Arabic sources for Mohammed – from 1854

Brockelmann’s History of Arabic literature does list English translations known in 1940.  One of these was by Alfred von Kramer, from 1854, and was a translation of al-Wakidi’s biography of Mohammed.  It was published in British India at Calcutta as the History of Muhammad’s Campaigns by Aboo Abd Ollah Mohammad bin Omar al Wakidy, by the Baptist Mission Press. 

Copies are uncommon.  I was wondering how on earth I would get hold of one, when I luckily stumbled across a copy on Google books here.  Some of the introductory remarks seemed well worth bringing into the light.  From p.2:

Three works on the biography of Mohammad, from which the whole stock of information regarding the establishment and development of the Islam may be derived, have come down to our days, and are existing in different libraries.

I. The first is Ibn Hishâm’s biography of Mohammad known commonly by the title of “Syrat-Ibn-Hishâm.” Its author died A. H. 213 (A. D. 828) or according to others A. H. 218 (A. D. 833) and his work is an extract from the chronicle of Ibn Ishâk who died about A. H. 151 (A. D. 768). Thus, through Ibn Hishâm’s médium, we get access to Ibn Ishâk’s work, though in some instances Ibn Hishâm seems to have made some pious alterations tending to cover up many of the prophet’s weaknesses and deficiencies *. A complete copy of Ibn Hishâm’s work is in the imperial library at Paris. An abridgment of Ibn Hishâm’s book was made at Damascus A. H. 707 (A. D. 1307,) by Ahmad Ibn Ibrahym, Ibn Abd-ar-Rahman-al-Wâsity, of which a copy is preserved in the Asiatic Society’s Library at Calcutta.

II. The second work is Mohammad Ibn Sa’d’s work, commonly called Tabakât or annals. Some volumes of “the Tabakât are in the ducal library of Gotha;” Mr. Wüstenfeld has given a notice of their contents in the fourth and seventh volumes of the Journal of the German Asiatic Society. Another volume of the Tabakât containing the biography of Mohammad is in Dr. Sprenger’s hands, whose indefatigable researches were recompensed by the discovery of this volume in a library belonging to Mozaffar Khân at Cawnpoor, and who has recently discovered some other volumes in Damascus.

* Consult on this question the excellent dissertation on “the original sources for the biography of Mohammad” inserted in the Calcutta Review No. XXXVII. for March, 1853.

Ibn Sa’d, who was Wâkidy’s secretary, acquired great knowledge of historical and traditional matters from his master, after whose death he condensed in his “Tabakât-al-Kabyr,” a work consisting of fifteen volumes, the results of Wâkidy’s historical researches, which were scattered through this author’s numerous works. Such at least is Ibn Khillikân’s opinion, and it seems that Ibn Sa’d, without much trouble of his own, gathered the fruits of his master’s untiring studies.

III. The third standard-work is Tabary’s history. Aboo Ja’far Ibn Jaryr-al-Tabary was born A, H. 224 (A. D. 838-9) at Amool in Tabaristân and died at Baghdad A. H. 310 (A. D, 923). He was considered by his contemporaries, as the greatest authority in historical and traditional matters. His great work on the history of the Islam, some volumes of which exist in several libraries, seems to justify the high consideration in which he is held by all subsequent Arabic historians. His work is written with great conscientiousness, he always indicates the names of the persons, on whose testimony a fact is narrated, and a cursory perusal of his book will convince every reader, that Tabary wrote with the sincere intention of composing a true and impartial history.

Though these three chief works reflect, however troubled this mirror’s surface may be, the great outlines of the early history of the Islam, yet they are far from enabling us to get a clear view and to form a just idea of those remote ages. Not one of these authors ever thought of submitting to a critical inquiry the authenticity of the traditions, which had been collected by his predecessors, not one of them dared to question the veracity of the most extravagant stories told about their prophet’s miracles, and Ibn Hishâm, as has been observed already, did not hesitate to commit some pious alterations in Ibn Ishâk’s text tending to cover some of Mohammad’s errors.* Ibn Sa’d, whose works are mere extracts from the writings of his master, must be considered as a second-hand writer, and probably would lose every authority, if his master’s works had not perished.

* Consult on Ibn Hishâm Dr. Sprenger’s Life of Mohammad, p. 70.

Tabary is doubtless a scholar superior in knowledge and trust, worthiness to both Ibn Hishâm and Ibn Sa’d, but unfortunately he lived at an epoch too remote from the foundation of the Islam. At his time the fertile imagination of the Arabs had veiled the origin of their religion and their prophet’s rising in such a cloud of poetical legends, that it was utterly impossible for any Mohammadan writer to discern the true from the false.

These remarks are sufficient to show how desirable it is for the historian to get access to the works of Wâkidy who being coeval with Ibn Ishâk, whose works have been lost, and anterior to Ibn Hishâm, and Ibn Sa’d, who were mere compilers, certainly deserves the title of “Father of Arabic history.”

Aboo Abd Allah Mohammad Ibn O’mar Ibn Wâkid-al-Wâkidy was born at Madynah A. H. 130 (777) ; he was a manumitted of the Banoo Hâshim and professed the Shy’ah doctrines, From Madynah he migrated to Baghdad, where at first he obtained the post of Kadhy in the eastern suburb, afterwards the Kalyfe Mamoon conferred upon him the same dignity in O’skaral-Mahdy another suburb of Baghdad, which at Ibn Khillikân’s time was commonly called Rossâfah. Mamoon held him in the greatest esteem. At his death he left a library of six hundred chests full of books, which were sold for two thousand dynârs. Wâkidy always kept two slaves, who were continually busy in copying manuscripts for his library. He is author of thirty-two works ; it suffices to indicate here only those, which appear to be the most important.* (1) The campaigns of Mohammad (Kitâb al-Maghazy). (2) The history of the apostates, having for its subject the history of those, who after the death of Mohammad, apostatized from the Islam and relapsed into idolatry. (3) History of the wars of Mohammad’s companions against Tobayhat Ibn Khowaylid-al-Azdy, Aswad-al-A’nsy and Mosaylamat-al Kaddâb. (4) History of Makkah. (5) History of the Conquest of Syria. (6) History of the Conquest of I’râk. (7) On the battle of the Camel. (8) On the battle of Siffyn. (9) On the battles of the Banoo Aws and Khazraj. (10) On the death of Mohammad. (11) Biography of Aboo-Bakr.* This séries of works is quite sufficient to prove the high literary character of our author. Wâkidy died at the age of seventy-seven years in Baghdad.

* See Hammer-Purgstall’s Literaturgeschichte III. p. 403.

It is the first named work of this eminent scholar which is contained in this volume: viz. the Kitab-al-Maghâzy, or History of the military campaigns of the prophet.

The original manuscript was discovered by the editor at Damascus in 1851, and as no other copy of this work is known to exist in any library, it is presumed to be the only one of Wâkidy’s works, which has escaped the all-destroying tooth of time.

That is quite a nice English-language summary.  After struggling with Brockelmann, it is pleasant to see something outlined so clearly!  Brockelmann states, however, that this translation is only partial.


10 thoughts on “Arabic sources for Mohammed – from 1854

  1. Very interesting, particularly Kramer’s statement that “in some instances Ibn Hisham seems to have made some pious alterations tending to cover up many of the prophet’s weaknesses and deficiencies.”

    I would be grateful if you could publish the dissertation on “the original sources for the biography of Mohammad” inserted in the Calcutta Review No. XXXVII. for March, 1853 (if you have it), which Kramer refers us to.

    Kramer also refers us on this topic to Ibn Hisham Dr Sprenger’s Life of Mohammad, p. 70. It will be interesting to get that.

    One thing which I did not understand is the claim of Kramer that Wakidy was anterior to Ibn Hisham. As the Kramer says, Ibn Hisham died 828 or 833 AD while Wakidy, who was born in 777, died in 854 AD (at the age of 77).

  2. I think they are vey valuable. The knowledge of the writers cannot be matched by any writer in the 20th Century. Often political considerations led later writers to sacrifice or compromise the scientific truth.

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