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Al-Sīra al-Nabawiyya (Arabic: السيرة النبوية), commonly shortened to Sīrah and translated as prophetic biography, are the traditional Muslim biographies of the Islamic prophet Muhammad from which, in addition to the Quran and Hadiths, most historical information about his life and the early period of Islam is derived.

The most striking issue about the life of Muhammad and early Islamic history is that the source information emerged as the irregular products of the storytelling culture and the increasing progress of the details over the centuries. Lawrence Conrad examines the biography books written in the early post-oral period and sees that a time period of 85 years is exhibited in these works regarding the date of Muhammad's birth. Conrad defines this as "the fluidity (evolutionary process) is still continuing" in the story.[1]

Non-Islamic testimonies about Muhammad's life describe him as the leader of the Saracens,[2] believed to be descendants of Ishmael, lived in the regions Arabia Petrae and Arabia Deserta in the north. According to some sources, Muhammad is not a name but a title.[3]


In the Arabic language the word sīrah or sīrat (Arabic: سيرة) comes from the verb sāra, which means to travel or to be on a journey. A person's sīrah 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 "seerah", "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.[4]

Sīrat rasūl allāh[edit]

The phrase sīrat rasūl allāh, or as-sīra al-nabawiyya, refers to the study of the life of Muhammad. The term sīrah was first linked to the biography of Muhammad by Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri (d. 124/741–2), and later popularized by the work of Ibn Hisham (d. 833). In the first two centuries of Islamic history, sīrah was moremaghāzī (literally, 'stories of military expeditions'), which is now considered to be only a subset of sīra[4]—one that concerns the military campaigns of Muhammad.[5]

Early works of sīrah consist of multiple historical reports, or akhbār, and each report is called a khabar.[6] Sometimes the word tradition or hadith is used instead.


The sīrah 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 sīrah 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 sīrah accounts include verses of poetry commemorating certain events and battles.[4]

At later periods, certain type of stories included in sīrah developed into their own separate genres. One genre is concerned with stories of prophetic miracles, called aʿlām al-nubuwa (literally, "proofs of prophethood"—the first word is sometimes substituted for amārāt or dalāʾil). Another genre, called faḍāʾil wa mathālib — tales that show the merits and faults of individual companions, enemies, and other notable contemporaries of Muhammad.[4] Some works of sīrah 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.[4]

Parts of sīrah 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.[4]

Comparison to hadith[edit]

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.[6]

Starting from the 8th and 9th century, many scholars have devoted their efforts to both kinds of texts equally.[6] Some historians consider the sīrah and maghāzī literature to be a subset of Hadith.[7]


During the early centuries of Islam, the sīrah literature was taken less seriously compared to the hadiths.[4] In Umayyad times, storytellers (qāṣṣ, pl. quṣṣāṣ) 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.[8] In later periods, however, works of sīrah became more prominent. More recently, Western historical criticism and debate concerning sīrah have elicited a defensive attitude from some Muslims who wrote apologetic literature defending its content.[4]


For centuries, Muslim scholars have recognized the problem of authenticity of hadith. Thus they have developed sophisticated methods (see Hadith studies) of evaluating isnāds (chains of transmission). This was done in order to classify each hadith into "sound" (ṣaḥīḥ) for authentic reports, as opposed to "weak" (ḍaʿīf) for ones that are probably fabricated, in addition to other categories.[9] Since many sīrah reports also contain isnād information and some of the sīrah compilers (akhbārīs) were themselves practicing jurists and hadīth transmitters (muḥaddiths), it was possible to apply the same methods of hadīth criticism to the sīrah reports.[10] However, some sīrah reports were written using an imprecise form of isnād, or what modern historians call the "collective isnād" or "combined reports". The use of collective isnād 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 isnād to be lacking in authenticity.[11]

According to Wim Raven, it is often noted that a coherent image of Muhammad cannot be formed from the literature of sīra, whose authenticity and factual value have been questioned on a number of different grounds.[4] He lists the following arguments against the authenticity of sīra, followed here by counter arguments:

  1. Hardly any sīrah 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.[12][13]
  2. The many discrepancies exhibited in different narrations found in sīrah 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.[14][13]
  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.[15]

    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.[15][16][13]
  4. Discrepancies compared to non-Muslim sources. But there are also similarities and agreements both in information specific to Muhammad,[17] and concerning Muslim tradition at large.[18][13]
  5. Some parts or genres of sīra, 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.[13]

Nevertheless, other content of sīra, like the Constitution of Medina, are generally considered to be authentic.[4]

Early compilations of sīra[edit]

The following is a list of some of the early Hadith collectors who specialized in collecting and compiling sīrah and maghāzī reports:

  • ʿUrwa 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 maghāzī literature, these letters were not written in story form. He is not known to have written any books on the subject.[8]
  • 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 Abū Nuʿaym al-Iṣfahānī.
  • Ibn Shihāb al-Zuhrī (d. c. 737), a central figure in sīrah literature, who collected both ahadith and akhbār. His akhbār 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 maghāzī. The first was canceled and the one about maghāzī is either not extant or has never been written.
  • Musa ibn ʿUqba, a student of al-Zuhrī, wrote Kitāb al-Maghāzī, a notebook used to teach his students. The work was lost but a manuscript of Kitab al-maghazi was recently rediscovered.Some of his traditions have been preserved, although their attribution to him is disputed.[8]
  • Muhammad ibn Ishaq (d. 767 or 761), another student of al-Zuhrī, 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[edit]


  1. ^ Conrad (June 1987). "Abraham and Muhammad: Some Observations Apropos of Chronology and Literary topoi in the Early Arabic Historical Tradition". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 50 (2): 239. doi:10.1017/S0041977X00049016
  2. ^ "Chapter 1. “A Prophet Has Appeared, Coming with the Saracens”: Muhammad’s Leadership during the Conquest of Palestine According to Seventh- and Eighth-Century Sources". The Death of a Prophet: The End of Muhammad's Life and the Beginnings of Islam, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012, pp. 18-72. https://doi.org/10.9783/9780812205138.18
  3. ^ Volker Popp, Die frühe Islamgeschichte nach inschriftlichen und numismatischen Zeugnissen, in: Karl-Heinz Ohlig (ed.), Die dunklen Anfänge. Neue Forschungen zur Entstehung und frühen Geschichte des Islam, Berlin 2005, pp. 16–123 (here p. 63 ff.)
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Raven, W. (1997). "SĪRA". Encyclopaedia of Islam. Vol. 9 (2nd ed.). Brill Academic Publishers. pp. 660–3. ISBN 90-04-10422-4.
  5. ^ "Maghazi". Oxford Islamic Studies. Archived from the original on April 25, 2017. Retrieved 26 October 2019.
  6. ^ a b c Humphreys 1991, p. 83.
  7. ^ M. R. Ahmad (1992). Al-sīra al-nabawiyya fī ḍawʾ al-maṣādir al-aṣliyya: dirāsa taḥlīliyya (1st ed.). Riyadh: King Saud University. pp. 20–34.
  8. ^ a b c Raven, Wim (2006). "Sīra and the Qurʾān". Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān. Brill Academic Publishers. pp. 29–49.
  9. ^ Donner 1998, p. 14.
  10. ^ Robinson, Chase F. (2003). Islamic Historiography. Cambridge University Press. p. 39. ISBN 9780521629362.
  11. ^ Goodman, Lenn E. (2003-03-27). Islamic Humanism. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199885008. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Dūrī, Historical Writing, p.36: "Ahmad ibn Hanbal rejected the hadiths reported by Ibn Ishaq precisely on the grounds of their use of the collective isnād: "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.
  12. ^ Donner 1998, p. 125.
  13. ^ a b c d e Raven, W., “Sīra”, in: Brill Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, v.9 p.662
  14. ^ Donner 1998, pp. 26–27.
  15. ^ a b Crone, Patricia (1987). Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam. Oxford University Press. p. 223. ISBN 9780691054803.
  16. ^ Pickard, John (2013). Behind the Myths: The Foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. AuthorHouse. p. 352. ISBN 9781481783637. Retrieved 18 October 2019.
  17. ^ Cook, Michael (1983-01-26). Muhammad. Oxford University Press, USA. pp. 73–74. ISBN 0192876058.
  18. ^ 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[edit]

  • M. R. Ahmad (1992). Al-sīra al-nabawiyya fī ḍawʾ al-maṣādir al-aṣliyya: dirāsa taḥlīliyya (1st ed.). Riyadh: King Saud University.
  • 'Arafat, W. (1958-01-01). "Early Critics of the Authenticity of the Poetry of the "Sīra"". 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. S2CID 194960198.
  • 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