—by Charles Ernest Yunghans
I noticed that, beginning on September 27, 2012, the Edward Tyler Nahem Gallery in New York City featured a retrospective on the works of Andres Serrano, including his 1987 photograph, Immersion (Piss Christ), usually simply called Piss Christ. It is hard to imagine that many informed Christians would not remember Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix, comprised of a white plastic corpus on a wooden Latin cross, immersed in a jar of Mr. Serrano’s urine. Its debut aroused a chorus of outrage from offended Christians, and copies on display have since been vandalized in Australia and France. Since its current display, Piss Christ briefly became a foil in the 2012 presidential race, with President Obama’s opponents citing the opprobrium he and others of his administration have leveled against a video that is said to be a “trailer” for an apparently unfinished film to be entitled The Innocence of Moslems. This trailer has been criticized as a bigoted and disgraceful denigration of the sincere beliefs of Muslims. Why, then, the president’s critics asked, should he not also condemn the showing of Piss Christ, equally considered a denigration of the sincere beliefs of Christians?
Mr. Serrano has since claimed that he had no intention of denouncing Christianity. He only wanted to criticize the cheapening commercialization of Christian symbols within our culture. This claim seems rather lame, since he has by now become rather infamous for using bodily excrescences as provocative artistic media, including, lately, his own feces, claiming that God shows him faces therein. Lucy Lippard, an art critic, would on the other hand rather view “Piss Christ” as mysterious and “darkly beautiful,” the illuminated crucifix appearing to her “virtually monumental as it floats . . . in a deep, rosy glow that is both ominous and glorious.” Perhaps she’s on to something useful for us. Furthermore, a Catholic art critic, Sister Wendy Beckett told Bill Moyers that she preferred to consider it not blasphemous, but a statement of “what we have done to Christ.” She comes even closer to what I now propose.
Even if Mr. Serrano intended to affront Christians and despise Christ Himself, and even though such intentions would be worthy of our outrage, perhaps we as followers of our Lord would do ourselves and the world a favor by transfiguring the issue, carrying it to a level to which Christ himself would inspire us to rise. We can view the photograph as an allegory of the burden of the sins of all humanity that God put upon Christ “for our sake” as he went to the cross, making him “to be sin for us, Who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). He did this even as “we were yet sinners,” and indeed “we were enemies” of God (Romans 5:8, 10). We might, more particularly, reflect deeply upon the photograph as a representation of all the enmity, scorn, reviling and punishment heaped upon him who has been “despised and rejected by men” (Isaiah 53:3) from the days of his earthly ministry, through his crucifixion, and on through the great apostasy, until he returns again on the eventual day of judgment. We who “once were estranged and hostile in mind” (Colossians 1:21) ought to identify our thoughts, words, and deeds with that urine. We also remember that instead of retaliating with Peter’s sword or many legions of angels (Matthew 26:52–53), our Lord meekly and generously allowed his Father to “lay upon him the iniquity of us all,” including my iniquity and that of Mr. Serrano, and generously “bore our griefs and carried our sorrows, . . . yet he opened not his mouth” (cf. especially Isaiah 52:13–53:12).
The Scriptural record of the meekness and self-sacrifice of our Lord and Savior stands in strong contrast to the record of the brutality and self-indulgence of another religious founder who has been given much attention recently. As this assertion is explained, please first consider the accounts of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness in Matthew 4:1–12 and Luke 4:1–13. In these accounts we see that Jesus endured temptations to presume audaciously upon his Divine nature and priestly office, and to set aside communion with the Father on the basis of a spurious claim upon God’s kingdom of power, in favor of satisfying physical appetites and worldly attachments: When our Lord became hungry during his forty-day fast, he was tempted by the devil to turn stones into loaves of bread. Thereafter he was also tempted to hurl himself from the pinnacle of the temple. Finally, he was tempted toward pride and idolatry when he was promised “all of the kingdoms of the world and their glory” were he only to worship Satan. Yet all of these he resisted, saying that abiding in the contemplation of God’s Word was far to be preferred over the relief of hunger; that we should not tempt God by creating a situation that, steeped in implicit doubt of his promises, “calls his bluff”; and that we should only serve God and God’s purposes rather than seek to empower ourselves, particularly at the expense of deflecting our allegiance from God to some principality or power that is only a depraved part of the created order brought under the curse of the Fall into sin.
I believe that on these issues Christ stands in stark contrast with Muhammad (A.D. 570–632), whom many in this nation rose to defend against that notorious YouTube trailer video, which they alleged to have been the reason the Middle East exploded in a paroxysm of anti-American violence, culminating in the lethal attack upon our nation’s consulate in Benghazi, Libya. They condemned the video as “disgusting and gratuitously insulting” of Muhammad, the founder of Islam. After so much brouhaha, I decided to Google it and watch the video myself; it proved to be what I suspected:
The trailer is indeed lurid; but what makes it lurid is that it exclusively portrays, visually and dramatically, criticisms that have been leveled against Muhammad for centuries and that are based in passages actually found in the Qur’an, the Sirah (official biographies of Muhammad), or in the Hadith, the Mohammedan traditions about things Muhammad said or did.
St. Matthew (4:2–4) and St. Luke (4:2–4) present the tempter as taking advantage of Jesus’ hunger to urge him to demand that the rocks scattered about him become bread. In response Jesus does not deny, but he subordinates his appetitive need (hunger) to our spiritual need to be fed by constant communion with God. The Dutch psychologist H. H. Somers claimed in Een andere Mohammed (Antwerp: Hadewijch, 1993) to have found in the Hadith evidence that, by contrast, Muhammad had an immense appetite. Perhaps because my exposure to these texts may be more limited, I am not aware of passages in the Qur’an or the Hadith that indicate that Muhammad was gluttonous. In the hadiths of Jami’ at-Tirmidhi 2380 and Musnad Ahmad 17186, Muhammad said that there can be no worse vessel to be filled than the stomach. He famously added that the faithful should, at any meal, fill only one third of the stomach with food and one third with drink, eating only that which is sufficient “to keep his back straight.” In short, he typically urged restraint in eating, lest one lose control of this gustatory appetite.
He seems, however, never to have required fasting in the sense of withholding all daily food. All Muslim fasts, including the month-long fast of Ramadan, only bind the believer to abstinence during the daylight hours. Presumably, then, Muhammad never undertook a fast as rigorous as Jesus imposed upon himself. In fact, when he would go to the cave, Hira for protracted meditations, he would take lunches with him, and would return home to replenish them as necessary (Hadith of Sahih Bukhari, Volume 9: Book 83: Tradition 111); so we do not know how he would have responded to this particular temptation under the circumstances Jesus undertook.
However, as the notorious trailer graphically suggests, Muhammad seems to have largely disregarded self-control of such other appetites as that for sexual gratification. In the Qur’an, Sura (Chapter) 4:3, Allah is supposed to have commanded that a man must marry no more than four wives, although marrying only one is “more proper.” Yet, according to the most sympathetic sources, Muhammad had eleven to thirteen wives, at one time at least nine concurrently. Others say he had as many as sixteen, and one account suggests he had as many as seventy-seven.
Muhammad’s sixth wife, Zaynab of Jahsh, was Muhammad’s first cousin. At the time he decided to take her for himself, she was the wife of his adopted son Zaid. Although a number of sources assert that Zaid and Zaynab were having marital problems and Zaid voluntarily divorced Zaynab, one source (Sahih Muslim 8:3330) asserts that Muhammad “came to her without permission.” This is excused as Allah’s will in the Qur’an, Sura 33:37–39.
Beyond that, he is said to have had two concubine slaves (Mariya the Coptic, see Hadith of al-Tabari 9:141; 39:193–194; and Raihana the Jew, see al-Tabari 8:39; 9:137, 141). Various texts suggest that he also was sexually intimate with Umm Sharik, Maymuna, Khawla and Zaynab, four “devoted followers” who occasionally “gave” themselves to him. (This Zaynab was the third woman of that name in Muhammad’s life, besides Zaynab of Jahsh and Zaynab of Khozayma, who were two of his wives.)
In a number of places in the Qur’an, notably Sura 4:24, Sura 23:5–6, Sura 33: 50–52 and Sura 70:29–30, Allah is supposed to allow a man to have sexual relations with slave girls and women taken captive in war. The aforementioned Mariya was one such slave girl given to Muhammad by Makaukas, the Governor of Egypt. One account says that after Muhammad was given Mariya, he directly took her to the bed of his absent wife, Hafsah. When Hafsah later learned about this, she was outraged and demanded an explanation. Muhammad swore to her an oath that he would not touch Mariya again and that he would designate Hafsah’s father, Umar, as his successor after Abu Bakr if she would agree to tell no one what he’d done. She, however, told his favorite wife, Aisha, and the scandal spread rapidly. Enraged, Muhammad then set aside all his wives for a month and spent that entire month with Mariya (Rauzatu’r Safa 2, p. 188). Aisha, however, continued to berate Muhammad for his deceit. This led to a convenient revelation recorded in Sura 66 of the Qur’an, where Allah supposedly absolves Muhammad of his oath to Hafsah (verses 1–2). The incident is then briefly summarized without explicitly mentioning Muhammad’s adultery (verse 3), and Hafsah and Aisha are the ones who are told to repent lest Allah, Gabriel, and all believers come to Muhammad’s rescue (verse 4), and Allah replace them with “better wives” (verse 5). The entire circumstance indicates that Muhammad was not above abusing his position and power to victimize and manipulate women when it served his desires.
The case of Muhammad’s third and favorite wife, the aforementioned Aisha, also raises the concern that Muhammad abused the political authority and power granted him to take sexual advantage of children. Aisha was the daughter of his close advisor and immediate successor, Abu Bakr. According to Bukhari, she was six years old when Mohammed married her. It is said he put off consummation with her for a while; still she was only nine years old when he, at age 53, took her to his bed (Sahih Bukhari 7:62:64). According to one tradition among the Hadith, she was yet much inclined to play with her dolls at the time he did so (Sahih Bukhari 8:73:151). Child that she was, she was playing with other girls of her age, swinging on a tree-swing when her mother came to take her to Muhammad for her consummation (al-Tabari 9, p. 131; Sahih Bukhari 5:58:234).
Muhammad’s abusiveness may have also extended to pederasty: Hadith 16245 in Musnad Ahmad’s volume on The Sayings of the Syrians states that Mu-awija Ibn Abu Sufyan reported, “I saw the prophet sucking on the tongue or the lips of Ali-Hassan, son of Ali, may the prayers of Allah be upon him. For no tongue or lips that the prophet sucked on will be tormented [in hell].” It should be noted that Ali was Mohammed’s son-in-law; hence Ali-Hassan was Muhammad’s own grandson. Other sources, including Al-Zamakhshari, present the excuse that Ali-Hassan refused his mother’s breast so Muhammad nurtured him with his spittle and allowed Ali-Hassan to suck Muhammad’s tongue in lieu of his mother’s breast. Yet Sahih Bukhari 8:73:27 cites Aisha as reporting that a scandalized Bedouin once rebuked Muhammad with the words, “You kiss the boys! We don’t kiss them.” What in the case of Ali-Hassan is discretely ascribed to the reflections of a commentator, a promise to a child that he will escape the rage of an irascible and tyrannical divinity and certainly go to heaven if he surrenders himself to abuse, all because of a privileged relationship with that divinity, seems a particularly disturbing example of a perpetrator’s all-too-common abuse of the power relation between himself and his victim. What an impassible gulf separates this conduct from Jesus’ refusal to presume upon his relationship with God to indulge appetites or whims, as we see in the temptation narratives!
According to Ibn Sa’d, (vol. 1, p. 438–439), Muhammad was once asked whether he retained his sexual potency. Muhammad is reported to have said, “Gabriel brought a kettle from which I ate and I was given the power of sexual intercourse equal to forty men.”
There is some speculative discussion that Muhammad’s sexual potency became an issue because he had erectile dysfunction, and that his profligacy and his tendency to be drawn to widows and divorcees was the result of a reactively defensive, if also grandiose obsession with sexual potency. In fact, his first wife, Khadija was a widow fifteen years older than he (he was 25 and she 40 when they married). This marriage was monogamous and lasted 25 years, until Khadija’s death. Thereafter he gave himself up to a flurry of marital and extramarital relationships, which, as noted in the Mariya incident mentioned above, led to scandals of jealousy and competition among his wives. We have observed that the taking of Mariya proved so embarrassing that Muhammad found it necessary to excuse it in Sura 66. Considerable effort is also made in Sura 33 of the Qur’an to excuse Muhammad’s behavior.
Aisha, as his favorite wife, was sometimes able to provoke Muhammad and yet escape with her life. On two occasions in Book Eight of the Hadith Sahih Muslim, Traditions 3453 and 3454, Mohammed is supposed to have told her that Allah told him, “You may defer [divorce] any one of them you wish, and take to yourself any you wish; and if you desire any you have set aside, no sin is chargeable to you.” You will find that this “divine permission” is also granted Muhammad in the Qur’an, Sura 33, verses 49, 51 and 52: “(49) Prophet, we have made lawful to you the wives to whom you have granted dowries and the slave girls whom Allah has given you as booty, the daughters of your paternal and maternal uncles and of your paternal and maternal aunts who fled with you, and the other women who gave themselves to you, and whom you wished to take in marriage. This privilege is yours alone, being granted to no other believer. . . . (51) You may put off any of your wives you please and take to your bed any of them you please. Nor is it unlawful for you to receive any of those who you have temporarily set aside. That is more proper, so that they may be contented and not vexed, and may all be pleased with what you give them. . . . (52) It shall be unlawful for you to take more wives or to exchange your present wives for other women, though their beauty please you, EXCEPT where slave girls are concerned.” To this the saucy Aisha’s famous response was, “It seems to me that your lord hastens to satisfy your desire.”
All of the above sharply contrasts with our Lord’s refusal to take unholy advantage of His supernatural power to gratify appetitive urges. At that turn, our evangelists recount a further temptation: Satan holds out a splendid vision of all the nations of the world and, in effect, says to Jesus, “So you want to right all the world’s wrongs? I can help you by handing you control of all of these, and enwrap you in their glory; for they have been given to me, and I will give them to you if only you will prostrate yourself before me and worship me” (Matthew 4:8–9; Luke 4:5–7). Our Lord firmly rejects this temptation by turning Satan aside with the words, “’You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve’” (Matthew 4:10; Luke 4:8).
Behavioral economist Dan Ariely believes that dishonesty arises even in otherwise honest people when their creative ability promotes rationalization in situations where the rules of conduct seem flexible or unclear, and they experience a conflict of interest or have a particular bias in their view of reality (Scientific American Mind 23:5, Nov–Dec 2012, p. 26–27). In this fallen world, laws and rules are indeed often written imperfectly, and we all experience conflicts between our immediate interests and what we might otherwise concede to be the more appropriate benefit or the more basic need of another person or the community at large. We all have an inordinate bias toward self-preservation and self-interest. Many assert that we owe no consideration to God and act on that assumption each time they voluntarily violate what we understand to be God’s will. And “the imagination of [our] hearts,” which Genesis 8:21 reminds us “is evil from [our] youth,” hastens to help us reason our way to our worst intentions. Despite his privileged knowledge of Jesus’ pure heart and purpose, the father of lies obsessively sought to prove that Jesus did not rise above this. Satan knew that Jesus understood himself to be the Son of God; indeed, he even incorporated “If you are the Son of God . . .” as a condition in the other two temptations (Matthew 4:3, 6; Luke 4:3, 9). So he apparently hoped Jesus would have an inordinately grandiose bias about his place in the world, and therefore tried to present him with a situation that seemed plausible and morally ambiguous. It might have run something like this: “God sent me to rule the world” (see Revelation 12:9; 13:2); “and, as I am under God, I will allow you to rule the world if you will only place yourself under me.” Jesus is the Son of God, and he saw directly through Satan’s temptation, rejecting it out of hand. His victory would not be won by a seemingly convenient bargain with Satan, political maneuvering, or armies with butchering swords.
Muhammad, too, claimed the desire to win the world for his god; he also faced a similar temptation, but, after persecution and a death threat, he allowed himself instead to be drawn to rationalize the advantages of seizing the world by his own hand through brute power. And, when that notorious trailer portrayed him as murderous and blood-thirsty, it was only referring to passages from the book he claimed he was inspired to write and the traditions gathered about him. The video wasn’t even the first attempt to dramatize Muhammad’s brutality. This was done by the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, who wrote a play entitled Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet in 1736 and first staged it in 1741.
When Muhammad first lived under his new religion in Mecca, he apparently attracted only about seventy followers and so was compelled to live peaceably with those of other beliefs lest he and his followers suffer violent persecution. Hence, while the Qur’anic Suras from that period often arrogantly disparage those Christians and Jews who refuse to see that Allah’s messages are echoed in their holy writings, they also include irenic passages, such as Sura 2:62, “Believers, Jews, Christians and Sabaeans—whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does what is right—shall be rewarded by their Lord; they have nothing to fear or to regret,” or the famous Sura 3:113, “There are among the People of the Book some upright men who all night long recite the revelations of Allah and worship him; who believe in Allah and the Last Day; who enjoin justice and forbid evil and vie with each other in good works. These are righteous men: Whatever good they do, it shall not be denied them. Allah knows the righteous.” Yet they are not to resist Allah’s revelations, and it appears that only those who at least blend their original faiths with Allah’s Qur’anic transmissions are truly acceptable: “If the People of the Book accept the true faith and keep from evil, we will pardon them their sins and admit them to the gardens of delight. If they observe the Torah and the Gospel and what is revealed to them from Allah, they shall be given abundance from above and from beneath” (Sura 5:65–66).
Still, in Mecca, persecutions eventually grew serious; and one day Muhammad learned he was about to be assassinated. He and Abu Bakr then decided to flee. They fled to Quba, a community on the outskirts of the ancient oasis city of Yathrib in A.D. 622. From there he moved into Yathrib itself where he gained political control and considerable support for his religion when he mediated a 120-year-long conflict among local Arabic tribes. At this time, Muhammad’s conflicted imagination was tempted into a grandiose rationalization for using legions of the sword to spread religious faith. Far from accepting a cross, he changed the name of the city to Madinat an-Nabiy (“the city of the prophet,” which we render as Medina) in honor of himself, and, in the Charter of Medina, he stipulated the terms of the settlement of the conflict and the establishment of the world’s first Islamic state. Then other “revelations” began to take precedence in the Qur’an, such as those of the hellish Sura 9.
Sura 9, entitled “Repentance,” is one of the last Qur’anic chapters to be “revealed.” Hence it is one whose commands and allowances are to be preferred over earlier, contradictory passages under the Rule of Abrogation, whereby Allah is allowed to change his mind. This sura presents the conditions under which Muslims may kill non-Muslims, and threatens damnation on those Muslims who refuse to participate in the fighting. Some of its passages include: “Proclaim a woeful punishment to the unbelievers, except those idolaters who have honored their treaties with you and aided none against you. With these keep faith, until their treaties have run their terms. . . . When the sacred months are over, slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them. . . . If they repent and take to prayer and pay the alms-tax, they shall become your brothers in the faith. Thus we make plain our revelations for men of understanding. But, if after coming to terms with you, they break their oaths and revile your faith, make war on the leaders of unbelief—for no oaths are binding with them” (verses 3–5, 10–12).
Sura 8, aptly named “The Spoils,” presents Allah as commanding, “I shall cast terror into the hearts of the infidels. Strike off their heads! Maim them in every limb. . . . Make war on them until idolatry is no more and Allah’s religion reigns supreme” (verses 12, 39). This chapter also succinctly summarizes the temptation to power that we’ve discussed above: “Remember how [Allah] gave you shelter when you were few in number and persecuted in the land, ever fearing the onslaught of your enemies. . . . Remember how the unbelievers plotted against you. They sought to take you captive or have you killed or banished. They plotted—but Allah plotted also. Allah is most profound in his machinations” (Sura 8:26, 30).
The opening minutes of the trailer to The Innocence of Moslems shows quite explicitly that Moslems are by no means innocent of the persecution and murder of Coptic Christians. In fact, this is something which Muhammad’s followers have been doing in Arabia, Egypt and the Horn of Africa from Muhammad’s lifetime down to this very day. The video’s producer, himself a Copt, went to considerable length to depict what Muhammad’s critics across the centuries have cited about his own brutality and blood-thirstiness from sources that are revered by Moslems themselves. Muhammad himself ordered at least sixty raids or wars during his ten-year rule in Medina and actively participated in twenty-seven of them. The producer knows the Moslem traditions that during the Massacre of Banu Quraiza, briefly mentioned in the Qur’an, Sura 33:25–27, Muhammad ordered up to 900 prisoners tortured and executed—all males from adults to boys who’d just begun to sprout pubic hair. He knows that Muhammad himself beheaded a number of these prisoners; for this is mentioned in the Hadith of Sahih Bukhari 5:59:448 and is covered in detail in Muhammad ibn Ishaq’s official biography of Muhammad, commissioned by the Caliph Al-Mansur (p. 464–466). He knows the report that during the Massacre of Khaybar Muhammad personally used a firebrand to torture Kinanah, the chieftain of a Jewish tribe he’d attacked and overwhelmed, until Kinanah revealed where he’d hidden his treasury, and that Muhammad then beheaded him (Ibn Ishaq, p. 515; al-Tabari 8, p. 123). Then, seeing that Kinanah’s seventeen-year-old wife, Safiyaah was beautiful, he took her for himself. Muhammad was 60 years old at the time. For details on this matter, see Sahih Bukhari 5:59:512, 522–524.
On several occasions, when people objected that noncombatant women and children were killed in Muhammad’s wars, Muhammad simply shrugged off these murders with the words, “They are of them,” implying that if these innocents happened to be killed in the assaults he led, it was their fault because they were related to and present with his enemies at the time of these attacks (see Sahih Bukhari 52:236, Muslim 19:4321–4323). His callousness is well-condensed within a saying ascribed to him in al-Tabari 9, (p. 69): “Killing unbelievers is a small matter to us.”
By “unbelievers” he was referring to pagans, Jews, Christians, indeed even personal enemies—anybody who opposed his oppressive rule. In fact, Muhammad, from time to time, ordered the assassination of those he perceived to be his enemies. The most notorious case involved the assassination of Kab’n bin Ashraf, which Muhammad publicly ordered, calling for volunteers to murder the unfortunate poet from the pulpit of his mosque. This is recounted in detail in al-Tabari 7 (p. 94–97) and in Ibn Ishaq, (p. 367–368).
Presently I see no point in citing more of the many other examples one may easily discover of Muhammad’s malignant attitudes and heinous behavior than those included within this essay, since my aim is only to encourage a more balanced consideration of the matters covered in a video that has been relentlessly and indiscriminately stigmatized. Is this film therefore lurid? Yes, insofar as it dramatizes certain of Muhammad’s outrageous thoughts and actions audio-visually. Yet, while the video does seem intended to disparage Muhammad, it does not deserve the public impression that it contains insults gratuitously invented out of whole cloth. After all, it does not go beyond criticisms that have been advanced against Mohammed ever since the Qur’an and the deeds and sayings of Muhammad were published and made available for public inspection.
A loyal Muslim would retort that in quoting the Qur’an we are citing not the raw desires of a man, but the intentions of Allah. I would agree: Whatever that “Allah” happens to be, he entirely masterminded the personality of Muhammad. Martin Luther often said that to the extent that we depart from focusing on Christ as the true and essential revelation of God, we wander off-target and eventually come face to face with an alien spirit that Luther emphatically identified with Satan. Commenting on Psalm 131:1, Luther stated even more starkly, “To seek God apart from Jesus Christ—that is the devil.” Apart from the gracious work that God performs within us through his appointed Word and sacraments, whereby we see in the face of Christ a God of mercy and grace, we who seek our own way to God soon blunder into an unanticipated encounter with Deus absconditus, the Hidden God in his terrifying absoluteness as the exacting judge of all that are bound by the curse of the fall, a disconcerting encounter with the wrestling Spirit of the ford of the Jabbok (Genesis 32:24–28), and with that Satan who briefly appears in Job 1 and 2 as a perverse agent of God’s permissive will.
In fact, Muhammad himself occasionally worried that he was actually demon-possessed. According to Sahih Bukhari 9:83:111, the ever-candid Aisha once reported that Muhammad told her about his first Qur’anic revelation: An “angel,” presumed in later accounts to be Gabriel, appeared to him and ordered him to “Read.” Muhammad, who was illiterate, answered, “I don’t know how to read.” The angel then “grabbed me and squeezed me so hard that I could not bear it anymore.” He then released Muhammad and again demanded, “Read!” Muhammad repeated, “I don’t know how to read!” Again the angel grabbed him and squeezed him “until I could no longer bear it.” Then again he released him and once more demanded, “Read!” For a third time Muhammad answered, “Look, I can’t read; any way, what should I read?” For the third time the spirit grabbed and squeezed him, and spoke the words that were to become the first passage of the Qur’an ever set in writing (Sura 96:1–5): “Read! In the name of your lord, who created, created man from clots of blood. Read! Your lord is the most bountiful one, who by the pen taught man what he did not know.” Muhammad was so frightened by this experience that he ran home to his first wife, Khadija, “his neck muscles twitching with terror,” and exclaimed, “Cover me! Cover me! . . . I fear that something will happen to me!” Khadija covered him and comforted him; but for some time thereafter, thinking he had been captured by a demon and not wanting his enemies to realize that fact, he upon several occasions climbed to the brows of cliffs, considering whether to cast himself, not into the arms of angels who would bear him up in their hands (Matthew 4:6; Luke 4:11), but to his death on the rocks below.
Muhammad himself was not the only person who considered him demon-possessed. For example, as early as when he was a nursing child, he had some sort of seizure and, upon recovering, told his Bedouin nurse that two men dressed in white had split his body open, then split his heart, then removed from his heart and discarded a black blood clot, and finally purified his heart and body with snow. His astounded nurse quickly returned him to his stepmother who asked what had happened. When told, she asked the nurse if she thought he was possessed by an evil spirit. The nurse said she indeed thought so. Before returning the child, however, she’d also been given the opinion of one who had more of an appreciation of the distinction between the primary cause of God’s active will and those secondary causes that serve his permissive will in the created order: the father of a friend had told her, “I am afraid that this child has had a stroke, so take him back to his family before the result appears” (ibn Ishaq, p. 72).
This man was by no means the only one who considered Muhammad to have some sort of psycho-neurological problem. Frank R. Freemon, in the medical journal Epilepsia (17:4, December, 1976, 423–427), published a study of what had come to his attention from the traditions about Muhammad’s mentation and behavior during his peculiar experiences. Dr. Freemon pursued a differential diagnosis that considered other such conditions as schizophrenia, hallucinogen-induced brain trauma, transient ischemic attacks, hypoglycemia, labyrinthitis, Meniere’s disease and other inner ear disorders before he decided that Muhammad’s experiences are best explained as psychomotor or complex partial seizures associable with temporal lobe epilepsy.
More recently, in the work cited above, psychologist Herman H. Somers claimed to have found evidence in the traditions that Muhammad suffered persistent depression, brooding, irritability, a quite baleful persistence that he is pleased to call ”conscientious reliability,” and hallucinosis. He also claimed to have found other evidence that Muhammad had an unusually large nose and ears; that he had large hands that felt doughy to those who clasped them; that he had large feet and a plunging gait; that he had a swollen tongue and spoke unusually slowly; that he had fertility problems (all of Muhammad’s sons were stillborn); that he had an odd, roseate-to-straw-colored complexion and profuse, malodorous perspiration (which, Somers reports, he sought to control by bathing three times daily, coating his skin with musk or ambergris and perfuming his residence with camphor); that he was hirsute (Somers speaks of Muhammad’s heavy eyebrows); and that he was hypertensive, experienced frequent seizures , experienced persistent back and abdominal pain, yet, as mentioned above, had a considerable appetite. Somers then linked these sets of traits to propose a diagnosis of acromegaly, a life-shortening malady caused by the chronic hypersecretion of growth hormone by the anterior region of the pituitary gland, probably due to a pituitary tumor called a somatotrophic adenoma.
I will not commit myself or attest to Somers’ assertions. Were they, however, true by half, I envision that the ruler of this world (John 14:30) may have come upon Muhammad with another and tragically fundamental temptation, one that would likely dispose its target toward the psychiatric condition known as Body Dysmorphic Disorder. Satan’s challenge might have run something like, “Why would God or man wish to have anything to do with such a loathsome creature as you?” It would not surprise me if, faced with such a challenge, a mere man would choose to escape from despair into egomania. The challenge is somewhat similar to the last temptation faced by our Lord, which by the time he was hanging from the cross ran somewhat like “Look at you! Why should we trust in you? Come down from the cross and save yourself! Then we might believe in you!” But the bruised, abraded, bloody, nail-shot God-man who had only hours earlier acknowledged the power of this temptation in the prayer, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39) now remained firm in the charge he received from the Father—to lay down his life of his own accord (John 10:17–18). He would let others peel his lifeless body from the cross, “marred, beyond human semblance” (Isaiah 52:14) and scoffed by the world as “stricken, smitten of [the very] God” he so fervently professed (Isaiah 53:4). This is because He knew that in three days He would take it up again (Matthew 17: 22-23; John 10:17–18) and as “the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings . . . for all who fear [God’s] Name” (Malachi 4:2).
Whether, on the other hand, we conclude that Muhammad was directly possessed or conjecture instead that disease processes further complicating his fallen nature disposed him to a self-absorption that made him vulnerable to be tempted to the grandiose sense of entitlement and consequent callousness that our Lord Jesus renounced in the wilderness and upon the cross, we have seen how the powerful influence of his evil passions perverted the minds of legions of followers down the centuries to the present. Recently, for example, one anonymous admirer, speaking from within the midst of the openly-inquiring civilization of the West, seemed bafflingly oblivious to the chilling irony of his conclusion that Muhammad, a person he still blindly considered “the ideal man who is the pattern for all humanity at all times . . . went from being a poor orphan to the first ruler of all Arabia and died without a single enemy left alive.”
Hence, even if we may be disappointed with the blatant content within that notorious video, we ought also appreciate the conclusion of Muhammad’s Christian critics, that the spirit who set the same possibilities before Muhammad as those that Christ repudiated appears identical with the Satan that our Lord, at the time of His wilderness temptations, rebuked. I furthermore insist that the supposed prophet who surveyed the carnage he caused and boasted, “I have been made victorious with terror” (Sahih Bukhari 52:220) was as needful as Andres Serrano and all of the rest of us of the Atonement made by him who did not cling to his own life or comforts at the expense of those of others, but generously and compassionately “became sin for us, who knew no sin,” allowing our heavenly Father to “lay upon him the iniquity of us all.”
Muhammad’s choice is now sealed in eternity; and, as the enduring residue of his bitterness, Islam is the only notable religion in the world that persistently expresses the belief that those who despise and reject it may—and ought—to be killed. Yet it is surely not this bitterness that has sustained Islam across the centuries in spite of the scandals of its fallible founder. It has been the core insight that submission to God brings us peace. Shall we not respond by carrying into the world the message that God’s peace is indeed ours, but by a submission that the Holy Spirit initiates and works in us through Word and sacraments, leading us to faith in the God who himself purchased our salvation with a prior submission? That submission is our Lord and Savior’s blessed propitiatory submission to the suffering and death that has been bound upon us all, whereby he has won for us true peace with God and eternal life in God’s Presence for all who are gathered to him in this faith that his Holy Spirit instills.
Quotations from the Qur’an are, for the most part taken from the very readable 1974 translation by N. J. Dawood in Penguin Classics (New York: Penguin Books, 1979), with some supplementation and occasional modification from the 2004 translation by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem in Oxford’s New World Classics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
At-Tirmidhi, Hafiz Abu Eisa: Jami’ At-Tirmidhi. Abu Khaliyl, trans. Riyadh: Dar-us-Salam Publications, 2007.
Bayer, Oswald: Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. Thomas Trapp, transl. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008.
Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad: Sirat Rasul Allah (Life of Muhammad). A. Guillaume, transl. Oxford: University Press, 1955.
Ibn Sa’d al-Baghdadi, Muhammad, Ibn Sa’d’s Kitab Al-Tabaqat Al-Kabir (Book of the Major Classes), Vol. 1. S. Moninul Haq, transl., New Delhi: Islamic Book Service, 1967.
Musnad Ahmad’s collection of traditions is not yet fully translated into English. To find the citation about controlling one’s appetite in an Islamic source, see Food for Thought: Prophet Muhammad’s Recommendations Regarding Food, on Islamweb.net. To find the citation about Ali-Hassan in an Islamic source, click here.
Rauzatu’r Safa: cited in “The Prophet of Islam,” www.answering-islam.org/Nehls/tt1/tt2.html
Yaeger, Lynn: “Andres Serrano’s Shit Show.” The Village Voice, August 27, 2008.
Yarshater, Ehsan, Ed.: The History of al-Tabari. New York: SUNY Press, 2007. This is a 40 volume work, but the life of Muhammad is covered in Volumes 6–9.
The Rev. Charles Ernest Yunghans is an Emeritus LCMS clergyman who lives in Chippewa Falls, WI.
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