William Muir’s theory of Muhammad
I’ve just read the fascinating third chapter of William Muir’s 1878 The Life of Mahomet, “The Belief of Mahomet in His Own Inspiration.” In the great tradition of 19th century scholarship, Muir is an author who sees both the trees and the forest. He works closely from the original sources, presenting the facts about Mahomet (I’ll use Muir’s old-fashioned spelling here) as we have them from the Moslem tradition, while also offering his own critical assessment of those facts. He has a highly articulated point of view about Mahomet that seems to me exceptionally insightful.
Muir shows how Mahomet became convinced, or claimed, that his own thoughts were Allah speaking to him, so that every sentence in the Koran, every single word, is believed to come directly from Allah. While Muir doesn’t deny Mahomet’s spiritual experiences that led to the writing of the Koran, he calls Mahomet’s claim of divine authorship a forgery, since he was falsely claiming that Allah was the author of the Koran rather than himself. By placing this divine imprimatur on his own thoughts, he made them impervious to analysis. To this day, it is virtually impossible for Moslems to think critically about the contents of the Koran.
After pointing out that Mahomet himself occasionally worried that it was genii who were speaking to him rather than Allah, Muir does something rather brilliant. He demonstrates, step by step, that Jesus’ responses to the three temptations of Satan were the exact opposite of Mahomet’s behavior. Whereas Jesus refused to use his divine powers for his personal advantage or for power, Mahomet often used his (false) claim of direct divine authorship of the Koran for purely personal ends (such as his various murders and marriages), and, of course, to make his religious teaching into an earthly, conquering, political force. In other words, Mahomet yielded to the temptations that Jesus rejected. Therefore, Muir concludes (and he calls this a suggestion rather than a dogma), if Mahomet was indeed inspired by a supernatural being, it was not God but someone else.
In this connection, Andrew Bostom in his research for his book on Islam has discovered and shared with me a remarkable Persian illustration of Muhammad at the massacre of the Koreizites, a Jewish tribe of Medina. It’s a famous episode in Muslim history. Muhammad, whose face is veiled, is seen sitting with his lieutenants in a kind of plaza while the killings, which he has ordered, proceed in front of him. The illustration is highly significant because it shows Muhammad “at work,” as it were. This is what he did as Prophet and founder of a religion. Nothing could bring out more clearly the world of difference between Muhammad and Jesus. While Jesus, innocent of sin, allowed himself to be executed for the sins of mankind, Muhammad ordered the mass executions of innocent men.
Getting back to William Muir’s remarkable biography, he quotes and comments on many passages from the Koran, making that book somewhat accessible to me for the first time, since whenever I have tried to read it on my own, I’ve been quickly overcome by a combination of boredom and revulsion. It occurs to me that the primitiveness of the Koran, the endless reiteration of the theme, “Either you follow Allah, or you are a piece of garbage and you are going to burn in hell,” is like taking the judgmental aspect of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures at its most judgmental, reworking it into the crudest possible form, and making that into the basis of an entire religion. And perhaps that is the reason Islam, unlike Judaism and Christianity, was so successful in winning over the Arabs: it appealed to their simple, fierce, tribal mentality in a way that Judaism and Christianity could not.