The Chain of Muhammad

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In order to fully interpret the reliable contributions made by Ma’mar ibn Rāshid in The Expeditions, we must begin with the introduction written by the book’s English translator Sean Anthony. Anthony introduces the concept of a “real Muhammad” versus a “historical Muhammad” as two depictions of the prophet, with the latter being a postmortem interpretation of Muhammad through the lens of a given faith community. While the “historical Muhammad” presents an issue with the authenticity of the narrative, it incidentally relays a precise and reliable depiction of the community in which it was produced. Despite failing to be a reliable biography of Muhammad within the narrow expectations of Fred Donner, author of Muhammad and the Believers, an alternate evaluation of The Expeditions as an early interpretation of Muhammad made by a continually evolving community reveals the reliable core. Ultimately, through a focused analysis into the non-chronological structure of The Expeditions, set against the “historical Muhammad” interpretation, reveals an unequivocally reliable insight into ideological conflicts within the Believer community, the social values of Ibn Rāshid’s era, and how the Muslim identity was cultivated in relation to Muhammad.

Briefly, The Expeditions were composed during the Second/Eighth Century CE and are credited to Ma’mar ibn Rāshid, a Persian born slave turned trader, who came into contact with the Medinese scholar Ibn Shihāb al-Zhurī, subsequently becoming his pupil. The Expeditions fall within the Islamic literary traditions of the isnād-khabar (chain-report) and the maghāzī, both of which heavily influenced the composition and the variable reliability of the text. The maghāzī are a subgenre of the biographical hadiths that specifically focus on “memorable events” and are the distillation of the collective memory of Muhammad, whereas the isnād-khabar refers to the specific teacher-pupil chain of knowledge used in early Islamic texts. In the case of The Expeditions, the isnād-khabar begins with Ibn Shihāb al-Zhurī who lectured to Ibn Rāshid who supplemented al-Zhurī’s lectures with his information and presented his summative work to his pupil ‘Abd al-Razzāq ibn Hammām who ultimately recorded the previously oral history into writing. While these scholarly and literary traditions supported a blossoming academic community in early Islamic society, they also contribute to the disputed reliability of The Expeditions. Lastly, the chapters of The Expeditions do not adhere to a specific chronology and are organized on the judgment of Ibn Rāshid.

Although the non-chronological structure of The Expeditions creates a set of issues, it also provides Ibn Rāshid latitude to interpret Muhammad’s life freely, and it serves as a platform to retrospectively observe the growing distinctions between Muslims who will later develop into the Shi’a and Sunni sects. The origins of the division began when ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib was overlooked by the original Shura despite being the most eligible successor to the Prophet, according to Shia perspectives. While ‘Alī eventually emerged as the Amir al-Mu’minin (656 to 661 CE) he was continually opposed by Muʿāwiya ibn Abī Sufyān which sparked the First Fitna. Following ‘Alī’s assassination in 661 CE (which concluded the First Fitna) Muʿāwiya maneuvered to secure his power and simultaneously end ‘Alī’s chain of succession. The followers of ‘Alī did not immediately coalesce into a defined group following their leader’s assassination; instead, their progressive organization spanning Ibn Rāshid’s life is captured within The Expeditions. By arranging the timeline of The Expeditions separately from the exact sequence of events, Ibn Rāshid can isolate and pair perspectives together, thereby elevating their implied significance.

For example, the final three chapters of The Expeditions focus on events related directly or indirectly to the issues of succession. In chapter twenty-nine, “The Story of the Shura,”Ibn Rāshid directly states (through the isnād-khabar): “If anyone attempts to lead without convening a Shura of Muslims, kill him.” Ibn Rāshid utilizes chapter thirty, “The Expeditions to Al-Qādisyyah and Elsewhere,” to testify to the everlasting importance of Muhammad’s wishes which Ibn Rāshid extends the implications of chapter thirty into chapter thirty-one: “The Marriage of Fātimah.” While Ibn Rāshid avoids discussing ‘Alī as a successor, the arraignment of the preceding chapters entrenches the topics together. Once again through the isnād-khabar Ibn Rāshid relays an indispensable statement made by the Prophet when Fātimah asks him why he chose ‘Alī to be her husband: “I married you to a man who was the first of my companions to become a Muslim, a man possessing a mind more learned and a bearing more formidable than them all.”

By placing these three isolated events together, Ibn Rāshid successfully intertwines their core theses and indirectly, but clearly, articulates his opinion on ‘Alī. Within the rigid academic mindset of Fred Donner Ibn Rāshid’s insertion of opinions into his biography of Muhammad fairly frame it as an unreliable source for studying the life of Muhammad. However, Ibn Rāshid’s opinions make The Expeditions an indispensable source that reveals different aspects of the belief structure in support of ‘Alī. Furthermore, the subtleness of Ibn Rāshid in regards to ‘Alī possibly alludes to the contentious nature of the growing internal rift.

Detractors of Ibn Rāshid’s non-chronological structure and use of isnād-khabar reasonably argue that the omissions in The Expeditions alter Muhammad’s life story fracturing the text’s reliability. However, the omissions demonstrate what Ibn Rāshid deems to be necessary and highlight what morals and beliefs were valued during his generation, all while reliably conveying that to contemporary audiences. Once again, using the example of Fātimah’s marriage due to its placement and the precise values Ibn Rāshid displays through his rendition of the event. The second and third passages of the chapter thirty-one juxtapose the numerous suitors who were turned away by Muhammad against the rationale behind Muhammad’s choice of ‘Alī. ‘Alī himself explains his lack of wealth and the fact that he is already a believer means there are no strategic benefits for Muhammad by marrying his daughter him. However, ‘Alī’s unquestioned commitment to Islam and his piety grant him the ultimate prize: Fātimah.

Clarifying the decision-making process of Muhammad Ibn Rāshid clearly states a value held during this period: piety and faith. This value can logically be reached through interpreting scripture, but the emphasis applied by Ibn Rāshid suggests its overall importance within the broader belief constitution at this time. A fair share of skepticism should be applied to any quote that has been relayed through seven different people (not including Ibn Shihāb al-Zhurī or Ibn Rāshid), but that does not dissuade the significance of its inclusion. Despite the unreliable nature of an extended teacher-pupil transmission, Ibn Rāshid values the moral implications of including the quote rather than objectively depicting Muhammad.

Continuing the pattern of interpreting the literary choices made by Ibn Rāshid as an honest reflection on Eighth Century Islam, how does the author reliably contribute to our understanding of the codification of the Muslim identity. Following the conclusion of the Second Fitna, the new Umayyad amir al-mu’minin ‘Abd al-Malik began the process of establishing a Muslim identity through an emphasis on Muhammad and the Qur’an in order to distinguish Believers from other monotheists. It is clear through the basic subject matter of The Expeditions that Ibn Rāshid is continuing the trend of Muhammad and Qur’anic sourced Muslim identification. However, Ibn Rāshid’s particular style highlights specific aspects of Muhammad, and his relation to God, that was used to distinguish the Muslim identity as separate from a Christian or Jewish identity without misrepresenting the role of Muhammad. Through the lack of chronology, Ibn Rāshid can directly compare and contrast aspects of Jesus and Muhammad. Chapters sixteen through twenty-one of The Expeditions pivot between the two prophets and progressively form boundaries between the two prophets and their relation to Islam. Chapter seventeen, passage five, clarifies that God performs miracles through Muhammad, whereas Christian texts depict Jesus as the performer of miracles. The distinctions made by Ibn Rāshid culminate in chapter twenty-one passage one, section two, when he quotes Muhammad: “Do not praise me to excess as the Christians did to Mary’s son, God’s blessings upon him, for I am but a servant of God. Rather, say ‘the servant of God and His Messenger.’”

Through the non-chronological narrative, Ibn Rāshid isolates specific moments and lessons of Muhammad and simultaneously minimizes a holistic interpretation of the Prophet’s life. This interpretation primarily works to delegitimize prophet worship and defines Muhammad as a man who became divinely entangled and not a divine man. Furthermore, the pacing created by the haphazard timeline minimizes the possibility of misinterpreting Muhammad and implies varying levels of importance to different moments and reliably reveals how Muslims at the time viewed the dead Prophet. While Donner systematically defines the steps taken by the leaders of Islamic society to distinguish themselves from other monotheists, Ibn Rāshid’s contemporary account of those societal motions, as displayed through The Expeditions provides a more insightful perspective on the events.

Donner’s skepticism over the reliability of The Expeditions is well placed, Ma’mar ibn Rāshid’s faulty source material, obvious omissions, and non-academic approach, as judged by modern standards, make this text an inadequate depiction of Muhammad. Nevertheless, Ibn Rāshid never claims to depict the “real Muhammad,” he is purely interpreting the prophet in a later context, and by doing so, he places his society on top of the narrative serving as a literary reflection. While The Expeditions should not be viewed as a piece of propaganda, interpreting the text through such a lens reveals how and why exaggerated or omitted elements are indirectly reliable sources of the encompassing society. Notwithstanding the errors as a biography Ma’mar ibn Rāshid’s summative composition tactfully and accurately represents the evolving use, interpretation, and image of  the Prophet in regards to the continually evolving Islamic community.