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Who Was the Real Muhammad?

Unraveling History, Tradition, and Legend

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Professor, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

ABSTRACT: Muslims revere the prophet Muhammad as a foundation of their faith. However, the traditions surrounding him were compiled more than two centuries after his death and do not offer highly credible evidence about the person of history. Furthermore, many nominal Muslims attach a mythical, deified status to the prophet that does not comport with the Islamic faith. Christian sources from the seventh century provide a more accurate, though still incomplete, picture of who he was. By studying the historical figure and his reception in Islam, Christians can be better equipped to engage in fruitful dialogue with Muslim neighbors.

Muhammad is the most important human figure for the over 1.8 billion Muslims in the world. They view him as the final prophet sent by their deity, Allah, to proclaim truth and provide guidance to humankind. According to Muslims, Allah revealed his word to humankind through many prophets and messengers throughout history, but the best and ultimate revelation came through Muhammad, whose message surpasses and suppresses earlier revelations.

Islam, as a faith system, has two main foundations, Allah’s word and Allah’s messenger — the Quran and Muhammad, respectively. Muslims say that Allah’s word is perfectly applied by Allah’s final messenger; to comprehend Allah’s word, see it applied in the life of Allah’s prophet. The common factor in these two foundations is Muhammad. He is the vessel of the divine message and the exemplary executor of it. Muhammad is vitally important to all Muslims.

Despite his importance, however, the majority of Muslims have only conventional knowledge about him. Many aspects of his life and teachings remain mysterious to them. The matter is even worse for non-Muslims, who usually lack even the basic details about the man revered by billions. So, where can people go to learn more about Muhammad?

Reliable resources detailing the life of Muhammad are few. Surprisingly, the Quran itself mentions Muhammad by name only four times and does not provide specific details (Q 3:144; 33:40; 47:2; 48:29). Furthermore, the Muslim sources that do provide details about Muhammad’s teachings and deeds have apparent discrepancies and contradictions; they also were all written at least two centuries after his presumed death.

So, what do we actually know about Muhammad? Who was he to his followers and to his contemporaries? Did he really exist? What did he preach? This essay seeks to shed critical light on these questions by considering the Muhammad of tradition, the Muhammad of legend, and the Muhammad of history.

The Muhammad of Tradition

According to Muslim traditions, Muhammad was born in Mecca in 570 and died in Medina in 632. (Both Mecca and Medina are located in today’s Saudi Arabia.) His father, Abdullah, died four months before Muhammad was born. Also according to tradition, several physical signs and cosmic wonders accompanied Muhammad’s advent. Supposedly, his mother, Amina, had no labor pain, and upon his birth, a celestial light emerged in the room.

Furthermore, on the night of his birth in Mecca, a mansion in Persia — about a thousand miles away — shook, and fourteen of its pillars collapsed. Even the holy fire of the land of Persia — which had burned constantly for a millennium — was mysteriously quenched. While these signs may seem like forgeries invented to amplify the status of Muhammad, many Muslims wholeheartedly believe they occurred.

These traditions were authored by Muslim narrators of the Abbasid caliphate, who lived centuries after Muhammad presumably lived. They intended to communicate a picture of Islam’s prophet to Christians and Jews who resided in the conquered lands that turned into an Islamic caliphate. As the Islamic rationale goes, if signs and wonders accompanied the births of the prophets Moses and Jesus, then Muhammad’s birth followed in due course. (This claim, however, may pose a problem because the Quran itself insists that the only miracle Muhammad ever performed was the Quran. See Quran 6:37; 11:12; 13:7; 28:48; 29:50–51.)

Muslim traditions claim that Muhammad was a shepherd and a trader, known among the Meccans as “The Honest” and “The Trustworthy.” A wealthy woman, Khadija, hired him and later loved him and proposed to marry him, although she was fifteen years older than he was. As for his religious journey, traditions claim that Muhammad never adopted the polytheistic worship of his people in Arabia. He always leaned toward worshiping the one true deity, Allah, in contrast to the idol worship of his Meccan relatives at the shrine known as the Ka’ba. Muhammad would seclude himself and go to an isolated mountain in Mecca to meditate and worship Allah.

According to tradition, the angel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad when he was forty and declared that Allah chose him to be a prophet with a clear and unmatched message: Allah is one, and only one. This tradition shows why Islam preaches a strict monotheism — the deity is one, with no plurality and no partners. After initially resisting Allah’s call, Muhammad began preaching Islam only to his Meccan relatives and in secret because he feared retaliation from the Meccan pagans. When some discovered his monotheistic preaching, we are told, they began to persecute him and his handful of followers. The suffering and misery continued for thirteen years, as all those who accepted Islam were persecuted by Meccan idol worshipers.

After those years of persecution, Allah instructed Muhammad and his few followers — about thirty men — to emigrate from Mecca to Medina, a nearby oasis, where they could avoid persecution. There Muhammad grew in power, became a statesman, and began launching military raids and expeditions against three groups: Arab pagans in western Arabia, Jews in Medina and its surroundings, and Christian tribes in the Byzantine frontiers of Greater Syria. Muslim traditions portray Muhammad as a successful military commander, aided by Allah and leading Muslim warriors in raids where he killed infidels, seized lands, grabbed possessions, and extended dominion and power.

Though this militant picture might seem odd in today’s world, it is the portrayal Muslim historians advanced about their prophet. These historians, it seems, desired to depict a prophet clearly supported by the deity — evidenced in accumulated economic gain and political dominion — even if this picture included killing many people and plundering their wealth.

In one of these military expeditions, we are told, a Jewish woman invited Muhammad to a home-cooked meal after he killed her father, brother, and uncle. When Muhammad accepted the invitation, she roasted a lamb but poisoned the meat. This meal was the reason for Muhammad’s death as a martyr — although, we are invited to believe, the poison remained in his blood for four years before he succumbed to its effect.

The Muhammad described here is best viewed as the Muhammad of the Muslim tradition, or simply the traditional Muhammad. He is the Muhammad who lives in the minds of religious Muslims well-versed in Islamic sources. Among this group, the details about Muhammad’s life matter, and they cherish what the tradition says.

However, multitudes of Muslims are not so sophisticated and particular about the details of this portrayal.

The Muhammad of Legend

Whereas the traditional Muhammad derives from ancient Islamic sources — even if the sources were written centuries after Muhammad’s death — the legendary Muhammad derives more from popular imagination and folklore. Many nominal or cultural Muslims hold to the legendary portrait of Muhammad, an ideal portrait in which he is the best in everything. For these Muslims, Islam is usually a cultural identity. They are Muslims because they were born that way, not because they studied Islamic sources.

Many nominal Muslims venerate and revere this legendary Muhammad, sometimes to the extent of worship. While in many cases the legendary Muhammad does not match the traditional portrayal of trusted Muslim sources, cultural Muslims may not pay attention to the differences. Their Muhammad is a mosaic built from three intertwined parts: some ideas from the Quran, some circulated traditions, and ample mystical and mythical elements. In the minds of these cultural Muslims, of course, this Muhammad is not legendary; he is the real Muhammad. He lives; he listens; he sees. He visits homes, heals the sick, and, to some, possesses divine powers. He is simply the best human who ever lived. Many educated Muslims — those who cherish the traditional Muhammad — find numerous elements of the imaginary Muhammad heretical and blasphemous.

From a critical standpoint, neither the Muhammad of tradition nor the Muhammad of legend describes the real Muhammad. Though cherished by many Muslims, the legendary Muhammad exists only in the minds and memories of believers. Similarly, the traditional Muhammad comes from sources far removed from Muhammad’s lifetime and seems to be, to a large extent, the crafting of medieval Muslims who wanted to present their prophet to their communities and to non-Muslims around them.

The Muhammad of History

So, was there a man named Muhammad who lived in seventh-century Arabia and preached a religious message? The answer is yes, all reasonable considerations indicate that there was. We may call this Muhammad the historical Muhammad. We can learn about him from independent sources — sources written by non-Muslims who were contemporary (or nearly contemporary) to his life and career in Arabia. As it turns out, many non-Muslims, mostly Christians, who lived around Arabia in the seventh century were aware of someone named Muhammad. They mostly described him unfavorably. Who was that Muhammad for them?

Some of these non-Muslims depicted Muhammad as a preacher without giving any specifics about his message; others spoke of him as a trader, a shepherd, a warlord who initiated fights, a conquering king, a lawgiver, or a false prophet.1 In particular, Christians who resided near Arabia — some of them eyewitnesses of Muhammad — attempted to understand who the man really was; thus, by relying on their testimonies, we may reconstruct a better picture of the presumed prophet of Islam.2

A seventh-century Greek source, Doctrina Jacobi nuper Baptizati, refers to “the prophet who has appeared with the [Arabs],” identifying him unfavorably: “He is false, for the prophets do not come armed with a sword.”3 Here we find a description of an unnamed false prophet who appeared among the Arabs and was a tribal raider. Scholars argue that this Greek source was “purportedly composed in Africa in July 634.”4 If Muhammad really died (as the tradition claims) in 632, then this Greek reference dates to only two years after his presumed death. If we consider that numerous other sources place his death a few years later, in 634–635,5 then this reference is of even higher value.

While the Doctrina Jacobi does not mention Muhammad explicitly, another Syriac source from the same year (634) does. Scholars argue that this document offers the first explicit reference to Muhammad in a non-Muslim source. It dates precisely to Friday, February 7, 634, and is attributed to the Syriac priest Thomas the Presbyter, who reports, “There was a battle between the Romans and the Arabs of Muḥammad. . . . The Romans fled, leaving behind the patrician bryrdn, whom the Arabs killed. Some 4000 poor villagers of Palestine were killed there, Christians, Jews, and Samaritans. The Arabs ravaged the whole region.”6

This report suggests that, in 634, a priest from today’s Iraq was aware of Muhammad and his Arab warriors. It is plausible to assume that a warlord lived in Arabia and led military armies, plundering villages and killing Christians and others. In fact, this Syriac report strengthens our confidence in the Greek source, Doctrina Jacobi, which referred to a supposed prophet among the Arabs without mentioning his name. Both sources date from the same year but come from two different regions.

In the same vein, Sophronius, the patriarch of Jerusalem from 634 to 638, spoke about the Arabs and Muhammad in his sermons. In 636 or 637, Sophronius described “the Arabs’ atrocities and victories,” as they “overrun the places which are not allowed to them, plunder cities, devastate fields, burn down villages, set on fire the holy churches, overturn the sacred monasteries.”7 For Sophronius, these warriors were “the vengeful and God-hating” Arabs “who insult the cross, Jesus, and the name of God, and whose leader is the devil.”8 Thus, for Sophronius and some of his Christian contemporaries, the warriors had a leader — equated to the devil — who led God-hating Arabs to attack Christians and insult their God and Jesus.

Granted, Sophronius does not explicitly mention Muhammad. However, a similar description in a Syriac source from 637 explicitly refers to Muhammad: “Arab troops decisively defeated Byzantine forces,” and “many villages were destroyed through the killing by [the Arabs of] Muḥammad.”9 Here, a Christian explicitly mentions Muhammad as the leader of Arab warriors who assaulted Christians.

Therefore, based on contemporary non-Muslim sources, we can plausibly conclude that there was a man named Muhammad in seventh-century Arabia. He led troops of Arabs, attacked Christians and others, and had a religious message that insulted God, Jesus, and the cross. The advantage of these non-Muslim sources is their chronological proximity to Muhammad; their disadvantage lies in the scarceness and brevity of their descriptions. Conversely, Muslim sources are numerous and full of details, but they are also late and unreliable from a critical standpoint.

The Prophet and the Book

Ultimately, then, there are three Muhammads: the traditional, the legendary, and the historical. Practically, Muslims do not distinguish between the three. They have only one Muhammad, cherished, respected, and valued in their hearts and minds. For them, Muhammad came as the final prophet of Allah and delivered the perfect scripture, the Quran, which — unlike other revelations, including Jewish and Christian Scriptures — Allah himself guards and protects against corruption.

An important question now arises: Who is Muhammad in the daily life of Muslims, and how can Christians converse with Muslims about him?

For Muslims, the Quran is the message Muhammad proclaimed, not wrote. Allah dictated words to Muhammad through Gabriel, which resulted in the Quran. This belief is important for Christians to grasp. In the Muslim understanding, Allah’s word and Allah’s final prophet are holy and revered. Out of respect, a Muslim can never place the Quran on the floor. Muslims often kiss the Quran and touch it to their forehead as signs of honor and veneration. Similarly, whenever Muhammad’s name is mentioned, Muslims repeat an honorary phrase — “peace be upon him” — to emphasize their reverence. These two foundations are so sacred that they are essentially unquestionable in the daily life of Muslims.

Muslims believe the Quran is totally inerrant and infallible. Muhammad, too, as Allah’s final messenger, is infallible. He never — according to the vast majority of Muslims — erred because all prophets, according to Islam, are immune from error. This is one reason why most Muslims are often appalled when they hear the Jewish and Christian teachings that David committed adultery. For Muslims, prophets are immune from sin and cannot err.

Perhaps we can now understand why the notion of thinking critically about Muhammad or his message is unfathomable for Muslims. For them, he is a prophet who perfectly and purely proclaimed a divine message and lived it to the letter — no questioning or doubting is acceptable. Many Muslims and non-Muslims alike throughout history have endured severe persecution or suffered death because they dared to question the sacred. Many Muslims get furious when Muhammad is mocked or the Quran is questioned.

Despite how frequently Muslims persecuted non-Muslims into silence for centuries, Christians have always — since the inception of Islam — engaged Muslims concerning Muhammad and his message. Many Christian thinkers questioned Muhammad, his character, his deeds, and his teachings in the presence of even elite and powerful Muslims.10

Three Ways to Engage Muslims

As we consider the Muslims in our own cities and neighborhoods, I encourage you to speak with them about faith. Even the life and teaching of Muhammad is not off-limits — it just requires wisdom. In our day, Muslims are questioning their faith as never before, in part due to easily accessible information about Muhammad on the Internet that was hardly accessible generations ago. Here, then, are three points to consider as you talk with Muslims about Muhammad.

First, if you want to engage Muslims the best you can, read and study Muhammad and his message. Speaking knowledgeably with Muslims is much better than being ignorant of the basics. Learning about Muhammad and the Quran from reliable Christian resources will open great horizons for you to raise good questions and answer others as you engage Muslims with the gospel.11

Second, love and respect Muslims as people created in God’s own image. At the same time, remember that no Christian is required to respect any ideology, including Islam. Similarly, while we love Muslims, we do not need to cherish Muhammad, especially as his life and teachings contain anti-Christian claims and heresies condemned by the Bible. Christians do not need to use the honorific title after the mention of Muhammad, nor do we need to show any particular reverence for Muhammad in order to appeal to Muslims. Simply be respectful of Muslims, and do not feel intimidated as you talk with them. Christians have compelling and plausible answers and should be bold. Moreover, Muslims in general value assertiveness and confidence.

Third, if you must refer to Muhammad, especially in the early stages of a relationship, simply speak of him as “your prophet.” However, I usually encourage Christians to avoid talking about Muhammad in the early stages of getting to know a Muslim. The topic will eventually emerge. If a Muslim asks your opinion on Muhammad, I suggest saying, “Trust me, my friend, it does not matter what I think of Muhammad. I know more about Christ, and I want you to see his love and salvation.”12 Opening the Bible and speaking about Jesus is always prudent.

When pressed to give your opinion of Muhammad, you might indicate, “My friend, Muhammad is your prophet, and I respect you. I have read a lot about him because I know he is important to you. You are important to me. However, I do not believe in him as you do — if I did, I would become a Muslim.”13 After you develop a deeper friendship with a Muslim, the time might come for you to ask sincere critical questions about Muhammad.

Our ultimate goal is not to destroy Muhammad but to magnify and honor Christ. So, speak with Muslims about Christ. Preach the word and reach the world. Muslims are here in our backyards, nearer than you think. The gospel of hope is their ultimate need.

  1. Robert G. Hoyland, “The Earliest Christian Writings on Muḥammad: An Appraisal,” in The Biography of Muḥammad: The Issue of Sources, ed. Harald Motzki (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 276–95. 

  2. For more details and examples than those mentioned here, see my book, Ayman S. Ibrahim, Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2022), 35–41, 109–15; also Ayman S. Ibrahim, Concise Guide to the Quran (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020), 17–20. 

  3. Robert G. Hoyland, Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam (Princeton, NJ: Darwin, 1997), 55. Hoyland’s book, a collection of non-Muslim primary sources written between 620 and 780 in the Middle East, is of great importance. He translated these sources into English from their original languages, which include Greek, Armenian, Latin, Coptic, and others. Undoubtedly, this time period is significant to our understanding of Islam’s emergence. 

  4. Hoyland, Seeing Islam, 55. 

  5. See Stephen J. Shoemaker, The Death of a Prophet: The End of Muhammad’s Life and the Beginnings of Islam (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 1–17, see especially 2–3. 

  6. Hoyland, Seeing Islam, 120. 

  7. Hoyland, Seeing Islam, 72–73. 

  8. Hoyland, Seeing Islam, 72–73. 

  9. Michael Philip Penn, When Christians First Met Muslims: A Sourcebook of the Earliest Syriac Writings on Islam (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015), 22–24. See also Hoyland, Seeing Islam, 116–17. 

  10. See Ayman S. Ibrahim and Clint Hackenburg, In Search of the True Religion: Monk Jurjī and Muslim Jurists Debating Faith and Practice (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2022). 

  11. On Muslim evangelism, see A.S. Ibrahim, Reaching Your Muslim Neighbor with the Gospel (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022). 

  12. See Ibrahim, Reaching Your Muslim Neighbor, 159. 

  13. See Ibrahim, Reaching Your Muslim Neighbor, 159. 

was born and raised in Egypt. He has completed two PhDs in Islamic Studies (Fuller 2014, Haifa University 2018) and has taught in various countries in the Muslim world and in the West. He is the author of Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan, 2021), and A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), among other books.