The Qur’an is Islam’s authoritative sacred text believed by Muslims to have been dictated by God to the Prophet Muhammad. Our purpose in this article is not theological but historical. We wish to determine what we can know about the life and personhood of the Prophet from the Qur’an as a source.
Any attempt at constructing a biography of the Prophet from Islam’s sacred text is challenged by the fact that Qur’an was not composed in the manner of a biography. In other words, its purpose was not first and foremost to outline the daily experience, sayings, and events of the Prophet. Scholar of religion Solomon Nigosian explains that the Qur’an “tells very little about the life of Muhammad. His name is mentioned four or five times (once as Ahmad)” (1). According to Clinton Bennett,
“The Qur’an, Islam’s scripture, which (according to Islamic doctrine) Muhammad received, portion by portion, from 610 CE onwards, contains some information about its recipient. This material, however, relates to Muhammad’s theological significance and provides little assistance in the task of biographical reconstruction… the Qur’an does not, as it were, tell Muhammad’s story – we cannot deduce from it when he was born or when he began to preach” (2).
According to Patricia Crone, the text takes readers insider the Prophet’s head,
“The Qur’an does not give us an account of the prophet’s life. On the contrary: it does not show us the prophet from the outside at all, but rather takes us inside his head, where God is speaking to him, telling him what to preach, how to react to people who poke fun at him, what to say to his supporters, and so on. We see the world through his eyes, and the allusive style makes it difficult to follow what is going on” (3).
This fact has not been missed by Islamicists and scholars of Islam; Professor of Islamic Studies Francis Peters says that the Qur’an “is of no use whatsoever as an independent source for reconstructing the life of Muhammad” (4).
Scholars and historians of Islam agree that if one wishes to construct a biographical account of the Prophet’s life, or debate the specifics, he will have to access later Muslim sources, such as the Hadith (traditions and sayings of Muhammad) and the Sira (biographies). It is these sources, removed by two or more centuries from the Prophet’s life, that historians use to construct the life of Muhammad. There are, moreover, early 7th-century non-Qur’anic sources authored shortly after Muhammad’s death in 632 CE. These sources do provide information of biographical value but they are very limited. They often refer to the Prophet as an unwelcome invader, a leader appearing with the Saracens, and waging battle with the Byzantines. Of the early non-Qur’anic sources, it is likely the Armenian bishop Sebeos to provide the most valuable information. Readers learn from Sebeos that Muhammad was a merchant, preacher, and religious figure who intended for others to recognize the God of Abraham, to abandon their cults, and then follow a set of rules laid down by him. There is very little, if anything, from these sources that attest to the overarching classical narrative of the Prophet’s life outlined in the later Islamic sources. According to these later materials, the Prophet was born in 570 CE, met the angel ‘Jibril’ in the Hira cave (610), received ‘Meccan revelations’ (610-622), flew to Jerusalem upon a winged horse where he then ascended into the seven heavens and met Allah (621), moved from Mecca to Medina (622), received ‘Medinan revelations’, conquered Mecca (630), and died (632). This narrative is widely accepted but cannot be derived from early non-Qur’anic materials but comes exclusively from the Hadith and the Sira.
But excluding these sources, what can we know about the Prophet from the Qur’an? As noted, Muhammad is referred to four or five times as follows (all Pickthall translations):
QS 3:144: “Muhammad is but a messenger, messengers (the like of whom) have passed away before him. Will it be that, when he dieth or is slain, ye will turn back on your heels? He who turneth back on his heels doth no hurt to Allah, and Allah will reward the thankful.”
QS 33:21: “Verily in the messenger of Allah ye have a good example for him who looketh unto Allah and the Last Day, and remembereth Allah much.”
QS 47:2: “And those who believe and do good works and believe in that which is revealed unto Muhammad – and it is the truth from their Lord – He riddeth them of their ill-deeds and improveth their state.”
QS 48:29: “Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. And those with him are hard against the disbelievers and merciful among themselves. Thou (O Muhammad) seest them bowing and falling prostrate (in worship), seeking bounty from Allah and (His) acceptance. The mark of them is on their foreheads from the traces of prostration. Such is their likeness in the Torah and their likeness in the Gospel – like as sown corn that sendeth forth its shoot and strengtheneth it and riseth firm upon its stalk, delighting the sowers – that He may enrage the disbelievers with (the sight of) them. Allah hath promised, unto such of them as believe and do good works, forgiveness and immense reward.’”
What information of biographical significance can one draw from these?
We learn of an individual believed to be the prophet of a deity. This individual’s name is Muhammad, and he viewed himself, and is viewed by some anonymous others, as the messenger of a deity by the name of Allah. All four suras affirm that he is the “messenger,” and that what was revealed to him by God is “the truth” (Q47:2). According to Q33:21, Muhammad is also a good example of what it means to be a devout follower of Allah. We do not know much from these suras about Muhammad’s followers or their identity, although he is said to have had them (Q3:144). Apparently they are hard on non-Muslims yet merciful toward their fellow believers. They also worship by bowing themselves when praying to Allah (Q48:29).
This is about as much we can say biographically about the Prophet from the Qur’an as a source. This is indeed, despite its scantiness, important information for it is early and also attests to a few of the core tenets of the Islamic religion. However, it is also very limited information for it mentions almost nothing we find with the traditional narrative drawn from later Islamic sources. As F.E. Peters concludes,
“The fact is that, despite a great deal of information supplied by later Muslim literary sources, we know pitifully little for sure about the political or economic history of Muhammad’s native city of Mecca or of the religious culture from which he came” (5).
1. Nigosian, Solomen. 2004. Islam: Its History, Teaching, and Practices. Bloomington: Indiana University Press p. 6.
2. Bennett, Clinton. 1998. In Search of Muhammad. London: Continuum. p. 18.
3. Crone, Patricia. 2008. What do we actually know about Mohammed? Available.
4. Peters, Francis. 1994. Muhammad and the Origins of Islam. Albany: SUNY Press. p. 261.
5. Peters, F. E. 1991. “The Quest of the Historical Muhammad.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 23(3): 291-315. p. 292.