Muslim tradition affirms that the angel Gabriel was the medium through which Allah delivered revelation to Muhammad. The “trustworthy spirit Gabriel brought down” the revelation (Qur’an 26:193) to Muhammad with Allah’s permission (2:97).
Islamic sources reveal a slightly more nuanced picture. We also read, for example, that the Holy Spirit brings to Muhammad revelation: “Say, “The holy spirit has brought it down from your Lord with the truth to reassure the believers, and as a guide and good news for those who submit to Allah” (16:102). In Q53:5, it is an “angel of mighty power.” In the hadith Mishkat, Aisha, a favourite wife of Muhammad’s, says that Muhammad received revelation through dreams: “The first revelations which the Prophet received were in true dreams; and he never dreamt but it came to pass as regularly as the dawn of day” (24:5). In other hadith, Muhammad says that “The Angel sometimes comes to me with a voice which resembles the sound of a ringing bell” (Sahih al-Bukhari 4.54.438; Sahih Muslim 30:5765).
What accompanied the revelation? According to Sahih al-Bukhari, apparently Muhammad would sweat: the angel came in the form of a man to talk to Muhammad and Aisha, observing Muhammad “being inspired divinely on a very cold day”, “noticed the sweat dropping from his forehead” (1.1.2). In Sahih Muslim, Muhammad “sweated in cold weather when revelation descended upon him” (30.5763). Muhammad’s head would be wrapped in cloth and the revelation would be burdensome (Sahih Muslim 7:2658) and he would emit a sound of snorting (Sahih Muslim 7:2654).
Perhaps the most memorable revelation received by Muhammad was in the Miraj (“ascent”) story which refers to him being carried by a winged horse in the night from Mecca to Jerusalem (Sahih al-Bukhari 5.58.227). Through the help of his winged horse, Muhammad ascended through seven levels of heaven. At each level, he would meet some of the great prophets of history. At the highest level, Allah is said to speak to Muhammad and he receives instructions about the requirements for the prayers of the devout. Muslims must pray fifty times a day. But then Moses, who is on the sixth level of heaven, says to Muhammad that his followers could not bear such a huge number of prayers per day. Moses then urges Muhammad to go “back to your Lord and ask for reduction to lessen your followers’ burden.’” Muhammad does this and Allah reduces the number of prayers to ten a day, but this is also, Moses says, too many for Muslims to bear. So Muhammad again bargains with Allah who then reduces the prayers to five a day.
The manner in which revelations were received by Muhammad varied. Some sources say they came through the angel Gabriel, others via an angel, or through the Holy Spirit. Muhammad would experience various bodily sensations including sweating on cold days, a head that needed to rest, and he would feel burdened.