The Subjective Consciousness of Muhammad

Malik Ben Nabi
Taken from Chapter VIII: The Subjective Consciousness of Muhammad in The Qur’anic Phenomenon, American Trust Publications (1983), pp. 89 – 92

While talking one day with a dealer in plants in a Medinan suburb, Muhammad advised him to treat his palm trees in particular way. But when he visited the same man sometime afterward, he told the Prophet that he had abandoned the suggested method since it did not yield the best result.Muhammad accepted this response and even advised him that the individual experience must outweigh the advice of a man – even if the man be a prophet.1

Juridically, the advice that Muhammad gave to the gardener is a Hadith and as such it would have an almost absolute value in the opinion of the commentators and doctors of law. Yet Muhammad himself annulled this Hadith against the experience of a simple gardener, thus indicating the primacy of reason and experience in the conduct of worldly affairs.

On the other hand, there is not a single case in which Muhammad had likewise sacrificed a Qur’anic precept to the experience of an individual, not even his own experience. On the contrary, certain incidents from history show his absolute intransigence on this point. He guarded Qur’anic precepts at all costs. We see this particularly in the case of the pilgrimage of the seventh year, which he called off suddenly after having prepared for it meticulously. He abandoned it simply because the revelation decided otherwise, even though it created considerable disorder in the Muslim camp.

Here we have two notions which appear differently from the point of view of the prophet: the notion of his subjective consciousness, which arises out of his human knowledge, and that of Qur’anic consciousness, which is revealed to him. It is necessary to establish a clear distinction between these two notions in order to better clarify the Qur’anic phenomenon.

This distinction is apparent with other prophets, as we saw in the case of Jeremiah when he witnessed Nabi Hanania taking the exact opposite view of his prediction, in reassuring the people of Jerusalem about the intention of God about them. It happened that Hanania, having met Jeremiah, cried to him while breaking the yoke which Jeremiah carried: “This is what Jehovah said: ‘Likewise I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon”. This was in contradiction to all the predictions of Jeremiah. But Jeremiah responded spontaneously, “Amen! May Jehovah do as you say.”

A. Lods, who cites this passage from the Book of Jeremiah in his work. The Prophets of Israel, interprets the peculiar attitude of the prophet in these terms: “He hoped that God had gone back on His predictions.” This is perhaps the only reasonable interpretation to overcome the contradiction which would otherwise appear in the attitude of the prophet. In short, he preached his ominous warnings in the name of Jehovah, and it was likewise in the name of Jehovah, invoked in the oracle of Hanania, that he thought it necessary to remain silent. But this silence was not something revealed to Jeremiah: it was necessarily his own idea. He reckoned that Hanania could have had the inspiration of God. Meanwhile, a revelation came to correct this judgment of the prophet, who began again to predict due consequences of the people’s many sins.

This incident clearly distinguishes Jeremiah’s human thinking in relation to that of the prophet, just as his advice to the plant dealer in the case of Muhammad was an example showing the difference between the thought of the man and the revelation of the prophet. Moreover, the Holy Qur’an indicates the relation between these two notions in the following verse: “And thus did We reveal to thee an inspired Book by Our command. Thou knewest not (before) what the Book was, nor (what) Faith (was), but We made it a light, guiding thereby whom We please of Our servants. And surely thou guidest to the right path.” (Holy Qur’an 42:52)

Thus, before Mount Hira Muhammad had only a subjective consciousness. But this does not appear to have anything in common with the Qur’anic consciousness [if one gives to the verse the historic significance one should]. Historically, there should not be any misunderstanding on this point, since first of all the verse under consideration went through the consciousness and self -criticism of Muhammad, who certainly knew how to make this distinction, one which was necessary for his own conviction. Moreover, the Holy Qur’an itself reminds him and underscores this distinction in a number of verses. Here is one in particular which appears to emphasize the consciousness of Muhammad. “And thou didst not recite before it any book, nor didst thou transcribe one with thy right hand, for then could the liars have doubted.” (Holy Qur’an 29:48) Hence the history of the Qur’anic consciousness begins after and not “before the Holy Qur’an.”

From the psychological point of view, this verse strengthens further the ability of Muhammad to distinguish between the Muhammadan subjective consciousness and the Qur’anic consciousness. Moreover, the Holy Qur’an insists strongly on this point as can be realized further from the following verse: “Thus We relate to thee of the news of what has gone before. And indeed We have given thee a Reminder from Ourselves.” (Holy Qur’an 20:99)

In other verses, the Holy Qur’an seems to indicate a deliberate limitation of the revelation, so as to suspend the interest and attention of Muhammad about something which was not yet revealed and which probably would not be. “And certainly We sent messengers before thee?of them are those We have mentioned to thee and of them are those We have not mentioned to thee. Nor was it possible for a messenger to bring a sign except with Allah’s permission; so when Allah’s command comes, judgment is given with truth, and those who treat (it) as a lie are lost.” (Holy Qur’an 40:78). In this verse, the concept of the Qur’anic consciousness appears to go not only beyond what is revealed at present. One can cite other verses which have a similar meaning, for example, V. 45 Surah 43.

Sometimes the distinction between the Muhammadan personality and the Qur’anic conception is made by means a casual incident offered by current life. The following verse one such case in point: “And if We please, We could show them to thee so that thou shouldst know them by their marks. A certainly thou canst recognize them by the tone of (their) speech. And Allah knows your deeds.” (Holy Qur’an 47:30)

Finally, this distinction in the Holy Qur’an sometimes indicated to us by means of an opposition between the Muhammadan subjective consciousness and the Qur’anic consciousness as in the following verse, which we will analyse much later under the heading “oppositions”: “Supremely exalted then is Allah, the King, the Truth. And make not haste with the Qur’an before its revelation is made complete to thee. And say: My Lord, increase me in knowledge.” (Holy Qur’an 20:114).

To appreciate the two levels of consciousness, one should also take into account another element: the clear make-up of the Muhammadan subjective consciousness. It is often said that “style is the man.” Now the language of Muhammad and that of the Holy Qur’an represent two distinct styles. Qur’anic verse has rhythm, a distinctive musicality. It has its shape and its own terms. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Qur’anic style is inimitable. It is said that the great poet al-Muttanabi attempted in vain to imitate it. In any case, history acknowledges an attempt by a certain “Bab” in his “Bayan al Arabi.” It was an unsuccessful attempt.2 Hence from these examples, one can conclude that there was a clear psychological and historical distinction between Muhammadan consciousness and the Qur’anic consciousness.


  1. This anecdote is reported by the traditionist Muslim, who had received it from two different sources: Soufayan Ibn al Ass and Anis. []
  2. Sheikh M. Tag: “The Babism and Islam.” []

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