Towards A Re-Evaluation of Muhammad: Prophet and Man

Professor of Arabic Language and Literature, American University at Cairo. The Muslim World, LX (4), October 1970, pp. 300-3131

“In addition to the festivity, we should try to learn more about the life of the Prophet and the Divine Message which he brought”, declares the notice of this celebration which has been sent out by the Harvard Islamic Society. True enough; but let us, then, not be content to repeat the uncritical reports and assertions which are usually reiterated by Muslim preachers on this occasion. First of all, let us try to sift fact from fiction. For instance, in Muslim lands speakers and celebrants in mosques and homes would now be reading stories of Mawlid al-Nabi which purports that the birth of the Prophet was presaged and accompanied by certain cataclysmic events in the heavens and on earth. Stars came near the earth until they almost fell down. The palace of the King of Persia was shaken and fourteen of its battlements collapsed. Persian fires, which had been continuously burning in Zoroastrian temples for a thousand years, were extinguished. Lakes dried up and valleys were flooded. A light came out of the Prophet’s mother and illuminated all the palaces of Syria. The stories go on to claim that the Prophet was born fully circumcised and with his placenta already separated from his navel. When he fell down to the ground, he prostrated himself in worship of God and his fully-opened eyes were fixed on Heaven. He brought the most extraordinary good luck to his wet-nurse and her people, and during his infancy he grew at a rate never before achieved by a human child, so that when only two years old he was a strong, sturdy lad. When he was a few years old the Archangel Gabriel descended from Heaven and split his chest open, took out his heart, removed a black clot from it, washed the heart in a gold vessel with pure ice, returned it to his chest and sewed the chest up. During his childhood, a light cloud accompanied him wherever he went, protecting him from the heat of the sun.2

Several other reports of a similar nature are given. But some of these stories go back even to the beginning of time and claim that God created Muhammad as a pure light before He created any other human; that that light was placed in the loins of Adam and from him descended via pure, chaste wombs into one noble ancestor after another until it reached Muhammad’s father, in whom it showed as a white, luminous mark in his forehead until he placed it in Amina, the Prophet’s mother. Muhammad’s birth fifty-three years before the Hijra was therefore only the incarnation in human form of that first creation.3 This part of the stories — which are all fabrications of a later date — is clearly jealous emulation of what the Christians say about Jesus the Christ. The mischief of such fairy tales, which, admittedly, give great joy to the credulous masses, is not merely that they arouse the derision of non-Muslims; their greater mischief is that they distract the Muslims themselves from the true character and merit of Muhammad and the faith which he brought to mankind. Unlike certain others before him (and after him), he was not a miracle-monger. Neither in the promulgation nor in the propagation of his religion did he resort to any physical miracle whatever, deeming it sufficient to recite the revealed verses of the Qur’an and to appeal to the hearts and minds of sensitive, thinking men. As the Qur’an explicitly and repeatedly portrays4, he steadfastly refused to succumb to the enticement of his people in Mecca and their repeated challenge that he perform a miracle to prove his divine mission — a sure sign of his integrity, especially if one realizes the cruel mockery and contempt which he suffered on account of that refusal.

Having cleared Muhammad’s biography of the crop of myth and legend that has overgrown it, let us then — especially with a view to non-Muslim readers — not be satisfied with repeating the claims which only Muslims can accept and which they see as the precondition for belief in the Islamic religion. We Muslims believe that Muhammad was the greatest and last of the prophets and apostles of God. We also believe that his character reached perfection. On neither of these claims does the majority of mankind agree with us. Nor does the majority follow us when we go on to affirm that the birth of Muhammad was the greatest event in history; the most munificent blessing which God gave to man; the decisive act which flooded the earth with light and guidance after total darkness and error, established right in the place of wrong, spread knowledge and mercy among mankind instead of ignorance and savagery — and other such expressions which, in stereotyped terms little better than cliche we are wont to repeat especially on the occasion of the Prophet’s birthday.

It should be obvious that we shall not help the cause of our faith nor persuade the rest of humanity to learn more about the character of its founder so long as we are contend to make such claims. Let us, therefore, concentrate on finding the common ground on which all men of reason and good will should meet. Owing to the limited space available here, I can only touch upon two major questions: the question of Muhammad’s truthfulness, and that of his character. In tackling each, let us pay attention to the views that have been expressed by non-Muslim writers, in order to note the radical change which has occurred in recent decades.

As to the answer to the question of Muhammad’s truthfulness, it is time to realize that whether he was or was not a true prophet of God is entirely a matter of belief, which depends, firstly, on people’s acceptance or rejection of the mere existence of God; secondly, on their acceptance or rejection of the idea of a God who calls on certain men to communicate His message to mankind; and thirdly, on their conviction regarding both the form and content which that communication must have in order to be acceptable. We would therefore only be wasting time and effort if we attempted to prove our particular stand on any of these three points to people who do not share our conviction; for all these questions are beyond proof in the correct sense of the word ‘proof’: factual demonstration and rational argument. There is, however, a question which is, I think, open to objective assessment, and which is of paramount importance, since it decides men’s basic attitude to Muhammad, irrespective of their acceptance or rejection of his mission. This is the question of his own sincerity.

At another occasion5 I described how the earlier non-Muslim scholars firmly believed that Muhammad was a deliberate impostor, “a conscious charlatan who fabricated the Qur’an while fully realizing it was his own composition.”6 If he was such a person, he would, of course, only merit the strongest condemnation and the outmost repugnance of mankind. However, with the passage of time, several factors combined to change this extreme denunciation. Modern methods of historical research developed, enabling scholars to make more objective assessments. There was a gradual lessening of the motives of prima facie animosity which activated the early Orientalists, who were mostly Christian or Jewish scholars intent upon proving the a priori fallacy of Islam and the exclusive validity of their own creed. Other scholars entered the arena of historical research, and treated all religions with an equally open mind. Original sources on the life, sayings and actions of Muhammad were increasingly available, both in the original Arabic and in good Western translations. Now, although many uninformed people still repeat the old accusation, the great majority of writers and speakers on the subject no longer have any doubt of Muhammad’s complete sincerity. Whether he was a true prophet or was only deluded, he himself was fully genuine in his spiritual search and became utterly convinced that what he had heard was the true revelation of the true, invisible God.7

Let me begin with an argument recognized by several Western scholars themselves, as I formulated it earlier:

First of all, there is his white-hot faith in the existence of the omnipresent and invisible God: a faith which burned in all his pronouncements and which never abated in the whole history of his career. This is too passionate and overpowering to emanate from a mere mountebank. Then there is the stupendous anguish which he underwent in his search for the true God, that long and agonizing search…8

It is important to realize that when that search culminated in his hearing the voice of Gabriel in Mount Hira, at the age of forty, he did not hasten to believe in his revelation or become convinced of it overnight. He passed through a period of considerable doubt and fear, terrified lest it be only the wicked trick and cruel jesting of Satan, and he needed the wholehearted support of his faithful wife Khadija to overcome his fears. I venture to suggest that this was an attestation of his integrity; a deliberate impostor bent upon deception would not have gone through those agonizing terrors. Furthermore, a careful reading of the early suras of the Qur’an shows that, even after he was convinced of the authenticity of his revelation, it was only with great reluctance that he accepted the awesome burden of his mission, and only after he was driven by an overpowering sense of the duty which he could not shirk.

Furthermore, the Qur’an contains a number of terrifying verses denouncing those who fabricate words and claim they are God’s and threatening them with damnation and dire chastisement. Here is one such instance:

If he [Muhammad] had fabricated any sayings and falsely ascribed them to Us, We should certainly have seized him by the right hand, and had cut through the vein of his neck, and none of you would have saved him. (S. 69:44)

Reading those burning verses, it is almost impossible to believe that Muhammad himself was consciously one of those whom the verses so fervently condemn. In this connection, we may remember how terrified Muhammad was lest through faulty memory he forget or alter some of the words revealed to him, so much so that he needed God’s reassurance and comfort several times on this question (see, for instance, S. 87:6-8; also 75:16-19).

The Qur’an also records accusations made by the Quraysh against the genuineness of his revelations. Some of these accusations claimed certain people as Muhammad’s accomplices who helped him to manufacture the Qur’an (see, for example, S. 16:103). It is difficult to believe that Muhammad would have had the courage to record those accusations, and in such detail, had he not been convinced of their wrongness. Moreover, the Qur’an records some mistakes committed by Muhammad, and rebukes him for them, sometimes in quite a sharp tone which caused him great chagrin. One of them was that sometimes he weakened and thought of giving in to or compromising with the idolaters, even of altering the revealed verses a little to please them and gain their friendship (see, for instance, S. 17:73-759
, the last of which verses sternly declare that, had Muhammad succumbed, God would have made him taste of woe in life and woe in death, and Muhammad would then have found no helper against God). This, again, is strong evidence of his complete belief that what he heard were the very words of God which he was not at liberty to suppress or modify no matter how much they hurt him.

It is equally significant to remember the history of the severe hardship, persecution and mortal danger which he faced and accepted for some twenty years in the fulfillment of his mission. Impostors do not usually last so long or survive such trial. Any of these facts may not in itself be conclusive, but I submit that no honest thinker can deny that their cumulative evidence is overwhelming.

Even so, attempts have been made to explain them away. When Western scholars who had no belief in the existence of God or in divinely sent messengers could no longer doubt Muhammad’s utter sincerity, they sought to account for the remarkable phenomenon of his mission by various medical or psychological theories.10 Since they did not believe in divine inspiration per se, their attempts were understandable. What surprises and grieves one is to see some Christian and Jewish scholars following in the same track. When one carefully considers the imputations that are still made against Muhammad’s prophetic revelation, one may come to the conclusion that they do not so much injure Islam as shake the foundations of theistic belief itself. Such facile explanations are: an unbalanced and apoplectic, or epileptic nervous system; a schizophrenic personality; hallucinations out of a wild and distorted imaginations; a suprasensitive and diseased psyche; a down-rush from the superconscious, etc., etc.

There is not one of these rationalistic explanations that cannot be leveled with equal plausibility at the other prophets and religious leaders accepted by believers in other religions. Let us admit the fact that all those visionaries were unusual or supersensitive in some ways — we may here remember what Carlyle in his Heroes and Hero-Worship said on this question11 — and yet this does not necessarily invalidate their visions. In fact, it may be argued that unless they were exceptionally attuned they would not have been able to see and hear what they quite factually saw and heard. We cannot simply equate them with those who are definitely sick, physically or physiologically. In any case, as regards Muhammad, all such presumptions of his physical or mental disease are fairly easily discredited by his great success as a practical leader and founder of a new state, in which difficult role he is admitted to have displayed consummate skill, tact and wisdom. The attitude now prevalent among non-Muslim scholars is that there can be no doubt about Muhammad’s sincerity. Indeed, we find that certain Christian scholars, such as Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Kenneth Cragg,12 concede that Muhammad was not merely honest in his conviction of his prophecy, but must have been a true prophet of God receiving God’s revelation in some sense or another, though not necessarily in the orthodox, literal sense understood by Muslims.

If we now move from the question of Muhammad’s prophecy to that of his character, we notice again a considerable change in the picture made of him by non-Muslim scholars. Formerly, concomitant with their accusation of deliberate charlatanism, the portrait they drew of his total personality was black indeed, with hardly one relieving virtue. He was depicted as an ambitious mountebank, bent on sheer self-aggrandizement, blown up by insufferable vanity and consumed with devouring greed. Nothing but the most ignoble motives impelled him to do whatever he did, and lust and lechery were accorded the loftiest place among his heinous sins. A cruel tyrant he was, unforgiving and vengeful, tricky and treacherous — in short, a very monster who calls forth only the revulsion and abhorrence of mankind. Little wonder that his name was changed from Muhammad, the Praised One, to Mahound, the Prince of Darkness.13

However, the same processes in the world of scholarship as those noted above slowly acted to bring about a gradual tempering of that extreme picture, and now it is changed in many respects, some of them basic. In place of the forbidding portrait of a savage, grasping, vindictive despot, there is now a profile of an essentially kind man, affectionate and tender-hearted, modest and unassuming, with several lovable and indeed noble traits in his character. Perhaps the greatest thing which demonstrates his true essence was the fact that he was especially kind to all lowly and despised people: slaves and servants, women, children and orphans.

Even when he was at the summit of his success and power, he helped his house-folk in the performance of their menial duties He darned his clothes and cobbled his sandals. He never found fault with his servants or rebuked them with any mistake. His personal servant Anas b. Malik relates that in ten years of service to Muhammad, the Prophet never struck him, never said one harsh word to him, and never even frowned in his face. He greeted children with a grave as-salamu `alaykum when he passed them, and often stopped and talked with them, asked them about their games and questioned them about their toys. He commiserated with a small boy on the death of his pet nightingale.14 A little girl would come and pull him by the hand, and he would not pull his hand away, but would go with her to see what she wanted to show him. A woman slave would ask him to keep her company on her various errands in Medina, and he would consent. Once a woman with a defective mind came and said she wanted him; he got up, took her to one side, listened to her and conversed with her until she had poured out all she wanted.

Muhammad never declined an invitation to a party, even from the meanest of his men. Nor was he ever a kill-joy: he often laughed with people and did not consider it beneath his dignity to exchange jokes with them. However, he was normally silent, not the silence of haughtiness, but of shyness. As one of his companions said, “he was more shy than a virgin inside her apartment.” When he entered an assembly of his followers, he did not select a prominent place, but sat in whatever place was immediately available. He hated his companions to stand up when he entered, so they eventually learnt to keep their seats. He refused to recline while eating, though they assured him he would find it more comfortable; that, he said, was the manner of kings when they ate. He was always quite and soft-spoken, never loud; even his laughter was gentle and never boisterous. He smiled more than he laughed, and he had a constant, gentle smile; one of his contemporaries said, “I never saw anybody smile so constantly.” He never cursed or used foul language, although obscenity was the normal manner of speaking in that time among the Arabs. Even some of his closest friends and followers, not excluding the gentle Abu Bakr, in a number of recorded anecdotes, used what we would now consider coarse or indecent language; but Muhammad, not once.

The Prophet never punished out of mere retaliation for a personal slight or injury. All his punishments, of believers and unbelievers alike, were for crimes committed against the public weal or infringements of the promulgated law; and even here his life contains acts of clemency in which he put mercy above justice. Especially remarkable in this respect was his great reluctance to inflict upon adulterers the prescribed punishment of death by stoning. A man or woman would come and confess having committed that major sin and ask “to be purified” ? i.e., by the due punishment. Muhammad would first pretend not to have heard the confession. After repeated insistence from the confessor, he would say, “Perhaps the man is drunk and does not realize what he is saying.” In the case of one woman, who insisted on her rightful punishment, he said she might be pregnant and it would not be justice to kill the innocent embryo. The woman went away and eventually came back with the newborn baby in her arms, but Muhammad said he must allow her a few years to suckle her young one and bring it up. In considering the punishments he dealt to the enemies of his cause, we must not forget, first, that they were political actions made necessary by the conditions of the time; second, that none of them were excessive unacceptable by the usages or mores of that time. And his life was crowned with his supreme act of forgiveness, when, in his hour of final victory upon the conquest of Mecca, he forgave his most bitter and dogged adversaries, those who had denied him the right to worship his God in his own way, who had long persecuted him and had caused him to flee his native place and seek refuge with strangers. According to the rules of war prevalent then, and for centuries afterwards both in Asia and Europe, he could have put them all to the sword.

To appreciate the full extent of his clemency, patience and forbearance, however, it is good to realize that he did not suffer only from the persecution of the unbelievers, but suffered a great deal from the rudeness, uncouthness and quick temper of many of his own followers. It is necessary to remember the state of the Arabs at that time, still near the wild and vehement character very justly dubbed by the Qur’an al-Jahiliyya.15 In the violence and quickness to anger, they often talked insultingly to the Prophet, but he never answered back; in fact, his capacity to suffer fools was amazing. Once a nomad came and, evidently to draw Muhammad’s attention, pulled him by his mantle until he almost fell down, and the mantle left a mark round his neck. Muhammad looked at the nomad, laughed apparently at his violent way of calling his attention, and said, “What is it you want?” The nomad said, “Muhammad! Give me some of the money you have got.” Muhammad said to his followers present, “Give him” (Notice how this person rudely addressed the Prophet by his bare name, not by his “kunya”, patronymic, as the polite custom of the Arabs dictated, not by the usual ‘O, Apostle of God’ adopted by the believers). More than once a nomad would come and, in the usual offensive way of the bedouin, make an accusation against Muhammad which would prove to be unjust. But Muhammad would neither retaliate nor even mete out the just punishment; and he would stop his companions, who often wanted to kill the culprit, from molesting him in any way. Only in the most gentle way did he correct peoples’ mistakes. A bedouin entered the mosque in Medina and urinated in it. When Muhammad’s companions started to shout at the man, he asked them not to be rough on him, called him over, and gently explained to him that mosques were not suitable places for such actions, but were meant for the reading of the Qur’an the remembrance of God, and prayers. Then he called for a bucket of water and poured it over the urine. When proven wrong in an argument, even when his disputant was insolent, Muhammad would admit his mistake and rectify it without any false pride, and would apologize profusely as well. Once he had forgotten to pay back something he owed to a nomad. The man came to Muhammad, violently pulled Muhammad’s mantle until it fell away from his shoulders, and accused him in quite an offensive way of deliberate dilatoriness. `Umar, enraged by the rough handling and insult done to the Prophet, called the man an enemy of God, and said he wished he could cut off his head.

Meanwhile, the Prophet was looking at Umar "quietly and calmly". Then he smiled and said toUmar: “He and I need something else. I need that you order me to pay back my debt properly, and he needs that you order him to demand his dues in a proper manner.” Then he ordered Umar to take the man, pay him the debt, and add to it twenty measures of dates to compensate him for the fright he (Umar) had caused him.

When he did get angry, the only reaction he showed was that his face reddened. All he would then do was to turn his face away from the person who angered him. When he was pleased, however, his whole face beamed as if irradiated with light, “like a mirror reflecting the sun,” in the words of a companion. When he conversed with somebody, he turned with his whole body to him. He never was the first to leave a companion, or take his hand away from a handshake, or pull his hand away from a t?-??. These, however, were not points of mere superficial good manners which might have no deeper significance; they obviously sprang from a tender and truly humble nature. There is no surer indication of the depth of his humanity than his extreme kindness to animals. Passing by a bitch with puppies?and this was on the critical march to the conquest of Mecca?he stopped to warn his men not to disturb her and her litter; and, in order to make sure this was carried out, he posted a man by her. He sought to teach kindness to his people, a people who then were cruel in their treatment of the dumb creatures.

No wonder those rough people ended by giving Muhammad a love and devotion greater than any leader of men can hope to receive from his followers. Even this was attributed by the Qur’an to the mercy of God:

It is by the mercy of God that thou hast been gentle with them. Hadst thou been harsh and severe-hearted, they would have scattered away from thee. Therefore, forgive them and ask God’s pardon for them, and consult them in all affairs. (S. 3:159)

So much for the vain, cruel and vindictive tyrant. As to his greed and egotism, no reader of his biography can fail to be struck by his great abstemiousness and frugal habits of living. To the end of his days, even after the great riches resulting from the conquests began to accrue to the Muslims, he kept those same habits. He refused to eat bread made of refined flour, and never allowed himself to eat wheat bread on two successive days. Of barley bread?the cheapest then?he did not once have his fill; and he never ate gravy with bread more than once a day, nor combined any two of bread, dates and meat in one meal; in fact, he never had two full meals on the same day. He abstained from even making personal use, either for himself or for any member of his family, of the zakat, the tithe of alms paid by Muslims into the treasury. The proceeds of the land received as his share of the booty he always distributed among the needy. It is sufficient in this respect to note that, despite that great wealth, he himself died not only poor, but virtually penniless. One of his companions said: “He left neither a gold coin, nor a silver coin, nor a man-slave, nor a woman-slave, nor a sheep, nor a camel.”16 In fact, at the time of his death, his coat-of-mail was mortgaged with a certain merchant for thirty measures of barley which he had purchased to feed his large family.

Thus died the man who had conquered all Arabia, and to whom one-fifth of the great spoils was paid. I have concentrated on those aspects of his character which would now be readily admitted by non-Muslim scholars. This is not to say that they agree with us Muslims in every point of our evaluation of Muhammad. And, in my opinion, when those scholars differ with us, it is not always they who are in the wrong and who have to change their view. For just as we fabricated those fables about the birth of our Prophet, we have indulged in certain exaggerations and outright inventions regarding his qualities. We have claimed for him a perfection which is not given to any human, not even the prophets. If we ever aspire to have a saner and truer estimation of him, one that is capable of discovering his real and demonstrable virtues, our point of departure must be the realization that neither he himself claimed perfection, nor did the Qur’an claim it for him. In fact, such a claim, vaunted by such modern books as the one entitled “Muhammad: the Perfect Ideal”17 is utterly blasphemous by the strict tenets of monotheistic Islam which ascribe perfection to God alone. For, states the Qur’an “God is the loftiest example” (S. 16:60). And again: “His is the loftiest example in the Heavens and on the Earth” (S. 30:27); notice this: “and on the Earth.” When the Qur’an (S. 68:4) describes Muhammad as having “a great character,” it did not say that he had the greatest. Both the Qur’an in many verses, and Muhammad himself in many sayings, stress again and again his fallibility, and the inevitable shortcomings of his human nature. The Qur’an orders him: “Say: I am only a man like you” (S. 18:110; cf. also 41:6). And again: “Say: Glory be to my Lord! Am I more than a man, a messenger?” (S. 17:93). Muhammad also said: “I am only the son of a woman from the Quraysh who used to eat strings of sun-dried meat.” (The qadid was one of the staple foods of poor nomads in the deserts.) The correct Islamic creed about `ismat al-anbiya’, immunity of the prophets, is that this immunity applies only to matters connected with their integrity as receivers and pronounces of the message of God.

It has been said by scholars of comparative religions that, owing to the great pains Muhammad took to stress his mere humanity, he was the only founder of a great religion who succeeded in preventing his people from deifying him after his death. But if the Muslims have abstained as counting Muhammad as god, they have not abstained from making ridiculous claims on his behalf. In these claims they were, of course, limited by their own environmentally-conditioned concepts. When those concepts changed with the change of human ethics and the development of human conscience, some of their inventions did grievous harms to the good nature of the Prophet. Witness the extravagant claim that he was given the sexual power of thirty men, or sixty men; and that he would go round his wives, eleven in number, in a single night, or a single day, or a single hour of the day or night. Much of the accusation of lust that has been levelled against him by many Western writers was based on such Arab or Oriental fantasy. Here is one illustration. Sir William Muir himself, who does his best in his biography of the Prophet18 to be fair in his final evaluation of the Prophet, quotes uncritically this saying ascribed to Ibn `Abbas: “Verily the chiefest among the Muslims was the foremost of them in his passion for women.” Then he comments:”… a fatal example imitated too readily by his followers…” My humble comment on Muir is: a sad example of how even the best Orientalists sometimes too readily accept the figments of the popular imagination of the Arabs. For it is quite palpable that this saying is purely an a priori deduction: since Muhammad was the chief Muslim who had to epitomize their ideals, he must have been the most sexually potent. So it was not a case of the Muslims “imitating” their Prophet’s “example”, but rather the converse: a case of their recreating the character of Muhammad according to their then accepted morals.

Those writers, in all too readily accepting the popular notions, found it easy to forget the silent facts about Muhammad’s marriages: that for 28 years?and those the years of his utmost vigor?from the age of 25 to the age of 53, he had only one wife (for 25 of those years, she was the considerably older Khadija); that his marriage to `Ayesha in the first year of the Hijra was quite obviously a way of expressing his gratitude to her father, his first, closest and most faithful follower among men, who made with him the perilous fight from Mecca to Medina, the First Companion Abu Bakr; and that all his other marriages were either a similar homage to a close friend, a way of giving shelter to a friend’s widow, or one of the most effective ways then practiced to placate a powerful enemy and induce a defeated tribe to forget its humiliation?much as the custom of matrimonial alliances among the reigning dynasties was in medieval Europe. So clear is this fact that Montgomery Watt has concluded:

It is not too much to say that all Muhammad’s marriages had a political aspect.19

Furthermore, with the exception of `Ayesha, none of his wives was an unmarried maiden; and not one of them did he marry against her will. Indeed, in one case the woman he had just married showed reluctance to come to him; or, in another version of the anecdote, asked for God’s protection from him. Muhammad answered her: “Inviolable is the one who asks for God’s protection,” and immediately returned her to her tribe untouched.

These are the bare historical facts about the marriages of a man who has been condemned as a profligate voluptuary, and whose own followers helped unwittingly to smear him. When we on our side have lessened our exaggerations and abjured our fabrications, and when the others have gone further in their explanation of the true Muhammad as prophet and man, unhampered by the residue of their own prejudice and misconception, what, then, will be the common ground on which all men of sanity and good faith can meet, on which, indeed, a by no means negligible minority of thinking men of various races and creeds already agree?

Whether one accepts or rejects his mission, there can be no doubt that he was an earnest and dedicated searcher after the divine truth, who became profoundly and honestly convinced that God had chosen him to convey His message to mankind. This alone discredits both the contemptuous expressions and the angry, condemnatory tone that used to be adopted towards him by either believers in other creeds or negators of all creeds. All those who value human dignity, and who have the capacity to honor and respect man’s incessant search after the spiritual truth, even though they may not agree with the forms or the results of that search, cannot help but have the deepest respect for Muhammad. And, when they read of his anguish and torment both in his search and in the fulfillment of his call, that respect will surely mount to sympathy and compassion. Then, when they consider his many sterling qualities, and realize that essentially he was a large-hearted man, a man of genuine humility, with one of the sweetest and meekest of natures, they may agree that, despite his imperfections, or perhaps more correctly because of his human imperfections, here was one of the noblest and most lovable of men. In short, they may simply agree with the Qur’anic statement quoted above, a verdict addressed to Muhammad while he was meeting with steadfast patience and forbearance the rabid vilification and persecution of the idolaters: “Truly thou hast a great character.” (S. 68:4)

Cite this article as: Mohamed Al-Nowaihi, "Towards A Re-Evaluation of Muhammad: Prophet and Man," in Bismika Allahuma, September 19, 2005, last accessed April 14, 2018,


  1. An address delivered to the Harvard Islamic Society on the occasion of Mawlid al-Nabi (Prophet’s birthday) Rabi` al-Awwal 12, 1388 (June 8, 1968). []
  2. For Muslim literature on Mawlid an-Nabi, see, e.g., the article “Mawlid” in (Shorter) Encyclopaedia of Islam and A. Jeffery, ed., Islam-Muhammad and his Religion (New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1958), p. 226. Easily accessible are the relevant passages in Ibn Ishaq’s The Life of Muhammad (transl. by A. Guillaume; London: O.U.P., 1955), pp. 68-73. For a Western summary of many of the birth-stories, cf., Tor Andrae, Die Person Muhammeds in Lehre und Glauben seiner Gemeinde (Stockholm: P. A. Norstedt & S, 1918), pp. 28-39, 52ff. []
  3. Andrae discusses at length the pre-existence and logos notions found in Sufi writings; Die Person Muhammeds, Chapter VI passim, esp., pp. 313-357. []
  4. See, for instance, S. 17:90-93 []
  5. In an address to the Harvard Islamic Society on the occasion of `Id al-Fitr. []
  6. Carlyle referred in 1840 to the then prevalent view of Muhammad as “a scheming Impostor, a Falsehood incarnate, … his religion … a mere mass of quackery and fatuity.” Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (New York: John Wiley, 1849), p. 39 []
  7. Carlyle pleaded in his famous lecture of May 8, 1840, for the recognition of the hero’s sincerity, “a deep, great, genuine sincerity,” “the kind he cannot speak of, is not conscious of: may, I suppose, he is conscious rather of insincerity” (op. cit., p. 41). This “characteristic” of all men in any way heroic Carlyle saw as definitely applying also to Muhammad. Perhaps the best examples of a discussion of Muhammad’s sincerity in this century are Leone Caetani, Annali dell’ Islam, II, Tomo I (Milano: Ulrich Hoepli, 1907), pp. 464-476 (132- 138) and H. Lammens, “Mahomet, fut-il sinc” Recherches de Science religieuse, II (1911), 25-53, 140-166.

    An important contribution to this discussion in the following decade was Tor Andrae’s biography of the Prophet, first published in 1932 (Engl. translation 1936); cf., his remark, “Mohammed regarded his call with the utmost sincerity”; Mohammed, the Man and his Faith (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1960 and reprint), p. 178

    Probably the most significant more recent discussion of “The Man and His Greatness” is found in W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad in Medina (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1956), pp. 321-335 (on his sincerity esp., pp. 325 f.) []

  8. In an address to the Harvard Islamic Society on the occasion of `Id al-Fitr. []
  9. Another important illustration is the ‘occasion’ of S. 53:1-20; see, e.g., Guillaume, Life, pp. 165 ff. []
  10. Other scholars joined them, e.g., A. Sprenger, The Life of Mohammad, from Original Sources, (Allahabad [India]: Presbyterian Mission Press, 1851), pp. 77 f., 105-114; Duncan Black Macdonald, The Religious Attitude and Life in Islam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1909; reprint, Beyrouth: Khayats, 1965), p. 33 []
  11. Heroes and Hero-Worship, pp. 41 f. and elsewhere (“At all moments the Flame-image glares in upon him; undeniable, then, there!?I wish you to take this as my primary definition of a Great Man…” [on Muhammad] “… an earnest confused voice from the unknown Deep.”) []
  12. Cf., Wilfred C. Smith, Questions of Religious Truth (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1967), pp. 37-62: (“Is the Qur’an the Word of God?”). The author discusses Cragg’s position on p. 57, with a reference to Cragg’s most widely known works. []
  13. Cf., W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad at Medina, p. 324. For this whole subject of the Western images of Islam, see especially Norman Daniel’s Islam and the West: The Making of an Image (Edinburgh: University Press, 1958); and Islam, Europe and Empire (Edinburgh: University Press, 1966). []
  14. A reference to the pet nightingale story and a short discussion of Muhammad’s tenderness towards and fondness of children can be found, e.g., in Watt’s Muhammad at Medina, pp. 322 f. An interesting and detailed comparison of various traditions on the nightingale incident is given by R. Marston Speight in his unpublished Ph.D. dissertation (The Hartford Seminary Foundation, 1970), “The Musnad of al-Tayalisi”, pp. 107-110 []
  15. T. H. Weir stated in his discussion of “Djahiliya” in The Encyclopaedia of Islam (1st ed. and Shorter Encyclopaedia) that the meaning of Jahiliyya is rudeness, roughness, boorishness rather than ‘ignorance.’ The article “Djahiliyya” in the new edition of the Encyclopaedia (by the Editors) points to the fact that the Qur’anic occurrence of jahil (nine times) and jahiliyya (four times) “scarcely permit of their sense being precisely determined.” []
  16. This is not literally true, for he left some milch camels, as well as certain possessions of land which — as stated before — accrued from his share of the booty. The commentators explain this discrepancy by saying that what is meant is that he possessed no capital which he utilized in trading. So we may still agree that the general picture accorded with the following mnemonic verse, listing the private possessions left by Muhammad:

    “The legacy of Taha (a popular name given to Muhammad) was: two rosaries, a copy of the Qur’an, a kohl-pot, two praying carpets, a hand-mill and a walking stick.” []

  17. By Muhammad Ahmad Jad al-Mawla, 5th printing, Cairo, 1961 []
  18. William Muir, The Life of Mahomet, iv (London: Smith, Elder and Co. 1861), 310 f.; William Muir, The Life of Mohammad (new and revised edition by T. H. Weir; Edinburgh: John Grant, 1912), p. 515. []
  19. Muhammad at Medina, p. 330 []

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