Reformers: Comparing Muhammad and Martin Luther

Reformers: Comparing Muhammad and Martin Luther November 8, 2019

Reading Sura 57 again recently, I found myself wondering whether anyone had ever made some kind of comparison – whether in detailed form in a book or in a blog post or anywhere else – between Muhammad and Martin Luther. There is a striking similarity in the spirit of reform of religion that already exists rather than a claim to offer something brand new. There is a striking difference in the genre of their predominant output and in their sense of not merely calling but having received divine revelation apart from (even if in concordance with) existing sacred texts. Reading Sura 2 in its current context gives the impression to a critical reader that it stems from after Muhammad’s time and may have been written in the process of creating the Qur’an as a book. Yet that conclusion might be too hasty, given the striking  way it addresses the children of Israel rather than only or even primarily Arab polytheists. The book referred to at the beginning might therefore not originally have been the book that these words became part of, but the Jewish scriptures, as throughout the rest of this sura. As with the placement of the Book of Revelation at the conclusion of Christian Bibles, here too the placement alters the meaning, connecting it to the book it now introduces. Then again, 2:185 seems to mention the Qur’an, although once again the impression of the meaning may be altered in light of the setting of the words within their current literary context. 4:136, on the other hand, is clearer in its reference to the book the Apostle was given.

Be that as it may, what do you think of the idea that Muhammad and Martin Luther might be worth comparing? Is that a meaningful and useful comparison to make, or is it unlikely that anyone would learn anything from setting the two figures side by side? If they are not useful comparisons, then who would you recommend instead? Jesus is an obvious choice, but it is hard for many Christians to think of him as a Jewish reformer, which is one reason I find myself considering other possible figures for comparison.

Potentially one could also bring Martin Luther’s On War Against The Turk into the picture, and discuss how critical he was of Catholicism and the Pope vs. how critical he was of Islam.

Of related interest, Larry Hurtado blogged about the Gospels and the Qur’an!

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  • I agree with you that, at least in the reformer role, Mohammed is probably closer to Jesus than Luther. It’s hard to know if people’s views on Jesus would be an obstacle to seeing the comparison or might make them more sympathetic to Mohammed’s role in his religion. But, yes, I think a comparison with Luther would be a helpful comparison. I think the pop Christian conception of Islam is that Mohammed was just sitting in a hotel room and invented a new religion; a comparison with Luther would probably help draw out the actual historical context for Islam and, again, may create a little more sympathy.

  • John MacDonald

    Mohammad is interesting for my areas interest because in certain cases he is an example of Justified Lying of the kind we see in Confucius, Euripides, Plato, the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus, etc.

    I find this area of study ethically interesting, because it highlights how Philosophical/Theological ideals such as honesty must be tempered with the demands of practical life, such as with the case of Jesus in the Gospel of John lying to his family that he isn’t going up to the party, but then going in secret.

    For two examples of justified lying in Islam, Abdullah Al-Araby argues:

    (1) This point is proven by many incidences in the life of Mohammed. He often lied and instructed his followers to do the same. He rationalized that the prospect of success in missions to extend Islam’s influence overrode Allah’s initial prohibitions against lying. A good example of sanctioned lying is the account of the assassination of Kaab Ibn al-Ashrf, a member of the Jewish tribe, Banu al-Nudair. It had been reported that Kaab had shown support for the Quraishites in their battle against Mohammed. This was compounded by another report that infuriated Mohammed. It was alleged that Kaab had recited amorous poetry to Muslim women. Mohammed asked for volunteers to rid him of Kaab Ibn al-Ashraf. As Mohammed put it, Kaab had “Harmed Allah and His Apostle.” At that time Kaab Ibn al-Ashraf, and his tribe were strong, so it was not easy for a stranger to infiltrate and execute the task. A Muslim man by the name of Ibn Muslima, volunteered for the murderous project on the condition that Mohammed would allow him to lie. With Mohammed’s consent, Ibn Muslima, went to Kaab and told him fabricated stories that reflected discontent about Mohammed’s leadership. When he had gained Kaab’s trust he lured him away from his house one night and murdered him in a remote area under the cover of darkness.

    (2) A similar example can be found in the story of killing Shaaban Ibn Khalid al-Hazly. It was rumored that Shaaban was gathering an army to wage war on Mohammed. Mohammed retaliated by ordering Abdullah Ibn Anis to kill Shaaban. Again, the would-be killer asked the prophet’s permission to lie. Mohammed agreed and then ordered the killer to lie by stating that he was a member of the Khazaa clan. When Shaaban saw Abdullah coming, he asked him, “From what tribe are you?” Abdullah answered, “From Khazaa.” He then added, “I have heard that you are gathering an army to fight Mohammed and I came to join you.” Abdullah started walking with Shaaban telling him how Mohammed came to them with the heretical teachings of Islam, and complained how Mohammed badmouthed the Arab patriarchs and ruined the Arab’s hopes. They continued in conversation until they arrived at Shaaban’s tent. Shaaban’s companions departed and Shaaban invited Abdullah to come inside and rest. Abdullah sat there until the atmosphere was quiet and he sensed that everyone was asleep. Abdullah severed Shaaban’s head and carried it to Mohammed as a trophy. When Mohammed sighted Abdullah, he jubilantly shouted, “Your face has been triumphant (Aflaha al- wajho).” Abdullah returned the greeting by saying, “It is your face, Apostle of Allah, who has been triumphant. (Aflaha wajhoka, ye rasoul Allah).”

    I don’t think justified lying is necessarily a moral failing, but rather a reality of moral theory running up against pragmatic demands.

  • John MacDonald

    I tried posting a comment twice, with and without formatting, but both are caught in the filter?

    • Just commenting over and over doesn’t help. I’ll approve them immediately whenever I see them. But if I have to delete duplicates, it probably persuades Disqus that your comment is the kind of thing that gets deleted and thus that it should be wary of!

      • John MacDonald

        Sounds good! I’ll be more patient in the future!

  • Over the Garden Wall

    Sorry for being late to the discussion but something interesting but often neglected was the scriptural dialogue of Muslims and Protestants in Poland during the Reformation. The Lipka Tatars (also called the Polish-Lithuanian Tatars) incorporated much Protestant theology to their own Islamic literature. Extant religious literature from the 17th to 19th century shows this influence. This interaction is much too rich to compress here but if James or anyone else here is interested I recommend loaning or obtaining a fine book called “Dialogue of Scriptures: The Tatar Tefsir in the context of Biblical and Quranic Interpretations” by Joanna Kulwicka-Kaminska. It’s quite eye-opening and fascinating to anyone interested in translations, scriptures, religious dialogue, and the long presence of Islam in Europe which all work well as a antidote to anti-Muslim bigotry and misconceptions so prevalent in contemporary society.