From Merchant to Messenger

The Prophet Muhammad's struggle for legitimacy as revealed in the Koran


A Hundred Years of Nothing

From Merchant to MessengerThe accounts you will find here of Muhammad's passing and what came after are largely based on two books: Les Derniers Jours de Muhammad (The Last Days of Muhammad) by Tunisian University Professor Hela Ouardi, Albin Michel, 2016, and The Death of a Prophet - The End of Muhammad's Life and the Beginnings of Islam by Professor of Religious Studies at Oregon State University, Stephen J. Shoemaker, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

Quotes from Ouardi's book have been translated by yours truly. If you find anything objectionable in them, blame the translator, not the author.

When Muhammad allegedly died nestled in Aisha's lap in Medina in 632, he not only left this mortal realm but history altogether. I say allegedly because, with the possible exception of the letter of Caliph Umar II (717-720) to the Byzantine emperor Leo III in which he brags about how Muhammad led his followers out of Arabia "to fight against the largest empires", there is no contemporary Muslim account of how and when he died or what came after for about one hundred years even if Medina, at the time, was known for its scribes. None of the many citizens of the city who could read and write and on whom Muhammad depended, including the indispensable Zaid bin Thabit Al-Ansari, it would seem, could be bothered to note the passing of its most illustrious resident; unless, of course, this is not where and when he died.

The first written text on the life of Muhammad appeared in the first half of the 8th century from a few Muslim clerics such as the Kitâb al-saqîfa (the book of saqîfa) by Shiite author Sulaym Ibn Qays al-Hilâl, one of the oldest such texts to have survived to this day. Saqîfa is Arab for refuge or a large covered space. Saqîfa Banî Sâ’ida was such a place, a large covered veranda in Medina where a group of people gathered in secret following the death of Muhammad, according to Shiite sources, and named Abu Bakr as his successor, thereby depriving his son-in-law Ali of the caliphate. On the Sunni side, the first clerics to have written on the life of Muhammad are Urwa Ibn al-Zubayr (d. 712) and his disciple al-Zuhrî (d. 741), who lived during the Umayyad caliphate.

Urwa is alleged to have written about different parts of Muhammad's life at the request of Caliph Abd al-Malik (685-705) in the form of letters addressed to his patron. None have survived. We only know of his writings because they are cited by subsequent authors such as Ibn Ishaq (b. 704 d. 767), whose teacher was none other than al-Zuhrî. Ibn Ishaq's biography of Muhammad, which he wrote at the request of Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur (754-775) for his son, has much to say about his military expeditions. Like the letters of Urwa, Ishaq's biography has not survived to this day. We know some of what he wrote because he is quoted in later works by 9th and 10th century authors and from reworked fragments such as those found in the seminal Sirat al-Rassûl, Example of the Prophet or Life of the Prophet by ibn Hisham (d. 832).

Ibn Ishaq was a controversial figure, in part because he approached his subject in much the same way a modern historian would: by considering all information available, including the testimonies of Christians and Jewish converts whom his detractors dismissed out-of-hand as unreliable compared to those of Arab converts or those born into the faith. Ishaq's most vocal critic was renowned authority on the sayings and deeds of Muhammad (the so-called hadiths), Malik ibn Anas (b. 711 d. 795).

The methodology pursued by Ibn Ishaq was, first and foremost, that of an historian and biographer while Malik was steeped in Islamic Jurisprudence. The main reason why Malik and others questioned Ibn Ishaq's reliability as a hadith narrator was due largely to the fact that he had obtained information about the Prophet's military campaigns (including that of the Battle of Khaibar) from both Jewish and Christian converts to Islam.

Muhammad Mojlum Khan, The Muslim 100 - The Lives, Thoughts and Achievements of the Most Influential Muslims in History, Kube Publishing, 2008.

Ibn Hisham would suppress any information that was unfavourable to Muhammad. He transformed what Ishaq wrote into a panegyric, whose contribution to the elevation of a covetous, insular, God-fearing man—pitiless where his god is concerned—into the embodiment of the perfect human being cannot be overestimated. Hisham's plagiarized biography has achieved canonical status and the immunity from criticism that comes from being elevated to the equivalent of holy writ.

Thanks to its success the Sira of Ibn Ishaq (as redacted by Hisham and others) is practically our one source for the life of Muhammad preserved within the Islamic tradition. The work is late; written not by a grandchild, but a great great-grandchild of the Prophet's generation, it gives us the view for which classical Islam had settled. And written by a member of the "ulema" the scholars who had by then emerged as the classical bearers of the Islamic tradition, the picture which it offers is one-sided: how the Umayyad caliphs remembered their Prophet we shall never know. That it is unhistorical is only what one would expect, but it also has an extraordinary capacity to resist internal criticism, a feature unparalleled in either the Skandhara [the life of the Buddha] or the Gospels, but characteristic of the entire Islamic tradition, and most pronounced in the Koran: one can take the picture presented or one can leave it, but one cannot work with it.

Stephen Shoemaker cf. Patricia Crone, Slaves on Horses

Professor Shoemaker on the early biographies of Muhammad:

The manifold shortcomings of the early Islamic traditions, particularly with respect to the period of origins, invite the strong possibility that the beginnings of Islam differed significantly from their representation in the earliest biographies of Muhammad. Not only were the narratives composed at only an arresting distance from the events they describe, but modern scholarship on the traditional biographies of Muhammad has repeatedly found them to be unreliable sources... their failings as historical sources almost required that we look elsewhere to supplement our knowledge about the beginnings of Islam.

The Antichrist in Palestine

Christian, Jewish, Egyptian, Persian, Spanish… sources quoted in Professor Shoemaker's book as to the whereabouts of Muhammad before he died:

1 Doctrina Iacobi nuper Baptizati (July 634 CE)

2 The Apocalypse of Rabbi Shim`ōn b. Yohai (635-45?)

3 The Khurzistan Chronicle (ca. 660 CE)

4 Jacob of Edessa, Chronological Charts (691/692 CE)

5 The History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria: The Life of Patriarch Benjamin (before 717 CE)

6 The Spanish Eastern Source (ca. 741 CE)

7 The Syriac Common Source: The Chronicle of Theophilus of Edessa (ca. 750 CE)

8 The Short Syriac Chronicle of 775 (ca. 775 CE)

9 The Zuqnin Chronicle (ca. 775 CE)

10 A Report from the Continuation of Abū l-Fath's - Samaritan Chronicle (7th century)

11 An early Islamic witness: `Umar's letter to Leo (8th century)

Some of these impartial accounts, such as the Doctrina Iacobi, describe a doomsday prophet—of which the Dark Ages abounded —alive and well leading military incursions into Palestine up to two years after Muhammad's purported death in Medina. Since the invention of the clay tablet, people have exchanged information, e.g., letters, about what is happening in their neck of the woods. Because such letters are often written by individuals who have no particular axe to grind, they are invaluable to historians as unbiased eyewitness accounts of what may be later revealed to be historically significant events. This is the case with a letter gleaned from the Doctrina by a fellow by the name of Justus to Jacob about Saracens in Palestine. The letter begins with Justus informing Jacob about a correspondence he has received from his brother Abraham regarding a Roman official in Palestine killed by Arabs led by a man who should have been dead. 

My brother Abraham wrote to me that a false prophet has appeared. Abraham writes, "When the canditatus was killed, I was in Caesarea, and I went by ship to Sykamina. And they were saying 'The canditatus has been killed,' and we Jews were overjoyed.

"And they were saying, 'A prophet has appeared, coming with the Saracens and he is preaching the arrival of the anointed one who is to come, the Messiah.'[28]

"And when I arrived in Sykamina I visited an old man who was learned in the scriptures, and I said to him, 'What can you tell me about the prophet who has appeared with the Saracens?'

"And he said to me groaning loudly, 'He is false, for prophets do not come with the sword and a war-chariot. Truly the things set in motion today are deeds of anarchy, and I fear that somehow the first Christ that came, which the Christian worship, was the one sent by God, and instead of him we will receive the Antichrist. Truly Isaiah said that we Jews will have a deceived and hardened heart until the entire earth is destroyed. But go, master Abraham, and find out about this Prophet who has appeared.'

"And when I, Abraham, investigated thoroughly, I heard from who had met him that one will find no truth in the so-called prophet, only the shedding of human blood. In fact, he says that he has the keys of Paradise, which is impossible." These things my brother Abraham has written from the East.

It would seem that Muhammad was intent on making his way north—Dabiq being the most likely destination—with the idea of fulfilling his own prophecy of a Muslim victory over the Romans, which would be the signal for Allah to bring an end to His Creation and begin the process of settling scores in an end-of-times extravaganza for the ages.

Abu Huraira reported Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: The Last Hour would not come until the Romans would land at al-A'maq or in Dabiq. An army consisting of the best (soldiers) of the people of the earth at that time will come from Medina (to counteract them). When they will arrange themselves in ranks, the Romans would say: Do not stand between us and those (Muslims) who took prisoners from amongst us. Let us fight with them; and the Muslims would say: Nay, by Allah, we would never get aside from you and from our brethren that you may fight them.

They will then fight and a third (part) of the army would run away, whom Allah will never forgive.

A third (part of the army) which would be constituted of excellent martyrs in Allah's eye, would be killed and the third who would never be put to trial would win and they would be conquerors of Constantinople.

And as they would be busy in distributing the spoils of war (amongst themselves) after hanging their swords by the olive trees, the Satan would cry: The Dajjal has taken your place among your family. They would then come out, but it would be of no avail.

And when they would come to Syria, he would come out while they would be still preparing themselves for battle drawing up the ranks.

Certainly, the time of prayer shall come and then Jesus (peace be upon him) son of Mary would descend and would lead them in prayer.

When the enemy of Allah would see him, it would (disappear) just as the salt dissolves itself in water and if he (Jesus) were not to confront them at all, even then it would dissolve completely, but Allah would kill them by his hand and he would show them their blood on his lance (the lance of Jesus Christ).

Sahih Muslim 041.6924

In Muhammad's doomsday scenario, which largely mimics that of the Christians, Jesus returns shortly before the onset of Judgement Day to render the Earth and its people more to Allah's liking.

Narrated Abu Huraira:

Allah's Apostle said, "The Hour will not be established until the son of Mary (i.e. Jesus) descends amongst you as a just ruler, he will break the cross, kill the pigs, and abolish the Jizya tax. Money will be in abundance so that nobody will accept it (as charitable gifts)."

Bukhari 43.656

Narrated Abu Huraira:

Allah's Apostle said "How will you be when the son of Mary (i.e. Jesus) descends amongst you and he will judge people by the Law of the Quran and not by the law of Gospel."

Bukhari 55.658

The Muslims would be in possession of Dabiq within a decade of Muhammad's death, but still no Judgement Day.

When Muhammad died before the eschaton's (the end of the world) arrival and the Hour continued to be delayed, the early Muslims had to radically reorient their religious vision. The Hour was thus increasingly differed into the distant future, and in less than a century Islam swiftly transformed itself from a religion expecting the end of the world to a religion that aimed to rule the world.

Stephen J. Shoemaker, The Death of a Prophet - The End of Muhammad's Life and the Beginnings of Islam, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012

Three Murders and Two Desecrations

The Koran called for the end of the world to occur before or shortly after the death of Muhammad. With Judgement Day imminent, the Prophet saw no need to plan for an orderly succession. This miscalculation has led to the bloody civil wars that are endemic to Islam, with the most ruthless usually ascending to the leadership of the believers.

The lack of any widely available written accounts of the life of the Prophet, as well as the expectation that the end was near, may also explain why not enough cared to deny Muawiyah and his progeny the caliphate, even after they murdered three prominent members of Muhammad's family and desecrated the two cities from which he hailed. Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law and father of his two male grandchildren, Hasan and Husayn, like his two predecessors as caliphs, was assassinated by disgruntled followers. In Ali's case, it was his failure to overcome the challenge posed to his elevation to leader of the believers by Muawiyah, the governor of Syria, that got him killed.

The son of Ali and Muhammad's grandchild, thirty-eight-year-old Hasan, in spite of his illustrious pedigree, could not hope to win a confrontation with the fifty-eight-year-old Muawiyah. Another civil war was temporarily avoided when he accepted a rich endowment and a signed promise from Muawiyah that the caliphate would be his to claim upon his death.

Muawiyah ruled for the next twenty years and established the first Muslim dynasty, the Umayyad. He did this by reneging on his promise to Hasan. He had him assassinated, thereby removing that impediment to his son Yazid succeeding him as caliph. That left only Husayn. He was beheaded along with members of his family and entourage after the confrontation at Karbala with Yazid's forces on October 10, 680. Yazid then moved to eliminate the last opposition to his rule which was largely based in the Hijaz (the area comprising most of the western part of modern-day Saudi Arabia and centered on Mecca and Medina), the so-called Holy Land of Islam. His army marched on Medina, which they pillaged, severely damaging the mosque founded by Muhammad when he first came to the oasis city, then known as Yathrib.

What should have been an unforgivable sacrilege was quickly followed by the siege of Mecca and the plundering of part of the holy city. During the assault, the Ka'ba was burnt to the ground. Today, an innocent cartoon of Muhammad can get you killed. Decades after his death, pretenders to his legacy murdered his son-in-law and his grandsons, ransacked the city where he died, and attacked the city of his birth, almost obliterating what was to become the holiest shrine of Islam, the Ka'ba; and not only got away with it, but were rewarded with the caliphate for their efforts.