The Non-Muslim Seventh Century Sources for the Prophet Muhammad

Knowledge of Muhammad’s life comes from two pools of sources: Muslim and non-Muslim. Muslim sources include allusions in the Qur’an, oral traditions (Hadith) collected and written down by Muslim scholars, and later biographies. The seventh-century non-Muslim sources, on which we are focusing here, were composed within Jewish and Christian communities.

We have several seventh-century sources attesting to the Prophet Muhammad but none of which, according to Solomon Nigosian, “are considered to be from before 634 CE, and much that is of interest is from some decades later” (1). Given the traditional date of the prophet’s death is 632 CE, historians are dealing with some valuable early, although biographically limited, source material. These non-Muslim sources are much earlier than the Muslim materials and are believed to hold genuine historical information on early Islam. What do these sources inform their readers about the Prophet Muhammad? This entry looks to some of these sources and will quote them in full.

An important disclaimer: there are various sources not mentioned in this list but that nonetheless remain important for historians wishing to know about early Islam and the many movements and conquests of the Muslims of the seventh century. The only sources mentioned here are the ones directly relevant to the Prophet Muhammad in that they allude to or directly mention him. At the end of this list of sources, we provide a summary that pieces together the various details to see what we can know about Muhammad from the non-Muslim sources of the seventh century.

An Account of the Battle of Gabitha

A very early source dates to 637 CE and comes in the form of a record of the Arab conquest of Syria composed by an eyewitness soon after the battle of Gabitha (636 CE). This is early dating to merely five or so years of the Prophet’s accepted time of death. The record reads as follows:

“In January {the people of} Ḥomṣ took the word for their lives and many villages were ravaged by the killing of {the Arabs of} Mūḥmd and many people were slain and {taken} prisoner from Galilee as far as Beth… On the tw{enty-six]th of May the Saq{īlā}ra went {…} from the vicinity of Ḥomṣ and the Romans chased them {…} On the tenth {of August} the Romans fled from the vicinity of Damascus {and there were killed} many {people}, some ten thousand. And at the turn {of the ye}ar the Romans came. On the twentieth of August in the year n{ine hundred and forty-}seven there gathered in Gabitha {a multitude of} the Romans, and many people {of the R}omans were kil{led}, {s}ome fifty thousand.[1]offer new possibilities for action.” (Emphasis added) (2)

This eyewitness account’s value lies primarily in that it affirms the existence of Muhammad, a war leader who wreaked havoc in the region. Historian and scholar of Islam Robert Hoyland writes that it is significant that the “fragment accords with one of the dates given in Arabic sources for the battle of Gabitha (assuming this to be identified with Yarmuk), namely 20 August AG 297/12 Rajab AH 15 (636)…” This account, however, provides little in the way of biographical information other than claiming Muhammad’s followers were unwelcome raiders who ruined villages within the region, killed inhabitants, took captives, and fought the Byzantines. This source does not refer to Muhammad being a prophet, mention anything related to a holy text (the Qur’an), or that there existed a religion called Islam, but nonetheless remains an invaluable early attestation to his existence.

The Doctrina Jacobi

A second, although disputed, source often thought to refer to Muhammad is called the Doctrina Jacobi or Teaching of Jacob (dated to between 634 and 640 CE) composed in Africa. This is a Christian apologetic that attempts to demonstrate the superiority of the Christian religion against Judaism. Its occasion of writing is the event of forced conversions in Carthage of many Jews at the orders of emperor Heraclius. A contemporary theologian by the name Maximus the Confessor saw these forced conversions as a bad decision and lamented that “apostasy will be favoured by the intercourse of these faithless converts with the Christian people.”

Doctrina appears designed to counter such claims. The background of this text concerns a Jewish merchant called Jacob from Palestine on a business trip to Africa who becomes embroiled in the events of the forced conversions in Carthage. After an imprisonment, Jacob is forcibly baptized and then, through a vision and reading of the scriptures, comes to appreciate the truth of Christianity. He goes on to reveal this to other “newly baptised” Jews, who tell him of their doubts about their situation. These Jews are convinced by his arguments, but a cousin of one of them called Justus arrives from Palestine and is angered at finding his relative baptized. Justus promises to prove to Jacob and everyone else that they are all wrong. However, he is also soon persuaded that the Messiah has indeed come and then wishes to return home to convert his family.

Scholars view the Jacobi account as realistic given details in its plot: “Many in Jacob’s audience are given names, the manner of transcription of the debates is carefully explained, and the topography of Jacob and Justus’ homeland and the nature of their business ventures is narrated at some length” (3). In the account, Justus refers to “a  false prophet who has appeared.” He came to hear about this “prophet” and of how the Arabs had killed the “candidatus”, namely a member of the imperial guard,

“When the candidatus was killed by the Saracens, I was at Caesarea and I set off by boat to Sykamina. People were saying “the candidatus has been killed,” and we Jews were overjoyed. And they were saying that the prophet had appeared, coming with the Saracens, and that he was proclaiming the advent of the anointed one, the Christ who was to come. I, having arrived at Sykamina, stopped by a certain old man well-versed in scriptures, and I said to him: “What can you tell me about the prophet who has appeared with the Saracens?” He replied, groaning deeply: “He is false, for the prophets do not come armed with a sword. Truly they are works of anarchy being committed today and I fear that the first Christ to come, whom the Christians worship, was the one sent by God and we instead are preparing to receive the Antichrist. Indeed, Isaiah said that the Jews would retain a perverted and hardened heart until all the earth should be devastated. But you go, master Abraham, and find out about the prophet who has appeared.” So I, Abraham, inquired and heard from those who had met him that there was no truth to be found in the so-called prophet, only the shedding of men’s blood. He says also that he has the keys of paradise, which is incredible.” (Emphasis added) (4).

The Doctrina concludes with Jacob and Justus about to set sail from Carthage. Justus is contemplating martyrdom, declaring that “if the Jews and the Saracens take hold of me and cut my body into little pieces, I will not deny Christ, the son of God”; Jacob, moreover, is entertaining the idea of a life of asceticism.

The “prophet” here is often thought to be referring to the Prophet Muhammad, although the reference has been disputed. One reason for doubt is that it says the prophet is still alive at the time of the composition of the Doctrina (634 CE), but Muhammad died in 632 CE. Questions, moreover, are raised concerning the prophet’s “proclaiming the advent of the anointed one, the Christ who was to come.” This teaching, a reference not to Jesus Christ of the New Testament but to a future Jewish messiah (Christ means “anointed one” or “Messiah” in Greek), seems inconsistent with the classical account of Muhammad believing himself to be Allah’s final prophet (Qur’an 33:40). It is also possible that these views expressed in the Doctrina may well be the author’s misunderstanding of what the Arabs believed given the suddenness of the events he is describing. This source is worth mentioning, but we will not include it as a legitimate reference to the Prophet Muhammad given its disputable contents.

Thomas the Presbyter

An account composed by Thomas the Presbyter dating to 640 CE speaks of a battle between the Romans and the Arabs of Muhammad in Palestine twelve miles east of Gaza. This battle is thought to be the Battle of Dathin, which took place in 634 CE, waged between the Rashidun Caliphate and the Byzantine Empire; the text reads,

“In the year 945, indiction 7, on Friday 4 February (634) at the ninth hour, there was a battle between the Romans and the Arabs of Muḥammad (ṭayyāyē d-Mḥmṭ) in Palestine twelve miles east of Gaza. The Romans fled, leaving behind the patrician bryrdn, whom the Arabs killed. Some 4000 poor villagers of Palestine were killed there, Christians, Jews and Samaritans. The Arabs ravaged the whole region” (emphasis added) (5)

This is a valuable source for the historical Muhammad. According to Hoyland, this is an early reference and its dating “inspires confidence that it ultimately derives from first-hand knowledge” (6).

Bishop Sebeos

A source from the second half of the seventh century by Sebeos, an Armenian Chronicler and bishop, speaks about Muhammad in an account primarily interested in the Arabs’ wars with the Persians and Byzantines and the impact this had on Armenia. Of Muhammad, he writes (7):

Muḥammad preached, saying: “With an oath God promised that land to Abraham and his posterity after him forever… Now you, you are the sons of Abraham, and God will realise in you the promise made to Abraham and his posterity. Only love the God of Abraham, and go and take possession of your country which God gave to your father Abraham, and none will be able to resist you in battle, for God is with you.” (Emphasis added)

“This Muḥammad, while in the age and stature of youth, began to go up and down from his town of Yathrib to Palestine for the business of buying and selling. While so engaged in the country, he saw the belief in one God and it was pleasing to his eyes. When he went back down to his tribesmen, he set this belief before them, and he convinced a few and they became his followers. In addition, he would extol the bountifulness of this land of Palestine, saying: “Because of the belief in one God, the like of this good and fertile land was given to them.” And he would add: “If you listen to me, abandon these vain gods and confess the one God, then to you too will God give a land flowing with milk and honey.” To corroborate his word, he led a band of them who were obedient to him and began to go up to the land of Palestine plundering, enslaving and pillaging. He returned laden [with booty] and unharmed, and thus he had not fallen short of his promise to them” (Emphasis added).

There is much valuable information in this account. We have Sebeos attesting to the detail that Muhammad was a merchant during his youth and that he affirmed monotheism. He attempted to convince his fellow Arabs of this belief and to denounce polytheism. Muhammad also led a force that plundered, enslaved, and pillaged. Sebeos says that Muhammad was a preacher who wanted others to recognize the God of Abraham. Sebeos further refers to some of the legislation Muhammad set down such as “for them not to eat carrion (v.3), not to drink wine (ii.219, v.90), not to speak falsely (xxxix.3, xvi.116, xxxiii.24 etc.) and not to commit fornication (xvii.32, xxiv.2).” The laws are paralleled in the Qur’an (cf. 5:90, 5:3; 24:2) and suggest the accuracy of this report.

The Khuzistan Chronicle

The Khuzistan Chronicle, dating to no later than the 660s CE, is an anonymous Nestorian Christian text named after the province (Khuzistan) it is thought to have been composed in. Its outline follows a chronological order that traces the succession of the Persian emperors and heads of the Nestorian church, culminating in entries on Yazdgird III (632-652) and Maremmeh (646-649). There is also the inclusion of the miraculous conversion of some Turks by Elias of Merw and a list of towns founded by Seleucus, Semiramis, and Ninus son of Belus, a portrayal of the Arab conquests (630s-640s), and a short survey of Arabian geography. The author mentions the success of the Arabs in battle and their capture of Shush and Shushtar:

“He (the general Hormizdan) sent numerous troops against the Arabs, but they routed them all, and the Arabs dashed in and besieged Shush, taking it after a few days. They killed all the distinguished citizens and seized the House of Mar Daniel, taking the treasure that was kept there, which had been preserved on the king’s orders ever since the days of Darius and Cyrus. They also broke open and took off a silver chest in which a mummified corpse was laid; according to many it was Daniel’s, but others held that it belonged to king Darius. They also besieged Shustar, fighting for two years in order to take it. Then a man from Qaṭar who lived there became friends with someone who had a house on the walls, and the two of them conspired together and went out to the Arabs, telling them: “If you give us a third of the spoil of the city, we will let you into it.” They made an agreement between them and they dug tunnels inside under the walls, letting in the Arabs, who thus took Shustar, spilling blood there as if it were water. They killed the Exegete of the city and the bishop of Hormizd Ardashir, along with the rest of the students, priests and deacons, shedding their blood in the very [church] sanctuary. Hormizdan himself they took alive” (8).

Following the mentioning of these successes, the author goes on to speak about Arabian geography. He focuses on Khuzistan and East Arabia. When speaking about the reign of Yazdgird, we find another reference to the successful Muslim invasions and to Muhammad himself,

“Then God raised up against them the sons of Ishmael, [numerous] as the sand on the sea shore, whose leader (mdabbrānā) was Muḥammad (mḥmd). Neither walls nor gates, armour or shield, withstood them, and they gained control over the entire land of the Persians. Yazdgird sent against them countless troops, but the Arabs routed them all and even killed Rustam. Yazdgird shut himself up in the walls of Maḥoze and finally escaped by flight. He reached the country of the Ḥuzaye and Mrwnaye, where he ended his life. The Arabs gained control of Maḥoze and all the territory. They also came to Byzantine territory, plundering and ravaging the entire region of Syria. Heraclius, the Byzantine king, sent armies against them, but the Arabs killed more than 100,000 of them. When the catholicos Isho’yahb saw that Maḥoze had been devastated by the Arabs and that they had carried off its gates to ‘Aqula (Kufa) and that those who remained were wasting away from hunger, he left and took up residence in Beth Garmai, in the town of Karka” (Emphasis added) (9).

A Maronite Chronicle

Folios 2–14 of the British Library Syriac manuscript Add. 17,216 comprise a chronicle covering events from the time of Alexander the Great to the 660s CE. It speaks of a king, Mu’awiya (of the Umayyad Empire), intra-Muslim conflict, and mentions Muhammad by name. There are several paragraphs, but the one to mention Muhammad reads,

“In July of the same year the emirs and many Arabs gathered and gave their allegiance to Mu‘āwiya. Then an order went out that he should be proclaimed king in all the villages and cities of his dominion and that they should make acclamations and invocations to him. He also minted gold and silver, but it was not accepted because it had no cross on it. Furthermore, Mu‘āwiya did not wear a crown like other kings in the world. He placed his throne in Damascus and refused to go to the seat of Muḥammad” (Emphasis added) (10)

It is accepted that the author of this chronicle is knowledgeable of Islamic affairs and many details, such as the coronation of Mu’awiya in Jerusalem and the later proclamation of him to all as king “in July of the same year”, match later Muslim sources.

John of Nikiou

A chronicle traditionally dated to 690 CE, although 650 has been proposed, by a Coptic Christian bishop called John of Nikiou is an important source for learning about events of the early seventh century, especially those relating to the Thracians, Emperor Maurice, Emperor Heraclius, and, for our purposes, the Muslim invasion of Egypt under Amr ibn al-As al-Sahmi (573-664). The relevant passage reads,

“Many of the Egyptians who had been false Christians denied the holy orthodox faith and life-giving baptism, and embraced the religion of the Muslims, the enemies of God, and accepted the detestable doctrine of the beast, this is, Muḥammad” (Emphasis added) (11).

John is a hostile writer who provides an account of the Muslims. He calls their founder Muhammad a beast and he claims to “have witnessed” the events he describes, in particular the Muslims capturing of Alexandria in 641. He provides other details such as the response of the Egyptians who were being attacked: some fled, “abandoning all their possessions and wealth and cattle;” some others a few resisted “with a view to attacking the Muslims;” and a number “apostatised from the Christian faith and embraced the faith of the beast.” Many were conscripted to repair roads and bridges, “and people began to help  the Muslims.” Ultimately, John claims that the victory of the Muslims is “due to the wickedness of the emperor Heraclius and his persecution of the orthodox through the patriarch Cyrus.”

Hoyland has some doubts about this passage, in particular that the terms “Muhammad” and “Muslims” were in the original manuscript. John’s chronicle was originally written in Coptic and translated into Arabic at an unknown date. These two versions are lost and we only have an Ethiopic translation, which was rendered from the Arabic in 1602. Hoyland explains that, “Because the chronicle has been through two translations one has to be wary of distortion and tampering. The list of chapter headings provided by the Arabic translator is frequently in disaccord with the chronicle as we have it, in terms of both numbering and content of chapters. The Arabs are called Ishmaelites or Muslims; since the latter appellation does not figure elsewhere in Christian texts until 775, one wonders whether the original Coptic was not Saracens or Arabs. Muḥammad is mentioned once, but only in explanation of the term “beast” so that one again suspects it to be a later gloss” (12).

Pope Isaac of Alexandria

We have a reference to Muhammad in a text written to commemorate the death of Pope Isaac of Alexandria by Mina the bishop of Pshati. This text mentions churches, under Arab rule, that were restored and at least one church, under Umayyad governor Abd al-Aziz ibn Marwan (r. 685-705), that was allowed to be constructed at Helwan in Lower Egypt. But the Muslim governor nonetheless asserted the superiority of Islam:

“He ordered the breaking of all the crosses which were in the land of Egypt, even the crosses of gold and silver. So the Christians of the country of Egypt became troubled. Then he wrote a number of notices and placed them on the doors of the churches in Miṣr and the Delta, saying in them: “Muḥammad is the great messenger (al-rasūl al-kabīr) who is God’s, and Jesus too is the messenger of God. God does not beget and is not begotten” (Emphasis added) (13).

John bar Penkaye

John bar Penkaye authored a work in 688 CE that sought to treat “the salient points” of history and “in a brief fashion.” His work shows an interest in the Arab conquests which, along with the famine and plague, he views as the judgment of God “to arouse our minds little by little to repentance.” John mentions how Christians living under the Arabs were not forced to convert, but that they had to pay tribute if they wanted to remain in the faith of their choice. John also refers to Muhammad, depicting him as a guide and instructor. It is because of Muhammad that the Arabs “held to the worship of the one God in accordance with the customs of ancient law.” Further, Muhammad was also a legislator, observing of the Arabs that “they kept to the tradition of Muḥammad… to such an extent that they inflicted the death penalty on anyone who was seen to act brazenly against his laws (nāmōsawh)” (14).

Piecing the Sources Together: What Do We Know?

What do we learn about the Prophet Muhammad from these seventh-century sources? We learn the following. First, that during his youth, Muhammad was a merchant who travelled (Sebeos). He became known as the great messenger (Pope Isaac) who affirmed monotheism (John bar Penkaye), the worship of this God (John bar Penkaye), and attempted to persuade others against polytheism (Sebeos). He taught a doctrine (John of Nikiou) of which included others recognizing the God of Abraham (Sebeos). He instituted laws (John bar Penkaye), some of these included prohibiting followers from eating carrion, drinking wine, and speaking falsely (Sebeos). Muhammad was the leader of a community under which others submitted (A Maronite Chronicle). He was known as the leader of Arab warbands (Gabitha) that terrorized Persia, Syria, and the Byzantines (The Khuzistan Chronicle). Muhammad’s followers fought against the Romans (Gabitha), one battle of which occurred in Palestine and resulted in the death of 4000 villagers (Thomas the Presbyter).

Unfortunately, our early sources do not provide us with more detailed information about the Prophet Muhammad regarding what we find in abundance in later Muslim sources removed by roughly two centuries from his death. As F. E. Peters once reflected, “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” (15).

References

  1. Nogosian, Solomon. 2004. Islam: Its History, Teaching, and Practices. Indiana University Press. p. 6.
  2. Hoyland, Robert. 1997. Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam. Darwin Press. p. 196 (Scribd ebook format)
  3. Hoyland, Robert. 1997. ibid. p. 96 (Scribd ebook format)
  4. Hoyland, Robert. 1997. ibid. p. 97 (Scribd ebook format)
  5. Hoyland, Robert. 1997. ibid. p. 200 (Scribd ebook format)
  6. Hoyland, Robert. 1997. ibid. p. 200 (Scribd ebook format)
  7. Hoyland, Robert. 1997. ibid. p. 209 (Scribd ebook format)
  8. Hoyland, Robert. 1997. Ibid. p. 301-302 (Scribd ebook format)
  9. Hoyland, Robert. 1997. Ibid. p. 304 (Scribd ebook format)
  10. Hoyland, Robert. 1997. Ibid. p. 217 (Scribd ebook format)
  11. Hoyland, Robert. 1997. Ibid. p. 282 (Scribd ebook format)
  12. Hoyland, Robert. 1997. Ibid. p. 241 (Scribd ebook format)
  13. Hoyland, Robert. 1997. Ibid. p. 263 (Scribd ebook format)
  14. Hoyland, Robert. 1997. Ibid. p. 314 (Scribd ebook format)
  15. Peters, F. E. 1991. “The Quest of the Historical Muhammad.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 23(3):291-315. p. 292.

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