A couple of weeks ago I set out on a new series of articles through which I intend to scan the history of the church—from its earliest days all the way to the present time—to examine some of Christianity’s most notorious false teachers. Along the way we will visit such figures as Arius, Servetus, Fosdick, and even a few you might find on television today. We continue this morning with a false teacher whose teaching is known in almost every part of the world. His name is Muhammad.
Muhammad was born around 570 in Mecca in what is now the nation of Saudi Arabia. This was an area where there were significant populations of both Christians and Jews, so there was access to the Scriptures and the teachings of both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Muslims claim that Muhammad was a direct descendent of Ishmael, and thus of Abraham, though the only evidence to support this comes through oral tradition. Muhammad’s father died before he was born and his mother sent him as an infant to live in the desert with Bedouins in order to become acquainted with Arab traditions. While in the desert he is said to have encountered two angels who opened his chest and cleansed his heart with snow, symbolic of Islam’s teaching that he was purified and protected from all sin.
Muhammad returned to Mecca sometime soon after. His mother passed away when he was 6 and he came under the immediate care of his grandfather and then his uncle. At 25 he married a wealthy Meccan woman who was 15 years his senior.
By the age of 35, Muhammed had become highly respected in Mecca, largely for his piety. He would often go into the desert to meditate and pray, and on one of these retreats, at the age of 40, he is said to have been visited by the angel Gabriel. It was here that he received the beginnings of revelation that would become the Qur’an. This process of revelation, which was sometimes mediated through Gabriel and other times came directly to his heart, lasted approximately 23 years, and ended shortly before his death.
Around the age of 50 Muhammad had his most significant spiritual experience. One night he was taken by Gabriel to Jerusalem, and from there he ascended to the very presence of God. On the way to the throne he met earlier prophets, such as Moses and Jesus. According to Britannica, “Muhammad is said to have received the supreme treasury of knowledge while he stood and then prostrated himself before the divine throne. God also revealed to him the final form and number of the Islamic daily prayers.”
Muhammad’s religion was not joyfully received by all those around him. He experienced opposition in Mecca, and some of his adherents even faced persecution for following him. In 621 the city of Yathrib approached Muhammad about becoming their leader, hoping he might end a long-standing battle for power between the city’s tribes. On September 25, 622, Muhammad arrived in the city, renamed it Medina, and ensured that Islam became the established religious and social rule with himself as supreme judge and interpreter. It was also in this year that Islam was explicitly defined as purely monotheistic and Abrahamic.
Before long, those who had opposed Muhammad in Mecca became determined to crush the rise of Islam in Medina. What followed was many years of battles of both self-defense and conquest as he attempted to unite all of Arabia under the banner of Islam. His ambition to spread Islam led him to many great successes. “By 631 Muhammad had brought to a close ‘the age of ignorance,’ as Muslims called the pre-Islamic epoch in Arabia. He united the Arabs for the first time in history under the banner of Islam and broke the hold of tribal bonds as the ultimate links between an Arab and the society around him. Although tribal relations were not fully destroyed, they were now transcended by a more powerful bond based on religion” (Britannica).
In 632 Muhammad fell ill and three days later passed away on June 8th. He was buried in his house in Medina.
Muhammad’s teaching is embodied in the Qur’an. Because Muhammad is the sole source of the Qur’an, and because he is said to have known, believed, and obeyed it better than anyone, we have little difficulty knowing exactly what he taught. Among many heterodox teachings in the Qur’an, the most significant may be its misrepresentation of Jesus.
Muhammad and the Qur’an taught many true things about Jesus, such as his virgin birth and miracles, and for this reason Muslims claim to honor Jesus. But they actually deny the deepest and truest realities about him, and in that way diminish and dishonor him. Instead of holding him as the Son of God, they demote him to the position of mere prophet, no greater than Moses or Noah or Abraham … or Muhammad himself. “Christ, the son of Mary, was no more than a messenger; many were the messengers that passed away before him. His mother was a woman of truth” (Surah 5:75; cf. 5:116-120).
In addition, the Qur’an claims that Jesus was not in fact crucified. Instead, according to most interpretations, another person who was made to look like him was killed in his place, while Jesus escaped and was taken up into heaven without dying. “And they said we have killed the Messiah Jesus son of Mary, the Messenger of God. They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear like that to them; those that disagreed about him are full of doubt, with no knowledge to follow, only supposition: they certainly did not kill him. On the contrary, God raised him unto himself. God is almighty and wise” (Surah 4:157-158).
Followers and modern adherents
All Qur’an-believing Muslims of the past and present hold to these very same false teachings about Jesus. What Muhammad taught, they still believe. In this way, there are some 1.6 billion of his followers in the world today and together they comprise 23% of the world’s population.
What the Bible says
The Bible is clear that Jesus was indeed a prophet (Matthew 13:57; Deuteronomy 18:15), but he was much more than that. He is and was the very Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, co-equal and co-divine with the Father (Hebrews 1:1-4; Colossians 1:15-20; 2:9). It was only if Jesus was both divine and human that he would be able to stand as mediator between holy God and sinful man.
The Bible also makes it clear that Jesus was not spared from the cross. God the Father willed for him to be crucified, and Jesus, in history’s greatest demonstration of love and obedience, accepted and drank that cup of God’s bitter wrath (Isaiah 53:9-10; Philippians 2:8-11). He did ascend into heaven, but only after he really and actually died and only after he really and actually rose from the dead (Acts 1:1-3, 9).