Robert Spencer — Poet or Obsessed?

The reference comes from Islamic tradition, which claims that the forty-year-old Muhammad, a prosperous Arab merchant from the Quraish tribe of Mecca, was praying in a mountain cave near Mecca. When he spent the whole night in devotion, an angel came to him and instructed him to read and recite what he read. Muhammad replied, “I do not know how to read.”

Spiritual beings, however, will not break any objection. According to a hadith recorded by Bukhari, he imposed his will on Muhammad in a terrifying manner, even threatening him physically:

(The Prophet also said), “The angel grabbed me (by force) and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it anymore. Then he released me and asked me to read again, I replied, ‘I don’t know how to read.’ Then he grabbed me again and pressed me a second time until I couldn’t take it anymore. Then he left me and asked me to read again, but I replied again, ‘I do not know how to read (or, what shall I read?’). Then he gripped me a third time and released me and said, Read! In the name of your Lord, Who created (all that exists). He created man from clots. Read on! And your Lord is Most Merciful…[unto]…which he did not know.” (V. 96:5)

This is the famous first revelation of the Qur’an, now found as Sura 96:1-5. In the standard Islamic version of this event, it was the angel Gabriel who appeared to Muhammad, but the earliest Islamic sources present a slightly more complicated picture. The 9th-century Islamic historian Ibn Sa’d recorded a Muslim tradition claiming that an angel named Seraph originally visited Muhammad and was succeeded by Gabriel three years later. He also records the fact that “scholars and well versed in Sirah literature” contradicted this tradition and maintained that only Gabriel appeared to Muhammad. Nevertheless, it is difficult to see if the Islamic tradition was absolutely certain from the first moment that he was Gabriel.

At first Muhammad regarded his spiritual encounter with considerable excitement. According to Ibn Sa’d, he “suffered much pain and his face became dust.” According to the eighth-century Islamic historian Ibn Ishaq, he wondered if he was demonically possessed, and even considered suicide:

I will go to the top of the mountain and throw myself down so that I can kill myself and get some rest. So I proceeded to do so and then when I was halfway up the mountain, I heard a voice from heaven: “O Muhammad! You are the Messenger of Allah and I am Gabriel. I raised my head towards the heavens and saw (who was speaking) and I saw Gabriel stepping on the horizon in the form of a man and saying, “O Muhammad! You are the Messenger of Allah and I am Gabriel.”

Muhammad returned to his wife Khadija with great difficulty. Aisha (via Bukhari):

“Then Allah’s Messenger returned with it (revelation) and his heart throbbed violently; (And) the muscles between his neck and shoulders trembled until he came to Khadijah (his wife) and said, ‘Cover me!’ They covered him until his fear passed away, then he said, O Khadijah! What’s wrong with me? I was afraid something bad might happen to me.’ Then she told him all that had happened.

Ibn Ishaq says that he repeated his initial fear to her: “Woe to me, poet or possessor.” He meant “poet” in the sense of one who has had ecstatic, and perhaps demonic, visions. But according to Bukhari, Khadija had more faith in Muhammad than in herself. He took Muhammad to meet his uncle Waraka, a Nestorian Christian priest, who revealed to Muhammad the identity of his angelic visitor: “This is the one who keeps secrets (the angel Gabriel) whom Allah sent to Moses.” And so Muhammad was convinced that he was a prophet.

Thanks to Hatun Tash DCCI Ministry.