On the surface it seems that we know an enormous amount about Muhammad - far more than about Jesus or Moses, Buddha or Lao Tse or the shadowy authors of the Hindu Vedas. There are enough books recording his words and deeds to fill many shelves. They include Sira (biography), law books, Hadith (collections of accounts of particular sayings and doings of the Prophet and his companions) and commentaries on the Koran, interpreting the text in the light of events in the course of his life. However, none of them was written less than about a century after his death, so they are records of an oral literature, as open to question as any other.
Muslims have always been aware of the problems of oral literature, and they developed a science to deal with them. The collectors of Hadith studied the chain of authorities who had handed down each story. They required each link in the chain to be a person of sound character and reputation, and to have been at some time in the same place as the people above and below them in the chain. They classified chains on a scale from ‘sound' to ‘weak'. This was an admirable procedure, but three problems remained: some of the oldest and most respected books, notably the Sira and the oldest law books, had been written before the study of chains of authority was established. Secondly, once the essentials of chains of authority had been established, it became possible to attach a sound chain to an untrue story. Finally, once the authority for a story had been accepted, there was little or no critique of its content.
For a modern historian, the study of an oral literature is based on the content of stories. It is assumed that each one was told in a particular community and reflected the interests of its members. True stories were liable to be consciously or unconsciously edited by people leaving out inconvenient details, adding embellishments or changing the context. Untrue ones quickly gained acceptance because they fitted in with the group's outlook. Application of such assumptions to the Bible has cast doubt on many cherished beliefs of traditional Jews and Christians.
One of the roots of Islamic reaction against the West is the fear that critical study of their founding texts would have the same caustic effect as it has had on Christianity and Judaism. They have responded by claiming that their oral transmission was immune to the general problems of such literature. Some rest their case on their unique analysis of chains of authority. Some point to the extraordinary powers of verbal memory cultivated by the Arabs when they lived in the desert with no means of making written records. Some take refuge in the supernatural, saying that Allah did not allow error to be sanctioned by the community. None of these arguments was considered decisive in the Third Century of Islam, when there was still fierce debate on such matters.
Muslims should not fear the application of modern historical methods to Islam, for they possess something that is missing from every other classical religion: a contemporary record of the teaching of their Founder. In the course of this book, I present detailed evidence, mainly from the Koran itself, for the contention that the consonantal text is more or less exactly as it was written down in the lifetime of the Prophet. There are small differences, mainly in pronunciation, but these hardly ever make any difference to the meaning, and they were recognized and catalogued by Muslim scholars eleven or twelve centuries ago.
Western scholars have been examining manuscripts of the Koran for two centuries without finding any significant departures from the received consonantal text - and it would need only one authentic page from one deviant version to demolish faith in the whole concept of an authentic text. Some scholars still claim that the Koran was written long after the death of Muhammad, but this is simply preposterous. The latest possible date for getting agreement from all Muslims was 24 years after he died, since that is when relations broke down permanently between Sunni and Shia. Both factions, soon joined by a third, the Kharijites, would have dearly loved to possess a Koran that backed their claims against those of their opponents, yet all accept the same text.
The same events that guarantee the authenticity of the Koran require us to be very cautious in using the later literature, all of which was transmitted orally during generations of warfare and repression. The descendants of the Prophet's Companions were all keen to show that their ancestors had been virtuous and that the descent into civil war was the fault of others. Soon there came to be also an urgent need for precedents to establish particular interpretations of Islam, and these could only be accepted if they could be attributed to the Prophet and those who had known him.
The Koran provides us with enough material to give a picture of the Prophet's teaching and to confirm the main outline of his life. I have therefore been very sparing with my use of later sources. This is not meant to imply a wholesale rejection of them. But it is not for a non-Muslim to tell Muslims which parts of their tradition to question. There is currently a tendency to accept all the traditional literature, but this is partly an understandable reaction to the unremitting hostility with which many outsiders view every aspect of the religion.
An exception is my use of traditional accounts of the Prophet's family life - his relations with aunts and uncles, cousins and daughters as well as wives - which is valuable in filling out a picture of his personality. Ibn Saad's description of the wives' domestic quarters in Medina seems particularly reliable as they were not demolished until about eighty years after his death, so that eye witnesses must have been alive when the first accounts were written down.
Picture 1: Islam, by rogiro, Flickr
Picture 2: The Qur'an, by Ranoush, Flickr