Twenty-Five Things To Know About Islam:  Part 2:  How Do We Know What We Know About Muhammad?

Printed from:

3.    The main texts of Islam are the Qur’an, the Hadith, and the Sira. The Qur’an is the Uncreated and Literal Word of God. It was revealed to Muhammad over 23 years, and cannot be changed. The Qur’an contains contradictions within itself, between the milder, so-called “Meccan” verses, which Muhammad received when he was still relatively powerless in Mecca, and the later, harsher, “Medinan” verses, which Muhammad received after he had won Medina, no longer had to curry favor with anyone, and could afford to be as harsh as he pleased. The interpretive vehicle for preferring the later, harsher verses is “abrogation,” ornaskh. The earlier verses are said to be “abrogated,” or cancelled, by the later verses. Muslim apologists ordinarily will quote from the milder verses, and of course do not explain that these verses have been “abrogated” and no longer apply. 


4.    The Hadith are the written records of what Muhammad said and did. In the centuries immediately following what Muslims believe was the death of Muhammad, many Hadith were created by imaginative Muslims. It became the job of specialists – muhaddithin – to study the existing Hadith, to subject them to examination so as to winnow down the tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of stories about Muhammad — Hadith — that existed to a manageable number. These muhaddithin in the main relied on the study of the isnad-chain – that is, study of the transmission of various Hadith (the plural in Arabic is ahadith, but convention in English allows for either ahadith or hadith as the plural) back as far as possible, from person to person, ideally all the way back to the time of Muhammad and an eyewitness to what he said or did.


5.    The muhaddithin did conduct an exhaustive study of isnad-chains, and in so doing, did manage to winnow down the existing Hadith to a few thousand. There are many collections of Hadith. But six collections of them, identified by the word “Sahih” (meaning “genuine, authentic, sound”) by six different muhaddithin, are regarded as the most reliable. And among those six, two – those compiled by Al-Bukhari and Muslim – are in a class of their own, and treated with the greatest respect. Rather than employing an Accept/Reject system, the muhaddithin established categories of likely authenticity, and proceeded to assign a rank of likelihood to each Hadith. A Hadith that is assigned a high rank of authenticity by Al-Bukhari or Muslim will have much greater authority than one that is assigned to the lowest rank of authenticity by them, or given a middle rank by one of the muhaddithin deemed less authoritative. Muslim apologists will often quote a hadith that is from a less authoritative collection, if it puts Muhammad and Islam in a better light, without of course alerting Infidels to their practice. “War is deceit,” said Muhammad in Sahih Bukhari and “Allah is the best deceiver” it says many times in the Qur’an and Hadith. Muslims all over the West have taken that to heart. 


6.     The Sira is not just any biography of Muhammad, but the authorized Biography of Muhammad, the life and times of Muhammad, as written by Muslims. Unlike the Hadith, which are stories about everything from the treatment of women to the nature of the universe to bathroom hygiene, a veritable jumble or olla-podrida set out in no particular order, the Sira is chronological and strictly biographical. It tells the story of Muhammad, and in particular, it tells of the progressive revelation, over 23 years, by the Angel Gabriel, of Allah’s Message to Muhammad, Messenger of God, Seal of the Prophets. The very first, and indispensable, contribution to “the Biography of Muhammad” is believed to be that by Ibn Ishaq, who lived some 150 years after Muhammad had died. And that biography was written down not by Ibn Ishaq himself, but by someone who lived even later than Ibn Ishaq, one Ibn Hashem. Given that chronology, little faith can be put in the Sira by those who have no faith in Islam. Imagine if the first biography of George Washington was written by someone in 1950. How accurate would such a biography be, with no contemporaries of Washington to consult? But Muslims devoutly believe the Sira, as they believe in the Hadith and in the ranking systems of those they consider the most authoritative muhaddithin. And that is what matters: not what Muhammad may have said or done, but what Muslims believe Muhammad said and did, and what they believe his life and times were like. Some Western scholars of early Islam have called into question the very existence of Muhammad, but this is anathema to Muslims, however interesting a question it might be for the rest of us.

All the biographies of the Prophet by Muslims are hagiographical; no matter what he did, Muhammad could do no wrong. Did he marry a six-year-old girl, little Aisha, and consummate the marriage when she was nine? Yes, but it is not to be criticized, for he was the Prophet Muhammad, the Model of Conduct and the Perfect Man.


7.    The Islamic texts – Qur’an, Hadith, and Sira – have been the subjects of endless commentators. A commentary on the Qur’an is called a tafsir, and the commentaries are particularly important because the language, and meaning, of many Qur’anic passages require elucidation. The scholar Christoph Luxenberg (a pseudonym), a philologist who is a native speaker of Arabic, and a great authority on Syriac (the version of Aramaic spoken in the region of Edessa), claims that 20 percent of the Qur’an is incomprehensible even to native speakers familiar with classical Arabic. Luxenberg believes that the Ur-text of the Qur’an is Syriac, possibly the language of a Christian lectionary; he argues that many of the knottiest philological problems in the Qur’an are susceptible of solution if one posits such an Ur-text, written not in Arabic but in Aramaic, or rather in that version of Aramaic known as Syriac. Some Western scholars have recognized that there may well be something to Luxenberg’s arguments. Of course, no Muslim Believers can possibly accept them. There are also those, in the West, who deny the existence of the historical Muhammad. It’s enough to simply be aware of these scholarly disputes, which are a sign of the health of Western scholarship which, for too long, simply accepted the received Muslim version of the origins of Islam and the figure of the Prophet Muhammad. All the ferment now, in scholarship about Islam, comes from non-Muslims, while Muslim scholars remain frozen in their beliefs, fearful of any possible misstep. 

It is not possible to read the Qur’an and grasp its meaning without making use of a commentary. A recent lucid example, highly recommended, is “Blogging the Qur’an” by Robert Spencer. It can be found on-line; the link is at