Read — See — Hear 002 — Biographies of Muhammad

In the Spirit of the Gracious and Compassionate
Creator of the Heavens and the Earth

Lester A. Knibbs aka Doctor Hakeem

[This is a work-in-progress.]

Biographies of Muhammad

Discussed here are: (1) biographies of Muhammad by Muslims; (2) biographies of Muhammad by non-Muslims; (3) biographies of Muhammad that are part of larger works by non-Muslims; and (4) the movie (by a Muslim), The Message: The Story of Islam.

The Qur’an is not included as a source here, because the Qur’an has very little biographical information about Muhammad. There is much more biographical information about Moses and Abraham in the Qur’an than about Muhammad.

Biographies of Muhammad by Muslims

The Life of Muhammad: A translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, by A. Guillaume

The original of this biography, Sirat Rasul Allah (Biography of the Messenger of Allah), by Ibn Ishaq, was written some thirteen centuries ago. Ibn Ishaq’s original copies have been lost, but a version edited by Ibn Hisham has survived. This is the version that was translated into English by Alfred Guillaume and first published by Oxford University Press in 1955. Guillaume was an Arabist and an Islamic Scholar, but not a Muslim (to my knowledge).

At 800 pages (plus over 40 pages of introduction), this book is a challenge to read. Adding to that challenge is the style of writing history which is quite different from what we are familiar with.

What makes this book a treasure is that the author’s grandfather was a contemporary of men who had known Muhammad (Peace and Blessings be upon him) personally. With respect to the life of the Prophet, this is not mythical history.

Introduction to The Meaning of the Glorious Koran, an explanatory translation by Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall

This book was originally published in 1930, and I assume that the Introduction was included at that time. The Introduction is a biography of Muhammad. It is 20 pages long and serves as a useful summation for anyone unfamiliar with the life of the Prophet.

Every attempt to translate the Qur’an does a great disservice to the Qur’an. The Qur’an simply cannot be translated — not into any language, and perhaps least of all into English. The two languages are astonishingly incompatible. I could write a book.

Nevertheless, in addition to the Introduction, the notes that are inserted at the beginnings of several chapters are informative and helpful.

Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall was an Englishman who converted to Islam.

The Life and Teaching of the Prophet Muhammad, by M.A. Rauf

Published in 1964, 105 pages. I may have read this many years ago.

Muhammad The Prophet, by Maulana Muhammad Ali

Published in 1972, 251 pages. I may have read this many years ago. Maulana Muhammad Ali (1874-1951) was an Indian writer, scholar, and leading figure of the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement. He also produced a translation of the Qur’an.

The Life of Muhammad, by Muhammad Husayn Haykal

Published in 1976, 594 pages, plus 29 pages of Notes and References, four pages listing Supplementary Readings in the English language, and some 70 pages of forewords and prefaces.

I read this many years ago. My judgment has changed — hopefully, for the better — over the years, but I remember being pleased with this biography. Beyond that, I found many of the observations set forth in the prefatory materials to be a valuable corrective for those of us educated in European-style American institutions (such as Harvard, my alma mater).

This biography was originally written in Arabic in 1933, by Muhammad Husayn Haykal (1888-1956). It was translated into English by Isma’il Raji al Faruqi (1921-1986) and published in 1976 by North American Trust Publications.

Biographies of Muhammad by Non-Muslims

Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, by W. Montgomery Watt

Published in 1961, 240 pages. William Montgomery Watt (1909-2006) was one of the leading European scholars on Islam.

Mahomet and His Successors, Volume I, by Washington Irving

This was written in 1849 by the famous American writer, Washington Irving (1783-1859). Volume I is a biography of Muhammad, and Volume II is a history of his successors up to the invasion of Spain in 711. I have not (yet) read this.

Biographies of Muhammad that Are Part of Larger Works by Non-Muslims

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon, Volume V, Chapter L, pages 355-407

This seven-volume work by Edward Gibbon (1773-1794), is a classic of English literature. I resolved one day in the 1980s or 1990s that I would occupy my daily hour-long subway commute from the farthest northeast Bronx to the furthest southern end of Manhattan with reading this humongous historical work in its entirety. At 50 pages a day, I finished the approximately 3,500 pages in (I believe) less than three months. Inasmuch as my fellow African American Muslims do not actually believe what the Prophet said about the ink of the scholar being more precious than the blood of the martyr, this successful endeavor seems to have come to naught. Knowledge is power, however, and much that I have written and done in the decades since has been informed and enhanced by what I learned from these long-ago events of history.

I do not recommend this work as a trustworthy source on the life of Muhammad. Not at all fanciful or slanderous, it is still slanted by the author’s prejudices. Still worth reading, nonetheless.

History of the Arabs: From the Earliest Times to the Present, by Philip K. Hitti, Part II, Chapters VIII, IX and X (pages 111-138)

I recommend this entire 757-page book, for people who study history. The Arabs get bad press in this country, so this book serves as corrective to the general concept of the Arab peoples and their history. The author, Philip K. Hitti (1886-1978), was a Lebanese-American (Arab) Christian. This book was written in 1937.

The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History, 2nd Edition, by Michael H. Hart, [Chapter ] I Muhammad 570-632, (pages 3-10)

Even though Michael H. Hart is an astrophysicist, this is his first book. The first person on Hart’s list is Muhammad, chosen over Jesus and Moses. According to Wikipedia, “Hart attributes this to the fact that Muhammad was ‘supremely successful’ in both the religious and secular realms. He also accredits Muhammad for his role in the development of Islam, far more influential than Jesus’ contribution to the development of Christianity. Hart claims that St. Paul was more pivotal than Jesus to the growth of Christianity.”

I agree that Muhammad was the most influential person in history. I disagree with Hart’s explanation of the causes of Muhammad’s influence.

[More to come!]

The Movie

The Message: The Story of Islam

This film, available on DVD, was directed by Moustapha Akkad. It chronicles “the life and times of Muhammad. Released in Arabic (1976) and English (1977), The Message serves as an introduction to early Islamic history.”

“The film was nominated for Best Original Score in the 50th Academy Awards, composed by Maurice Jarre, but lost the award to Star Wars (composed by John Williams).”

(Quotes from Wikipedia.)

[More to come!]






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