Five stages of prophethood


Saleem Ahmad,Ph.D

Founder, Pacific Institute of Islamic Studies, Honolulu.

Non-Muslims are often confused (also bemused) at the “mixed signals” on “war” and

“peace” in the Qur’an, and in no particular order. With Muslim doves following “peace” verses

such as 5:3 and 5:5 (see below) to befriend Jews and Christians, and hawks following “war”

verses such as 5:51 with its terse command “Do not trust Jews and Christians”, diametrically

opposite socio-political ethos is generated in these two camps. The recent spate of violence in

Pakistan which has claimed the lives of several Hindus and Christians – even some Muslims —

victims of mob violence under the country’s highly un-Islamic and draconian “Blasphemy Laws”

– is an anguishing case in point. Any one can say he/she saw so-and-so burn pages of the

Qur’an or spoke ill of Muhammad, and a spontaneous (possibly pre-meditated) mob attack on

the poor and often innocent victim, gets ignited. A recent case involved a young Christian

couple (with the wife pregnant with her fourth child) who were similarly accused and burnt to

death by an enraged mob by being thrown into the furnace of a brick kiln (Dawn, November 5,

2014). While the government has ordered “full inquiry”, the extent to which “justice” will be

meted out to the approximately 40 people arrested in the case, including the local village imam,

remains to be seen. The government has, as an interim measure, given some land (probably an

acre each) to the three surviving children.

But the underlying challenge confronting Muslims – of laws and actions being based on an

emotional and incomplete reading of the Qur’an and hadith – continues unabated. Thus, a

concerted effort to understand the context and chronology of revelations is urgently needed.

While the Qur’an is not arranged chronologically, its clarification that “later guidance

superseded earlier guidance” (verse 2.106) provides us with a starting point. And, although the

book does not tell us which verse came “later” (on several contentious issues), the three

classical books on Muhammad (by Ibn Ishaq, Waqidi, and Tabari), written within 150-300 years


of his death, and the website, provide some invaluable information. One can only

marvel at the painstaking care with which the isnad (line of transmission) and details of many

events/hadith are reported. At times, the description is so detailed that I could even feel as if I

was there, “witnessing” it.

Based on the context and chronology of verses summarized in these four resources, I am

dividing Muhammad’s prophethood into the following five stages, each distinguished by a

changed Divine attitude toward followers of other religions. I am also reproducing the five

Qur’anic verses, numbered QR-1 to QR-5 that I have used as signposts. Because of imprecise

information regarding when were these verse revealed, dates suggested below should be

considered tentative with overlapping boundaries. Feedback from readers will be appreciated.


QR-1: Invite all to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching and

discuss with them in ways that are best and most gracious (16:125).

This was probably revealed around 620 CE, when Muhammad lived as a marked man in

Mecca seeking followers. Guidance he then received was almost entirely spiritual, encouraging

him to be steadfast, patient, and humble, and invite people to move from their polytheistic

practices to the worship of one eternal God.


QR-2: Take not the Jews and Christians for friends and protectors: they are but friends and

protectors to each other. He amongst you that turns to them (for friendship) is one of them


This was probably revealed between 620 and 624 CE, either shortly before, or shortly after,

Muhammad migrated to Medina, to caution him against trusting everyone in his new home. Ibn

Ishaq discusses this in his section on Muhammad’s expedition against the Jewish Bani Qaynuqa

tribe (624 CE, p. 363-4). In any case, the gist of the message was to advise Muhammad to be on

guard with individuals he did not know.


Reflection: I could not understand why Christians were also targeted here because there

is no record to suggest they had shown any hostility toward Muhammad2. This is particularly

puzzling because, only a few years earlier (613 and 615 CE), the Christian king of Abyssinia had

given protection to nearly 200 Muslims who, on Muhammad’s suggestion, had fled from Mecca

to Abyssinia to avoid Quraysh persecution. The king had also rejected the Quraysh’ subsequent

deputation requesting him to send them back.


QR-3: To those (Muslims) against whom war is being waged, permission to fight is given,

because they have been wronged – and verily God is most powerful for their aid. (They are)

those (Muslims) who have been expelled from their homes in defiance of their right – for no

cause except that they say “Our Lord is God.” If God had not checked (the aggressive designs

of) one set of people by means of another, (then) surely monasteries, churches, synagogues,

and mosques, in which the name of God is commemorated in abundant measure, would

have been destroyed (22:3940) (underlining added).

This was revealed around 623-24 CE, before the Battle of Badr (Ishaq 212213). Thus far,

Muhammad had been simply ordered to call people to God and to endure insult and forgive the

ignorant. However, after he had won a critical mass of followers (although far too few

compared to the strength of his enemies), God gave him permission to retaliate.

FReflection: By affirming that God’s name is commemorated “in monasteries, churches,

2 Muhammad’s first wife, Khadijah, came from Christian background. No record suggests there

was any hostility between Muhammad and her relatives at any time.

synagogues, and mosques”, the underlined passage (above) underscores that hostility toward

any Jewish or Christian tribe was not to be taken as hostility against Judaism or Christianity per

se, but only against those acting aggressively against Muslims.


QR-4: Strongest among men in enmity to the believers will you find the Jews and Pagans;

and nearest among them in love to the believers will you find those who say: “We are


Christians” because amongst these are men devoted to learning and men who have

renounced the world and they are not arrogant (verse 5:82).

Cordial relations with Christians were cemented around 626 CE when Muhammad

reportedly signed a charter with monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, granting them

protection. (“Stories of the Prophets”), reports as follows: “. . . the Prophet granted to

the monks of the Monastery of St. Catherine, near Mount Sinai, his liberal charter by which

they secured for the Christians, noble and generous privileges and immunities. He

undertook himself, and enjoined his followers, to protect the Christians, to defend their

churches and the residences of their priests and to guard them from all injuries. They were

not to be unfairly taxed; no bishop was to be driven out of his diocese; no Christian was to

be forced to reject his religion; no monk was to be expelled from his monastery; no pilgrim

was to be stopped from his pilgrimage; nor were the Christian churches to be pulled down

for the sake of building mosques or houses for the Muslims. Christian women married to

Muslims were to enjoy their own religion and not to be subjected to compulsion or

annoyance of any kind. If the Christians should stand in need of assistance for the repair of

their churches or monasteries, or any other matter pertaining to their religion, the Muslims

were to assist them. This was not to be considered as supporting their religion, but as

simply rendering them assistance in special circumstances. Should the Muslims be engaged

in hostilities with outside Christians, no Christian resident among the Muslims should be

treated with contempt on account of his creed. The Prophet declared that any Muslim

violating any clause of the charter should be regarded as a transgressor of Allah’s

commandments, a violator of His testament and neglectful of His faith.”

But relations with some Jewish tribes worsened, resulting in expeditions against four: Banu

Nadir, Banu Quraiza, Banu Mustaliq, and the Jews of Khaybar.


QR-5 . . . This day have I perfected your religion for you, completed My favor upon on you,

and have chosen for you Islam as your religion. . . . (5:3). This day are (all) things


good and pure made lawful unto you. The food of the People of the Book is lawful

unto you and yours is lawful unto them. (Lawful unto you in marriage) are (not only)

chaste women who are believers but chaste women among the People of the Book

revealed before your time when you give them their due dowers and desire chastity not

lewdness nor secret intrigues (5:5).

Tabari (vol. 9 p. 108) mentions this message was revealed during the Farewell Pilgrimage

(632 CE), after some Jewish tribes hostile to Muhammad had been defeated or expelled and

relations with other Jewish tribes and others had eased. Muhammad had also married women

from three Jewish tribes: Juwairya (Banu Mustaliq, 627 CE); Rayhana3 (Banu Quraiza, 627 CE);

and Saffiya (Banu Nadir, 629 CE). That the religion stood “completed” is also captured by the

following conversation between caliph ‘Umar and a Jew (two or more years after Muhammad

had died):

A Jew said to caliph ‘Umar, “If this verse” ‘This day I have perfect your religion for you,

completed My favors upon you, and have chosen Islam as your religion’ (5:3) had been

revealed to us, we would have taken that day as an ‘Id (festival) day.” ‘Umar said,” I

definitely know on what day this verse was revealed: it was revealed on the day of ‘Arafat,

on a Friday” (Bukhari 9.373).

This conversation also underscores that Jews lived in Medina then. And the Charter that

Muhammad had signed earlier with monks at St. Catherine’s Monastery had ensured Christian

presence in Arabia.

FReflection: One can sense the finality of the Qur’anic message, both spiritually and

temporally, by the qualifier al-yauma (“this day”/“henceforth”) in the Arabic text preceding

verses 5:3 and 5:5:

i) On the spiritual side: al-yuama (on this day), the religion stands “perfected” and “completed”;

and al-yauma (henceforth), it is to be called “Islam” (peace). Previously, there had been no

“formal” name for the religion Muhammad preached, except that followers were called

muslimeen (those who submit). I believe this was the only time in the Qur’an that the religion


was called by this name

ii) On the temporal side: al-yauma (henceforth), Muslims are permitted to eat food of the

‘People of the Book’ and also intermarry with them.

Reflection: This important proclamation suggests the Divine Will considered the religion’s

guidance to have been “imperfect and incomplete” even the day earlier. This must refer to the

book’s guidance on temporal matters as there was no change in the guidance on spiritual

matters. Thus, I believe all previous – and “imperfect” – temporal messages of war stood

superseded (verse 2:106).

Reflection: Following the “completed” message: I believe verses 5:3 and 5:5 also brought

to completion what the Qur’an had declared about fifteen years earlier: . . . Be not in haste with

the Qur’an before its revelation to you is completed . . . (20:114). While we don’t know the

specific context in which this advice was revealed, it is in Surah Ta-ha, which was apparently

what Umar’s sister was reciting when an enraged Umar went to her, with the intention of killing

her for becoming a Muslim. However, he was reportedly so enamored when he heard her

3 Actually, Rayhana reportedly refused Muhammad’s marriage proposal and lived as his

concubine (Ibn Ishaq, p. 466). After all, her husband and other close relatives had just been

killed in the Muslim expedition against the Bani Quraiza tribe.

Reciting some Qur’anic verses that he also embraced Islam (Ibn Ishaq 156).Thus, Muslims should not be in “haste” to implement the messages of discrimination, retaliation, and confrontation revealed during the intermediate three stages of Qur’an’s revelation, but implement the spiritual message of Stage I and the “perfected and final” temporal message of Stage V.

Reflection: Who all are included among ‘People of the Book’ (verse 5:5)? The Qur’an does

not clarify. I believe this refers to all people whose founders were given a “book” by God to

preach about His Oneness. Thus, Muslims should read the scriptures of other religions to

discover which ones preach about One Eternal God.

Reflection: It is also noteworthy that the descriptor, Islam, was applied to Muhammad’s


religion only at this time, although his followers were called Muslimeen even earlier

632 CE: Muhammad’s last advice (hadith)

A Jew or Christian, who becomes a sincere Muslim of his own accord and obeys the religion

of Islam is a believer with the same rights and obligations. If one of them holds fast to his

religion, he is not to be turned away from it (Ishaq 643, last para; also p 647-8).

As logical interpretation of verses 5:3 and 5:5, Muhammad sent this assurance to the

Christian kings of Himyar and others (Ishaq 64243).

FReflection: Thus, can killing innocent Christians and Jews (or, for that matter, followers of

any religion) and the destruction of houses of worship (as is happening in Pakistan currently

on, possibly drummed-up, “blasphemy” charges), be considered “Islamic”?

Progression of the religion from war to peace

It took a decade after Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina for the religion he

preached to change from exclusion and retaliation (622-24 CE, verse 5:51), to one of peace (632

CE, verses 5:3 and 5:5). Indeed, it was only in the final revelation he received that the religion

was called Islam. And since no other revelation abrogating this verse followed, the religion

Muhammad preached is to remain a religion of peace, forever.

Rather than becoming defensive and brushing off as “Islamophobia” the searching

questions non-Muslims ask about violence in Islam, Muslims should explain the five stages of

Muhammad’s prophethood. The Christian Old Testament the Jewish Torah also carry stories of

similar fluctuations between war and peace in the lives of David and other prophets.

Final thought: Muslims living in non-Muslim countries have a golden opportunity to Invite

all to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching and discuss with them in ways

that are best and most gracious (16:125). But this has to be with love and fellow-feeling.

Should others decline the Muslim invitation (as they might because of the way some Muslims

have stigmatized Islam), we should NOT take it as hostility toward Islam. They may also be

because they are happy with their current path; indeed, they might already be following the

Way of your Lord in whatever religion they follow. After all, Islam does not have a “monopoly”


on God. Let us join hands with all ‘People of the Book’ as fellow-travelers and marvel at the

converging paths of religions, all headed to the same Destination.

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