Muhammad’s prophetic initiation, as described in The Life of Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq, both parallels and deviates from the trends of prophetic initiation stories in the Hebrew Bible. Biblical stories conform to and diverge from shared motifs to distinguish the role of each prophet. By examining the story’s concern for the word of God, the prophet’s self doubt, and the listeners of prophecy, one understands that the account of Muhammad’s calling foreshadows his role in history and Islam. The similarities and differences between Muhammad’s inauguration and the biblical tradition reveal a motivation to establish Muhammad as a legitimate continuation and final member of the chain of prophets.
Multiple parallels are pronounced between The Life of Muhammad and various biblical prophetic narratives, which support the notion that Muhammad’s prophetic initiation aims to continue in this tradition through common motifs. Muhammad’s first revelation occurs “in seclusion on Hira,” a cave in a mountain (105). This location resembles Mount Horeb, where Moses first encounters prophecy, since both places are distant from civilization and elevated on a mountain (Exodus 3:1). With this allusion to Moses’ prophetic initiation story, the narrative of Muhammad’s first revelation foreshadows that Muhammad hopes to embody a similar role as a prophet. Just as Moses lead his people into the Promised Land, Muhammad will become a prophet who goes beyond reporting God’s words, leading his people into a new religion.
A repeated trend in biblical prophetic initiation stories is the prophet’s encounter with angels or other divine beings who attend to God. Moses sees an angel of the Lord (Exodus 3:10), Ezekiel witnesses four creatures before God’s throne (Ezekiel 1), and Isaiah describes seraphs standing near God (Isaiah 6:2). It is therefore significant that Muhammad’s inauguration also includes an angel, as Ibn Ishaq reports, “Gabriel brought [Muhammad] the command of God” (106). All of these prophets recognize that the heavenly realm contains more divine beings than God alone. The divine beings perform magical actions, attend to God, and facilitate prophecy. The narrative of Muhammad’s prophetic initiation follows this tradition, adding to Muhammad’s legitimacy as a continuation of the chain of prophets from the Hebrew Bible.
The word of God is a theme that appears throughout biblical prophetic initiation narratives. These texts present the word of God as it is transferred to the prophet in different ways. Multiple stories from the Hebrew Bible feature a prophet receiving the word of God through a physical encounter with a divine being, often with attention to the prophet’s mouth. God tells Ezekiel, “’Mortal, eat what is offered you: eat this scroll, and go speak to the House of Israel’” (Ezekiel 3:1). Ezekiel may only deliver prophecy after he internalizes God’s word, which he consumes through his mouth. Similarly, Jeremiah 1:9 reads, “The Lord put out His hand and touched my mouth, and the Lord said to me: Herewith I put My words into your mouth.” Ibn Ishaq’s account of Muhammad’s first revelation alludes to themes, as he describes that Gabriel comes to Muhammad “with a coverlet of brocade whereon was some writing, and said, “Read!” (106) This coverlet contains important words, which parallels the scroll that Ezekiel eats. Gabriel presses these words against Muhammad until the prophet fears for his life. Readers imply that Muhammad chokes from Gabriel’s pressing on him, evoking similar imagery to Ezekiel and Jeremiah’s emphasis on the mouth during this physical encounter. Just as these biblical prophets internalize God’s word through their physical experience, Muhammad also feels God’s word within him. Muhammad says, “And I awoke from my sleep, and it was as though these words were written on my heart” (106). Muhammad’s narrative utilizes similar motifs to those found in biblical stories to validate his credibility as an extension of the accepted succession of prophets.
Muhammad’s initiation story alludes to the themes in the Hebrew Bible about the word of God, but the narrative also deviates from this tradition to foreshadow the prophet’s theological objectives. With its emphasis on the word “read,” Muhammad’s first revelation presents the word of God in a unique manner that is not found in the biblical stories. Muhammad wants to lead people to a rightly guided path, which may only be achieved by following the words of God. Muhammad encourages his followers to study and obey the words of God that Muhammad communicates to them. The repeated word “read” illustrates Muhammad’s value for understanding God’s words that he prophesizes. This value prescribes theological necessity to Muhammad’s prophecies, since he offers the pathway to receive God’s word and then perform ideal devotion. The unique perspective in Muhammad’s initiation story about the communal reception of God’s word through reading, or studying, Muhammad’s prophecies solidifies the Quran as the final true manual for acceptable devotion and theology.
A prophet’s initial self-doubt about accepting his divinely appointed role is another prominent motif in biblical prophetic initiation tales. Isaiah is skeptical of himself with his words, “Woe is me; I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). Jeremiah echoes this sentiment, saying, “I don’t know how to speak, for I am still a boy” (Jeremiah 1:6). Moses’ self doubt exceeds the others in his resistance to accept his new position as he protests in Exodus 4:13, “Please, O Lord, make someone else Your agent.” Muhammad expresses self-doubt after his first revelation, which alludes to the biblical motifs to enforce his legitimacy. His self-doubt surpasses the actions of the preceding prophets, since Muhammad resolves to attempt suicide. Muhammad is weary that he is “an ecstatic poet or a man possessed,” which he deems as hateful (106). From this sentiment, it is apparent that these seemingly possessed poets existed during Muhammad’s time. Since this concern is directly addressed and refuted in his initiation story, readers infer that Muhammad is responding to real criticisms. The Life of Muhammad disproves the accusation that Muhammad is a possessed poet, as both Khadija and Waraqa confirm Muhammad as a prophet by evoking divine proof. Waraqa’s affirmation of Muhammad’s prophetic legitimacy is weighted by his respectable wisdom in Christianity, demonstrating that Islam is the correct religious continuation after Christ. Waraqa also states that God’s hand is in his soul, which credits Muhammad’s revelation to God’s will (107). In the story’s usage of the self-doubt motif, Muhammad’s prophetic initiation allows the expression of theological rebuttals against the prophet’s opposition.
The majority of prophetic initiation scenes in the Hebrew Bible highlight the negativity of the people’s response to prophecy. Exodus 6:9 reads, “But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses.” God warns Ezekiel that the Israelites are a rebellious breed that will refuse to listen to him (Ezekiel 3:7). Jeremiah hears that his prophecies will incite the people to attack him (Jeremiah 1:19). The Life of Muhammad also features a warning against defiant listeners, as Waraqa says, “Thou wilt be called a liar, and they will use thee despitefully and cast thee out and fight against thee” (107). Continuing in the biblical tradition, the story’s use of this theme enforces Muhammad’s connection to the recognized line of prophets. Muhammad’s inauguration reframes this motif with the prescription that the career of a prophet requires such defiance from the people. This adaptation of the biblical motif reveals Muhammad’s societal motivations in his current environment. Ibn Ishaq writes, “Prophecy is a troublesome burden—only strong, resolute messengers can bear it by God’s help and grace, because of the opposition which they meet from men in conveying God’s message” (111). The assertion that all legitimate prophets deal with opposition aims to endorse Muhammad’s prophetic validity and refute the nonbelievers. Muhammad’s inauguration narrative claims that the resistance against his prophecies supports him as a truer prophet and speaks to his honorable qualities, like vigor and determination. While some may discredit Muhammad by his abundant oppositions, The Life of Muhammad molds the biblical motif about rebellious listeners as evidence of the prophet’s credibility and integrity.
With allusions and adaptations to biblical motifs, Muhammad’s prophetic initiation story is rooted in religious tradition while simultaneously foreshadowing Muhammad’s individuality. The expressions of biblical themes in The Life of Muhammad exhibit Muhammad’s theological and social objectives to define himself as a legitimate extension and unique member of the line of prophets.
By Lucille Marshall
Written for Major Literary Texts of India and the Middle Easta with Professor Hossein Kamaly at Columbia University in the City of New York.
Ibn Hishām, ʻAbd Al-Malik, and Ibn Ishāq, Muhammad. The Life of Muhammad.London: Oxford UP, 1955. Print.
Sommer, Benjamin. “Prophetic Literary Forms: The Initiation.” Introduction to Biblical Literature Course. Jewish Theological Seminary, New York. 18 Nov. 2013. Lecture.