Sunday, December 13, 2015

What really happened to Muhammad?

According to Muslim tradition, the angel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad from time to time to give him revelations. For Christians, that raises the question: What really happened to Muhammad? 

Short answer: I don't know. I know what didn't happen to him. I know he didn't have an audience with the angel Gabriel. But barring that, what are the alternatives? 

In principle, there are naturalistic and supernaturalistic explanations. We can also distinguish between mental and extramental experiences. 

i) An angel did, indeed, appear to Muhammad. But of course, some angels are fallen angels. 

ii) Arguably, not all evil spirits are demonic. Ghosts are a well-attested phenomenon. What if the souls of the damned sometimes appear to the living? That may be what happens during some seances. 

For all we know, Muhammad dabbled in necromancy. 

iii) He was possessed. I presume that's the most popular explanation among Christians. It can't be proven or disproven in Muhammad's case. 

At his trial (according to Plato's Apology), Socrates talked about a "demon" (daimonion) that used to give him guidance. Of course, he didn't mean "demon" in the Christian sense, but he may have spoken better than he knew. Perhaps Muhammad's case was similar. 

iv) He was psychotic. Suffered from hallucinations. That might be a naturalistic explanation. 

On the other hand, possession and psychosis are not mutually exclusive. 

v) William Blake was a visionary. As I recall, Kenneth Clark attributed his "visions" to Blake's eidetic memory. That's a naturalistic explanation. Might apply to Muhammad, although that's not the first explanation I'd reach for. 

vi) He was a charlatan, like Joseph Smith. He made it all up. 

That's entirely possible. There's certainly evidence, even in Muslim tradition, that he sometimes improvised. 

We can't say for sure because we don't have as much information about Muhammad as we have about other cult leaders like Swedenborg, Joseph Smith, Sun Myung Moon, Herbert W. Armstrong, or Ron Hubbard–to name a few

In the case of Smith, Hubbard, and Moon, a naturalistic explanation is preferable. 

In the case of Swedenborg, it may be more than that. Unlike Smith, who was a social climber, and had much to gain by conning suckers, Swedenborg came from the upper crust. He was a noted scientist. At the same time, he inherited his father's esoteric theology. 

In his case, I tend to think something weird really did happen to him which could either have a naturalistic or supernaturalistic explanation. Psychosis. Possession. Perhaps he dabbled in the occult. Or maybe he suffered from mental illness.  

There's the same range of diagnostic possibilities for Muhammad. Our information about Muhammad is one-sided, although it includes hostile testimony. 


  1. I forget the detail, but there are Islamic traditions that say Muhammad's first impression of his encounters was that they were demonic. And because of it he contemplated (or possibly attempted) suicide. It took a Christian relative to convince him his encounter was from God. The fact that some of these traditions are 1. included in hadith which are considered among the more reliable, and 2. the principle of embarrassment would suggest there's some historical truth to the tradition.

    The principle of embarrassment would lead us to that conclusion because it's unlikely that early Muslims would make up such an embarrassing story about Muhammad. Just as scholars conclude the likely authenticity of Jesus' statement that the Son doesn't know the day or hour of a certain event (Mark 13:32).

    Also, his initial encounters being demonic is not inconsistent with his later being partly a charlatan. So many alleged commands of Allah are so convenient and beneficial to Muhammad. Nor is it inconsistent with Muhammad having a sincere religious belief in Allah and Islam. Genuine believers in a religion can still nevertheless do evil things. Some of the early Anabaptists were a mixture of sincerity and aggrandizement.

    See Sam Shamoun and David Wood argue 50 reasons why Muhammad is not a prophet at my blogpost HERE

    1. I forget the details, but one can listen to some of the details by watching Wood and Shamoun's videos that I linked to. Here's the link again:

      50 Reasons Muhammad Is NOT a Prophet of God

    2. According to James White in What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur'an:

      Muhammad seems to have been troubled by the polytheistic worship around the Kaaba, though by one story he himself had once been chosen to replace the sacred "Black Stone" in the corner of the Kaaba itself, the one central to Islamic worship to this day. Tradition states that he began to retire for times of contemplation and meditation in a cave on Mount Hira. In 610, at age forty, toward the end of the month of Ramadan, he claimed to experience a supernatural visitation there. In the words of Martin Lings, who wrote one of the most popular biographies of Muhammad,

      "...there came to him an Angel in the form of a man. The Angel said to him: 'Recite!' and he said: 'I am not a reciter,' whereupon, as he himself told it, 'the angel took me and whelmed me in his embrace until he had reached the limit of my endurance. Then he released me and said 'recite!' I said: 'I am not a reciter,' and again he took me and whelmed me in his embrace, and again when he had reached the limit of my endurance he released me and said, 'recite!' and again I said 'I am not a reciter.' Then a third time he whelmed me as before, then released me and said:

      "Recite in the name of thy Lord who created! He created man from a clot of blood. Recite; and thy Lord is the most bountiful, He who hath taught by the pen, taught man what he knew not.

      "He recited these words after the angel, who thereupon left him; and he said; 'It was as though the words were written on my heart.' But he feared this might mean that he become a jinn-inspired poet or a man possessed. So he fled from the cave, and when he was halfway down the slope of the mountain, he heard a voice above him saying: 'Oh Muhammad, thou art the messenger of God, and I am Gabriel.' He raised his eyes heavenwards and there was his visitant, still recognizable but now clearly an angel, filling the whole horizon, and again he said: 'Oh Muhammad, thou art the messenger of God, and I am Gabriel.' The Prophet stood gazing at the angel; then he turned away from him, but whichever way he looked the angel was always there, astride the horizon, whether it was to the north, to the south, the East or to the West. Finally the Angel turned away, and the prophet descended the slope and went to his house."[9]

      What followed should interest everyone, particularly Christian readers seeking to understand and evaluate the claims of the Islamic faith. Its sources indicate that Muhammad, deeply troubled by his encounter, rushed home to Khadijah, not to rejoice in his calling as the Prophet of Allah but to express deep concern over what had occurred. Again, he was fearful about possession by a jinn (spirit) so as to become spiritually inspired. Al-Tabari puts it this way:

      "There was no one of God's creation more hateful to me than a poet or a madman; I could not bear to look at either of them. I said to myself, 'Your humble servant [Muhammad] is either a poet or a madman, but Quraysh shall never say this of me. I shall take myself to a mountain crag, hurl myself down from it, kill myself, and find relief that way.'"[10]

      In fact, Al-Tabari says that as Muhammad was going to commit suicide, Gabriel stopped him and addressed him as the Prophet of Allah.

      Khadijah believed his experience was with the divine and sought to calm his fears. She told her aged cousin, Waraqah ibn Nawfal, what had happened, and he sent word to Muhammad that the prophets of old encountered the same. When Muhammad met with Waraqah a little later, the elderly man also warned that the people would treat him badly because of his prophetic calling. Waraqah did not live to see this, passing on shortly thereafter.

  2. Actually, Muhammad's first revelation at Hira was a dream (Sahih Bukhari vol 6 book 60 number 479,480; see also Sirat al rasulallah). Muhammad said that if anyone has a dream they don't like, it's from Satan (Sahih Bukhari vol 9 book 87 number 114). We see from the encounter, Muhammad did not like his dream to put it mildly (Sahih Bukhari vol 1 book 1 number 3, vol 9 book 87 number 111). Therefore, Muhammad's first revelation of the Qur'an, a dream which he didn't like, was from Satan.