From Whence Muhammad?


Fun fact: One of the most prominent movies about the life of Muhammad (who, out of respect for Sunni Muslim sensitivities, is never actually shown onscreen) was produced and directed by Latter-day Saint Richard Rich, who has also done some Book of Mormon films, and whose aesthetic you might recognize from movies like the Swan Princess.  

Muhammed occupies an interesting place in Latter-day Saint thought. On one hand, Joseph Smith was often compared to Muhammad in the 19th century, and there are a lot of points of similarity with the idea of a true faith being restored to an unlearned prophet visited by angelic messengers who was able to create an extensive work of religious literature (or oral recitation that eventually became literature in there case of Muhammad).  

On the pro-Muhammad side, there a variety of GA quotes that make the case that Muhammad was inspired by God. Of course, the Church and Islam are theologically incompatible on various important points, so while interfaith dialogue, support, and outreach is important (I’ve been particularly moved by accounts of the Church offering meetinghouse space to Muslims), at the end of the day the two faiths are obviously not going to merge any time soon, so for a TBM to believe Muhammad was inspired would require also believing that there is some slippage between the historical Muhammad and what eventually became Islam. This is a valid perspective (and one that Islam itself holds in regards to Christ and Christianity), and is not an unlikely scenario given what we know about religious evolution and the messy transmission of scripture.

This is a comfortable position for Latter-day Saints to take. We can sympathize. In my experience, when the restored gospel has come up with non-member religionist acquaintances they are often very polite and talk about the good fruits of the Church, but things tend to get quiet when Joseph Smith comes up. You can tell they’re thinking “conman,” but they have no desire to make things awkward by telling us what they think about him, nor would I in their situation.    

On a similar note, even if I believed that Muhammad was an entrepreneurial conman, I would have no desire to bring it up with my Muslim associates. Of course, I strongly believe that historians and religious studies scholars who want to make that point in their work should be able to safely, but as a civilian I have no such desire or need. 

So what’s my take? I’m open both to the possibility that he was an actual prophet called of God in some capacity….but I’m also open to the possibility that he was a conman, and I don’t feel an obligation to hold the former position simply because of the parallels with Mormonism. Many years ago I read sort of a “No Man Knows My History” take on Muhammad, and the arguments seemed to make sense. Muhammad even had his own Joshua in Canaan moment when he killed every man and enslaved all the women and children in an enemy Jewish tribe. Yes, many good things came out of Islam, but the detractors have points too, and the higher criticism take that he started out more charitable but became more authoritarian as his power grew also makes sense in a higher criticism-y kind of way. 

On that note, I get the sense that we are closer to the “historical Muhammad” than we are to the “historical Jesus” so the Muhammad arguments seemed less speculative, but I might be wrong. Historiographically speaking Jesus could have been any number of a billion different things; we are a little more restricted with Muhammad both because he is more recent and the scriptures were written down sooner after his death, but there’s still some space for slippage. 

Of course, there are apologist explanations and takes, and I remember going back and forth with that literature briefly before losing interest, so maybe there’s a rock solid response to the detractors and I could be convinced that he was good enough to be prophet material, but it’s one of those things that is not an important enough part of my life to invest the time and energy into to meet the minimum requirement to have a justified strong position one way or another. So, because I have not invested such energy (which is a high bar; anybody wanting to claim that they have and that he’s come out as prophet material on the other end also needs to be intimately knowledgeable about and aware of the negative claims, and not just all the warm fuzzies), my confidence intervals for who he was are pretty broad, ranging from being a called prophet (our own theology of dispensations and prophets among various peoples around the world allows for the possibility in principle) to being a psychopathic conman. However, I am open to the latter, and do not feel an obligation to foreclose that possibility out of politeness or because of the parallels with Mormonism.

6 comments for “From Whence Muhammad?

  1. I have never seen the term “TBM” used as anything but a pejorative. I apologize for the thread jack, but it is jarring to see it here.

  2. Sorry about that; I’ve seen it used by the orthodox a lot, so we must run in different circles. I certainly did not mean anything offensive by it; it’s just a pithy way to communicate “orthodox believing member.”

  3. Probably the one person to ask here would be Daniel Peterson, as he’s an expert in Arabic studies and – as a believing (and occasionally belligerent) Latter-day Saint who engages in apologetic defenses of the LDS faith – has written a book called “Muhammad, Prophet of God” (among other writings on Islam and Muhammad).

    He’s also talked about it a bit here:

    and here:

  4. I live in a Muslim country. When I first moved here, I was agnostic on the question of Mohammed. However, after living here for years and seeing first-hand the fruits of Islam, I have become convinced he fails Christ’s litmus test.

    While I don’t believe prophets are perfect, I do believe there are limits to how far they could stray. Why would an omniscient God choose a man to do his work if he saw a good chance that man would lead entire nations away from Christ? So I personally can’t swallow the “fallen prophet” theory for Joseph smith or Mohammed.

  5. I get confused, and possibly grumpy, with statements like this:

    “Why would an omniscient God choose a man to do his work if he saw a good chance that man would lead entire nations away from Christ?”

    Why would God choose to have only 2.4 of 8.1 billion inhabitants on the earth today identify as Christian two thousand years after Jesus? Why would an omniscient God offer temple sealing to only about 0.2% of humans on the earth?

  6. It seems to me that “Judge not, that ye be not judged” covers trying to evaluate Mohammed as an individual, including whether he was a conman or not. We can certainly evaluate whether God called him as a prophet in the sense of Joseph Smith or Russell M. Nelson, and the fact that he did not teach the atonement of Christ seems dispositive to me. (I once tracted into the apartment of several Muslim immigrant undergrads. They were eager to debate, and their main attack was that it was absurd to believe that God could not simply forgive anyone he felt like forgiving. I failed to convince them otherwise.) We can evaluate his teachings, and find that many of them are good while others are problematic (one could say the same about Christianity). Being a faithful Muslim seems like a pretty good preparation for the Celestial Kingdom, as long as you avoid certain rabbit holes. That raises the possibility that Mohammed was sometimes inspired, and thus a prophet in a broader sense.

    I second recommending that “From the Desk” interview with Daniel Peterson.

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