By David Wood
Over the centuries, and around the world, thousands of people have claimedto be prophets. The problem is that their messages, supposedly revealed by God, often contradict one another. Hence, unless we’re willing to grant that God has Multiple Personality Disorder,we can’t accept what someone says just because he claims to be a prophet. We need to examine such people to see whether we can trust their revelations.
When confronted with someone claiming to speak for God, there are three main possibilities we should consider. First, the person might be getting revelations from his own mind. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he is intentionally inventing things. He may sincerely believe that he is a prophet, and yet his teachings may have a purely human origin. Second, the person might be getting revelations from demonic sources. If demons exist and can influence people, a person who claims to be a prophet could be deceived by demons. Third, the revelation may actually come from God, in which case everyone should submit to it.
In this article, we will sift through the facts to see if we can determine the origin of Muhammad’s revelations. Did they come from Muhammad’s own mind? Did they come from demons? Did they come from God? Let’s consider the evidence.
I. ALL TOO HUMAN
In many ways, Islam seems like a religion that came from the mind of a caravan trader in seventh-century Arabia. Here we may reflect on various teachings and practices that were present during Muhammad’s time and which became a part of the fabric of Islam. Jewish monotheism had spread into many communities in Arabia, along with biblical and extra-biblical stories about Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. Peculiar teachings about Jesus and Mary that certain quasi-Christian cults believed in (e.g. Jesus speaking at birth, Jesus giving life to clay birds, Mary giving birth under a palm tree, etc.) had taken firm root in Arabia. The Sabians, who are mentioned in the Qur’an, prayed at all five of the times Muslims pray during their daily prayers. Many of the polytheists of Arabia performed ablutions (ceremonial washings), prayed facing Mecca, took an annual pilgrimage to Mecca, circled the Ka’aba, and kissed a black stone that supposedly fell from heaven. All of these teachings and practices became a part of Islam, which means that Islam is exactly the sort of religion we would expect to arise in seventh century Mecca. So right from the beginning, we have good reasons to think that Islam had a merely human origin—the mind of a man deeply affected by the teachings and practices that surrounded him.
But we have other reasons to believe that the true origin of Islam was the mind of Muhammad. Take, for instance, Muhammad’s self-serving revelations. According to the Qur’an (4:3), Muslims can marry up to four women. But we know from history that Muhammad had far more than four wives. The early Muslim historian al-Tabari says that Muhammad consummated marriages with thirteen women.i We also know from references in Sahih al-Bukhari (Islam’s most trusted source on the life of Muhammad) that he had at least nine wives at one time.ii So if the Qur’an says that men are allowed to have no more than four wives, why did Muhammad get more? As it turns out, Muhammad received another revelation (33:50) which gave him, and him only, special moral privileges—namely, the right to marry more women. Since human beings tend to feed their desires, this looks like a very human revelation.
But 33:50 wasn’t the only morally convenient revelation Muhammad received.The prophet of Islam had an adopted son named Zaid. One day, Muhammad went to visit him and was greeted by Zaid’s wife, Zaynab, who was one of the most beautiful women in Arabia.Muhammad saw Zaynab practically naked, and Muslim sources report that his desire was aroused. When Zaynab found out that Muhammad was attracted to her, she began to despise her husband. Zayd divorced her, and Muhammad married the former wife of his adopted son. This sort of marriage wasn’t allowed at the time, but once again, Muhammad started receiving revelations to justify his behavior (see 33:5 and 33:37). This seems entirely human.
II. SPIRITUAL ISSUES
So we have good reasons to think that the origin of Muhammad’s message was his own seventh century Meccan mind. But we should also look to see if there might be something darker at work. Here we find plenty of evidence suggesting that forces beyond Muhammad were involved in his teachings.
Islam seems to be designed to keep people from believing in the true Gospel. The core of the Christian Gospel consists of three doctrines: (1) Jesus is the divine Son of God, who (2) died on the cross, and (3) rose from the dead. These are the key elements of the Gospel according to the New Testament. Yet we’re also told in the New Testament that false prophets would come, and that they would try to distort this message. Muhammad taught his followers to reject all three doctrines, and this is exactly what Christians would expect if Muhammad was led by something demonic. But is there any additional evidence that Muhammad was susceptible to the influence of evil spirits?
We know from Muslim records that when Muhammad began receiving revelations, his first impression was that he was demon-possessed. We also know that after his experience in the cave, he became suicidal and tried to hurl himself off a cliff. Muhammad’s wife Khadijah and her cousin Waraqah—people who weren’t with him in the cave and had no idea what he experienced—eventually persuaded him that he wasn’t possessed. Instead, he was a prophet of God. But this wasn’t Muhammad’s impression of what he encountered.
Even more startling is that, according to our earliest Muslim sources, Muhammad, on at least one occasion, delivered a revelation from the devil. The story runs as follows.
When Muhammad was preaching in Mecca, he didn’t win very many converts. But he wanted his countrymen to accept Islam, and he was hoping to receive a revelation that would help them. Then one day he got the revelation he was looking for. It said,
Have you not heard of al-Lat and al-Uzza
And Manat, the third, the other?
These are the exalted cranes
Whose intercession is to be hoped for.iii
This revelation was originally part of Surah 53. It said that, in addition to Allah, there are three goddesses that Muslims can pray to: al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat. Muhammad delivered these verses to his followers, he bowed down in honor of them, and his followers bowed down with him. But a little later, Muhammad came back and said that these verses (which he had delivered as part of the Qur’an) weren’t really from God; they were from Satan. The only conclusion to draw from this is that Muhammad couldn’t tell the difference between a revelation from God and a revelation from Satan.
But there’s more. We know from multiple sources that Muhammad was the victim of black magic that made him delusional and gave him false beliefs. According to Muslim accounts, one of the Jews stole Muhammad’s hairbrush and used it to cast a spell on him. The spell lasted about a year, and it affected Muhammad’s memory and gave him delusional thoughts.iv
So could demonic powers have been at work in Muhammad’s teachings? Muhammad’s first impression of his revelations was that he was demon-possessed; early Muslim sources report that Muhammad delivered revelations from the devil; a person could give Muhammad delusional thoughts and false beliefs, simply by getting a hair from his hairbrush. Given such clear evidence of spiritual problems, it is extremely difficult to take Muhammad’s claims seriously.
III. A DIVINE ORIGIN?
So we have good evidence that some of Muhammad’s revelations had a purely human origin. At the same time, we’ve seen that something much darker was at work in the formation of Islam. The question before us now is whether we have any good reason to think that Islam is from God. Is there evidence strong enough to outweigh the difficulties we’ve seen?Let’s consider the two most common arguments for the prophethood of Muhammad.
First, Muslims argue that Muhammad’s miraculous scientific insights are proof that his message was from God. The obvious problem with this argument is that both the Qur’an and the Hadith are filled with scientific inaccuracies. In Sahih Al-Bukhari 547, Muhammad tells his followers that if a fly falls into their drink, they should dip the fly into the drink, because one of the fly’s wings has a disease, while the other wing has the cure for the disease. While it’s true that flies spread disease, they certainly don’t have the cures for these diseases on their wings.
Muhammad told his followers that Adam was 90 feet tall, and that people have been shrinking since the time of Adam.v Yet it’s physically impossible for a human being to be anywhere near that tall, and we have no evidence that humans have been shrinking since the time of Adam.
The Qur’an tells us that the sun sets in a pool of murky water (18:86), and that stars are missiles that God uses to shoot demons when they try to sneak into Heaven (67:5). In Surah 27, ants talk to Solomon. In Surah 86, we learn that semen is produced between the ribs and the spine. According to several verses in the Qur’an, humans come from a clot of blood. All of these claims are scientifically false.
Muslims, of course, are free to reinterpret these passages. But since these passages are much clearer than any supposedly scientifically accurate statements, it’s obvious that Muslim apologists can’t appeal to science as evidence for their faith.
Second, the central argument of the Qur’an is found in Surah 2:23, which says, “[I]f you are in doubt as to that which We have revealed to Our servant, then produce a chapter like it and call on your witnesses besides Allah if you are truthful.” According to this verse, if a person can’t compose something similar to a chapter of the Qur’an, he must admit that the Qur’an is from God. To see how puzzling this claim is, consider one of the shorter chapters of the Qur’an:
Surely We have given you Kausar, Therefore pray to your Lord and make a sacrifice. Surely your enemy is the one who shall be without posterity. (Surah 108)
Are we supposed to believe that this chapter is so wonderful that human beings are completely incapable of producing something like it? Such a claim would be absurd. Yet this was Muhammad’s challenge.
Notice also that if we take the Muslim challenge seriously, many things turn out to be inspired by God. I can’t compose symphonies like Mozart’s. Does this mean that Mozart’s symphonies are the inspired music of God? I can’t write plays like Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. Does this mean that the works of Shakespeare are inspired Scripture? Muhammad’s criterion of truth amounts to “If my poetry is better than your poetry, then my poetry is from God,” and this simply makes no sense.
There are, of course, other arguments for Islam. Nevertheless, many Muslims believe that the two arguments we’ve considered provide their strongest evidence for the prophethood of Muhammad. Even a cursory examination of the evidence, however, shows that these arguments fail miserably.
We’ve seen thatIslam looks like a mixture of Jewish teachings, heretical Christian teachings, and pagan practices, and that some of Muhammad’s revelations apparently had no purpose but to satisfy his desires. We therefore have good evidence that certain Qur’anic teachings had a purely human origin. We’ve also seen thatIslam seems as if it was designed to keep people from the Gospel, that Muhammad’s first impression of his revelations was that he was demon-possessed, that he admittedly delivered a revelation from the devil, and that he was a victim of black magic. This gives us good reason to suppose that demonic forces were at work in Muhammad’s ministry. Since we have no evidence that Muhammad received any of his revelations from God, we can only conclude that Muhammad was a false prophet, and that anyone who wants to follow the truth will have to look somewhere other than Islam.
iAccording to Tabari, “the Messenger of God married fifteen women and consummated his marriage with thirteen. He combined eleven at a time and left behind nine” (The History of al-Tabari, Volume IX: The Last Years of the Prophet, Ismail K. Poonawala, tr. [Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990], pp. 126-7).
ii “Anas bin Malik said, ‘The Prophet used to visit all his wives in a round, during the day and night and they were eleven in number.’ I asked Anas, ‘Had the Prophet the strength for it?’ Anas replied, ‘We used to say that the Prophet was given the strength of thirty (men).’ And Sa'id said on the authority of Qatada that Anas had told him about nine wives only (not eleven)” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Number 268).
iii See Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasul Allah (Life of Muhammad), A. Guillaume, trans. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955), pp. 165-6.
iv Sahih al-Bukhari 5765.
v See Sahih al-Bukhari 3326 and Sahih Muslim 6809.