Sir William Muir’s The Life of Mahomet was first published in 1861 in four volumes, a pioneering study based wholly on orthodox original sources. An abridged edition came out in 1876. The third edition was published with important alterations in one volume in 1894. The present volume is a reprint of this edition. After Muir’s Life many Lives of the Prophet have appeared, but it still remains a classic and in some ways has not yet been surpassed in comprehensiveness and in the wealth of material.
This first Indian reprint is beings placed primarily in the hands of Hindus so that they may study and reflect on the doctrine of Islam. For, there is very little in Islam which is not founded on and does not revolve round the personality of the Prophet. Knowledge of Islam will also lead them to knowledge of Christianity which shares its God, its prophets, and most of its monotheistic theology with the succeeding semitic creed.
Sir William Muir's The Life of Mahomet was first published in 1861 in four volumes, a pioneering study based wholly on orthodox original sources. An abridged edition came out in 1876. The third edition was published with important alterations in one volume in 1894. The present volume is a reprint of this edition. After Muir's Life many Lives of the Prophet have appeared, but it still remains a classic and in some ways has not yet been surpassed in compre- hensiveness and in the wealth of material. Thanks to Archeology and other related disciplines, today we know a great deal more about Pre-Islamic Arabian culture, but ever since Muir there has been no addition in the source material relating to the Prophet's life. This was exhausted long ago by early Muslim writers and all this was taken into account by Muir.
Muir belonged to the highest rung of British officialdom in India, but his reputation as an outstanding Arabist and Islamist has proved the most enduring. But he was also a believing Christian and his scholarly labours had a missionary motivation at heart. The motivation gave him a certain direction and a certain way of looking at things, but it did not compromise his scholarship. In fact, he thought that for the very success of the Missionary enterprise, a good biography of the Prophet, based on unimpeachable sources respected by orthodox Muslim scholars, was a first necessary step. While discussing the inaccuracies of Washington Irving's Life of Muhammad, he stressed the need for a "life of the Prophet of Arabia which is based on sound, orthodox Muslim sources."
In his various articles which he wrote during mid-l84Os and which appeared in the Calcutta Review, we easily get to know what he expected his Life to be and to achieve. He wanted it to oppose two kinds of Lives that were current: one was by Missionary writers who were careless about their facts, slipshod in their scholarship, hostile in intent, unsympathetic in treatment, and uninhibited in expressing their opinions. For example, A. Sprenger, his contemporary, a Missionary and an Islamist of great repute, regarded Muhammad as having a "weak and cunning mind." Muir disagreed and argued that such a man "could never have accomplished the mighty mission which Mahomet wrought" Others called Islam "a spurious faith," and its founder "a false prophet" and a "counterfeit Messiah." Muir probably shared these opinions, but he discouraged their too open expression. He thought that if the- Missionaries used such epithets, how could they get the hearing of the Muslims? He probably also thought that stating facts should do, for they would speak for themselves.
He also wanted his Life to oppose Biographies of the Prophet 'written by native Muslim writers which were current among devout Muslims. These were highly fanciful and extravagant and were based on fabricated traditions of which the early biographers of the Prophet were quite innocent For illustration, Muir discussed a biography of the Prophet, moulud sharif or "The Ennobled Nativity" written by Ghulam Imam Shahid, an Indian Muslim, during the 1840s. It was very popular among the Muslims and it had already seen a dozen editions. In this biography, the author, an ornate writer, informed us how Allah wishing to manifest himself formed the "light of Muhammad a thousand years before creation;" how when the light was at last transferred to the womb of Ameena, Muhammad's mother, "200 damsels of the Coreish died of envy;" how angels rejoiced at his birth; how, as he came out of the womb he was already circumcised; and how he repeated the kalima.
Muir tells us that early traditions relating to the Prophet's nativity contain no such material. He wanted his Life to be faithful to this early tradition, and he thought that such a biography would be respected by the Muslims and would therefore serve the Missionary cause better. He argued: "If we can from their own best sources, prove to them that they are deceived and superstitious in many important points ... we shall have gone a great way to excite honest inquiry and induce the sincere investigator to follow our lead." He wanted to present this biography to "thinking Mohammedans, who are turning their attention to the historical evidence of their faith; and are comparing them with those of Christianity." In this way, he thought, rather fondly, that "thinking Muslims" would come to prefer Christianity to their own faith. How the stories of the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Mother, the Only Begotten Son will satisfy their historical sense is not made clear. In fact, some of the "thinking Mohammedans" on whom Muir so much relied remained unmoved by Muir's labour of love. Sayyad Ahmed (later Sir Sayyad), who wrote his own Biography of the Prophet in reply to Muir's, argued whether the Biblical miracles of Moses and Jesus should not be considered from the same rational viewpoint. But in their turn, the Christians were dogmatic and they had learnt to believe that while the miracles of Jesus were historical and well attested, those found in rival faiths were irrational.
As Missionary scholars studied Islam, mostly with a view to convert Muslims, they found that there was a lot in common between it and their own faith. Both were Judaic in origin and orientation, and both had common prophets. The Biblical prophets including Jesus are highly honoured in the Quran. Both shared a common God and a common line of prophets, and both believed in Revelation from the same God. In fact, the prophet of Islam claimed that he communicated with the same God who communicated with Moses and Jesus, and that he was merely reviving the old religion of Ibrahim, the common patriarch of them all. In this revival, he expected the Jews and the Christians to play their part and enlist under his banner. He felt that he was sent to the "people of the Book" as much as to the Arabs. "O ye people of the Book! our Apostle has come to you to explain to you much of what you have hidden of the Book," Allah told them (Quran 5.18). But by and large, they disappointed him. However, the Prophet still kept his hope, particularly in the Christians. On one occasion, Allah assured him that though the Jews and the idolaters are "the strongest in enmity" towards him, but those who call themselves Christians, "you will find the nearest in love ... [and] when they hear what has been revealed to the Prophet, you will see their eyes gush with tears at what they recognize as truth therein" (Quran 5.85, 86).
The Missionaries in turn felt a similar affinity towards Islam and expected much from it. With so much in common - "a one and living God; Mosaic traditions; nay, a belief in Christ," as Sir Robert B. Edwardes, Commissioner and Governor-General's Agent at Peshawar put it-the Muslims should find no difficulty in converting to Christianity. In fact, according to him they should do very well as converts, and in support he quoted his Bible: "For if thou were cut out of the live tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a good live tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be grafted into their own live tree" (Romans 11.24).
But not all shared this bright vision and Muir was one of them. He agreed that Christians had many advantages in the contest. "We have no infidel view to oppose; the existence of sin, and its future punishment is allowed; the necessity of revelation, and even the Divine origin of the Old and New Testament dispensation, are conceded; the most of the attributes of God, the immaculate conception of Christ, the miracles which attested His mission, are all admitted," Muir said. But he still felt that this convergence was of no avail. For, the Muslims believed in Jesus not because of the Bible but because of the Quran, and his study of the Quran had convinced him that the "object of Mahomet was entirely to supersede Christianity", and that the conditions upon which he "permitted Christianity to exist were those of sufferance."
He argued that since the Quran has taken much from the Bible, it therefore abounds with approaches to truth. And this very fact fortifies the Muslims in their present position. "It is a melancholy truth," Muir said, that "a certain amount of light and knowledge often renders only the more difficult to drive the bigot from his prejudices." As a result, the supposed advantages, the points common to both, "are thus turned into a barrier against us, into a thick impenetrable veil which effectually excludes every glimmer of the true light," Muir added.
Some Missionaries wondered why Islam should have in the first instance succeeded at all considering that Christianity was already there in the field and the good news was already known. They believed that the founder of Islam came into contact with a corrupt form of Christianity and that had he known the purer type, the story would have been very different. Isaac Taylor says in his Ancient Christianity, Vol I, that the Christianity which Muhammad and his Khalifahs knew "was a superstition so abject, an idolatry so gross and shameless, church doctrines so arrogant, church practices so dissolute and so puerile, that the strong-minded Arabians felt them- selves inspired anew as God's messengers to reprove the errors of the world, and authorized as God's avengers to punish apostate Christendom." Muir expresses the same thought and regrets that a purer Christianity like the one represented by the Anglican Church was not there at hand when Muhammad appeared on the scene.
Sir Monier Williams, a Sanskritist with deep missionary concerns, speculated in the same vein: "If only the self-deluded but fervent-spirited Muhammad, whose soul was stirred within him when he saw his fellow town-men wholly given to idolatry, had been brought into association with the purer form of Christianity ... he might have died a martyr for the truth, Asia might have numbered her millions of Christians, and the name of Saint Muhammad might have been in the calendar of our Book of Common Prayer ... Think, then, of the difference in the present condition of the Asiatic world, if the fire of Muhammad's eloquence had been kindled, and the force of his personal influence exerted on the side of veritable Christianity" (Modern India,1878).
A new opportunity came again for Christianity when Europe, and particularly England, dominated the world during the last few centuries. During this while, one would have expected, according to Muir, that Christian Europe would have improved its advantages for evangelizing the East, that "Britain, the bulwark of religion in the West, would have stepped forth as its champion in the East, and displayed her faith and her zeal where they were most urgently required." But, alas! it was not to be so and, Muir continues, "England was then sadly neglectful of her responsibility; her religion was shown only at home and she was careless of the spiritual darkness of her benighted subjects abroad; her sons, who adopted India as their country, so far from endeavouring to impart to its inhabitants the benefits of their religion, too often banished it from their own minds, and exhibited to heathens [Hindus] and Mohammadans the sad spectacle of men without faith ... [and] their lives too often presented a practical and powerful, a constant and a living, argument against the truth of our holy faith."
Though so much alike and having the same origin, Christianity and Islam quarrelled. They quarrelled as soon as they came face to face. For centuries they fought with fire and sword. At one time, it seemed that Islam had won and it was knocking at the door of Europe. But after much labour and luck, the tide was turned. In the long interval of armed peace that followed, Europe greatly improved its weaponry and its military position could not be challenged. Meanwhile, it also added another weapon to its arsenal-ideological warfare.
Islam had no way of meeting this challenge. It could not deal with Christians in the old way, the only way it knew, the way of the sword. It had to listen to the "arguments" of the Christian weSt with respect and even allow some sort of freedom and physical security to the Christians and the Jews in the countries it dominated.
Meanwhile, many things had taken place in Europe. It had passed through a period of rationalism and it began to discuss Christianity with a new freedom. As a result, it was now less Christian, and it did not apply the Spanish solution to the Muslim problem.
But it did recognize the usefulness of Christianity for the empire, and the Missionaries had a fairly free field. They were still discouraged from a too blatant use of force, but they were well- endowed and they had great political prestige; they often worked in collusion with the white administrators. They fully utilized these advantages.
They had also developed what they call Apologetics, the art of establishing the truths of Christianity and controverting those of other faiths.
The Muslims were new to the art of religious discussion-their forte had been of a different kind-and initially they were at a disadvantage. But they picked up the art soon, and did quite well. The Missionaries tried to prove Jesus with the help the Quran, Muslims tried to prove Muhammad's mission with the help of the Bible. The former argued that Christianity was Islam without Muhammad-no great matter according to them; that Muhammad himself had recognized Jesus as an Apostle and Muslims should have no difficulty in going a bit further and recognize him as the only Son and the Saviour. The latter argued that Muhammad's mission was prophesied in the Bible itself and in recognizing him as the last spokesman of God, Christians would only be true to their own scriptures.
Thus they bluffed each other and the game continued for some time. But they could not always keep the mask on. The Missionaries often let out that Islam was only an inferior reproduction of Christianity, an imitation of the original but not the original itself, and that Muhammad was obviously a pretender; Muslims argued that Muhammad's revelation was the last one and the Judaic and Christian revelations already stood abrogated. There is in fact a belief among the Muslims based on a hadis that Jesus in his Second Coming will be born a faithful Muslim, will fight for Islam, "judge Christians, break crosses, kill swine, and abolish jizia" (Sahih Muslim, 287)-jizia would be rendered superfluous as all Christians would become Muslims.
The controversy was sharp, as it often is between creeds which are alike in beliefs and aims and methods-like Stalinists and Trotskyites. Both claimed to believe in the same God, but each claimed sole heirship to his throne. Muir found in Islam "a subtle usurper, who climbed into the throne under pretence of legitimate succession, and seized upon the forces of the crown to supplant its authority." He also found in it a "dangerous adversary" who "has borrowed so many weapons of Christianity." Muslims argued that had the Jews and the Christians not falsified their scriptures, they would have long back joined the banner of Islam.
The debate had some interesting features. Each side was rational about the faith of the other, but not about its own. As a result, though Muslims fully utilized the rational critique to which Christianity was subjected by Europe during its recent Age of Reason, they had no use for it for themselves. Hence Muslims yet know no real self-criticism except to say that they are not Muslim enough!
Another feature was that even though the language of the debate was often sharp, its parameters were limited; they consisted of a single God who communicates with his followers through a privileged single medium, and who exercises an unbending enmity towards heathens and infidels. Throughout the debate, these premises remained unquestioned and no awareness was shown of the concerns of a deeper spirituality.
Though Christianity and Islam quarrelled between themselves, their real and ultimate target remained "Idolatry"- their name for all non-Semitic religions, which means all religions of the past and most religions of the present. The Missionary writers highly appreciated Islam's role in "cleansing the world from the scourge of idolatry, and for preparing the way for the reception of a purer faith." Similarly, Islam recognized Christians as "people of the
Book," no small honour and no small point of security. This recognition allowed the Christians to practise their faith under certain disabilities and also provided some sort of physical security to their persons, something which was denied by Muslim Arab rulers to their own blood brothers, who had to submit to a choice between Islam and death.
It is well-known that Christians and Muslims derived their much-vaunted Monotheism from the Jews, but the Jews themselves were not monotheists in the beginning. Like other neighbouring peoples, they had their tribal god towards whom they felt a special loyalty but it did not occur to them yet to deny the gods of others. True, the gods sometimes quarrelled as their followers quarrelled, yet it was still far from the thought of the Jews to deny "other" gods. That other gods did not exist or were false, and that their god alone was true and enjoyed some sort of universal sovereignty, was a later development This development had to wait till the arrival of their Prophets, beginning with Moses.
It seems that the early Jews did not know Jehovah according to the Biblical testimony itself. "By name Jehovah was I not known to them," says the Bible (Exodus 6.3). Probably, the Jews borrowed Egyptian Gods, at least in some measure, while they were in Egypt and they continued worshipping them even during the days of their wanderings in the desert. There are also indications that the new religion, whatever it was and whenever adopted, was imposed against great opposition and with great ferocity. While Jehovah revealed himself to Moses as the only God of the Jews, they were worshipping another God under the symbol of a Bull (Has it something to do with Nandi of Hinduism?), a mode they had probably adopted in Egypt "Slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour," ordered Jehovah to those who truly followed him. Three thousand men were killed in a day and a new religion was inaugurated or an old one established.' The killers were consecrated and they became the priestly class, the Levites.
The Life of Mahomet, by Sir William Muir, was first Published in four volumes in the year 1861, with profuse notes and references, as well as introductory chapters on the Early History of Arabia, and well as introductory chapters on the Early History of Arabia, and an Essay on the ‘Sources for the Biography of Mahomet-the Coran and Tradition.’ In the second (1876) and third (1894) editions these introductory chapters, although of the highest interest in themselves, were omitted, as not beings immediately relevant to the biography of the Arabian Prophet. Moreover, most of the notes and all the references to original authorities were left out, the curious readers beings referred for the later to the first and larger from of the work. The text itself remained practically unaltered in all three editions.
The present text is a revision in some matters of detail of that of the third edition. All the learned author’s expressions of opinion and the view he took of particular events have, of course been left unaltered. The changes which have been made have been in respect of the form rather than of the substance.
In the first place, the orthography of the Arabic proper names has been brought into line with modern usage. The name Mahomet was adopted by Principal Muir to designate the Prophet, ‘following the established usage of Christendom, and had the further advantage of always distinguishing him from other persons of the same name, in whose case he wrote it Mohammad or Muhammad (first edition, p.16). The objection to this is that we now place the accent on the first syllable of the name Mahomet instead of the second, thus giving it an entirely wrong sound. Mohammad has, therefore, been for all persons of that name in this edition. Other names which have became naturalised in English have been retained as in Muir, e.g. Mecca not Makka ; Caliph, not Khalifa ; Medina, not Al-Madina (op.cit. p. vi.). On the other hand, I have put At-Ta’if instead of Muir’s Tayif ; ‘A’isha for Ayesha ; Az-Zubeir for Zobeir ; and so on. Absolute consistency in these matters is not attainable.
In the first edition of the Life the references were made to manuscript copies of the histories of Ibn Hisham, At- Tabari, and Ibn Sa’d which are quite inaccessible to the ordinary reader. Since that date inaccessible to the ordinary reader. Since that date excellent editions of all these have been published, and to these the references are made in the present revision. In the case of the Maghazi of Al-Wakidi the condensed translation by the famous Professor Wellhausen is referred to as beings more convenient and easy of reference that the Arabic text of Von Kremer, as well as because the latter is not available after the beginning of the fourth year of the Hijra. On some Points the edition of Ibn Koteiba’s Kitab al- Ma’arif by the late Dr Ferdinand Wustenfeld has also been referred to, as it groups together facts which occur separately in the histories which follow the order of time. References have not been given to the Diwan, or Poems of Hassan ibn Thabit, recently published in the Gibb Memorial Series, as it is easily obtainable, and much of the material will be found in the Biographies cited above.
The text of the work has been left practically as it stood in the third edition. In a few cases a phrase has been changed so as to bring it nearer the original, and a variant account occurring in one of the old sources has been added. All such additions are enclosed within square brackets.
I have to thank Professor Margoliouth, D. Litt., of Oxford, for his kindness in giving me the advantage of his advice in regard to the system of transliteration to be followed and the authorities to which reference should be made. For the arduous task of the compilation of the Index, I owe thanks to M. G. W.
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