A. AN ASSESSMENT OF HIS PERSONALITY.
1. The Loyalty and Confidence of his Companions.
Since the inception of Islam the Muslim world has held to the unwavering conviction that Muhammad was the last and the greatest of the prophets. The Christian world, on the other hand, has expressed varied assessments of his character, ranging from one extreme to the other. In former times it was customary to hold that Muhammad was a conscious impostor, a devil-inspired false prophet whom the; infidel Turks; or, at best, "Mahometans", worshipped as their god. In more recent times the access the West has enjoyed to the early records of his life has produced a more objective response. Many consider that he was a sincere seeker after truth who introduced noble reforms into his society and is to be honoured according to the achievements and standards of his time. Some even concede that he was a true prophet, one whom God directed as he had inspired the other prophets from of old. The evangelical church, however, steadfastly rejects this view, if for no other reason than that he denied the deity and crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
These two denials, which strike at the whole foundation of the Christian faith, do seem to rule out the possibility that any Christian evaluation of his prophetic claims can produce anything other than a negative response and conclusion. Nonetheless, aware of the prejudices of our forefathers, it behooves us to assess the Prophet of Islam sincerely. A purely objective estimate of his character may not be possible, our convictions being what they are, but it is incumbent upon us to be as fair as we can be.
We can safely reject the view that Muhammad was a deliberate impostor. Throughout the twenty-three year period of his assumed ministry, he held to the unflinching conviction that he was called to be a prophet and that the revelations he was receiving were coming to him from above.
One of the best evidences of his subjective sincerity is the almost fanatical devotion of his companions to his mission. With only a few exceptions, those nearest to him, once converted, stood with him through triumph and defeat, trial and setback, poverty and persecution.
The intense faith and conviction on the part of the immediate followers of Mohammed is the noblest testimony to his sincerity and his utter self-absorption in his appointed task. (Ali, The Spirit of Islam, p. 22).
One of his earliest converts, Abu Bakr, was a leading man in Mecca and one whose devotion to Muhammad was as steadfast as it could be (as we have seen on the occasion of his concealment with Muhammad in the cave on Mount Thaur). Even when Muhammad proclaimed that he had been taken to Jerusalem and back in one night by the angel Gabriel, a claim which alienated some of his own followers, Abu Bakr's allegiance remained unshaken. (We will shortly hear more of this phenomenon). He was duly named as-Siddiq by Muhammad, meaning "the Faithful", a title he seems to have fully deserved. A generally sincere and upright man, his unflinching loyalty to Muhammad is strong evidence of the latter's single-mindedness of purpose.
I agree with Sprenger in considering 'the faith of Abu Bakr the greatest guarantee of the sincerity of Mohammed in the beginning of his career' - and, indeed, in a modified sense, throughout his life. (Muir, The Life of Mahomet, p. 56).
Even before his claim to prophethood Muhammad was highly esteemed for his integrity and earned the title al-Amin, 'the Trustworthy'. Judged relatively by the standards of his day, he appears to emerge without reproach; and there are many in the West today who refuse to challenge the worthiness of his personality further. Is the Christian compelled to assess him in the same spirit of relative objectivity? Do we leave the judgment of history upon his character to a jury of his contemporary peers?
2. A Relative or an Absolute Standard of Judgment?
It is so often said that Muhammad's character must be appraised purely in the context of his age and environment Seventh-century Arabia was a fairly primitive country and many things we would consider reprehensible, for example, raiding for booty, polygamy, etc., were regarded by the Arabs as perfectly normal and far from immoral or unethical. What right, therefore, do we have to judge Muhammad by any other standard than the relative values of his day?
Had Muhammad claimed to be nothing more than a local reformer or a prophet with a message purely for his own time and people, such a charge might be well-founded. But, by the end of his career, he had laid claim to being the greatest of all the prophets, God's universal messenger for all mankind a messenger with the final religion which was to supersede and eventually displace every other religion on earth.
Muslim writers accordingly know no limits in describing the alleged perfection of his virtues and the traditions of his life are saturated with eulogies exalting his personality to that of the greatest among men. This quote is symbolic of the claims made by almost all Muslim biographers of their prophet's course:
When such claims are made, it cannot fairly be said that he is only to be judged by the standards of his day.
The thesis that Muhammad was great by the standards of his day and race is dubious praise for one whom Tradition makes an exemplar for all time and all mankind. (Cragg, The Call of the Minaret, p. 187).
It is precisely at this point that the Christian attitude to Muhammad comes to the fore. "But, summoned up inevitably by his own special claim, silently there rises beside him . . . the figure of the Son of Man". (Gairdner, The Reproach of Islam, p. 75). Men like Gautama Buddha and Confucius may fairly escape a character analysis based on absolute standards but the Prophet of Islam, who elevated himself to at least equality with (if not superiority over) the founder of Christianity, is fairly exposed to a comparison with him at every turn. Jesus Christ was a man par excellence, one not only without error or sin, but the perfect man - a man endued with every worthy attribute to the full. He was one whose righteousness, love, holiness, honesty and purity were expressed to perfection. Muhammad invites comparison with him when he claims that he is his equal.
We are therefore fully justified in assessing his character by the absolute standards so wondrously manifested in the person of our Saviour, even more so when we find Muhammad seeking to displace him at many points.
How does Muhammad compare with Jesus? In the next section we shall briefly analyse the course of his ministry and compare it with that of Jesus Christ, and in the next two chapters will assess certain facets of his life and behaviour while at Medina. These two quotes fairly anticipate the obvious and, indeed, only possible conclusion that can be drawn:
The domestic life of Muhammad, if the general standard of oriental rulers of his time be taken into account, is moderate in indulgence, though of course the standard of a prophet claiming to supersede Jesus Christ yields a very different result. (Stanton, The Teaching of the Qur'an, p. 27).
3. Jesus and Muhammad - The Cross and the Hijrah.
It is not often realised how many similarities there are between the ministries of Jesus and Muhammad up to the point of Muhammad's departure from Mecca for Medina. As Jerusalem was the centre of Judaism at the time of Jesus. so Mecca was the focal-point of Arab paganism during Muhammad's life. In each city stood a cube-like structure to which the kinsmen of the founders of the world's two greatest religions came. In Jerusalem it was the Holy of Holies in the Temple precincts in Mecca it was the Ka'aba. Just as Jews came from all over to attend their feasts in Jerusalem (e.g. the Feast of the Passover, the Feast of the Tabernacles), so Arabs flocked to Mecca for the various fairs held around the city each year (e.g. the Fair of-Ukadh, etc.).
Jesus and Muhammad both rose from among their own people and yet both stood firmly against the religious practices of their kinsmen while acknowledging that the Lord of the holy sites in their chief cities respectively was the true Lord. Allah was the "Lord of the Ka'aba" but Muhammad opposed the idol-worship associated with the Arab shrine. Yahweh was indeed the true Lord of the Temple in Jerusalem but Jesus violently opposed the form of religion being practiced within its courtyards and walls. On at least two occasions he drove the moneychangers and those who sold sacrificial victims out of the Temple, accusing them of turning a place God had declared to be a "house of prayer" into a veritable "den of robbers" (Matthew 21.13). On the other occasion he accused them of making it a "house of trade" (John 2.16).
In both cases the cities rose in defiance of these men who promised nothing less than hell-fire to their most distinguished inhabitants (Matthew 23.33, Surah 54.43-48). Each came to a point of crisis. When Muhammad's covenant with the believers from the Aus and Khazraj was discovered by the Quraysh, they finally determined to make an end of him. Muhammad knew his life was no longer safe in Mecca - the point of decision had come. The Qur'an itself mentions the plot laid by the Meccans to kill him:
When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the chief priests among the Jews at Jerusalem finally took counsel together and made plans to kill him (John 11.53). Like Muhammad, he was faced with a moment of destiny - should he remain in Jerusalem and endanger his life or should he move out?
The analogy extends further. An unexpected way of escape from a foreign source timeously opened before both men. Rejected by his own tribesmen, the Quraysh, Muhammad was given a welcome and a new haven of security by men from other tribes to the north of his city. So Jesus too was suddenly presented with a new field of ministry and probable shelter as he entered Jerusalem for the last time, knowing the plans that were being laid against him. A number of Greeks came to him, willing to hear him (John 12.20-21). Once again a foreign people from the north promised a welcome relief from the now extreme designs of the chief priests. Even the circumstances were identical - a feast in Jerusalem, a fair in Mecca. The coincidences are striking.
Thus far the analogy goes but no further. Muhammad and Jesus took contrary decisions. The former took a pledge from each man from Medina to defend and protect his life, even if he should lose his own life in doing so. The latter renewed his pledge to give up his life so that many of his followers might live. When Jesus heard that the Greeks wanted to see him, he must have felt the same sense of relief that Muhammad felt in similar circumstances. But he knew his mission and the express purpose for which he had come into the world and immediately responded by saying:
Jesus came not to set up an earthly kingdom but to re deem the world and prepare the way for many to become heirs of a heavenly kingdom. Muhammad left for Medina to establish the ummah of Islam (Surah 2.143), the community of true believers, a "kingdom of God" on earth.
The Hijrah was, as we have seen, the pathway to jihad. Muhammad left Mecca only to take steps immediately to interrupt its trade and ultimately to conquer and subdue it. The sword was unsheathed to protect the fledgling Muslim community at Medina. As we have seen, convenient expedients were justified in the name of the establishment and progress of Islam. Rules, even God's own laws, could be bent whenever the Muslim ummah found itself in conflict with non-Muslim opponents. After Muhammad's death Abu Bakr, through many conflicts, re-established Islam in the Arabian peninsula and his successor, Umar, soon sent out armed forces to subdue the lands around Arabia. Very significantly the Qur'anic injunction to begin fighting (Surah 2.216) followed immediately after the Hijrah.
Muhammad employed the age-old method of establishing an earthly dominion - force of arms. At Badr he despatched many of his former enemies including the notorious Abu Jahl. The Qur'an itself proclaims vengeance on his other great enemy, his uncle Abu Lahab:
The later passages of the Qur'an give Muslims the right to take up arms against all-comers who threaten the Muslim ummah and to slay them wherever they be found (Surah 2.190-191). The book even contains an open licence to make war on all who do not acknowledge Islam, including Christians, until they "feel themselves subdued" (Surah 9.29).
Muhammad was a patient and tolerant preacher of monotheism and justice in Mecca but, after the Hijrah, became a ruler determined to sustain his power and the exclusive identity of his people, a theocratic community, by force of arms and by the subjugation of his enemies.
But when he was transferred into the atmosphere of Medinah, he offered very little resistance to the corrupting action of the new social position . . . The figure of Mohammed loses in beauty, but gains in power. (Caetani, "The Development of Mohammed's Personality", The Muslim World, Vol. 4, p. 364).
Not only could Jesus have found shelter among the Greeks but he could also have mustered the support of all in Galilee to establish his ministry (John 6.15). When faced with the crucial decision, however, he took the opposite one to that taken by Muhammad. The Prophet of Islam chose the Hijrah, the spring of jihad for the subjugation and, where necessary, the destruction of his enemies. Jesus chose the cross, the symbol of his love and the means of salvation for all who were by nature the enemies of God (Romans 5.10). When Pilate asked him whether he had pretensions to set himself up as a ruler of his people ("Are you the king of the Jews?" John 18.33), he gave a very important and striking answer:
"My servants would fight", he said, just as Muhammad's companions did to protect and establish his earthly ummah. But Jesus came to make the kingdom of heaven accessible to men on earth and to establish a spiritual people constituting one body over all the earth, not to be gathered into an earthly community to be protected from all other tribes and nations, but to be united in one spirit, secure and prepared for a kingdom ready to be revealed in the last time. How different his attitude to that of Muhammad!
Muhammad sought to conquer by force, Jesus by love. At times Muhammad wrought the destruction of his enemies. Jesus prayed that his might be forgiven and live:
As he hung on that cross, he was an apparent failure. It seemed his labours had been in vain. The Hijrah took Muhammad from the depths of disconsolation to the prime of success but the cross took Jesus to an early grave.
But even as his earthly course came to its close, its eternal, immeasurable effects were being realised. A thief crucified with Jesus, one who had no other hope of salvation, turned to him humbly requesting him to "remember me when you come into your kingdom" (Luke 23.42). The answer reveals all the glorious implications of the choice Jesus made for the salvation of many rather than the establishment of his rule in an earthly form and his own personal protection:
There are many Muslims who argue that their prophet's decision was justifiable and that his enemies deserved their fate. But how does his course at Medina compare with that one supreme manifestation of love and compassion at Calvary which knows no equal? Unfavourably, to say the least. On the other hand, we can comfortably meet the Muslims on their own ground by comparing the destinies of our respective founders.
The crucifixion of Jesus stands with his resurrection. The only historical record of his death on the cross testifies unambiguously to his resurrection to life after three days and his ascension to heaven forty days later. Who really succeeded in his mission - Muhammad, who lies dead and buried in Medina, or Jesus, who reigns in life in heaven above? The Hijrah led Muhammad to Medina, the seat of his earthly ummah. The cross led Jesus to resurrection and glory in the kingdom of heaven - the realm of eternal life.
Muhammad chose an earthly ummah and duly went the way of all flesh as his earthly body returned to dust in a city made of dust. Jesus preferred a heavenly kingdom and duly prepared the way for many as his heavenly body returned to heaven and a city which has eternal foundations, whose builder and maker is God. (Hebrews 11.10).
4. A Christian Evaluation of Muhammad's Character.
The awesome objective of Jesus' ministry and the outstanding sacrifice he made to achieve it stand as high above the course of Muhammad's ministry as the heavens are high above the earth. In no less a degree does the profound character of the Saviour of the world tower over the personality of the Prophet of Islam. A Muslim writer states:
This statement may be entirely consistent with the Muslim mentality of outward triumph and success but it is out of character with the marvellous standards and example set by the Son of man, who has achieved more enduring results through his true messengers who have spread the effects of his salvation by word of mouth rather than by the sword of war. (We exclude ventures such as the Crusades which were the very antithesis of all that Jesus preached and stood for. The propagation of Islam by "successful wars" is, however, fundamental to Islam as Sarwar duly shows).
The fruits and successes of their labours will be known and made manifest at the only place where the value of a man s life can be truly tested - at the judgment seat of God on a Day yet to be revealed. Kenneth Cragg suggests that it may be true that "too much is made of Muhammad's circumstances and too little of his obligations to the absolutes of every age" (The Call of the Minaret, p. 92). The question is not whether he had a generally commendable character. A Christian evaluation of his character rightly begins by asking whether his manner was exemplary in every way and at all times as Jesus' truly was. In this respect, as will be seen all the more in the following two chapters, he fails to meet the mark.
The specific character of Islam and the transcending path of salvation brought to erring sinners by Jesus Christ can be distinguished in many instances, but the following tradition offers a typical example:
The judgment was fair on legal grounds (Leviticus 20.10), but Muhammad's role can be compared with that assumed by Jesus when he was placed in a similar situation. When the Jewish doctors of the law produced a woman similarly self-condemned for adultery, Jesus immediately made her detractors examine themselves to see whether they were indeed worthy to stand as God's prosecutors, judges and executioners over her. "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her" (John 8.7), he replied. As they all went out, convicted of their own sinfulness, he graciously pardoned the repentant woman in these comforting words:
He had come to bring salvation to all and his own death to follow shortly was the ransom by which she was delivered from her prescribed fate. Here the whole difference between Islam and Christianity is fully revealed - the law enforced compared to grace freely bestowed. The Hijrah did not release Muhammad from the law, but the cross of Christ opened the door for repentant men and woman to obtain the forgiveness of their sins and a place in the eternal kingdom of heaven.
Even a fervent apologist for Muhammad was constrained to draw similar conclusions when comparing Muhammad with Jesus:
Perhaps the final judgment can be made to rest on the last statements made by Jesus and Muhammad respectively before they died. We have already seen how Jesus, at the last, sought the forgiveness and salvation of the Jews who had hated, opposed and finally crucified him. How unfavourably Muhammad's last recorded utterance compares:
"Perish the Jews and the Christians" - famous last words indeed! A Muslim valiantly says of his prophet "As to the Christians, he nearly killed himself for their sake. He loved them as no one has ever loved them before or after" (Sarwar, Muhammad: the Holy Prophet, p. 105). There is no substance in these words. They are out of place and the Prophet of Islam unworthy of their sentiments. They seem to be far more suited to the lowly man of Nazareth, except that he really was killed for their sake. Nevertheless the Muslim effort to apply to Muhammad praises due only to Jesus Christ perhaps indicates the awareness in Islam of the surpassing worth of the Christian Saviour - he who stands alone above all men of every age as the perfect example of love, righteousness, purity and truthfulness.
Muhammad and The Religion of Islam: Table of Contents