The Nature of Muhammad's Prophetic Experience


1. A Compromise in Muhammad's Ministry.

Widely reported in the early Sirat literature (see the section on Hadith for a discussion of the Sirat and Hadith literature) is a story of an unusual compromise made by Muhammad sometime after the first emigration to Abyssinia. One account of this compromise reads:

There is no record of such a thing happening at any other time during Muhammad's life and yet it was recorded by all four of the early biographers, namely Ibn Ishaq, Tabari, Waqidi and Ibn Sa'd. Today the only surviving edition of Ibn Ishaq's work, the Sirat Rasulullah, which has come down in the form of a reclension by Ibn Hisham, does not include this incident. There is concrete evidence, however, that it was originally a part of the work and Tabari plainly stated that he got his record from him via Salama. An analysis of this issue will follow but at this point it will be useful to repeat the original record in Tabari's work which has now been reinstated in Ibn Ishaq's Sirat by the English translator of his work, Alfred Guillaume.

The Arabic word gharaniq refers to certain cranes which fly at a great height. The pagan Meccans, impressed by the splendour of these birds, therefore described their goddesses by an analogous reference to them. When Muhammad quoted the very words used by the Meccans to exalt their goddesses, they said to one another "Muhammad has spoken of our gods in excellent fashion" (Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasulullah, p. 166). Then, however, the narrative also records the visit by Gabriel to Muhammad that night in which he denied revealing these words to him while he was at the Ka'aba.

In both of the works quoted it is stated that it was Satan who interjected while Muhammad was reciting Surah 53 and that he had "suggested" the Meccan expression of praise to the pagan goddesses to Muhammad. Accordingly "God annulled what Satan had suggested" (op. cit., p. 166), and the following denunciation of these idols was substituted for it:

The story is quite striking, particularly as it is out of character with the one sustained cause of conflict between Muhammad and his people, namely his otherwise unwavering proclamation of the unity of God and the rejection of their goddesses and idols. Nonetheless, whereas the story is widely discounted in Islam for obvious reasons, it is generally credited in Western writings. Its wide circulation in the early biographies and the sudden return of those who fled to Abyssinia (Ibn Sa'd states that they returned purely because they heard of the prostration of the pagan Meccans with Muhammad - Kitab at-Tabaqat al-Kabir, Vol. 1, p. 238), appear to argue strongly for its authenticity.

The story is not found in all its details in the later Hadith collections but it does appear to be confirmed in this brief tradition in Bukhari's Sahih, regarded universally by Muslims as the most authentic work of Hadith and as second only to the Qur'an in reliability:

"Surat-an-Najm" is the same Surah 53 which Muhammad was reciting according to the narratives we have quoted. What else could have prompted all present, both Muslims and pagans, to prostrate behind Muhammad but the concession made to the Meccan goddesses? One can understand the Muslims following any lead Muhammad gave (see the quote from Ibn Ishaq) but it is hard, if not impossible, to believe that the pagan Meccans would have joined Muhammad in worship at the end of the Surah if he had quoted it as it now stands with such a vehement denunciation of these same goddesses by name. The story does appear to have a compelling historical foundation.

2. Modern Muslim Reactions to the Story.

The story itself reflects so poorly on Muhammad and strikes so deeply at the heart of Muslim sentiments about his integrity that it is not surprising to find that modern Muslim writers reject it vehemently. One gives a defence of his prophet in these words:

The second argument is, we do believe, a very considerable one for the narrative indeed clashes with the otherwise uninterrupted proclamation of the unity of God and denunciation of idols by Muhammad. This is, however, an argument that rests on principles of consistency rather than historical evidences or cogent proofs. The other argument is weak in that there is no concrete proof that the first part of Surah 53 refers to the mi'raj which followed the emigration to Abyssinia. As shown already, it almost certainly refers to one of Muhammad's initial visions, limited by the Qur'an itself to the two he had when his ministry began. Unfortunately one finds that virtually all Muslim arguments of a factual nature against this story are equally weak. Another writer credits the story but argues that one of the pagan Meccans near Muhammad made the exclamation in favour of the idols when Muhammad reached the words "Have ye seen Lat and Uzza and another, the third (goddess), Manat?" (Surah 53.19). He concludes: "This is the version given by Muslim historians and traditionists" (Ali, The Spirit of Islam, p. 34). This is a patently inaccurate statement. The quotes given from Ibn Sa'd and Ibn Ishaq clearly show that Muhammad himself spoke the words and both record how the lapse came as a result of his own desire to reconcile his message with the sentiments of his kinsmen.

Another writer states: "Tabari, the most authoritative biographer of the Holy Prophet, makes no mention of the offending verses" (Zafrulla Khan, Muhammad: Seal of the Prophets, p. 45). This is an equally untrue claim as Tabari not only records the whole story but claims he obtained it from Ibn Ishaq through Salama. Contrast this statement: "Tabari, however, who mentions the Satanic verses, seems to suggest that Muhammad repented of the compromise the same day" (Glubb, The Life and Times of Muhammad, p. 128).

Others allege that the "satanic verses" (the laudation of the three goddesses) do not fit in the Surah between verses 20 and 21 (so Khalifa, The Sublime Qur'an and Orientalism, p. 103). Again the argument is ill-founded for the words are said to have been replaced by the denunciation verses which are now recorded in the Surah.

The writer adds: "In style and rhythm the two Satanic lines fit admirably into the original Sura" (op. cit.). The evidences certainly seem to be well-founded and the arguments against them strained to the point of glaring factual inaccuracy. The rejection of the story is clearly motivated by the unpalatable nature of its contents rather than a consideration of its factual historicity. There are numerous other stories relating to Muhammad's life of no better historical foundation than this one which are nevertheless usually admitted. Indeed in many cases incidents with a much weaker claim to authenticity are accepted as genuine. A recent apologist for Muhammad has written a biography in which he makes it plain that he has relied chiefly on the earliest biographies for his facts, in particular Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Sa'd and Waqidi (Lings, Muhammad, p. 349), and has unquestioningly included many stories of no greater authority than the story of Muhammad's concession to the Meccan idolaters. This story, however, is omitted without any reference to it whatsoever. Clearly it is rejected, not because it has a poor historical foundation, but because it records a damaging lapse made by Muhammad during his ten year ministry at Mecca.

Another argument favoured by Muslim writers is that "it is utterly inconsistent with the whole concept of Prophethood and indeed with the righteousness of the Holy Prophet, peace be on him, that he could have been influenced by any Satanic incitement at any time" (Zafrulla Khan, Muhammad: Seal of the Prophets, p. 45). Another writer makes much the same point: "It contradicts the infallibility of every prophet in conveying the message of his Lord" (Haykal, The Life of Muhammad, p. 107). This argument is, however, purely subjective and one based on the presupposition that Muhammad was a true prophet. The non-Muslim cannot be persuaded by such a line of reasoning, particularly when an objective study of its historical sources tends to confirm the story. Working from the startingpoint of the authenticity of the narrative rather than Muhammad's supposed prophethood, one is inclined to conclude that the incident in some measure discredits Muhammad's prophethood rather than the other way around.

3. Did Ibn Ishaq Record the Story of the Satanic Verses?

We have already mentioned the omission of this story from Ibn Hisham's recIension of Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasulullah. As this reclension is the only record of Ibn Ishaq's work that survives, Muslim writers immediately claim that Ibn Ishaq therefore never recorded it and seek to strengthen their claim by a quotation from another source:

In the year 150 after the Hijra, Ibn-Ishaq was quoted by Abu Habban in his treatise Al-Bahr Al-Mohit, to have exposed the whole story about the goddesses as an invention of al-Zanadiqah, those who do not recognise Islam while still nominally attached to it or to any other religion. (Khalifa, The Sublime Qur'an and Orientalism, p. 102).

It is hard to believe that the zindiqs, the "freethinkers", not only composed the story but also succeeded in ensuring that it would be so widely accepted by the earliest biographers. Our records of the incident are found purely within the Islamic heritage and not outside it. Furthermore the claim that Ibn Ishaq rejected the story is also based on a secondary source, and then only a work by an author of no real prominence. Indeed the omission of the story in the text today is also dependent on a secondary source.

The arguments for and against the original inclusion of the story are all based on secondary sources - Tabari, Ibn Hisham, Abu Habban - but Tabari is an author of considerable prominence and a compelling one for the claim that it was indeed a part of Ibn Ishaq's work. The record of his reliance on Ibn Ishaq for the narrative suggests that Ibn Hisham may well have expunged it from the original text and prompts one writer to say:

This suggestion is strengthened by the fact that Ibn Hisham's edition contains no unfavourable stories about Muhammad, and yet in his introduction he openly complained of "scurrilous attacks on the prophet" (Guillaume, introduction to Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasulullah, p.xxxi) in the original work.

There are many evidences in other works, which quote from the Sirat, that Ibn Hisham's edition is incomplete and the story of the "satanic verses" was almost certainly one of those expunged from the text by him. Recently a Muslim publishing house in India has reprinted Hughes' great work, A Dictionary of Islam, and has introduced the reprint with these words in a "Publisher's Note":

This statement seems to sum up perfectly the similar action taken by Ibn Hisham against the original text of Ibn Ishaq's work. Not long ago new evidence came to light strengthening considerably the claim that the story of Muhammad's lapse was part of Ibn Ishaq's original work. There is, in the Qarawiyun mosque library at Fez in Morocco, a manuscript entitled Kitab al-Maghazi (Book of the Campaigns) which, among other sources, contains a record of lectures given at one time by Ibn Ishaq on the life of Muhammad which includes the story of the concession made by Muhammad to the pagan Meccans. The narrative is very similar to that in Tabari's work except that the actual "satanic verses" are only referred to and not actually quoted in the text.

On a balance of probabilities it does seem that the story was included in Ibn Ishaq's original work as in the other early biographies. A point that also strengthens this conclusion is the fact of the return of the emigrant Muslims which is credited by Ibn Hisham to the Meccan conversions in his reclension of Ibn Ishaq's original Sirat:

Unless the story of the concession to their pagan goddesses was part of the original text just at this point, this remaining statement is largely unintelligible. It is highly unlikely that the rumour of such a phenomenal turn of events, that is, the conversion of all the pagan Meccans, should have been left unexplained by Ibn Ishaq. It is far more likely that Ibn Hisham expunged the story of the satanic verses from the text but unwittingly left a reference to it in his reclension. As the saying goes, his slip is showing!

Modern Muslim writers suggest that it was the conversion of Umar that prompted the return of the emigrants (ea. Sarwar, Muhammad: the Holy Prophet, p. 95), but this does not explain why they almost immediately set out for Abyssinia again. Haykal makes the same suggestion (The Life of Muhammad, p. 105) but, before he came across the story of Muhammad's lapse as it is recorded in William Muir's book, he had already composed his own book in the form of published articles and, having relied almost exclusively on Ibn Ishaq's work in the form of Ibn Hisham's reclension, he duly made the supposed conversion of the Quraysh the reason for the return. Only when he found out why this supposed conversion took place, and that the concession had been made by Muhammad and not by the Quraysh, did he alter his work and state that the return of the emigrants was caused by Umar's conversion.

It is our considered opinion that the Muslims have made a sorry mess of their defence of Muhammad and their rejection of this story and it seems that they would have done better to have relied solely on the argument that it is out of character with Muhammad's sustained rejection of idolatry.

4. Support for the Story in the Qur'an.

Had there been not the slightest allusion to this story in the Qur'an, one might yet be inclined to discount it, but there are two passages in the book which uncannily coincide respectively with the suggestion that Satan interjected during Muhammad's recitation of Surah 53 and that Muhammad was slowly becoming inclined to yield to his kinsmen in some measure to reconcile himself to them.

The verse referred to by Watt is the one which seems to refer quite openly to the interjection made by Satan. It is:

The word for "revelations" in the original is ayat, often used for "signs" but also regularly used for verses of the Qur'an itself. The great Muslim commentator on the Qur'an, Zamakhshari, openly interpreted this verse as referring to the occasion when Satan substituted something in accordance with the wish which the Messenger of God had sheltered (Gatje, The Qur'an and its Exegesis, p. 54). This was hardly surprising as the narrative in Tabari's work, which he claimed was derived from Ibn Ishaq's Sirat, plainly states that the verse was revealed to Muhammad immediately after the lapse to relieve his grief.

Zafrulla Khan, in one of his typically bold but completely inaccurate statements, says: "The Holy Quran excludes emphatically any idea of Satan being capable of influencing any righteous person, let alone a prophet or messenger" (Muhammad: Seal of the Prophets, p. 45). This claim is seriously undermined by Surah 22.52 which makes the exact point that the writer is at pains to deny. Another somewhat more credible defence is offered by a Muslim commentator on this verse:

The argument, however, does not take into account the well-established fact that most of the Surahs of the Qur'an are composite chapters of various passages dating from different periods, often made up of both Meccan and Medinan verses. In an introduction to Surah 22 in his translation of the Qur'an, Richard Bell says:

He goes on to give possible occasions for the inclusion of the verses mentioned and allows for an earlier date than the main body of the Surah. It is therefore quite possible that Surah 22.52 dates prior to the rest of the Surah and refers directly to the occasion of the "satanic verses". W. M. Watt, in another book, comments on the same verse:

The strand referred to is the Ibn Ishaq/Tabari source aforementioned. We must surely conclude that Surah 22.52 is a Qur'anic reference and clue to the story of the concession to the pagan Meccans when we consider that there is no other occasion suggested in the Islamic tradition literature for the revelation of this verse. Muslim commentators who reject the link identified in the Ibn Ishaq/Tabari strand nevertheless cannot suggest an alternative incident or event which can explain the statements made in the verse.

The other verse which appears to allude to the occasion of the "satanic verses" is this one which helps us in some measure to see the inner workings of Muhammad's mind:

This verse also appears to refer to the same occasion, in particular the yearnings felt by Muhammad for a reconciliation with his kinsmen which led to the ejaculation in favour of their goddesses. Once again no reasonable alternative suggests itself. There is no other occasion in Muhammad's life referred to in the sources to which these enlightening verses can relate. Furthermore, as with Surah 22.52, we are not proposing a convenient link between the verses and the story. Ibn Sa'd plainly states that they were revealed in consequence of Muhammad's concession to the pagan goddesses and his subsequent reversion to his original position (Ibn Sa'd, Kitab at-Tabaqat al-Kabir, Vol. 1, p. 237).

5. The Implications of the Compromise.

It is our opinion that this story is almost certainly genuine, not only because of its record in many early works, but perhaps even more because those records which seem to omit it, namely the Qur'an itself, the Sahih of Bukhari, and the present edited version of Ibn Ishaq's Sirat, contain elements obviously relative to it and otherwise unintelligible. Furthermore certain details in the story are strikingly factual, for example the note that one old man did not bow down but applied some of the dust of the ground to his forehead. This little incident is just the sort of thing an eye-witness would particularly observe, but it is hardly the sort of otherwise irrelevant evidence that a fabricator would think of or care to include.

In the last chapter we analysed in some depth the subjective side of Muhammad's prophetic experience and concluded that the Qur'anic composition had much to do with the developing prophetic consciousness of his mind. This story has important implications in this respect. To Muhammad's positive credit there is a highly commendable consistency in his dogmatic monotheistic preaching but, as so often said before, the exception proves the rule. It is quite conceivable that in his early days he underwent a prolonged tension in his mind as he sought to reconcile himself to his people.

The honour paid to the interceding goddesses may well have seemed an innocuous but effective means of effecting the reconciliation. This is no mere speculation. In later days a similar means suggested itself. After his gory battles with his kinsmen near Medina, Muhammad did find a very successful way of reconciling himself to them and one which again required a concession on his part, but, on this occasion, it really did prove effective without a damaging lapse on his part. I refer to the pagan pilgrimage practices around Mecca which Muhammad adopted without amending their rituals in any material way. He simply retained the outward form while amending the inward purpose of the pilgrimage.

The former attempt at a reconciliation proved disastrous, however, and he obviously realised fairly quickly that he had made a concession which betrayed the heart of his ministry. While the transferring of the blame to Satan may appear to have been an easy way out, it is probable that he identified his inclination to pacify his kinsmen as one bearing all the elements of suggestion (the Qur'anic wahy) that the motivations of his heart towards the praise of Allah alone also bore. It was logical, therefore, to conclude, as in the words attributed to the angel I did not bring you this, that if the suggestion had not come from Allah, it must have come from Satan.

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