As a history professor trained in the methodology accepted throughout the academic discipline of history, can you tell us something about the early sources we have for the Holy Prophet’s life? For example, are there many sources from within his lifetime or thereabouts and do they tell us much about his life? Are they reliable?
Actually, for a major historical figure from antiquity, the sources for Muhammad’s life are surprisingly early in origin, specific, and illuminating. There are Greek, Syriac and Aramaic sources from within his lifetime and immediately after which describe an Arab leader bringing religious teachings, proclaiming laws, leading armies, and fighting battles. Some of those sources name him as Muhammad or the local variant of his name. And within the Islamic tradition itself we have nine early letters written by ‘Urwah ibn al-Zubayr (died c. 711 CE) addressed to the Umayyad ruler ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan and his son and successor, al-Walid I. These letters, which sketch out the Prophet’s life with striking consistency with the major subsequent biographies by Al-Waqidi, Ibn Hisham and Ibn Sa’d, have not survived but they were quoted or reproduced in later works, most notably in the Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Mukuk and the Jami al-Bayan an Tawily al-Quran of Abu Ja‘far Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (died 923). ‘Urwah was not himself a companion of the Holy Prophet, but his father, al-Zubayr ibn ‘Awwam, was a very close and trusted companion. Through his mother Asma, ‘Urwah was also a grandson of Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, the Prophet’s first successor. His letters therefore are both early and authoritative. Some non-Muslim historians of Islam’s origins consider the early books of Sirah (Prophetic Biography) to be so hagiographical and imbued with miraculous and supernatural interventions that they cannot be considered reliable records of the Prophet’s life, even for its broad outline. Whilst I agree that it’s problematical that the most influential and detailed early biographies were written 150, 200 or even more years after the Prophet’s death, I actually consider three in particular — Ibn Hisham’s Al-Sirah al-Nabawiyyah, Al-Waqidi’s Kitab al-Maghazi and Ibn Sa‘d’s Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir — to be surprisingly thorough and highly useful.
And are they reliable?
Well, they were written many generations after the events they describe, and the authors had no living participants or eyewitnesses they could interview. Yet they drew upon earlier research and written sources which were then available to them, but have since been lost, so it’s not as though they drew only or even primarily upon oral traditions.
You sound skeptical of oral sources. Are you?
Yes. We know that the human memory is both malleable and unreliable, and that remembering long, complicated and detail-rich matters and then conveying them accurately and unchangingly is almost impossible without some fixed reference point for constant comparison.
Does the Holy Qur’an tell us much about events in the Prophet’s life?
The Qur’an does not record events in a narrative sense like the Bible does. It seldom tells complete stories, instead commenting insightfully on highlighted aspects or snippets of biblical, historical and contemporary events that its seventh-century audience understood very well. Reconstructing the “Asbab al-Nuzul,” the actual historical occasions in the life of the Prophet when Qur’anic revelations appeared, is not an exact science, and we scholars sometimes disagree about when certain verses or surahs appeared. Yet there’s enough agreement on the specific context in which many verses appeared that we can consider the Qur’an to be a valuable — albeit an episodic and sparing — source of historical information on Muhammad’s life.
Are the early books of Sirah less reliable than the records for other notable historical figures?
On the contrary, the historicity of Muhammad is beyond reasonable doubt, and the early sources for the basic outline and key events of his life (forget the details for now) are sufficient for us to reconstruct his life and times with a sense of confidence. If we as historians had to avoid trying to say something meaningful about Muhammad’s life because of the likelihood of subjectivity and bias in the sources, and the fact that they date from the eighth and ninth centuries, by the same standard we would have to give up trying to write about Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Jesus Christ, and many other historical figures. The key sources for their lives postdate the events by long periods, are equally problematic, and no less likely to contain subjectivity and bias. For example, the earliest surviving Greek source for Alexander the Great’s life is the Bibliotheca Historica, written by Diodorus Siculus over 265 years after Alexander’s death in 323 BCE. And added to this gap of more than ten generations is the problem that the oldest extant manuscript copy of the relevant section of Diodorus’s work dates from the fifteenth century CE, over 1,500 years after Diodorus died. Yet historians still use that manuscript as a source.
Almost all biographies of Muhammad are written by Muslims who obviously see him as a paradigmatic human; as the man they should emulate. Does this mean that their scholarship is more likely to be biased and therefore less reliable than works by non-Muslims?
Hmm. Yes and no. I’ll start with the “no” first. It’s not necessary for a scholar to have an ambivalent, neutral or negative view of a person to be able to write a detached or “objective” assessment of him or her. One can identify one’s own biases and assumptions and manage their impact regardless of one’s respect for the person being studied. If this isn’t true, then no Christian could ever write about Jesus, and no scholar of strategy could ever write about Napoleon, with any chance of their work being taken seriously because of their positive starting point. Acknowledging that Napoleon was a master of war doesn’t mean that a historian will ignore or minimize, much less suppress or falsify, any evidence showing flawed thinking or acting. Likewise, let’s think about those scholars who study history’s more infamous leaders, such as Hitler and Stalin. Most would admit that their starting position would be strong dislike or even disgust for their subjects. That doesn’t mean that they can’t reflect on their own biases and find effective ways to minimize the potentially deleterious impact of those biases on their scholarship. We certainly have excellent books on those evil people — books we can consider reliable and useful — written by scholars who would admit to having personal moral objections to them. On the other hand, if a scholar holds to a faith-based position that the historical figure they are studying succeeded in his or her activities because a god intervened to ensure those outcomes, or if the scholar believes that the person’s successes can only be explained by the fact that he or she possessed divinely bestowed gifts and powers, then the scholar is likely to see and explain causality in subjective supernatural terms that might not satisfy any reasonable standards for establishing truth. Their analysis would be very different to that of non-religious scholars, who see human nature, decisions and actions, and natural and environmental influences upon them, as the prime causes of political, military, social and even religious outcomes.
Is this a challenge for you as a scholar and a Muslim believer?
Yes, naturally. My holy book the Qur’an tells me that the Prophet Muhammad was close to Allah, the God I believe in and try to follow, and that he possessed such superb traits that he was not only the Seal of the Prophets, but was among the “Ulul Azmi,” the five most respected and elevated prophets. Yet he was also a human, a person of history, who lived and taught and fought as an ordinary man, 1400 years ago. Even saying that he was “ordinary” might seem an awkward thing for a Muslim to say, and might surprise my co-religionists who place him beyond all other humans. Yet I only mean ordinary in the sense that Muhammad was a non-divine, flesh-and-blood man whose mortality was no different to mine and everyone else’s. As a scholar, this creates an internal tension, I guess. How do I analyze the actions and reactions of someone I believe to have been a messenger of Allah? How, for this book, did I analyze his leadership ideas, habits, methods and actions? Perhaps the answer is what makes my book different to those of other Muslim scholars writing on Muhammad’s leadership. Conscious of my own faith-based biases, I did not allow myself the starting point that Muhammad must have been a great leader because he was a prophet, or that he was a great leader because he was a morally superior man.
Can you please explain that?
Yes. What I mean is this: other Muslim writers on Muhammad’s leadership say that he was devout, honest, compassionate, tolerant, patient, fair, decisive and courageous. These traits, they insist, are precisely what made Muhammad a great leader. Their books are worth reading, and I enjoy doing so. Yet, with no disrespect to my fellow authors, their deductive logic rests on two mistaken arguments: firstly, they say that because the legacy of Muhammad’s life is a worldwide religion, we must consider him to have been a successful leader; and secondly, they insist that, as he was both a very good man and a very good leader, we must deduce that he was a successful leader because he was very good man. Neither argument is strong. We can dismiss the first assertion on the basis by itself that Jesus Christ’s lack of worldly success proves that a lasting religious legacy is not a sound criterion for judging a prophet’s leadership. According to his followers, Jesus died a violent death after a short-lived ministry that, in his lifetime, secured him very few followers and no earthly power at all. In that sense, we cannot say he was a successful leader in any commonly understood sense. Yet over two billion humans now follow his teachings. We are therefore left with the second argument, which is that, because he was both a very good man and a successful leader, we must conclude that he was a successful leader because he was very good man. This argument is equally illogical. History reveals that very many deeply imperfect, corrupt or wickedly cruel people — including (by historical consensus) Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Stalin and Mao Zedong — have been very successful leaders. Let’s be clear. While it can be true that a good person is a good leader, it can equally be true that a bad person is a good leader. Likewise, it can be true that a good person is a bad leader, and equally true that a bad person is a bad leader. Thus, a leader’s elevated morality (which Muhammad undoubtedly possessed) does not necessarily cause leadership effectiveness. With this in mind, I have tried to avoid using an assessment of Muhammad’s traits or his moral character as the primary basis of establishing and explaining his leadership success. Instead, I have attempted to analyze his actual leadership ideas, methods, and related behavior — in other words, what he thought and did as a leader (according to the early sources) — in order to ascertain whether his ideas and actions reveal substantial and meaningful insights into the effectiveness of his leadership.
And do they?
Yes indeed. The early works of Sirah, and a number of relevant reliable hadiths, are sufficiently broad, deep and consistent to reconstruct a picture of Muhammad’s leadership that explains its great success. He was a highly skilled leader with unusually developed levels of aptitude, intuition, talent and capacity. He quickly learned how to do something better each time and made mental notes of what did or didn’t work so that he could repeat what succeeded and avoid what failed.
It is often said that the key role of a strategic leader is to develop and articulate a persuasive vision for a better future. Was this true in Muhammad’s case?
Absolutely. After Muhammad arrived in Medina in 622 CE, he made the most of what might have seemed a limited opportunity, choosing not merely to serve as a mediator in the squabbles between Medina’s tribes, as he was assigned, but to advance a far grander vision for both himself and the people around him. He recognized that his goals were new, untried, audacious, and stunningly grandiose, and that he could only achieve them if he succeeded in persuading people that his goals would create a better future. He therefore worked tirelessly to teach and persuade people around him that his vision would be beneficial for them as individuals, as a community, and as members of what would become a larger faith movement. Aware of human nature and concerns for comfort and wellbeing, he did not promote ascetic or austere ideas. Instead he conveyed the appealing message that submission to Allah’s laws, devotion to prayer and charity, and common goodness to each other, would be rewarded in this world and the next. His vision did not grow from an aspiration to acquire and use power for any selfish reasons, but, rather, from a desire to create a movement of religious reform that emphasized strict monotheism and moral behavior in conformity with what God revealed to and through him. But to spread this movement, and nurture its growth beyond infancy so that it would survive after his own death, he would need to acquire at least some power, a reality that he grasped very early on. His ability to see and exploit opportunities, and his profound and intuitive understanding of human nature, allowed him to consolidate and expand power at a remarkable pace. Thus, by the time of his death in 632 he had effectively gained authority over much of Arabia.
You use the word “power”. Desire for power is usually seen negatively. Why was this not so in Muhammad’s case?
Muhammad understood authority, both in its forceful forms (after all, he lived in a distinctly pitiless environment) and in its nuanced and sensitively applied forms. His very strong preference for the latter, and his concerted effort to avoid the former, made him not only a leader to obey, in some ways like other Arab tribal leaders, but also one to esteem, love and imitate.
Thank you very much for taking time to answer our questions. We wish you every success with this new book, which is your fifteenth or sixteenth book. What are you currently working on?
I have a couple of books on early Islam near to completion. And in the meantime I’m doing the preliminary research for a new analysis of Sultan Mehmet II’s conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
Professor Joel, thank you again.
Professor Joel Hayward is Professor of Strategic Thought at the National Defense College of the United Arab Emirates. The opinions he expressed in this interview are his own and do not reflect the views of the National Defense College or the United Arab Emirates government.
This 2021 interview of Professor Joel Hayward was conducted by Claritas Books. It appears here with their permission.