The overall theme of the story of Muh.ammad’s conception as related in the historical and exegetical works of al-T.abarı-and Ibn Kathı-r is that God alone will determine the identity of His prophet. The attempts by the women and even by ʿAbd al-Mut.t.alib in the sı-ra accounts and the protestations of the unbelievers in the works of tafsı-r are not enough to alter the course of events, which unfold exactly as they were meant to. But the manner in which each author presents this story, with all of its variables, reveals that al-T.abarı-and Ibn Kathı-r disagree about the importance of certain aspects of the tale, and their disagreements tell us much about the medieval Muslim view of the role of the supernatural in the conception of Muh.ammad. Al-T.abarı-’s account allows for the possibility that Muh.ammad’s conception occurred without any supernatural interference, while all of Ibn Kathı-r’s reports include some connection to a supernatural event. Al-T.abarı-accepts that ʿAbd Alla-h may have had wives other than A
- mina and that the conception of Muh.ammad could
have taken place on a night other than their wedding night. For Ibn Kathı-r, this is not acceptable and he omits any such information. Al-T.abarı-’s Tafsı-r stresses the demands of the unbelievers for certain types of miracles, while Ibn Kathı-r’s exegesis focuses on the excellence of Muh. ammad’s lineage as one of the proofs of his prophethood. For both men, the depictions of this story in their sı-ra texts diﬀer drastically from their explanations of the verse seemingly quoted by Fa-t.ima bt. Murr, revealing that they viewed the importance of the conception of Muh. ammad, as well as any supernatural connection to it, as better suited to the biographical, as opposed to the exegetical, genre. Al-T.abarı-’s depiction of Muh.ammad’s conception in the sı-ra reﬂects a cer-
tain amount of conﬁdence that, admittedly, may be limited to the author himself, but more likely represents the conﬁdence experienced by al-T.abarı-’s historical and cultural milieu. While the ʿAbba-sid world had certainly seen its share of problems and was rapidly approaching the end of its independent existence, Baghdad had not yet been conquered by an outside force, and Islamic civilization was still quite advanced in comparison to other nearby peoples. And so, al-T.abarı-could aﬀord to include certain elements of the story of Muh.ammad’s conception that make it a less-than-wondrous event – A
marries ʿAbd Alla-h and conceives Muh.ammad with no supernatural light,
but instead with the more familiar and mundane narrative of a girl being swayed by a young man’s good looks; ʿAbd al-Mut.t.alib decides to marry both himself and his youngest son to women from the same clan for reasons that have nothing to do with an Abrahamic prophecy. Al-T.abarı-, too, could include reports of an additional wife for ʿAbd Alla-h, placing Muh.ammad’s father more ﬁrmly in his own time and place in which marriage and divorce were portrayed as easier aﬀairs than was supposed to be the case after the coming of Islam. But this does not mean that al-T.abarı-had no reservations about how this story should be told, and he blatantly ignores the fact that a Jewish soothsayer quotes part of the Qurʾa-n before it has been revealed, and ignores, too, the complications presented by ʿAbd Alla-h’s additional wife regarding the placement of the light of prophecy. In this last case, the end of the story justiﬁes its inclusion – ʿAbd Alla-h may have had other wives, but it is A
- mina who conceives Muh. ammad, and so there is no danger of other
claimants to prophethood based on the same genealogy. In his Tafsı-r, however, al-T.abarı-is far more careful, and the element of the
supernatural is limited to the demand by unbelievers for speciﬁc Judaeo-Christian signs as proofs of Muh.ammad’s prophethood. Instead, al-T.abarı-here focuses on the will of God as the ultimate determining factor in who will or will not be a prophet, and so, in this genre, al-T.abarı-puts mankind in its place. Human beings cannot thwart the will of God; they cannot demand speciﬁc signs as conditions of belief. In this, al-T.abarı-thematically links the genres of sı-ra and tafsı-r for this event. In the sı-ra, it is adherents of the other Abrahamic faiths – as well as ʿAbd Alla-h’s pagan wife – who attempt to subvert the will of God and intercept the light of prophecy for themselves and their religious traditions. In the Tafsı-r, the unbelievers – Arab pagans – speciﬁcally demand miracles like those performed by Moses and Jesus. So this disjunction between the desires of Jews and Christians and the will of God allows al-T.abarı-to reveal the conﬁdence of tenth-century Muslims regarding the superiority of their faith. The light of prophecy is intended for Islam alone; God determines its placement, and God determines the appropriate signs for prophethood, not Jews and Christians. Ironically, in the sı-ra, it is not al-T.abarı-who points this out, rather it is Fa-t.ima bt. Murr, the Jewish soothsayer; and so, even the representatives of the earlier faiths are forced to be the voices through which their own inferiority is laid out. Ibn Kathı-r’s treatment of this story in the sı-ra is far more rigidly controlled.
All of the reports contain an element of the supernatural, and this is important because, by the fourteenth century, the supernatural itself had become a point of contention in Islamic society. Ibn Kathı-r and other followers of Ibn Taymiyya preached against certain practices that they viewed as too excessive and as inherently opposing their more conservative view of Islam. The ecstatic nature of certain Suﬁ groups was a favorite target of Ibn Taymiyya, and Ibn Kathı-r continues this critique of popular religion. As already noted, he attempts to deﬂect the more unorthodox interpretation of the stories surrounding the birth of Muh.ammad by writing his own Mawlid work that puts a decidedly
conservative spin on these events. Thus, for Ibn Kathı-r, it was vital that Muh.ammad’s conception be the product of a supernatural intervention. While he allows some variance as to whether prophethood was passed along through the divine light or through the signs visible only to the man who inspected ʿAbd al-Mut.t.alib, no mundane element of this event could be permitted at all. Whereas al-T.abarı-’s more permissive attitude toward the supernatural is indicative of conﬁdence, Ibn Kathı-r’s insistence on a supernatural interpretation of Muh.ammad’s conception, in addition to the overall tone of his work, reﬂects instead a certain defensiveness. There are two possible explanations for this: Islamic society in general had become more defensive due to the devastation caused by the Mongols in the previous century, or Ibn Kathı-r himself is on the defensive due to his adherence to Ibn Taymiyya’s controversial program of reform. The competition among scholars in Damascus often took on political signiﬁcance, as revealed by the periodic imprisonment by Mamluk oﬃcials of both Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Kathı-r’s teacher and father-in-law, al-Mizzı-. And while Ibn Kathı-r had loyal colleagues and dedicated students, his career appears to have suﬀered initially due to his connection to such contentious ﬁgures; thus, perhaps a bit of defensiveness on his part is to be expected. In his Tafsı-r, Ibn Kathı-r’s defensive tone continues, but is somewhat abated
in his treatment of Qurʾa-n 6:124. In this work, his focus is entirely on the excellence of Muh.ammad’s genealogy and even indicates that this is a sign or proof of his prophethood. He includes the story of the meeting between Abu-
Sufya-n and Heraclius in order to show that even a non-Muslim could recognize Muh.ammad’s status by his parentage and so the Meccans had no excuse for not accepting his claims. While Ibn Kathı-r’s focus in the sı-ra is on God’s supernatural intervention in the conception of Muh. ammad, in the Tafsı-r his focus is on the signiﬁcance of the genealogy itself and on God’s role in its determination. Thus, Ibn Kathı-r uses both genres in conjunction with one another, pulling the theme of one into the other. By the fourteenth century, then, the story of Muh.ammad’s conception has
closed in on itself. The presence of the supernatural has become paramount, and although the competition between Islam and the older Abrahamic faiths is still present, it is no longer the dominant argument of medieval Muslim scholars. Al-T.abarı-’s focus on the victory of Islam over Christianity and Judaism in both sı-ra and tafsı-r is set aside in favor of Ibn Kathı-r’s quest against both popular Islam and the Shı-ʿa. Just as the unbelievers in Qurʾa-n 6:124 should not request miraculous signs as proof of Muh.ammad’s prophethood, Ibn Kathı-r argues in his Tafsı-r that Muh.ammad’s excellent genealogy – insured through miraculous means – should be enough proof for the Meccans of Muh.ammad’s time, but also for Muslims in his own time and place. Miracles and the supernatural are certainly important for Ibn Kathı-r, but they must be viewed through the lens of his own perception of conservative Islam.