World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Ibn Ishaq

Muslim historian
Muḥammad ibn Isḥāq ibn Yasār
Title Ibn Isḥaq
Born 85 AH/704 AD[1]
Died 150–159 AH/761–770 AD[1][2]
Ethnicity Arab
Era Islamic golden age
Region Medina, Alexandria, Baghdad
Religion Islam
Main interest(s) Prophetic biography

Muḥammad ibn Isḥāq ibn Yasār ibn Khiyār (; according to some sources, ibn Khabbār, or Kūmān, or Kūtān,[3] Arabic: محمد بن إسحاق بن يسار بن خيار‎, or simply ibn Isḥaq, ابن إسحاق, meaning "the son of Isaac"; died 767 or 761[2]) was an Arab Muslim historian and hagiographer. Ibn Ishaq collected oral traditions that formed the basis of an important biography of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.


  • Life 1
  • Biography of Muhammad 2
    • Original versions, survival 2.1
    • Reconstruction of the text 2.2
    • Views of his Sīrat Rasūl Allāh 2.3
    • Translations 2.4
  • Other works 3
  • Reliability of his ahadith 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Bibliography 7
    • Primary sources 7.1
    • Traditional biographies 7.2
    • Secondary sources 7.3


Born in Medina about the year A.H. 85 (704 A.D), ibn Isḥaq was the grandson of a Christian man of Kufa (in southern Iraq), by the name of Yasār. Yasār had been captured in one of Khalid ibn al-Walid's campaigns, taken to Medina and became the slave of Qays ibn Makhrama ibn al-Muṭṭalib ibn ʿAbd Manāf ibn Quṣayy. Having accepted Islam, Yasār was manumitted and became his mawlā (client), thus acquiring the nisbat al-Muṭṭalibī. Yasār's three sons, Mūsā, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān, and Isḥāq, were all known as transmitters of akhbār, who collected and recounted tales of the past. Isḥāq married the daughter of another mawlā and from this marriage ibn Isḥāq was born.[3][4]

There are no details of Isḥāq's early life, but in view of the family nature of early akhbār and hadith transmission, it was natural that he should follow in their footsteps. He was also influenced by the work of ibn Shihab al-Zuhri, who praised the young ibn Ishaq for his knowledge of maghāzī (literally, stories of military expeditions). Around the age of 30, ibn Isḥaq arrived in Alexandria and studied under Yazīd ibn Abī Ḥabīb. After his return to Medina, based on one account, he was ordered out of Medina for relating a false hadith from a woman he did not meet (Fāṭima bint al-Mundhir, wife of Hishām ibn ʿUrwa).[3] But those who defended him, like Sufyan ibn `Uyaynah, stated that Ibn Ishaq told them that he did meet her.[5] Also ibn Ishaq disputed with the young Malik ibn Anas, famous for the Maliki School of Fiqh. Leaving Medina (or forced to leave), he traveled eastwards towards what is now Iraq, stopping in Kufa, also al-Jazīra, and into Iran as far as Ray, before returning west. Eventually he settled in Baghdad. There, the new Abbasid dynasty, having overthrown the Umayyad caliphs, was establishing a new capital.[6]

Ibn Isḥaq moved to the capital and found patrons in the new regime.[7] He became a tutor employed by the Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur, who commisssioned 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 expeditions"). 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 survived.[9] He died in Baghdad around A.H. 150-159.

Biography of Muhammad

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 Sīratu Rasūli l-Lāh (Arabic: سيرة رسول الله‎ "Life of the Messenger of God") and survive mainly in the following sources:

  • An edited copy, or recension, of his work by his student al-Bakka'i, which was further edited by ibn Hisham. Al-Bakka'i's work has perished and only ibn Hisham's has survived, in copies.[10]
  • Fragments of several other recensions. Guillaume lists them on p. xxx of his preface, but regards most of them as so fragmentary as to be of little worth.

According to Donner, the material in ibn Hisham and al-Tabari is "virtually the same".[10] 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][12]

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.[13]

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. Fortunately, as noted above, much of the original text was copied over into a work of his own by Ibn Hisham (Basra; Fustat c. 218 A.H.).[14]

Ibn Hisham also "abbreviated, annotated, and sometimes altered" the text of Ibn Ishaq, according to Guillaume (at p. xvii). Interpolations made by Ibn Hisham are said to be recognizable and can be deleted, leaving as a remainder, a so-called "edited" version of Ibn Ishaq's original text (otherwise lost). In addition, Guillaume (at p. xxxi) points out that Ibn Hisham's version omits various narratives in the text which were given by al-Tabari in his History.[15][16] In these passages al-Tabari expressly cites Ibn Ishaq as a source.[17][18]

Thus can be reconstructed an 'improved' "edited" 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.[19] Here, Ibn Ishaq's introductory chapters describe pre-Islamic Arabia, before he then commences with the narratives surrounding the life of Muhammad (in Guillaume at pp. 109-690).

Views of his Sīrat Rasūl Allāh

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.[3] 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.[20]

The most widely discussed criticism of his sīra was that of his contemporary munqaṭiʿ (broken chain of narration) and munkar (suspect narrator) reports.[22]

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 (p. xix), Guillaume suggests that Ibn Isḥāq deliberately substitute the ordinary term "ḥaddathanī" by a word of suspicion "zaʿama" ("he alleged") to show his skepticism about certain traditions (p. xx).


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.[23]

The best-known translation in a Western language is Alfred Guillaume's 1955 English translation, but some have questioned the reliability of this translation.[24][25] 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).[26]

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, in ibn Hisham and al-Mubtada otherwise in substantial fragments. He is also credited 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][27]

Reliability of his ahadith

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)[28] 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.[29] Because of his tadlīs, many scholars including Muhammad al-Bukhari hardly ever used his narrations in their sahih books.[30] 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.[31] Others, like Ahmad ibn Hanbal, rejected his narrations on all matters related to fiqh.[3] Al-Dhahabī concluded that despite his good qualities any narration solely transmitted through him should probably be considered as containing munkar, for there is an issue with his memorizing. He added that some Imams mentiond him, including Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj, who cited five of Ibn Ishaq's ahadith in his Sahih.[22] According to Ibn Khallikan, a once prominent theologian, Ibn Ishaq was seen as a sure authority in the traditions by his contemporary scholars Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri, Sahih al-Bukhari, Al-Shafi‘i, Sufyan ibn `Uyaynah and Shobba Ibn Al-Hajjij.[32]

See also


  1. ^ a b 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 Robinson 2003, p. xv
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h
  4. ^ Gordon D. Newby, The Making of the Last Prophet (University of South Carolina 1989) at 5.
  5. ^ Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Taqdima al-maʿrifa li kitāb al-jarḥ wa al-taʿdīl, at "Sufyān ibn ʿUyayna"
  6. ^ Gordon D. Newby, The Making of the Last Prophet (University of South Carolina 1989) at 6-7, 12.
  7. ^ Robinson 2003, p. 27
  8. ^ a b c d Raven, Wim, Sīra and the Qurʾān – Ibn Isḥāq and his editors, Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an. Ed. Jane Dammen McAuliffe. Vol. 5. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill Academic Publishers, 2006. p29-51.
  9. ^ Gordon D. Newby, The Making of the Last Prophet (University of South Carolina 1989) at 7-9, 15-16.
  10. ^ a b c
  11. ^ W. Montgomery Watt and M. V. McDonald, "Translator's Forward" xi-xlvi, at xi-xiv, in The History of al-Tabari. Volume VI. Muhammad at Mecca (SUNY 1988). 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. Discussed here are Ibn Ishaq and his Sirah, the various recensions of it, Guillaume's translation, and Ibn Hisham.
  12. ^ Cf., Ibn Ishaq (Guillaume's reconstruction, at pp. 165-167) and al-Tabari (SUNY edition, at VI: 107-112).
  13. ^ a b
  14. ^ Dates and places, and discussions, re Ibn Ishaq and Ibn Hisham in Guillaume (pp. xiii & xli).
  15. ^ 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 as The History of al-Tabari; volumes six to nine concern the life of Muhammad.
  16. ^ Omitted by Ibn Hisham and found in al-Tabari are, e.g., at 1192 (History of al-Tabari (SUNY 1988), VI: 107-112), and at 1341 (History of al-Tabari (SUNY 1987), at VII: 69-73).
  17. ^ E.g., al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, volume VI. Muhammad at Mecca (SUNY 1988) at p. 56 (1134).
  18. ^ See here above: "The text and its survival", esp. re Salamah ibn Fadl al-Ansari. Cf, Guillaume at p. xvii.
  19. ^ Ibn Hisham's 'narrative' additions and his comments are removed from the text and isolated in a separate section (Guillaume at 3 note, pp. 691-798), while Ibn Hisham's philological additions are evidently omitted (cf., Guillaume at p. xli).
  20. ^
  21. ^ a b
  22. ^ a b Al-Dhahabī, Mīzān al-iʿtidāl fī naqd al-rijāl, at "Muhammad ibn Ishaq"
  23. ^ See bibliography.
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^ E.g., Guillaume at pp. 11-12.
  27. ^ Gordon D. Newby, The Making of the Last Prophet (University of South Carolina 1989) at 2-4, 5, 7-9, 15-16.
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^ A Biography of the Prophet of Islam, By Mahdī Rizq Allāh Aḥmad, Syed Iqbal Zaheer, pg. 18
  31. ^ al-Khaṭīb al-Baghdādī, Tārīkh Baghdād
  32. ^


Primary sources

  • Alfred Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad. A Translation of Isḥaq's "Sirat Rasul Allah", with introduction [pp. xiii-xliii] and notes (Oxford University, 1955), xlvii + 815 pages. The Arabic text used by Guillaume was the Cairo edition of 1355/1937 by Mustafa al-Saqqa, Ibrahim al-Abyari and Abdul-Hafiz Shalabi, as well as another, that of F. Wustenfeld (Göttingen, 1858–1860). Ibn Hasham's "notes" are given at pages 691–798. digital scan
  • Gustav Weil, Das Leben Mohammed's nach Mohammed Ibn Ishak, bearbeitet von Abd el-Malik Ibn Hischam (Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler'schen Buchhandlung, 1864), 2 volumes. The Sirah Rasul Allah translated into German with annotations. digital edition
  • Ibn Isḥaq, The Life of Muhammad. Apostle of Allah (London: The Folio Society, 1964), 177 pages. From a translation by Edward Rehatsek (Hungary 1819 – Mumbai [Bombay] 1891), abridged and introduced [at pp. 5–13] by Michael Edwards. Rehatsek completed his translation; in 1898 it was given to the Royal Asiatic Society of London by F.F. Arbuthnot.

Traditional biographies

Secondary sources

  • Robinson, Chase, Islamic Historiography, Cambridge University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-521-58813-8
  • Wansbrough, John, Quranic Studies, 1977, as reprinted in 2004, ISBN 0-19-713588-9
  • Wansbrough, John, The Sectarian Milieu, 1978, as reprinted in 2005. ISBN 0-19-713596-X.
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Project Gutenberg are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.