Ibn Ishaq (704-768 AD), born in Medinah but died in Baghdad, compiled the earliest seerah whilst the science of hadith was in its infancy. He composed a three-part life of Muhammad, comprising an account of the prophets who had preceded him since the creation of the world, an account of his mission until his entry in al-Madinah, and an account of his campaigns.
Because the Arabs were accustomed to transmitting oral traditions of tribal battles and heroic deeds, they would have found it natural to preserve similar traditions about Muhammad (saw) and his entourage. Hence, perhaps even during his lifetime, traditions about his maghazi or 'raiding campaigns' began to take definite shape.
It is uncertain when these oral traditions were first collected and written down. A Medinan scholar, Urwah bin al-Zubayr (d. 712), is credited with having compiled a maghazi work which was transmitted by his pupil, Abu Bakr al-Zuhri (d. 742), who in turn transmitted it to Musa bin Uqbah (d. 758). The latter probably made it the basis for his own compilation, of which an extensive fragment has survived." From this fragment, which consists of nineteen traditions, and from numerous citations in the writings of subsequent historians, the tenor of Ibn Uqbah's work is clear. Although not without political and theological bias, he sought to transmit faithfully the relatively sober traditions about the Prophet's (saw) campaigns and other key events in his life which were known to religious scholars in Medinah. A somewhat later work in a similar vein is the Kitab al-Maghazi ('Book of Raiding Campaigns') by Waqidi (d. 823) which has survived intact.
In addition to this type of biographical literature, there was another, more popular, form exemplified by the work of Wahb bin Munabbih (d. 728 or 732). Wahb, who was of Persian stock but came from the Yemen, was reputedly an expert on the beliefs and practices of the Jews and Christians. He drew on his knowledge to write a number of books, including a life of Muhammad and an account of the prophets who preceded him. The life, like the work of Ibn Uqbah mentioned above, is known only from a single extant fragment and from citations. Although Wahb apparently called it Kitab al-Maghazi, it was much more comprehensive than the title suggests. It seems to have been of little historical value, however, as it abounded with miraculous and folkloric elements, and much of the material which he used probably originated with popular storytellers.
The two types of biography exemplified at an early stage by the works of Musa bin Uqbah and Wahb bin Munabbih.
Both types of early biography types were combined by Ibn Ishaq. Like the former, he was a pupil of the celebrated traditionalist Abu Bakr az-Zuhri, but in addition, like Wahb, whose work he used, he drew on a fund of legend and folk material. Ibn Ishaq relates quite a lot of poetic material, songs as it were in honour of battles or of people, which gives the narrative a 'firsthand feel' despite the process of editing which produced the text as we have it today.
Whilst we don't have an original copy of Ibn Ishaq's seerah, we do have edited copies compiled and annotated by Ibn Hisham and Tabari's account of the Meccan period where he uses Ibn Ishaq. Much of the first part has been lost, but the second and third parts have come down to us in a revised version produced by Ibn Hisham (d. 828 or 833), and usually referred to simply as the Seerah. It is relatively easy to distinguish Ibn Hisham's additions to Ibn Ishaq's text. What is less clear is the extent to which Ibn Hisham re-ordered the material and modified it by omitting traditions to which he took exception. There is a manuscript, in Fez, in the form of notes taken by someone who heard Ibn Ishaq lecture in Kufa. It includes a few anecdotes not found in the Sirah, and is much less orderly than the latter. It is known, however, that there were no less than fifteen recensions of Ibn Ishaq's work, corresponding to the different stages of his career in various parts of the Muslim world. Hence the principal differences between Ibn Hisham's edition and the Fez manuscript may simply stem from Ibn Hisham's reliance on a more orderly recension. The historian Abu Jafar at-Tabari (d. 923) frequently quotes Ibn Ishaq, and his quotations usually tally with Ibn Hisham. Nevertheless, some anecdotes which Tabari attributes to Ibn Ishaq - including the notorious 'Satanic verses' episode are not found in the Sirah.
Pre-history: Ibn Ishaq begins with a lengthy section detailing Islam's pre-history (pp. 3-69 of Guillaume's translation). This contains Muhammad's (saw) genealogy, interspersed with such stories as the beginning of Christianity in Najran (pp. 14-18); Abraha the Abyssinian's rise to power in the Yemen (pp. 20-30; he led the elephant-mounted attack on Makkah in 570); and an account of idol worship amongst the Arabs (pp. 35-40). This section establishes Muhammad's (saw) link with Abraham and Ishmael (as), and ancient Mecca as a centre of monotheistic worship.
Birth and Youth: The account of Muhammad's (saw) birth, infancy and youth begins on p. 69. In this section, we also have the stories of how Christians and Jews 'recognized' Muhammad (saw), including the Bahira account (pp. 79-82) and we learn Muhammad (saw) was briefly a shepherd, because 'there is no prophet but who has shepherded the flock'.
Adult Life: On p. 82 Khadijah, the wealthy widow for whom Muhammad (saw) worked, proposes marriage. Between pp. 84 and 87, Muhammad (saw), renowned for his honesty, acts as 'umpire' during the rebuilding of the Ka'bah. Muhammad was known as 'al-Amin' - the trustworthy and his first revelation is described on pp. 104-7.
Messenger: Then follows his encounter with Gibreel at the age of 40 in the cave Hira followed by his twelve year call to Islam, initially calling Meccan society and its elites and when they rejected his call he approached various Arab tribes for support and power and was finally accepted by the Aus and Khazraj from Medina.
Hijra: The hijrah begins on p. 222; the battle of Badr is described at considerable length on pp. 289-360, with many lists and much poetry. The defeat at Uhud takes us from p. 370 to p. 426, again with lists and poetry. The building of the Trench is from pp. 450-460, with several examples of 'God's justifying His messenger and confirming his prophetic office'. Mecca's occupation begins on p. 540; the events surrounding the Prophet's death on pp. 678-690.
When Ibn Ishaq was himself unconvinced by the material, he prefixed his text with the statement 'it is alleged' (or, sometimes, 'only God knows the truth') which, comments Guillaume, 'carries with it more than a hint that the statement may not be true, though on the other hand it may be sound'. Ibn Ishaq also frequently employed the phrase, 'that only God knows whether a particular statement is true or not' (ibid., xix).
Watt (1953) says that Ibn Ishaq succeeded in moulding his material 'into a coherent story' (p. xii). The third phase of Muhammad's (saw) life is generally accepted as being 'much better vouched for than the earlier' phases, not 'merely because it was less romantic, but because it was witnessed by many more people'.
Scholars have redacted Ibn Ishaq from these works, and are confident that the original has been faithfully reconstructed. Ibn Hisham's notes sometimes offer variant readings, cite alternative sources or additional material, and for the most part resemble modern day historical annotations. Ibn Ishaq attempted to acknowledge his sources, that is to establish an isnad or chain of narrators, tracing the incident, or saying, back to a first-hand authority.
He did not, however, always supply a complete isnad, and the reliability of some of his chains has been questioned. Thus, whilst the historical value of Ibn Ishaq's work is generally recognized, some hadith scholars have tended not to rely on his material. Bukhari, however is one who did stating, 'Whoever wishes to obtain acquaintance with the early Muslim conquests, must borrow his information from Ibn Ishaq' (in Muir, 1894: Ixviii-lxix)
Clinton Bennett, In Search of Muhammad
Neal Robinson, Discovering the Qur'an
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