Islam's canonical sources naturally begin with the Qur'an, which is believed to be the Word of God as revealed to Prophet Muhammad via the Angel Gabriel. Although there are respected detractors, for the most part the vast majority of Western historians of Islam accept that the text of the Qur'an today is most likely to be an accurate recording of the revelations that Muhammad himself recited as being from the Divine. The orthodox account records that the Qur'an was transcribed and compiled during the Prophet's lifetime.
Muhammad, writes Prof Hitti in his well-known study The History of the Arab (New York, 1973), was the only Prophet to have appeared "in the full light of history." Historian Kenneth Cragg concurs that:
"This phenomenon of Quranic recital means that the text has traversed the centuries in an unbroken living sequence of devotion. It cannot, therefore, be handled as an antiquarian thing, nor as a historical document out of a distant past. The fact of hifz [Quranic memorisation] has made the Qur'an a present possession through all the lapse of Muslim time and given it a human currency in every generation never allowing its relegation to a bare authority for reference alone." (The Mind of the Qur'an, George Allen & Unwin, 1973, p. 26)
Even the 19th century Orientalist, Sir William Muir, noted that: "There is probably no other book in the world which has remained twelve centuries [now fourteen] with so pure a text." (Life of Mahomet, Vol. 1, Introduction)
One of the most extensive early modern studies of the history and compilation of the Qur'an was undertaken by John Burton, Professor of Arabic at the University of Edinburgh, who concluded regarding the Qur'an that: "What we have today in our hands is the Mushaf [codex] of Muhammad." (The Collection of the Qur'an, Cambridge University Press, 1979, p. 239-240)
Although it is popular to question the historical authenticity of the Qur'an, independent Western academic scholarship for the most part undermines such questioning. As Professor Alan Godlas, who is director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies of the Islamic World at the University of Georgia, reports:
"A minority of Western scholars (often called orientalists) assert that Muslim accounts of the compilation of the Qur'an are pious fictions and that the Qur'an substantially evolved after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE.... Nevertheless, concerning the completeness of the Qur'an and the final arrangement of the surahs (chapters), it must be stressed - as Professor A. Jones of Oxford asserts - that 'the varying views of orientalists [on the the completeness and order of the Qur'an] are a mixture of prejudice and speculation' and consequently have not been generally accepted as being true (Cambridge History of Arabic Literature: Arabic Literature to the End of the Umayyad Period p. 240)."
In addition to this, as the Qur'an enjoins Muslims to follow the practice of the Prophet and to obey him, a secondary source is the 'hadith' - these are the recorded traditions recounting Muhammad's sayings and behaviours, all collected in various books which were largely compiled about 230 years of Muhammad's death.
Before this, in the period after the Prophet's death, traditions were passed on orally. By the 9th century, the volume of hadith had multiplied greatly, and it was widely recognised that many of them were fabricated. This increasingly led to the evolution of a 'science' of hadith developed by early Muslim scholars to assess the historical authenticity of various hadith.
It was widely recognised that hadith were often fabricated for prior political or theological reasons. Therefore, scholars formulated tools to assess primarily the matn (text) of the hadith, and its isnad (chain of narrators). Complex criteria were developed to assess the reliability of the people who had narrated traditions, and how they had passed it onto different people until arriving in its final recorded form, to determine the overall reliability of these chains of narration.
This led to the evolution of a number of main hadith collections. For Sunnis, these are Sahih al-Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Sunan Abu Dawood, Al-Sunan al-Sughra, Sunan al-Tirmidhi and Sunan ibn Majah. Orthodox Sunni scholars consider Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim to be the most reliable of these collections. These collections consist of hadith attributed to the Prophet and purportedly narrated by the Prophet's Companions.
For Shi'as, the major hadith collections are narrated by the Prophet's family and descendants, and also can concern the conduct and teachings of the Imams after Muhammad, considered his successors. Nahj al-Balagha consists of a collection of sermons and sayings of Ali, the fourth Caliph, who is also considered the first Shi'a Imam. Apart from this, the main Shi'a collections are Kitab al-Kafi by Muhammad ibn Ya'qub al-Kulayni al-Razi (329 AH), Man la yahduruhu al-Faqih by Muhammad ibn Babuya, as well as Al-Tahdhib and Al-Istibsar both by Shaykh Muhammad Tusi. Generally, Shi'a scholars categorically do not accept that all the hadith recorded in these books are authentic, but assess each tradition on a case by case basis, on its own merits.
Due to their questions concerning the reliability and accuracy of the methodology of hadith assessment, Western scholars are largely more critical of the mainstream hadith collections and their authority as credible historical sources on the Prophet's teachings and life. While they are still used as indicators of the evolution of Islamic history and ideas, their capacity to reflect on the life of Muhammad himself is questioned.
Orthodox Islamic scholars, however, argue that the traditional hadith sciences can offer the best method to determine which traditions are more likely to be reliable. Some Western historians partly agree, but go further to argue that applying modern historical methods to traditional hadith sciences demonstrates that many hadith can in fact be assessed as to their historical accuracy with some degree of reliability.
In the light of modern knowledge, perennial adopts a cautious approach to the evaluation of hadith combining both new critical historical methods and traditional techniques, with a view to ensure that historical reports referred to on this website are as accurate as possible.
The Scholarly Consensus
Most recently, novelist and amateur historian Tom Holland wrote a book, In the Shadow of Swords, resurrecting the theories of Orientalist scholars such as Prof. Patricia Crone, to claim that Islam, the Qur'an and perhaps even Muhammad himself were simply inventions of the Arab empires that wanted to use religion to justify their conquests.
Although Holland's ideas have been popularised through a Channel 4 documentary, his theories and the historians he quotes have negligible currency in most Western academic institutions studying the history of Islam. The theories put forward by Crone, Cook, and Wansbrough in the 1970s that Holland regurgitates were and are widely rejected by historians.
The late Robert Seargeant, Sir Thomas Adams Professor of Arabic at Cambridge University, for instance, described the "superficial fancies" of Prof. Crone's argument as "so ridiculous that at first one wonders if it is just a 'leg pull', pure 'spoof'." Similarly, Gordon Newsby, Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Emory University, points out that the theories Holland relies on have "been almost universally rejected" by the Western scholarly community. This is because, according to David Waines, an Islamic Studies professor at Lancaster University, such theories are "far too tentative and conjectural (and possibly contradictory)."