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The Biography of Muhammad: The Issue of the Sources
by Asma Afsaruddin
The Biography of Muhammad: The Issue of the Sources
Journal of the American Oriental Society
Updated: July 7th, 2011
Reviewed work(s): The Biography of Muhammad: The Issue of the Sources by Harald Motzki
The Biography of Muhammad: The Issue of the Sources. Edited by HARALD MOTZKI. Islamic History and Civilization, Studies and Texts, vol. 32. Leiden: BRILL, 2000. Pp. xvi 330.
This volume of ten essays is the result of a colloquium held at the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, in October, 1997, in order to discuss the problem of using the primary Arabic sources at our disposal to reconstruct the life of the prophet of Islam. The editor, Harald Motzki, describes the central dilemma as currently perceived by many modern scholars of Islam: "on the one hand, it is not possible to write a historical biography of the Prophet without being accused of using the sources uncritically, while on the other hand, when using the sources critically, it is simply not possible to write such a biography" (p. xiv). However, as the various essays in this volume show, the issue need not be so glaringly black and white. Critical re-reading of the sources allows us to reassess this situation more optimistically, especially since the project of reconstructing "the historical reality which the sources reflect is an issue which has been scarcely studied in depth and is indeed far from being settied" (p. xvi).
The book is divided into two sections; the first section entitled "The Development of the Stra Tradition," is led off by Uri Rubin's essay "The Life of Muhammad and the Islamic Self-Image." Rubin focuses here on the different versions of a single event from the Prophet's Madman period to trace its "textual history," particularly in terms of what these versions may have to say about the "self-image of the Muslims of the first Islamic century" (p. 3). The event, well known from the stra literature, occurred in 6/627-28 when Muhammad and his Companions were prevented from performing the pilgrimage by the pagan Makkans and were forced to halt at a place called al-Hudaybiyya. The depictions of the consultation scene that ensued between the Prophet and his Companions as to the proper course of action to adopt is rightly read by Rubin as pointing inter alia to the merits ([fada.sup.[contains]]il) of both the Companions and the process of consultation (mashura) for resolving intractable problems. But I think Rubin is off t rack when he reads another version of the Hudaybiyya event as encoding a nationalist discourse. In this version, Miqdad b. al-Aswad assures Muhammad that, unlike the children of Israel, they would not abandon their prophet if they had to go to battle; in this context, Miqdad alludes to Surat al-[Ma.sup.[subset]]ida 5:24, which is understood to refer to the biblical story of spies (Numbers 13- 14). Rubin reads Miqdad's statement as a contraposition of the "bad Israelites" to the "good Arabs," a reading along nationalist or ethnic lines that is anachronistic. The contraposition is more appropriately understood as drawn between those Jews who have done wrong in the past by refusing to come to the aid of their prophet and those Muslims in the present (from the narrator's point of view) who can lay claim to greater righteousness by obeying their prophet. This understanding is reinforced by looking at other versions of the Hudaybiyya event. Ibn Hisham's version of this event (1) mentions that when the Prophet invited th e Arabs and the Bedouin to march with him to Hudaybiyya, some of them demurred. In [Shi.sup.[subset]]iliterature, this noncompliance of a number of the Arabs, who are thereby proven to be insincere Muslims, is contrasted with [Ali.sup.[subset]] b. Abi Talib's ready compliance as a sincere Muslim to lay down his life for the cause of Islam in the mabit al-firash event. (2) These depictions of the Hudaybiyya event are thus clearly embedded in a discourse of piety; the paranetic intent is to emphasize the righteousness of those who obey God and His prophet's commandments as opposed to those who do not; ethnicity is irrelevant.
In "Sira and Tafsir: Muhammad al-Kalbi on the Jews of Medina," Marco Scholler examines reports from al-Kalbi concerning the Prophet's conflict with the Arabian Jews and finds that such reports already impart more information on legal issues than other tafsir works of the second/eighth century. This allows Scholler to reach the significant conclusion "that the exegetical material and the traditions in early tafsir literature are not abstracted from or adapted to the accounts as we find them in maghazi traditions, but, on the contrary, precede them" (p. 42), challenging a body of scholarship that has claimed the opposite.
Adrien Leites in "Sira and the Question of Tradition," develops a method of interpretation of sira and related literature by distinguishing between "report," which designates the verbal unit, and "tradition," which designates the unit of meaning. The structural relation between the two generates what he calls "association," allowing him to discern narrative intent that may also reflect doctrinal concerns. He illustrates this method by looking at various versions of the "shooting star" tradition; these versions are divided between those that stress Muhammad's role as a "functional prophet," that is, as a man whose prophetic mission began at a certain point in time, and those that stress his role as an "ontological prophet," that is, as a prophet whose mission was ordained from the beginning of time. I found this distinction (ultimately borrowed from Tor Andrae, as Leites admits) particularly illuminating, applicable as it is to specific Companions as well, whose image, like that of the Prophet's, is aggrandiz ed in some particularly late manaqib (hagiographic) works so as to point to their preternatural selection as ashab, Based on his scrutiny of early and late reports, Leites demonstrates convincingly that the "functional prophet" was the earlier version among Sunni authors, although later Sunni memory eventually came to incorporate both versions, while [Shi.sup.[subset]]i memory, characteristically, preferred the "ontological" version.
Gregor Schoeller's "Mush b. [Uqba's.sup.[subset]] Maghazi" attempts a renewed examination of the Muntakhab, a title applied to nineteen traditions attributed to Musa b. [Uqba.sup.[subset]] (d. 141/758) contained in the Berlin "fragment" Ahlwardt No. 1552. His reappraisal of the significance of this papyrus fragment, believed to be from Musa's maghazi work, is prompted by the recent accessibility of new sources that contain reports attributed to Musa. This allows Schoeller in particular to reassess Joseph Schacht's article on Musa's Maghazi, in which Schacht claimed to have shown that his theory regarding the Islamic legal tradition can also be extended to the historical one. One report that does not go back to al-Zuhri, Musa's principal source, and believed by Schacht to be a forgery with an anti-[Alid.sup.[subset]] bias, can now be shown to have been severed from a larger tradition. A parallel tradition in al-Tayalisi's Musnad proves convincingly that the complete hadith erases the supposed anti-[Alid.sup.[subset]] bias in the truncat ed version and the isnad restores the name of Musa b. [Uqba.sup.[subset]] within it, who is thus shown not to have always transmitted from al-Zuhri. Contra Schacht's assertions, Schoel1cr points to the essential reliability of al-Zuhri as a tradent through isnad analysis of parallel traditions and disproves the existence of pro-[Abbasid.sup.[subset]] tendencies in the Muntakhab.
Maher Jarrar provides a useful survey of early [Shi.sup.[subset]]i sources on the life of the Prophet in his "Sirat Ahl al-Kisa: Early [Shi.sup.[subset]]i Sources on the Biography of the Prophet." The earliest credible compiler of sira and maghazi is the Kufan mawla Aban b. [Uthman.sup.[subset]] al-Ahmar (d. between A.D. 790 and 815), a disciple of the sixth and seventh Imams, [Ja.sup.[subset]]far al-Sadiq and Musa al-Kazim. The historical material attributed to Aban is found primarily in al-Kulini, Ibn Babawayh al-Qummi, al-Tabrisi, and al-Majlisi. Jarrar's analysis of these akhbar leads him to the discovery that they emanate from a wide range of transmitters and that the language and style of many of these reports resemble the style of Aban's contemporaries al-Waqidi and Yunus b. Bukayr. Jarrar thus concludes that a fairly well-developed sira-maghazi genre with a distinctive form, topoi, and schemata were already in circulation in the early second/eighth century in the Hijaz, Iraq, and Syria. He ends his article by speculating, quite credibly, that early sira works like Aban's were allowed to fade away because their contents, more similar to Sunni accounts, no longer meshed with later [Shi.sup.[subset]]i imamology that came to stress the soteriological status of the Prophet's family and the supernatural knowledge of the Imams.
Michael Lecker's thought-provoking article "Did the Quraysh Conclude a Treaty with the Ansar Prior to the Hijra?" starts off the second section of the book, entitled "The Historical Reliability of Biographical Source Material." Lecker looks at several late biographies of Muhammad and establishes their relevance for alternative versions of certain events in the Prophet's life. One such event is the [Aqaba.sup.[subset]] meeting, concerning which some late biographical works, such as the Sira Shamiyya composed by al-Salihi (d. 942/1535-36), the Nashr al-mahasin of Ibn al-[Dayba.sup.[subset]] (d. 944/1537), and the [Ta.sup.[contains]]rikh al-khamis of Husayn al-Diyarbakri (d. 990/1582), preserve reports that suggest that the Prophet's hijra to Madina may have been paved by diplomatic negotiations rather than providential intervention, as usually portrayed in the standard sira material. Lecker suggests plausibly that these reports consequently did not find their way into the traditional biographies that preferred to cast the hijra, a momentous event in Islam's early history, in theological terms. This suggestion does not exhaust the range of interpretive possibilities, however; these "alternative" reports also encode a "[fada.sup.[contains]]il contest" (p. 164 n. 38). These counter-reports may thus also be read as indicating the attempts of the Ansar to elevate their role in the epochal event of the hijra and consequently lay claim to the kind of sabiqa ("priority in Islam") traditionally assigned primarily to the Makkan Muhajirun.
In his lengthy article, "The Murder of Ibn Abi l-Hugayq: On the Origin and Reliability of Some Maghazi Reports," Harald Motzki illustrates a sophisticated method of hadith analysis, which he calls isnad-cum-matn analysis, that combines isnad scrutiny with analysis of the matn. He applies this method to several existing versions of a little-known episode concerning Ibn Abi 'l-Huqayq, a Jew from Khaybar, who was assassinated by a group of Ansar. Through meticulous (albeit tedious, as we are warned by Motzki himself) analysis of the bundles of isnads for the variant reports and by carefully collating these isnads with the texts, Motzki is able to come to the following important conclusions: 1) that there are four basic tradition complexes; 2) on the basis of isnad analysis, these reports are quite archaic, as evidenced by the four common links in their isnad bundles; and 3) matn analysis indicates that the variants within each tradition complex are independent of one another and "must for that reason go back to a common source" (p. 231). According to Motzki, this common source would have to be located in a period during the last third of the first/seventh century.
This detailed and time-consuming source-critical method is not for the faint-hearted; as the author appropriately muses, "We may wonder whether the outcome will justify the time and energy needed for such an enterprise" (p. 233). Yet, one feels, significant components of the traditional sources must be subjected to this kind of rigorous scrutiny so as to put the proverbial historical "kernel" of truth verifiably within our reach.
In his "The Historical Tradition about al-Hudaybiyya," Andras Gorke wishes to reconstruct the original account of this event from [Urwa.sup.[subset]] b. al-Zubayr. To this end, Gorke studies in detail the various versions of the Hudaybiyya event emanating from three principal tradents reporting from [Urwa.sup.[subset]] b. al-Zubayr: Ibn Ishaq, [Ma.sup.[subset]]mar b. Rashid, and [Abd.sup.[subset]] al-Rahman b. [Abd.sup.[subset]] al[AZIZ.sup.[subset]], in addition to "smaller versions" from al-Zuhri, Hisham b. [Urwa.sup.[subset]], and Abu 'l-Aswad. This investigation allows him to detect common literary topoi, as well as signs of formalization in many of these versions, and political tendentiousness. This leads him to conclude that "the portrayal of al-Hudaybiyya conveyed to us by the earliest extant sources is the result of a long process of transmission and redaction" (p. 267).
Robert G. Hoylands' "The Earliest Christian Writings on Muhammad: An Appraisal," assesses the historical value of the earliest Christian writings in Syriac on the Prophet dating from the first two centuries of Islam (1-200/622-815). Five distinct prophetic images emerge from these accounts: Muhammad the initiator of the conquests; the trader; the king; the reviver of monotheism; and the prophet/false prophet. Hoyland argues that once one gets past the obvious polemical distortions that shape these narratives, they can serve as sources of supplementary information to the Muslim narratives; and frequently because they are precisely dateable, the Christian sources can provide a realistic time-frame for certain events. Thus, comparison of the comments by John bar Penkaye (fl. 687) and by Zuqnin (fl. 775) almost a century later, allows one to infer, for example, that prophetic tradition that appears to be primarily oral in the lifetime of the former achieves written form by that of the latter.
In the final article, "Muhammad in the [Qur.sup.[contains]]an: Reading Scripture in the 21st Century," Andrew Rippin engages in a discussion of whether, in respect to the [Qur.sup.[contains]]an, "Muhammad the person, his time and place, may be taken as being the reference point of all the text that could reasonably be assumed to refer to him and his time" (p. 301). He says the answer depends on an individual's choice of reading strategy. Such a strategy would have to explore, first of all, the question of the intended addressee of the text which, according to Rippin, admits of four possible categories: singular you, dual you, plural you, and what he calls "disruptions," that is, the use of a singular for a plural, and vice versa when the context would suggest otherwise. Rippin is of the opinion that these shifts in addressee are not satisfactorily explained by the exegetical material. This provides the jumping-off point for Rippin to state his thesis that the "opaque" [Qur.sup.[contains]]anic text makes it difficult to determine categorically the addressee and his historical circumstance. He points to various reading strategies of different groups of people, for example, that of the Sufis, not all of which is historically focused. But one may argue that there is nothing new or [Qur.sup.[contains]]an-specific in stating that the text can be appropriated by the reader and interpreted according to a set of specific assumptions held by the reader; this is, after all, what scriptural hermeneutics in particular is all about and there is a voluminous literature that deals with the role of the reader, It does not logically follow that the primary referent of the [Qur.sup.[contains]]an should thus be found in the common Near Eastern monotheistic religious milieu rather than the specific historical period in Arabia, as Rippin hypothesizes at the end; this hypothesis comes as a kind of nonsequitur since he gives no indication of how that would resolve the problem of these "disruptions."
I read this collection of essays with avid interest and considerable profit; there is much in this volume that is rich food for thought. The ultimate value of this collection lies in the fact that it raises important and apposite questions regarding methodology and research issues for the student of Islam. In suggesting several innovative methodologies and new conclusions, editor Motzki and his fellow contributors have charted a trajectory for future scholarly inquiry that promises to be highly rewarding.
(1.) Ibn Hishgm, AI-sira al-nabawiyya, ed. Suhayl Zakkar (Beirut, 1412/1992), 1:776.
(2.) Ahmad Ibn Tawus, Bina' al-maqala al-fatimiyya fi naqd al-risala al-[Subset]uthmaniyya, ed. [Subset]Ali al-[Subset]Adnani al-Ghurayfi (Beirut, 1411/1991), 117.
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