DISPUTATIONS WITH THE QURAISH
WITH the flight of his disciples the ‘revelations’ of the prophet gradually assumed a harsher tone. The unity of God, His power and wisdom in creation, together with the certainty of the resurrection and judgement, which were the great themes of the earlier chapters of the Qur'an, now gave place to stern denunciations of the unbelieving Arabs. The severity of their future punishment in a grossly material hell is painted in lurid colours, and various prominent men from amongst his persecutors are singled out for bitter imprecations and curses. One or two specimens of the diatribes to which the unbelieving Quraish were compelled to listen will go far to explain the bitterness of their opposition to Muhammad and his teaching. In the Qur’an Al-Hajj (22:19-22) portions at least of which were probably revealed a short time previous to the flight to Madina, the unbelieving Quraish are addressed in these terms: ‘For those who have disbelieved garments of fire shall be cut out; the boiling water shall be poured down upon their heads. All that is in their bowels, and their skins, shall be dissolved; and there are maces of iron for them. So oft as they, for very anguish, would fain come forth thence, back shall they be turned into it; and—“Taste ye the torment of the burning.”’ Qur’an Al-Masad (Lahab) 111:1-5 is undoubtedly earlier, and refers entirely to an uncle of the prophet of that name, whose opposition was marked by much bitterness and contumely. The prophet, however, was no whit behind his relative in the use of abusive language, as will be seen from the quotation given below from that chapter, which, let it be remembered, all good Muslims are bound to believe was written ages before the creation upon the tablets of heaven. The passage is as follows: ‘Let the hands of Abu Lahab perish, and let himself perish! His wealth and his gains shall avail him not. Burned shall he be at the fiery flame, and his wife laden with fire-wood—on her neck a rope of palm fibre.’
It is not surprising that when the prophet attacked his enemies by name in this way, anger deep and bitter should have stirred them to revenge; and plots were soon on foot to bring the new propaganda to an end. There can be no doubt that it was solely owing to the loyal help and protection of his uncle Abu Talib, and to fear of the consequences which would follow any shedding of the prophet's blood that the latter was not summarily assassinated. On the other hand, opposition but seemed to encourage the prophet in his denunciations of idolatry and in the reiteration of his claims to apostleship. The Qur'an, too, is again and again put forward as the word of God revealed from heaven for the guidance of men; but to every such claim the unbelieving Quraish had but one answer. ‘He hath composed it himself’, ‘It is nothing but stories of the ancients’, were the replies flung at the eager preacher. Ibn Hisham, in his Siratu'r-Rasul, has related an incident of this period which throws a clear light upon the attitude of the unbelieving Arabs. One day, the story goes, Nazir bin Harith stood up before the Quraish and recited to them certain stories of the Persian kings, and then continued,
والله ما محمد بأحسن حديثاً مني وما حديثه إلا أساطير الأولين كتبه كما أكتبه.
‘By God! the stories of Muhammad are no better than my own. They are simply tales of the ancients which he hath written out as I have written mine.’ Again when Muhammad announced himself as a prophet who had been foretold in the Jewish and Christian scriptures the Quraish replied,
يا محمد لقد سألنا عنك اليهود والنصارى فزعموا أن ليس لك عندهم ذكر ولا صفة فأرنا من يشهد لك أنّك رسول الله.
‘O Muhammad, we have already asked the Jews and Christians concerning thee, but they have asserted that there is no prophecy concerning thee with them. Therefore do thou show us who is able to bear witness concerning thee that thou art indeed a prophet of God ' (Tafsiru'l-Baidawi, p. 17I). Again when the prophet repeated to the Quraish, in his own inimitable style, the stories of the patriarchs as he had learned them from the lips of his Jewish friends—stories, it should be remarked, which agree not with the historic narratives of the Taurat, but with the apocryphal tales of the Talmud—the rejoinder of the Quraish was clear and immediate,
إِنَّمَا يُعَلِّمُهُ بَشَرٌ.
‘Verily a certain person teacheth him.’ (Qur’an An-Nahl 16:103). From the commentaries it is clear that this answer was based, not on mere conjecture, but on what was a matter of general knowledge, viz. that Muhammad was in the habit of listening to the stories of the Bible from the lips of certain Jews and Christians, and then repeating them to the Arabs as revelations from heaven. Qazi Baidawi in his commentary upon the words quoted above makes it perfectly clear that the rejoinder of the Quraish was abundantly justified. He writes thus:
يعنون جبرا الرومي غلام عامر بن الحضرمي، وقيل جبراً ويساراً، كانا يصنعان السيوف بمكة ويقرآن التوراة والإنجيل وكان الرسول صلى الله عليه وسلم يمرّ عليهما ويسمع ما يقرآنه.
It is said that ‘the person alluded to was a Greek (i.e. Christian) slave of 'Amir binu'l-Hudrami named Jabar. It is further said that the allusion is to Jabar and Vasa two sword-makers in Mecca. These used to read the Taurat and Injil, and the prophet was in the habit of passing by them and listening to what they were reading.’ Madarak and Husain say the same. There can be little doubt, therefore, that Muhammad was indebted to the Jews and Christians for his stories of the Old and New Testaments; consequently the objections of the Quraish to receiving them as a new revelation can be easily appreciated.
Another subject of endless debate between Muhammad and the unbelieving Quraish was that of miracles. When the former announced himself as a prophet of God, and a successor of Moses and Jesus, his enemies retorted that the missions of these latter were authenticated by well-established miracles. Where, then, were his credentials? This demand upon the part of the Quraish for a ‘sign’ is alluded to again and again in the pages of the Qur'an, and the answer is always and everywhere the same. Muhammad consistently disclaimed the power to work miracles. Signs, he replied, were in the power of God alone, and he was merely a warner. One illustration, taken from a host of passages, must suffice. It is found in Qur’an Al‑An'am 6:109, and runs thus,
وَأَقْسَمُواْ بِاللّهِ جَهْدَ أَيْمَانِهِمْ لَئِن جَاءتْهُمْ آيَةٌ لَّيُؤْمِنُنَّ بِهَا قُلْ إِنَّمَا الآيَاتُ عِندَ اللّهِ وَمَا يُشْعِرُكُمْ أَنَّهَا إِذَا جَاءتْ لاَ يُؤْمِنُونَ.
‘With their most solemn oath have they sworn by God that if a sign come unto them they will certainly believe it. Say (O Muhammad), signs are in the power of God alone, and he teacheth you not thereby, only because when they were wrought ye did not believe.’ The commentators tell us that the Quraish again and again came to Muhammad and said, ‘O Muhammad, you yourself have told us that Moses with his rod split the rock and out of it there flowed water, whilst Jesus gave life to the dead. If thou, too, do but bring us a sign we will believe.’ The traditions, it is true, contain numerous stories of fabulous miracles said to have been performed by Muhammad, but these stories are obviously the fabrications of a later age, manufactured for the purpose of glorifying the prophet. The one contemporary record that has come down to us, the Qur'an, bears everywhere the clearest testimony to Muhammad’s inability to meet the demands of his contemporaries.
It may not be out of place here to mention the famous Mi’raj or night-journey to heaven which fond tradition has ascribed to the prophet. The passage of the Qur'an which is said to allude to this event obviously relates to a vision, and runs as follows,
سُبْحَانَ الَّذِي أَسْرَى بِعَبْدِهِ لَيْلاً مِّنَ الْمَسْجِدِ الْحَرَامِ إِلَى الْمَسْجِدِ الأَقْصَى الَّذِي بَارَكْنَا حَوْلَهُ لِنُرِيَهُ مِنْ آيَاتِنَا.
‘Glory be to Him who carried his servant by night from the sacred temple (of Mecca) to the temple that is more remote, whose precinct we have blessed, that we might show him of our signs.’ The later traditionists have turned this simple record of a spiritual vision into one of the most extravagant stories of a bodily ascent to heaven ever invented by the fancy of man. Briefly the story as related in the Mishkatu'l-Masabih, the Qisasu'l-Anbiya and other traditions is as follows: One night as Muhammad lay asleep in his house at Mecca the angel Gabriel suddenly appeared at his side, and opening his breast took out his heart and washed it with water. Then again replacing it he mounted the prophet upon the back of a marvellous winged steed, named Buraq, which conveyed him in the twinkling of an eye to the famous temple at Jerusalem. Here the prophet prayed, and was thereafter taken to heaven, where he held converse with the Almighty. The return to earth was accomplished the self-same night, and the Mi’raj, as this wonderful journey is called, is now claimed as one of the great miracles of the prophet, attesting his divine commission and setting the seal upon his prophetic claims.
The Qur'an, we have already remarked, distinctly states that this event was simply a vision; and sober scholars like the late Syed Ahmad Khan have felt compelled to adopt that explanation. This journey is alluded to in the 60th verse of Qur’an Bani Isra'il (17:60) in the following words:
وَمَا جَعَلْنَا الرُّؤيَا الَّتِي أَرَيْنَاكَ إِلاَّ فِتْنَةً لِّلنَّاسِ وَالشَّجَرَةَ الْمَلْعُونَةَ فِي القُرْآنِ.
‘We ordained the vision which we showed thee, and likewise the cursed tree of the Qur'an, only for men to dispute of.’ Both the Jalalain and ‘Abbas in their comments on this passage refer it to the Mi’raj. Muhammad ‘Abdu'l Hakim Khan in his commentary on the Qur'an (p. 400) says, ‘All this was a magnificent vision shown unto the prophet during night, as clearly pointed out in the first verse of this chapter, “carried His servant by night”.’ Ibn Hisham on p. 139 of his famous Siratu'r-Rasul records that
إن عائشة زوج النبي صلعم كانت تقول ما فقد جسد رسول الله صلعم ولكن الله أسرى بروحه.
‘Verily ‘Ayesha, the wife of the prophet, used to say that “the body of the prophet of God did not disappear, but God took away his spirit by night”.’ The same author has preserved another tradition regarding Mu’awiya bin Abu Sufyan to the effect that
كان إذا سُئل عن مسرى رسول الله صلعم قال كانت رؤيا من الله تعالى صادقة.
‘When he was asked about the night-journey of the apostle of God he said, “It was a truthful vision from God most high”.’ Yet another tradition to the same effect recorded by Ibn Hisham is that,
كان رسول الله صلعم يقول فيما بلغني تنام عيني وقلبي يقظان.
‘The apostle of God used to say, “In what reached me, my eye was asleep, but my heart was awake”.’' From the testimony of these early Muslims it is clear that the Mi’raj spoken of in Qur’an Bani Isra'il (17) was nothing more than a dream or vision, and proves nothing regarding Muhammad's ability to work miracles. The commentators of the Qur'an unanimously explain the words of the passage quoted, ‘the temple that is more remote’, of the temple of Jerusalem, and in the chapter dealing with the famous night-journey in the Mishkatu'l-Masabih there is a tradition that Muhammad said:
فركبته حتى أتيت بيت المقدس فربطته بالحلقة التي يربط فيها الانبياء ثم دخلت المسجد فصليت فيه ركعتين.
‘Therefore I rode him (the beast Buraq) until I came to the Holy House (i.e. the temple of Jerusalem). Then I tied him to the ring to which the (earlier) prophets were wont to tie (their steeds).’ He said, ‘after that I entered the temple, and prayed in it two raqats.’ Unfortunately for this story, the Jewish temple at Jerusalem was totally destroyed, as every educated person knows, by the Romans some centuries before the birth of Muhammad, and was never rebuilt!! This fact has obliged not a few educated Muslims to reject the theory of a corporeal journey and content themselves with the explanation that it was a vision only. Thus the late Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, in his Essays (p. 34) writes, ‘All that Muhammadans must believe respecting the Miraj is that the prophet saw himself in a vision transported from Mecca to Jerusalem, and that, in such a vision, he really beheld some of the greatest signs of his Lord.’ Another educated Indian Muslim, Mirza Abul Fazl, in his Selections from the Quran (p. 181) says, in commenting upon the Qur'anic passage alluded to: ‘This refers to the celebrated vision of ascension which Muhammad had at Mecca some time before his flight to Madina.’ Syed Ameer Ali, also, in his Life of Mohammed (pp. 58 and 59) says: This period is also remarkable for that notable vision of the ascension, which has furnished worlds of golden dreams for the imaginative genius of poets and traditionists. They have woven beautiful and gorgeous legends round the simple words of the Koran.. . . Muir, to my mind, is quite correct when he says that, “the earliest authorities point only to a vision, not to a real bodily journey”.’ The fact is that, if the testimony of the Qur'an be accepted, then Muhammad worked no miracle. His repudiation of such power was clear and oft-repeated. When challenged by the unbelieving Quraish to show a ‘sign’ the most he could reply was that the Qur'an was his only miracle. Thus he is reported as saying:
مَا مِنْ الْأَنْبِيَاءِ من نَبِيٌّ إِلَّا قد أُعْطِيَ من الآيات مَا مِثْلهُ آمَنَ عَلَيْهِ الْبَشَرُ وَإِنَّمَا كَانَ الَّذِي أُوتِيتُ وَحْيًا أَوْحَاهُ اللَّهُ إِلَيَّ.
‘There is no prophet but has been given a sign that men might believe on him, but that which has been given me is inspiration, i.e. God has sent inspiration to me.’ The Qur'an says substantially the same thing. Thus we read in Qur’an Al‘Ankabut 29:50-51,
وَقَالُوا لَوْلاَ أُنزِلَ عَلَيْهِ آيَاتٌ مِّن رَّبِّهِ قُلْ إِنَّمَا الآيَاتُ عِندَ اللَّهِ وَإِنَّمَا أَنَا نَذِيرٌ مُّبِينٌ. أَوَلَمْ يَكْفِهِمْ أَنَّا أَنزَلْنَا عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ يُتْلَى عَلَيْهِمْ.
‘And they say, “Unless a sign be sent down to him from his Lord . . .” Say: Signs are in the power of God alone. I am only a plain-spoken warner. Is it not enough for them that we have sent down to thee the Book to be recited to them?’
The testimony of the Qur'an as to Muhammad's inability to work miracles is so clear that educated Muslims are perforce obliged to repudiate the extravagant and legendary tales of the later traditions, and candidly admit that Muhammad did not work any miracle in proof of his mission. Thus Syed Ameer Ali, one of the greatest scholars that Indian Muhammadanism has produced, says candidly on p. 49 of his Life of Mohammed, ‘They asked for miracles to prove his mission. Remark his reply, “God has not sent me to you to work wonders. He has sent me to preach to you. If you will accept what I bring you, you will have happiness in this world and the next. If you reject my admonitions, I shall be patient, and God will judge between you and me.” The sublimity of these words have been hardly recognized even to the present day. Disclaiming every power of wonder-working Muhammad rests the truth of his divine commission entirely upon his teachings.’
Muhammad not only recited his Qur'an to the people as a revelation from God, but he was also wont to claim for it a superiority over all other literary productions of the human mind. In short, the Qur'an, he asserted, was incomparable, and he challenged men and genii alike to produce another book equal to it. Yet, strange to say, the commentaries and traditions contain evidence that portions of the Qur'an itself were, in reality, composed by others than Muhammad. Thus, for example, the Tafsiru'l-Baidawi (p. 164) repeats a story of an amanuensis of the prophet named 'Abdu'llah bin Sa’ud bin Abi Sarih, which shows that he was responsible for at least one passage of the Qur'an. The story as quoted by Baidawi is as follows:
عبد الله بن سعد بن أبي سرح كان يكتب لرسول الله فلما نزلت: وَلَقَدْ خَلَقْنَا الإِنسَانَ مِن سُلالَةٍ مِّن طِينٍ، فلما بلغ قوله ثم أنشأناه خلقا آخر، قال عبد الله: فتبارك الله أحسن الخالقين تعجباً من تفضيل خلق الإنسان فقال عليه السلام اكتبها، فكذلك نزلت، فشك عبد الله، وقال: لئن كان محمداً صادقاً، لقد أوحي إليَّ مثل ما أوحي إليه، ولئن كان كاذباً، فلقد قلت كما قال.
‘Abdu'llah bin Sa’ud bin Abi Sarih was an amanuensis of the prophet. And when the words descended, “We created man of fine clay”, and when the words were finished “then brought we forth him by another creation”, ‘Abdullah exclaimed, “Blessed therefore, be God, the most excellent of creators. He has created man in a wonderful manner.” Upon this (Muhammad) said, “Write those words down, for so has it descended.” But Abdu'llah doubted and said, “If Muhammad speak truth, then on me also has inspiration descended, as upon him; and if Muhammad speak falsely, then verily I but spake as he did.”’ From the story as related by Baidawi, it is clear that Muhammad was so pleased with the beauty of the expression used by his disciple that he immediately decided to give it the place in his Qur'an which it still occupies to the present day.
In an authentic tradition handed down by Bukhari the source of several other parts of the Qur'an has been traced, making it abundantly clear that others there were amongst the contemporaries of Muhammad whose beauty of expression and purity of style were no whit behind those of the prophet. The tradition is as follows:
قال عمر بن الخطاب: وافقت ربي في ثلاث، قلت: يا رسول الله لو اتخذنا من مقام إبراهيم مصلى فنزلت: وَاتَّخِذُواْ مِن مَّقَامِ إِبْرَاهِيمَ مُصَلًّى. وقلت: يا رسول الله إن نسائك يدخل عليهن البر والفاجر فإن أمرتهن يحتجبن فنزلت إليه آية الحجاب، واجتمع على رسول الله نساؤه في الغيرة فقلت عسى ربه إن طلقكن أن يبدله أزواجاً خيراً منكن فنزلت كذلك.
‘‘Umar bin Khattab said, “In three things I agreed with my Lord (that is with the Qur'an). I said, O prophet of God, if we were to say our prayers in Abraham's place, (it would be better). Then a revelation came down, “Take the place of Abraham for the place of prayer.” (The second is that) I said, O prophet of God, good and bad people come to your house; if you shut up your women, it will be better. Then came down the verse of the veil upon the prophet. (The third is that) the wives of the prophet were quarrelling, and I said to them, It may be that the Lord will divorce you, and give the prophet better wives than you in exchange. Then came down a revelation like I had spoken.’ The three verses suggested by ‘Umar are still to be found in the Qur'an to-day, and differ in no respect from the rest of the Qur'an.
Another argument used by Muhammad to prove the divine origin of the Qur'an was based upon its alleged indestructibility. God, Muhammad affirmed again and again, was its Protector from all change and corruption, either by addition or subtraction. Thus, the Quraish were assured, the Qur'an would remain for all time exactly as it was first dictated to the prophet by the angel Gabriel. There is even a saying of the prophet recorded to the effect that
لُوْ جُعِلَ القرآنَ في إِهَابٍ ثمّ أُلقيِ في النَّارِ ما احْتَرَق.
‘If the Qur'an be bound in leather and then cast into the fire, it will not be burned.’ We have no space here to show how seriously the text of the Qur'an has been corrupted since the time of Muhammad. Suffice it to say, that the standard commentaries on the Qur'an report innumerable various readings as well as mention many omissions from and additions to the original text. The curious reader may find these dealt with at some length in the book entitled The Qur'an in Islam published by the Christian Literature Society for India.
The enemies of the prophet, though unable to do him personal injury, continually assailed him with their tongues. Now it was to denounce him as an impostor, and now to ply him with disconcerting questions. At other times ridicule and abuse were heaped upon him by those who had rejected his claims; and it is clear from the narratives that have come down to us, that the prophet's lot was far from a happy one. One of these incidents as recorded by Baidawi may he mentioned by way of illustration. It is said that the Quraish one day came to the prophet with three questions; but he, not being able to answer them, bade them return again on the morrow. The next day found the prophet still unprepared, and, finally, his interlocutors were dismissed with a request to return some days later. The story as told by Baidawi is as follows:
قَالَتِ الْيَهُودُ لِقُرَيْشٍ سَلُوهُ عَنِ الرُّوحِ، وَأَصْحَابِ الْكَهْفِ وَذِي الْقَرْنَيْنِ فَسَأَلُوهُ فَقَالَ ائْتُونِي غَدًا أُخْبِرْكُمْ وَلَمْ يَسْتَثْنِ فَأَبْطَأَ عَلَيْهِ الْوَحْيُ بضعة عشر يوماً حَتَّى شَقَّ عَلَيْهِ وكذبته قريش.
‘The Jews said to the Quraish, “Do ye question him (the prophet) concerning the spirit, the companions of the cave, and Alexander the Great.” Then they asked him; but he said, “Return ye to me tomorrow and I will answer you.” But he neglected to mention a condition (i.e. if God will). Consequently inspiration delayed to come upon him for the space of some ten days, until the matter became grievous to him, and the Quraish called him a liar.’ ‘Abbas and Ibn Hisham (vol. i, p. 273) also relate the incident which, we are told, was the result of a plan concerted by the Jews for testing whether Muhammad was really a prophet or not. Little wonder that his unsatisfied questioners at last withdrew in disgust, declaring Muhammad to be an impostor and a liar.
Another matter concerning which the enemies of Muhammad were constantly taunting him was the contradictions which were so palpably evident between various passages of the Qur'an. If that book be studied with attention it will be found to contain a large number of such contradictions; and it is not to be wondered at that the unbelieving Arabs were quick to seize upon them in order to challenge the divine origin of the book in which they were found. Thus, at the first, when Muhammad was a defenceless man at Mecca, dependent upon the goodwill of the people for his very existence, we find him inculcating principles of toleration and mildness, but, later on, when at Madina he found himself surrounded by a band of warlike Arabs, he changed his tone, and Jehad was consistently preached. Again, when Muhammad first reached Madina, after his flight from Mecca, he sought to win the goodwill of the many influential Jews resident there by making Jerusalem his Qibla, or place towards which prayer was to be offered. Later on, however, when these hopes failed, he again turned towards the sacred Ka'ba or temple of Mecca, when prostrating himself in prayer, in order to conciliate the Arabs who looked upon that ancient temple in the light of a national sanctuary. The Arabs, however, only mocked, and to Muhammad's assurance that God was the author of the changes, replied that
إنما أنت مفتر متقول على الله تأمر بشيء ثم يبدو لك فتنهي عنه.
‘Thou (O Muhammad) art only a forger. Thou attributest thy words to God. Thou commandest a thing, and then changest thy mind and forbiddest it’ (Tafsiru'l-Baidawi, p. 366).
Thus the days passed by, and the Quraish remained unsatisfied and unbelieving. To their demands for a miracle Muhammad had replied that he was only a preacher. Their questions, brought with a view to apply a second test of Muhammad's apostleship, were equally futile of results, and so they turned from the preacher in disgust, resolved more than ever not to tolerate in their midst one who, to their mind, was obviously an impostor and a fool.