The Roots of Muslim Radicalism: Part 1—Muhammad & the Qur’an

This is part 1 in a three-part series. 

“One God, that I can understand, but one wife? That is not civilized.”
—Sheik Ilderim, in Ben-Hur (1959)

The major rival to Christianity among all the world’s religions is, without a doubt, Islam.

The youngest of all the major world religions, Islam is the second largest, numbering roughly 1.6 billion people worldwide. The mission fields proving most resistant to the gospel of Jesus Christ are almost all in Muslim-dominated areas, especially in North Africa, the Middle East (excluding Israel), and parts of Southeast Asia. In many of these nations, Christianity represents less than one percent of the population (includes Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Turkey, Somalia, and Morocco).

Significant and growing Muslim populations can also be found in Western Europe and North America. In the United States alone, the number of Muslims is variously estimated at three to four million and growing rapidly through both immigration and conversion. In addition, various Islam-based sects (such as the Sikh and the Bahá’í sects) have relatively large constituencies in the United States, possibly making up another half-million or more Americans.

Despite the growing numbers of Muslims worldwide and in the West, and the increasing importance of Islam in world politics, many Christians in the West know little about Islam. We have reached a point where all Christians need to know about this major religious challenge to Christianity.

Muhammad: Prophet of God?

Muhammad (ca. 570–632), the founder of Islam, towers head and shoulders above almost every other major figure in human history in the sheer impact he made in world history and civilization. Probably only Jesus Christ himself has had a greater impact overall. In 22 short years, Muhammad changed Arabian culture from a largely polytheistic and fragmented society into a monotheistic, unified society driven by a clear sense of purpose and destiny.

The Life of Muhammad

Muhammad was born and raised in Mecca, a trade center in Arabia famed for its pagan shrine known as the Ka’ba. Arabs from all over the peninsula would make an annual pilgrimage (hajj) to the shrine to pray to one or more of the gods there and to kiss a black meteorite stone housed there. Judaism and, to a lesser extent, Christianity had made some inroads into the area, evidently leading some Arabs to honor one of the gods of the Ka’ba as Allah (literally, “the god”) and to identify the god of the shrine as the God of Abraham. Abraham, in fact, was believed to have built the Ka’ba.

Into this religiously mixed environment Muhammad was born. Orphaned at a very early age, he was raised by his grandfather and then his uncle. Through his family’s caravan trading, he was exposed to Judaism and likely to Christianity as well, but probably not to any churches or to the Bible itself. Around age 25 he married Khadijah, an older and wealthy widow.

As midlife approached, Muhammad gave much of his time to solitary prayer. It was while he was praying on a night in about the year AD 610, in the month of Ramadan (a sacred month in Arab polytheistic culture), that Muhammad had his first vision, known as “the Night of Power and Excellence.” A heavenly being allegedly appeared in the sky and came down to within about two bow shots of Muhammad. The being’s first word is believed to have been Iqra’ (“Recite!”), a word related to the word Qur’an (which literally means “recitation”).

Muhammad at first had severe doubts about the divine origin of the being. He worried that he might be possessed by an evil jinn (genie). Ironically, Khadijah’s cousin, who professed to be a Christian, endorsed the vision as from God, along with Khadijah. Encouraged by them to believe that God had called him to be his prophet, Muhammad eventually began receiving repeated visitations or inner experiences in which he felt himself prompted to “recite” the words of god (Allah). The being in his first vision was at first identified as Allah himself, but Muhammad’s more developed view of god as utterly transcendent led him to identify the being with the angel Gabriel.

Qur’an literally means “recitation.” Muhammad at first had severe doubts about the divine origin of its words.

Muhammad’s message developed over time into a thoroughgoing monotheism with distinctively Arabic and Meccan elements. Allah was identified as “the Lord of this House” (Qur’an 106:3), that is, the God of the Ka’ba.  Early in his Meccan ministry, Muhammad recited verses permitting devotion to the “daughters of Allah” (three goddesses enshrined in the Ka’ba along with Allah), but later recited new verses to replace the earlier ones, which were rejected as having been recited by Satan. The rejected verses hence became known as “the satanic verses”—a phrase made familiar in recent years as the title of Salman Rushdie’s infamous book by the same name, which was condemned by Muslims as a blasphemous portrayal of Muhammad.1 In any case, Muhammad eventually came to a consistently monotheistic doctrine of Allah as the one and only God.

Muhammad gained some followers in Mecca, but he was generally not well received there. When the Meccans learned that a city to the north named Yathrib (the original name of Medina) had invited Muhammad to bring his prophetic message there, his opponents in Mecca tried to kill him before he could leave. Muhammad’s flight to safety on June 16, 622, is known as the Hijrah (“emigration”), and is marked as the beginning of the Muslim calendar (with AD 622 termed 1 AH, or Anno Hegirae, “the year of the Hijrah” in Latin). It is the most sacred event in Islam.

Yathrib welcomed Muhammad with open arms and renamed itself Madinat al-Rasul (“city of the Prophet”), later simplified as Medina. At first Muhammad adopted a fairly “Judaized” religious system, hoping to win the support of a sizable Jewish population living in Medina. He instituted a Friday worship service and required prayers to be said facing Jerusalem. The Jews rejected Muhammad, though, and he had them expelled from the city and later led a massacre of a Jewish community. Muhammad then reinstated his earlier practice of having prayers said facing the Ka’ba in Mecca. He cemented his ties with the most influential Arab families in Medina by marrying some 10 to 15 wives.

In 630 Muhammad led an army of 10,000 men from Medina, plus other supporters, into Mecca and conquered the city. With the economic and religious center of Arabia under his control, Muhammad was able to sweep through most of the peninsula and unify it under his leadership within two years. He died suddenly in 632.

Key Dates in Early Islam

610 〉 Muhammad has his first vision (of the many later collected into the Qur’an)
622 〉 The Hijrah (flight to Medina), the most sacred event in Islam (June 16), marking the beginning of the Arabic calendar
630 〉 Muhammad and 10,000 followers march on Mecca, conquering it
632 〉 Muhammad dies suddenly after consolidating power of the Arabian peninsula

The Claims of Muhammad

Was Muhammad a true prophet of God? In Islamic thought, to denigrate Muhammad is the worst sin possible (as the fury over Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses illustrates). The early-20th-century Indian Muslim thinker Muhammad Iqbal asserted, “You can deny God, but you cannot deny Muhammad!” While the Christian cannot let Muhammad’s claim to be an infallible and final prophet of God go unchallenged, it is not necessary to attack his character or sincerity.  There are good reasons to deny that Muhammad was an inspired prophet, even granting that his doctrine of monotheism was a radical improvement over the polytheism of the culture in which he had lived.

There are good reasons to deny that Muhammad was an inspired prophet.

Reason #1: Lack of Evidence for Muhammad’s Claims

Muhammad really offered no good evidence for his claim to be a prophet. And since he claimed to be the last and the greatest prophet, the standard of evidence ought to be high. Certainly, it should not be lower than for the prophets of the Bible or for Jesus. Yet Muhammad offered no evidence or proof for his claims. He fulfilled no prophecies of the Bible, although Muslim apologists have tried to argue otherwise. For example, these apologists point out that Moses said a prophet like Muhammad would arise at a later time; but they fail to deal with the fact that Moses, speaking to the Jewish people, said that the prophet would be one of their own countrymen (see Deuteronomy 18:15–18).

Muhammad also did no miracles comparable to anything we can find in the Bible: he healed no one, raised no one from the dead, and provided no supernatural deliverance for his people (like Moses’s parting of the Red Sea or the manna from heaven). All we really have are Muhammad’s apparent mystical or spiritual experiences, his belief that they came from God, and the words he recited as revelations from God (later compiled as the Qur’an after his death).

Reason #2: Contradictions with the Bible

Muhammad’s teachings flatly contradicted the teachings of the Old and New Testaments. We are not talking about changes in ritual obligations, a loftier moral ethic, or deeper insight into the nature and purposes of God (changes which Christians typically find in the New Testament as compared to the Old). Muhammad rejected what is without a doubt the central historical and theological point of the New Testament—the death and resurrection of Jesus.  According to Muhammad, Jesus did not die at all (he was taken bodily into Paradise), and the idea of a blood atonement for sin by Jesus’s death was firmly rejected as insulting to Allah.

Thus, we cannot accept Muhammad’s claim to be a prophet of God unless we are willing to reject the prophetic, revelatory character of the Bible. But again, this does not mean that we should view Muhammad as an evil schemer or a deliberate deceiver. Muhammad was almost certainly a very sincere, very pious man who made a monumental contribution to civilization by his impassioned preaching of the central truth that there is one all-powerful, all-merciful God who created the world. He evidently learned this truth from Judaism (with perhaps some Christian influence), which itself was rooted in God’s authentic revelation in the Old Testament. Despite this element of truth in his message, as Christians, we are convinced that the words Muhammad spoke were not themselves revelations from God.

The Qur’an: God’s Last Words to Man?

Muslims would, of course, take strong exception to our claim that the Qur’an represents Muhammad’s fallible expression of his own understanding of the revelation of God which had been given to the Jews. They regard the Qur’an as the chief and greatest proof of Muhammad’s divine call, and as the final and superior revelation of God, displacing the Bible.

As we mentioned earlier, the Qur’an was compiled after Muhammad’s death from his recitations which had been memorized or written down by his disciples on whatever was handy (usually bark or other objects, not paper). The Qur’an (sometimes spelled Koran) is a collection of highly poetic pronouncements arranged in chapters, or suras, by order of length (basically longest to shortest). The arrangement is so haphazard from a thematic or historical perspective that the most popular English translation completely rearranges them.2

The main evidence offered by Muslims for the inspiration of the Qur’an is its literary beauty. . . . While non-Muslim scholars generally agree that the poetry in the Qur’an is generally excellent, there simply is no evidence of divine origin. . . . The fact is that the Qur’an simply does not compare with the Bible.

Ironically, the main evidence offered by Muslims for the inspiration of the Qur’an is its literary beauty. The Qur’an itself claims that no one could produce a writing with its magnificent style, which is attributed to its being literally dictated by God (2:23; 10:37–38; 17:88). Non-Arabic readers find this claim puzzling, but Muslims assure us that the literary quality of the Qur’an (and therefore its divine inspiration) can be appreciated only by reading it in Arabic. This is not exactly a claim that is designed to commend the Qur’an to people of all nations and languages! While non-Muslim scholars generally agree that the poetry in the Qur’an is generally excellent, there simply is no evidence of divine origin. Literary beauty is, after all, to some extent a culturally conditioned and even subjective judgment.

Lacking more objective evidences, such as fulfilled prophecies or miracles, the fact is that the Qur’an simply does not compare with the Bible. Again, this is not to detract from the powerful presentation of belief in one God and the high moral ideals and values often expressed in the Qur’an. The Qur’an is an Arabic masterpiece and one of the most influential books in the history of humanity. It is not, however, a divine revelation like the Bible, much less superior to the Bible.

To learn more about Islam and how Christians can reach out to Muslims, check out Ken’s six-part Understanding Islam series. 

Series NavigationThe Roots of Muslim Radicalism: Part 2—Islam & Jesus >>


  1. Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses. (New York: Viking, 1989).
  2. N.J. Dawood, trans., The Koran, 4th rev. ed. (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1974), p. 11.