According to Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah (our earliest detailed biographical record on the life of Muhammad), the prophet of Islam attempted to kill himself because he believed he was possessed by an evil spirit. After having a nightmare about a spirit physically attacking him and forcing him to recite verses of the Qur’an, Muhammad decided that hurling himself off a cliff was the best option available:
Ibn Ishaq, p. 106—[Muhammad said,] “So I read it, and he departed from me. And I awoke from my sleep, and it was as though these words were written on my heart. (T. Now none of God's creatures was more hateful to me than an (ecstatic) poet or a man possessed: I could not even look at them. I thought, Woe is me poet or possessed—Never shall Quraysh say this of me! I will go to the top of the mountain and throw myself down that I may kill myself and gain rest. So I went forth to do so and then) when I was midway on the mountain, I heard a voice from heaven saying, “O Muhammad! thou art the apostle of God and I am Gabriel.”
Al-Tabari includes several narrations about Muhammad’s suicide attempts in his massive Ta’rikh al-Rusul wa’l-Muluk. In one version, Muhammad tries to kill himself before receiving his first Qur’anic revelation. During his yearly pagan religious retreat, a spirit appeared to him and said, “Muhammad, you are the Messenger of God.” Muhammad then fled to his wife Khadijah and begged her to cover him. After this, Muhammad considered killing himself:
Al-Tabari, Volume VI, p. 68—He (Muhammad) said: I had been thinking of hurling myself down from a mountain crag, but he appeared to me, as I was thinking about this, and said, “Muhammad, I am Gabriel and you are the Messenger of God.” Then he said, “Recite!” I said, “What shall I recite?” He took me and pressed me three times tightly until I was nearly stifled and was utterly exhausted; then he said: “Recited in the name of your Lord who created,” and I recited it. Then I went to Khadijah and said, “I have been in fear for my life.”
The great Hadith scholar Bukhari places Muhammad’s suicide attempts after the death of Khadijah’s cousin Waraqa. The motive is also different. In this version, Muhammad tries to kill himself multiple times because Gabriel was no longer bringing revelations.
Sahih al-Bukhari 6982— . . . But after a few days Waraqa died and the Divine Revelation was also paused for a while and the Prophet became so sad as we have heard that he intended several times to throw himself from the tops of high mountains and everytime he went up to the top of a mountain in order to throw himself down, Jibril would appear before him and say, “O Muhammad! You are indeed Allah’s Messenger in truth”, whereupon his heart would become quiet and he would calm down and would return home. And whenever the period of the coming of the Revelation used to become long, he would do as before, but when he used to reach the top of a mountain, Jibril would appear before him and say to him what he had said before.
Why did Muhammad attempt suicide? It’s certainly possible that all three accounts are correct, and that Muhammad simply had an extremely bad habit of deciding to kill himself whenever he was upset. It’s also possible that only one of the above versions is correct, and that Muhammad’s followers modified the story in different narrations in order to reduce the embarrassment. If we follow this path, we would have to conclude that Ibn Ishaq’s version (which happens to be the earliest) is the correct account, and that the version quoted from al-Tabari was watered down by having Muhammad merely contemplate suicide (though not actually attempting it), while Bukhari’s version was watered down by portraying Muhammad as depressed due to Gabriel’s absence (rather than the fear of demonic possession).
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