The importance of re-examining the Seerah of the Prophet

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Rajab 16, 1425 2004-09-01


by Zafar Bangash (Reflections, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 7, Rajab, 1425)

Rajab is one of the two Islamic months — Rabi’ al-Awwal is the other — in which programmes are traditionally held to highlight the Seerah (life history) of Allah's noble Messenger (saw). Rajab one of the four sacred months, and Rajab 27 also marks the date on which the event of Isra' (the Night-Journey) and Mi‘raj (the Ascension) occurred. The Prophet was transported during the night from Masjid al-Haram in Makkah to Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem (Al-Qur’an 17:01), and then upwards for the Mi‘raj (53:13-18). During these programmes, Muslims discuss in detail the miracles of Allah's Messenger. However, the Seerah is not about miracles; as an uswatun hasanah (an excellent exemplar: 33:21), the Messenger has to be emulated by us in our lives. Ordinary human beings cannot perform miracles; that is the forte of the Prophets, and that too only with Allah's permission. The emphasis on miracles has come about as a result of Jewish and Christian influences; both groups prefer to concentrate on the miracles of Prophets Musa and Isa (as). Prophethood is not a miracle-competition between Prophets; they were sent to various communities with the same message of tawheed, culminating in the last and final Messenger, who was sent to all humanity (7:158).

Muslims need to study the Seerah from its proper perspective: as a guide for us to plan our lives, both collectively and individually, especially by which to acquire power and the ability to do and achieve in the world. At the beginning of his mission in Makkah, the Prophet (saw) had few followers and no worldly power; by the end of his life he had absolute power and dominated almost the entire Arabian Peninsula. During Hajjatul-Wida there were an estimated 100,000 Muslims with him; if we bear in mind that not every Muslim can have gone for Hajj with him, we can get an idea of how large the Muslim community had grown in the relatively short period of 23 years. Islam, however, is not about numbers, it is about living according to the commands of Allah and implementing His Law. This is where power comes in; without power Muslims are at the mercy of others, who often impose on us man-made laws contrary to the teachings of the Qur'an and the Sunnah (life-example) of the Prophet (saw).

There is another area that needs our attention: the vast body of Seerah literature itself. Most scholars use the book of Muhammad ibn Ishaq (d. 151 AH), which has come down to us through the rendition of Abdul Malik ibn Hisham (d. 213 AH), as their primary source of reference. These scholars also tell us that there were earlier Seerah works (called Al-Maghazi, or campaigns of the Prophet, according to the tradition of the time) but most of them are no longer extant. In recent years the book of ‘Urwa ibn Zubayr (d. 94AH) on the Seerah has been rediscovered and published in Riyadh by Dr Muhammad Mustafa A'zami; an Urdu translation of this has now become available in Pakistan. This is an improvement on the earliest available sources, especially because it was written so close to the Prophet's own time. This book is also important because ‘Urwa (r) was a nephew (sister's son) of Umm al-Mu'mineen Aisha (ra), one of the wives of the Prophet (saw), from whom he learnt much. We must remember that during the life of the Prophet a number of other texts, in addition to the Qur'an, were also written and preserved. For instance, a number of hadiths compiled by Imam Ali, Abu-Hurayrah, Abdullah ibn ‘Amru ibn al-‘Aas and Anas ibn Malik (ra) were preserved, as well as treaties and agreements (such as the Sahifah of Madinah and the pact of Hudaibiyya), and messages sent to various tribes and the rulers of different lands. Similarly, while in Madinah the Prophet (saw) ordered the names of all the Muslims up to that time to be recorded. This manuscript is also available.

Thus Muslims doing research into the Seerah of the Prophet (saw) can draw on many original sources. The most important of all source-texts, however, is the Qur'an. Although it is not a biography of the Prophet, it can be read on one level as a running commentary on the Seerah: it sheds much light on the Messenger's noble character and deeds, and must be the primary source of reference about his ideas and decisions, just as the Seerah and the Sunnah are essential to understanding the Qur’an. Hadith literature comes next, followed by the Seerah books. Anything in the Seerah literature that does not conform to the Qur'an must be rejected. On this count, perhaps a number of episodes narrated in the Seerah literature might merit re-examination: this is an area in which there is scope for much work and discussion.

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