No one likes to be mocked. For powerful leaders, disparagement comes with the territory because leaders have to step on toes when taking stands on controversial matters. This is perhaps even more true for religious leaders, for they are expected to always “do the right thing.”
Jesus and Muhammad were no exception to this. In fact, they faced many of the same insults from their detractors. This is not terribly surprising. What is surprising, however, and deeply instructive, is the disparate ways they responded to those verbal attacks.
Many of the early Muslim sources have a hagiographical glow about them, and so are loath to report anything they consider an affront to Muhammad’s reputation. The Qur’an, however, in defending Muhammad’s character and prophethood confronts the aspersions cast against Muhammad by contemporaneous disbelievers. For example, these opponents called Muhammad:
- A liar – one who invented lies about God (34.8; 42.24), and who claims God brings new verses to cancel previous revelation: “When We substitute one revelation for another, they say, ‘Thou art but a forger [inventor/fabricator]’” (16.101)
- A plagiarist – retelling fairy tales of the ancients (16.24), spinning mixed-up false dreams suitable to a disgraced poet or inventor of myths (21.5; 25.4-6)
- A clear sorcerer – one whose bewitching speech misleads his listeners (10.2; 34.43; 38.4)
- A soothsayer or possessed poet – (69.42; 52.29; 37.36)
- A madman – the Arabic word majnun means literally “one who is under the influence of a jinni” (the jinn are mythological supernatural creatures who often seek to possess humans to do them harm). See 15.6; 23.70; 44.14; 34.46; 68.2, 51, for evidence that Muhammad’s opponents thought him not only to be mentally unbalanced but supernaturally possessed by an evil being.
While Muhammad’s career lasted for some 23 years, Jesus by contrast was in the public eye as a rabbi for only 3 years. Yet in that time, he also became the target of insults and accusations by his enemies. According to the New Testament, he was called:
- A drunkard and glutton, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners (Matthew 11.19), because he enjoyed festive celebrations and spent time with the “riff-raff” of society. Interesting, the phrase “drunkard and glutton” may carry the implication that Jesus was seen as rebellious and dishonoring to his family, and thereby worthy of execution (see Deut. 21.20-21)
- A Sabbath-breaker – and therefore disqualified from any rightful claims to represent God (Matthew 12.10; Mark 3.2; Luke 6.2; John 5.17-18; 9.14-16)
- Demon–possessed – accused of being possessed by Beelzebu1, or a demon, or the devil; additionally, he is smeared with the ethnic slur “Samaritan” (Mark 3.22, 30; John 7.20; 8.48; 10.20).
- An agent of Satan – Jesus is accused of casting out demons “by the prince of demons” (Mark 3.22)
- False prophet, King of the Jews, impotent Messiah – after Jesus’ arrest, he is mocked by Roman soldiers, and on the cross he is derided by passersby for his humiliating execution (“He saved others, he cannot save himself” – Matthew 27.42).
Jesus’ response to mockery and insults is well-known. Typically, he removed himself from incendiary situations, such as when the residents of Nazareth scorned him after his claim to fulfill the messianic claim of Isaiah 61. They sought to run him off a cliff, but he eluded their grasp and departed. He never sent disciples back under the cloak of darkness to exact retribution on those who had smeared his name. Other times, such as when he was accused of being in league with Satan, he responded with reason, pointing out how often he cast out demons from helpless people and saying, “Satan cannot cast out Satan; a house divided against itself cannot stand.” When confronted with dangerous mobs, Jesus forbade his followers from engaging in violence – when Peter struck off the ear of the servant of the high priest, Malchus, during his master’s arrest, Jesus ordered him to put away his weapon, uttering what has become a famous anti-violence maxim: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26.51-52). Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, in the midst of his crucifixion, while Jesus endured excruciating pain, his detractors, both Jews and Romans, heaped scorn upon him. Instead of lashing out at them in his pain, Jesus prayed for forgiveness for them. Peter, one of the disciples who knew Jesus best, would later write of his Master, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to Him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2.23). Jesus lived the seemingly impossible moral imperative which he commanded his disciples, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5.44).
Muhammad, on the other hand, responded to insults and mockery in quite a different way. Early in his prophetic career, while he still remained in Mecca and his following was small, Muhammad often sought to de-escalate confrontations. As he gained more power, though, when insulted he would often reply in kind. After his move to Medina, where he became the undisputed political and military leader of a growing army, Muhammad was not so gracious to those who got under his skin.
Ka’b bin Ashraf was one of a group of Medinan Jews who despised Muhammad. He openly supported the Meccans against Muhammad, and he wrote poems mocking the prophet and some of the Muslim women. Gathered together with his inner circle, Muhammad sought a solution:
Allah’s Apostle said, “Who is willing to kill Ka’b bin Al-Ashraf who has hurt Allah and His Apostle?” Thereupon Muhammad bin Maslama got up saying, “O Allah’s Apostle! Would you like that I kill him?” The Prophet said, “Yes,” Muhammad bin Maslama said, “Then allow me to say a (false) thing (i.e. to deceive Kab). “The Prophet said, “You may say it….” (Bukhari, 5.59.369).
This rather long hadith goes on to detail how Maslama and some fellow Muslims deceive Ka’b and murder him with no reservations. According to another account written in a famous early biography of Muhammad by Muslim scholar Ibn Sa’d, Maslama and his companions return victorious to Muhammad with Ka’b’s severed head and throw it before Muhammad’s feet. His response? Praise to Allah for the death of his enemy. (See Ibn Sa’d, Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, vol.1, p. 37).
Another Medinan Jew, Abu Rafi’, had been a supporter of Ka’b bin Ashraf against Muhammad. After Ka’b’s death, Muhammad ordered Abu Rafi’s assassination and sent a group of Medinan Muslims to murder him at night in his castle. The assassin was rather inept, and after numerous strikes from his sword, Abu Rafi was still quite alive. A hadith by Bukhari records the gory details:
“So again I aimed at him and hit him, but the blow proved futile again, and on that Abu Rafi cried loudly and his wife got up. I came again and changed my voice as if I were a helper, and found Abu Rafi lying straight on his back, so I drove the sword into his belly,” (Bukhari, 5.59.372) with the assassin reporting that he subsequently made it back to Muhammad and was able to convey “the good news”).
One of Muhammad’s Meccan enemies, ‘Uqba bin Abu Muait, who had regularly insulted him for his monotheistic preaching and who one day when Muhammad was bowing in prayer at the Kaaba threw some camel entrails on his back at the urging of some friends, was captured alive in the Muslims’ first major battle with the Meccans at a place called Badr. As Muhammad and his army were on the way home with their booty and prisoners, they paused to rest, and to execute some prisoners. Here ‘Uqba met his demise. According to the earliest biography of the life of Muhammad, written by Ibn ‘Ishaq, here is what happened:
“When the apostle [i.e., Muhammad] ordered him to be killed, ‘Uqba said, ‘But who will look after my children, O Muhammad?’ ‘Hell,’ he said, and ‘Asim…killed him…” (The Life of Muhammad, p. 308).
Nadir bin al-Harith also rubbed Muhammad the wrong way. He was a pagan physician in Mecca who had done his training in Persia, where he apparently learned many fables and religious tales of the Persians. According to Ibn ‘Ishaq:
“Now al-Nadr al-Harith was one of the satans of the Quraysh; he used to insult the apostle and show him enmity. He had been to al-Hira and learnt there the tales of the kings of Persia, the tales of Rustum and Isbandiyar. When the apostle had held a meeting in which he reminded them of God, and warned his people of what had happened to bygone generations as a result of God’s vengeance, al-Nadr got up when he sat down and said, ‘I can tell a better story than he, come to me.’ Then he began to tell them about the kings of Persia, Rustum and Isbandiyar, and then he would say, ‘In what respect is Muhammad a better story-teller than I?’” (The Life of Muhammad, p. 136).
Nadr was also captured during the Battle of Badr, and suffered the same fate as ‘Uqba, being beheaded for having questioned Muhammad’s prophetic credentials. The self-proclaimed prophet seemed to suffer from a thin skin, unable to forgive and forget when he was maligned. He also seemed to wrestle with an inferiority complex, which led him to ridicule those who dismissed his pronouncements. After the battle of Badr, Muhammad ordered that the bodies of his slaughtered Meccan enemies be thrown into a pit or well, after which he taunted them as losers. His followers were bemused by his behavior, reminding Muhammad that the dead couldn’t hear him, so he shouldn’t waste his time. On the contrary, Muhammad told them, these dead could hear him as easily as the living within earshot, but they were unable to respond. Here’s how Bukhari records the event:
“On the day of Badr, the Prophet ordered that the corpses of twenty-four leaders of Quraish should be thrown into one of the dirty dry wells of Badr. (It was a habit of the Prophet that whenever he conquered some people, he used to stay at the battle-field for three nights.) So, on the third day of the battle of Badr, he ordered that his she-camel be saddled, then he set out, and his companions followed him saying among themselves. ‘Definitely he (i.e. the Prophet) is proceeding for some great purpose.’ When he halted at the edge of the well, he addressed the corpses of the Quraish infidels by their names and their fathers’ names, ‘O so-and-so, son of so-and-so and O so-and-so, son of so-and-so! Would it have pleased you if you had obeyed Allah and His Apostle? We have found true what our Lord promised us. Have you too found true what your Lord promised you?’ ‘Umar said, ‘O Allah’s Apostle! You are speaking to bodies that have no souls!’ Allah’s Apostle said, ‘By Him in Whose Hand Muhammad’s soul is, you do not hear what I say better than they do.’ (Qatada said, ‘Allah brought them to life (again) to let them hear him, to reprimand them and slight them and take revenge over them and caused them to feel remorseful and regretful’).” – Bukhari, 5.59.314.
Not long after his victory at Badr, while consolidating his power in Medina Muhammad was troubled by an aged Jewish man named Abu ‘Afak, reputedly 120 years old. From the time of Muhammad’s rise in Medina, Abu ‘Afak had made a practice of lampooning Islam’s prophet by composing satirical verses and urging the locals to reject Muhammad’s message and authority. Finally, Allah’s “perfect man” had had enough. According to biographer Ibn ‘Ishaq, Muhammad complained, “Who will deal with this rascal for me?” (Ibn ‘Ishaq, 675). Another biographer, Ibn Sa’d, records:
Salim Ibn Umayr…said, “I take a vow that I shall either kill Abu Afak or die before him.” He waited for an opportunity until a hot night came, and Abu Afak slept in an open place. Salim Ibn Umayr knew it, so he placed the sword on his liver and pressed it till it reached his bed. The enemy of Allah screamed and the people who were his followers, rushed to him, took him to his house and interred him.” – Ibn Sa’d, vol. 2, p. 32.
A pagan Medinan woman named ‘Asma bint Marwan was deeply troubled by Abu ‘Afak’s murder, and she composed a poem insulting Muhammad and urging native Medinans to rise up and seek his demise. Naturally, word got back to Muhammad, who familiarly asked the question, “Who will rid me of Marwan’s daughter?” A faithful follower, ‘Umayr bin ‘Adiy al-Khatami, volunteered. That evening he stole into her house as she was sleeping surrounded by her five children. Removing the youngest from beside her breast, he thrust his sword through her chest until it pierced her back. Ibn ‘Ishaq records:
“In the morning he came to the apostle [Muhammad] and told him what he had done, and he said, ‘You have helped God and his apostle, O ‘Umayr!’ When he asked if he would have to bear any evil consequences, the apostle said, ‘Two goats won’t butt their heads about her.’ So ‘Umayr went back to his people.” – Ibn ‘Ishaq, p. 676.
Muhammad, of course, did not kill all those who insulted him. Instead, he often returned insult for insult. He was fond of calling the Jews of Medina “brothers of monkeys” (see Ibn ‘Ishaq, p. 462), and in the Qur’an Allah declared that in the past he had turned recalcitrant Jews into apes and pigs (2.65; 5.60; 7.166), with the clear implication that he could easily do so again. When the Qurayza tribe in Medina was under siege by Muhammad’s army for the charge of sedition, they hurled insults at Muhammad from behind their castle walls. In response, Islam’s prophet hires a Muslim gifted with words to return fire with elegant invective. Bukhari records:
The Prophet said to Hassan, “Abuse them (with your poems), and Gabriel is with you (i.e, supports you)” – Bukhari, 5.59.449.
Apparently, when Muhammad was reviled, he reviled in return, and then some.
Even those who did not insult Muhammad directly bust who challenged his prophetic status by claiming their own oracular abilities were targets of his wrath. For example, al-Aswad had a following and was a threat to outlive Muhammad and perhaps draw Muslims away from the path. According to al-Tabari (History, vol. 9, p.167):
“The Messenger of God waged war against the false prophets by sending messengers. He sent a messenger to some of the descendants of the Persian soldiers in the Yemen, instructing them [to get rid of] al-Aswad by artful contrivance…. Al-Aswad was killed while the Messenger of God was [still] alive, a day or a night before the latter’s death.”
There is no need to belabor the point with further examples, though there are many. The contrast between Jesus and Muhammad when dealing with enemies could not be more stark. This is no surprise to those familiar with the character of each of these religious leaders. Sadly, however, Muslims are taught to believe that their prophet is Allah’s flawless exemplar of humanity, the “perfect man” whom all Muslims are to emulate as best they can. Their Qur’an reinforces this image by having Allah say to Muhammad, “And indeed, you are of a great moral character” (68.4), and to his hearers, “There has certainly been for you in the Messenger of Allah an excellent pattern for anyone whose hope is in Allah and the Last Day and [who] remembers Allah often” (33.21).
Imagine 1.8 billion Muslims seeking to respond to insults and criticism as their prophet did. Well, no need to imagine – just remember how many of Islam’s followers acted in response to cartoon caricatures of their leader – riots, mayhem, murders. The only saving grace in all this is that most Muslims are woefully ignorant of the dark side of their prophet, even though these accounts are all found in their “sacred sources.”
A valid criticism of the Christian Church is that Christians fall far short of emulating Jesus in how he treated those who disagreed with him. But the world can be grateful that Muslims for the most part fail to pattern themselves after Muhammad in his treatment of critics. I fully agree with the words of Wafa Sultan, a formerly Muslim Syrian physician now living in the United States, who perceptively remarked:
“The problem with Christians is that they are not as good as Jesus. But thank God most Muslims are better than Muhammad.“