The Fallability of Ibn Ishaq And The Sira Literature

I have just completed a new essay called Islam’s Mecca and it can be found under the Islam tab on the website. Over the next little while I will give you some sections of it so you can digest it in stages. Today I will talk about Muhammad’s chief biographer, Ibn Ishaq. I trust you enjoy the read as much as I enjoyed the discovery and writing.

Kevin Davis

First of all we need to see if the official story of Islam and Mecca is accurate or not. For this we will first look at the biographies of Muhammad, the Sira literature. We will start with the oldest and most referenced complete biography of Muhammad written. It is by the Abbasid scholar, Ibn Ishaq. Muhammad is supposed to have died in 632AD and Ibn Ishaq died in 773AD. So this history was collated from oral recollections some 150 years after the facts. Tragically, none of Ibn Ishaq’s original writings survive. They only come to us from an abbreviated version edited by a man called Ibn Hisham some 50 years later again.

Even though there are other Sira authors, nearly every Islamic biographer to this day depends to a large extent on Ibn Ishaq’s account, via Ibn Hisham’s editing. As noted already, nearly every secular western encyclopaedia article also uses Ibn Ishaq as its guide without checking its accuracy against external historical markers. Ibn Ishaq is therefore a key gatekeeper of Islamic history, and of Mecca’s history. If he tells the truth then Mecca is exactly as Islam says it is. If he is not, then Mecca, Muhammad, the Qur’an and the entire religion of Islam itself are on shaky ground.

So is Ibn Ishaq’s biography accurate? We don’t have to go far to find the answer. Even in his own day many of his contemporaries were very concerned about his writings. Ibn Hashim himself warned that he had to sanitise Ibn Ishaq’s work. Of the prophet’s life he left out things which is disgraceful to discuss, matters which would distress certain people: and such things as al-Bakkai (Ibn Ishaq’s student) told me he could not accept as trustworthy (The life of Muhammad by Ibn Hashim, Page 691, Ibn Hisham’s notes paragraph 3). On page xxxvii of the same document there are numerous reports of other authorities who doubted the trustworthiness of Ibn Ishaq’s work including the renowned Hadith specialist, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, as well as Abdullah b. Numayr, Al-Daraqutnl, Abu Da’ud al-Tayalisi and Yahya b. Sa’id.

Internal evidence paints its own air of suspicion. The Qur’an states repeatedly that the prophet of Islam did no miracles (surah 30:58), and that one of the primary criticisms of Muhammad was that he could do no miracles (surahs 6:37, 10:20, 13:27). The miracle of Islam was to be the divine origin of the Qur’an itself (surah 29:51). However, by the time of Ibn Ishaq’s biography Muhammad was busy performing many miracles! He was multiplying food for hungry hordes, miraculously restoring injured eyes, drawing water from dry ground, and shooting out lightning from a pickaxe. All of these accounts contradict the Qur’an. If they were true then why weren’t they included in the Qur’an and proving Muhammad’s status as divine prophet? This would then mean we cannot trust the Qur’an. If they are false then we cannot trust Ibn Ishaq. In addition, many of these stories sound vaguely similar to the miracles of Jesus Christ as found in the New Testament. It is clear that the process of mythologising the past was well underway by the time the first biography was written. The 150 year gap was too long to find and record the truth.

Criticism of a more theological kind also comes from within the modern Muslim academic community. Here are some of their concerns. First, Ibn Ishaq was a Shi’a favouring Ali over all the other contenders to the caliphate. Big mistake. Second, he held the view that man has free will which contrary to the Quran’s teachings. Third, his chains of transmissions, the list of authorities who were keepers of the oral history who were called the Isnad, were defective because he didn’t name them all. Fourth, he used reports of traditions gathered from Jewish sources. Another big mistake. Fifth, his report about Muhammad’s first revelation contradicts all the other Hadith literature. Sixth, there are several stories in Ibn Ishaq which are never found in the rest of the Hadith literature.

Modern historians, such as J.G. Jansen (The Gospel according to Ibn Ishaq), have found that none of the contents of Ibn Ishaq’s works are confirmed by external sources, inscriptions or archaeological material. None. He also found that verifying testimonies from non-Muslim contemporaries do not exist. This includes any reference to Mecca.

Jansen follows up these two disturbing facts with the pithy observation that even though Ibn Ishaq astonishingly knew the exact month of every act in the drama of Muhammad’s life, he forgot to include the lunar months. The pre-Islamic calendar had to incorporate an extra month every three years as it ran on a 354 day lunar year cycle. Over the ministry of Muhammad there were 6 or 7 of these lunar months. Yet Muhammad apparently did nothing during any of them, not a single thing. Knowledge of the pre-Islamic lunar leap year had obviously been lost by the time of Ibn Ishaq so he didn’t think to include it in his dating system. This, along with the proliferation of miracles, suggests Ibn Ishaq was creating a story, not recording it.

Modern investigation into the rest of the Sira literature is now extensive, and the conclusions from the world’s leading researchers is not good. In 1983 Professor M. J. Kister wrote that The narratives of the Sira have to be carefully and meticulously sifted in order to get to the kernel of historically valid information, which is in fact meagre and scanty. (The Hidden Origins of Islam p. 240). Andrew Rippin, Professor Emeritus of Islamic History University of Victoria Canada, commented that The close correlation between the Sira and the Qur’an can be taken to be more indicative of exegetical and narrative development within the Islamic community rather than evidence for thinking that one witnesses the veracity of the other (Ibid p. 249). G. R. Hawting, lecturer at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies University of London, worries that the meaning and context supplied (via the Sira and Hadith literature) for a particular verse or passage in the Qur’an is not based on any historical memory or upon secure knowledge of the circumstances of revelation, but rather reflect attempts to establish a meaning. (Ibid p. 250). I could go on extensively with a much larger list of researchers who cast grave doubts on the veracity of the Sira literature. They have all come to the same conclusion as the three researchers quoted above; that the Sira is a product of Abbasid myth building that took place hundreds of years after the facts, rather than faithful history. We will find out a lot more about these mischievous Abbasids later.

If Ibn Ishaq and the other biographers of the Sira literature cannot be trusted when talking about the prophet of Islam, we simply cannot trust them on issues relating to Mecca as well. So let’s now turn to the Hadith literature, which is much more extensive than the Sira. Perhaps it contains some accurate information about Mecca.

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