This is the first essay of a series of eleven essays on Islam. This essay will cover Islamic materials, sources and writings. The second essay will cover the Islamic timeline in detail.
To understand Islam, and the milieu in which Islam originated, it is critical to dive into evidence. This evidence (oldest written accounts) comprises of:
- Qur'an or the dictation by Angel Gabriel to Muhammad as claimed in Islamic sources;
- The Sira or biography of Muhammad;
- Ta'rikh or a comprehensive history of early Islam;
- Hadith or oral reports that are sourced to Muhammad; and
The Quran, which is allegedly Angel Gabriel’s dictation (“revelation”) to Muhammad, is the foundational book of Islam. In the eyes of the believers, the Quran is a verbatim record of Angel Gabriel’s dictation of Islamic God Allah’s words to Muhammad. The key features of the Quran are:
- The Quran is put together based, approximately, on the length of the chapters or Surah;
- The Quran is NOT compiled based on the sequence of revelation. Islamic scholars state that the 2nd surah was the ninety-first revealed chronologically. Islamic scholars claim that the initial revelation, i.e. the first revelation is in the 96th surah and so on;
- A chapter of the Quran is called a Surah. A surah can contain multiple subjects and might or might not include transition from one subject to another;
- The Quran is not a historical record or a book of context as it does not explain when or where the narratives took place;
- Quranic language is obtuse. In the Quran one in five verses can only be explained by elaborate commentary or an explanation. This commentary or explanation is called the tafseer;
- The Quran contains stories from Jewish writings, mostly, from the Talmud and Old Testament; and
- The Quran claims to contain a plethora of scientific facts which believers see as a proof of its divine origin.
Muhammad lived from 570 A.D to 632 A.D. The first reported revelation was in 610 A.D. The Quran was, first, compiled into book form under the supervision of the Uthman, the third Caliph of Islam, in 656-661 A.D., approximately 30 years after Muhammad’s death. The Original Uthamanic Quran was written in the dialect of Muhammad’s tribe. This original Quran does not exist. The oldest complete Quran is dated to around 750 A.D. and is in Kufic script (named after the town of Kufa in Modern Iraq).
Thus the earliest available Quranic manuscript is dated to around 120 years after the death of Muhammad.
Ibn Ishaq's Sira, or biography of Muhammad, is called Sirat Rasul Allah. Sira is Islam’s most important book in relation to information about Muhammad and formation of Islam. Sira is the lone account of Muhammad’s life and the formation of Islam written within two centuries of Muhammad’s death. There is no other non-Islamic or Islamic comprehensive record of Muhammad dated earlier than the Sira. The Sira provides, partially, the context and chronology the Qur'an. Unfortunately, there is no surviving copy of Ibn Ishaq's original manuscript. Therefore, Islamic scholars are dependent on an abridged account by Ibn Hisham.
Ibn Ishaq's biography and Ibn Hisham’s redaction paints for us a portrait of Muhammad as a perfect man. The Sirat was written by Ibn Ishaq in 750-770 A.D. It was edited and abridged by Ibn Hisham in 830-860A.D. The Sira's chronological structure is similar in style to Christian Gospels.
This dates the earliest biography of Muhammad to around 150 years after the death of Muhammad.
The “Tarikh” or History of al-Tabari – deemed the greatest medieval historian – is the earliest universal history produced in the world of Islam. Tarikh provides the best skeleton upon which to develop the understanding of Muhammad and the nature of Islam. Tarikh’s structure is similar to that of the bible. Tarikh brings together Islamic oral traditions (“Hadiths”) in chronology. Islamic scholars believe that these Hadiths reveal inspired behaviour of Muhammad, and hence are practicable and should be emulated by all Muslims at all times.
Imam Tabari completed Tarikh in the early 10th century. Tarikh can, reliably, be dated to 905 A.D. – around 250 years after the death of Muhammad.
A Hadith is a saying or an action attributed to Muhammad. Amongst Islamic literature, Al-Bukhari's Hadith (“Sahih Sitta”) is second only to the Qur'an in importance (according to Sunni Muslims, about 90% of all Muslims). Sahih Bukhari comprises, what scholars consider to be, the most authentic traditions based on the words or actions of Muhammad.
The hadith are broadly classified into five categories. These are:
- Hadith Qudsi – i.e. when Muhammad speaks but with inspiration from the Islamic God;
- Hadiths of permission – i.e. when Muhammad permitted something to take place;
- Hadith of words – i.e. when Muhammad made a pronouncement to a question or an act;
- Hadith of action – i.e. activity undertaken by Muhammad; and
- Hadith of prohibition – i.e. actions or deeds that Muhammad prohibited.
Sunni Muslims believe that Hadiths were inspired by the Islamic God, thus making them scripture. Islamic scholars consider all traditions reported in Al Bukhari to be authentic. Bukhari’s student Imam Muslim compiled a Hadith collection and it is also considered Sahih -- i.e. authentic.
Imam Bukhari completed his collection around 835-850 A.D. Thus the sayings of Muhammad, oral traditions, were collected into written form around 200 years after the death of Muhammad.
Secondary Islamic Sources
Islamic scholars rely on the Quran, Sira, Tarikh and Sahih Hadith to develop the secondary sources. The secondary sources are Tafseer, Sunnah and Sharia.
Tafseer (explanation of the Quran) is developed from the combination of Sira, Tarikh and hadith.
Sunnah has been developed from the Hadith collections brought to us by Ishaq, Tabari and Sahih Sitta. The Sunnah provides the basis of Islam’s rituals, behaviours, laws, and the religious functions.
Sharia (Islamic law) is formulated from Quran, Sira, Tarikh, Sahih hadith and Tafseer.
This essay series is based on Quran, Sira, Tarikh, Hadith, Tafseer, Sunnah and Sharia. No non-Islamic sources have been used. In the use of sharia, I will consider the four Sunni schools. These four Sunni schools are:
- Hanbali; and
This ends the first essay in the series. Readers are free to use the material, in totality, with attribution.