We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more Muḥammad - Oxford Islamic Studies Online
Select Translation What is This? Selections include: The Koran Interpreted, a translation by A.J. Arberry, first published 1955; The Qur'an, translated by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, published 2004; or side-by-side comparison view
Chapter: verse lookup What is This? Select one or both translations, then enter a chapter and verse number in the boxes, and click "Go."
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result


[This entry contains three subentries:

Life of the Prophet

The Prophet of Islam was a religious, political, and social reformer who gave rise to one of the great civilizations of the world. From a modern, historical perspective, Muḥammad was the founder of Islam. From the perspective of the Islamic faith, he was God 's Messenger (rasūl Allāh), called to be a “warner,” first to the Arabs and then to all humankind.

Reconstructing the life of “the historical Muḥammad” is one of the most difficult and disputed topics in the modern study of Islam. The most valuable source for modern biographers of Muḥammad is the Qurʿān, the Islamic scripture which is a record of what he recited as revelation during the last two decades or so of his life. The Qurʿān responds continually and candidly to Muḥammad 's historical situation; however, it is not in chronological order, and most sūrahs (chapters) contain recitations from different parts of his life, making it difficult for nonspecialists to interpret as a historical source. Muḥammad in the Qurʿān is a real person whose fears, anxieties, hopes, and eventual power show forth with clarity to the critical reader.

The fullest accounts of his life, however, are in the traditional biographies called collectively the sīrah. The most influential works in this genre are by Ibn Isḥāq (d. 768 CE), al-Wāqidī (d. 822 CE), and Ibn Hishām (d. 834 CE). The sīrah is often supplemented by the ḥadīth collections, which contain thousands of accounts of what Muḥammad is reported to have said and done, allegedly going back to the “Companions of the Prophet,” a technical expression that refers to those who were Muslims during Muḥammad 's lifetime, and thus were trustworthy eyewitnesses. The most respected ḥadīth collections, which have a canonical status second only to the Qurʿān, are by al-Bukhārī (d. 870 CE) and Muslim (d. 875 CE). Similar accounts appear in the general histories by Ibn Saʿd (d. 845 CE) and al-Ṭabarī (d. 923 CE). These four types of writings—the Qurʿān, the sīrah, the ḥadīth accounts, and general histories—provide the source material for modern biographers and also for traditional views of Muḥammad.

The nature of the sīrah accounts changes dramatically over three main stages of Muḥammad 's life. (1) For the period before the earliest passages in the Qurʿān, legends predominate; they probably arose after Muḥammad 's death and have little historical value for the modern biographer. (2) For the period from the earliest Qurʿānic passages up to the hijrah, the migration of Muḥammad and his followers from his native Mecca to Medina in 622 CE, exegetical stories based on ambiguous or cryptic passages in the Qurʿān are the most distinctive literary type. (3) It is only for the Medinan period, from the hijrah to the Prophet 's death in 632 CE, that the life of the “historical Muḥammad” can be reconstructed with moderate certainty.

Early Meccan period.

The sīrah and ḥadīth literature contain stories regarding Muḥammad that begin even before his birth. It is said that his father, ʿAbd Allāh, was on his way to the home of Āmīnah to marry her when a woman standing in her doorway begged him to come into her house and make love. He refused, continued to Āmīnah 's house, and consummated the marriage. Later, he passed by the house of the first woman, who this time said nothing to him. He turned back and asked why she had not invited him in again, and she said, “When you walked by before, a light shone from your face and I knew you were going to be the father of a prophet. Now, the light has disappeared from your face and I no longer desire to have you” (Ibn Isḥāq, Ibn Saʿd).

Several stories say that throughout Āmīnah 's pregnancy with Muḥammad a light or glow beamed from her face. During Muḥammad 's birth, a bright light shone and lit up the city of Busra (Bostra) in Syria (Ibn Isḥāq). When Muḥammad was a young boy taking care of flocks of sheep and goats, a cloud formed over him and created a cool area that protected him from the heat of the sun. When he was twelve years old (Ibn Saʿd), or nine (Ṭabarī), he traveled with his uncle Abū Ṭālib on a caravan journey to Syria. When they arrived at Busra, a monk named Baḥīrā provided a meal for everyone and then announced that Muḥammad was going to be a prophet (Ibn Isḥāq, Ibn Saʿd, Ṭabarī). In another version, it was on the way north to Syria, before reaching Busra, that the caravan stopped at a resting place, and the monk Baḥīrā saw certain physical signs on Muḥammad 's back and proclaimed that he was going to be a prophet. He warned Abū Ṭālib not to take the boy to the land of the Byzantines (that is, Syria), because they would kill him (Ṭabarī). Another story says an unnamed monk made the same prediction but warned that Jews in Syria would kill the boy if they knew who he was (Ibn Saʿd). It is said that when Muḥammad was twenty-five years old, a well-to-do widow named Khadījah hired him to be in charge of her goods on a caravan to Syria. When the caravan arrived in Busra, Muḥammad sat beneath a tree to rest, and a monk named Naṣtūr came out of a nearby monastery and said, “No one has ever sat beneath this tree before except prophets.” He asked Khadījah 's servant some questions about Muḥammad and then announced that he was going to be a prophet (Ibn Isḥāq, Ibn Saʿd, Ṭabarī).

When Muḥammad was thirty-five, the Kaʿbah was repaired by men of the leading tribes in Mecca. When they got to the final task, lifting the Black Stone and replacing it in one corner of the Kaʿbah, the men quarreled over which tribe would have the privilege. After a while they agreed that the next person to enter the sanctuary would decide. The next one to enter was Muḥammad, who listened to each tribe 's claim and then said that the stone should be placed on a blanket and that one person from each tribe should assist as they lifted it and set it in place together (Ibn Isḥāq, Ṭabarī).

These are representative sīrah and ḥadīth stories set in the period before Muḥammad 's first vision or revelation. The stories usually stand alone, without any connecting narrative. Occasionally, narrative accounts or simple biographical statements appear between stories, for instance reporting the deaths of Muḥammad 's mother and grandfather. Some of the narrative accounts and biographical reports are no doubt historical, but most are impossible to date, and differing details of the same event are often given.

Among the reports that can be accepted as historical are the following: that Muḥammad grew up as an orphan (sūrah93:6) in the clan of Hāshim; that an uncle, Abū Ṭālib, was his guardian; that he had other uncles named Ḥamzah, al-ʿAbbās, and ʿAbd al-ʿUzzā (nicknamed Abū Lahab); and that he married a well-to-do widow named Khadījah who bore him four daughters that grew to adulthood—Zaynab, Ruqayyah, Umm Kulthūm, and Fāṭimah. Questions remain, however, regarding most of the alleged events of this early period of his life. The exact year of his birth is not known, but the early 570s appear likely. He could not have been born in the Year of the Elephant (Ibn Isḥāq, Ibn Saʿd), because this expedition led by Abrahah, the ruler of southern Arabia, is now known to have occurred in the 550s or early 560s. Muḥammad 's given name at birth is not certain. Ibn Saʿd reports that Āmīnah was told by God to name the child Aḥmad, a name that also occurs for Muḥammad in the Qurʿān (61:6). It was often said that he was called Amīn before the revelations began.

The sources mention only one or two other events in Muḥammad 's life from the time of the stories of his childhood journey to Syria with his uncle Abū Ṭālib until the time of his marriage to Khadījah, when he is said to have been twenty-five. They agree that he was twenty at the time of the Battle of Fijār and the so-called Oath of al-Fuḍūl. Some say he was present at this battle and took part in the oath (Ibn Saʿd), while others do not (Ibn Isḥāq, Ṭabarī). Finally, the number and names of Muḥammad 's sons by Khadījah, all of whom died in infancy, are uncertain. Besides al-Qāsim, the eldest, two other names are mentioned (al-Ṭāhir and al-Ṭayyib, “the modest” and “the good”—Ṭabarī) but each boy is sometimes said to have been called ʿAbd Allāh, and other evidence suggests that one of the names may be a nickname for the other son.

Period of the Meccan revelations.

As mentioned above, the striking feature of this period in the sīrah works is the presence of exegetical stories based on cryptic or ambiguous verses of the Qurʿān. A few examples will illustrate this type of sīrah account.

Sūrah96 begins, “Recite (iqrāʿ): In the Name of your Lord who created.… Recite: And your Lord is the Most Generous, who taught by the Pen, taught Man what he knew not.” From this arose, the story that when Muḥammad was forty or forty-three years old (Ṭabarī), Gabriel appeared to him and said “Iqrāʿ” (“read” or “recite”), but Muḥammad responded, “I cannot read.” This exchange was repeated two more times, and then Gabriel recited sūrah96 to him. Although often taken as historical, with the corollary belief that this sūrah was the first to be revealed, this story is used to affirm Muḥammad 's illiteracy.

Sūrah74 begins, “O you shrouded in your mantle, arise and warn!” From this verse a story arose that Gabriel came to Muḥammad 's house, saw him sitting outside wrapped in a shroud, informed him that God was calling him to be a prophet, and then recited this sūrah, which other sources say was the first to be revealed.

Sūrah94 begins “Did We not expand your breast for you and lift from you your burden, the burden that weighed down your back?” A story with several variations arose from this sūrah, saying that two angels (or Gabriel, or two birds) came to Muḥammad, “opened his breast,” and removed or opened his heart. They “cleansed it like a receptacle” and “took the pollution of Satan out of it.” Then they removed something black, washed it, and replaced it—or, according to other versions, they threw it away. Then they sewed Muḥammad 's breast back up. This story is placed at different points in Muḥammad 's lifetime: when he was a child, at the time of his first vision or revelation, and just before the hijrah (Ibn Isḥāq, Ibn Saʿd; Bukhārī, Muslim).

The story of Muḥammad 's Night Journey (isrāʿ) and Ascension (miʿrāj) to heaven grew from the opening verse of sūrah17: “Glory be to Him, who carried His servant by night from the sacred place of worship (al-Masjid al-Ḥarām) to the farthest place of worship (al-Masjid al-Aqṣā), the precincts of which We have blessed, that We might show him some of Our signs.” The earliest explanation of this verse says Muḥammad ascended to heaven directly from the sanctuary in Mecca. The expression al-Masjid al-Ḥarām became the name of the sanctuary and later of the Great Mosque in Mecca. Later al-Masjid al-Aqṣā came to be associated with the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and a mosque by this name was built at its southern end. At about this time, another story based on sūrah17:1 arose: Muḥammad 's Night Journey (isrāʿ) from the sanctuary in Mecca to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. His Ascension (miʿrāj) was then transferred from Mecca to Jerusalem and placed after the Night Journey. This combined story is placed at different points in Muḥammad 's career, usually shortly before the hijrah (Ibn Isḥāq, Ibn Saʿd), but occasionally at the time of his first vision or revelation (Ṭabarī).See MIʿRāJ.These are just a few representative exegetical stories that characterize the sīrah for this part of Muḥammad 's life. To conclude that they are legends in their present form does not preclude the possibility that historical events might lie behind some of them. (A. T. Welch, “Allāh and Other Supernatural Beings,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 47 [1979]: 733–753.)

It was during this period of his public mission in Mecca that major historical events in the life of Muḥammad took place: the emigration of Muḥammad 's followers to Abyssinia (Ethiopia), the boycott of his clan of Hāshim, the deaths of his wife Khadījah and his uncle and protector Abū Ṭālib, the loss of protection from his clan, his visit to al-Ṭāʿif to seek refuge there, and most importantly, the hijrah to Medina.

Certain facts about Muḥammad 's life and situation in Mecca are known from the Qurʿān. He proclaimed himself to be a “warner” (nadhīr) to the Arabs, called by the God of the Jews and the Christians to recite in “a clear Arabic recitation” (qurʿān) the same revelation that was brought by earlier messengers (rusul). The similarity in form of his early recitations to the messages of the soothsayers caused the Meccans to accuse him of being inspired by spirits called jinn rather than by God. Preaching against the wealthy for not sharing with the poor brought severe persecution, especially to his followers. Valuable insights into Muḥammad 's character and personality can be seen in the section that follows.

The list of unanswered questions regarding this period in Muḥammad 's life is long, and only a few examples can be given. Muḥammad 's age at the time of his first vision or revelation is variously given, usually as forty or forty-three. This difference cannot be resolved by the alleged fatrah or “gap” in the revelations, usually said to have lasted three years, since this concept was most likely an invention of later biographers who used it to reconcile the different accounts. Also unknown are the causes of the first hijrah to Abyssinia; more than simple persecution must have been involved. Several unanswered questions also surround the boycott of the Hāshim clan, about which the traditional accounts differ in several significant aspects. Finally, Muḥammad 's activities during his last two years in Mecca before the hijrah are largely unknown.

Contrary to the images of Muḥammad that dominate the sīrah and ḥadīth literatures, the glimpses of Muḥammad in the Meccan parts of the Qurʿān consistently portray him as fully human with no supernatural powers. His opponents frequently challenged him to perform miracles: “We will not believe you until you make a spring gush forth from the ground” (17:90); the Qurʿān responds by commanding Muḥammad to say, “I am only a human being (bashar) like you” (18:110 and 41:6). He also had no supernatural knowledge. When his opponents challenged him to reveal things of the invisible world, the Qurʿān instructs him to say, “I do not know the Unseen (al-ghayb)” (6:50); and when they asked him when the end of time would come, the Qurʿān responds, “Say: Only my Lord has knowledge of it and He will not reveal it until its proper time” (7:187).

His humanness is seen clearly when he is frequently comforted in times of persecution or disappointment—“Your Lord has not forsaken you [Muḥammad] nor does He hate you” (93:3); in times of grief—“We know indeed that the things they say grieve you” (6:33); and in times of doubt—“By your Lord 's blessing you are not a soothsayer, nor are you possessed by jinn” (52:29). He suffered periods of uncertainty and impatience in Mecca, when his message was met with rebuke and the people taunted him with accusations he could not refute; this is shown by the many passages that urge him to be steadfast and patient: “So be patient… and do not let those who do not have sure faith make you unsteady” (30:60); “So be patient, for indeed God 's promise is true” (40:55). According to the Qurʿān, Muḥammad 's primary role in Mecca was simply that of “warner,” usually nadhīr but sometimes mundhir: “He [Muḥammad] is a warner (nadhīr) of the warners of old” (53:56); “Now they marvel that a warner (mundhir) has come to them from among them” (38:4). This role appears frequently in the rhyme phrase, “I am/He is a clear warner (nadhīr mubīn)” for instance in 7:184 and 29:50.

Medinan period.

The life of Muḥammad in the Medinan period can be reconstructed with much more certainty. In addition to a wealth of biographical data in the Qurʿān, we have extensive reports of maghāzī (military expeditions) that Muḥammad led or organized and sent out. After the Qurʿān and some of the poetry preserved in the sīrah, modern historians regard the maghāzī works as the oldest sources on the life of Muḥammad and the foundation of the Medinan portions of the sīrah, which are fuller and more trustworthy than the Meccan portions. Also, the Qurʿān and the sīrah frequently corroborate each other for the Medinan period.

Narrative form of the Medinan sīrah.

For the period after the hijrah, Ibn Isḥāq includes a detailed “chronological frame narrative” that gives the dates for Muḥammad 's military expeditions and for the time he spent in Medina. This narrative form is seen in the following example that covers the one-year period from the end of the battle of Badr until the beginning of the battle of Uḥud:

The Messenger left Badr at the end of Ramaḍān or in Shawwāl [of AH 2]. He stayed only seven nights in Medina before he led a raid against the Banū Sulaym. He got as far as their watering place called al-Kudr and stayed there three nights, returning to Medina without fighting. He stayed there for the rest of Shawwāl and Dhū al-Qaʿda.… Abū Sufyān made the raid of Sawīq [barley meal] in Dhū al-Ḥijja.… When the Messenger returned from the raid of al-Sawīq he stayed in Medina for the rest of Dhū al-Ḥijja, or nearly all of it. Then [in Muḥarram] he raided the Najd, making for [the tribe of] Ghatafān. This is the raid of Dhū Amarr. He stayed in the Najd through the month of Ṣafar, or nearly all of it, and then returned to Medina without fighting. There he remained for the month of Rabīʿ I or a day or two less.… Then he made a raid on Quraysh as far as Baḥrān, a mine in the Hijāz.… He stayed there for the next two months and then returned to Medina without fighting.… After his arrival from Baḥrān the Messenger stopped [in Medina] for the months of the Jumādā II, Rajab, Shaʿbān, and Ramaḍān. Quraysh made the raid of Uḥud in Shawwāl of AH 3. (Guillaume, 1955, pp. 360–369)

The precise dates that are given in Watt 's Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman (1961) are taken from al-Wāqidī rather than Ibn Isḥāq. The two dating systems differ in detail but agree in assuming that the later Islamic calendar was projected back to the time of the hijrah.

Muh.ammad 's difficulties with the Meccans.

Soon after his arrival in Medina, Muḥammad, following the Arabian custom at that time, began to send out razīʿahs or raiding parties against Meccan caravans. A wronged party was expected to take goods by force from an oppressor tribe. Muḥammad and his followers believed that the Meccans had forced them out of their homes and businesses and thus owed them redress. When a group of Muḥammad 's men captured a Meccan caravan at Nakhlah in late 623 or early 624 CE, this gave warning to the Meccans. Thus on their next trip north, in the spring of 624 CE, the Meccans stayed together in Syria until everyone was ready to return home in one great caravan led by Abū Sufyān, a wealthy and powerful leader of Mecca. Muḥammad led about three hundred men to intercept this caravan, and the Meccans sent a force three times as large to protect it. Abū Sufyān evaded Muḥam-mad and arrived safely back in Mecca, while Muḥammad 's men and the Meccan force encountered each other by chance at Badr, where caravans stopped for water. The two forces engaged in battle and Muḥammad 's men defeated the much larger polytheist army, killing about seventy Meccans. The Muslim victory at Badr (mentioned by name in sūrah3:123) was taken by many as a sign that God was on Muḥammad 's side, and this led to a large number of converts.

A year later, in the spring of 625 CE, Abū Sufyān led another Meccan army north to Medina for revenge. The two forces met on the hill of Uḥud, just north of the Medinan settlement, and Muḥammad and his men suffered a near disaster. After a fatal mistake by a detachment of his archers, Muḥammad was injured but able to rally his forces. Abū Sufyān, seeing that about seventy Muslims and their allies had been killed, declared a victory and returned to Mecca (sūrah3:121–179 addresses the battle of Uḥud). Two years later, in the spring of 627 CE, the Meccans, again under the command of Abū Sufyān, made their last attempt to stop Muḥammad by force. This time the Muslims dug a trench across exposed areas into the settlement; this was sufficient to deter the Meccans and their allies, who withdrew after about two weeks (33:9–25). By this time Muḥammad was in complete control of Medina, and Bedouin tribes in the surrounding area were making alliances with him and becoming Muslims.

Muh.ammad 's difficulties with the Jews.

It is clear from the Qurʿān, seen especially in sūrah2, that Muḥammad expected the three main Jewish clans in Medina to accept him as a prophet sent by their God (2:40–41). Since Islamic beliefs and practices were just being formulated in the Qurʿān, flexibility within the nascent community allowed for the adoption of certain Jewish practices; some became permanent in Islam, while others were temporary. The Jewish fast on the Day of Atonement, called in Arabic the ʿĀshūrāʿ fast, was adopted during the first year in Medina (Bukhārī and Muslim say Muḥammad followed the example of the Jews in adopting this fast), along with food restrictions that are similar to those of the Jews (sūrah2:172–173). The Muslims even adopted the Jewish qiblah, or direction one faces when performing the daily prayer rituals, facing north toward Jerusalem. About a year and a half after Muḥammad arrived in Medina, it became clear that the Jews there were not going to accept him as a prophet. The so-called “break with the Jews” thus occurred, marked dramatically by a “change of the qiblah,” when the Muslims began to face south from Medina toward the Kaʿbah in Mecca instead of toward Jerusalem (2:142–150).

After each of the three battles mentioned above, one of the main Jewish clans was expelled from Medina. The primary justification was their failure to support Muḥammad, marked by their collaboration with his enemies in Medina and their possible conspiracy with the Meccans. After the battle of Badr, the clan of Qaynuqāʿ was forced to leave Medina, and some of the emigrants (muhājirūn), Muḥammad 's followers from Mecca who had made the hijrah, took over their marketplaces and soon controlled trade within the settlement. The clan of al-Naḍīr was expelled after the battle of Uḥud; they owned rich groves of palm trees that were distributed among Muḥammad 's poor emigrant followers and others (sūrah59:2–10). The treatment of the third and last Jewish clan, the Qurayẓah, was much harsher because of evidence of a conspiracy during the battle of the trench in which they made plans to attack Muḥammad 's forces from the rear. If this fifth-column plot had been carried out, it could have ended his career. After a siege of their strongholds, they surrendered and Muḥammad put them on trial, appointing a judge from an Arab tribe that was allied to them. The verdict was that all the men of the clan were to be executed and the women and children were to be sold as slaves (sūrah33:26–27). In this one action of his career, Muḥammad followed the customs and expectations of his day rather than his usual magnanimous treatment of his foes after battles and intrigues.

Muh.ammad 's last years and his death.

In the spring of 628 CE, guided by a dream or vision, Muḥammad led a huge group of Muslims on the 270-mile journey from Medina to Mecca to perform the pilgrimage ceremonies. They camped at al-Ḥudaybīyah on the edge of the ḥaram, the sacred territory that surrounds Mecca. There Muḥammad negotiated a treaty in which he agreed not to press his claim to complete the pilgrimage ceremonies that season, while the Meccan leaders promised to open the city to the Muslims the following year. They also agreed to a ten-year truce during which neither side would attack the other. In the spring of 629 CE, Muḥammad led the first Muslim pilgrimage, an ʿumrah or “lesser pilgrimage” to Mecca. Later that year, a clan allied to the Meccans attacked a clan allied to Muḥammad, thus breaking the treaty. Abū Sufyān and other Meccan leaders rushed to Medina to dissuade Muḥammad from attacking their city, and they apparently agreed to surrender Mecca to him peacefully. Late in 629 CE Muḥammad and his forces set out for Mecca, and early in 630 CE his native city surrendered to him without a fight.

Just weeks after the surrender of Mecca, with Muḥammad now in command of all of west-central Arabia, a large confederation of tribes from south and east of Mecca made one last attempt to stop him by force. Muḥammad 's 12,000 men fought an army twice that size at Ḥunayn (mentioned by name in the Qurʿān, 9:25), and once again the Muslims and their allies defeated a much larger force of polytheists. After dividing up the spoils, Muḥammad and his followers from Medina returned home, where he consolidated his position. In the spring, a son named Ibrāhīm (Abraham) was born to Muḥammad by his Christian concubine, Māriyah the Copt, who was said to have been a gift to him from an Egyptian ruler.

In late 630 CE, he undertook his largest and last military expedition, with a force said to number 30,000 men, to Tabūk, near the Gulf of Aqaba. Muḥammad encountered no army, but this show of force demonstrated his intention to challenge the Byzantines for control of the northern part of the caravan route from Mecca to Syria. Ibn Isḥāq and al-Wāqidī record twenty-seven expeditions, including pilgrimages to Mecca and the expulsions of the three Jewish clans, that Muḥammad led himself, but they say he actually fought in only nine. In addition to these, he organized and sent out more than fifty other expeditions. (For a complete list of these expeditions, see Watt, 1956, pp. 339–343.)

The following year, 631 CE, is called the “Year of Deputations.” Envoys from tribes all over Arabia traveled to Muḥammad 's headquarters in Medina and surrendered to him. Some tribes may have seen these treaties as normal Arabian tribal alliances, but Muḥammad regarded them as including acceptance of Islam. The year 632 CE began on a sad note for Muḥammad with the death of his young son Ibrāhīm. Later that spring the Prophet led to Mecca the largest number of Muslim pilgrims ever assembled during his lifetime on what came to be called his “Farewell Pilgrimage.” On the return trip to Medina, Muḥammad contracted a fatal illness and knew his days were numbered. He appointed his longtime friend, Abū Bakr, to lead the daily prayers and the weekly worship service. Then he asked permission of his wives to be relieved of his duty of nightly rotation so he could spend his last days in the apartment of his youngest wife, ʿĀʿishah, the daughter of Abū Bakr. It was there that he died, at about age sixty, in June 632 CE

Glimpses of Muh.ammad in Medinan parts of the Qurʿān.

Muḥammad is portrayed in personal and candid terms in Medinan passages of the Qurʿān, just as he is in the Meccan verses cited above. The Qurʿān continues to stress his completely human nature and limitations. Even after his victories over the Meccans and his success in winning converts among the tribes of the Hejaz, Muḥammad still agonized over those who did not believe: “O Messenger, let them not grieve you who vie with one another in unbelief” (5:41). A significant Medinan theme that is stated explicitly in several passages is Muḥammad 's need to seek forgiveness for his sins: “[Muḥammad], ask forgiveness (ghafr) for your sin (dhanb), and for [those of] the believers, men, and women” (47:19); and “Surely We have given you [Muḥammad] a manifest victory that God may forgive you your former and your latter sins and complete His blessing on you” (48:1–2). The later Islamic doctrine of Muḥammad 's sinlessness has no foundation in the Qurʿān. His humanness is also seen in passages on his mortality: “You [Muḥammad] are mortal (mayyit) and they are mortal. Then, on the Day of Resurrection before your Lord you will dispute” (39:30–31). The candidness of the Qurʿān is striking in a number of Medinan passages on another aspect of Muḥammad 's humanness, his attraction to the good things of this life, including women, wealth, and children: “Thereafter women are not lawful for you [Muḥammad], neither for you to take other wives in exchange for them, though their beauty please you, except what your right hand owns [female slaves, who may be taken as concubines]” (33:52); and “Do not let their wealth and their children please you [or cause you to desire to have them]” (9:85).

The most prominent difference between the Meccan Muḥammad and the Medinan Muḥammad involves his roles within the two communities and the explicit Medinan references to his considerable power and authority. One indication of this change in Muḥammad 's circumstances is seen in his titles, especially where he is mentioned along with God. Contrary to popular belief, Muḥammad is never explicitly called a “prophet” (nabī) or “the Messenger of God” (rasūl Allāh) anywhere in the Meccan passages of the Qurʿān. The Qurʿānic usage of Muḥammad 's various titles and other evidence shows his humility in that he is only gradually, and explicitly only after the hijrah, portrayed as a “Messenger of God” equal to the great prophets of the past. Sometime after the battle of Badr a primary Medinan motif began to appear, for instance in 4:13: “Whoever obeys God and His Messenger will be admitted to gardens in which rivers flow [Paradise], therein dwelling forever”; this is coupled with a threat in verse 14, “But whoever disobeys God and His Messenger and transgresses His bounds will be admitted to a Fire, therein dwelling forever.” An even stronger statement of this motif occurs in 4:80: “Whoever obeys the Messenger thereby obeys God.” A frequently occurring variation on this theme occurs in 4:136: “O believers, believe in God and His Messenger and the Book He has sent down [revealed],” stated more strongly in 48:13: “We have prepared a Blaze [hellfire] for whoever does not believe in God and His Messenger.” The height of Muḥammad 's power is portrayed nowhere more clearly than in several passages where he is told to be harsh in his treatment of those who oppose him, as in sūrahs9:73 and 66:9, where the same statement occurs verbatim: “O Prophet, struggle with the unbelievers and the hypocrites, and be harsh with them. Their refuge is Gehenna [Hell], an evil homecoming!”

Even in the context of this new power and authority, Muḥammad 's humility and even shyness continue to be portrayed vividly. As is often the case, it is the Qurʿān that instructs the believers on personal matters pertaining to Muḥammad, as in 49:2: “O believers, raise not your voices above the Prophet 's voice, and be not loud in your speech to him as you are loud to one another”; and one of the most fascinating verses in the Qurʿān on Muḥammad 's character is found in 33:53: “O believers, do not enter the apartments of the Prophet, unless you are given permission for a meal, and wait for the proper time. But when you are invited, then enter, and when you have finished your meal, then leave. Do not linger for idle talk, for that would be an annoyance to the Prophet, and he would be shy to ask you [to leave].” What a graphic picture of the personality of the most powerful ruler in Arabia!


The verses quoted above as “glimpses” of Muḥammad in the Qurʿān represent only a small sample of the hundreds that provide insight into his life and character. Throughout these verses the single characteristic of his personality that predominates from the beginning to the end is his sincerity. Through periods of persecution and doubt, then reassurance, and finally complete confidence in his mission, there is no hint of deceit or dishonesty. Yet Muḥammad is often criticized by modern Western writers; the two accusations most often made against him involve his Medinan militarism and his alleged lasciviousness.

Regarding the first, it must be remembered that Muḥammad was a man of his time. The razīʿah or raiding party was a characteristic feature of life in Arabia in Muḥammad 's time, so that his attempt to stop the Meccan caravan that resulted in the battle of Badr was accepted by all as customary and within his rights. Most other major battles in which he fought were initiated by the enemy, and the majority of the other expeditions he led did not make contact with any enemy tribe but were largely demonstrations to the neighboring bedouin tribes of his growing power. It is best to see Muḥammad as using the customs of his day to mold a new social community. The idea of founding a new religion or being solely a religious leader would have been totally foreign to him. He was administrator, legislator, judge, and commander in chief as well as teacher, preacher, and prayer leader.

As for the second criticism, it must be remembered that Muḥammad had only one wife, Khadījah, until her death when he was about fifty years old. Shortly thereafter he married Sawdah, the widow of a Muslim who died in Abyssinia. It was only natural that he remarry after Khadījah 's death, since he had a large household with children, servants, and many duties that were usually assumed by the wife. These two were his only wives in Mecca before the hijrah. In Medina most of his marriages fall into two categories: those with political significance that established bonds between the Prophet and important tribes and clans; and those that resulted from his responsibilities as head of the Muslim community, as when he married widows of Muslim men who died in battle. He is usually said to have had fourteen wives in the proper sense, of whom nine survived him. Māriyah the Copt, as the mother of Ibrāhīm, had a special place in Muḥammad 's life but was not regarded as a wife.

The quest for the “historical Muḥammad” is a modern task that is still in its infancy. Volumes on the “traditional Muḥammad,” the exemplar of Islamic faith and practice, created in the process of the establishment of Islamic orthodoxy and orthopraxis, are as old as Islam itself. The Muslim world also knows many “popular Muḥammads,” who vary from culture to culture and combine features of the traditional Muḥammad of Muslim faith and those of the ideal man. The glimpses of Muḥammad in the Qurʿān cited above make it clear that such beliefs, while worthy of study as part of popular Islam, are inconsistent with the teachings of Islamic scripture, which happens also to be the ultimate source in the quest for the historical Muḥammad.

The role of the Prophet in modern times in the deconstruction and reconstruction of Islamic thought is central to any attempt to reform and to rethink Islam in terms of modernity, post-modernity, and globalization. the revival of the Prophet as a model serves as a way of deconstructing traditionalism and reconstructing modern Islamic thought, whether moderate or radical, modernist or Islamist.



  • ʿAlī, ʿAbdullah Yūsuf, trans. The Holy Qurʿān: Text, Translation, and Commentary. 3d ed.Lahore, 1938. Solid translation, influenced by earlier European ones, with extensive notes, often on Muḥammad but more frequently of a devotional nature or arguing for a later, orthodox interpretation of a verse or a key word.
  • ʿAlī, Ṣaliḥ al-. Dawlat al-rasūl fī al-Medina. Beirut, 2001.
  • Andrae, Tor. Mohammed: The Man and His Faith. Translated by Theophil Menzel. London and New York, 1936. Rev. ed. New York, 1955. Translated from the German, Mohammed: Sein Leben und Sein Glaube. Göttingen, 1932. Originally published in Swedish. Translated into several languages, this classic study emphasizes the religious aspects of Muḥammad 's life and, using insights from psychology, elucidates his experience of revelation.
  • Arberry, A. J., trans. The Koran Interpreted. 2 vols.London and New York, 1955. Reprinted in one volume but paginated as two. The most readable translation in English and, despite its title, the most literal.
  • Bell, Richard. The Qurʿān, Translated, with a Critical Re-arrangement of the Surahs. 2 vols.Edinburgh, 1937–1939. Intended only as a preliminary, critical analysis of the composition of the Arabic text of the Qurʿān, this ground-breaking study has only been followed up in peripheral works. It remains essential for any critical study of the chronology and composition of the Qurʿān. Invaluable for the quest for the “historical Muḥammad.”
  • Bint al-Shāṭīʿ [ ʿĀʿishah ʿAbd al-Raḥmān]. The Wives of the Prophet. Translated with an introduction by Matti Moosa and D. Nicholas Ranson. Lahore, 1971. Translated from the Arabic, Nisāʿ al-Nabī. Cairo, 1961. Expanded ed. Cairo, 1973. Vivid portrayals of the traditional views of Muḥammad 's wives.
  • Buhl, Frants. Das Leben Muhammeds. Translated by H. H. Schaeder. Leipzig, 1930. Rev. and exp. German translation of the original Danish, Muhammeds Liv. Copenhagen, 1903. Remains the best historical-critical analysis of the sources, although dated in places. No English translation exists, but a summary is available in Buhl 's “Muḥammad,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. 3. Leiden, 1913–, pp. 641–657.
  • Buhl, Frants, and Alford T. Welch. “Muḥammad.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 5, pp. 360–376. Leiden, 1960–. Completely revised and updated version of Buhl 's article in the first edition, omitting long discussions of outdated topics. The co-author shares Buhl 's conclusions on many major issues, which thus remain among the basic conclusions of the revised article.
  • Bukhārī, Muḥammad ibn Ismāʿīl al-. Ṣaḥiḥ al-Bukhārī: The Translation of the Meanings of Ṣaḥiḥ al-Bukhārī (Arabic and English). 9 Vols.Translated by M. M. Khan. 3d rev. ed.Chicago, 1979. The most highly respected of all the ḥadīth collections (see comments on Muslim, below).
  • Bush, George. The Life of Mohammad. San Diego, 1831 (revised 2002). Orientalist perspective on Muḥammad with obvious bias against him.
  • Ḍayf, Shawqī. Muḥammad: Khatam al-Mursalīn. Cairo, 2000.
  • Glubb, John Bagot. The Life and Times of Muḥammad. London and New York, 1970. Demonstrates keen insight into the customs of desert life and warfare in Arabia that shed light on key events in Muḥammad 's life.
  • Hamidullah, Muhammad. The Battlefields of the Prophet Muḥammad, with Maps, Illustrations, and Sketches: A Contribution to Muslim Military History. Hyderabad, 1973. Originally published as ʿAhd-i nabvī ke maidān-i jang. The only extended study of the topic, based on field research at the locations where Muḥammad 's expeditions occurred.
  • Haykal, Muḥammad Ḥusayn. The Life of Muḥammad. Trans-lated by Ismāʿīl Rājī al-Fārūqī. Indianapolis, Ind., 1976. Translation of the eighth edition of the Arabic, Ḥayāt Muḥammad. Cairo, 1935. One of the most popular twentieth-century Arabic biographies of Muḥammad. Despite the author 's claim to follow modern critical methods, this work presents the familiar traditional narrative of Muḥammad 's life, interspersed with strong condemnations, although not refutations, of views by European scholars that differ from orthodox and traditional beliefs about Muḥammad.
  • Ibn Isḥāq, Muḥammad. The Life of Muḥammad: A Translation of Ibn Isḥāq 's Sīrat Rasūl Allāh. Translated with introduction and notes by Alfred Guillaume. London and Karachi, 1955. Ibn Isḥāq 's Sīrah or Maghāzī is extant in two recensions, one by Ibn Hishām, used by Guillaume and often listed as the “author” of this translation, and another by Yūnus ibn Bukayr (d. 814). Guillaume has attempted to reconstruct Ibn Isḥāq 's original work by beginning with Ibn Hishām 's recension, placing all of his additions in the back as notes, and then inserting long excerpts that were deleted by Ibn Hishām but have been preserved in works such as al-Ṭabarī 's Tārīkh.
  • Ibn Saʿd, Muḥammad. Kitāb al-ṭabaqāt al-kabīr (The Large Book of the Generations). Translated by S. Moinul Haq, assisted by H. K. Ghazanfar. Karachi, 1967. Contains more variations of multiple accounts than Ibn Isḥāq 's work, and also many anecdotes that have parallels in the canonical ḥadīth collections. Vols. 1 and 2 treat the life of Muḥammad.
  • Lings, Martin. Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources. London and New York, 1983. Exceptionally well-written account of the “traditional Muḥammad” as depicted in the classical sīrah and ḥadīth works, with no critical analysis. Contains material not found in other modern biographies of Muḥammad.
  • Mallāḥ, Hāshim al-. Ḥukumāt al-rasūl. Baghdad, 2002.
  • Mubārakpūrī, Ṣafī al-Raḥmān al-. The Sealed Nectar: The Biography of the Noble Prophet. Riyadh, 1996. A devout and traditional perspective on Muḥammad 's life.
  • Muslim, ibn al-Ḥajjāj al-Qushayrī. Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim: Being traditions of the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muḥammad as narrated by his companions and compiled under the title al-Jāmiʿ al-Ṣaḥīḥ. 4 vols.Translated by ʿAbdul Hamid Siddiqi. Lahore, 1976. Often considered with al-Bukhārī 's Ṣaḥīḥ as the two “canonical” ḥadīth collections, they are regarded as authoritative and definitive in matters of Islamic ritual and law.
  • Pickthall, M. M.The Meaning of the Glorious Koran: An Explanatory Translation. New York, 1953. Solid translation (1930) utilizing modern scholarship, while sometimes reading later, orthodox meanings into the text. A bilingual edition called The Glorious Koran (Arabic and English); London and Albany, N.Y., 1976. It contains the Egyptian standard text of the Arabic, with a renumbering of the English verses to agree with the Arabic.
  • Saeed, Khalifa. An Analytical Review of the Life of the Holy Prophet. Sialkot, Pakistan, n.d.
  • Schimmel, Annemarie. And Muhammad Is His Messenger: The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1985. Author 's own translation of the original German, Und Muhammad ist Sein Prophet. Düsseldorf, 1981. The most penetrating study to date of the “popular Muḥammad” and his roles in Muslim piety, containing chapters on topics such as Muḥammad 's physical beauty, his miracles, his role as intercessor, and his place in Ṣūfī thought and ritual. Also contains valuable translations of modern poetry on devotion to Muḥammad from several South and West Asian languages.
  • Ṭabarī, Muḥammad ibn Jarīr al-. The History of al-Ṭabarī (Tārīkh al-rusūl wa-al-mulūk). 38 vols.Edited by Ehsan Yar-Shater. Albany, N.Y., 1985–. The most important universal history produced in the Islamic world. Four volumes treat the life of Muḥammad, one of which (volume 8) has not yet been published. See volume 6, Muhammad at Mecca, translated and annotated by W. Montgomery Watt and M. V. McDonald (1988); volume 7, The Foundation of the Community: Muhammad at al-Madina, AD 622–626/ 4 AH, translated and annotated by Watt and McDonald (1987); and volume 9, The Last Years of the ProphetAD 630–632 /AH8–11, translated and annotated by Ismail K. Poonawala, 1990.
  • Wāqidī, Muḥammad ibn ʿUmar al-. Kitāb al-maghāzī li-alWāqidī. 3 vols.Edited by Marsden Jones. London, 1966. Fundamental work on the life of Muḥammad, which unfortunately has not been translated into English. Julius Wellhausen prepared an abridged German translation, Muhammed in Medina: Das ist Vakidi 's Kitab al-Maghazi [sic] in verkürzter deutscher Wiedergabe. Berlin, 1882.
  • Watt, W. Montgomery. Muhammad at Mecca. Oxford, 1953. First of a two-volume work that constitutes the most recent major scholarly study of the life of Muḥammad, based on a thorough analysis of the Arabic sources. Adopts an intermediate position between those of Buhl and Lings regarding the sources by accepting as historical all accounts that cannot be refuted by strong evidence.
  • Watt, W. Montgomery. Muhammad at Medina. Oxford, 1956. The second of Watt 's two-volume work goes far beyond a biography by including exceptionally valuable chapters on topics such as the tribes Muḥammad encountered in various parts of Arabia, the internal politics in Medina, the character of the new Islamic state, and Muḥammad 's reform of the Arabian social structure. Twelve additional excurses add to the value of this volume; these include topics such as marriage and family life in pre-Islamic times, Muḥammad 's marriages, and a list (with dates and page numbers in Ibn Isḥāq and al-Wāqidī) of all the expeditions Muḥammad led and those he sent out.
  • Watt, W. Montgomery. Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman. London and New York, 1961. Essentially an abridgment of the author 's two-volume biography, except that the chronological order of Muḥammad 's life is followed more closely and material that does not deal specifically with Muḥammad is omitted.
  • Welch, Alford T.“Muhammad 's Understanding of Himself: The Koranic Data.” In Islam 's Understanding of Itself, edited by Richard G. Hovannisian and Speros Vryonis, Jr., pp. 15–52. Malibu, Calif., 1983. Study of Qurʿānic portrayals of Muḥammad in Meccan and Medinan contexts that provides analysis and additional references regarding topics treated in the present article.
  • Wensinck, A. J.Muhammad and the Jews of Medina. Translated by Wolfgang Behn. Freiburg im Breisgau, 1975. Translation from the original Dutch, Mohammed en de Joden te Medina. Leiden, 1908. Despite its age and a number of later books on related topics, this classic continues to present the clearest, most concise view of the relationship between Muḥammad and the Jewish clans of Medina.

Alford T. Welch Updated by Ahmad S. Moussalli


The “Life” of Muḥammad (c.570–632 CE) has been one of the most important genres in the Islamic literary tradition from the earliest periods of Islam to the present. Numerous biographies exist in all Islamic languages in prose, poetry, and recently on film. Muḥammad's companions began collecting information about him while he was still alive, particularly about his military exploits (maghāzī) after the Hijrah (622). This material consisted of short prose accounts (ḥadīth, khabar) centered on one theme and sometimes accompanied by the name of a witness. The reports were anecdotal and modeled on the heroic genre of the pre-Islamic ayyām al-ʿArab ([battle] days of the Arabs), although there was little poetry in the early collections. Very little about Muḥammad's childhood and early life can be found in the first biographies. No formal editions were made of this material until much later, and there is no evidence that any of it was put in chronological order before the middle of the first Islamic century.

Early Writings.

The death of Muḥammad in 632 CE, the crises of succession, and the expansion of Islam beyond Arabia had a profound impact on the biographies of Muḥammad. In the social and religious turmoil of the first Islamic century, when Islam expanded to present-day France in the west and India in the east, many groups began to collect and organize real and fictitious traditions about Muḥammad to serve their religious, political, and social needs. Genealogical closeness to the Prophet or to his family played an important role for many groups, not the least of whom were the Shīʿīs. To this day, claiming to be a descendant of Muḥammad's tribe or family carries political or religious prestige in many parts of the Islamic world. By the end of the first Islamic century, claims to political power were being made not only on the basis of membership in the Prophet's family, clan, or tribe, but also on contending views that Muḥammad had designated ʿAlī, his closest male relative, or Abū Bakr, his father-in-law and close adviser, as his successor (khalīfah, caliph).

Intergroup accusations of falsification of traditions and the need to establish a solid basis for religious and political claims promoted an increase in the collection of stories about Muḥammad, his wives, and his companions. Muslims interested in establishing a basis for proper conduct and understanding of the Qurʿān insisted on making citations about Muḥammad more exact and scholarly. By the beginning of the second Islamic century and the ʿAbbāsid revolution, all traditions were expected to have a sound chain of attribution (isnād) reaching back through recognized and reliable transmitters. This requirement led to the collection of biographical data about the companions and subsequent transmitters of traditions as well as the writing of heresiographical treatises in which the reliability of individuals and groups was judged by their adherence to one religious norm or another. Because Sunnī and Shīʿī doctrines were only forming during this early period, many collections reflect attitudes that were later rejected.

In spite of increased scholarly attention, or perhaps because of it, traditions of dubious authenticity entered the major collections. This fact, coupled with the inevitable loss of historical material over time, has presented problems for both classical and modern scholars in reconstructing a picture of the historical Muḥammad. Some Western scholars are so skeptical as to deny the possibility of knowing anything about Muḥammad's biography. These problems were also faced by the early collectors of traditions: for example, the collector al-Bukhārī (d. 870) is said to have chosen only about 7,275 traditions as reliable from more than 600,000. Issues of the reliability of traditions and the veracity of transmitters remain a central issue in Muslim legal discussions and in intercommunal disputes between Sunnī and Shīʿī.

Sīrah and Sunnah.

Toward the end of the first Islamic century, biographical materials about Muḥammad began to be grouped into two distinct types of collections—one historical, discursive, and narrative, called sīrah, and the other discrete, anecdotal, and ahistoric, called sunnah. The two terms had been used interchangeably but now came to designate separate functions for the sacred biography within the Islamic communities. Sīrah came to be used exclusively for narrative histories of Muḥammad and other prophets with whom he was compared. As a result it became the basis for the Muslim views of history. The sīrah written by Muḥammad ibn Isḥāq (d. 767) was an apology for the ʿAbbāsid revolution and a model for subsequent universal histories, such as that by the famous al-Ṭabarī (d. 923). It started with the creation and chronicled the history of the world up to Muḥammad, demonstrating how Muḥammad's life was the fulfillment of the divine mission. In this form, it matched Jewish and Christian hagiographic and apocalyptic works with which it shared many features. Muḥammad's life was compared to previous prophets and holy men in the Jewish and Christian traditions, in keeping with the Muslim view that Islam is the culmination of divine revelation. The comparisons served to aid Muslim missionary activities but also led to accusations among Christians that Muḥammad's similarity to Jesus meant that he was the Antichrist. A shorter form, edited by Ibn Hishām (d. ca. 827), rapidly became the standard biography in the Islamic world and the basis for most subsequent works.

Sunnah developed as the basis for Islamic law (sharīʿah) in which Muḥammad became the paradigm for proper behavior. In this genre, Muḥammad is represented ahistorically as explaining or acting out some aspect of correct behavior. Even in those traditions that can be dated to some part of Muḥammad's life, the emphasis is more on the universality of the action rather than on the historical specificity of the event. The Islamic use of sacred biography as a model goes beyond that found in Christianity or Judaism. For example, we know Muḥammad's favorite foods (honey and nuts), we know that he would not wear silk or gold, and we know when and how he performed oral hygiene. Many Muslims today will eat sweets made from honey, consciously aware that Muḥammad did so, and Muslim men will not wear silk and will cleanse their teeth as religious acts. Through sunnah (or more properly, through ḥadīth) it is possible to reconstruct a detailed picture of Muḥammad's life, but not a historical picture.

Biography and the Qurʿān.

The few biographical references to Muḥammad found in the Qurʿān can be fully understood only by means of the independent biographical traditions, so the biography of Muḥammad serves in part as a commentary on the Qurʿān rather than the Qurʿān being a historical source for Muḥammad's life. The technical relationships between verses of the Qurʿān and ḥadīth are matters of Islamic legal theory, but by the second Islamic century, most Muslims had agreed generally on when passages of the Qurʿān appeared in Muḥammad's life. For the believing community, Muḥammad, conceived of as freed or protected from sin and error, was the key to understanding the difficulties in the sacred scripture. Even the legendary stories regarded with skepticism by pious Muslim scholars served a didactic function in the popular imagination and hence were preserved, embellished, and fixed in the biographical traditions.

Associated Observances.

Popular narrative and poetic biographies have long been associated with the celebration of the Prophet's birthday (ʿĪd al-Mīlād, or Mawlīd). Such celebrations can include readings from the Qurʿān, recitations of poetry, songs, and the preparation of food, which is dedicated to Muḥammad and then donated to the poor. In South Asian Islamic communities some of the celebrations incorporate characteristics of the local culture. Some condemn these practices as non-Islamic innovations; for example, several fatwās have been issued by religious authorities in Saudi Arabia against the practice of women reciting poetry addressed to Muḥammad that implies that Muḥammad will be at least spiritually present at the celebration. Even the government-sponsored conference on the biography of Muḥammad held in Pakistan in 1982 was condemned by some Saudi religious authorities because it celebrated the Prophet's birthday. Other examples of adaptation of Muḥammad's biography to local literary forms can be seen in the “infancy poetry” (pillaittamil) written in Tamil in Southeast India, in which Muḥammad is depicted in the same manner as an infant Hindu god.

Biography and Modernism.

Biographies of Muḥammad proved to be as susceptible to the influences of modernism and colonialism as other Islamic institutions. In the face of Western scientific inquiry into the “historical” Muḥammad, many Muslims adopted either accommodationist or rejectionist attitudes toward such biographies. William Muir'sThe Life of Muhammad From Original Sources provoked strong reaction in the Indo-Muslim communities, presaging the recent reaction to Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. While the first work purports to be a scholarly inquiry into the historical Muḥammad and the second a work of imaginative fiction, they both offend the belief among some Muslims that the “Life” of Muḥammad is almost as sacred as the Qurʿān. Similar criticism, although not so violent, has been leveled at Muḥammad Ḥusayn Haykal'sThe Life of Muhammad. One factor contributing to crystallizing the biography of Muḥammad has been the uses to which it has been put for Islamic modernism (tajdīd), for example in the establishment of a Ṣūfī Ṭarīqah Muḥammadīyah (Way of Muḥammad) in the eighteenth century.

Western Biographies.

Until modern times, Western views of Muḥammad have, with rare exceptions, been hostile. (A contrary example is Thomas Carlyle's On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History.) The tendencies of Islamic biographies to portray Muḥammad as a spiritual isomorph of various prophets, including Jesus, have been seized on by Western polemicists who claimed that Muḥammad was merely a deceiver and that Islam started as a Christian (or Jewish) heresy. This bias is so pervasive that the reader must be cautioned about finding it in much material available in Western languages written before the mid-twentieth century. Some recent Western scholars, taking an antipositivist interpretive stance, deny that we can know the historical Muḥammad at all and contend that all of his biography is a hagiographic fiction see ISLAMIC STUDIES, subentry onHISTORY OF THE FIELD.


Biographies of Muḥammad continue to be one of the most popular forms of literary expression among Muslims. They provide spiritual models for the individual Muslim and paradigms for community formation among emerging Islamic republics. Interest in the West has increased to include popular as well as scholarly biographies. Attempts to portray Muḥammad in film have been discouraged by opposition within Muslim communities, although a 1976 Lebanese film, The Messenger, starring Anthony Quinn, was widely distributed. Probably its most noted feature was the fact that no image of Muḥammad was shown, in keeping with an Islamic aniconic tradition. If past trends and current increases in the number of Muslims throughout the world are any indication, one can expect the popular and resilient genre of Muḥammad's biographies to incorporate most modern literary forms.


  • Abbott, Nabia. Aishah, the Beloved of Mohammed. Chicago, 1942. Sympathetic view of Muḥammad based on original sources from the perspective of his favorite wife.
  • Crone, Patricia, and Michael Cook. Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World. Cambridge, U.K., 1977. Analysis of early Islam that strongly questions the reliability of available sources.
  • Haykal, Muḥammad Ḥusayn. The Life of Muhammad. Translated from the Arabic eighth edition by Ismāʿīl R. al-Fārūqī. Indianapolis, 1993. English translation of an Egyptian journalist's biography of Muḥammad.
  • Ibn Hishām, ʿAbd al-Malik. The Life of Muhammad. Translated from the Arabic and edited by Alfred Guillaume. Lahore, 1967. Reconstruction and translation of the earliest biography of Muḥammad. Reprint of the 1955 edition.
  • Lings, Martin. Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources. Rev. ed.Rochester, Vt., 2006.
  • Motzki, Harald, ed.The Biography of Muḥammad: The Issue of the Sources. Leiden, and Boston, Mass., 2000.
  • Newby, Gordon D.The Making of the Last Prophet. Columbia, S.C., 1989. Study of the early development of Muḥammad's biography, with bibliography.
  • Schimmel, Annemarie. And Muhammad Is His Messenger: The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1985. Sympathetic discussion of the role of Muḥammad in popular Muslim piety.
  • Watt, W. Montgomery. Muhammad at Mecca. Oxford, 1953. Readable scholarly analysis of Muḥammad's early life, based on original sources.
  • Watt, W. Montgomery. Muhammad at Medina. Oxford, 1956. Noted Western Islamicist's analysis of Muḥammad's later career. Readable and accurate.
  • Waugh, Earle H.“Following the Beloved: Muhammad as Model in the Sufī Tradition.” In The Biographical Process, edited by Frank E. Reynolds and Donald Capps, pp. 63–85. The Hague, 1976. Explains the role of Muḥammad as a paradigm for behavior among Ṣūfīs.

Gordon D. Newby

Role of the Prophet in Muslim Thought and Practice

During the first three centuries of Islamic thought, Muslims viewed the prophet Muḥammad in terms of key religious images. For the scholars of Islamic law, the Prophet was the legislator-jurist who defined the limits and possibilities of ritual observance; for the mystic, he was the ideal seeker on a journey to spiritual perfection; and for the philosopher and the statesman, he was the role model of a resolute conqueror and a just ruler. For most ordinary Muslims, the Prophet was a beautiful model, a source of God's grace and salvation.

These various images for the Prophet have since been repeated and refined in a continuing “biographical process.” Scholars have continuously refashioned the Prophet in extensive biographies, of which the earliest extant work is that of Muḥammad ibn Isḥāq (d. AH150/767 CE) edited by Muḥammad Hishām (d. AH238/833 CE). Most ordinary Muslims, however, have learned about the Prophet as a part of religious observances rather than through scholarly writings.

Modern Images of Muh.ammad.

In the modern period, the image of Muḥammad has undergone changes in direct response to the rise of the West and a corresponding decline in the material fortunes of Muslim society. From being the supreme symbol of a powerful and dominant civilization, Muḥammad has had to adapt to a community embattled on all sides.

Muslim conceptions of the Prophet have also been challenged by the rise of historicocritical scholarship in the West. The search for the historical Muḥammad redeemed him from the vilified stereotype of Christian theology. At the same time, however, he is now viewed from an array of critical, often reductionist, perspectives; instead of being a Christian impostor, he became a psychopath or a mere product of the material forces of seventh-century Arabia. These developments in modern scholarship have influenced the new images constructed within the Muslim community by Muslims at the crossroads between the West and traditional Islam. There are at least three identifiable images in modern Islamic thought: the universalization of the Prophet as a unique model of civilization in Muslim apologetic; the Prophet as a model of sociopolitical ideologies; and the de-emphasis of the Prophet as the supreme spiritual font and presence.

Muh.ammad as a Model for Civilization.

The “universalization” of the prophet Muḥammad begins with the modernist reformers at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. The works of Syed Ameer Ali and Muḥammad Ḥusayn Haykal are representative examples of modernist castings of the Prophet in response to both the Christian theological images of the Prophet and the historicocritical theories of Western scholars. In their hands, he becomes the ideal personality manifesting the values of modern civilization. They used the prophet Muḥammad to claim the values they admired in the powerful West. Although not all Muslims have felt the need to rebut the European image of the Prophet, there has been a general caution in approaching traditional Muslim sources.

Muh.ammad as a Sociopolitical Model.

This universalistic view was incorporated in the second image of the Prophet as a model for sociopolitical development which received greater attention by Muslims during the period of nation-building, ranging from the struggles for independence to the call for an Islamic state. This image de-emphasizes the apologetic of the early modernists, but results in a dispute over which particular ideology the Prophet championed.

Islamic modernism focused on the comprehensiveness of Islam and its validity as a complete life system that contains the components of progress and its compatibility with reason, science, and modernity. It called as well for the return to the authentic fundamentals of religion (the Qurʿān and sunnah), for the adoption of ijtihād, and for the abandonment of traditionalism. The modernist Islamic thinkers, like Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (1838–1897), Muḥammad ʿAbdu (1849–1905), and Rashīd Riḍā (1865–1935), were greatly affected by the Wahhābī call.

The discourses of Islamic renaissance tried to distinguish between two methods, one divine and another human. This was an attempt to free the Qurʿānic text and prophetic traditions from modern epistemological, social, and political frameworks. The renaissance ideologues thought that the reading of Islamic heritage from a liberal perspective would lead to the rise of a democratic national revolution under the umbrella of Islam itself.

The Arab renaissance, for instance, grounded its most important doctrines in natural reason. Islamism, or Islamic fundamentalism, on the other hand, ultimately grounds the doctrines of an Islamic renaissance in novel interpretations of Islamic fundamental texts, the Qurʿān and the prophetic traditions. Thus the modernist Islamic thinkers adopt and adapt into Islam the principles of Western Enlightenment, including the distinction between state and society; the need for civil government; the necessity of a social contract that can be dissolved; the centrality of civil society; popular will; standing law or constitution; a limited government; and political representation.

Muhammad Iqbal rejected the idea of nationalism within the particular Islamic notions of commitment and universality in Muḥammad's teachings. At the same time, however, he speaks of the ummah (Muslim community) inheriting the function and responsibility of the Prophet. This then becomes the basis of a special “Islamic nationalism” witnessed in, for example, the Islamic state of Pakistan. Later, under the impact of Gamal Abdel Nasser's socialist experiment in Egypt, the prophet Muḥammad was seen as a socialist revolutionary. This sociopolitical image reached its climax in the work of Zakaria Bashier.

De-emphasis of Muh.ammad's Spiritual Significance.

The universal and sociopolitical images of the Prophet are accompanied by the suppression of his spiritual significance. Under the modern reformulations the Prophet loses his central spiritual station. Earlier modernists did in fact emphasize a hazy moral and spiritual legacy of the Prophet in the service of their secularist project. Under these conditions, however, the Prophet is granted spirituality on condition that he depart from the center stage of history.

In spite of the numerous biographies by Muslims in the twentieth century, then, there lurks a deep question about the religious presence of the Prophet. It is not surprising that the rise of the Aḥmadīyah (Qādiānīs), who accepted Mirzā Ghulām Aḥmad (1835–1908) as a new prophet, accompanied strong modernist inclinations. Some Muslim thinkers have expressed this deep malaise in artistic form. Iqbal, for example, spoke of the Prophet as supreme doubter; he even suggested that the belief in the finality of the prophet Muḥammad carries the seed of its “own abolition.” The Egyptian playwright Naguib Mahfouz (Najīb Maḥfūẓ) also addressed the issue in Awlād ḥāratinā (The People of Our Quarter, 1959), an allegorical account of religion and the end of religion, including Islam, in modern times.

Muh.ammad and Islamic Reform Movements.

The growing influence of religion in politics and culture around the world is one of the most remarkable developments of the twentieth century. Identifying an authentically Islamic perspective is part of the Islamists’ challenge in presenting Islam as an alternative vision of Western modernity, an “Islamic modernity,” underscoring its authenticity and cultural distance from the hegemonic Western discourse. This worldview stands in radical contrast to the liberal-modernist worldview.

The return to the Prophetic biographies, traditions, and actions has been part of the ideologies of the revivalist movements in the Islamic world. Most modern Muslim thinkers agree with Muḥammad that the religious and the political are interwoven and cannot be separated. Along these lines, the Wahhābīyah has called for the purification of Islam by a return to the uṣūl (fundamentals) of religion, namely the Qurʿān and the sunnah. It followed a strict line of thinking in its attempts to reconstruct society and government on the basis of divine tawḥīd (oneness of God), Prophetic traditions, and the doctrine of al-salaf al-ṣaliḥ (pious ancestors). Other important movements in modern times, Sānusīyah and Mahdīyah, followed suit. The political importance of the Prophet is obvious in the contemporary biographies by Muḥammad Ḥusayn Haykal, Ṭāhā Ḥusayn, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Sharqāwī, and Khalīl ʿAbd al-Karīm.

Some scholars distinguish between two trends of Islamic reform, one that depends on the centrality of the text, another that depends on the centrality of the inspiring personality as the representation of sacred authority. The first trend represents generally the traditional Sunnī schools, in addition to the Khawārij. The other trend is represented by Shīʿī schools and Ṣūfī orders. In later periods, the Wahhābīyah movement represents the first trend, and the Mahdīyah and Ṣūfī movements represent the second.

For the majority of Islamists, or fundamentalists, the Qurʿān and the sunnah are the source material for fundamental reinterpretation of Islam. Thus, Islamism conceives the Qurʿān and prophetic traditions as non-historical, eternal principles of Islam that must be used to create good societies and rectify evil ones. Islamism nonetheless relies heavily on the historically developed religious and political formations, especially those of the period of the governments of the Prophet and the Rightly Guided Caliphs. This period is seen as formative and constitutive in the making of modern Islamic thought because of its distinctive religious and political impact on the minds of almost all Muslims. The vast majority of Muslim thinkers, philosophers, jurists, ideologists, and historians employ the prophetic experience to justify one interpretation or another. The model that almost all jurists and most Muslims employ in the modern age to justify their theories of the highest political model is the state that the prophet Muḥammad founded and ruled.

The Prophet's short rule of the first Islamic state and the formative political doctrines developed therein, such as shūrā (consultation), ijmāʿ (consensus), the contract, constitutional rule, freedom of religion, pluralism, and individuals’ rights became the model for an Islamic political framework. After his migration to Medina, Muḥammad set forth the first constitutional document in Islam (al-Ṣaḥīfa), establishing the first multi-religious, pluralistic, political entity for the Muslims. This act confirmed Muḥammad as the leader, ruler, and judge of the community, in addition, of course, to his status as God's messenger.

The significance of this constitution for the development and reinterpretation of modern Islamic political thought is immense. First of all, it sanctioned the coexistence of many groups and recognized collective identities, with no attempt to convert non-Muslims to Islam. Second, instead of employing purely Qurʿānic or Islamic justifications, general human principles of solidarity, mutual responsibility, and defense of the community against aggression became the frame of reference. Thirdly, it accepted minorities and recognized their rights to administer their own affairs according to their religious and tribal laws. More importantly, the drawing of this constitution and its acceptance by non-Muslims signaled the Prophet's contractual legitimacy as the community's elder statesman and judge.

The majority of modern Muslim thinkers agree that the Prophet did not specify a particular form of government but, instead, provided guidelines based on justice, freedom, shūrā in public affairs, and enjoining the good and forbidding evil. Fundamental guidelines include protecting religion, administering justice, defending the state, applying Islamic law and the laws of other groups, collecting and dispensing state revenues, appointing state administration, and addressing all matters of concern to the state and the community.

During the twentieth century, along with Abū al-Aʿlā al-Mawdūdī, Ḥasan Nadwī, Ḥasan al-Bannā, Sayyid Quṭb and others, it was possible to speak of Islamic movements based on a reconstructed model of culture and civilization drawing their authority from divine sources—the Qurʿān, the sunnah, and the period of the Rightly Guided Caliphs. Although they continue to depend on the inspired personality to varying degrees, the general attitude of the modern Islamic movements is to focus on the centrality of the text and the return to the Qurʿān and the sunnah.

The solution for al-Mawdūdī and al-Bannā, the real founders of Islamism, was that the Muslim nation would not succeed except by following what Muḥammad and the earlier Muslims did: setting up the Muslim nation first and then the Islamic state. This occurs when a nucleus of Muslims who believe in the Islamic call unites people around it and persists in maintaining its Qurʿān and sunnah without compromise until the ideal of Islam takes hold.

The revival of the Prophet model in modern times serves as a way of deconstructing traditionalism and reconstructing Islamic thought, whether moderate or radical, modernist or Islamist. This model is central to any attempt to rethink Islam in terms of modernity, postmodernity, and globalization.



  • ʿAlī, Ṣāliḥ Aḥmad. Dawlat al-Rasūl fī al-Madīna. Beirut, 2001.
  • Andrae, Tor. Mohammed: The Man and His Faith. Translated by Theophil Menzel. London and New York, 1936. Rev. ed. New York, 1955.
  • Bint al-Shāṭiʿ [ʿĀʿishah ʿAbd al-Raḥmān]. The Wives of the Prophet. Translated by Matti Moosa and D. Nicholas Ranson. Lahore, Pakistan, 1971.
  • Buhl, Frants. Das Leben Muhammeds. Translated by H. H. Schaeder. Leipzig, 1930. No English translation exists, but a summary is available in Buhl's “Muḥammad,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. 3, pp. 641–657. Leiden, Netherlands, 1913–.
  • Bush, George. The Life of Mohammed. San Diego, Calif., 1831 (revised 2002).
  • Dayf, Shawqi. Muhammad: Khatam al-Mursalin. Cairo, 2000.
  • Glubb, John Bagot. The Life and Times of Muhammad. London and New York, 1970.
  • Hamidullah, Muhammad. The Battlefields of the Prophet Muhammad, with Maps, Illustrations, and Sketches: A Contribution to Muslim Military History. Hyderabad, India, 1973.
  • Haykal, Muḥammad Ḥusayn. The Life of Muḥammad. Translated by Ismāʿīl Rājī al-Fārūqī. [Indianapolis], 1976. Translation of the eighth edition of the Arabic, Ḥayāt Muḥammad, 1st ed., Cairo, 1935.
  • Ibn Isḥāq, Muḥammad. The Life of Muḥammad: A Translation of Ibn Isḥāq's Sīrat Rasūl Allāh. Translated by Alfred Guillaume. London and Karachi, 1955. Ibn Isḥāq's Sīrah or Maghāzī is extant in two recensions, one by Ibn Hishām, used by Guillaume and often listed as the “author” of this translation, and another by Yūnus ibn Bukayr (d. 814).
  • Ibn Saʿd, Muḥammad. Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir [The Large Book of the Generations]. Translated by Syed Haq, assisted by H. K. Ghazanfar. Karachi, Pakistan, 1967.
  • Lings, Martin. Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources. London and New York, 1983.
  • Mallāḥ, Hāshim. Hukūmat al-Rasūl. Baghdad, 2002.
  • Muslim ibn al-Ḥajjāj al-Qushayrī. Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim: Being Traditions of the Sayings and Doings of the Prophet Muḥammad as Narrated by his Companions and Compiled under the Title al-Jāmiʿ-us-ṣaḥīḥ. 4 vols. Translated by ʿAbdul Hamīd Siddīqī. Lahore, Pakistan, 1976.
  • Nuwayhī, Muḥammad al-. “Towards a Re-Evaluation of the Muhammad: Prophet and Man.”Muslim World60 (1970): 300–313.
  • Saeed, Khalifa. An Analytical Review of the Life of the Holy Prophet. Sialkot, Pakistan, n.d.
  • Schimmel, Annemarie. And Muhammad Is His Messenger: The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1985.
  • Smith, Charles D.Islam and the Search for Social Order in Modern Egypt: A Biography of Muhammad Husayn Haykal. Albany, N.Y., 1983.
  • Wāqidī, Muḥammad ibn ʿUmar al-. Kitāb al-Maghāzī lil-Wāqidī. 3 vols. Edited by Marsden Jones. London, 1966. Julius Wellhausen prepared an abridged German translation, Muhammed in Medina: Das ist Vakidi's Kitab alMaghazi [sic] in verkürzter deutscher Wiedergabe (Berlin, 1882).
  • Watt, W. Montgomery. Muhammad at Mecca. Oxford, 1953.
  • Watt, W. Montgomery. Muhammad at Medina. Oxford, 1956.
  • Watt, W. Montgomery. Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman. London and New York, 1961.

Ahmad Moussalli

  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2022. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice