Surah 47 (Muhammad): 2

As for the believers who do good works and believe in what is sent down to Muhammad which is the truth from their Lord, He will acquit them of their sins and repair their condition.

[‘The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an’ Hassan Qaribullah, 2000, Omdurman Islamic Univ., Sudan]

According to the traditional Islamic narrative, Muhammad was born in Mecca in 570. His father, Abdullah ibn Abdul-Muttalib ibn Hashim had died before Muhammad was born and Muhammad’s mother, Amina, had died when he was six years old.


At the age of twenty five, Muhammad is said to have married a wealthy widow, fifteen years his senior, called Khadija and their twenty-five year marriage was monogamous, during which time Khadija bore Muhammad four daughters and two sons (both sons dying young). They also adopted a slave Zayd to be their male heir. In 610 Muhammad announced his first revelation 〈31.〉 and for the following twelve years he preached monotheism in Mecca to a largely unreceptive audience. After Khadija’s death in 619, relations between Muhammad and the wider Meccan community deteriorated. Muhammad’s clan were subjected to a trade boycott, and some Meccans are said to have tortured, in at least one instance to death, a slave who had converted to Muhammad’s message after which Muhammad sent some of his supporters to Abyssinia for their safety. Things changed, however, when Muhammad gained the support of a group of pilgrims from an oasis settlement north of Mecca at Yathrib (modern Medina). In 622, the ‘ansar’ (literally the ‘helpers’) as the Yathrib converts came to be called, pledged their allegiance to Muhammad, who forthwith announced to his followers that he had received revelations permitting him to fight the Meccans 〈36.〉 Almost immediately afterwards, Muhammad migrated to reside with his new followers in Yathrib, a journey known to history as the hijra 〈37.〉 From Yathrib, Muhammad began his campaign of brigandage against Meccan caravans, triggering a decade long conflict between Muhammad and his hometown. After a series of confrontations, Muhammad prevailed, and captured Mecca in 630. By the time of his death in 632, Muhammad’s dominion over Western Arabia appears to have been unchallenged. He received emissaries from as far afield as Egypt and Bahrain and in the last two years of his life dispatched armies to attack settlements in Syria and Palestine that were allied to or part of the Byzantine Empire.

Further details of these events are given in Part IV below.


Sources for the traditional narrative

The above narrative is based largely upon two biographies of Muhammad, one written by Muhammad ibn Ishaq (d. 767-8) and the other composed by Ma’mar ibn Rashid (d. 774) and preserved by his student Abd al-Razzak ibn Hammam. Ibn Ishaq’s book has now been lost in its original form, but it is thought that at least four copies were made of it, which were relied upon by the authors of a small number of later works that we do have, including:

As-Sīra An-Nabawīyairatun (The Biography – literally ‘Conduct’ – of the Prophet) by Abd al-Malik ibn Hisham (d. 834), in which ibn Hisham candidly admits that he has omitted: ‘things described in Ibn Ishaq’s book that are too ugly to mention and too displeasing for some people to remember’,

Kitab al-Tariqh wa al-Maghāzī (Book of History and Campaigns) by Muhammad bin Umar al-Waqidi (d. 830), which covers only Muhammad’s Medinan years,

Kitāb aṭ-Tabaqāt al-Kabīr (literally The Book of the Greater Generations) by al-Waqidi’s scribe, Muhammad ibn S’ad (784-845), which draws upon al-Waqidi’s work but also adds material from Ibn Ishaq that was not recorded by ibn Hisham, and

the extensive Tārīkh al-Rusul wa al-Mulūk, (Annals of Prophets and Kings) by Muhammad al-Tabari (839-923), the fullest classical work, containing many more details than those written previously, but produced more than three centuries after Muhammad’s death.

The biographies of Ibn Ishaq and Ibn Rashid, and also notebooks which Ibn Ishaq claimed to have studied but the contents of which are now lost other than for what he copied from them, were generally described as the maghāzī (literally ‘expeditions’) literature. This title illustrates that Muhammad’s profile in these works was primarily that of a revered warrior, strategist and divinely guided leader. Alfred Guillaume, who made a reconstruction of Ibn Ishaq’s book by collating the surviving excerpts (published in 1955 as The Life of Muhammad ) observes in his introduction that in Ibn Ishaq’s accounts, Muhammad’s Meccan years read like ‘hazy memories’, in contrast with the ‘dramatic detail, interest and excitement’ of his military exploits and rise to dominance at Medina.


Both Ibn Ishaq and Ibn Rashid claimed to draw upon, as one of their principal sources, one Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri, who in turn is said to have gained his information from individuals who were born in the years following Muhammad’s death. It follows that the stories when first committed to writing, related to events about 130 years previously and were, at best, third hand hearsay. They would also have, over that time, have attracted a political and theological significance that would have coloured people’s memory of events or how they chose to present them. Consequently, these earliest lost biographies of Muhammad are sufficiently near to the events that they describe to retain some credibility, but are too far removed and too politically charged to be accepted as reliable, even prior their having been edited and embellished by subsequent biographers.


One fact that is little commented upon, but possibly highly significant, is that one of the ‘four oceans of wisdom’ that al-Zuhri had relied upon as his sources for the Muhammad narrative was an Urwa ibn al-Zubayr, and that quite separate to Ibn Ishaq’s biography of Muhammad, al-Zuhri, Urwa, and Urwa’s son Hisham were also amongst the principal sources for the Al-Muwatta of Malik bin Anas, the earliest collection of aḥādīth (short accounts of the words and acts of Muhammad). Urwa was the younger brother of Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr who led a twelve-year rebellion against the Umayyad caliphate from 680-692. The precise role of Ibn al-Zubayr in the evolution of Islam cannot now be known, but it is on coins that may have been minted during or immediately after Al-Zubayr’s rebel caliphate that we find the earliest reference to Muhammad subsequent to the Qur’an. Consequently, it seems reasonable to suppose that it was from within al-Zubayr’s rebellion, rather than the mainstream Arabic leadership, that the outlines of the story of Muhammad, as we know it today, first emerged.


The memory of Muhammad and the Qur’an had, so far as we can tell, been neglected, and one must suspect all but forgotten, for the fifty years following his death. But one hundred years after Ibn Ishaq’s first biography of Muhammad, Malik bin Anas’s student’s student, Muhammad al-Bukhari (810-870) would compile the largest of the six major hadith collections, Al-Jāmiʿ al-Ṣaḥīḥ. By this stage the early Islamic account of the life of Muhammad had vastly expanded with the tiniest of details concerning his words, deeds, habits and preferences, from the names of his camels to the manner in which he performed his latrine ablutions, remembered and recorded to serve as exemplars for pious imitation and as binding legal precedents. When Ibn Ishaq’s biography of Muhammad received official recognition in the mid-eighth century, there was no shortage of those who were anxious to expound tales of the roles that their ancestors had played in the adventures of God’s messenger and the divinely ordained Arab conquests and empire.


Muhammad of the Sira.

It is notable that in the early biographies Muhammad’s life takes on many biblical motifs. His parents Abd’Allah (‘God’s servant‘) and Amina (‘She who says Amen’) replicate for him aspects of Jesus’ childhood, such as when Amina’s search for a milk mother meets repeated rejection, mirroring Joseph and Mary seeking shelter on the first Christmas Eve. Like Abraham and Moses he received direct messages from God (like Moses atop a mountain), and like both of those predecessors he responded to God’s commission by leaving his home town for a period of wilderness years, pursued by the Meccans as Pharaoh had pursued Moses, before establishing a land governed under a new covenant with God. The story of his chance sighting of his daughter in law Zaynab bint Jahsh undressed and subsequently sending her husband to his death in battle reformulates the story of David and Bathsheba; his impregnation of the Egyptian concubine, Maryam, that of Hagar by Abraham 〈23.〉, the Night Journey, Ezekiel’s ascent to heaven where he barters with God in precisely the same terms as Abraham had pleaded for Sodom 〈34.〉


Other passages ‘recall’ episodes that have no other significance than that they seem to explain otherwise inexplicable verses of the Qur’an so that the clause ‘and thou threwest not when thou threwest but God threw,’ {8.17} 〈34.〉 is explained by a story that Muhammad threw sand at his enemies precipitating a sandstorm, and {4.58}’s ‘God commands you to return trusts to their rightful owner,’ is connected with Muhammad restoring the keys of the Ka’aba to their original guardian.


The historical Muhammad

Other than for this traditional but highly suspect Islamic narrative, we know almost nothing about the announcer of the Qur’an for certain. For a ruler who is said to have united a significant expanse of territory under his dominion, and waged battles far beyond its borders, he left virtually no trace in the historical record other than the accounts told by his followers’ great grandchildren. Just a handful of contemporary or near contemporary historical references exist for Muhammad. These include Sebeos’ history of Armenia, pre-660, that refers to Muhammad attracting to himself an army of Jews, see 〈36.〉, and three sources from the 630s, two of which name him and the third describing a warrior-prophet figure that can be reasonably identified with him, as militarily active in Palestine and Syria 〈49.〉 These sources contradict the traditional Islamic narrative, according to which Muhammad died in Medina on the day that the only expedition that he dispatched to Palestine was departing. However, these three accounts of Muhammad having reached Palestine find corroboration via the Qur’an’s account of Jesus’s nativity, which, it has now been shown, contains evidence that its author was familiar with a particular church located half way between Jerusalem and Bethlehem 〈25.〉


Muḥammad’ in the Qur’an

The surahs that are traditionally regarded as the Qur’an’s earliest make barely any reference to their human announcer. In the later surahs, however, the messenger (‘rasūl’) or prophet (‘nabī’) of God becomes central to his revelations, which contain frequent instructions to obey him 〈86.〉, imitate him 〈30.〉 and to show him particular deference 〈79.〉 Some verses even address matters that were entirely personal to him and which one would hardly have expected to have merited divine intervention, such as the etiquette for people visiting his house or discord between him and some of his wives 〈79.〉 By the time that the Qur’an’s final surahs came to be announced, ‘God and His Messenger’ had become a familiar formula in which God’s Messenger is juxtaposed with God, the two together forming a combined object of obedience and veneration. By this stage, any accusations of madness, possession by jinn, sorcery, artistry or fraud had clearly been silenced.


The word ‘muḥammad’ derives from the root ‘ḥ-m-d’ (‘aḥmad’) traditionally translated as meaning to ‘bless’ or ’praise’. With the addition of the participle ‘mu-‘ , muḥammad becomes ‘he who is blessed’ or ‘he who should be praised’. However, a more authentic reading of the Hebrew root ‘ḥ-m-d’ would be to choose or desire, as for example in the ninth and tenth commandments where God forbids a man from coveting (‘taḥmōd’) his neighbour’s property or wife. This would give a meaning to ’muḥammad‘ of the ‘besought’ or ’chosen one’.


The word ’muḥammad‘ appears in four verses of the Qur’an, in each of which it might easily be read as a person’s name or title:

{3.144}:  ‘Muḥammad is naught but a messenger; messengers have passed before him …

{33.40}:  ‘Muḥammad is not the father of any man amongst you; rather he is the … seal of the prophets’, see below and also 〈62.〉, and

{47.2} (produced above), and

{48.29}:  ‘Muḥammad is the messenger of God…


However, the traditional understanding of Muhammad as merely the name that had been given at birth to the man who would later announce the Qur’an is contradicted by  {61.6}, in which the word ‘aḥmad’, without the ‘mu’-prefix, appears in connection with a Messenger foretold by Jesus:

{61.6} And (remember when) Jesus son of Mary said: ‘O Children of Israel. Truly I am the Messenger of God… bearing glad tidings of a Messenger to come after me, whose name is ‘ahmad.’


This attributed quotation bears a marked similarity to the promises of Jesus in the gospel of St John to send the ‘Paraclete’ (literally ‘Counsellor’ or ‘Helper’, often rendered ‘Comforter’, also called ‘the Spirit of Truth’) after the world sees him no more (John 14.15-16 & 25-26 and 15.26 ). This promised helper is always associated in Christian exegesis with the Holy Spirit. The traditional Islamic interpretation of {61.6} is that Jesus was predicting the coming, not of the Holy Spirit, but of, the last human prophet, Muhammad. However, it seems highly unlikely that, if the purpose of the verse had been to put a prophecy of the name of Muhammad into Jesus’s mouth, the Qur’an would have used, at the critical point, a diminutive form of Muhammad’s name. It seems far more likely that in {61.6}, the above passages of John were being alluded to with the word that John renders as the Greek word ‘paraclete’ replaced by the Arabic word ‘aḥmad’ meaning ‘desired’ or ’chosen one’. If this is indeed the case, some revisionist historians have speculated that Islam’s preeminent declaration of faith:

Muḥammad is the messenger of God

may have originated as a declaration:

to be blessed/desired is the Messenger of God’,

with ‘Muhammad’ only later, possibly posthumously, emerging as an honorific title for the Qur’an’s prophet, meaning ‘He who should be blessed’. It has even been suggested that the title may originally have been adopted as an epithet for Jesus, and only later projected onto the Qur’an’s author. In Early Islam, A critical reconstruction based upon the earliest sources, Karl-Heinz Ohlig proposes that of the four verses in which the word ‘muḥammad’ appears, two include phrases – ‘He has absolved them of their evil deeds’, {47.2} above, and ‘He is … the seal of the prophets’, {33.40} – that seem to be more in keeping with a Christian than conventional Islamic theology. It may also be observed that the first section of {3.144} (see above) is identical to the first section of another verse, {5.75}, in which these same words are used in relation to Jesus 〈12.〉, other than for the substitution of the word ‘muḥammad’ for the phrase ‘the Messiah, son of Mary’.


Ohlig further notes that the earliest substantial post-Quranic testament of Islamic thought, the inscriptions on the ambulatory of the Dome of the Rock (see 〈34.〉 and 〈39.〉 below), produce (imperfectly) verses of the Qur’an that focus exclusively upon the status of Jesus rather than telling us anything concerning the Qur’an’s announcer. The periodic occurrence in these inscriptions of the refrain ‘muammad is the messenger of God’, Ohlig proposes, are unlikely to have been intended to disrupt the Christological theme by the periodic invocations of a different prophet, and are more likely to may merely reflect the words of Psalm 118 (used in the Christian sanctus), and possibly, one might imagine, to be chanted by the circlers of the temple stone as a periodic response:

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’.


The ‘seal of the prophets

The image of Muhammad in {33.40} as ‘the seal of the prophets’ is capable of a number of interpretations. It is normally treated as a claim that Muhammad was the final prophet in the revelation history that had begun with Adam, the metaphor of the sealing of a document limited only to its chronological position as the final completing act of its creation. But the attachment of a seal is more than merely a concluding ritual. A seal is necessary to give validity and therefore authority to the document’s contents. In this sense the image seems Christian in the sense that Jesus’s death and resurrection are treated by Christians as fulfilling the law and the prophets, that had previously been provisional and imperfect, not merely incomplete.


The Persian scholar Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (973-1050) commented that the third century self-declared prophet Mani, had ‘mentioned in his gospel … that he is the Paraclete that the Messiah has preached before and that he is the seal of the prophets.’ Mani had been born into an Iranian Jewish-Christian sect, the Elecesaites, and had established a religious movement in Iran that had incorporated elements of Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism, preaching that the cosmos was a battleground between the powers of good and evil. Some see in al-Biruni’s summary of Mani’s declaration of himself as both the Paraclete promised by Jesus and ‘the seal of the prophets’ an example that Muhammad may have consciously followed. However, so little of Mani’s teaching has survived – which does not include this crucial phrase – and the possibility that al-Biruni may have adopted a phrase that was familiar to him from the Qur’an, that the topic remains speculative. For Muhammad as the breaker of a prophecy’s seal, i.e. as its opener, see 〈31.〉