Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

A Muslim Scholar’s Incriminating Statements on Islam Pt. 2

“The Satanic Verses”

Sam Shamoun

We come to the second part of our analysis of Brown's booklet.

In this part we are going to cite what Brown has to say concerning the so-called “Satanic Verses,” an episode which reflects rather poorly on Muhammad’s prophetic claims and commitment to monotheism.

Yet before citing Brown it is important that we quote the episode as it is recorded in the oldest extant biography on Muhammad’s life:

Now the apostle was anxious for the welfare of his people, wishing to attract them as far as he could. It has been mentioned that he longed for a way to attract them, and the method he adopted is what Ibn Hamid told me that Salama said M. b. Ishaq told him from Yazid b. Ziyad of Medina from M. b. Ka`b al-Qurazi: When the apostle saw that his people turned their backs on him and he was pained by their estrangement from what he brought them from God he longed that there should come to him from God a message that would reconcile his people to him. Because of his love for his people and his anxiety over them it would delight him if the obstacle that made his task so difficult could be removed; so that he meditated on the project and longed for it and it was dear to him. Then God sent down "By the star when it sets your comrade errs not and is not deceived, he speaks not from his own desire," and when he reached His words "Have you thought of al-Lat and al-`Uzza and Manat the third, the others", Satan, when he was meditating upon it, and desiring to bring it (sc. reconciliation) to his people, put upon his tongue "these are the exalted Gharaniq whose intercession is approved". When the Quraysh heard that, they were delighted and greatly pleased at the way in which he spoke of their gods and they listened to him; while the believers were holding that what their prophet brought from their Lord was true, not suspecting a mistake or a vain desire or slip, and when he reached the prostration and the end of the Sura in which he prostrated himself the Muslims prostrated themselves when their prophet prostrated confirming what he brought and obeying his command, and the polytheists of Quraysh and others who were in the mosque prostrated when they heard the mention of their gods, so that everyone in the mosque believer and unbeliever prostrated, except al-Walid b. al-Mughira who was an old man who could not do so, so he took a handful of dirt from the valley and bent over it. Then the people dispersed and the Quraysh went out, delighted at what had been said about their gods, saying, "Muhammad has spoken of our gods in splendid fashion. He alleged in what he read that they are the exalted Gharaniq whose intercession is approved".

The news reached the prophet's companions who were in Abyssinia, it being reported that Quraysh had accepted Islam, so some men started to return while others remained behind. Then Gabriel came to the apostle and said, "What have you done, Muhammad? You have read to these people something I did not bring you from God and you have said what He did not say to you." The apostle was bitterly grieved and was greatly in fear of God. So God sent down (a revelation), for he was merciful to him comforting him and making light of the affair and telling him that every prophet and apostle before him desired as he desired and wanted what he wanted and Satan interjected something into his desires as he had on his tongue. So God annulled what Satan had suggested and God established His verses i.e. you are just like the prophets and apostles. Then God sent down: "We have not sent a prophet or apostle before you but when he longed Satan cast suggestions into his longing. But God will annul what Satan has suggested. Then God will establish his verses, God being knowing and wise". Thus God relieved his prophet's grief, and made him feel safe from his fears and annulled what Satan had suggested in the words used above about their gods by his revelation "Are yours the males and His the females? That were indeed an unfair division" (i.e. most unjust); "they are nothing by names which your fathers gave them" as far as the words "to whom he pleases and accepts", i.e. how can the intercession of their gods avail with Him?

When the annulment of what Satan had put upon the prophet's tongue came from God, Quraysh said: "Muhammad has repented of what he said about the position of your gods with Allah, altered it and brought something else." (The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, with introduction and notes by Alfred Guillaume [Oxford University Press, Karachi, Tenth impression 1995], pp. 165-167; bold emphasis ours)

With the foregoing in perspective, we can now turn to see what Brown has to say regarding this event:

According to this story, soon afterwards Gabriel informed Muhammad that the last verse had not been revealed by God. Rather, Satan had FOOLED the Prophet into thinking it was divine revelation. The verse was removed from the Quran and replaced by the verse that follows verse 53:20 in the Quran we know today: ‘These [supposed goddesses] are nothing but empty names you have invented, you and your forefathers, for which God has bestowed no warrant from on high’ (53:21-3). God then comforted Muhammad by revealing that ‘We never sent a messenger or prophet before you without Satan intervening in his desires. But God abrogates what Satan interposes’ (Quran 22:52).

The story of the Satanic Verses appears in the Sira of Ibn Ishaq as well as most early works of Quranic commentary (tafsir). Western historians have accepted it as true based on the HCM principle that reports that seem to contradict orthodoxy must be true (who would make them up?). As Watt notes, the Satanic Verses story is ‘so strange that it must be true in its essentials’.

Indeed, the story seems to undermine the central pillars of Muhammad’s claim to prophecy: his status as an infallible channel of revelation and the complete reliability of the Quran. From a Muslim point of view, if Satan could interfere in the revelation of the holy book, how do we know that other verses were not also tampered with?? From the point of view of a non-Muslim evaluating Muhammad’s claims to prophethood, his ‘error’ in the revelation makes him seem like a mere mortal who first politicked to earn Meccan support and then tried to cover up a mistake. 

We must be careful, however, in relying too heavily on the principles of the Historical Critical Method. Just because we think that a story makes an orthodox tradition look bad does not mean that the participants in that tradition viewed it in the same way. The great historian of the Prophet’s campaigns, al-Waqidi (d. 822), reports that when Muhammad sent Khalid bin al-Walid to destroy the idol of ‘Uzza, it came alive in the form of a naked black woman with long, wild hair. This also seems to contradict the orthodox vision of Islam. The Quran repeatedly states that idols cannot speak or defend themselves (see, for example, Quran 21:58-67).   

We must consider the possibility that early Muslims saw the story of the Satanic Verses, as well as those of live idols, as totally consistent with their religion. Certainly, most Muslim scholars later rejected the story of the Satanic Verses as heresy. The Spanish Muslim scholar Qadi Iyad (d. 1149) argued that the story could not have been true because none of the critics of Muhammad from the Quraysh ever took advantage of the episode to undermine his claims of prophecy. But other Muslim scholars accepted the Satanic Verses as fact. Some, like Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), explained them by saying that the Prophet was still entirely trustworthy as a medium of revelation because God would have corrected him whenever the Devil confused him. In the late antique world in which God constantly intervened in the lives of His prophets, the Satanic Verses would not seem out of place. (Brown, pp. 97-99)    

Suffice it to say, this story raises serious problems for Muslims, some of which Brown himself already mentioned.

In the first place, Muhammad’s inability to distinguish the voice or words of Satan from his deity calls the entire Quran into question since, as Brown realizes, a Muslim has no way of knowing for certain that the other verses were not inspired by Satan as well. In fact, can a Muslim disprove that it wasn’t Satan who first appeared to Muhammad as Gabriel who then caused him to recite the “Satanic Verses,” only to appear as Gabriel again in order to keep him believing that he was truly God’s messenger? After all, this would have been such a great way of convincing Muhammad that he wasn’t a false prophet since “Gabriel” seemed to always appear at the right time in order to “save” him from the schemes of the evil one.  

Secondly, the Holy Bible teaches that God didn’t permit a false prophet to curse the nation of Israel, but actually forced him to bless his people:

“Now God met Balaam, and he said to Him, ‘I have set up the seven altars, and I have offered up a bull and a ram on each altar.’ Then the Lord put a word in Balaam’s mouth and said, ‘Return to Balak, and you shall speak thus.’ So he returned to him, and behold, he was standing beside his burnt offering, he and all the leaders of Moab. He took up his discourse and said, ‘From Aram Balak has brought me, Moab’s king from the mountains of the East, “Come curse Jacob for me, And come, denounce Israel!” How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? And how can I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced? As I see him from the top of the rocks, And I look at him from the hills; Behold, a people who dwells apart, And will not be reckoned among the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob, Or number the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the upright, And let my end be like his!’ Then Balak said to Balaam, ‘What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, but behold, you have actually blessed them!’ He replied, ‘Must I not be careful to speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?’” Numbers 23:4-12

“Then he took up his discourse and said, ‘Arise, O Balak, and hear; Give ear to me, O son of Zippor! God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? Behold, I have received a command to bless; When He has blessed, then I cannot revoke it. He has not observed misfortune in Jacob; Nor has He seen trouble in Israel; The Lord his God is with him, And the shout of a king is among them. God brings them out of Egypt, He is for them like the horns of the wild ox. For there is no omen against Jacob, Nor is there any divination against Israel; At the proper time it shall be said to Jacob.’” Numbers 23:18-23

Now do the readers really think that God would actually permit Satan to inspire his true prophets and apostles to speak words, which they were deceived into thinking came from the Almighty, when the Lord wouldn’t even allow a false prophet to curse his covenant people? The answer is pretty obviously, especially when we keep in mind the following promise from the Lord Jesus:

“The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.’ And He said to them, ‘I was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will injure you. Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven.’” Luke 10:17-20

This proves that Muhammad cannot be a true prophet since, if he were, then the true God would have never allowed him to be fooled or deceived by Satan into reciting verses which glorified the false goddesses of the pagans.

This brings me to the third problem that Muslims face. Muhammad’s praise of these false gods meant that he knowingly committed the unforgiveable sin of shirk, or the transgression of setting up other deities with Allah,

Verily, Allah forgives not that partners should be set up with him in worship, but He forgives except that (anything else) to whom He pleases, and whoever sets up partners with Allah in worship, he has indeed invented a tremendous sin. S. 4:48 Hilali-Khan – cf. v. 116

Who has made the earth a bed for you and the sky a dome, and has sent down water from the sky to bring forth fruits for your sustenance. Do not knowingly set up other gods beside God. S. 2:22 N. J. Dawood

Even though he was expressly warned never to do so, since this act would render all of his efforts null and void and basically condemn him to hell:

But it has already been revealed to thee, - as it was to those before thee, – "If thou wert to join (gods with God), truly fruitless will be thy work (in life), and thou wilt surely be in the ranks of those who lose (all spiritual good)".  S. 39:65 Y. Ali

He was further told that God would have even condemned the prophets which came before him, had they made the mistake of joining other gods with Allah:

That was the reasoning about Us, which We gave to Abraham (to use) against his people: We raise whom We will, degree after degree: for thy Lord is full of wisdom and knowledge. We gave him Isaac and Jacob: all (three) 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 Isma'il and Elisha, and Jonas, and Lot: and to all We gave favour above the nations: (To them) and to their fathers, and progeny and brethren: We chose them, and we guided them to a straight way. This is the guidance of God: He giveth that guidance to whom He pleaseth, of His worshippers. If they were to join other gods with Him, all that they did would be vain for them. S. 6:83-88 Y. Ali

In light of the foregoing, Muslims have to acknowledge that their prophet sinned against Allah by joining other gods with the Islamic deity, even though he knew that such a sin would never be forgiven. As such, they have no choice but to accept the fact that Muhammad is being tormented in his grave right now, and will eventually be condemned to hell so as to experience pain and humiliation forever.

On a related issue, Brown further acknowledges that the early traditions attest that Muhammad slaughtered food to the idols, an admission which greatly troubled the later scholars who had concocted the notion of Muhammad being protected from committing major sins even before he became a so-called prophet, in order to make him more comparable to the Lord Jesus Christ:

“One of the greatest challenges that Muslims encountered in their confrontation with Christians was the question of Muhammad’s sinlessness. If Muhammad was truly God’s last prophet whose religion had come to abrogate Christianity, should he not be the equal of Jesus and his mother Mary, in other words, sinless? Here the story of the washing of Muhammad’s heart is most pertinent. The angels removing the black spot from his heart and resealing his chest represents the removal of sin, leaving Muhammad as pure as the immaculately conceived Mary and Jesus.

“A closely related issue was whether Muhammad had ever participated in the polytheist religion of his people before his prophethood. If Muhammad was as pure s Jesus was in the eyes of Christians, his infallibility and innocence could not have begun at age forty when he was blessed with prophecy. They had to be part of his very constitution. By the 9th century, it had thus become part of Islamic orthodox that the Prophet had never engaged in the rituals of pre-Islamic paganism. Even a senior Sunni scholar of Baghdad, Ibn Abi Shayba (d. 853), almost lost his credibility for suggesting that Muhammad even watched pagan celebrations. The report in the Sira about Muhammad miraculously falling asleep instead of attending a rowdy wedding celebration seems designed to protect him from accusations of any pre-prophetic free-living.

“Similarly, later Muslim scholars would insist that Muhammad had never eaten any meat sacrificed before an idol. Ibn Ishaq’s Sira, however, included a report that as a youth Muhammad had once offered the meat of an animal slaughtered at a pagan altar to a hanif in Mecca. The hanif piously counseled Muhammad that eating meat sacrificed to idols is sacrilegious, and the young Muhammad decided never to do so again. Not surprisingly, Ibn Hisham removed this story from his edition of the Sira. Later Muslims, such as the great scholar of Damascus al-Dhahabi (d. 1348), would insist that the Prophet had never eaten meat slaughtered in a pagan manner. Any report recorded by earlier Muslims had simply been misunderstood. Muhammad may have slaughtered an animal in the proximity of an idol, but never to an idol.” (Ibid., pp. 92-93; bold emphasis ours)

Brown isn’t the only Muslim writer that acknowledges this story as having an historical basis:

There exists a little-known tradition recounting an astonishing meeting between Zayd, the Hanif, and a teen-aged Muhammad. The story seems to have been originally reported by Yunus ibn Bukayr on the authority of Muhammad’s first biographer, Ibn Ishaq. And while it appears to have been expunged from Ibn Hisham’s retelling Muhammad’s life, M. J. Kister has catalogued no fewer than ELEVEN OTHER TRADITIONS that recount nearly identical versions of the story.

It was, the chroniclers say, “one of the hot days of Mecca” when Muhammad and his childhood friend Ibn Haritha were returning home from Ta’if, where they had slaughtered and roasted a ewe in sacrifice to one of the idols (most likely Allat). As the two boys made their way through the upper part of the Meccan Valley, they suddenly came upon Zayd, who was either living as a recluse on the high ground above Mecca or was in the midst of a lengthy spiritual retreat. Recognizing him at once, Muhammad and Ibn Haritha greeted the Hanif with “the greeting of the Jahiliyyah” (in’am sabahan) and sat down to rest next to him.

Muhammad asked, “Why do I see you, O son of Amr, hated by your people?”

“I found them associating divinities with God and I was reluctant to do the same,” Zayd replied. “I wanted the religion of Abraham.”

Muhammad accepted this explanation without comment and opened his bag of sacrificed meat. “Eat some of this food, O my uncle,” he said.

But Zayd reacted with disgust. “Nephew, that is a part of those sacrifices of yours which you offer to your idols, is it not?” Muhammad answered that it was. Zayd became indignant. “I never eat of these sacrifices and I want nothing to do with them,” he cried. “I am not one to eat anything slaughtered for a divinity other than God.”

So struck was Muhammad by Zayd’s rebuke that many years later, when recounting the story, he claimed never again to have “stroked an idol of theirs nor … sacrifice[d] to them until God honored me with his Apostleship.”

The notion that a young pagan Muhammad could have been scolded for his idolatry by a Hanif flies in the face of traditional Muslim views regarding the Prophet’s perpetual monotheistic integrity. It is a common belief in Islam that even before his calling by God, Muhammad never took part in the pagan rituals of his community. In his history of the Prophet, al-Tabari states that God kept Muhammad from ever participating in any pagan rituals, lest he be defiled by them. But this view, which is reminiscent of the Catholic belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity, HAS LITTLE BASIS IN EITHER HISTORY OR SCRIPTURE. Not only does the Quran admit that God found Muhammad “erring” and gave him guidance (93:7), but the ancient traditions clearly show Muhammad deeply involved in the religious customs of Mecca: circumambulating the Ka‘ba, making sacrifices, and going on pagan devotional retreats called tahannuth. Indeed, when the pagan sanctuary was torn down and rebuilt (it was enlarged and finally roofed), Muhammad took an active part in its reconstruction.

All the same, the doctrine of Muhammad’s monotheistic integrity is an important facet of Muslim faith because it appears to support the belief that the Revelation he received came from a divine source. Admitting that Muhammad might have been influenced by someone like Zayd is, for some Muslims, tantamount to denying the heavenly inspiration of Muhammad’s message. But such beliefs are based on the common yet erroneous assumption that religions are born in some sort of cultural vacuum; they most certainly are not. (Reza Aslan, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam [Random House Trade Paperback Edition, January 2006], 1. The Sanctuary in the Desert: Pre-Islamic Arabia, pp. 15-17; bold and capital emphasis ours)

Such evidence makes it abundantly clear that Muhammad was anything but sinless, and that he stands condemned for committing the very sin which he himself testified would never be forgiven by his god.

We have one final part in the series to look at for now.