The Salty Language of an Early Biography of Muhammad

Sean W. Anthony, assistant professor of history at the University of Oregon, brings a historian’s eye to his work editing and translating Maʿmar ibn Rāshid’s Maghāzī, or The Expeditions: An Early Biography of Muḥammad. The text explores the early life of the prophet and his community and, Anthony says, contains “humor, adventure, tragedy, and all the ingredients of great stories”:

In an interview that originally ran on the Library of Arabic Literature website, Anthony talks about why there are so few scholarly biographies of Muḥammad, why reading J.R.R. Tolkien helped in the translation process, and what we can learn from Maʿmar’s work about the “real” Muḥammad. You can read the interview in its entirety over at the LAL site. Some excerpts:

There are many people around the world who would like to know what Muḥammad was “really” like. Setting aside the construction of a “historical Muḥammad,” do you think there are elements of the “real” Muḥammad to be found in Maʿmar ibn Rashid’s early biography?

Given the Qurʾān’s status in believers’ eyes as God’s word rather than Muḥammad’s, the following may strike some as slightly heretical, but I personally feel that the Qurʾān itself is what brings one closest to an encounter with the “real” Muḥammad and, especially, his experience of the transcendent which so transformed his life and the lives of those around him. Although I’m not myself a believer, I often return to ponder certain chapters of the Qurʾān—such as 53 al-Najm, 90 al-Balad, 93 al-Ḍuḥā, etc.—because I think they so eloquently and profoundly convey what transformative encounters with the numinous and sublime rest at the fount of Islam.

As historians or anyone interested in historical narrative and a sense of ‘context’, the problem is that, despite the Qurʾān’s many virtues, it does little to tell us the story and history of Muḥammad and his community. The biographical traditions, therefore, would seem at first blush to be the ideal supplement to the Qurʾān to complete the picture, but such a view runs into sundry problems in the view of modern historians. The Qurʾān emerges out of an entirely different historical context than even the earliest traditions about the Prophet Muḥammad’s life. At least a century, if not more, separates the two. Further complicating things, the century’s gulf that separates them is not exactly carpeted by the placid meadows of communal harmony. Rather, this century witnessed dramatically swift conquests of the Near East that scattered the Arabs across the Near East like buckshot and even three civil wars between the Muslim élites that led these conquests.

This plurality of voices, as well as their disagreements over the legacy of Muḥammad and over the salient issues defining who he was, strikes me at least as a strong argument for a ‘real’ Muḥammad within the layers and layers of narrative.

Still, I do think that elements of the real Muḥammad do peek through the text. The Islamic tradition, to take a point eloquently argued recently by Thomas Bauer, is highly tolerant of, and even thrives on, ambiguity—the tradition is nothing if not multi-vocal. This plurality of voices, as well as their disagreements over the legacy of Muḥammad and over the salient issues defining who he was, strikes me at least as a strong argument for a ‘real’ Muḥammad within the layers and layers of narrative.

More than 150 years intervene between Muḥammad’s death and the composition of this biography. These stories must have passed through several hands before reaching Maʿmar’s teacher al-Zuhrī, Maʿmar himself, and his student ʿAbd al-Razzāq.

Somehow, this makes me even more surprised at the salty language, as I imagined it would’ve been cleansed from these memories. Or would Maʿmar not have considered this language coarse?

Changes did indeed occur to the text as it passed from hand to hand, but these tend to be iterative changes or the result of combining accounts that were originally separate into entirely new accounts.  Sometimes names are omitted or added in the process of transmission. However, the actual language of the traditions rarely changes radically. Once the structure of a tradition is well established, early Muslim scholars took a conservative approach to the text’s preservation, especially in Maʿmar’s circles, which comprised scholars who more or less saw their life’s vocation as preserving these texts exactly as transmitted to them. The most radical departures from the narratives you find in The Expeditions come, rather, in rival traditions from outside Maʿmar’s scholarly network or from rival sectarian communities.

The salty language surprised me, too, but later commentators on such passages usually just parse the text and explain that such was the custom of cursing among the Arabs of Muḥammad’s day.

The salty language surprised me, too, but later commentators on such passages usually just parse the text and explain that such was the custom of cursing among the Arabs of Muḥammad’s day. If there are those who take umbrage, I haven’t encountered them—minus, of course, modern hand-wringing that a Google search will easily turn up.

The task of translating such colorful language certainly put me in a dilemma as well: should I bowdlerize the Arabic or not?  My tastes are strongly disinclined to bowdlerize, so that option was never really on the table. I think my translation of such language was ultimately guided by my own experiences as a reader of the Arabic text. My desire was to make the type of fulsome reading experience as one gets from reading the Arabic as directly available as possible for the readers of the text in English translation.

You note, at the end of the book, that there are only a handful of serious contemporary biographies of Muḥammad in English. Is this true of other Western languages? Do you attribute it to scarce source material or something else?

Sean Anthony

This statement at the end of the book reflects my biases as an academic historian and my disappointment that my particular guild has, so far at least, not been as visible in widely read books about Muḥammad as I’d personally like to see. Plenty of popular biographies of Muḥammad exist in Western languages, and they are perfectly serviceable as far as most of the general public is concerned. But these popular books are mostly just Ibn Isḥāq’s narrative recast in modern prose—one rarely even gets the sense of the plurality of voices present in the Islamic traditions about Muḥammad’s life or insights into the findings of modern scholarship. This applies to popular books like Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet (1993), which she wrote lacking any real training in the Arabic source material and probably little to no knowledge of Arabic, and like Tariq Ramadan’s In the Footsteps of Muḥammad (2009), whose author certainly knows Arabic but who draws exceedingly little upon the methods of modern historical criticism.

I mostly attribute the absence of major, ambitious biographies of Muḥammad to the enormity of the task. Such works are quite literally a lifetime’s work—rarely are scholars so ambitious.  The guild of historians working on this material is also quite small, comparatively speaking. Our source material on Muḥammad is considerably more voluminous than, say, the material on Jesus—the Gospels and the New Testament are absolutely dwarfed by the massive, multi-volume compendia of traditions about Muḥammad bequeathed to us by the first generations of Muslim scholars. The volumes they compiled occupy several bookshelves in my office and many times more at a well-stocked research library. There are also far fewer scholars working on early Islam than there are working on early Christianity in the Western academy. What’s more, it’s also somewhat of an open secret in the field that the last major attempt to produce a comprehensive biography of the Prophet by an Anglophone scholar, Muhammad at Mecca and Muhammad at Medina by W. Montgomery Watt, is viewed now, I’m sorry to say, as an abject failure in terms of historical methodology. When the Germanophone scholar Tilman Nagel recently published in 2008 two massive tomes on Muḥammad, Mohammed: Leben und Legende and Allahs Liebling: Ursprung und Erscheinsformen des Mohammadglaubens, it almost seemed old-fashioned to do so.

Our guild can, however, boast of a few masterful, short monographs written by some of the most competent scholars in the field. The model is Rudi Paret’s Mohammed und der Koran (1957), which still remains worth reading carefully and merits a (long overdue) English translation. (The Lebanese scholar Ridwan al-Sayyid already published an Arabic translation of Paret’s text in 2009). Michael Cook’s short biography Muhammad,(1983), whatever its flaws, remains for me a paragon of accessible, laconic scholarly writing that is simultaneously stimulating to scholars as well. My students are usually very fond of J. A. C. Brown’sMuhammad: A Very Short Introduction (2011), too. The problem is that these works are far too short to explore in depth or make the case for the relevance of the methods of modern historical criticism to the public at large.

The trailblazer here is Fred Donner’s Muhammad and the Believers (2012), but I am also looking forward to publication this year of J. A. C. Brown’s Misquoting Muhammad, which looks to build on his excellent introduction to the Hadith.

With all that being said, English-speaking scholars are still writing amazing, accessible works about Muḥammad and early Islam that demonstrate to the wider public the relevance of modern methods of historical research. The trailblazer here is Fred Donner’s Muhammad and the Believers (2012), but I am also looking forward to publication this year of J. A. C. Brown’s Misquoting Muhammad, which looks to build on his excellent introduction to the Hadith.

“The Story of the Slander” is a remarkable chapter. It’s a complete story from ʿĀʾishah’s point of view, of gossip about her in the community, and the prophet’s reaction. Indeed, it feels very satisfying as a work of memoir. Would this have been al-Zuhri’s compilation of several different versions of events?

According to Maʿmar, al-Zuhri composed the story from multiple testimonies claiming to have heard the story directly from ʿĀʾishah, most importantly her nephew and al-Zuhrī’s teacher ʿUrwa ibn al-Zubayr. I think it’s fair to say that modern scholarship has reached a consensus that the story as we have it definitely goes back to al-Zuhrī, who in turn based his story on the testimonies of individuals who personally knew ʿĀʾishah. The story is indisputably one of the most masterful compositions of its genre.  Many versions of the story appear, usually from al-Zuhrī’s students, and if you read them side-by-side and make a detailed comparison of them—as Gregor Schoeler has masterfully done in his Charakter und Authentie des muslimishen Überlieferung über das Leben Mohammeds (1996; Eng. trans., The Biography of Muhammad: Character and Authenticity, 2010)—then you will find many differences between the stories, but the basic template remains. Of course, I’m rather partial to Maʿmar’s version of the story.

There are relatively few mundane family moments in The Expeditions, which in the main is chronicling “big” moments. “The Marriage of Fatimah” thus stands out, particularly where she complains of being married off to “a little bleary-eyed man with a big belly!” Why would this wonderful little scene have been included? Is there any significance that it ends with this? Or would an “ending” not have had a great significance, as it does now?

The story makes for a curious capstone, doesn’t it?  While my colleagues might be able to divine a better answer than this, my sense is that the marriage story is somewhat nostalgic, inasmuch as it comes on the heels of some rather bleak narratives about the schism and strife that arose between the Prophet’s followers after his death. After the innocence of the early Muslim community is lost, especially after the murders of the caliphs ʿUthmān and ʿAlī, it’s as if The Expeditions returns us back to the innocence of this joyful event from the Prophet’s life.

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