English translations of the earliest life of Mohammed

Philip K. Hitti writes (p.112):

The first record of [Mohammed’s] life was undertaken by ibn-Ishaq, who died in Baghdad about A.H. 150 (767), and whose biography of the Prophet has been preserved only in the later recension of ibn-Hisham, who died in Egypt about A.H. 218 (833).  Other than Arabic sources for the life of the Prophet and the early period of nascent Islam we have none.  The first Byzantine chronicler to record some facts about “the ruler of the Saracens and the pseudo-prophet” was Theophanis [1] in the early part of the ninth century.  The first reference to Muhammed in Syriac occurs in a seventh century work. [2]

1. Chronographia, ed. Carolus de Boor (Leipzig, 1885), p. 333. [Here]

2. A. Mingana, Sources Syriaques, vol. 1, Bar-Penkaye (Leipzig, 1908), p.146 (text) = p. 175 (tr.)

I’m not sure that  Hitti is complete.  Jacob of Edessa certainly mentions Mohammed briefly in his chronicle, although the way in which this was published in the CSCO edition would disguise this from most people. 

But I was wondering what was online of all this.  Naturally I turned to Wikipedia, which had an article on ibn Hisham.  This links to an English translation now only available in Archive.org, since the original site has disappeared.  It is here.  But… what is this, I wondered?  Is it out of copyright?  When was it done?

There is an introduction by “Michael Edwardes”.  A certain amount of hunting around reveals that the book is in fact “The life of Muhammad, Apostle of Allah”, edited by Michael Edwardes, London: Folio Society (1964); Selections from Edward Rehatsek’s translation of Sīrat Rasūl Allāh by Ibn Isḥāq in the recension of Ibn Hishām.  Some details of the book is here:

This translation of his biography of Muhammad, published here for the first time, was made by a Hungarian, Edward Rehatsek, who spent most of his life in India. He presented the manuscript of his translation to the Royal Asiatic Society of London, and it is now published courtesy of the Society. …

Ed Jajko comments on my review of Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad, Apostle of Allah. Edited by Michael Edwardes: “Sirat rasul Allah by Muhammad ibn Ishaq is indeed the earliest extant biography of the prophet Muhammad, and thus an extremely important work. Not to deny anyone the pleasure of enjoying the new Folio Society volume, I would like to point out that this is not a new or a complete edition and that there are other ways of accessing the information. Michael Edwardes first published the Rehatsek translation in 1890 or 1894. Edwardes abridged Rehatsek’s translation for the general reader.  …

In the introduction, Edwardes writes:

“The translation which follows is the first known English version of Ibn Ishaq’s biography, and is here published for the first time. The translator, Edward Rehatsek, was born in Hungary in 1819 and died in Bombay in 1891. He arrived in India in 1847 and spent a number of years in research upon oriental subjects. He later became professor of mathematics and Latin at Wilson College, Bombay, from which position he retired in 1871. Rehatsek lived the life of a recluse, working upon his translations from Arabic and many other languages. After his death, his body was burned in the Hindu manner, the first European, it is said, to be cremated in India. The manuscript of the translation was completed just before his death and was presented to the Royal Asiatic Society, London, by F. F. Arbuthnot, the Islamic scholar, in 1898. This edition is published by courtesy of the Society.

The original work is extremely long, over a thousand pages of the translator’s small yet clear handwriting. Rehatsek produced an almost literal translation and it suffers somewhat from scholarly pedanticism. In preparing this edition for publication, I have kept one main aim in view – to present the earliest extant life of Muhammad in a form, and at a length, acceptable to the general reader. To do this it has been necessary to cut the text as well as to make some rearrangement in the interests of orderly chronology. I have inserted linking passages, printed in italic, where the text seems to require it. Generally speaking, those parts which have been excised have been repetitions of events, long lists of names, confusing accounts of minor battles, and a large quantity of verse. Some errors have been corrected and verbal infelicities removed.

Most of us will shudder at the cavalier statements of Edwardes, but doubtless he worked under the orders of a publisher who had somehow to sell the book to the public.

But how accurate are the statements?  Rehatsek certainly lived in the 19th century.  But Edwardes?  He looks like a 60’s figure, from online catalogues.  Was Rehatsek ever published before 1964?  If his translation exists in manuscript still, perhaps we would all be best served by a transcription, if it is public domain (rather a lot of ‘if’s there!)  It is certainly out of copyright in the US, but I find it hard to tell whether an unpublished manuscript would still be in copyright in the UK, although Rehatsek died more than 70 years ago.

Another Wikipedia article tells us that a  modern translation of the complete ibn Hisham does exist, by Alfred Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad. A translation of Ishaq’s “Sirat Rasul Allah”, with introduction [xiii-xliii] and notes (Oxford University 1955), xlvii + 815 pages.

So what’s the upshot?  Ibn Isham is not online.  Excerpts from him are, in a dubiously legal way, dubiously edited.  It would seem that we could all do with much better materials online for early Islamic history.

17 thoughts on “English translations of the earliest life of Mohammed”

  1. I read Ibn Hisham in Arabic in full. It is a very interesting book. Surprisingly, but understandably, it is not popular in Arab countries. The reason is that when one reads it one gets a different opinion on Mohammad from what modern Muslim writers and propagandists would like their followers to think. In Ibn Hisham, Mohammad appears as he was without any idealisation: materialistic, sensual, womaniser, violent; but, at the same time, a strong-willed leader focused on one goal – to make his clan, Banu Hashim, rule over Guraish, his tribe, and make Guraish, through them, rule over the Arabs, and, then, make the Arabs rule over the non-Arabs (Ajjam), and get from them Jizya (that is poll tax). This was his dream from early age, and he managed in a Machiavellian way, and through cunning, force of will and cruelty, but also with much Arab charm, to achieve his goal. Allah was used only as a tool to unite the Arabs in order to achieve this fundamental goal of his. Before he died he managed to unite the Arabs, though loosely, and subjugate the Christians and the Jews of Arabia; and he tried his luck with the Roman Empire in the Jordan area but failed. His successors will complete his dream.

    I hope a good translation of this important book will be freely available to English readers.

  2. Thanks for your comments Dioscorus; it’s useful to hear from someone who can read the Arabic. I wish it was properly available online in English too. I’m sure your interpretation of Mohammed and his motives is right.

    But as I understand it, you can’t have read Ibn Ishaq, for his text is lost. Surely you read Ibn Hisham?

  3. You made me think and review my papers. Unfortunately I lost most of my Arabic library. I can confirm that I did read Al Sira Al Nabawiyya by Ibn Hisham (Published in 4 volumes by Mustafa Al Babi Al Halabi & Sons, Cairo, 1955), as I used it as main reference in one of my studies. I can’t confirm that I have read Ibn Ishaq by returning to my papers, but I am sure it is not lost. Alfred Guillaume in his Islam quotes it a few times. Maxime Rodinson in his Muhammad boasts, “I have constantly referred to the major sources. I always had on my desk Ibn Ishaq, Tabari, Waqidi and Ibn Sa’d, and have often immersed myself in the ocean of ‘tradition'” (Penguin Books, London, 1996; p. x).

  4. A book by a modern Egyptian writer, Muhammad Husayn Haykal, The Life of Muhammad (Cairo, 1933), heavily relies on Ibn Hisham, but with much glossing and editing. An English translation can be found at [http://www.witness-pioneer.org/vil/Books/MH_LM/default.htm]but with much more glossing and further editing to turn it into apologetic work and try to defend the indefensible (with an eye on the average English reader who is easily deceived as to the nature of Islam).

  5. Thanks, Robert, for this link.

    The first mentioning of Muhammad (Mohammed) in any extant Coptic work of literature is in the Chronicle of John of Nikiu who was a contemporary to the Arab invasion of Egypt around 640 AD.

    Here is the text: “And now many of the Egyptians who had been false Christians denied the holy orthodox faith and lifegiving baptism, and embraced the religion of the Moslem, the enemies of God, and accepted the detestable doctrine of the beast, this is, Mohammed, and they erred together with those idolaters, and took arms in their hands and fought against the Christians. And one of them, named John, the Chalcedonian of the Convent of Sinai, embraced the faith of Islam, and quitting his monk’s habit he took up the sword, and persecuted the Christians who were faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ.” (CXXI, 10-11). It deals with a later stage of the invasion when some Egyptians, by explicit writing and implication, mainly Chalcedonians, started rendering help to the Muslim.

    John has a lot to severely judge with the Muslims (whom he refer to as the Ishmaelites) and their violent and cruel behaviour with the Egyptians; but he has more to tell of the nature of Mohammed – Mohammed’s name in Coptic carries the figure 666, and hence his description of Mohammed as ‘the beast’.

  6. Thank you for the link to Sebeos, Robert — of course you translated him and made him available online, for which I am very grateful! Yes, we should include his testimony.

    Dioscorus, your notes are also very interesting. I’d forgotten John of Nikiu. There seem to be a few sources that just mention Mohammed in passing. Somewhere there is an Islamic site that lists them; I must see if I can find this.

  7. For those who can read Arabic, go to 4shared.com and look for Ibn Ishaq – you will find the whole book in Arabic.

  8. I know the comments above written before last year, which I came across by chance, but I want to make a little comment on that of Dioscorus Boles when he said “I read Ibn Hisham in Arabic in full. It is a very interesting book. Surprisingly, but understandably, it is not popular in Arab countries.” This statement, sorry if I say, is not true. As a student who learnt Arabic and became a Muslim in Eygypt, I studied this book in detail and it was a core reference in my study programme, and the same to any students who study the Sirah of the Prophet Muhammad. This book of Ibn Hisham is very much celebrated, and in some Muslim countries a public competition sometimes is held about this book and other books in sort of quiz, where a number of participants are asked questions about some events mentioned in the sirah of Ibn Hisham and the other materials.

  9. I came across this only today.

    Mohammad may be thinking that Arab countries are Egypt. In many other Arab countries this book is not mentioned and rarely read by the literate public.

    This book talks about Muhammad, the Muslim prophet, in a way which is not appealing, and focuses on his sexual and violent life. It is, perhaps, because of this that it is not well known widely.

  10. The Coptic historian John of Nikiu called Muhammad the Beast in his Chronicle, which he wrote around the time of the Arab occupation of Egypt c. 640 AD. He was perhaps the first of all Christian writers who has done that. Muhammad’s name in Greek and Coptic is Maometis; using Coptic or Greek gematria the letters in Muhammad’s name give a total of 666, which is the Biblical number of the Beast.

    Dioscorus Boles

  11. Yes, the original post has been shown to be incomplete. It is a great pity that we do not have more of John of Nikiu’s text at the point of the Arab invasions.

  12. The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu was translated from Zotenberg’s Ethiopic text by R. H. Charles and published in 1916 by Williams & Norgate 14 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, London and 7 Broad Street, Oxford. The Chronicle contains CXXII Chapters: Chapters CX to CXXI talk about the Arab invasion of Egypt, and their subjugation and oppression of the Egyptians around 640 AD. Here are the headings of the concerned chapters (N.B. for the full text, go to


    … and also to:


    CHAPTER CX (CXI). Concerning the appearance of the Moslem on the confines of Fîjûm and the defeat of the Romans who dwelt there.
    CHAPTER CXI (CXII). Concerning the first encounter of ‘Amar with the Romans at the city of ‘Awn (i. e. Heliopolis).
    CHAPTER CXII (CXIII). How all the Jews assembled in the city of Manûf owing to their fear of the Moslem, the cruelties of ‘Amar and the seizure of their possessions till (at last) they left the gates of Misr open and fled to Alexandria. And how wicked men multiplied in the beginning of wickedness and began to help (‘Amar) to destroy the people of Egypt.
    CHAPTER CXIII (CXIV). How the people of Samnûd so flouted ‘Amar as to refuse to receive him : and concerning the return of Kalâdî to the Romans: and how they seized his mother and his wife—now he had hidden them in Alexandria—because he had joined and helped the Moslem.
    CHAPTER CXIV (CXV). How the Moslem took Misr in the fourteenth year of the cycle and made the fortress of Babylon open its gates in the fifteenth year.
    CHAPTER CXV (CXVI). Concerning the death of the emperor Heraclius and the return of Cyrus the Patriarch from exile and his departure for Mesr to pay tribute to the Moslem.
    CHAPTER CXVI (CXVII). How God gave the Romans into the hands of the Moslem and rejected them because of their incredulity and their divisions and the persecution which they had brought on the Christians of Egypt.
    CHAPTER CXVII (CXVIII). How ‘Amar got possession of |14 Absâdî, that is, Niqîjûs: and (concerning) the flight of the general Domitian and the destruction of his army in the river, and the great massacre which took place in the city of Absâdî, and in all the remaining cities—till ‘Amar came to the island of Sawnâ— which were under the sway of Absâi and its island on the eighteenth day of the month Genbôt, in the fifteenth year of the cycle.
    CHAPTER CXVIII. How the Moslem got possession of Caesarea in Palestine and the trials that overtook it.
    CHAPTER CXIX. Concerning the great earthquake and the loss of life in Crete both in their island and in all their cities round about.
    CHAPTER CXX. Concerning Cyrus the Patriarch of the Chalcedonians—the same who went to Babylon and to ‘Amar the chief of the Moslem and took the tribute in a vessel and paid it into his hands. And further how ‘Amar increased the taxes of the Egyptians: and concerning the death of Cyrus the Chalcedonian after he had repented of having delivered the city of Alexandria into the hands of the Moslem.
    CHAPTER CXXI. Concerning the return of Abba Benjamin the patriarch of Egypt from his exile in the city of Rîf (where he had been) fourteen years, and of these (he had been there) ten years because the Roman emperors had exiled him, and four under the dominion of the Moslem. And concerning the remaining history with the conclusion of the work.

Leave a Reply