Trends in Biographies of Muhammad

Jay Smith – 1996

Thesis: An Observation of some of the recent trends in Western biographies of Muhammad, with detailed reference to the work of at least 2 authors.


Muhammad, a man considered by many to have been one of the greater influences on mankind, will, due to his popularity generate a large quantity of interest and curiosity. This is born out by the “1,548 different titles dealing explicitly with Muhammad” which Muhammad Maher Hamadeh has listed in his Ph.D. dissertation (Hamadeh 1965:112-283; taken from Royster 1972:49). The majority of these titles no doubt, especially those written by Muslims, will reiterate much of the material passed down through the centuries about Muhammad, which had their “origins” in the classical period of Islam; between 750-950 A.D. (the approximate dates attributed to the four genres of compilations concerning the prophet’s life and teachings, compiled by notable individuals such as Ibn Ishaq=d.765, Ibn Hisham=d.833, al-Bukhari=d.870, and al-Tabari=d.923).

Yet, because of their late dates, there is a growing concern in the West that much of the data which we possess on the life of Muhammad is perhaps erroneous, or has at least been embellished (Cook 1983:63). There simply are no documents which were written from the period of the prophet himself with which we can corroborate the historicity of the classical compilations. In fact the “oldest texts we have concerning the life of the Prophet go back to about 125 years after his death” (Rodinson 1996:xi). Consequently, the new research into Muhammad is focusing towards a more critical approach as researchers apply much the same historical/critical criteria earlier employed on the Bible. The resultant reaction from those in Islam has been understandably vociferous in its condemnation. A.L. Tabawi is probably symptomatic of this position, when he postulates that only those who are believers themselves have the right to critique a book of faith. Anyone else should, due to their bias, leave it alone (see Tabawi’s “Second Critique” pp.5-8).

To assess this new research into the biography of Muhammad currently being employed in the West I have read four of the better-known western biographies, those written by Karen Armstrong, W.Montgomery Watt, Maxine Rodinson, and Michael Cook. Because of time and space I will only be critiquing Armstrong and Rodinson in this paper.

While many of the stories’ surrounding the life of Muhammad are similar in all four accounts, the methodologies used to interpret these stories differ quite substantially. On the one extreme we have Karen Armstrong, who in her biography adopts nearly all the traditional accounts of Muhammad’s life (as we will study below). On the other extreme we find Michael Cook, who not only is critical of the interpretation of the traditions, but believes the later compilers, “drew on a mass of earlier literature which is otherwise mostly lost” (Cook 1983:61). His skepticism arises from the enormous amount of enlargement which is evidenced in compilers such as Waqidi, as he states, “this evolution in the course of half a century from uncertainty [concerning the death of Abdallah, Muhammad’s father] to a profusion of precise detail suggests that a fair amount of what Waqidi knew was not knowledge” (Cook 1983:64). Thus, he believes that the same embellishment was probably at work in the period following the death of Muhammad until the first Sira compilations with Ibn Ishaq in the mid-eighth century (Cook 1983:67). The fact that he reserves a quarter of his book (pages 61-82) to a study of the origins and sources of Islam shows his concern for this real problem. In between these two extremes can be situated both Watt and Rodinson, who though they are suspicious of the authenticity for the traditions, nonetheless refer to them in their account of Muhammad’s life, being careful to caution the reader as to their veracity time and again.

In order to understand the methodology used by these western biographers (for this paper, Armstrong and Rodinson), I would like to begin by summarizing James Royster’s excellent paper which gives an overview concerning the methodologies used today. Royster divides the methodologies into two categories; the first he calls the “non-empirical” or “normative approach,” as they deal with that which is not observable or demonstrable, and thus tend to lean towards a critical assessment of Muhammad (Royster 1972:49-54,70).

Royster’s second approach includes that which is empirical or descriptive. Under this category he delineates three groups. The first are those who attempt to ascertain what really happened’ in the life of Muhammad (“Historicism”). They are factually oriented, in that they only accept data which can be empirically identified. The problem, however, is that because data is so sparse they tend to come away with erroneous generalizations due to hasty conclusions which are based on a lack of primary sources (Royster 1972:54-56).

The second group are those who try to explain what happened by cause and effect (“Reductionism”). Their intent is to explain the life of Muhammad within a social framework. Royster describes four forms of reductionism: “Naturalistic Reductionism,” where the religious phenomena in Muhammad’s life is explained naturally; “Psychological Reductionism,” where psychological explanations are given for the phenomena; “Cultural Reductionism,” where the cultural milieu of that period is used to explain the phenomena; and “Exordial Reductionism,” where the sources are sought out to explain from whence an idea or story originated (Royster 1972:57-60).

The third “empirical” group are those who attempt to understand Islam from the inside, from the Muslims perspective. This is the “phenomenological approach” (Royster 1972:61-64). It is this group, he feels, which have best caught the true meaning of Islam, irregardless of whether their assessment is historical or not (Royster 1972:68). They are not necessarily concerned with how it was, but with how it is, not with the “Muhammad of history, but the Muhammad of faith” (Royster 1972:66). As I go through the biographies which I have read it will be helpful to refer back to Royster’s criteria, since I feel they exemplify these categories in their writings quite well.

Let’s then begin with Karen Armstrong. Her biography is a good example of the phenomenological approach, in that she interprets the facts’ of Muhammad’s life much as a Muslim would. From the very first page one can see that she is speaking from a definite position, and that it is not as an European. If I had not read her name on the cover, I could have thought this was simply another Muslim biography, as she had little good to say about the West, characterizing its entire history as that of hatred towards Islam (Armstrong 1992:35,42). It was difficult to take her biography seriously, as throughout the book she made numerous simplistic generalizations concerning the West, Islam and Christianity. Let me give some examples.

An overriding theme of Armstrong is the belief that the West, and particularly the Christian West, has an agenda which is innately anti-Muslim. She contends that the western contempt for Muhammad and Islam is ingrained, and therefore, it should be blamed for the fanatical stance Islam has today (Armstrong 1992:42). At one point she maintains that the anti-Jewish myths which spread throughout Europe was an unhealthy disturbance and disease, which is not found in Islam, but is unique to the western psyche (Armstrong 1992:28). Her list of western luminaries tainted with this hatred includes Wycliffe (p.33), Luther (p.34) and even a misguided Francis of Assissi (p.31), though her criteria for such assertions could just as easily be applied to their Muslim contemporaries.

In her attempt to distance herself from her own background she makes statements which I feel are somewhat naive. At one time she writes, “It has never been a problem for Muslims to coexist with people of other religions. But Western Europe has found it almost impossible to tolerate Muslims and Jews in Christian territory.” (Armstrong 1992:87) This theme is repeated later when she maintains, “In the Islamic empire Jews like Christians had full religious liberty; the Jews lived there in peace until the creation of the State of Israel in our own century. The Jews of Islam never suffered like the Jews of Christendom…a history of 1,200 years of good relations between Jews and Muslims.” (Armstrong 1992:209) While there is some truth behind the atrocious treatment of Jews by Christianity in Europe, it is odd to assume that Islam has an unblemished record, especially as even Armstrong herself recounts the stories of the prophet’s own eviction and execution of the three Medinan Jewish families (though she, like most Muslim historians, puts the blame squarely upon the Medinan Jews).

At another time she states anachronistically that, “Muhammad’s religious requirements would help Muslims to cultivate a respect for other people as individuals with certain inalienable rights.” (Armstrong 1992:146) Whether her reading of Islamic history has been coloured or whether she refuses to believe the western reports she has read I am not sure. What seems clear is that she is greatly angered by her western European past, and this bias permeates much of her biographical interpretation of Muhammad’s life.

A list of superlatives is saved for the man himself. Muhammad, according to Armstrong was good-looking, with a whole-hearted character and luminous expression (p.78); he was gentle to women (p.79), and wise (p.82); he was a spiritual genius (p.98) with “enhanced knowledge” (p.159); he loved children, was pious (p.230), was lenient, kind, loved animals (p.231), helped with the household chores (p.239), and had a mission much more difficult than that of Jesus, which succeeded (pp.250-251). All of these examples she gleaned from source material compiled hundreds of years after the fact, yet she repeats them as if she knew the man himself.

It was obvious to me that Armstrong used the many classical Muslim sources without questioning their veracity. Very little was ever said concerning the authenticity of the sources. When she broached the subject she contended that they were not a “whitewash,” but gave a “compelling and realistic portrait…telling their story as honestly and truthfully as they could” (Armstrong 1992:47). What bad Hadiths there were, she maintains, the later compilers “ruthlessly discarded,” so that the editing was objective (Armstrong 1992:48). I am certain that there are few orientalist scholars who would agree with such assertions.

It was this uncritical acceptance of the traditional sources which set her off from the other biographies I read. While the other three authors each took pains to mention the problem of primary sources, Armstrong hardly ever mentioned this difficulty, rehashing the traditional accounts without ever warning the reader of the possibility of elaboration. It was only when faced with accounts which were apparently erroneous that she suddenly fell back to alluding to the possibility that there was room for embellishment; for instance stating that the invasion of Mecca by Abraha on an elephant was probably “embellished by legend” (Armstrong 1992:67). Why she suddenly chose to find an embellishment in this account and not in any others I am not sure. It would have been helpful had she remained critically consistent throughout.

Her treatment of Christianity, on the other hand, I found to be overly critical. At times her analysis seemed somewhat unjust, and simply out of date. In comparing Islamic traditions with those of Christianity she contends that the Biblical oral traditions were changed and confused. The gospel accounts, she states, were, “more concerned with religious meaning of Jesus’ life than with historical facts, and frequently express the needs, preoccupations and beliefs of the early churches rather than the original events.” (Armstrong 1992:51). While this may reflect the sentiment of liberal theology perhaps ten to fifteen years ago, it is not consistent with the newer documentary and archaeological findings, which now provide manuscripts for Matthew, Mark and Luke within the lifetime of the disciples themselves, and therefore complicate the theory that the germinal beliefs of the gospels could have been created and then redacted back at a later date (refer to Time, April 8, 1996, p.60, which is a recent outline of Dr. Thiede’s research on the Magdalene Manuscript, as well as the Qumranic fragments for Mark and the Lukan papyrus, all dated between 63-70A.D. and consistent with the later manuscripts).

Her position on Christian missions matches her critical view of its history. Defending the Muslim belief that Christian missionary work today is associated with the crusades, she uses as an example General Allenby’s remark upon his arrival in Jerusalem in 1917, that the crusades were now complete (Armstrong 1992:40). How the remark of a single military man could somehow represent the work of thousands of missionaries over the centuries, many of whom gave their lives to share that which they believed, is beyond me? I come from a long tradition of missionaries, with a grandfather buried in India, and a grandmother and two cousins buried in Kenya. All my aunts and uncles were missionaries, yet none of them ever represented any government, or would think to acknowledge the crusades as anything other than an historical aberration. While there is truth that in the past the colonial governments many times provided land and security for missionaries, it is not true that the missionaries therefore colluded with these governments, or that they somehow continue to function as an arm of what are quite secular institutions.

At times her biography became quite apologetical. In her attempt to reconcile the concept of Jihad within a twentieth century context, she used, ironically, a Christian definition, stipulating that the Christian duty to live alongside the oppressed for a just and decent society is how we should consider Islamic Jihad (Armstrong 1992:165). At another time she argued that Muhammad must have known of the Johanine prophecy concerning the Paraclete (which she erroneously pointed out could be spelt periklytos), as he speaks of the Injil prophesying the coming of Ahmad in Sura 61:6 (Armstrong 1992:73). Concerning the many second century Talmudic stories found in the Qur’an, Armstrong, admitting their sources then contends that they were only meant as signs, and not as accurate historical accounts (Armstrong 1992:131). In taking on the Muslim position she also adopted their arguments, to the point that it was difficult not to wonder what her true beliefs really were.

While there is profit in reading the history of Muhammad from the perspective of Islam, as Karen Armstrong has done, I think it important that we don’t, at the same time, forget to do so with a critical eye. In accepting the critical conclusions posited by liberal theologians upon the Bible (see p.51), while refusing a similar critical analysis on the life of Muhammad, Karen Armstrong has compromised her credibility as a historian. A more tenable biography, which takes seriously the real problems of authority is that written by Maxine Rodinson in 1961, and newly revised just this year (1996). It is to that biography that I would now like to turn.

I found it a pleasure to read through Rodinson’s biography on Muhammad, not simply because his style was so fluid and thus easy to read, but because I felt here was a man who, as a historian, sought desperately to delineate the “Muhammad of history from the Muhammad of faith”. His book was a prime example of what Royster coined the “historicistic methodology” (Royster 1972:55). Of concern to him was what actually happened, rather than what the later compilers would like us to believe happened. He made it quite plain in his foreword that the biography of Muhammad would always be built on speculation, that the information we possessed on Muhammad “are far from being certain historical fact…that there is nothing of which we can say for certain that it incontestably dates back to the time of the Prophet” (Rodinson 1996:xi). And so, to accentuate this concern Rodinson would commence almost every story with phrases like, “seemingly,” or “it was said,” or “as was recounted later,” and so on (Rodinson 1996:xii).

Rodinson took great pains to point out that he was speaking from a position of skepticism, maintaining that as an atheist, he had a bias, but that likewise a religious man would have a similar bias, though from an opposing position (Rodinson 1996:xiii). It is apparent that he has had his battles with critics (since his first edition published in 1961), evidenced by his apology in the foreword to the second English edition, for not adhering to Islam himself (Rodinson 1996:xxii). This could be the reason that, halfway through the biography, Rodinson, after having described the Medinan revelations as inferior to that previously evidenced in Mecca, and unworthy of divine origin, he suddenly stops his account and apologizes to the reader for his plain speaking (Rodinson 1996:217). He then admonishes the orientalist community for falling back on “equivocal phrases to disguise [their] real meaning” (Rodinson 1996:218). Here we get a glimpse of the ordeal Rodinson, as an outsider, daring to critique the revelation for one-fifth of the world’s population, must be under, and the frustration he feels towards those of like mind who acquiesce under the pressure.

Throughout his account, Rodinson, unlike Armstrong, quoted often from source material outside of the Islamic traditions. Many of the sources were Greek, such as Ammianus Marcellinus (pp.15,19), or Artemidorus of Ephesus, and Pliny (p.21), or Procopius and Cosmas (p.31). Others were Byzantine, such as the historian Theophanes, the first non-Muslim source of Muhammad which we know of (Rodinson 1996:256). I can only assume he employed these extra-Islamic sources to help the reader understand the context of the times, but they did not alway corroborate with later Islamic traditional material. For instance, the Islamic traditions paint the pre-Islamic Hijaz (Arabia) as an area which was barbaric and backwards. The name given to this period is Jahiliyya, meaning the age of ignorance. Yet, the Greek sources used by Rodinson paint Arabia as a civilized land with a highly developed and religious population, who were quite literate, producing impressive books on archaeology, and “deeply imbued with Aramaic and Hellenic culture” (Rodinson 1996:24-25).

In order to help the reader understand the context of the times, or explain a certain event Rodinson resorted to what Royster terms as the “methodology of Reductionism” (Royster 1972:57). For instance, in order to explain the belief held by Muslims then (and even now) concerning the inimitable perfection of the Qur’an, Rodinson maintained that this probably had more to do with familiarity of the recited text repeated since childhood, rather than divine inspiration, much like hymns used in the liturgy for Catholics, or the Bible for Protestants (Rodinson 1996:92). Here is an example of what Royster terms “Naturalistic Reductionism,” where religious phenomena is explained naturally (Royster 1972:58).

At other times Rodinson refers to the visions and revelations which Muhammad received as “emanations of his own being,” (p.72) or “hallucinations” (p.77), or possibly “mystical experiences” (p.81-82), or a “voice” (pp.123,130), or even “sensory phenomena” (p.218). Here we find an example of “Psychological Reductionism,” where psychological explanations are given for religious phenomena (Royster 1972:59).

Rodinson also looked for the sources of many of Muhammad’s ideas to help explain them, what Royster terms “Exordial Reductionism” (Royster 1972:60). Arab traditions and sacred Jewish books were used by Muhammad to explain his own situation while in Mecca (Rodinson 1996:123). Parallel stories could be found in Christian Syriac literature (p.124) and even the devotional salats (prayers) were borrowed from eastern Christians (p.127). The Muslim fast was borrowed from the Jewish fast of ashura, while dietary rules were borrowed from Gnostic and Manachaean Christian practices (Rodinson 1996:159). The concept for paradise was borrowed from St. Ephraem’s vision of heaven (a fourth century Father of the Syrian Church) (Rodinson 1996:244). Similarly, Watt in his biography helped me understand where Muhammad borrowed his Biblical material from, even explaining that since the sources were traders and not religious men, they thus possibly corrupted the stories our of ignorance (Watt 1961:40,54).

To help explain the violent nature of early Islam, both Rodinson and Watt sought to show how private wars, which were a form of kinship rivalry, was quite common at that time (Rodinson 1996:162; Watt 1961:220,222). Later on they both mention that wars were also used to fill Muhammad’s coffers, and to focus the warriors who were becoming restless with inaction (Rodinson 1996:273; Watt 1961:221). Here is an example of the “Cultural Reductionism” coined by Royster (Royster 1972:60), and used to explain the cultural environment of that period. Even the seemingly unjustifiable deaths of five of Muhammad’s critics (the poetess Asma’ bint Marwan: p.171, the poet Abu Afak: p.171, the poet Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf: p.176, the aged Jew, Abu Rafi': p.195-196, and Muhammad’s former secretary Abdallah ibn Sa’d: p.261) was explained by Rodinson as merely good political maneuvering, in that it “relieved him of the problem of a number of influential enemies” (Rodinson 1996:208).

We find Rodinson crediting Muhammad’s success to that of his environment, his time and his background; the “ideology” of Islam, “built up from elements imposed on a man by his own situation and adopted by a society by reason of its situation…an Arab religion for the Arabs…with truth [revealed] in the Arab tongue…and [worship] towards the Ka’ba, an Arab shrine” (Rodinson 1996:237). Watts agrees stating that, “circumstances of time and place favoured Muhammad. Various forces combined to set the stage for his life-work and for the subsequent expansion of Islam. There was the social unrest in Mecca and Medina, the movement towards monotheism, the reaction against Hellenism in Syria and Egypt, the decline of the Persian and Byzantine empires, and a growing realization by the nomadic Arabs of the opportunities for plunder in the settled lands round them” (Watt 1961:236).

In the final analysis, Muhammad for Rodinson was an ideal, “the utopia that has never been achieved [which] is always before us” (Rodinson 1996:323); for Watt, he was a “seer..a statesman, and an administrator” (Watt 1961:237); for Cook he was a historical figure whose historicity yet leaves us much in doubt; and for Armstrong he was the man who gave birth to a literary masterpiece, created a major religion and founded a world power, whose descendants are viewed as a profound threat to Western civilization (Armstrong 1992:back cover). Ironically, had Muhammad ascended to prominence even twenty years later, the history of Islam would have been quite different. According to Rodinson, Muhammad “might perhaps have found the Byzantine Empire consolidated, ready to fight off the attacks of the desert tribes successfully” (Rodinson 1996:298). And instead of introducing Islam to the world, “Arabia might have been converted to Christianity” (Rodinson 1996:298). Rodinson understandably doesn’t choose to carry this idea through, but one can only begin to imagine the course of history today, had this man Muhammad not come along at such a convenient time of history; one man, in the space of a mere 23 years, who has effected so many over such a long period of time.

References Cited:

Armstrong, Karen, Muhammad, A Western Attempt to Understand Islam, London, Victor Gollanca Ltd., 1992
Cook, Michael, Muhammad, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1983
Hamadeh, Muhammad Maher, “Muhammad the Prophet; A Selected Bibliography,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan, 1965, pp.112-283
Rodinson, Maxine, Muhammad (2nd English Edition), London, Penguin Books, (1961) 1996
Royster, James, “The Study of Muhammad: a Survey of Approaches from the Perspective of the History and Phenomenology of Religion,” Muslim World, 1972 (pp.49-70)

Tibawi, A.L., “Second Critique of English-Speaking Orientalists and their Approach to Islam and the Arabs,” Islamic Quarterly, 1979, pp.3-54
Watt, W. Montgomery, Muhammad, Prophet and Statesman, London, Oxford University Press, 1961