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What are the sources of our knowledge of the life of Muhammad and the early history of the Muslim community? Comment on their value.

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Introduction

What are the sources of our knowledge of the life of Muhammad and the early history of the Muslim community? Comment on their value. It has been recently estimated that there are 1.100 billion Muslims1 in the world and therefore the scope of a religion that represents about 22% of the world's population must be greatly appreciated. However, the Prophet Muhammad exists not only as an integral part of the major world religion of Islam but also as a highly historical figure, whose character has been shaped by many Islamic sources. They are principally in the form of the hadiths, the traditions, which are biographical works dealing with Muhammad's life. These in turn make up larger works, called suras. The suras and hadiths were written roughly 100 years after Muhammad's death, but accurate oral tradition, characteristic of the time, enabled such works to be reliable sources, and the oldest hadiths available are those written by Ibn Ishaq. The Qur`an also acts as a source on Muhammad's life and his community, while little is known from other sources. Ibn Ishaq, who died in 767 CE (135 years after the death of Muhammad), wrote the first biography of Muhammad that we have today, after editing a much longer work by Ibn Hisham. Therefore it is considered that the underlying threads of Ibn Ishaq's Sura consist mainly of dogmas and biographical information already in existence, but assembled in a chronological order. ...read more.

Middle

Scholars on Islam such as Watt also suggest that Ishaq included stories in which Muhammad tended to the eye wounds of a man called Qatada, in order to affirm a certain healing-type power in the Prophet. Watt explains that it may well be the case that the essentials of story are true, and while "Qatada may well have said later that he saw better with this eye3," any inference of a healing power leads us to think that Ishaq's writings are biased. Nevertheless, Ishaq's Sura offers a full and wide ranging biography of stories that are mostly centred on Muhammad, and are therefore invaluable to an understanding of Muhammad's life. The oral tradition is also linked intrinsically with large areas of Ibn Ishaq's work, and was a very important part of the Muslim community. In a time of extremely low literacy rates the oral tradition was, in most cases, the sole method of passing on traditions, stories and sayings. In a society consisting very much of insular tribes and societies, the role oral tradition played was heightened. Modern historical scholars and critics are sometimes quick to condemn the use of oral tradition in producing reliable historical documents. However, I believe that a tradition so primarily linked with early Muslim community should not be discounted, but instead heralded as an accurate transmission of information, even if it may not meet the requirements needed by modern historical criticism and investigation. ...read more.

Conclusion

Thus Uthman's text was establishing as the most widely spread and accepted text. However, scholars still believe that variant and hybrid versions of some passages were incorporated into later copies of the text, therefore changing and distorting the word of God. The Uthmanic text, however, remains as the most widely accepted Qur`an and few Muslims fail to be convinced that the text we have today is the teaching of Muhammad and thus the word of God. Although variations in some texts can be seen, the rapidly accepted Uthmanic text acts as a foundation to the belief of very many Muslims and is therefore of huge significance and value in a modern historical view, a knowledge and a fundamental understanding of Muhammad's life through his teachings and of the dynamics of early Muslim communities. The sources I have addressed are those that I believe to be most elemental to an understanding of Muhammad's life and his community. Unfortunately, some distorted and hybrid texts are now firmly rooted within what is considered the word of God. However, in most cases these distortions have little to no affect on our understanding of Muhammad. It seems fairly easy to identify areas of text in which, for example, a biased author attempts to suggest healing powers in Muhammad. However, I think that one must accept that these qualities are more easily suggestible about a Prophet of God, and should not be seen as attempts to deliberately skew our knowledge of Muhammad, but rather to confirm his importance and essential significance to Muslim life and society. ...read more.

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