The Reliability of Muslim Chronicler Ibn Ishaq


In this post, I am going to cite some Islamic authorities confirming the integrity of one of first (if not the first) Muslim chronicler of Muhammad’s life, namely, Ibn Ishaq. The reason I do so is to silence the attempt of certain Muhammadans to brush aside the reports of Ibn Ishaq concerning their prophet which depicts him in a less than favorable light.

I begin with the translator of Ibn Ishaq’s biography into English. All bold and capital emphasis are mine:

Muhammad, son of Ishaq, son of Yasar, was born in Medina about A.H. 85 and died in Baghdad in 151.1 His grandfather Yasar fell into the hands of Khalid b. al-Walid when he captured ‘Aynu’1-Tamr in A.H. 12, having been held there as a prisoner by the Persian king. Khalid sent him with a number of prisoners to Abu Bakr at Medina. There he was handed over to Qays b. Makhrama b. al-Muttalib b. ‘Abdu Manaf as a slave, and was manumitted when he accepted Islam. His family adopted the family name of their patrons. His son Ishaq was born about the year 50, his mother being the daughter of another freedman. He and his brother Musa were well-known traditionists, so that our author’s path in life was prepared before he reached manhood.2

He associated with the second generation of traditionists, notably al-Zuhri, ‘Asim b. ‘Umar b. Qatada, and ‘Abdullah b. Abu Bakr. He must have devoted himself to the study of apostolic tradition from his youth, for at the age of thirty he went to Egypt to attend the lectures of Yazid b. Abu Hablb.There he was regarded as an authority, for this same Yazid afterwards related traditions on Ibn Ishaq’s authority.4 On his return to Medina he went on with the collection and arrangement of the material he had collected. Al-Zuhri, who was in Medina in 123, is reported to have said that Medina would never lack ‘ilm as long as Ibn Ishaq was there, and he eagerly gathered from him the details of the prophet’s wars. Unfortunately Ibn Ishaq excited the enmity of Malik b. Anas, for whose work he showed his contempt, and it was not long before his own writings and his orthodoxy were called in question. Probably it was our author’s lost book of Sunan5 which excited Malik’s ire, for it would have been in the field of law based on the practice of the prophet that differences would be most keenly felt. He was accused of being a Qadari and a Shi’i. Another man attacked his veracity: he often quoted Fatima, the wife of Hisham b. ‘Urwa, as the authority for some of his traditions. The husband was annoyed and denied that he had ever met his wife; but as she was nearly forty years Ibn Ishaq’s senior it is easily credible that they often met without occasioning gossip. It is not known whether Ibn Ishaq was compelled to leave Medina or whether he went away voluntarily. Obviously he could not have the same standing in a place that housed his chief informants as he would hold elsewhere, and so he left for the east, stopping in Kufa, al-jazira on the Tigris, and Ray, finally settling in Baghdad. While Mansur was at Hashimiya he attached himself to his following and presented him with a copy of his work doubtless in the hope of a grant from the caliph. Thence he moved to Ray and then to the new capital of the empire. He died in 150 (or perhaps 151) and was buried in the cemetery of Hayzuran. (Alfred Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, With Introduction and Notes [Oxford University Press, Fifteenth impression 2001] pp. xiii-xiv)

It is certain that Ibn Ishaq’s biography of the prophet had no serious rival; but it was preceded by several maghazi books. We do not know when they were first written, though we have the names of several first-century worthies who had written notes and passed on their knowledge to the rising generation… (Ibid., p. xiv)

The opinions of Muslim critics on I.I.’s trustworthiness deserve a special paragraph; but here something may be said of the author’s caution and his fairness. A word that very frequently precedes a statement is za’ama or za’amu, ‘he (they) alleged’. It carries with it more than a hint that the statement may not be true, though on the other hand it may be sound. Thus there are fourteen or more occurrences of the caveat from p. 87 to 148 alone, besides a frequent note that only God knows whether a particular statement is true or riot. Another indication of reserve if not scepticism underlies the expression fi ma dhukira It, as in the story of the jinn who listened to Muhammad as he prayed; Muhammad’s order to ‘Umar to kill Suwayd; one of Gabriel’s visits to Muhammad; the reward of two martyrs to the man killed by a woman.2 An expression of similar import is fi ma balaghani.3 (Ibid., xix)

After giving due weight to the pressure of hagiology on the writer and his leaning towards the Shi’a one must, I think, affirm that the life of Muhammad is recorded with honesty and truthfulness and, too, an impartiality which is rare in such writings. Who can read the story of al-Zabir,2 who was given his life, family, and belongings but did not want to live when the best men of his people had been slain, without admitting that here we have a true account of what actually happened? Similarly who but an impartial historian would have included verses in which the noble generous character of the Jews of the Hijaz was lauded and lamented? The scepticism of earlier writers seems to me excessive and unjustified. We have only to compare later Lives of Muhammad to see the difference between the historical and the ideal Muhammad.3 (Ibid., p. xxiv)

Unfortunately for our purpose which is to record the opinion of our author’s co-religionists on his trustworthiness as a historian, their judgement is affected by his other writings, one of which called Sunan is mentioned by Hajji Khalifa.1 This was freely quoted by Abu Yusuf (d. 182),2 but failed to hold its own and went out of circulation comparatively early. If we knew more about the contents of this book, which by reason of its early date presumably would have had a considerable influence on the daily life of Muslims had it been allowed to continue to challenge other reporters of the apostle’s deeds and words, we should be the better able to assess the value and relevance of early Muslim criticism on I.I. when it was most definitely hostile. It is not always his book the Sira which is attacked but the man himself, and if his sunna work ran counter to the schools of law that were in process of development the author could not hope to escape strong condemnation. It is most important that this fact should not be overlooked. In the passage Wustenfeld quoted3 from Abu’1-Fath M. b. M. b. Sayyidu’1-Nas al-Ya’mari al-Andalusi (d. 734′ 1334) the distinction between traditions of a general nature and traditions about the prophet’s sunna is clear and unmistakable. Ahmad b. Hanbal’s son stated that his father included I.I.’s hadith in his Musnad, but refused to regard him as an authority on sunan. While it is true that there are a few stories in the Sira which report the prophet’s practice in certain matters and so provide an authoritative guide for the future behaviour of the faithful in similar circumstances, and while it is also true that in one or two instances the principle underlying these actions is in conflict with the findings of later lawyers, they form an insignificant part of the Sira, and it may safely be concluded that I. Hanbal’s objection to I.I.’s authority applies almost exclusively to his lost work, the Sunan.

Apostolic tradition in Islam, as Goldziher showed long ago, is the battlefield of warring sects striving for the mastery of men’s minds and the control of their behaviour with all the weight that Muhammad’s presumed or fabricated example could bring to bear. The earlier the tradition, or collection of traditions, the less this tendency is in evidence; but we have already seen that I.I. occasionally succumbed to the temptation to glorify Ali at the expense of ‘Abbas. This would seem to be supremely unnecessary when one can read exactly what ‘Abbas’s position was: at first hostile; secondly neutral; and lastly, when the issue was no longer in doubt, a professed Muslim. Obviously since no attempt is made to conceal or diminish the affectionate loyalty of Abu Bakr or the staunch championship of ‘Umar, our author was no unbalanced fanatical supporter of the claims of Ali. Ali appears as the great warrior when rival champions fought

The best and most comprehensive summary of Muslim opinion of I.I, is, that of I. Sayyidu’1-Nas in his ‘ Uyun al-Aihar fi fununi’l-maghazi wa’l-shama’ ili wa’l-siyar. He collected all the references to our author that lie could find, both favourable and unfavourable, and then answered the attacks that had been made on him. The relevant passage will be found in W.1 with a translation in German. The following is a short summary of this account:

(a) Those favourable to I.I. were: ‘The best informed man about the maghazi is I.I.”

al-Zuhri: Knowledge will remain in Medina as along as I.I. lives.’

Shu’ba, 85-160: Truthful in tradition, the AMIR of traditionists because of his memory.

Sufyan b. ‘Uyayna, 107-98: I sat with him some seventy years2 and none of the Medinans suspected him or spoke disparagingly of him.

Abu Zur’a, d. 281: Older scholars drew from him and professional traditionists tested him and found him truthful. When he reminded Duhaym of Malik’s distrust of I.I. he denied that it referred to his veracity as a traditionist, but to his qadarite heresy.

Abu Hatim: His traditions are copied down (by others).

I. al-Madini: Apostolic tradition originally lay with 6 men; then it became the property of 12, of whom I.I. is one.

al-Shafi’i: He who wants to study the maghazi deeply must consult I.I.

‘Asim b. ‘Umar b. Qatada: Knowledge will remain among men as long as I.I. lives.

Abu Mu’awiya: A great memory: others confided their traditions to his memory for safe keeping.

al-Bukhari: Al-Zuhri used to get his knowledge of the maghazi from I.I.

‘Abdullah b. Idris al-Audi: was amazed at his learning and often cited him.

Mus’ab: He was attacked for reasons which had nothing to do with tradition.

Yazid b. Harun: Were there a supreme relator of tradition it would be I.I.

Ali b. al-Madini: His ahadith are sound. He had a great reputation in Medina. Hisham b. ‘Urwa’s objection to him is no argument against him. He may indeed have talked to the latter’s wife when he was a young man. His veracity in hadith is self-evident. I know only of two that are rejected as unsupported1 which no other writer reported.

al-‘Ijli: Trustworthy.

Yahya b. Ma’In: Firm in tradition.

Ahmad b. Hanbal: Excellent in tradition.

(b) The writer then goes on to state all that has been said against I.I. Omitting details of little significance we are left with the following charges which I. Sayyidu’1-Nas goes on to discuss and refute. Muhammad b. ‘Abdullah b. Numayr said that when I.I. reported what he had heard from well-known persons his traditions were good and true, but he sometimes reported worthless sayings from unknown people. Yahya b. al-Qattan would never quote him. Ahmad b. Hanbal quoted him with approval, and when it was remarked how excellent the stories (qisas) were he smiled in surprise. His son admitted that Ahmad incorporated many of I.I.’s traditions in his Musnad, but he never paid heed to them. When he was asked if his father regarded him as an authority on what a Muslim must or must not do he replied that he did not. He himself would not accept a tradition which only I.I. reported. He used to relate a tradition which he gathered from a number of people without indicating who had contributed its separate parts. I. al-Madini said* that at times he was ‘fairly good’. Al-Maymuni reported that I. Ma’in 156-233 said he was ‘weak’, but others denied that he said so. Al-Duri said he was trustworthy but not to be used as an authority in fiqh, like Malik and others. Al-Nasa’i said that he was not strong. Al-Daraqutni said that a tradition from I.I. on the authority of his father was no legal proof: it could be used only to confirm what was already held to be binding. Yahya b. Sa’id said that though he knew I.I. in Kufa he abandoned him intentionally and never wrote down traditions on his authority. Abu Da’ud al-Tayalisi (131-203) reported that Hammad b. Salima.said that unless necessity demanded it he would not hand on a tradition from I.I. When Malik b. Anas mentioned him he said, ‘he is one of the’ antichrists’. When Hisham b. ‘Urwa was told that I.I. reported something from Fatima he said, ‘the rascal lies; when did he see my wife?’

When Abdullah b. Ahmad told his father of this he said that this was not to be held against I.I.; he thought that he might well have received permission to interview her, but he did not know. He added that Malik was a liar. I. Idris said that he talked to Malik about the Maghazi and how I.I. had said that he was their surgeon and he said, ‘We drove him from Medina’. Makki b. Ibrahim said that he attended lectures of his; he used to dye his hair. When he mentioned traditions about the divine attributes he left him and never went back. On another occasion he said that when he left him he had attended twelve lectures of his in Ray.

Al-Mufaddal b. Ghassan said that he was present when Yazid b. Harun was relating traditions in al-Baqi’ when a number of Medinans were listening. When he mentioned I.I. they withdrew saying: ‘Don’t tell us anything that he said. We know better than he.’ Yazid went among them, but they would not listen and so he withdrew.

Abu Da’ud said that he heard Ahmad b. Hanbal say that I.I. was a man with a love of tradition, so that he took other men’s writings and incorporated them in his own. Abu ‘Abdullah said that he preferred I.I. to Musa b. ‘Ubayda al-Rabadhi. Ahmad said that he used to relate traditions as though from a companion without intermediaries, while in Ibrahim b. Sa’d’s book when there is a tradition he said ‘A told me’ and when that was not so he said ‘A said’.

Abu ‘Abdullah said that I.I. came to Baghdad and paid no attention to those who related hadith from al-Kalbi and others saying that he was no authority. Al-Fallas (d. 249) said that after being with Wahb b. Jarir reading before him the maghazl book which his father1 had got from I.I. we met Yahya b. Qattan who said that we had brought a pack of lies from him.

Ahmad b. Hanbal said that in maghazi and such matters what I.I. said could be written down; but in legal matters further confirmation was necessary. In spite of the large number of traditions without a proper isnad he thought highly of him as long as he said ‘A told us’, ‘B informed me’, and ‘I heard’. I. Ma’in did not like to use him as an authority in legal matters. Abu Hatim said that he was weak in tradition yet preferable to Aflah b. Sa’id and his traditions could be written down. Sulayman al-Tayml called him a liar and Yahya al-Qattan said that he could only abandon his hadith to God; he was a liar. When Yahya asked Wuh”ayb b. Khalid what made him think that I.I. was a liar he said that Malik swore that he was and he gave as his reason Hisham b. ‘Urwa’s oath to that effect. The latter’s reason was that he reported traditions from his wife Fatima.

Abu Bakr al-Khatlb said that some authorities accepted his traditions as providing proof for legal precedent while others did not. Among the reasons for rejecting his authority was that he was a Shi’i, that he was said to hold the view that man had free will, and that his isnads were defective. As for his truthfulness, it could not be denied.

Al-Bukhari quoted him as an authority and Muslim cited him often. Abu’l-Hasan b. al-Qattan relegated him to the class ‘good’ (hasan) because people disputed about him. As to the tradition from Fatima, al-Khatib gave us an isnad running back through I.I. and Fatima to Asma’ d. Abu Bakr: ‘I heard a woman questioning the prophet and saying, “I have a rival wife and I pretend to be satisfied with what my husband has not in fact given me in order to anger her”. He answered, “He who affects to be satisfied with what he has not been given is like one who dons two false garments”.’1 Abu’l-Hasan said that this was the tradition from Fatima which injured I.I.’s reputation, so that her husband Hisham called him a liar. Malik followed him and others imitated them. However, there are other traditions on her authority.

One cannot but admire the way in which I. Sayyidu’1-Nas discusses these attacks on the credibility of our author. He goes at once to the root of the matter and shows WHAT LITTLE SUBSTANCE THERE IS IN THEM. Though, like the speakers he criticizes, he tacitly assumes that early writers ought to have furnished their traditions with isnads which would have met the rigorous demands of later generations who were familiar with a whole sea of spurious traditions fathered on the prophet and his companions, his common sense and fairness would not let him acquiesce in the charge of tadlis which, by omitting a link in the chain or by citing the original narrator without further ado, automatically invalidated a hadith in later days. Thus he said in effect that though I.I.’s traditions at times lack complete documentation there is no question of his truthfulness in the subject-matter he reports; and as to the charge of shi’ism and qadarite leanings, they are valid in another field altogether and have nothing to do with the Sira. Again, what if Makki b. Ibrahim did abandon his lectures when he heard him relate traditions about the divine attributes? Many of the ancients failed to go the whole way when such problems were discussed, so what he says is of little significance.

Yazid’s story that the Madinans would not listen to traditions on I.I.’s authority does not amount to much because he does not tell us why, and so we can resort only to conjecture; and we have no right to impugn a true tradition because of what we think is a defect. We have already explained why Yahya al-Qattan would have none of him and called him liar on the authority of Wuhayb from Malik, and it is not improbable that he was the cause of the Medinans’ attitude in the foregoing account. Ahmad b. Hanbal and I. al-Madini have adequately replied to Hisham’s accusation.

As to Numayr’s accusation that he related false hadith on the authority of unknown persons, even if his trustworthiness and honesty were not a matter of tradition, suspicion would be divided between him and his informants; but as we know that he is trustworthy the charge lies against the persons unknown, not against him. Similar attacks have been made upon Sufyan al-Thauri and others whose hadith differ greatly in this way and what they base on unknown informants is to be rejected while that coming from known people is accepted. Sufyan b. ‘Uyayna gave up Jarir al-Ju’f i after he had heard more than a thousand traditions from him, and yet he narrated traditions on his authority. Shu’ba related many traditions from him and others who were stigmatized as ‘weak’

As to Ahmad’s complaint that he recorded composite traditions without assigning the matter of them to the several contributors, their words agreed however many they were; and even if they did not yet the meaning was identical. There is a tradition that Wathila b. al-Asqa’ said: ‘If I give you the meaning of a tradition (not in the precise words that were used) that is sufficient for you.’ Moreover, Muhammad b. Sirin said that he used to hear traditions from ten different people in ten different words with the same meaning. Ahmad’s complaint that I.I. took other men’s writings and incorporated them in his own account cannot be regarded as serious until it can be proved that he had no licence to repeat them. One must look at the method of transmission: if the words do not plainly necessitate an oral communication, then the accusation of tadlis1 lies. But we ought not to accept such a charge unless the words plainly imply that. If he expressly says that he heard people say something when in fact he did not, that is a downright lie and pure invention. It is quite wrong to say such a thing of I.I. unless the words leave no other choice.When Ahmad’s son quoted his father as saying that I.I. was not to be regarded as an authority in legal matters though he saw how tolerant he was to non-legal matters which make up the greater part of the Maghazi and the prophetic biography, he applied this adverse judgement on sunan to other matters. Such an extension is excluded by his truthful reputation.

As to Yahya’s saying that he was trustworthy but not authoritative in legal matters, it is sufficient for us that he is pronounced trustworthy. If only men like al-‘Umari and Malik were acceptable there would be precious few acceptable authorities! Yahya b. Sa’id probably blindly followed Malik because he heard from him what Hisham had said about I.I. His refusal to accept him as an authority in legal matters has already been dealt with under Ahmad. Yahya made no distinction between them and other traditions in the way of complete acceptance or downright rejection.

Other attacks on his reputation rest on points that are not explained and for the most part the agents are unfair. Even in legal matters Abu ‘Isa al-Tirmidhi and Abu Hatim b. Hibban (d. 3 54) accepted him as an authority.

The refutation of his opponents would not have been undertaken were it not for the favourable verdict and praise that the learned gave him. But for that a few of the charges would have sufficed to undermine his stories, since but a few attacks on a man’s good faith, explicit or not, are enough to destroy the reputation of one whose former circumstances are not known when an impartial critic has not done him justice.

In his book about trustworthy narrators Abu Hatim said that the two men who attacked I.I. were Hisham and Malik. The former denied that he had heard traditions from Fatima. But what he said does not impugn men’s veracity in hadith, for ‘followers’ like al-Aswad and ‘Alqama heard ‘A’isha’s voice without seeing her. Similarly I.I. used to hear Fatima when the curtain was let down between them. As for Malik, what he said was momentary and afterwards he did him justice. Nobody in the Hijaz knew more about genealogies and wars than 1.1., and he used to say that Malik was a freed slave of Dhu Asbah while Malik alleged that he was a full member of the tribe so that there was bad feeling between them; and when Malik compiled the Muwatta’ I.I. said, ‘Bring it to me for I am its veterinary surgeon.’ Hearing of this Malik said: ‘He is an antichrist; he reports traditions on the authority of the Jews.’ The quarrel lasted until I.I. decided to go to Iraq. Then they were reconciled and Malik gave him 50 dinars and half his date crop as a parting gift. Malik did not intend to bring him into ill favour as a traditionist: all that he disliked was his following the Jews who had become Muslims and learning the story of Khaybar and Qurayza and al-Nadir and similar (otherwise) unattested happenings from their fathers. In his Maghazi I.I. used to learn from them but without necessarily asserting that their report was the truth. Malik himself only relied on trustworthy truthful men.

The author ends by remarking that I.I. was not the originator of the challenge to Malik’s Arab ancestry because al-Zuhri and others had said the same thing.1 (Ibid., pp. xxxiv-xl)

The next section is taken from an online Salafi website:

3. His scholarly status

Ibn Ishaaq was held in high esteem among the scholars of his own time, because of the vastness of his knowledge. Imam adh-Dhahabi said of him: He was the first one to write down knowledge in Madinah; that was before Maalik and Dhawayh. He was like a wondrous ocean of knowledge, but he was not as precise as he should have been.

Therefore scholarly praise of him was persistent from the earliest times.

‘Ali ibn al-Madeeni said: The hadith of the Messenger of Allah was mainly conveyed by six – and he mentioned them, then he said: And knowledge of the six ended up with twelve, one of whom is Muhammad ibn Ishaaq.

Imam az-Zuhri said: There is a great deal of knowledge in Madinah so long as Ibn Ishaaq remains among them.

4. His vast knowledge of maghaazi (Prophet’s military campaigns) and siyar (Prophet’s biography)

Muhammad ibn Ishaaq is famous for his intense interest in knowledge of maghaazi (Prophet’s military campaigns), as he was the first one to compile the reports of maghaazi into a book. Imam ash-Shaafa‘i said concerning him: Whoever wants to acquire detailed knowledge of maghaazi has no choice but to rely on Muhammad ibn Ishaaq. Ibn ‘Adiyy said: If Ibn Ishaaq had no virtue other than the fact that he diverted rulers from focusing on books from which nothing may be learned to focusing on the military campaigns of the Messenger of Allah, how his mission began, and the beginning of creation, this virtue would be enough to put him ahead of others. Imam adh-Dhahabi said: He was a great scholar of maghaazi

6. Scholarly praise for his hadith

Shu‘bah ibn al-Hajjaaj said concerning him: He was the ameer al-mu’mineen in hadith.

Abu Mu‘aawiyah ad-Dareer said: Ibn Ishaaq was one of the people with the best memory. If a man had fifty hadiths or more, and he left them with Ibn Ishaaq, he would say: Memorise them for me, then if I forget them, you will have preserved them for me.

Sufyaan ath-Thawri said: I sat with Ibn Ishaaq seventy-odd years ago, and none of the people of Madinah made any accusations against him or said anything bad about him.

‘Ali ibn ‘Abdullah said: I looked in the books of Ibn Ishaaq and I did not find anything about which I had any reservations, apart from two hadiths, but they may still have been sound and saheeh…

Ya‘qoob ibn Shaybah said: I asked ‘Ali – i.e., ibn al-Madeeni –: How is the hadith of Ibn Ishaaq in your view –is it saheeh?

He said: Yes, his hadith is saheeh in my view

Imam adh-Dhahabi said: We do not claim that the leading scholars of al-jarh wa’t-ta‘deel (evaluation of hadith narrators) were infallible and did not occasionally make mistakes or speak harshly about those with whom there was some ill feeling or animosity. It is known that much of what peers say about one another is to be ignored and does not count for anything, especially if the man is regarded as trustworthy by a group of scholars who sound fair-minded in what they say. These two men – i.e., Maalik and Ibn Ishaaq – each criticised the other, but what Maalik said about Muhammad being somewhat imprecise in narration had an impact of Ibn Ishaaq’s reputation, whereas what Muhammad said concerning Maalik did not have any impact. Maalik rose to high status and became like a star, and the other one – i.e., Ibn Ishaaq – also attained relatively high status, especially in the field of biography

Ibn ‘Adiyy said: I examined his hadith a great deal, and I did not find any of his hadith that would lead one to state categorically that he is da‘eef. But he may make mistakes, or be confused sometimes, as others also made mistakes, but trustworthy narrators and leading scholars did not refrain from narrating from him, and there is nothing wrong with him. (Ibid., Status of Muhammad ibn Ishaaq, the narrator of al-Maghaazi, in the view of hadith scholars; bold emphasis mine)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s