ISLAM’S QUESTION: “What did Mohammed say the angel Gabriel told him in the 7th century CE?”
If the Gnostics had annoyed the Christians with their mystical teachings, Muslims took historical revisionism to a whole new level. Their prophet, Muhammad, not only dramatically edited the eyewitness accounts about Jesus, canceling out the crucifixion and resurrection, but he also added to Old Testament events going back some 2000 years.
In the seventh century CE, Christianity was the dominant religion in much of Europe, northern Africa, and, except for the Arabian peninsula, in much of the Middle East as well. The churches had formed a rich and complex theology, vigorous systems of governance, and a very messy relationship with secular politics. As they had formerly been the official state religion of the Roman Empire, now they enmeshed with the Byzantine Empire as it wrangled in a constant power struggle with the Persian Empire.
On the Arabian Peninsula, some Christian communities had formed—often favoring gnostic forms of Christianity. Several other tribes practiced Judaism. Others practiced Zoroastrianism, which was kind of like an overarching state religion for several empires of Greater Iran and the Persian Empire, going back into the second millennium BCE. Many other tribes practiced a vague mixture of Judaism with other indigenous beliefs.
That’s where Muhammad ibn `AbdAllāh arrived in the early 7th century and founded Islam. In 610 CE, when he was 40 years old, he said that the angel Gabriel visited him one night and brought him words from God. Over the next 23 years, Muhammed said Gabriel kept visiting and brining more messages from God. Later his followers wrote down the revelations, which comprised the Quran, Islam’s primary Scripture.
But Muhammed made it very clear that he followed and brought clarification to all that God had revealed in both the Jewish Torah (the Bible’s Old Testament) and the Christian New Testament. He said Gabriel told him that he was the last in a line of the Biblical prophets, so that God’s revelations flowed from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Moses all the way to Jesus and then, finally, Muhammed himself.
Say, [O believers], “We have believed in Allah and what has been revealed to us and what has been revealed to Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the Descendants [al-Asbat (i.e. the 12 tribes of Israel)] and what was given to Moses and Jesus and what was given to the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and we are Muslims [in submission] to Him. (2:136)
About one-third of the Quranic text is made up of narratives about people from the Bible—Adam, Noah, Moses, etc. It treats these men as Muslims and calls them prophets, saying that Muhammad was the last prophet, who restored the proper understanding of their faith in a single God. Quran literally means “the recitation,” and Muslims believe the Quran was verbally revealed by God to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel over a period of 23 years, from December 22, 609 CE, to 632 CE, the year of his death. He brought correction and illumination to God’s revelation, which he said had been distorted in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. Muslim teachers compared the Old and New Testaments of the Bible to a beautiful building, but one that is missing a brick—a corner or keystone brick which Muhammad provides. “Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but (he is) the Messenger of Allah, and the Seal of the Prophets: and Allah has full knowledge of all things.” (Quran 33:40)
Muhammed referred to both Christians and Jews as “People of the Book” or “People of the Scripture,” for they had God’s words written down. Muhammad himself was illiterate, but when he spoke of God as al-Lah, he was using the same word all Arab-speakers, including Jews, used. And he taught his followers to pray always facing north toward Jerusalem. Muhammad declared that any true believer from either of these faiths should accept his message.
The Bible says that the Arabs descended from Ishmael, the first son of Abraham, the “father” of the Jews. Muhammad’s revelations added to this Biblical account, saying that Abraham and Ishmael together came to Mecca and built a shrine called the Kaaba. Arabians had a tradition of making a pilgrimage to the Kaaba once a year, where they would offer sacrifices and walk around it counter-clockwise seven times.
“And make mention in the Scripture of Ishmael. He was a keeper of his promise, and he was a messenger, a prophet. He enjoined upon his people worship and almsgiving, and was most acceptable in the sight of his Lord.” (19:54)
“And [mention] when We made the House [i.e. the Ka’bah] a place of return for the people and [a place of] security. And take, [O believers], from the standing place of Abraham a place of prayer. And We charged Abraham and Ishmael, [saying], ‘Purify My House for those who perform tawa and those who are staying [there] for worship and those who bow and prostrate [in prayer].” (2:125)
Although he claimed to be a prophet in line with both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, several Jewish tribes around the city of Medina, in southern Arabia, did not believe him. Eventually, Muhammed exiled the first local tribe to reject him, the Qaynuqa (about 2000 people), from Medina. Then he said that Gabriel told him the qiblah (the direction of prayer) was to be reversed: to stop facing north toward Jerusalem and instead now to turn south to pray toward the Kaaba in Mecca. (Quran 2:144)
O People of the Scripture, why do you argue about Abraham while the Torah and the Gospel were not revealed until after him? Then will you not reason? Here you are – those who have argued about that of which you have [some] knowledge, but why do you argue about that of which you have no knowledge? And Allah knows, while you know not. Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was one inclining toward truth, a Muslim [submitting to Allah ]. And he was not of the polytheists….O People of the Scripture, why do you disbelieve in the verses of Allah while you witness [to their truth]? O People of the Scripture, why do you confuse the truth with falsehood and conceal the truth while you know [it]?” (3:65-67, 70-71)
Part of the problem for the Jews was that their prophets had always talked about the future, not the past. In fact, according to the Torah, the way to know whether a prophet came from God is whether his prophecies come to pass. If they do, then he should be listened to. As Moses put it:
And if you say in your heart, “How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?”—when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him. (Deuteronomy 18:21-22)
The Jews believed that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. Although the first few chapters of Genesis (the creation of the world) had to be revealed directly by God, the rest of it is presented as oral history that was passed down from generation to generation, until Moses recorded it under God’s direction. Then he wrote about the exodus of Israel from Egypt as it was happening.
Then Muhammad came along claiming that the angel told him what really happened. And after he rebuked and exiled the Jews for not accepting his revision of their Scriptures, he proceeded to edit the eyewitness testimonies in the New Testament as well. He said that Jesus was not God, that he did not claim to be God, that he was not crucified and that he did not rise from the dead. Instead, Islam says that he was only a prophet.
That they said (in boast), “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah.;- but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not. (Quran 4:157)
(Similarly, although Muhammad didn’t specifically cancel the Passover—the most important part of the exodus story and the most prominent Old Testament image of Christ—he never mentions it in any of the 27 different references in the Qur’an to Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh.) Now the Quran does exalt Jesus as a great prophet. It says that his mother, Mary, was a virgin and that his conception was miraculous. And it says Allah gave him miraculous powers for his ministry to the Jewish people—an ability which the Quran attributes to no other prophet. It calls him the Word of God (3:39; 4:171), a Spirit from God (4:171), a sign (19:21; 21:91), a messenger (2:87), and the Messiah (3:45). It also says he speaks prophetically from the cradle (19:30-34).
At length she brought the (babe) to her people, carrying him (in her arms). They said: “O Mary! Truly an amazing thing hast thou brought! 28. “O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not a man of evil, nor thy mother a woman unchaste!” 29. But she pointed to the babe. They said: “How can we talk to one who is a child in the cradle?” 30. He said: “I am indeed a servant of Allah. He hath given me revelation and made me a prophet; 31. “And He hath made me blessed wheresoever I be, and hath enjoined on me Prayer and Charity as long as I live; 32. “(He) hath made me kind to my mother, and not overbearing or miserable; 33. “So peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life (again)”! 34. Such (was) Jesus the son of Mary: (it is) a statement of truth, about which they (vainly) dispute. 35. It is not befitting to (the majesty of) Allah that He should beget a son. Glory be to Him! when He determines a matter, He only says to it, “Be”, and it is. (Quran 19:27-35)
When the baby Jesus speaks there in the Quran of being raised up to life again, Muslims say he is referring to life in heaven (since the Quran says he was not crucified and did not resurrect). It says that Jesus himself never claimed to be the Son of God, and that at the last judgment he will deny having ever claimed divinity. Then Allah will vindicate him. (Quran 5:116)
TarifKhalidi, a Palestinian historian who now holds the ShaykhZavid Chair in Islamic and Arabic Studies at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, says that the Quran presents Jesus as a Muslim. “It is [Jesus] who predicts the coming of Muhammad (peace be upon him) and thus, one might say, is the harbinger of Islam,” says TarifKhalidi.
The Quran rewrites the story of Jesus more radically than that of any other prophet, and in doing so it reinvents him. The intention is clearly to distance him from the opinions about him current among Christians. The result is surprising to a Christian reader or listener. The Jesus of the Quran, more than any equivalent prophetic figure, is placed inside a theological argument rather than inside a narrative. He is very unlike his Gospel image. There is no incarnation, no ministry and no passion. His divinity is strenuously denied either by him or by God directly. Equally denied is his crucifixion. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/beliefs/isa.shtml)
Muslims feel their ownership of the proper view of Jesus became even clearer during the Crusades—the 200-year war from 1091 to 1295 in which Roman Catholic Europe tried to take Jerusalem away from Muslim control, all in the name of Jesus. Muslims had to fight against these alleged followers of Christ in order to protect a proper understanding of both his message and the place of his ministry in the Holy Land. “In the battle for the legacy of Jesus, there was no doubt whatsoever in Muslim eyes that the true Jesus belonged to Islam,” says Professor Khalidi.“It was in a sense a replay of the Quranic scenario, this time more urgent and dangerous.”
In the end, Islam does venerate the Bible, but all authority for determining which parts of the Bible are true rests upon what the Prophet Muhammad said the angel Gabriel told him beginning in the year 609 A.D. One compelling aspect of this position is its simplicity and exactness. Unlike the variations in style in the gospel accounts, the Quran offers Muhammad’s testimony of an angel’s message. Nevertheless, it is one hundred percent hearsay, for Muhammad did not claim to witness any of the events about which he testified. You just have to take his word for Gabriel’s message, even when he dramatically edits the eyewitness accounts of dozens of others going back over 2000 years. So in answer to questions about why to believe that any of the Bible is true and why parts of it are false, and why to believe that certain events happened and others did not, the answer is, “Because that’s what Muhammad said the angel told him.”