Click to View

The Nature of Muhammad's Prophetic Experience


1. The Early Visions and Experiences.

We have already examined the historical record of the manner in which the "revelation" came to Muhammad at first and now proceed to analyse the character of Muhammad's religious experience in greater detail.

While there is something sudden and dramatic about the first revelations, it is important to consider that Muhammad was not caught in his tracks, as it were, in the way that the Apostle Paul was confronted while journeying to Damascus to oppose the early Christian Church. For some time it had been his custom to retire to a cave on Mount Hira outside Mecca for solitary contemplation of the meaning of life and the pagan practices of his kinsmen.

Right from the beginning one discovers much that is subjective in the development of his conviction that he was called to be the messenger of his Lord. It is probable that the incident at the Ka'aba a few years earlier, when he was singled out to replace the sacred black stone in the house of Allah, had a profound effect on him and initiated the belief that he was marked out as the man to lead his people into the true worship of God. (Incidentally, when Muhammad had all the stone idols in the Ka'aba destroyed after the city had capitulated to him many years later, the black stone was spared and retained its ancient sanctity). It is hard to doubt, however, that the initial visions he received were genuine and real in one form or another. The Qur'an describes these manifestations in striking language:

In another passage the Qur'an again states explicitly that Muhammad had a definite vision: "And without doubt he saw him in the clear horizon" (Surah 81.23). Another verse states clearly that the vision was given by Allah himself: "We granted the Vision which we showed thee" (Surah 17.60). The confident manner in which Muhammad claimed that he had had at least two definite visions strongly suggests that he really did see a strange being on the horizon. He described the second vision in these words:

One of the early biographers of his life, Waqidi, was equally emphatic about these phenomena: "The first beginnings of Mahomet's inspiration were real visions. Every vision that he saw was clear as the morning dawn" (quoted in Muir, The Life of Mahomet, p. 49). What strengthens the suggestion that there was something very real, and not simply hallucinatory or, still less, fictitious, about these visions is not only the confident nature of Muhammad's claim but also the fact that he carefully confined these visions to just two which he had at the beginning of his course (being the occasions when Surahs 96.1-5 and 74.1-7 were revealed). If he had been a charlatan, he would probably have regularly embellished and increased his visionary claims as he went along.

Bell adds "The fact that he went back after all, and reasserted in Surah lxxxi that he had seen the messenger on the clear horizon, is I think an indication that something of the sort had really happened to him" (op. cit., p. 154). The second thing that tends to accredit these visions is Muhammad's initial reaction to them. Instead of boldly asserting that he had seen an angel of God, he was considerably disturbed for some time and questioned whether the early revelations were really coming from heaven.

This openly-expressed doubt about the source of the revelations strengthens all the more the suggestion that Muhammad really did see these two visions which took him somewhat by surprise. Nevertheless it is very interesting to find that Muhammad initially believed that these manifestations were probably demonic. A Muslim writer sets out his immediate reaction to them:

He feared that he had become a kahin (soothsayer) or, worse still, that he was majnun (possessed of a jinn, the Qur'anic name for a demon. The words both come from the same root letters and do not just mean that a person is mad, as is sometimes suggested, but actually demon-possessed).

The Qur'an itself states that the Quraysh specifically charged that Muhammad was indeed majnun - "a man possessed" (Surah 44.14 - in Surah 37.36 it is sha'irimmajnun, "a poet possessed") and that a jinn had seized him (Surah 34.8). On many occasions Muhammad is consoled in the Qur'an against such charges, for example: maa anta bini 'mati rabbika bimajnun - "Thou art not, by the grace of thy Lord, mad or possessed" (Surah 68.2, cf. also Surah 81.22), and is cleared of the charge that he is seized with a jinn (Surah 7.184). These constant declarations in the Qur'an that the revelations were not from diabolical sources yield the impression that Muhammad's fears in this respect were not confined just to the first two visions he had.

It has been customary in some Christian circles to claim that it was Satan himself who appeared to Muhammad and that he "revealed" the whole Qur'an to him piecemeal over the last twenty-three years of his life. Muslims naturally find this explanation intolerably offensive and, in our view, it is too simplistic to be summarily accepted. Nevertheless, having conceded the reality of the visions, we are bound to ask what the real nature of the phenomenon was. Muslims dogmatically claim that it was the angel Gabriel who came to Muhammad, yet the Qur'an only once refers to Jibril as the medium of the revelation (Surah 2.97) while stating elsewhere that it came down with the Ruhul-Amin, the Faithful Spirit (Surah 26.193). The identification of Gabriel as the Qur'anic messenger is significantly only made in a very late passage of the Qur'an after Muhammad had had many dealings with Jews and Christians. The very fact that Muhammad himself initially had feared that a demonic figure had appeared to him and that he compared his experiences with those of the poets in Arabia who were also believed to be possessed by jinn nonetheless gives considerable support to the suggestion that his visions were possibly occultic. It is also noteworthy that it took his wife Khadija and cousin Waraqa to persuade him otherwise. Muhammad's own uncertainty about the nature of his initial visions, and the fact that no later Qur'anic revelation was accompanied by such manifestations, strengthen the view that while the visions may have been real, they could well have been occultic rather than heavenly in character. No certain judgment of the nature of these visions can sincerely be made by anyone who does not accept the Muslim claim that the angel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad, and the question whether the Qur'an really had a divine origin can only be answered by a study of its contents and sources rather than the nature of Muhammad's prophetic experiences. Our conclusion, therefore, must be left until we treat this subject later in this book.

2. The Exoteric Character of the Revelations.

Although the visions ceased, it is recorded that the revelations of Qur'anic passages were invariably attested by outward, physical phenomena. Ayishah reported:

The other major traditions all say that the angel, when it appeared to Muhammad, did so in human form, though in the Qur'an we have already seen how strongly Muhammad claimed to have seen the angel only on the two specific occasions it mentions and the testimony of the Qur'an is more reliable than that of the Hadith. Another tradition says:

In another work we read that one of Muhammad's companions witnessed one of these occasions and reported that "The Prophet's face was red and he kept on breathing heavily for a while and then he was relieved" (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, p. 476). To Muslims these manifestations confirm the claim that Muhammad was receiving divine revelations, whereas many others have charged that he suffered from fits of epilepsy and that these were mistaken for prophetic phenomena. Muslim writers set out to refute this suggestion by various arguments. Under the heading "The Slander of Epilepsy", one says:

It is indeed true that epilepsy, as a simple disease, reduces the faculties of its victim and he not only forgets what happened to him but, even during the fit, does not know what he is doing. Another writer says:

Another favourite argument is that the phenomenon only occurred when Muhammad was receiving the revelations:

Rahman's first point is not well-founded. Early biographers state that Muhammad had strange experiences while he was being cared for by his wet-nurse, Halima. On one occasion he fell down in a kind of stroke and when he finally stood up his face was quite livid. Ibn Ishaq states that two men clothed in white had seized him and opened his chest.

The myth around the story is that two angels took out his heart, cleansed it of impurity, and replaced it in his body! It is doubtful whether the Christian Apostle had such a thing in mind when he said "purify your hearts" (James 4.8). Other traditions say the cleansing and removing of Muhammad's heart happened just before the mi'raj. When the story is stripped of its fanciful features, one is left with a record of psychic experiences occurring during Muhammad's youth.

That the foster-parents feared that he was possessed of a demon is confirmed in Ibn Ishaq's narrative and the clear evidence that Muhammad was subject to such attacks even in his youth does imply that the later phenomena were not entirely unusual. Nevertheless the two main arguments that epilepsy adversely affects its victims and that Muhammad's experiences were always accompanied by revelations do seem to refute the suggestion that his later effects were caused by natural epileptic fits (presuming, of course, that they did always coincide with the revelations. The truth may well have been adjusted to suit the theory).

It is not our purpose to pass judgment on these physical phenomena, but it should be pointed out that men can be subjected to a different type of seizure which very closely resembles epilepsy. During the life of Jesus a young boy was brought to him who was "an epileptic" (Matthew 17.15) and who suffered extreme forms of epilepsy (he would suddenly fall down, be convulsed. and be unable to speak). There is no doubt, however, that this epilepsy was not naturally but demonically induced as all three records of the incident (in Matthew 17, Mark 9 and Luke 9) state that Jesus exorcised the unclean spirit in the child and healed the boy. Without passing judgment on Muhammad, let it nevertheless be said that anyone subject to occultic influences could well find that seizures similar to epileptic fits would occur at appropriate times and, instead of causing a loss of memory, would have just the opposite effect and leave firmly induced impressions on the recipient's mind. Throughout the world missionaries have related cases of precisely this nature. To this day such phenomena are not uncommon among oriental ecstatics and mystics and they are widely reported.

Once again, no judgment is offered of Muhammad's experiences, but the point here made again tends to support Muhammad's initial fears that he was possessed of a jinn. It should also be said that we do not believe that Muhammad was crudely demon-possessed in the form that some unfortunately are. It is nevertheless true that "even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11.15) and it is our opinion, though not our judgment, that the visions and physical experiences that Muhammad had may well have been induced by occultic forces to confirm his confidence that he had been divinely commissioned, whereas the religion and book he left as a legacy to millions of men and women have jointly become remarkable stumbling-blocks to the acceptance of the one true revelation of God for this age as found in the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

3. The Esoteric Nature of Muhammad's Experiences.

Until recently Muslim writers and theologians had made no attempt to analyse the subjective side of Muhammad's prophetic experiences.

Therefore it has always been presumed that the Qur'an was mechanically dictated to him and that he was merely the instrument of the revelation. Anyone wishing to know about Muhammad's personality should therefore look into the Hadith, the traditions of his life and teachings. Yet, while much of the Hadith sheds valuable light on Muhammad, much of it is unreliable in that it has either been marvellously embellished or quite simply invented. The Qur'an is the one sure, faithful record of Muhammad's life, however vague it may be at times about the details of the incidents it refers to. One cannot help feeling that the Muslim world, in denying that the text of the Qur'an has anything to do with Muhammad's own experience and the conscious development of his prophetic concept, is really missing so much of the true character of the man.

The Biblical writing-prophets and apostles not only record divine truths but, in doing so, give expression to the manner in which these truths moulded and enlightened their own developing spiritual perceptiveness. In this way the realisation of the counsels of God in the human experience are best recorded for the tuition of the human race. If the Qur'an was purely a dictation, entirely independent of Muhammad's own personal consciousness, it cannot bridge the gap between the character of the divine nature on the one hand and the human spirit and experience on the other. Yet an open reading of the book leaves one with the firm impression that it conveys as much of the growing prophetic consciousness of its mediator as of anything else.

We see the warner of the Arabs rise to the status of the universal messenger of God for all mankind, one who first considered such matters as the Day of Judgment, the worship of the one true God, and the destiny of all men to heaven or hell as of supreme importance, later considering his own domestic affairs and personal problems to be of equal weight, giving them much prominence in the later passages of the Qur'an.

In no way do we suggest that he consciously and deliberately composed the Qur'an - he genuinely believed that the passages were being revealed to him, yet they clearly found expression in his consciousness rather than in his ears. Therefore, while distinguishing between the thoughts of his own mind and the Qur'anic revelations, Muhammad nevertheless did personally enter into the latter and allowed them to give shape to his own developing prophetic consciousness. The common Qur'anic word for revelation is wahy and the Qur'anic revelation itself is described in these words:

This translation is not strictly correct. The common word for sending down in the Qur'an is nazzala in its various forms, but in this verse the words are In huwa illa wahyuyyuwha, meaning literally, "it is nothing but an inspiration inspired", a wahy, which is awha to Muhammad (the words are from the same root letters and are simply the forms of the noun and verb respectively). The word has interesting meanings when considered in its contexts in the Qur'an.

Bell continues by pointing out how the word is so used in the Qur'an. In Surah 16.68 it is said "And thy Lord taught the Bee to build its cells in hills, on trees, and in (men's) habitations". The word for "taught" is again awha, meaning that the impulse so to build is "suggested" to the instinctive tendencies of the bee. It cannot be said that God revealed this mechanically to the bee by way of direct verbal revelation. So again:

Bell duly concludes "We are justified therefore in concluding that, at any rate in the early portions of the Qur'an, wahy does not mean the verbal communication of the text of a revelation, but is a "suggestion", "prompting" or "inspiration" coming into a person's mind apparently from outside himself" (op. cit., p. 148). Another writer likewise says:

Only in recent times have some bolder Muslims ventured into the subjective side of Muhammad's experiences. While the following summary may not be symbolical of orthodox teaching, it appears to be a far truer assessment of Muhammad's own concept of the revelation:

It therefore seems that, while Muslim dogmatics have always claimed that a mechanical dictation of the Qur'an was made to Muhammad, the truth is that the book is very much the product of the experience Muhammad himself had of his developing prophetic character and that the passages are codifications in his own words of the striking perceptions he experienced which he believed were being directly suggested to him from external sources, coupled as they were with his regular side-effects.

It is not our view that God was the author of the Qur'an but at the same time we do not believe that it was fraudulently composed by Muhammad consciously as its author. A study of its sources will confirm that this statement is true in one sense: "That Mohammed was really the author and chief contriver of the Koran is beyond dispute" (Sale, The Preliminary Discourse to the Koran, p. 68). Nevertheless it is not true to say that Muhammad deliberately forged the book as a revelation and, as a pious impostor, consciously attributed it to Allah. His subjective sincerity forbids such a conclusion.

There is no concession to Islam in these statements. Watt rightly adds: "To say that Muhammad was sincere does not imply acceptance of the Qur'an as a genuine revelation from God; a man may without contradiction hold that Muhammad truly believed that he was receiving revelations from God but that he was mistaken in this belief" (op. cit.). Another writer puts the matter well when he says:

We can conclude by saying that our Christian sense of honesty and fairness demands that we give credit where credit is due and that we allow Muhammad a considerable degree of personal sincerity in his subjective confidence that the Qur'an was a revelation from God himself. Nevertheless we find that the actual process of the revelation was equally subjective and characterised in good measure by Muhammad's own personal temperament. The final form it takes tells us as much about his own personality as it does about anything else and an analysis of the development of the Qur'anic text will show ultimately just how much the finished product bears the mark of its human mediator rather than its alleged divine author. (A study of its origins and sources, which follows, will prove conclusively that Muhammad was the real author of the book, notwithstanding his sincerity).

4. The Development of the Qur'anic Revelation.

So persuaded was Muhammad that the "suggestions" he was constantly receiving were from God that he openly claimed that, although he could perform no signs and wonders as other prophets had done, the Qur'an itself was a miracle, a true mu'jizah. The word is only applied to the miracles of prophets and has the root meaning making weak, implying that such a sign weakens the opposition of the prophet's opponents and enemies. The miracles of others, such as saints, are called karamat. Nevertheless it should be noted that neither word appears in the Qur'an which always uses the word ayat, signs, for miracles (and also speaks of the bayyinat, evidences of Jesus, in Surah 5.113).

The writer, a strong defender of Muhammad, merely echoes the conviction of the Muslims throughout the ages. A study of certain aspects of its development, however, shows not only how much the mind of Muhammad is impressed on the book, but equally how he, perhaps sub-consciously, moulded its form and content. Firstly, it happened occasionally that Muhammad's close companion Umar would venture to give him some advice on a subject and, very soon afterwards, the same advice suddenly became part of the revelation. Ibn Merdawiyya used to say:

To this day within the Ka'aba precincts there is a spot called maqami-Ibrahim, the station of Abraham, where every Muslim should pray at least once during the pilgrimage. It is said that Umar and Muhammad were walking around the Ka'aba when Muhammad suddenly stopped and said, "this is the place where Abraham prayed after building the Ka'aba". Umar then suggested, "should we not take it ourselves as a place for prayer?" Muhammad answered that nothing like this had been revealed to him but, lo and behold, that very night this verse came to him:

One of the major authors of Hadith literature gives the following tradition with reference to this verse and other similar occasions where Umar's advices promptly became part of the developing revelation:

One cannot help being struck by the words "My Lord agreed with me in three things". The striking feature of all these incidents is not only the fact that Allah gave the same advice to Muhammad that Umar had given, but also that he always gave it just after Umar in each case. The coincidences are found not only in the content of the revelations but also in the timing of their disclosure! It seems that Umar's advices struck Muhammad as particularly sound and, in his own subjective way, he allowed them to be formed in his mind in the form which all the other "revelations" were coming to him and correspondingly declared them to be such.

There is yet another occasion recorded where the advice of Umar was once again promptly matched by a similar revelation containing very much the same advice that he had given:

These incidents all very strongly support the contention that the Qur'anic text is, in so many ways, an expression of the mind of Muhammad rather than the dictated words of Allah. Secondly, Muhammad's experiences and the concept he had of his own prophethood are remarkably paralleled in the case of Mani, the celebrated false prophet who at one time obtained so much influence in Persia (Tisdall, The Original Sources of the Qur'an, p. 184).

Mani also believed that someone was crucified by the Jews in place of Jesus which is also the teaching of the Qur'an (Surah 4.157). Significantly he also claimed to be the Comforter promised by Jesus - a claim made universally by Muslims today on behalf of Muhammad in pursuance of the Qur'anic claim that Muhammad's advent was predicted by Jesus (Surah 7.157, 61.6).

Like Muhammad Mani also claimed that messengers had been sent to every nation. One cannot help again concluding that the claims of this man had reached Muhammad's ears and that they too were absorbed into his own unique thought-process as applying to himself and thus soon became a part of the revelation as well.

The third aspect of the development of the Qur'anic revelation that strikes us is the manner in which very convenient passages were revealed to Muhammad at opportune times. We have already considered a number of these, namely the justification of his marriage with Zaynab and the freedom to absolve himself from an oath and to take whichever wife he chose at any time without following the strict order he had previously observed. The timely Qur'anic sanction of the Nakhlah raid during a month in which fighting was prohibited is another typical example.

We must nevertheless allow for the fact that, while the Qur'an is believed to be the uncreated Word of Allah, Muhammad did obviously believe that it was "applicable to the changing circumstances of his own situation" (Jeffery, The Qur'an as Scripture, p. 80), and that, in a very special way, the revelations were not only intended to cover the spectrum of history and destiny to come but also the developing experience of his own prophethood. So the Qur'an has many passages where deliberate guidance is given for particular events in Muhammad's life and comments are made on battles, etc. which had just taken place. These particular passages became known as al-asbabun-nuzul, occasions of revelation, and no exception can be taken to the nature of the majority of these passages. (The prophets and apostles of old frequent! received divine guidance for immediate situations. The messages given in such specific cases were to be distinguished from more general revelations. In the New Testament, the Greek word rhema is usually used for the former and logos for the latter). On the other hand, as in the examples we have quoted, we cannot help but see how expediently Muhammad produced revelations to help him get over awkward situations whenever these arose. The tenet that appropriate revelations could come to deal with contemporary events in Muhammad's life is fair in principle, but it gave scope for the release of convenient passages justifying his actions when these could not be excused in any other way.

The study of Muhammad's prophetic experience and his concept of prophethood is a complex one, nonetheless it consistently produces the impression that much of the Qur'anic text is a reflection of his own personality. His image is so stamped on the whole unfolding development of the revelation that we must conclude that, while he believed the book was made known to him from above, it really is an expression of his own experiences and thoughts. One writer says:

The marked relationship between Muhammad and the Qur'an tends rather to suggest that the book is the product of his own contemplations and an expression of the developing perceptions of his mind. The dogma that the Qur'an was dictated to Muhammad without his personality being involved in any way far too simplistically overlooks the obvious connection between the two. It does seem to be a valid assumption that the Qur'an is, in a very real way, Muhammad's own book and one which ultimately tells us more of his complex personality and convictions than any other record we have of his remarkable life and assumed prophetic course.

At the same time it is noteworthy that the unique character of his concept of revelation is found in the style and nature of the Qur'an itself. To Muhammad, the prophet is merely an instrument to whom the revelation comes in a book form, and God himself is always the author of the book and every verse in it, even though these may finally be expressed in the prophet's own words after he had assimilated the thrust of the messages being suggested to him.

This particular attitude led perforce to the precept that all the prophets had been called and inspired in the same way. In the Qur'an we find each of them recast in the Muhammadan mould - a book is revealed to them in which God is always the author. The Injil, the Gospel, is a book revealed to Jesus in which God is the author. So likewise the Tawrat to Moses and the Zabur to David. While Muhammad 'a prophetic consciousness may possess an unusual character when viewed in the light of the Biblical concept of revelation, the Qur'an deftly removes the contrast by superimposing his concept upon the whole course of prophetic history.

The striking feature of the Biblical prophetic essence that we find lacking in the Qur'an is the principle that the prophets were not only commissioned to call men to the good but also to pave the way for the coming Messiah, the Redeemer of the world, whose advent they regularly foretold. Here is the real heart of the difference between the two concepts - and one which unfortunately works to the detriment of Islam and its assessment of the prophetic office.

Muhammad and The Religion of Islam: Table of Contents

Click to View