You have indeed in the Prophet of God a good example … (Qur’an 33:21)
Who was Muhammad ibn Abdullah, peace be upon him? Can we reconstruct his historical life despite the many legends and narrations that have circulated among the early generations of Muslims? How can faith in Islam and its prophet be established or maintained when a believer is exposed to reports of incidents and actions which showcase the humanity and vulnerability of Muhammad ibn Abdullah? Many seekers, whether Muslim youth coming to terms with their faith or non-Muslims contemplating entering the fold of Islam, must eventually confront the academic side of the Prophet’s life (pbuh). Reconciling these historical and pseudo-historical documents with the first teachings of the history of the religion of Islam is a requisite for maintaining one’s conviction in Islam’s truth-claim. The common concern from both these groups is how embellished the established story arc taught in Sunday school or interfaith sessions differ from the collective memories of the earliest generation of Muslims as recorded in the sirah and hadith literature. Another concern for those who approach the life of the prophet from an academic viewpoint is the perception that God is making special concessions for Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) within the Qur’an and Hadith.
The path to seeking and believing in the historical Muhammad (pbuh) starts with understanding how these reports were passed down in the first place. The next step is to investigate those reports that seem to clash with modern sensibilities and apply our historical lens to reconcile them. Finally, we must differentiate between the various methodologies and philosophies of preserving prophetic traditions.
We start with the orthodox baseline of how the Prophet’s mission developed. According to mainstream Muslim convention, the revelations of the Qur’an came down in a period of twenty-three years. The Prophet experienced many different situations in those twenty-three years, and the Qur’an was revealed in the context of those situations. We can almost think of them as a series of “letters” or “dictations” from God to Muhammad via the Archangel Gabriel. So, in the beginning, God is telling Muhammad about Himself, His existence, power, and mercy. Also, God is teaching Muhammad about the previous prophets and that Muhammad is one of those noble messengers. In addition, God is teaching Muhammad about the Day of Judgment and that it is coming and that human beings should prepare for that meeting with their Creator. As the Prophet invites his community to worship God and God alone, he encounters resistance, persecution, and hardships. God responds with lessons on humility, reminders of the final reward in Paradise for this work and for following this path, warnings against being heedless of this message, and stories of previous prophets and believers to soothe the Prophet and his followers in the face of all the hardships they are enduring for God’s Cause. These conversations and admonitions are encapsulated and preserved in the Qur’an itself. It is for this reason that scholars of early Islamic history consider the Qur’an the best contemporary record of the life and times of Muhammad and his early community.
Finally, the Prophet and his followers migrate to Medina. The yoke of persecution is lifted. Muslims can practice and preach without fear of retribution. At this point, after thirteen years of emphasizing God and the Meeting with Him, the followers are ready to learn how to live a Godly life. So now God starts sending down instructions on morals, ethics, and behavior norms. Also, as the Meccans start threatening the very lives of all who follow Muhammad, God grants the Muslims permission to bear arms, to fight and defend themselves until they can practice and preach God’s message. This is the backdrop and story arc as taught in Sunday schools for Muslim children and Islam 101 classes for non-Muslims. It is based on this series of events upon which the edifice of Islam and the character of the Prophet are built.
While the narrative outlined above contains no obvious issues, some critics contest the veracity of Muhammad’s prophethood by citing what they perceive as special concessions for Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) within the Qur’an and Hadith. These concessions seem suspicious and indicative of a charismatic leader exploiting his leadership position to obtain what he desires. One example that is often referenced is Qur’an 66:1-2, in which Muhammad is permitted to continue sleeping with his female slave, Mary the Copt, despite his wives’ outrage over this — in fact, God rebukes him for having decided to cease his relations with the aforementioned woman in order to appease their jealousy. Another example is in 33:53, where God prohibits dinner guests from arriving early or staying late when coming to Muhammad’s home for dinner. Apparently, he is too shy to make his preferences regarding guests coming clear himself. This is discomforting for some prospective converts and many Muslim youth because many do not understand why it should be included within scripture that is meant to apply to all of mankind. Another thing that is often pointed out is the allowance made for Muhammad to marry more than the maximum of four wives.
I argue that Muhammad (pbuh) is not unique in getting special instructions. Rather, it is a common methodology of God in how He relates to His Prophets. Prophet Job also received special concessions. When he lost his wealth, health, and children, and his wife pleaded with him to ask God for relief, he got angry and swore an oath to God that if he ever got better, he would beat her one hundred lashes or divorce her. Eventually God cured Job (pbuh) of his ailments, so Job (pbuh) was worried about his oath. A Prophet cannot forswear himself, so he was worried that he would have to divorce his wife, the only person who stood by him during his difficulties. Obviously, Job did not want to take the other option! God then revealed instructions to Job (pbuh) to take one hundred blades of grass in a bunch and fulfill his oath by tapping his wife with that. So here you have a special concession from God.
Prophet Ibrahim (pbuh) also received special concessions. When he broke all the idols in his father’s temple, he left the largest one standing. When the people asked him if he did this, he replied that it was the largest idol that got jealous and destroyed the other idols. The intention was to draw the people’s never attention to the absurdity of idolatry. It was still a lie, but he was not punished or reprimanded by God for that. Also, God permitted him to lie about his wife, Sarah, so she would not fall into the hands of that tyrant king. Also, when the angels visited him to inform him they were going to destroy the city of Lot (pbuh), Ibrahim (pbuh) argued with them. God admonished him but did not reprimand him.
Prophet Jacob (pbuh) was allowed to marry both daughters of his maternal uncle. Usually, sisters are not allowed to be co-wives, but this concession allowed him to marry both the woman he was attracted to (the younger sister, Rachel) and the woman that his uncle wanted to marry off (the elder sister, Leah). So again, you have a special concession from God.
Prophet Moses (pbuh) received many special concessions. After killing a man in Egypt, God guided him to the land of Midian, where he found shelter, work, and a wife and family. During his meeting with God, he asked God to appoint his brother Aaron as a prophet with him, since Aaron was more eloquent in speech. God granted this prayer. Also, when Moses (pbuh) lost his temper on several occasions with the Israelites and his own brother, God forgave him and instructed him how his followers could repent and how he should behave. When Moses (pbuh) made his claim that nobody had more knowledge than him, God instructed him to follow Khidr (the Servant in Sura 18) and learn from him. Even when Moses (pbuh) failed all those tests, still God overlooked that and allowed him to return to his people in a good — albeit humbler — status.
Likewise, with the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), the Qur’an is filled with corrections to the Prophet. Surah 80 was revealed because the Prophet frowned at a blind believer while he was trying to talk to an arrogant tribal chieftain. Surah 66, according to most exegetes, was revealed because the Prophet vowed never to approach Maryia the Copt. For the moment, we overlook that she was a slave. She had almost the same status as a full-wife, so two of the Prophet’s wives were essentially demanding that he divorce one of his other wives. Even though this is an unjust demand, the Prophet agreed to it to appease these two wives; for this reason, God revealed Surah 66 to guide the Prophet as to what was the better choice. A person inclined to idealizing the Prophet (pbuh) or coming with a preconceived notion of human perfection may be troubled by these narrations and events. However, if we start with the idea that the Prophet was a product of his time and was guided by God with respect to the customs and traditions of that time, then these stories do not shake our convictions.
Also, we see that not all special instructions were concessions. In Surah 33, God revealed that the Prophet could not divorce any of his wives or marry new ones. If the Qur’an was intended to justify the Prophet’s desires, why was this limit revealed? Why was Aisha the only young virgin wife? The Prophet could have married nothing but young, beautiful virgins if he wanted, but instead we see that most of his marriages were for political alliances or for honoring a widow. Remember that he was also the leader of his community. Other tribal chieftains would often have over a dozen wives to seal political alliances, and the Prophet lived in this historical reality. This explains the wisdom behind the allowance to marry more than four wives. It is a well-known pedagogical fact that “by looking at contrasting cases, we can understand the specific case more deeply.” This maxim is readily apparent when studying the life of the Prophet (pbuh) and coming to terms with the historical narratives vis a vis the idealized picture Muslims have formed of him.
 (Hazleton 2013, 39)
 (Rashed, Interfaith Dialogues and Debates 2018, 102)
 (Hazleton 2013, 42)
 (Hazleton 2013, 48)
 (Rashed, Islamic Law, Theology, and Practice 2019, 126)
 (Gentner 1999) and (Schwartz 2016)