Religious and political character

December 2020


The religious and prophetical character of Muhammad

Conviction of special providence

The first point which strikes the biographer is his constant and vivid sense of a special and all-pervading providence. This conviction moulded his thoughts and designs, from the minutest actions in private and social life to the grand conception that he was destined to be the reformer of his people and of the world. When the first fruits of the season were brought to him, he would kiss them; place them upon his eyes, and say: Lord, as thou hast shown us the first, show unto us likewise the last.’ In trouble and affliction, as well as in prosperity and joy, he ever saw and humbly acknowledged the hand of God. A fixed persuasion that every incident, small and great, was ordered by the divine will, led to the strong expressions of predestination which abound in the Quran.

It was the Lord who turned the hearts of mankind: and alike faith in the believer, and unbelief in the infidel, was the result of the divine fiat. The hour and place of every man’s death, as all other events in his life, were established by the same decree; and the timid believer might in vain seek to avert the stroke by shunning the field of battle. Muhammad did not hold that the progress of events in the divine hand was inexorable fate but that the divine hand was amenable to the influence of prayer. He was not slow to attribute the conversion of a scoffer like Omar, or the removal of an impending misfortune (as when Medina was delivered from the confederated hosts), to the effect of his own earnest petitions to the Lord.


On the other hand Muhammad was not altogether devoid of superstition. He feared to sit down in a dark place until a lamp had been lit; and his apprehensions were sometimes raised by the winds and clouds. He would fetch prognostications from the manner in which a sword was drawn from the scabbard. A special virtue was attributed to being cupped an even number of times, and on a certain day of the week and month. He was also guided by omens drawn from dreams: but these may, perhaps, have been regarded by him as intimations of the divine will.

Unwavering steadfastness

T he growing conviction that Muhammad was appointed to be a prophet and reformer was intimately connected with his belief in a special providence embracing the spiritual as well as the material world; and simultaneously with that conviction there arose an implicit confidence that the Almighty would crown his mission with success. What was Muhammad himself but an instrument in the hand of the great Worker? It was this belief which was the basis for his moral courage and it strengthened him when he was alone and unsupported, to brave for many years the taunts and persecutions of a whole people.

In terms of physical courage Muhammad was not remarkable. It may be doubted whether he ever engaged personally in active conflict on the battle-field; though he accompanied his forces, he never himself led them into action, or exposed himself to avoidable danger. And there were occasions on which (as when challenged by Abdallah to spare the Bani Cainucaa, alarmed by the altercation at the wells of Moraisi, or pressed by the mob at Jierrana) he showed symptoms of a faint heart. Yet even if this be admitted, it brings out in a still higher relief the singular display of moral courage. In the thirteen years at Mecca he faced discouragement and threats, rejection and persecution but retained his faith without wavering, preached repentance, and denounced God’s wrath against his godless fellow citizens. Surrounded by a little band of faithful men and women, he met insults and danger and when at last the hope of safety in Medina came, he calmly waited until all his followers had departed, and then disappeared from amongst his own rebellious people.

Denunciation of polytheism and idolatry

From the earliest period of his religious convictions, the idea of One great being who guides with his almighty power and wisdom the whole of creation possessed his mind. Polytheism and idolatry were utterly at variance with this first principle of his faith and were indignantly condemned as levelling the Creator with the creature. On one occasion alone did Muhammad swerve from this position, when he admitted that the goddesses of Mecca might be adored as a medium of approach to God. But the inconsistency was soon perceived; and Muhammad at once retraced his steps. Never again did the Prophet deviate from the stern denunciation of idolatry.

Earnestness and honesty of Muhammad at Mecca

In ordinary conversation Muhammad’s speech was slow, distinct, and emphatic; but when he preached ‘his eye would redden his voice raise high and loud, and his whole frame become agitated with passion, even as if he were warning the people of an enemy about to fall on them the next morning or that very night.’ In this thorough earnestness lay the secret of his success. We may readily admit that at first Muhammad did believe, or persuaded himself to believe, that his revelations were dictated by a divine agency. In the Meccan period of his life there certainly can be traced no personal ends or unworthy motives belying this conclusion. Muhammad was what he professed to be, a simple Preacher and a Warner;’ and had no ulterior object but the reformation of his people. He may have mistaken the right means for affecting this end, but there is no doubting that he used those means in good faith and with an honest purpose.

At Medina worldly motives mingle with spiritual

The scene changes altogether at Medina .The acquisition of temporal power, and aggrandisement mingled rapidly with the grand object of the Prophet’s life; and they were sought after and attained by precisely the same instrumentality. Messages from heaven were freely brought down to justify political conduct, in precisely the same manner as to inculcate religious precept. Battles were fought, executions inflicted, and territories annexed, under pretext of the Almighty’s sanction. A special license was produced, allowing Muhammad a double number of wives; the discreditable affair with Mary the Coptic slave was justified in a separate Sura; and the passion for the wife of his own adopted son and bosom friend, was the subject of an inspired message in which the Prophet’s scruples were rebuked by God, a divorce permitted and marriage with the object of his unhallowed desires enjoined! If we say that such ‘revelations’ were believed by Muhammad sincerely to bear the divine sanction, it can be but in a modified and peculiar sense.

The necessary result of this moral obliquity we trace from the period of Muhammad’s arrival at Medina a marked and rapid declension in the system he inculcated. Intolerance quickly took the place of freedom; force, of persuasion. The spiritual ideals designed at first were prostituted to the purposes of temporal authority. The sword of the state yielded a return on ‘the enemies of God’ and sacrificed them at the shrine of the new religion. ’Slay the unbelievers wheresoever ye find them,’ was now the watchword of Islam.

’Fight in the ways of God until opposition be crushed and the religion becometh the Lord’s alone!’ The warm and earnest devotion breathed by the Prophet and his followers at Mecca, soon became at Medina dull and vapid evaporating into a lifeless round of cold and formal ceremonies. The Jewish faith, as well as the less familiar system of Christianity, were both cast aside without hesitation and without enquiry; for the course on which he had now entered was too profitable and too enticing to permit the exercise of any such nice research or close questionings might have opened his to the truth, and forced him either to retrace his steps, or to unveil himself before his own conscience. To what other conclusion can we come to but that he having voluntarily shut his eyes against the light he was left to grope in the darkness of his own choosing?

Positive benefits of Islam

We freely concede that Muhammad’s system banished forever many of the darker elements of superstition for ages shrouding the Peninsula. Idolatry vanished before the battle-cry of Islam. The doctrine of the unity and infinite perfections of God, and of a special all-pervading providence, became a living principle in the hearts and lives of the followers of Islam. An absolute submission to the divine will was demanded as the first requirement of the religion. Nor are social virtues wanting. Brotherly love is inculcated towards all within the circle of the faith; infanticide is proscribed; orphans are to be protected, and slaves treated with consideration; intoxicating drinks are prohibited and Islam may boast of a degree of temperance unknown to any other creed.

Islam’s benefits outweighed by its evils

Yet these benefits have been purchased at a costly price. Setting aside considerations of minor importance, three radical areas of alarm flow from the faith in all ages and in every country, and must continue to flow so long as the Qur’an is the standard of belief. First: Polygamy, Divorce and Slavery are maintained and perpetuated. Second: freedom of thought and private judgement in religion are crushed. The sword still is and must remain the inevitable penalty for the renunciation of Islam. Third: a barrier has been interposed against the reception of Christianity. They labour under a miserable delusion those who suppose that Islam paves the way for a purer faith. No system could have been devised with more consummate skill for shutting out the nations over which it has sway from the light of truth. Idolatrous Arabia might have been aroused to spiritual life, and to the adoption of the faith of Jesus now Islamic Arabia is sealed against the benign influence of the Gospel.

Inconsistencies run through the character of Muhammad

As in the case of all human nature the strangest inconsistencies were blended in the character of Muhammad. The student of history will trace for himself how the pure and lofty aspirations of Muhammad were first tinged, and then gradually debased, by a half unconscious self-deception; and how in this process truth merged into falsehood, sincerity into guile. Along with Muhammad’s anxious desire to extinguish idolatry and to promote religion and virtue in the world, there was fostered, in his own heart, a licentious self-indulgence; till in the end, assuming that he was the favourite of heaven, he justified himself by ’revelations’ from God in flagrant breaches of morality.

We note that while Muhammad cherished a kind and tender disposition, ’weeping with them that weep’ and binding to his person the hearts of his followers by the self-sacrificing offices of love and friendship, he could yet take pleasure in cruel and perfidious assassination, could gloat over the massacre of an entire tribe. Inconsistencies as these continually present themselves from the period of Muhammad’s arrival at Medina; and it is by the study of them that his character must be rightly apprehended.