In my studies of Islam, other religions and Christianity I have come across a variety of interpretations and theories that have evolved from Scripture. I may be taking some liberties in what follows as I attempt to provide a perspective on Muhammad’s Quran and potential pathways to understanding what influenced Muhammad to recite this document as it is, which others transcribed, much of the transcription and certainly the canonization of the Quran occurring after his death. This is not an attempt to mock Islam or Muhammad, but to put a human face and human elements into what may have been. It is my view, one admittedly, of many, but what is for me a developing theory and the theme has become more consistent.
Intelligent and Human
Muhammad was a very intelligent person. He was taught well and was exposed to many religious ideas. From an early age, pre-teen, he traveled with his uncle in trade caravans on routes from Mecca to Syria. Along those routes he journeyed through many of the areas of Jesus, Jewish and Christian history. He accepted the concept of one god. The principal input he received, I believe, came from the Old Testament and the New Testament, but also from writings of early Christian thinkers such as Augustine, Arius, Julian of Eclanum, Marcion, Diocletion, Donatus, Eusebius of Caesarea, Irenaeus of Lyons, and Pelagius, among others. He was informed on the development of Christianity and of the revelation and influence of Constantine. He was learned also in the classical authors such as Plato and Cicero. Yet he was an Arab and knew well his lineage from the Biblical Abraham and his first son, born of Hagar – a maidservant, Ishmael. As an Arab he wanted to provide the story of a monotheistic faith he was conditioned to accept, but from the viewpoint of the culture in which he was raised. He wanted and he wanted his people to know more about who they were and how they came to be.
Far south of Jerusalem, in Mecca, his tribe, the Quraish, was responsible for maintaining a sacred shrine containing a meteoric stone that symbolized multiple tribal ideals. The shrine also contained many idols (360 or so by some reports), figurines or other reminders, of the focus of the attention of each tribe, a pagan goulash. Yet the structure, the Ka’aba was for all to come to honor their god. Even before Islam there was a pilgrimage to this location, a time when safety was assured for those wishing to visit this shrine. The pilgrimages were good for the local economy as souvenirs were sold in all likelihood representing the various idols and the Ka’abe itself. The location was believed to be the place where Ishmael having been asked along with his mother to leave Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, lived.
Sarah had a problem having Hagar in view. Her disbelief haunted her and Hagar and Ishmael was a constant reminder. When God informed Sarah at a very old age she would have a child, she laughed feeling it was not possible and did not accept what God told her. Then when in her 90’s she indeed gave birth to Isaac she knew she had transgressed; she should have believed as did her husband Abraham. But even he went along with Sarah’s suggestion to bed with Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian servant, so he would have a son, preserve his lineage. Hagar and Ishmael were consigned to the dessert and water was lacking. It was at the site of what became the Ka’aba memorial that Ishmael discovered water, an oasis, and their survival was assured. Ishmael thus became the founder of many tribes, fulfilling a blessing and assurance God gave Abraham. Muhammad focused on the roots of his people.
It is interesting to me that the Old Testament is not a companion document to the Quran. So many stories from the Old Testament are referred to and mentioned, changed in some ways, yet the book itself is not commonly used, if at all. The Quran speaks of Abraham and Ishmael, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Moses, Noah, Jonah, Jesus and others (some 50 references). It seems obvious that Muhammad knew of these persons and their history. In 1 Kings 19:9 there is reference to Elijah spending the night in a ‘cave.’ In that cave the ‘word of the Lord came to him.’ The stories in all likelihood were relayed to him verbally, as he was illiterate, and what is reflected in the Quran is a matter of his recall. It is my view also that his recall may have been tainted with his desire to tell history in a fashion favorable to his people.
The human element embodied in the Quran, and other writings ascribed to Muhammad (the Sunnah and Hadiths), may be somewhat personalized too, concepts that make a man’s life, his life choices, more acceptable and potentially universal. When all the influences and his conclusions, inspired and supported as they may have been in the revelations (I have called them dreams) he received while in a ‘cave’, are recited and recorded and in turn used as a prescription for living and worshipping god, then acted upon and charismatically shared with others, a following can result and a religion can emerge. Muhammad is not alone in his approach. Joseph Smith has his own story-line, with a similar composite of background data, and his claim to have discovered two golden tablets and transcribed the hieroglyphics they contained, along with his own personal life experiences and/or desires, to produce the Book of Mormon. His charismatic nature brought many to follow him and aide in the build-up of a growing religion. The tablets were subsequently lost – disappeared.
Muslims – Guardians of the Bible
Muhammad saw the Bible as contaminated by man, at least as to the view from his scenic overlook. He saw himself, inspired by Allah, eliminating the contaminates. But allow me to quote from the Quran, sura 29:46, “And argue not with the People of the Book except by what is best, save such as them as act unjustly. But say: We believe in that which has been revealed to you, and our God and your God is One, and to him we submit.” The People of the Book are Jews and Christians for which this statement says ‘have no disagreement.’ It is quite clear, and thus no disagreement means no contradiction. And ‘that which has been revealed’ is the Bible, the Word revealing God; the Muslim’s god (Allah) and the Trinity – ‘your God’ – are ‘One.’ This sura certainly makes no claim as to the errors of the Bible, indeed it provides acceptance. English translations of the Quran use the “Reminder” in reference to the Bible. In one of the most popular translations, by Maulana Muhammad Ali (1st ed. 1917, since redesigned, 2002, publisher: Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha’at Islam Lahore, Inc., Dublin, Ohio, USA) I refer to a footnote on pg. 542, to sura 16:43a, “By the followers of the Reminder are generally understood the Jews and the Christians….” It is the ‘Reminder’ that the Quran notes Muslims must also protect, as do all Christians in that alterations to the Word (by intent, purpose or revelation of God’s Plan), as “its Guardian.” A reading of sura 15:9, “Surely We have revealed the Reminder, and surely We are its Guardian.” The Quran is seen in these verses as fulfilling the Old and New Testaments. In confirmation of this truth I direct the reader to sura 21:7, “And we sent not before thee any but men to whom We sent revelation; so ask the followers of the Reminder if you know not.” Thus as confirmation Muslims are told to ask Christians, ask Jews, ask “the followers of the Reminder.” The only conclusion, possibly, that can be drawn from this discussion is either that the Quran contradicts itself, or Muhammad’s thinking varied, or the Bible is true and accepted as the revealed Word of God.
Incarnation and Trinity
Muhammad was troubled by the concept of Incarnation and the Trinity, as many have been through the history of the church. These ideas are incongruous to many, yet alone are foundational in the Bible and to all Christians. One way of seeing the Quran is a representation of what Christianity ought to be for Muslims, thus differing with the troubling concepts to establish a personal way of thinking. Possibly it was Muhammad hearing arguments from Arius, arguments rejected at the Council of Nicaea (325CE – in favor of Athanasian Trinitarianism). It is his prescription for what Christianity should be and as modified it is Islam. It was a religion for Arabs (who only represent 20% of Muslims today). Marcion (early Christianity) attempted to modify the Bible, cutting out parts not in concert with his view, wherein he saw the Christian God as a better God than the Judaic God. To do so he needed to make alterations. Were Muhammad’s revelations and words from Allah a new narrative that fit the story he wanted told of the children of Ishmael? In the book Heresy by Alister McGrath (2009, HarperOne, NY, NY) he might ask is it “faulty exposition” or “textural emendation”, “sophistry vs. the knife”?
The Incarnation defined is the nature of a person being both human and divine, that of Christ. Christ is the only one ever to be of that nature, his essence the same as God, not separate. If God saves, how can then Christ also save, unless Christ and God are one. That was a big problem for Muhammad (others too). He accepted Christ as a Prophet, a great person and a leader, yet not God. He shared the input provided by Allah via the angel Gabriel that the crucifixion was a fake. There was a substitute for Christ on the cross – possibly Simon of Cyrene. In classic Greek mythology there have been heroes and heroines replaced by “doubles” when death was imminent. Muhammad may have obtained this idea from other historical accounts, such as that of Euripides 5th century BC story of Helen of Troy – a phantom (eidolon) took her place, or Abraham and Isaac – his sacrifice replaced by a ram, a last minute substitute, or from the Sethian Gnostics – suggesting Christ did not die in reality, but in appearance. However a reading of John 1:14 clearly states that Christ is “the Word made flesh and dwelt among us.” – incarnate.
The book of John opens, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Inpired, breathed, the Word, the Bible, was an instrument by which God enabled humans to get to know him. Later in that same part of John, vs. 1:14, we see emerge the concept of Jesus as God, one in the same, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” From this Apostle, in his own writing, we seen the Incarnate introduced, Jesus, son of the Father, the Father in the flesh, human and divine – God.
Later in the book of John the Holy Spirit is promised by Jesus, completing the Trinity. Jesus is speaking with his disciples, vs. 14:1, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” He is telling them he will be leaving and preparing a place for them in heaven. They, Thomas speaking, do not understand and ask, vs. 14:5, “how can we know the way?” to which Jesus relies that by knowing Him you know the Father and thus you know the Way. vs. 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Still some concern, expressed by Philip wanting to see the Father, answered by Jesus saying, vs. 14:9- , “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father….I am in the Father and …the Father is in me.” Jesus then informs them that in his absense, when he is gone, that there will be, vs. 14:16-17, “…another Counselor, to be with you forever – the Spirit of truth.” This Spirit will never be seen as he dwells (vs. 14:17) “with you and will be in you,” as the Holy Spirit living within. The realization of all that is said, the Trinity, comes at the ascension and 10 days later, the day of Pentacost, vs. 14:20, “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” The connector is “truth” as the Father is full of grace and Truth, Jesus is the way and the Truth, and as Counselor we have the Spirit of Truth.
The Quran addresses the Spirit of Truth, thus Muhammad well understood this message from the book of John. However it was not pleasing to his ear, as he, as some have suggested, saw himself as the Counselor, the Comforter, the Holy Prophet, the last prophet following Jesus, thus altering the Word of God. He could not be the Counselor as the Counselor will never be seen. Sura 17:81 states “The Truth has come and falsehood vanished….”, and from the footnotes of Maulana Muhammad Ali (his translation of The Holy Quran), pg. 580, “The advent of the prophet (Muhammad) is here spoken of as the advent of the Truth, in reference to the prophesy in John 16:13….The vanishing of falsehood…(occurred when) falsehood finally disappeared from Makkah (Mecca) when the Prophet (Muhammad) entered it as a conqueror….” and cleared the Ka’aba of the idols. Another reference can be found in sura 61:6, the Quran saying that Jesus informed the people of Israel there will be a Messenger after me, “him name being Ahmad.” The footnotes (pg. 1087, The Holy Quran, trans. by Maulana Muhammad Ali) ” That our Prophet (Muhammad) was known by two names Muhammad and Ahmad is a well-known fact in history.” Admittedly I am most troubled by such a claim by the Muslims. Muhammad is not, Jesus is the Comforter and as the Holy Spirit is not seen, and guides man to all truth. Truth is known, what is right and wrong is truth and the mind of man commands such truth via the Spirit; it is known. What is right is instinctive and blessed by the Lord.
In an earlier piece on Understanding Islam I wrote about the Trinity (Part 9) taking some liberties and probably simplifying the dilemma suggesting Allah was also called by many personality types, as God is seen by some in the Trinity. Admittedly it can be a bit more complex. It goes to the issue noted above of Incarnation. There are those that see the concept of 3 as 1 irrational, and that may have been the case for Muhammad. His dreams may have provided confirmation of his reasoning. Yet, the Incarnation and the Trinity are connected. If there was to be one god then Deism is supported, but the Trinity holds more sway as having the living God allow for himself to be an example to mankind. The Quran sees the Trinity as three separate persons – God, Jesus and Mary. In so doing Christians worshipping Jesus, a person not God, would be tantamount to worshipping idols. Mary is substituted for the Spirit; the Spirit being as claimed by Islamists, in reference to the Counselor that followed Christ, Muhammad.
There were sects that had a high regard for women, not a concept fully embraced by Muhammad (or other tribes at that time), or even the likes of Aristotle or Tertullian. But there was an early Christian heretical movement called Collyridianism whose adherents apparently worshipped Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a goddess. Muhammad may have known of this sect and ascribed this awareness to the inclusion of Mary in the Islamic interpretation of the Christian’s Trinity.
Christianity in the middle-east may not have achieved they same degree of coherence as in the western areas (today’s Europe) and thus what was portrayed in the Arabian Peninsula may have contained misconceptions yet to be fully rationalized. The writings of Augustine may not have been as readily available as others – such as the documents found that are the Nag Hammadi collection (found in the vicinity). Could Muhammad have been confused between orthodox Christian thinking and heretical Christian concepts known at his time? He may have heard the variations, choosing that which most appealed to him.
Jesus and Muhammad – From Arius
Even after the first council of Nicaea the proclamations of Arius were still being debated, having been struck down at this first gathering of bishops from many western and eastern churches at the request of Constantine (325CE). However upon review the stream of thought of Arius seems prevalent in the Quran – a possible consideration by Muhammad.
Arius view of Christ:
a.) above other creatures (a creature, human, not divine),
b.) Not God,
c.) knows God indirectly (as would a human),
d.) no direct bridge to God, not as an intercessor between man and God,
e.) cannot provide reliable knowledge of salvation, and
f.) Christ as a mediator is only prophetic – superior in quality to other humans, but equal in kind.
And if one were to compare Muhammad, as represented as the Messenger of Allah, he would:
a.) be superior to others and a leader of Islam,
b.) Not God – human,
c.) knows Allah indirectly, thru the angel Gabriel and dreams,
d.) not a direct bridge to Allah,
e.) cannot provide reliable knowledge of salvation, and
f.) Muhammad is as a mediator only a prophet, superior in quality to other humans, but equal in nature.
(I credit Heresy, by Alister McGrath for much of this interpretation as it relates to Arius). Quoting McGrath, “Arian Christianity is much closer to Islam that to orthodox Christianity, in relation both to its notion of God and to its understanding of the religious role of its founder. Its concept of absolute divine monarchia has important political associations in that it points to an analogy of absolute authority on earth and in heaven.” (pg. 150)
The Quran seems less forgiving that the Bible. The emphasis appears to have a strong adherence to an eye-for-an-eye principal. Again where may this have come from, indeed one might look to the works of Cicero (106-43bc). His view of God as ‘righteous’, or as ‘judge’ is to give someone what they deserve – give them their due – whatever they have coming. According to Alister McGrath, from reading the Bible, “the ‘justice of God’ (the Trinitarian God) was quite distinct from human justice.” (pg. 182, Heresy). The idea of justice of God = “primarily refers to God’s fidelity to the gospel promises of grace, irrespective of the merits of those to whom the promise was made.” (pg. 183, Heresy). Allah’s justice may then follow more the Ciceronian view than the Biblical view – or take more elements from the Old Testament (which were examples of God’s wrath) than the love and salvation of Jesus Christ (as God) offered in the New.
We can revert back also to the concept of Laws, the balance of the scales of good and evil. This was a Judaic view, but shared in the Quran as well. But as I believe Augustine once noted if you place on the scales a sizable amount of good on one side and a sizable amount of evil on the other, it may balance, yet there is still a great deal of evil present. Adding just a touch more good may tilt the scale towards salvation, but then what about all that evil? This is where the greatest difference lays, through the saving grace, the revelation of Christ whose sacrifice for mankind gave us the freedom, knowing that we cannot live a sin free life as demonstrated by the incarnate Jesus. God revealed himself in the form of Jesus, and took the punishment we all deserve. This is Grace and Mercy. This is forgiveness. Christians find revelation in Christ. Muslims find revelation in the Quran. The godly, those obeying the Laws, those that do good, more good than evil, they have an opportunity, at the whim of Allah, to be saved.
I am about to do a study on the Book of Daniel. I may learn more about dreams. I do not fully accept the dreams (revelations through meditation) of Muhammad, those had while taking a break from every day matters and living (sleeping) in a cave resulting in the Quran. His dreams were essential, the angel Gabriel sharing the words of Allah with Muhammad, telling him, instructing him, to recite the words to his people. More than one visit, more than one dream, more than one revelation and numerous recitations, repeated by those who followed him, his Companions, and after his death several Qurans then assembled into only one, those not accepted for the canon of the final Quran, destroyed. When I was a child I was often chased by a lion and saved when about to jump off a cliff to avoid being devoured; it was when I suddenly awoke. There were many sequences of being late for class in college or an exam, unprepared, faced with the choice of many classroom doors, not knowing the correct one to open, without a writing instrument or notebook, totally unprepared. I went through semesters never attending a class in the subject I least liked, and then had to take the final. How frightful. Then I awoke. Then, of course, there were the more prurient or sexual fantasies only lived out in my dreams reaching a climax when reality surfaced, the alarm rang, my reverie concluded, ending what only transpired in another dimension of my mind. It was never possible to live out the dream sequences. At times I had ideas, woke, wrote them down; had I not they would have been totally lost when morning came.
To what extent do any dreams become reality, other than the reality we may realize on our own, thankful the dreams were not real, or only wishing they where – such as those when the genie from the bottle is from the bottle we rub and the wish is as we desire. Dreams are adventures, often mythological adventures, often reflective only in part of realities and experiences, or desires, hopes and wants that are just as they seem – dreams. This logic, admittedly, impacts my acceptance of the Quran deriving from the dreams of an illiterate man who could not even write down his dreams at the moment. Maybe Daniel will help change my thinking.
May your thoughts be developed from real experiences and the realities that surround. We may not be able to prove that God is real, or that God is not real, but the evidence of God’s reality is compelling. The Bible is the inspired Word of the Trinity, the collective voice of the one God represented not in persons but as a Father, with we as his children seeing him as incarnate among us, God’s revelation, and remaining in us as a guarantee of his salvation. This I understand. God made himself real for us to know and understand his reality. He suffered as a human for us to see the punishment we deserve, our sins forgiven, requiring only sincere repentance for forgiveness, and believing in the Risen Lord, his proof of his divine intervention on our behalf.
Grace and peace to everyone.