Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

On the Character of the Prophet


Finding Muhammad in the Qur’an; Finding the Qur’an in Muhammad


The Qur’an is the word of God – the word of God spoken through the Prophet Muhammad. It is not possible to understand the Qur’an without understanding Muhammad’s life, and it is not possible to speak of Muhammad’s life without speaking of his relationship with God and the Qur’an. Similarly, there is a reciprocal relationship between the expectations of behavior and character in the Qur’an, and the character of Muhammad; but here, the lines between Muhammad and the Qur’an become blurred. Traits praised in the Qur’an, such as kindness, mercy, morality, honesty, and justness are often mentioned in verses spoken to or about Muhammad. Additionally, Muhammad served as a moral example by living his life as God dictated, a moral example which is indistinguishable from that described in the Qur’an. I believe that a reading of the Qur’an would be incomplete without a deep understanding of the character of Muhammad. I argue that Muhammad’s character can be seen in the Qur’an and the effect of the guidance of God can be seen in Muhammad’s character, and that these influences can be seen in Muhammad’s importance in Qur’anic interpretation and in verses from God that seem to directly address Muhammad’s problems.

As is recorded in the Qur’an, God said to Muhammad: “We have not sent you except as a mercy for the whole world” [1]. In a short, poignant phrase, the relationship and the history between God and Muhammad is established – and it is implied that it has lasted throughout Muhammad’s life. Indeed, the Qur’an speaks of Muhammad from his very beginnings (“Did He not find you an orphan, and sheltered you?” [2]), and may have warned of his death: “When God’s succour comes, and victory and you see people enter God’s religion in hosts, extol your Sustainer’s limitless glory, and praise Him, and seek His forgiveness; for behold, He is ever an accepter of repentance” [3]. Muhammad was sent as the Prophet, and his character throughout his life speaks to the values of God and the Qur’an.

Muhammad was known to be a just, moral man in his lifetime, and this legacy endures. During his life, Muhammad played many roles in his community: merchant, mediator, peacemaker, community builder, leader, lawmaker [4]. In his time as a young merchant, Muhammad “acquired… a reputation for skill, tactfulness, honesty and fairness” [5]. He was respected in his community, and “…he attained manhood and proved to be the most excellent of [his people] best in disposition, most respected in society, most truthful in speech…” [6]. As an adult, Muhammad did not change. When once he was unsure of himself, his wife, Khadija, reassured him by listing his qualities: “…you fulfill the duties of kinship and support the weak and benefit the destitute and are bounteous towards a guest and assist all those in genuine distress” [7]. Because Muhammad was such a moral, compassionate man, he was acutely aware of the inequality in his society, and this tormented him. As he grew older, he started withdrawing in solitude to “search for solutions through prayer and contemplation” [8], and it was then that he received his first revelation from God. Muhammad learned and shared the direct word of God [9] to gather a following, but Muhammad’s honest and kind character was also important in growing the followers of Islam [10].

Today, Muhammad’s character continues to impact Muslims because his role as a moral example allows for a broader context for the interpretation of unclear or subjective Qur’anic verses [11]. Human beings endeavor to be like God, and Muhammad is the human closest to God – so Muhammad was a role model for his community, both preaching the Qur’an and demonstrating God’s word through his own actions [12,13]. But even though Muhammad was the Prophet, he was still human, and, as Fazlur Rahaman says, “…as a human… [Muhammad] becomes an example for mankind… his average level of conduct is… a worthy model for mankind” [14]. Muhammad’s character and behavior set an example for Muslims: “Prophets are humans who must constantly struggle inwardly, but… truth and righteousness prevail; if prophets did not struggle and suffer… they could not become examples for other humans” [15]. Muhammad was constantly aware of social injustices: he had the “…the tormenting realization of the acute problems in his society in particular and human society in general” [16]. When he received revelations from God, he was “impelled by an inner urge… to enter the arena of historic action” [17]. As Muhammad spread the word of God, memorizing and preaching the verses that became the Qur’an after his death [18], God guided Muhammad, and there are many verses of the Qur’an that are believed to be God’s advice about problems in Muhammad’s life, especially once he had become accepted as the Prophet of God.

That the Qur’an was brought to humanity by God speaking through Muhammad, and that early Islam was guided by Muhammad in direct contact with God, resulted in a text heavily influenced by events in Muhammad’s life. As Esack says, “The Qur’an… was revealed… in response to immediate issues or the long-term social and religious [and personal and socio-political] challenges facing the community” [19]. When Muhammad was insecure and worried God had abandoned him [20], God’s words, recorded in the Qur’an, reassured him: “By prime of morning, and night when it settles! Your Lord has not abandoned you, nor disdains!” [21]. Verses in the Qur’an also relate to the battles Muhammad and his followers fought against the Meccans and their allies, such as “Permission [to fight] is given to those on against whom war is being wrongfully waged, because they are oppressed. And surely, God is able to assist them” [22] and “And fight in God’s cause against those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression” [23]. The verses in the Qur’an where God gave advice and guidance that was linked to the events in Muhammad’s life demonstrate a conversation and support between God and Muhammad, and undoubtedly contributed to the establishment of Islam as a religious and political institution that is influential to this day.

Muhammad’s character and actions in his life still influence the interpretation of the Qur’an to this day, as Muhammad is a model, a human approximation of God, for all Muslims to endeavor to be. Throughout Muhammad’s life, God guided him – as an orphan child, taking care of Muhammad, and in adulthood giving advice and instructions for the challenges faced by Muhammad, as is recorded in the Qur’an. In learning about the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad, the two can be seen as interlinked: Muhammad’s character can be found in the Qur’an and the effect of the guidance of God can be seen in Muhammad’s life.



  1. Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes of the Qur’an (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), 88.
  2. Qur’an, 93.
  3. Qur’an, 110.1-5, quoted in Farid Esack, The Qur’an: A User’s Guide (London: Oneworld, 2005), 54.
  4. 8 Feb 2018, Mahallati.
  5. Jane Dammen McAuliffe Ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an (Cambridge Companions to Religion), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, 24.
  6. Muhammad ibn Sa’d, quoted in Esack, The Qur’an, 38.
  7. ‘Abd Allah ‘Atiq, quoted in Esack, 41.
  8. Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes of the Qur’an, 84.
  9. 8 Feb 2018, Mahallati
  10. Ibid., 15 Feb 2018.
  11. Ibid., 13 Feb 2018.
  12. Ibid., 8 Feb 2018.
  13. Ibid., 15 Feb 2018.
  14. Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes of the Qur’an, 89.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., 84.
  17. Ibid., 85.
  18. 8 Feb 2018, Mahallati.
  19. Esack, The Qur’an, 45.
  20. 15 Feb 2018, Mahallati.
  21. Qur’an, 93
  22. Ibid., 22.39, quoted in Esack, The Qur’an, 51.
  23. Ibid., 2.190, quoted in Esack, The Qur’an, 51.





Esack, Farid. The Qur’an: A User’s Guide. London: Oneworld, 2005

8 Feb 2018, Mahallati.

13 Feb 2018, Mahallati.

15 Feb 2018, Mahallati.

McAuliffe, Jane Dammen Ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an (Cambridge Companions to Religion), Cambridge University Press, 2006

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

Sells, Michael. Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations, White Cloud Press, Second Ed. 2007.

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