Mohammed the prophet versus the prophets
By Dallas M. Roark, Ph.D.
Just a few years ago it was uncommon to know a Muslim in this country unless you were in an educational setting. Increasingly, Muslims have come to this country for education, business, and missionary purposes. As Islam has grown in this country there is the need of Christians and others to know something of the nature of Islam, the religion, and about Muslims, the followers or submitters to Islam. There is no better place than to turn to the founder of the religion, Mohammed, a man who was born about 570 A.D. in what we know today as Saudi Arabia. Mohammed claimed that Gabriel confronted him and forced him to speak and in the process called him to be a prophet of Allah, the God.
One of the first issues we must deal with is Mohammed himself. Mohammed claimed to be a prophet, a warner of the idol worshipers in his time. At the same time he claimed that he was the last of the prophets which included Moses, Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, David, and Jesus. If Mohammed claimed only to be a prophet without regard to those before him, there would be less of a problem in evaluating him. But as long as he claimed to be in this particular prophetic tradition, we must look at some of the problems with this claim.
First, prophets in the Old Testament always called the Israelite people back to the Law and the Covenant. This was the major theme and calling of the prophets. Read any prophetic book of the Old Testament and one will find this theme, calling a rebellious people back to the worship of Yahweh, the Creator and Redeemer. Mohammed does not fit the mold. He does not call people back to the law and covenant that God had established, but he has a message that in effect replaces the old revelation with his own. The earlier revelation is seen as important only as far as it can serve to support or authenticate his own by the claim that it is in agreement with what came before.
Second, the prophets themselves did not take vengeance on the people. When one reads Jeremiah, Isaiah, or Amos, there is the prophetic word that Yahweh will bring judgment on the disbelieving people. Jeremiah proclaimed that Babylon was the instrument of God to chastise the Israelites. Jeremiah did not recruit a private army to bring his own judgment. However, Mohammed did. In contrast to him, there is in the message of the Biblical prophets no jihad against unbelieving people in general. Nothing is said about a jihad against the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, or anyone else.
Third, the prophets of the Old Testament lived with rejection, slander, persecution, and even death. No prophet attempted to defend himself. In contrast, Mohammed could not tolerate rejection. He did not permit adversaries. This was true in regard to individual people as well as large groups. An example of the individual rejection concerns a Jew by the name of Ka’b Ibn Al-Ashraf who wrote sarcastic poems about Mohammed. Mohammed one day asked, "Who will deliver me from Ka’b?" Five men, including Mohammed Ibn Maslama, laid a trap for Ka’b. They coaxed him out of his house, cut off his head, and brought it to Mohammed with the worshipful cry, "Allah is great!" and Mohammed agreed with them.1
But more serious is the case of the Jews in Medina and other surrounding towns. In the year 7 of Mohammed’s regime, a campaign was carried on against the Jews in Khaibar. In Medina Mohammed dealt most severely with the Jews who opposed him. The Jews ridiculed his understanding of the Old Testament and to them it was obvious that he knew little of it, although he has a passage in the Qur’an that the Old Testament was to be read and honored.2 The first episode was against a Jewish tribe by the name of Banu Kainuka. A Jew played a prank on a married Arab woman by fastening the skirt of her dress to her shoulder. The Jew was killed by a Muslim, and the murdering Muslim was then killed by the Jews. After that the Jews were locked in their quarters by Mohammed. They were forced to surrender all their possessions to him, and then were allowed to move to Syria.
The men of the tribe, Banu Karaiza, were not as fortunate. They had not supported Mohammed during the Meccan siege of Medina. The judgment against this tribe was that all the men of the tribe were to be put to death, and all the women and children were to be sold into slavery. There were over 600 men massacred in this vengeance. Andrae says about this slaying and its commentary on Mohammed’s personality, "One must see Mohammed’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."3
Mohammed was criticized by the Jews and the Meccans for not producing miracles as it was acknowledged that many prophets had. He claimed that the Qur’an was his miracle. Since the Qur’an commands that people look to the existing Scriptures in that time, the Old and New Testaments, we have some rather startling contrasts to make between Mohammed being a prophet and what we find in the Old Testament about the legitimacy of a prophet. Consider a passage often quoted by Muslims in support of Mohammed as a prophet. Deuteronomy 18:15 declares that God would raise up a prophet like Moses "from among you, from your brethren." This prophecy is restricted to the Jews in the first place, but the passage continues with the comment of Moses, "and if you say in your heart, ‘how may we know the word which the Lord has spoken?’ When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word which the Lord has not spoken, the prophet has spoken it presumptuously, you need not be afraid of him."
One may look at the prophets of the Old Testament and they declared events both near and far that would come to pass. For example, Ezekiel declared that Jerusalem would fall while he was a captive in Babylon, and Jeremiah declared it while he was in Jerusalem long before it came to pass, but in near enough time so that people would know that God had spoken and it came to pass. Amos predicted an earthquake that came two years later. (Amos 1:1)
The claim is made by Muslim scholars that Sura 44:9-16 prophesies the defeat of the Meccans. But an honest reading of the text indicates that it refers to the final judgment. "Nay, but they are in doubt, playing. So be on the watch for a day when heaven shall bring a manifest smoke covering the people, this is a painful chastisement. ‘O our Lord, remove Thou from us the chastisement, we are believers.’ How should they have a Reminder, seeing a clear Messenger already came to them, then they turned away from him and said, ‘A man tutored, possessed!’ ‘Behold, We are removing the chastisement a little, behold, you revert!’ Upon the day when We shall assault most mightily, then We shall take Our vengeance."
Other prophecies claimed by Muslim scholars are so general as to be of no value in comparing the idea of prophecy in the Old Testament models. Suras 13:8, 14:24, and 8:36 are supposed to announce the triumph of Islam, the permanence of its doctrine and the growth of the empire of young Islam. In reading these passages one is impressed with the reference to final judgment of hell and its suffering or in the last passage a commentary on the battle of Badr after the fact. There is a contradictory attitude between the Qur’an and the Muslim scholars. The Qur’an states that Mohammed is only a warner, but the scholars are pressed hard to affirm some kind of miracle of prophecy because the Meccans demanded it.
Fourth, there is a serious problem for non-Muslims in evaluating Mohammed as a prophet. The issue relates to credibility and truthfulness. It is axiomatic that Muslims accept the Qur’an as true and Mohammed as a truthful person. Prophets are supposed to speak the truth. Not only are the words of the Old Testament prophets about the future true, but their words about the past are true also. When the past is rehearsed in statements in the Old Testament they are correct and reflect true reality and history. There are issues in the Qur’an that are pawned off as true but which are wrong. Only Mohammed and Muslims regards these fictions as true. Why would one believe Mohammed when the record of history is against him on certain issues?
Take for example the words in the Qur’an, "When God said, Jesus Son of Mary, remember My blessing upon thee and upon thy mother, when I confirmed thee with the Holy Spirit, to speak to men in the cradle, and of age; and when I taught thee the Book, the Wisdom, the Torah, the Gospel; and when thou createst out of clay, by My leave, as the likeness of a bird, and thou breathest into it, and it is a bird, by My leave, and thou healest the blind and the leper by My leave, and thou bringest the dead forth by My leave, and when restrained from thee the Children of Israel when thou camest unto them with the clear signs, and the unbelievers among them said, ‘This is nothing but sorcery manifest.’" 5:110
We have here a mixture of fact and fiction. No Christian accepts the apocryphal Gospel story about Jesus making a clay bird, giving it life, and letting it fly off. The apocryphal Gospels appeared over a hundred years after the time of Jesus. They are universally regarded as fictions to fill in the gaps of information that curious people had about the years of Jesus life not mentioned in the real Gospels. The Gospel of John declared that the first miracle that Jesus did was at Cana at a wedding in which he turned water into wine. Jesus turning water into wine may seem shocking to the Muslim mindset, but wine was a fact of life in Israel.
Another example is that of the crucifixion of Jesus. Sura 4:157 says, "and for their saying, ‘We slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, the Messenger of God’—yet they did not slay him, neither crucified him, only a likeness of that was shown to them. Those who are at variance concerning him surely are in doubt regard him, they have no knowledge of him, except the following of surmise, and they slew him not of a certainly—no indeed."
There may be some interesting suggestions as to how Mohammed came to this statement, but the record of history goes against him. The record of the Gospels, as well as pagan and Jewish writers affirm that he was crucified. The preaching of the early church as well as the entire Christian tradition affirms that Jesus was crucified and rose from the grave. Mohammed was not in the mainstream of culture. There may be modern people who reject the resurrection of Jesus because of their naturalistic philosophy, but they certainly do not reject the crucifixion of Jesus.
Another example of his misunderstanding, or lack of knowledge relates to the nature of God. The Qur’an says, "People of the Book, go not beyond the bounds in your religion, and say not as to God but the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only the Messenger of God, and His Word that He committed to Mary, and a Spirit from Him. So believe in God and His Messengers, and say not, ‘Three.’ Refrain, better is it for you. God is only One God. Glory be to Him—That He should have a son! To Him belongs all that is in the heavens and in the earth; God suffices for a guardian." (4:171)
The rejection of Jesus as the divine Son of God reflects Mohammed’s misunderstanding of the nature of God. If God is love, who was there to love before the creation of the world? The nature of love is to be directed toward another. The monotheistic idea of the Trinity reflects the oneness of the nature of God in which God as Father from eternity, loves his eternal Son, and the eternal Holy Spirit. One cannot read the New Testament and avoid the conclusion that Jesus is the eternal Son of God incarnate, embodied, joined to humanity’s flesh as the only redeemer of mankind.
We come to a conclusion at this point about Mohammed and his claim to be a prophet of Allah. We can conclude that Mohammed was right and the rest of the world wrong which cannot be substantiated by the facts. We can conclude that Mohammed’s revelations came from Allah, but not Yahweh. We could conclude he got false information and used it not knowing the difference. But if his revelation is supposed to have come from Yahweh, then Yahweh did not have a good memory of what He gave before. Christians have believed that Yahweh is all-knowing and consistent. He would not have delivered fictions as fact.
The nature of prophecy in the Old Testament is to establish the supremacy of Yahweh alone. There was no need for a man like Isaiah to say, "There is no God but Yahweh, and Isaiah is his prophet." No one doubted that Isaiah, or Amos, or Elijah, or Ezekiel were prophets. People may have rejected them in rebellion, but when the chips were down, they were proven to be Yahweh’s spokemen. None of them needed people to confess that they were prophets in connection with the name of Yahweh.
Now, all of this sounds reasonable to the non-Muslim, but the Muslim reply is that the Scriptures have been corrupted by both Jews and Christians. This is a baseless claim for which no evidence is offered. There is no evidence that a great conspiracy has been carried out by the Jews and Christians against Mohammed. We will return to this.
Fifth, the Muslims have also propounded the idea that Mohammed was sinless. Fazlur Rahman wrote concerning the idea of a prophet: "Now a Prophet is a person whose average, overall character, the sum total of his actual conduct, is far superior to those of humanity in general. He is a man who is ab inito impatient with men and even with most of their ideals, and wishes to recreate history. Muslim orthodoxy, therefore, drew the logically correct conclusion that Prophets must be regarded as immune from serious errors (the doctrine of isma). Mohammed was such a person, in fact the only person really known to history."4
Rahman admits that the doctrine of the sinlessness of the Prophet was formulated considerably later than Mohammed. After Mohammed’s death additional guidance was needed that was not found in the Qur’an and it became necessary to canonize Mohammed’s behavior. That is to say, whatever decisions Mohammed made in his lifetime that were not revelations in the Qur’an, these decisions now become infallible. Rahman declares that "a reception of divine revelation cannot be expected to err grossly, especially in moral matters. The theological doctrine, therefore, covers only bigger and serious errors and not small slips of judgment as does the specifically legal theory."5
Andrae describes Islamic dogma depicting Mohammed as sinless. According to this dogma, "he never commited a deliberate sin, and at the most he may have been guilty only of some involuntary unintentional act which might be reckoned among the lighter sins."6
The claim of Islamic dogma raises questions concerning several issues. First, the Qur’an describes a revelation in which Allah forgives Mohammed. (Sura 48:1) "Surely We have given thee a manifest victory, that God may forgive thee thy former and thy latter sins, and complete His blessing upon thee, and guide thee on a straight path, and that God may help thee with mighty help." Andrae quotes Mohammed as praying with the prophets of the past, "O our Lord! Forgive us our sins and our mistakes in this our work; and set our feet firm; and help us against the unbelieving people." (3:147)7
If we are to make sense out of the word "forgiveness" we cannot avoid the notion that Mohammed sinned.
Second, the contrast between serious and lighter sins is obvious in some cases. There is a difference between lying and stealing in terms of consequences. But these are both grave in their nature. What are we to make out of Mohammed’s life as a prophet? Can we exonerate him from banditry? Can we say this his treatment of the Jews was a light sin? Can we regard the massacre of 600 Jewish men as light? Can we say that his justification of polygamy is a light sin? Can one dismiss these serious events with a rationalization that this is the way life was lived in the desert? If we are to talk about a just God and a sinless prophet can we put these two concepts together in Mohammed? These are serious issues to be raised from the standpoint of what a prophet is.
The prophets of the Old Testament were related to serious ethical issues. Stealing, treachery, divorce, adultery, as well as the evil of idolatry were denounced by the prophets. When one looks at Jesus there is a world of contrast between the moral character of Jesus and Mohammed. To claim that all prophets are sinless, including Mohammed, as Rahman did in keeping with Muslim dogma, is to twist the whole idea of sinlessness. Many prophets of the Old Testament confessed their sins to Yahweh, and they were forgiven. Isaiah (6:1-7) and David are good examples. In the case of Mohammed there seems to be some reasoning that whatever Mohammed did is right and good, and nothing he did can be described as immoral or sin.
Sixth, there is yet another dimension of this we must examine. Mohammed was fond of referring to the Scripture and recommended to both Jews and Christians that they consult and obey their own Scriptures. Up to this point we noted that the Jews ridiculed Mohammed’s understanding of the Old Testament. Little is said about the New Testament. There are some comments made in the New Testament that apply very well to Mohammed. The first letter of John states, "you have heard that the antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come…" (2:18) "Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. He who confesses the Son has the Father also." (2:22-23) In the fourth chapter false prophets are noted, and one of the characteristics of a false prophet is to deny that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. In a positive way, "Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him and he in God." (4:15) John continues to warn: "He who believes in the Son has the testimony in himself. He who does not believe God, has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne to his Son. And this is the testimony that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life, he who has not the Son has not life." (5:10-12)
The judgment of the New Testament, which Mohammed did not understand, is that his theology is that of a false prophet. This is not a popular conclusion in this pluralistic age. We live in a time when all religious are regarded as equal revelations of God, and all bring salvation. Certainly this attitude is contrary to the whole tone of Islam and Muslim orthodoxy could not accept such a relativistic view. But neither can orthodox Christians. Ravi Zacharias has commented that it is more correct to say that all religions are false than that all religions are true. All religions cannot be true by virtue of the contradictory ideas.
Muslims claim the Qur’an to be the revelation of God. But its limitation is seen in the addition of other claims to revelation. For example, the traditions about Mohammed incorporate all that he was supposed to have said, done, and approved. A man asked Mohammed concerning doing a pilgrimage on behalf of his mother who recently died. Mohammed is supposed to have approved his action on the basis of the son paying a debt that the mother owed. These and similar stories are in the Sunnah, or the Traditions concerning Mohammed’s activities.
There are some real problems with the Sunnah. Since the stories were not compiled until a century and a half after Mohammed, there are all kinds of questions about which are authentic. Out of the 600,000 traditions, Bukhari concluded that only about 2600 are authentic "after duplicates as well as doubtful reports were taken into account."8
Muhammad Isma’il al-Bukhari (d. 870) and Muslim Ibn al-Hajjaj collected two of the so-called Six Sound Books of tradition. There are four other collections that are held in high esteem by Muslims. Moreover, Shia Muslims also have a number of collections of hadiths. Non-Muslim scholars have noted that the Six Sound Books contain traditions that are "contradictory, tendentious, and anachronistic" and "look upon even these authoritative collections as being composed largely of fabricated materials."9
The hadiths or traditions fill in where there is no guidance in the Qur’an. Sura 33:21 is quoted to support this practice. It reads, "You have a good example in God’s Messenger for whosoever hopes for God and the Last Day, and remembers God oft." There is little in this passage to suggest that Mohammed’s practice of eating, washing, bathing or sitting, or whatever has the authority of revelation.
There is yet another source of guidance additional to the revelation claimed in the Qur’an. A real source of guidance is the ijma, or the consensus of the community. This consensus must not go against the Sunnah, or the Qur’an but it is a source of direction. It is the community of the past, not the present, preferably the first generation of Muslims. This points out the powerful influence that custom has in Islam.
We need now to ask the question concerning what is really new in Islam. As one reads the Qur’an there is really nothing new except for the claim that Mohammed is a prophet of Allah. There are some negative implications in that the Qur’an displays a lot of confusion about the past. The Qur’an understands the Trinity to include Mary, and there is confusion about who Mary is. It is claimed by some Muslim scholars that "the Qur’an was always in perfect accord with the essentials of the Bible, even those hidden from Mohammed by scholars."10 Such a statement depends upon the late Muslim theory that the Jews and Christians corrupted the Scriptures.
If the Scriptures were corrupted, it would have to be after Mohammed lived and died. Otherwise, one must postulate a miracle of conspiracy to change all the Scriptural texts before Mohammed lived. Now, as a matter of reality, there are many manuscripts long centuries before Mohammed. One of the oldest is the Chester Beatty papyri of the Gospels, Acts, and epistles of Paul that date about 250 A.D. While there are many old manuscripts pre-dating Mohammed, we must also remember that many manuscripts were lost when Christians were persecuted and pagans forced them to destroy their manuscripts. At the same time Muslims must keep in mind that there were once at least four different collections of the Qur’an. "These four unofficial collections belonged to Abd Allah b. Masud, Abu Musa, Abd Allah al Ashari and Mikdad b. Amr.11 It was during the rule of Caliph Uthman that the present collection became the official version of the Qur’an. The other collections were destroyed. One might well ask the question whether the correct one was saved.
The most extensive Christian manuscripts are the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus which contained the complete New Testament and were copied in the 4th century. These may have been among the copies that were circulated among the churches for public reading, from the time of Constantine. These are many other old manuscripts, the codex Washington, Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Bezae, Codex Claromontanus, Codex Petropolitanus, Codex Rossanesis, Codex Beratinus, Codex Ephraemi. All of these date before the time of Mohammed.
In addition to Greek manuscripts there are translations that existed before the rise of Islam. The Syriac version, known as the Diatessaron, was translated by Tatian around 170 A.D. The Old Syriac version, distinguished from the Diatessaron, is represented by the Curetonian Syriac and the Sinaitic Syriac, both dating from the 5th century. The Latin translations were many, but the best known is the Vulgate translated by Jerome, begun in 384 A.D.
This relates only to the New Testament. One can also look at the Old Testament manuscripts and translations. We now have a number of older manuscripts from the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as the Septuagint version of the Old Testament in the Greek language. The evidence of the manuscript history is that no conspiracy took place to erase references to Mohammed in terms of prophecy. The Jews and the Christians have not changed all the copies and manuscripts all over the world and in many languages. Since the Qur’an bears testimony to the authenticity of the Old and New Testaments in Mohammed’s day these are the same Scriptures that go back before the time of Mohammed.
Seventh, there is one other contrast we will consider between the prophets of the Old Testament and Mohammed as a prophet. Some of Mohammed’s prophecies are self-serving. The prophets of the Old Testament were not self-serving. They did not exploit people for their own gain, unless they were false prophets, of which there were many in Israel. They told the king what the king wanted to hear and they were supported by the king. The real prophets told the kings things they did not want to hear, and frequently were jailed for telling God’s word to the king. They were held to a high standard in their conduct and activities. One telling example is that of Moses who at one point did not honor God and was therefore denied the privilege of entering into the promised land. The model of marriage in the Old Testament was monogamy as illustrated by the creation account. There is no commandment justifying polygamy; see this email correspondence.
In contrast, Mohammed claims special privileges especially in the area of marriage and sexuality. I have never read a Muslim writer who is critical of Mohammed in the area of sex and marriage. Mohammed could do no wrong in their eyes. The fact that he married Ayesha when she was a mere 9 years old and he was 45 years older than her does not bother Muslims.12 For his followers, they were limited to four wives at the most along with slaves they might use for sexual purposes. Sura 4:3 says in support of this limitation, "If you fear that you will not act justly towards the orphans, marry such women as seem good to you, two, three, four, but if you fear you will not be equitable, then only one, or what your right hands own, so it is likelier you will not be partial."
On the other hand, Mohammed had nine wives and could marry anyone he wanted since it was an honor for a woman to be his wife. One of the most unusual situations occurred when Mohammed went to see Zeid and he was not home. However, his wife was there and appeared at the door in a light garment Arab women wore in the house. Mohammed was overwhelmed by her beauty and exclaimed, "Praise be Allah who changeth the hearts of men!" Zainab heard these words, told her husband who came to divorce her so that Mohammed could marry her. The possibility of scandal arose in the situation but Mohammed had a revelation from Allah affirming his action. Sura 33:37 declares, "When thou saidst to him whom God had blessed and thou hadst favoured, ‘Keep thy wife to thyself, and fear God’ and thou wast concealing within thyself what God should reveal, fearing other men; and God has better right for thee to fear Him. So when Zaid had accomplished what he would of her, then We gave her in marriage to thee, so that there should not be any fault in the believers, touching the wives of their adopted sons, when they have accomplished what they would of them, and God’s commandment must be performed." The response of Ayesha was "Truly thy Lord makes haste to do thy pleasure."13
The prophets of the Old Testament did not make new laws. They called people to observe and obey the laws given to Moses. It is strange for a prophet to claim special privileges in contrast to pious believers and followers. No prophet in the Old Testament started a new religion, and even Jesus came to fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament. The fact that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah concerning the New Covenant brought about a departure from Judaism because the Jews rejected this fulfillment in the person of Jesus. The story of the Bible is about Yahweh’s revealing Himself beginning with Adam, Noah, Abraham, the Patriarchs, and the prophets, being fulfilled in his self-revelation in Jesus, the Christ, the eternal Son of God. When God has come in human form, anything else is a regression, and anticlimactic.