By Malik Ibrahim
This week on Digging Deeper we continue our discussion of what the Qur’an tells us about Muhammad. In this installment we will discuss the categories of Muhammad’s Character; Muhammad and Women; and his desire to be obeyed, respected, and loved, as outlined in Part 1.
The personal character of the prophet Muhammad ranked third in the number of occurrences being referenced in fifteen of the Qur’anic verses surveyed. Surahs from the Meccan period record that Muhammad possessed “an exalted standard of character” (Surah 68:4), displayed a patience from God (Surah 16:127), and was kind and merciful to believers (Surah 9:128). Two verses from the early Medinan period state that Muhammad dealt gently with believers (Surah 3:159) and that he was a “beautiful pattern of conduct” for them (Surah 33:21).
Even though the Qur’an speaks with such exalted language to describe Muhammad’s character, there are at least two instances where the Qur’an itself admits that he fell well short of these standards. The first is found in the Meccan Surah 80:1-10, and could be called a failure of both gentleness and patience. Here we find an instance where Muhammad is being rebuked by God for turning his back on a blind man who had come to learn about Islam. Verse 10 summarizes Muhammad’s reaction to the blind man when it says, “Of him wast thou unmindful.”
Muhammad’s failure to treat his fellow Muslims with kindness and mercy, as recorded in Surah 33:53 and Surah 49:2, is a second example of Muhammad not living up to his claimed lofty character. In Surah 33:53 believers are told when they come to the prophet’s house for a meal they are to “disperse, without seeking familiar talk. Such (behavior) annoys the Prophet.” Later in that same verse the believers are told, “Nor is it right for you that ye should annoy Allah’s Messenger.” Surah 49:2 commands Muhammad’s followers, “O ye who believe! Raise not your voices above the voice of the Prophet, nor speak aloud to him in talk, as ye may speak aloud to one another, lest your deeds become vain and ye perceive not.” Both of these verses are from the Medinan period and clearly show a man who is beginning to lose his patience, gentleness, and kindness with respect to his followers.
While Surahs from both the Meccan and Medinan period portray Muhammad as someone with lofty character, they also allude to some of his moral failings. While our present survey only uncovered one of these failings in the Meccan period (Surah 80:1-10), two were discovered in the Medinan period (Surah 33:53 & Surah 49:2).
Muhammad and Women
These verses revealed two types of women, Muhammad’s wives and the women “thy right hand possesses out of the prisoners of war.” The Medinan Surah 33:30&31 addresses Muhammad’s many wives and informs them that if they are “guilty of evident unseemly conduct,” their punishment would be doubled in this life and the next (Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Vol. 7 pg. 677). Conversely, if they were “devout in the service of Allah and His Messenger,” they would be granted twice the reward in the afterlife (Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Vol. 7 pg. 677).
This same Surah also outlines rules for Muhammad on marrying women in verses 50-52. According to verse 50, Muhammad can marry any cousins who have migrated with him from Mecca along with any other believing women. Verse 51 tells us that Muhammad could chose to have intercourse with any of his wives whenever he desired, even if it was not that wife’s turn to be with him. According to Ibn Kathir, Allah had granted this type of preferential treatment for Muhammad because “He knows that you are more inclined towards some of them than others, which you cannot avoid” (Tafsir Ibn Kathir Vol .8 pg. 20). Even though Muhammad was given permission to marry many wives, verse 52 puts a limit on the number he could marry without actually assigning a numerical value.
Surah 66:4&5 served as a warning for two of Muhammad’s wives who had plotted against him. These verses inform these women that if they persisted in their opposition to Muhammad, they would find that he was backed up by God, Gabriel, all righteous persons and the angels (v.4). Verse 5 heightens the seriousness of this warning by telling these women that if Muhammad chose to divorce all of his wives, then Allah would replace them with women who are more pious.
A second category of women mentioned in Surah 33:50-52 are “those whom thy right hand possesses out of the prisoners of war.” These women were the booty of war for Muhammad (v. 50), lawful for him to have intercourse with, and there was no limit as to how many of them he could have (v. 52).
All of the Surahs mentioned above are from the Medinan period and seem to go hand in hand with Muhammad’s growing authoritarianism. Not only were the inhabitants of Medina to be under Muhammad’s unquestioned authority, but his wives and concubines were to follow suit as well.
Muhammad was to be obeyed, respected, and loved
The obedience, respect, and love due to Muhammad was the next category discovered, covering fourteen verses. Obedience to Muhammad was commanded early on in the beginning of his prophetic mission in Mecca. The Meccan Surah 72:21-23 records that eternity in hell was the punishment for any who disobeyed Allah and his Apostle.
In an early Medinan Surah, 2:104, Muslims are commanded to refer to the prophet with words of respect only. However, those who express their unbelief through disrespectful speech to Muhammad face “a grievous punishment.” In order to give definition to this phrase, Ibn Kathir quotes this hadith stated by Muhammad, “I was sent with the sword just before the Last Hour, so that Allah is worshiped alone without partners. My sustenance was provided for me from under the shadow of my spear. Those who oppose my command were humiliated and made inferior, and whoever imitates a people, he is one of them” (Tafsir Ibn Kathir Vol. 1 pg. 320). (See also Surah 24:63.)
Both obedience and love for Allah and his prophet are commanded in the Medinan Surah 3:31&32. Heeding this imperative brings with it the forgiveness of sin. Any who reject this command are considered unloved by Allah. Also, Surah 48:10 equates swearing fealty to Muhammad with swearing fealty to Allah himself.
The Prophet and his wives are described in terms of familial relations in Surah 33:6 where it is stated that “The Prophet is closer to the Believers than their own selves, and his wives are their mothers.” Surah 58:22 simultaneously encourages Muslims to reject those who do not accept Muhammad and Allah “even though they were their fathers or their sons, or their brothers, or their kindred,” while at the same time strengthening a familial bond to the prophet through faith and a spirit from Allah.
Surah 4 tells us that Muhammad was to be the judge in all disputes among the believers in Medina (Surah 4:14, 59, 64 & 65 & 170). Surah 4:65 says that Muhammad’s decisions were to be unquestioningly obeyed with “no resistance” and “the fullest conviction.” The reason that the Qur’an gives for this type of obedience is that not only is Muhammad a mediator between men, he is also the one through whom Allah grants forgiveness when Muhammad prays for it (4:64). Ibn Kathir comments that verse 64 “directs the sinners and evildoers, when they commit errors and mistakes, to come to the Messenger, so that they ask Allah for forgiveness in his presence and ask him to supplicate to Allah to forgive them. If they do this, Allah will forgive them and award them His mercy and pardon” (Tafsir Ibn Kathir Vol. 2 pg. 504). Any who would reject the judgments of Muhammad would face the condemnation of God in hell (4:14 & 170).
The picture that these Surahs paint is that as Muhammad moves from Mecca to Medina he demands increased fealty. This loyalty extended to the point of loving and obeying him more than one’s own family. Only this kind of devotion to Muhammad could save a person from a violent punishment in this life and the next.
While the Qur’an assigns a lofty character to Muhammad, we can see from the above that not even he was beyond some moral failings. These same verses also demonstrate an increasingly harsh treatment of women and non-Muslims who opposed Muhammad. Once again we see that Muhammad was growing in his desire for unquestioned authority and obedience, as he moved from Mecca to Medina.
To Be Continued…
In our final section, Part 3, we will explore Muhammad’s devotion to Islamic rituals (Surah 73:1-8, 27:91&92); his claim of being in the line of holy prophets (Surah 7:157&158, 33:40, 46:9&10, 61:6); his claim to be unlettered (Surah 7:157&158, Surah 29:48); and his own need to obey God (Surah 10:15).