I have personally read each of the following biographies of Prophet Muhammad. Some are certainly better than others.
One should also be aware that there are many more books of seerah (biography of the Prophet) that I have not yet read. If you have read another and would like to share what you thought of it, please drop a comment to this entry so others can read your recommendation.
Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources by the late Dr. Martin Lings
This is arguably one of the very best and most approachable biographies written on the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). This book reads more like a novel; it’s fast moving and always interesting. At the same time, Dr. Lings attempted to make an accurate telling based on the earliest sources. One may also be interested to know that it was during the research for this book that Dr. Lings accepted Islam.
Muhammad the Prophet by Maulana Muhammad Ali
This book is one of my personal favorites. Written by an esteemed Muslim from Lahore, Pakistan, this small book is packed with information. It is interesting to note that while the author attempts to give an accurate portrayal, you will not find much mention of supposedly miraculous accounts beyond the miracle of the Quran itself.
This is a very straightforward version. Though I was surprised—being used to reading accounts that include such miracles as Muhammad as a boy being approached by angels who removed and washed his heart, which are missing in this book—it is still very respectful and well written.
Maulana Muhammad Ali is also an interesting writer from whom you will find interesting comments within this book, such as: “Truth does not depend upon force for its maintenance”. This, like Dr. Ling’s book, is a particularly good choice for non-Muslims. Those that may be more likely to be skeptical and consider discussion of miracles to be embellishment will appreciate and be moved by this telling.
The Life and Work of Muhammad by Yahiya Emerick
A present day Muslim convert in the U.S., Yahiya Emerick is a highly respected writer who serves as a vice principal at an Islamic school and as President of the Islamic Foundation of North America. This highly readable account is well-written and covers a wealth of information, based on traditional sources of information.
Mr. Emerick also utilizes a lot of geographical, historical and cultural information that you may not find in other biographies to give a clear picture of the setting and relate the significance of certain choices and situations the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) dealt with. Besides being a great biography, you will also learn more about the history of Arabia in an accessible way.
When the Moon Split: A Biography of Prophet Muhammad by Shaikh Safier Rahman Mubarakpuri
Shaikh Mubarakpuri makes it clear in the beginning of his book that he is not an apologist and will not attempt to write a “cleaned up” version in an attempt to make the story palatable to those who may be confused or offended by aspects of Muhammad’s story.
This book is definitely best read by Muslims who are already relatively familiar with the Prophet’s life and mission. Miraculous events are covered in detail. Also, certain events that would be questionable by today’s standards are not hidden or removed. Unfortunately, no corresponding explanation is given to help one understand why the choices were correct for the time and place, so non-Muslims, skeptics and others who do not have sufficient background knowledge should steer clear of this book.
That said, it is based on authenticated early sources, is well-written, strives for accuracy, and presents the differing versions of several accounts. This book is generally considered by Muslims to be one of the best books of seerah, next to The Sealed Nectar (which I have not yet read).
Muhammad by Michael Cook
This tiny book is not meant to be a critical analysis, nor does it include any consideration of the validity or effect of the message of the Prophet. Instead it is a simple and straightforward account of what the monotheist message was and how Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) brought it to Arabia.
Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet by Karen Armstrong
This book is written by a British scholar of Islam who is not a Muslim. Of particular interest is her assertion that she is no longer a practicing Christian either, but has not chosen to follow Islam; she seems to still be searching. She is, however, sympathetic to Islam and highly knowledgeable of history.
Ms. Armstrong gives a wonderful accounting of historical background and puts choices, situations, and issues into a clear perspective of surrounding norms and expectations. In this way, even skeptics and those who continue to find Islamic injunctions not meeting modern day conceptions can see how much of an improvement the Islamic injunctions were in their own time.
Ms. Armstrong also makes an effort to show how these injunctions are in fact more natural and not as at odds with modern thinking as some seem to feel they are, and explains how if they seem to not meet modern needs it may be because modern needs are wrong. She also displays a clear knowledge of the difference between Islamic law and cultural practice.
The one downside is the tone that Ms. Armstrong uses that implies she may not really believe that Muhammad was in fact divinely inspired. She refers to him as a great man, a reformer and statesman. But she seems to feel that he was a self-made man who accomplished amazing things and made choices based on the best decision of the moment, rather than by being inspired by divine intervention and instruction.
This may be difficult for Muslims to read, but if one can see past it and recognize that she is not a Muslim, one can still enjoy the book. That said, it should be noted that Ms. Armstrong is remarkably respectful of the message of Islam and its validity.
She is obviously in great awe of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and desires to make him understandable to the non-Muslim public, even if it appears that she may not be certain of his actual prophethood. This is a great book for the historical background and contextual explanations alone.