In Islam, Al-s?ra al-Nabawiyya (Prophetic biography),S?rat Ras?l All?h (Life of the Messenger of God), or Seerah are the 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. Ibn Ishaq's s?rat ras?l all?h has been preserved in the form of an edited copy of his oral reports collected by one of his students, al-Bakka'i, which were further edited by ibn Hisham. Of the other authors of sira, none of their books have survived to this day although some quotations and hadith have.
In the Arabic language the word s?ra or s?rat (Arabic: ?) comes from the verb s?ra (Present tense: yas?ru), which means to travel or to be on a journey. A person's s?ra 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.
The phrase s?rat ras?l all?h, or al-s?ra al-nabawiyya, refers to the study of the life of Muhammad. The term s?ra 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, s?ra was more commonly known as magh?z? (literally, stories of military expeditions), which is now considered to be only a subset of s?ra -- one that concerns the military campaigns of Muhammad.
Early works of s?ra consist of multiple historical reports, or akhb?r, and each report is called a khabar. Sometimes the word tradition or hadith is used instead.
The s?ra literature includes a variety of heterogeneous materials, containing mainly narratives of military expeditions undertaken by Muhammad and his companions. These stories are intended as historical accounts and are used for veneration. The s?ra 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 s?ra accounts include verses of poetry commemorating certain events and battles.
At later periods, certain type of stories included in s?ra developed into their own separate genres. One genre is concerned with stories of prophetic miracles, called a?l?m al-nubuwa (literally, "proofs of prophethood"--the first word is sometimes substituted for am?r?t or dalil). Another genre, called fail wa math?lib -- tales that show the merits and faults of individual companions, enemies, and other notable contemporaries of Muhammad. Some works of s?ra 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.
Parts of s?ra 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.
In terms of structure, a hadith and a khabar are very similar. They both contain isnads (chains of transmission). Also some historians consider the s?ra and magh?z? literature to be a subset of Hadith.
However, 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. Starting from the 8th and 9th century, many scholars have devoted their efforts to both kinds of texts equally.
During the early centuries of Islam, the s?ra literature was taken less seriously compared to the hadiths. In Umayyad times, storytellers (q, pl. qu?) used to tell stories of Muhammad and earlier prophets in private gatherings and mosques, given they obtained 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. In later periods, however, works of s?ra became more prominent. More recently, Western historical criticism and debate concerning s?ra have elicited a defensive attitude from some Muslims who wrote apologetic literature defending its content.
For centuries, Muslim scholars have recognized the problem of authenticity of hadith. Thus they have developed sophisticated methods (see Hadith studies) of evaluating isn?ds (chains of transmission). This was done in order to classify each hadith into "sound" (?a) for authentic reports, as opposed to "weak" (?af) for ones that are probably fabricated, in addition to other categories. Since many s?ra reports also contain isn?d information and some of the s?ra compilers (akhb?r?s) were themselves practicing jurists and had?th transmitters (mu?addiths), it was possible to apply the same methods of had?th criticism to the s?ra reports. However, some s?ra reports were written using an imprecise form of isn?d, or what modern historians call the "collective isn?d" or "combined reports". The use of collective isn?d 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 isn?d to be lacking in authenticity.
According to Wim Raven, it is often noted that a coherent image of Muhammad cannot be formed from the literature of s?ra, whose authenticity and factual value have been questioned on a number of different grounds. He lists the following arguments against the authenticity of s?ra, followed here by counter arguments:
In the case of Ibn Ishaq, there are no earlier sources we can consult to see if and how much embroidering was done by him and other earlier transmitters, but, Crone argues, "it is hard to avoid the conclusion that in the three generations between the Prophet and Ibn Ishaq" fictitious details were not also added.
If one storyteller should happen to mention a raid, the next storyteller would know the date of this raid, while the third would know everything that an audience might wish to hear about.
The following is a list of some of the early Hadith collectors who specialized in collecting and compiling s?ra and magh?z? reports:
?Abd al-?Az?z al-D?r?, Historical Writing, p.36: "Ahmad ibn Hanbal rejected the hadiths reported by Ibn Ishaq precisely on the grounds of their use of the collective isn?d: "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.