Ibn Ishaq and al Tabari ……are they reliable?




Translation: May veneration be presented to the exalted one who is a Buddha and has achieved enlightenment by himself righteously.


   Ibn Ishaq and al Tabari ……are they reliable?


Take a look:


The other day I was having a conversation with a friend who declared that both Ibn Ishaq and al Tabari were both unreliable as historical sources. I asked him why this was. He told me that it was known that the hadith that Ibn Ishaq used was weak and unreliable,  certainly not sahih (considered genuine) hadith.  He went on further to state that Al Tabari in his often cited work ” History Of Prophets And Kings” admitted in the introduction that his sources were weak and unreliable.

I’ve done some research on this that perhaps you might be interested in.

First, because it will be the simplest to address…

As far as al-Tabari is concerned……

al-Ṭabarī, in full Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī   (born c. 839, Āmol, Ṭabaristān [Iran]—died 923, Baghdad, Iraq), Muslim scholar, author of enormous compendiums of early Islamic history and Qurʾānic exegesis, who made a distinct contribution to the consolidation of Sunni thought during the 9th century. He condensed the vast wealth of exegetical and historical erudition of the preceding generations of Muslim scholars and laid the foundations for both Qurʾānic and historical sciences. His major works were the Qurʾān Commentary and the History of Prophets and Kings (Taʾrīkh al-Rusūl wa al-Mulūk). (1)

From the introduction to his “History Of Prophets And Kings”……

“This book of mine may contain some information mentioned by me on the authority of certain men of the past, which the reader may disapprove of and the listener may find detestable, because he can find nothing sound and no real meaning in it. In such cases, he should know that it is not my fault that such information comes to him, but the fault of someone who transmitted it to me. I have merely reported it as it was reported to me.”

Meaning that he is simply giving the information that was transmitted to him, and not to have a disagreement with him about it, because he is simply reporting to the reader what was reported to him.  Nowhere does he state that anything that he has written is “unreliable”.

Such a question of reliability here should be taken on a case by case basis, and best if not simply because one may simply like or dislike what has been written, instead of simply discounting the works of al-Tabari wholesale as “unreliable”. 

Ibn Ishaq?

 When looking for the objective truth in such matters the first thing that we should do is investigate just what is now considered reliable hadith and why. I have been told that the sahih hadith that is now considered such has been authenticated back to the time of Muhammad the Muslim prophet himself.  In this article we shall take an honest look at this claim as well as the assertion of hadith unreliability with regards to Ibn Ishaq.

An important thing that we should do is look for the criteria that is being used to judge something as reliable or not. What standard is used to judge the hadith?

First though, just who was Ibn Ishaq?

Muḥammad ibn Isḥāq ibn Yasār ibn Khiyār (according to some sources, ibn Khabbār, or Kūmān, or Kūtān, Arabic: محمد بن إسحاق بن يسار بن خيار‎, or simplyibn Isḥaq ابن إسحاق, meaning “the son of Isaac”) (died 767, or 761) was an Arab Muslim historian and hagiographer. Under the aegis of the ‘Abbasid caliphAl-Mansur, Ibn Ishaq collected oral traditions that formed the basis of the most important biography of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.(2)

It is important to note as well that Ibn Ishaq is the earliest and most extant biographer of the life of the Muslim prophet Muhammad and was a practicing Muslim scholar himself.

The Biography of Muhammad

The text and its survival

Ibn Isḥaq collected oral traditions about the life of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. These traditions, which he orally dictated to his pupils,12 are now known collectively as Sīratu Rasūli l-Lāh (Arabic:سيرة رسول الله‎ “Life of the Messenger of God”) and survive mainly in the following sources:

  • An edited copy, or recension, of his work by his student al-Bakka’i, which was further edited by Ibn Hisham. Al-Bakka’i’s work has perished and only Ibn Hisham’s has survived, in copies.
  • An edited copy, or recension, prepared by his student Salamah ibn Fadl al-Ansari. This also has perished, and survives only in the copious extracts to be found in al-Tabari’s voluminous History of the Prophets and Kings.  (3) (4)


Now  let’s take a look at some important facts that pertain to our investigation…..


  • Traditions of the life of Muhammad and the early history of Islam were passed down mostly orally for more than a hundred years after Muhammad’s death in AD 632.
  • By the 9th century the number of hadiths had grown exponentially. Islamic scholars of the Abbasid period were faced with a huge corpus of miscellaneous traditions, some of them flatly contradicting each other. Many of these traditions supported differing views on a variety of controversial matters. Scholars had to decide which hadith were to be trusted as authentic and which had been invented for political or theological purposes. To do this, it is assumed they used a number of techniques which Muslims now call the science of hadith.(5)
    • The beginning of the systematic collection and compilation of hadith began during the time of the second generation of Muslims, that of the Followers. Muhammad ibn Muslim ibn Ubaydullah, commonly known as ibn Shihab al-Zuhri, was a prolific and prominent hadith narrator from the Followers whom Ibn Hajar identified as a tabi’i. According to Ibn Hajar, “Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri was the first to compile hadith at the beginning of the first century after the Migration acting on the order of Umar ibn AbdulAziz. It was after this that the compilation, then the authoring of books of hadith became commonplace, resulting in much good.
    • Ummayad rule was interrupted by a second civil war (the Second Fitna), re-established, then ended in 758, when theAbbasid dynasty seized the caliphate, to hold it, at least in name, until 1517(the last Caliph was Al-Mutawakkil III 1508–1517, in Cairo and not in Baghdad).

Muslim historians say that hadith collection and evaluation continued during the first Fitna and the Umayyad period. However, much of this activity was presumably oral transmission from early Muslims to later collectors, or from teachers to students.

  • In 134 AH (751752), paper was introduced into the Muslim world.
  • The Abbasid caliphate was founded by the descendants of the Islamic prophet Muhammad‘s youngest uncle, ‘Abbas ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib, in Harranin 750 CE and shifted its capital in 762 to Baghdad.(6)

    • Abū Muḥammad al-Ḥasan ibn ʻAbd al-Raḥmān ibn Khallād al-Rāmahurmuzī (Arabicابومحمدالحسنبنعبدالرحمنبنخلادالرامهرمزي‎) (?—before 971 CE/360 AH), commonly referred to in medieval literature as Ibn al-Khallād, was a hadith specialist and author who wrote one of the first comprehensive books compiled in hadith terminology literature, al-Muḥaddith al-Fāṣil bayn al-Rāwī wa al-Wāʻī 12Al-Rāmahurmuzī’s specific date of birth remains undetermined, but can be approximated based upon the dates of his teachers’ death, placing his birth roughly 100 years prior to his own death. Therefore, 871/260 is a fairly sound estimate, according to The Encyclopaedia of Islam, based on the long life spans generally assumed for early hadith specialists.(7) In case you’re wondering,  al-Muḥaddith al-Fāṣil bayn al-Rāwī wa al-Wāʻī translated from the Arabic would mean “The dividing Muḥaddith or ‘hadith specialist’  between the narrator and the informed” .     
    • Generally, Umar II is credited with having ordered the first collection of hadith material in an official manner, fearing that some of it might be lost. Abu Bakr ibn Muhammad ibn Hazm and Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri, are among those who compiled hadiths at `Umar II’s behest.(8)   
    • The efforts culminated with the six canonical collections after having received impetus from the establishment of the sunna as the second source of law in Islam, particularly through the efforts of the famous jurist Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’i. (9)
    • The method of criticism and the conclusions it has reached have not changed significantly since the ninth century. Even much of modern Muslim scholarship, while continuing to debate the validity or authenticity of individual hadiths or perhaps the hadiths of a particular transmitter, employs the same methods and biographical materials.(10)
    • The classification of Hadith into sahih (sound)hasan (good) and da’if (weak) was firmly established by Ali ibn al-Madini (d. 234 AH). Later, al-Madini’s student Muhammad al-Bukhari authored a collection that he stated contained only sahih hadith. al-Tirmidhi was the first traditionist to base his book on al-Madini’s classification.(11)
    • Sunni and Shia hadith collections differ because scholars from the two traditions differ as to the reliability of the narrators and transmitters. Narrators who took the side of Abu Bakr and Umar rather than Ali, in the disputes over leadership that followed the death of Muhammad, are seen as unreliable by the Shia; narrations sourced to Ali and the family of Muhammad, and to their supporters, are preferred. Sunni scholars put trust in narrators, such as Aisha, whom Shia reject. Differences in hadith collections have contributed to differences in worship practices and shari’a law and have hardened the dividing line between the two traditions.(12)


The conclusion that we come to when giving a study to this matter is that even though it is assumed that today’s hadith collections  are based on the criteria of the so called “hadith science” that was probably established around the late 9th or early  10th century, nobody really knows for sure.

Nobody can therefore point to a time or place where the “reliable” hadith was distinguished from anything else, or what criteria was used to do so.

Therefore the claim that the hadith recognized today as reliable or “Sahih” has been authenticated right on back to the time of Muhammad is sheer (to put it politely) conjecture.


Somehow the later biography’s of Muhammad’s life which don’t include any pesky embarrassments of his behavior as  a “prophet” all seem to be….. “reliable”!

In case anyone should wonder, whether or not I place great veracity in the hadith in general is irrelevant when so many do so simply because it is al hadith classified as “Sahih”. I myself don’t believe that the hadith should be taken seriously unless it is supported at least in principle by the standard of authority here called the Qur’an. Much to the ire of many, that approach though would only give credit to Ibn Ishaq’s biography of the Muslim profit Muhammad. If you would like to have a read of what I’m talking about here, take a look at this:


“Just because something is early, doesn’t mean it’s authentic. If something is early, it just means its early. It has to be early AND authentic. It’s possible that something is early and false/unauthentic.”

                             – Bassam Zawadi,  Muslim apologist .(13)  

No, not “early” but the earliest.

I remember when a Muslim friend once recommended to me that I read something by the greatly well known and respected Muslim exponent of Islam by the name of Ahmed Deedat, titled; Is The Bible God’s Word? an emphasized excerpt which I have for you here: 

  From the Chart — “The Origin and Growth of the English Bible” — appearing below, you will note that all the Biblical “Versions” prior to the Revised Version of 1881 were dependent upon the ANCIENT COPIES — those dating only five or six hundred years after Jesus. The Revisers of the RSV 1952, were the first Bible scholars who were able to tap the “MOST Ancient Copies” fully, dating three and four centuries after Christ. We agree that the closer to the source the more authentic is the document. Naturally “MOST” Ancient deserves credence more than mere “ANCIENT.” But not finding a word about Jesus being “taken up” or “carried up” into heaven in the MOST ANCIENT manuscripts, the Christian fathers expurgated those references from the RSV 1952. 

                                   -Is The Bible God’s Word? by Ahmed Deedat Chapter 4                                                                                                                            

Interesting. When it was Ahmed Deedat giving his critique of the Christian Bible all of my Muslim friends could see plainly the truth in the statement that you see here underlined, but when it comes to Ibn Ishaq, most will make excuses as to why he should be considered “unreliable”.

“Allah has provided evidence (i.e. Isnad) establishing the authenticity or lack thereof of the narrations that are necessary in matters of the religion. It is well known that most of what was reported in aspects of Tafsir (commentaries on the Qur’an) is similar to narrations reporting Maghazi (or Seerah) and battles, promoting Imam Ahmad to state that three matters do not have Isnad: Tafsir, Mala’him (i.e. great battles), and Maghazi. This is because most of their narrations are of the Maraseel (plural for Mursal) type, such as narrations reported by Urwah Ibn az-Zubair, ash-Sha’bi, az-Zuhri, Musa Ibn Uqbah and Ibn Ishaq. (Shaykh Ibn Taymiyyah – Majmu’ Al Fataawa – Volume 13 – Page 345).

Maraseel here means “messenger”…. So then the narration of a messenger is not as reliable as Isnad (chain of narration) because…….?

Let us consider this, if anyone seriously considers Ibn Ishaq unreliable due to areas where there may even be a lack of isnads in his reports because he was writing as a historian and not simply a collector of hadith, then one as well must cast doubt on all of the earliest reports which described the stories of the raids conducted by and on behalf of Muhammad ( al Maghazi ) of which his biography is partially based on which themselves were without Isnads . This would then make much of all of the later traditions as well “unreliable”.

  • Was Ibn Ishaq a liar?

Ibn Ishaq really seemed to make some very resentful with what he certainly, again as a practicing Muslim himself, thought was a truthful rendering of the Muslim prophet Muhammad’s life. Even today after not just one or two, but three efforts of edited reworking and what has apparently survived as something perhaps more palatable to be read by the aforementioned Muslim scholars, many still just have an understandably hard time accepting even as a consideration what was written. The romanticized version is usually preferred.

“Adh-Dhahabi also listed some of the major scholars of Islam who refuted Ibn Is’haq’s reliability in Hadith narrations. Imam Malim, for instance, called Ibn Is’haq a liar and Yahya Ibn Saeed al-Ansari, as well as al-Amash refuted one of Ibn Is’haq’s narrations by saying that he lied.” Imam Ahmad also said that Ibn Ishaq did not care from whom he collected Hadiths. Imam Ibn Numair said that Ibn Ishaq reported false Hadiths from unknown narrators.” (14)

My oh my! Calling Ibn Ishaq a liar? If he had written what they would have liked to hear, would they have said such a thing?

Would this Muslim historian have written lies about his own beloved prophet Muhammad? Or over a period of time, do many simply prefer the romanticized version to be bigger than the truth?

 In hadith studies, which early Muslim scholars examined more seriously than prophetic biography, Ibn Isḥaq’s hadith was generally thought to be “good” (ḥasan) and himself having a reputation of being “sincere” or “trustworthy” (ṣadūq). (15)

This is what the notes of Ibn Hisham himself had to say:

“God willing I shall begin this book with Isma’il son of Ibrahim and mention those of his offspring who were the ancestors of God’s apostle  one by one with what is known about them, taking  no account of Isma’il’s other children, omitting some of the things which I have recorded in this book in which there is no mention of the apostle and about which the Quran says nothing and which are not relevant to anything in this book or an explanation of it or evidence for it; poems which he quotes that no authority on poetry whom I have met knows of; things which it is disgraceful to discuss; matters which would distress certain people;and such reports as al-Bakka’i told me he could not accept as trustworthy – all these things I have omitted. But God willing I shall give a full account of everything else so far as it is known and trustworthy tradition is available”(emphasis mine). (16)



Make a note here that not only has he omitted certain things that he felt “were disgraceful to discuss” but things that would “distress” certain people (not that he claims that any of that was un true mind you, but that they were omitted because he felt it “disgraceful to discuss” or that it  would “distress” certain people), but that he then goes on to basically vouch for the credibility of what it is that he does allow to be written.


….”things which it is disgraceful to discuss; matters which would distress certain people;and such reports as al-Bakka’i told me he could not accept as trustworthy – all these things I have omitted. But God willing I shall give a full account of everything else so far as it is known and trustworthy tradition is available.”


When some therefore choose to consider the Ibn Ishaq biography of the life of Muhammad “unreliable” they must then of course consider Ibn Ishaq and al-Bakka’i and Ibn Hisham as well, all sources whose best and most well intentioned judgement as practicing Muslims untrustworthy! Is it all to be considered “unreliable” or just those parts that offend the sterilized and sanctified adoration of their beloved prophet Muhammad?


These become more good examples as to why many will just simply “pick and choose” as to what they like reading and accordingly just what they choose to consider “reliable”. 


I have recently learned that this interesting phenomena  is called “selective perception”. It is the same type of thing that occurs when someone tells you that they can “prove” that God did this or commands that, by going to their book of religious scripture and showing you a verse or two! Then even if you manage to show them that it doesn’t actually say any such a thing, not to worry because they can then tell you about how what is written actually means…… even though what it supposedly actually means is the opposite of what it actually does say! Oh what fun!

Now if you would like, take a look at what the biography of the Muslim prophet Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq (after being edited twice)  actually looks like.

Free to download!                                                                                                       


Go to the View The Book box in the upper left hand corner and click on All Files  HTTP  then download your selected file, this is the complete and unabridged version.  After you download open the WinRAR file and then click the file and select the save all option, you can then choose the “extract to” option on the top bar to export to a new folder in the destination of your choosing. Enjoy!


 Bhikkhu aggacitto a.k.a. Brother Mark:)





All websites are linked for your research convenience.





3 Donner, Fred McGraw look(1998). Narratives of Islamic origins: the beginnings of Islamic historical writing. Darwin Press. p. 132. ISBN 9780878501274.

4  W. Montgomery Watt and M. V. McDonald, “Translator’s Forward” xi-xlvi, at xi-xiv, in The History of al-Tabari. Volume VI. Muhammad at Mecca (SUNY 1988). Regarding al-Tabari’s narratives of Muhammad, the translators state, “The ealiest and most important of these sources was Ibn Ishaq, whose book on the Prophet is usually known as the Sirah. Discussed here are Ibn Ishaq and his Sirah, the various recensions of it, Guillaume’s translation, and Ibn Hisham.

5. https://archive.is/HVeem

6. https://archive.is/yKuuP

7 Juynboll, G.H.A. (1995). Bosworth, Donzel, Heinrichs and Lecomte. ed. The Encyclopaedia of Islam

8. fascicules 137–8. Leidan, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill. pp. 420–1.ISBN 90 04 09813 5.(paraphrased)

9. https://archive.is/xeQ83

10. https://archive.is/xeQ83

11. https://archive.is/wip/roktM

12  Juynboll, G.H.A. (1995). Bosworth, Donzel, Heinrichs and Lecomte. ed. The Encyclopaedia of Islam

13 http://www.archive.org/details/IbnIshaq-SiratRasulAllah-translatorA.Guillaume

14 Shaykh Jalal Abu Al Rub – The Prophet of Mercy – Chapter 2 – Page 10

15 Qaraḍāwī, Yūsuf (2007). Approaching the Sunnah: comprehension and controversy. IIIT. p. 188. ISBN 9781565644182.

16. The Life of Muhammad, A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, with introduction and notes by Alfred Guillaume 

[Karachi Oxford University Press, Karachi, Tenth Impression 1995], p. 691

39 thoughts on “Ibn Ishaq and al Tabari ……are they reliable?”

  1. What you encountered is nothing new. Many muslims are unable to accept Ibn Ishaq’s account fully because like many other hadiths, they cannot bring themselves to agree upon how they want Muhammad to be in their lives. Everyone has their own opinions about Muhammad. Much of what we know are all in the hadiths. So, many pick and choose what they like and reject what they dislike to mould an image of Muhammad for themselves. As a result, nobody really knows who or how Muhammad really was like. This is why there are so many sects in Islam and many schools of thought.

    Islam to the non-muslims is something that is still evolving because after Caliph Uthman burnt all varying Qurans keeping what he alone decided is authentic quran for every muslim, some texts are still being ‘altered/moderated’. This is not in keeping with what islam professes. Then again, if Caliph Uthman decided what is the message and what is not, shouldn’t he be conferred the title of ‘Author of Quran’?

  2. Actually you are incorrect. Ibn ishaq has no authentic chain of narration that can be traced back to the prophet himself which deems his work to be unreliable and inauthentic. His work may have been early but it was still 120 years after the death of the prophet l. Also, you made a false claim saying that scholars only accepted “nice” hadiths. If that was the case, then Muhammad’s marriage would not be there, and other misused hadiths would not be there. Be genuine.

    1. Thank you for commenting.

      First, just how is it judged whether a Hadith narration is authentic or not?
      Can you name for me the individual or individuals who were responsible for making such a judgement and exactly what criteria was used in doing so?
      You seem to have missed a key part of this article.

      Second, Ibn Ishaq was not just early, but the earliest biography of a practicing Muslim.

      Third, I never said that scholars only choose “nice” Hadith, although I would say that because Muslims are taught to have such a high reverence for the prophet Muhammad, as a natural inclination of preference, the Sunnah that may portray him in a negative light can be most often judged as “inauthentic”.
      You may also wish to consider that today’s norm of what should be considered acceptable for someone being given such high reverence and respect may very well be different for most than what it was perhaps for many close to fifteen hundred years ago.

      1. Hadith experts developed five universally acceptable criteria to
        determine the credibility and authenticity of Hadith:
        1) chain continuity;
        2) integrity of narrators’ character;
        3) report precision;
        4) non-deficiency;
        6) and non-aberrance.

        If a hadith fulfills all these five criteria, it is
        declared authentic. A weak hadith is short of fulfilling the conditions
        of the authentic one.

        The chain of transmitters must be unbroken for
        the hadith to be acceptable; none of the transmitters can be missing
        from the chain of narrators. Each transmitter must have heard the
        hadith directly from the transmitter before him. Each chain must link
        directly back to the Prophet or any of his Companions. The narrator
        in a chain must be a believer in Islam and of sound character. He would
        be disqualified by disbelief, hypocrisy, insanity, or biological immaturity.
        Finally, the narrator should have a strong and sound memory.

        If a hadith is declared “authentic” this STILL does not mean the narration is definitely accurate. The majority of “authentic” narrations probably really did happen, but nevertheless a few false narrations may slip through this net.


        Click to access books-in-brief_authentication_of_hadith.pdf

        1. random man,

          Thank you for leaving your comment.

          I have a few questions for you.

          First, just how would a hadith expert know that the narrator had a strong memory or whether or not the chain of narration was necessarily unbroken?
          How would they know of a reports precision or the narrators non- deficiency?

          For any objective analysis, what would really trouble me is the non- abberancy part.
          Abberancy is defined as a parting from the normal or usual course.
          Judging something as adhering to the usual course can only serve to uphold the status quo, which doesn’t put the priority on what could be true or not, but on non – abberancy.

          Could you possibly tell us just who and where these hadiths were initially judged as belonging to what category, for what we have today as such classified hadith?

          The answer to that I believe is no.
          However if you have a different answer and can in any way substantiate it with something, I would love to hear about it!

          The science of hadith? Hardly.

  3. I think you must look at the system of hadith studies which had been carried out by modern scholar like Joseph l Esposito,and Harald motzki for further study you can read,Mustafa as shibai book, hadith as source of legislation and fiqh

  4. Sir,I think you must look at the study on hadith by modern scholars like John l Esposito and Harald motzki,and further study can be carried out through this book Mustafa as shibai hadith as source of legislation and fiqh.

Leave a Reply to Brother Mark:) Cancel 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 )

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.

%d bloggers like this: