Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad, Apostile of Allah


The art of beautiful book-making is almost lost, but the Folio Society keeps up the grand tradition. It publishes important books in beautiful bindings, and the prices are very reasonable. Among the books just received is Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad, Apostle of Allah. Edited by Michael Edwardes (London, 2003, pp. 177)- We should know more about Islam and its Apostle, and this is a splendid introduction. In his foreword, Edwardes summarizes the life and teachings of Muhammad. Ibn Ishaq, his earliest biographer, was born in Medina about 707 and died inn Baghdad about 773. This translation of his biography of Muhammad, published here for the first time, was made by a Hungarian, Edward Rehatsek, who spent most of his life in India. He presented the manuscript of his translation to the Royal Asiatic Society of London, and it is now published courtesy of the Society.

A religion may be judged by its founder, and Muhammad seems to us a questionable character. He combined cruelty with magnanimity. When he took Mecca, only four people were put to death, but one of them was a singing girl who had composed satirical verses about him. Religious leaders seldom have a sense of humor. The Koran specifically states that women are inferior to men. Then how do Islamic feminists claim that this is not part of the authentic Islam? Muhammad had thirteen wives; Ibn Ishaq gives details about them. As he lay dying, a man brought him a fresh toothpick, which was apparently to let him clean his mouth. He bad men bring him seven leather bags of cold water. He sat in a tub and they poured it over him until he said "Enough! Enough!" When he died, the women beat their breasts. There is no mention of his leading the army which attacked Iran. This is a world alien to us.

I strongly recommend this book as an introduction to Islam. It costs only $29.95. Call the Folio Society, toll-free at 877/-538-3958. After reading it, please send us your comments.

Ed Jajko comments on my review of Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad, Apostle of Allah. Edited by Michael Edwardes: "Sirat rasul Allah by Muhammad ibn Ishaq is indeed the earliest extant biography of the prophet Muhammad, and thus an extremely important work. Not to deny anyone the pleasure of enjoying the new Folio Society volume, I would like to point out that this is not a new or a complete edition and that there are other ways of accessing the information. Michael Edwardes first published the Rehatsek translation in 1890 or 1894. Edwardes abridged Rehatsek's translation for the general reader. While one can pay the $29.95 (a caveat: one does not buy individual books from the Folio Society, one subscribes to a relatively pricey annual package), one can actually read the Edwardes abridgement of the Rehatsek translation for free on-line, at http://www.hraic.org/hadith/ibn_ishaq.html#early_life, under the title "The earliest biography of Muhammad, by ibn Ishaq." In the introduction, Edwardes writes:

"The translation which follows is the first known English version of Ibn Ishaq's biography, and is here published for the first time. The translator, Edward Rehatsek, was born in Hungary in 1819 and died in Bombay in 1891. He arrived in India in 1847 and spent a number of years in research upon oriental subjects. He later became professor of mathematics and Latin at Wilson College, Bombay, from which position he retired in 1871. Rehatsek lived the life of a recluse, working upon his translations from Arabic and many other languages. After his death, his body was burned in the Hindu manner, the first European, it is said, to be cremated in India. The manuscript of the translation was completed just before his death and was presented to the Royal Asiatic Society, London, by F. F. Arbuthnot, the Islamic scholar, in 1898. This edition is published by courtesy of the Society.

The original work is extremely long, over a thousand pages of the translator's small yet clear handwriting. Rehatsek produced an almost literal translation and it suffers somewhat from scholarly pedanticism. In preparing this edition for publication, I have kept one main aim in view - to present the earliest extant life of Muhammad in a form, and at a length, acceptable to the general reader. To do this it has been necessary to cut the text as well as to make some rearrangement in the interests of orderly chronology. I have inserted linking passages, printed in italic, where the text seems to require it. Generally speaking, those parts which have been excised have been repetitions of events, long lists of names, confusing accounts of minor battles, and a large quantity of verse. Some errors have been corrected and verbal infelicities removed. The transliteration of Arabic names is always something of a problem in books intended for the reader who has no knowledge of Eastern languages. In this instance I have omitted all diacritical marks, believing it preferable for the reader to mispronounce the words rather than be prevented from pronouncing them at all by the intrusion of apostrophes and other symbols".

Ed says: "I find the cuts by Edwardes to be problematic. Events are repeated in Arab histories often to present differing accounts. There are also technical considerations in a manuscript tradition that would demand repetition of accounts of events. "Long lists of names" are part of Arab historiography as they are of Old and New Testament genealogy, and are meant for the same purposes: to name reliable witnesses, to establish chains of authority, and to prove that certain people participated and survived, died, and were entitled to shares in spoils. As for "confusing accounts of minor battles," I have to admit that I have often been confused by accounts in Arab histories, so no problem there. But the "large quantity of verse" that Edwardes excised is unfortunate. The quoting of lines of verse, even within the context of the most serious histories, is part of the tradition of Arabic writing, and it is not without purpose. The lines quoted are relevant to the matter at hand. This is like excising quotations from the Greek and Roman poets from Latin biographies of the Roman emperors.

For those who want a more complete biography of the prophet Muhammad, I would suggest The life of Muhammad : a translation of Ishaq's Sirat rasul Allah, with an introduction and notes by A. Guillaume. This is a translation of the adaptation of the Sirah of Ibn Ishaq by 'Abd al-Malik ibn Hisham, d. 834. To the best of my knowledge, the Sirah of Ibn Ishaq no longer exists in its original form, but only in the expanded version by Ibn Hisham. The edition that is commonly found in research libraries is the large paperback that was published in 1955 by the Lahore, Pakistan branch of the Oxford University Press. The OUP USA branch on-line catalog lists a hardbound re-edition from 2002 for $25.00, soon to be added to my library. One reason to look into Guillaume's translation of The Life of Muhammad in preference to or in addition to the Folio Society's republication of the Edwardes/Rehatsek Sirah is that the latter is less than 200 pages, while the Guillaume book is more than 800 densely-packed pages.

For those who prefer German, there is also the following:

Ibn Hish¯am, ‘Abd al-Malik, d. 834.
Das Leben Muhammed's, nach Muhammed Ibn Ishâk. Bearb. von Abd el-Malik Ibn Hischâm. Aus den Handschriften zu Berlin, Leipzig, Gotha und Leyden, hrsg. von Ferdinand Wüstenfeld.
Frankfurt am Main, Minerva, 1961.
2 v. in 3. 24 cm.
"Unveränderter Nachdruck."
Reprint. Originally published: Göttingen, Dieterichs, 1858-1860.
Added author: Wüstenfeld, Ferdinand, 1808-1899.

There is a more recent publication, with which I am not familiar, a translation of the first section of Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah: The making of the last prophet : a reconstruction of the earliest biography of Muhammad / by Gordon Darnell Newby. Columbia, S.C. : University of South Carolina Press, c1989. This book, the first section of the Sirah, with whatever critical apparatus and studies Newby has added, is 265 pages.

I do not mean to imply by giving the pages numbers for the books mentioned above to suggest that quantity equals quality, only to emphasize that the Edwardes edition is an abridgment.

Ronald Hilton -


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