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“Was Muhammad a Prophet?”
Lots of people down through history have claimed to be prophets. There are people in the world today who claim to be prophets. But their messages contradict each other, so they can’t all be speaking for God. This means that we have to examine their messages to see who’s really speaking for God. And there are three main possibilities we have to consider. First, the person might be getting revelations from his own mind. He might be deliberately inventing revelations, or he might be insane. But it’s clear that some so-called revelations have a purely human origin. Second, the person might be getting revelations from demonic sources. He’s actually receiving revelations, these revelations just don’t come from God. They come from somewhere else. Third, someone who claims to be a prophet may genuinely be receiving revelations from God, in which case we should believe him.
So it’s important to examine Muhammad’s claims in light of these three possibilities. Did his revelations come from his own mind? Did they come from demons? Did they come from God? Let’s think about the evidence.
When we ask ourselves what evidence there is that Muhammad was getting his revelations from his own mind, we find that Islam really seems like a religion that came from the mind of a seventh-century Arabian caravan trader, because Islam is basically a collection of teachings and practices that were present in Arabia during Muhammad’s time. Jewish monotheism had spread into many communities in Arabia, along with biblical and non-biblical stories about Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. Teachings about Jesus and Mary that were popular in certain Christian cults were being taught in Arabia, things like Jesus speaking at birth, Jesus giving life to clay birds, Mary giving birth under a palm tree, and so on. The Sabians, who are mentioned in the Qur’an, prayed at all five of the times Muslims pray during their daily prayers, and they recited a creed—“La illaha ilallah.” Muslims recite this creed today. Many of the polytheists of Arabia performed ablutions (these are ceremonial washings); they took an annual pilgrimage to Mecca; they circled the Ka’aba; they kissed the black stone that supposedly fell from heaven. All of these teachings and practices became a part of Islam, which means that Islam is exactly the sort of religion we would expect to arise in seventh-century Mecca. So we have good reasons to think that Islam had a human origin—the mind of a man deeply affected by the teachings and practices that surrounded him.
But we should also look to see if there might be something darker at work. Here we find plenty of evidence suggesting that forces beyond Muhammad were involved in his teachings.
We know from Muslim records that when Muhammad began receiving revelations, his first impression was that he was demon-possessed. We also know that after his experience in the cave, he became suicidal and tried to hurl himself off a cliff. According to the earliest Muslim sources, Muhammad was tricked into delivering a revelation from the devil; these are the so-called “Satanic Verses,” where Allah gave Muslims permission to pray to three pagan goddesses. Muhammad revealed these verses as part of the Qur’an, but he later came back and said that Satan had deceived him. We also know from Muslim sources that Muhammad claimed that he was a victim of black magic—a spell that gave him delusion thoughts and false beliefs.
So, Muhammad’s first impression of his revelations was that he was demon-possessed; his revelations made him suicidal; and even Muslim sources claim that he delivered a revelation from the devil and that he was a victim of black magic. It seems that we don’t just have evidence that Muhammad’s revelations had a human origin; we also have evidence of spiritual problems.
The question now is whether there’s any evidence that Muhammad’s revelations came from God. Now the Qur’an offers two main arguments for Muhammad’s status as a prophet. The first is what I call the “Argument from Literary Excellence.” The claim here, which we find over and over again in the Qur’an, is that the Qur’an is so wonderfully written, it must be from God. So Muhammad’s main argument is that the poetry he was delivering was so wonderful, it could only come from God. There are two main problems with this argument: One, even if something is wonderfully written—so wonderfully written that it can’t be imitated—this tells us absolutely nothing about whether it’s from God. If we can’t write poems like T. S. Eliot, or plays like Shakespeare, or books like Charles Dickens, this doesn’t mean that Eliot, and Shakespeare, and Dickens are prophets of God. It would only mean that they had unique literary styles. Two, I’ll go ahead and say it, the Qur’an is awful. I’m someone who reads a lot, and I’ve never read a book as awful and boring and disorganized as the Qur’an. I agree with the late philosopher Antony Flew who said: “To read the Qur’an is a penance rather than a pleasure.” He said that reading the Qur’an is penance; it’s a kind of punishment. So the Argument from Literary Excellence fails completely.
The second main argument for Islam is the “Argument from Biblical Prophecy.” The Qur’an claims that there are prophecies about Muhammad in the Torah and the Gospel. What’s the problem here? Well, according to both the Torah and the Gospel, Muhammad was a false prophet. The criteria for a true prophet laid down in both the Torah and the Gospel rule out Muhammad, so we can’t even take this argument seriously.
Other arguments for Islam are even weaker, which means we have no good evidence that Muhammad’s revelations come from God. But we do have good reasons to think that at least some of his revelations had a purely human origin, and that others may even be demonic. We can only conclude that Muhammad was a false prophet, and that anyone who wants to follow the truth will have to look somewhere other than Islam.