The Expeditions: An Early Biography of Muhammad

  • Book Title:
 The Expeditions
  • Book Author:
Mamar Ibn RāshidSean W. Anthony
  • Total Pages
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Contents –

  • ·         Letter from the General Editor iii
  • Foreword xi
  • Acknowledgements xiii
  • Introduction xv
  • Note on the Text xxx
  • Timeline xxxvii
  • Arabia and the Near East in the 7th Century xxxviii
  • Mecca and Medina During the Lifetime of the Prophet xxxix
  • Notes to the Frontmatter xl
  • The Expeditions 1
  • The Digging of the Well of Zamzam 2
  • The Expedition of Ḥudaybiyah 26
  • The Incident at Badr 50
  • The Combatants Whom the Prophet Took Captive at Badr 58
  • The Incident Involving the Hudhayl Tribe at al-Rajīʿ 60
  • The Incident Concerning the Clan of al-Naḍīr 66
  • The Incident at Uḥud 76
  • The Incident Involving the United Clans and the Qurayẓah Clan 82
  • The Incident at Khaybar 90
  • The Expedition of the Triumph 94
  • The Incident at Ḥunayn 104
  • Those Who Emigrated to Abyssinia 112
  • The Story of the Three Who Remained Behind 130
  • Those Who Failed to Accompany the Prophet on the Tabūk
  • Expedition 140
  • The Story of the Aws and the Khazraj 144
  • The Story of the Slander 148
  • The Story of the People of the Pit 160
  • The Story of the Companions of the Cave 166
  • The Construction of the Temple of Jerusalem 172
  • The Beginning of the Messenger of God’s Illness 176
  • The Oath of Fealty to Abū Bakr at the Portico of the Sāʿidah Clan 192
  • Table of Contents
  • What ʿUmar Said about the Members of the Shura 204
  • Abū Bakr’s Designation of ʿUmar as His Successor 210
  • The Oath of Fealty Pledged to Abū Bakr 212
  • The Expedition of Dhāt al-Salāsil and the Story of ʿAlī and Muʿāwiyah 216
  • The Story of al-Ḥajjāj ibn ʿIlāṭ 238
  • The Dispute between ʿAlī and al-ʿAbbās 244
  • The Story of Abū Luʾluʾah, ʿUmar’s Assassin 252
  • The Story of the Shura 262
  • The Expeditions to al-Qādisiyyah and Elsewhere 266
  • The Marriage of Fāṭimah 272
  • Notes 283
  • Glossary of Names, Places, and Terms 315
  • Genealogical Table of the Quraysh of Mecca 345
  • Bibliography 346
  • Further Reading 356
  • Index 358
  • About the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute 370
  • About the Typefaces 371
  • About the Editor-Translator


The Expeditions (Ar. Kitāb al-Maghāzī) by Maʿmar ibn Rāshid (d. 153/770) is an early biography of the Prophet Muḥammad that dates to the second/eighth century and is preserved in the recension of his student ʿAbd al-Razzāq ibn Hammām of Sanaa (d. 211/827).

 The text is exceptional because, alongside Ibn Hishām’s (d. 218/834) redaction of the prophetic biography of Muḥammad ibn Isḥāq (d. 150/767–68),5 The Expeditions is one of the two earliest and most semi- nal examples of the genre of prophetic biography in Arabic literature to have survived.

Early biographies of the Prophet Muḥammad—and by “early” I mean written within two centuries of his death in 10/632—are an extremely rare commod- ity. In fact, no surviving biography dates earlier than the second/eighth century. The rarity of such early biographies is sure to pique the curiosity of even a casual observer. The absence of earlier biographical writings about Muḥammad is not due to Muslims’ lack of interest in telling the stories of their prophet.

At least in part, the dearth of such writings is rooted in the concerns of many of the earliest Muslims that any recording of a book of stories about Muḥammad’s life would inevitably divert their energies from, and even risk eclipsing, the status of Islam’s sacred scripture, the Qurʾan, as the most worthy focus of devotion and scholar- ship. This paucity of early biographies is also partially the result of the fact that, before the codification of the Qurʾan, the Arabic language had not fully emerged as a medium in which written literary works were produced.

For modern historians enthralled by such issues, the attempt to tease out the consequences of this chronological gap between Muḥammad’s lifetime and our earliest narrative sources about him can be all-consuming. Debates thus continue in earnest over whether we may know anything at all about the “historical Muḥammad” given the challenges presented by the source material. But what is meant exactly by the “historical Muḥammad”?

 Modern historians speak of the historical Muḥammad as a type of shorthand for an historical under- standing of Muḥammad’s life and legacy that is humanistic, secular, and cosmo- politan. This is to say that any talk of a historical Muḥammad is merely an inter- pretation of his life that is distinct from, but not necessarily incompatible with, either how his faith community imagined him centuries after his death or how rival faith communities viewed him through the lens of their own hostile religious polemic.

Yet all modern understandings of Muḥammad inevitably derive from a body of texts written by a faith community, for we have no contemporary wit- nesses to Muḥammad’s prophetic mission, and the earliest testimonies that do survive are penned by outsiders whose depictions and understanding of Islam in its earliest years are sketchy at best and stridently hostile at worst.6

Hence, to speak of a historical Muḥammad is not to speak of the real Muḥammad. We recognize that we seek to understand, explain, and reconstruct the life of a man using the tools and methods of modern historical criticism. Whatever form such a project takes, and regardless of the methodology adopted, there is no escaping the basic conundrum facing all historians of early Islam: they must fashion their reconstruction of Muḥammad’s biography from the memories and interpretations of the community that revered him as Prophet. In other words, historians concerned with such topics must dare wrestle with angels.7

Today, many scholars remain steadfastly optimistic that writing a biography of the historical Muḥammad is feasible and worthwhile,8 though just as many take a decidedly more pessimistic view. More than a few have dismissed the idea of writing Muḥammad’s historical biography as fundamentally impossible.9

 This debate remains intractable and scholarly consensus elusive. It is my plea- sure then, and in some ways my great relief, to table this contentious debate and instead present the reader with one of the earliest biographies of Muḥammad ever composed.

This relatively straightforward task, although not without for- midable challenges, allows one to sidestep the fraught questions surrounding the man behind the tradition and permit a broader audience to encounter the early tradition on its own terms.

Much of this book’s contents relate the story one might expect of any telling of Muḥammad’s life. A boy born among the denizens of the Hejaz region of Western Arabia is orphaned by the unexpected deaths of first his parents and then his grandfather.

As the child grows into a man, omens portend his future greatness, but his adult life initially unfolds as an otherwise prosaic and humble one, not too atypical for an Arabian merchant whose life spanned the late sixth and the early seventh centuries ad.

 Working for a widowed merchant woman of modest means, he ekes out an existence in her employ, until he eventually weds her and strives to live a modest, honorable life in a manner that earns him the esteem and admiration of his tribe, the Quraysh. The man’s life forever changes when one night he encounters an angel atop a mountain on the outskirts of his hometown, Mecca. The angel charges him to live the rest of his days as God’s last prophet and the steward and messenger of His final revelation to humankind.

This man proclaims his message to be one with the monotheism first taught by Abraham, the venerable patriarch of the Hebrew Bible and the common ancestor of the Arabs and Jews. Denouncing the cultic practices surround- ing Mecca’s shrine, the Kaaba, and the dissolute lives of its patron tribe, the Quraysh, as pagan, idolatrous, and morally corrupt, the man soon finds him- self at odds with those who profit both economically and politically from the status quo.

 The Quraysh reckon the man’s prophetic message a serious threat to their livelihood and power, and soon the prophet and his earliest followers suffer persecutions and tribulations that take them to the precipice of despair.

Yet God at last provides succor to His servants: Two warring tribes, the Aws and the Khazraj, living in a city north of Mecca called Yathrib, invite the man and his people to live in their midst, agreeing to submit to whatever peace the Meccan prophet might bring.

Fleeing persecution, the prophet undertakes his emigration to Yathrib, his Hijrah, where he establishes a new community (ummah), united not by tribal affiliation and genealogy but by faith and loyalty to the prophet’s message. Yathrib becomes Medina, “the Prophet’s city” (madīnat al-nabī). The days of persecution now ending, the prophet leads his followers in battle to conquer Arabia and forge a new polity guided by God’s hand.

These early conquests augur a greater destiny: the spread of his religion far beyond the deserts of Arabia. Within a hundred years of the prophet’s death, his community stretches from Spain to the steppes of Central Asia, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Though the above biographical details are widely known, few laypersons recognize that none come to us from the Qurʾan. Even if the scripture at times references such events implicitly, it never narrates them. Notwithstanding its inestimable value, the Qurʾan offers little material that might allow the modern historian to reconstruct the life of its Messenger, even in its most basic outlines. Moreover, though Muḥammad, as God’s Messenger, delivered the Qurʾan to his early followers and thence humanity, Muslims did not regard the Qurʾan as a record of the Prophet’s own words or actions—rather, the Qurʾan was solely God’s Word, and with the death of His Messenger, the canon of the scripture closed. For detailed narratives of the lives of Muḥammad and his Companions we are wholly dependent on a later tradition external to the Qurʾan.

Despite its limited utility in reconstructing the biography of Muḥammad, the sacred corpus known as the Qurʾan (Ar. al-qurʾān; lit., the “recitation” or “reading”) is still very likely to be our earliest and most authentic testimony to Muḥammad’s teachings and the beliefs of his earliest followers.

The scripture was organized and arranged into a codex (Ar. muṣḥaf), not within the lifetime of Muḥammad but under his third successor, or caliph (Ar. khalīfa), ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān (r. 23–35/644–56). ʿUthmān’s codex was subsequently refined and reworked under the caliph ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Marwān between 84/703 and 85/704.10

 A parallel, albeit much slower and more fraught, process was under- taken by early Muslims to preserve the prophet’s words and deeds, which led to the formation of the second sacred corpus of Islam, known collectively as hadith (Ar. al-adīth; lit., “sayings”), which is distinct from the Qurʾan and is often referred to as “traditions.” Unlike the Qurʾan, which Muslims codified in a matter of decades, the hadith canon took centuries to form.11

The Expeditions belongs to a subgenre of the hadith known as the maghāzī traditions, which narrates specific events from the life of the Prophet Muḥammad and his Companions and whose collection and compilation into a discrete genre of prophetic biography preceded the canonization of hadith considerably.12 The Arabic word maghāzī does not connote “biography” in the modern sense. It is the plural of maghzāh, which literally means “a place where a raid/expedi- tion (ghazwah) was made.”

The English title I have adopted, The Expeditions, is serviceable as translations go, but may lead an English-speaking audience to ask why these traditions are ostensibly gathered under the rubric of Muḥammad’s military campaigns rather than, say, “biography” as such.

As is often the case with translations, the English “expeditions” does not quite do justice to the fullest sense of the Arabic maghāzī, for much of what this book contains has little to do with accounts of military expeditions or the glories of martial feats, although there are plenty of those.13

The word maghāzī invokes the discrete locations of key battles and raids conducted by the Prophet and his followers, yet it also invokes a more metaphorical meaning that is not restricted to targets of rapine or scenes of battle and skirmishes. Maghāzī are also sites of sacred memory; the sum of all events worthy of recounting.

 A maghzāh, there- fore, is also a place where any memorable event transpired and, by extension, the maghāzī genre distills all the events and stories of sacred history that left their mark on the collective memory of Muḥammad’s community of believers.

The origins of this particular collection of maghāzī traditions (for there were many books with the title Kitāb al-Maghāzī)14 begins with a tale of serendip- ity. As the story goes, Maʿmar ibn Rāshid was a Persian slave from Basra who traveled the lands of Islam trading wares for his Arab masters from the Azd tribe.

While traveling through Syria trading and selling, Maʿmar sought out the rich and powerful court of the Marwānids. Seeking this court out required boldness: the Marwānids were the caliphal dynasty that reigned supreme over the Umayyad empire throughout the first half of the second/eighth century. When Maʿmar arrived at the court, it was his good fortune to find the royal family busy making preparations for a grand wedding banquet, and thus eager to buy his wares for the festivities. Though Maʿmar was a mere slave, the noble family treated him generously and spent lavishly on his goods. Somewhat boldly, Maʿmar interjected to pursue a more uncommon sort of remuneration: “I am but a slave,” he protested. “Whatever you grant me will merely become my masters’ possession.

Rather, please speak to this man on my behalf that he might teach me the Prophet’s traditions.”15 That “man” of whom Maʿmar spoke was, by most accounts, the greatest Muslim scholar of his generation: Ibn Shihāb al-Zuhrī (d. 124/742). Indeed, al-Zuhrī’s stories about Muḥammad and his earliest follow- ers comprise the bulk of the material Maʿmar preserves in this volume.

It is somewhat fitting that this book should have had its inception at a banquet, for the book itself is a banquet of sorts—a feast of sacred memory. This book takes one not only into halls of history but also through the passages of memory.

Nostalgia permeates its stories. Sifting through its pages, the flavors of memory wash over the palate: the piquant spice of destiny, the bittersweet flavor of satur- nine wisdom, the sweetness of redemption, dashes of humor and adventure, and the all-pervasive aroma of the holy.

The maghāzī tradition in general and Maʿmar’s Maghāzī in particular are therefore not merely rote recitations of events and episodes from Muḥammad’s life. They are more potent than that. The maghāzī tradition is a cauldron in which the early Muslims, culturally ascendant and masters over a new imperial civilization, mixed their ideals and

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