A Bewitched Prophet?
Examining Muhammad’s Psychological and Spiritual Stability
The validity of Islam is intimately linked to the reliability of Muhammad. That is, if there are solid reasons to conclude that Muhammad was a reliable messenger of God, we may reasonably suppose that Islam is true. However, if there are strong reasons to question Muhammad’s trustworthiness, Islam self-destructs.
The earliest Muslim writings and traditions, including the Qur’an, Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, the Sahih Al-Bukhari, and the Sahih Muslim, provide abundant warrant for rejecting Muhammad as a prophet. The primary source documents show that Muhammad was often violent and ruthless towards those who insulted him, that he received revelations allowing him to transgress other revelations in the Qur’an, that he had a contemptible opinion of women, that he participated in slave-trading, that he permitted violence towards women, and that one of his sexual partners was a nine-year-old girl. (For more on these facts, see "Islam Beheaded.") Further, Muhammad declared that lying is acceptable if it is used to make peace, a statement that should make us wonder how often Muhammad took advantage of this principle while preaching his message.
In addition to all this, we have reason to suspect that Muhammad suffered from either mental disease or demonic influence. The evidence from the earliest accounts of his life shows that he may have been psychologically or spiritually unstable before, during, and after his conversion to Islam. When this instability is combined with other facts surrounding the life of Muhammad, it is difficult to fathom how Muslim apologists have managed to convince millions of adherents that Islam is a rational system of belief.
Data suggesting that Muhammad was imbalanced goes all the way back to his childhood. His parents died when he was young, so he was brought up by his grandfather and his uncle. Muhammad had a nurse who took care of him prior to his mother’s death. This nurse relates the following account of a strange event that occurred during Muhammad’s childhood:
Some months after our return [Muhammad] and his brother were with our lambs behind the tents when his brother came running and said to us, "Two men clothed in white have seized that Qurayshi brother of mine and thrown him down and opened up his belly, and are stirring it up." We ran towards him and found him standing up with a livid face. We took hold of him and asked him what was the matter. He said, "Two men in white raiment came and threw me down and opened up my belly and searched therein for I know not what." So we took him back to our tent.
His father said to me, "I am afraid that this child has had a stroke, so take him back to his family before the result appears." So we picked him up and took him to his mother who asked why we had brought him when I had been anxious for his welfare and desirous of keeping him with me. I said to her, "God has let my son live so far and I have done my duty. I am afraid that ill will befall him, so I have brought him back to you as you wished." She asked me what happened and gave me no peace until I told her. When she asked if I feared a demon possessed him, I replied that I did."
Muhammad’s nurse wasn’t the only one to fear demonic possession on the part of Muhammad; the Prophet himself came to the exact same conclusion when he began receiving revelations from Gabriel. A full account of Muhammad’s first encounter with Gabriel is given in the Sirat Rasul Allah:
When it was the night on which God honoured him with his mission and showed mercy on His servants thereby, Gabriel brought him the command of God. "He came to me," said the apostle of God, "while I was asleep, with a coverlet of brocade whereon was some writing, and said, ‘Read!’ I said, ‘What shall I read?’ He pressed me with it so tightly that I thought it was death; then he let me go and said, ‘Read!’ I said, ‘What shall I read?’ He pressed me with it again so that I thought it was death; then he let me go and said ‘Read!’ I said, ‘What shall I read?’ He pressed me with it the third time so that I thought it was death and said ‘Read!’ I said, ‘What then shall I read?’—and this I said only to deliver myself from him, lest he should do the same to me again. He said:
‘Read in the name of thy Lord who created,
Who created man of blood coagulated.
Read! Thy Lord is the most beneficent,
Who taught by the pen,
Taught that which they knew not unto men.’
So I read it, and he departed from me. And I awoke from my sleep, and it was as though these words were written on my heart."
So far so good, except for the violent manner in which Gabriel brought the message to Muhammad. But Muhammad’s interpretation of the event is quite revealing. His first impression of his encounter was that he had been possessed; as a result, Muhammad quickly became suicidal:
Now none of God’s creatures was more hateful to me than an (ecstatic) poet or a man possessed: I could not even look at them. I thought, Woe is me poet or possessed—Never shall Quraysh say this of me! I will go to the top of the mountain and throw myself down that I may kill myself and gain rest.
Muhammad tried to throw himself off a cliff, but he was stopped by Gabriel. He later became suicidal again when no additional revelations came. Yet he was sometimes even more terrified when Gabriel did speak to him, and his revelations seem to have been very stressful situations:
[Muhammad said]: "The Divine Inspiration was delayed for a short period but suddenly, as I was walking, I heard a voice in the sky, and when I looked up towards the sky, to my surprise, I saw the angel who had come to me in the Hirra Cave, and he was sitting on a chair in between the sky and the earth. I was so frightened by him that I fell on the ground and came to my family and said (to them), Cover me! (with a blanket), cover me!"
When the Ka’ba was rebuilt, the Prophet (The blessing and peace of Allah be upon him) and Abbas went to carry stones. Abbas said to the Prophet (The blessing and peace of Allah be upon him): "(Take off and) put your waist sheet over your neck so that the stones may not hurt you." (But as soon as he took off his waist sheet) he fell unconscious on the ground with both his eyes towards the sky. When he came to his senses, he said: "My waist sheet! My waist sheet!" Then he tied his waist sheet (round his waist).
Allah’s Apostle (may peace be upon him) sweated in cold weather when revelation descended upon him.
A’isha reported: When revelation descended upon Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) even during the cold days, his forehead perspired.
A’isha reported that Harith bin Hisham asked Allah’s Apostle (may peace be upon him): How does the wahi (inspiration) come to you? He said: At times it comes to me like the ringing of a bell and that is most severe for me and when it is over I retain that (what I had received in the form of wahi), and at times an Angel in the form of a human being comes to me (and speaks) and I retain whatever he speaks.
Ubada bin Samit reported that when wahi (inspiration) descended upon Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him), he felt a burden on that account and the colour of his face underwent a change.
While the exact nature of these encounters cannot be determined historically, the evidence shows that Muhammad couldn’t always tell the difference between revelations from God and revelations from Satan. The most famous example of Muhammad’s inability to distinguish the true from the false is the embarrassing account of the notorious "Satanic Verses":
Now the apostle was anxious for the welfare of his people, wishing to attract them as far as he could. . . . When the apostle saw that his people turned their backs on him and he was pained by their estrangement from what he brought them from God he longed that there should come to him from God a message that would reconcile his people to him. Because of his love for his people and his anxiety over them it would delight him if the obstacle that made his task so difficult could be removed. . . . Then God sent down "By the star when it sets your comrade errs not and is not deceived, he speaks not from his own desire," and when he reached His words "Have you thought of al-Lat and al-Uzza and Manat the third, the other", Satan, when he was meditating upon it, and desiring to bring it to his people, put upon his tongue "these are the exalted Gharaniq [Numidian cranes] whose intercession is approved." When the Quraysh heard that, they were delighted and greatly pleased at the way in which he spoke of their gods and they listened to him; while the believers were holding that what their prophet brought them from their Lord was true, not suspecting a mistake or a vain desire or a slip, and when he reached the prostration and the end of the Sura in which he prostrated himself the Muslims prostrated themselves when their prophet prostrated confirming what he brought and obeying his command, and the polytheists of Quraysh and others who were in the mosque prostrated when they heard the mention of their gods, so that everyone in the mosque believer and unbeliever prostrated . . . Then the people dispersed and the Quraysh went out, delighted at what had been said about their gods, saying, "Muhammad has spoken of our gods in splendid fashion. He alleged in what he read that they are the exalted Gharaniq whose intercession is approved."
The news reached the prophet’s companions who were in Abyssinia, it being reported that Quraysh had accepted Islam, so some men started to return while others remained behind. Then Gabriel came to the apostle and said, "What have you done, Muhammad? You have read to these people something I did not bring you from God and you have said what He did not say to you." The apostle was bitterly grieved and was greatly in fear of God. So God sent down (a revelation), for He was merciful to him, comforting him and making light of the affair and telling him that every prophet and apostle before him desired as he desired and wanted what he wanted and Satan interjected something into his desires as he had on his tongue. So God annulled what Satan had suggested and God established His verses, i.e. you are just like the prophets and apostles. Then God sent down: "We have not sent a prophet or apostle before you but when he longed Satan cast suggestions in his longing. But God will annul what Satan has suggested. Then God will establish his verses, God being knowing and wise."
This passage shows:
Muhammad’s reception of revelations was influenced by his personal desires;
He received a revelation from Satan;
He proclaimed the revelation as a message from Allah;
He and his followers bowed down in honor of receiving the revelation; and
God’s response was, in effect, "Don’t worry about it Muhammad. All prophets proclaim Satanic messages from time to time."
Indeed, God’s response to Muhammad was incorporated into the Qur’an:
"And We did not send before you any apostle or prophet but when he desired, the Shaitan made a suggestion respecting his desire; but Allah annuls that which the Shaitan casts, then does Allah establish His communications, and Allah is Knowing, Wise."
Hence, Satan was capable of influencing both Muhammad and, allegedly, all the prophets before him. But Satan wasn’t the only influence on Muhammad. A Jewish magician named Labid was also able to exercise control over the "Seal of the Prophets."
Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) narrated: "Once the Prophet (the blessing and peace of Allah be upon him) was bewitched so that he began to imagine that he had done a thing which in fact, he had not done."
Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) narrated: Magic was worked on Allah’s Apostle (may the blessing and peace of Allah be upon him) so that he used to think that he had had sexual relations with his wives while he actually had not. Then one day he said, "O Aisha, do you know that Allah has instructed me concerning the matter I asked Him about? Two men came to me and one of them sat near my head and the other sat near my feet. The one near my head asked the other: ‘What is wrong with this man?’ The latter replied, ‘He is under the effect of magic.’ The first one asked, ‘Who has worked magic on him?’ The other replied, ‘Labid bin Al-Asam, a man from Bani Zuraiq who was an ally of the Jews and was a hypocrite.’ The first one asked, ‘What material did he use?’ The other replied, ‘A comb and the hair stuck to it.’"
Ibn Ishaq also reports that "Labid bin A’sam . . . bewitched the apostle of God so that he could not come at his wives." Guillaume adds a note saying that, according to tradition, "the spell lasted for a year."
According to the earliest and most reliable Muslim writings and traditions, Muhammad’s first impression of his divine encounter was that he had been possessed by demons. This encounter disturbed Muhammad so much that he became suicidal. Further, we have a story in Ibn Ishaq, the earliest biography of Muhammad, maintaining that the childhood nurse of the Prophet also thought that he might be demon-possessed. Some of the details of Muhammad’s encounter seem to support this conclusion. He was sometimes terrified of his revelations, screaming for someone to cover him. He would sweat profusely even in the cold, and his face would change color. Additionally, Muhammad could not distinguish genuine revelations from Satanic revelations, and he was the victim of a debilitating magic spell that probably lasted a year.
In the West, Muhammad’s critics are quick to claim that he was possessed by demons. Although we have some evidence to support this claim, the conclusion is perhaps too hasty. We know that there was certainly something wrong with Muhammad, but we don’t have data sufficient to warrant such a harsh judgment. However, the evidence is entirely sufficient for a rational person to seriously doubt Muhammad’s reliability as a prophet. A man who (admittedly) proclaimed verses from Satan and fell victim to sorcery while declaring himself to be God’s greatest messenger should not be trusted without exceptionally good evidence to support his claim. Since no such evidence for Islam exists, we are justified in questioning his role as God’s messenger.
Moreover, when we examine the life of another messenger of God, Jesus of Nazareth, we find that Muhammad is to be utterly rejected. Consider one of Jesus’ many encounters with demons:
They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out, "What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!"
"Be quiet!" said Jesus sternly. "Come out of him!" The evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of the man with a shriek.
The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, "What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him."
Contrary to what the Qur’an suggests, not all of God’s messengers were the occasional puppets of Satan. We know of at least one who had complete authority over demons. If we have to choose which messenger to listen to (and this is a decision that Christians and Muslims must make), is it not reasonable to trust the one who terrified demons with his presence? Furthermore, Jesus warned his followers that "many false prophets will appear and deceive many people." Not all false prophets deliberately deceived their disciples, however. Some were led by Satan to do so, and the evidence strongly suggests that Muhammad falls into this category. Even his own followers said that he was bewitched.
1 In Sahih Al-Bukhari [Dr. Muhammad Matraji, tr. (New Delhi: Islamic Book Service, 2002), Number 2692], Muhammad said that he “who makes peace between the people by inventing good information or saying good things, is not a liar.”
2 Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasul Allah (The Life of Muhammad), A. Guillaume, tr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 71-72.
3 Ibid., p. 106.
4 Ibid., p. 106.
5 Sahih Al-Bukhari , Number 3238.
6 Sahih Al-Bukhari , Number 3829.
7 Sahih Muslim, Abdul Hamid Siddiqi, tr., Number 5763.
8 Ibid., Number 5764.
9 Ibid., Number 5765.
10 Ibid., Number 5766.
11 Ibn Ishaq, 165-166.
12 Qur’an 22:52, M. H. Shakir Translation.
13 Sahih Al-Bukhari , Number 3175.
14 Ibid., Number 5765.
15 Ibn Ishaq, p. 240.
16 Ibid., p. 240.
17 Mark 1:21-27, New International Version.
18 Matthew 24:11.