The Sirat Rasoul Allah [Life of the Messenger of Allah] (1) was the earliest biography of Mohammed, written 100 years after his death by ibn Ishaq. It survives, only in partial form, in the later works of ibn Hisham and al-Tabari, providing some fascinating insights into the character and career of Mohammed. Here are some highlights for those who have not yet come across it:
Chapter 1. Early Life
A strange encounter:
Later, the apostle of Allah himself described what had happened. ‘Whilst I and my milk brother were pasturing some animals in the rear of our house, two men came to us dressed in white garments and bearing a golden platter full of snow. They took hold of me, opened my belly, extracted my heart, split it open and took out of it a black lump of blood which they threw away. Then they washed my heart and belly with snow, until they had purified them. Then one of them said to his companion, “Weigh him against one hundred of his people.” And he weighed me with them, but I proved heavier than they. Then he said, “Weigh him with one thousand of his people.” This he also did, and I was again found more heavy. After that he said, “Leave him; for if you were to weigh him against his whole nation, he would outweigh it.”
Chapter 3 The Revelation
A chilling prophesy:
There was also a Syrian Jew who paid a visit to the Banu Qurayza,a Jewish tribe, several years before the establishment of Islam and settled down among them….As his death approached, he said, ‘Why do you think I came away from the land of abundance to the land of misfortune and famine? I have come to this country to await the arrival of a prophet, whose time is near at hand; and it is to this country that he will flee. I hoped he would be sent during my lifetime, that I might follow him. His time is near at hand. Do not allow others to forestall you in believing in his mission; for he will be sent to shed the blood, and to capture the children and women, of those who oppose him; but let not this hinder you from following him.’ Years later, when the apostle of Allah besieged the Banu Qurayza, the friends of the dead Jew said, ‘By Allah! This is the prophet foretold to us. This is he according to his description!
A vision of the Angel Gabriel, or just a migraine aura (coloured patterns before the eyes – note that Gabriel is wherever Mohammed looks) + pareidolia (the tendency to read significance into random stimuli)?:
Afterwards I went out, and when I was on the centre of the mountain, I heard a voice from heaven, saying, “O Muhammad! Thou art the prophet of Allah, and I am Gabriel.” I raised my head to look at the sky, and lo! I beheld Gabriel in the shape of a man with extended wings, standing in the firmament, with his feet touching the ground. And he said again, “O Muhammad! Thou art the apostle of Allah, and I am Gabriel.” I continued to gaze at him, neither advancing nor retreating. Then I turned my face away from him to other parts of the sky, but in whatever direction I looked I saw him in the same form.
Chapter 5. The Night Journey
Mohammed flies to Jerusalem on a donkey:
And lo! There I saw a beast, white in colour, resembling part mule and part donkey, with two wings covering its hind legs, and with its forelegs placed as far as its sight could reach. [This was Buraq, the animal on which all prophets before Muhammad had been conveyed.] When I approached the beast to mount, it became restive, but Gabriel placed his hand on its mane and said, “Art thou not ashamed, o Buraq? No servant of Allah has yet ridden thee who is more favoured than Muhammad!” Then the beast became steady, and I mounted it.’….The apostle of Allah, accompanied by Gabriel, was transported to Jerusalem…
…then climbs to heaven:
‘When I had ended my visit to Jerusalem a ladder was brought to me, the like of which for beauty I had never seen before. This is the ladder which the dead yearn to see brought forth [that they may mount to heaven on the day of the last judgement]. Gabriel made me ascend this ladder until we arrived at that gate among the gates of heaven which is called The Gate of the Keepers.
…and haggles with Allah over the number of daily prayers required:
…they arrived in the seventh heaven, where the Apostle met his Lord, who made fifty daily prayers incumbent upon him.
The apostle of Allah continued his story. ‘Then I began my return. When I passed near Moses, who was a good friend to man, he asked, “How many prayers have been made incumbent upon thee?” and I replied, “Fifty prayers every day.” Moses said prayer is heavy, and thy people are weak. Go to thy Lord and ask Him to lighten it for thee, and for thy people.” Accordingly I returned to my Lord and asked Him to alleviate it for me and for my people. And He deducted ten. I went away again and passed near Moses, who repeated what he had said before. So I returned and asked my Lord, who once more deducted ten; and I went back to Moses, who sent me many times to Allah with the same injunction, until so many prayers were deducted that only five prayers remained for each day and night.
Chapter 6. Permission to wage war
Allah authorises defensive (or retaliatory) war:
Allah therefore permitted Muhammad to fight and to aid his against those who tyrannized over them. The first verse which came down permitting him to wage war and to shed began, ‘Permission is granted unto those who fight they have been oppressed, and Allah may aid those who have been driven from their homes merely for saying “Our Lord is Allah”.
Chapter 8. Medina
Muslims come first:
No Believer shall kill another for the sake of an infidel nor aid an infidel against a Believer. Verily, the protection of Allah is indivisible and extends to the meanest Believer of all; and each must befriend other Believers above all men.
Chapter 9. The Quibla
Allah is not a multiculturalist:
Some Muslims tried to keep up connexions with the Jews because of the alliance which had existed between them during the years of ignorance; but Allah revealed the following verse, prohibiting this kind of association. ‘Contract no friendships except among your own number. Others would certainly corrupt you. They desire your humiliation; their hatred is clear enough in what they say, but what their hearts conceal is even worse. You have more right to hate them than they you…’
Chapter 10. Rajam
Mohammed insists on the letter of the law:
Early in Muhammad’s stay at Medina the rabbis had met to judge a married man who had committed adultery with a Jewish woman who was also married. They said, ‘Send this man and this woman to Muhammad, ask him for a judgement of the case, and let him prescribe the penalty….he went to where the priests sat, and said to them, ‘Bring me your learned men!” They brought him Abdullah b. Suriya, who was the most learned, though one of the youngest, among them. The apostle talked alone with him and had him confirm on oath that according to the Torah, Allah condemns to stoning the man who commits adultery after marriage’ ….Then the apostle went out and ordered the culprits to be stoned in front of the mosque. When the man felt the first stone he bent over his mistress to protect her from the stones, until they were killed.
…and reacts badly to a reasonable question:
On another occasion a company of Jews came to the apostle ‘Allah has created creation, but who created Allah?’
And the apostle became so angry that his colour changed, and he leapt up in zeal for his Lord. But Gabriel came and quieted him, and said, “Calm thyself, Muhammad!” Gabriel brought a reply from Allah to what they had asked him. ‘Say “He is the one god! Allah is self generating! He begetteth not, nor is begotten! And there is none equal.”
Chapter 11. The Trinity
Allah orders offensive war:
A year after his arrival in Medina , and thirteen years after his ‘call’, the apostle of Allah prepared himself for war in obedience to the command of Allah that he should attack the idolaters. He was then fifty three years old.
Chapter 12. The First Caravan
Mohammed makes an inauspicious start to his career as a caravan raider:
This took place on the last day of the sacred month Rajab [October]. Abdullah and his companions conferred among themselves: ‘If we allow these people to continue and reach sacred territory tonight, they will be safe from us; but if we attack them now, we profane the sacred month.’ And they vacillated and hesitated to attack, but at last mustered up their courage and agreed to slay as many of the Quraysh as they could, and take possession of what they had with them. So Waqid shot an arrow and killed one of the Quraysh, two others were made prisoner, and the fourth fled.
Then Abdullah, with his companions, the caravan, and the prisoners, returned to Medina , saying, One fifth part of our plunder belongs to the apostle of Allah.’
…It’s all Abdullah’s fault but Mohammed gets the blame:
In Mecca , the Quraysh were saying: “Muhammad and his companions have violated the sacred month; they have shed blood in it, and taken booty, and captured prisoners.’ The Jews interpreted the event as a bad omen for the apostle.
…but Allah rescues the situation with a helpful revelation:
When speculation on the subject became widespread Allah revealed these words to His apostle: ‘They will ask thee about the sacred month and the fighting. Say “To fight in the sacred month is a matter of grave import, but to obstruct the worship of Allah and not to believe in Him, to prevent men from entering the holy mosque or to drive them out of it, these are of even graver import.” ‘
Chapter 13. The Battle of Badr
Allah encourages the believers and makes clear his attitude to unbelievers:
Allah said, ‘I shall aid you with a thousand angels in serried ranks.’ . . . And Allah instructed His angels, ‘I shall throw terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off their fingers, because they have resisted Allah and His apostle and Allah is severe in His punishment.’
…and underlines it:
Then He called the Muslims to unite and made the Helpers and the Emigrants friends in religion, and declared infidels of all creeds to be alike excluded from the friendship of Muslims. ‘Unless you do this, there will be doubt on earth and great corruption.’
Chapter 17. The Trench
Mohammed reveals his ultimate ambitions:
Salman the Persian told how ‘I was digging in a portion of the Ditch and found it hard. The apostle was near me, and when he saw how troublesome the spot was, he came down, took the pick¬axe from my hand, and struck the soil thrice. And each stroke brought forth a spark. Then I said, “Thou art to me as my father and mother, o apostle of Allah! What was this lightning I saw under the pickaxe when thou struck the soil?” He asked, “Didst thou really see it, Salman?” and I said, “Yes.” He told me, “The first spark means that Allah has promised me the conquest of Yemen ; the second that Allah has granted me the conquest of Syria and the West; and the third that Allah has bestowed upon me victory over the East.”
Chapter 18. The Banu Qurayza
Mohammed shows how to deal with those troublesome Jews:
The apostle of Allah imprisoned the Qurayza in Medina while trenches were dug in the market place. Then he sent for the men and had their heads struck off so that they fell in the trenches. They were brought out in groups, and among them was Kab, the chief of the tribe. In number, they amounted to six or seven hundred, although some state it to have been eight or nine hundred. All were executed. One man turned to his people and said, ‘It matters not! By God’s will, the children of Israel were destined for this massacre!’ Then he seated himself and his head was struck off.
Now the apostle distributed the property of the Banu Qurayza, as well as their women and children, to the Muslims, reserving one fifth for himself. Every horseman received three shares, one for himself and two for his steed, and every foot soldier one share. There were thirty six horses present on the day of the Qurayza. The apostle dispatched an emissary to Najd with the prisoners, to barter them as slaves in exchange for horses and camels.
The apostle of Allah selected one of the Jewish women, Rayhana, for himself, and she remained with him as his slave until she died.
Chapter 20. Khaybar
Mohammed meets Safiya, and shows his sensitive side:
The apostle occupied the Jewish forts one after the other, taking prisoners as he went. Among these were Safiya, the wife of Kinana, the Khaybar chief, and two female cousins; the apostle chose Safiya for himself. The other prisoners were distributed among the Muslims. Bilal brought Safiya to the apostle, and they passed the bodies of several Jews on the way….The apostle reprimanded Bilal, saying, ‘Hast thou lost all feelings of mercy, to make women pass by the corpses of their husbands?’
Sadly, it does not extend to Safiya’s husband:
Kinana, the husband of Safiya, had been guardian of the tribe’s treasures, and he was brought before the apostle, who asked where they were hidden. But Kinana refused to disclose the place. Then a Jew came who said, ‘I have seen Kinana walk around a certain ruin every morning.’ The apostle asked Kinana, ‘Art thou prepared to die if we find thou knewest where the treasure was?’ And he replied, ‘Yes.’ So the apostle ordered the ruin to be dug up, and some of the treasure was found. After that Kinana was asked again about the remainder, but he still refused to tell. The apostle of Allah handed him over to al Zubayr, saying, ‘Torture him until he tells what he knows’, and al Zubayr kindled a fire on his chest so that he almost expired; then the apostle gave him to Muhammad b. Maslama, who struck off his head.
Mohammed escapes justice:
After the apostle of Allah had rested, the captive woman Zaynab brought him a roasted sheep. She had asked what portion of the sheep the apostle of Allah most enjoyed and, having been told that it was the leg, she put much poison into it, although she also poisoned the whole sheep. When she placed it before the apostle he took a bite, but did not swallow; Bishr likewise took a piece, but he did swallow. Then the apostle of Allah spat his out, saying, ‘This bone informs me that it is poisoned.’ He summoned the woman, who confessed what she had done, and asked, ‘What made thee do this?’ She replied, ‘It is no secret to thee, what my people feel towards thee. I said to myself, “If he be only a king, we shall be delivered of him; but if he be a prophet, he will know of the poison and guard himself.”‘ The apostle released her, but Bishr died of the piece he had eaten….During his last sickness, years later, the apostle said, ‘I feel the vein of my heart bursting from the food I ate at Khaybar’
Chapter 25. Tabuk
Mohammed does not tolerate competition:
Before the apostle had left for Tabuk he had been approached by some men who said, ‘We have built a mosque for the sick and the needy, for wet and for cold nights, and we are anxious that thou shouldst come and pray therein.’ He had replied, ‘I am on the verge of leaving, but when we return, we shall, if Allah willeth, pay you a visit and pray in the mosque.’ When he alighted at Dhu Awan, an hour’s ride from Medina , on his return, information was sent down to him from Allah about the mosque. He called two of his followers and said, ‘Go to this mosque, whose people are unrighteous; destroy it; burn it.’ So they departed in haste and took a blazing date branch to the mosque. Although there were people in it, they burned and destroyed it. This was the verse of the Koran revealed concerning this matter: ‘And those who erected a mosque out of opposition and unbelief and to cause a schism among the Believers they will say “We desired nothing but good”. Allah knows they lie. Enter no such mosque.’
Chapter 26. The Last Illness
Mohammed sends jihad beyond Arabia from his death bed:
While the apostle was sick the people delayed the expedition he had commanded, but he said, ‘Carry out the expedition to the Syrian border’, and the people hastened their preparations.
Umar, who later became the second Caliph, defies reality:
Now Umar rose before the people and said, ‘Some Hypocrites say that the apostle of Allah is dead! He has not died, but has departed to his Lord, just as Moses left his people for forty days, and returned to them when it was rumoured he was dead. By Allah! The apostle will return just as Moses did, and the hands and feet of the men who have said that the apostle is dead will be cut off!’
The scene is set for the first Caliph Abu Bakr’s brutal Ridda (Apostasy) Wars to subjugate reluctant Muslims, an example currently being followed by the modern Abu Bakr, the self declared Caliph of ISIS:
When the apostle of Allah died many Arabs relapsed into idolatry; Judaism and Christianity rose again, and Hypocrisy became common, so that the Muslims seemed like a flock of sheep on a wintry night, because of the loss of their prophet. Then Allah roused them again under Abu Bakr.’
This is itself an abridged version of the original much longer work: