Who was Muhammad?
Muhammad was the founder of the religion of Islam. Muslims believe him to be the prophet and messenger of God, as well as the last prophet sent by God (Surah 33:40). He was born around 570 AD in the city of Mecca (1), was orphaned at a young age, and reared by his uncle Abu Talib. When Muhammad was young he worked primarily as a merchant (2), and when he got the chance he would venture to a cave in the mountains near Mecca for prayer and fasting. When he was 40 years old he claimed to have been visited by the angel Gabriel as part of revelation from God (3). Later, after three years, Muhammad began preaching these revelations publicly. Soon he gained followers and was met with resistance by those in Mecca of whom his teachings threatened. Later he, with a few followers, migrated to Medina in 622 AD where he would continue to amass his following. This time was tumultuous for Muhammad as for eight years he battled against those in Mecca, but eventually he accrued an army of 10 000 to march on the city of which he successfully conquered. In the year 632 AD Muhammad died after he fell ill.
1. Scholarly Consensus.
Muhammad: Historians and experts on both Jesus and Muhammad agree that both men existed and stand as the founders of the two major monotheistic world religions. The historian Michael Cook believes that historical evidence “precludes any doubts as to whether Muhammad was a real person” (4). Another historian of Islam, Patricia Cone, comments that there is “irrefutable proof” that Muhammad was a historical figure, and that this evidence is “exceptionally good” (5).
Jesus: According to Rudolph Bultmann to doubt Jesus existed is “unfounded and not worth refutation” (6). Even Robert Miller of the radical Jesus Seminar comments that “We can be certain that Jesus really existed (despite a few highly motivated skeptics who refuse to be convinced), that he was a Jewish teacher in Galilee, and that he was crucified by the Roman government around 30 CE” (7). Bart Ehrman, an agnostic and certainly no ally of Christianity, pens that “The view that Jesus existed is held by virtually every expert on the planet” (8).
We can be quite comfortable in the fact that scholars are confident that both men existed, and that we can actually know things about them.
2. Total Textual Sources.
Muhammad: Our historical sources and information on Muhammad come from four major sources: the Koran, Hadiths, early biographies, and non-Islamic sources.
Jesus: Our historical sources and information on Jesus come from several major sources: biographical Gospels, the Pauline epistles, non-Pauline epistles, other New Testament (general) literature, several early church fathers, non-Biblical sources, and, although highly legendary (and probably historically worthless), our Gnostic writings (Gospel of Thomas and Peter).
3. The Koran & New Testament as Evidence.
Muhammad: It is believed that the Koran was written down by Muhammad’s companions while he was alive (9), and that in its finite form, as we have it now, was not completed and collected until many years after his death. Before the Koran was completed in its final form it was based primarily on oral communication and brief written records. Nevertheless, to learn about the historical Muhammad from the Koran (dated 610-632 AD) is seemingly problematic since it obtains very little information on him. The Koran, much like the gospels, also has information that has been questioned by historians (10). The Koran only mentions Muhammad directly four times in Surah 3:144, 33:40. 47:2, and 48:29, however most of these verses in the Koran do not provide much in the way of historical context.
Jesus: The life of the historical Jesus is detailed in the Gospels, and each of the four Gospels tells the same story with slight differences. Nevertheless, the textual evidence for the historical Jesus is varied, much of what has been collected and put into the New Testament. The New Testament is a library of 27 books written by 10 or more authors within the 1st century. These books are divided into the biographical Gospels (Mark, Luke, Matthew, John), several Pauline epistles (1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon, Galatians, Romans, and Philippians), several non-Pauline epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Ephesians, Hebrews), and two debated books of Pauline origin (2 Thessalonians, Colossians). Other New Testament literature includes Acts, Revelation, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2 and 3 John, and Jude. According to Bart Ehrman
“If historians want to know what Jesus said and did they are more or less constrained to use the New Testament Gospels as their principal sources. Let me emphasize that this is not for religious or theological reasons—for instance, that these and these alone can be trusted. It is for historical reasons, pure and simple” (11).
Result: Although, on a positive level for the historical Muhammad, the Koran dates closer to his life than the New Testament does to Jesus still very little information can be gathered about him. Only four verses in the entire Koran refer directly to him, and some of these verses are debated. On the other hand, for the historical Jesus the events and details of his ministry and death are chronicled in all four Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. The Pauline epistles also evidence corroboration (tradition, creeds, teachings, and sayings) of Jesus. Combined, we can sketch a far more reliable and rich image of the historical Jesus than we can for the historical Muhammad.
4. Hadiths & Early Church Fathers as Evidence.
Muhammad: The Hadiths are accounts about Muhammad’s life that were authored by later Muslims, and are based on oral traditions. These sources usually detail the words and verbal accounts of Muhammad as well as his physical traditions. The Hadiths were collected and compiled by the Muslims Muhammad al-Bukhari, Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj, and Muhammad ibn Isa at-Tirmidhi. Nevertheless, these sources are quite late and have been dated to between 200 – 300 years after Muhammad’s life, hence they are looked upon with caution by contemporary historians. As the scholar Bernard Lewis comments:
“The collection and recording of Hadith did not take place until several generations after the death of the Prophet. During that period the opportunities and motives for falsification were almost unlimited” (12).
Jesus: Whereas we have Muhammad being mentioned within the Hadiths that some of his later followers authored, for Jesus we have the early church fathers. These were other early Christians that played a pivotal role in the early church of whom wrote many letters to others concerning that of Jesus and other doctrinal subjects. A couple of these early church fathers go back very early, and much earlier than the Hadiths go back for Muhammad. Some of these early fathers were contemporaries of Jesus’ actual disciples, and these disciples had intimate knowledge of the historical Jesus. For instance, we have letters written by Ignatius of Antioch (writing 80 years after Jesus’ life) who was an associate of Peter (Peter was Jesus’ closest disciple), and by Clement of Rome (65-67 years after Jesus’ life) who was also an associate of Peter. Other early church fathers include Quadratus of Athens (96 years after Jesus’ life), and Aristides the Athenian (96 years after Jesus’ life), and others, who all fall well within that 200 year time gap.
Result: A much fuller and more historically reliable portrait of Jesus can be sketched from the earliest of Christian writers after the New Testament (the early church fathers) than we can establish for the historical Muhammad from his later writers who authored the Hadiths. The Hadiths are dated to 200 to 300 years after the life of Muhammad, whereas the early Church fathers writings date much earlier to the life of Jesus.
5. Non-Islamic & Non-Christian Sources.
Muhammad: There are a few non-Islamic sources that reference Muhammad primarily by Jewish and Christian communities (13). One source is a reference recording the Arab conquest of Syria and was penned soon after the battle of Gabitha around 636 AD. This, according to Wright “seems to be a nearly contemporary notice” (14). Furthermore, the Doctrina Jacobi is a Christian anti-Semitic work that is dated to around 635 – 639 AD, and it briefly details some violence done by the Arab plunderers. In this reference an unnamed prophet is mentioned, this prophet is someone who had riled up the Arabs into their assault on Christian territory. Most scholars regard this as a direct reference to Muhammad. Another account chronicled on the BL Add. 14643 manuscript is of importance and is identified with the battle of Dathin and it mentions Muhammad directly (15). On this text Hoyland opines that: “its precise dating inspires confidence that it ultimately derives from first-hand knowledge” (16). Another account, dating to the early 7th century, comes from Sebeos who was a bishop of the House of Bagratunis. Sebeos is the first non-Muslim author to present an idea for the rise of Islam. He also knew of Muhammad’s name and that he was a merchant by profession.
Jesus: There are many extra-biblical sources on the historical Jesus, and many of which date within 100 years of his existence. We have the mentioning of Jesus twice in the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius’ work Antiquities of the Jews, Cornelius Tacitus, a major Roman historian, also mentions Jesus in his work Annals. Other major writers that allude to Jesus include Suetonius (Roman historian), Mara Serapion (a philosopher in a letter to his son), and Pliny the Younger (Roman governor in a letter to Emperor Trajan). Interestingly the details we can gather from these extra-biblical sources corroborate many events chronicled in the New Testament.
Result: According to extra-biblical accounts of both Muhammad and Jesus, I think we have a close match in terms of their historicity. Data can be garnered for both these historical figures from sources outside of each holy book. However, the actual data is quite different as for the historical Muhammad many of the non-Islamic sources reveal him as a warlord of a military. That detail does not allow us to get a detailed analysis of him or his life. But for Jesus many facts are established (from his crucifixion, ministry, trial, influence, teachings, family relations etc.) and in that regard Jesus certainly comes through superior. However, regarding the earliness of these extra-Islamic/Christian sources Muhammad emerges superior with some significant early accounts mentioning him akthough, unfortunately, this is dampened since we can’t salvage detailed information from them.
6. Sira Biography.
The Sira biography is another textual source on the historical Muhammad but one that fails to provide reliable historical information on him, it has too been questioned. This text is somewhat late and is mostly dated to after a century of Muhammad’s life (17). Nevertheless, scholars agree on some of its contents as authentic such as, for example, the Constitution of Medina. Also quite note worthy is that many Muslim reject even the earliest of the Sira texts (known as the Sirat Rasul Allah) as authoritative.
We have historical sources that are near contemporaneous (Koran, non-Islamic sources) to the life of Muhammad that we do not have for the historical Jesus. However, the issue is that these contemporaneous sources, although significant, mentions very little on Muhammad, hence we cannot draw a substantive portrait of him as we can with Jesus. In other words, very little information exists on Muhammad within a century of his life, and this cultivates a tricky situation for scholars to sift through. Furthermore, the Hadiths, of which several are seen as authoritative by practicing Muslims, are also too distant by a few centuries to be historically reliable and authoritative (this does not indicate that no historical information exists within them but rather that they could be marred by legendary embellishments, therefore questionable). For the historical Jesus our sources are more numerous, varied, and detailed. All the literature of the New Testament (27 books authored by +-12 writers) was completed well within a century of Jesus’ life. These texts were penned no later than 65 years afterwards and as early as 20 years (1 Thessalonians). Many details of Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion are independently corroborated in the gospel accounts as well as extra-biblical texts (Josephus, Tacitus). A few early church fathers (Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch) also provide details and both of which associated with Jesus’ closest disciple Peter.
All in all we can establish a richer portrait of the historical Jesus than we can for the historical Muhammad.
1. Oxford University Press. 1998. Encyclopedia of World History. p. 452.
2. Dunning, H. 1895. An Introduction to the Quran. p. 182.
3. Dunning, H. 1895. Ibid.
4. Cook, M. 1983. Muhammad. p. 73-76.
5. Crone, P. 2008. What do we actually know about Mohammed? Available.
6. Bultmann, R. 1958. Jesus and the Word.
7. Miller, R. 1999. The Jesus Seminar and Its Critics. p. 38.
8. Ehrman, B. 2012. Did Jesus Exist? p. 4.
9. McAuliffe, J. 2006. The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’ān.
10. Nigosian, S. 2004. Encyclopaedia of Islam, Muhammad. p. 6.
11. Ehrman, B. 2008. The New Testament. p. 229.
12. Lewis, B. 1967. The Arabs in history. p. 37.
13. Nigosian, S. 2004. Islam: Its History, Teaching, and Practices. p. 6.
14. Wright, W. Catalogue Of Syriac Manuscripts.
15. Hoyland, R. 1997. Seeing Islam As Others Saw It: A Survey And Evaluation Of Christian, Jewish And Zoroastrian Writings On Early Islam. p. 120.
16. Hoyland, R. 1997. Ibid. p. 120.
17. Raven, W. 1997. Encyclopaedia of Islam. p. 660-3.