Can and Should Islam Be Reformed? Part III: The Sira

This is the third installment of a seven part series, examining the challenges, as I see them, and potential solutions, for reforming Islam. I would consider a reform to be meaningful and successful if it resulted in Islam as a personal religion (just a way of relating with God, with no fascist doctrines); if it offered persuasive, comprehensive, and truthful challenges to the version of Islam put forward by the Islamists; and if it became the prevailing view among Muslims.

Challenge: The Sira. “Sira” means “life” or “journey”, and the Sira are biographies of Mohammed. Like the Hadith, these are also based on oral traditions, but the Sira are different in that they are written as a continuous narrative, with events placed in sequence. The first and most important biography, Sirat Rasul Allah, was written by Ibn Ishaq just over a century after Mohammed’s death, well before the first Hadith collection. This makes it arguably the most reliable Muslim version of events, as written traditions are more durable than oral ones. No original manuscript of Ibn Ishaq’s Surat exists today, but Ibn Hisham’s edited version remains. Ibn Hisham said in his introduction, “I have omitted things which are disgraceful to discuss and matters which would distress certain people.” It’s amazing to read the whitewashed version, and wonder what could have been left out (a condensed translation is available here). Another biographer, al-Tabari, quoted extensively from Ishaq’s original manuscript in his 40-volume History, and he included some material that Ibn Hisham omitted.

There are many passages in the Sira which are problematic. Here are just a few:

Genocide: “The apostle of Allah imprisoned the Qurayza [a Jewish tribe] in Medina while trenches were dug in the market-place. Then he sent for the men and had their heads struck off so that they fell in the trenches. They were brought out in groups…. In number, they amounted to six or seven hundred, although some state it to have been eight or nine hundred. All were executed.” (Sirat Rasul Allah, Chapter 18)

Child marriage: “Since the death of Khadija, he had acquired seven wives, foremost among whom was the daughter of Abu Bakr, Aisha. She had been married to the apostle at the age of ten….” (Sirat Rasul Allah, Chapter 15) Note: Some Hadith say she was 9 when her marriage with Mohammed was consummated.

Slavery: “Now the apostle distributed the property of the Banu Qurayza, as well as their women and children, to the Muslims, reserving one-fifth for himself. Every horseman received three shares, one for himself and two for his steed, and every foot soldier one share. There were thirty-six horses present on the day of the Qurayza. The apostle dispatched an emissary to Najd with the prisoners, to barter them as slaves in exchange for horses and camels.” (Sirat Rasul Allah, Chapter 18)

How to overcome this challenge:

The same types of problems exist in the Sira as in the Hadith (see Part II), and the same types of solutions could be attempted. Scholars Caetani, Lammens and others have cast extreme doubt on the reliability of Mohammed’s entire biography.

Part IV of this series will examine Sharia.

Part I: The Quran
Part II: The Hadith
Part III: The Sira
Part IV: Sharia
Part V: Historical Evidence
Part VI: Muslim Culture
Part VII: Conclusions

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