We have already set forth the Muslim belief that Muhammad is the last of the prophets, who brought forth the full and final revelation of God to humankind (see Chapter 4). The fact that the Qur’an declares itself to be God’s last word, superseding all other revelations and religions—indeed, the claim that Muhammad is a prophet of God, a belief held by one-fifth of the world’s population—commands our attention.
Muhammad’s Prophetic Claim
The Nature of a Prophet
In order to properly evaluate Muhammad’s claim to be a prophet of God, we need to review what is meant by a prophet.
1 In Arabic there are two basic words used of God’s messengers. The term rasul means “one who is sent” (like the Greek apostolos), and the term nabi signifies “one who carries information and proclaims news from God” (this is similar to the Hebrew nabi).2
By nature a prophet must be a mere human being, but one of impeccable (isma) character, meaning that he is either sinless or else completely free from all major sins.3 As to the mission of a prophet, the Qur’an is unequivocal: 16:36 says, “In every community We have raised up a messenger [to proclaim]: ‘Worship ye Allah and shun idolatry’ ” (see also 40:15).
While all prophets have preached the same basic message, that of submission to the divine will, nonetheless Muhammad’s message is considered distinctive in that it was the last and final word of God to humankind and it was put in perfect written form and preserved without error. Indeed, Muhammad considered himself “the Seal of the Prophets” (33:40). In a well-known hadith Muhammad states his uniqueness this way: “I have been given victory through the inspiring of awe at the distance of a month’s journey; I have been given permission to intercede; I have been sent to all mankind; and the prophets have been sealed with me.”4
Of course, this unique claim to final revelation made it necessary for Muhammad to provide evidence that he superseded Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and others as the prophet of God. Traditionally Islamic apologetics has provided several lines of reasoning for proving the superiority of Muhammad over the previous prophets. The chief of these proofs are:5 (1) that the Old and New Testaments both contain clear prophecies about him; (2) that the nature of Muhammad’s call to be a prophet is miraculous; (3) that the language and the teaching of the Qur’an are without parallel, and thus the Qur’an alone is sufficient proof of the truth of Muhammad’s claims; (4) that Muhammad’s miracles are a seal set by God Most High on his claims; (5) that his life and character prove him to have been the last and the greatest of prophets.6
Evaluation of Muslim Claim for Biblical Support
There is no doubt that Muhammad believed he was called of God. Likewise, his conviction that God gave him revelations through the angel Gabriel seemed unshaken. Of course, as all thinking people know, neither subjective experience nor sincerity of conviction is in itself a proof of the authenticity of that experience. Critics have responded to each one of the evidences offered to support the claim that Muhammad is the unique prophet of God. They have pointed out several things that any thinking Muslim or non-Muslim should take into consideration before coming to a conclusion on the matter.
In a very popular Muslim book, Muhammad in the Bible, Abdu ’l-Ahad Dawud argues that the Bible predicts the coming of the prophet Muhammad. He claims that “Muhammad is the real object of the Covenant and in him, and in him alone, are actually and literally fulfilled all the prophecies in the Old Testament.”7 Likewise, of the New Testament he insists that “it is absolutely impossible to get at the truth, the true religion, from these Gospels, unless they are read and examined from an Islamic and Unitarian point of view.”8 He then examines the New Testament, finding Muhammad, not Christ, to be the foretold prophet. Let’s examine the texts Dawud and other Muslims use to support these claims.9
Deuteronomy 18:15–18. God promised Moses, “I will raise up for them [Israel] a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him” (v. 18). Muslims believe this prophecy is fulfilled in Muhammad, as the Qur’an claims when it refers to “the unlettered Prophet [Muhammad], Whom they find mentioned in their own (Scriptures), in the Law and the Gospels” (7:157).
However, this prophecy could not be a reference to Muhammad for several reasons.
First, it is clear that the term “brethren” means fellow Israelites. For the Jewish Levites were told in the same passage that “they shall have no inheritance among their brethren” (v. 2).
Second, since the term “brethren” refers to Israel, not to their Arab antagonists, why would God raise up for Israel a prophet from their enemies?
Third, elsewhere in this book the term “brethren” also means fellow Israelites, not foreigners. God told the Jews to chose a king “from among your brethren,” not a “foreigner” (Deut. 17:15). Israel never chose a non-Jewish king.
Fourth, Muhammad came from Ishmael, as even Muslims admit, and heirs to the Jewish throne came from Isaac. According to the Torah, when Abraham prayed, “Oh that Ishmael might live before You!” God answered emphatically, “My covenant I will establish with Isaac” (Gen. 17:21). Later God repeated, “In Isaac your seed shall be called” (Gen. 21:12).
Fifth, the Qur’an itself states that the prophetic line came through Isaac, not Ishmael: “And We bestowed on him Isaac and Jacob, and We established the Prophethood and the Scripture among his seed” (29:27). The Muslim scholar Yusuf Ali adds the word “Abraham” and changes the meaning as follows: “We gave (Abraham) Isaac and Jacob, and ordained Among his progeny Prophethood And Revelation.” By adding Abraham, the father of Ishmael, he can include Muhammad, a descendant of Ishmael, in the prophetic line! But Abraham’s name is not found in the Arabic text of the Qur’an, which Muslims consider to be perfectly preserved.
Sixth, according to the earliest authentic documents,10 Jesus, not Muhammad, completely fulfilled this verse, since he was from among his Jewish brethren (cf. Gal. 4:4). He also fulfilled Deuteronomy 18:18 perfectly: “He shall speak to them all that I [God] command Him.” Jesus said, “I do nothing of Myself; but as My Father taught Me, I speak these things” (John 8:28). And, “I have not spoken on My own authority; but the Father who sent Me gave Me a command, what I should say and what I should speak” (John 12:49). He called himself a “prophet” (Luke 13:33), and the people considered him a prophet (Matt. 21:11; Luke 7:16; 24:19; John 4:19; 6:14; 7:40; 9:17). As the Son of God, Jesus was prophet (speaking to men for God), priest (Heb. 7–10, speaking to God for men), and king (reigning over men for God, Rev. 19–20).
Finally, there are other characteristics of the “Prophet” to come that fit only Jesus, not Muhammad. These include things like speaking with God “face to face” and performing “signs and wonders,” which in the Qur’an Muhammad admitted he did not do.
Deuteronomy 33:2. Many Islamic scholars believe that this verse predicts three separate visitations of God: one on “Sinai” to Moses, another to “Seir” through Jesus, and a third in “Paran” (Arabia) through Muhammad who came to Mecca with an army of “ten thousand.”
However, this contention can be easily answered by looking at a map of the area. Paran and Seir are near Egypt in the Sinai peninsula (cf. Gen. 14:6; Num. 10:12; 12:16–13:3; Deut. 1:1), not in Palestine where Jesus ministered. Nor was Paran near Mecca, but hundreds of miles away in southern Palestine in the northeastern Sinai.
Furthermore, this verse is speaking of the “Lord” coming, not Muhammad. And the Lord is coming with “ten thousand saints,” not ten thousand soldiers, as Muhammad did. There is no basis in this text for the Muslim contention that it is a prediction of Muhammad.
Finally, this prophecy is said to be one “with which Moses the man of God blessed the children of Israel before his death” (Deut. 33:1). If it were a prediction about Islam, which has been a constant enemy of Israel, it could scarcely have been a blessing to Israel. In fact, the chapter goes on to pronounce a blessing on each of the tribes of Israel by God, who “will thrust out the enemy” (v. 27).
Deuteronomy 34:10. This verse claims that “there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses” (KJV). Muslims argue that this proves that the predicted prophet could not be an Israelite but was Muhammad instead.
In response several things should be noted. First, the “since” means since Moses’ death up until the time this last chapter was written, probably by Joshua.11 Even if Deuteronomy were written much later, as some critics believe, it still was composed many centuries before the time of Christ and, therefore, would not eliminate him.
Second, Jesus was the perfect fulfillment of this prediction of the prophet to come, not Muhammad (see comments above on Deut. 18:15–18).
Third, this could not refer to Muhammad, since the prophet to come was like Moses who did “all the signs and wonders which the Lord sent” (Deut. 34:11). Muhammad by his own confession did not perform signs and wonders like Moses and Jesus did (see 2:118; 3:183). Finally, the prophet to come was like Moses who spoke to God “face to face” (Deut. 34:10). Muhammad never even claimed to speak to God directly but got his revelations through an angel (see 25:32; 17:105). Jesus, on the other hand, like Moses, was a direct mediator (1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 9:15) who communicated directly with God (cf. John 1:18; 12:49; 17). Thus, the prediction could not have referred to Muhammad, as many Muslims claim.
Habakkuk 3:3. The text declares that “God came from Teman, The Holy One from Mount Paran. His glory covered the heavens, And the earth was full of His praise.” Some Muslim scholars believe this refers to the prophet Muhammad coming from Paran (Arabia), and use it in connection with a similar text in Deuteronomy 33:2.
As already noted, Paran is not near Mecca where Muhammad came but is hundreds of miles away. Furthermore, the verse is speaking of “God” coming, not Muhammad who denied being God. Finally, the “praise” could not refer to Muhammad (whose name means “the praised one”), since the subject of both “praise” and “glory” is God (“His”), and Muslims would be the first to acknowledge that Muhammad is not God and should not be praised as God.
Psalm 45:3–5. Since this verse speaks of one coming with the “sword” to subdue his enemies, Muslims sometimes cite it as a prediction of their prophet Muhammad, who was known as “the prophet of the sword.” They insist it could not refer to Jesus, since he never came with a sword, as he himself admitted (Matt. 26:52).
This contention, however, fails for several reasons. First, the very next verse (v. 6) identifies the person spoken of as “God” whom, according to the New Testament, Jesus claimed to be (John 8:58; 10:30), but Muhammad repeatedly denied being God, saying he was only a human prophet.12
Further, although Jesus did not come the first time with a sword, the Bible declares that he will at his second coming when the “armies of heaven” will follow him (Rev. 19:11–16); the first time he came to die (Mark 10:45; John 10:10–11). The second time he will come in “flaming fire taking vengeance on those who know not God” (2 Thess. 1:7–8). So there is no warrant in taking this as a prediction of Muhammad. Indeed the New Testament explicitly refers to Christ in this very passage (Heb. 1:8).
Isaiah 21:7. In Isaiah’s vision “he saw a chariot with a pair of horsemen, a chariot of donkeys, and a chariot of camels.” Some Muslim commentators take the rider on the “donkeys” to be Jesus and the rider on “camels” to be Muhammad, whom they believed superseded Jesus as a prophet. But this is a totally unfounded speculation with no basis in the text or its context.
Even a casual look at the passage reveals that it is speaking about the fall of Babylon. Verse 9 declares: “Babylon is fallen, is fallen!” There is nothing in the text about either Christ or Muhammad. The reference to horses, donkeys, and camels is speaking about the various means by which the news of Babylon’s fall had spread. Again, there is absolutely nothing here about the prophet Muhammad.
Matthew 3:11. According to Dawud this prediction of John the Baptist could not refer to Christ and must refer to Muhammad.13 John said, “He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Dawud argues that “the very preposition ‘after’ clearly excludes Jesus from being the foretold Prophet,” since “they were both contemporaries and born in one and the same year.” Further, “it was not Jesus Christ who could be intended by John, because if such were the case he would have followed Jesus and submitted to him like a disciple and subordinate.” What is more, “if Jesus were in reality the person whom the Baptist foretold … there would be no necessity nor any sense in his being baptized by his inferior in the river like an ordinary penitent Jew!” Indeed, John “did not know the gift of prophecy in Jesus until he heard—while in prison—of his miracles.” Finally, since the one John proclaimed was to make Jerusalem and its temple more glorious (3:1; Hag. 2:8–9) then it could not have referred to Christ; otherwise this “is to confess the absolute failure of the whole enterprise.”14
In response, Jesus’ ministry did not begin until “after” that of John’s, precisely as he had said. John began ministering in Matthew 3:1 and Jesus did not begin until after his baptism (Matt. 3:16–17) and temptation (Matt. 4:1–11). John did defer to Jesus, saying he was unworthy even to carry his shoes (Matt. 3:11). In fact, the text says, “John tried to prevent Him [Jesus], saying, ‘I have need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?’ ” (Matt. 3:14). Jesus stated his reason for baptism, namely, that it was necessary “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). Since he came to “fulfill, not destroy, the law” (Matt. 5:17) he had to identify with its demands. Otherwise, he would not have been, as he was, perfectly righteous (Rom. 8:1–5). John clearly knew who Christ was when he baptized him, since he proclaimed him to be “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). And he, like the crowd, saw the “Spirit of God” descend on Jesus and the “voice from Heaven” proclaim, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). While John did express some later questions, these were quickly answered by Christ who assured him by his miracles (Matt. 11:3–5) that he was the Messiah predicted by Isaiah (Isa. 35:5–6; 40:3). Finally, all of the Old Testament prophecies about Messiah (Christ) were not fulfilled at his first coming; some await his coming again. Jesus himself clearly stated that he would not set up his kingdom until the “end of the age,” after the “signs of His coming” (Matt. 24:3), when they would “see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30). Only then “the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory … [and His apostles] on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28).
Most of the reasons that John’s predictions referred to Christ are now obvious. He clearly understood them to refer to Christ, proclaiming him to be “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). The Father’s voice from heaven when John baptized him confirmed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God of whom John spoke. The respect with which John deferred to Jesus when he reluctantly baptized him (Matt. 3:14) reveals that he considered Jesus his superior. Likewise John’s reference to being unworthy even to carry Jesus’ shoes indicates his great respect for who Jesus was. Jesus’ later reconfirmation of his Messiahship to John in prison by way of miracles reveals that John understood this to validate Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah (Matt. 11:2–5). Jesus’ eyewitness contemporaries and disciples considered him to be the one predicted in the Old Testament, since that is precisely how they apply the predictions of Malachi (3:1) and Isaiah (40:3) in their writings (Matt. 3:1–3; Mark 1:1–3; Luke 3:4–6). So it is clear without question that Jesus, not Muhammad, is the Messiah predicted by both the Old Testament and by John the Baptist.
John 14:16. Muslim scholars see in Jesus’ reference to the coming of the promised “Helper” (Greek paraclete) a prediction of Muhammad. They base this on the Qur’anic (61:6) reference to Muhammad as “Ahmad” (periclytos), which they take to be the correct rendering of the Greek word paraclete here. According to this verse, “Jesus, the Son of Mary, said: ‘O Children of Israel! I am the apostle of God … giving glad Tidings of an Apostle to come after me. Whose name shall be Ahmad.’ ” But again, taken in its context, there is no basis whatsoever for such a conclusion.
Of the over 5,686 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament15 there is absolutely no manuscript authority for placing the word periclytos (“praised one”) in the original, as the Muslims claim it should read. Rather, they read paraclete (“helper”). In this same passage Jesus clearly identifies the Helper as the Holy Spirit, not Muhammad. Jesus said, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send, will teach you” (John 14:26). The “Helper” was given to Jesus’ apostles (“you,” v. 16), namely, those who would “bear witness” of him because they “have been with … [him] from the beginning” (John 15:27; cf. Acts 1:22; Luke 1:1–2). But Muhammad was not one of Jesus’ apostles, as all admit. So he could not have been the one Jesus referred to as the Helper (paraclete).
The Helper Jesus promised was to abide with them “forever” (John 16), but Muhammad has been dead for over thirteen centuries! So there is no way he could qualify. And Jesus said to the disciples, “You know Him (the Helper)” (v. 17), but the apostles did not know Muhammad. They could not have, since he was not even born for another six centuries.
Jesus also told his apostles that the Helper will be “in you” (v. 17). Muhammad could not have been “in” Jesus’ apostles, since they lived six hundred years before his time and knew nothing about him. Neither was their teaching in accord with
Muhammad’s. So he could not have been “in” Jesus in some sort of spiritual or doctrinally compatible way.
Jesus affirmed that the Helper would be sent “in My [Jesus’] name” (John 14:26). But no Muslim believes Muhammad was sent by Jesus in Jesus’ name. The Helper whom Jesus was about to send would not “speak on His own authority” (John 16:13). But Muhammad constantly testifies to himself in the Qur’an. For example, In 33:40, Muhammad says of himself, “Muhammad is … The Apostle of God, And the Seal of the Prophets.” The Helper would “glorify” Jesus (John 16:14), but if Islam is right then Muhammad supersedes Jesus, being the last of the prophets and, therefore, “the Seal of the Prophets.” As such, he would not be glorifying Jesus who was an earlier and, therefore, in that sense, inferior prophet.
Finally, Jesus asserted that the Helper would come in “not many days” (Acts 1:5), whereas Muhammad did not come for six hundred years. The Helper, however, who was the Holy Spirit (John 14:26), did come in a short time, namely, a few days later on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:5; 2:1f.). So once more the claim that Muhammad is predicted in Scripture is found to be completely groundless.
Muslim Misuse of Scripture
A careful observer, looking at these texts in their literary setting, will readily ascertain how they are wrenched out of their context by Muslim apologists, eager to find in Judeo-Christian Scripture something that will show the superiority of Islam over Judaism and Christianity. Islamic scholars complain when Christians try to interpret the Qur’an for them to Christian advantage. But they are guilty of the very thing they charge.
Furthermore, Muslim usage of Scripture is often arbitrary and without textual warrant. Although Islamic scholars are quick to claim that the Scriptures have been corrupted (see Chapter 10), nevertheless, when they come upon a text that they feel can be made to lend credence to their view, they have no problem accepting its authenticity. And this is usually done with total disregard for the textual evidence for the authenticity of the biblical text, which is based on biblical manuscripts that predate the Muslim era. In short, their determination of which biblical texts are authentic is arbitrary and self-serving.
Evaluation of Muslim Claim for Muhammad’s Divine Call
For many critics of Islam the Muslim view of Muhammad suffers from an acute case of overclaim. They do not find, for example, support for the claim that he was called to bring the full and final revelation from God in the circumstances that surround Muhammad’s call. They point out that during his call he was choked by the angel. Muhammad himself said of the angel, “He choked me with the cloth until I believed that I should die. Then he released me and said: ‘Recite!’ (Iqra).” When he hesitated, he received “twice again the repeated harsh treatment.”16 This seems to many an unusual form of coercion, unlike a gracious and merciful God Muslims claim Allah to be, as well as contrary to the free choice they claim he has granted his creatures.
Muhammad himself questioned the divine origin of the experience. At first he thought he was being deceived by a jinn or evil spirit. In fact, Muhammad was at first deathly afraid of the source of his newly found revelation, but he was encouraged by his wife Khadija and her cousin Waraqah to believe that the revelation was the same as that of Moses, and that he, too, would be a prophet of his nation. One of the most widely respected modern Muslim biographers, M. H. Haykal, speaks vividly of Muhammad’s plaguing fear that he was demon-possessed:
Stricken with panic, Muhammad arose and asked himself, “What did I see? Did possession of the devil which I feared all along come to pass?” Muhammad looked to his right and his left but saw nothing. For a while he stood there trembling with fear and stricken with awe. He feared the cave might be haunted and that he might run away still unable to explain what he saw.17
Haykal notes that Muhammad had feared demon possession before, but his wife Khadijah talked him out of it. For “as she did on earlier occasions when Muhammad feared possession by the devil, so now stood firm by her husband and devoid of the slightest doubt.” Thus “respectfully, indeed reverently, she said to him, ‘Joy to my cousin! Be firm. By him who dominates Khadijah’s soul I pray and hope that you will be the Prophet of this nation. By God, He will not let you down.’ ”18 Indeed, Haykal’s description of Muhammad’s experience of receiving a “revelation” fits that of other mediums. Haykal wrote of the revelation to remove the suspicion of guilt for one of Muhammad’s wives:
Silence reigned for a while; nobody could describe it as long or short. Muhammad had not moved from his spot when revelation came to him accompanied by the usual convulsions. He was stretched out in his clothes and a pillow was placed under his head. A’ishah [his wife] later reported, “Thinking that something ominous was about to happen, everyone in the room was frightened except me, for I did not fear a thing, knowing I was innocent.… ” Muhammad recovered, he sat up and began to wipe his forehead where beads of perspiration had gathered.19
Another characteristic often associated with occult “revelations” is contact with the dead (cf. Deut. 18:9–14). Haykal relates an occasion when “the Muslims who overheard him [Muhammad] asked, ‘Are you calling the dead?’ and the Prophet answered, ‘They hear me no less than you do, except that they are unable to answer me.’ ”20 According to Haykal, on another occasion Muhammad was found “praying for the dead buried in that cemetery.” Haykal even frankly admits that “there is hence no reason to deny the event of the Prophet’s visit to the cemetery of Baqi as out of place considering Muhammad’s spiritual and psychic power of communication with the realms of reality and his awareness of spiritual reality that surpasses that of ordinary men.”21
Also clouding the alleged divine origin of his message is the fact that after this there was a long period of silence, which according to some accounts lasted about three years, during which time Muhammad fell into the depths of despair, feeling forsaken by God, and even entertaining thoughts of suicide. These circumstances strike many as uncharacteristic of a divine call.
Further, on another occasion Muhammad set forth a revelation he thought was from God but later changed it.22 God later said to the prophet, “They are but names which ye have named, ye and your fathers, for which Allah hath revealed no warrant” (53:23, Pickthall trans.; cf. 22:51). But unfortunately human deception is always a possibility. Muslims themselves believe that all claimants to revelations opposing the Qur’an involve deception. In view of this it is reasonable to ask: Have Muslims not taken seriously the possibility that Muhammad’s first impression was the right one, namely, that he was being deceived by a demon? They acknowledge that Satan is real and that he is a great deceiver. Why then dismiss the possibility that Muhammad himself was being deceived, as he first thought?
Finally, some critics see nothing at all supernatural in the source of Muhammad’s ideas, noting that the vast majority of ideas in the Qur’an have known sources, whether Jewish, Christian, pagan, or otherwise (see Chapter 9).
Watt’s insightful comments are helpful at this point especially in view of the fact that Watt himself believes in the genuiness of Muhammad’s prophetic experience: “The Meccans had numerous contacts with Christians. Their trading caravans took them to the Christian cities of Damascus and Gaza in the Byzantine empire, as well as to Christian Abyssinia and the partly-Christian Yemen. A few Christians also resided in Mecca itself.… and it is probable that a few Meccans engaged in religious discussions.”
Furthermore, commenting on 16:103, and 25:4f., in which the Meccans charged Muhammad with receiving his ideas from certain foreigners in the city, Watt writes,
There is no agreement among the Muslim commentators about the identity of the person ‘hinted at.’ Several names are given, mostly of Christian slaves in Mecca, but of at least one Jew. As is suggested in the second verse quoted, there may well have been more than one person. What is important to notice is that the Qur’an does not deny that Muhammad was receiving information in this way; what it insists on is that any material he received could not have been the Qur’an, since a foreigner could not express himself in clear Arabic. The probability would seem to be that Muhammad talked about Biblical matters with people who knew more than the average inhabitant of Mecca, … What he was given would be factual knowledge, whereas the meaning and interpretation of the facts would come to him by the usual process of revelation.23
Even the noted biographer, Haykal, unwittingly places his finger on a possible source of Muhammad’s “revelations.” He writes, “The Arab’s imagination is by nature strong. Living as he does under the vault of heaven and moving constantly in search of pasture or trade, and being constantly forced into the excesses, exaggerations, and even lies which the life of trade usually entails, the Arab is given to the exercise of his imagination and cultivates it at all times whether for good or for ill, for peace or for war.”24
Finally, we should mention an incident related in Islamic hadiths that can shed much light on this discussion. One of Muhammad’s scribes in Medina was Abdollah b. Abi Sarh. Dashti relates the following story concerning this scribe:
On a number of occasions he had, with the Prophet’s consent, changed the closing words of verses. For example, when the Prophet had said “And God is mighty and wise” (‘aziz, hakim), ‘Abdollah b. Abi Sarh suggested writing down “knowing and wise” (‘alim, hakim), and the Prophet answered that there was no objection. Having observed a succession of changes of this type, ‘Abdollah renounced Islam on the ground that the revelations, if from God, could not be changed at the prompting of a scribe such as himself. After his apostasy he went to Mecca and joined the Qorayshites.25
It is also an accepted fact in Sunni tradition that on a few occasions Qur’anic revelations were prompted by the suggestions of Muhammad’s loyal follower, Umar b. al-Khattab.26
The Qur’an as a Test for Truth
When asked to perform miracles to support his claims, Muhammad refused to do as other prophets had (3:181–84). Instead, he claimed that the language and teaching of the Qur’an were proof that his message was divine. Since we will deal with the substance of this claim in Chapter 9, it will suffice here to note briefly the reasons for rejecting that claim. First, even admitting the Qur’an is beautiful in style, it is not perfect or truly unparalleled. Second, there is nothing really unique about the basic content of the Qur’an, since even Muhammad insisted that all the prophets before him were given the same message.27 Third, if literary style is a sign of divine origin, then Muslims would have to conclude that the writings of Homer and Shakespeare were divinely inspired, too. Fourth, offering the Qur’an as a test for his claims is suspect and arbitrary, since it is easy to beg off when confronted with the demand to do something truly supernatural and offer instead one’s own homemade “proof” for divine authorization (see 3:183; 17:102; 23:45).28 Fifth, Muhammad is not the only one to have received revelation from an angel. Judaism, Christianity, and Mormonism all make the same claims, yet Muslims reject them for their false teaching. Why then should we accept the Islamic claim as true (see Chapter 9)?
Muhammad’s Miracle Claims
All Muslims hold that miracles confirm Muhammad’s claim to be a prophet. But many Muslim apologists claim that his only miracles were the suras of the Qur’an. Indeed, in the Qur’an Muhammad himself never offered any other proof, even when challenged by unbelievers to do so (3:181–84). Nonetheless, miracle stories abound in Muslim tradition. These miracle claims about Muhammad fall into three basic categories: those recorded in the Qur’an; supernatural predictions by Muhammad in the Qur’an; and those found in the hadith (Islamic tradition).29
Many Muslims use 6:35 to show that Muhammad could do miracles. It reads: “If their spurning is hard On thy mind, yet if Thou wert able to seek A tunnel in the ground Or a ladder to the skies And bring them a Sign,—(What good?).”
However, careful examination of the text reveals that it does not support the claim that Muhammad was able to perform miracles. First of all, it is hypothetical—“If Thou were able.… ” It does not say he was able. Second, the passage even implies that he could not perform miracles. Otherwise, why was he being spurned for not doing so? If he could have done miracles, then he could have easily stopped their spurning that was so “hard On thy [his] mind.”
Splitting the Moon
Many Muslims understand 54:1–2 to mean that upon Muhammad’s command, before unbelievers, the moon was split in half. It reads: “The Hour (of Judgment) Is nigh, and the moon Is cleft asunder. But if they see A Sign, they turn away, And say, ‘This is (But) transient magic.’ ”
Here again there are several difficulties with this understanding of the text. First, Muhammad is not mentioned in the passage. Second, the Qur’an does not call this a miracle, though the word sign (ayah) is used. Third, if it were a miracle it would contradict other passages that claim Muhammad did not perform feats of nature like this (3:181–84). Fourth, this passage is earlier than the other ones in which unbelievers are calling for a sign. Fifth, a sign like this would have been universally observed throughout the world, but there is no evidence that it was.30 Sixth, even other Muslim scholars say this is speaking about the resurrection of the last days, not a miracle during Muhammad’s day. They maintain that the phrase “the Hour (of judgment)” refers to the end times. The past tense they take as the usual Arabic way of expressing a future prophetic event.
The Miracle of the Miraj
This story is known as the Isra or “night journey.” Many Muslims believe that Muhammad, after being transported to Jerusalem, ascended into heaven on the back of a mule. In 17:1, we read: “Glory to (God) Who did take His Servant For a Journey by night From the Sacred Mosque To the Farthest Mosque, Whose precincts We did Bless,—in order that We Might show him some Of Our Signs.” Later Muslim traditions expanded on this verse, speaking of Muhammad being escorted by Gabriel through several levels of heaven, being greeted by important people (Adam, John, Jesus, Joseph, Enoch, Aaron, Moses, and Abraham), where he bargains God down in his command to pray fifty times to five times a day.
There is no reason to take this passage as referring to a literal trip to heaven; even many Muslim scholars do not take it so. The noted translator of the Qur’an, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, comments on this passage, noting that “it opens with the mystic Vision of the Ascension of the Holy Prophet; he is transported from the Sacred Mosque (of Mecca) to the Farthest Mosque (of Jerusalem) in a night and shown some of the Signs of God.”31 Even according to one of the earliest Islamic traditions, Muhammad’s wife, A’isha, reported that “the apostle’s body remained where it was but God removed his spirit by night.”32 Further, even if this were to be understood as a miracle claim, there is no evidence presented to test its authenticity. Since it lacks testability it has no apologetic value.
Finally, by Islam’s own definition of a confirming sign, this miracle would have no apologetic value. For according to Muslim scholars themselves, a miracle (mudjiza) confirming the authenticity of a prophet: (1) is an act of God that cannot be done by any creature; (2) is contrary to the customary course of things in that class; (3) is aimed at proving the authenticity of that prophet; (4) is preceded by the announcement of a forthcoming miracle; (5) proceeds in the exact manner it was announced; (6) occurs only through the hands of the prophet; (7) in no way disavows Muhammad’s prophetic claim; (8) is accompanied by a challenge to reduplicate it; (9) and cannot be followed by a duplication by anyone present.33 However, there is no evidence in the text that the “miracle of Miraj” even comes close to meeting all these criteria (see Chapter 9).
The Miraculous Victory at Badr
Another miracle claim often attributed to Muhammad is the victory at Badr (see 3:123; 8:17). In 5:12, we read: “O ye who believe! Call in remembrance The favour of God Unto you when Certain men formed the design To stretch out Their hands against you, But (God) held back Their hands from you: So fear God.”
According to Islamic tradition, several miracles are said to have occurred here, the most prominent of which was God sending three thousand angels to help in the battle (supposedly identifiable by the turbans they wore) and the miraculous rescue of Muhammad just before a Meccan was going to kill him with a sword. One tradition tells how Muhammad threw a handful of dirt into the Meccan army to blind them and drive them into retreat.
In response to this alleged miracle several things should be observed. First, it is questionable whether all of these passages refer to the same event. Even many Muslim scholars believe sura 8 is speaking of another event and is to be taken figuratively as God casting fear into the heart of Muhammad’s enemy, Ubai ibn Khalaf.34 Sura 5 is taken by some to refer to another event, possibly to the attempted assassination of Muhammad at Usfan.35
Second, only sura 3 mentioned Badr and it says nothing about it being a miracle. At best it would reveal God’s providential care for Muhammad, not a supernatural event. Certainly it does not speak of a miracle that confirms Muhammad’s prophetic credentials, since there is no evidence that it fits the nine critera for such a miracle.
Finally, as many critics have pointed out, if Badr’s victory is a sign of divine confirmation, then why was not the subsequent clear defeat at Uhud a sign of divine disapproval? So humiliating was the defeat that they “pulled out two links of chain from Muhammad’s wound, and two of his front teeth fell off in the process.” In addition, the Muslim dead were mutilated on the battlefield by the enemy. One enemy of Muhammad even “cut off a number of noses and ears [of his troops] in order to make a string and necklace of them.”36 Yet he did not consider this a supernatural sign of divine disfavor.37
Muhammad is not the first outnumbered military leader in history to win a big victory. The Israeli six-day war in 1967 was one of the quickest and most decisive battles in the annals of modern warfare. Yet no Muslim would consider it a miraculous sign of the divine approval of Israel over an Arab nation (Egypt).
The Splitting of Muhammad’s Breast
According to Islamic tradition, at Muhammad’s birth (or just before his ascension), Gabriel is said to have cut open Muhammad’s chest. Gabriel removed and cleansed his heart, then filled it with wisdom, and placed it back in the prophet’s chest. This is based in part on 94:1–2, 8, which reads: “Have We not Expanded thee thy breast?—And removed from thee Thy burden … and to thy Lord Turn (all) thy attention.”
However, even most conservative Islamic scholars take this passage as a figure of speech describing the great anxiety Muhammad experienced in his early years at Mecca. The Qur’anic commentator, Yusuf Ali said, “The breast is symbolically the seat of knowledge and of the highest feeling of love and affection.”38
Some Muslims offer predictive prophecies in the Qur’an as a proof that Muhammad could perform miracles. But the evidence is not convincing. The suras most often cited are those in which Muhammad promised victory to his troops.
Most of the so-called supernatural predictions are not supernatural at all. What religious military leader is there who might not say to his troops: “God is on our side; we are going to win. Fight on!”? Further, remembering that Muhammad is known as “the prophet of the Sword,” with his greatest number of conversions coming after he had forsaken the peaceful but relatively unsuccessful means of spreading his message, it should be no surprise that he would predict victory. And considering the zeal of Muslim forces, who were promised Paradise for their efforts (22:58–59; 3:157–58; 3:170–71), it is no surprise that they were so often victorious. It is little wonder why so many “submitted,” considering Muhammad commanded that “the punishment of those Who wage war against God And his Apostle, and strive With might … Is: execution, or crucifixion, Or the cutting off of hands And feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land” (5:36).
Further, the only really substantive prediction in the Qur’an was about the Roman victory over the Persian army at Issus (30:2–4), which reads: “The Roman Empire Has been defeated—In a land close by: But they, (even) after (This) defeat of theirs, Will soon be victorious—within a few years.” Close scrutiny, however, reveals several things that make this prediction less than spectacular, to say nothing of supernatural.39 (1) According to Ali “a few years” means three to nine years, but some argue that the real victory did not come until thirteen or fourteen years after the prophecy. The defeat of the Romans by the Persians in the capture of Jerusalem took place about a.d. 614 or 615. The counteroffensive did not begin until a.d. 622, and the victory was not complete until a.d. 625. This would be at least ten or eleven years, not “a few” spoken by Muhammad. (2) Uthman’s edition of the Qur’an had no vowel points (they were not added until much later).40 Hence, in this “prophecy” the word sayaghlibuna, “they shall defeat,” could have been rendered, with the change of two vowels, sayughlabuna, “they shall be defeated.”41 (3) Even if this ambiguity were removed, the prophecy is less than spectacular, since it is neither long-range nor unusual. One would have expected the defeated Romans to bounce back in victory. It took little more than a perceptive reading of the trends of the time to forecast such an event. At best, it could have been a good guess. In any event, there appears to be no sufficient ground for proving it is supernatural.
Finally, the only other alleged prophecy worth mentioning is found In 89:2, where the phrase “By the Nights twice five” is taken by some to be a prediction of the ten years of persecution early Muslims experienced.42 But that this is a far-fetched interpretation is evident from the fact that even the great Islamic scholar and translator of the Qur’an, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, admitted that “by the Ten Nights are usually understood the first ten nights of Zul-Hajj, the sacred season of Pilgrimage.”43 In any event, there is certainly no clear prediction of anything that would have been evident to an intelligent observer in advance of the event.44 Its very use as a predictive prophecy by Muslim scholars shows how desperate they are to find something supernatural in support of the Qur’an.
The evidence that Muhammad possessed a truly supernatural gift of prophecy is lacking. The so-called prophecy is vague and subject to dispute. It is far easier to read this meaning back into it after the event than before it.
If Muhammad possessed the ability to miraculously forecast the future, then surely he would have used it to squelch his opponents. But he never did. Instead, he admitted that he did not do miracles as the prophets before him had and simply offered his own sign (the Qur’an).
Muhammad never offered his alleged prophecy as a proof of his prophethood. Jesus, by contrast, repeatedly offered his ability to do miracles as a proof that he was the Messiah, the Son of God. When about to heal the paralytic he said to the unbelieving Jews, “that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”—something the Jews admitted that only God could do.
Miracles in the Hadith
Most miracle claims for Muhammad do not occur in the Qur’an. Indeed, in the Qur’an Muhammad repeatedly refused to perform miracles to confirm his prophetic credentials. Rather, he offered only the Qur’an as his sign (see Chapter 9). The vast majority of alleged miracles occur in the hadith, which are considered by Muslims to be second in authority only to the Qur’an. There are hundreds of such miracle stories in the hadith. A few will illustrate the point.
Some Miracle Stories in the Hadith
Al Bukhari tells the story of Muhammad’s miraculous healing of the broken leg of a companion, Addullaha ibn Atig, who was injured while attempting to assassinate one of Muhammad’s enemies.
Several sources relate the story that Muhammad miraculously provided water for ten thousand of his troops at the battle of Hudaibiyah. He allegedly dipped his hand into an empty water bottle and let the water flow through his fingers.
There are numerous stories of miraculous provision of water. There is also one of water being turned into milk.
Several stories exist of trees speaking to Muhammad, saluting him, or moving from him as he passed. Once when Muhammad could not find a private place to relieve himself, two trees are said to have come together to hide him, and then returned when he was finished. Bukhari claims that once Muhammad leaned on a tree and the tree missed his company when he left. There are many stories of wolves and even mountains saluting Muhammad.
Some stories speak of Muhammad miraculously feeding large groups with little food. Anas tells the story of his feeding eighty to ninety men with just a few loaves of barley. Ibn Sa’d relates the story of a woman who invited Muhammad to a meal. He took a thousand men with him and multiplied her small meal to feed them all.
The hadith often relates stories of Muhammad’s miraculous dealings with his enemies. Once Muhammad cursed one of his enemies whose horse then sank up to its stomach in hard ground. Sa’d said Muhammad once turned a branch of a tree into a steel sword.
An Evaluation of the Alleged Miracles in the Hadith
There are many reasons for questioning the authenticity of these stories. Critics have observed the following.
First, none of them are recorded in the Qur’an. In fact, they are in general contrary to the whole spirit of the Muhammad of the Qur’an, who repeatedly refused to do these very kinds of things for unbelievers who challenged him (3:181–84; 4:153; 6:8–9).
Second, these alleged miracles follow the same pattern as the apocryphal miracles of Christ from a century or two after his death. They are a legendary embellishment of people removed from the original events. They do not come from contemporary eyewitnesses of the events.
Third, even among Muslims there is no generally agreed upon list of miracles from the hadith. Indeed, the vast majority of stories from the hadith are rejected by most Muslim scholars as not being authentic. Different groups accept different collections of them.
Fourth, the collections of the hadith that are generally accepted by most Muslims are far removed from the original events by several generations. Indeed, most of those who collected miracle stories lived one hundred to two hundred years after the time of the events—plenty of time for legends to develop. They relied on stories that had been passed on orally for many generations with ample embellishment. Even the stories accepted by Muslims as authentic, as determined by the isnad (chain of storytellers), lack credibility. For even these stories are not based on eye-witnesses but rely on many generations of storytellers, often involving hundreds of years. Joseph Horowitz questioned the reliability of the isnad:
The question as to who first circulated these miracle tales would be very easy to answer if we could still look upon the isnad, or chain of witnesses, as unquestionably as we are apparently expected to do. It is especially seductive when one and the same report appears in various essentially similar versions.… In general the technique of the isnad does not make it possible for us to decide where it is a case of taking over oral account and where of coping from the lecture books of teachers.45
Fifth, Bukhari, considered to be the most reliable collector, admitted that of the 300,000 hadith he collected, he considered only 100,000 might be true. He then narrowed this number down to 7,275, many of which are repetitions so that the total number is in fact near 3,000. That means that even he admitted there were errors in over 295,000 of them!
Sixth, there is no one canon of authenticity for these stories accepted by all Muslims. Most Muslims rank their credibility in descending order as follows: the Sahih of Al Bukhari (d. 256 a.h. [after Hijrah]); Al Sahih of Muslim (d. 261 a.h.); the Sunan of Abu Du’ad (d. 275 a.h.); the Jami of Al-Tirmidhi (d. 279 a.h.); the Suand of Al Nasa (d. 303 a.h.); and the Sunan of Ibn Madja (d. 283 a.h.). Along with these hadith there were important biographers who related miracle stories. The most important ones are Ibn Sa’d (d. 123 a.h.), Ibn Ishaq (d. 151 a.h.), and Ibn Hisham (d. 218 a.h.). The above six categories are rejected by the Shia Islam. Yet they, along with other Muslims, accept the Qur’an as it is. Finally, what is of crucial significance here is that none of these miracle stories fit the nine criteria accepted by Muslims for a miracle that can confirm a prophet’s claim (mudjiza). Hence, by their own standard, none of them have any apologetic value in demonstrating the truth of Islam.
Finally, the origin of the miracle claims of Islam is suspect. It is common knowledge that Islam borrowed many of its beliefs and practices from other religions.46 This has also been documented by many scholars.47 It is not surprising that Muslim miracle claims arise, then, as a result of Christian apologists demonstrating the superiority of Jesus to that of Muhammad by way of Jesus’ miracles. It was only after two Christian bishops (Abu Qurra from Edessa and Arethas from Ceasaria) had pointed this out that the Islamic miracle stories began to appear. As Sahas noted, “The implication [of the bishop’s challenge] is quite clear: Muhammad’s teaching is one that might have merit; but this is not enough to qualify him as a prophet, without supernatural signs. If such signs could be shown one could possibly accept him as a prophet.”48
Thus, the task for Muslims was clear. If they could invent miracles they could respond to the Christian challenge. It was soon after this that Muhammad’s miracle claims began to appear. Sahas notes that “it is quite interesting that several of these (miracle stories) sound as if they are being offered as responses to such Christians as Abu Qurra, and they bear an amazing resemblance to miracles of Jesus found in the Gospels.”49 Likewise, it was during this polemic that Muslims began to interpret certain events in the Qur’an as miracles. All of this points toward one conclusion: the Muhammad miracle stories lack credibility.
The Lack of Apologetic Value
There are several reasons, however, why these alleged miracles have no apologetic value in proving Muhammad was a prophet of God. First, most of them do not come from the Qur’an (which is claimed to be inspired). Therefore, they lack divine authority for Muslims such as they claim the Qur’an has.
Second, the miracle stories based on Muslim tradition are suspect. They lack eyewitness accounts, contain many contradictions, and, therefore, lack credibility. The absence of these events in the Qur’an, where Muhammad is constantly challenged to support his claims miraculously, is a strong argument that they are not authentic. Surely, if Muhammad could have silenced his critics by proving his supernatural confirmation he would have done so, since he was challenged to do so on many occasions.
Third, nowhere in the Qur’an does Muhammad ever offer the miraculous event in nature as evidence of his divine call. Contemporary Muslim author, Faruqi, claims that “Muslims do not claim any miracles for Muhammad. In their view, what proves Muhammad’s prophethood is the sublime beauty and greatness of the revelation itself, the Holy Qur’an, not any inexplicable breaches of natural law which confound human reason.”50 Even though some Muslim scholars dispute this claim, it is true, nonetheless, that Muhammad never performed miraculous feats in nature in support of his claim to be a prophet, even though other prophets did and he was challenged to do likewise (3:183; 4:153; 6:8–9; 17:90–95). Even the great Muslim scholar, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, admitted that Muhammad did not perform any miracle “in the sense of a reversing of Nature.” This admission raises serious questions about his prophetic credentials.
Fourth, even Muhammad accepts the fact that God confirmed the prophets before him by miracles. Interestingly, most of the prophets mentioned in the Qur’an are biblical characters. For example, in 6:84–86, after recounting the story of Abraham God declares: “We gave him Isaac and Jacob: all (three) we guided: and before him we guided Noah, and among his progeny, David, Solomon, Job, Joseph, Moses, and Aaron: Thus do we reward those who do good: And Zakariya and John, and Jesus and Elias: All in the ranks of the Righteous: And Ismail and Elisha, and Jonas, and Lot.” He refers to God confirming Moses’ prophetic credentials by miracles several times (7:106–8, 116–19). He wrote, “Then We [God] sent Moses And his brother Aaron, with Our Signs and Authority manifest” (23:45). The Qur’an also refers to God’s miraculous power being manifest through many other prophets (4:63–65). But if Muhammad recognized that God performed miracles through these biblical prophets, then why could he not perform them?
Fifth, Muhammad also accepts the fact that Jesus performed many miracles to prove the divine origin of his message, such as his healings and raising people from the dead. As the Qur’an says, “O Jesus the son of Mary … thou healest those Born blind, and lepers, by My leave [permission]. And behold! thou Bringest forth the dead By My leave” (5:113). But if Jesus could perform miraculous feats of nature to confirm his divine commission, and Muhammad refused to do the same, most Christians will find it difficult to believe Muhammad is superior to Christ as a prophet.
Sixth, when Muhammad was challenged to perform miracles to prove his claims he refused to do so. The Qur’an acknowledges that Muhammad’s opponents said, “Why is not An angel sent down to him?” to settle the matter (6:8–9). According to Muhammad himself, unbelievers challenged him to prove he was a prophet, saying, “We shall not believe in thee, until thou Cause a spring to gush Forth for us from the earth … Or thou cause the sky To fall in pieces, as thou Sayest (will happen), against us; Or thou bring God And the angels before (us) Face to face” (17:90–92). Muhammad’s response is illuminating: “Am I aught but a man,—An apostle?” One cannot imagine Moses, Elijah, or Jesus giving such a response. Indeed, Muhammad admitted that when Moses was challenged by Pharaoh he responded with miracles: “(Pharaoh) said: ‘If indeed Thou hast come with a Sign, Show it forth,—If thou tellest the truth.’ Then (Moses) threw his rod, And behold! it was A serpent, plain (for all to see)! And he drew out his hand, And behold! it was white To all beholders!” (7:106–8). The Qur’an goes on to say, “Thus truth was confirmed” (v. 118). Yet knowing this was God’s way to confirm his spokespersons, Muhammad refused to produce similar miracles. Why then should anyone believe he stood in the line of the great prophets of God?
Finally, Muslims offer no good explanation for Muhammad’s failure to do miracles. One familiar Islamic argument is that “it is one of the established ways of God that He gives His Prophets that kind of miracles which accord with the genius of the time so that the world may see that it is beyond human power and that the power of God manifests itself in these miracles.” Thus, “during the time of Moses the art of sorcery had made the greatest development. Therefore, Moses was given miracles which dumbfounded the sorcerers and at the sight of these miracles the sorcerers accepted the leadership and prophethood of Moses.” Similarly, “during the time of the Prophet of Islam, the art of eloquent speech had made great advances. Therefore, the Prophet of Islam was given the miracle of the Qur’an whose eloquence stilled the voices of the greatest poets of his time.”51
However, there are several serious problems with this reasoning. First of all, there is no evidence that this is “one of the established ways of God.” To the contrary, even by the Qur’an’s own admission God repeatedly gave miracles of nature through Moses and other prophets, including Jesus. It is God’s established way to confirm his prophets through miracles.
Furthermore, it is a whole lot easier to produce a beautiful piece of religious literature than it is to perform miraculous feats of nature, which the Qur’an admits God did through other prophets. In fact, there are many other great pieces of religious literature that teach things contrary to the Qur’an, including the Jewish prophecy of Isaiah, the Christian Sermon on the Mount, and the Hindu Gita. Yet all these teach things contrary to the Qur’an.
In addition, Muhammad’s unwillingness (and apparent inability) to perform miraculous feats of nature, when he knew that the prophets before him could and did perform them, will sound like a cop-out to thinking non-Muslims. They will ask, “If God confirmed other prophets by such things, then why did he not do the same for Muhammad and remove all doubt?” In Muhammad’s own words (from the Qur’an), “They (will) say: ‘Why is not A Sign sent down To him from his Lord?’ ” since even Muhammad admitted that “God hath certainly Power to send down a Sign” (6:37).
Also, Muhammad gave no such answer to his critics that it was God’s established way to confirm his prophets in different ways in different ages according to the genius of the times. Rather, he simply offered his own sign (the Qur’an) and said their reason for rejecting him was unbelief, not his inability to do miracles. He wrote: “Say those without knowledge: ‘Why speaketh not God Unto us? Or why cometh not Unto us a Sign?’ ” Muhammad’s answer was clear: “So said the people before them Words of similar import. Their hearts are alike” (2:118; cf. 17:90–93; 3:183).
Finally, even when there are allegedly supernatural events connected to Muhammad’s life (though not miracles of nature such as he acknowledges Moses and Jesus did), they can be explained by natural means. For example, Muslims take Muhammad’s outstanding victory at the battle of Badr in a.d. 624 as a supernatural indication of divine approval on his behalf. But exactly one year after Badr Muhammad’s supporters suffered a humiliating defeat.52 Yet he did not consider this a supernatural sign of divine disfavor.53
Muhammad’s Moral Example
Most students of Islam acknowledge that Muhammad was a generally moral person. But Muslims claim much more. They insist that he was both beyond (major) sin and is the perfect moral example for humankind. They claim that Muhammad “stands in history as the best model for man in piety and perfection. He is a living proof of what man can be and of what he can accomplish in the realm of excellence and virtue.”54 This, they say, is one of “the chief proofs” that Muhammad is the unique prophet from God.55
A popular Muslim classic by Kamal ud Din ad Damiri gives us the following description of the beloved prophet.
Mohammed is the most favored of mankind, the most honored of all apostles, the prophet of mercy.… He is the best of prophets, and his nation is the best of nations; … He was perfect in intellect, and was of noble origin. He had an absolutely graceful form, complete generosity, perfect bravery, excessive humility, useful knowledge … perfect fear of God and sublime piety. He was the most eloquent and the most perfect of mankind in every variety of perfection.56
There are at least several areas where questions arise about the alleged moral perfection of Muhammad. The first is the matter of polygamy.
The Problem of Polygamy. According to the Qur’an a man may have four wives (4:3). This raises at least two questions. First, is polygamy moral? Second, was Muhammad consistent with his own law? And if not, how can he be considered the flawless moral example for humankind?
In the Judeo-Christian tradition polygamy is considered morally wrong. Although God permitted it along with other human frailties and sins, he never commanded it.57 The Qur’an, however, clearly sanctions polygamy, allowing that a man may have four wives if he is able to provide for them: “Marry women of your choice, Two, or three, or four” (4:3). Without presupposing the truth of the Christian revelation, there are many arguments against polygamy from a general moral point of view common to both Muslims and Christians. First, monogamy should be recognized by precedent, since God gave the first man only one wife (Eve). Second, it is implied by proportion, since the amount of males and females God brings into the world are about equal. Finally, monogamy is implied by parity. If men can marry several wives, why can’t a wife have several husbands? It seems only fair.
Even the popular Muslim biographer, Haykal, tacitly acknowledged the superiority of monogamy when he affirmed that “the happiness of the family and that of the community can best be served by the limitations which monogamy imposes.”58 Indeed, Muhammad’s relations with his wives is itself an argument against polygamy. Haykal notes, for example, problems stemming from polygamy: “the wives of the Prophet went so far as to plot against their husband.” This is understandable in so far as Haykal admits that “he [Muhammad] often ignored some of his wives, and avoided others on many occasions.”59 He adds, “Indeed, favoritism for some of his wives had created such controversy and antagonism among the ‘Mothers of the Believers’ that Muhammad once thought of divorcing some of them.”60 All of this falls short of an exemplary moral situation both in principle and in practice.
Even laying aside for the moment the question of whether polygamy, as taught in the Qur’an, is morally right there remains another serious problem that many feel flaws the character of Muhammad. Muhammad received a revelation from God that a man should have no more than four wives at one time, yet he had many more. A Muslim defender of Muhammad, writing in The Prophet of Islam as the Ideal Husband, admitted that he had fifteen wives! Yet he told others they could have only four wives. How can someone be a perfect moral example for the whole human race and not even live by one of the basic laws he laid down as from God?
The Muslim answer is unconvincing. They claim that the prophet received a “revelation” that God had made an exception for him but not for anyone else. Muhammad quotes God as saying: “Prophet! We have Made lawful to thee Thy wives.… And any believing women Who dedicates her soul To the Prophet if the Prophet Wishes to wed her;” but adds quickly, “this Only for thee, and not For the Believers (at large)” (33:50, emphasis added)! What is more, Muhammad even received an alleged divine sanction to marry Zainab, the divorced wife of his adopted son (33:37). Interestingly, this divorce was caused by the prophet’s admiration for Zainab’s beauty.
In addition to all this, we are asked to believe that God made a special exception to another divinely revealed law to give each wife her conjugal rights “justly,” that is, to observe a fixed rotation among them. Muhammad insists that God told him that he could have whichever wife he wanted when he wanted her: “Thou mayest defer (the turn Of) any of them that thou Pleasest, and thou mayest receive Any thou pleasest” (33:51). Apparently even God had to put the brakes on Muhammad’s love for women. For eventually he received a revelation that said, “It is not lawful for thee (To marry more) women After this, nor to change Them for (other) wives, Even though their beauty Attract thee” (33:52). A look at Muhammad’s inconsistency makes one wonder how anyone with open eyes can consider him to be a perfect moral example and ideal husband.
The Lower Status of Women. The Qur’an and tradition accord a lower status for women than for men. The superior status of men is based directly on commands in the Qur’an. As already noted, men can marry several wives (polygamy) but women cannot marry several husbands (polyandry). The Qur’an (2:228) admits that men have a degree of advantage over women. The Qur’an explicitly affords men the right to divorce their wives but does not accord the equal right to women, claiming, “Men have a degree of advantage over them” (2:228).61 On one occasion Muhammad sanctioned the beating of a female servant in order to elicit the truth from her. Haykal reports that “the servant was called in and Ali immediately seized her and struck her painfully and repeatedly as he commanded her to tell the truth to the Prophet of God.”62 Finally, according to the Qur’an, men can even beat their wives: “Men are in charge of women because Allah hath made the one to excell the other.… As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them” (4:34).63 In addition to this, Muslim women must wear a veil, stand behind their husbands, and kneel behind them in prayer. The law requires that two women must bear witness in civil contracts as opposed to one man.64
In a hadith found in the Sahih of Al-Bukhari we find the following narrative describing the inferior status of women in Islam:
Narrated [by] Ibn ‘Abbas: The Prophet said: “I was shown the Hell-fire and that the majority of its dwellers were women who were ungrateful.” It was asked, “Do they disbelieve in Allah?” (or are they ungrateful to Allah?) He replied, “They are ungrateful to their husbands and are ungrateful for the favors and the good (charitable deeds) done to them.”65
In view of all these statements about women, one finds it incredible to hear Muslim apologists say, “Evidently, Muhammad not only honored woman more than did any other man, but he raised her to the status which truly belongs to her— an accomplishment of which Muhammad alone has so far been capable”[!]66 Another Muslim writer states, “Islam has given woman rights and privileges which she has never enjoyed under other religious or constitutional systems.”67 The facts show just the opposite.
Muhammad’s Moral Imperfection in General. Muhammad was far from sinless. Even the Qur’an speaks of his need to ask God for forgiveness on many occasions. For example, In 40:55 God told him, “Patiently, then, persevere: For the Promise of God Is true: and ask God forgiveness For thy fault.” On another occasion God told Muhammad, “Know, therefore, that There is no god But God, and ask Forgiveness for thy fault, and for the men And women who believe” (47:19, emphasis added). This makes it absolutely clear that forgiveness was to be sought for his sins, not just for others (48:2).
In view of the facts about Muhammad recorded in the Qur’an, Muhammad’s character was certainly far from flawless. Even one of the most widely accepted modern biographers of Muhammad admits that he sinned. Speaking of one occasion, Haykal said flatly, “Muhammad did in fact err when he frowned in the face of [the blind beggar] ibn Umm Maktum and sent him away.”68 Haykal adds, “in this regard he [Muhammad] was as fallible as anyone.”69 If so, then it is difficult to believe that Muhammad can be so eulogized by Muslims. However much an improvement Muhammad’s morals may have been over many others of his day, he certainly seems to fall short of the perfect example for all men of all times that many Muslims claim for him. Unlike the Jesus of the Gospels, he certainly would not want to challenge his foes with the question: “Which of you convicts Me of sin?” (John 8:46).
The Problem of Holy Wars (Jihad). Laying aside the question of whether war is ever justified,70 Muhammad believed in holy wars (the jihad). Muhammad, by divine revelation, commands his followers: “fight in the cause Of God” (2:244). He adds, “fight and slay The Pagans wherever ye find them” (9:5). And “when ye meet The Unbelievers (in fight) Smite at their necks” (47:4). In general, they were to “Fight those who believe not In God nor the Last Day” (9:29). Indeed, Paradise is promised for those who fight for God: “Those who have left their homes … Or fought or been slain,—Verily, I will blot out From them their iniquities, And admit them into Gardens With rivers flowing beneath;—A reward from the Presence Of God, and from His Presence Is the best of rewards” (3:195; cf. 2:244; 4:95 cf. 8:12). These “holy wars” were carried out “in the cause Of God” (2:244) against “unbelievers.” In 5:36–38, we read: “the punishment of those Who wage war against God [i.e., unbelievers] And His Apostle, and strive With might and main For mischief through the land Is: execution, or crucifixion, Or the cutting off of hands And feet from opposite sides, Or exile from the land.” Acknowledging that these are appropriate punishments, depending on “the circumstances,” Ali offers little consolation when he notes that the more cruel forms of Arabian treatment of enemies, such as, “piercing of eyes and leaving the unfortunate victim exposed to a tropical sun,” were abolished!71 Such war on and persecution of enemies on religious grounds—by whatever means—is seen by most critics as a clear example of religious intolerance.72
The Problem of Moral Expediency. Muhammad sanctioned his followers’ raiding of the commercial Meccan caravans.73 The prophet himself led three such raids. Doubtless the purpose of these attacks was not only to obtain financial reward, but also to impress the Meccans with the growing power of the Muslim force. Critics of Islam raise serious moral questions about this kind of piracy. At the minimum they feel these actions cast a dark shadow over Muhammad’s alleged moral perfection.
Another time Muhammad sanctioned a follower to lie to an enemy named Khalid in order to kill him. This he did. Then, at a safe distance, but in the presence of the man’s wives “he fell on him with his sword and killed him. Khalid’s women were the only witnesses and they began to cry and mourn for him.”74
On other occasions Muhammad had no aversion to politically expedient assassinations. When a prominent Jew, Ka’b Ibn Al-Ashraf, had stirred up some discord against Muhammad and composed a satirical poem about him, the prophet asked, “Who will deliver me from Ka’b?” Immediately four persons volunteered and shortly returned to Muhammad with Ka’b’s head in their hands.75 Noted modern Islamic biographer, Husayn Haykal, acknowledges many such assassinations in his book The Life of Muhammad. Of one he wrote, “the Prophet ordered the execution of Uqbah ibn Abu Muayt. When Uqbah pleaded, ‘Who will take care of my children, O Muhammad?’ Muhammad answered, ‘The fire.’ ”76
The Qur’an itself informs us that Muhammad was not indisposed to breaking promises when he found it advantageous. He even got a “revelation” to break a long-standing pledge to avoid killing during a sacred month of Arab: “They ask thee Concerning fighting In the Prohibited Month. Say: ‘Fighting therein Is a grave (offense)’; But graver is it In the sight of God To prevent access To the path of God” (2:217). Again, “God has already ordained For you, (O men), The dissolution of your oaths (In some cases)” (66:2). Rather than consistency, Muhammad’s moral life was sometimes characterized by expediency.
The Problem of Retaliation. On at least two occasions Muhammad ordered people assassinated for composing poems that mocked him. This extremely oversensitive overreaction to ridicule is defended by some in this unconvincing way: “For a man like Muhammad, whose success depended to a large extent upon the esteem which he could win, a malicious satirical composition could be more dangerous than a lost battle.”77 But as critics point out this is merely a pragmatic, the end-justifies-the-means ethic.
Even though, as Haykal admits, “the Muslims were always opposed to killing any woman or children,” nonetheless, “a Jewish woman was executed because she had killed a Muslim by dropping a millstone on his head.”78 Haykal reports that on another occasion “both slave women [who had allegedly spoken against Muhammad in song] were indicted and ordered executed with their master.”79 When it was believed that one woman, Abu ‘Afk, had insulted Muhammad (by a poem), one of Muhammad’s followers “attacked her during the night while she was surrounded by her children, one of whom she was nursing.” And “after removing the child from his victim, he killed her.”80 All of this certainly does not seem worthy of one held up to be the great moral example for all humankind.
The zeal with which Muhammad’s followers would kill for him was infamous. Haykal records the words of one devotee who would have killed his daughter at Muhammad’s command. Umar ibn al Khattab, the second Caliph of Islam, declared fanatically, “By God, if he [Muhammad] were to ask me to strike off her head, I would do so without hesitation”[!].81
The Problem of Mercilessness. Muhammad attacked the last Jewish tribe of Medina based on the suspicion that they had plotted with the Meccan enemies against Muslims. Unlike the previous two Jewish tribes who had been simply expelled from the city, this time all the men of the tribe were put to death and the women and children were sold into slavery. Even some who try to justify this admit this was an act of “cruelty” and attempt to explain it away by claiming that “one must see Muhammad’s cruelty toward the Jews against the background of the fact that their scorn and rejection was the greatest disappointment of his life, and for a time they threatened completely to destroy his prophetic authority.”82 Even if this were so, two wrongs do not make a right. In any case, would this justify killing the men and making slaves of the women and children?83 And, what is more, does this kind of activity exemplify a person who is supposed to be of flawless moral character, the model for all humankind?
In spite of all this evidence against Muhammad being a perfect moral example, Haykal, a noted defender of Islam, responds with the incredible claim that, even if “their claims were true, we would still refute them with the simple argument that the great stand above the law”[!].84
Islam claims that Muhammad is the last of the prophets with the full and final revelation of God (in the Qur’an). Muslims offer several things in support of this claim, such as predictions by Muhammad in the Qur’an, the miraculous nature of the Qur’an, miracles performed by Muhammad, and his perfect moral character. However, as we have seen, the evidence for these falls far short of the claim to be supernatural either because there is no real evidence that the events actually happened or because there was nothing really supernatural about the events themselves.
Of course, a Muslim can continue to accept this by faith. But to insist that it is demonstrated by the evidence is another thing altogether. And the non-Muslim who agrees with the Socratic injunction that “the unexamined life is not worth living” (and it may be added, “the unexamined Faith is not worth believing”) will no doubt look elsewhere to find a faith founded on fact.
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