Muhammad at Mecca
Muhammad meditated alone when he first felt concerned for his fellow Meccans. It was in these lonely hours that the spirit world hit him hard, traditionally dated at AD 610.
1. Suicidal thoughts
Muhammad became suicidal during two times in his life, and the second time shows him climbing cliffs multiple times, in order to throw himself off.
First, before Muhammad’s ministry went public, when he first received revelations, he was so confused that he became suicidal. The early Muslim historian Tabari (d. 923) records this tradition:
I [Muhammad] said to myself, "Your humble servant (meaning himself [Muhammad]) is either a poet or a madman, but Quraysh [a large Meccan tribe] shall never say this of me. I shall take myself to a mountain crag, hurl myself down from it, kill myself, and find relief in that way." (Tabari, Muhammad at Mecca, trans. W. Montgomery Watt and M V McDonald, vol. 6, SUNYP, 1988, p. 71, Arabic p. 1150)
Muhammad says here that he despised poets and madmen. On the one hand, he did not want this reputation thrown on him by his opponents among the Quraysh. But on the other, he was terribly oppressed with the onslaught of revelations. He claims that Gabriel treated him roughly, such as pressing down on him, physically (Ibn Ishaq, p. 106 / 152-53). He was stuck between a rock and a hard place. So what was his solution? He decided to take himself to a mountain crag and throw himself off of it, killing himself.
This reliable hadith agrees completely with Tabari:
... But after a few days Waraqa died and the Divine Inspiration was also paused for a while and the Prophet became so sad as we have heard that he intended several times to throw himself from the tops of high mountains and every time he went up the top of a mountain in order to throw himself down, Gabriel would appear before him and say, "O Muhammad! You are indeed Allah’s Apostle in truth" whereupon his heart would become quiet and he would calm down and would return home. (Bukhari)
Clicking on the link, readers will see Muhammad suffering from rough treatment from the non-Biblical Gabriel.
Before that act of desperation, however, Muhammad told his first wife Khadija that he feared he was either a poet or a madman. She ran to tell her cousin Waraqa, a Christian and supposedly a scholar. Her cousin, a blind, venerable old man, told her that Muhammad had not encountered Satan. Waraqa referenced Moses as receiving revelations from Gabriel. This calmed Muhammad’s fears.
However, the Torah never mentions this archangel, so the Christian "scholar" was wrong to compare Muhammad and Moses. Gabriel appears by name only four times in the entire Bible (Daniel 8:16 and 9:21; Luke 1:19 and 26). While Daniel prostrated himself in holy fear before Gabriel, and Zechariah and Mary, the mother of Jesus, wondered at his presence, they never suffered from extreme confusion or suicidal thoughts.
So there is a vast difference between the Bible and early Islamic traditions on visitations from Gabriel, who has replaced, wrongly, the Holy Spirit in Islamic theology. Gabriel of the Bible commands respect, but he did not physically mistreat Daniel, Zechariah or Mary. Gabriel of the Quran, in contrast, does physically mistreat Muhammad to the point of his suicidal confusion. This is standard for Muhammad and Allah. Islam contains seeds of Christianity and the Bible, but he and his deity take things too far or distort things.
For more analysis on the differences between the Gabriel of the Bible and the Gabriel of the Quran, see this article, and scroll down to "Who was this spirit that called himself Gabriel?" and this one.
The second example of suicidal thoughts takes place during one spiritual dry season in Muhammad’s life. The revelations from Gabriel ceased, so he again became desperate. The historian Tabari records this tradition:
The inspiration ceased to come to the messenger of God for a while, and he was deeply grieved. He began to go to the tops of mountain crags, in order to fling himself from them. (vol. 6, p. 76 / 1155)
It takes a long time to climb high crags—and he did this more than once. What were his thoughts during the climbs? What did he think as he looked down from the heights? Surely he felt mentally harassed. But in the nick of time, Gabriel would appear to him and tell him to stop.
Regardless of this alleged divine intervention, it is not too much to ask what kind of prophet this is. Suicide by throwing himself off a cliff a plurality of times? To an outsider to Islam, Muhammad seems disturbed and unstable. Though blunt, that is a fair interpretation of the facts found in Islamic sources.
How do traditional Muslim apologists (defenders) respond? They seek to discredit the historian Tabari (except when he presents Muhammad as good and noble) because they have the prior belief that Muhammad would not do this. But reputable historians reasonably and correctly believe that Tabari is preserving reliable traditions precisely because no Muslim scholar would dare make this up on his own, nor would he receive this tradition from a non-Muslim. Also, this last tradition on his suicide attempts is recorded by the hadith collector and editor Bukhari (d. 870), whom traditional Muslims consider as completely reliable: Interpretation of Dreams, no. 6982 (cf. Bukhari, Revelation, no. 3 and Tabari, vol. 6, p. 76 / 1155). Since this tradition is reliable, then why not the one about his first suicide attempt when he was afraid that he was either a madman or an inspired poet (see above, Tabari, vol. 6, p. 71 / 1150)?
This severe confusion leading to suicide attempts happened before Muhammad’s ministry went public. This is a troubling start for a founder of a religion. Do the evil and Satanic harassments stop after his public ministry begins?
For more analysis of Muhammad’s suicidal thoughts, see this article. This article responds to a Muslim rebuttal, and so does this one.
2. The Satanic verses
Muhammad’s ministry is now public. After a lot of opposition from Muhammad’s fellow Meccans, he became discouraged. His own tribesmen, some of his family, and others in and around Mecca tried to talk him out of his opposition to their gods, offering him money and prestige. They suggested that they worship each others’ gods. At first he turned them down (cf. Sura 109, though Watt sees this sura coming after the Satanic verses, when Muhammad’s monotheism grows more clearly). His desire (note the key word) for reconciliation was strong. Muhammad and the Meccan men were gathered together, and Tabari the historian picks up the narrative.
First, the historian mentions Muhammad’s motives for the Satanic verses. He writes:
With his love for the tribes and his eagerness for their welfare it would have delighted him if some of the difficulties which they made for him could have been smoothed out, and he debated with himself and fervently desired such an outcome . . . . (Tabari, vol. 6, p. 108 / 1192)
Then Tabari records the verses from Sura 53, which encourages the Meccans to receive intercession from their three main goddesses. He writes:
Then God revealed:
By the Star when it sets, your comrade [Muhammad] does not err, nor is he deceived; nor does his speak out of (his own) desire [Sura 53:1-3]
And when he came to the words:
Have you thought upon al-Lat and al-Uzza and Manat, the third, the other? [Sura 53:19-20]
Satan cast on his tongue, because of his inner debates and what he desired to bring upon his people, the words:
These are the high-flying cranes, verily their intercession is accepted with approval. (Tabari, ibid.)
This last verse is not found in the Quran today (Arberry’s translation, Sura 53, note 7), but it was replaced with a polemical verse:
Are you [polytheists] to have the male and He [Allah] the female? [53:21]
Here the interpolator argues that the human polytheists prefer the male child, whereas they consign to Allah female children. In seventh-century Arab culture, this was unfair to the deity. The interpolator uses the beliefs of the polytheists against them because they worshipped the daughters of the higher god. Why should only humans get sons?
Be that as it may, the Meccans were thrilled that Muhammad accepted their goddesses, whose shrines were located near Mecca, and one between Medina and Mecca. Both he and they prostrated themselves. The Meccan men joyfully returned to their homes and stopped their persecution of him. Some Muslims who had emigrated to Abyssinia across the Red Sea due to persecution (or perhaps due to trade, or both, says Watt) heard of this new cooperation, so they returned to Mecca. However, Muhammad regretted those words. Gabriel came to Muhammad and reproved him, abrogating or canceling the Satan-inspired verses.
Tabari records the change:
Then God cancelled what Satan had thus cast, and established his verses by telling him that he was like other prophets and messengers, and revealed:
Never did we send a messenger or a prophet before you but that when he recited (the Message) Satan cast words into his recitation . . . God abrogates what Satan casts. Then God established his verses. God is knowing, wise. [Sura 22:52] (Tabari, vol. 6, p. 109 / 1193)
This verse from Allah contains an error, when it says that every prophet or messenger recited their message under Satanic inspiration, at least once. Jesus, whom Muslims wrongly regard merely as a prophet, is never recorded in the Four Gospels as speaking Satan-inspired words. In fact, it is impossible to find these egregious falsehoods in great Biblical prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel while they were speaking under divine guidance. Though the last three prophets are not sinless (no human is), they do not speak their message or prophecies out of inspiration from Satan—not even once. Muhammad is simply making this up so that he does not look bad when he came under the influence of Satan. Also, Sura 22:52 contradicts a (baseless) belief in Islam that all prophets must be sinlessly perfect. But how can Satan-inspired words spoken by a prophet or messenger keep him sinless one hundred percent of the time?
For more information on other changes in the Quran, see this article and scroll down to "Some comments about the Satanic verses" (no. 3).
It is natural that Muslims would react against this entire episode, because it makes their prophet seem unworthy of honor and being followed. But the prominent and reputable Islamologist W. Montgomery Watt, who helped translate and annotate Tabari’s sixth volume, is reasonable and correct when he observes:
The truth of the story cannot be doubted, since it is inconceivable that any Muslim would invent such a story, and it is inconceivable that a Muslim scholar would accept such a story from a non-Muslim. (Tabari, Introduction, vol. 6, p. xxxiv)
Watt frequently defends Islam and Muhammad, but he rightly accepts the tradition of the Satanic verses, on solid grounds.
Before leaving this section, it should be pointed out that this episode about the Satanic verses can also be found in other early Muslim sources, besides Tabari. First, Watt in his book Muhammad at Mecca (Oxford UP, 1953, p. 102) cites Tabari in his commentary, who cites a number of sources, notably a certain Abu ‘l-‘Aliyah. Second, the Muslim historian and judge Waqidi (d. 823) in his Kitab al-Maghazi (Book of Military Campaigns, ed. by Marsden Jones; also translated into German by the Old Testament scholar, J. Wellhausen) records it. Third, it is found in the biographer Ibn Saad (d. 844) in his Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir (meaning "The Book of the Great Generations", English translation by S. Moinul Haq).
Again, Muslims seek to discredit these two early Muslim scholars along with Tabari, but Watt is correct. It is inconceivable that a Muslim would invent this story on his own or accept it from a non-Muslim. Other early sources that omit this unpleasant story probably do so "because . . . it was discreditable to the Prophet" (Watt and McDonald in Tabari, vol. 6, p. 108, note 170; cf. Bukhari, Commentary, no. 4862).
But let us assume, only for the sake of argument, that these traditions are weak. Then this question still needs to be asked and answered: what was it about Muhammad’s life that would generate these (weak) traditions? After all, by comparison, later traditions develop around Jesus, but they do not show him being harassed by suicidal thoughts or by demons who take control of him.
This Satanic inspiration calls into doubt the other revelations in the Quran during the Meccan period. If Satan inspired Muhammad in three verses, he may have inspired him in others. It is a fact that Muhammad confuses many Old Testament stories in his Meccan suras (and Medinan suras)—not to mention his Christology (doctrine of Christ). How do we know whether or not these verses are reliable? Simple. We compare the stories in the Quran about Noah, Abraham, Lot, and Moses, for example, with those in the Bible. The Bible and the Quran differ widely. Therefore, Muhammad was making up his stories, or he had inspiration from a being other than God, or he incorporated fictions into the Quran from bad human sources—or a mixture of all three.
For more information on the Satanic verses and a response to Muslims’ reactions, see this article. It also has William Muir’s translation of Waqidi on the matter. Muir’s biography of Muhammad in a section dealing with the Satanic verses can be read here.
3. Some stubborn, evil jinn (genii)
Islamic doctrine says that jinn are spirit beings. They cannot be seen by human eyes, but they can see humans. Some jinn are good, whereas others are evil. This means they are not exactly like demons. But they do harass people and take on animal shapes, such as snakes and scorpions.
Muhammad in his Quran says that some of the jinn listened to his recitation of his holy book. Some submitted, that is, became Muslims, whereas others refused.
The jinn are speaking in this passage:
. . . "As soon as we heard the message of guidance [the Quran], we believed in it. Now whoever believes in his Lord will have neither fear of loss nor of injustice." And that: "Some of us are Muslims (submissive to Allah) and some deviators from the Truth. Those who have adopted Islam (the way of submission) have found the way to salvation, and those who have deviated from the Truth will become fuel for Hell." (Sura 72:13-15, trans. Sayyid Abul A’La Maududi, The Meaning of the Qur’an, vol. 6, p. 91)
This passage reflects pre-Islamic myths that jinn can listen in on human conversations. But Muhammad manipulates the Meccan polytheists’ belief to his own advantage because he claims that some jinn become Muslims. If jinn have become Muslims, then what about Meccan humans becoming Muslims, too? Oddly, Maududi (d. 1979), a highly respected commentator, asserts that some jinn may be Christians, based on Sura 72:3, which says that some believe that Allah has a son (note 4 in his commentary).
However, evil jinn walked away from Muhammad’s message. Maududi says that Muhammad did not see them, according to Sura 72:1, which says that Muhammad had to get a revelation that the evil ones and the good ones were listening in on his recitation (note 1). What does this say about his spiritual authority over the evil jinn (and even the good ones)? Why did they not shriek at Muhammad’s presence? Why did he not rebuke them?
As we shall see in the next major section, "The Three-year Ministry of Jesus," Jesus takes absolute authority over all evil spirit beings—over all spirit beings, even Satan himself. When Jesus comes on the scene, they shriek at his presence, begging him not to throw them into the fires of hell. As we shall see, the Holy Spirit will lead Jesus to undergo special temptations, but when Satan’s time was up, Jesus rebuked him decisively.
For more information on the jinn, see this online dictionary, and scroll down to "Genii."
4. Satan and witchcraft and knots on the head
The following hadith by the collector and editor Bukhari indicates that Muhammad believes that some sort of knots on the head is the result of Satan and witchcraft.
Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah’s Messenger said, "During your sleep, Satan puts three knots at the back of the head of each of you. On every knot he reads and exhales the following words, ‘The night is long for you, so stay asleep.’ When that person wakes up and remembers Allah, one knot is undone; and when he performs ablution, the second knot is undone, and when he offers Salat (prayer) the third knot is undone and one gets up energetic in a good mode [sic, mood] with a good heart in the morning; otherwise he gets up in a bad mode [sic, mood], lazy." (Bukhari, Night Prayer, no. 1142; cf. Creation, no. 3269)
Muhammad provides steps to purge oneself from the influence of Satan, by rituals. (This is a far distance from the decisive and firm spiritual authority that Jesus gives his followers.) Should we take him literally and seriously about the knots coming from witchcraft? He seems to take this phenomenon literally and seriously in the Quran.
Sura 113, a short one, revealed in Mecca, says in its entirety:
113:1 Say [Prophet], "I seek refuge with the Lord of daybreak 2 against the evil in what He has created, 3 the evil in the night when darkness gathers, 4 the evil in witches when they blow on knots, 5 the evil in the envier when he envies." (MAS Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an, Oxford UP, 2004)
This short sura says that nighttime brings evil, and it implies that witches work their Satanic magic at certain times of the twenty-four hour day. This link to the times of the day agrees with Bukhari’s hadith, so the transmitter Abu Huraira’s report is accurate, though it is unclear when he narrated this hadith after AD 628. It is included here in the Meccan section because Sura 113 was revealed during this period. Muhammad held this belief early in his ministry.
Further, Sura 113 says that Muhammad takes refuge in Allah. Thus, he appears insecure and even fearful of dark powers. Granted, he is only human, so maybe he had no choice. He does not seem to have enough spiritual authority to rebuke Satan with his words alone. Muhammad did not lose his fear of the dark power of witchcraft, even after he moved to Medina. Maududi in his commentary on Sura 113 (and 114) believes that Muhammad came under the influence of magic, as we shall see in Muhammad’s life in Medina.
To conclude this section, Muhammad is seen, according to Islamic sources, first, to be suicidal when he despairs. It is one thing to be discouraged, but thoughts of suicide are unhealthy.
Next, early Islamic sources say that Satan influenced him in Sura 53, the so-called Satanic verses. Sura 22:52 indicates that Satan put words and desires into not only his mouth and heart, but also into all prophets who speak their message. Though there is not a shred of evidence that prophets like Isaiah or Daniel spoke their message from Satanic influence, we should look at the bigger picture in Muhammad’s Quran. What was happening to the Quranic revelations at this time? He was wrong about the Old Testament and Jesus in his Quran. Do his stories about them reveal that he had tapped into the spirit world, or was he making them up on his own, or did he listen to deficient human sources? Whichever one is the case (or all of them), this is troubling.
Then, the Quran says that the jinn listen to Muhammad’s holy book. Some convert, while the evil ones refuse. Muhammad had no spiritual authority over this last group.
Finally, Sura 113 depicts Muhammad as taking refuge in Allah, not taking authority over dark powers. Refuge is not bad for a human messenger. But Muhammad, the founder of a worldwide religion, is supposedly the best moral example to ever walk this earth. But his subjection to suicidal thoughts and Satanic influences question his example. That is a fair and accurate (but hard) inference from the data sketched out in this section.
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