بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم الحمد لله وحده و الصلاة و السلام على من لا نبي بعده و على آله و أصحابه أجمعين
Direct evidence from the earliest Muslim historians- al-Tabari, al-Waqidi and Ibn Ishaq- that whatever they reported was not necessarily true according to them even!
In discussions and debates when Muslims questions the reliability of some reports given in early sources of Islamic history, orientalists and missionaries often argue that the reports must be authentic as they have been reported by early Muslims themselves. They argue that had these reports been false early Muslim narrators and historians would never record these.
This may seem quite reasonable an assertion but is actually farthest from the truth.
In this short article we shall see evidence from three most well known early narrators and historians namely, al-Tabari, al-Waqidi and Ibn Ishaq to prove the above mentioned assertion wrong.
Abu Ja’far Muhammad bin Jarir al-Tabari (d. 310 A.H.) was a well known Exegete of the Qur’an (mufassir), Hadith scholar (muhaddith) and a historian (mu’arrikh). His work on history is the greatest source of reports from the earliest times and has been used as primary reference by nearly all later historians. Orientalists and missionaries are particularly fond of it. This is clear from the fact that English translation of this huge work has been published in the West in 40 volumes.
Al-Tabari himself stated it very plainly that all the narrations in his work are not authentic. In the preface to his history work titled, Tarikh al-Rusul wal Maluk, he wrote:
"The reader should know that with respect to all I have mentioned and made it a condition to set down in this writing of ours, I rely upon traditions and reports which I have transmitted and which I attribute to their transmitters. I rely only very exceptionally upon what is learned through rational arguments and deduced by internal thought processes. For no knowledge of history of men of the past and of recent men and events is attainable by those who were not able to observe them and did not live in their time, except through information and transmission provided by informants and transmitters. This cannot be brought out by reason or deduced by internal thought processes. This writing of mine may [be found to] contain some information, mentioned by us on the authority of certain men of the past, which the reader may disapprove of and the listener may find detestable, because he can find nothing sound and no real meaning in it. In such cases, he should know that such information has come not from us, but from those who transmitted it to us. We have merely reported it as it was reported to us."
(The History of al-Tabari Volume 1, General Introduction and From the Creation to The Flood. Translated by Franz Rosenthal, State University of New York Press, 1989 pp.170-171)
This is why Muslim scholars have not always accepted al-Tabari’s narrations hook, line and sinker, rather they test each narration according to the rules of reporting, cross examine them against other reports on the issue under consideration and this way separate the reliable reports from those otherwise.
Another famous early Muslim narrator is Muhammad Ibn ‘Umar al-Waqidi (d. 207 A.H.). 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 –on him be the peace and blessings of Allah- and his companions.
He is also a key narrator in the work of another early historian Muhammad Ibn Sa’d (d. 239 A.H.) who was actually the scribe and student of al-Waqidi. Ibn Sa’d work is titled as “Tabaqatul Kubra” or “Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir”.
First thing to note is that al-Waqidi is mostly criticized by scholars and his narrations are generally not acceptable. Details on his reliability and otherwise can be found HERE.
Other than criticism on al-Waqidi analysis of his reports and his own comments thereon also helps us on the question at hand; did early Muslim historians report only authentic narrations?
Please consider the following account given by Ibn Sa’d about the Prophet’s marriage to Sayyidah Khadija;
“Muhammad Ibn ‘Umar informed us through another chain of narrators: Verily Khadijah made her father drink till he got drunk. She slaughtered a cow, applied perfume to his body and dressed him in a stripped garment. When he regained senses he said: For what is this slaughtering, this perfume and stripped garment? She said: You gave me to Muhammad in marriage. He said: I did not do it and I will not do it. The notables of the Quraysh made proposals which I rejected.
Muhammad Ibn ‘Umar said: The whole narration appears to us be false and wrong. The approved version is that Khuwaylid Ibn Asad, the father of Khadijah had died before the Battle of al-Fijar and that ‘Amr Ibn Asad had given Khadijah into marriage to the Apostle of Allah, may Allah bless him.”
(Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, English Translation by S. Moinul Haq, Kitab Bhavan, New Delhi, 2009 vol.1 pp.149-150)
The same is also recorded by al-Tabari. See, The History of al-Tabari, vol VI -Muhammad in Mecca , Translated by W. Montgomery Watt and M.V. McDonald State University of New York Press, Albany 1989 pp. 49-50
How clear that al-Waqidi himself narrated something while he believed it to be false on the basis of other solid reports. In the same way later scholars too reserve the right to subject his or anyone else’s narrations to this kind of scrutiny. It will therefore be wrong to assume that whatever these historians write or narrate is authentic. Let us also not forget that al-Waqidi is himself not a generally accepted narrator in the first place.
4. Ibn Ishaq:
The earliest author widely quoted and cited to this day is Muhammad Ibn Ishaq (d. 151 A.H.). He was from al-Madinah and he travelled to many other major cities of the Muslim world of his day. There are varying opinions about his reliability but generally he is accepted as reliable with some conditions. We shall discuss it all in detail in a forthcoming article.
Ibn Ishaq is one of those narrators on whose authority the much debated story ‘satanic verse’ is related. In fact he falls in the one of the chain of narrators for the alleged story given by al-Tabari;
“Ibn Humayd—Salamah—Muhammad b. Ishaq—Yazid b. Ziyad al-Madani—Muhammad b. Ka’b al-Qurazi … “
See, The History of al-Tabari, vol VI -Muhammad in Mecca, Translated by W. Montgomery Watt and M.V. McDonald p. 108
By the logic employed by orientalists and missionaries Ibn Ishaq should have believed in the truth of this narration; however we learn that he believed it to be utter falsehood.
Abu Hayyan al-Andulasi (d. 745 A.H.) mentions;
“About this story Imam Muhammad bin Ishaq, the compiler of sirah, was asked, he said: ‘This is from the fabrication of the heretics.’ And he wrote a book on the issue.”
(al-Bahr al-Muhit fil Tafsir, Dar al-Fekr, Beirut, 1420 A.H. vol.7 p.526)
Unfortunately, it seems the book has not come down to us!
Considering these details there remains no doubt that whatever early narrators and historians reported was not necessarily authentic to themselves even. They themselves scrutinized the reports and rejected when they found reasons to. So it is only natural for later Muslim scholars to scrutinize their reports and separate the wheat from the chaff and it is totally wrong to assume that whatever they narrated was authentic to them.
Indeed Allah knows the best!