Reckoning with Muhammad
Review of ‘A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad’ by Ayman S. Ibrahim
Muhammad is the world’s most common personal name. This reflects the honor that Muslims give the founder of their religion. Indeed, Islam’s confession of faith requires affirmation of two propositions: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the prophet of God.”
To understand Islam, then, it is necessary to reckon with Muhammad. Helping readers do that is the goal of A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad by Ayman S. Ibrahim. Drawing on both “Muslim primary sources” and “recent scholarly research,” Ibrahim examines “Muhammad’s History” in Part 1 of the book and “Muhammad’s Message” in Part 2. The title of each chapter asks a question the body of that chapter answers.
Ibrahim is a Coptic Christian and a professor of Islamic Studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and author of A Concise Guide to the Quran, as well as other books on Islam. He strives to present a historically accurate portrait of what can be known about Muhammad’s life and teaching.
The first three chapters are foundational to the book:
Chapter 1 (“Who Was Muhammad?”) outlines Muhammad’s biography as it is presented in Muslim tradition (Arabic, Sunna).
Chapter 2 (“What Are the Major Muslim Sources for Muhammad’s Life?”) describes the variety of written sources that constitute the Sunna. These include the sayings (Arabic, hadith), raids (maghazi), biographies (sira), and religious conquests (futuh) of Muhammad, along with the histories (tarikh) of Islam.
Chapter 3 (“What Do Scholars Say about the Reliability and Accuracy of Early Muslim Sources?”) identifies reasons for scholarly hesitation about the historical value of Muslim tradition and categorizes contemporary scholars as either “sanguine” or “skeptical.”
Christians cannot share the gospel with people whom they do not understand, so if we want to reach out to Muslims, we must reckon with Muhammad.
The reason for scholarly hesitation is twofold: “internal contradictions” among the sources and “their late compilation.” Muhammad lived in the late sixth and early seventh centuries (A.D. 570–632), but his first biography and the earliest Muslim histories began to appear only in the mid-eighth century. The most trusted accounts of Muhammad’s sayings and deeds began to be collected only in the mid-ninth century.
Contemporary scholars recognize these problems, but assess their relevance along a spectrum. “While sanguine scholars might hope to find a kernel of truthful material in the Muslim sources,” Ibrahim writes, “skeptic scholars approach them as documents with descriptions of the time of their writing, not the time of Muhammad.”
This tension between Muslim tradition and contemporary scholarship threads its way through all 30 chapters of A Concise Guide, requiring readers to exercise discernment about what can be known of the historical Muhammad.
Readers interested in the relationship of Islam to Christianity should pay special attention to the following four:
Chapter 17 (“Did Muhammad Launch Raids Against Christians?”) describe three military expeditions Muhammad personally led or instigated against territories governed by Byzantine and Arabic Christian forces.
Chapter 20 (“What Are Some of the Early Non-Muslim Views on Muhammad?”) draws on the writings of seventh- and eighth-century Christians who encountered Muhammad and/or his followers and message.
Ibrahim notes that “while Muslims emphatically presented Muhammad as the final prophet sent by the deity, … non-Muslims, in general terms, were unwilling to grant Muhammad such a status based on what they knew of his deeds and teachings.” In the words of Doctrini Jacobi, likely written in July 634, just two years after Muhammad’s death: “He [i.e., Muhammad] is false, for the prophets do not come armed with a sword.”
Chapter 23 (“What Is Muhammad’s Message about Jesus?”) surveys both the Quran and Muslim tradition. “While Jesus is honored and respected,” Ibrahim summarizes the Islamic sources, “he was not crucified, nor was he a god or a savior. He will come again as a last judge and will rebuke Christians who did not accept Muhammad.” This Muslim understanding of Jesus is incompatible with Christian orthodoxy.
Chapter 24 (“Where Is Muhammad Mentioned in the Bible?”) evaluates Muslim arguments that claim the Bible prophesies about Muhammad. Ibrahim’s conclusion is that “there is no explicit reference [to Muhammad], and the implied mentions are hardly plausible.”
Ibrahim rounds out his book with a bibliography of English translations of Muslim primary sources, helpful websites regarding Islam, and a glossary of key terms. These appendixes are especially helpful to readers who want to conduct further research on Muhammad and his religion.
Although Ibrahim wrote A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad for a general audience, I read and am reviewing it as a Christian minister. It broadened and deepened my understanding of the founder of Islam, along the way heightening the differences that exist between his religion and my own.
I believe that such an understanding is necessary to any religious encounter with Muslims, although the book offers no advice about how Christians should conduct such encounters. Nevertheless, I recommend Ibrahim’s book to missionaries, evangelists, pastors, and laity with a heart for Muslim evangelism. Christians cannot share the gospel with people whom they do not understand, so if we want to reach out to Muslims, we must reckon with Muhammad.
Ayman S. Ibrahim, A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad: Answering Thirty Key Questions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2022).