Sīrah: A Brief Introduction


The word Sīrah is not a new term; it had been recognized and used in the past also. In the present era, it is well known all over the world both in its linguistic sense as well as its terminological one.

Meanings of Sīrah

Literal Meaning:

It is an Arabic word which is derived from the Arabic verb “Sāra (سَارَ)”, “Yasīru (يَسِيرُ)”, “Sairan (سَيراً)” and “Masīran (مَسِيراً)”. Linguistically, it means “to travel” or “to be on a journey”. In Arabic Dictionaries, the meanings of Sīrah are given as – tradition, the way, the character, etc. In “Al-Mawrid” and “Hans-Wehr dictionary” (Arabic to English), its meanings are listed as conduct, comportment, demeanor, attitude, behavior, way of life, way of acting, biography, memoir; life history; curriculum vitae, etc.

Similarly, in “Mauṣū‘ah Kashshāf Iṣṭilāḥāt al-Funūn wal ‘Ulūm”, the meaning of Siyer (plural of Sīrah) is mentioned as biographies, conducts, manner of dealing with others, the life of Prophet Mohammed – Biographies.
Encyclopedia of Islam explains that it means way of going; way of acting, conduct, way of life; memorable action, record of such action, biography, the life and times of…, and it has been extensively used for the traditional account of Prophet Muhammad’s life and background.

Literary Meaning:

Dr. Muḥammad Mahdī al-Sharīf, a great scholar and translator of the contemporary period who translated “Sīrah ibn Hishām” to the English language, pointed out that the word Sīrah is specific to the life of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) not only from his birth, but even from the time prior to that. It presents the information pertaining to his life as a human being such as his birth, upbringing, surroundings, acquaintances, social status, dealings with the people, contributions, effects, etc. till his death. However, the Sīrah of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) includes both history and biography, and it is also a source for guidance (هداية) and Islamic law (الشريعة الإسلامية).

Moreover, Sheikh Muḥammad Ṭāhir Pattānī (d. 986H/1578 AD) wrote about “Kitāb al-Siyer” in his book “Majm‘a Bihār-al-Anwār” and describing about Kitāb-al-Siyer (كتاب السير), he explained that Siyer is the plural of “Sīrah” (سيرة) which means “the way”; because of all the discussions and verdicts that have been discussed in “Kitāb al-Siyer” are related to the way of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) that he used in the wars (غزوات).

Word Sīrah used for the first time in relation to the Biography of Prophet Muhammad (SAW):

In the early Islamic period the word “Maghāzī (مغازي)” was used to refer to the written biography of  Prophet Muhammad (SAW). The reason behind the use of this name was that the early Sīrah books were mainly focused on describing the wars fought by Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and his Companions, and less about his blessed life. Later, the situation took another turn, his biography began to be referred to as “Sīrah” (سيرة), and we can get a lot of information related to his blessed life; his dos and don’ts along with the wars fought by him from such works.

However, the word “al-Sīrah” (السيرة) had also used to mean the biography of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) before its use by Ibn Hishām in his “Al-Sīrah al-Nabawiyyah”.

The Encyclopedia of Islam mentions that according to Martin Hinds (1941-1988), the early written biographies of the Prophet (SAW) during the first two centuries of Islam were known by the name of al-Maghāzī but this word came to be used as the terminology to his life only since Ibn Hishām (d. 213/218 H). On the other hand, Maher Jarrar claims that Maghāzī is a part of Sīrah and the biography written by al-Zuhrī (d. 124 H), an eminent personality of this field; was already known by “Sīrā”.

Perhaps, the first book to bear the name of Sīrah was “Al-Sīrah al-Nabawiyyah” by Ibn Hishām (d. 213/218 H) while the early manuscripts related to the Prophet were referred to as “al-Maghāzī” although, the word Sīrah was also used before it to denote the life of Prophet (SAW) because his Companions had used this word to refer to his life, as, K‘ab bin Mālik (d. 50 H), the poet of Prophet, said in a eulogy:

الحق منطقه والعَدل سيرته
فَمَن يُجِبه إليه يَنجُ من تَبَب

“His (SAW) sayings are true, justice is his way of life (Sīrah); whoever follows him gets saved from destruction.”
This illustrates that the word Sīrah generally was used to represent the life of the Messenger (SAW).

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