3 phases of Prophet Muhammad's life: Pre-revelation Makkah period, Post-revelation Makkah period, and Madinah period
When discussing the life and times of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), historians divide it into three phases:
- Pre-revelation in Makkah c. 569 - 609 AD (almost 40 years) = His early life before he became a prophet
- Post-revelation in Makkah c. 609 - 622 AD (almost 13 years) = His life in Makkah after he became a prophet
- Madinah 622 – 632 AD (almost 10 years) = Final chapter of his life in Madinah
Madinah phase most documented
The vast majority of the documentation of the Prophet's life is on his life in Madinah. This reflects a common trend in history to record recent events to greater detail.
Prior to his prophethood and the Qur'anic revelation, there was no preaching of Islam. Hence the pre-revelation phase mainly details the background information on his surrounding environment such as the socio-economic state of Arabia. Very little is known about Prophet Muhammad's own life, even though this phase has the longest duration (i.e. 40 years).
The post-revelation phase in Makkah was mainly a private affair. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) only disclosed the revelation to few people in Makkah, namely family members and close friends.
It is only during his final phase of life in Madinah when Islam spread greatly. Now there were thousands of followers. Hence there are more witnesses in Madinah, and therefore greater source of knowledge. It is more likely the information would be transmitted.
Source of information for life of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)
Most of the seerah (Prophetic biography) is mentioned in other books and not in hadiths (record of the words, actions, and the silent approval of Prophet Muhammad). And generally the standard of authenticity are one or two level lower in those books compared to the hadiths.
Hadith books include:
- Sahih Bukhari
- Sahih Muslim
- Sunan Abu Dawud
- Sunan at-Tirmidhi
- Sunan al-Nasa'i
- Sunan Ibn Majah
- Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal
- Sunan al-Darimi
- Muwatta Imam Malik
The books of hadith are strict. These are the mother books. Islamic religion, theology, fiqh (jurisprudence), legal, ethics is based on these 8 - 9 books.
Books of seerah
The books of seerah are slightly weaker. But they are worthy of note especially from a historical perspective.
The first and most famous historical book on the seerah (biography) of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is the Siratu Rasul Allah (Life of the Messenger of Allah) by Ibn Ishaq, a historian born in Madinah and died 150 A.H.. Ibn Isḥaq collected oral traditions about the life of Prophet and orally dictated these to his pupils.
The second earliest book on the prophet's life was by Ibn Sa'd, a Muslim scholar from Iraq who died around 230 A.H.
Other early eminent historians and scholars include, but not limited to:
- Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri (a hadith scholar from Madinah who died 124 A.H.)
- Abu Ma'shar Al-Sindi (a scholar of Hadith literature from present-day Pakistan who died 171 A.H.)
- Al-Waqidi (an eminent historian from Madinah who died 207 A.H.)
- Ibn Hazm (Spanish poet, historian and philosopher who died 456 A.H.)
- Ibn Abd-al-Barr (an 11th century Maliki judge and scholar in Portugal who died 463 A.H.)
- Ibn 'Asakir (a Syrian Islamic scholar who died 571 A.H.)
- Ibn Kathir (the eminent historian from Syria who died 774 A.H.)
Among modern-day readers, popular books include, but not limited to:
- "Ar-Raheeq Al-Makhtum (The Sealed Nectar): Biography of the Prophet" by Sheikh Safi-ur-Rahman al-Mubarkpuri (1976)
- "Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources" by Martin Lings (1983)
- "No God But God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam" by Reza Aslan (2005)
One of the issue with books of seerah is that you can get in little trouble where there is no indisputable proof of a story or event, or where the chain of narration is weak or non-existent. The story of Bahirah the Monk is one such example.
Historical criticism is a whole genre of study in modern days. Things are not just taken on face value. Read through, dissect, compare, think if it's possible or not.
Sheikh Yasir Qadhi, Muslim scholar