Lecture 3: Early Life and Influences
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In his early life, Muhammad was influenced by Judaism, Christianity and the Hanifs.
I. Great Qur'anic Passages #3 Surah 43:1,2,30
II. His Life and Influences
B. Early Life
a. Monophysite Christianity
b. Ascetics and Hermits in Arabia
Course: Introduction to Islam
Lecture: Early Life & Influences
I. Great Qur'anic Passages #3 Surah 43:1,2,30
As is our practice, we will begin with a Qur’anic passage that I’m calling here the third great Qur’anic passage, which is found in Surah 43: 1~ 2 & 30. If you’ll turn in your Qur’an to Surah 43, I’d like to read this to you. Normally I would have students read this, but because this is being taped, I think it would be appropriate if you follow along as I read this out so it would be in the ears of those who are perhaps taking this course from a distance.
This one is entitled “Ornaments of Gold”. I mentioned before that the title is taken from some part of the surah to help in memory. It doesn’t necessarily carry the theme, in fact it’s often an obscure part of the surah that makes it a unique surah, makes it memorable. It’s difficult to identify the title of a surah. Usually, when you see a surah quoted, it is not quoted by the title, it’ll just say “surah 26” because it isn’t like “I Corinthians” which gives you all this information about how it was Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. This doesn’t really function quite that way. It’s not impossible, you do see it the other way but most of the time, it simply says which surah it is. This is the 43rd surah. Let me just read this passage. The first ayah is:
“Hamim, by the glorious book, we have revealed the Qur’an in the Arabic tongue that you may grasp its meaning. It is a transcript of our eternal book, sublime and full of wisdom.”
Now, you may have different translations, I’m using the Penguin translation. This is a very important surah for a number of reasons: it’s actually the fourth surah in a seven-surah series, which is known as the Hamim series. Notice how this one begins with “hamim”, that’s that cryptic notation, but this entire seven surahs that begin with the expression “hamim”, are all from the Meccan period. We’ll explain more about what that means later, between pre-Medinan, Medinan, and Meccan surahs. But this is a relatively late surah comparatively speaking, because of that.
The hamim surahs all carry a similar theme. The surahs tend to emphasize the difference between faith and unbelief, and this one certainly carries that as well. Mohammed accepts, or identifies, faith in Islam as “faith = those who receive this revelation”. So “faith” is not quite what we would consider in terms of objective faith in God, but it’s often identified as faith in this revelation. In that sense, there is a little different emphasis there. “Unbelief” is those who reject this revelation.
“By the glorious book, we have revealed the Qur’an in the Arabic”. Notice a couple things here: number one, that this starts out with the first-person plural “we”. This is very important, especially in reference to Biblical studies, because one of the concerns that some have raised is: why is the Hebrew word for God typically in the plural in the Old Testament? In other words, transliterated, why is it that we have, not el so often as, Elohim? Many ingenious Christians have suggested that this is perhaps a linguistic hint towards Trinitarianism. I have no idea what is being taught here, and I don’t want to disagree with anybody here – but I will disagree with it nevertheless. I don’t think this can be used linguistically to prove the Trinity in the Old Testament. In fact, this is a common eastern mode of speaking of God, not in first-person singular, but first-person plural. The only thing we have comparable to this in our own language is, if you were to say, “What does our majesty want? What do we want?” It’s a way of acknowledging the king doesn’t just represent himself, but when he speaks, he speaks as it were, ex-cathedra or ex-kingdom – out of his kingdom, out of the larger body that he represents. No one has ever argued, any Muslim scholar or the Qur’an is arguing for any Trinitarian emphasis. That’s not even in dispute. It is routine in the Qur’an that Allah refers to himself in the “we”, first-person plural. So, that’s something to note. I don’t know how you would come out with the word Elohim, but this certainly should play into that discussion. How do other languages deal with monotheism? I think that should be a part of the discussion, at least, if not clear evidence that we have maybe read too much into that.
Notice also, it makes reference to the Arabic tongue. This is also unique, in contrast to Christianity in that Christianity is the only world religion in which the primary documents of the religion, in our case the New Testament, is not in the language of the founder. This is unique to Christianity. In other words, Jesus spoke Aramaic, but the New Testament is not in the language of Jesus, it is in the language of the larger community, in this case, Koine Greek. This is quite different from what you find in the Qur’an: not only is it the language of Mohammed, which is Arabic, but also it is actually emphasized in Islamic teaching that the Qur’an can only be in Arabic. Therefore, it is often said – though there have been some challenges in recent days, but certainly – the traditional Muslim view is that the Qur’an cannot be translated from Arabic into English or any other language and still be the “true” Qur’an. This means that if you dispute with a Muslim in your English text, there is some historical evidence for the Muslim to be able to say to you, “Well you don’t have the true Qur’an”, because “qur’an” means recitation, so it involves an oral encounter with the text.” They’ll say, “Well you don’t understand the true beauty of the Qur’an because when it’s translated, it loses its beauty”, because it’s essentially a book of poetry. Because of that, there is that concern, linguistically, when you translate it.
In the modern period, for the first time, in this century, Mecca has officially authorized some dual translations: Arabic and English. So, you’re now seeing some parallel versions of Arabic and English, Arabic and German, Arabic and French, some other major Western languages. This is part of this new rise of Islamic fundamentalism, which involves, among other things, evangelizing for Islam, and they realize not too many westerners know Arabic. But I think it’s fair to say that in the main vision of Islam, the Arabic tongue, and even the Arabic culture is extremely important in the Muslim self-understanding of the Qur’an. And then finally notice that this expression is used here, and it is a difficult thing to translate: “It is a transcript of our eternal book.” Literally means it is a copy of the mother of all books. This is basically the Muslim version of the dictation theory.
Have you learned the dictation theory yet in your theology classes? This is certainly one of the most conservative views of Bible revelation that it comes as a dictation and it eliminates any possibility of author intent or arranged materials, author’s style – all of that is cut out of the dictation theory. That’s exactly what the Qur’an teaches, though. It is a dictation. They do not believe there is any of Mohammed’s style or his influence or any of that is present in the Qur’an. This is an extremely conservative view of the text. It basically says there are transcripts in heaven of the Qur’an, Gabriel recited it to Mohammed, Mohammed was supposedly illiterate, he merely takes this down mechanically, and the result is the Qur’an. This is the standard orthodox view of the revelation. This is not historically what many would argue from Mohammed’s background, but this is what the Qur’an is teaching, a mechanical process. What we call, the dictation theory. The question is whether or not the original language has vowels. That’s true with Hebrew, it’s the same thing. The problem is, even though the pointing comes later, the consonants of the received text, wherever that is, which we don’t have a copy of that, there was a certain way on how it was supposed to be pronounced. From their point of view, there was no point problem early on.
By the time of Uthman, this text is set, and all other variations were burned. You actually don’t have the tradition of textual analysis that we would have with the New Testament text. There may be some dispute about how it’s pronounced, but no one has any dispute on the way the received text, as it comes to us. That’s an issue with most Eastern scripts, they distinguish between consonants and vowels in terms of how they presented the text. That wouldn’t be a serious problem. The problem becomes: during the time of Uthman, they destroyed the variants, but Muslims have a doctrine which says you can’t just throw the Qur’an away – because of the high nature of the Qur’an. So, what they did was they put these Qur’ans in burial pits. So, if you have a Qur’an that’s worn out, like this one, rather than just drop it in the trash, you take it to the mosque, and they take it to where it’s properly buried. Some German scholars had discovered some burial pits of ancient Qur’ans that precede the received text that Uthman has given us. These are extremely early Qur’ans. They uncovered layers of writings, and of course they found that the Qur’an that we have today is dramatically different from some of the early versions of this. This is absolutely heretical information that I’m telling you, from a Muslim point of view, because to them, this dispels the whole idea of dictation theory. The Germans realized when they discovered this that if they were found out that they could be killed. They quietly took pictures of the entire thing electronically, and then they smuggled it out of the country. Once they go to Germany then they began to publish these findings, creating a huge stir in the Muslim world because this is challenging this doctrine.
That’s why this is our third great Qur’anic passage because the Muslims are absolutely committed to the inerrancy of the Qur’an and the fact that it came with dictation theory. The whole textual variation issue is extremely important. This is what got into trouble, The Satanic Verses. These are all issues that we can come back to later, but these are all based on people saying publicly that there are variations in the Qur’an, and this is taken extremely seriously in the Muslim world.
That’s really the main point that I want us to know from this particular passage: the emphasis on Arabic and the idea of dictation theory. While we’re in the neighborhood of this surah, I’ll just mention over in ayah 15~16, the point I made earlier where it speaks about how this is Mohammed condemning them for assigning offspring to Allah:
“Yet they assigned to him offspring from among his servants. Such surely man is monstrously ungrateful. Would Allah choose daughters for himself and sons for you?”
This is a condemnation of the widely-held belief (I mentioned last time) that Allah has three daughters. This also reveals there’s definitely an anti-female bias here because he clearly, in this passage, shows that the birth of a son is far superior to a daughter. He says:
“Yet when the birth of a daughter is announced to one of them, his face darkened and filled with gloom. Would they ascribe to Allah females who adorn themselves with trinkets and are powerless in disputation?”
So, this is certainly a very negative view of women in this passage. There are several things in this passage which are very important, but I just mention this one because we mentioned that earlier, and while we were in the neighborhood we might mention that. That gives us some feel for this particular passage.
II. His Life and Influences
A lot of these passages come to us from different time periods. What we will do now at this part of the lecture is to do a little historical survey – rather briefly, hopefully -- to highlight the view of Mohammed, his birth, early life, and particularly the influences on his life are important because this is not something that is widely discussed. The Muslims have a bit of a divergence in terms of what they believe is the background of Mohammed’s life, whether or not he comes from a wealthy family or from a very poor family. We do have evidence in the Qur’an itself surah 43, ayah 30, I’ll read it to you, in this passage you have the really important passage:
“Why was this Qur’an not revealed to some mighty man from the two towns?”
You should recognize these are people who are opposing Mohammed’s revelations, and they’re basically saying, “You’re nobody. Who are you to tell us that you heard from God?” This would indicate that Mohammed is not from a particularly wealthy family or background. There are some Muslims who argue Mohammed had a very undistinguished background, in terms of his family life. Of course, the reference here “from the two towns” refers to Mecca and Medina. These are the two principle towns in the Arabian Peninsula.
However, it is known that – and this is very important, as we’ll see later in the Muslim historical development – he is from the Qur’aish tribe. The Qur’aish tribe is actually a wealthy tribe; they are the guardians of the idols in Mecca, the Kaaba. In that sense, the tribe that Mohammed comes from is considered to be a very important, powerful tribe. And yet, this testimony indicates that Mohammed is not a particularly well-known person. The tradition says that Mohammed is illiterate. This is the orthodox version of Mohammed’s life because they want to downplay that Mohammed had any influence on the Qur’an. Because of that, there is some discrepancy about Mohammed and what kind of background he has.
Mohammed was traditionally born in the year 570AD, technically June 8, 570AD. There are a few scholars who argue for 580, but generally 570 is widely accepted. His father was known as Abd-Allah, “the servant of Allah” (I mentioned that last time), but he died before Mohammed was born. His mother died when he was only six years old, so he was brought up at first by his grandfather – we don’t know if that was on the mother’s or father’s side – and then his uncle, Abu Talib. His uncle becomes very important, so make sure you have his name down. This is the man who originally raised him and becomes very important in the later development of the Qur’an.
B. Early Life
From all we can tell, Mohammed in his early life – in every respect – is like any other young Arab who lived on the Arabian Peninsula. We know he sacrificed, at an early age, a goat to the god Uzza at the Kaaba. He participated in the idol worship of his day. We know he named his first son, who didn’t survive him, Abd Menah, after one of the Meccan deities. Mohammed’s children all died, except for one daughter, but nevertheless, we have these children born prior to his revelation. In that sense, his upbringing seemed particularly ordinary. We don’t have any signs that Mohammed, at an early age, was different from anybody else.
However, there is a very old tradition according to his biographer – how much of this is hagiography, we don’t know – but according to one of the earliest biographies of Mohammed, you have this statement in the biography – I’ve just clipped it and edited out a big portion because this is quite a long passage; this is the first and the last part of it – where he is told:
“…that the apostle of Allah [referring to Mohammed] said, as he was talking about Zayd (son of Amr, son of Nufayl), ‘He was the first to upbraid me for idolatry and forbade me to worship idols. The apostle added, “After that I never knowingly stroked one of their idols nor did I sacrifice to them until God honored me with his apostleship.” [Islam, Alfred Guillaume, p 26-27]
This is the official Muslim biography that argues Mohammed – even though he did not receive his revelations until much later in his life –as a teenager, he was challenged to not participate in idolatry. Therefore, he did not, after this rebuking. He was in a place where he was offering food, sacrificing to idols, interestingly – when this occurred in the biography. We have to come back to this later because this is the way that Muslims describe the history of Mohammed, in what they call the Chain of Isnad. Essentially you have “somebody told me that somebody said…” This is all being described as hearsay. So essentially what this is saying is Mohammed was heard, telling somebody that when he was talking to Zayd, that Zayd rebuked him for his idolatry. This is the way that the historical tradition of Mohammed is supposedly verified. This is actually where they have their textual criticism – which we haven’t looked at yet – but in the Hadith, they will preface everything Mohammed says or does by “so-and-so told so-and-so” as a way of verifying this really did happen. According to this biographer, this is the way he proves that this event happened. I’m only giving you a part of it here. It’s a lengthy chain.
According to their tradition, at age 25, Mohammed married a woman known as Khadija. Khadija is a woman who, at the time was a widow, forty years old – so this is a 25-year-old man marrying a 40-year-old woman. She was a very rich owner of a caravan trade. A particular caravan trade we talked about last week and some of the early historical settings. There was a caravan route that ran along the western border of Arabia and went into Edessa, which eventually joined the Silk Route. She owned one of these caravan routes, and she had put Mohammed in charge of it. According to their history, he was a very trustworthy person; he never cheated her, so she gained his trust and eventually they married. Despite what you may have heard, Mohammed actually never married another woman until after Khadija died. He eventually takes on over a dozen wives, but never any more wives during the lifetime of Khadija.
As far as any records that we have outside of Muslim writings, we don’t have any knowledge of Mohammed being any different in terms of his teachings, writings, or beliefs until sometime later, when Mohammed himself is getting up in some years. His first revelation is 610AD, so by this time, Mohammed is forty years old. It’s not until fifteen years after he marries Khadija that one begins to finally see historical evidence of Mohammed’s teachings that would be in direct contradiction to the mainstream of what was being taught by Arabs on the Arabian Peninsula of his day, which is essentially idolatry.
So, one has to ask, how did Mohammed get influenced towards monotheism? Were there influences on Mohammed’s thinking that might be relevant for our own study? I think it’s worth noticing a couple things, none of which are particularly denied by the Muslims or by the Qur’an. The first is the emphasis on Judaism. It’s very important to recognize that Judaism, even though there’s only a few Jews, historically, in the world when you look at other world religions – only about 18 million Jews in the world, today – but nevertheless the Jews are very widespread, and there were Jews present in all of the principle cities of the Arabian Peninsula – including many in Medina, especially, but also in Mecca.
There is no question that Mohammed grew up with some knowledge of Judaism. In fact, in the Qur’an, you can reproduce most of the great events and figures of the Old Testament. There are certain things which amazingly he never mentions that he has knowledge of. For example, he never mentions the Exodus – quite surprising, given the importance of that in Jewish history. There are some huge gaps in his knowledge. Nevertheless, he knows a lot about Judaism; it comes through a lot. He knows about David and Solomon, but doesn’t ever mention their kingdoms. He never mentions the exile or the return from exile. So, particularly the Exodus and the exile: those are two big events that are absent from Mohammed’s knowledge as far as the Qur’an is concerned.
But there’s no question that there are dozens and dozens of examples of things in the Qur’an, which clearly revealed knowledge of Old Testament text: the earth created in six days, Adam and Eve, and all that. We’ll develop this more later. Let me just show you a couple of important points because I think it is fair enough to say that this is not a matter greatly in dispute with Muslims. Let me just give you one quote from the Qur’an that may help you appreciate this:
“The Qur’an cannot have been composed by any but Allah. It confirms what was revealed before it and fully explains the scriptures.”
This is very important, theologically, in the Qur’an – I’m not going to cite the reference because you have the text – because it is saying that the Qur’an is not a new thing, but it is merely revealing, even confirming, what was already revealed. Look at this one here:
“Allah has declared the truth. Follow the faith of Abraham. He was an upright man, no idolater.”
This represents an extremely important kind of text, which showed continuity between Judaism and Islam, and he is not in any way denying that. Abraham is one of the great figures of the Qur’an, according to Mohammed. You have this text here in Surah 29:46, where he is in open disputation with the Jews at this point, but he says:
“We believe in that which was revealed to us and what was revealed to you. Our God and your God is one. To him, we Muslims surrender ourselves.”
The word Muslim means “to submit, or those who submit themselves”. So here he clearly is saying to the Jews: we don’t want to challenge the revelation that you have. To talk about Jewish influences on the Qur’an or on Mohammed is not a radical thing to say. In fact, this is clearly taught in the Qur’an, that Mohammed openly says, “I am not starting a new religion. I am not trying to contradict Judaism. I merely want to confirm it.” Now we’re going to see how they get into much more conflict as time develops. But essentially – early on, especially – Mohammed is full of positive statements about the Jews and the Jewish revelation, etc.
Similarly, Mohammed has an – early on – very positive view of Christianity. The problem, of course, with Christianity especially, more so than Judaism, is that the quality of the Christianity that he received is certainly suspect. At the time of Mohammed’s birth, Christianity is roughly 600 years old by the time Mohammed’s revelations begin. A few Arab tribes had turned to Christ. The problem is, as you may recall, in the western empire Christianity was essential illegal until 313AD, when you had the Edict of Milan. Prior to that time, you had some dispersion of Christians out of the empire because of persecution. The Persian empire is the empire which separates the Roman empire to the west and particularly India and other important powers to the east: India and ultimately China, etc. So, Persia represents kind of a buffer state between the east and the west. In fact, one of the interesting stories about Persia is how early on, there was a lot of fighting about whether Persia would be a western power or an eastern power.
Essentially the east, of course, won out. Then there is Arabia, which is in the southern part of this, and there is a migration of Christians down into Arabia, during the first period. Then later, after the Edict of Milan, you have a complete reversal of the Christian situation: on the one hand, Christianity is made legal in the west and eventually becomes the state religion of the empire, but during that period, the Christians are openly persecuted in Persia. One of these interesting flip-flops of history: the first 300 years of the church’s life, Christianity was pretty much widely accepted in Persia. The next 300 years, it was persecuted in Persia, but not in the west. In both cases, you have Christians fleeing down into the peninsula in order to survive.
a. Monophysite Christianity
The problem is that you have generally aberrant Christians who are being expelled. You have particularly Nestorians, you have Monophysites, you have ascetics and hermits, and I want to briefly explore a couple of these for you. Monophysitism is a very ancient heresy in the church, which you can identify by looking at the words mono and phusis, “one nature”. This is essentially the one-nature group; we call them the Monophysites. The one-nature group is a group of Christians that did not accept, ultimately, Chalcedon.
Chalcedon is the council that occurred in 451AD that established – what we today accept as – the orthodox view of Christology. You may recall that the position of Chalcedon is that you have two persons united in one nature. Now, the problem with the Monophysites is that they did not accept the language of Chalcedon, and they believed that when the divine nature came down in the incarnation, it completely consumed the human nature. So, you had no dual natures of Christ, united in one person. Chalcedon is one person, two natures (united in one person); Monophysites, you have one person, one nature. That’s basically the bottom line of it.
This is often called the dissectic view of Christ because this also spawned dissecticism. A dissectic view of Christ means that you don’t give proper place to the humanity of Christ. Any Christology that downplays the humanity of Christ is called dissectic. The Monophysites were dissectic. They believed that the divine nature could not abide with the human nature. When the incarnation took place, the human nature was obliterated. Now, you realize that Mohammed is just born a few decades after Chalcedon, so don’t think for a minute that because Chalcedon occurred in 451AD that just like that, Christians all adopt the Chalcedonian view. There are many good Christians that are in massive dispute over the language of Chalcedon. Granted, their views are heterodox, at this point, but their views are confused. So, Mohammed is exposed to Monophysite communities that are living in Arabia.
b. Ascetics and Hermits in Arabia
So, this is important because it does show you that Mohammed is being exposed to less-than-mainstream orthodox Christianity. There’s no Bible in Arabic at this point, which is to the great shame to the church, there were Christians for 300 years, there was still no Bible in Arabic. So, he cannot read it for himself. The Christians that are there: you have Monophysites, you also have a number of hermits and ascetics that live in Arabia. Of course, Arabia is the land of the desert, and so this attracts a number of hermits. We even know one particular hermit that Mohammed met, Bahira, who is a hermit that Mohammed mentions that he got to know. We don’t know what the hermit told him about Christianity, but we know that Mohammed had dialogue with this individual. So, Mohammed is finding out about Christianity from hermits, Monophysites, and finally from Nestorians.
Nestorians is yet another aberration of Chalcedon, the way Monophysitism was. The problem with Nestorianism had a similar issue, but they, rather than saying the one person obliterated the human nature like the Monophysites did, Nestorians argued that what you had in incarnation is no true union of the person. See, Chalcedon has one person, two natures. Monophysites denies the two natures. Nestorians deny the one person. They believe that you have two distinct persons – the human and the divine persons of Jesus – so when Jesus is hungry, they will not say the god-man (Jesus Christ, united in one person) that God was hungry. That’s impossible: how can God can hungry? To this day, Muslims will say to Christians, can God be hungry? And you say “no”. “Well was Jesus hungry?” “Yes, he was.” “Ergo, Jesus cannot be God.” I have heard this so many times from Muslims. Did Jesus sweat? Did Jesus ever blow his nose? “Yes, he blew his nose”. Does God blow his nose? God does not have a nose. Jesus cannot be God! You know, this kind of reasoning.
You have to be, if you work with Muslims, you have to have an extremely clear-headed view of the doctrine of Trinity. This is not a doctrine you can afford to ignore. You have to be very, very clear on it. This becomes an issue with the Muslims. Later on, in the course, we’ll re-visit some of the apologetic issues in terms of dealing with the Trinity with Muslims. You can see that our main point here to simply demonstrate that Mohammed does not reject orthodox Christianity. I think basically, I don’t see any fundamental change with Muslims in the 8th century and Muslims in the 21st century. Muslims to this day still basically reject aberrations of Christianity, rather than the real thing.
It’s so difficult to get Muslims to actually hear the real authentic positions of what Christians teach, because they are convinced, Mohammed says “Gosh, the Christians themselves are all at sea about the person of Christ”. He can’t find any Christians who agree: Bahira says one thing, Nestorians say another thing, Monophysites say another thing. It’s obvious that Christians are not real clear-headed about the person of Christ, so therefore, they must be confused and they have overstated who Christ is. He’s obviously a great prophet, a great teacher, but the Christians have overstated their case. Therefore, Mohammed essentially rejects any discussion of Christ in the area of the divine because he saw among the Christians that he talked to that there were dramatic differences in their views.
Finally, he is influenced quite a bit by the Hanifs. I’ve already mentioned in the last lecture, this particular group. These are monotheistic Arabs who are not part of the Jewish or Christian communities – they believed in one god, the sacredness of the black stone, they believed about the Kaaba being built by Abraham and Ishmael, and they believed that there would be a true return of the prophet at the end of time to restore Islam. So, Mohammed is exposed to the Hanifs, and in fact – I didn’t mention this before – this figures in Zayd, who talked to Mohammed and upbraided him about idolatry, was a Hanif: a hanifiyyah, pureseeker. This shows the context that Mohammed definitely has influence from Hanifs, from Christians, and from Jews.
There’s no question that all three of these are significant in Mohammed’s own understanding of monotheism because he essentially is exposed to the whole gamut. Even if he never left Mecca, he could’ve been exposed to all of these in Mecca itself. On the caravan route, Mohammed is interacting with all kinds of people, in fact, he shows knowledge of even eastern religions, which were widely unknown in the west, because of the Silk Route.
Mohammed is, by the standard of his day, an extremely cosmopolitan man. We have no idea of his educational background, but he – if nothing else – was self-taught in his knowledge of beliefs of people around the world. It is not at all surprising that Mohammed has a fairly good working knowledge of Judaism and Christianity: based on oral tradition only, no text. Therefore, his knowledge is spotty, and there are big gaps in his knowledge at certain points. But certainly, the basic doctrine of monotheism and how this contrasted with Arabian polytheism is clearly well-known to Mohammed.
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