Sira

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This article is not about the group of British engineering companies called Sira; see Sira (group of British companies).

Siras (from Arabic سيرة) are the traditional Muslim biographies of Muhammad, from which most historical information about his life and the early period of Islam is derived. Muslims believe that these biographies are for the most part accurate portrayals of the founder of their religion - although some of their reports may be treated with scepticism - and as such they are used to provide the context for interpretation of the Qur'an. On the other hand, Western historians vary in their evaluation of the sira as reliable sources. Some, such as W. Montgomery Watt, see the traditional accounts being on the whole reliable; taking exception only with some passages which they view as being devotional literature, intended to glorify Muhammad rather than relating historical information. Other hyper-skeptical critics such as Patricia Crone are far less trusting of the sira; but this seems to represent a minority view in Western academia.

The sira literature include a variety of materials such as political treaties, military enlistments, assignments of officials, etc. which were recorded by successive generations of Muslims. In principle, the biographies of Muhammad would have been assembled from reports of what Muhammad did, just as what he said was recorded in the form of hadith. However, the sirah literature is technically different from hadith literature as it is in general not as concerned with validation through the chain of transmitters (isnad), although in the earliest sira many of the narratives are accompanied by isnads. This is probably due to a number of reasons. First, the story of Muhammad's life was probably quite well-known and frequently re-told amongst Muslims, as well as to new converts, from the early days of Islam. Second, the sira literature is concerned primarily with the narrative of Muhammad's life, whereas the intent of the hadith literature is to assemble his sayings as an authoritative source for Islamic law. The immediate relevance of many hadith sayings to legal debates made it more important that they be accompanied by isnads.

Together the sira and the hadith constitute the sunnah, or prophetic example which has formed the basis of many practices shared by traditional Muslim communities around the world.

Ibn Ishaq's "Sirat Rasul Allah" is the earliest surviving traditional biography, and was written less than 150 years after Muhammad's death. It survives in the later editions of Ibn Hisham and al-Tabari. There are a few important differences between these, however. For example, al-Tabari includes the controversial episode of The Satanic Verses, while Ibn Hisham omits it. Another of the earliest siras is al-Waqidi's. Several writers are reported to have written siras before Ibn Ishaq, including: Urwah ibn al-Zubayr ibn al-Awwam (a descendant of Asma), who died in 92 AH and whom Ibn Ishaq, al-Waqidi, and at-Tabari are all said to have used as a source, and Abban ibn Uthman ibn Affan (d. 105 AH) and Wahb ibn Munabbih al-Yamani (d. 110 AH). However, their works do not survive.

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