What Would A Muslim Say:

Conversations, Questions, and Answers About Islam

Seeking and Believing in the Historical Muhammad: PART 3

Interpreting the Prophetic Traditions

The “Problem” with Some Sirah Narrations

The interpretation of the Satanic Verses incident touches directly on the nature of the Prophet’s revelations as understood by many traditional Muslims. The concept of infallibility is assumed to the extent that ascribing even minor sins to the Prophet (pbuh) are considered blasphemous. For these traditional Muslims, to admit the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) made such an error in the receipt of revelation itself casts doubts on the entire enterprise of the Prophet’s mission, his veracity, and therefore the veracity of the Qur’an, too!

As Anne-Marie Schimmel has noted, “The absolute obedience owed to the Prophet is meaningful only if Muhammad was free from any faults and could thus constitute an immaculate model even for the most insignificant details of life.” Consequently, the image of Muhammad contained in the Satanic Verses incident, that of a Prophet who fell victim to Satan and erred in the transmission of Divine Revelation, was entirely dissonant with and, indeed, constituted a normative challenge to the Hadith movement.”[1]

Another problem to traditional Muslims is that it challenges the idea that the ummah have always had the same view of the Prophet (pbuh) and his role as teacher and leader. Many traditional Muslims hold dearly to the idea that Islam has remained constant and fixed over the centuries; while this concept may not be held by modern Muslim scholars, most if not all Muslim laity have this presumption. The idea that the communal memory of the Prophet changed and evolved over time can be disconcerting to those who have not been exposed to this side of Islamic history.

How to Interpret “Problematic” Sirah Narrations

In my personal opinion, the “way out” that is often ignored by Muslims of the modern era is that the Prophet’s infallibility was not as encompassing or comprehensive as the classical ahl-al-hadith wished to convey. Ibn Taymiyyah courageously wrote as much when he affirmed the historicity of this story and that it does not impugn the Prophet’s veracity since these Satanic suggestions did NOT become part of the canonical text but were rejected via revelation itself. This story stands as a testament to the honesty of the early Muslims, since they would not be motivated to invent such a story. On the contrary, they would have been very motivated to make sure it was forgotten. Yet, we find it being transmitted and handed down to us.

One thing I’ve noticed is that earlier Muslims didn’t seem to have as much of a problem in regarding the prophets, including the Seal of them, as being human, subject to errors, mistakes, and even sin. This wasn’t seen as a contradiction of their being the best of people and the best examples for humanity, but they were still subject to the nature of being human. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the era of when the Muslim community’s view of prophethood began to change corresponds to the same era that Muslim scholars translated and accreted Hellenistic philosophies.

From these accretions, rationalist theologies emerged, and therefore the view of prophets changed so that the prophets were no longer simply seen as the best examples of humanity, but rather possessing a Platonic ideal, an infallibility and even incapability to sin. This would lead to the rejection of reports that would contradict this view or explaining away of Quranic verses where prophets appear to err, and even repent from sin. We are not required to accept this change of paradigm; we can revive and reaffirm the worldview of our pious predecessors, who had a more nuanced and humanized concept of prophecy and our Prophet (pbuh).


Many people see the beauty and power of the Qur’an but do not see it as something superhuman. This is okay, because from the beginning, that was the defining line between a Muslim and a non-Muslim. This has always been the case, and I argue that the same is true for the Prophet. If you validate the Prophet, then you validate Islam’s claim to truth; conversely if you discredit the Prophet, then you discredit Islam’s claim to truth. There is always room for doubt, whether we are discussing the divine origin of the Qur’an or the revelatory experience of the Prophet. I already accept that, so it does not bother me that there are many secular and historical explanations for religions in general and Islam in particular.

The historical Muhammad, the man who was worried about his own sanity, the one who reproached himself so many times after revelation came down to contradict him, is “either rightly guided or in manifest error.” [5] He can be seen either as a genuine recipient of divine revelation and struggling to make sense of it and convey the message as it should be conveyed or he was not. The way I see it, since God intended to test people’s faith, only those who put their faith in Him via the Unseen will pass this test. So, there will never be any irrefutable proof of His existence or of His communication with humanity. While this is a sticking point for my conservative Muslim friends, I believe that eventually this view must prevail in order for Islam to coherently answer the challenge of modernity.

I came to the personal conclusion that at the end we all live and believe according to one dogma or another. Even the secular humanist has a worldview that informs how he or she interprets the world around them, and even nontheists have committed atrocities in the name of their ideology. This line of thinking led me to what I consider the purpose of life’s test: Can we use our intellect, reasoning, and free will to acknowledge the limitations of our intellect, reasoning, and free will?

One of my favorite authors, Mustafa Akyol, wrote the following: “Religion can work in two fundamentally different ways: It can be a source of self-education, or it can be a source of self-glorification. Self-education can make people more moral, while self-glorification can make them considerably less moral.”[6]

I have to constantly remind myself and my students that “only God knows best.” When a person begins to think or assume that they are free from their ego or self-interest, that is the beginning of their descent into evil. Arrogance and self-righteousness can come from religion, or it can come from hubris. That is why Islam in particular holds me so well. Islam emphasizes “surrender” to God, which often means putting the human being and his intellect and rationalizations and justifications in their place. I find in Islam this constant “chiding” never to assume that your ego will let you go. The Qur’an actually warns against this in one of the short, early chapters that most Muslims memorize as kids: So woe to those who pray: those who are heedless of their prayers, who put on appearance, and withhold the assistance. (107:4-7) The “assistance” in this verse is commonly understood in the Arabic language as those neighborly acts of kindness and mercy. We see Muslims who get all caught up in the appearance of piety (prayer, fasting, charity, dress code, etc.) and forget that the Prophet (pbuh) taught that “nothing is weightier on the Scale of Deeds than one’s good manners.” To me, this is the true historical legacy of the Prophet Muhammad, a legacy that is untarnished by his humanity and mistakes. This legacy is the common thread in all the genres of collective memory about him. Tafsir, Sirah, and Hadith all showcase his humility and willingness to accept his mistakes and correct his course.

[1] (Schimmel 1992, 13)

[2] (Aslan 2017, xiv)

[3] (Brown 1999, 109)

[4] (Armstrong 1993, 86)

[5] Qur’an (34:24)

[6] (Akyol 2011, 12)

Seeking and Believing in the Historical Muhammad: PART 3
Scroll to top