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Book Review: Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources


Author: Martin Lings ( Abu Bakr Siraj Ad Din)

Reviewer: Umer Gilani
MAY, 2007



The Challenge of a Reviewer


Muhammad Mustafa Al Maraghi declared in the foreword to Husayn Haykal's "Insan Kamil[1]: "The Prophet of Islam is very much like the universe. From the very beginning scholars worked hard to uncover various aspects of his great humanity…" The author of the book under review himself states.[2]"…It was as if he were a world in himself, comparable to the outer world and in some ways mysteriously one with it…" If this is so, then how does one review a book which in its 345 pages encompasses the whole of the life of Prophet Muhammad. The burden of the reviewer is only added to when he himself stands in awe and reverence with regard to the man being described.


And yet, review one must. So I begin.


The Author


"Muhammad: his life based on the earliest sources" was written by the distinguished English scholar and author on Islam, Abu Bakr Sirajuddin, previously known as Martin Lings (1909 - 2005).[3] Written at the peak of the author's illustrious career, it was first published in 1983. Gaining fame soon after its publication, it went on to receive the National Sirah Award of the Government of Pakistan, the same year. Over the years, the book has remained popular, particularly in the Muslim world where there is a growing segment of society whose only language of learning is English. It has come to be seen as Martin Lings's magnum opus.


Contextualizing the book: Perpetuating tradition, heralding change


Before making any substantive comments on the book, it would be useful to contextualize the book. Ever since the birth of Islam in 610 A.D, Muslims  have displayed a deep and sustained interest in the Prophet's life and sayings, primarily because his sayings and acts are accepted as precedents that guide all generations to come. Over the generations, this knowledge came to be divided in three distinct branches of learning. Firstly, there was the Hadith tradition which contained 'authenticated reports'[4] about words said by the Prophet, often with some mention of the context they were said in. Secondly, there was the sirah tradition initiated by Mohammad Ibn. Ishaq(d. 151 A.H) whose "Sirah Rasul Allah" is the first and most important sirah which has come down to us through Ibn. Hisham's recension. This genre comes closest to the modern biography.  Finally, there were the maghazi books which recorded, primarily, reports about the wars that were fought under the Prophet's leadership. Waqidi's Kibab Al Maghazi and, to a lesser extent, Ibn. Saad's Kibal Al Tabaqat Al Kabir are highly esteemed in this tradition.


Later works on the Prophet's life use hadith, sirah and maghazi as their historical sources. Such works emerged in all languages that Muslims wrote in including Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Turkish. Taking Urdu as an example, dozens of biographies of the Prophet were written in the last century alone which include such renowned names as Shibli's "Sirat un Nabi", Maududi's biography of the Prophet and the very popular Mubarakpuri's "Ar Rahiq Al Makhtum" Despite the richness of the extant literature, I contend that Lings' biography of the Prophet was a landmark achievement and richly deserved the enthusiastic reception that it got. This is so for two reasons: firstly, the case of English is different from many languages because in this language the vast majority of works written on the Prophet's life, before 1983, were written from an Orientalist, unsympathetic perspective. These include the very famous works of the likes of Muir[5], Carlyle[6]. Whatever attempts that were made by Muslims to defend their tradition bore the mark of retaliatory efforts, and regardless of their success in countering the allegations raised, none of them could be called a literary masterpiece in itself.


Lings' work sets the score right by being a book that sits as proudly amongst the best prose works of English language just as it sits with classical sirah works like Ibn Ishaq, upon which the book draws so heavily. Lings' mastery of the subtleties of language, his use of ornate metrical prose is reminiscent of none less than J.R.R.Tolkien (perhaps, because they were both Oxford dons, friends of C.S.Lewis and Professors of Anglo-Saxon).[7] Yet, in his fidelity to the Islamic sirah tradition, and the respect he shows for the Prophet, he would probably put many Muslim authors to shame. It is this explosive combination of eloquence and orthodoxy that won the book its outstanding reception. One commentator summarized the feeling of many Muslims about this book saying "this is how the story should be told"[8] Another commentator[9] remarks, "Lings makes no pretense in his present work to be providing historical analysis or any fresh insight" and also that he does not let "modernist bias to shine through". Instead, "he takes the stance of his sources and makes little apology." 


In short, contextualizing this book in the literature of its time shows that this most conventional account of the Prophet's life is actually a watershed. While there had long been a biographical tradition in English which treated the Prophet rather unsympathetically. It is true that a translation of Husayn Haykal's "Insan Kamil" by by Ismail Ragi A. Al-Faruqi[10] predates Lings' book but it could do only so much as a translation can. On the other, Lings' stirring and self-confident work is significant because it heralds the coming of yet another great sirah-tradition – the English sirah tradition. This book gave a lead which was followed by many including Tarik Jan[11] and Ziauddin Sardar et al. And it appears likely that many more will follow.




Partly because of the overwhelming factual details provided and partly because of the familiarity of the material presented to most Muslims, it will be both redundant and futile if I try to summarize all of what has been said in the book. But some detail of the substance of this book must be provided for the ensuing critique to make sense.


The Book begins from the time when Ishmael was born to Abraham and Hagar. After saying that "Not one but two great nations were to look back to Abraham as their father…", it declares as its subject the story of Ishmael's line. The narrative moves on, touching upon the history of the Arabs, and that of the Quraysh ( the Prophet's tribe) down to the time of the birth of the Prophet in 570 A.D. Thereafter it describes the events of the Prophets childhood in fair detail: the death of his father, Abd Allah, his birth, suckling by Halima, early years with the Bedouins, return to Mecca, the successive deaths of his mother and grandfather, and his eventual adoption of by his uncle, Abu Talib. Then it moves on with story of the Prophet Muhammad's life describing his coming of age, early manhood, marriage with Khadija at 25, his involvement in Meccan politics and, eventually, his spiritual retreat to the Cave of Hira, where he received his first revelation. These chapters abound with backgrounders about the state of politics, religion and society amongst the Meccans. They also depict the author's attempts to understand what was going on in the mind of the Prophet at that time. Besides, the gradual manifestation of spiritual signs in the Prophet is carefully depicted.


This is followed by one of most elegant and subtle descriptions of the experience of the first revelation. The early revelations are explained in their context. Then begins the story of conversion of believers and persecution by non-believers that went on for the rest of the Mekkan years. The two migrations are dealt with. The years in Medina get the  most attention where the huge amount and variety of events are all touched upon. The turning of the tide in Islam's favour with the conquest of Mecca is lucidly explained. Subsequent conquests are mentioned. The story reaches its climax during the Farewell Pilgrimage, as the Prophet prays the dawn prayer at the very day at the very place, where twelve years ago, six men of Khazraj has pledged allegiance to him.[12] Next year, in year 632, the Prophet(pbuh) died in Medina, and Abu Bakr succeed him as caliph, which is where the story ends. Throughout the narrative, the Prophet's family life and social relations receive no less attention than his political life.


The Historiographical question:

The first question that arises in this book of sira, as in any book concerning history, is the question of authenticity. How do we know that the author's reports correspond to the facts as they happened? In our case, this enduring enigma of historiography becomes a little more manageable because it can be broken down into two questions: (1.) How true is the author to the sources that he cites? and (2.) How true are those sources themselves?


With regard to first question, as explained above, Lings is relying on sirah, maghazi and hadith works. With regard to the sirah he relies most heavily on Ibn Ishaq. I compared certain passages from the book with corresponding ones from Ibn Ishaq[13] to find that most incidents are quoted from there, often in an abridged form but sometimes verbatim. For example, Lings' account of the submission of Himyarite princes follows Ibn Ishaq's account completely but omits details like names and large parts the epistles exchanged.


One major abridgment however is that whereas Ibn Ishaq mentions chains of narrators and, according to his translator, Guillaume, uses terms that shed some light on the degree of reliability of the reports, Lings presents a single coherent narrative. This may be so partly because modern readers would find isnad bothersome and partly because Lings has sifted reports to retain only the most reliable and does not expect his readers to try and critique the narrators (only specialists can do that, anyways.)  


Another way in which Lings differs from Ibn. Ishaq is that he breaks up narrated stories and puts their parts in a chronological order. This has been done in line with the modern narrative technique where the whole story gives a unified impression as opposed to the classical genres where various stories, each complete in itself, are sewn together to make the bigger tale. Thus, for instance, Salman al Farisi's life story is narrated in Ibn Ishaq in toto, whereas Lings breaks it up to put his transnational peregrinations early in the book, while his meeting with the Prophet is mentioned when the Prophet gets to Quba and his manumission happens still later in the story. A similar treatment is met out to Negus' story. Without being untrue to his source, Lings presents his material in a manner which the modern reader finds more gripping and mentally fulfilling.


When it is time for battle, Waqidi[14] gets mentioned most often. The other sources, Ibn Saad[15] and Tabari[16] et al are rarely quoted. Another technique which Lings employs to great effect is to mix and match textual material from the Quran and Hadith with sira sources. To some extent, all sira writing inevitably ends up becoming an exegetical exercise. Who could write about the incident in the Cave of Hira without mentioning the verses of Surah Al Qalam or describe the sorcery perpetrated against the Prophet without mentioning the last two surahs of the Quran. But Lings, like many other proficient sirah-writers, makes extensive use of this technique. Thereby, a profound impression is left upon the reader who may already be aware of text being quoted with reference to the event being described, and vice versa. An example would explain.


It is reported[17] from Waqidi that on his return from Badr, news reached the Prophet of raids that the clans of Ghatafan were planning to make on Medina. To counter these the Prophet led his army immediately up north. En route, a very interesting incident happened. "We were with the Prophet when a Companion brought in a fledgling which he had caught, and one of the parent birds came and threw itself into the hands of him who had taken its young…. And he (the Prophet) told the man to put back the young where he had found it."[18] Then immediately, a hadith is quoted from Sahih Muslim "He also said: 'God has a hundred mercies, and one of them has He sent down amongst jinn and men and cattle and beasts of prey…'"[19] Mixing the event described in the maghazi with the hadith report from the same incident has allowed Lings to present a uniquely balanced picture: the Prophet and his Companions are fighting war after war, but even in the midst of these wars, thoughts and deeds of mercy do not evade them.   


This brings us to the second historiographical question. Examination of basic sira sources or hadith sources is a science in itself and thus beyond the scope of this review. Furthermore, it is the author's contention that in the field of sira-writing, the question  does not matter much, as long as the sirah-writer remains faithful to sources which Muslims generally consider classics of the field (standard sirah works, canonical hadith collections). Lings has remained faithful to those sources, and further analysis of the book must now be on different lines.


The Hermeneutical question    


For most Muslims, the basic events of the Prophet's life are common knowledge. They read a sira not to know more about the Prophets life, but to understand it more deeply and to get inspired by it. To the non-specialist, discussion of the varying histeriographical vulnerabilities of reports is both irrelevant and unintelligible. And most sirah works, like the one under review, are meant for the non-specialist. Therefore, what matters really is not how true the text or the argument presented is but how meaningful it is to the reader. That is, to judge the worth of this book we must look at what the book means to those who read it – a hermeneutical question.


This book is written much like an historical novel where the reader can easily associate with the main protagonist and those who assist him. Every character has a role to play in advancing the story to its logical conclusion. Due attention is paid to developing all characters, as evidenced by the pages upon pages devoted to characters like Hamza, Abu Bakr, Ali, Khalid bin Walid and the wives of the Prophet etc. A deeply human picture is shown where the Prophet experiences all the deeply human emotions like sorrow at the death of loved ones, satisfaction at the completion of one's mission, and dejection at being rejected. To the modern Muslim reader, who usually restricts his understanding of Islam to the texts which enshrine the religion, these stories act as a reminder of the human contribution made by the Prophet and his Companions in bringing this religion down to us. It grounds the reader's imagination in a world where his/her heroes reside and where symbols come to life.


Similarly, Lings uses a novelists' imagination to draw inferences which may only be implicit in the historical sources. For instance, he remarks: "Scarcely a day passed when his advice or help was not sought by one or more of the believers." Such statements add to the flow of the narrative, without being prejudicial to the truth. Similar is the case of the geographical imagery which Lings frequently adds to bring his narrative to life. Here's how he describes what the Quraysh saw as they retreated to the hills, while the Muslims came for the lesser pilgrimage: "… they could look down into the Mosque. They also had a wide view of the surrounding country; and now they saw the pilgrims emerge in a long file from the north-western pass which leads down into the valley just below the city. Their ears soon caught an indistinct murmur … Labbayk Allahumma Labbayk" [20] 


What is the basic framework of Inquiry?


According to some scholars[21], it not possible to present a narrative without any prior framework to guide on in one's selection of facts from the series of infinite facts that constitutes history. "Our rendition of history is necessarily reflective of contemporary concerns."[22] In most sira works, it is all too easy to discern a basic framework with respect to which facts are selected and presented. In Carlyle's biography, for instance, facts are manipulated to fit into his framework of Prophet as a Hero. The Prophet is depicted as a world-historical figure heralding great change. According to Dr. Koshul, Shibli glosses over several raids preceding Battle of Badr, because of his framework whereby the Prophet is depicted as a man of peace who would never fight an offensive war.


That said, Lings does not appear to be using any single framework of inquiry. In other words, it is hard to see, what is it the he is trying to depict the Prophet as. For the purpose of analysis, I will present multiple frameworks which may be identified. And yet, I must confess, that the picture of Muhammad which emerges from the book is bigger than what you get when all these frameworks are put together. This is the genius of Lings' truly synthetic mind.


Martin Lings' other works and his lifelong affiliation with Frithjof Schoun puts him squarely in the perennialist philosophic tradition. This philosophical conviction can also be discerned in this book.. It can be said with some confidence that this book presents the Prophet's role as that of consolidating the spiritual tradition of Islam which, nonetheless, must coexist with the equally powerful Judeo-Christian spiritual tradition. While Ibn. Ishaq[23] also mentions the fact that protection was offered to Christians and Jews under the Himyarite princes. In Lings' narrative concerning the same event, a verse from the Quran[24] is added to powerfully convey a perennialist impression. That said, one mention of the idea at beginning of the book, and another around the end, do not quite constitute a complete framework. In fact, it is hard to say if Lings' offers a new perspective about the sirah influenced by perennialism.


Another somewhat innovative perspective that can be discerned is that of a man in harmony with nature. Modernity and urbanization have severed man completely from his natural roots; having lost all contact with the earth, not only has man landed in endemic spiritual disharmony but also, he is on the brink of destroying the earth's environment. Writing amidst such conditions, it is but natural that Lings sees the Prophet as a man who was "comparable to the outer world and yet mysteriously one with it."[25] Without citing his source, he says something which is reported by hardly any other sirah writer: "… on at least one occasion when there was a downpour of rain he bared his head and shoulder and breast and went out into the open so that he might share the delight of the earth in receiving the bounty of heaven directly upon his skin."


In describing the digging of the trench, at the time of the Battle of Trench, Lings takes great joy in describing how the trench was dug. As they stood shirtless and muddied during the dig, he says that everyone including the Prophet "rejoiced at their simplicity and their nearness to nature – the nearness to man's primordial heritage…"[26] Ibn Saad, on the other hand, in his description of the same event simply glosses over the whole process of digging, probably because in his time, emphasizing this aspect of the sunnah did not seem so important. The importance of a simple and natural way of life became obvious only now, and this contemporary concern is getting reflected in the history we write.


Two incidents of the Prophet's kindness to animals are reported. Also, it is mentioned that during Salman al Farisi's manumission, he chose to plan three hundred trees by his own hands.[27] He even deals quite cleverly with a fact which seems to undermine this thesis. In the fight against Banu Quraiza, some of their palm trees had to be chopped but this, he says, was done only as a dire strategic move which bore immediate fruit. Thereby, Lings' framework of the Prophet's life as a life in communion with nature (trees, animals and birds included) is kept intact. But here again only a few events reported fit into this framework and the rest of the book follows completely independent lines of inquiry.


In conclusion, it can be said that Lings' biography of the Prophet is multi-faceted. In the beautiful elegance of its language and the quality of its narrative, it constitutes the crowning achievement of its author's exceptional career. May Allah bless him.  

[1] Haykal, Muhammad Husayn. Insan Kamil, trans. from the 8th edition by Ismail Ragi A. Al-Faruqi. p. 2

[2] Lings, Martin. Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, p. 271

[3] Eaton, Gai. Obituary: Martin Lings, Guardian, Friday May 27, 2005

[4] This term is borrowed from Dr. Nomanul Haq, Professor of History at LUMS.

[5] Muir, William. The life of Mahomet. Smith, Elder, & Co., London, 1861

[6] Carlyle, Thomas, The Hero as Prophet, in On Heroes and Hero Worship and the Heroic in History, 1840

[7] Eaton, Gai. Obituary: Martin Lings, Guardian, Friday May 27, 2005

[8] The author  interviewed Dr. Basit Koshul, Professor at LUMS. He remarked "While reading this book one feels that, at least at one level, this is how the story should be told."(emphasis mine)

[9] Rippin, A. Review: Muhammad His Life based on the Earliest Sources by Lings, Martin. Bulletin of School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol 48, No. 1 (1985) p. 203

[10] Haykal, Muhammad Husayn. Insan Kamil, trans. from the 8th edition by Ismail Ragi A. Al-Faruqi

[11] Jan, Tarik. The Life & Times of Prophet Muhammad: Universalizing the Abrahamic Tradition IPS Islamabad. (1998)

[12] Lings, p. 334

[13] For purposes of comparison, A. Guillaume's translation of Ibn Ishaq, in its 9th edition, as published by Oxford, was used. (1990)

[14] Waqidi, Muhammad ibn. Umar, Kitab al Maghazi

[15] Ibn. Saad, Muhammad. Kitab al Tabaqat al Kabir (translated by M. Matin)

[16] Tabari, Muhammad ibn Jarir, Ta'rikh ar Rusul wal Muluk

[17] Lings, p. 208

[18] Waqidi. p. 487

[19] Muslim, Imam. Sahih Muslim XLIX, 4.

[20] Lings, p. 280

[21] Dr. Basit Koshul, Interview

[22] Dr. Nomanul Haq, Lectures

[23] Ibn Ishaq. P. 955

[24] Quran. V: 48

[25] Lings, 271

[26] Lings, p. 217

[27] Lings, p. 209