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William Muir

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Sir William Muir, KCSI 27 April 1819 – 11 July 1905 was a Scottish Orientalist, scholar of Islam, and colonial administrator


  • 1 Life
  • 2 Works, reception, and legacy
    • 21 Life of Muhammad
    • 22 Other works
  • 3 Statuary
  • 4 Family
  • 5 Publications
  • 6 See also
  • 7 Notes
  • 8 References
  • 9 External links


Sir William Muir's grave, Dean Cemetery

He was born at Glasgow and educated at Kilmarnock Academy, at Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities, and at Haileybury College1 In 1837 he entered the Bengal civil service Muir served as secretary to the governor of the North-West Provinces, and as a member of the Agra revenue board, and during the Mutiny he was in charge of the intelligence department there In 1865 he was made foreign secretary to the Indian Government In 1867 Muir was knighted KCSI, and in 1868 he became lieutenant-governor of the North Western Provinces2

Having been criticised for the poor relief effort during the Orissa famine of 1866, the British began to discuss famine policy, and in 1868 Muir issued an order stating that:

every District officer would be held personally responsible that no deaths occurred from starvation which could have been avoided by any exertion or arrangement on his part or that of his subordinates3

In 1874 Muir was appointed financial member of the Viceroy's Council, and retired in 1876, when he became a member of the Council of India in London1 James Thomason served as Muir's mentor with respect to Imperial administration; Muir later wrote an influential biography of Thomason2

Muir had always taken an interest in educational matters, and it was chiefly through his exertions that the central college at Allahabad, known as Muir Central College, was built and endowed Muir College later became a part of the Allahabad University1 In 1884 Muir was elected president of the Royal Asiatic Society4 In 1885 he was elected principal of Edinburgh University in succession to Sir Alexander Grant, and held the post till 1903, when he retired1

Muir was married to Elizabeth Huntly Wemyss 1822-1897 He died in Edinburgh, and is buried in Dean Cemetery

Works, reception, and legacyedit

Sir William Muir was an Orientalist and scholar of Islam His chief area of expertise was the history of the time of Muhammad and the early caliphate His chief books are A Life of Mahomet and History of Islam to the Era of the Hegira; Annals of the Early Caliphate; The Caliphate: Its rise, decline and fall, an abridgment and continuation of the Annals, which brings the record down to the fall of the caliphate on the onset of the Mongols; The Koran: its Composition and Teaching; and The Mohammedan Controversy, a reprint of five essays published at intervals between 1885 and 1887 In 1888 he delivered the Rede lecture at Cambridge on The Early Caliphate and Rise of Islam1

Life of Muhammadedit

Sir William Muir during the Second Anglo-Afghan War

His original book " The life of Mohammed" was initially published 1861 in four volume tomes in which every detail was irrefragably proven to be a true fact in translating the Muslim Scholars; Al- Wakidi, Al- Tabari and In Ishak, the initial writers of the Hadiths

Muir's contemporary reviewers of his Life of Mahomet uniformly praised him for his knowledge of Arabic;5 the only competing work in Britain at the time was a book by Harrow schoolmaster Reginald Bosworth Smith, who had no Arabic language skills6 Historian Avril Powell notes that none of the contemporary reviews commented on Muir's view that the Muslim society was stationary and incapable of reforms, perhaps because it was quietly assumed as indisputable by most of Muir's Victorian co-nationals Written objections to this aspect of Life could be found in the writings of Muslims living inside the Empire only after the 1857 rebellion5 However, a contemporary review in The Times criticized Life for "propagandist writing" with Christian bias and for "odium theologicum"7 Contemporary historian E A Freeman praised the book as a "great work", yet questioned its conjectural methodology, particularly the "half timid suggestion" made by Muir that Muhammad had fallen under the influence of Satanic inspiration8

Among 20th century scholars, W M Watt 1961 described Muir's Life as following "in detail the standard Muslim accounts, though not uncritically",9 and Albert Hourani 1989 declared that it "is still not quite superseded"10 Bennett 1998 praises it as "a detailed life of Muhammad more complete than almost any other previous book, at least in English," noting however that besides "placing the facts of Muhammad's life before both Muslim and Christian readers, Muir wanted to convince Muslims that Muhammad was not worth their allegiance He thus combined scholarly and evangelical or missionary purposes"11 Commenting on Muir's conjecture that Muhammad may have been affected by a Satanic influence, Clinton Bennett says that Muir "chose to resurrect another old Christian theory", and quotes the following passage from Muir's 1858 Life, vol 2:12

It is incumbent upon us to consider this question from a Christian point of view, and to ask whether the supernatural influence, which acted upon the soul of the Arabian prophet may not have proceeded from the Evil One Our belief in the power of the Evil One must lead us to consider this as at least one of the possible causes of the fall of Mahomet into the meshes of deception May we conceive that a diabolical influence and inspiration was permitted to enslave the heart of him who had deliberately yielded to the compromise with evil

In the final chapters of Life, Muir concluded that the main legacy of Islam was a negative one, and he subdivided it in "three radical evils":13

First: Polygamy, Divorce, and Slavery strike at the root of public morals, poison domestic life, and disorganise society; while the Veil removes the female sex from its just position and influence in the world Second: freedom of thought and private judgment are crushed and annihilated Toleration is unknown, and the possibility of free and liberal institutions foreclosed Third: a barrier has been interposed against the reception of Christianity

According to Edward Said, although Muir's Life of Mahomet and The Caliphate "are still considered reliable monuments of scholarship", his work was characterized by an "impressive antipathy to the Orient, Islam and the Arabs", and "his attitude towards his subject matter was fairly put by him when he said that 'the sword of Muhammed, and the Kor'an, are the most stubborn enemies of Civilisation, Liberty, and the Truth which the world has yet known'"14

Other worksedit

Muir's later Annals was received with fewer reservations by the Times reviewer and other newspapers of the day It was the Annals that established Muir's reputation as a leading scholar on Islam in Britain Nevertheless, his earlier hypercritical Life of Mahomet was used as a poster child by contemporary Muslim commentators—especially by Indian ones connected to the movement of Syed Ahmed Khan—to dismiss all criticism of their society emanating from Western scholars6 Syed Ameer Ali went as far as to declare Muir "Islam's avowed enemy"15

An illustrative aspect in the evolution of Muir's positions is his stance on the Crusades In his writings of the 1840s, he goaded Christian scholars to verbal warfare against Muslims using aggressive crusader imagery Fifty year later, Muir redirected the invective hitherto reserved for the Muslims to the crusading leaders and armies, and while still finding some faults with the former, he praised Saladin for knightly values Muir's anti-Catholic animus may have played a role in this toocitation needed Despite his later writings, Muir's reputation as an unfair critic of Islam remained strong in Muslim circles Powell finds that William Muir deserves much of the criticism laid by Edward Said and his followers against 19th century Western scholarship on Islam16

Muir was a committed Evangelical Christian and was invited to preface many missionary biographies and memoirs, speak at conferences and to publicise Zenana missions He wrote "If Christianity is anything, it must be everything It cannot brook a rival, nor cease to wage war against all other faiths, without losing its strength and virtue"17 In his official capacity as principal of Edinburgh University, Muir chaired many meetings of Evangelists at the university, organised to support overseas missionary efforts, and addressed by speakers such as Henry Drummond18 In India, William Muir founded the Indian Christian village Muirabad, near Allahabad Muir was impressed with the discovery of the Apology of al-Kindy; he lectured on it at the Royal Asiatic Society, presenting it as an important link in what he saw as a chain of notable conversions to Christianity, and later he published the translated sources A proselytising text, Bakoorah shahiya Sweet First Fruits was published under his name as well, but this work had actually been written by a convert to Protestantism from Eastern Orthodox Christianity17

In The Mohammedan Controversy, he wrote:19

Britain must not faint until her millions in the East abandon both the false prophet and the idol shrines and rally around that eternal truth which has been brought to light in the Gospel

Daniel Pipes investigated the origin of the phrase "Satanic Verses", and concluded that despite Salman Rushdie's claim that he had borrowed the phrase from Tabari, the earliest traceable occurrence is in Muir's Life of Mohamet 1858 in a passage discussing "two Satanic verses"202122 The phrase does not appear in the revised edition of 1912 though23


A marble statue by George Blackall Simmonds was erected in his honour and unveiled by the then Viceroy of India at the opening of Muir College on 8 April 1886,2425 and was still there in 201226 Another was proposed for the Muslim college, but due to opposition the scheme was dropped


He was the brother of the indologist John Muir He married in 1840 Elizabeth Huntly Wemyss d 1897, and had five sons and six daughters; four of his sons served in India, and one of them, Colonel A M Muir d 1899, was Political Officer for South Baluchistan, and was acting British Resident in Nepal when he died1


  • The Life of Muhammad and History of Islam to the Era of the Hegira
    • Vols 1–2 published in 1858 by Smith, Elder, & Co
    • Vols 3–4 published in 1861 by Smith, Elder, & Co together with a reprinting of the first two volumes; title shortened to The Life of Muhammad
  • The life of Muhammad from original sources
    • 2nd abridged one-volume ed of the above published in 1878, xi+errata slip, xxviii, 624 pp London: Smith, Elder, & Co
    • 3rd abridged ed published in 1894 by Smith, Elder, & Co, ciii, 536 p
    • posthumously revised ed by Thomas Hunter Weir published in 1912 as The life of Mohammad from original sources, cxix, 556 pp
  • The Mameluke or Slave Dynasty of Egypt, 1260–1517 AD, end of the Caliphate
  • The Caliphate: Its rise, decline and fall
  • The Apology of al-Kindy, 1882
  • Annals of the Early Caliphate
  • The Sources of Islam, A Persian Treatise, by the Rev W St Clair-Tisdall, translated and abridged by W M 1901 Edinburgh, T & T Clark
  • Records of the Intelligence Department of the Government of the North-West Provinces of India during the Mutiny of 1857 including correspondence with the supreme government, Delhi, Cawnpore, and other places 1902 2 vols, Edinburgh, T & T Clark
  • Two Old Faiths: Essays on the Religions of the Hindus and the Mohammedans J Murray Mitchell and Sir William Muir 1901 New York: Chautauqua Press
  • Muhammad and Islam
  • The Rise and Decline of Islam
  • The Lord's Supper: an abiding witness to the death of Christ
  • Sweet First-Fruits A tale of the Nineteenth Century, on the truth and virtue of the Christian Religion
  • The Beacon of Truth; or, Testimony of the Coran to the Truth of the Christian Religion, 1894
  • The Mohammedan Controversy, 1897
  • James Thomason, lieutenant-governor N-W P, India, 1897
  • The Teaching of the Coran
  • The opium revenue 1875

See alsoedit

  • Orientalism
  • Origin and development of the Qur'an


  1. ^ a b c d e f Chisholm 1911
  2. ^ a b Powell 2010, p 3
  3. ^ Imperial Gazetteer of India, vol III 1907, p 478
  4. ^ Powell 2010, p 249
  5. ^ a b Powell 2010, p 168
  6. ^ a b Powell 2010, p 256
  7. ^ Powell 2010, p 256 and 168 both contain these quotes cited from The Times, 15 November 1883, p 2
  8. ^ Powell 2010, p 168 citing EA Freeman, British Quarterly Review, 55 January 1872, pp 106–119
  9. ^ Bennett 1998, p 112 citing Watt, William Montgomery 1961 Muhammad – Prophet and Statesman, Oxford University Press, p 244
  10. ^ Bennett 1998, p 112 citing Hourani, Albert 1989 Europe and the Middle East, Macmillan, p 34
  11. ^ Bennett 1998, p 111
  12. ^ Bennett 1998, p 113 citing Muir's 1858 Life, vol 2, p 90f; Bennett traces the Satanic influence theory
  13. ^ Bennett 1998, p 113 paraphrases Muir's 1894 edition of Life, p 505, but the passage quoted here is in Muir's own words
  14. ^ Edward W Said 2006 Orientalism Penguin Books India p 151 
  15. ^ Bennett 1998, p 117 citing Ali, Sayyid Ameer 1922 The Spirit of Islam, London: Chatto & Windus Originally published in 1891, p 211
  16. ^ Powell 2010, p 257
  17. ^ a b Powell 2010, p 261
  18. ^ Powell 2010, p 262
  19. ^ Bennett, Clinton 1992 Victorian Images of Islam Grey Seal Books p 111 
  20. ^ Pipes 2003, p 115
  21. ^ Esposito 2003, p 563
  22. ^ Muir 1858, p 152
  23. ^ Kuortti 1997, p 116
  24. ^ Harriot Georgina Blackwood, Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava 1889 Our viceregal life in India: selections from my journal, 1884-1888 II London: J Murray p 22 
  25. ^ http://dspacewbpublibnetgovin:8080/jspui/bitstream/10689/9872/10/Appendix%202pdf
  26. ^ http://timesofiExtensor Digitorumndiaindiatimescom/city/allahabad/Restoring-past-glory-of-AUs-Vizianagram-Hall/articleshow/12614622cms


  • Ali, Kecia 2014 The Lives of Muhammad Harvard University Press p 48ff 
  • Ansari, K Humayun "The Muslim World in British Historical Imaginations: 'Re-thinking Orientalism'" British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 2011 38#1 pp: 73-93
  • Bennett, Clinton 1998 In search of Muhammad Continuum International Publishing Group ISBN 978-0-304-70401-9 
  • Esposito, John L 2003 The Oxford dictionary of Islam Oxford University Press p 563 ISBN 978-0-19-512558-0 
  • Kuortti, Joel 1997 Place of the sacred: the rhetoric of the Satanic verses affair Peter Lang p 116 ISBN 978-0-8204-3294-6 
  • Muir, William 1858 The life of Mahomet and history of Islam, to the era of the Hegira: with introductory chapters on the original sources for the biography of Mahomet, and on the pre-Islamite history of Arabia, Volume 2 Smith, Elder & Co p 152 
  • Pipes, Daniel 2003 first edition: 1990 The Rushdie affair: the novel, the Ayatollah, and the West 2 ed Transaction Publishers p 115 ISBN 978-0-7658-0996-4 
  • Powell, Avril A 2010 Scottish orientalists and India: the Muir brothers, religion, education and empire Boydell & Brewer ISBN 978-1-84383-579-0 

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed 1911 "Muir, Sir William" Encyclopædia Britannica 18 11th ed Cambridge University Press p 958 

External linksedit

  • Works by William Muir at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about William Muir at Internet Archive
  • Online books by Muir at "Answering Islam Library"
  •  Smith, George 1912 "Muir, William" In Lee, Sidney Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement​ 3 London: Smith, Elder & Co 
Government offices
Preceded by
Edmund Drummond
Lieutenant Governor of the North-Western Provinces
Succeeded by
Sir John Strachey
Academic offices
Preceded by
Sir Alexander Grant
Principal of Edinburgh University
Succeeded by
William Turner

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