Before we study the Seerah, we need to know the primary sources of Seerah. Therefore, here is a brief introduction to the sources of the Seerah of the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ).
Qur'an is the primary source of the Seerah because the Quran was revealed during the lifetime of the Prophet (ﷺ). Therefore, it is catering to situations that arose during the Seerah. The Qur'an references almost every single major incident in the life of the Prophet (ﷺ). It even explains events before his prophethood, such as:
أَلَمْ نَشْرَحْ لَكَ صَدْرَكَ
Have We not uplifted your heart for you ˹O Prophet˺,
وَوَضَعْنَا عَنكَ وِزْرَكَ
relieved you of the burden
ٱلَّذِىٓ أَنقَضَ ظَهْرَكَ
which weighed so heavily on your back,
وَرَفَعْنَا لَكَ ذِكْرَكَ
and elevated your renown for you?
The reference here was to the incident of Jibril (AS) visiting the Prophet (ﷺ) when he was five years old. So the Qur'an references every single major story in the life of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) and some even before he was born.
أَلَمْ تَرَ كَيْفَ فَعَلَ رَبُّكَ بِأَصْحَـٰبِ ٱلْفِيلِ
Have you not seen ˹O Prophet˺ how your Lord dealt with the Army of the Elephant?
The incident of "Ashabil feel (أَصْحَـٰبِ ٱلْفِيلِ)" was before the Prophet (ﷺ) was born. So the Qur'an tells us stories from the beginning, all the way up until the end. One of the last verses revealed was:
ٱلْيَوْمَ أَكْمَلْتُ لَكُمْ دِينَكُمْ وَأَتْمَمْتُ عَلَيْكُمْ نِعْمَتِى وَرَضِيتُ لَكُمُ ٱلْإِسْلَـٰمَ دِينًا ۚ
Today I have perfected your faith for you, completed My favor upon you, and chosen Islam as your way
The Quran is the best source of Seerah for many reasons. First and foremost, it is the speech of Allah, and we do not doubt the speech of Allah. The eloquence of the Qur'an is unparalleled. How beautifully Allah describes Badr and Uhad, how beautifully He describes the feelings of the Sahaba and the hypocrites. Any historian will record the outward aspects, but the benefit of the Quran is that it also tells us inward characteristics.
So the Quran is an amazing source of Seerah due to its eloquence, the power, beauty, and knowledge of the unseen (ilm al-ghaib). The Qur'an explains to us phenomena we would not have understood. In the context of Badr, Allah says in the Qur'an,
إِذْ تَقُولُ لِلْمُؤْمِنِينَ أَلَن يَكْفِيَكُمْ أَن يُمِدَّكُمْ رَبُّكُم بِثَلَـٰثَةِ ءَالَـٰفٍ مِّنَ ٱلْمَلَـٰٓئِكَةِ مُنزَلِينَ
˹Remember, O Prophet,˺ when you said to the believers, "Is it not enough that your Lord will send down a reinforcement of three thousand angels for your aid?"
However, one of the difficulties regarding the Quran is that it is not chronological. Instead, they are arranged according to how the Prophet (ﷺ) wanted them to be arranged. So Surah al-Bakara is an early Madani Surah, and it comes first. On the other hand, Surah Iqra, the first Surah revealed, is the 96th in the Quran. So it's not arranged chronologically.
Another difficulty is that you often do not see the reference mentioned explicitly. So Allah does not say the word Uhud. So we need to know that Surah Al-Imran was revealed for Uhud, and Surah Anfal was revealed for Badr.
So the Seerah and the Qur'an go hand in hand. You need the Seerah to understand the Qur'an, and you need the Qur'an to understand the Seerah.
Hadiths are the next important source of Seerah. Hadith is the saying of the Prophet (ﷺ). So every single Hadith that describes some incidents is a snapshot of the Seerah.
There are lots of Hadith books. The most famous ones are six of them. They are called the six famous books; Kutubu-Sittah. Some call them as-Siaha-as-Sitta. So these are the primary books, but there are many other books of Hadith.
The books specifically written for Seerah are the third source. The first people to begin writing books of Seerah were the children of the Sahaba. When your father or mother is a Sahabi, and they are telling you all the stories of the Prophet (ﷺ), and there are so many, you begin to write them down.
The greatest of those who wrote was Urwa, the son of Zubayr ibn al-Awwam (RA), the grandson of the Sahabi (Abu Bakr). His mother is a Sahabiya (Asmā' bint Abu Bakr), his grandmother is a Sahabi, his brother is a Sahabi, and his aunt Aisha (RA) is the wife of the Prophet (ﷺ). However, he was born after the death of the Prophet, so he is not a Sahabi.
Urwa is one of the primary narrators of Hadith, Fiqh, Tafseer, and Seerah because he had access to Aisha (RA). He is a mahram to Aisha (RA), so she does not need to observe Hijab in front of him. So Urwa is the primary narrator from Aisha (RA). Lots of details of the Prophet (ﷺ) come from Urwa, and it is said that he wrote a small booklet on the Seerah.
Another person who wrote a booklet very early was Aban, the son of Usman Ibn Affan (RA). There were other booklets written until the great scholar Ibn Shihab Azzuhri came along.
Known as Ibn Shihab or al-Zuhri, he wrote one of the first early treatises of Seerah.
Unfortunately, none of these books exist. Instead, we have references in later books of these earlier books. These books are not in existence because when later books were written, they absorbed the earlier treatise in them. However, we have books written in the very next generation. This shows us that Seerah was compiled even before Hadith because they wanted to emphasize Seerah more than anything else.
The greatest of Seerah books is by Ibn Ishaq, Seerat-Ibn Ishaq. His name is Muhammad Ibn Ishaq, and he was born around 85 AH and died around 150 AH. He was born and lived in Medina in a very early period. He grew up with the children and the grandchildren of the Sahaba. There are Sahaba who lived up until around 110 AH.
Ibn Ishaq met the sons of the Sahaba, maybe even saw some of the Sahaba, and he began writing everything that he heard. He had a passion for this era. So he started writing everything and began compiling them in chronological order.
Unlike the earlier treatises, which were not in chronological order, Ibn Ishaq began mentioning when the incidents happened. So he compiled a very large book. He even traveled to other cities where some of the Sahaba were, Basra, Kufa, to discover the stories of Ibn Mas'ud, who had traveled to Kufa. But his primary sources were always in Medina.
One of the best things about Muhammad Ibn Ishaq is that he compiled everything with the chain of narrators (Isnad). The chain of narrators is a uniquely Islamic phenomenon. The chain of narrators tells us where the story came from because in Islam, we always wanted to verify the authenticity. We wanted to know who told whom all the way back to the Prophet (ﷺ). So we know every person in the chain of narrators, when they were born, when they died, how good a Muslim the person was? Did they have a good memory, or was the person with poor memory, so that we can judge the Isnad.
Ibn Ishaq's compilation of the life of the Prophet (ﷺ) was a massive book. It was so big they said it was in 10 - 15 volumes and that it was difficult to copy.
Then came Ibn Hisham, a student of Ibn Ishaq's students. These are the two names most Muslims are aware of regarding Seerah books; Ibn Ishaq and Ibn Hisham. These are the primary books of Seerah.
Ibn Hisham's Seerah is a summarized version of Ibn Ishaq's Seerah. Ibn Hisham realized that Ibn Ishaq's version was too big. They did not have a printing press in those days. If you want the book, you will have to handwrite it cover to cover. So he decided to summarize it. Ibn Hisham did not add or re-arrange anything. He simply removed a lot of content. His Seerah is now available in four volumes. It could be that he made it into a half or a third of the original size of Ibn Ishaq' Seerah.
Ibn Ishaq was also one of the first people to write a history of humanity. He began from Adam (AS), he worked his way down Nooh (AS), Ibrahim (AS), and then he made his way to the Prophet (ﷺ). Ibn Hisham decided to begin with the life and times of the Prophet (ﷺ). So he removed the entire section about the early history and deleted other information that he felt was not that useful. So over time, people began copying Ibn Hisham's Seerah.
Today you cannot find Ibn Ishaq's Seerah. It has now gone missing. However, recently, Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah (born 1326 AH/19 February 1908 – died 1423 AH/ 17 December 2002), a very famous Indian scholar, found some manuscripts in the Museums of western countries. He migrated to France from India. He became one of the most outstanding scholars in Orientalism or specializing in studying Islam amongst non-Muslims. He wrote books in French and English, and he became a great researcher.
Dr. Hamidullah discovered many manuscripts. Many of these manuscripts ended up in Berlin, Paris, and London. One of the reasons this happened was the colonization of Muslim lands. So some of the earliest Qurans are found in Paris. The earliest Mushaf we have is in Paris, and another early Mushaf is in London. Many of these items were purchased by business people who just valued them as art, and some were possibly taken by force. One of the largest repositories of manuscripts is in Germany because they had an interest in Islam in the 18th century.
One of the manuscripts Dr. Hamidullah found was a partial copy of Ibn Ishaq's Seerah. He discovered around one-fourth of Ibn Ishaq's work and edited and published it. When he compared Ibn Ishaq's with Ibn Hisham's, he found that Ibn Hisham's Seerah is, in fact, around one-third of Ibn Ishaq's Seerah.
When we read Ibn Hisham, we read something written around 100 years after the Prophet passed away, before any book of Hadith was written (Imam Bukhari died in 256 AH, and Imam Muslim died 261AH). So the material on Seerah we have was written within 100 years after the death of the Prophet (ﷺ) since we have the majority of Ibn Ishaq's works preserved through Ibn Hisham.
A number of early authors wanted to describe the Prophet (ﷺ), and they wrote books about his (ﷺ) characteristics. The most famous of these books is Shamail Al Tirmidhi, written by Imam Tirmidhi (209 AH/824 CE – 279 AH/ 892 CE). Shamail is a genre of books that deals with the looks, the characteristics, the manners, the possessions, the houses, and other such details of the Prophet (ﷺ). There were many Shama'ils written.
Another source of Seerah is the genre of books written about the miracles (Dala-il) of the Prophet (ﷺ). Many books were written on miracles. The most famous book of Dala-il is called Dala-il-Nubuwa by Imama Al-Baihaqi (384 AH/994 CE - 458 AH/ 1066 CE), a massive encyclopedia of around twelve volumes. So by looking at the miracles, you can extract Seerah.
Some of the other sources of Seerah are histories of the Sahaba. People recorded the accounts of the Sahaba, and by studying the histories of the Sahaba, you extract Seerah.
Finally, people wrote books on the histories of the cities of Makkah and Medina, called Tariq Makka and Tariq Medina. So by reading the Tariqs of Makkah and Medina, we can also extract Seerah.
So these are the primary sources of Seerah. Modern-day researchers have added sources that were not found earlier in Muslim lands. For example, there is a new genre of research, looking into what the Romans or Persians said about the Arabs of the time.
One of the best books written in recent times is Ar-Raheeq Al-Makhtum (The Sealed Nectar) by Safiur Rahman Mubarakpuri (6 June 1942 – 1 December 2006), an Indian scholar.
In 1976 The Muslim World League, Rabitat-al-Alam al-Islami, announced a worldwide competition on writing a book on Seerah suitable for modern time. Over 170 manuscripts in multiple languages were submitted. A lot of researchers say this was a good thing. Ar-Raheeq Al-Makhtum (The Sealed Nectar) was awarded the first prize.
He wrote it in Arabic while living in Azamgarh, a small village in India.
He locked himself up in his library for four months went out only to eat and go to the bathroom.
Another good book is "The Life of the Prophet Mohammad (ﷺ)" by Martin Lings (24 January 1909 – 12 May 2005). It is the most eloquent book of Seerah in English. He was a professor at Oxford and an authority on the work of William Shakespeare. He is a convert to Islam and was also known as Abu Bakr Siraj ad-Din. He lived a very quiet life. His book cannot be compared to any other book because he is a master of the English language.
However, a couple of stories in the book are fabricated and not true. Again, it was not his fault as he just took some stories that he did not research and put them in there. So there are two or three stories that are just not true. One such story is the alleged love story of Prophet SAW and Zaynab (RA) which is a complete fabrication.
اللَّهُمَّ صَلِّ عَلَى مُحَمَّدٍ وَعَلَى آلِ مُحَمَّدٍ كَمَا صَلَّيْتَ عَلَى آلِ إِبْرَاهِيمَ إِنَّكَ حَمِيدٌ مَجِيدٌ
اللَّهُمَّ بَارِكْ عَلَى مُحَمَّدٍ وَعَلَى آلِ مُحَمَّدٍ كَمَا بَارَكْتَ عَلَى آلِ إِبْرَاهِيمَ إِنَّكَ حَمِيدٌ مَجِيدٌ
O Allaah, send prayers upon Muhammad (ﷺ) and upon the family of Muhammad (ﷺ) as You sent prayers upon the family of Ibraaheem (AS), and send blessings upon Muhammad (ﷺ) and upon the family of Muhammad (ﷺ), as You sent blessings upon the family of Ibraaheem (AS), You are indeed Worthy of Praise, Full of Glory.
The Seerah of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ), the life and times of the greatest human being who ever lived and walked on the face of this Earth, series is based on the lectures by Dr. Sh. Yasir Qadhi.
Cover Image Credit: Masjid MABA on Unsplash