Re-Evaluation of Muhammad

Towards A Re-Eval­u­a­tion of Muham­mad : Prophet and Man

In addi­tion to the fes­tiv­i­ty, we should try to learn more about the life of the Prophet and the Divine Mes­sage which he brought”, declares the notice of this cel­e­bra­tion which has been sent out by the Har­vard Islam­ic Soci­ety. True enough ; but let us, then, not be con­tent to repeat the uncrit­i­cal reports and asser­tions which are usu­al­ly reit­er­at­ed by Mus­lim preach­ers on this occa­sion. First of all, let us try to sift fact from fic­tion. For instance, in Mus­lim lands speak­ers and cel­e­brants in mosques and homes would now be read­ing sto­ries of Mawlid al-Nabi which pur­ports that the birth of the Prophet was pre­saged and accom­pa­nied by cer­tain cat­a­clysmic events in the heav­ens and on earth. Stars came near the earth until they almost fell down. The palace of the King of Per­sia was shak­en and four­teen of its bat­tle­ments col­lapsed. Per­sian fires, which had been con­tin­u­ous­ly burn­ing in Zoroas­tri­an tem­ples for a thou­sand years, were extin­guished. Lakes dried up and val­leys were flood­ed. A light came out of the Prophet’s moth­er and illu­mi­nat­ed all the palaces of Syr­ia. The sto­ries go on to claim that the Prophet was born ful­ly cir­cum­cised and with his pla­cen­ta already sep­a­rat­ed from his navel. When he fell down to the ground, he pros­trat­ed him­self in wor­ship of God and his ful­ly-opened eyes were fixed on Heav­en. He brought the most extra­or­di­nary good luck to his wet-nurse and her peo­ple, and dur­ing his infan­cy he grew at a rate nev­er before achieved by a human child, so that when only two years old he was a strong, stur­dy lad. When he was a few years old the Archangel Gabriel descend­ed from Heav­en and split his chest open, took out his heart, removed a black clot from it, washed the heart in a gold ves­sel with pure ice, returned it to his chest and sewed the chest up. Dur­ing his child­hood, a light cloud accom­pa­nied him wher­ev­er he went, pro­tect­ing him from the heat of the sun.1

Sev­er­al oth­er reports of a sim­i­lar nature are giv­en. But some of these sto­ries go back even to the begin­ning of time and claim that God cre­at­ed Muham­mad as a pure light before He cre­at­ed any oth­er human ; that that light was placed in the loins of Adam and from him descend­ed via pure, chaste wombs into one noble ances­tor after anoth­er until it reached Muham­mad’s father, in whom it showed as a white, lumi­nous mark in his fore­head until he placed it in Ami­na, the Prophet’s moth­er. Muham­mad’s birth fifty-three years before the Hijra was there­fore only the incar­na­tion in human form of that first cre­ation.2 This part of the sto­ries — which are all fab­ri­ca­tions of a lat­er date — is clear­ly jeal­ous emu­la­tion of what the Chris­tians say about Jesus the Christ. The mis­chief of such fairy tales, which, admit­ted­ly, give great joy to the cred­u­lous mass­es, is not mere­ly that they arouse the deri­sion of non-Mus­lims ; their greater mis­chief is that they dis­tract the Mus­lims them­selves from the true char­ac­ter and mer­it of Muham­mad and the faith which he brought to mankind. Unlike cer­tain oth­ers before him (and after him), he was not a mir­a­cle-mon­ger. Nei­ther in the pro­mul­ga­tion nor in the prop­a­ga­tion of his reli­gion did he resort to any phys­i­cal mir­a­cle what­ev­er, deem­ing it suf­fi­cient to recite the revealed vers­es of the Qur’an and to appeal to the hearts and minds of sen­si­tive, think­ing men. As the Qur’an explic­it­ly and repeat­ed­ly por­trays3, he stead­fast­ly refused to suc­cumb to the entice­ment of his peo­ple in Mec­ca and their repeat­ed chal­lenge that he per­form a mir­a­cle to prove his divine mis­sion — a sure sign of his integri­ty, espe­cial­ly if one real­izes the cru­el mock­ery and con­tempt which he suf­fered on account of that refusal.

Hav­ing cleared Muham­mad’s biog­ra­phy of the crop of myth and leg­end that has over­grown it, let us then — espe­cial­ly with a view to non-Mus­lim read­ers — not be sat­is­fied with repeat­ing the claims which only Mus­lims can accept and which they see as the pre­con­di­tion for belief in the Islam­ic reli­gion. We Mus­lims believe that Muham­mad was the great­est and last of the prophets and apos­tles of God. We also believe that his char­ac­ter reached per­fec­tion. On nei­ther of these claims does the major­i­ty of mankind agree with us. Nor does the major­i­ty fol­low us when we go on to affirm that the birth of Muham­mad was the great­est event in his­to­ry ; the most munif­i­cent bless­ing which God gave to man ; the deci­sive act which flood­ed the earth with light and guid­ance after total dark­ness and error, estab­lished right in the place of wrong, spread knowl­edge and mer­cy among mankind instead of igno­rance and sav­agery — and oth­er such expres­sions which, in stereo­typed terms lit­tle bet­ter than cliché we are wont to repeat espe­cial­ly on the occa­sion of the Prophet’s birthday.

It should be obvi­ous that we shall not help the cause of our faith nor per­suade the rest of human­i­ty to learn more about the char­ac­ter of its founder so long as we are con­tend to make such claims. Let us, there­fore, con­cen­trate on find­ing the com­mon ground on which all men of rea­son and good will should meet. Owing to the lim­it­ed space avail­able here, I can only touch upon two major ques­tions : the ques­tion of Muham­mad’s truth­ful­ness, and that of his char­ac­ter. In tack­ling each, let us pay atten­tion to the views that have been expressed by non-Mus­lim writ­ers, in order to note the rad­i­cal change which has occurred in recent decades.

As to the answer to the ques­tion of Muham­mad’s truth­ful­ness, it is time to real­ize that whether he was or was not a true prophet of God is entire­ly a mat­ter of belief, which depends, first­ly, on peo­ple’s accep­tance or rejec­tion of the mere exis­tence of God ; sec­ond­ly, on their accep­tance or rejec­tion of the idea of a God who calls on cer­tain men to com­mu­ni­cate His mes­sage to mankind ; and third­ly, on their con­vic­tion regard­ing both the form and con­tent which that com­mu­ni­ca­tion must have in order to be accept­able. We would there­fore only be wast­ing time and effort if we attempt­ed to prove our par­tic­u­lar stand on any of these three points to peo­ple who do not share our con­vic­tion ; for all these ques­tions are beyond proof in the cor­rect sense of the word proof’: fac­tu­al demon­stra­tion and ratio­nal argu­ment. There is, how­ev­er, a ques­tion which is, I think, open to objec­tive assess­ment, and which is of para­mount impor­tance, since it decides men’s basic atti­tude to Muham­mad, irre­spec­tive of their accep­tance or rejec­tion of his mis­sion. This is the ques­tion of his own sincerity.

At anoth­er occa­sion4 I described how the ear­li­er non-Mus­lim schol­ars firm­ly believed that Muham­mad was a delib­er­ate impos­tor, a con­scious char­la­tan who fab­ri­cat­ed the Qur’an while ful­ly real­iz­ing it was his own com­po­si­tion.“5 If he was such a per­son, he would, of course, only mer­it the strongest con­dem­na­tion and the out­most repug­nance of mankind. How­ev­er, with the pas­sage of time, sev­er­al fac­tors com­bined to change this extreme denun­ci­a­tion. Mod­ern meth­ods of his­tor­i­cal research devel­oped, enabling schol­ars to make more objec­tive assess­ments. There was a grad­ual less­en­ing of the motives of pri­ma facie ani­mos­i­ty which acti­vat­ed the ear­ly Ori­en­tal­ists, who were most­ly Chris­t­ian or Jew­ish schol­ars intent upon prov­ing the a pri­ori fal­la­cy of Islam and the exclu­sive valid­i­ty of their own creed. Oth­er schol­ars entered the are­na of his­tor­i­cal research, and treat­ed all reli­gions with an equal­ly open mind. Orig­i­nal sources on the life, say­ings and actions of Muham­mad were increas­ing­ly avail­able, both in the orig­i­nal Ara­bic and in good West­ern trans­la­tions. Now, although many unin­formed peo­ple still repeat the old accu­sa­tion, the great major­i­ty of writ­ers and speak­ers on the sub­ject no longer have any doubt of Muham­mad’s com­plete sin­cer­i­ty. Whether he was a true prophet or was only delud­ed, he him­self was ful­ly gen­uine in his spir­i­tu­al search and became utter­ly con­vinced that what he had heard was the true rev­e­la­tion of the true, invis­i­ble God.6

Let me begin with an argu­ment rec­og­nized by sev­er­al West­ern schol­ars them­selves, as I for­mu­lat­ed it earlier :

First of all, there is his white-hot faith in the exis­tence of the omnipresent and invis­i­ble God : a faith which burned in all his pro­nounce­ments and which nev­er abat­ed in the whole his­to­ry of his career. This is too pas­sion­ate and over­pow­er­ing to emanate from a mere moun­te­bank. Then there is the stu­pen­dous anguish which he under­went in his search for the true God, that long and ago­niz­ing search…7

It is impor­tant to real­ize that when that search cul­mi­nat­ed in his hear­ing the voice of Gabriel in Mount Hira, at the age of forty, he did not has­ten to believe in his rev­e­la­tion or become con­vinced of it overnight. He passed through a peri­od of con­sid­er­able doubt and fear, ter­ri­fied lest it be only the wicked trick and cru­el jest­ing of Satan, and he need­ed the whole­heart­ed sup­port of his faith­ful wife Khadi­ja to over­come his fears. I ven­ture to sug­gest that this was an attes­ta­tion of his integri­ty ; a delib­er­ate impos­tor bent upon decep­tion would not have gone through those ago­niz­ing ter­rors. Fur­ther­more, a care­ful read­ing of the ear­ly suras of the Qur’an shows that, even after he was con­vinced of the authen­tic­i­ty of his rev­e­la­tion, it was only with great reluc­tance that he accept­ed the awe­some bur­den of his mis­sion, and only after he was dri­ven by an over­pow­er­ing sense of the duty which he could not shirk.

Fur­ther­more, the Qur’an con­tains a num­ber of ter­ri­fy­ing vers­es denounc­ing those who fab­ri­cate words and claim they are God’s and threat­en­ing them with damna­tion and dire chas­tise­ment. Here is one such instance :

If he [Muham­mad] had fab­ri­cat­ed any say­ings and false­ly ascribed them to Us, We should cer­tain­ly have seized him by the right hand, and had cut through the vein of his neck, and none of you would have saved him. (S. 69:44)

Read­ing those burn­ing vers­es, it is almost impos­si­ble to believe that Muham­mad him­self was con­scious­ly one of those whom the vers­es so fer­vent­ly con­demn. In this con­nec­tion, we may remem­ber how ter­ri­fied Muham­mad was lest through faulty mem­o­ry he for­get or alter some of the words revealed to him, so much so that he need­ed God’s reas­sur­ance and com­fort sev­er­al times on this ques­tion (see, for instance, S. 87:6 – 8 ; also 75:16 – 19).

The Qur’an also records accu­sa­tions made by the Quraysh against the gen­uine­ness of his rev­e­la­tions. Some of these accu­sa­tions claimed cer­tain peo­ple as Muham­mad’s accom­plices who helped him to man­u­fac­ture the Qur’an (see, for exam­ple, S. 16:103). It is dif­fi­cult to believe that Muham­mad would have had the courage to record those accu­sa­tions, and in such detail, had he not been con­vinced of their wrong­ness. More­over, the Qur’an records some mis­takes com­mit­ted by Muham­mad, and rebukes him for them, some­times in quite a sharp tone which caused him great cha­grin. One of them was that some­times he weak­ened and thought of giv­ing in to or com­pro­mis­ing with the idol­aters, even of alter­ing the revealed vers­es a lit­tle to please them and gain their friend­ship (see, for instance, S. 17:73 – 758, the last of which vers­es stern­ly declare that, had Muham­mad suc­cumbed, God would have made him taste of woe in life and woe in death, and Muham­mad would then have found no helper against God). This, again, is strong evi­dence of his com­plete belief that what he heard were the very words of God which he was not at lib­er­ty to sup­press or mod­i­fy no mat­ter how much they hurt him.

It is equal­ly sig­nif­i­cant to remem­ber the his­to­ry of the severe hard­ship, per­se­cu­tion and mor­tal dan­ger which he faced and accept­ed for some twen­ty years in the ful­fill­ment of his mis­sion. Impos­tors do not usu­al­ly last so long or sur­vive such tri­al. Any of these facts may not in itself be con­clu­sive, but I sub­mit that no hon­est thinker can deny that their cumu­la­tive evi­dence is overwhelming.

Even so, attempts have been made to explain them away. When West­ern schol­ars who had no belief in the exis­tence of God or in divine­ly sent mes­sen­gers could no longer doubt Muham­mad’s utter sin­cer­i­ty, they sought to account for the remark­able phe­nom­e­non of his mis­sion by var­i­ous med­ical or psy­cho­log­i­cal the­o­ries.9 Since they did not believe in divine inspi­ra­tion per se, their attempts were under­stand­able. What sur­pris­es and grieves one is to see some Chris­t­ian and Jew­ish schol­ars fol­low­ing in the same track. When one care­ful­ly con­sid­ers the impu­ta­tions that are still made against Muham­mad’s prophet­ic rev­e­la­tion, one may come to the con­clu­sion that they do not so much injure Islam as shake the foun­da­tions of the­is­tic belief itself. Such facile expla­na­tions are : an unbal­anced and apoplec­tic, or epilep­tic ner­vous sys­tem ; a schiz­o­phrenic per­son­al­i­ty ; hal­lu­ci­na­tions out of a wild and dis­tort­ed imag­i­na­tions ; a suprasen­si­tive and dis­eased psy­che ; a down-rush from the super­con­scious, etc., etc.

There is not one of these ratio­nal­is­tic expla­na­tions that can­not be lev­eled with equal plau­si­bil­i­ty at the oth­er prophets and reli­gious lead­ers accept­ed by believ­ers in oth­er reli­gions. Let us admit the fact that all those vision­ar­ies were unusu­al or super­sen­si­tive in some ways — we may here remem­ber what Car­lyle in his Heroes and Hero-Wor­ship said on this ques­tion10 — and yet this does not nec­es­sar­i­ly inval­i­date their visions. In fact, it may be argued that unless they were excep­tion­al­ly attuned they would not have been able to see and hear what they quite fac­tu­al­ly saw and heard. We can­not sim­ply equate them with those who are def­i­nite­ly sick, phys­i­cal­ly or phys­i­o­log­i­cal­ly. In any case, as regards Muham­mad, all such pre­sump­tions of his phys­i­cal or men­tal dis­ease are fair­ly eas­i­ly dis­cred­it­ed by his great suc­cess as a prac­ti­cal leader and founder of a new state, in which dif­fi­cult role he is admit­ted to have dis­played con­sum­mate skill, tact and wis­dom. The atti­tude now preva­lent among non-Mus­lim schol­ars is that there can be no doubt about Muham­mad’s sin­cer­i­ty. Indeed, we find that cer­tain Chris­t­ian schol­ars, such as Wil­fred Cantwell Smith and Ken­neth Cragg,11 con­cede that Muham­mad was not mere­ly hon­est in his con­vic­tion of his prophe­cy, but must have been a true prophet of God receiv­ing God’s rev­e­la­tion in some sense or anoth­er, though not nec­es­sar­i­ly in the ortho­dox, lit­er­al sense under­stood by Muslims.

If we now move from the ques­tion of Muham­mad’s prophe­cy to that of his char­ac­ter, we notice again a con­sid­er­able change in the pic­ture made of him by non-Mus­lim schol­ars. For­mer­ly, con­comi­tant with their accu­sa­tion of delib­er­ate char­la­tanism, the por­trait they drew of his total per­son­al­i­ty was black indeed, with hard­ly one reliev­ing virtue. He was depict­ed as an ambi­tious moun­te­bank, bent on sheer self-aggran­dize­ment, blown up by insuf­fer­able van­i­ty and con­sumed with devour­ing greed. Noth­ing but the most igno­ble motives impelled him to do what­ev­er he did, and lust and lech­ery were accord­ed the lofti­est place among his heinous sins. A cru­el tyrant he was, unfor­giv­ing and venge­ful, tricky and treach­er­ous — in short, a very mon­ster who calls forth only the revul­sion and abhor­rence of mankind. Lit­tle won­der that his name was changed from Muham­mad, the Praised One, to Mahound, the Prince of Dark­ness.12

How­ev­er, the same process­es in the world of schol­ar­ship as those not­ed above slow­ly act­ed to bring about a grad­ual tem­per­ing of that extreme pic­ture, and now it is changed in many respects, some of them basic. In place of the for­bid­ding por­trait of a sav­age, grasp­ing, vin­dic­tive despot, there is now a pro­file of an essen­tial­ly kind man, affec­tion­ate and ten­der-heart­ed, mod­est and unas­sum­ing, with sev­er­al lov­able and indeed noble traits in his char­ac­ter. Per­haps the great­est thing which demon­strates his true essence was the fact that he was espe­cial­ly kind to all low­ly and despised peo­ple : slaves and ser­vants, women, chil­dren and orphans.

Even when he was at the sum­mit of his suc­cess and pow­er, he helped his house-folk in the per­for­mance of their menial duties He darned his clothes and cob­bled his san­dals. He nev­er found fault with his ser­vants or rebuked them with any mis­take. His per­son­al ser­vant Anas b. Malik relates that in ten years of ser­vice to Muham­mad, the Prophet nev­er struck him, nev­er said one harsh word to him, and nev­er even frowned in his face. He greet­ed chil­dren with a grave as-sala­mu alaykum when he passed them, and often stopped and talked with them, asked them about their games and ques­tioned them about their toys. He com­mis­er­at­ed with a small boy on the death of his pet nightin­gale.13 A lit­tle girl would come and pull him by the hand, and he would not pull his hand away, but would go with her to see what she want­ed to show him. A woman slave would ask him to keep her com­pa­ny on her var­i­ous errands in Med­i­na, and he would con­sent. Once a woman with a defec­tive mind came and said she want­ed him ; he got up, took her to one side, lis­tened to her and con­versed with her until she had poured out all she wanted.

Muham­mad nev­er declined an invi­ta­tion to a par­ty, even from the mean­est of his men. Nor was he ever a kill-joy : he often laughed with peo­ple and did not con­sid­er it beneath his dig­ni­ty to exchange jokes with them. How­ev­er, he was nor­mal­ly silent, not the silence of haugh­ti­ness, but of shy­ness. As one of his com­pan­ions said, he was more shy than a vir­gin inside her apart­ment.” When he entered an assem­bly of his fol­low­ers, he did not select a promi­nent place, but sat in what­ev­er place was imme­di­ate­ly avail­able. He hat­ed his com­pan­ions to stand up when he entered, so they even­tu­al­ly learnt to keep their seats. He refused to recline while eat­ing, though they assured him he would find it more com­fort­able ; that, he said, was the man­ner of kings when they ate. He was always quite and soft-spo­ken, nev­er loud ; even his laugh­ter was gen­tle and nev­er bois­ter­ous. He smiled more than he laughed, and he had a con­stant, gen­tle smile ; one of his con­tem­po­raries said, I nev­er saw any­body smile so con­stant­ly.” He nev­er cursed or used foul lan­guage, although obscen­i­ty was the nor­mal man­ner of speak­ing in that time among the Arabs. Even some of his clos­est friends and fol­low­ers, not exclud­ing the gen­tle Abu Bakr, in a num­ber of record­ed anec­dotes, used what we would now con­sid­er coarse or inde­cent lan­guage ; but Muham­mad, not once.

The Prophet nev­er pun­ished out of mere retal­i­a­tion for a per­son­al slight or injury. All his pun­ish­ments, of believ­ers and unbe­liev­ers alike, were for crimes com­mit­ted against the pub­lic weal or infringe­ments of the pro­mul­gat­ed law ; and even here his life con­tains acts of clemen­cy in which he put mer­cy above jus­tice. Espe­cial­ly remark­able in this respect was his great reluc­tance to inflict upon adul­ter­ers the pre­scribed pun­ish­ment of death by ston­ing. A man or woman would come and con­fess hav­ing com­mit­ted that major sin and ask to be puri­fied” — i.e., by the due pun­ish­ment. Muham­mad would first pre­tend not to have heard the con­fes­sion. After repeat­ed insis­tence from the con­fes­sor, he would say, Per­haps the man is drunk and does not real­ize what he is say­ing.” In the case of one woman, who insist­ed on her right­ful pun­ish­ment, he said she might be preg­nant and it would not be jus­tice to kill the inno­cent embryo. The woman went away and even­tu­al­ly came back with the new­born baby in her arms, but Muham­mad said he must allow her a few years to suck­le her young one and bring it up. In con­sid­er­ing the pun­ish­ments he dealt to the ene­mies of his cause, we must not for­get, first, that they were polit­i­cal actions made nec­es­sary by the con­di­tions of the time ; sec­ond, that none of them were exces­sive unac­cept­able by the usages or mores of that time. And his life was crowned with his supreme act of for­give­ness, when, in his hour of final vic­to­ry upon the con­quest of Mec­ca, he for­gave his most bit­ter and dogged adver­saries, those who had denied him the right to wor­ship his God in his own way, who had long per­se­cut­ed him and had caused him to flee his native place and seek refuge with strangers. Accord­ing to the rules of war preva­lent then, and for cen­turies after­wards both in Asia and Europe, he could have put them all to the sword.

To appre­ci­ate the full extent of his clemen­cy, patience and for­bear­ance, how­ev­er, it is good to real­ize that he did not suf­fer only from the per­se­cu­tion of the unbe­liev­ers, but suf­fered a great deal from the rude­ness, uncouth­ness and quick tem­per of many of his own fol­low­ers. It is nec­es­sary to remem­ber the state of the Arabs at that time, still near the wild and vehe­ment char­ac­ter very just­ly dubbed by the Qur’an al-Jahiliyya.14 In the vio­lence and quick­ness to anger, they often talked insult­ing­ly to the Prophet, but he nev­er answered back ; in fact, his capac­i­ty to suf­fer fools was amaz­ing. Once a nomad came and, evi­dent­ly to draw Muham­mad’s atten­tion, pulled him by his man­tle until he almost fell down, and the man­tle left a mark round his neck. Muham­mad looked at the nomad, laughed appar­ent­ly at his vio­lent way of call­ing his atten­tion, and said, What is it you want?” The nomad said, Muham­mad ! Give me some of the mon­ey you have got.” Muham­mad said to his fol­low­ers present, Give him” (Notice how this per­son rude­ly addressed the Prophet by his bare name, not by his kun­ya”, patronymic, as the polite cus­tom of the Arabs dic­tat­ed, not by the usu­al O, Apos­tle of God’ adopt­ed by the believ­ers). More than once a nomad would come and, in the usu­al offen­sive way of the bedouin, make an accu­sa­tion against Muham­mad which would prove to be unjust. But Muham­mad would nei­ther retal­i­ate nor even mete out the just pun­ish­ment ; and he would stop his com­pan­ions, who often want­ed to kill the cul­prit, from molest­ing him in any way. Only in the most gen­tle way did he cor­rect peo­ples’ mis­takes. A bedouin entered the mosque in Med­i­na and uri­nat­ed in it. When Muham­mad’s com­pan­ions start­ed to shout at the man, he asked them not to be rough on him, called him over, and gen­tly explained to him that mosques were not suit­able places for such actions, but were meant for the read­ing of the Qur’an the remem­brance of God, and prayers. Then he called for a buck­et of water and poured it over the urine. When proven wrong in an argu­ment, even when his dis­putant was inso­lent, Muham­mad would admit his mis­take and rec­ti­fy it with­out any false pride, and would apol­o­gize pro­fuse­ly as well. Once he had for­got­ten to pay back some­thing he owed to a nomad. The man came to Muham­mad, vio­lent­ly pulled Muham­mad’s man­tle until it fell away from his shoul­ders, and accused him in quite an offen­sive way of delib­er­ate dila­tori­ness. Umar, enraged by the rough han­dling and insult done to the Prophet, called the man an ene­my of God, and said he wished he could cut off his head.

Mean­while, the Prophet was look­ing at Umar qui­et­ly and calm­ly”. Then he smiled and said to Umar : He and I need some­thing else. I need that you order me to pay back my debt prop­er­ly, and he needs that you order him to demand his dues in a prop­er man­ner.” Then he ordered Umar to take the man, pay him the debt, and add to it twen­ty mea­sures of dates to com­pen­sate him for the fright he (‘Umar) had caused him.

When he did get angry, the only reac­tion he showed was that his face red­dened. All he would then do was to turn his face away from the per­son who angered him. When he was pleased, how­ev­er, his whole face beamed as if irra­di­at­ed with light, like a mir­ror reflect­ing the sun,” in the words of a com­pan­ion. When he con­versed with some­body, he turned with his whole body to him. He nev­er was the first to leave a com­pan­ion, or take his hand away from a hand­shake, or pull his hand away from a touch. These, how­ev­er, were not points of mere super­fi­cial good man­ners which might have no deep­er sig­nif­i­cance ; they obvi­ous­ly sprang from a ten­der and tru­ly hum­ble nature. There is no sur­er indi­ca­tion of the depth of his human­i­ty than his extreme kind­ness to ani­mals. Pass­ing by a bitch with pup­pies — and this was on the crit­i­cal march to the con­quest of Mec­ca — he stopped to warn his men not to dis­turb her and her lit­ter ; and, in order to make sure this was car­ried out, he post­ed a man by her. He sought to teach kind­ness to his peo­ple, a peo­ple who then were cru­el in their treat­ment of the dumb creatures.

No won­der those rough peo­ple end­ed by giv­ing Muham­mad a love and devo­tion greater than any leader of men can hope to receive from his fol­low­ers. Even this was attrib­uted by the Qur’an to the mer­cy of God :

It is by the mer­cy of God that thou hast been gen­tle with them. Hadst thou been harsh and severe-heart­ed, they would have scat­tered away from thee. There­fore, for­give them and ask God’s par­don for them, and con­sult them in all affairs. (S. 3:159)

So much for the vain, cru­el and vin­dic­tive tyrant. As to his greed and ego­tism, no read­er of his biog­ra­phy can fail to be struck by his great abstemious­ness and fru­gal habits of liv­ing. To the end of his days, even after the great rich­es result­ing from the con­quests began to accrue to the Mus­lims, he kept those same habits. He refused to eat bread made of refined flour, and nev­er allowed him­self to eat wheat bread on two suc­ces­sive days. Of bar­ley bread?the cheap­est then?he did not once have his fill ; and he nev­er ate gravy with bread more than once a day, nor com­bined any two of bread, dates and meat in one meal ; in fact, he nev­er had two full meals on the same day. He abstained from even mak­ing per­son­al use, either for him­self or for any mem­ber of his fam­i­ly, of the zakat, the tithe of alms paid by Mus­lims into the trea­sury. The pro­ceeds of the land received as his share of the booty he always dis­trib­uted among the needy. It is suf­fi­cient in this respect to note that, despite that great wealth, he him­self died not only poor, but vir­tu­al­ly pen­ni­less. One of his com­pan­ions said : He left nei­ther a gold coin, nor a sil­ver coin, nor a man-slave, nor a woman-slave, nor a sheep, nor a camel.“15 In fact, at the time of his death, his coat-of-mail was mort­gaged with a cer­tain mer­chant for thir­ty mea­sures of bar­ley which he had pur­chased to feed his large family.

Thus died the man who had con­quered all Ara­bia, and to whom one-fifth of the great spoils was paid. I have con­cen­trat­ed on those aspects of his char­ac­ter which would now be read­i­ly admit­ted by non-Mus­lim schol­ars. This is not to say that they agree with us Mus­lims in every point of our eval­u­a­tion of Muham­mad. And, in my opin­ion, when those schol­ars dif­fer with us, it is not always they who are in the wrong and who have to change their view. For just as we fab­ri­cat­ed those fables about the birth of our Prophet, we have indulged in cer­tain exag­ger­a­tions and out­right inven­tions regard­ing his qual­i­ties. We have claimed for him a per­fec­tion which is not giv­en to any human, not even the prophets. If we ever aspire to have a san­er and truer esti­ma­tion of him, one that is capa­ble of dis­cov­er­ing his real and demon­stra­ble virtues, our point of depar­ture must be the real­iza­tion that nei­ther he him­self claimed per­fec­tion, nor did the Qur’an claim it for him. In fact, such a claim, vaunt­ed by such mod­ern books as the one enti­tled Muham­mad : the Per­fect Ide­al“16 is utter­ly blas­phe­mous by the strict tenets of monothe­is­tic Islam which ascribe per­fec­tion to God alone. For, states the Qur’an God is the lofti­est exam­ple” (S. 16:60). And again : His is the lofti­est exam­ple in the Heav­ens and on the Earth” (S. 30:27); notice this : and on the Earth.” When the Qur’an (S. 68:4) describes Muham­mad as hav­ing a great char­ac­ter,” it did not say that he had the great­est. Both the Qur’an in many vers­es, and Muham­mad him­self in many say­ings, stress again and again his fal­li­bil­i­ty, and the inevitable short­com­ings of his human nature. The Qur’an orders him : Say : I am only a man like you” (S. 18:110 ; cf. also 41:6). And again : Say : Glo­ry be to my Lord ! Am I more than a man, a mes­sen­ger?” (S. 17:93). Muham­mad also said : I am only the son of a woman from the Quraysh who used to eat strings of sun-dried meat.” (The qadid was one of the sta­ple foods of poor nomads in the deserts.) The cor­rect Islam­ic creed about ismat al-anbiya’, immu­ni­ty of the prophets, is that this immu­ni­ty applies only to mat­ters con­nect­ed with their integri­ty as receivers and pro­nounces of the mes­sage of God.

It has been said by schol­ars of com­par­a­tive reli­gions that, owing to the great pains Muham­mad took to stress his mere human­i­ty, he was the only founder of a great reli­gion who suc­ceed­ed in pre­vent­ing his peo­ple from deify­ing him after his death. But if the Mus­lims have abstained as count­ing Muham­mad as god, they have not abstained from mak­ing ridicu­lous claims on his behalf. In these claims they were, of course, lim­it­ed by their own envi­ron­men­tal­ly-con­di­tioned con­cepts. When those con­cepts changed with the change of human ethics and the devel­op­ment of human con­science, some of their inven­tions did griev­ous harms to the good nature of the Prophet. Wit­ness the extrav­a­gant claim that he was giv­en the sex­u­al pow­er of thir­ty men, or six­ty men ; and that he would go round his wives, eleven in num­ber, in a sin­gle night, or a sin­gle day, or a sin­gle hour of the day or night. Much of the accu­sa­tion of lust that has been lev­elled against him by many West­ern writ­ers was based on such Arab or Ori­en­tal fan­ta­sy. Here is one illus­tra­tion. Sir William Muir him­self, who does his best in his biog­ra­phy of the Prophet17 to be fair in his final eval­u­a­tion of the Prophet, quotes uncrit­i­cal­ly this say­ing ascribed to Ibn Abbas : Ver­i­ly the chiefest among the Mus­lims was the fore­most of them in his pas­sion for women.” Then he com­ments:”… a fatal exam­ple imi­tat­ed too read­i­ly by his fol­low­ers…” My hum­ble com­ment on Muir is : a sad exam­ple of how even the best Ori­en­tal­ists some­times too read­i­ly accept the fig­ments of the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion of the Arabs. For it is quite pal­pa­ble that this say­ing is pure­ly an a pri­ori deduc­tion : since Muham­mad was the chief Mus­lim who had to epit­o­mize their ideals, he must have been the most sex­u­al­ly potent. So it was not a case of the Mus­lims imi­tat­ing” their Prophet’s exam­ple”, but rather the con­verse : a case of their recre­at­ing the char­ac­ter of Muham­mad accord­ing to their then accept­ed morals.

Those writ­ers, in all too read­i­ly accept­ing the pop­u­lar notions, found it easy to for­get the silent facts about Muham­mad’s mar­riages : that for 28 years — and those the years of his utmost vig­or — from the age of 25 to the age of 53, he had only one wife (for 25 of those years, she was the con­sid­er­ably old­er Khadi­ja); that his mar­riage to Ayesha in the first year of the Hijra was quite obvi­ous­ly a way of express­ing his grat­i­tude to her father, his first, clos­est and most faith­ful fol­low­er among men, who made with him the per­ilous fight from Mec­ca to Med­i­na, the First Com­pan­ion Abu Bakr ; and that all his oth­er mar­riages were either a sim­i­lar homage to a close friend, a way of giv­ing shel­ter to a friend’s wid­ow, or one of the most effec­tive ways then prac­ticed to pla­cate a pow­er­ful ene­my and induce a defeat­ed tribe to for­get its humil­i­a­tion — much as the cus­tom of mat­ri­mo­ni­al alliances among the reign­ing dynas­ties was in medieval Europe. So clear is this fact that Mont­gomery Watt has concluded :

It is not too much to say that all Muham­mad’s mar­riages had a polit­i­cal aspect.18

Fur­ther­more, with the excep­tion of Ayesha, none of his wives was an unmar­ried maid­en ; and not one of them did he mar­ry against her will. Indeed, in one case the woman he had just mar­ried showed reluc­tance to come to him ; or, in anoth­er ver­sion of the anec­dote, asked for God’s pro­tec­tion from him. Muham­mad answered her : Invi­o­lable is the one who asks for God’s pro­tec­tion,” and imme­di­ate­ly returned her to her tribe untouched.

These are the bare his­tor­i­cal facts about the mar­riages of a man who has been con­demned as a prof­li­gate volup­tuary, and whose own fol­low­ers helped unwit­ting­ly to smear him. When we on our side have less­ened our exag­ger­a­tions and abjured our fab­ri­ca­tions, and when the oth­ers have gone fur­ther in their expla­na­tion of the true Muham­mad as prophet and man, unham­pered by the residue of their own prej­u­dice and mis­con­cep­tion, what, then, will be the com­mon ground on which all men of san­i­ty and good faith can meet, on which, indeed, a by no means neg­li­gi­ble minor­i­ty of think­ing men of var­i­ous races and creeds already agree ?

Whether one accepts or rejects his mis­sion, there can be no doubt that he was an earnest and ded­i­cat­ed searcher after the divine truth, who became pro­found­ly and hon­est­ly con­vinced that God had cho­sen him to con­vey His mes­sage to mankind. This alone dis­cred­its both the con­temp­tu­ous expres­sions and the angry, con­dem­na­to­ry tone that used to be adopt­ed towards him by either believ­ers in oth­er creeds or nega­tors of all creeds. All those who val­ue human dig­ni­ty, and who have the capac­i­ty to hon­or and respect man’s inces­sant search after the spir­i­tu­al truth, even though they may not agree with the forms or the results of that search, can­not help but have the deep­est respect for Muham­mad. And, when they read of his anguish and tor­ment both in his search and in the ful­fill­ment of his call, that respect will sure­ly mount to sym­pa­thy and com­pas­sion. Then, when they con­sid­er his many ster­ling qual­i­ties, and real­ize that essen­tial­ly he was a large-heart­ed man, a man of gen­uine humil­i­ty, with one of the sweet­est and meek­est of natures, they may agree that, despite his imper­fec­tions, or per­haps more cor­rect­ly because of his human imper­fec­tions, here was one of the noblest and most lov­able of men. In short, they may sim­ply agree with the Qur’an­ic state­ment quot­ed above, a ver­dict addressed to Muham­mad while he was meet­ing with stead­fast patience and for­bear­ance the rabid vil­i­fi­ca­tion and per­se­cu­tion of the idol­aters : Tru­ly thou hast a great char­ac­ter.” (S. 68:4)Endmark

Mohamed Al-Nowai­hi was Pro­fes­sor of Ara­bic Lan­guage and Lit­er­a­ture, Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty at Cairo. The Mus­lim World, LX (4), Octo­ber 1970, pp. 300 – 31319
Cite this arti­cle as : Mohamed Al-Nowai­hi, Towards A Re-Eval­u­a­­tion of Muham­mad : Prophet and Man,” in Bis­mi­ka Allahu­ma, Sep­tem­ber 19, 2005, last accessed May 27, 2024, https://​bis​mikaal​lahu​ma​.org/​m​u​h​a​m​m​a​d​/​p​r​o​p​h​e​t​-​a​n​d​-​m​an/
  1. For Mus­lim lit­er­a­ture on Mawlid an-Nabi, see, e.g., the arti­cle Mawlid” in (Short­er) Ency­clopae­dia of Islam and A. Jef­fery, ed., Islam-Muham­mad and his Reli­gion (New York : The Lib­er­al Arts Press, 1958), p. 226. Eas­i­ly acces­si­ble are the rel­e­vant pas­sages in Ibn Ishaq’s The Life of Muham­mad (transl. by A. Guil­laume ; Lon­don : O.U.P., 1955), pp. 68 – 73. For a West­ern sum­ma­ry of many of the birth-sto­ries, cf., Tor Andrae, Die Per­son Muhammeds in Lehre und Glauben sein­er Gemeinde (Stock­holm : P. A. Norstedt & S, 1918), pp. 28 – 39, 52ff.[]
  2. Andrae dis­cuss­es at length the pre-exis­tence and logos notions found in Sufi writ­ings ; Die Per­son Muhammeds, Chap­ter VI pas­sim, esp., pp. 313 – 357.[]
  3. See, for instance, S. 17:90 – 93[]
  4. In an address to the Har­vard Islam­ic Soci­ety on the occa­sion of Id al-Fitr.[]
  5. Car­lyle referred in 1840 to the then preva­lent view of Muham­mad as a schem­ing Impos­tor, a False­hood incar­nate, … his reli­gion … a mere mass of quack­ery and fatu­ity.” Thomas Car­lyle, On Heroes, Hero-Wor­ship and the Hero­ic in His­to­ry (New York : John Wiley, 1849), p. 39[]
  6. Car­lyle plead­ed in his famous lec­ture of May 8, 1840, for the recog­ni­tion of the hero’s sin­cer­i­ty, a deep, great, gen­uine sin­cer­i­ty,” the kind he can­not speak of, is not con­scious of : may, I sup­pose, he is con­scious rather of insin­cer­i­ty” (op. cit., p. 41). This char­ac­ter­is­tic” of all men in any way hero­ic Car­lyle saw as def­i­nite­ly apply­ing also to Muham­mad. Per­haps the best exam­ples of a dis­cus­sion of Muham­mad’s sin­cer­i­ty in this cen­tu­ry are Leone Cae­tani, Annali dell’ Islam, II, Tomo I (Milano : Ulrich Hoepli, 1907), pp. 464 – 476 (132- 138) and H. Lam­mens, Mahomet, fut-il sinc” Recherch­es de Sci­ence religieuse, II (1911), 25 – 53, 140 – 166. An impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to this dis­cus­sion in the fol­low­ing decade was Tor Andrae’s biog­ra­phy of the Prophet, first pub­lished in 1932 (Engl. trans­la­tion 1936); cf., his remark, Mohammed regard­ed his call with the utmost sin­cer­i­ty”; Mohammed, the Man and his Faith (New York : Harp­er and Broth­ers, 1960 and reprint), p. 178. Prob­a­bly the most sig­nif­i­cant more recent dis­cus­sion of The Man and His Great­ness” is found in W. Mont­gomery Watt, Muham­mad in Med­i­na (Oxford : The Claren­don Press, 1956), pp. 321 – 335 (on his sin­cer­i­ty esp., pp. 325 f.)[]
  7. In an address to the Har­vard Islam­ic Soci­ety on the occa­sion of Id al-Fitr.[]
  8. Anoth­er impor­tant illus­tra­tion is the occa­sion’ of S. 53:1 – 20 ; see, e.g., Guil­laume, Life, pp. 165 ff.[]
  9. Oth­er schol­ars joined them, e.g., A. Sprenger, The Life of Moham­mad, from Orig­i­nal Sources, (Alla­habad [India]: Pres­by­ter­ian Mis­sion Press, 1851), pp. 77 f., 105 – 114 ; Dun­can Black Mac­don­ald, The Reli­gious Atti­tude and Life in Islam (Chica­go : Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 1909 ; reprint, Bey­routh : Khay­ats, 1965), p. 33[]
  10. Heroes and Hero-Wor­ship, pp. 41 f. and else­where (“At all moments the Flame-image glares in upon him ; unde­ni­able, then, there!?I wish you to take this as my pri­ma­ry def­i­n­i­tion of a Great Man…” [on Muham­mad] “… an earnest con­fused voice from the unknown Deep.”)[]
  11. Cf., Wil­fred C. Smith, Ques­tions of Reli­gious Truth (New York : Charles Scrib­n­er’s Sons, 1967), pp. 37 – 62 : (“Is the Qur’an the Word of God?”). The author dis­cuss­es Crag­g’s posi­tion on p. 57, with a ref­er­ence to Crag­g’s most wide­ly known works.[]
  12. Cf., W. Mont­gomery Watt, Muham­mad at Med­i­na, p. 324. For this whole sub­ject of the West­ern images of Islam, see espe­cial­ly Nor­man Daniel’s Islam and the West : The Mak­ing of an Image (Edin­burgh : Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1958); and Islam, Europe and Empire (Edin­burgh : Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1966).[]
  13. A ref­er­ence to the pet nightin­gale sto­ry and a short dis­cus­sion of Muham­mad’s ten­der­ness towards and fond­ness of chil­dren can be found, e.g., in Wat­t’s Muham­mad at Med­i­na, pp. 322 f. An inter­est­ing and detailed com­par­i­son of var­i­ous tra­di­tions on the nightin­gale inci­dent is giv­en by R. Marston Speight in his unpub­lished Ph.D. dis­ser­ta­tion (The Hart­ford Sem­i­nary Foun­da­tion, 1970), The Mus­nad of al-Tay­al­isi”, pp. 107 – 110[]
  14. T. H. Weir stat­ed in his dis­cus­sion of Djahiliya” in The Ency­clopae­dia of Islam (1st ed. and Short­er Ency­clopae­dia) that the mean­ing of Jahiliyya is rude­ness, rough­ness, boor­ish­ness rather than igno­rance.’ The arti­cle Djahiliyya” in the new edi­tion of the Ency­clopae­dia (by the Edi­tors) points to the fact that the Qur’an­ic occur­rence of jahil (nine times) and jahiliyya (four times) scarce­ly per­mit of their sense being pre­cise­ly deter­mined.”[]
  15. This is not lit­er­al­ly true, for he left some milch camels, as well as cer­tain pos­ses­sions of land which — as stat­ed before — accrued from his share of the booty. The com­men­ta­tors explain this dis­crep­an­cy by say­ing that what is meant is that he pos­sessed no cap­i­tal which he uti­lized in trad­ing. So we may still agree that the gen­er­al pic­ture accord­ed with the fol­low­ing mnemon­ic verse, list­ing the pri­vate pos­ses­sions left by Muham­mad : The lega­cy of Taha (a pop­u­lar name giv­en to Muham­mad) was : two rosaries, a copy of the Qur’an, a kohl-pot, two pray­ing car­pets, a hand-mill and a walk­ing stick.”[]
  16. By Muham­mad Ahmad Jad al-Mawla, 5th print­ing, Cairo, 1961[]
  17. William Muir, The Life of Mahomet, iv (Lon­don : Smith, Elder and Co. 1861), 310 f.; William Muir, The Life of Moham­mad (new and revised edi­tion by T. H. Weir ; Edin­burgh : John Grant, 1912), p. 515.[]
  18. Muham­mad at Med­i­na, p. 330[]
  19. An address deliv­ered to the Har­vard Islam­ic Soci­ety on the occa­sion of Mawlid al-Nabi (Prophet’s birth­day) Rabi‘ al-Aww­al 12, 1388 (June 8, 1968).[]

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