Face value acceptance of the episode of Satanic Verses and other colorful, dramatic, and vindictive accounts of the Classical Sira (the Prophet’s early biography) stand shirk, kufr and nifaq (hypocrisy) in present day objective vocabulary.
Islamic theology must be treated historic critically because of its undeniable historical moorings;
The eternal and universal paradigms of the Qur’an must be regarded as the font of guidance for all humanity for all times.
By Muhammad Yunus, NewAgeIslam.com
co-author (Jointly with Ashfaque Ullah Syed), Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009.
“Thus we made for every messenger an enemy - Satans from among men and jinn, some of them inspiring others with seductive talk (in order to) deceive (them), and had your Lord pleased, they would not have done it. Therefore, leave them and what they forge” (6:112).
“Thus we made for every messenger an enemy among the criminals - but enough is your Lord (O Muhammad,) as a Guide and Helper” (25:31).
The biggest problem with Muslim scholars and theologians is that on one hand they regard the Qur’an as the infallible word of God and ultimate font of wisdom and guidance, and on the other, they claim the divinity/integrity of their theological discourses that were pieced together by early scholars/Imams - in most cases by one or few individuals, with resources as scanty as their era could pool. The case of the alleged satanic verses is a glaring example.
The episode was first put together from oral accounts by Ibn Ishaq (d. 768), one of the earliest biographers of the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632). al-Tabari (d. 926), one of the earliest and most renowned exegetes, drew on Ibn Ishaq’s manuscript (not preserved for later times) to relate the story, which suggests that as the Prophet was preaching to an elite (Quays) audience, a revelation came down venerating the three most popular pagan deities (Lat, Uzi and Manta) in the underlined words below: "Have you considered al-Lat and al-‘Uzi (53:19), and another, the third (goddess), Manta (53:20). These are the exalted birds whose intercession is approved.”
The story further suggests that the venerating words were later expunged from the Qur'an and replaced with what we find in it today: “What! For you the male sex and for Him the female (53:21)? Behold, such would indeed be the most unfair division” (53:22).
Ibn Hisham (d. 834), who edited and published Ibn Ishaq’s work, and the early compilers of the Hadith (Imam al-Bukhari, d. 870, and Muslim, d. 875) who both succeeded Ibn Ishaq and preceded al-Tabari, make no mention of this episode, indicating their suspicion about the authenticity of the narrators in the transmission chain (isnad) dating from the Prophet’s era. More importantly, the story is not substantiated by the Qur’an and, in fact, contradicts its repeated assertion on the incorruptibility of its text (6:34, 6:115, 18:27, 41:42, 85:22), and is therefore not tenable, unless the Qur’an were to falsify itself – which it did not . Some Muslim scholars have, however, made a sweeping connection of this episode with the Qur’anic generic verses 22:52/53, which relate to Satan’s influencing the desires (tamanna) of the prophets and messengers in general and not to Satan’s tampering with the revelation. Salman Rushdie has treated the episode as a fantasy, as it veritably deserves, although he has been provocative possibly to gain appeal among the Western audience. Fame, ambition and wealth remain the chief motivators of the mortals – no matter how intellectually gifted. And the naïve dances in the tune of such instigators disregarding the Qur’anic reminders under the caption above and thus turn the knave into a hero and celebrity. But this is beside the point.
Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdi might have been prompted by his desire to pose as the leader of the global Muslim community, or it might as well have been aimed at pre-empting enlightened scholarship from digging into the Islamic theology. Theologians lose their theological clout once the human element of theology is exposed and so they abhor any theological scrutiny. $
The truth is, as in all ancient religions, theological discourses are embedded with legends, fantasies, fables, tales, parables and all forms of embellishments, characterized by the era in which they evolved. The embellishments were incorporated – as part of the literary culture and paradigms of the era - to aggrandize and lionize the founder of the religion its leaders, to demonize the perceived enemies, to fire the imagination of common-folk and to fill them with awe and admiration for their prophet/ religious leaders. Islam has been no exception. Thus, despite the Qur’an’s repeated assertions of the Prophet’s incapability to show any miracles (6:37, 11:12, 13:7, 17:90-93, 21:5, 25:7/8, 29:50), the most authentic of Sunni Hadith compilation – that of Imam al-Bukhari credits him with the following miracles: $
The Prophet's touching/ rubbing of the mouths of two empty water skins enabled the latter to fill all the empty water skins of his companions .
Flowing of water from his fingers .
Rising up of water from a dry well at Hudaibiya to help quench the thirst of one thousand and four hundred of his companions .
Manifold increase in the quantity of meal served to guests at the Prophet's invocation .
Continuous one week rain with flooding immediately after his invocation .
Audible crying of the stem of a date palm tree in the Prophet's mosque .
Increase in the amount of dates in a garden after the Prophet went round it .
Splitting of the Moon at the Prophet's command . $
Similarly, the Qur’an testifies that the Prophet was unaware of his mission before the revelation commenced (10:16, 29:48, 42:52), and that the Meccans had no clue whatsoever of his vocational assignment as he later claimed, and accordingly they took him for a joke (21:36, 25:41), called him an impostor (30:58), crazy (44:14, 68:51) and a crazy poet (37:35/36); and ridiculed the Qur’anic revelation (18:56, 26:6, 37:14, 45:9) as the legends of the ancients (6:25, 23:82/83, 27:67/68, 68:15, 83:13) and a jumble of dreams (21:5). However, disregarding these copious, repetitive, compelling and irrefutable Qur’anic testimonies regarding the obscurity of his early life, the following tale of the circumstance of his birth became very popular not long after his death:
“When the planet al-Moushtari past, a line of light darted for the second time from Amina's body in the direction of far away Syria and it illuminated the palace of the town of Busra. At the same time, other prodigies astonished the world: the lake Sowa suddenly dried up; a violent earthquake made the palace of Chosroes the Great tremble, and shattered fourteen of its towers; the sacred fire, kept alight for more than a thousand years, went out in spite of the exertions of its Persian worshippers, and all the idols of the universe were found with their heads bowed down in great shame” . $
Another area of major contrast is the profound veneration of the Prophet in the traditional accounts and the Classical Sira (The Prophet’s biography). The Qur’an describes him as a human being like others (18:110, 41:6), places him at a spiritual parity with other Prophets (2:136, 2:285, 4:152), its Speaker, God, does not speak to him directly except through the agency of archangel Gabriel, threatens to “seize him by the right hand (69:45), then sever his aorta” (69:46) were he to tamper with the revelation, and warns his wounded followers at the end of Uhud battle (625) in the face of a rumor about his fatality that “Muhammad was merely a messenger, other messengers had passed away before him and(and asks them,) if he died or was killed would they turn on their heels?(3:144). As a sharp contrast to these and other similar enunciations asserting the absolute remoteness of God from the person of the Prophet, the traditional account illustrated below venerate him as an integral part of God’s creative scheme, thus (God forbid) transgressing the transcendence of the Almighty:
“Muhammad said: ‘The first light which Allah created was my light.’ They say that when Allah created His divine Throne, He wrote on it in letters of light: ‘There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah. ‘When Adam went out of Paradise, he saw the name Muhammad coupled with the name of Allah written on the leg of the Throne and everywhere in Paradise” . $
Any orthodox Muslim or Islam critical scholar will know numerous such accounts that are knit together to aggrandize and virtually deify the Prophet. In the medieval ages these accounts did not stand out as odd or exaggerated as the literary style of the era admitted such embellishments as part of the prevalent linguistic art – the most predominant art form of the era. Thus, contemporaneous accounts extol King Solomon by reporting that he bedded with all his one hundred wives one night , and ii) Sir Key of King Arthur’s court claimed before the full house that he threw a stone ‘as large as a cow’ to dislodge the ‘stranger’ (a human being), who had leaped up to the top of a tree, two hundred cubits high in a single bound . The simple people of the era who heard these accounts made no effort to objectively evaluate them. They had grown up in a literary environment that was far more geared to creating an emotional and sensational impact than recording historical facts. So they let these ‘tall’ accounts pass over their heads and waited to know the bottom lines. But in today’s objective and analytical vocabulary these embellished accounts sound untrue, highly exaggerated, bizarre and fantasized. $
The Muslim ulama suffer ambivalence, or rather a pathetic disorientation in their mindset. Groomed in the medieval theological discourses in their madrassas, they venerate the medieval embellished accounts but at the same time they hold on to the truth of the Qur’anic revelation that keeps absolutely clear of the embellished medieval accounts that sound like fables, legends and fantasies today. The legend of Satanic Verses is one such account.
If the Muslim ulama continue to venerate the embellished accounts of their medieval theological corpuses, and do not treat them as closed corpuses - tales, fables and gossips in today’s objective vocabulary, they will be acting like some of the Beduin Arabs of the Prophet’s era, who were intense (ashaddu) in kufr (denial) and nifaq (hypocricy) (9:97-98) – because they cannot simultaneously venerate the Qur’an and a theological corpus that in its face value contains tales, fables, embellishments and legends such as the Satanic Verses and other similar episodes that are antithetic to the Qur’anic message.
This is no trick of arguments. The early biographers relied entirely on the oral reports – or rather poetic imageries that constituted the news of the era. Thus, the work of the early biographers suffered internal incoherence as different poets left differing accounts and it was simply impossible for the early biographers to produce a coherent record from the materials on their hands. This can amply be demonstrated by the following examples of inconsistency and emotional outbursts of Ibn Hisham’s work:
i) One section of the work shows a martyred companion of the Prophet, Khabib, articulating his deep parting emotions in a poetic imagery as he stood on the gallows just before he was hanged . Another section contradicts this imagery suggesting that the martyr was weeping unceasingly as he stood on the gallows .
ii) The work quotes the parting dialogue between the propagandist poet Ka‘b Ibn Ashraf and his wife, just as he was coming out from ‘under the blanket’ at the call of Abu Naila, who had gone to his house to kill him . The poet was killed suddenly, and it is inconceivable that his widow would tell the parting words of her slain husband to those who killed him. The quoted words were obviously speculative.
The same holds for the works of al-Waqidi (d. 206/822) and Ibn Sa‘d (d. 230/845) In fact, these early biographers have been sharply criticized by many Muslim scholars of their own era .
Conclusion: It is high time that the Muslim theologians and scholarship acknowledge that the accounts reported in the Prophet’s early biography are laid out in the literary style and mental framework and imageries of the era - that was characterized by what we shall today call, fantasy, fable, imaginations and speculations verging on the fantabulous, the grotesque and the bizarre. While some examples are quoted above, the following extract on the Prophet Muhammad’s conversation with Adam in the first heaven reported in one of Ibn Hisham’s versions loudly testifies to its apocryphal character:
“Then I saw men with lips like those of camels. In their hands were balls of fire which they thrust into their mouths and collected from their extremities to thrust into their mouths again. I asked, ‘Who are these O Gabriel?’ He said, ‘these are men who robbed the orphans.’ I then saw men with large bellies the likes of which I have never seen before even on the road to the house of Pharaoh where the greatest punishment is meted out to the greatest sinners. These are then trodden upon by men who when brought to the fire run like maddened camels. Those whom they tread upon remain immobile…. I then saw women hanging from their breasts and asked, who are these, O Gabriel? He said, ‘These are women who fathered on their husbands’ children, not their own.’… He then took me into Paradise where I saw a beautiful damsel with luscious lips. As I was attracted by her, I asked her, ‘To whom do you belong?’ She answered, ‘To Zayd Ibn Harithah.’” 
It must be admitted that it will be a gross injustice and insolence of the highest order to undermine the earlier biographic works or their authors. Their works fired the imagination of their audience and fed religious inspiration and zeal to millions and millions of people down the generations until this very era. Practically all the converts to Islam had identified their religion with their Prophet and found it far easier and inspiring to glorify their religious leaders with whom they could associate rather than probe the message he left for them. This propensity of icon-worship imperceptibly found its way into Islam and resulted in an explosive proliferation of hymns and accounts glorifying the Prophet Muhammad. However, the Muslim ulama must understand that God had assigned a singular role to the Prophet - that is to convey God’s Message  - the Qur’an with clarity . If the ulama insist on a regime of oral theological devotion – loving the Prophet, showering him with praises, narrating his biography in a literalist fashion, researching on issues like Satanic verses and the miraculous powers and military genius of the Prophet, observing his birthday with great fanfare, praying for him in all their prayers and so on but totally ignore the functional aspect of his message – the social, moral and ethical paradigms of the Qur’an, they have virtually reduced the Prophet into a cult leader and Islam into a cult of Muhammad that will repel the seekers of Divine guidance from Islam and freeze Islam into the seventh century Arabia. Face value acceptance of the episode of Satanic Verses and other colorful, dramatic, vindictive and venerating accounts of the Classical Sira (the Prophet’s early biography), read and propagated in today’s objective vocabulary may thus stand shirk, kufr and nifaq (hypocrisy) – though God knows best; and the practice must be deconstructed in favor of preaching the Qur’anic message – rid of its historical moorings.
2.Sahih al-Bukhari, English translation by Mohsin Khan, New Delhi, 1984, Vol.4, Acc.771.
3. Ibid., Vol.4, Acc.772-776, 779.
4. Ibid., Vol.4, Acc.777.
5. Ibid., Vol.4, Acc.778, 781.
6. Ibid., Vol.4, Acc.782.
7. Ibid., Vol.4, Acc.783-785.
8. Ibid., Vol.4, Acc.780.
9. Ibid., Vol.4, Acc.830, 831.
10. Sliman bin Ibrahim and Etienne Dinet, The life of Muhammad, London 1990 , p. 19.
11. Maxime Rodinson, Muhammad, English translation, 2nd edition, London 1996, p. 304.
1. 12. Sahih al-Bukhari, (2 above) Vol.7, Acc. 169.
13. Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, USA 1988, p. 23.
14. Ibn Hisham, Sirrat un Nabi, Urdu translation by Gholam Rasul, Delhi 1984, Vol.2, Chap.124, p. 197.
15. Ibid., Vol. 2, Chap.124, p. 198.
16. Ibid,, Vol.2, p. Chap.109, p. 35.
17. To quote Rafique Zakaria:
“He (Ibn Ishaq) has been sufficiently meticulous in the collection of facts, but sometimes he does not distinguish between facts and fiction. That is why many of his contemporaries denounced him... Malik, one of the founders of four schools of Muslim theology, who was a contemporary of Ibn Ishaq, called him ‘a devil’. Hisham bin Umara, another prominent theologian of the time said, ‘the rascal lies.’ Imam Hanbal, one of the greatest jurists of Islam refused to rely on the traditions collected by him. There were many other learned men who held similar views about Ibn Ishaq’s works. The same is more or less true of his successors like al-Waqidi, Ibn Sa‘d…” - Muhammad and the Qur’an, London 1992, p. 12.
18. Muhammad Husayn Haykal, The Life of Muhammad, English translation by Ismail Ragi, 8th edition, Karachi 1989, p. 143.
19. 5:99, 7:158 13:40, 42:48.
20. 5:92, 16:82, 24:54.
January 21, 2012
Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.