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, as Anthony says, contains “humor, adventure, tragedy, and all the ingredients of great stories.”
In an interview with M. Lynx Qualey, 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.
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.
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. 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.
Were there other surprises for you? Narrative devices or turns of phrase that you weren’t expecting?
Surprises came at me from every corner—especially the deeper I plunged into reading the text.
Some of these surprises were historical and probably reflected my interest in the text as a historian. They mostly came in the form of realizations of just how deeply engaged the text is with the literary traditions of Jews and Christians of the seventh and eighth centuries ad, the centuries that basically mark the closure of Late Antiquity. It quite literally blew me away to discover that the text cites a parable of Jesus from the Gospels from the Christian Palestinian Aramaic version, as opposed to the Syriac or Greek versions, in its story of the Emperor Heraclius’s response to the advent of Muḥammad’s message. The version of the story of the Seven Sleepers that Maʿmar transmits, for instance, is almost a verbatim Arabic translation of the version of the story one finds in the Syriac history of Zacharias Rhetor from the early sixth century. Maʿmar’s text is an excellent example of how early the burgeoning Arabic cosmopolis became highly adept at assimilating, transforming, and breathing new life into the traditions that fell underneath its vast shadow.
As a reader setting aside the historical concerns, there was the delight one naturally finds as the ‘characters’ in these stories really came to life while reading the text. Every once in a while this subtle feeling washes over you that you as a reader actually know the people in these stories—they feel like your friends that live in a little book you frequent. The skeptical historian in me may chide this side of me for getting so caught up in the stories, but there’s great joy in enjoying them for their own sake. The stories work so powerfully because they are indeed artfully constructed to have just this effect. They contain humor, adventure, tragedy, and all the ingredients of great stories. To my mind, the ability of these stories to pull you in and conjure the historical figures whose stories it narrates for even a modern reader such as myself is a testament to their abiding power.
In addition to having vivid “characters,” this text also stands at the beginning of the creation of new genres and new modes of written expression in Arabic. Are there features that you think distinguish it from later maghāzī, or other historical texts?
Maʿmar’s text strikes me as essentially a rough draft, a first-go at something—the genre of prophetic biography was still inchoate during his career, so the book has many rough edges. As far as we know, Maʿmar knew nothing of Ibn Isḥāq’s (d. 767) biography of the Prophet, so famed for its narrative aesthetic, so he virtually had no rival or exemplar against which to compare his little book. It seems he mostly made it for the benefit of his student ʿAbd al-Razzāq in Sanaa. Maʿmar was often cited and quoted as an authority in the later tradition, but in the long run, The Expeditions was greatly overshadowed by more exhaustive and artfully conceived biographies of the Prophet. Ibn Hishām’s (d. 833) recension of Ibn Isḥāq’s al-Sīrah al-nabawiyyah and al-Qāḍī ʿIyād’s (d. 1149) al-Shifāʾ were far more widely read. Interest in Maʿmar’s text in and of itself is a more modern phenomenon, reflecting us moderns’ penchant for the most antiquarian and, therefore, earliest versions of the stories written about Muḥammad’s life because we tend to assume that they will likely be more authentic. Prior to the modern period, it wasn’t so much how early a work was written that was important as was its pedigree—i.e. does it derive from a revered and vouchesafed chain of authorities known for their piety and scrupulous scholarship?
Another great appeal Maʿmar’s text has for modern readers is that it’s shorter than later, more polished works of the genre, and for that reason it is considerably more inviting to readers casually interested in reading a biography of the prophet that does not span over four volumes of text!
The English translation feels very colloquial. Did you have any target in mind when you were translating? Any particular register(s) of English from particular models?
There were certainly some paragons whom I sought to emulate—the clear but weighty tone of the NRSV translation of the Bible, Tolkien’s ability to narrate a foreign world so clearly in prose that it does not alienate readers, etc.—but in the end I honestly felt that I had to find my own way. In particular I wanted the dialogues and conversations in the stories to read easily.
My primary target audience is and has been my students. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to try out several drafts on them, too. I hope my future students, and the students of others as well, will enjoy reading the text for some time to come. I wanted the text to feel less formidable than the far longer biographies of Muḥammad hitherto translated into English.
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?
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’s Muhammad: 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.
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.
You make note of the debate over whether it’s possible to write a biography of the “historical” Muḥammad, but then evade giving a position.
It’s that obvious, is it? There are two reasons for this. The first is that I wanted the translation to stand on its own and did not want it to be seen as ex parte and, thus, representative of one scholarly school of thought over another. I didn’t want the introduction to read as though I had an axe to grind or as though my translation of Maʿmar’s Maghāzī was pushing any particular agenda beyond making this rich tradition more accessible to the reading public.
The other reason is that my own position is evolving—indeed, it evolved considerably while working on this project. I have a monograph in the works outlining new approaches to reading the earliest stratum of biographical traditions about Muḥammad, but even this monograph will be more of an exploratory “expedition” into new territory rather than attempt to write a biography as such.
In many ways, we must be seeing Muḥammad and his companions through the lens of al-Zuhrī, Maʿmar’s teacher, and the expectations of his time and place. How would al-Zuhrī’s (and Maʿmar’s, and ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s) time and milieu have shaped this text?
As historians of early Islam, this is a question that our guild is still exploring and for which, to my mind at least, it has yet to produce a satisfying answer. The skepticism of the revisionist school of thought emerging during the 1970s forced us to go back to the drawing board and develop new methodologies and approaches in order to determine if one can indeed speak with certainty about traditions that have their origin in the late Umayyad period, which roughly spans the first half of the eighth century ad and marks the period during which seminal scholars like al-Zuhrī were most active. Methods focusing on the dating of Hadith (sayings of and traditions about the prophet) pioneered by the likes of G.H.A. Juynboll, Harald Motzki, and Gregor Schoeler have now made it possible to speak confidently about traditions that emerged and began circulating during al-Zuhrī’s time—and some would say even earlier. Great strides have also been made in the study of the Qurʾān and its early manuscripts, too. Historians can now confidently speak of the Qurʾān as it existed in an Umayyad milieu—from about 690 to 750 ad. That François Déroche’s recent study of early Qurʾān manuscripts is titled The Qurʾāns of the Umayyads (of the Umayyads!) is a watershed moment.
Al-Zuhrī’s connections to the Umayyad court are well-established, and he belonged to a cadre of “Medinan scholars with good Syrian connections”—to paraphrase an insightful remark of Larry Conrad’s. Al-Zuhrī himself spent a large swathe of his scholarly career in Syria during the reign of the Umayyad caliph Hishām ibn ʿAbd al-Malik at the court in Ruṣāfah, and the bulk of Maʿmar’s interactions with him seem to have transpired there in close proximity to the Umayyad court. However, the proximity of these scholars to the court should not lead one to think that the Umayyads oversaw the project. The support of the Umayyads’ largesse afforded scholars the opportunities to conduct such activities, but it did not overly determine the content of their work for the most part. Yet there is undeniably something to what Gregor Schoeler has called “the Court Impulse” behind the commitment of these texts to writing for the first time. Just how far “the Court Impulse” shaped the contours and contents of these traditions still needs further exploration.
In The Expeditions, many scattered vignettes of al-Zuhrī’s and Maʿmar’s Syrian milieu peek through the seams in between the narrative episodes, and these can also be quite endearing. One of my favorites is when Maʿmar asks al-Zuhrī who wrote down the text of the treaty drawn up between Muḥammad and the Meccans at Ḥudaybiyah. Of course it was the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib—al-Zuhrī answers. Maʿmar presses further asking about those people who say it was ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān, the first caliph of the Umayyad clan, who wrote the document down. Al-Zuhrī dismisses this as the wishful thinking of the Umayyads, since they were keen to exaggerate the importance of their kinsman and to downplay the importance of ʿAlī, whom their rivals and the Shiʿah so revered. I think this exchange teaches us a lot about the milieu in which al-Zuhrī operated.
Why is chronology not important here, after the opening chapter? Would the text not have been read from beginning to end? How would it have been used?
Chronology is not thrown completely out the window, but it certainly does not remain the absolute organizing principle of the work. If not chronology, then what was the organizing principle? I think we have to look at the original context in which the work was transmitted—i.e., as a series of lecture sessions recorded by Maʿmar’s student ʿAbd al-Razzāq of Sanaa. I see the unfolding of The Expeditions as following the ad hoc needs of such lectures—there’s a programmatic treatment of the subject matter under discussion but a pupil’s interests or a teacher’s whims have the potential to override chronological considerations. Also, Maʿmar’s composition dates to a time period in which the chronological order of Muḥammad’s life was not established definitively, so without an established chronological outline to follow, treating the episodes from the Prophet’s life outside a chronological framework is not especially problematic. Maʿmar records many instances where his teacher al-Zuhrī offers his insights into when such and such event happened and in what order, and the timeline I drew up for the book reflects al-Zuhrī’s views of the chronology of the Prophet’s life as far as I could determine them. However, it should be noted that later scholars, most importantly Ibn Isḥāq (d. 767) and al-Wāqidī (d. 823), date and order events quite differently.
What has been the reception of this biography among Muslims throughout the last twelve hundred years?
In the Sunni tradition of scholarship, Maʿmar’s works are known mostly through its excerpts in subsequent, larger compendia, and his Maghāzī is rarely commented upon as a work as such, minus bibliophiles such as al-Nadīm (d. 990 in Baghdad) and Ibn Khayr of Seville (d. 1179 in Cordoba) who directly mention his Maghāzī. In general, however, Maʿmar’s scholarly reputation among Sunni scholars is impeccable, and he is regarded as one of the most reliable transmitters of traditions from al-Zuhrī. Maʿmar appears almost immediately as an important authority for traditions about Muḥammad’s life in generations following, appearing in works such as al-Wāqidī’s (d. 823) own Maghāzī and the works of such important historians as al-Balādhurī (d. 892) and al-Ṭabarī (d. 923).
Does Maʿmar make for an unlikely scholar, or was there considerable social mobility at the time?
In a way, becoming a scholar as a vocation is unlikely for anyone let alone becoming an accomplished one like Maʿmar. In the introduction, I make note of his servile origins as a slave-client, a mawla, of the Azd tribe and contrast his social status sharply with his teacher al-Zuhrī’s lofty status as an Arab and a member of the Quraysh, the Prophet’s tribe, but many scholars of the early Islamic period shared such a lowly origin with Maʿmar, as did even many powerbrokers in Umayyad society who were of non-Arab origin. Yet keeping numbers in mind, though one can say that it was not uncommon for a scholar to be a mawla, to be a mawla and then to become revered scholar was an amazing undertaking that defied the odds. The vast majority of mawlas of the early Islamic polity were not scholars, of course, and certainly not even remotely powerful. Rather, they formed a type of plebeian underclass often assimilated to the Islamic religion and its language (Arabic) but not admitted into the upper echelons of society. In time, it was precisely the ability of seditious movements to tap in the discontents of this underclass that led in large part to the fall of Umayyad caliphate in 750 when a revolution replaced the Umayyad dynasty with the Abbasids.
“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.