In the orthodox Muslim world, Muhammad occupies a place higher than any other human being in creation. He is known as al-Insan al-Kamil, “the ideal man” whose life is to be imitated by all Muslims as nearly as possible. It is this belief which led over the first three hundred years of Islam to the Ahadith (plural for Hadith), collections of reports concerning the conversations, actions and perspectives of Muhammad as remembered (or created) by his companions or later believers. As well, the earliest biographies (Sirat) of Muhammad are mined by Muslims for what light they shed on the practices of their prophet. The Qur’an, Ahadith and Sirat together form the body of material which produce the Sunnah, the Way or Practice of Muhammad that all Muslims are meant to observe.
Since the Qur’an itself sheds very little light on the personal habits and actions of Muhammad (and since the vast majority of Muslims cannot read the Qur’an in Arabic), most Muslims are actually better acquainted with parts of the Hadith than they are with the Qur’an. Since their practical goal is to emulate their prophet as closely as possible, the traditions loom much larger in their lives than their Scripture. Indeed, the Qur’an is almost impossible to make sense of contextually without the Sirat and Ahadith, which provide alleged historical anchors for the otherwise “floating” revelations attributed to Allah by Muhammad.
Why does Islam consider Muhammad to be the ideal man? Essentially because their holy book declares him to be the paragon of those who please Allah, and because it commands them in scores of places to obey him without question – to disobey him in anything is to risk the eternal fires of hell. In terms of authority, the Qur’an puts Muhammad on a par with Allah himself:
“O you who believe, obey Allah and His Messenger …” (8:20); “Say: Obey Allah and obey the Messenger …” (24:54); “Obey Allah and the Messenger and perhaps you will be shown mercy” (3:132); “If you obey him, you will be guided …” (24:54); “Whoever obeys the Messenger has obeyed Allah …” (4:79).
According to the Qur’an (which of course came from the lips of Muhammad), Allah declares that Muhammad is “a beautiful model of conduct” (uswa hasana; found in 33:21) and a man of “sublime moral character” (khuluq adheem; found in 68:4). The combination of these two honorifics, as well as the unique stature accorded Muhammad as Allah’s unparalleled and final spokesman, leads Muslims to the claim that their prophet is the most virtuous human being ever to grace this planet.
Naturally, in all the traditional, hagiographical materials on Muhammad one finds many praiseworthy attributes, actions and attitudes reflected. This makes sense, for otherwise nobody would ever have been drawn to follow this man. But this Muslim claim is that Muhammad is the best of humans, worthy of complete emulation. That means there is nothing in his life (as recorded by Muslim sources) which should cause us to question his morality. Let’s check out this proposition by drawing solely from early Muslim sources acknowledged as authoritative by orthodox scholars today.
- Muhammad personally commanded or ordered over 70 military raids/campaigns against his enemies in the last 9 years of his life (averaging one over every 6-7 weeks!).
- As a result of these raids/battles, Muhammad allowed his followers to steal the wealth of those his army conquered, as well as to enslave those defeated. His soldiers were free to rape females taken through battle before being classified as slaves. Slaves could be executed (if male), sold for ransom, set free, or kept. Female slaves could be used by their Muslim owners for sexual purposes. If previously married, their marriages were annulled so they could become legal sexual objects for their masters.
- Muhammad himself owned multiple slaves (historical lists names some 27 male slaves and 11 females); some of these were captured in battles, others were bought on the market, still others given him as gifts. Muhammad in turn gave slaves as gifts to foreign rulers or to his own companions as rewards.
- Muhammad believed that women were not equal to men in this life, or in the next. Muslim men could marry up to four women at a time (and divorce any woman for the least of causes). Of course, Muhammad himself was exempted by Allah from this limitation, and had somewhere between 11 and 14 wives at one time. One was his daughter-in-law, whom his adopted son divorced after discovering that Muhammad found her attractive so that his father could marry her; another was a Jewish newlywed who lost her father and brother in the Muslim attack on Khaibar, and whose husband, Kinana, was ordered tortured and then beheaded by Muhammad – that evening, Muhammad made her his wife and consummated the marriage in his tent; another wife was the famous Aisha, daughter of his best friend Abu Bakr – she was 6 years old when Muhammad betrothed her to himself, and then 9 years old when he took her to his bed and “made her a woman.” In imitation of this, many Muslim men around the world seek child brides.
- Muhammad taught that women were deficient in intelligence and religion compared with men, and that the majority of hell’s inhabitants were women. Through Scripture and his own practice, he allowed husbands to beat “unruly” wives.
- Muhammad permitted or commanded his followers to lie to non-Muslims in order to save their lives or to advance the cause of Islam.
- Muhammad had a thin skin and believed in revenge. He ordered the murders of a number of men and women who had insulted him. When word came that the deed had been done, Muhammad responded with praise to Allah. In one particular case, his appointed assassin contended that in order to get close enough to the target he would have to lie, claiming to despise Muhammad in order to win the trust of his victim. Muhammad immediately gave him that permission.
- In addition to the torture of Kinana (see above), Muhammad ordered the torture and death of others who went afoul of his dictates. He hurled epithets and curses at his enemies, even those already in the grave.
- Muhammad developed a great hatred for the Jews, a stance which has poisoned Islam forever through anti-Jewish screeds enshrined in the Qur’an. According to 5:82, Jews are the “strongest in enmity” to the Muslims, and while the Muslim community is the “best of peoples” the world has ever seen (3:110), Jews and Christians (and all other idolaters) are the “worst of creatures” whose fate will be hellfire (98:6). Muhammad’s loathing of the Jews is celebrated among Muslims who remember two particular interactions: the destruction of the Jewish Quraiza tribe in Medina; and the defeat of the Jews of Khaibar.
In the first instance, Muhammad lays siege to the Jewish precinct of Medina in which the Quraizas lived; his claim is that they had broken the treaty they had made with him. The punishment for this is determined to be the death of all adult males of that tribe, the enslavement of all women and children, and the forfeiture of all their goods and property to the Muslim community. Muhammad commands this penalty to be carried out, and helps for a while with the beheadings before retiring to watch the rest of the spectacle with his favorite wife Aisha, now 12, at his side. According to tradition, these beheadings went on into the evening, under torchlight, until somewhere between 600 and 900 Jewish men and pubescent boys were dismembered.
At Khaibar, where another Jewish tribe was routed and their goods plundered, Muhammad mercifully spared the remaining Jews by allowing them to continue to harvest their date farms as long as they gave him half their proceeds annually – this is the first instance of dhimmitude and the imposition of what would become known as jizya – the poll tax required of all non-Muslims who are allowed to live under Shari’a law as third class members in Muslim society. Still today, Muslims around the world know and chant this little ditty in Arabic when they want to demean and humiliate the Jews as a race:
Khaibar, Khaibar, ya Yahud, Jaysh Muhammad sauf ya’ud.
Literally, that translates as “Khaibar, Khaibar, O Jews, the army of Muhammad will return.” It is a prediction that the Muslim world will ultimately exterminate the Jews, whom Allah has condemned as a people for their rebellion against him. In the Qur’an, the Jews are the preeminent example of those who oppose Allah, but all who follow their lead will experience the same eternal fate.
- Accordingly, the Islam of Muhammad produces a supremacist ideology – Muslims are commanded to be merciful to fellow believers but “severe against unbelievers” (48:29). Believers are to subjugate all unbelievers and use them and their resources for the benefit of Islam. The ramification of this, in clear English, is that Muslims and non-Muslims will never be able to live in harmony as equals should Islam gain ascendancy in our world.
Is Muhammad then “a beautiful example of conduct” for all humanity? Does his life demonstrate a sublime morality making him the “ideal human being” worthy of emulation by all? Even early Muslim sources make clear the answer to these questions has to be an unqualified NO. In the words of Wafa Sultan, a Syrian doctor who used to be a Muslim:
Amen to that!