Jesus and Muhammad: their roles and natures

James M. Arlandson

(Part One, Part Two, Appendix)

Who was Jesus, really? Who was Muhammad? What were their roles? What does the Quran say about Muhammad, and what does the New Testament say about Jesus? Does either of these persons claim to have a divine nature? Are both strictly and only human?

This two-part article (plus an appendix) seeks to answer these questions according to the sacred texts of each Founder. In Part One, we analyze the four main titles that the Quran uses of Muhammad: warner, announcer or bringer of news, prophet, and messenger. In Part Two, we analyze the main titles of Jesus in the New Testament, primarily the Four Gospels, such as Messiah, prophet, the Son of God, and several more.

Muhammad: his roles and nature

To understand Part One, it is crucial to know about Muhammad’s Hijrah (Emigration or Flight) from Mecca to Medina in AD 622. He receives revelations in both cities. While he lived in Mecca, traditions say that they came on him in AD 610, and at first he was unclear about their meaning. Then he gradually takes on his role of warner and messenger. Under persecution, he has to leave Mecca behind, and he arrives in Medina. At this major stage, the revelations change in tone. He becomes bellicose. He raises a lethal band of raiders and eventually a large army. Textual reality of the Quran reflects this historical reality.

Do these four roles change once he arrives in Medina, or not?

To see the Quran in several translations, go to these sites. This one has multiple translations; and this one has three.

The Appendix references the Quranic verses that contain these four titles of Muhammad. It also adds up the total number of times these titles appear in the verses. It is the foundation of Part One.

What is the one main characteristic that links together the following five titles or qualities that are used of Muhammad in the Quran?

(1) Mortal man

Muhammad plainly says that he was a mortal human, like all men.

First, in the following Meccan verse Sura (Chapter) 17, he answers the charge that he cannot perform miracles. Allah commands his messenger to "say" the following to his critics.

17:93 . . . Say, "Glory to my Lord. Am I anything but a mortal, a messenger?" . . . (MAS Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an, Oxford UP, 2004)

Thus, the reason Muhammad cannot perform them is that he is a mere messenger. He does not explicitly deny this accusation and positively proclaim that he can do them.

Second, Sura 39:30 was received in Mecca, and Muhammad is verbally separating off the true believers from the untrue. When Judgment Day comes, each side will see the truth because death will reveal it, even his own death:

39:30 You [Prophet] will surely die, and so will they [disbelieving Meccan polytheists] (Haleem, the second insertion is mine)

Haleem supplies the word "prophet" in brackets, but as we shall discover below, the more apt description of Muhammad in Mecca is "warner" or "messenger."

Third, Sura 41:6 was received in Mecca and uses similar heated rhetoric against the Meccan polytheists. Allah tells his warner to "say" these words to them:

41:6 Say [Prophet], "I am only a mortal like you" . . . (Haleem, his insertion)

Muhammad goes on to say that God revealed to him that God is One. The implication is that the polytheists must change their religion and beliefs.

Finally, Sura 3:144 was revealed after the Battle of Uhud in AD 625, three years after Muhammad’s Hijrah or Emigration from Mecca to Medina. His army lost the battle in theory, but in practice he did not lose much materially, so he quickly recovered. But he asks his followers this question, predicated on his mortality.

3:144 Muhammad is only a messenger before whom many messengers have been and gone. If he died or were killed, would you revert to your old ways? (Haleem)

Muhammad dies of a fever in AD 632. "Narrated 'Aisha: The Prophet died while he was between my chest and chin" . . . (Bukhari).

(2) Warner

Muhammad was called to warn people about impending judgment and punishment and the fires of hell. The Arabic word for this title is nadhir, and it is used about 125 times in the Quran as a grand total. Interestingly, this word—as it relates directly to Muhammad—appears 58 times in the Meccan suras, but it declines to only 7 times in the Medinan suras, after Muhammad immigrates there in AD 622. Five examples suffice to illustrate this title.

First, Sura 74 is believed to be one of the first chapters in its entirety that was revealed to Muhammad in Mecca. It shows him wrapped in garments, fearful of Allah’s revelations. Allah through Gabriel has to get his attention physically to get him to obey—to warn the polytheists.

74:1 O you (Muhammad) enveloped in garments! 2 Arise and warn! (Hilali and Khan, The Noble Qu’ran, Riyadh, Darussalam, 2002, their insertion)

Second, in Mecca, Muhammad warns polytheists who deny the truth.

92:12-16 Our part is to provide guidance— 13 this world and the next belong to us— 14 so I warn you about the raging Fire, 15 in which none but the most wicked will burn, 16 who denied [the truth], and turned away. (Haleem, his insertion)

Third, the warner can perform no miracle. So people question him about this inability.

13:7 The disbelievers say: "Why has no miracle been sent down to him from his Lord?" But you [Muhammad] are only there to give warning . . . (Haleem, my insertion)

His only miracle is the Quran. He challenges people to produce a sura or chapter like it, and modern native speakers of Arabic have done just that—not a difficult feat.

Fourth, Sura 7 (and Sura 6) is considered one of the last suras to be revealed in Mecca, and here Muhammad clearly states his function or role.

7:184 Do they not reflect? There is no madness in their companion (Muhammad). He is a plain warner. (Hilali and Khan, The Noble Qur’an, Darussalam, 2002; insertion is theirs; cf. 7:188)

Fifth and finally, Muhammad is also sent to warn Jews and Christians. According to Sayyid Abul A’La Maududi, Sura 5 comes down around AD 628, six years after Muhammad’s Hijrah and four years before his death. Muhammad deals mostly with Jews, but he often discusses Christian doctrine—as he misunderstands it. In this verse he warns People of the Book or Jews and Christians (the Book is the Bible).

5:19 People of the Book, Our Messenger [Muhammad] comes to you now, after a break in the sequence of messengers, to make things clear for you in case you should say, "No one has come to give us good news or to warn us." (Haleem; insertion is mine)

What is Muhammad warning the Jews and Christians about? The context says that they lived in darkness and that Christians are wrong to say that God is the Messiah, the son of Mary; he says that Allah could have destroyed the Messiah. Also, Jews and Christians are punished for their sins. Thus, Muhammad is a warner about their errors and their impending punishment.

From Sura 74 (Muhammad’s beginning in Mecca) to Sura 7 (his ending in Mecca), he is primarily a plain warner. The passage in Sura 5 represents only six others in Medina. Thus, Muhammad drops this title for the most part.

(3) Announcer or bringer of news

In Arabic, bashir means a bringer of news, usually good, but sometimes bad. It is used 87 times in the Quran. Muhammad uses it of himself 22 times in Mecca, and 13 times in Medina. The first three passages were revealed in Mecca, and the last two in Medina.

First, this news that Muhammad brings exhorts the Meccans to worship none but Allah.

11:2 . . . [W]orship none but Allah. Verily I (Muhammad) am to you from Him a warner and a bringer of glad tidings. (Hilali and Khan, insertion in parentheses is theirs)

Often, when the words "warner" and "bringer" are juxtaposed, they are intended to contrast with each other, as in this verse. Muhammad warns about judgment and punishment, but he also brings good news.

Second, this verse also shows the two functions of announcer or bearer and warner. "We" refers to Allah.

17:105 And with truth We have sent it down (i.e. the Quran), and with truth it has descended. And We have sent you (O Muhammad) as nothing but a bearer of glad tidings . . . and a warner. (Hilali and Khan, insertions are theirs)

Muhammad is supposed to use the Quran to announce news to people.

Third, this verse in Sura 19 also says that Muhammad should use the Quran itself or Sura 19 as a means to announce and warn.

19:97 We have made it [the Quran or this sura] easy, in your own language [Prophet], so that you may bring glad news to the righteous and warnings to a stubborn people. (Haleem; first insertion mine, though taken from Haleem’s footnote; second insertion his)

Again, Haleem supplies the title "prophet" in brackets in this Meccan sura, but the Quran uses it only two times explicitly of Muhammad in Mecca. A more accurate term would have been "warner."

Fourth, besides Sura 5:19, which was quoted in the previous section and which also has the dual role of nadhir and bashir, these verses were revealed in Medina, and Muhammad’s roles are the same.

33:45 Prophet, We have sent you as a witness, as a bearer of good news and warning, 46 as one who calls people to God by His leave, as a light-giving lamp. (Haleem)

Fifth and finally, Muhammad preaches the good news to the believers in Medina.

61:13 And He will give you something else that will really please you: His help and an imminent breakthrough. [Prophet], give the faithful the good news. (Haleem, his insertion)

(4) Prophet

The Arabic word nabi or "prophet" derives from Hebrew and Aramaic (nabi in Hebrew, nebi’a in Aramaic) and appears about 92 times in the Quran. In Islamic theology, a nabi is one who receives revelations from Allah. It is especially noteworthy that Muhammad’s formal title "prophet" increases dramatically in the Medinan suras (33 times), much more than in the Meccan suras (2 times). But this must be emphasized: it is not necessarily the quantity or number of times that a title appears that is important, but its quality or content in context matters most. On the other hand, the number of times that "prophet" is applied to Muhammad at Mecca is shockingly low, and this cannot be ignored, either.

Muhammad at Mecca

The small number of verses (two) in Mecca that uses "prophet" explicitly and formally of Muhammad comes late in his life in Mecca. The verses in Mecca that imply that Muhammad is a prophet (see the Appendix and scroll down to Table 3) are omitted from this analysis since the arguments over them could go on indefinitely. It is better to analyze the two remaining clear verses.

First, in Sura 7:157, revealed late in Mecca, Muhammad is called an unlettered prophet:

7:157 Those who follow the messenger, the Prophet who can neither read nor write, whom they will find described in the Torah and the Gospel . . . (Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, The Glorious Qur’an, Tahrike Tarsile, 2000; see Suras 29:48 and 62:2, which also speak of his illiteracy but without the word "prophet").

The word (ummi) translated here as "who can neither read nor write" may mean "gentile" (as Haleem translates the word). The translators and commentators are divided, but in my opinion the general and stronger meaning is illiterate. (For more information on the topic, particularly articles arguing the other opinion, see this page.) Maybe both meanings are true at the same time. He was an illiterate gentile.

Be that as it may, Muhammad clearly connects himself to the Bible, asserting that he has been described in it and implying that he has been predicted in it. Muslim propagandists have searched for clear references to Muhammad in the Torah and the Gospels (and the entire Bible), but their search has come up empty and proven unsuccessful, as explained in the articles on this page. (Also see this article, and this one). The absence of any reference in the Bible to Muhammad as some sort of future spokesman for God is not surprising. He lived way outside of the Bible’s parameters and long after Jesus Christ. The New Testament authors expend great effort to demonstrate that Jesus fulfills the promises and prophecies in the Hebrew Bible. And in his case the evidence is clear and overwhelming.

See Consummation and Abrogation and How Jesus Christ fulfills the Old Testament.

Second, in Sura 7:158 Muhammad repeats that he is an illiterate prophet.

. . . So believe in Allah and his messenger, the Prophet who can neither read nor write . . . (Pickthall)

Again, Muhammad uses the word ummi, which is best translated as illiterate. He wants us to believe that the Quran is a miracle. Since he repeats this claim, we should take a little more time to explain why it is overblown.

In an age of oral traditions and storytelling, when not many could read or write or could barely do this, memory in some people was strong. They could recite their stories and poems without supernatural benefit. Further, Muhammad in fact confuses many Biblical narratives, so how inspired was he? The God of the Bible certainly did not inspire Muhammad’s confusion and partial knowledge. Also, he has help from the literate who copied down the words of his recitations. Thus, none of this is so difficult or miraculous.

A revealing contrast can be seen in the ancient Greek poet Homer, who lived about 1,300 years before Muhammad, according to traditional dating. Most scholars agree that the blind poet Homer was illiterate, so he produced the Iliad orally (it is rare to find a specialist who doubts the oral production of this epic). The poem is skillfully arranged, sustaining a unified plot with many characters for over 12,000 lines, all of which are set in meter. This is completely different from the Quran. Its arrangement is scattered and hodge-podge, and it does not sustain a meter throughout its composition. Moreover, the Iliad expresses an elaborate theology, which does not fall behind the Quran in the slightest iota. In fact, it could be argued justly that singing about a pantheon of gods is more difficult than reciting verses about only one god. Homer has to keep track of their roles in the war between the Greeks and the Trojans, not to mention the roles of the humans. So is the Quran a miracle? It does not rise to the level of the pagan poet Homer—not even close. As noted, suras in the Quran have been easily duplicated.

To sum up Sura 7:157-158, it is not so much the number of times that a title appears that is important, but its quality or content matters most. However, the quantity is surprisingly low, so this is a factor. Also, the quality of the two verses is low. Muhammad says that the Torah and Gospels predict his coming, but Muslims polemicists have not succeeded in finding these predictions in a convincing manner, not to mention even indirectly. (Also, see this article). Clearly, Muhammad was feeling his way in this new title for himself. Allah first called him primarily as a warner. The Quran later designates him with the formal title of "prophet," or Muhammad grew into it, as he saw it.

Muhammad at Medina

As noted, the Quran’s use of the title of "prophet" increases dramatically when he moved to Medina (33 times). Only two serve as examples.

First, this verse asserts that Muhammad is the "seal" of the prophets, or the final and best one, confirming previous prophets.

33:40 God’s Messenger is not the father of any one of you men; he is God’s messenger and the seal of the prophets (Haleem)

The context of the words "God’s Messenger is not the father of any one of you men" reveals that Muhammad wants his "ex" daughter-in-law who had been married to his adopted son. (Go here for more information.) For more information critical of Muhammad being a "seal" of the prophets, see this analysis.

The general Muslim understanding is that messenger is a greater title than prophet, especially highlighted in this verse as a "seal". But see this confusing issue discussed and clarified here.

Second, he defends himself against accusations that he has dishonestly taken something from the spoils of war.

3:161 It is inconceivable that a prophet would ever dishonestly take something from the battle gains. (Haleem).

We should not fail to note that this verse merely implies that he is a prophet, fitting under the category of "a prophet" generally in the Appendix. Maududi says that this accusation arose during the Battle of Uhud (AD 625), when the archers abandoned their post and prematurely lunged for the spoils of war, helping to cause the defeat of the Muslims (The Meaning of the Qur’an, vol. 1, note 114, p. 283).

But perhaps Muslims were complaining about his unjust distribution generally, and this verse does not apply to the Battle of Uhud. See this article on Muhammad’s use of money to win and keep converts. This is a short commentary on Sura 9:60, by Ibn Kathir, a classical commentator, who concludes that Muhammad used money in this way.

This section is the most important, since "prophet" involves divine revelation and perhaps a linkage to Biblical prophets. So it deserves further analysis. Why does Muhammad’s use of the title "prophet" increase so dramatically after he moves to Medina? This is likely due to two factors.

First, Muhammad grows in his sense of prophethood as he defines it. In Mecca, he reserves this honor mostly for Biblical prophets (10 times) and only twice explicitly for non-Biblical prophets. At the same time, "warner" is used more times (58) than all titles combined in Mecca, but it decreases dramatically in Medina (7 times). Is their a correlation between rise and fall of the titles "warner" and "prophet"? Perhaps the reason is simple. "Warner" does not imply someone who receives divine revelations as clearly as "prophet" does. But more research needs to be done on this topic.

Second, in Medina, Muhammad’s contact with Jews increases exponentially, who thrived in that city before he got there (he will eventually expel and slaughter and enslave them). He uses the title for Biblical prophets 19 times in Medina. Maybe this indicates that he wants the Jews to see him as a continuation of the Biblical tradition of prophets. After all, the educated Medinan Jews knew the Hebrew and Arabic word for "prophet" (nabi). However, the Jews correctly rebuffed him mainly because he was a gentile, and he did not know the Hebrew Bible adequately. Thus, he fell outside of the Biblical canon.

For more reasons why he does not fit into the Biblical traditions of prophets, see this article.

(5) Messenger

By far the title that is used most often of Muhammad is "messenger" or "apostle" or rasul in Arabic. It appears about 360 times in the Quran, but 20 times it is applied to Muhammad at Mecca, and 167 times to him in Medina. Generally, rasul means someone who is sent on a mission, whereas nabi means someone who has the capacity to receive a divine message. Only two examples are necessary to catch the meaning, as Muhammad defines himself.

First, in addition to Sura 5:15-19, which says that Muhammad is the messenger to the People of the Book (Jews and Christians), he lumps together unbelieving Jews and Christians with idolaters in this Medinan sura.

98:1 The disbelievers—those of the People of the Book who disbelieve and the idolaters—were not about to change their ways until they were sent clear evidence, 2 a messenger from God, reading out [reciting] pages [blessed with] purity, 3 containing true scriptures . . . . 6 The disbelievers—those People of the Book who disbelieve and the idolaters—will have the Fire of Hell, there to remain forever. They are the worst of creation. (Haleem, first insertion mine, second his)

The unbelieving Jews and Christians—and the context indicates that they do not believe in the messenger and his message—will live in the Fire of Hell forever.

Second, Allah has sent the messenger to the believers, as well.

3:164 God has been truly gracious to the believers in sending them a Messenger from among their own, to recite His revelations to them, to make them grow in purity, and to teach them the Scripture and wisdom—before that they were clearly astray. (Haleem)

Why such a dramatic increase in the title of messenger from Mecca (20 times) to Medina (167 times)? The answer is sketchy, but two possibilities may be offered. First, he levels the playing field, so to speak. Everyone who is sent by Allah is merely a messenger without a divine nature—even Jesus (according to Muhammad’s misunderstanding of him). Second, it is possible that the increase corresponds to his sense of mission. The verb "send" is related to the noun rasul. Muhammad has been sent or commissioned to the inhabitants of Medina and the whole world.


The most interesting section is "Prophet." Muhammad uses the title of himself explicitly as a formal title only two times in Mecca, and they come late. He says in Sura 7:157 that he is described (and therefore predicted) in the Torah and Gospels, but Muslim propagandists have been unsuccessful in finding this prediction in these two sections of the Bible (or anywhere else). Thus, he was in error about this, perhaps only guessing and hoping against hope that this could be proven. Since he was illiterate (or could barely read or write), how could he prove this? He certainly was not a scholar who pored over dusty Bible manuscripts. Furthermore, it appears that this title does not reflect Muhammad’s original calling, according to Allah’s account of him primarily as a warner in the Meccan suras of the Quran. Thus, Muhammad seems to grow into the role of prophet as he defines it.

His original and primary calling was a warner (58 times in Mecca), and perhaps we can add "bringer of news" (22 times in Mecca) and "messenger" (20 times in Mecca). But the word "warner" is used far more times than "prophet" and the other titles in Mecca—more than all of them combined. However, it must be emphasized that it is not necessarily the quantity or number of times of a title’s appearance in a sacred text that matters most, but it is the quality or content of the title’s context. The Meccan contexts of "warner" and "bringer" and "messenger" are strong. But in two late verses (Sura 7:157 and 158) about Muhammad’s claim to prophethood as a formal title, one of them erroneously asserts that he is described in the Bible. Both verses report the truth that he is illiterate and a gentile, depending on the translation of ummi, or he is both at the same time. Since he was illiterate, he confuses the Bible narratives. Since he was a gentile, he is disqualified from being a Biblical prophet. Therefore, his official title of Prophet, coming late in Mecca and standing outside of the Bible, is weak, when we measure it against his whole life and against the other three titles.

This is especially true and evident when he constantly recounts the stories of Biblical prophets, as if he lines up with them. However, if he had just said plainly that he is not part of the Biblical canon and had ignored the Bible, then his claim to prophethood would not be as problematic.

Translators who supply the title "prophet" in the Meccan suras are wrong. The better term is "warner."

At the beginning of this article (Part One of Two), the question was asked about the quality or attribute that links all of these five titles or descriptions together. The four roles (warner, bringer, prophet, and messenger) are defined by the first description analyzed in Part One, here. They all agree on this one point. Muhammad is a mortal man like all of us. He is a human warner, a human announcer or bringer of news, a human prophet, and a human messenger. He never claimed divinity for himself.

His mortality is a major reason why he objects so strenuously to the divinity and Sonship of Christ (Suras 3:58-60; 4:171; 5:72-75, 116; 9:30; 19:33-34). If Muhammad is the best and last prophet and messenger, then how can Jesus surpass him, as the eternal Son of God? He also objects because of his odd belief that God must have physical relations to produce a son, a notion that Christians reject. The next part of this two-part article explains the Scriptural basis of Christ’s deity.

Please go to Part Two, which analyzes the roles and nature of Jesus.

The Appendix lists the references and adds up the total number of times that "warner," "announcer," "prophet," and "messenger" appear in the Quran.

Copyright by James Malcolm Arlandson.

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