Ibn Ishaq

Ibn Ishaq
ابن اسحاق
Muhammad ibn Ishaq

704 CE (85 AH)[1]
Died767 CE (150 AH)
EraIslamic golden age
Main interest(s)Prophetic biography (Sīrah)
Notable work(s)Al-Sirah al-Nabawiyyah (Ibn Ishaq)
Muslim leader
Influenced by

Ibn Ishaq (Arabic: محمد ابن اسحاق ابن يسار, romanizedMuḥammad ibn Isḥāq ibn Yasār; 704–767) was an 8th-century Muslim historian and hagiographer. He collected oral traditions that formed the basis of an important biography of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

Born in Medina, Ibn Ishaq followed his family tradition of collecting historical reports (akhbār). At a young age he became well-known for his knowledge about military expions and battles. He collected oral traditions about the life of Muhammad now known collectively as Sīrat Rasūl Allāh. He died at Baghdad in 767 (150 AH) during the rule of the Abbasids.


Origins and early life[]

Ibn Ishaq was born in Medina in 704 (85 AH), with Muhammad being his birth name.[2] His father Ishaq was a transmitter of history (akhbār), along with his brothers Abd al-Rahman and Musa. They collected and recounted written and oral testaments of the past. Ishaq married a daughter of a client (mawlā), from which Ibn Isḥāq was born.[2][3] Ibn Ishaq's grandfather Yasār ibn Khiyār[a] was one of forty Christian or Jewish boys who had been held captive in a monastery at Ayn al-Tamr.[4] After being found in one of Khalid ibn al-Walid's campaigns, Yasār was taken to Medina and enslaved to Qays ibn Makhrama ibn al-Muṭṭalib ibn ʿAbd Manāf ibn Quṣayy. On his conversion to Islam, he was manumitted as "mawlā" (client), thus acquiring the surname, or "nisbat", al-Muṭṭalibī.

It is likely that Ibn Ishaq followed the family tradition of transmission of early Islamic history (akhbār) and hadith. In Medina, Ibn Ishaq studied under the jurist Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri. Zuhri praised the young Ibn Ishaq for his knowledge of military expions (maghāzī). Around the age of 30, Ibn Isḥaq resided in Alexandria, where he studied under the scholar Yazid ibn Abi Ḥabib.

After returning to Medina, he was reportedly ordered out of Medina for attributing a hadith to a woman he had not met, Fatima bint Mundhir, the wife of Hishām ibn ʿUrwa.[2] However, many scholars including Sufyan ibn ʽUyaynah, stated that Ibn Ishaq told them that he did meet her.[5] Ibn Ishaq also disputed with the young Malik ibn Anas, to whom the Maliki jurispruedence is attributed. Following these accusations, Ibn Ishaq either left or more likely, was forced to leave Medina. He then traveled eastwards towards al-Irāq, stopping in Kufa, also al-Jazīra, and as far as Ray, before returning west.

Shifting to Baghdad and death[]

Meanwhile, the new Abbasid dynasty, having overthrown the Umayyad dynasty, was establishing a new capital in Baghdad.[6] Ibn Isḥaq moved to Baghdad and found patrons in the new regime.[7] He became a tutor employed by the second Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur (r. 754–775), who commissioned him to write an all-encompassing history book starting from the creation of Adam to the present day, known as "al-Mubtadaʾ wa al-Baʿth wa al-Maghāzī" (lit. "In the Beginning, the mission [of Muhammad], and the expions"). It was kept in the court library of Baghdad.[8] Part of this work contains the Sîrah or biography of the Prophet, the rest was once considered a lost work, but substantial fragments of it survive.[9][10] He died in Baghdad in 767 (150 AH).[11][12][13]

Biography of Muhammad (Sīrat Rasūl Allāh)[]

Original versions, survival[]

Ibn Isḥaq collected oral traditions about the life of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. These traditions, which he orally dictated to his pupils,[8] are now known collectively as Sīrat Rasūl Allāh (Arabic: سيرة رسول الله "Life of the Messenger of God") and survive mainly in the following sources:

According to Donner, the material in ibn Hisham and al-Tabari is "virtually the same".[14] However, there is some material to be found in al-Tabari that was not preserved by ibn Hisham. For example, al-Tabari includes the controversial episode of the Satanic Verses, while ibn Hisham does not.[8][17][18]

Following the publication of previously unknown fragments of ibn Isḥaq's traditions, recent scholarship suggests that ibn Isḥaq did not commit to writing any of the traditions now extant, but they were narrated orally to his transmitters. These new texts, found in accounts by Salama al-Ḥarranī and Yūnus ibn Bukayr, were hitherto unknown and contain versions different from those found in other works.[19]

Reconstruction of the text[]

The original text of the Sīrat Rasūl Allāh by Ibn Ishaq did not survive. Yet it was one of the earliest substantial biographies of Muhammad. However, much of the original text was copied over into a work of his own by Ibn Hisham (Basra; Fustat, died 833 AD, 218 AH).[c]

Ibn Hisham also "abbreviated, annotated, and sometimes altered" the text of Ibn Ishaq, according to Guillaume (1955), p. xvii. Interpolations made by Ibn Hisham are said to be recognizable and can be deleted, leaving as a remainder, a so-called "ed" version of Ibn Ishaq's original text (otherwise lost). In addition, Guillaume (1955), p. xxxi points out that Ibn Hisham's version omits various narratives in the text which were given by al-Tabari in his History.[d][20] In these passages al-Tabari expressly cites Ibn Ishaq as a source.[21][e]

Thus can be reconstructed an 'improved' "ed" text, i.e., by distinguishing or removing Ibn Hisham's additions, and by adding from al-Tabari passages attributed to Ibn Ishaq. Yet the result's degree of approximation to Ibn Ishaq's original text can only be conjectured. Such a reconstruction is available, e.g., in Guillaume's translation.[f] Here, Ibn Ishaq's introductory chapters describe pre-Islamic Arabia, before he then commences with the narratives surrounding the life of Muhammad (in Guillaume (1955), pp. 109–690).


In 1864 the Heidelberg professor Gustav Weil published an annotated German translation in two volumes. Several decades later the Hungarian scholar Edward Rehatsek prepared an English translation, but it was not published until over a half-century later.[24]

The best-known translation in a Western language is Alfred Guillaume's 1955 English translation, but some have questioned the reliability of this translation.[25][26] In it Guillaume combined ibn Hisham and those materials in al-Tabari cited as ibn Isḥaq's whenever they differed or added to ibn Hisham, believing that in so doing he was restoring a lost work. The extracts from al-Tabari are clearly marked, although sometimes it is difficult to distinguish them from the main text (only a capital "T" is used).[27]

Other works[]

Ibn Isḥaq wrote several works. His major work is al-Mubtadaʾ wa al-Baʿth wa al-Maghāzī—the Kitab al-Mubtada and Kitab al-Mab'ath both survive in part, particularly al-Mab'ath, and al-Mubtada otherwise in substantial fragments. He is also cred with the lost works Kitāb al-kh̲ulafāʾ, which al-Umawwī related to him (Fihrist, 92; Udabāʾ, VI, 401) and a book of Sunan (Ḥād̲j̲d̲j̲ī Ḵh̲alīfa, II, 1008).[8][28]


Notable scholars like the jurist Ahmad ibn Hanbal appreciated his efforts in collecting sīra narratives and accepted him on maghāzī, despite having reservations on his methods on matters of fiqh.[2] Ibn Ishaq also influenced later sīra writers like Ibn Hishām and Ibn Sayyid al-Nās. Other scholars, like Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya, made use of his chronological ordering of events.[29]

The most widely discussed criticism of his sīra was that of his contemporary Mālik ibn Anas.[2] Mālik rejected the stories of Muhammad and the Jews of Medina on the ground that they were taken solely based on accounts by sons of Jewish converts.[30] These same stories have also been denounced as "odd tales" (gharāʾib) later by ibn Hajar al-Asqalani.[30] Mālik and others also thought that ibn Isḥāq exhibited Qadari tendencies, had a preference for Ali (Guillaume also found evidence of this, pp. xxii &xxiv),[2] and relied too heavily on what were later called the Isrā'īlīyāt. Furthermore, early literary critics, like ibn Sallām al-Jumaḥī and ibn al-Nadīm, censured ibn Isḥāq for knowingly including forged poems in his biography,[2] and for attributing poems to persons not known to have written any poetry.[19] The 14th-century historian al-Dhahabī, using hadith terminology, noted that in addition to the forged (makdhūb) poetry, Ibn Isḥāq filled his sīra with many munqaṭiʿ (broken chain of narration) and munkar (suspect narrator) reports.[31]

Guillaume notices that Ibn Isḥāq frequently uses a number of expressions to convey his skepticism or caution. Beside a frequent note that only God knows whether a particular statement is true or not,[32] Guillaume suggests that Ibn Isḥāq deliberately substitutes the ordinary term "ḥaddathanī" (he narrated to me) by a word of suspicion "zaʿama" ("he alleged") to show his skepticism about certain traditions.[33]

Michael Cook laments that comparing Ibn Ishaq with the later commentator Al-Waqid — who based his writing on Ibn Ishaq but added much colorful but made-up detail — reveals how oral history can be contaminated by the fiction of storytellers (qussa).[34] "We have seen what half a century of story-telling could achieve between Ibn Ishaq and al-Waqidi, at a time when we know that much material had already been committed to writing. What the same processes may have brought about in the century before Ibn Ishaq is something we can only guess at."[35]

Cook's fellow revisionist Patricia Crone complains that Sīrat is full of "contraditions, confusions, inconsistencies and anomalies,"[36] written "not by a grandchild, but a great grandchild of the Prophet's generation", that it is written from the point of view of the ulama and Abbasid, so that "we shall never know ... how the Umayyad caliphs remembered their prophet".[37]

Popular historian Tom Holland believes that Ibn Ishaq should be compared to Homer, and his writing regarded as literature rather than history. Just as Homer believed the gods determined fates in the Iliad and Odyssey, so Ibn Ishaq described hosts of angels coming to the aid of Muhammad at the Battle of Badr.[38]

Reliability of Ibn Ishaq[]

In hadith studies, Ibn Isḥaq's hadith (considered separately from his prophetic biography) is generally thought to be "good" (ḥasan) (assuming an accurate and trustworthy isnad, or chain of transmission)[39] and himself having a reputation of being "sincere" or "trustworthy" (ṣadūq). However, a general analysis of his isnads has given him the negative distinction of being a mudallis, meaning one who did not name his teacher, claiming instead to narrate directly from his teacher's teacher.[40] According to Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, Ibn Ishaq was notorious for committing Tadlis which is failing to disclose the names of those who he had heard the narration from due to him hearing the report from unreliable and unknown persons, he would also commit Tadlis, from individuals who were seen as unreliable for more severe reasons.[41] Because of his tadlīs, many scholars including Muhammad al-Bukhari hardly ever used his narrations in their sahih books.[42] Ibn Hibban states about Ibn Ishaq: “The problem with Ibn Ishaq is that he used to omit the names of unreliable narrators, as a result of which unreliable material crept into his narrations. However, if he makes it clear that he has actually heard from the person whom he states as his source, then his narration is authentic".[43] According to al-Khaṭīb al-Baghdādī, all scholars of ahadith except one no longer rely on any of his narrations, although truth is not foreign to him.[44] Others, like Ahmad ibn Hanbal, rejected his narrations on all matters related to fiqh.[2] Al-Dhahabī concluded that the soundness of his narrations regarding ahadith is hasan, except in hadith where he is the sole transmitter which should probably be considered as munkar. He added that some Imams mentioned him, including Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj, who cited five of Ibn Ishaq's ahadith in his Sahih.[31] The muhaddith Ibn 'Adi stated that he didn't find anything which showed any of his hadiths were da'if. He further adds that nothing could stand up to his sirah and maghazi works.[45] Perhaps the most staunchest critic of Ibn Ishaq was his contemporary, Malik ibn Anas, the founder of the Maliki School of Thought who stated that Ibn Ishaq was a liar who "reports tradition on the authority of the Jews".[46] In his book, Muwatta Imam Malik Imam Malik rarely quotes traditions that are transmitted from Ibn Ishaq. Ibn Ishaq was also criticized by Al-Nasa'i and Yahya ibn-Al Qattan who viewed Ibn Ishaq as an unreliable source for hadith.[47] Imam Hanbal stated that narrations that had been solely narrated through Ibn Ishaq were unreliable.[48]

See also[]


  1. ^ His great-grandfather's name is disputed with numerous names recorded such as Ibn Khiyār, Ibn Khabbār, Ibn Kūmān, or Ibn Kūtān.[2]
  2. ^ Discussed here are Ibn Ishaq and his Sirah, the various recensions of it, Guillaume's translation, and Ibn Hisham.
  3. ^ Dates and places, and discussions, re Ibn Ishaq and Ibn Hisham in Guillaume (1955), pp. xiii & xli.
  4. ^ Al-Tabari (839–923) wrote his History in Arabic: Ta'rikh al-rusul wa'l-muluk (Eng: History of Prophets and Kings). A 39-volume translation was published by State University of New York (SUNY) as The History of al-Tabari; volumes six to nine concern the life of Muhammad.
  5. ^ See Original versions, survival above, esp. re Salamah ibn Fadl al-Ansari. Cf, Guillaume (1955), p. xvii.
  6. ^ Ibn Hisham's 'narrative' additions and his comments are removed from the text and isolated in a separate section,[22] while Ibn Hisham's philological additions are evidently omitted.[23]


  1. ^ Mustafa al-Saqqa, Ibrahim al-Ibyari and Abdu l-Hafidh Shalabi, Tahqiq Kitab Sirah an-Nabawiyyah, Dar Ihya al-Turath, p. 20.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Jones 1968, pp. 810–811.
  3. ^ Newby 1989, p. 5.
  4. ^ Lecker 2015, p. 26–38.
  5. ^ Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Taqdima al-maʿrifa li kitāb al-jarḥ wa al-taʿdīl, at "Sufyān ibn ʿUyayna".
  6. ^ Newby 1989, pp. 6–7, 12.
  7. ^ Robinson 2003, p. 27.
  8. ^ a b c d Raven, Wim, Sīra and the Qurʾān – Ibn Isḥāq and his ors, Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an. Ed. Jane Dammen McAuliffe. Vol. 5. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill Academic Publishers, 2006. pp 29-51.
  9. ^ Newby 1989, pp. 7–9, 15–16.
  10. ^ Graham, William A. (1992). "The Making of the Last Prophet: A Reconstruction of the Earliest Biography of Muhammad by Gordon Darnell Newby" (PDF). History of Religions. 32 (1): 93–95. doi:10.1086/463314. Retrieved 15 November 2017.
  11. ^ Robinson & 2003, p. 15.
  12. ^ "Ibn Ishaq". Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved 13 November 2019.
  13. ^ "Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad ibn Ishaq ibn Yasar ibn Khiyar". Oxford Dictionary of Islam. Retrieved 13 November 2019.
  14. ^ a b c Donner 1998, p. 132.
  15. ^ Guillaume 1955, p. 691.
  16. ^ W. Montgomery Watt; M. V. McDonald. "Translator's Forward". In The History of al-Tabari, Volume VI (1988), pp. xi–xiv. Regarding al-Tabari's narratives of Muhammad, the translators state, "The earliest and most important of these sources was Ibn Ishaq, whose book on the Prophet is usually known as the Sirah".
  17. ^ Guillaume 1955, pp. 165–167.
  18. ^ The History of al-Tabari, Volume VI 1988, pp. 107–112.
  19. ^ a b Raven, W. (1997). "SĪRA". Encyclopaedia of Islam. Vol. 9 (2nd ed.). Brill Academic Publishers. pp. 660–663. ISBN 978-90-04-10422-8.
  20. ^ Omitted by Ibn Hisham and found in al-Tabari are, e.g., at 1192 (The History of al-Tabari, Volume VI (1988), pp. 107–112), and at 1341 (The History of al-Tabari, Volume VII (1987), pp. 69–73).
  21. ^ E.g., al-Tabari, at 1134 (The History of al-Tabari, Volume VI (1988), p. 56).
  22. ^ Guillaume 1955, pp. 691–798, note 3.
  23. ^ Guillaume 1955, p. xli.
  24. ^ See bibliography.[full citation needed]
  25. ^ Humphreys, R. Stephen (1991). Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry (Revised ed.). Princeton University Press. p. 78. ISBN 978-0-691-00856-1.
  26. ^ Tibawi, Abdul Latif (1956). Ibn Isḥāq's Sīra, a critique of Guillaume's English translation: the life of Muhammad. Oxford University Press.
  27. ^ Guillaume 1955, pp. 11–12.
  28. ^ Newby 1989, pp. 2–4, 5, 7–9, 15–16.
  29. ^ Muḥammad Ibn ʻAbd al-Wahhāb, Imam (2003). Mukhtaṣar zād al-maʻād. Darussalam publishers Ltd. p. 345. ISBN 978-9960-897-18-9.
  30. ^ a b Arafat, W. N. (1976). "New Light on the Story of Banū Qurayẓa and the Jews of Medina". Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. 108 (2): 100–107. doi:10.1017/S0035869X00133349. ISSN 0035-869X. JSTOR 25203706.
  31. ^ a b Al-Dhahabī, Mīzān al-iʿtidāl fī naqd al-rijāl, "Muhammad ibn Ishaq".
  32. ^ Guillaume 1955, p. xix.
  33. ^ Guillaume 1955, p. xx.
  34. ^ Cook 1983, pp. 62–63.
  35. ^ Cook 1983, p. 67.
  36. ^ Crone 1980, p. 12.
  37. ^ Crone 1980, p. 4.
  38. ^ Holland, Tom (2012). In the Shadow of the Sword. London: Little, Brown. p. 39. ISBN 9781408700075.
  39. ^ M. R. Ahmad (1992). Al-sīra al-nabawiyya fī dhawʾ al-maṣādir al-aṣliyya: dirāsa taḥlīlīyya (1st ed.). Riyadh: King Saud University.
  40. ^ Qaraḍāwī, Yūsuf (2007). Approaching the Sunnah: comprehension and controversy. IIIT. p. 188. ISBN 978-1-56564-418-2.
  41. ^ Ibn Hajar, Ta’rif Ahl al Taqdis 38.[full citation needed]
  42. ^ Mahdī Rizq Allāh Aḥmad (November 2005). A Biography of the Prophet of Islam. Translated by Syed Iqbal Zaheer. Riyadh: Darussalam. p. 18. ISBN 9789960969022. OCLC 954285873.
  43. ^ Tahdhib al Kamal 24 p. 428.[full citation needed]
  44. ^ al-Khaṭīb al-Baghdādī, Tārīkh Baghdād.
  45. ^ Ibn Hajar al-Asqalai, Tahdhib al-Tahdhib.[full citation needed]
  46. ^ (Kadhdhab and Dajjal min al-dajajila. Uyun al-athar, I, 16-7)
  47. ^ Jones, J.M.B. Ibn Ishak. Vol. IV, in Encyclopaedia of Islam, ed by Ch. Pellat, and J. SchachtV.L.M.B. Lewis. London: Luzac & Co., 1971: pages 810-811)
  48. ^ Tahdhib al-Tahdhib, Da’ira Ma’arif Nizamia, Hyderabad, 1326 A.H. vol.9 p.43


Primary sources[]

Traditional biographies[]

Secondary sources[]

External links[]