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The life of the Prophet Muhammad - Ibn Kathir - volume 2 of 4

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INTRODUCTION xvii

INTRODUCTION xvii rather rudimentary manner. That system, however, was neither systematized nor rigorously applied until the advent of the civil wars Wtna), whereupon sources were no longer regarded, prima facie, as trustworthy, but were instead increasingly scrutinized to establish authenticity. Thus evolved the elaborate zsnzd system where every hadith was scrutinized from two perspectives: the text (matn) containing the information transmitted as such, and the chain of transmitters (sanad) giving the names of all those responsible for transmitting such information from the Prophet himself. As indicated earlier, Ibn Kathir's method in this particular work is more that of the hadith scholars than it is of the historian; al-Bukhm, Muslim and more so, al-Bayhaqi, Ahad b. Hanhal, and Aha Nu'aym thus feature more prominently as sources for his biography than do historians such as Ibn Is~q, Ibn Hishb or al-Tabari. But, as 'Abd al-WShid rightly points out, Ibn Kathir, on occasion, is not averse to using some rather obscure historical works, some even that are no longer extant: the rare historical tractate of Mnsa b. 'Uqba, and the al-Rawd al-Anf of al-Suhayli are examples thereof. True to tradition, if not quite on the same scale as, for instance, Ibn Hishm, are Ibn Kathir's copious citations of poetry, host all of which seem to have been taken from Muhmad b. Iskq's biography of the Prophet. The poems deal with a variety of themes and styles: there is, for instance, the unmistakable sarcasm of Ka'ab b. Zuhayr as reflected in his lampooning of the Prophet, followed by his subsequent retraction and apology as in the much celebrated poem, Banat Sucz& there is also the occasional celebration of pre-Islamic Arabian chivalry, as in the haunting ode of Aba al-Bakhtari b. Hisham, when he speaks so movingly of his virtual self-immolation for the love of a friend. Then, of course, there are the evocative panegyrics of Hassm h. Thabit in defence of Islam, its Prophet, and his Companions. Ihn Kathir, oddly enough for someone who has plumbed the depths of hadith methodology, frequently paraphrases, not just the many references to scholars such as Ibn Ishaq, but also, at times, the very hadith material he so often quotes. He thus takes almost the same liberties with such material as he does with works on history, and the reader, particularly of the Arabic text, sometimes searches in vain for all but the gist of the traditions that he ascribes to, say, the sahih of Bukhari or that of Muslim. 'Abd al-W*id offers two possible reasons for this anomaly; the one I believe to be somewhat more plausible than the other. It may well be, he suggests, that Ibn Kathir was simply quoting from memory, seeing no need for any further textual verification, or it may also be that he is, in fact, using sources unavailable to us today. This latter hypothesis is, I believe, somewhat unconvincing for it requires, amongst other things, that Ibn Kathlr possessed not one, but an entire set of hadith works unique to his library alone!

xviii THE LIFE OF THE PROPHET MUHAMMAD The text itself suffers from a singular lack of the literary cadence that makes the historical works of al--bar!, for instance, more of a pleasure to read. This seems to result from Ihn Kathir's efforts to present an authentic description of the life and times of the Prophet of Islam, and to submit such data as is found in the popular biographical works to the scrutiny of hadith literature. The flow of his text is, without question, a casualty of this exercise. But, as has been pointed out by a scholar of the Bible, "If we read biblical narrative (or in this case the siya material) as a story, we abandon its historical truth. If we read it as literature, we will often find literary art in it, hut this art takes us further from tr~th."~ Not that the method of Ibn Kathir is altogether without its redeeming features: it certainly provides useful information to scholars, particularly those of the traditional schools, who would prefer to have the classical sources for sira studies close at hand. The contents of works such as Ibn Kathir's sira are today regarded by many scholars of Islam as largely proto-historical, focusing, that is, on an era whose source documentation falls short of contemporary historiographical standards. It is, some say, the stuff of myth and legend, entwined in places with real historical data. For modern historians of Islam and the Middle East such as Maxime Rodinson, Patricia Crone et al., sira material contains, in the first instance, virtually "nothing of which we can say for certain that it incontestably dates back to the time of the Prophetn.' And so, "when doing research about the life and work of the Prophet Muhammad", Rudi Paret warns, "we on principle distrust the traditional statement and explanation of facts given by later generations, in so far as they cannot be verified by internal evidence or in some other way."8 In addition, the work at hand may he seen by some to he no more than the product of one who had a variety of interests in the topic: one who was, at one and the same time, a historian, a scribe of "sacred biography", and also a devotee; the results of an endeavour such as Ibn Kathir's, therefore, risk being perceived as less than the product of dispassionate scholarship? This critical approach to Islamic historiography emerged gradually in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was, understandably, only a matter of time before Albert Schweitzer's "quest of the historical Christ" would he appropriated by 6. See Robin L. Fax, The Umuthorized Verrion: Truth and Fiction in the Bible (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992). 7. This particular statement appears in the introduction to Maxime Rodinson's own biography of the Prophet. See Maxime Rodinson, Mohammed. Trans. Anne Carter (London, 1971). 8. For the full text of this article see R. Paret, "Recent European Research on the Life and Work of Prophet Muhammad, Journal of the Pakistan Hirtoricol Sociery, Karachi, 1958. 9. See in this regard G. D. Newby, The Making of the Last Prophet: A Reconstruction of the Earliest Biography of Muhammad (Columbia: University of Southern California Press, 1989).

  • Page 2 and 3: The Center for Muslim Contribution
  • Page 4 and 5: CONTENTS Foreword About this Series
  • Page 6 and 7: CONTENTS vii Chapter: On the birth
  • Page 8 and 9: In the Name of God, the Beneficent,
  • Page 10 and 11: ABOUT THIS SERIES THIS series of Ar
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  • Page 14 and 15: INTRODUCTION HE work at hand in its
  • Page 18 and 19: INTRODUCTION nix scholars of Islami
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