A few years ago Khaleel Mohammed, a professor at San Diego State University and a popular “moderate Muslim,” said this about me: “He misquotes verses of the Qur’an, takes things out of context, and shamelessly lies.” Since I do not misquote verses of the Qur’an, take things out of context, or shamelessly lie, I contacted him and asked for either documentation of his charges or a retraction. He responded: “As for shameless lies, I stand by my assertion, especially after received material in which you claim Muhammad married his daughter in law etc.”
Several years ago at FreedomFest I debated Professor Daniel C. Peterson, author of Muhammad: Prophet of God. Dr. Peterson is a good man and a careful scholar, and picking up a copy of his book I noticed that on pages 167-168 he tells the story of Muhammad and his daughter-in-law Zaynab in much the way I have told it here, as well as in my book The Truth About Muhammad: Muhammad “was in love with” Zaynab; his adopted son Zayd offered “to yield up his wife to the Prophet if the Prophet so desired,” but Muhammad refused; Muhammad then received a divine revelation and announced, “Who will go to Zaynab, and tell her of the good news that God has given her to me in marriage?”; and now “Zayd, despite Muhammad’s formal adoption of him, was not to be considered Muhammad’s son.”
So apparently Professor Peterson has descended with me to the level of “shameless lies.”
The author of the Foreword to Professor Peterson’s book says that he “has approached his work as the consummate academic.” He says that the book itself is “admirable” and is a “welcome addition to the field of religious and Islamic studies,” and concludes: “I recommend this work most highly.”
The author of those words? Khaleel Mohammed.
In fact, the notorious incident of Muhammad’s marriage to his former daughter-in-law Zaynab, far from being a “shameless lie,” is a well-known and much-discussed element of Islamic tradition.
Allah sometimes seem anxious to grant his prophet his heart’s desires. In 33:28-35 Allah addresses Muhammad’s wives, enjoining upon them modesty and piety; then verses 36-37 refer obliquely to one of the most notorious incidents of Muhammad’s prophetic career. Zaynab bint Jahsh had been married to Muhammad’s adopted son Zayd bin Haritha. According to the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, Muhammad asked for Zaynab’s hand on behalf of Zayd; Zaynab and her brother “were loathe” to agree, “for they had thought that the Prophet (s) wanted to marry her himself.” But they ultimately agreed because of the admonition that “it is not fitting for a Believer, man or woman, when a matter has been decided by Allah and His Messenger to have any option about their decision: if any one disobeys Allah and His Messenger, he is indeed on a clearly wrong Path” (v. 36).
The Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that Muhammad “caught sight” of Zaynab “and felt love for her,” while Zayd “lost his affection for her” and told Muhammad, “I want to part with her.” But Muhammad told him: “Keep thy wife to thyself, and fear Allah” (v. 37). Aisha later remarked, “If Allah’s Apostle were to conceal anything (of the Quran) he would have concealed this Verse” — because it shows him unwilling to accept Allah’s will, which was that he marry Zaynab. Then one day, according to Tabari, an esteemed, if not the most esteemed, historian and expositor of the Qur’an, Muhammad went to Zayd’s house and found her wearing only a chemise. Muhammad hastened away, murmuring, “Glory be to God the Almighty! Glory be to God, who causes hearts to turn!”
Soon afterward, according to Tabari, Muhammad was talking with Aisha when “a fainting overcame him.” Then he smiled and asked, “Who will go to Zaynab to tell her the good news, saying that God has married her to me?” He then recited the revelation Allah had just given him, scolding him for being concerned about what people might think and thus refusing to marry Zaynab (v. 37). The Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains what Allah is telling Muhammad here: “But you had hidden in your heart what God was to disclose, [what] He was to manifest of your love for her and of [the fact] that should Zayd part with her you would marry her, and you feared people, would say, ‘He has married his son’s wife!’, though God is worthier that you should fear Him, in all things, so take her in marriage and do not be concerned with what people say.”
According to Tabari, Aisha said: “I became very uneasy because of what we heard about her beauty and another thing, the greatest and loftiest of matters — what God had done for her by giving her in marriage. I said that she would boast of it over us.” Zaynab did, saying to Muhammad’s other wives: “You were given in marriage by your families, while I was married (to the Prophet) by Allah from over seven Heavens.”
Allah continues defending Muhammad in vv. 38-48. Muhammad cannot be criticized for doing what Allah has given him as a duty (v. 38). Muhammad is the seal of the prophets (v. 40); as he himself explained, “Messengership and Prophethood have come to an end, and there will be no more Messengers or Prophets.” Muhammad is a witness, a bearer of good news, and a warner (v. 45), and should not obey the unbelievers (v. 48) — such as those who say he did wrong in marrying Zaynab.
Allah follows this in verses 49-52 with regulations concerning marriage. A man may divorce a woman before consummating the marriage (v. 49). Muhammad may marry women who offer themselves to him; believers do not share this privilege (v. 50). Ikrimah explained: “This means, it is not permissible for anyone else to marry a woman who offers herself to him; if a woman offers herself to a man, it is not permissible for him (to marry her) unless he gives her something.” Muhammad may go to his wives in any order he chooses, and may postpone the turn of any of them if he wishes (v. 51). When this verse was revealed, Aisha said acidly to Muhammad: “I feel that your Lord hastens in fulfilling your wishes and desires.”
Then Allah reinforces Muhammad’s exalted position (vv. 53-59). Allah tells believers to be circumspect about barging into Muhammad’s house or staying there too long after dinner, for such behavior “annoys the Prophet”; they should also only speak to his wives from behind screens (v. 53). Allah and his angels bless Muhammad, and the believers should also (v. 56), while those who annoy him are cursed in this world and the next (v. 57). It is also a serious sin to annoy the believers (v. 58). Muhammad’s wives and daughters should cover themselves when in public (v. 59).
After that, Allah returns to familiar themes (vv. 60-73). Allah has cursed the hypocrites (v. 61) and unbelievers (v. 64). Men scornfully ask when the Day of Judgment will come (v. 63); in hell they will regret that they disobeyed Muhammad (v. 66) and will ask Allah to give their leaders a double penalty (v. 68). The believers should not be like those who insulted Moses (v. 69). Ibn Kathir explains that Moses “was a shy and modest man who would never show anything of his skin because of his shyness,” which led some of Jews to claim: “He only keeps himself covered because of some defect in his skin, either leprosy or scrotal hernia or some other defect.” So Allah, wanting to clear Moses, did so one day when Moses “was alone, so he took off his garment and put it on a rock, then he took a bath. When he had finished, he turned back to pick up his garment, but the rock moved away, taking his garment with it.” Moses chased the rock “until he reached a group of the Children of Israel, who saw him naked and found that he was the best of those whom Allah had created. Thus he was cleared of what they had said about him.”
Allah offered the al-amanah, the obedience of created things, to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they refused it. Man took it, but performed badly — so now Allah must punish the hypocrites and unbelievers (vv. 72-73).
Sura 34 dates from the Meccan period, during a time when, according to Maududi, “the Islamic movement was being suppressed…by resort to derision and ridicule, rumor mongering, false allegations and casting of evil suggestions in the people’s minds.” It is noteworthy how large such incidents loom in Islamic sacred history; they help illuminate the furious reaction some modern-day Muslims have had to mild ridicule in the form of cartoons. In any case, objections to Muhammad’s message are repeated, each introduced by the phrase “the unbelievers say,” in verses 3, 7, 29, 31, and 43, and Allah at each point answers them.
Allah begins by warning the unbelievers of his omniscience and the coming Judgment (vv. 1-9). Given the universal Islamic teaching that Allah is the sole speaker throughout the Qur’an, v. 1 may seem jarring, what with Allah saying, “Praise be to Allah.” Such a phrase would be much more natural in the mouth of Muhammad — but having Muhammad speak would be inconsistent with the idea that the Qur’an is the perfect word of Allah that existed forever with him. In any case, this has never posed any difficulty for Islamic exegetes. Ibn Kathir is typical in ignoring the difficulty and glossing the verse as meaning that “Allah tells us that all praise belongs to Him alone in this world and in the Hereafter.”
In any case, despite Allah’s knowledge of everything (v. 2), the unbelievers deny that the Hour of Judgment will ever come (v. 3). Allah tells Muhammad to swear “by my Lord” that it will indeed come — as he does also in two other places: 10:53 and 64:7. Those who work against Allah’s signs (ayat, the word that is also used for verses of the Qur’an) will be painfully punished (v. 5).
These unbelievers ridicule the idea of a physical resurrection (v. 7) and ask if Muhammad is inventing lies about Allah (v. 8). Allah responds by saying that those who disbelieve in the afterlife are the ones who are wrong (v. 8), and that the fact that he can destroy the earth is a sign from Allah for the believers (v. 9).
Allah then invokes David (vv. 10-11), Solomon (vv. 12-14), and the people of Sheba (vv. 15-21). Allah orders the mountains and birds to join David in singing Allah’s praises (v. 10): Ibn Kathir says that Allah had blessed David “with a mighty voice. Such that when he glorified Allah, the firm, solid, high mountains joined him in glorifying Allah, and the free-roaming birds, who go out in the morning and come back in the evening, stopped for him, and he was able to speak all languages.” Then follows a list of Allah’s blessings to Solomon (vv. 12-14). The people of Sheba were also blessed with two bountiful gardens (v. 15), but when they rejected Allah, he turned the gardens’ fruit bitter (v. 16). Allah never does such things except to the ungrateful (v. 17) — a verse that strongly supports the commonly held idea in the Islamic world that piety in Islam will equal earthly success, and rejecting Allah will bring disaster in this world as well as in the next. Said Mujahid: “He does not punish anyone except the disbelievers.”
In verses 22-31, Allah tells Muhammad various things to say to the unbelievers: their idols are powerless (v. 22); no one will intercede for them on the Day of Judgment (v. 23). In v. 25, according to Ibn Kathir, Muhammad is instructed to disown the unbelievers, “saying, ‘you do not belong to us and we do not belong to you, because we call people to Allah, to believe that He is the Only God and to worship Him alone. If you respond, then you will belong to us and we to you, but if you reject our call, then we have nothing to do with you and you have nothing to do with us.’” Allah will ultimately judge between the believers and the unbelievers (v. 26). Muhammad is a universal messenger (v. 27); the Indian Qur’an commentator Maulana Bulandshahri records a hadith in which Muhammad says, “By Allah! The person, be he a Jew or a Christian, who does not believe in me after hearing of me shall be of the inmates of hell.”
Allah continues these themes in verses 32-54: the arrogant reject Muhammad’s message, but they will believe when they taste Allah’s punishment (v. 33); wealth holds people back from following Allah (vv. 34-37); but Allah decides who is wealthy and who isn’t (v. 39); the angels will disavow those who worshipped them (vv. 40-41); Muhammad seeks no reward from men, but only from Allah (v. 47).
Sura 35 is also Meccan, and repeats many familiar themes. Says Maududi: “The discourse is meant to warn and reprove the people of Makkah [Mecca] and their chiefs for their antagonistic attitude that they had then adopted towards the Holy Prophet’s message of Tauhid [the unity of Allah].” It also starts with the curious “Praise be to Allah” (v. 1). In it, Allah affirms his omnipotence (vv. 1-3) and tells Muhammad that if he is rejected, so were the earlier prophets (v. 4). Men should not be deceived by this present life (v. 5) or by Satan (v. 6); the unbelievers will suffer terrible punishment (v. 7); the believers and unbelievers are not equal, “for Allah leaves to stray whom He wills, and guides whom He wills,” so Muhammad shouldn’t waste his time grieving over the unbelievers. (v. 8).
Allah then details his power as manifest in the natural world, in contrast to the powerlessness of the idols (vv. 9-17, 27-28). In verses 18-22, he stresses the sharp contrast between believers and unbelievers. No one can bear another’s burdens; everyone must come to Allah individually (v. 18). Then Allah addresses Muhammad, reminding him that he is only to warn the people of Allah’s punishment (v. 23); if they reject him, they rejected also the earlier prophets (v. 25). Allah then promises bountiful rewards to the righteous (vv. 29-35), and then returns once again to the torments of hell, when the damned will cry to Allah for help and he will remind them that he sent them a messenger to warn them (v. 37).
Allah concludes the sura with more warnings (vv. 38-45). The Muslims are “inheritors in the earth,” so those who reject Allah are simply cheating themselves (v. 39). Those whom people worship besides Allah are powerless, and don’t even have a book (as does Muhammad) (v. 40). The arrogant should travel through the earth and see how those who rejected Allah in earlier generations were destroyed (v. 44). Yet even so, Allah doesn’t punish men as they deserve (v. 45).
Sura 36, “Ya Sin,” is a Meccan sura that takes its name from the two Arabic letters that begin it (v. 1) — and as with all the chapters that begin with such letters, in the words of the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, “God knows best what He means by these.” Muhammad said: “Whoever recites Ya Sin in the night, seeking the Face of Allah, will be forgiven,” and “Surah Ya Sin is the heart of the Qur’an.” Maududi explains that this because it “presents the message of the Qur’an in a most forceful manner, which breaks the inertness and stirs the spirit of man to action.”
Muhammad also said that “Reciting Ya-Sin at the beginning of the day makes the rest of the day easy for the person till night approaches. Also, reciting it with the approach of the night makes the rest of the night easy till the next day.” He directed his followers to “recite Surah Ya Sin to the dying ones among you.” This should be done, says Maududi, “not only to revive and refresh the whole Islamic creed in the mind of the dying person but also bring before him, in particular, a complete picture of the Hereafter so that he may know what stages he would have to pass through after crossing the stage of this worldly life.” And indeed, this sura does indeed “revive and refresh the whole Islamic creed,” as it sounds a goodly number of the same themes that we have seen in many other suras.
Allah swears by the Qur’an (v. 2) — that is, according to the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, “the “Definitive Qur’an, made definitive by its marvellous arrangement and unique meanings.” The deity addresses Muhammad in verses 2-12, reassuring him that he is indeed one of the prophets (v. 3), sent to warn a people who had not been warned before (v. 6) — that people is, says Ibn Kathir, “the Arabs, for no warner had come to them before him.” However, he adds, “the fact that they alone are mentioned does not mean that others are excluded,” and “the mission of the Prophet is universal.”
And once again denying that human beings have free will even when it comes to belief or unbelief and avoiding hellfire, Allah says he has set barriers around the unbelievers so that they “cannot see,” (v. 9); the Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that this depicts “the way in which the paths of faith are closed to them.” The Tanwir al-Miqbas min Tafsir Ibn Abbas agrees, saying that this verse means that Allah has “covered the insight of their hearts (so that they see not) the Truth and guidance.” Abdur-Rahman bin Zayd bin Aslam also concurs: “Allah placed this barrier between them and Islam and Iman [faith], so that they will never reach it.” Ibn Kathir paraphrases this passage as “We [i.e., Allah] have blinded their eyes to the truth.” So whether Muhammad warns them or not, they will continue in unbelief (v. 10) — as Ibn Kathir says: “Allah has decreed that they will be misguided, so warning them will not help them and will not have any effect on them.” Thus only believers will benefit from Muhammad’s warning (v. 11).
Allah then in verses 13-29 recapitulates in the form of a parable the story that has been told many times before in the Qur’an, in connection with specific prophets: messengers come to a city (identified as Antioch by many Muslim commentators), but the people reject them, saying they’re only “men like ourselves” (v. 15) — as those who rejected Noah said about him (11:27; 23:24). And of course, Muhammad is also just an ordinary man (18:110). They respond by saying that their “duty is only to proclaim the clear Message” (v. 17) — just as is Muhammad’s (5:92; 5:99). Another man then comes up to warn the people, and is rewarded with Paradise, whereupon this messenger, enjoying Paradise, wishes that people knew what he knows (v. 26).