William Muir

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Bust of William Muir by Charles McBride

Sir William Muir KCSI (27 April 1819 – 11 July 1905) was a Scottish Orientalist, and colonial administrator, Principal of the University of Edinburgh and Lieutenant Governor of the North-West Provinces of British India.


William Muir's grave, Dean Cemetery

He was born at Glasgow the son of William Muir (1783–1820),a merchant, and Helen Macfie (1784–1866). His older brother was John Muir, the Indologist and Sanskrit scholar.[1] He was educated at Kilmarnock Academy, the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and Haileybury College.[2] In 1837 he entered the Bengal civil service. Muir served as secretary to the governor of the North-West Provinces, and as a member of the Agra revenue board, and during the Mutiny he was in charge of the intelligence department there. In 1865 he was made foreign secretary to the Indian Government. In 1867 Muir was knighted (K.C.S.I.), and in 1868 he became lieutenant-governor of the North Western Provinces.[3]

Having been criticised for the poor relief effort during the Orissa famine of 1866, the British began to discuss famine policy, and in 1868 Muir issued an order stating that:

... every District officer would be held personally responsible that no deaths occurred from starvation which could have been avoided by any exertion or arrangement on his part or that of his subordinates.[4]

In 1874 Muir was appointed financial member of the Viceroy's Council, and retired in 1876, when he became a member of the Council of India in London.[2] James Thomason served as Muir's mentor with respect to Imperial administration; Muir later wrote an influential biography of Thomason.[3]

Muir had always taken an interest in educational matters, and it was chiefly through his exertions that the central college at Allahabad, known as Muir Central College, was built and endowed. Muir College later became a part of the University of Allahabad.[2] In 1884 Muir was elected president of the Royal Asiatic Society.[5] In 1885 he was elected principal of the University of Edinburgh in succession to Sir Alexander Grant, and held the post till 1903, when he retired.[2]

On 7 February 1840, he married Elizabeth Huntly (1822–1897), daughter of James Wemyss, collector of Cawnpore, and together they had 15 children.[1] He died in Edinburgh, and is buried in Dean Cemetery. The grave lies in the concealed lower southern terrace.

Works, reception, and legacy[edit]

Muir was a scholar of Islam. His chief area of expertise was the history of the time of Muhammad and the early caliphate. His chief books are A Life of Mahomet and History of Islam to the Era of the Hegira; Annals of the Early Caliphate; The Caliphate: Its rise, decline and fall, an abridgment and continuation of the Annals, which brings the record down to the fall of the caliphate on the onset of the Mongols; The Koran: its Composition and Teaching; and The Mohammedan Controversy, a reprint of five essays published at intervals between 1885 and 1887. In 1888 he delivered the Rede lecture at Cambridge on The Early Caliphate and Rise of Islam.[2]

Life of Mahomet[edit]

William Muir during the Second Anglo-Afghan War

His original book A Life of Mahomet and History of Islam to the Era of the Hegira was initially published 1861 in four volumes. The book received attention in both literary and missionary circles, and provoked responses ranging from appreciation to criticism.[6] It would eventually evoke a rebuttal from Sayyid Ahmad Khan.[6]

Contemporary reviewers of Muir's Life of Mahomet uniformly praised him for his knowledge of Arabic.[6] The only competing work in Britain at the time was a book by Harrow schoolmaster Reginald Bosworth Smith, who had no Arabic language skills.[7] The work was also praised by Christian missionaries who welcomed it as an aid to convert Muslims.[6]

Contemporary historian E. A. Freeman praised the book as a "great work", yet questioned its conjectural methodology, particularly Muir's suggestion that Muhammad was inspired by Satan.[8] Contemporary Aloys Sprenger also criticized Muir for ascribing Islam's origins to "the Devil".[9] The British Quarterly Review of 1872 criticized his approach as "he is treading ground whither the historian of events and creeds must refuse to follow him".[9]

A significant rebuttal to Muir's book was written Syed Ahmed Khan in 1870 called A Series of Essays on the Life of Mohammed, and Subjects Subsidiary Thereto.[9] Khan praised Muir's writing talent and familiarity with Oriental literature, but criticized Muir's reliance on weak sources like al-Waqidi. He accused Muir of misrepresenting the facts and writing with animus.[9] Written objections to this aspect of Life could be found in the writings of Muslims living inside British India only after the Indian Rebellion of 1857, an unsuccessful uprising against the East India Company.[6]

Later reviews of the work have also been mixed, with many scholars describing Muir's work as polemical.[10][11] W. M. Watt (1961) described Muir's Life as following "in detail the standard Muslim accounts, though not uncritically".[12] Mohammed Hussein Heikal regarded Muir's work as an argumentum ad hominem fallacy.[13] Albert Hourani (1980) said Muir's writing, while "still not quite superseded", regarded Muhammad as "the Devil's instrument" and Muslim society as "barren and bound to remain so".[14] Aaron W. Hughes (2012) writes that Muir's work was part of a European Orientalist tradition that sought to show that Islam was "a corruption, a garbled version of existing monotheisms".[10] Bennett (1998) praises it as "a detailed life of Muhammad more complete than almost any other previous book, at least in English," noting however that besides "placing the facts of Muhammad's life before both Muslim and Christian readers, Muir wanted to convince Muslims that Muhammad was not worth their allegiance. He thus combined scholarly and evangelical or missionary purposes."[15] Commenting on Muir's conjecture that Muhammad may have been affected by a Satanic influence, Clinton Bennett says that Muir "chose to resurrect another old Christian theory", and quotes the following passage from Muir's 1858 Life, vol. 2:[16]

It is incumbent upon us to consider this question from a Christian point of view, and to ask whether the supernatural influence, which ... acted upon the soul of the Arabian prophet may not have proceeded from the Evil One ... Our belief in the power of the Evil One must lead us to consider this as at least one of the possible causes of the fall of Mahomet... into the meshes of deception ... May we conceive that a diabolical influence and inspiration was permitted to enslave the heart of him who had deliberately yielded to the compromise with evil.

In the final chapters of Life, Muir concluded that the main legacy of Islam was a negative one, and he subdivided it in "three radical evils":[17]

First: Polygamy, Divorce, and Slavery strike at the root of public morals, poison domestic life, and disorganise society; while the Veil removes the female sex from its just position and influence in the world. Second: freedom of thought and private judgment are crushed and annihilated. Toleration is unknown, and the possibility of free and liberal institutions foreclosed. Third: a barrier has been interposed against the reception of Christianity.

According to Edward Said, although Muir's Life of Mahomet and The Caliphate "are still considered reliable monuments of scholarship", his work was characterized by an "impressive antipathy to the Orient, Islam and the Arabs", and "his attitude towards his subject matter was fairly put by him when he said that 'the sword of Muhammed, and the Kor'an, are the most stubborn enemies of Civilisation, Liberty, and the Truth which the world has yet known'".[18] Daniel Martin Varisco rejects Said's assessment that Muir's Life was considered reliable by the 1970s. He writes "Serious historians had long since relegated Muir's work to the rare-books sections of their libraries."[19]

Other works[edit]

Muir's later Annals was received with fewer reservations by the Times reviewer and other newspapers of the day. It was the Annals that established Muir's reputation as a leading scholar on Islam in Britain. Nevertheless, his earlier hypercritical Life of Mahomet was used as a poster child by contemporary Muslim commentators—especially by Indian ones connected to the movement of Syed Ahmed Khan—to dismiss all criticism of their society emanating from Western scholars.[7] Syed Ameer Ali went as far as to declare Muir "Islam's avowed enemy".[20]

An illustrative aspect in the evolution of Muir's positions is his stance on the Crusades. In his writings of the 1840s, he goaded Christian scholars to verbal warfare against Muslims using aggressive crusader imagery. Fifty year later, Muir redirected the invective hitherto reserved for the Muslims to the crusading leaders and armies, and while still finding some faults with the former, he praised Saladin for knightly values. (Muir's anti-Catholic animus may have played a role in this too.[citation needed]) Despite his later writings, Muir's reputation as an unfair critic of Islam remained strong in Muslim circles. Powell finds that William Muir deserves much of the criticism laid by Edward Said and his followers against 19th century Western scholarship on Islam.[21]

Muir was a committed Evangelical Christian and was invited to preface many missionary biographies and memoirs, speak at conferences and to publicise Zenana missions. He wrote "If Christianity is anything, it must be everything. It cannot brook a rival, nor cease to wage war against all other faiths, without losing its strength and virtue."[22] In his official capacity as principal of Edinburgh University, Muir chaired many meetings of Evangelists at the university, organised to support overseas missionary efforts, and addressed by speakers such as Henry Drummond.[23] In India, William Muir founded the Indian Christian village Muirabad, near Allahabad. Muir was impressed with the discovery of the Apology of al-Kindy; he lectured on it at the Royal Asiatic Society, presenting it as an important link in what he saw as a chain of notable conversions to Christianity, and later he published the translated sources. A proselytising text, Bakoorah shahiya (Sweet First Fruits) was published under his name as well, but this work had actually been written by a convert to Protestantism from Eastern Orthodox Christianity.[22]

In The Mohammedan Controversy, he wrote:[24]

Britain must not faint until her millions in the East abandon both the false prophet and the idol shrines and rally around that eternal truth which has been brought to light in the Gospel.

Daniel Pipes investigated the origin of the phrase "Satanic Verses", and concluded that despite Salman Rushdie's claim that he had borrowed the phrase from Tabari, the earliest traceable occurrence is in Muir's Life of Mohamet (1858) in a passage discussing "two Satanic verses".[25][26][27] The phrase does not appear in the revised edition of 1912 though.[28]


A marble statue by George Blackall Simmonds was erected in his honour and unveiled by the then Viceroy of India at the opening of Muir College on 8 April 1886,[29][30] and was still there in 2012.[31] Another was proposed for the Muslim college, but due to opposition the scheme was dropped.


He was the brother of the indologist John Muir. He married Elizabeth Huntly Wemyss in 1840 (died 1897), and had five sons and six daughters; four of his sons served in India, and one of them, Colonel A. M. Muir (died 1899), was Political Officer for South Baluchistan, and was acting British Resident in Nepal when he died.[2] One daughter, Jane, married Colonel Andrew Wauchope and lived at Edinburgh Castle.[32] One of his son-in-laws was the civil servant William Henry Lowe.[33]


  • The Life of Muhammad and History of Islam to the Era of the Hegira
    • Vols. 1–2 published in 1858 by Smith, Elder, & Co.
    • Vols. 3–4 published in 1861 by Smith, Elder, & Co. together with a reprinting of the first two volumes; title shortened to The Life of Muhammad.
  • The life of Muhammad from original sources
    • 2nd abridged one-volume ed. of the above published in 1878, xi+errata slip, xxviii, 624 pp. London: Smith, Elder, & Co.
    • 3rd abridged ed. published in 1894 by Smith, Elder, & Co., ciii, 536 p.
    • posthumously revised ed. by Thomas Hunter Weir published in 1912 as The life of Mohammad from original sources, cxix, 556 pp.
  • The Mameluke or Slave Dynasty of Egypt, 1260–1517 AD, end of the Caliphate
  • The Caliphate: Its rise, decline and fall
  • The Apology of al-Kindy, 1882
  • Annals of the Early Caliphate
  • The Sources of Islam, A Persian Treatise, by the Rev. W. St. Clair-Tisdall, translated and abridged by W. M. 1901. Edinburgh, T & T Clark.
  • Records of the Intelligence Department of the Government of the North-West Provinces of India during the Mutiny of 1857 including correspondence with the supreme government, Delhi, Cawnpore, and other places. 1902. 2 vols, Edinburgh, T & T Clark.
  • Agra in the Mutiny: And the Family Life of W. & E. H. Muir in the Fort, 1857 : a Sketch for Their Children. 1896. 59 pp. Privately published.
  • Two Old Faiths: Essays on the Religions of the Hindus and the Mohammedans. J. Murray Mitchell and Sir William Muir. 1901. New York: Chautauqua Press.
  • Muhammad and Islam
  • The Rise and Decline of Islam
  • The Lord's Supper: an abiding witness to the death of Christ
  • Sweet First-Fruits. A tale of the Nineteenth Century, on the truth and virtue of the Christian Religion
  • The Beacon of Truth; or, Testimony of the Coran to the Truth of the Christian Religion, 1894
  • The Mohammedan Controversy, 1897
  • James Thomason, lieutenant-governor N.-W. P., India, 1897
  • The Teaching of the Coran
  • The Opium Revenue (1875)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Matthew, H. C. G.; Harrison, B., eds. (23 September 2004). "The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. pp. ref:odnb/35144. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/35144. Retrieved 30 December 2019. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ a b c d e f Chisholm 1911
  3. ^ a b Powell 2010, p. 3
  4. ^ Imperial Gazetteer of India, vol. III (1907), p. 478
  5. ^ Powell 2010, p. 249
  6. ^ a b c d e Powell 2010, p. 168
  7. ^ a b Powell 2010, p. 256
  8. ^ Powell 2010, p. 168 citing E. A. Freeman, British Quarterly Review, 55 (January 1872), pp. 106–119
  9. ^ a b c d Matthew Dimmock (2013). Mythologies of the Prophet Muhammad in Early Modern English Culture. Cambridge University Press. pp. 214–215.
  10. ^ a b Aaron W. Hughes (12 October 2012). Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History. Oxford University Press. pp. 46–47.
  11. ^ Jamal Malik (6 April 2020). Islam in South Asia Revised, Enlarged and Updated Second Edition. Brill.
  12. ^ Watt, William Montgomery (1961) Muhammad – Prophet and Statesman, Oxford University Press, p. 244
  13. ^ Daniel Martin Varisco (2017). Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid. University of Washington Press. p. 151.
  14. ^ Hourani, Albert (1980) Europe and the Middle East, Macmillan, p. 34
  15. ^ Bennett 1998, p. 111
  16. ^ Bennett 1998, p. 113 citing Muir's 1858 Life, vol. 2, p. 90f; Bennett traces the Satanic influence theory
  17. ^ Bennett 1998, p. 113 paraphrases Muir's 1894 edition of Life, p. 505, but the passage quoted here is in Muir's own words
  18. ^ Edward W. Said (2006). Orientalism. Penguin Books India. p. 151. ISBN 9780143027980.
  19. ^ Varisco, Daniel Martin (1 July 2011). Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid. University of Washington Press. p. 107. ISBN 978-0-295-80262-6.
  20. ^ Bennett 1998, p. 117 citing Ali, Sayyid Ameer (1922) The Spirit of Islam, London: Chatto & Windus. Originally published in 1891, p. 211
  21. ^ Powell 2010, p. 257
  22. ^ a b Powell 2010, p. 261
  23. ^ Powell 2010, p. 262
  24. ^ Bennett, Clinton (1992). Victorian Images of Islam. Grey Seal Books. p. 111.
  25. ^ Pipes 2003, p. 115
  26. ^ Esposito 2003, p. 563
  27. ^ Muir 1858, p. 152
  28. ^ Kuortti 1997, p. 116
  29. ^ Harriot Georgina Blackwood, Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava (1889). Our viceregal life in India: selections from my journal, 1884-1888. Vol. II. London: J. Murray. p. 22.
  30. ^ http://dspace.wbpublibnet.gov.in:8080/jspui/bitstream/10689/9872/10/Appendix%202.pdf[bare URL PDF]
  31. ^ http://timesofiExtensor Digitorumndia.indiatimes.com/city/allahabad/Restoring-past-glory-of-AUs-Vizianagram-Hall/articleshow/12614622.cms
  32. ^ The Woman at Home. Warwick Magazine Company. 1895. p. 273.
  33. ^ Growse, F. S. (1884). Bulandshahr: Or, Sketches of an Indian District: Social, Historical and Architectural. Benares: Medical Hall Press. p. 78.


Attribution:  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Muir, Sir William". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 18 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 958.

External links[edit]

Government offices
Preceded by Lieutenant Governor of the North-Western Provinces
Succeeded by
Academic offices
Preceded by Principal of Edinburgh University
Succeeded by