Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Anna McLean: The Character of Muhammad and His Impact on Qur’anic Verse

     According to Muslim tradition, the Qur’an is the pure and unadulterated word of God. It is inalterable, exists outside of time, and is applicable to all of humanity forever. However, God chose to deliver this word through a human vessel in Muhammed, who while the epitome of humanity and the ultimate role model, was still a human man with a mortal life. Therefor, the content of the revelations are altered to accommodate the history, psyche, and circumstances of the Prophet in the physical world.

     The prophet’s own personal history starts with the death of his father before he was born, and the death of his mother when he was six. Orphaned as a young child, he was taken into the care of his grandfather, who then died when he was twelve. Finally, he was cared for by his uncle up until adulthood, and protected by him and his powerful tribe after that.1 However, while he was never abandoned or without a caretaker, he experienced the loss of both parental figures at and experienced high turnover rate of primary caregivers in his youth. Three caregivers by the age of twelve does not allow for continuity in a reliable support system. This is reflected in the relationship between God and Muhammed, and therefore in the text of the Qur’an. As sura 93 the Morning Hours, says, “Did he not find you orphaned and give you shelter—find you lost and guide you—find you in hunger and provide for you? As for the orphan—do not oppress him. And one who asks—do not turn him away. And the grace of your lord—proclaim”2 Shepherded and watched over most constantly by God, God became almost a loving parental figure in Muhammad’s life, protecting him as an orphan, ensuring his survival, and guiding him on the right path to prophethood despite the challenges presented by his lack of familial connection.3 Even Muhammad’s prophetic title gestures towards his relationship with God as it appears in the Qur’an. He is called, “the beloved of Allah”.4

      Muhammad’s particularly personality and psyche also had a great effect on the content of Qur’anic verses. Muhammad was not a bold man. Rather, as Rahman described, he was shy and a peacemaker, often unwilling to cause waves or push matters.5 When the first Revelation was revealed to him, he did not rejoice in his gift, but was filled with fear and doubt about his role as a prophet.6 In many ways, this made him an unlikely choice as God’s messenger, and provided an ongoing struggle throughout his life. He was urged to proclaim the Qur’an “loudly and uncompromisingly”7 and without and “reservations in your mind”8. However, his nature tempted him several times into compromising with the Meccans, leading to a Qur’anic verses warning him against straying from his message for the sake of peace.9 But, his overall character also had very positive effects on his ability to be a prophet. Muhammad is addressed in the Qur’an and in Islamic tradition as the ultimate human role model10. Honest, peaceful, a compromiser, and intelligent, he is referred to in the holy text as, “of a great moral character”11. He is also extremely sensitive to the problems of humanity, making him both ideal for God’s attempt to remedy them and in some ways, vulnerable to being overcome with a feeling of despair and hopelessness at the enormity of the task ahead of him. This is addressed several times in the Qur’an, and God tells Muhammed, “your task is only to preach”12 and, “will you, then, melt away your soul after them out of grief that they do not believe in this teaching?”13 I think that in many ways, Muhammad’s character is both his greatest strength and greatest weakness as a Prophet, which allows him both to persuade his followers and have the motivation to be revolutionary, but which also is vulnerable to doubt and despair. Qur’anic verses specific to Muhammad exist both to praise and admonish him, changing the content of the holy book to be specific to him and his life.

       Probably the most impact that Muhammad has on the content of the Qur’an is in his movements and political position as a figure in Arabia. Beginning as an unknown figure without much personal power in Mecca, the early verses of the Qur’an are far more moral in their interpretation. Rather than a ban on drinking, it instructs Muslims not to stand for prayer while drunk.14 Rules without a position of power are hard to enforce. However, as he was forced out of Mecca and traveled to Medina in the Hijira, the content of the revelations changed. In Medina, Muhammad rose to a position of political power and became the head of state of Medina. With this, the revelations became much more institutional in their instructions. Do not stand while drunk became Muslims do not drink.15 Qur’anic verses also accommodates sociopolitical, not only institutional needs. In particular, as Jews in Medina began to resist Muhammad’s rule, the Qur’an provided verses condemning Jews for twisting the meaning of scripture and essentially invalidating their religion as a holy path.16 This condemnation of the Jewish population provided unfavorable opinions of their population and its resistance, and they were banished or liquidated from Medina. I think this is probably the most impactful influence that Muhammad has on the content of the Qur’an because while many other verses address his history or psyche specifically, these verses are due to his position but not addressed to him. Rather, they are addressed as rules of conduct or value judgements for all Muslims to believe in and follow, and therefore shape the laws and opinions of the Muslim world even today, far out of the context of the original recitation.

     I find Muhammad’s influence of the Qur’an fascinating from a theological perspective because from the perspective of a devout Muslim, the Qur’an is the unadulterated word of God that descended as one and then was revealed to the Prophet over time. It is supposed to apply to everyone and be outside of time, and yet, it is influenced directly by events that happen in one man’s life, as well as that man’s personal history and personality. I wonder how to square this idea of objectivity and universality with the tailored guidance that the Qur’an provides specifically Muhammad throughout his lifetime, and especially with conveniently placed revelations concerning the issues of the day.



  1. Essack, Farid. The Qur’an: A User’s Guide, pg. 36
  2.  The Quran, 93:4-9 (Sells, Michael)
  3.  Sells, Michael. Approaching the Quran: The Early Revelations (Ashland, Oregon: White Cloud Press, 2007), pg. 91
  4. Mahallati, M. Jafar. Lecture, February 13, 2018.
  5.  Rahman, Fazlur. Major Themes of the Qur’an (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), pg. 85
  6.  Mahallati, M. Jafar. Lecture, February 8, 2018.
  7.  The Qur’an. 15:94 (Rahman, Fazlur)
  8. The Qur’an 7:1 (Rahman, Fazlur)
  9. Rahman, Fazlur. Major Themes of the Qur’an (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), pg.87
  10.  Mahallati, M. Jafar. Lecture, February 15, 2018.
  11. The Quran 63:4 (Rahman, Fazlur)
  12. The Qur’an, 35:2 (Rahman, Fazlur)
  13.  The Qur’an 18:6 (Rahman, Fazlur)
  14.  Mahallati, M. Jafar. Lecture, February 13, 2018.
  15.  ibid.
  16.  Essack, Farid. The Qur’an: A User’s Guide, pg. 49




Essack, Farid. The Qur’an: A User’s Guide


Mahallati, M. Jafar. Lecture, February 8-15, 2018.


Rahman, Fazlur. Major Themes of the Qur’an (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009)


Sells, Michael. Approaching the Quran: The Early Revelations (Ashland, Oregon: White Cloud Press, 2007)


The Qur’an, (Rahman, Fazlur)


The Quran, (Sells, Michael)


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