islam (2nd edition). p. 660–663.
2. Raven, W. 1997. Ibid.
3. Raven, W. 1997. Ibid.
4. Wood, D. Historical Muhammad: The Good, Bad, Downright Ugly. Available.
5. White, S. 2004. Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. p. 190.
6. Komarnitsky, K. 2013. Myth Growth Rates and the Gospels: A Close Look at A.N. Sherwin-White’s Two-Generation Rule. Available.