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A Prologue to Historical Sources of Islam
Dr Farhad Shafti

The following short writing is motivated by the questions that this author has received where clarification and explanation is sought about the reported assassinations at the time of the Prophet (sws).

It is of course possible to study every incident and to analyze its reliability and the accuracy of the report. However before doing this it is important to realize and appreciate an overall fact about the historical sources of Islam:

Unfortunately the scholarship of Islam suffers from a lack of reliable historical sources. The books of history have not been filtered to recognize the weak from the strong report. Not only that, due to lack of enough information, it is not even possible to assess the reliability of some of the reports. To make it worse, the reliability of the authors of some of the most famous books of history in Islam, like Ibn Ishāq and al-Wāqidī, is also under question.

Exaggerated reports in favour and against the Prophet (sws) and the companions, plus politically derived fabricated stories along with many other false or inaccurate wrongly motivated reports have been included in these books. There are historical reports that we can rely on as they are reported through numerous sources. These however are limited to very basic and general historical information.

We know that the Qur’ān and the Sunnah have reached us through the consensus of generations of Muslims and are therefore reliable. Hadīth has not reached us in such a reliable way but the scholars of Islam have done a tremendous job in providing tools to verify the degree of reliability of a Hadīth and some of them have made their own collection of what they considered as reliable Ahādīth. When it comes to history the sad fact is that neither has it reached us through a reliable way nor there has been any significant systematic and scholarly study to verify the less reliable from the more reliable. Also unlike most of the books of Hadīth, many of the historical reports do not have any chains of narrators. 

It is not an unfair statement to say that when it comes to detailed historical events we Muslims are deprived from a reliable source of information. Those who are interested in the history of Islam are like thirsty individuals who only have access to a well that is polluted from the source and in structure.

As Muslims, believing in the Qur’ān, we are bound to understand the actions of the Prophet (sws) and the development of Islam at his time through the principles set by the Qur’ān. When it comes to reports of killing individuals the following Qur’ānic principle is very helpful:

Killing a person (unless it is a man to man situation in a battlefield as a part of a religiously allowed war) is absolutely forbidden according to the Qur’ān. There are only three exceptions:


1. Executing a murderer when the family of the victim demands retribution.

2. Executing one who is guilty of arrogantly creating anarchy and mischief in the society.

3. Executing those who are among the direct addressees of a messenger of God and reject his message out of arrogance.


The first two are part of the sharī‘ah and apply at any time and are to be implemented by the state. The third is part of the Sunnah of the Almighty and only applies at the time of a messenger of God and is implemented by the messenger and his followers or by the angels of God if the messenger does not have enough followers.

If we believe in the Qur’ān, then we should also accept that any reports of assassinations in the history of Islam can be explained by one of the following:


A. It belongs to one of the above three categories.

B. It is a false or defective report.


Apart from the above technical considerations, it is also helpful to note that according to the Qur’ān the Prophet (sws) was not only passionate towards his followers but was also very passionate towards those who rejected him. In fact some of the verses of the Qur’ān that criticizes the Prophet (sws) blame him for being too passionate towards his opponents. It is interesting that the prophet that we come to know through the Qur’an seems to be a much more passionate and caring prophet than the one that we see through some of the not very reliable historical reports!

The overall conclusion of this writing is as follows:

The historical sources of Islam are not very reliable. Every report needs to be verified by checking its degree of reliability from the narrators’ point of view. As believers in the Qur’ān, we Muslims have other criteria for verification of the truth and false in these reports and that is the Qur’ān. The Qur’ān has set very definite criteria when killing a person is allowed. Any reports that suggest the prophet (sws) ordered killing a person while violating these criteria cannot be accepted. The prophet (sws) was the most loyal human being to the Qur’ān and even if for the sake of argument he had ordered an unjustified killing, the Qur’ān would have criticized him, just as the Book has criticized him for his very minor errors. It is also important to have a correct understanding of the personality of the Prophet (sws) on the basis of the Qur’ān. If some of the reports are giving an impression of a different or opposite personality then we should be very cautious about those reports.




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