By Malik Ibrahim
The four Gospels of the Bible provide us with a wonderful historical and biographical sketch of the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Gospels record Christ’s birth, an episode from his boyhood, ministry and interactions with his disciples, his death by crucifixion, his resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven. All of these details about the life of Jesus are important for us as believers so that we can truly know our Savior, as well as how we can share him with others. But what kind of biographical detail does the Qur’an, the Muslim Holy Book, record about the life of Muhammad? This article is part one of a three part series where we will explore this question. We have based this survey on 122 Qur’anic verses which discuss the person of Muhammad. We read these verses in the chronological order of how they were given to Muhammad, rather than the canonical order in which they are found in the Qur’an. We employed this method in order to trace the evolution in the Qur’anic portrayal of Muhammad. Furthermore, we have broken down these verses into nine different categories in order to more easily understand what the Qur’an says about Muhammad. In this first part we will discuss the two most frequently occurring categories—Muhammad’s mission and rejection—since they occupy the most number of Surahs. Parts two and three will explore the final seven categories. The life of Muhammad is divided into two parts, the Meccan and Medinan periods, which are reflected in the Qur’an. This division is so significant that the Muslim calendar begins at the transition between the two locations and revelatory times. The importance of this phenomenon will be reflected in the discussion below.
Over one third of the verses surveyed, 48, discussed Muhammad’s mission. The titles most often ascribed to Muhammad in the Qur’an regarding his mission are Apostle (Surah 73:15), Warner (Surah 53:56), Messenger (Surah 65:11), and Prophet (Surah 33:45). Of these terms, Warner was the most frequently used. Yusuf Ali gives definition to the term Warner in a footnote on Surah 53:56, a Meccan Surah, in his translation of The Qur’an. He writes, “The Prophet before the Quraish (and before us) continues the line of men of God who have come to teach mankind and lead men into unity and righteousness” (Ali n. 5123 Pg. 1451).
Surah 3:164 clarifies further the mission of Muhammad when it says that God sent the believers “an apostle from among themselves, rehearsing unto them the signs of God, sanctifying them, and instructing them in Scripture and Wisdom.” In short, Muhammad’s mission was to take the Qur’anic revelations he received and enjoin others to follow and obey them. (See also Surahs 62:2&65:11.)
An interesting aspect in Muhammad’s mission was its evolution from being a passive invitation to believe in Mecca to an aggressive condemning of those who reject him and his message once he moves to Medina. Two verses from the Meccan period of Muhammad’s ministry demonstrate how he was to preach peacefully and simply invite others to follow him. The first of these is Surah 27:92 where Muhammad is commanded to serve God and recite the Qur’an “and if any accept guidance, they do it for the good of their own souls, and if any stray, say: ‘I am only a Warner’.” (See also Surah 42:48.) One last example of Muhammad’s peaceful mission in Mecca is found in Surah 16:125 where he is commanded to “Invite (all) to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious:” The conclusion of these three verses is that while in Mecca, Muhammad’s duty was simply to invite people to follow him and it was up to them to accept or reject his message.
The Meccan verses mentioned above are in stark contrast to the more aggressive tone that Muhammad adopts towards those who reject him once he reaches Medina. It was in Medina where Muhammad’s mission would evolve from being a simple warner into a ruler who must be embraced or severe consequences would be meted out. The Medinan Surah 58:20-21 points out that “Those who resist Allah and His Messenger will be among those most humiliated. Allah has decreed: ‘It is I and My apostles who must prevail’: For Allah is One full of strength, able to enforce His Will.” Whereas in Mecca people could choose to follow Muhammad, now in Medina Muhammad and his religion must prevail and those who reject it must be subjugated.
Surah 66:9 is another verse from the Medinan period which engenders the harsh treatment of non-believers and hypocrites. Here Muhammad is commanded, “O Prophet! Strive hard against the Unbelievers and the Hypocrites, and be firm against them. Their abode is Hell, an evil refuge (indeed).” Writing on this verse, one of the most well-known and respected commentators on the Qur’an, the fourteenth century Muslim commentator Ibn Kathir records, “Allah the Exalted orders His Messenger to perform Jihad against the disbelievers and hypocrites, the former with weapons and armaments and the later by establishing Allah’s legislated penal code” (Tafsir Ibn Kathir Vol. 10 pg. 72). We noted above that those who rejected Muhammad’s religion had to be subjugated; this verse along with Ibn Kathir’s comment highlights that this subjugation could be conducted by any means necessary, including coercive violence.
One final observation in the evolution of Muhammad’s mission in Medina was that his religion had to triumph over all other religions. A verse from the late Medinan period, Surah 61:9, bears out this conclusion where it states that God “has sent His Messenger with Guidance and the Religion of Truth, that he may proclaim it over all religion, even though the Pagans may detest (it).” (See also Surah 48:28.) This verse along with the other Medinan verses mentioned above shows that Muhammad had evolved from a peaceful preacher in Mecca to a prophet whose religion was bent on world domination.
Accused and Rejected
The second most frequently discussed topic in the Qur’anic verses we studied were the accusations and rejection Muhammad experienced from his opponents, encompassing 30 verses. During his preaching days in Mecca, the Qur’an records that Muhammad was accused by those who rejected his message of being mad or possessed (Surah 7:184, 52:29, 68:2, 81:22&25), forging or falsifying the Qur’an (Surah 11:13, 46:8, 52:33 & 53:11), being a soothsayer or sorcerer (Surah 10:2, 52:29, 69:42) and being misled (Surah 53:2).
The Qur’an itself gives us a glimpse as to how these accusations affected Muhammad personally. Surah 15:97 says that Muhammad was distressed by what his opponents said about him. Surahs 18:6 and 16:127 allude to the fact that Muhammad was also grieved by the Meccans who rejected him and his message.
It is curious to note that the Medinan Surahs of the Qur’an record fewer of these rejections and accusations. One Medinan Surah, 9:61, has this to say about those who feigned allegiance to Muhammad: “Among them are men who molest the Prophet and say, ‘He is (all) ear.’ Say, ‘He listens to what is best for you: he believes in Allah, has faith in the Believers, and is a Mercy to those of you who believe.’ But those who molest the Messenger will have a grievous penalty.” This is an interesting contrast to how Muhammad reacted to those in Mecca when he was rejected. In Mecca it appears that he was genuinely grieved by those who refused him and his message. In Medina Muhammad’s grief is replaced by a fierce condemnation of those who will not accept him.
The study of these first two categories on Muhammad’s mission and his rejection clearly showed a man whose self-understanding evolved. The Meccan Surahs listed above describe Muhammad as a peaceful preacher who passively endured rejection and accusation. Once Muhammad obtains political power in Medina, the tone of his message becomes more aggressive and violent to the point where those who reject his message will not be tolerated.
To Be Continued…
In Part 2 of our series we will look at the Qur’anic portrayal of Muhammad’s Character, Muhammad and Women (Surah 33:28-34&50-52); and his desire to be obeyed, respected and loved (Surah 2:104, 3:31&32, 58:22).