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Wahi: The Supernatural Basis of Islam
- Mohammed's reaction to the Quranic trance
[Editor's Note: Kashmir Herald is honored to have Dr. Koenraad ELST write a series of articles exclusively for Kashmir Herald. His series of 4 exclusive articles on "The Supernatural Basis of Islam" will be published exclusively here on Kashmir Herald.]
The first person to doubt the genuineness of the Quranic “revelations” was Mohammed himself. This was at the very beginning of his career, when during his Ramadhaan retreat outside Mecca in AD 610, he had an audio-visual experience in which he both heard and saw the archangel Gabriel, calling upon him to “Recite!” (Qarâ’, whence Qur’ân). Upon receiving his first “revelation”, Mohammed thought he was going mad, or in the parlance of those days, that he was getting possessed by an evil spirit.
He didn’t want to spend the rest of his life as Mecca’s village idiot, and so, preferring death to disgrace, he decided to throw himself from a high rock: “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 Quraish [i.e. his fellow tribesmen of the Quraish tribe] 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.” (Ibn Ishaq’s Sîrat Rasűl Allah, tra. Alfred Guillaume: The Life of Mohammed, OUP Karachi, p.106/153)
The history of Islam could have ended there and then, with Mohammed escaping the spell of the alleged evil spirit by jumping to his death. But the ghost himself came to the rescue, as Mohammed testified: “So I went forth to do so and then, when I was midway on the mountain, I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘O Mohammed! Thou art the apostle of God and I am Gabriel.’” (ibid.)
So, the vision repeated itself. We don’t know if that was sufficient to reassure Mohammed about his sanity, but then another and more decisive factor intervened to save him: “And I continued standing there, neither advancing nor turning back, until Khadija sent her messengers in search of me and they gained the high ground above Mecca and returned to her while I was standing in the same place; and he [i.e. Gabriel] parted from me and I from him, returning to my family.” (ibid.)
It was indeed his wife Khadija who saved him and helped him to accept the trances as they became a recurring and then a regular feature of his life. Later on, she supported him when others doubted his prophetic claims: “By her God lightened the burden of His prophet. He never met with contradiction and charges of falsehood, which saddened him, but God comforted him when he went home. She strengthened him, lightened his burden, proclaimed his truth, and belittled men’s opposition.” (Ishaq/Guillaume:111/155) But more importantly, she supported and soothed Mohammed in the crucial phase when he himself entertained the deepest doubts about his own sanity.
This is how she did it. When Mohammed came home, he told her: “Woe is me poet or possessed.” But she replied: “I take refuge in God from that, o Abű’l Qâsim [i.e. “father of Qâsim”, after Mohammed’s first son Qâsim]. God would not treat you thus since he knows your truthfulness, your great trustworthiness, your fine character, and your kindness. This cannot be, my dear. Perhaps you did see something.” And Mohammed answered: “Yes, I did.” (Ishaq/Guillaume: 106/153)
Certainly Mohammed had seen something, meaning that his sensory nerves had indeed produced a visual sensation. But was it a false sensation, or in the parlance of the day, the impact of ghost-possession? Khadija and her Christian cousin Waraqa b. Naufal eagerly embraced the idea that Mohammed had had a genuine vision and had been invested with the mantle of prophethood, but Mohammed himself still had his doubts. Fortunately, his loving wife knew a way to decide the matter and convince him of both his sanity and his new prophetic mission.
She asked him to notify her when his visitant returned, so that they could verify whether he really was the archangel Gabriel or an ordinary demon. “So when Gabriel came to him, as he was wont, the apostle said to Khadija, ‘This is Gabriel who has just come to me.’ ‘Get up, o son of my uncle’, she said, ‘and sit by my left thigh.’ The apostle did so, and she said, ‘Can you see him?’ ‘Yes’, he said. She said, ‘Then turn round and sit on my right thigh.’ He did so, and she said, ‘Can you see him?’ When he said that he could, she asked him to move and sit in her lap. When he had done this, she again asked if he could see him, and when he said yes,, she disclosed her form and cast aside her veil while the apostle was sitting in her lap. Then she said, ‘Can you see him?’ And he replied, ‘No.’ She said, ‘O son of my uncle, rejoice and be of good heart, by God he is an angel and not a Satan.” (Ishaq/Guillaume: 107/154)
In modern language, this account relates how Mohammed’s vision of the Archangel waned and disappeared. Narrator Ibn Ishaq adds a second tradition (through Khadija’s daughter Fatima, her son Husayn, his daughter Fatima, her son Abdullah b. Hasan) which is even more explicit in this regard, viz. that “she made the apostle of God come inside her shift, and thereupon Gabriel departed, and she said to the apostle of God, ‘This verily is an angel and not a satan.’” (ibid.) The underlying assumption appears to be that a lustful demon, the kind who might take possession of a man’s soul, would have stayed around to enjoy the sight of Mohammed and Khadija’s interaction; whereas an angel with his ethos of renunciation would politely withdraw from the scene.
After his wife had provided him with this experimental proof of the genuineness of his meeting with the Archangel, Mohammed was cured of his doubts. He could now safely embark upon his career as God’s exclusive spokesman and frequent recipient of Gabriel’s messages, which were written down by a secretary and later collected into a book, the Qur’ân. Only on one occasion would the doubt briefly reappear, viz. during the episode of the “Satanic verses”.
Frustrated at the unyielding skepticism of his Meccan townsfolk, the Prophet consciously or subconsciously devised a way to win them over to the acceptance of his prophetic claims. He would compromise on the central item in his theology, viz. the falseness of the gods of the Arabian pantheon as contrasted with the unique reality of Allah alone. Modern apologists slanderously depict the Meccan heathens as fanatics intolerant of Mohammed’s innovative cult, but in reality they were always eager for reconciliation. They were pluralistic or what modern Indians would call “secular”. At a meeting outside their national shrine, the Ka’ba, they proposed to Mohammed: “Come let us worship what you worship, and you worship what we worship. You and we will combine in the matter.” (Ishaq/Guillaume: 165/239) They were even willing to shed some of their religious practices of those of Mohammed were to prove superior: “If what you worship is better than what we worship, we will take a share of it, and if what we worship is better than what you worship, you can take a share of that.” (ibid.)
It is at this point that Mohammed received an anti-pluralistic and anti-compromise “revelation”: “Say, o disbelievers, I do not worship what you worship, and you do not worship what I worship, and I will not worship what you have been wont to worship, nor will you worship that which I worship. To you your religion and to me my religion.” (Q.109) On another occasion when the Meccans pleaded reconciliation and pluralism, viz. around the deathbed of Mohammed’s uncle Abű Tâlib (with the words: “Let him have his religion and we will have ours”), Mohammed likewise refused all compromise and demanded that they accept his monotheism and his claim to prophethood, nothing less. (Ishaq/Guillaume:191/278)
Yet, at one point he did give in to the tempting idea of a quick way to bring the Meccans into his fold, viz. by accepting the reality and auspicious role of the three popular goddesses al-Lât, al-Uzzâ and Manât. A revelation duly arrived from heaven, saying: “Have you thought of al-Lât and al-Uzzâ and Manât, the third, the other? These are the exalted cranes whose intercession is approved.” (Ishaq/Guillaume:165/239) The Meccans were enthusiastic, prostrating along with the Muslims at the mention of the goddesses in Allah’s company, and word even spread that they had converted to Islam.
But then another revelation came down, telling Mohammed that he had been deceived by Satan, who had smuggled these goddess-revering words into the channel of the prophet’s wahi or revelatory trance, falsely making it look like a divine message like all the others Quranic verses. So Allah annulled the Satanic verses and sent down the verse: “We have not sent a prophet or apostle before you but when he longed [viz. for acceptance], Satan cast suggestions into his longing. But God will annul what Satan has suggested. The God will establish his verses, God being knowing and wise.” (Q.22:51/52; Ishaq/Guillaume:166/239) Since then, the Quran gives a corrected reading, this one properly revealed by Gabriel himself: “Have ye seen Lât, and Uzzâ, and another, the third, Manât? (….) These are nothing but names which ye have devised, ye and your fathers, for which Allah has sent down no authority.” (Q.53:19-23)
Mohammed got away with it, the indignation among a few of his followers at this lapse from orthodoxy remaining brief and inconsequential. But an objective observer cannot escape facing the question: if the prophet could be thus deceived by Satan, how could he know on all the other occasions that he hadn’t been deceived? The only answer the Islamic apologist can come up with, is the one given in the above narrative: God or Gabriel told Mohammed which revelation to believe and which one to reject as false. That way, the only guarantee of revelation is another revelation.
But at least we can sympathize with Mohammed’s brief pang of conscience when he realized the deception (he “was bitterly grieved and greatly in fear of God”, according to Ishaq/Guillaume:166/239). Clearly he tried to be honest and bring only genuine revelations to his audience. Unfortunately, the fullness of Mohammed’s critical sense vis-ŕ-vis his revelations had been abandoned at the very beginning, when safe in Khadija’s lap, he had to accept the basic genuineness of the process of divine revelation through the voice and vision of Gabriel.
[Born in Leuven, in the year 1959, Koenraad Elst grew up in the Catholic Community in Belgium. He was active for some years in what is known as the new Age movement, before studying at the famed Catholic University of Leuven (KUL). He graduated in Chinese Studies, Indo-Iranian Studies and Philosophy. He earned his doctorate magna cum laude with a dissertation on the politics of Hindu Revivalism.
He took courses in Indian philosophy at the Benares Hindu University (BHU), and interviewed many Indian leaders and thinkers during his stay in India between 1988 and 1992. He has published in Dutch about language policy issues, contemporary politics, history of science and Oriental philosophies; in English about the Ayodhya issue and about the general religio-political situation in India.
A few of his latest books are:
While doing research in Indian philosophy at Benares Hindu University, he started taking an interest in the ongoing Rushdie and Ayodhya controversies and the larger debate on secularism. He published several books on the historical Ayodhya file. He is currently working as a free-lance scholar and columnist.]