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4 Muhammad (the Human Partner) and the Qur’an
The spirit or the angel who frightened Muhammad, his discussions with Khadija
and her cousin, all this together is the beginning of Muhammad’s appearance as a
prophet. In that beginning, one cannot but realize a process of interaction to continue between the divine message and the human reception of this message.
When we think of Muhammad, the first human recipient of this message, we see
that he did not receive the message in a calm and composed way. He was in no way
ready to see that what had happened to him had something to do with a divine message. He was filled with fear and doubt. He sought advice and confirmation from
others, and therefore he needed people to affirm him and say: ‘My boy, everything
is fine. Prophets before you have experienced these things. Have no fear – even
though you will be persecuted.’ The divine is not the only one who speaks here, the
message must be confirmed by humans – already at this first instance.
In my experience this is something that many Muslims do not wish to hear. They
are upset and fear that the authenticity of the Prophet and of the Qur’an will be put
in question, but these are the historical facts of which the Islamic sources tell us –
not the Roman sources or any other sources.
The fact that Muhammad sought confirmation from other people – from a
Christian Arab priest – does not reduce his authenticity or the authenticity of his
revelation, exactly the opposite. In these stories of Muhammad’s fear and of his
wife’s taking him to her cousin, I see that we are dealing with a very earnest and
conscientious person, who does not take anything for granted but always questions,
tries to go deeper and look deeper. He does not avoid the question of how this can
be. By the way, this could indicate an example of Muhammad’s critical mentality.
The Divine-Human Communication
This process in which the divine communication with the first recipient, Muhammad,
acquired certain human confirmation marked the entire period of the Qur’an’s revelation (612–32); intercommunication is the process that created the Qur’an.
Obviously, the Qur’an was not given to Muhammad in the form of a complete book
but the revelation came out of a complicated dialogue in a discursive and argumentative way. The word ‘argumentative’ may sound surprising in this context; however, this aspect can be found in the Islamic sources and in the Qur’an.
Muhammad’s first encounter was not with the Lord; it was with the angel. In this
encounter, the divine is presented in an intimate personal manner as Muhammad’s
lord. It is in the first five verses of chapter 96 that this very close intimate relation is
established between Muhammad and the Lord via the angel. Then the Lord is presented as the creator, who created humans from clots of blood. He taught humans
what they did not know. This first passage of revelation has nothing to do with
Muhammad as a messenger; there is no message here to be carried and conveyed to
others. Muhammad here is addressed by his Lord as a special close person.
In the second encounter Muhammad is commissioned with a message to warn
people about the wrath of the coming life and to invite them to the True path. ‘Get
The ‘Others’ in the Qur’an: A Hermeneutical Approach
up, proclaim!’ This commission is found in the first 10 verses of chapter 74. These
verses contain a warning of the Day of Judgement; it is time to repent. That is the
central message. Here, the argumentative character of the Qur’an is present: the
very close and intimate person is chosen to warn his own people to rely on the Lord
of the universe, to worship the One. Though it is not explicit, the warning mission
implies the community that is in need of reformation.
And one can go from the first to the second and onwards to the next revelation.
This process of revelation lasted 23 years until Muhammad’s death. The Qur’an was
not sent in one piece or in a few sittings, but it was sent mostly in short, sometimes
longer, messages. It was a continuous process of communication that proceeded as
follows: Muhammad reacted to the first communication in a specific manner which
is addressed in the second communication as was explained above. When after the
second communication Muhammad proclaimed his mission to the people of Mecca
there were different responses that the third communication addresses and so on and
so forth. This communicative process contains all the possible elements of communication: argument, discussion, persuasion, challenge and dialogue – a dialogue that
was mostly exclusively centred on a small audience, at times a larger one.
The particular aspect of the communication that comes to the foreground depends
on the audience, the reaction to the earlier revelations and to the situation of
Muhammad and his community. This process of revelatory communication is obviously mirrored in the Qur’an. Therefore one should speak of a process of dialogue
or a very complex form of communication between the divine and humans.
After the death of Muhammad, the early Muslim community felt the need to collect these passages together in one book; i.e. to write down the oral communication
in order to preserve it. They arranged these passages and ordered them in chapters
without realizing the original chronological order. The present mushaf order presents a structure of chapters arranged by length, the longer are put forward and the
shorter are put backward, though it is generally known that the shorter chapters are
chronologically earlier than the longer chapters. Most of the short chapters can be
identified as being revealed in Mecca and the longer in Medina. The only exception
to this rule is the short opening chapter which is placed at the beginning of the
mushaf in conformity with its name.
In the present printed mushaf known as the ‘Cairo mushaf’, there are notes indicating whether the chapter is from Medina or Mecca and which passages in the
Medina chapters belong to Mecca and which in the Mecca chapters belong to
Medina. But one has to be careful with those notes; passages that are said to be from
Mecca have proved to be from Medina, and vice versa.
Mecca chapters are now sorted in three periodical categories as ‘early, middle
and late’, thanks to the efforts made by western scholars who have worked out the
philological distinctions and they have compared the sources and other such evidence. For the majority of Muslim academics, the main interest is in the differences
between the Mecca and the Medina passages, which can be differentiated easily in
some cases, not so in others. This is the issue that was tackled in classical exegetical
sources as well as in the Prophet’s biography and the prophetic traditions. The
reconstruction of the exact chronological order for all the chapters is, however,
The distinction between the Mecca and the Medina Qur’an is so important, most
of all, to reach the final enjoinment of the Qur’an concerning legal issues, as it is
believed that some of the earlier legal rules of Mecca are replaced by later rules in
Medina; this is according to the doctrine of abrogation. It is still more important to
know even within the Mecca and the Medina revelation which came first and which
came later. This whole process of compilation and ordering led to the result that the
Qur’an as we have it today in the Mushaf does not reflect the dynamic process by
which it came into being through various forms of communication.
Muhammad: The First Recipient
The year of Muhammad’s birth is thought to be 570 CE; however, it could have been
a few years later. His father died before his birth and he lost his mother when he was
6 years old. From then on he lived with his grandfather and later with his uncle AbuTalib. His family belonged to the Quraysh, the most influential and affluent confederation in Hijaz at that time. There were rich clans/families and less well-off clans/
families in the Quraysh and it seems that even though Muhammad’s grandfather
was a leader in the Quraysh, Muhammad belonged to a poor family. We see that
time and again the Qur’an speaks about orphans and their problems. Muhammad’s
own plight as an orphan and a child of a needy family is referred to in chapter 93.
We know from the tradition that the person, who would later become the Prophet,
was very respectable, very sociable and very accessible – these qualities are necessary in a prophet. A prophet who wants to reach his contemporaries must have good
relations with them. He must have the ability to communicate and have the power of
persuasion. He was known to his contemporaries by the eponym al-amin, ‘the honest’, which indicates his sociability and communicative talent. How could he have
earned the trust, and more the affection and love, of Khadija, without his personal
qualification? At the age of 25, he married the rich and considerably older businesswoman Khadija, for whom he had been working as a caravan leader. This marriage
gave him extra support, in a financial way as well.
Perhaps it was this relative freedom from material worries that enabled
Muhammad to take the time to devote himself to quiet contemplation. He did not
need to worry any more about what he had to deal with the next day. In addition
Khadija gave him her personal support by encouraging him to take the opportunity
to immerse himself in the spiritual world.
When Muhammad’s contemporaries tell of his gentle character and his benevolent manner towards others, many people today find it incompatible with the fact
that Muhammad was a political leader and, in many cases, a military leader. Even if
someone has a gentle character and tries to lead a decent life, he must still have to
make judgements and sometimes make them against other people. In an attempt to
understand Muhammad’s personality we must consider his development. At the
time of the early revelation in Mecca, Muhammad’s life was determined by spiritual
searching and contemplation. Later as leader of the community in Medina, he had
The ‘Others’ in the Qur’an: A Hermeneutical Approach
practical responsibilities to execute, so many that he did not have time to put together
all the revealed texts.
We should not portray Muhammad as an unchangeable character. There is no
such person as one who has the same personality and never develops, not least when
his life-circumstances and his mission change so drastically. However, one must not
exaggerate these supposedly contradictory characteristics. In his role as a businessman he was already a practical thinker and a successful member of the community
in Mecca. Conversely, he did not give up his contemplative nature later on. In addition to the revelations themselves, we have accounts from contemporaries who witnessed this in all stages of his life.
Muhammad’s deeply felt religious sense and his great social and political skills
are evident in the events surrounding the hijrah, the migration of the Muslim community from Mecca to the oasis city of Medina 300 miles (485 km) north. During
his time in Mecca Muhammad did not understand his mission to be propagating a
new religion. In many passages of the Qur’an, we find that Muhammad was to present to the Arabs the same message that had already been presented to the Christians
and the Jews. In chapter 10, the Qur’an lessens Muhammad’s doubt about his mission by recommending that he ask the Jews and Christians:
If you are in doubt concerning what We have revealed to you, ask those who have read the
book before you. Truth has come to you from your Lord, so do not be among those who
Muhammad’s task in those years in Mecca was to be a Warner. It is known that the
message was not well received by the polytheists of Mecca. The Muslim community was subject to hostility and persecution and their continued survival was at risk.
Muhammad, at first, suggested Abyssinia as a safer place for his followers.
Some Muslims fled to the Christian Abyssinia, returning later to Medina or
Mecca when the threat was over. Muhammad entered into discussions with other
tribes who came to Mecca for trade during the pilgrimage season on behalf of the
others and his own family. He was finally successful with the Medina delegation,
who interestingly enough, did not invite Muhammad primarily on religious grounds
but as a mediator between the conflicting tribal competitions over who was to dominate the city, a conflict that divided the city’s inhabitants in a horrific way. The fact
that Muhammad had come to Medina in 622 to take up this task shows that at that
time in Mecca he already had a reputation as a leader and mediator.
Thus, Muhammad’s role as a political leader continued to grow. He hoped that
the Jewish community in Medina would support him as both communities had a
common basis in monotheism; however, this support was not forthcoming. We find
events in the Qur’an which indicate a separation of Muhammad’s community from
the Jewish tribes. But, all this happened 2 years after the hijrah.
To take a concept of how a prophet should behave from a Christian theological
point of view and apply it to Muhammad is unfair. First, Muhammad’s situation
could be compared to Moses but in reality all such comparisons are evidence of an
ahistorical approach. Every figure had to cope with the specific tasks in his life and
in his circumstances. Muhammad did not lose his human qualities in fulfilling his
tasks, nor was he corrupted. It is so very important to stress this point, as the person
of Muhammad in the West has become the cause of an extremely critical and often
hateful discourse – always measured against a Christian theological standard.
Muhammad was not only an important spiritual figure; he also showed political
capability as well as military competence in his leadership. These aspects belong to
an overall view of his whole personality. When one uses the modern standard, in
particular a Christian picture of what a prophet should be, in judging Muhammad
one is doing injustice. When one criticizes the fact that he had worldly passions, that
he followed material interests and he fought for the survival of his community, we
misjudge the historical context of this particular prophet. From everything we know
of Muhammad, he was earnest and conscientious in all that he did. Naturally, one
can always question the correctness of some decisions in retrospect.
At this point I would like to advocate that we look at religious figures against
their historical background, against the needs of their time, judging them according
to the norms of their time and not that of today. This is not only for Muhammad’s
political dealings but also for his private role as husband and father. He is often
reproached for marrying several wives after Khadija died and because one of them,
’Aisha, was only 9 years old at the time of the wedding. To our modern consciousness this sounds appalling; however, at that time no one thought anything of it. One
must see what later became of this young woman. She was one of the most important figures in early Islam, counted as one of the authorities in the young community
after Muhammad’s death. One has to pay attention to her knowledge, not only in
religious but also in political matters. One does not have the feeling that ’Aisha’s
marriage to Muhammad stopped her development – exactly the opposite. The aim
here is not to defend Muhammad but to understand him. Everything else is not historical. It is too easy to judge against one’s own standard. Whoever wants to know
what kind of person Muhammad was must look at what happened at that time.
Muhammad in the Qur’an
This demand of historical contextualization is not only directed at non-Muslims
who already have prejudices, but it is also directed at Muslims who appear to have
forgotten everything. Muhammad is a human! The Qur’an itself emphasizes this
over and over, again and again; it does show that Muhammad made mistakes. In a
few places in the Qur’an, serious critical comments are made concerning some of
Muhammad’s behaviour. For example, when a blind man came to him seeking
advice, Muhammad was very busy devoting his attention to the tribal leaders whose
support he was trying to get; he did not pay attention to the blind man. The Qur’an
is very critical and explicitly blames Muhammad for his negligence of the man in
chapter 80, where Muhammad is addressed in the third person. This is a form of
disregard, to show Muhammad what it is like to be ignored. When one speaks to a
person directly one looks at him in the face and addresses him in the second person.
Here the Qur’an chooses to use the third person when addressing Muhammad,
The ‘Others’ in the Qur’an: A Hermeneutical Approach
whose human fallibility is repeatedly addressed in the Qur’an. Muhammad was not
without faults. When we read the Qur’an with this knowledge, it is not to justify
Muhammad’s behaviour but to understand him. Every person is entitled to do so.
Muslims must realize that the greatness of Muhammad does not depend on the fact
that he was infallible. When someone is completely without fault in his character, it
is not possible for him to be good on his own merit. Only one who is fallible can be
Naturally, the Qur’an acknowledges Muhammad’s human nature and sometimes
blames him for being embarrassed from it and encourages him to act humanly. For
example, when he felt affection toward Zaynab, the wife of Zayd, Muhammad’s
adopted son, the Qur’an encouraged him to express his feeling; he was even encouraged to marry her after she became divorced from Zayd. Zaynab was a close relative
of Muhammad, who asked for her hand for his adopted son Zayd, who was a freed
slave. She and her family were not really happy as they had hoped that Muhammad
would marry her himself. The marriage did not work out and Zayd asked for a
divorce. The traditional law of Arabia until that time did not allow a person to marry
his own divorced daughter-in-law. In this context, verse 37 in chapter 33 announces
such marriage to be allowed, thus allowing Muhammad to marry Zaynab.
This example shows how the Qur’an communicates and, therefore, we today do
not find it easy to read passages of the Qur’an about Muhammad and his community, or about Jews or Christians from that time. In the case of the marriage rules
regarding adopted sons and daughters-in-law we do not see immediately what the
message is supposed to be without reference to the events and situations at that time.
The Community of Believers and the Need for Legal
The hijrah marks the beginning of the Muslim era and the year 622 is the first year
of the Muslim calendar. In Medina Muhammad’s function changed from that of a
spiritual leader to being a leader of a political community. In order to understand
these two tasks as they are reflected in the Qur’an, we must call to mind again the
political situation in Arabia at the beginning of the seventh century. Many readers of
the Qur’an wonder why there are passages that deal with practical and legal matters.
They feel that this does not fit in a holy scripture.
This confusion comes from a Christian-influenced context. Some compare the
life of Muhammad with that of Jesus from whom no similar types of legal regulations were handed down. One must not forget that the historical contexts of both
figures are completely different. Jesus lived in a world which was completely dominated by the Roman Empire. There was a legal system already in place and there
was a military power which secured the empire and upheld the law. The Jews lived
under Roman occupation but with a certain independence and legal security.
In Arabia in the early seventh century, there was no state or legal system but a
tribal ethics. This tribal ethics demanded absolute obedience to the tribe and whoever was not obedient was thrown out and lost the right to be protected by the community. These blood relationships were the decisive factor. It was not about whether
the tribe was right or wrong. Where only blood ties counted, there was no society in
any real sense. Only with the initiation of Muhammad’s missionary work does society develop in Arabia. Islam developed a new type of communal living, in which
blood ties did not play the central role but there was a higher form of morality about
the basis of specific communal values. This development can also be read in the
Medina covenant known as the Sahīfa, in which there are three identified communities: the Jewish, the Arabs and the Believers or Muslims. It also figures out in the
Qur’an, especially at the beginning of chapter 2, where these three communities are
presented in religious terms as the Hypocrites, the Infidels and the Believers.
The new community of believers seems to form a new type of a tribe. From the
beginning, the new members of the community come from many different tribes.
They are not the relatives of the Prophet but people who share his convictions. In
order to establish this new form of community, certain legal regulations were needed
for marriage and divorce, taxes and business. These are found in the many relevant
legal and practical instructions in the Qur’an. This contributed a great deal to the
transition from the tribal world to a system of legal security. Naturally, these individual regulations must be understood in the context of the seventh century. It is
absurd to think that they could or should be transferred into today’s world in their
These regulations found in the Qur’an belong to the post-Mecca revelation
whether in Medina or in Mecca after it was conquered by Muslims. In the early
years in Medina, there were military conflicts with the people of Mecca, the battle
at Badr first (624 CE), when Muslims gained their first triumph against the Meccans,
and the second battle at Uḥud (625 CE) where Muslims were defeated. Here we
encounter Muhammad in his third function, that of a military leader. This is what is
most confusing to contemporary Christians and Muslims living in Christianinfluenced societies. As the Qur’an refers to these military conflicts quite often, we
can say that, during these years, Muhammad had more and more commitments
concerning the welfare of the community.
One cannot expect that a leader, who has taken over the political responsibility
for a certain community, would not stand behind the community and support it –
even when this means he must decide against other communities. Similarly, the
Divine voice, speaking through the Qur’an, is the God of this community. He has a
biased voice and supports His community against the others. We know this phenomenon from the Old Testament, where the Lord of the Hebrew people, the people of
Israel’s House, sides always with them even when they are condemned; condemnation is meant for their benefit. The Allah of the Qur’an does the same, supporting
the community of believers even when punishing them for going wrong and
deviating from his commands. This is also perplexing for today’s reader who views
it at a great distance from the events.