Some years ago, I naively bought a gigantic, four-volume set of Al-sira Al-nabawiyya by Ismail ibn Kathir. My understanding is that his Tafsir is widely considered authoritative, but the biographies of Muhammad I've read always refer to Ibn Ishaq as their source -- none of them ever mention Ibn Kathir. So I'm wondering whether Ibn Kathir's biography is considered authoritative.

Also, I've discovered a book by Sir William Muir, written in 1924, called "The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline, And Fall". I'm again wondering whether any sects or schools of thought in the Muslim community consider it authoritative.

Any advice on how to present this question? Should I ask two separate questions? Is it appropriate to ask this sort of question on islam.SE? I'm trying to get a sense of whether the books I'm reading are considered by Muslims in general to be reasonable representations of Muslim history. That is, if in general can have any meaning in this context.

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    I'm not sure to what extent this kind of questions would fit here. To give you an idea ibn Kathir might only have compiled older narrations. As the first books or scholars who wrote biographies where ibn Ishaq and his student ibn Hisham and ibn Saad but later scholars only accepted their narrations when they had backup in other peoples narration. Ibn Kathir might have done some effort to select the most authentic "stories".
    – Medi1Saif Mod
    Jun 26, 2016 at 12:48
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    Thank you for your comment. I'm afraid I haven't been clear with my question. I'm not asking about Ibn Kathir's methods. I'm asking about the general opinion among Muslims concerning his Al-sira Al-nabawiyya, as well as the general opinion of Muir's work. If you have any suggestions for how I could make that clearer in my question, please let me know and I will try to edit accordingly. Jun 26, 2016 at 15:54
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    No you have been clear enough about ibn Kathir. I just wanted to point at the two or three original sira books on which any later would relay. And at the authenticity dilema about them as neither ibn Ishaq nor ibn Saad are considered as thrusworthy narrators from the point of view of hadith scholars. And both have been accused of light fabrication etc. so that their narrations needs backup by more thrustworthy narrators. And i never read the sira of ibn Kathir.
    – Medi1Saif Mod
    Jun 26, 2016 at 20:14
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    Thank you, I am very surprised, as I thought Ibn Ishaq was considered the main authority. Are there any historians widely regarded as authoritative? Jun 26, 2016 at 21:29
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    Just to clear some of the confusion: The point with ibn Ishaq is that he often didn't give the complete narrator chain (which is a major problem from the perspective of hadith scholars), he -apparently- had non-Muslim sources, and he was accused of being a shi'a or a "pro-shi'a" which may mean he set Ali higher than 'Othman (these are points of weakness from the perspective of sunni hadith scholars). See also islam.stackexchange.com/questions/25944/… as an example of disputable story.
    – Medi1Saif Mod
    Jun 27, 2016 at 7:29

2 Answers 2


Well, first off I'd say you definitely don't want to post anything comparing two (or more) books asking which one is "more" authoritative; that's just likely to attract argument and debate between proponents of each book rather than any actually useful comparisons.

That said, I think the crux of what will make your question fail or succeed is: What do you mean by "authoritative"?

I've not read any of the siyar you've brought up, but as Medi1Saif had mentioned there's points of contention in all of them, mostly related to the sources used to generate the content. This is to the best of my knowledge a common trait of siyar, since even if you can take all the sahih hadith and string them into a coherent chronology, that accounts for a fraction of the prophet's entire life and ministry: If one wants to fill in all the gaps, one must resort to less reliable sources, and how "less reliable" that gets depends on the author.

However, is this really a problem, or even relevant to what you're actually asking? Ensuring that hadith are authentic is essential for fiqhi matters in pretty much all schools of jurisprudence, but one does not derive fiqh from a sira.

So setting that aside, what is, or is not, "authoritative"?

Now I'm just speculating here, but I suspect what you're actually interested is less whether they are or are not widely-regarded, rather whether there's any significant reason to disregard them. In that case, I would define "authoritative" as "possible, within reason" (which would probably get me shot by a dictionary editor). In other words, it…

  1. … is written by a scholar with sufficient credentials to know what he's talking about
  2. … is comprised of information that doesn't contradict known authentic hadith
  3. … contains no stories that are outright fabricated (as compared to weak or disputed)

And a bit more subjective, but I'll throw this in for completion,

  1. … is consistent with well-established Islamic beliefs

Point 1 may warrant its own question for each book, but I reckon between Wikipedia and the forewards of the books themselves, you're probably already covered about as well (if not better) than anything you can get here.

Point 2 can be reasonably scoped by requesting explicit and concrete examples of clear contradiction. If the contradiction is based on interpretation rather than actual text, it should probably be rejected unless it's clearly established how common that interpretation is: Even a fringe interpretation would probably be a valuable point of consideration for your purposes, but it is important to distinguish that from one that's widely-held among most/all Islamic scholars.

Point 3 is similar; what is or is not an outright fabrication is not clearly defined and can be a point of dispute among scholars, but so long as the answers clearly establish how common that interpretation is it should be safe from opinion-bait. Ideally, this would include concrete references to reputable scholars, since appealing to personal opinions of what is or is not fabricated is just…messy.

Point 4 is a lot trickier: I included it for the sake of completion, but making it work I'd need to leave as an exercise to the reader. Personally, I'd probably avoid including it since it's hard to make it not be opinion-bait: There's so many potential variations (subtle and major) of Islamic beliefs when you work under the umbrella of Islam as it's defined on this site (i.e. everyone who self-identifies as Muslim), and if you distribute those over the entire lifetime of the prophet you're bound to find innumerable points of contention.

So if I were trying to ask your question, I'd probably scope it to points 2 and 3: Something along the lines of "Are there any reasonable criticisms to the veracity of [book name]?" (except maybe with less clunky wording…) with the question body emphasising what counts as a "reasonable criticism", namely that you already realize that they probably contain weak narrations, and are particularly interested in concrete examples of actual conflicts and fabrications.

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    This helps a lot, thank you so much. Plus you put a lot of thought into it! How about my old standby, are there any scholars that reject (or frown on) so-and-so book? Jun 27, 2016 at 13:21
  • @GreatBigBore That could work, but I'm not sure if it would get any useful answers; plenty of scholarly criticisms, probably, but a lot of those would likely still be about the methodology (use of weak narrations) rather than actual content. Again, you'd probably still want to scope it to blatant conflicts and fabrications. I reckon plenty of scholars would still consider it mostly reliable even in those cases, since the fabricated parts can be ignored while the remaining 90% of the book would still be sound, rather than reject/disregard it completely.
    – goldPseudo Mod
    Jun 27, 2016 at 18:17
  • I doubt the entire book would be rejected unless it was written by a questionable author in the first place, or by using a methodology that pretty much ignored due diligence entirely.
    – goldPseudo Mod
    Jun 27, 2016 at 18:21
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    I will tentatively assume that Ibn Kathir's Sira is respected. I have a more specific question about Muir, but I fear it could cause serious trouble. During the caliphates of Abu Bakr and Omar, Muir describes endless brutality, "slaughter", "carnage", the "country strewn with corpses". "Multitudes of captive women", "rich lands, endless spoil, slave-girls" on and on. I'm not judging; I am just stunned. I would like to know whether these accounts are in line with Muslim scholarship, or perhaps considered malicious lies. Is there even a safe way to ask? A way to encourage useful answers? Jun 28, 2016 at 3:51
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    @GreatBigBore That's hard to say. Orientalist scholars aren't generally held in high regard by Islamic scholars (mostly because they're typically non-Muslim and trying to explain Islam as an outsider to outsiders). I do think that these guidelines would work for Muir as well as for Ibn Ishaq or Ibn Kathir, with a caveat that you're not interested in ad hominems against the author so much as criticisms of the content of the book (you should probably post a separate question about how well-regarded William Muir is as a scholar if you are interested in that aspect).
    – goldPseudo Mod
    Jun 28, 2016 at 4:13
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    I don't know why this didn't occur to me earlier: I will just mention a couple of specific accounts of the military actions under Abu Bakr with a few details, and ask whether the accounts are considered accurate by Muslim scholars. Sound reasonable? Also I'll hope it doesn't get so many downvotes that I am permanently banned from the site! Jun 28, 2016 at 4:43
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    @GreatBigBore Agreed, focussing on individual events would probably get you reasonable answers (although details of some events are very controversial so may still attract pointless sectarian arguments). I'll still keep this answer up as a general "asking about entire books" thing though.
    – goldPseudo Mod
    Jun 28, 2016 at 19:27

As we can read in the intro of our tour:

Islam Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for experts in Islam, students of knowledge, and those interested in Islam on an academic level. It's built and run by you as part of the Stack Exchange network of Q&A sites. With your help, we're working together to build a library of detailed answers to every question about Islam on an academic level.

Questions about the opinion of Muslims on a book about Islam can be on-topic, as this could lead to an academic kind of discussion.

But on the other hand there's always the risk that such a question would be considered as opinion based, as for Example ibn Kathir is a well known and accepted scholar among sunni Muslims and his tafsir is one of the major sources even if it is well known to include so called israeliyat (doubtful stories which have been taken from Jewish (or other non-Muslim) sources). Therefore his tafsir includes also a lot of disputable stories.

Now when it comes to a biography or a book about an Islamic topic written by a non-Muslim you should know that many Muslims (and Scholars) would take them with much prudence if not refuse them at all. There are only a few accepted (not by all Muslims) non-Muslim authors and not a few of them are reverts.

And you should avoid a question about book comparison as this is clearly off-topic and hardly fit the SE model, even if there's a new proposal about software comparison on in Area51.

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    You could probably mitigate a lot of the opinion-based by limiting scope to a general overview of reputable scholarly opinions, rather than Muslims in general. But there'd still be a lot of dispute over what is and is not considered "authoritative". AFAIK, the picture you can paint from only authentic narrations is tiny compared to the prophet's entire life and/or ministry, so siyar in general need to draw from a lot of questionable sources to fill in those gaps. But since siyar typically aren't used for fiqhi issues, they don't really need to be "authoritative* in that sense to be useful.
    – goldPseudo Mod
    Jun 27, 2016 at 7:38

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