Imagine the outcry if a person of another faith pronounced at a public meeting that Jesus was a “philandering megalomaniac with a misguided death wish.” Such a statement would misrepresent history and offend Christian sensibilities.
Jerry Vines said at the 2002 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention that “Islam was founded by Muhammad, a demon-possessed pedophile who had 12 wives—and his last one was a 9-year-old girl.” This statement distorts history and offends Muslim sensibilities. It is more vitriolic propaganda than fact.
Two parts of Vines’ statement fail the scrutiny of a less jaundiced examination of Muhammad’s life. The accusations of “demon-possession” and “pedophilia” cannot be substantiated.
Muslim sources report that, following his call to be a prophet, Muhammad was disturbed that he might be possessed by jinn (desert spirits). Both his wife Kadijah and his cousin Waraqa ibn Nawfal affirmed his veracity and integrity and assured him that he was not a demon-possessed soothsayer.
Muhammad, in self-critical examination about his call experience, cries out to Kadijah: “I am surely an accursed poet or a man possessed.” Kadijah replies: “God would not do that to you; He knows your truthful speech, your great trustworthiness, your good character and your abundant kindness.”
Waraqa also urges Muhammad to take heart in God’s call, and tells him: “You will surely be called a liar and treated badly.” In addition to this account in the Hadith (Tradition), the Quran also reports that God reassured Muhammad by saying, “Your Lord has caused His truth to descend upon you. So be not of those who waver” (Quran 74:1-5).
The message of Muhammad strikes chords that do not sound at all demonic but rather like Hebrew prophets and Jesus: worship the one true God and rectify social injustice.
Critics have long seized upon Muhammad’s multiple marriages. Philip K. Hitti notes in Islam: A Way of Life that Christians have portrayed Muhammad, since the ninth century, “as a false prophet and imposter” … “embellished with bright tones of oversexuality, dissoluteness, bloodthirstiness and brigandage.”
But polygamy and pedophilia are light-years apart. Multiple marriages, when considered in their cultural and historical context, are no sign of sexual perversion. A number of biblical characters also were polygamists, including Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon.
Barbara Showasser notes in her Women in the Quran: Traditions and Interpretation that “clearest proof of the Prophet’s freedom from base instincts (especially lust), however, are the historical facts of his celibacy until his twenty-fifth year and his monogamous marriage with a woman fifteen years his senior to whom he was completely devoted until she died.”
Later, Muhammad married about 11 others for reasons acceptable in his culture: political alliances and protection of the wives of fallen comrades. Geoffrey Parrinder says in Mysticism in the World’s Religions, “Only between the age of fifty and his death at sixty-two did Muhammad take other wives … and most of them were taken for dynastic and political reasons. Certainly the Prophet’s record was much better than the head of the Church of England, Henry VIII.”
Critics also make much of the age of wife Aisha, daughter of Muhammad’s beloved companion Abu Bakr. Muslim writers variously reckon her age when marrying Muhammad anywhere from 9 to 20. Great age difference was not considered a problem in marriages of the time.
Muslim writer Bint al-Shati writes in Tarijim that this “was a very normal thing in early Muslim society, just as it is and continues to be in the Arabian Peninsula, the Egyptian countryside, parts of Eastern and Southern Europe, and the remote mountain regions of the United States.” Popular Christian lore portrays Joseph as older and Mary the mother of Jesus as very young without raising questions of impropriety.
There is room for genuine dialogue and theological debate in discussions between Muslims and Christians. There is no room for distortion and denigration. Christians should strive for truthfulness in their speech and loving respectfulness in their witness.
James Browning is senior pastor of Englewood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.