Muhammad had a lot in common with Moses. Both men were outraged by injustice—Moses by how Egyptians treated Hebrews, Muhammad by how rich Arabs treated poor Arabs. Both men raised their voices in protest. Both met resistance from the powers that be. Both decided to relocate. Muhammad, after ten years as a routinely shunned street prophet in Mecca, moved to the nearby town of Medina—the promised land—where Islam finally flourished.
Even before his exodus, Muhammad saw the parallels between himself and Moses as biblical affirmation of his mission. “Hath the story of Moses reached thee?” he asked an audience in Mecca. He often told that story, in which the Hebrew followers of Moses fare better than the Egyptian doubters of Moses, notably in their respective attempts to cross the Red Sea. Lest any Meccans miss the point, he added: “Verily, herein is a lesson for him who hath the fear of God.”
Muhammad also seems to have sensed parallels between himself and Jesus. In the Koran he has a young Jesus saying, “I am the servant of God; He hath given me the Book, and He hath made me a prophet.” But the parallels between the two men go beyond their missions, extending to their political circumstances and the receptions they got. The gospel allusion to Jesus’s hostile reception in Nazareth—“No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown”—certainly applies to Muhammad’s years in Mecca.
It’s no great surprise that Muhammad didn’t stress this parallel. For one thing, he doesn’t seem to have had access to the written gospels. (Muslim tradition has him as illiterate, and in any event his version of the Jesus story sometimes departs from the biblical version.) Besides, Jesus’s rejection, as we’ve seen, is a theme the gospels play down—more and more so as time goes on; by the time the Gospel of John is written, more than half a century after the Crucifixion and centuries before Muhammad’s revelation, Jesus is wowing the masses by raising the dead.
The Koran, in contrast, never tries to hide the uncomfortable truth about its central figure. Here is a prophet who repeatedly fails to win over people who matter. Throughout the Meccan years—that is, for most of the Koran—the story of Muhammad is a story of rejection.
With this rejection begins the path to comprehending the Koran’s moral vacillation. At one point Muhammad is urging Muslims to kill infidels and at another moment he is a beacon of religious tolerance. The two Muhammads seem irreconcilable at first, but they are just one man, adapting to circumstance.
As we’ve seen, one of the more plausible parts of the gospel story has Jesus declaring, upon emerging from the wilderness, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” Judgment Day was near; it was time for sinners to repent and affirm their belief in the one true god. From early in Muhammad’s ministry, this seems to have been his message, too. The apocalypse was coming, and when it came everyone would be accountable for their actions. Muhammad sketched this culmination of history in glorious detail:
When the Heaven shall cleave asunder,
That last line is far from the only Koranic verse reflecting the rejection of Muhammad’s message. Time and again in the Meccan suras, Muhammad is dismissed out of hand—as a “sorcerer,” as an “impostor.” Like Jesus, he is accused of being controlled by demonic forces, possessed by “djinn.” (And, unlike Jesus, he is accused of being a “poet.” Sounds flattering, but this explanation for the beauty of his Arabic verse was pejorative compared to his own explanation—that the Koran emanated from God and was conveyed via his chosen intermediary.)
According to one sura, the Meccans treated Muhammad’s ministry as a joke. “The sinners indeed laugh the faithful to scorn: And when they pass by them they wink at one another, And when they return to their own people, they return jesting.”
Another sura describes the reaction of an influential Meccan to Muhammad’s preaching: “Then looked he around him, Then frowned and scowled, Then turned his back and swelled with disdain.”
Sometimes the doubters got disruptive: “The unbelievers say, ‘Hearken not to this Koran, but keep up a talking, that ye may overpower the voice of the reader.’” According to Islamic tradition, Meccan elites were so intent on shutting Muhammad up that they punished his clan not just with an economic boycott but with a marriage boycott.
All of this left Muhammad with a challenge: How do you keep intact a minority religious movement that faces harassment sanctioned by the most powerful people in the city? Fortunately for Muhammad, this wasn’t the first time the Abrahamic god had encountered such a problem. The elements of a solution were already in place.…