It is easy to approach matters of prophesy with a deep level of skepticism, which can hinder true analysis of a spiritual history; in order to approach the life and story of Muhammed as it has affected the Qur’an and as it relates to the other Abrahamic texts and figures, it is the prerogative of this analysis to disregard a certain layer of skepticism and take it to be true and self-evident that there is one God who does exist, that Muhammed did in fact receive his word from the angel Gabriel, and that the events depicted in the Qur’an are to be taken at face value as historical events and not those of the imagination. Given these presets, it is my belief that the Prophet Muhammed shares a special bond with his Lord and that the Qur’an was chosen specifically for him because of his virtues, his life story, and his historical placement.
First, it is paramount to stress that the relationship between Muhammed and God is depicted in the Qur’an and supplemental texts as incredibly close, almost as a partnership. Of arguably the main five prophets of the Abrahamic tradition (Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammed), it is Muhammed who is given the most intimate title. There is Abraham the Friend of God, Moses who is the Speaker to God, Jesus who is the Spirit of God, and then there is Muhammed, who is called the Beloved.1 His relationship with God is shown to be visceral, passionate, constant, and genuinely two-sided. For over twenty years, Muhammed received the Word of God through the angel Gabriel and memorized it to recite to his followers, and while other prophets received God’s messages in the mode of a servant receiving the word of their master or a child receiving the word of their parent, Muhammed received the Word of God as a deeply loved partner of God who did not alter or even write down the word but seared it onto his heart and into his brain so that he might recite God’s message directly2 to the people he partnered with God to serve, guide, and warn. Even the way in which Muhammed received the Word is described as a violent physical and spiritual experience.3 Muhammed is also the only prophet to have ascended into the heavens before his time and to have genuinely bargained with God, then returned to the Earth.4 This relationship is clearly a personal partnership previously unseen in Abrahamic scripture, and so while Muhammed allegedly recited the Word of God directly from the transmission by Gabriel, the influence of this partnership must not be overlooked.
In the context of this relationship, a careful reader can begin to see the ways in which God uses his Beloved as the role model for all of humanity to follow and love. The Qur’an calls humankind to support the orphans of society5, in clear reference to the fact that Muhammed himself was an orphan from a young age.6 It is not to be lost that in the society within which Muhammed lived, family ties were extremely important and the loss of parents left children especially vulnerable.7 The Qur’an also calls for justice8, even going so far as describing those who follow Him to be “the people who enjoin equity and justice,”9 which Muhammed embodies as a man who was known distinctly for his honesty and virtue and who was even called upon as a mediator in the most high-profile disputes.10 His first wife is said to have proposed to him because she was so impressed by how honest he was11, and even that detail of Muhammed’s life has been taken as a model of proper action – it is by law that the woman proposes to the man (assuming a heterosexual marriage) and that the engagement is formally undertaken by representatives, as was the engagement of Muhammed and Khadijah.12 Thus, Muhammed’s character is presented as the way to be, and his life is exalted as the way to live
Therefore, we come to the historical context. It is very possible that the Qur’an as a text exists in a timeless state of divinity13, but it must be understood that the text was revealed very specifically to Muhammed and in Arabic and within a human political framework. If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, it would be nonsense to think that this placement was not purposeful. The revelations of the Qur’an often match carefully with the politics of the day, encouraging Islam’s development and the advancement of social justice in just the right way as is needed. When Muslims were being persecuted in the city of Mecca14, God sent words of comfort and reassurances that he would take care of those who followed him.15 When there were many unsupported widows as a result of battle for Muslim-controlled territory, He declared that men could take as many as four women as their wives.16 Some analysts even posit that it was only when Muhammed’s relationship with the Jewish community of Medina soured did the directive come from God to pray towards Mecca instead of towards Jerusalem.17 Even if this is not quite true, it is worth nothing that what is now a sacred house for Muslim worship in Mecca was actually a holy pagan site before Muhammed took it to be a house of Abraham18, which displays how God’s Word works within the framework of the political and religious landscape of the time period. It is even supported from the text that instead of sending the Qur’an all at once as one piece, God sent the Word in pieces so that the people might have time to reflect on the new revelations.19
Within the text of the Qur’an it is clear to see how connected God’s work is with Muhammed himself, God’s Beloved and partner in this mission. Muhammed’s character embodies the teachings of the Qur’an. His life echoes in its wording. The very political situation in which Muhammed is raised and lives is not at all irrelevant to the Word which he receives; in fact the Word from God encourages specific movements which are political, both in the realms of social justice, in marriage, and even in conflicts between social groups. The Qur’an may be a holy text, but it is not without context and it maintains a close relationship with Muhammed its prophet even as it stands beyond his death. It may even be said that there is no understanding the Qur’an, not fully, without knowing the life and legacy of the man who received it. I would certainly not be the first to say so.
- 1. Jafar Mahallati. “February 12 Lecture.” Introduction to the Qur’an, Oberlin, 2018.
- Tarif Khalidi, trans. The Qur’an. New York City, NY: Penguin Books, 2008. 17:1-111.
- Ibid., 4:1 and 59:7.
- Ibid., 93:6.
- Michael Sells. Approaching the Qur’an. 2nd ed. Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 1999. 5.
- Khalidi, 4:110.
- Ibid., 3:21.
- David Talbot Rice. The illustrations to the World history of Rashid al-Din. Edited by Basil Gray. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1976. 100-101.
- Jane Dammen McAuliffe, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an. Cabridge Companions to Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
- Mahallati, “February 12 Lecture.”
- Farid Esack. The Quran: a users guide. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2008. 31.
- McAuliffe, 25-26.
- Khalidi, 94:5.
- McAuliffe, 30.
- Fazlur Rahman. Major Themes of the Qur’an. 2nd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009. 103.
Esack, Farid. The Quran: a users guide. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2008.
Jan, Tarik. The Life and Times of Prophet Muhammed. 3rd ed. Beltsville, MD: Amana Publications, 2006.
Khalidi, Tarif, trans. The Qur’an. New York City, NY: Penguin Books, 2008.
Mahallati, Jafar. “February 12 Lecture.” Introduction to the Qur’an, Oberlin, 2018.
McAuliffe, Jane Dammen, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an. Cabridge Companions to Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Rahman, Fazlur. Major Themes of the Qur’an. 2nd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Rice, David Talbot. The illustrations to the World history of Rashid al-Din. Edited by Basil Gray. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1976.
Sells, Michael. Approaching the Qur’an. 2nd ed. Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 1999.