The earliest biography of the Prophet is the great collection of ḥadīths compiled by Muhammad ibn Isḥāq of Medina (died c. A.H. 151/A.D. 768). While Ibn Isḥāq was accused in his own time of transmitting false ḥadīths by Mālik ibn Anas, his material is of the greatest importance. It is the earliest and presumably the most authentic biography of the Prophet, as well as the one most free of miraculous elements and pious fabrications. While he placed these materials together with a continuous narrative, it should be remembered that every individual ḥadīth has to be investigated on its own merits, and Ibn Isḥāq was well aware that some of his details were more historic than others.
His original work survived only in quotations from it by other authors, and in a deliberately altered recension and abridgment by Ibn Hishām of Baṡra (died c. A.H. 218/A.D. 833). However, it has been possible for modern scholars to re-establish much of the original text.
Beginnings of the Revelation: Muhammad's revelations began in the seventh century A.D. in the stony valley of Mecca, a well-watered stage on the ancient spice-and-incense road which connected South Arabia and the trade of the Indian Ocean with the civilizations of the Mediterranean world. It was a confused and lawless time. The ancient civilization of South Arabia had broken down, and its daughter-culture, Abyssinia, now Christianized from Egypt, had invaded South Arabia from across the Red Sea. In the North, the Christian Byzantine Empire
was engaged in a centuries-old war with the Zoroastrian Persian Empire which was to bleed them both white. In the Arabian peninsula, dependent on the diminishing caravan trade between South and North, tribal wars, anarchy, economic decline and increasing camel-nomadism were the rule. Judaism, Manicheism and Christianity were penetrating slowly into the peninsula, and scattered communities of Jews and Christians could be found there, but most of the Arabians clung to the idols of their ancestors.
In these lean times, one tribe, the Quraysh, held Mecca and exercised a loose hegemony over the tribes of Western and Central Arabia. They controlled what was left of the trade of the incense road, as well as one of the chief cult-centers of North Arabia--a little temple called the Ka‘ba, where all the gods were honored, but which was especially sacred to the Creator, Allah (El), who was seen as the father and king of the other gods.
In this tribe Muhammad was born (date uncertain, around A.D. 571) and early orphaned. His own clan, the Banū Hāshim, was of minor importance in the tribal oligarchy. As a poor young man he was employed by the high-minded widow of a rich merchant: Khadīja, a woman fifteen years older than he. Despite the difference in their ages she married him and bore him several children, including at least one son, al-Qāsim, who died in infancy. It was a happy marriage and Muhammad was comfortably established. He seems to have used a part of his new leisure to ponder religious questions and the state of his people, the Arabians.
Wahb b. Kaysan told me that ‘Ubayd said to him: The Apostle would pray in seclusion on Mount Hirā’ each year
for a month to practise taḥannuth [religious exercises], as was the custom of the Quraysh in heathen days. When he completed the month and returned from his seclusion, first of all he would go to the Ka‘ba and walk around it seven times, or as often as pleased God; then he would go to his house until in the year when God sent him, in the month of Ramadān, he set forth to Hirā’ as was his wont, and his family with him.
When it was the night on which God honored him with his mission, and showed mercy on His servants thereby, Gabriel brought him the command of God. "He came to me," said the Apostle, "while I was asleep, with a piece of brocade whereon was writing, and said 'Recite!' and I said 'What shall I recite?' He pressed me with it so tightly that I thought it was death; then he let me go and said 'Recite!' I said, 'What shall I recite?' He pressed me with it again so that I thought it was death, then he let me go and said 'Recite!' I said 'But what shall I read?'--And this I said only to deliver myself from him lest he should do the same to me again, but he said:
[paragraph continues] So I recited it, and he departed from me. And I awoke from my sleep, and it was as though these words were written on my heart.
"Now none of God's creatures was more hateful to me than an (ecstatic) poet or a man possessed; I could not even bear to look at them. I thought, 'Woe is me--poet or possessed. Never shall Quraysh say that of me! I will go to the top of the mountain and throw myself down that I may kill myself and gain rest.' When I was midway on the mountain, I heard a voice from heaven saying, 'O Muhammad! Thou art the Apostle of God and I am Gabriel.' I raised my head towards heaven to see, and lo! Gabriel in the form of a man, with feet astride the horizon, saying, 'O Muhammad! Thou art the Apostle of God, and I am Gabriel.' I stood gazing at
him, moving neither forward nor backward; then I began to turn my face away from him, but towards whatever region of the sky I looked, I saw him as before.
"I continued standing there, neither advancing nor turning back, until Khadīja sent her messengers in search of me, and they gained the high ground above Mecca and returned to her while I was standing in the same place; then he parted from me, and I from him, returning to my family. I went to Khadīja and sat by her thigh and drew close to her. She asked, 'Why Abū al-Qāsim (Father of al-Qāsim), where hast thou been? By Allah, I have sent my messengers in search of thee, and they reached the high ground above Mecca and returned.' I said to her, 'Woe is me--a poet, or a man possessed!' She said 'I take refuge in Allah from that, O Abū al-Qāsim! God would not treat you thus; He knows your truthfulness, your great trustworthiness, your fine character, and your kindness to your family. This cannot be, my dear [literally: son of my uncle]. Perhaps you have seen something.' 'Yes, I have,' I told her. Then I told her of what I had seen, and she said, 'Rejoice, O son of my uncle, and be of good heart! Verily by Him in whose hand is Khadīja's soul, I have hope that thou wilt be the prophet of this people.'" Then she rose and gathered her garments about her and set forth to her cousin Waraqa b. Naufal b. Asad b. ‘Abd-al-‘Uzza b. Qusayy, who had become a Christian and read the scriptures and learned from those who follow the Torah and the Gospel. And when she related to him what the Apostle of God told her he had seen and heard, Waraqa cried: "Holy! Holy! Verily, by Him in whose hand is Waraqa's soul, if thou hast spoken to me the truth, O Khadīja, there hath come unto him the greatest Nāmūs, 2 who came to Moses, and lo, he will be the prophet of this people. Bid him to be of good heart." So Khadīja returned to the Apostle of God and told him what Waraqa had said, and that calmed his anxiety somewhat.
And when the Apostle of God . . . returned to Mecca . . . Waraqa met him and said, "Son of my brother, tell me what thou hast seen and heard." The Apostle told him, and Waraqa said, "Surely by Him in whose hand is Waraqa's soul, thou art the prophet of these people. There has come to thee the
greatest Nāmūs, who came to Moses. Thou wilt be called a liar, and they will use thee despitefully and cast thee out and fight against thee. Should I live to see that day, I will help God in such wise as He knoweth." Then he lowered his head and kissed Muhammad's forehead; and the Apostle went to his own house, encouraged by Waraqa's words, and with his anxiety relieved. 3
The First Converts: Khadīja . . . was the first to believe in God and His Apostle, and the truth of the message. By her, God lightened the burden of the Prophet. He never met with contradiction and charges of falsehood, which saddened him, but God comforted him by her when he went home. She strengthened him, lightened his burden, proclaimed his truth, and belittled men's opposition. May God Almighty have mercy on her! 4
‘Alī son of the Prophet's uncle Abū Ṭālib was the first male to believe in the Apostle of God, to pray with him, and to believe in his divine message, when he was a boy of ten. God favored him, in that he had been brought up in the care of the Prophet before Islam began.--A traditionist mentions that when the time of prayer began the Apostle used to go out to the glens of Mecca accompanied by ‘Alī, who went unbeknown to his father . . . there they would pray the ritual prayers. One day Abū Ṭālib came upon them while they were praying, and said to the Apostle, "O nephew, what is this religion I see you practising?" He replied, "O uncle, this is the religion of God, His angels, His Apostles, and the religion of our father Abraham. God has sent me as a messenger to mankind, and you, my uncle . . . are the most worthy to respond and help me." His uncle replied, "I cannot give up the religion which my fathers followed, but by God you shall never meet with any harm so long as I live." . . . He said to ‘Alī, "My son, what is this religion of yours?" He answered, "I believe in God and in His Messenger, and I declare what he brought is true, and pray with him." They allege that Abū Ṭālib said: "He would not call you to do anything but what is good, so cleave to him."
Zayd, the freedman of the Prophet, was the first male to accept Islam after ‘Alī.
Then Abū Bakr b. Abī Quḥāfa . . . became a Muslim. He showed his faith openly and called others to God and His Apostle. He was a man whose society was desired, well liked, and of easy manners . . . a merchant of high character and kindliness. People used to come to him to discuss many matters . . . because of his wide knowledge, his experience of commerce, and his sociable nature. He began to call to God and to Islam all whom he trusted. 5
There soon grew up around Muhammad a party within the tribe on whom the leaders of the Quraysh looked with disfavor and alarm; while not particularly devoted to their gods as such, they distrusted any sign of social or political innovation. As long as the Prophet's clan protected him, he could not be harmed, but his followers in the other clans were more vulnerable. Muhammad there-fore sent some of them to Abyssinia, where they were protected by the Negus. It is conceivable that at this time the Prophet was contemplating some sort of alliance with Abyssinia. 6 The following story about this is almost certainly not historical in all particulars, but it is a very early apologia for Islam.
Muhammad b. Muslim al-Zuhrī, from Abū Bakr b. ‘Abd al-Rahman b. al. Harīth b. Hishām al-Makhzūmī, from Umm Salama bint Abī Umayya the wife of the Apostle said: "When we reached Abyssinia the Negus gave us a kind reception. We safely practised our religion and worshipped God and suffered no wrong in word or deed. When the Quraysh got to know that, they decided to send two determined men to the Negus and give him presents of the choicest wares of Mecca. . . . They were to give their presents to the Negus and ask him to give up the men, before he spoke to them. . . . [But the Negus] summoned the Apostle's companions, and
[paragraph continues] . . . when they came into the royal presence, they found the king had summoned his bishops with their sacred books ex-posed around them. He asked them what was the religion for for which they had forsaken their people, without entering his religion or any other.
"Ja‘far b. Abī Ṭālib answered, 'O King, we were an uncivilized people, worshipping idols, eating carrion, committing abominations, breaking natural ties, ill-treating guests, and our strong devouring our weak. Thus we were until God sent us an apostle whose lineage, truth, trustworthiness, and clemency we know. He summoned us to acknowledge God's unity and to worship him and renounce the stones and images which we and our fathers formerly worshipped. He commanded us to speak the truth, to be faithful to our engagements, mindful of the ties of kinship and kindly hospitality, and to refrain from crimes and bloodshed. He forbade us to commit abominations and to speak lies, or to devour the property of orphans or vilify chaste women. He commanded us to worship God alone and not to associate anything with Him. . . . We followed him in what he brought from God, and we worshipped God alone. . . . We treated as forbidden what he forbade, and as lawful what he declared lawful. Thereupon our people attacked us, treated us harshly . . . to try to make us go back to the worship of idols instead of the worship of God, and to regard as lawful the evil deeds we once committed. . . . When they treated us unjustly and came between us and our religion, we came to your country, having chosen you above all others. Here we have been happy in your protection, and we hope we shall not be treated unjustly while we are with you, O King.'
"The Negus asked if they had with them anything that had come from God. When Ja‘far said that he had, the Negus commanded him to read it to him, so he read a passage from Sūra 19 ['Mary']. The Negus wept until his beard was wet, and the bishops wept until their scrolls were wet, when they heard what he read. Then the Negus said, 'Of a truth, this and what Jesus brought have come from the same niche. You two may go, for by God, I will never give them up to you, and they shall not be betrayed.'" 7
One of the most beloved themes connected with the Prophet is the story of his night journey (isrā’), his ascension (mi‘rāj) and his vision of the Afterworld. Art, poesy and pious imagination have lavished attention on the story. It is now generally admitted that not only the general plan but many small details of Dante's Divine Comedy were borrowed from the later fancifully developed treatments of this Islamic theme. 8 Ibn Isḥāq presents the story in one of its earliest forms as he pieced it together. The main elements are all present--the journey to Jerusalem, the ascent to the heavens and the vision of the afterlife.
The following account reached me from ‘Abdallah b. Mas‘ūd and Abū Sa‘īd al-Khudrī, and ‘A’isha the Prophet's wife, and Mu‘awiyah b. Abī Sufyān, and al-Ḥasan al-Baṡrī, and Ibn Shihāb al-Zuhrī and Qatāda and other traditionists, and Umm Hāni’ daughter of Abū Ṭālib. It is pieced together in the story that follows, each one contributing something of what he was told about what happened when he was taken on the night journey.
Al-Ḥasan said that the Apostle said: "While I was sleeping in the Ḥījr, Gabriel came and stirred me with his feet . . . he brought me out of the door . . . and there was a white animal, half mule, half donkey, with wings at its sides with which it propelled its feet. . . ."
Qatāda said that he was told the Apostle said: "When I came to mount him he shied. Gabriel placed his hand on its mane and said, 'Are you not ashamed, O Burāq, to behave this way? By God, none more honourable before God than Muhammad has ever ridden you before.' The animal was so ashamed that he broke out in a sweat and stood still so that I could mount him."
In his story al-Ḥasan said: "The Apostle and Gabriel went their way until they arrived at the temple in Jerusalem. There he found Abraham, Moses, and Jesus among a company of
the Prophets. The Apostle acted as their leader in prayer. Then he was brought two vessels, one containing wine and the other milk. The Apostle took the milk and drank it, leaving the wine. Gabriel said: 'You have been rightly guided, and so will your people be, Muhammad. Wine is forbidden you.'"
One of Abū Bakr's family told me that ‘A’isha, the Prophet's wife, used to say, "The Apostle's body remained where it was but God removed his spirit by night. . . ."
I have heard that the Apostle used to say, "My eyes sleep while my heart is awake." Only God knows how the revelation came and what he saw. But whether he was asleep or awake, it was all true and actually happened.
One of whom I have no reason to doubt told me on the authority of Abū Sa‘īd al-Khudrī; I heard the Apostle say, "After the completion of my business in Jerusalem a ladder was brought to me finer than any I have ever seen. It was that to which the dying man looks when death approaches. My companion mounted it with me until we came to one of the gates of heaven called the Gate of the Watchers. An angel called Ismā‘īl was in charge of it, and under his command were twelve thousand angels, each having twelve thousand under his command."
A traditionist who had got it from one who had heard it from the Apostle told me that the latter said, "All the angels who met me when I entered the lowest heaven smiled in welcome and wished me well except one, who said the same things but did not smile or show the joyful expression of the others. When I asked Gabriel the reason he told me that if he had ever smiled before or would smile hereafter he would have smiled at me, but he does not smile because he is Mālik, the Keeper of Hell. I said to Gabriel, who holds the position with God which He has described to you, 'obeyed there, trust-worthy.' [Sūra 74:34] 'Will you not order him to show me Hell?' And he said 'Certainly! O Mālik, show Muhammad Hell.' Thereupon he removed its covering and the flames blazed high into the air until I thought they would consume everything. So I asked Gabriel to order him to send them back to their place, and he did. . . ."?
In his tradition Abū Sa‘īd al-Khudrī said that the Apostle said: "When I entered the lowest heaven I saw a man sitting there with the spirits of men passing before him. To one he would speak well and rejoice in him saying 'A good spirit from a good body' and of another he would say 'Faugh!' and frown. . . . Gabriel told me this was our father Adam, reviewing the spirits of his offspring; the spirit of a believer excited his pleasure, and the spirit of a disbeliever excited his disgust.
"Then I saw men with lips like camels; in their hands were pieces of fire like stones which they used to thrust into their mouths and they would come out of their posteriors. I was told that these were those who sinfully devoured the wealth of orphans.
"Then I saw men like those of the family of Pharaoh with such bellies as I have never seen; there were passing over them as it were camels maddened by thirst when they were cast into Hell, treading them down, and they were unable to move out of the way. These were the usurers.
"Then I saw men with good fat meat before them side by side with lean stinking meat, eating the latter and leaving the former. These are those who forsake the women which God has permitted them, and go after those He has forbidden.
"Then I saw women hanging by their breasts. These were those who had fathered bastards on their husbands. . . .
"Then I was taken up to the second heaven and there were the two maternal cousins, Jesus Son of Mary and John son of Zakariah. Then to the third heaven and there was a man whose face was as the moon at the full. This was my brother Joseph son of Jacob. Then to the seventh heaven and there was a man sitting on a throne at the gate of the Immortal Mansion (al-bayt al-ma‘mūr). Every day seventy thousand angels went in not to come back until the resurrection day. Never have I seen a man more like myself. This was my father Abraham. Then he took me into Paradise and there I saw a damsel with dark red lips and I asked her to whom she belonged, for she pleased me much when I saw her, and she told me 'Zayd ibn Ḥāritha.'" The Apostle gave [his adopted son] Zayd the good news about her. 9
Opposition of the Quraysh: Khadīja and Abū Ṭālib died in the same year, and with Khadīja's death troubles followed fast on each other's heels, for she had been a faithful support to him in Islam, and he used to tell her of his troubles. With the death of Abū Ṭālib he lost a strength and stay in his personal life and a defense and protection against the tribe. Abū Ṭālib died some three years before he migrated to Medina, and it was then that Quraysh began to treat him in an offensive way which they would not have dared to follow in his uncle's lifetime. A young lout actually threw dust on his head.
Hishām on the death of his father ‘Urwa told me that when this happened the Apostle went into his house with the dust still on his head and one of his daughters got up to wash it off, weeping as she did so. "Don't weep, my little girl," he said, "for God will protect your father." Meanwhile he was saying, "The Quraysh never treated me thus while Abū Ṭālib was alive. . . ." 10
69:2 "By this he meant Gabriel": al-Tabari.
69:3 Alfred Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad (Oxford, 1955), pp. 105-107. Translation of Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasūl Allah.
69:4 Ibid., p. 111.
69:5 Ibid., pp. 114, 115.
69:6 However, on this cf. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad at Mecca (Oxford, 1953), pp. 109 ff.
69:7 Guillaume, op. cit., pp. 150-152.
69:8 Cf. Dom Miguel Asin Palacios, La Escatologia Musulmana En la Divina Comedia (2nd Ed.; Madrid-Granada, 1943). Translated to English and Abridged in H. Sunderland, Islam and the Divine Comedy (London, 1926).
69:9 p. 244 Guillaume, op. cit., pp. 181-186 (here abridged).
69:10 Ibid., p. 191.