Prophetic biography

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Al-sīra al-Nabawiyya (Prophetic biography[1]), Sīrat Rasūl Allāh (Life of the Messenger of God[2]), or just Al-sīra, is the Arabic term used for the various traditional Muslim biographies of Muhammad from which, in addition to the Quran and trustable Hadiths, most historical information about his life and the early period of Islam is derived.


In the Arabic language the word sīra or sīrat (Arabic: سيرة) comes from the verb sāra (Present tense: yasīru), which means to travel or to be on a journey. A person's sīra is that person’s journey through life, or biography, encompassing their birth, events in their life, manners and characteristics, and their death. In modern usage it may also refer to a person's resume. It is sometimes written as "seera", "sirah" or "sirat", all meaning "life" or "journey". In Islamic literature, the plural form, siyar, could also refer to the rules of war and dealing with non-Muslims.[3]

The phrase sīrat rasūl allāh, or al-sīra al-nabawiyya, refers to the study of the life of Muhammad. The term sīra was first linked to the biography of Muhammad by Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri, and later popularized by the work of Ibn Hisham. In the first two centuries of Islamic history, sīra was more commonly known as maghāzī (literally, stories of military expeditions), which is now considered to be only a subset of sīra.[3]

Early works of sīra consist of multiple historical reports, or akhbār, and each report is called a khabar.[4] Sometimes the word tradition or hadith is used instead.


The sīra literature includes a variety of heterogeneous materials, containing mainly stories of military expeditions undertaken by Muhammad and his companions. These stories are intended as historical accounts and used for veneration. The sīra also includes a number of written documents, such as political treaties (e.g., Treaty of Hudaybiyyah or Constitution of Medina), military enlistments, assignments of officials, letters to foreign rulers, and so forth. It also records some of the speeches and sermons made by Muhammad, like his speech at the Farewell Pilgrimage. Some of the sīra accounts include verses of poetry commemorating certain events and battles. While some of which are considered to be of a lesser quality and lacking authenticity, the most serious of those are the ones by Hassan ibn Thabit.[3]

At later periods, certain type of stories included in sīra developed into their own separate genres. One genre is concerned with stories of prophetic miracles, called aʿlām al-nubuwa (literally, proofs of prophethood—the first word is sometimes substituted for amārāt or dalāʾil). Another genre, called faḍāʾil wa mathālib — tales that show the merits and faults of individual companions, enemies, and other notable contemporaries of Muhammad.[3] Some works of sīra also positioned the story of Muhammad as part of a narrative that includes stories of earlier prophets, Persian Kings, pre-Islamic Arab tribes, and the Rashidun.[3]

Parts of sīra were inspired by, or elaborate upon, events mentioned in the Qur'an. These parts were often used by writers of tafsir and asbab al-nuzul to provide background information for events mentioned in certain ayat.[3]

Comparison to hadith

The main difference between a hadith and a historical report (khabar) is that a hadith is not concerned with an event as such, and normally does not specify a time or place. Rather the purpose of hadith is to record a religious doctrine as an authoritative source of Islamic law. By contrast, while a khabar may carry some legal or theological implications, its main aim is to convey information about a certain event.[4]

In terms of structure, a hadith and a khabar are very similar. They both contain isnads (chains of transmission). Thus starting from the 8th and 9th century, many scholars have devoted their efforts to both kinds of texts equally.[4] Also some historians consider the sīra and maghāzī literature to be a subset of Hadith.[5]


During the early centuries of Islam, the sīra literature was taken less seriously compared to the hadiths.[3] In Umayyad times, storytellers (qaaṣṣ, or pl. qoṣṣaaṣ) used to tell stories of Muhammad and earlier prophets in private gatherings and mosques, given they obtain permission from the authorities. Many of these storytellers are now unknown. After the Umayyad period, their reputation deteriorated because of their inclination to exaggerate and fantasize, and for relying on the Isra'iliyat. Thus they were banned from preaching at mosques.[6] In later periods, however, works of sīra became more prominent. More recently, western historical criticism and debate concerning sīra have elicited a defensive attitude from some Muslims who wrote apologetic literature defending its content.[3]


For centuries, Muslim scholars have recognized the problem of authenticity of hadith. Thus they have developed sophisticated methods (see Hadith studies) of evaluating isnāds (chains of transmission). This was done in order to classify each hadith into "sound" (ṣaḥīḥ) for authentic reports, as opposed to "weak" (ḍaʿīf) for ones that are probably fabricated, in addition to other categories.[7] Since many sīra reports also contain isnād information and some of the sīra compilers (akhbārīs) were themselves practicing jurists and hadīth transmitters (muḥaddiths), it was possible to apply the same methods of hadīth criticism to the sīra reports.[8] However, some sīra reports were written using an imprecise form of isnād, or what modern historians call the "collective isnād" or "combined reports". The use of collective isnād meant that a report may be related on the authority of multiple persons without distinguishing the words of one person from another. This lack of precision led some hadith scholars to take any report that used a collective isnād to be lacking in authenticity.[9]

According to Wim Raven, it is often noted that a coherent image of Muhammad cannot be formed from the literature of sīra, whose authenticity and factual value have been questioned on a number of different grounds.[3] He lists the following arguments against the authenticity of sīra, followed here by counter arguments:

  1. Hardly any sīra work was compiled during the first century of Islam. However, Fred Donner points out that the earliest historical writings about the origins of Islam first emerged in 60-70 AH, well within the first century of Hijra (see also List of biographies of Muhammad). Furthermore, the sources now extant, dating from the second, third, and fourth centuries AH, are mostly compilations of material derived from earlier sources.[10]
  2. The many discrepancies exhibited in different narrations found in sīra works. Yet, despite the lack of a single orthodoxy in Islam, there is still a marked agreement on the most general features of the traditional origins story.[11]
  3. Later sources claiming to know more about the time of Muhammad than earlier ones.
  4. Discrepancies compared to non-Muslim sources. But there are also similarities and agreements both in information specific to Muhammad,[12] and concerning Muslim tradition at large.[13]
  5. Some parts or genres of sīra, namely those dealing with miracles, are not fit as sources for scientific historiographical information about Muhammad, except for showing the beliefs and doctrines of his community.

Nevertheless, other content of sīra, like the Constitution of Medina, are generally considered to be authentic.[3]

Early compilations of sīra

The following is a list of some of the early Hadith collectors who specialized in collecting and compiling sīra and maghāzī reports:

See also


  1. Arabic: السيرة النبوية
  2. Arabic: سيرة رسول الله
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Raven, W. (1997). "SĪRA". Encyclopaedia of Islam. 9 (2nd ed.). Brill Academic Publishers. pp. 660–3. ISBN 90-04-10422-4.
  4. 1 2 3 Humphreys 1991, p. 83.
  5. M. R. Ahmad (1992). Al-sīra al-nabawiyya fī ḍawʾ al-maṣādir al-aṣliyya: dirāsa taḥlīliyya (1st ed.). Riyadh: King Saud University. pp. 20–34.
  6. 1 2 3 Raven, Wim (2006). "Sīra and the Qurʾān". Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān. Brill Academic Publishers. pp. 29–49.
  7. Donner 1998, p. 14.
  8. Robinson, Chase F. (2003). Islamic Historiography. Cambridge University Press. p. 39. ISBN 9780521629362.
  9. Goodman, Lenn E. (2003-03-27). Islamic Humanism. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199885008. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Dūrī, Historical Writing, p.36: "Ahmad ibn Hanbal rejected the hadiths reported by Ibn Ishaq precisely on the grounds of their use of the collective isnād: "I see him relating a single hadith on the authority of a group of people, without distinguishing the words of one from those of another"" (Tanbih 9-43) But Ibn Hanbal did accept Ibn Ishaq's authority for the maghazi.
  10. Donner 1998, p. 125.
  11. Donner 1998, pp. 26-27.
  12. Cook, Michael (1983-01-26). Muhammad. Oxford University Press, USA. pp. 73–74. ISBN 0192876058.
  13. Hoyland, Robert G (1998). Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam. Darwin. p. 591. ISBN 0878501258.


  • Humphreys, R. Stephen (1991). Islamic History: A framework for Inquiry (Revised ed.). Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-00856-6. 
  • Donner, Fred McGraw (May 1998). Narratives of Islamic Origins: The Beginnings of Islamic Historical Writing. Darwin Press, Incorporated. ISBN 0878501274. 

Further reading

  • M. R. Ahmad (1992). Al-sīra al-nabawiyya fī ḍawʾ al-maṣādir al-aṣliyya: dirāsa taḥlīliyya (1st ed.). Riyadh: King Saud University. 
  • 'Arafat, W. (1958-01-01). "Early Critics of the Authenticity of the Poetry of the "Sīra"". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. 21 (1/3): 453–463. doi:10.1017/s0041977x00060110. ISSN 0041-977X. JSTOR 610611. 
  • Hagen, Gottfried, Sira, Ottoman Turkish, in Muhammad in History, Thought, and Culture: An Encyclopedia of the Prophet of God (2 vols.), Edited by C. Fitzpatrick and A. Walker, Santa Barbara, ABC-CLIO, 2014, Vol. II, pp. 585–597. ISBN 1610691776.
  • Jarar, Maher, Sira (Biography), in Muhammad in History, Thought, and Culture: An Encyclopedia of the Prophet of God (2 vols.), Edited by C. Fitzpatrick and A. Walker, Santa Barbara, ABC-CLIO, 2014, Vol. II, pp. 568–582. ISBN 1610691776.
  • Williams, Rebecca, Sira, Modern English, in Muhammad in History, Thought, and Culture: An Encyclopedia of the Prophet of God (2 vols.), Edited by C. Fitzpatrick and A. Walker, Santa Barbara, ABC-CLIO, 2014, Vol. II, pp. 582–585. ISBN 1610691776
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