The Historical Muhammad
Contributing to Part 7: “The Truth about Muhammad”
David Wood is the director of Acts 17 Apologetics, a ministry dedicated to examining the
core claims of atheism, Christianity, and Islam. He is host of the satellite television show Jesus
or Muhammad, which is regularly broadcast throughout North America and the Middle East. He
has debated more than two dozen Muslims and atheists and earned his PhD in philosophy from
According to the Quran, Muhammad is the ideal model of conduct for Muslims (33:21),
and true believers are not allowed to question his decisions (33:36). So it is not surprising that
when Nabeel and I began discussing the character and teachings of Muhammad, things
occasionally got heated. Arguing with a Muslim about his prophet’s relationship with a nine-
year-old girl is hardly a path to harmony.
That’s where friendship is useful. Even if Nabeel and I got angry during our discussions,
we eventually calmed down, and we always understood that we had each other’s best interests at
heart. Nabeel was criticizing Christianity not because he hated Christians but because he was
convinced that Christianity was false and that his best friend was missing out on something
important. Likewise, I wasn’t complaining about Muhammad because of the 9/11 attacks but
because I wanted my best friend to know Jesus.
When Muslims and non-Muslims attempt to evaluate the life of Muhammad, we are
confronted with a difficulty. On the one hand, Islam’s historical sources are far removed from
the events they report, giving rise to a fair amount of skepticism concerning their reliability. On
the other hand, if we take the Muslim sources seriously, a highly unflattering (and sometimes
disturbing) portrait of Muhammad emerges. Hence, whether we doubt Islam’s sources or trust
them, we never find the impeccable figure preached by Muslims.
To see the difficulty in more detail, consider a sketch of what Nabeel and I discovered
when we examined the Muslim sources.
A Historical Problem
Islam’s earliest source is the Quran. Yet the Quran is not biographical in nature. Rather, it
is claimed to be Allah’s eternal word, revealed to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel. As
such, the Quran gives us very little direct information about Muhammad and mentions him by
name only four times. To interpret passages of the Quran in the light of Muhammad’s life, we
must turn to non-Quranic texts.
Our earliest detailed biographical source for Muhammad is Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah,
which was written more than a century after Muhammad’s death. Most Muslim scholars today,
however, are convinced that Ibn Ishaq’s historical methodology was defective, which forces
them to turn to even later works for information about their prophet. Islam’s most trusted
collections of narrations about Muhammad (Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, and Sunan Abu Daud)
were written approximately two centuries (or more) after the events they report.
Two centuries is ample time for embellishment and fabrication, especially when
competing political and theological factions were vying for power. Indeed, the most important
reason for compiling stories about Muhammad was because so many false or contradictory
stories were being manufactured. Modern quests for early Islamic historical data have uncovered
almost nothing, and the general movement among scholars of Islamic studies over the past
century has been toward greater skepticism.
A Brief History of Muhammad
Assuming we treat the Muslim sources as at least somewhat reliable, we can piece
together an outline of Muhammad’s life. He was born around AD 570 in Mecca (in present day
Saudi Arabia). While still young, Muhammad began work in the Meccan caravan trade, which
put him in contact with diverse religious traditions. At twenty-five years old, he married a
wealthy widow named Khadija, who was fifteen years his senior. Like many others from his
tribe, Muhammad developed the habit of retreating to a cave on Mount Hira for prayer and
When Muhammad was forty years old, he had a mystical experience in this cave, and he
emerged reciting five verses of what would eventually become the Quran (96:1–5). He soon
began preaching Islam to friends and family, and later to the public. Due to his increasingly
inflammatory condemnation of the Meccan polytheists, Muhammad and his followers were
persecuted. After his wife Khadija and his uncle Abu Talib (who had been protecting him) died,
Muhammad fled Mecca.
In Medina, having formed alliances with several non-Muslim groups, Muhammad began
robbing the Meccan caravans. These attacks eventually led to a series of battles with Mecca.
However, as war booty poured in, so did new converts, and the ever-expanding Muslim army
allowed Muhammad to subdue not only Mecca but the rest of Arabia as well. Muhammad died in
632 following a prolonged sickness, which he attributed to being poisoned by a Jewish woman.
Muhammad and Violence
One of the most unsettling aspects of Muhammad’s life concerns his use of violence to
achieve his goals. Modern Muslims often claim that Muhammad killed only in self-defense, but
history shows that he ordered his followers to murder people for writing poems that were critical
of him. Apostates fared no better, for Muhammad commanded, “Whoever changes his religion,
kill him” (Sunan An-Nasa’i 5.37.4069).
Although Muhammad promoted peace and tolerance when Muslims were in the minority,
his revelations suddenly changed when his followers outnumbered his enemies. Consider three
verses from the last major chapter of the Quran to be revealed:
1. “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden
which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the Religion
of Truth, from among the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizyah with willing
submission, and feel themselves subdued” (9:29 Ali).
2. “O Prophet! strive hard against the unbelievers and the hypocrites and be
unyielding to them …” (9:73 Shakir).
3. “O you who believe! fight those of the unbelievers who are near to you and let
them find in you hardness …” (9:123 Shakir).
Notice that the main criterion for fighting people in these verses is simply that they do not
believe in Islam. Muhammad’s final marching orders to his followers, then, consisted largely of
commands to violently subjugate non-Muslims.
Muhammad and Women
No less troubling is Muhammad’s example regarding women. While the Quran allows
Muslims to marry a maximum of four wives (4:3), Muhammad had at least nine wives at one
time (after he received a special revelation that gave him the right to ignore the four-wife limit).
One of Muhammad’s wives (a girl named Aisha) was only nine years old when the marriage was
consummated. Zainab, another wife, was originally married to his adopted son Zaid. However,
because Muhammad became attracted to Zainab, Zaid divorced her so that Muhammad could
On at least one occasion, Muhammad physically struck his wife Aisha for lying. This was
in accordance with the Quran’s command to physically discipline rebellious wives: “Men are in
charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they
spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in
secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them
and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them” (4:34 Pickthall).
Muhammad had a concubine named Mary, who was a Coptic Christian, and he allowed
his followers to possess an unlimited number of sex slaves (see Quran 23:5–6; 70:22–30). Early
Muslims were even permitted to engage in a form of prostitution (called mutah), according to
which a Muslim could pay a woman for sex, marry her for a short time (perhaps a few hours),
and then divorce her when finished.
While Muhammad’s teachings about violence and women call into question his status as
the perfect role model, certain spiritual problems in his life raise concerns about his prophethood.
For instance, Muhammad’s first impression of the revelations he received was that they were
demonic. As a result, he became suicidal and tried to hurl himself off a cliff. Muhammad’s wife
Khadija and her cousin Waraqah—people who were not with him in the cave and had no idea
what he experienced—eventually persuaded him that he was not possessed and that, instead, he
was a prophet of God.
Even more startling is that, according to our earliest Muslim sources, Muhammad once
delivered a revelation from the devil (the infamous “Satanic Verses”). When Muhammad was
initially reciting chapter 53 of the Quran (so the story goes), Satan tricked him into promoting
polytheism. Later, Muhammad was supposedly informed by the angel Gabriel that all prophets
occasionally fall for this ruse.
Multiple Muslim sources also report that Muhammad was the victim of black magic.
According to these accounts, a Jewish magician stole Muhammad’s hairbrush and used one of
the hairs to cast a spell on him. The spell lasted about a year, and it affected Muhammad’s
memory and gave him delusional thoughts.
Given the questionable reliability of the Muslim sources and their unflattering portrayal
of Muhammad, how can modern Muslims hope to defend the Islamic view of their prophet? For
many months, Nabeel took the most common route: He sifted through the texts and drew
attention to every favorable story about Muhammad, while reinterpreting or dismissing most
unfavorable stories. Yet he eventually realized that such a method could be used to make any
historical figure appear trustworthy. After pondering the evidence more carefully (and resisting
the Muslim tendency to automatically defend Muhammad from criticism), Nabeel was left with a
dilemma: either we know next to nothing about Muhammad, or we know that he is not what
Muslims claim him to be.
The New Testament and the Quran
Contributing to Part 8: “The Holiness of the Quran”
Oxford University. He is also a visiting lecturer and an associate research fellow at the London
School of Theology and teaches internationally concerning the history of the texts of the Quran
and the New Testament. He is the author of
Rev. Dr. Keith Small is a Quranic manuscript consultant to the Bodleian Library at
Textual Criticism and Qur’an Manuscripts.
Any religion in our day must make its case amid the competing claims of secularism and
other faiths. Nabeel has poignantly shared one double claim he was raised to passionately believe
but then came to question—the conviction that the Quran had been preserved perfectly, whereas
other books of scripture had not, and that this supported the Quran’s divine credentials.
If this was just an academic question or just a case of overblown religious rhetoric,
perhaps it would not carry so much weight. But as Nabeel shares from his own experience, this
was a primary question forming his religious foundation. It was a question informing not only his
identity as a Muslim but also his perspective on forgiveness of sin, his view of his personal
religious obligations to God, and his hope for salvation and eternity. The inviolability of the
Quran is truly an eternal life and death issue to Muslims around the world.
Too often, emotions and issues of personal, community, and religious honor eclipse
issues of truth. In these situations academic studies can provide dispassionate information for
evaluation by individuals on all sides of the issue.
How do we decide which books tell the truth? One test is to see which one squares best
with available historical testimony. The claim about the Quran’s perfect transmission and the
Bible’s corruption is significant and goes to the foundation of one’s view of Jesus. Muslims
claim that one indication of the divine authority of their faith is that their scripture has been kept
perfectly, while the New Testament has been corrupted, and that as a result, their view of Jesus is
more accurate. This is an enormously significant historical claim that can be tested.
During the last three hundred years, the New Testament has undergone rigorous textual
research, studies of how well the text has been transmitted from the earliest available Greek
manuscripts through today. The Quran has never undergone such a systematic examination of the
earliest manuscripts against the entire Quranic tradition, though this is now starting to be
Results from these textual studies are extremely important. First, studies have
demonstrated that the transmission of the New Testament books from their original forms until
now has happened faithfully without calling into question any cardinal doctrine of the Christian
faith. Studies of corrections in these manuscripts have also demonstrated that no one has changed
the text to make it support a political or theological agenda—a hollow accusation often made, for
example, against Constantine and the Council of Nicaea in the early 300s.
Initial results from the study of Quranic manuscripts confirm, through Islamic historical
sources (similar to what Nabeel cites from the hadith), that in Islam’s first century there was an
official project to establish a precise written text of the Quran. Corrections in the earliest
available manuscripts indicate a concern with establishing a precise text. There also existed in
Islam’s early decades the political, social, and religious conditions necessary to perform such a
task and to ensure the widespread adoption of this official text in the growing Islamic empire.
Instead of the Quran’s text being preserved perfectly from the time of Muhammad, it was shaped
after his lifetime into a document that would command political and religious unity under the
established and growing political power of the time.
Such historical conditions, however, were never in place for a similar project to occur
with the New Testament. Skeptics who assert a conspiracy to change the text of the New
Testament, whether reputable scholars or authors of popular fiction, attempt to construct their
arguments largely from silence and force controversial assumptions onto very minor textual
changes—like claiming a small isolated rivulet is the main river while ignoring the broad, strong,
mainstream of the existing textual tradition.
New Testament manuscript evidence provides strong support that the gospels deliver the
best historical information concerning Jesus, and recent studies are confirming how Jesus both
fits into and challenges the context and ideas of first-century Palestine. Similar studies of the
Quran are demonstrating that the Jesus it portrays is more a figure of the theological
controversies of the sixth and seventh centuries than a figure of the first century.
The issue of corruption versus perfection of the text is important because Muslims use the
matter to justify the authority of their faith over other world faiths like Christianity. In another
way, though, this claim to perfect transmission of the Quran is actually a bit of a rhetorical
sideshow. The more significant divergence of Islam and Christianity has always been and will
continue to be between the teachings of the Quran and the New Testament, and between their
historical testimonies about Jesus.
That the New Testament is historically reliable provides not only a solid basis for
personal faith in Christianity but also the strong basis for offering to people of any background,
religious or nonreligious, the message of the gospel—that they can have their sins forgiven, that
they can be freed from lives of futility and shameful habits, that they can actually know God
personally and find His purpose for their lives, and that they can have the assurance of an
eternity of justice and joy in His inexpressible presence, all through what His Son Jesus
accomplished in the crucifixion and resurrection. If Christian scriptures were not grounded in
history, all we would have to offer would be our personal opinions.
Belief and Doubt
Contributing to Part 9: “Faith in Doubt”
Philosophy at Liberty University. His chief areas of research are related to Jesus’ resurrection,
though he also has published frequently on the subject of religious doubt. He has authored,
coauthored, or edited thirty-six books and written more than one hundred articles and reviews
for journals and other publications.
Dr. Gary Habermas is Distinguished Research Professor and chair of the Department of
Two religious doubters experienced tormenting questions. One began his search as a
Christian, the other did not. They came from quite diverse educational, religious, and ethnic
perspectives. In both cases, their doubt was resolved after years of research and study. Both
concentrated on many of the same academic issues. And the same God met them both.
Recently, Christians have grown more vocal about expressing their religious doubts, and
so have unbelievers. If done in the right context, why not? Similar responses are certainly found
in scripture. Humans seem always to have doubted and questioned even their deepest beliefs.
Why so? Presumably because we do not know everything; we are limited and restricted in our
knowledge. Further, these perennial religious issues concern us, often deeply. And from a
theological angle, we are sinners. Complicating the issues, these conditions sometimes militate
against our desire for personal peace.
I met Nabeel Qureshi during one of my family’s yearly visits to Virginia Beach to stay
with our close friends, Mike and Debbie Licona. Nabeel had joined a group of searchers who met
regularly at Mike’s house to discuss scientific, philosophical, and theological issues. There, I met
a former rather militant atheist, philosophy student David Wood. Another attendee from the
same university, likewise majoring in philosophy, was an agnostic Buddhist named Zach. Then
there was Nabeel, an ardent Muslim believer. Without question, Nabeel was very intelligent and
always thoughtful, inquisitive, and exceptionally polite. He defended his faith, and no one
minded a bit. Everyone spoke freely.
When Mike debated Muslim scholar Shabir Ally at another local university, Nabeel and I
sat together. We later evaluated the dialogue, along with David and Mike. That was the evening
when Nabeel made his amazing comment that the only thing that Christian apologetics had over
Muslim apologetics was the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. I remarked to Mike later that such a
conclusion could be precisely the sort that might continue to impress Nabeel.
Then there was the meeting at Mike’s house that both Nabeel and his father attended.
Once again, the give-and-take of conversation was fairly and politely granted. Mike even asked
Nabeel’s father to open the meeting in prayer.
Later, when I heard that Nabeel traveled overseas to ask imams the questions that still
bothered him, I was again amazed. Here was a young scholar who was unafraid to ask the tough
questions. Eventually, his doubts were a key component in fulfilling his quest.
Although I had been raised in a Christian home, I went through more than ten years of
doubt that often grew quite intense. My personal study centered on the resurrection of Jesus,
because of my conclusion that, if it had occurred, it could bear the weight of the Christian
message. However, after several years, I reached an impasse in my studies and had determined
that it could not be shown that this event happened.
Returning to the same subject a little later while writing my PhD dissertation, I was able
to work through the stalemate that had bogged me down earlier, only to find that my doubts
failed to subside. Little did I know that I still had years of struggle left.
Having concluded long before that addressing the factual component of doubt was the
key to my struggles, I had grown convinced that there were several key evidential avenues both
for theism in general, as well as for Christianity in particular. But why did my doubts remain,
often more strongly than ever before?
Soon afterward, I learned what I dearly wished someone had explained to me much
earlier—that there is commonly an emotional element to doubt, although at the time this was
seldom recognized in the research. Not only is this emotional element the dominant species of
such uncertainty, but it is usually far more painful and often more stubborn than factual
One thing was entirely clear: I simply had to do something to overcome the suffering that
hounded me every hour of the day. How could I be sure the Christian hope was grounded, when
factual evidence alone was insufficient to do the job?
At this point, I stumbled on research in the area of psychological assurance and related
issues that has since changed my life. Falling under the general rubric of the “cognitive” or
“cognitive-behavioral method,” the central idea is that what we tell ourselves, think, and do will
determine how we feel, as well as our subsequent actions. Further, the most painful things in life
are not generally what occurs to us but what we think and articulate to ourselves about those
occurrences. Thus, it is not so much the events in our lives but rather how we download and
respond to them that determines whether we are able to adjust and live peacefully
, with minimal
pain and stress.
I learned that the heart of the cognitive method revolves around picking out the false
statements that we believe, think, or say to ourselves and then arguing against them. Believers
must dispute thoughts like, “Though I’ve done everything Scripture tells me to do, I still may not
be a Christian.” Or, “Maybe I’ll get to heaven and Jesus will tell me that He never knew me.”
Even something as simple as, “What if Christianity is untrue?” when the evidence shows
otherwise can cause very painful repercussions.
Therefore, I had to learn to argue directly against these notions, and the more forcefully
the better. I began to work through every aspect of the gospel message (like the deity, death, and
resurrection of Jesus Christ) and then ask myself if I believed or had trusted the Lord in light of
that (Rom. 10:9–10). If I responded, “I’m not sure,” then I needed to press the point with the
precise data. “You know you did that, dozens of times as a matter of fact.” Or, “You know you
believe that, because when someone objected the other day, you were ready with your defense of
its truth.” When others wondered if they had shown any “fruit” in their lives after salvation, I
encouraged them to list items that could be reviewed. Asking a very good friend what they see in
us is very helpful too.
Dozens of biblical texts also teach us to stop worrying and being “downcast” by changing
what we say to ourselves. Instead, we are to replace these thoughts with meditation on God’s
truth, His promises, worship, or prayer.