The Biography of Muhammad: The Issue of the Sources

The Biography of Muhammad: The Issue of the Sources

The Biography of Muhammad: The Issue of the Sources

The Biography of Muhammad: The Issue of the Sources


This book deals with the controversial value of the sources on which the biography of Muhammad, the founder of Islam, is based. Discussions on this topic have been going on for more than a century but it has become especially debated during the last two decades. This volume contains ten articles which are the outcome of an international colloquium on the issue. Part one of the book examines the development of the Muslim tradition concerning the life of Muhammad while the other part focuses on the historical reliability of the source material. The volume reflects not only the most recent methodological developments in the study of the life of Muhammad but also the improvement of its material-basis due to sources which have only recently become available or which have been neglected.


Harald Motzki

The academic study of the life of Muḥammad, the founder of Islam, began in the West during the first half of the nineteenth century. The first scholarly biography to be published, in 1843 by Gustav Weil, was based, in addition to the Qurʾān, on late Islamic sources dating from the sixteenth century onwards. In the course of the nineteenth century, manuscripts of earlier sources were discovered and edited so that at the beginning of the twentieth century a corpus of four major biographical sources compiled between the end of the second and the end of the third Islamic centuries had become available: al-Wāqidī's Maghāzī, Ibn Hishām's Sīr, Ibn Sa'd's Ṭabaqāt and al-Ṭabarī's Taʾrīkh. Together with the Qurʾān and al-Bukhārī's ḥadīth collection, these compilations have remained the standard sources for the biographies of the Prophet Muhammad up to the present day.

The fact that these sources had been compiled two or three centuries after the death of Muḥammad did not disturb the first Western biographers of the Prophet very much because the sources consisted of traditions which purported to go back to earlier times, often even to eyewitnesses of the event itself. The biographers realized, of course, that there were contradictions in the sources, traces of legends, exaggerations, and many kinds of biases, but they were nonetheless convinced that a critical mind would be able to reconstruct what really happened.

This optimistic stance received its first blow when in 1890 Ignaz Goldziher published the second part of his Muhammedanische Studien. He argued that most of the ḥadīth-material reflects later developments of Islam and therefore cannot be used as a historical source for the time of Muḥammad himself. Goldziher's conclusions affected the biographical traditions relating to the Prophet even though his studies were not based on them but mostly on legal ḥadītḥ. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Goldziher's skepticism was adopted by several scholars concerned with the biography of Muhammad. Leone

G. Weil, Muḥammad der Prophet, sein Leben und seine Lehre, n.p., 1843.

I. Goldziher, Muhammedanische Studien, Halle, 1889–90.

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