The Most Important Historians

1. Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Muslim Bin ‘Ubaydallah Bin Shihāb al-Zuhri (51-124 A.H.)

There is a difference of opinion about his date of birth and death. He was a learned scholar, a memorizer of the Qur’an1 and an author who knew how to use the various expressions and idioms and he would use these in his works2. He was a poet3 and a genealogist4 who would look for the chains of narrators in the traditions5. He would strive in the quest for knowledge and would guard it. He kept aloof from the events and turmoil of his time6. He believed in the dissemination of knowledge among the people and used to say: ‘In the spread of knowledge there is the strengthening of religion and worldly life and in the path of knowledge all this comes together7.’

He studied about the seerah from Sa’eed bin al-Musayyab, ‘Urwa bin Zubayr and ‘Ubaydallah bin ‘Abdullah bin Utbah, and in his attitude towards his teachers, he displayed exemplary ethics and morals. He would accompany them, serve them and show the utmost reverence to them8. Zuhri made efforts to author some works. He would write down what he heard. When his works became known, people turned to him and benefitted greatly from his knowledge.

Zuhri started with Hadith, History and Expeditions. He wrote so much that his writings had to be carried on the backs of animals. When he died, he was in such a position that there was none more learned than him in history.9 His knowledge was disseminated through his narrators. The most famous of them who lived in Haramayn and Hijāz included: ‘Umar bin Dinar, Yahya bin Sa’eed al-Ansāri, Musa bin ‘Uqba and others. From those who lived in Iraq, the most important ones included: ‘Abdullah bin ‘Umayr, Ismā’il bin Abi Khālid, ‘Atā ibn Sā’ib; and from the other places like Syria and Egypt, there were Mansur bin Sādhān, ‘Abd al-Karim Jazari, Thawr bin Yazid and others.10

The merits of Zuhri’s accounts of the expeditions over other works are as follows:

They were written with sincerity, honesty, clarity and eloquence. Zuhri had met some of the companions who participated in battles with the Prophet (S) and he has narrated from them about the wars and the strategies of the Holy Prophet (S). The most important of them are: Abdullah bin ‘Umar, Anas bin Mālik, Suhayl bin Sa’d and others11. Similarly, in al-Musannaf (vol. 5, the chapter on expeditions), we find numerous traditions that Zuhri has narrated from ‘Umar ibn Rāshid. He too, was truthful in narration and reliable in transmission.

Many of the scholars12 have praised and criticized the narrators of expedition accounts like Ibn Is’hāq and Wāqidi, however Zuhri has been praised by all13 and has been hailed as the most truthful and highly learned of his time. Therefore, we can rely upon what he has recorded or narrated about the battles of the Prophet (S).

Zuhri had a longstanding experience in recording expeditions14. He is the oldest writer to formulate a systematic and clear method in this field, therefore his recordings are well-grounded, clear and reliable and have been systematically categorized and are far off from the politics of authorship and other various discrepancies.

2. Abu ‘Abdillah Muhammad Ibn Is’hāq Bin Yasār al-Mutallabi (85-151 A.H.)

Ibn Is’hāq was born in Madina and was buried in Baghdād after his demise. There is a difference of opinion regarding the date of his death15. His most important works include: Kitāb al-Khulafā and al-Siyar wal-Maghāzi wal- Mubtadā16. He was trustworthy and knowledgeable about expeditions and history and was also a memorizer of prophetic traditions17. Great scholars have narrated from him and Ibn Shihāb al-Zuhri, Ibn Hanbal and others have praised him18. Mālik called him a Dajjāl19 and accused him of following the Qādiriyya sect20 and also deemed him to be one who narrates ahādith with improper and incomplete chains21.

The Seera of Ibn Is’hāq has only come down to us through the recorders of seera, the most important of whom were: Ibn Hishām, Tabari, Kalā’i, Ibn Sa’d and Ibn Atheer. All of these [people] have not presented the seera of Ibn Is’hāq in the same manner as the original, rather they have mentioned a summary of his statements and recordings. Ibn Hishām has himself acknowledged this in the introduction of his al-Seera al-Nabawiyya22, so it would be correct to say that this work is actually a summary and a selection of Ibn Is’hāq’s narrations.

He is one of the leaders of those who were involved in recording the seerah [of the Holy Prophet]23 and is the first person to collect the accounts of the expeditions and record them24. His works are a source of reference for researchers today. The great recorders of expeditions like ‘Aāsim bin Umar Qatāda who wrote al-Siyar wal-Maghāzi gave the following testimony about him: ‘The knowledge that Ibn Is’hāq placed at the disposal of the people through his narrations will never disappear25.’ When Zuhri was asked about Ibn Is’hāq’s accounts of expeditions, he said ‘he is the most learned of all people about the expeditions26’.

Today, the narrations of Ibn Is’hāq that have been passed on by many reliable recorders of the seera like ‘Aāsim and Zuhri have reached us27. It can be said that Ibn Is’hāq is from those scholars who recorded the accounts of the expeditions based on old methods. One day this point was raised in front of him, he said: ‘I am only a safe keeper and recorder of the knowledge of expeditions28.’

The Merits of Ibn Is’hāq’s Seera:

He is the only person who has narrated the expeditions of the Holy Prophet (S) in its totality29, because the other Seera recorders have narrated the expeditions in an incomplete and disjointed fashion. Maybe their lifetimes were not enough for them to complete the work and their students did not expound on the details of their expedition accounts and sufficed with mentioning only a number of battles and wars.

The Seera of Ibn Is’hāq is detailed and contains numerous long narrations and includes mention of dates30. Shāfi’i says: ‘Anyone who wishes to gain expertise about the expeditions needs (to study) Ibn Is’hāq31.’ Through lengthy odes, he has highlighted the narratives of what transpired on the battlefields32. All this points to the vastness of the Seera of Ibn Is’hāq. These odes have immortalized the victories and give important information about works, situations and personalities. Even though it is not possible to give exact details about what takes place on the battlefield, all the military strategies and skills employed, some of the particulars about the battles of the Prophet (S) have been directly reported.

3. Abu Abdillah Muhammad Ibn Umar al-Wāqidi (130-207 A.H.)

Wāqidi was born in Madina and died in Baghdād33. He is buried in the Khayzarān graveyard. He was an author and used to pay special attention in writing [about] the seerah and expeditions (of the Prophet (S)), to such an extent that he became one of the foremost authorities in this field. His most important works are: al-Maghāzi al-Nabawiyya, Fath Afriqiyya, al-Radda, Fath al-‘Ajam, Fath Misr wa Iskandariyya, Akhbār Makkah, Tabaqāt, Futuh al-Iraq, Seerat Abi Bakr, The Battle between the Aus and Khazraj and others34. The merits of Wāqidi’s works can be outlined as follows:

Precise Information: He has given detailed and precise information about those who participated in the battles, the route taken by the armies, the weapons and modes of transport used, provisions, descriptions of battlefields, the factors that helped in gaining victory or led to them facing difficulties in battle, the location of the martyrdom of soldiers, and anything related to warfare.

Extensive Information: He wrote and recorded everything that was related to the battles35, such that through his narrations, we learn many of the specifics regarding the military, because he has reported all the different aspects of issues pertaining to warfare and leadership. In this way, the information provided by Wāqidi in the areas of the circumstances of war, its location, the type of ground on which it was fought etc. is of great importance. If his writings about the battles were collected together, it would in itself have been a source for the principles of war and battle at the time of the Prophet (S).

Recording of Exact Times36: In military management, for a commander, time and its determination is of the essence and can make all the difference in the result of the battle; whether it be victory or loss.

Recording of Exact Locations37: Wāqidi also recorded the exact locations of the battles and through this he gave value to the battlefields where the Prophet (S) fought. Many like Ibn Sa’d, Tabari and Ibn Katheer have narrated from Wāqidi about the birth and Prophethood of the Holy Prophet (S) and also his battles and conquests38.

Ibn Sa’d’s Tabaqāt al-Kubrā stands out in its military reporting because it has been written according to Wāqidi’s style, meaning he has similarly paid a great deal of attention to the recording of exact times and locations and sometimes describes the locations in which the battles took place and adds on to the narrations of Wāqidi and then, in another place, he discusses the principles of warfare39. From his writings it can be deduced that he is truthful and his narrations are authentic40. Many of the important aspects of Wāqidi’s narrations and works were revealed and expounded by his student Ibn Sa’d.

4. Abu al-Rabi’ Sulaymān Bin Musā Ibn Sālim al-Kalā’i al-Himyari

Kalā’i was born in Balans and grew up there and he died in enemy territory (in battle)41. He has narrated from Ibn Qāsim Hubaysh, Ibn Zarqum, Ibn al-Waleed bin Abi al-Qāsim and others42. He was famous for his eloquent oratory and writings43 and gave great importance to recording and narrating ahadith. His most well known works are: al-Iktifā bimā Tadhammanhu ‘an Maghāzi al-Rasul (S), Maghāzi al-Khulafā (4 volumes), al-Musalsalāt ‘an al-Ahādith and al-Athār wal-Ishārāt.44

When his works were published and his message was spread, people came towards him and sought to benefit from him and many attended his teaching sessions. The most famous of these was Abdullah ibn al-Abārid who has eulogized him after his martyrdom45. With regards to the importance of his writing ‘al-Iktifā’ it must be said that its chain of transmission is strong and it describes the battles and their various aspects in detail, because Kalā’i himself was a military person and had tasted the hardships of war. So if he has recorded something in the seera, he has done so truthfully and with total regard of his responsibility and questionability. Furthermore, in his books one senses an enlightening spirituality that none of the previous writers displayed.

Kalā’i al-Balansi was a leader and a courageous commander who was steadfast in battle and in one of the battles he is said to have addressed one of the fleeing soldiers thus: ‘Do you flee from Paradise?46’ He was martyred while he still held the standard in his hand47 and was encouraging and urging the soldiers to go forth against the enemy. Aside from this, Kalā’i was a great poet who would compose epics and rouse the emotions of the people48.

5. Abu al-Fath Muhammad Ibn Muhammad Ibn ‘Abdillah Ibn Sayyid al-Nās152

He was popularly known as Ibn Sayyid al-Nās. There is a difference of opinion regarding his date of birth and death. He died in Cairo. He studied under his father and a group of scholars, the most famous of whom was Ibn Daqiq al-‘Eid.49 This scholar tutored him in religion, Arabic grammar and poetry50. He gained precedence over his contemporaries in the fields of Seera and history. His most important works include: ‘Uyun al-Athar fi Funun al-Maghāzi wa al-Shamāil wa al-Siyar, Nur al-‘Uyun, Bushrā al-Labib fi Dhikrā al-Habib and Tahsil al-Isāba fi Tafsil al-Sahāba51.

Many scholars like Qādhi ‘Izz al-Deen Sharif, who has mentioned him in his Wafayāt and Ibn Katheer, Ibn Nāsir al-Deen, Suyuti and others have testified to his great knowledge52. He compiled the seera in two volumes by narrating what the recorders of the seera before him had written. That which makes his accounts of the expeditions stand out includes:

Precision and Depth: He would select authentic narrations and leave aside the weak ones. He would take this matter very seriously and would do it very well53. An example of this precision of his can be seen when he summarized his own book ‘Uyun al-Athār and named it Nur al-‘Uyun. In this way it became easy for him to refer to previous works and to present his writings on the seera in a well-documented manner. One of the great scholars has said: “Ibn Sayyid wrote, compiled and corrected a lot in his beautiful handwriting and he created principles for this [also]54.”

Following the Method of Zuhri: Ibn Sayyid al-Nās in his book al-Siyar wal-Tārikh, has followed Zuhri’s method and has compiled all that which relates to the military. His ‘Uyun al-Athār is an example of the Maghāzi of Ibn Is’hāq which has shadowed the Seera of Ibn Hishām and is formed of a selection from the Maghāzi of Wāqidi and a selection from scholars of history such as Tabari and Ibn Khayyāt. That which assisted him in this was his great knowledge of the sources of the seera. Ibn Sayyid al-Nās was also a specialist in jurisprudence and would benefit from the scholars of his time and gain knowledge from them. Ibn Zubayr says: “He gained the permission [to narrate traditions] from four-hundred scholars or more.”55

Organization, Sequence and Reference: Ibn Katheer has described him thus: “He occupied himself in the pursuit of knowledge and was better in this than everyone else. After he learnt the seera and history, he compiled them in two volumes… grand poetry, well written prose, complete eloquence and proper writing is what he had and he was attributed with kindness and good morals. He was loyal to the principles and practices of the previous scholars that relied on the traditions of the Holy Prophet (S).”

  • 1. Dhahabi, Tadhkirat al-Huffadh 1:108-113; Ibn Khallikān, Wafayāt al-A’yān wa Anbā’I Abnā’iz Zamān 4:177-178; Ibn Hajar ‘Asqalāni, Tahdhib al-Tahdhib 9:488, 450
  • 2. Abu Na’im al-Isfahāni, Hilyat al-Awliyā wa Tabaqāt al-Asfiyā 3:371
  • 3. Marzbāni, Mu’jam al-Shu’arā: 345
  • 4. Abu Na’im al-Isfahāni 3:272
  • 5. Ibid. 3:365
  • 6. Ibn Khallikān 4:177; Abu Na’im al-Isfahāni 3:364
  • 7. Abu Na’im al-Isfahāni 3:369
  • 8. Ibid. 3:371
  • 9. Ibid. 3:161. Unfortunately all his works and writings are non-extant. However, his narratives were used by later historians and thus can be found in these secondary sources. (Tr.)
  • 10. Abu Na’im al-Isfahāni 2:372-373
  • 11. Khateeb Baghdadi, Tarikhu Baghdād 3:13-14; al-Dhahabi, Mizān al-I’tidāl fi Naqd al-Rijāl 3:470; Ibn Sayyid al-Nās 1:7
  • 12. Abu Na’im al-Isfahāni 3:361 onwards; Ibn Shihāb al-Zuhri: 27
  • 13. Ibn Shihāb al-Zuhri: 30
  • 14. Abu Na’im al- Isfahāni 3:369 onwards
  • 15. Khateeb Baghdādi 1:232; Ibn Khallikāk 4:277; Yāqut Humayri, Mu’jam al-Udabā’ 18:8
  • 16. Ibid.
  • 17. Khateeb Baghdādi 1:215, Ibn Hajar ‘Asqalāni, Tahdhib al-Tahdhib 9:43 onwards
  • 18. Al-Dhahabi 3:469
  • 19. Khateeb Baghdādi 1:223
  • 20. Khateeb Baghdādi 1:225; al-Dhahabi 30:470
  • 21. Ibn Sayyid al-Nās 1:7
  • 22. Ibn Hishām 1:7
  • 23. Al-Dhahabi, Tadhkirat al-Huffādh 1:173
  • 24. Yāqut Humayri, Mu’jam al-Buldān 5:18; Marghliyuth, Dirāsāt ‘an al-Muwarrikheen al-‘Arab: 998
  • 25. Khateeb Baghdādi 1:220; Yāqut Himayari, Mu’jam al-Udabā’ 6:18; Ibn Khallikān 4:276
  • 26. Khateeb Baghdādi 1:219
  • 27. Yāqut Himyari 6:18, Khateeb Baghdādi 1:225
  • 28. Khateeb Baghdādi 1:223
  • 29. Ibid. 1:214
  • 30. Ibn Hajar ‘Asqalāni 9:46
  • 31. Al-Dhahabi, Mizān al-I’tidāl 3:472; Khateeb Baghdādi 1:219; Ibn Sayyid al-Nās 1:9
  • 32. Al-Jumhi, Tabaqāt Fuhul al-Shu’arā 1:8; Marghliyuth: 73
  • 33. Ibn ‘Asākir 15:395; al-Dhahabi, Tadhkirat al-Huffādh 1:348
  • 34. Yāqut Himyari, Mu’jam al-Udabā’ 8:281; Ibn Khallikān 4:348; Ibn al-Nadim, al-Firhrist 1:144. Unfortunately most of Wāqidi’s works are non-extant today. (Tr.)
  • 35. Khateeb Baghdādi 3:6
  • 36. Marghliyuth: 18
  • 37. Ibn Sa’d 5:315
  • 38. Tabari, Tārikh al-Tabari 1:942,980
  • 39. Ibn Sa’d 2:1-137
  • 40. Khateeb Baghdādi 5:321, al-Dhahabi, Mizān al-I’tidāl 3:560. With regards to Ibn Sa’d’s reliability, there is a difference of opinion among the various sects of Islām. (Tr.)
  • 41. Ibn ‘Imād Hanbali, Shadharāt al-Dhahab fi Akhbār man Dhahab 5:164; al-Katāni, al-Risāla al-Mustadhrafa: 198
  • 42. Al-Nabāhi, Tārikh Qudhāt Andalus: 119
  • 43. Ibn ‘Imād Hanbali, Ibid.
  • 44. Al-Katāni, Ibid. He also wrote an important work called Futuh al-Radda (Tr.)
  • 45. Al-Nabāhi: 120
  • 46. Ibid. 119
  • 47. Ibid. Ibn Shākir al-Katbi, Fawāt al-Wafayāt 1:366
  • 48. Kalā’i was one of the great commanders in the war against the crusaders under Salāh al-Deen Ayyubi. (Tr.)
  • 49. Al-Dhahabi, Tadhkirat al-Huffādh 4:1481
  • 50. Ibn ‘Imād Hanbali 6:108; Ibn Ilyās, Tārikh Misr 1:171
  • 51. Al-Dhahabi 4:1451
  • 52. Ibid. Suyuti: 52
  • 53. Suyuti: 520
  • 54. Ibn ‘Imād Hanbali 6:108
  • 55. Al-Dhahabi 5:1451