Muhammad Ibn ‘Umar al-Waqidi as a Narrator

by Syed Suleman Nadvi

1. Introduction:

One of the well known early reporters of the Sirah is Muhammad bin Umar al-Waqidi widely known to the students of Islamic history as al-Waqidi. He was born in Madinah in 130 A.H./747 C.E. He settled in Baghdad where he attained the high rank of “qadha” during the caliphate of al-Mamun (198 A.H./813 C.E. – 218 A.H./833 C.E.). He died in 207 A.H./822 C.E. in Baghdad. He belongs to the early group of writers on “sirah” and his famous book on the subject is “Kitab al-Maghazi” in which he has described the campaigns of the prophet.

Since the early writers used to state every event or every part of an event with a separate “isnad” (authorities), it resulted in discontinuity and frequent interruptions in the narration. Consequently, it often resulted in the loss of interest in the following up event. al-Waqidi started with a new style, that is, before reporting any event he enumerated all the names of the reporters which included both “Ma’ruf” (known) and “Majhul” (unknown) at the beginning of that event or campaign and then narrated the whole event along with other relevant details in an uninterrupted form attracting the interest of the people. Those who were not familiar with the complicated science of “riwayah” (report) and those who did not want to involve themselves in the complications of the close investigations, did not like to deprive themselves of the enjoyment of reading a continued uninterrupted report, they liked very much his style of reports. al-Waqidi attained a highly respectable status in the eyes of the Abbasid caliphs and the Baramikah. But the strange thing is that the more he attained respect and status of honour with rulers and princes the more he earned “disrespect” and unreliability in the eyes of the “Ulama al-Rijal” (scholars of hadith reporters) and the “Muhaddithin” (scholars of Hadith).

2. His great knowledge and sharp memory

al-Waqidi’s supporters and opponents have agreed on the fact that he had a sharp memory and that he was known for his “ilm” (knowledge). His secretary, Muhammad ibn Sa’d writes;

He was a scholar of Maghazi, Sirah, conquests, differences of people in Hadith and religious injunctions and of things on which they had their consensus.[1]

Shams al-Din al-Dhahbi writes:

His memory was at its best in remembering history, biographies, battles, happenings, battles, (events) of the people, jurisprudents etc.[2]

Khatib al-Baghdadi says:

He is one of those whose fame has covered the East and the West of the Earth. Anyone who is familiar with history knows about him. Men have carried his books on various sciences of the knowledge like; Maghazi, Siyar, Tabaqat, life of the Prophets and events which took place in his (Prophet’s) lifetime and after his death.[3]

3. Question of reliability

These are some of the quotations which I have picked up at random as an evidence of al-Waqidi’s vast knowledge, especially of the Maghazi, and of his sharp memory. But the question is what position does al-Waqidi enjoy in respect to reliability, truthfulness, credibility and “istinad” (trustworthiness)?

The Orientalists accept al-Waqidi as a reliable and valuable source for the life of the Prophet and for the period immediately following the death of the Prophet, whereas Muslim scholars, by and large, are not prepared to give him a rank more than a story-teller in the court of the Baramikah.

The books of “Asma’ al-Rijal” have recorded about al-Waqidi opinions, for and against. Among his supporters we find men like al-Darawardi (d. 186 A.H.), Yazid ibn Harun (d. 206 A.H.), Muhammad ibn Ishaq al-Saghani (d. 270 A.H.) and others, while those who reject him include men like al-Shafi’i (d. 204 A.H.), Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 241 A.H.), Yahya ibn Ma’in (d. 233 A.H.) and others. Ibn Sayyid al-Nas, who is the staunchest and the most enthusiastic supporter of al-Waqidi, has collected all the relevant materials, for and against, concerning al-Waqidi and has tried to defend him and absolve him of all the charges.[4] Among prominent Western scholars who have defended al-Waqidi are J. Welhausen[5], Joseph Horovitz[6] and Marsden Jones.[7]

al-Waqidi could not find a more enthusiastic defender than Ibn Sayyid al-Nas (d. 734 A.H./1334 C.E.) who has rebutted the criticisms against Muhammad ibn Ishaq with much zeal and enthusiasm but replying to the “jarh” (criticism) against al-Waqidi, he could not give a powerful defense such as he did in case of Ibn Ishaq and finally admitted frankly:

But there are severe controversies against him.[8]

All the later defenders of al-Waqidi have drawn upon Ibn Sayyid al-Nas and none could add to what he has already written in al-Waqidi’s defense.

3.1. Supporters of al-Waqidi

I give below a list of al-Waqidi’s supporters as well as critics which will help us form an opinion.

First the supporters and their remarks:

1. al-Darawardi (d. 186 A.H.):

al-Waqidi is a master of traditions.

2. Yazid ibn Harun (2. 206 A.H.):

al-Waqidi is reliable.

3. Abu ‘Ubayd al-Qasim ibn Salam (d. 224 A.H.):


4. al-Musayyibi (d. 236 A.H.)


5. Ibn Numayr (d. 234 A.H.)

Here his tradition is alright but for the traditions of the Madinites, they know it better.

6. ‘Abbas al-Anbari (d. 246 A.H.)

I like him more than al-Razzaq.

7. Ya’qub ibn Shaybah (d. 264 A.H.)

Some of our people have told me that he was reliable.

8. Mus’ab al-Zubayri (d. 236 A.H.)

He is reliable and safe.

9. Muhammad ibn Ishaq al-Saghani (d. 270 A.H.)

Had he not been reliable to me I would have not reported from him.

10. Ibrahim al-Harbi (d. 280 A.H.)

al-Waqidi is a trustee of the people of Islam[9]

This is a long list of al-Waqidi’s defenders and in appearance seems very impressive too but a close examination will show that this list does not contain a single name of any of the prominent expert of “Ilm al-Rijal” or any Imam of “Ilm Naqd al-Hadith” (Science of the Criticism of Hadith). Had there not been a much more impressive and weightier list of opposite testimonials, the above favourable testimonials would have been valuable and acceptable. Another strange fact which needs our attention is that the man who would have testified in favour of al-Waqidi’s credibility should have been his own disciple and secretary. Muhammad ibn Sa’d (d. 230 A.H./845 C.E.) who has written his master’s biography but has not written a single word about the reliability and credibility of al-Waqidi, whereas, writing about him he pointedly remarks. “He is reliable (thiqah) or not reliable (ghayr thiqah).”[10]

3.2. Critics of al-Waqidi

As for the critics of al-Waqidi, there are many, therefore, I would confine the list to very prominent names:

1. al-Shafi’i (d. 204 A.H.):

All the books of al-Waqidi are lies. In Madinah there were seven men who used to fabricator authorities, one of which was al-Waqidi.[11]

2. Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 241 A.H.):

He is a liar, makes alternations in the traditions.[12]

3. al-Nasa’i (d. 303 A.H.):

The liars known for fabricating the Hadith of the Messenger of Allah are four. They are: Arba’ah b. Abi Yahya in Madinah, al-Waqidi in Baghdad, Muqatil b. Sulayman in Khurasan and Muhammad bin Sa’id in Syria.[13]

4. al-Bukhari (d. 256 A.H.):

al-Waqidi has been abandoned in Hadith. He fabricates Hadith.[14]

5. al-Dhahbi (d. 748 A.H.):

Consensus has taken place on the weakness of al-Waqidi.[15]

6. Yahya ibn Ma’in (d. 233 A.H.):

He is weak. He is nothing. Not reliable![16]

7. Ishaq ibn Rahwiyah (d. 238 A.H.):

According to my view, he is one of those who fabricate Hadith.[17]

8. Abu Dawud (d. 275 A.H.):

I do not write his Hadith and I do not report (Hadith) on his authority. I have no doubt that he used to make up Hadith.[18]

9. Ibn Abi Hatim al-Razi (d. 277 A.H.):

He fabricates Hadith. We have abandoned his Hadith.[19]

10. al-Darqutni (d. 385 A.H.):

There is weakness in him (in his reporting).[20]

11. ‘Ali ibn Madyani (d. 241 A.H.):

He fabricates Hadith.[21]

12. Ibn ‘Adi (d. 365 A.H.):

His traditions are not safe and there is danger from him (in accepting his traditions).[22]

13. Ibn Hajr (d. 852 A.H.):

He has been abandoned in spite of vastness of his knowledge.[23]

14. Abu Zar’ah al-Razi (d. 264 A.H.):

Abandoned, Weak![24]

15. al-Nawawi (d. 676 A.H.):

Their (muhaddithin’) consensus is that al-Waqidi is weak.[25]

4. Reasons for criticism against al-Waqidi

After comparing the above two lists it becomes clear that al-Waqidi has been condemned and rejected by competent authorities of the Hadith criticism. Now let us examine the reasons why the Hadith authorities reject al-Waqidi.

4.1. Problem with his way of narration

The method that al-Waqidi had adopted to report events was rejected by critics on the basis that in this way it was not possible to find out the original source. In other words, it is not possible to find out which part or portion of the report is narrated by which reporter. Sometimes he does give separate “isnad” but they are “munqati” (interrupted or with a link missing); or sometimes he gives the “isnads” and says that some parts of the “report are common among them” this is one of the reasons why al-Waqidi and his reports could not receive certificate of credibility from the Traditionalists and the “Ashab al-Rijal”. al-Shafi’i and Ahmad ibn Hanbal have rejected him on the same basis.

4.2. Comparison with al-Zuhri and Ibn Ishaq

Prof. Marsden Jones and Mr. Horovitz, justifying al-Waqidi’s method of reporting by collecting all the “asanid” at one place in the beginning of the report, have counter-charged that if this kind of reporting was a defect (‘ayb) then the same defect could be found in al-Zuhri and Ibn Ishaq.[26] This counter-charge is, in reality, borrowed from Ibrahim al-Harbi who is one of the earliest defenders of al-Waqidi and is quoted by Ibn Sayyid al-Nas. The whole quotation runs as follows:

When Ibrahim al-Harbi was asked what was the reason that Ahmad (ibn Hanbal) did not approve of al-Waqidi, he replied that he (Ahmad ibn Hanbal) disapproved al-Waqidi’s (method of) collecting together all the authorities (at one place) and his coming out with one single text; then Ibriahim added that it was nothing objectionable because al-Zuhri and Ibn Ishaq had done the same thing.[27]

This counter-charge is not correct because of three reasons:-

Firstly, al-Zuhri and Ibn Ishaq both enjoy high rank and good reputation in the eyes of the critics of Hadith literature and allthe “ashab al-Rijal” have almost unanimously testified in their favour and have called him truthful (saduq), reliable (thiqah), and sound in Hadith (hassan al-hadith).[28] Therefore, anything coming from al-Zuhri and Ibn Ishaq would enjoy credibility than al-Waqidi whose credibility is disputed and injured (majruh). If a reporter is considered reliable then his report is also considered reliable, and by the same token, if a reporter’s reliability is disputed then his report too will be denounced. The same experts of “Rijal” who have denounced al-Wqidi have testified in favour of al-Zuhri and Ibn Ishaq. Although Ibn Ishaq could not escape criticism from certain authorities, the fact remains that the authorities who approve of him enjoy greater rank and authority.

Secondly, al-Zuhri and Ibn Ishaq have narrated very few reports in the way that al-Waqidi had adopted. al-Waqidi has based his whole book on such reports. In case of al-Zuhri and Ibn Ishaq, only a few reports may be affected while in the case of al-Waqidi his whole book is in question.

Lastly, the authorities would maintain that if al-Zuhri and Ibn Ishaq report any event or tradition without maintaining the standard method of “isnad” or then the critics of Hadith literature would treat such reports in the same way as they would any other report of such a quality. Nevertheless, the reports of al-Zuhri and Ibn Ishaq would enjoy credibility more than the reports of al-Waqidi because of the simple fact that the critics and compilers of hadith did not find them “liars”. The other thing that we should keep in our mind is that in the acceptability of reports from al-Zuhri, Ibn Ishaq or al-Waqidithe question is not of personality but is that of reliability. This is because in the eyes of critics of Hadith all the reporters who report anything about the Prophet are equal unless their reliability and truthfulness are contested.

This brings us to a very important question, what are criteria on the basis of which a report may be accepted or rejected?

5. Criteria to decide a report’s reliability

According to Muslim scholars a report can be considered reliable only when its isnad “forms an unbroken series of reliable authorities.” The critical investigation of isnads has caused the Muslim scholars to make thorough researches and to establish different categories and degrees of the reliability of a Hadith. They “endeavored not only to ascertain the names and personal details of the authorities in order to investigate when and where they lived, and which of them had personally acquainted with the other, but also to rest their reliability, truthfulness and accuracy in transmitting the text in order to make certain which of them are reliable.” This criticism of the authorities came to be called “al-Jarah wa al-Ta’dil” and along with it came the various allied sciences such as principles of Hadith (usul al-hadith), biographies of reporters (asma’ al-rijal), and contradiction in Hadith (ikhtilaf al-hadith). At the same time principles of “riwayah” (transmission) and “dirayah” (knowledge) were laid down on the basis of which transmissions were investigated.

5.1. Principles of Riwayah

Principles of Riwayah may be summed up as follows;

1- Transmitters must be reliable from the beginning to the end of the report.

2- The first transmitter should be an eye witness of the event.

3- If the first reporter is not an eye witness himself then he should report on the authority of someone who must have been an eye witness.

4- In the case of No. 3, experience must prove that the first transmitter has always transmitted on the authority of those who themselves were eye witnesses and were present at that particular event.

5- Each transmitter must admit his meeting with his predecessor and must state that he had heard the report from his preceding transmitter, or at least there must be sufficient evidence of the fact that the transmitter had met his processor at least once in his lifetime.

6- If the evidence does not prove the meeting then there must be evidence which could prove that the transmitter and his predecessor were at least contemporary of each other and that the transmission from his contemporary predecessor was possible.

7- The chain of transmitters must not be broken.

8- There must not be any unknown (majhul) transmitter.

5.2. Principles of Dirayah

The principles of Dirayah can be summed up as follows:-

1- The event that is being transmitted should not run counter to other reliable historical facts and evidence.

2- Is there any other transmission about the same matter on the authority of more reliable “isnad” which contradicts it?

3- The transmitter has not possibly erred in understanding the meaning of the transmission.

4- Transmission should not be incomplete.

5- Transmission must not run contrary to the accepted (musallamah), well established (mutayaqqanah), and well known (ma’ruf) basic principles of Islam.[29]

These, in short, are the principles on which the initial structure of the early history and injunctions (ahkam) of Islam was built. On the basis of above principles of “riwayah” and “dirayah” the early writers of Islam, whether they were the scholars of Hadith, scholars of Maghazi or scholars of history, were tested and their ranks of reliability and trustworthiness were determined according to the above principles and not according to the fame or status. The more these writers adhered to these principles the more their writings attained credibility. That is why books of Traditions have a higher degree of reliability than the books of al-Maghazi because in comparison to the “muhaddithin” the writers of the Maghazi did not adhere to these principles very strictly. According to the degree of credibility has been given to each collection of Traditions and, by the same token, among the books of Maghazi. What status of reliability is occupied by the books of Maghazi, of al-Zuhri and Musa ibn ‘Uqba and Ibn Ishaq among the Maghazi literature is not occupied by the Kitab al-Maghazi of al-Waqidi. The reason for difference in degree of acceptability if simple and it is that the experts of the “ ’Ilm al-Jarh wa al-Ta’dil” could not find evidence to accuse al-Zuhri and Ibn Ishaq of lying or fabricating Traditions. Ibn Ishaq, although charged for his liberal attitude (‘adam ihtiyat) in accepting Hadith from the people of the Book (Ahl al-Kitab) was not accused of lying or fabricating. On the other hand, the critics of Hadith literature have accused al-Waqidi in definite terms of lying and fabricating Hadith. That is why al-Waqidi was unanimously rejected in so far as Hadith is concerned and his transmissions found no place in the collection of Hadith. On the other hand, he found a place in the Maghazi and his reports concerning the Maghazi have been accepted even by his critics.

This brings us to another question: What place does al-Waqidi have in the Maghazi?

6. al-Waqidi’s reliability in Maghazi and Siyar

Early scholars of Islam themselves have maintained a difference between the literature of hadith and history. For instance, those who collected materials concerning the person of the Prophet (siyar) in relation to the legal obligations (al-Ahkam al-Shari’yah) were called “MUhaddithin” (Traditionalists); those who concerned themselves only with the life of the Prophet were known as “Ashab al-Sirah”; those who wrote about the character and habits of the Prophet were called “Ashab al-Shama’il”. And those who concerned themselves with the campaigns of the Prophet were known as the Ashab al-Maghazi.

On the basis of above categorization the same “Ashab al-Rijal” who, have rejected al-Waqidi in Hadith and in discussions on important religious obligations, have at the same time acknowledged his knowledge of the Maghazi and have specified his fact in their criticisms. For instance, the same al-Dhahbi who, at the end of his criticism on al-Waqidi in his Mizan has concluded: “Consensus has taken place on the weakness of al-Waqidi,”[30] has specified in his “Tadhkirat al-Huffaz” that:

He is one of the vessels of knowledge but he is not well-versed in Hadith. But he is an expert (on the top) in Maghazi and Siyar.[31]

Ahmad al-Khazarji writes:

He was a scholar of Maghazi, Siyar, conquests and of difference among the people.[32]

Ibn Hajr himself who, has severely criticized al-Waqidi in his “Tahdhib al-Tahdhib” and “Taqrib al-Tahdhib”, has quoted him extensively in explaining the various events of the battles (ghazawat) and other historical events in his Fath al-Bari, the commentary to Sahih al-Bukhari.[33]

al-Shafi’i has called al-Waqidi a “liar” (kadhab) but at the same time in his monumental work, Kitab al-‘Umm, he has based his inferences on the strength of al-Waqidi’s reports on the Ghazawat.[34]

7. Conclusion

Consequently, it becomes clear that al-Waqidi was not acceptable in Hadith and important religious injunctions such as the question concerning permissible (halal) and impermissible (haram) but was acceptable in the Maghazi and Siyar and in such events of early history which did not run against the principles of historical evidence or personal bias. Thus, one can safely say that al-Waqidi’s reports concerning Maghazi and the Siyar will be accepted after close investigations and that in the presence of stronger “isnad” his report will not be accepted. In such a case too, where he is the only transmitter of a particular event his report will not be acceptable unless other evidence supports his version.[i]

At the conclusion, I would like to end with a very interesting but revealing remark of Sulayman al-Shadikuni in which he has said about al-Waqidi that if al-Waqidi “was truthful then certainly he was the greatest of all truthful men, but if he was a liar even then he was the greatest of all liars.”[35]

* The research paper was published in the biannual “Al-Seerah International” No. 13 pp.3-16 (English section) April 2005 under the title “Muhammad Ibn Umar Al-Waqidi”. Transcription errors have been removed and headings added.

[1] Ibn Sa’d, Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, vol.7 pt.2 p.67, Leiden, 1918

[2] Sham al-Din al-Dhahbi, Mizan al-I’tidal fi Naqd al-Rijal, vol.3 p.110, Cairo, 1907

[3] Yaqut al-Rumi, Mu’jam al-Udaba’, vol.18 p.278, Cairo, 1936

[4] Ibn Sayyid al-Nas, Uyun al-Athar, vol.1 pp.17-21, Cairo, 1936

[5] J. Welhausen, Muhammad in Madina, pp.11-28, Berlin, 1882

[6] Joseph Horovitz, The Earliest Biographies of the Prophet and the Authors, ‘Islamic Culture’, vol.2 pp.495-526, Hyderabad (India), 1928

[7] al-Waqidi, KItab al-Maghazi, published by Marsden Jones, pp.29-34, Oxford University Press, 1966
Marsden Jones, Ibn Ishaq and al-Waqidi: The dream of ‘Atika and the raid to Nakhla in relation to the charge of plagiarism. BSOAS, XXII, I, 1950

[8] Ibn Sayyid al-Nas, vol.1 p.20

[9]al-Dhahbi, Mizan, vol.3 pp.110-111
Ibn Sayyid al-Nas, vol.1 pp.18-21
Ibn Abi Hatim al-Razi, Kitab al-Jarh wa al-Ta’dil, vol.4 pt.1 pp.20-21, Hyderabad (India), 1953

[10] Ibn Sa’d, vol.7 pt.2 p.67

[11] Ibn Abi Hatim, vol.4 pt.1 p.21

[12] al-Dhahbi, Mizan, vol.3 p.110

[13] Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Tahdhib al-Tahdhib, vol.9 p.366 No.604, Hyderabad, 1326 Yusuf ‘Abbas Hashmi, Zaynab bint Jahash, ‘Islamic Culture’ vol.XLI, No.1, Hyderabad (India), 1967

[14] al-Dhahbi, Mizan, vol.3 p.110

[15] Ibid., p.111

[16] Ibid. p.110,
Ibn Abi Hatim, vol.4 pt.1. p.21

[17] Ibn Abi Hatim, p.21

[18] Ibn Hajr, Tahdhib, vol.9, p.366, No.604 cf. Hashmi

[19] Ibid., p.366
Ibn Abi Hatim, p.21

[20] al-Dhahbi, Mizan, p.110

[21] Ibid., p.110
Ibn Hajr, Tahdhib, p.366 cf. Hashmi

[22] al-Dhahbi, Mizan, vol.3, p.110

[23] Ibn Hajr, Taqrib al-Tahdhib, vol.2, p.194, Cairo, 1960

[24] Ibn Abi Hatim, vol.4, pt.1, p.21

[25] Ibn Hajr, Tahdhib, vol.9, p.366 cf. Hashmi

[26] al-Waqidi, Kitab al-Maghazi, published by Marsden Jones p.29

Horovitz, ‘Islamic Culture’, vol.2 pp.518-520

[27]Ibn Sayyid al-Nas, vol.1 p.20

[28] al-Dhahbi, Mizan, vol.3 pp.21-24
al-Dhahbi, Tadhkirah al-Huffaz, vol.1 2nd ed., pp.163-164, Hyderabad, 1911
Ibn Abi Hatim, vol.3 pt.2 pp.191-194
Ibn Hajr, Taqrib, vol.2, p.144
Ahmad bin ‘Abdullah al-Khazraji, Khulasah Tahdhib al-Kamal fi Asma’ al-Rijal, p.278, Cairo, 1940

[29] Ibn Abi Hatim, (introduction) vol.1
Ibn Hajr, Lisan al-Mizan, vol.6, Hyderabad, 1911
Khatib al-Baghdadi, Kitab al-Kifayah fi ‘Ilm al-Riwayah, Hyderabad (India), 1357 A.H.
al-Hakim Naysaburi, Kitab al-Ma’rifah ‘Ilm al-Hadith

[30] al-Dhahbi, Mizan, vol.3 p.111

[31] al-Dhahbi, Tadhkirah, vol.1 pp.317-318

[32] Ahmad al-Khazarji, Khulasah Tahdhib al-Kamal, p.291

[33] Ibn Hajr, Fath al-Bari, KItab al-Maghazi, vol.7 p.197, Cairo, 1325 A.H.

[34] al-Shafi’i, Kitab al-Umm, vol.4, p.260, Cairo, 1961

[35] al-Dhahbi, Mizan, vol.3 p.110

[i] Here it may be added that in case of the narrations on Maghazi (Battles) and Siyar (Biographies), if al-Waqidi’s report does not contradict any authentic narration and established facts, but adds a little to the details of an event otherwise independently known through authentic reports, the addition may be accepted. Hafiz Ibn Kathir (d. 774 A.H./1373 C.E.) said:

“al-Waqidi: He has reliable additions, and well documented history …”
(al-Bidayah wal Nihayah 3/288)

--Waqar Akbar Cheema

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    1. thank you for this writing.
      i found this very helpful

    2. A very well written article. I enjoyed reading it. I would like to understand why did someone as esteemed as Al-Imam Al-Shafi'i made such a strong statement that everything al-Waqidi has written is a lie. I was surprised to read this. Al-Waqidi's historical accounts are well regarded.

    3. very much comprehensible