A difficult story for many in the life of Muhammad is when Satan is said to have put words on the lips of the Prophet.
This revelation from Satan, originally a part of Sura 53:19-23 in the Qur’an, was not words from God, but Satan. These are commonly known as the Satanic Verses. The story of Satan fooling Muhammad is also found in several important early Muslim sources and biographies, as we will see. But despite its broad attestation in Islamic sources, Muslims and Muslim scholars reject the Satanic Verses, probably out of embarrassment that their Prophet revealed revelation from Satan which is incongruent with Muhammad’s moral infallibility.
But let’s note the context of the Satanic Verses and what they say. Muhammad is said to have delivered these verses during his attempt to appeal to the people of Mecca with whom he and his followers had a difficult relationship. At the time, Muhammad’s followers were persecuted and frowned upon because they undermined the religion of the Meccans. The Meccans objected to Muhammad’s monotheistic teachings (they were staunch polytheists) and felt that he was a threat to their economy. But Muhammad did not wish to further offend the people and instead get them to become his followers. This is when he delivered the Satanic Verses.
The best way to understand these verses is to listen to a few important early Muslim sources mentioning this event in the life of Muhammad. We receive a lot of information from the biographer al-Tabari that is worth quoting in full (emphasis added in bold):
“Now the apostle was anxious for the welfare of his people, wishing to attract them as far as he could. It has been mentioned that he longed for a way to attract them… When the apostle saw that his people turned their backs on him and he was pained by their estrangement from what he brought them from God he longed that there should come to him from God a message that would reconcile his people to him. Because of his love for his people and his anxiety over them it would delight him if the obstacle that made his task so difficult could be removed; so that he meditated on the project and longed for it and it was dear to him. Then God sent down “By the star when it sets your comrade errs not and is not deceived, he speaks not from his own desire,” and when he reached His words “Have you thought of al-Lat and al-’Uzza and Manat the third, the others,” Satan, when he was meditating upon it, and desiring to bring it (sc. reconciliation) to his people, put upon his tongue “these are the exalted Gharaniq whose intercession is approved.” When the Quraysh heard that, they were delighted and greatly pleased at the way in which he spoke of their gods and they listened to him; while the believers were holding that what their prophet brought from their Lord was true, not suspecting a mistake or a vain desire or slip, and when he reached the prostration and the end of the Sura in which he prostrated himself the Muslims prostrated themselves when their prophet prostrated confirming what he brought and obeying his command, and the polytheists of Quraysh and others who were in the mosque prostrated when they heard the mention of their gods, so that everyone in the mosque believer and unbeliever prostrated, except al-Walid b. al-Mughira who was an old man who could not do so, so he took a handful of dirt from the valley and bent over it. Then the people dispersed and the Quraysh went out, delighted at what had been said about their gods, saying, “Muhammad has spoken of our gods in splendid fashion. He alleged in what he read that they are the exalted Gharaniq whose intercession is approved.”
We also learn from the earliest and respected Muslim biographer Ibn Ishaq that Muhammad’s delivering of these verses from Satan was soon realized to be a severe mistake (emphasis added in bold),
“The news reached the prophet’s companions who were in Abyssinia, it being reported that Quraysh had accepted Islam, so some men started to return while others remained behind. Then Gabriel came to the apostle and said, “What have you done, Muhammad? You have read to these people something I did not bring you from God and you have said what He did not say to you.” The apostle was bitterly grieved and was greatly in fear of God. So God sent down (a revelation), for he was merciful to him comforting him and making light of the affair and telling him that every prophet and apostle before him desired as he desired and wanted what he wanted and Satan interjected something into his desires as he had on his tongue. So God annulled what Satan had suggested and God established His verses i.e. you are just like the prophets and apostles. Then God sent down: “We have not sent a prophet or apostle before you but when he longed Satan cast suggestions into his longing. But God will annul what Satan has suggested. Then God will establish his verses, God being knowing and wise.” Thus God relieved his prophet’s grief, and made him feel safe from his fears and annulled what Satan had suggested in the words used above about their gods by his revelation “Are yours the males and His the females? That were indeed an unfair division” (i.e. most unjust); “they are nothing but names which your fathers gave them” as far as the words “to whom he pleases and accepts,” i.e., how can the intercession of their gods avail with Him? When the annulment of what Satan had put upon the prophet’s tongue came from God, Quraysh said: “Muhammad has repented of what he said about the position of your gods with Allah, altered it and brought something else” (1).
Further, according to the trusted hadith Sahih al-Bukhari, Muhammad and his followers prostrated themselves (2.19.177). Although Sahih al-Bukhari does not tell us why they prostrated, this has nonetheless been connected to the concession made to the goddesses of the Meccans. Muhammad’s receiving of verses from Satan is also mentioned by later Muslim scholars such as Tafsir Al-Jalalayn and al-Baydawi.
What do these sources tell us? They tell us that Muhammad came up with a strategy to appeal to the Meccans. One time, when the leaders of Mecca were beside the Ka’aba to discuss various issues, Muhammad joined and began reciting what would become chapter 53:19-23 of the Qur’an. Muhammad’s revelation dealt with three goddesses worshiped by the Meccans: al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat. The Meccans believed these goddesses to be daughters of Allah, the great God, and worshiped them as protectors of their city. To appeal to the Meccans, Muhammad himself praised these goddesses and agreed to their existence. Muhammad and the Muslims even prostrated before them. The Meccans viewed Muhammad favorably for agreeing to the importance of their goddesses deserving of honor and worship. This went down less well with Muhammad’s followers because Muhammad had taught monotheism, so why was he going back on his teachings? But Muhammad soon realized his mistake and claimed that his statements about the goddesses were not from God, but in fact from Satan. Satan put these words on his lips. According to Ibn Ishaq, even God said Muhammad received this revelation from Satan, but that God then took mercy on him and gave him another revelation to annul the one sent by Satan. Muhammad brought forth another revelation that we find in chapter 53 of the Qur’an:
“Have ye thought upon Al-Lat and Al-‘Uzza And Manat, the third, the other? Are yours the males and His the females? That indeed were an unfair division! They are but names which ye have named, ye and your fathers, for which Allah hath revealed no warrant. They follow but a guess and that which (they) themselves desire. And now the guidance from their Lord hath come unto them.” (v. 19-23)
The Implications of the Satanic Verses
The Satanic Verses have raised several difficulties for Muslims. As noted, many Muslims will simply reject that this episode ever happened to Muhammad, even though the event is narrated in trusted Muslim biographies from which historians learn much about early Islam and Muhammad. Non-Muslims, moreover, will no doubt find a problem with this. Unlike Muslims, they feel there is no problem in accepting this as a genuine fact of Muhammad’s life. In fact, a strong argument can be made that such an event in the life of Muhammad would not have been made up or fabricated by later Muslim writers and biographers. Why would later Muslim writers invent a story about their revered prophet that puts on his lips revelation from Satan and shows their Prophet’s fallibility? This has not been lost on scholars. Karen Armstrong, for example, writes that,
“The episode is recounted by only two of Muhammad’s early biographers, and some scholars believe it to be apocryphal, though it is hard to see why anybody would make it up… It was his own desire talking—not Allah— and the endorsement of the goddesses provided to be a mistake. Like any other Arab, he naturally attributed his error to a shaytan” (2).
Non-Muslims will also find themselves posing to Muslims an obvious question: If Muhammad delivered verses from Satan on this occasion concerning the three goddesses, then what’s to say that other verses in the Qur’an haven’t been sent and corrupted by Satan? Remember, it was only later that Muhammad corrected the revelation sent from Satan which means that he could have also obliviously delivered other Qur’anic verses from Satan. But can a prophet who has been deceived so effortlessly by Satan really be trusted at all?
Muslims will no doubt counter with a commitment to their faith, namely that Allah protected the Qur’an and his revelations. Allah will always protect his revelation. But this raises further questions. Muslims claim the Torah and Gospel, for example, have been corrupted despite being revelations from Allah to prophets before Muhammad. Muslims claim this about the Torah and Gospel because they provide teachings that contradict the Qur’an. But if Allah really does protect his revelations, as Muslims and the Qur’an claim, then why didn’t he protect his revelations in the Torah and Gospel?
There are further issues that critics will be quick to point out. Deuteronomy, from the Torah that Allah revealed to earlier prophets (Q5:44), teaches that those who cause people to worship gods other than the one true God must be put to death,
“If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents, and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, “Let us follow other gods” (whom you have not known) “and let us serve them,” you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul… But those prophets or those who divine by dreams shall be put to death for having spoken treason against the Lord you God … So you shall purge the evil from your midst” (13:1-5).
Critics argue that this is exactly what Muhammad did. He and his followers willingly worshiped other gods, namely the three goddesses of the Meccans. To do such a thing, teaches Deuteronomy, is to commit treason against the one true God. It is an evil that must be purged. Those who commit this deed must be put to death. Remember, the Qur’an teaches that Allah revealed the Torah, which means that according to Allah’s revelation Muhammad should be stoned to death and no-one should have anything to do with him.
Another challenge critics have raised is that the Satanic Verses, delivered by Satan, satisfies and surpasses the standard set down by the Qur’an in verse 2:23. Q2:23 says that if unbelievers doubt the Qur’an is Allah’s revelation, then they must “bring a Surah like” it. The assumption the Qur’an makes is that this is impossible and therefore proof that the Qur’an is divinely revealed by God. But critics argue that Satan fulfilled this test. This is because Satan fabricated a verse in the Qur’an that was so compelling that it fooled Muhammad. As we read, not even the jinn, Muslims, and pagans doubted the veracity of this revelation until Muhammad went back on it later. Since these verses were so compelling, the Qur’an’s standard for unbelievers to “bring a Surah like” it has been bested by Satan.
- Guillaume, Alfred. 2006. The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah. Karachi: Oxford University Press. p. 165-167.
- Armstrong, Karen. 2006. Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time. New York: HarperCollins. p. 57-63.