Prophetic Biography
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Prophetic Biography

Seerah (Arabic: ‎, romanizedS?rah), also called As-Seerah an-Nabawiyyah (Arabic: ?‎, romanizedas-S?rah an-Nabawiyyah), refers to the historical Muslim biographies of Muhammad from which, in addition to the Quran and authentic Hadiths, most historical information about his life and the early period of Islam is derived. Seerah is often considered the third most authentic resource of information after the Quran and Hadith.


In the Arabic language the word s?rah or s?rat (Arabic: ?‎) comes from the verb s?ra, 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.[1]

The phrase s?rat ras?l all?h, or as-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[1] -- one that concerns the military campaigns of Muhammad.[2]

Early works of s?ra consist of multiple historical reports, or akhb?r, and each report is called a khabar.[3] 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.[1]

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.[1] 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.[1]

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.[1]

Comparison to hadith

In terms of structure, a hadith and a historical report (khabar) are very similar; they both contain isnads (chains of transmission). The main difference between a hadith and a 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.[3]

Starting from the 8th and 9th century, many scholars have devoted their efforts to both kinds of texts equally.[3] Some historians consider the s?ra and magh?z? literature to be a subset of Hadith.[4]


During the early centuries of Islam, the s?ra literature was taken less seriously compared to the hadiths.[1] 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.[5] 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.[1]


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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

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.[1] He lists the following arguments against the authenticity of s?ra, followed here by counter arguments:

  1. Hardly any s?ra 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 AH 60-70, 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.[9][10]
  2. The many discrepancies exhibited in different narrations found in s?ra 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][10]
  3. Later sources claiming to know more about the time of Muhammad than earlier ones. Scholar Patricia Crone found a pattern, where the farther a commentary was removed in time from the life of Muhammad and the events in the Quran, the more information it provided, despite the fact it depended on the earlier sources for its content. Crone attributed this phenomenon to storytellers' embellishment.

    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.[12]

    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.[12][13][10]
  4. Discrepancies compared to non-Muslim sources. But there are also similarities and agreements both in information specific to Muhammad,[14] and concerning Muslim tradition at large.[15][10]
  5. Some parts or genres of s?ra, namely those dealing with miracles, do not qualify as sources for scientific historiographical information about Muhammad, except for showing the beliefs and doctrines of his community.[10]

Nevertheless, other content of s?ra, like the Constitution of Medina, are generally considered to be authentic.[1]

Early compilations of Seerah

The following is a list of some of the early Hadith collectors who specialized in collecting and compiling s?ra and magh?z? reports:

  • ?Urwa ibn al-Zubayr (d. 713). He wrote letters replying to inquiries of the Umayyad caliphs, Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan and al-Walid I, involving questions about certain events that happened in the time of the Prophet. Since Abd al-Malik did not appreciate the magh?z? literature, these letters were not written in story form. He is not known to have written any books on the subject.[5]
  • Wahb ibn Munabbih (d. during 725 to 737). Several books were ascribed to him but none of them are now extant. Some of his works survive as quotations found in works by Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Hisham, Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, and Ab? Nu?aym al-I?fah?n?.
  • Ibn Shih?b al-Zuhr? (d. c. 737), a central figure in s?ra literature, who collected both ahadith and akhb?r. His akhb?r also contain chains of transmissions, or isnad. He was sponsored by the Umayyad court and asked to write two books, one on genealogy and another on magh?z?. The first was canceled and the one about magh?z? is either not extant or has never been written.
  • Musa ibn ?Uqba, a student of al-Zuhr?, wrote Kit?b al-Magh?z?, a notebook used to teach his students; now lost. Some of his traditions have been preserved, although their attribution to him is disputed.[5]
  • Muhammad ibn Ishaq (d. 767 or 761), another student of al-Zuhr?, who collected oral traditions that formed the basis of an important biography of the Prophet. His traditions survived through a number of sources, most notably Ibn Hisham and Ibn Jarir al-Tabari.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Raven, W. (1997). "S?RA". Encyclopaedia of Islam. 9 (2nd ed.). Brill Academic Publishers. pp. 660-3. ISBN 90-04-10422-4.
  2. ^ "Maghazi". Oxford Islamic Studies. Retrieved 2019.
  3. ^ a b c Humphreys 1991, p. 83.
  4. ^ M. R. Ahmad (1992). Al-s?ra al-nabawiyya f? ?aw? al-madir al-a?liyya: dir?sa ta?l?liyya (1st ed.). Riyadh: King Saud University. pp. 20-34.
  5. ^ a b c Raven, Wim (2006). "S?ra and the Qurn". Encyclopaedia of the Qurn. Brill Academic Publishers. pp. 29-49.
  6. ^ Donner 1998, p. 14.
  7. ^ Robinson, Chase F. (2003). Islamic Historiography. Cambridge University Press. p. 39. ISBN 9780521629362.
  8. ^ Goodman, Lenn E. (2003-03-27). Islamic Humanism. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199885008. ?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.
  9. ^ Donner 1998, p. 125.
  10. ^ a b c d e Raven, W., "S?ra", in: Brill Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, v.9 p.662
  11. ^ Donner 1998, pp. 26-27.
  12. ^ a b Crone, Patricia (1987). Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam. Oxford University Press. p. 223.
  13. ^ Pickard, John (2013). Behind the Myths: The Foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. AuthorHouse. p. 352. ISBN 9781481783637. Retrieved 2019.
  14. ^ Cook, Michael (1983-01-26). Muhammad. Oxford University Press, USA. pp. 73-74. ISBN 0192876058.
  15. ^ 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-s?ra al-nabawiyya f? ?aw? al-madir al-a?liyya: dir?sa ta?l?liyya (1st ed.). Riyadh: King Saud University.
  • 'Arafat, W. (1958-01-01). "Early Critics of the Authenticity of the Poetry of the "S?ra"". 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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