IN PART 1 we raised the question of authenticity of the sources and narrators regarding the story of Baḥîra the Monk in Ibn Isḥâq’s Sirât Rasûl Allah((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)
compared with Abû Mûsa Al-Ashʿari’s ḥadîth narrated in Jâmiʿ Al-Tirmidhi (ḥadîth number 3620, pp. 318-320)
This story has long been controversial and we are giving the evidence for a lack of credibility for this alleged incident both in the narrations of Ibn Isḥâq’s Sirât Rasûl Allah and in Tirmidhi’s ḥadîth mentioned above. We now turn to the textual analysis of the story of Baḥîra the Christian Monk, as found in these two sources.
Issues Arising in the Narrations of Ibn Ishaq and Tirmidhi’s Hadith Narrated by Abu Musa Al-Ash’ari
- Abû Ṭâlib was so poor that he was unable to raise his children. Ali ibn Abû Ṭâlib spoke of his father’s condition in this way: “My father was one of the leading figures of the Quraysh despite having been poor. However, although he was poor, no one was considered to have been exalted in the tribe above him.”For this, some of his relatives undertook the up-bringing of some of his sons. He was a simple perfumer. He is also reported to have been lame; and thus unfit to undertake such a journey. He had never been so wealthy that he could have dreamed of a business trip.
- Ibn Isḥâq says that Abû Ṭâlib, according to the monk’s suggestion, “took him off quickly and brought him back to Mecca.” On the other hand, the ḥadîth in Tirmidhi reports that Abû Ṭâlib sent the boy back with Abû Bakr and Bilâl. It is to be noted that during the business trip Abû Bakr’s age would have been something like nine years. At that time Bilâl would not have yet been born. So, if the returning back of the boy with one junior boy and the other boy who has not yet been born is to be accepted, [that part of] the story has become invalid.If we take this account seriously on the grounds of the monk’s advice [to be wary of those who would do harm to this prophet-in-the-making], there may be raised a question as to why the beloved uncle—if he had feared so serious a danger to the life of the boy—how could he send Muhammad ﷺ back under inadequate protection. This was a trip for saving life, not a trip for two young boys to play. So, the event of the return home is questionable.
- As to the signs of prophethood, Baḥîra informed the lunch party that he had seen the trees and rocks bowing down before the young Muhammad ﷺ. During the travel from Makkah to Syria, whose distance is thousands of kilometers, there must have been thousands of people who noticed the caravan but we know of none who had been able to note such a miracle, not even the men of the caravan, but it was only the monk who could catch sight of it. How strange!
- According to Baḥîra’s saying, some people already had understood that the would-be prophet, as previously predicted, would emerge during that time, and some would come out to do him evil. It means that the signs of the would-be prophet, which Baḥîra had recognized, were well-known, at least in some circles, and that these signs might have been laid down in Christian—or Jewish—writings or in some of their oral traditions.But such things have not been found in the Bible, or even in Christian traditions. What the Bible says about the signs and miracles of a prophet is not similar to the sign of trees and rocks bowing down before a prophet.So a story based on such a purported biblical or prophetic sign as trees and rocks bowing down to a prophet-to-be is highly dubious.
- If the Baḥîra incident were authentic:
- Wouldn’t the Quraysh men of the caravan have told the story to their relatives—the Makkans?
- Or at least wouldn’t they have recalled the story when Islam was emerging and needed such corroborating support?
- Or wouldn’t they have blamed Muhammad saying that he had been put up to becoming a prophet from tutoring by the monk?On the contrary, during the preaching of Islam in Makkah we have no record that even a single word was voiced regarding this supposed incident, either in favor of, or against, him. Despite the continuous oppression of Muhammad’s tribal kinsmen, the Quraysh, Muhammad’s uncle Abû Ṭâlib had always tried to protect him from his clansmen, but yet we do not hear that he had uttered a single word on Baḥîra’s alleged prediction in favor of their clansman’s prophethood.If Abû Ṭâlib really had actually met a monk who gave such a prediction,
- Wouldn’t Abû Ṭâlib have eventually accepted Islam?
- Wouldn’t he have circulated the Christian, or Jewish, prediction as the monk had told the Quraysh-men of the caravan?
- Wouldn’t Abû Bakr as an eyewitness have reported such a prediction and the monk’s testimony on the prophethood of Muhammad ﷺ that had previously happened in his life, especially later when the Makkans and others had been opposing Islam?
- At the very beginning of Islam when the first revelation had been sent down to Muhammad ﷺ, on hearing that, wouldn’t Warakah ibn Nawfal—a Nestorian priest living in Makkah—have recognized Muhammad ﷺ as a prophet like prophet Mûsa. But we do not hear that Warakah commented on any signs associated with the monk Baḥîra.
- In keeping with the story, if Muhammad ﷺ had known that Syria and its people were ready to kill or harm him, then would he at the age of 25 years have traveled again to Syria? But we know that he did. Moreover, Abû Ṭâlib should not have permitted him to travel again to Syria after he—solely because of this nephew of his—had been marooned for about two and a half years by the Quraysh, together with his whole clan.
- Ibn Isḥâq claims that the monk marked the Jews as the enemy of the would-be prophet, saying: “Guard him carefully against the Jews, for by Allah! …. They will do him evil.” And, in fact, three Jews–Zurayr, Tammâm and Dâris—had noticed in the apostle of God what Baḥîra had seen and they did try to get at him. In contrast, in Tirmidhi’s ḥadîth narrated by Abû Mûsa Ashaʿri, the monk branded the Christians as the enemy, saying: “for, when the Romans see him, they will recognize him from the descriptions and will kill him.” Seven Christians came out to harm the would-be prophet.
- Ibn Isḥâq relates that the monk invited the caravan-men to have a meal, and then during the period of the meal he recognized the boy as a would-be prophet.To the contrary, Tirmidhi’s ḥadîth narrated from Abû Mûsa Ashaʿri says that “As they were unpacking their saddles, he mingled among them till he came to Allah’s Messenger ﷺ and held his hand, saying: “He is the chief of the universe. He is the Messenger of the Lord of the worlds. Allah has sent him as mercy to the worlds.” After this reorganization of their packs, the monk made a meal for them.
- Furthermore, the monk himself, according to the ḥadîth of Abû Mûsa Ashaʿri, brought food for the Quraysh men—implying that Baḥîra just showed up with it unexpectedly. But According to Ibn Isḥâq, the monk first formally invited them to have a meal, after which they proceeded to him for the meal.
- During the period of the Prophet’s residence in Madinah, a group of Christian missionaries from Najrân, numbering 60, came to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ to scrutinize him as to whether he could be a true prophet. They stayed, questioned and debated, but never do we find an indication that they made a single comment on a prediction regarding a prophet before whom the trees and rocks would prostate.Previous to this, twenty Christians had come from Ethiopia to Makkah to confirm belief in the prophet, but they did not bring up mention of any such sign as the monk had indicated. Nor did they mention any specific sign of a coming prophet, a sign that Christians would recognize as valid and definitive.
Not Fact? Then Fiction!
In conclusion, we can say that the story of Baḥîra the Monk lacks substantiation in reliable reports and must thus be rejected unless and until valid evidence is brought forth.
Its sources lack acceptance and value. The story is suitable as a Hollywood movie or as best-selling fiction. But the story should not be claimed as authenticated history in the life of Muhammad ﷺ.
Accordingly, through centering and capitalizing on this story, none [Muslim or non-Muslim] should decide a question or make any definitive judgment or deliberation about a boy of only nine to twelve years of age who is unlettered and has gathered a vast knowledge of the old scriptures within the period of a meal—a few hours—and who, on that basis, later proclaims himself as a prophet.
Let the Reader Beware!
Accepting such a story is the kind of thing likely to be done by Western students of Islam who do not appreciate the fine-tuned methods of methodology developed over centuries in the Islamic Sciences. Some of this is done out of ignorance and some is an opportunistic attempt to paint Muslims as lacking in the basics of academic tools.