Chapter 4: The Prophet Muhammad
"What is Muhammad’s religious significance for Christians?" was the theme of a conference that I arranged through the World Congress of Faiths. It was led by Bishop Kenneth Cragg, who has an expert and personal knowledge of Islam.
Muslims, as we shall see in a later chapter, regard Jesus as a prophet and are often resentful that Christians do not reciprocate the compliment, although I am happy to speak of Muhammad as a prophet. Ulfat Aziz -us-Saud, complains that "While Muslims believe in Jesus Christ as a true prophet and love and respect him . . . Christians not only reject Muhammad, but are never tired of speaking about him and his religion in the most disparaging manner possible. They declare him to be a victim of hallucination, or even of epilepsy. They attribute unworthy motives to him and claim to find many faults in his character and in his private and public life."
Early Christian accounts of Muhammad’s life were usually derogatory. Christians in the past have spoken of Muhammad as a heretic, with a false or inadequate understanding of God. He was depicted as a war-like aggressor or as promiscuous because he had several wives, although some marriages were partly for diplomatic alliances. He was even called ‘Mahout’ or the spirit of darkness. The great Christian poet Dante placed Muhammad in the inferno, torn to pieces by pigs. Luther regarded Muhammad and the Pope as the two arch-enemies of Christ. In the twentieth century, H G Wells said Muhammad was a man "whose life on the whole was by modern standards unedifying." Some recent comments in the media have been little better.
Some Christians, however, have written quite objective accounts of Muhammad’s life and teaching. One of the first British writers to attempt a more sympathetic portrait was Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), who saw Muhammad as a genuine hero among the prophets. F. D. Maurice (1805-72) in his lectures on Islam was not entirely unsympathetic. The twentieth century saw many more scholarly accounts of Muhammad’s life and times, although the critical presuppositions of some scholars were unacceptable to Muslims.
Few even of the best accounts of Muhammad’s life discuss the religious significance of Muhammad for those who are Christian. The study of religions which as an academic discipline developed quite quickly during the twentieth century stressed the need for neutrality and impartiality. The phenomenological approach took seriously the faith of the believer and tried to appreciate a religion from the standpoint of its adherents. In arranging the World Congress of Faiths conference I felt that an interfaith group could perhaps go further and try to discuss the religious significance of one faith to members of another. The revelation of the Qur’an is in intention a universal message addressed to all people. Can those who belong to another household of faith also hear in it a word of God?
A rather similar question is whether non-Muslims should speak about the "Prophet" Muhammad. For me as a Christian, Muhammad is not the Prophet or the seal of the prophets. Yet, I believe that his was a genuine encounter with God and that his was a prophetic message, akin to that of the great Biblical prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah.
In this I agree with W. Montgomery Watt who gave rather more extended arguments. He wrote, "Muhammad claimed to receive messages from God and conveyed these to his contemporaries. On the basis of these messages a religious community developed, claiming to serve God, numbering some thousands in Muhammad’s lifetime, and now having several hundred million members. The quality of life in the community has been on the whole satisfactory for the members. Many men and women in this community have attained to saintliness of life, and countless ordinary people have been enabled to live decent and moderately happy lives in difficult circumstances. These points lead to the conclusion that the view of reality presented in the Qur’an is true and from God, and that therefore Muhammad is a genuine prophet.’
Keith Ward, who is Regius Professor of Theology at Oxford, has written, "Christians can see Muhammad as truly inspired by God, as called to proclaim a strict monotheistic faith, and as chosen by God for that purpose. In seeing him thus, they can place him on the same level as all the prophets of Israel and the apostles of the early Christian church. It may even be possible to place him, from an authentically Christian viewpoint, on the same level as Jesus, insofar as prophet-hood is concerned (remembering that, for Christians, Jesus is ‘more than a prophet’). In other words, a Christian can see Muhammad as inspired in the same sense as Jewish and Christian prophets, and thus accord him the highest honor as a true prophet. Nevertheless, they would in this still fall short of the Muslim perception that Muhammad was uniquely chosen to utter the definitive and unquestionable words of God himself."
So I use the title "Prophet" of Muhammad partly as a sign of my reverence for him and partly out of respect for the religious convictions of those who are Muslim.
Underlying this approach is my conviction that there is One God who has spoken in various ways through the great religious traditions. While, in my view, there is a transcendent unity of faiths, there is also considerable difference and variety. In part this is because people’s apprehension of and response to the divine is varied, especially because of cultural and historical differences, but also each tradition emphasizes certain central truths. We need to listen to these and see how, if we belong to a different faith community, they illuminate or challenge the convictions that we already hold.
So the approach of the conference was to try to hear the message Muhammad recited and to listen in it for a word of God to those of another community of faith. His emphasis on the Oneness of God and the rejection of idolatry is perhaps a corrective to those forms of Christianity which so focus on Jesus as almost to forget the Father. Orthodox Christian worship is not primarily worship of Jesus but worship of God through Jesus Christ. Islam too, as I have suggested, can remind Christians of the glory and holiness of God.
There is now considerable scholarly agreement about the main events in Muhammad’s life. He was born in 570 CE. at Mecca, which was a busy commercial center in Arabia with a near monopoly of the entrepot trade between the Indian ocean and the Mediterranean. Muhammad was of the family Banu Hashim in the tribe of the Quraysh. He was born after the death of his father and became ward of his grandfather, Abd al-Muttalib. At an early age he had an experience of a visitation by two figures -- later identified as angels -- who "opened his chest and stirred their hands inside". It was the first of several unusual experiences that led Muhammad increasingly to search for the truth of God and religion on his own. This quest was strengthened when he was employed by a widow, called Khadijah, to take trading caravans north to Syria. There he met Christians and Jews, especially the monk Bahira who recognized in him the signs of the promised Messiah. By now Muhammad was under the protection of his uncle Abu Talib. At the age of 25, he married Khadijah. They had two sons who died young and four daughters. Muhammad was increasingly influenced by the Hanifs, who sought to preserve a monotheism which they traced back to Ibrahim (Abraham). The people of Mecca, however, were polytheistic and worshipped idols. Increasingly, Muhammad went by himself to a cave on Mount Hira. It was there that he had the strong sense of a presence, later identified with Gabriel, to which we have already referred.
At first Muhammad thought he was possessed, but as he fled the cave and was half way down the mountain, he heard a voice saying to him, "O Muhammad, thou art the messenger of God and I am Gabriel." On his return home, with a still quaking heart, he said to Khadijah "Cover me, cover me." Khadijah went to tell her cousin Waraqh, who was old and blind, Waraqh, who was a Christian, exclaimed that the angel of Revelation who had come to Moses had now come to Muhammad. A further divine revelation reassured Muhammad. After further revelations, he began preaching, but met strong opposition. He was clear that if God is God and God is One, then there cannot be a Christian God and a Jewish God and certainly not the many deities of Mecca. He was also convinced that the idolatry of Mecca had to be swept away. For Muhammad there was only One God from whom all creation derived. Therefore all human beings should live in a corresponding unity (umma). Islam is the attempt to realize this unity under God.
After his wife Khadijah and his cousin Ali and his slave Zayd, whom the Prophet set free, the first believer was Abu Bakr. They were called al-muslimun or Muslims, those who enter into a condition of safety because of their commitment to God.
Opposition and persecution increased. But then, Muhammad was invited to Yathrib -- soon to be known as Madina -- to make his way of unity a practical reality by reconciling the town’s two rival ruling families. He made this move, known as the Hijara, which means emigration and breaking the bonds of kinship, in 622, a date which was to become the first year of the Muslim calendar. There under the guidance of fresh revelations from God he began to establish a community. These revelations were clearly distinct from the words that Muhammad spoke as an ordinary human being. It is said that his appearance changed and the style of utterance, which was rhythmic and with a loose pattern of rhyme, was different to his normal speech.
At Madina, Muhammad was joined by some seventy other emigrants, the Muhajirun. Opposition from Mecca continued, partly because Muhammad raided some of their caravans. In 624 the Muslims defeated a much larger Meccan army at the battle of Badr, but in the following year the battle of Uhud, in which the Prophet was injured, was inconclusive, largely because the archers disobeyed their orders because they were too eager for booty. In 627 the Quraysh failed in their attempt to besiege Madina. Then in 630, Muhammad captured Mecca and purified it from idols. Besides these military engagements, Muhammad both organized the pattern of life in Madina and built up relations with neighboring tribes.
Muhammad died two years after his return to Mecca. He had often spoken of Paradise and according to his wife A’ishah, his last words were, "With the supreme communion in Paradise, with those upon whom God hath showered His favor, the prophets and the saints and the martyrs and the righteous, most excellent for communion are they." (4, 69).
Despite his various marriages, Muhammad had no surviving son. His nearest relation was his cousin Ali, who had married one of his daughters, but the majority of the community chose as his successor Abu Bakr, who was one of his first followers. There were those, however, who thought that Ali should have been his successor and within a generation of Muhammad’s death, this lead to the division of Islam between Sunni and Shi’a, which persists to this day.
Almost immediately after Muhammad’s death, Abu Bakr (d. 634) who was to become the first Caliph, declared, "If any of you have been worshipping Muhammad, let him know that Muhammad is dead. But if you have been worshipping God, then know that God is eternal and never dies." He quoted the verse:
"Muhammad is no more
Than a Messenger: many were the Messengers that passed away
Before Him" (3, 144). Muhammad is not regarded as superhuman nor divine nor without sin. He was commanded in the Qur’an: "Say: "I am but a man like yourselves, (but) the inspiration has come to me, that your God is One God." (18, 110).
Nonetheless Muhammad is special and is sometimes called insan al-kamil, the Perfect man -- much as Christians think of Jesus in his humanity as the perfect human being. He is regarded as the Exemplar and first living commentary on the meaning of the Qur’an and how to apply it to daily life. He had a particular intensity of communion with God. Countless stories, hadith, were told about him and his sayings and actions inform the mind of the Muslim.
Constance Padwick who made a careful study of Muslim Prayer Manuals that were in common use, wrote, "No one can estimate the power of Islam as a religion who does not take into account the love at the heart of it for this figure. It is here that human emotion, repressed at some points by the austerity of the doctrine of God as developed in theology, has its full outlet -- a warm human emotion which the peasant can share with the mystic. The love of this figure is perhaps the strongest binding force in a religion which has so marked a binding power."
The scholar and active inter-faith worker Irfan Ahmad Khan explains the ‘unique status’ of the Prophet. ‘Being a human, the Prophet shares all those limitations which human beings necessarily have and from which God alone is free. However, in the following sense the Prophet is infallible;
"As the Prophet explains the Divine Book to his people and works for the fulfillment of its practical demands, God watches and whenever needed He intervenes (58, 1-4; 80, 1-10). Subsequently, what is conveyed to the people is free of any mistake."
With the Prophet’s death, revelation came to an end. No one inherited Muhammad’s infallibility as the mouthpiece of God. Irfan Ahmad Khan makes entirely clear that "it is a very serious mistake to consider the Qur’an which is Revealed Guidance in Divine Words as the Prophet’s words." Great attention is paid to the sayings of the Prophet but they do not have the same authority as the Divinely revealed message of the Qur’an. It is interesting that St. Paul in writing about marriage distinguishes between the command of the Lord and his own instruction. He writes to the Corinthians: "To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord) . . . To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord)’ (I Corinthians 7, 10 and 12). Later in the chapter Paul writes, "Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgement as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy."
Great authority, therefore, attaches to the sayings of Muhammad, but as Dr Irfan Ahmad Khan makes clear, Muhammad’s directions are not independent of the Book, but its interpretation and amplification. For example, whatever the Prophet says about Ramadan should be seen as explaining the Qur’anic instruction given it: "so whosoever observes the month, should fast during it." (2, 183ff).
It is not, however, just a question of authority, but of deep devotion. Constance Padwick in her book Muslim Devotions quotes one of the prayers that a Muslim pilgrim might say standing before the Tomb of the Prophet at Madina: "I bear witness that you are the apostle of God. You have conveyed the message. You have fulfilled the trust. You have counseled the community and enlightened the gloom and shed glory on the darkness, and uttered words of wisdom." Ezedine Guellouz’s account of his pilgrimage to the Prophet’s tomb is simpler, but just as moving. After praying in the Prophet’s Garden, he writes, "then we resume our progress (from East to West) towards the room where the Prophet’s tomb is. A simple greeting. "Peace be upon you, O Prophet", and the mercy and blessing of God!" Nothing more than one might say to a friend. One is advised not to raise one’s voice, not to bow, not to make any gesture of greeting towards the screen, nor towards the grille, still less to kiss them, or to pray in their direction. All the religious books stress these points. On the other hand, there is no reason why one should not pray God to bless Muhammad and to reward him for all that he did in the service of God and for the salvation of Mankind. "We can also convey to the Prophet the greetings of those who have asked us to do so. . ."
Every Muslim longs to hear, at death, the words:
(To the righteous soul Will be said:) "O (thou) soul, In (complete) rest And satisfaction! Come back thou to thy Lord.
Well pleased (thyself) And well-pleasing Unto Him!
Enter thou, then, Among my Devotees! Yea, enter thou My Heaven. (89, 26-30).
Constance Padwick remarks that Islam has to be ever on its guard against what may be a tacit, though never explicit, deifying of the Prophet. Perhaps the devotion offered by some Christians to the Blessed Virgin Mary may be a parallel. The theological question about when veneration becomes worship need not detain us. The important point here is for Christians to be aware of the deep love that faithful Muslims have for the Prophet "Peace be upon him." Christians need to learn more about Muhammad so as to dispel inherited and lingering prejudice.
Initially Muhammad put up with great courage with the abuse and persecution heaped upon him. Even when odiously reviled he did not answer back. Once when he was in prostration in the courtyard of the Ka’aba, some one placed the entrails of a camel over his shoulders, but he continued in his prayers until his daughter came and removed them so that he could get up. He remained constant in his faith during long years of frustration. Although regular prayer and an annual fast is required of Muslims, the Qur’an says:
So woe to the worshippers who are neglectful of their Prayers. Those who (want but) to be seen, but refuse (to supply) (Even) neighborly needs. (107, 4-7).
Muhammad said, "He who does not give up uttering falsehood and misconduct abstains in vain from food and drink during the fast, as Allah does not require merely physical compliance from him". Although the Prophet stressed the importance of fasting, he equally insisted on the need to break the fast. Islam is not an ascetic religion. Muhammad said to Uthman ibn Maz’un who was ascetic by nature and who asked permission to make himself a eunuch and to spend the rest of his life as a wandering beggar, "Hast thou not in me a fair example? And I go into women, and I eat meat, and I fast, and I break my fast. He is not of my people who maketh men eunuchs or maketh himself a eunuch." Thinking that Uthman had not fully understood what he meant, he told him that he should not fast every day, "hath its rights, and thy family have their rights. So pray, and sleep, and fast, and break fast."
The Qur’an stresses the importance of giving thanks to God for the gifts of life, for the rich provision of nature,(6, 98-99) for blessings of life, such as hearing and sight and sleep:
And among His Signs
Is the sleep that ye take
By night and by day.’ (30, 23).
The Qur’an also speaks of the joy of marriage as a sign of God’s mercy.
And among His Signs
Is this, that he created
For you mates from among
Yourselves, that ye may
Dwell in tranquillity with them,
And He has put love
And mercy between your (hearts):
Verily in that are Signs
For those who reflect. (30, 21)
Muhammad himself was a man of deep prayer and besides the five required times of prayer would spend much other time in prayer. He was also a person of great compassion. There are many stories of his kindness to animals. I like the one of the occasion when he came into a house and put down his cloak. Whilst he was talking, a mother cat and her kittens settled on the cloak. Rather than disturb the cats, Muhammad took a knife and cut round them leaving the cats part of his cloak.
His compassion was shown too in his treatment of his enemies. After the capture of Mecca, Muhammad sent for the leaders of the Qurish. They appealed for mercy and the Holy Prophet responded in words similar to those used by Joseph to his brothers:
Let no reproach be (cast)
On you: Allah will forgive you,
And He is the Most Merciful. (12, 92).
Of those who show mercy!"
Despite all the scorn and hatred, the hardship and suffering, in the moment of victory Muhammad granted a general amnesty and chose the way of reconciliation. Prophet showed great skill in diplomacy and his truthfulness was recognized.
As this prayer shows, Muhammad united in himself love for God and love for other people:
O Lord, grant us to love You;
grant that we may love those that love You;
grant that we may do the deeds that win Your love.
Make the love of You to be dearer to us than ourselves,
than our families, than wealth, and even than cool water.
W. Montgomery Watt spoke of Muhammad’s three great gifts. First, his gift as a seer or prophet; secondly, his wisdom as a statesman and thirdly his skill and tact as an administrator. The more I read of his life, the more my respect for Muhammad grows.
When A’ishah, his favorite wife, was asked what sort of character the Prophet possessed, she answered, "Have you not read the Qur’an? . . .Truly the character of the Prophet was the Qur’an."