Book Review: “Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources” by Martin Lings

Books on Islam are expensive. In learning any biographical material about Muhammad, one will invariably hear mention of the first-known biography of Muhammad, The Life of the Prophet by Ibn Ishaq. Of course, that resource no longer exists in its original form, and what we have comes to us through Ibn Ishaq’s student, Ibn Hisham. If you want an English translation of Ibn Hisham’s The Life of the Prophet, you’ll have to open your wallets and pay… $76! Or pay the expense and time to become fluent in classical Arabic and get the Arabic edition for upwards of $25. And while I would like to do both of those things, I’m also starting from a beginner’s place and partly just need an orientation into the early sources. After all, there’s more than Ibn Ishaq out there.

Any search for information around Muhammad’s biography will bring up results including Muhammad: His Life Based on the Early Sources, by Martin Lings. And hey, it’s affordable! So I bought the ebook early on to orient myself in an Islamic view of Muhammad and…

My bad. Metaphorically, I walked into a restaurant for a culinary lesson. Instead, they served me a sausage and now I’m demanding to know “But how was this sausage made?!”

Review in short: This books is a reassuring resource for the pious, but has no other value.

Unquestioning

I understood the character of this book when it starts early on with a tale from the pre-history of Muhammad, wherein a Christian ruler from the south of Arabia who has just built a cathedral wants to destroy the religious competition of the Ka’aba. This ruler sends an army to destroy the Ka’aba with the inclusion of a war elephant. Along the way, the elephant stops and kneels towards the Ka’aba, refusing to move further. Thereupon this happens:

But suddenly it was too late: the western sky grew black, and a strange sound was heard; its volume increased as a great wave of darkness swept upon them from the direction of the sea, and the air above their heads, as high as they could see, was full of birds. Survivors said that they flew with a flight like that of swifts, and each bird had three pebbles the size of dried peas, one in its beak and one between the claws of each foot. They swooped to and fro over the ranks, pelting as they swooped, and the pebbles were so hard and launched with such velocity that they pierced even coats of mail. Every stone found its mark and killed its man, for as soon as a body was struck its flesh began to rot, quickly in some cases, more gradually in others. Not everyone was hit, and amongst those spared were Unays and the elephant, but all were terror-stricken.

Lings, Martin, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources. Kindle Edition, loc 402.

This is a book of miracles, no thresholds barred, no questions asked. When you read reviews that praise the fidelity of Lings’ writing to the original material, this is what they are describing, for indeed Muhammad is attributed many omens and signs in his biographies. Lings presents these events with earnest simplicity, treating them as literal, neither questioning their details nor commenting upon them as extra-ordinary. The lack of comment even renders these things as mundane events — significant, but no less precedented than a natural catastrophe. That is one way to approach miracle stories, but not the only way. Contrast this with other treatments of the elephant story, which can be found in commentaries of Surah 105: The Elephant. That surah tells a sparser version of the same story. Muhammad Asad –who like Lings is a European convert to Islam– takes the Quranic words and in his footnotes he examines and questions them to consider whether the miracle could have been more scientifically manifested. In contrast to that kind of approach, Martin Lings does not explain or explore anything. He also doesn’t cite the source for his version of the narrative, which is an issue I’ll return to below. He is writing in order to be simple and earnest, and not inviting questions to this table.

“Not inviting questions.” I would call that the defining tone of this work. It does this in a very gentle and guiding way, in contrast with Mubarakpuri’s The Sealed Nectar, which I read a sampling of and reacted to elsewhere. That latter book squashed questions with hostile interpretations of the person who would dare ask them. This book simply states its information with generous description and quick transition from subject to subject, sweeping you along with a tacit “nothing more to see here.” If it does find an ambiguity, rather than questioning why the ambiguity exists it surrenders the question to God’s knowledge and conveys the futility of trying to decide which version or the other is right.

So for example: the conversion of the famous pagan poet Labid. Having read Suzanne Stetkevych’s thoughts on the biographical details of Labid, I am superficially aware of the ambiguity within it. Supposedly, despite having been ninety when he converted, he is said to have lived through events that would require another fifty years to witness (Stetkevych cites Ibn Qutayba‘s Poets and Poetry, an early resource, and Al-Isbahani‘s Book of Songs, a classical resource). Labid converted to Islam and thus revoked future composition of poetry, putting all pride of place in the Quran instead –except, there are a few poetic lines which are promoted as something he composed post-conversion. His details look very didactic in a way that served the Muslim-Arab narrative: he moved from paganism to Islam, desert life to settled life in a garrison city, poetry to Quran, and he lived super long in connection with his virtue. However, this is how Lings tells of Labid’s conversion:

The poet Labid was one of the envoys, and he now entered Islam. He is reported to have had some intention of abjuring poetry thereafter. “In exchange, God hath given me the Koran,” he said. But he none the less continued to compose poems until his death, placing his gifts at the service of his religion.

Martin Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources. Kindle Edition, Loc 6074

The mention is sparse and fleeting. Nothing is included that would challenge the reliability of the narrative (like the claim that he lived 147+ years) or suggest a thing to explore (like whether those post-conversion poems are his or forgeries seeking fame by claiming to be his). No citation is included to know whose version of the story is being used, and no long quotes from those sources for the reader to see what emphases and morals were inherent in them. Instead, Lings presents the data in summary without transparency or exploration, drawing from it a moral that is reassuring to modern audiences who want permission to still enjoy poetry. Indeed, he seems to mention it purely for the purpose of including that moral.

The lack of questions –the lack of room for questions– in this book is why I identify it as a “reassuring resource for the pious.” It gives answers and it gives them in a form of a written book. Books are nice, they’re citable and feel authoritative. The reader who finishes is satisfied, not hungry for more.

Who is Speaking?

Reviews of this book on Amazon gave me no illusions that I was buying some kind of gritty, questioning, challenging view of Muhammad’s life. I bought it back in 2018 and the feedback that I remember seeing then was pretty polarized in the realms of “I am Muslim and I endorse this message” or “I am not Muslim and this is tripe.” But a faith-centric history was fine for my purposes. I wanted to know who Muslims think Muhammad was, and I wanted to know who Muslims looked to for information about Muhammad. The key attraction for me was that subtitle, “His Life Based on the Earliest Sources.” Who were these early sources and what did they say? I had hoped to get some leads on which historians set the foundation for Muslim historiography, maybe also some insight into their methods and debates given that they were separated from the original events by a over a century.

Therein lies the great letdown of the book: its citations. Lings’s bibliography contains a total of sixteen sources with no explanation of their qualities, contexts, or relationships to each other. Sixteen is not an impressive list, but it gets even less impressive when you evaluate them. The sources he labels as “early” number three: Ibn Ishaq/Ibn Hisham, Ibn Sa’d, and Al-Waqidi. He then supplemented those with three other sources of later date listed as minor references: Al-Azraqi, At-Tabari, As-Suhayli. And the last ten resources are ten different hadith collections, which should be read like citing encyclopedias: a brand-name collection of atomized entries, with each entry subject to evaluation that is not always agreed upon. Why did Lings use only these sources? I can be a little generous and speculate that maybe he didn’t have access to many materials in 1983. He didn’t write this book in the age of Google or Amazon. He did go to the three earliest resources generally available. (You’d be surprised how few of the early histories have survived, let alone been circulated.) In looking at which editions of these resources he chose I would also speculate that he was going for a sort of purity. He was working from the Arabic writings, not translations or works with critical commentary.

The limits of this is that his pool is small, maybe even smaller than it first seems. Everyone seems to depend upon Ibn Ishaq, as far as I can tell (having never directly handled these materials but depending upon the discussion of others), and that creates a rather synoptic view of the history with At-Tabari’s and Al-Waqidi’s histories both being described in their Wikipedia entries as building off his work. Al-Waqidi, though one of the earliest extant sources, is a highly controversial figure whose accounts are held suspect by Islamic scholarship. Ibn Sa’d was Al-Waqidi’s student, even to the point of being nicknamed Katib al-Waqidi “Waqidi’s Scribe.” A student can do independent research and become an authority on a topic independent of their teacher, but this does still suggest that his own work is derivative to an extent. I don’t really have any credentials to understand how much these books derive from each other (hence my dependence on Wikipedia), but therein lies the problem. Lings as the author should be the one with the authority, but he does not explain these books, their relationships to each other, their evaluation in Islamic scholarship, the environs and needs for which they were created, why he chose one or the other for each story he relates. Because his bibliography does not include works of academic discussion, it shows that Lings did not behold his own opinions to those of other scholars, having not tested or supplemented himself with their theories. Again, we return to the problem that Lings does not have any curiosity for the material, asking no questions of the texts he’s using to write his biography of Muhammad.

Rather than seeking to understand the texts, I suspect that Lings was a little too eager to impose his ideals upon them and speak for them. I see this in how little material from his resources he cites explicitly. He includes short quotes from the mouths of characters, but he never quotes from the narrations of the sources themselves. For example, I never saw him say “At-Tabari says…” “According to Waqidi:” or the like. Instead, he summarizes all narrations in his own words, sometimes including a footnote citation but never giving direct view of the original material (well, translated original). Summarization isn’t bad; summarization is a useful thing in that it lets you arrange materials more conveniently. But, in distilling materials down to their “gists,” you are imposing your priorities upon the information and potentially hiding things. If I summarize my afternoon activities with “I cleaned the house,” it prioritizes my productivity in that time and leaves out the snacks I ate, the books I read, the minutes I dawdled. Regardless of the ratios of time spent in each activity, I can prioritize activities that fall under “I cleaned the house” in order to distill the afternoon in a way that reassures myself that I spent my time well. If you’ve seen my day and judged my summary justified by the evidence, then you develop a profile of my character and are better able to trust my summaries. At no point does Lings transparently process an original resource before me, thus I cannot tell what methods he uses or priorities he’s imposing upon the information. I cannot tell which things the sources are saying and which things Martin Lings is saying.

…But I can guess. I bought this book years ago and set it aside with disappointment. I’m revisiting it now that I know enough traditions to compare with Lings’ summation. I can see in some tales where Lings glossed details and therefor can guess at his priorities. There are in Islamic tradition different two stories of Aisha losing a necklace. One is the infamous they-left-her-behind story in which Aisha came under suspicion of adultery, and the other is a much smaller instance wherein Aisha’s search for a necklace delayed the contingent in a waterless place beyond the times in which they needed to wash for prayer. This story appears several times in the hadith collections of Al-Bukhari. Here are three of those hadith:

Narrated `Urwa’s father::

Aisha said, “I borrowed a necklace from Asma’ and it was lost. So Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) sent a man to search for it and he found it. Then the time of the prayer became due and there was no water. They prayed (without ablution) and informed Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) about it, so the verse of Tayammum was revealed.” Usaid bin Hudair said to `Aisha, “May Allah reward you. By Allah, whenever anything happened which you did not like, Allah brought good for you and for the Muslims in that.”

Sahih al-Bukhari 336

Narrated Aisha:

A necklace of mine was lost at Al-Baida’ and we were on our way to Medina. The Prophet (ﷺ) made his camel kneel down and dismounted and laid his head on my lap and slept. Abu Bakr came to me and hit me violently on the chest and said, “You have detained the people because of a necklace.” I kept as motionless as a dead person because of the position of Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) (on my lap) although Abu Bakr had hurt me (with the slap). Then the Prophet (ﷺ) woke up and it was the time for the morning (prayer). Water was sought, but in vain; so the following Verse was revealed:– “O you who believe! When you intend to offer prayer…” (5.6) Usaid bin Hudair said, “Allah has blessed the people for your sake, O the family of Abu Bakr. You are but a blessing for them.”

Sahih al-Bukhari 4608

Narrated Aisha

Abu Bakr came to towards me and struck me violently with his fist and said, “You have detained the people because of your necklace.” But I remained motionless as if I was dead lest I should awake Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) although that hit was very painful.

Sahih al-Bukhari 6845

So in those three accounts alone, which details would you prioritize in summary? Here is Lings’ version:

A’ishah and Umm Salamah had accompanied the Prophet on this expedition; and at a sunset halt two or three days after the forced march, an onyx necklace which A’ishah was wearing came unclasped and slipped to the ground unobserved. When she noticed her loss, it was already too dark to make a search, and she was loath to go without it. Her mother had placed it round her neck on the day of her wedding, and it was one of her most treasured possessions. The place was without water and the Prophet had intended no more than a brief halt, but he now gave orders to camp there until daylight. The reason for the change of plan was passed from mouth to mouth, and much indignation was felt that a whole army should be kept waiting at such an inclement spot for the sake of a necklace. Some of the Companions went and complained to Abu Bakr, who was greatly embarrassed and scolded his daughter for her carelessness. There was not one well within reach, and the men had used up all the water they carried with them, intending to fill their skins and bottles at the well watered camp they had been aiming for. It would not be possible to pray at dawn, for they had no means of making their ablutions. But in the last hours of the night the verse of earth-purification was revealed to the Prophet – an event of untold importance for the practical life of the community: “If ye find not water then purify yourselves with clean earth, wiping therewith your faces and your hands.” The feelings that had run so high throughout the host subsided, and Usayd exclaimed: “This is not the first blessing that ye have brought unto us, O family of Abu Bakr.”

Martin Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources. Kindle Edition, loc 4460.

Now, for the details that Lings adds, I cannot say because I don’t know which account/s he’s supposedly drawing from. I checked a technically bootlegged pdf file of the book (the ebook was lazily transferred into digital form and they left the footnotes behind) and there are no citations for this story besides the coordinates for the Quran verse. So is this sourced from Ibn Ishaq/Ibn Hisham, At-Tabari, a selection of hadiths, or from Martin Lings’ own synthesis? Who knows. But what did Lings leave out? Well, primarily that Aisha’s father Abu Bakr –an Islamic founding father– violently struck his daughter in anger. Maybe the version that Lings is drawing from does not include these details, but then what was his decision process for choosing that version over other versions? These differences and details beg for questioning, but Lings’ version prioritizes sympathetic portraits of its heroes and leaves no ambiguity to invite deeper examination.

Though I expected a pious and sympathetic look at the heroes of Islam, the tagline “His Life Based on the Earliest Sources,” promised to me some inclusion of these sources. However, the tagline of this book should be “My Version of His Life, Based the Earliest Sources,” for this book entirely consists of Martin Lings’ personal retelling of what the early sources say. And more significantly, it never confesses to doing such. This book is a tertiary source that pretends to be a secondary or even primary one.

History is Hard

At the end of the day, this book is very, very popular. Cynically, I suspect it’s popular because it doesn’t invite questions and because it is so sympathetic to its heroes. This book has received institutional promotion –from national governments even– with awards and adoration lavished upon it. A lot of descriptions praise it for being approachable and easy to read, simple and yet grand in scope. And it is those things, it just won’t start you on a path of exploration. It is less about starting exploration and more about satisfying it. It makes history “easy.” And cheap.

Martin Lings is an interesting figure. An Anglo-American Shakespearean scholar, convert to Islam, and mystic, he led an interesting life and seems to have been a benign character. I see in this book –in its scant bibliography and lack of rigor– a very Protestant kind of thinking. The thinking is thus: I have access to the sources; I don’t need all the “experts” and historical packaging to understand them; my opinions are as authoritative as anyone else’s. Rather than promote direct access to those sources so that others may develop their own opinions, he then writes his opinions into a book to cement them into an authoritative form… a book that doesn’t include the access to sources or his own process of synthesis. After all, if someone else reads the sources, they might develop a different opinion than him. In elevating his opinion, he drowns out the original materials and becomes that thing he refused validity for himself: a mediator between the sources and the people. So very Protestant.

Yes, yes, I know, I’m Protestant.

This “Protestant” impulse is a very human one. We just want things to be easy, especially if they’re important things. We want to be self-sufficient and able to find truth by ourselves. But history is decidedly not an easy subject. Even within Islamic historiography the dialogue is fraught and complicated because details are so many and conflicted. The resources are simultaneously vast and limited. There is a ton of information preserved in the hadith collections, yet also not enough information to reconcile or choose between contradictory ones. There are frequent references to important older materials, and yet the materials themselves went unpreserved. This all leaves much room for opinions and theories to form and debate. The authority of opinions isn’t in their mere existence, but in their ability to dialogue with such conflicts and factor in as much information as is available within their scope.

The reality is that most people don’t have enough time and energy to devote to all the information mining and opinion battling of historiography. They need to raise kids, research cancer, stock shelves, foster friendships, make art, pave roads, rest and relax. For those with little time but some curiosity, a mediator to dispense and distill the consensus on history is a necessity. Still, only pick mediators that establish trust with you and are honest with their mediation. Have they factored the information, given you view of their materials, demonstrated their processes, shared the dialogue, included their own role in mediation and admitted their priorities? In Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, Martin Lings has not.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: “Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources” by Martin Lings

  1. I would call not inviting questions the defining tone of Islam, I suspect any objective source on Muhammad’s life would have to be written by a non-Muslim or apostate, and it would swiftly be called heretical.

    Like

    1. We can define the tone of this book because we can see it, but it isn’t fair to define the general tone of Islam — that’s a really big and diverse world of its own! I think our view of how many questions are asked is going to be hampered by being on this side of the language barrier. Conversations on our side are likely to be missional (or anti-missional) and thus will try and control the narrative and control the questions. I’ve seen evidence that within the Islamic world itself there are academics and believing people who ask questions, tease apart details, and work with the rougher truths. But since this work isn’t being done in English, we English-speakers aren’t privvy to it. With the size of the English internet, it’s easy to forget that not all conversations are available to us. Let’s not speak for those we don’t hear.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes that’s probably fair, I may have been hasty. I shall amend: not asking questions is the defining tone of English-speaking Islam, I’ve debated with followers of all major religions (in English) (yours a lot ’cause I’m surrounded by them 🤣) and a great many minor ones, and never encountered such rigidity as with Muslims.

    I stand by what I said about objectivity though, I’d apply the same standard to all religions. If you want an objective view of Muhammad’s life you have to do so without respect for the Divine (as, again, with all religions). Appreciate the response. ✌

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.