THE PURPORTED STORY of the Christian monk Baḥîra who lived in Syria during the early life of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ is a rootless and much controversial story. Yet the story has been used against the Prophet and against Islam by some near-sighted Western orientalists, as well as some Eastern heretics, who have concluded that when Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was only a young boy he earned the inspiration of prophethood and gathered all the knowledge and information of old scriptures and prophets from this monk.
Their propaganda is so strong that even some Muslims have been affected and influenced by it. One such is Muhammad Husayn Haykal who decides, “It was in al-Sham (Syria) that he came to know of Byzantine and Christian history and heard of the Christians’ scriptures. … [This] enabled him at an early age to listen perceptively and to observe details. Later on he would review in memory all that he had seen or heard and he would investigate it all in solitude, asking himself, “what, of all he has seen and heard, is the truth?” (The Life of Muhammad ﷺ by Muhammad Husayn Haykal, Translated by Isma’il Razi A. al-Faruqi, “The First Trip to al Sham,” pdf format p: 118-119)
The story has it that at the age of nine (or something up to twelve), the prophet to-be, Muhammad ﷺ, made a business trip to Syria with his uncle Abû Țâlib and some Quraysh men. When their caravan reached the city of Buṣra, in the southern region of Syria, a Christian monk named Baḥîra, who was living in a monastery on their route, saw the cloud of dust that had been overshadowing the caravan—a caravan which trees and rocks had been prostrating towards—centering upon the boy.
Then the monk invited all the men of the caravan to have a meal and he scrutinized the boy in the light of expectations according to Christian books. Consequently he understood that this very boy would be a prophet one day. So he warned the uncle that by getting the identity of the future-prophet as described in the old scriptures, some Christians or Jews would harm the boy.
Only for this reason had the boy to return back to Makkah—some versions say with Abû Bakr and Bilâl—or along with his uncle. It is further seen in the story that the monk talked to some Quraysh men like Abû Țâlib and asked the boy a few questions. Note that–according to the story–their conversation was limited to the time period spent having a meal, or perhaps it extended to when they unfastened the saddles of their pack animals and unloaded their goods and loaded up again.
Analysis of the Sources, Chain of Narrations and the Narrators
However, we now examine the story as to whether it is authentic or whether it is a concocted one. Apparently the only sources of the story are the Sirât Rasûl Allah by Ibn Isḥâq, Jâmiʿ Al-Tirmidhi and Mustadrak Al-Ḥâkim. The first book is biographical history, and the other two are books of Ḥadîth.
After more than one and a half century after the alleged incident had passed, Ibn Isḥâq wrote down the story (The Life of Muhammad, a Translation of Ibn Isḥâq’s Sirât Rasûl Allah with Introduction and Notes by A. Guillaume, Karachi, Oxford University Press, 1998, p: 79-81).
Weakness in Sources for the Story of Baḥîra the Monk
Ibn Isḥâq did not mention any narrator or source from which he had received the story. Rather he wrote himself that he had taken the information of the story from people whose names he has not disclosed. In his chapter on the story of Baḥîra the Monk, as source of the story Ibn Isḥâq referred to his sources as “So they allege” and “They allege”—two times each. In addition, the phrases “It is alleged” and “People allege” were mentioned one time each.
Such a story taken from unknown sources, or given without mentioning the name of the eye-witnesses, should not be accepted as historical evidence or truth, although it can make for a good novel. Accordingly, there may be raised a question as to why he did not mention the names of those from whom he had heard the story. If he had mentioned names of witnesses or transmitters, we would be in a position to judge whether his source was reliable or fabricated, taken from a believer or non-believer, originating from the “People of the Book” (a Jew/Christian) or from a munâfiq.
Who was Ibn Ishaq?
We look into the biography of Ibn Isḥâq himself so as to get a sense of his own reliability as a witness. Ibn Isḥâq was born in 85 h/704 ce and died in 768 ce. His grandfather, Yasâr, was a Christian who was captured in 12 h, enslaved, and was manumitted after he accepted Islam.
His book in original form has not been found but has been preserved in at least two recensions—by Ibn Hishâm with many revisions, and by Al-Bakkai Al-Ṭabari. From the beginning this book has been questionable, such that Ibn Hishâm had to reject its first part since he judged the Mubtada’ as actually based upon the Hebrew Bible.
How Have Scholars Regarded Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah?
It is interesting that there are about 600 ḥadîth in this book, but
- The later Ḥadîth-collectors—like Bukhâri, Muslim, and other prominent ones–ignored him as a trustworthy source for their collections.
- Imam Mâlik branded him a liar and an imposter for writing false stories about Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. He also said that Ibn Isḥâq “reports aḥâdîth on the authority of the Jews.”
- Shaykh Al-Islâm ibn Taymiyyah also condemned his writings.
- Imam Ahmad Ibn Ḥanbal considered his solitary work as unacceptable as a source for sound aḥâdîth.
What is at Stake
The infamous modern polemist and anti-Islam hate-monger, Robert Spencer, picks up this line of attack in his book The Truth about Muhammad and says, “However, Ibn Isḥâq’s life of Muhammad is so unashamedly hagiographical that its accuracy is questionable.” For more details see:
So, Ibn Isḥâq`s credibility has been discounted by our Ḥadîth scholars, and his purported biographical data is being scrutinized as containing fabrications. Accordingly, we must be wary of accepting his narrations, and they should not be used as reliable sources of the biography of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.
As a second source of the story, Jâmiʿ Al-Tirmidhi can be considered as an important and strong source among the Ḥadîth books. From among the aḥâdîth of Jâmiʿ Al-Tirmidhi we discuss only the one that narrates the story of Baḥîra the Monk; and the same will be the case when we refer, below, to Al-Mustadrak by Al-Hâkim.
The text of Tirmidhi’s ḥadîth #3620 can be found on pages 318-320 in
Now we turn to the recorded sources reported by Tirmidhi for his ḥadîth regarding the story of Baḥîra the Monk with focus on the narrators. Abû Mûsa Al-Ashʿari narrates the story. The chain of narrators of this ḥadîth is that Tirmidhi reports it from Faḍl ibn Sahl, who reports it from ʿAbd Al-Raḥmân ibn Ghazwân, …from Yunus ibn Abî Isḥâq, …from Abî Bakr ibn Abî Mûsa, …from his father (Abû Mûsa Al-Ashʿari). He said: “Abû Ṭâlib set out for Syria … [and so on].”
Here is what is known regarding the five narrators:
- Abû Mûsa Al-Ashʿari, who was not an eyewitness of the event, nor did he even mention the source(s) from which he had got or heard the story. If he had done so, it could be understood whether his source was controversial or not, authentic or fabricated. After all, he was neither Makkan nor Madinian by birth—such that he would be likely to have gotten it from an unbroken chain from an actual eyewitness.
- Abî Bakr ibn Abî Mûsa, who heard the ḥadîth from his father has been criticized by some scholars. Imam Ahmad Ibn Ḥanbal has totally rejected his hearing from his father. That’s why Ibn Sʿad has declared him as weak.
- ʿAbd Al-Raḥmân ibn Ghazwân, on whom many ḥadîth scholars have made objections. Allamah Zahabi, in his “Mizan Al-Iʿtidal” says that he relates unacceptable aḥâdîth; the most unacceptable of which is the ḥadîth regarding the account of Baḥîra. Hâkim says: “He reported an unacceptable ḥadîth from Imam Al-Laith.” Ibn Ḥibbân writes: “He committed mistakes.”
- Yûnus ibn Isḥâq, who generally is considered to be weak and unreliable. Yaḥya says: He was very careless. Shuʿbah has accused him of deceit. Imam Ahmad has termed his reporting, in general, as disturbed and worthless.
- Al-Khaṭîb Al-Baghdâdi asserts regarding Al-Faḍl ibn Sahl Al-Aʿraj that he was one of the foxlike cunning, wily and crafty persons.
Accordingly, It is clearly to be observed that the acceptability and trustworthiness of Jâmiʿ Al-Tirmidhi‘s ḥadîth no. 3620 is very poor. Of the five narrators, the major narrator Abû Mûsa Al-Ashʿari was not an eyewitness; nor did he mention the name of the eyewitness. Furthermore the credibility of the rest of the narrators is questionable. According to the criteria and principles of Ḥadîth Science this ḥadîth should not be considered authentic—or used as such. The judgements of our knowledgeable and properly trained scholars must be taken seriously.
Al-Mustadrak of Al-Hakim
Now, we say something briefly regarding our third source, Al-Mustadrak of Al-Ḥâkim. The book is recorded about four and a half centuries (393 h / 1002–1003 ce) after the purported event under discussion.
Firstly, its authenticity has not been recognized among many Ḥadîth scholars.
Secondly, Al-Dhahabi, a 14th century scholar, compiled an abridged version of the book Al-Hâkim’s Mustadrak and named his abridgement Talkhîṣ Al-Mustadrak where he presented a judgment on the original book’s authenticity. Regarding what he omitted he remarked: “As for the rest, and that is about a fourth, they are rejected and spurious narrations that are unauthentic. Some of those are fabrications, I came to know of them when I prepared an abridgement of Al-Mustadrak and pointed them out. He also laments: “It would have been better if Al-Ḥâkim had never compiled it.”
In view of the above evidence regarding the sources of the story of Baḥîra the Monk, there is no need to discuss the telling of this purported event either as found in Haykal’s book—since Haykal does not work directly with Ḥadîth sources in regard to this story—or in the three ḥadîth sources since the corroborating evidence from our other ḥadîth sources for this story is poor.
To be continued, Inshâ’Allah, in Part 2…