Representations of the Prophet during the expeditions, as depicted in the maghāzī literature and the ḥadīt̲h̲-s of al-Bukhārī

Adrien de JARMY (PhD candidate at Paris-Sorbonne University).

Paper presented at the workshop « Between God and Man. The Representations of the Prophet in the Construction of Islamic Knowledge » (Paris, 5-6 July 2017)

Introduction : from Muḥammad to the character of the Prophet

The Prophet is without a doubt the most emblematic figure of Islam. Yet hopes of writing an actual historical biography of Muḥammad took a major hit, as skepticism grew among historians, fuelled by the publications of John Wansbrough[1] in the late seventies, and Yehuda D. Nevo and Judith Koren’s study in 2003[2]. Despite the remarkable work of the late Martin Lings and Fred McGraw Donner, using the isnād methodology developed by Ignaz Goldziher to rewrite the Prophet’s life, it seems extremely difficult to overcome the 200 year long gap between the early 7th century C.E. expeditions and the earliest sources we have access to. However, following the steps of Uri Rubin[3] and Jacqueline Chabbi[4], historians are now encouraged to embrace its “impossible biography” and the wide variety of tales and legends that comes with it.

Sources such as the sīra of Ibn Isḥāq as it appears in Ibn Hishām’s recensions, as well as the maghāzī by al-Wāqidī, and narratives from Ṭabarī, give us a keen insight into how early Muslims conceived and wrote their founding narratives for the ūmma. Such is not the case for the Koran, which provides very few information about Muḥammad, who is referred to as a mere man. His representations are much more elaborated in the maghāzī and ḥadīt̲h̲-s literatures. The simple man turned into a Prophet thanks to his ability to see in the future and to perform miracles. These features are particularly highlighted in the narratives of his expeditions, where he is depicted as a great warrior who could change the course of a battle by himself, and a leader who embodies political authority. It is worth underlining that during the Abbasid era, from which our most ancient sources are drawn, the new caliphate was seeking legitimacy in order to support its rise to power between the 8th and the 9th century C.E. Considering this context, we can assume that the writing of the maghāzī contributed to the religious and political foundations of the Abbassid dynasty, although it was not its only purpose. Therefore, it has played a decisive part in shaping the figure of the Prophet, defining his features and contributing to the emergence of his worship, regardless of the prohibitions displayed in the Koran. Thanks to the many narratives recorded in the ḥadīt̲h̲-s compilations, along with the maghāzī literature, traditionalists were able to establish that Muḥammad became a role-model not only for the caliph, but also for all Muslims in their everyday life. In addition to a ruthless warrior, the Prophet was also a caring man, providing for his religious kin and capable of forgiving. The ḥadīt̲h̲-s compilations, like the work of al-Bukhārī, are heavily connected to the maghāzī, and were used to serve the law for the community. In this normative literature, stories of the Prophet can be seen as exempla, i.e. moral anecdotes for the early Muslims.

The Warrior-Prophet

Battles and combat

Muḥammad is first and foremost depicted as a warlord in the maghāzī literature. His expeditions[5] can be classified in four categories: raids or razzias[6], ranked battles, sieges and assassinations. In each of them the Prophet plays a key part, choosing the strategy for battles, selecting targets, blessing the warriors before and after combat and fighting side by side with his companions[7]. The traditionalists pay tribute to his heroic deeds at war, quoting his companions and poems that were allegedly composed by early Muslims around him. These extracts include features of epic literature, as the Prophet is truly seen as a hero, fighting for the quest that was given to him, that is to say spreading Islam with the use of his sword if necessary. Indeed, Muḥammad is described as the most formidable warrior by ʿAlī at the battle of Badr (624 C.E.), charging enemies without fear or hesitation. These epic depictions reach a climactic point during duels, where the Prophet displayed a tremendous force against a single foe, usually the champion of the opposite camp. An outstanding example of this heroic representation can be read in the story of his combat against Ubayy Ibn Ḵh̲alaf at the battle of Uhud a year later (625 C.E.). With a single blow, the Prophet instantly killed Ubayy who fell to the ground. This story is well known among traditionalists and can be found in several maghāzī with interesting variations. For example, Ṭabarī reports Ubayy’s words at the end of the duel : “Even if  he had just spat on me he would have killed me”, illustrating Muḥammad’s strength and the gap between the simple man and the Prophet. As early as the second half of the 8th century C.E., the Prophet seemed to be already worshipped and perceived as more than a man.

Relics from the Warrior-Prophet

The relics play a central part in these devotions, as there are numerous references to the Prophet’s weapons in the sources, sometimes making the core of whole chapters.  Muḥammad is known for possessing seven swords, Dhū al-Faqār[8] being the deadliest one. The sword was obtained as spoil at the battle of Badr and given to ʿAlī at Uhud, providing him with huge strength as he entered a trance state and performed a war dance. For the Shiites, the anecdote would confirm ʿAlī as the true successor of the Prophet and his rightful heir. The transmission of relics such as swords could determine one’s legitimacy to rule over the Muslim community. Other relics include the three swords taken from the armory of the Banū Qaynuqāʿ, one of the three Jewish tribes from Yathrib : Qalaʿī[9], Battār[10] and al-Hatf[11]. Ibn Isḥāq is also prolific with descriptions of his coat of mail, the value of which he stressed before the Battle of Uhud : “A prophet who has put on his armor should not lay it aside until he has fought”. This large collection of weapons and gear has contributed to shaping the image of the Prophet as a warlord and an epic hero. According to traditionalists, part of Muḥammad’s regalia besides his weapons were his cloak[12] and staff, which were carefully stored by the Abbasid caliphs to confirm their succession and power.

The miracle-maker and the thaumaturge

Miracles at war

As a warlord and a messenger of God, the Prophet was also capable of performing miracles in the heat of the battle. For example at Badr, the Quraych were in great number against the Believers and decided to charge quickly. Muḥammad bent to the ground and picked up sand and stones in his right hand, throwing them at the face of the enemy. With this simple gesture, the Quraych were blinded and could not keep fighting, forced to retreat. The anecdote is related in the sīra of Ibn Isḥāq and by al-Bukhārī. According al-Wāqidī, the miracle occurred again at the siege of the fortress of al-Nizār at Khaybar (around 629 C.E.), where the Prophet threw stones at the walls and created an earthquake to knock them down. The walls collapsed and the Muslims invaded the fortress, leading them to victory. The Prophet had no power of his own, but rather called upon God who expressed his power and wrath through him. This could be seen at Badr where Muḥammad invoked the help of God in the middle of the battlefield. Allāh sent an army of angels[13] which dived to the enemy from the sky and decapitated them. Only Muḥammad and a few of his companions were able to see the angels, whereas the others could only watch in horror heads falling from bodies. This miracle is the only one that can be found in the Koran as well[14]. Conjuring up the protection of angels was already a common practice before Islam, as Glen W. Bowersock analyzed in a series of inscriptions and ex-voto in Petra[15]. Although the Koran contains very few information about supernatural events at the time of the Prophet, the traditionalists are well aware of them and have rewritten most of the Judeo-Christian miracle tradition.

The power to heal

Like the prophets of the Bible and especially Jesus, Muḥammad could heal others. However, most of his miracles were performed in times of war. These miracles can be sorted in categories as well. First the Prophet could restore eyesight. The first instance of this healing power took place before the battle of Badr, when ʿAlī contracted an infection. The Prophet spat in his eyes, thus restoring his sight. Later during combat, as another companion was hit in the eyeball by an arrow, the Messenger of God took the eyeball out of the orbit, then blew on it before putting it back in. The companion was able to recover his eyesight, and his vision was even improved. Other similar miracles included healing of Hārith’s head who was injured during the assassination of Kaʿb the poet, and the healing of ʿAbdallāh Ibn ‘Atik’s broken leg, who was in charge of the assassination of Abū Rāfi. In other versions, the Prophet simply touched the injured part of their limbs, resulting in an instant recovery. Following the Judeo-Christian miracle tradition, Muḥammad was perceived as a thaumaturge Prophet. After the conquests, in a time where Muslims lived in territories inhabited by Christians, the figure of Muḥammad was in competition with other prophets from the People of the Book, and conquerors needed to assert their domination over the ḏh̲immi-s.

From the maghāzī literature to the ḥadīt̲h̲-s collections : writing the Prophet’s exempla


The ḥadīt̲h̲-s collections as well as the maghāzī literature offer numerous extracts from battles and expeditions, but the depiction of the Prophet is a vast one, evincing multiple facets.  Muḥammad is much more than a warlord, as he can be merciful and show forgiveness as well:

عَنْ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ قَالَ كَأَنِّي أَنْظُرُ إِلَى رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم يَحْكِي نَبِيًّا مِنَ الأَنْبِيَاءِ ضَرَبَهُ قَوْمُهُ وَهُوَ يَمْسَحُ الدَّمَ عَنْ وَجْهِهِ  وَيَقُولُ‏” رَبِّ اغْفِرْ لِقَوْمِي فَإِنَّهُمْ لاَ يَعْلَمُو

“ʿAbdallāh [Ibn Mas’ud] reported: I remember seeing the Messenger of Allāh, peace and blessings be upon him, tell the story of a prophet who was beaten by his people and  wiping the blood from his face, he said “My Lord, forgive my people for they do not know.”[16]

This ḥadīt̲h̲ may refer to the Prophet’s time in Mekka and the persecution he suffered from, at the hands of the early Believers. The Prophet, burdened by his message and mission, was doomed to be persecuted by those who refused the ultimate Revelation. Since it was inevitable, he prayed to God for them, so they would avoid His wrath on the day of the Apocalypse. On other occasions, the Prophet taught prayers to his closest companions like Abū Bakr:

عَنْ أَبِي بَكْرٍ قَالَ لِرَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ عَلِّمْنِي دُعَاءً أَدْعُو بِهِ فِي صَلَاتِي قَالَ قُلْ اللَّهُمَّ إِنِّي ظَلَمْتُ نَفْسِي ظُلْمًا كَبِيرًا وَقَالَ قُتَيْبَةُ كَثِيرًا وَلَا يَغْفِرُ الذُّنُوبَ إِلَّا أَنْتَ فَاغْفِرْ لِي مَغْفِرَةً مِنْ عِنْدِكَ وَارْحَمْنِي إِنَّكَ أَنْتَ الْغَفُورُ الرَّحِيمُ


“Abū Bakr reported: He said to the Messenger of Allāh, peace and blessings be upon him, “O Messenger of Allāh, teach me a supplication to say in my prayers.” The Prophet said, “Say: O Allāh, I have wronged myself with many great wrongs and none forgives sin but you, so forgive me and have mercy upon me. Verily, you alone are the Forgiving, the Merciful.”[17]

In this ḥadīt̲h̲, the Prophet is clearly referred to as a teacher for the everyday life of Muslims. Muḥammad taught Abū Bakr to repent himself in front of God for his sins, and maybe his behavior, before he converted to Islam. Furthermore, these ḥadīt̲h̲ exhort Muslims to forgive each other and to rely on God for every moral decision. Hence, these anecdotes taken from the life of the Prophet can be interpreted as moral lessons or exempla, which encourage Muslims to follow the path indicated by the Messenger of Allāh.

As food for thought for the PhD[18], I am considering looking into the muṣannafāt literature, which dates back from even earlier than the maghāzī and ḥadīt̲h̲-s collections, and contains previous versions of these narratives and anecdotes. From the muṣannafāt material, I would study the different ways traditionalists used to shape the character of the Prophet: the narrative path with the maghāzī literature and the normative path with ḥadīt̲h̲-s collections.

Selected bibliography


al-Bukhārī, Saḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, Beyrout, Dār Ibn Hazm, 2003.

Ibn Isḥaq, Sīra, ed. F. Wüstenfeld, 1860. See also translation by Alfred Guillaume.

Ṭabarī, Tārīkh al-Rusul wa al-Mulūk, ed. University of California, 1923, 23 volumes.

Wāqidī, Kitāb al-Maghāzī, Oxford University press, 1966.

                   Literature on the subject

Jonathan Brown, The canonization of al-Bukhārī and Muslim : the formation and function of the Sunnī ḥadīth canon, Leyde, Brill, 2007.

Jonathan E. Brockopp, The Cambridge companion to Muḥammad, Cambridge, Cambridge university press, 2010.

Jacqueline Chabbi, Le seigneur des tribus : l’Islam de Mahomet, Paris, Paris : Éd. Noêsis, 1997.

Jacqueline Chabbi, « Histoire et tradition sacrée. La biographie impossible de Mahomet », Arabica, 1996, vol. 43, no 1, p. 189‑205.

Abdesselam Cheddadi, Les Arabes et l’appropriation de l’Histoire. Emergence et premiers développements de l’historiographie musulmane jusqu’au IIe/VIIIe siècle, Paris, Sindbad, Actes Sud, 2004.

Patricia Crone et Michael Cook, Hagarism : The Making of the Islamic World, Cambridge, Cambridge university press, 1977.

Patricia Crone et Martin Hinds, God’s Caliph : Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam, London, Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Fred McGraw Donner, Narratives of Islamic origins : The beginnings of islamic historical writing, Princeton, The Darwin Press, 1998.

Fred McGraw Donner, Muḥammad and the Believers : at the origins of islam, Cambridge, Belknap Press of Harvard university press, 2010.

Denis Gril, « Le corps du Prophète », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée, 2006, p. 37‑57.

Robert Gerard Hoyland, In God’s path. The Arab Conquest and the Creation of an Islamic Empire, New York, Oxford University Press, 2015.

Hugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the age of caliphate : the Islamic Near East from the Sixth to the Eleventh century, Harlow, Pearson, 2004.

Wilfried Madelung, The Succession to Muḥammad. A study of the early Caliphate, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Harald Motzki, The biography of Muḥammad : the issue of the sources, Leiden, Brill, 2000.

Harald Motzki, Hadith : Origins and Developments, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2000.

Harald Motzki et Gregor Schoeler, « Methods of Dating Early Legal Traditions », Islamic Law and Society, 2012, p. 1‑10.

Yehuda D. Nevo et Judith Koren, The Crossroads to Islam, New York, 2003.

Albrecht Noth et Lawrence Conrad, The Early Arabic Historical Tradition. A Source-Critical Study, Princeton, Darwin Press, 1994.

Alfred-Louis Prémare, Les fondations de l’Islam : entre écriture et histoire, Paris, Seuil, 2002.

Uri Rubin, Muḥammad the Prophet and Arabia, Farnham, Ashgate, 2011.

Uri Rubin, The Life of Muḥammad, Aldershot, Ashgate, 1998.

Uri Rubin, The Eye of the Beholder : The Life of Muḥammad as viewed by the Early Muslims : A Textual Analysis, Princeton, Darwin Press, 1995.

John Schacht, The Origins of Muḥammadan Jurisprudence, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1967.

Gregor Schoeler, The Biography of Muḥammad : Nature and Authenticity, London, Routledge, 2011.

Gregor Schoeler, Ecrire et transmettre dans les débuts de l’Islam, Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 2002.

William Montgomery Watt, W. M. Watt. Mahomet : prophète et homme d’Etat, Paris, Payot, 1962.



[1]    John Wansbrough and Gerald Hawting, The Sectarian Milieu : Content and Composition of Islamic Salvation History, London, Oxford University Press, 1978.

[2]    Yehuda D Nevo et Judith Koren, The Crossroads to Islam, New York, 2003.

[3]    Uri Rubin, The Eye of the Beholder : The Life of Muḥammad as viewed by the Early Muslims : A Textual Analysis, Princeton, Darwin Press, 1995.

[4]    Jacqueline Chabbi, « Histoire et tradition sacrée. La biographie impossible de Mahomet », Arabica, 1996, vol. 43, no 1, p. 189‑205.

[5]    Around 80 depending on sources and counting.

[6]    From which comes the original term maghāzī.

[7]      Also know as al-ṣaḥābah.

[8]    Can be translated as “two-edges”, could be meaning “the one who separates the Good from Evil”.

[9]    « Taken by force ».

[10]  « Really sharp ».

[11]  « Death ».

[12]  Burda.

[13]  malāʿika.

[14]  VIII, 9.

[15]  « Les anges païens dans l’antiquité tardive », conference by Glen W. Bowersock at the Collège de France, 09/09/2013.

[16]  Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 6530. Also see Ṣaḥīḥ al-Muslim, 1792. Translations from Arabic are taken from Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research and NYU Abu Dhabi’s websites, little revised by myself.

[17]  Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 6953. Also see Ṣaḥīḥ al-Muslim, 2705.

[18]  Under the supervision of Mathieu Tillier, full professor at Paris-Sorbonne University.


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