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4 Muhammad (the Human Partner) and the Qur’an

4 Muhammad (the Human Partner) and the Qur’an

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N.A. Zayd

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,

quite impossible.


N.A. Zayd

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

doubt. (10:94)

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


N.A. Zayd

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

truly good.

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.


N.A. Zayd

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

exact form.

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.

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4 Muhammad (the Human Partner) and the Qur’an

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