Islam and Christianity are said to have many beliefs in common. Indeed, these common beliefs often form the basis of Christian-Muslim dialog as Christians build bridges to friendship with Muslims based on these shared beliefs. Both believe that God provides guidance for mankind through the books of the Torah. Both read the Psalms. Both hold the gospels to be authoritative. And both have a central figurehead who represents the epitome of each respective belief system. Christians are so called because they submit to the teachings of Jesus Christ, who serves as the supreme model for the beliefs and practices of Christianity. Likewise, Islam has a supreme role model in Muhammad, whose words and deeds, called the sunnah, faithful Muslims are to emulate. Indeed, in Sura 33:21 in the Qur'an one finds the following injunction: "Ye have indeed in the Messenger of Allah a beautiful pattern (of conduct) for any one whose hope is in Allah and the Final Day, and who engages much in the Praise of Allah."
Since Christianity and Islam represent, respectively, the largest and second largest religious movements worldwide, comprising over fifty-two percent of the world’s population, the teaching and practices of these two religious systems, particularly in relation to the social ethical and moral values imposed by each, deserves attention. Jesus and Muhammad, as the supreme example of each religion, are said to provide the standard of ethical and moral conduct ascribed to by each system’s adherents. This being the case, it is worth considering which religious leader—Jesus or Muhammad—provides a system of ethics and morality that we should consider normative for society at large.
In this article I will compare the ethical and moral example set by both Muhammad and Jesus. I will use as primary sources the gospel accounts of Jesus found in the Bible and the biography of Muhammad as recorded by Ibn Ishaq. Some may object to comparing the words and actions of Jesus as recorded in the Bible with those of Muhammad recorded in Ibn Ishaq’s biography. Yet nobody will likely dispute that the gospel accounts are every bit as much a historical narrative as is Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat. Craig Blomberg has conducted extensive research in ancient historical writings and notes that the gospels are every bit as much historical narrative as any ancient biography (1). Scholar Robert Van Voorst agrees with Blomberg, but further notes that by commonly accepted rules of historical evidence, the gospel accounts of Jesus are of greater value in understanding the historical Jesus than similar accounts from later non-Christian historians, simply because “they were written much closer to Jesus’ actual time and were probably subject to criticism and correction by first-generation followers of Jesus (2).” Thus, the comparison is valid.
We find the following words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 5:22, “I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.” By his example, Jesus clarified what constituted the exception for anger, and what he meant when he allowed anger “for cause.” This exception is documented in Matthew 21:12-13 and Luke 19:45-46, where Jesus encountered those who sold sacrificial animals used for temple worship at a huge profit. These had essentially turned the house of worship into a profit center. In righteous indignation and anger, Jesus chased these profiteers out of the temple. Yet at other times, faced with mockery, ridicule, and derision, Jesus showed compassion and love toward those who scorned him (Luke 23:34). Jesus reacted to those who demonstrated hate toward him and ridiculed him with kindness and gentleness, and at times simply escaped from their presence to avoid further confrontation (John 8:59, 10:39).
In contrast, we find in the life of Muhammad numerous instances of anger, many of which resulted in physical violent actions carried out by the prophet of Islam. For a small sample of the many accounts of violent angry outbursts by Muhammad, consider the following:
- A group of Jewish rabbis laughed and scoffed at Islam and the Muslims. Muhammad ordered them ejected from the mosque, whereupon some were dragged from the mosque by the hair on their heads and given a severe beating (3).
- Muhammad ordered the killing of two girls, Fartana and her friend, for singing songs of a satirical nature about him (4).
- Another young girl named Sara was mercilessly trampled to her death by a mounted soldier dispatched by Muhammad after she insulted him (5).
A woman named Asma bint Marwan was brutally murdered with Muhammad’s full knowledge, again for writing poetry deriding Muhammad. Muhammad solicited from among his men for someone to kill her, and one of his men volunteered. When told of the murder the following morning, Muhammad said “two goats will not butt their heads over her death.” This woman left five sons as orphans (6). According to other accounts of this same incident, the soldier who killed Asma first removed a suckling infant from her breast before plunging his sword into her (7).
So while Jesus showed compassion even on those who mocked him, and even on those who nailed him to the cross, Muhammad personally ordered the cold-blooded murder of anyone who mocked or insulted him. Jesus sets the standard for humanity on how to deal with anger. The moral example of Jesus is superior to that of Muhammad.
Jesus taught his disciples not only not to steal, which is prescribed by the Ten Commandments, but took the idea even further. He said, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak also. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away” (Matt. 5:40, 42). Additionally, he taught the disciples, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven … for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matt. 6:19-21). Jesus did not seek earthly treasures or creature comforts. Indeed, while others had a place to call home, Jesus had “nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).
By way of contrast, consider the following actions by Muhammaed:
- Muhammad caught word of a trade caravan from Syria coming to Mecca. He dispatched some of his followers to intercept the caravan to plunder its money and merchandise, saying “perhaps God will give it as a prey. (8)” The sole purpose of raiding the caravan was to steal property which was not his and distribute it to his followers to earn their loyalty.
Muhammad admitted to a certain woman that the material wealth, which we can assume was the result of similar caravan raids and the plundering of nearby tribes in war, was used to attract unbelievers to Islam (9).
In short, while Jesus taught his disciples not to steal, and indeed encouraged them to give those who ask even more than what they ask for, Muhammad endorsed unprovoked theft and plunder, encouraged his followers to do likewise, and used the stolen goods to gain political strength and influence. Surely we recognize that unbridled theft of one man against another’s property cannot make for a stable social order. Thus, Jesus again provides a superior example of the kind of moral and ethical behavior conducive to maintaining a stable social order. Muhammad’s example is just the opposite.
Jesus taught his disciples, “You have heard that it was said to those of old ‘You shall not murder,’ and whoever murders will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment” (Matt. 5:21-22). Jesus equated unrighteous anger against another as being equal to murder. Jesus never promotes unrighteous anger, and certainly does not endorse outright murder of another. In fact, in contrast, he states, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy” (Matt. 5:7).
Muhammad, by way of contrast, taught his followers by example. His biography records many instances of him either participating directly in the murder of his adversaries or the explicit endorsement of such, at times for deeds as insignificant as writing insulting poetry. Consider the following.
- Muhammad gave thanks to Allah when the head of one Abu Jahl was delivered to him. Abu Jahl’s crime was making a mockery of Ibn Mas’ud, one of Muhammad’s followers (10).
- Ka’b bin Al-Ashraf composed poetry of an insulting nature against Muslim women. For this deed, Muhammad solicited from among his men volunteers to kill Ka’b. They lured Ka’b into the night for a friendly discussion, and at a suitable place killed him (11). Ibn Warraq adds that Ka’b’s head was delivered to Muhammad who praised their good works in the cause of God (12).
- After the death of Ka’b, Muhammad ordered the indiscriminate murder, for any reason or no reason at all, of any Jew (13).
- Al-Harith b. Sawayd was considered a hypoctite after initially embracing Islam and later rejecting it. For this Muhammad ordered Umar to kill him if he found an opportunity to do so (14).
- Muhammad sanctioned the murder of Amr b. Jihash, who had plotted to kill Muhammad by throwing a rock from a rooftop. But even more disturbing is that an unnamed man was given money to kill b. Jihash, a paid murder along the line of today’s paid mafia “hits.” Even if one agrees that b. Jihash deserved what he got for his involvement in plotting to kill Muhammad, this is the opposite of what Jesus taught when he told his disciples to love their enemies.
- Muhammad personally approved the murder of Sallam ibn Abu’l-Huqayq whom it was said had enmity toward Muhammad (15).
Muhammad viewed Abdullah bin Sa’d as an apostate after initially embracing Islam but later abandoning it. Muhammad wanted Sa’d murdered, but did not want to take responsibility for his murder, hoping that one of his helpers would volunteer for the deed (16).
Whereas Jesus taught not only that we are not to murder but that hatefulness against another is equivalent to murder, Muhammad sanctioned, condoned, and even personally ordered the murder of others, at times for even the most miniscule of insults against either Muhammad himself or Islam in general. Clearly, the example set by Muhammad should not become normative for society, lest we find ourselves in constant fear of our lives with no guarantee for life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness.
Matthew 6:43-47 records the following words of Jesus: “You have heard that it was said ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you… For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? …And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others?” Clearly, Jesus did not advocate returning evil with evil, but instead taught his followers to pray for their enemies and return their hate with love. Never is there an incident recorded in the Bible or ant other historical writings about Jesus where he is seen becoming violent toward those who mocked him.
The example of Muhammad is just the opposite in this regard. His actions speak for themselves. Here are just a few examples from his biography.
- During the battle of Uhud, one of many battles during which Islam was spread by the sword, Muhammad’s uncle Hamza was killed. A woman named Hind d. ‘Utba mutilated the body of Hamza, cutting off his nose and ears, and cutting out his liver to exact vengeance for the loss of her father, brother, and her first-born son in the battle of Badr (17). In response, Muhammad expressed an overwhelming desire to personally mutilate 30 men of the Quraysh tribe. His expressed desire incited his own men to state that in future battles, “we will mutilate them as no Arab has ever mutilated anyone” (18). While this sort of a response by Muhammad may seem justified in terms of human reasoning, it seems quite out of character for the prophet of a god who is said to be “most gracious, most merciful.”
- In a fit of extreme anger and retribution at the end of the Battle of the Ditch, Muhammad personally beheaded up to 900 Jews in one night, tossing their headless bodies in a ditch dug around Medina. The women, children, and personal possessions of these 900 men were divided up between Muhammad and his followers (19).
- Muhammad plotted to attack the people of Lihyan to avenge the death of some of his men at who were killed at al-Raji, though the surprise attack failed when the people of Lihyan heard about Muhammad’s plans and made preparations (20).
Muhammad ordered the flogging of some of his men who were accused of spreading rumors about his wife Aisha having an illicit relationship with a man who found her lost in the desert after her caravan left her behind (21).
It is clear from these few examples that Muhammad was a very vengeful man who demonstrated to his enemies not patience, or love, or compassion, but anger and hostility which led in some cases to extreme violence from Muhammad. I believe that, if given a choice between Jesus or Muhammad as an example to follow regarding how one should respond to one’s enemies, most would point to the example of Jesus as the more noble and the one to which society should aspire.
Jesus was approached by the Pharisees and asked which of the commandments is the greatest. His response was two-fold: first, to love God with all your heart, and next to love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:34-40). It is said that from Jesus’ second exhortation to love one’s neighbor as oneself the Golden Rule was developed as a model for mankind’s interaction with one another: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Though these words were not spoken by Jesus, they are implied in his teaching of how we ought to treat one another.
A couple of examples from The Life of Muhammad will serve to show that Muhammad did not live by these words of wisdom from Jesus, and thus chose to ignore the understanding that each human deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.
- A man by the name of Kinana b. al-Rabi had been put in custody of the treasure from the raid on b. al-Nadir. Apparently he had hidden the treasure, and when Muhammad questioned him regarding the whereabouts of the treasure, Kinana denied knowing where it was. Muhammad then threatened to kill Kinana if his men search for and found the treasure where it was rumored to be. After further denials by Kinana, Muhammad ordered him to be tortured until he confessed to the location of the treasure. Kinana was laid out flat, and a fire of flint and steel was kindled on his chest. Next, Muhammad handed Kinana over to some of his men, who beheaded him (22). While the actions of Kinana certainly cannot be justified, Muhammad and his men show a complete disregard for his dignity as a fellow human being.
Soon after fleeing to Medina from Mecca, Muhammad established a covenant between the Muslims and the Jews in which each was to treat the other with respect and provide for the mutual protection of one another. Muslims were to treat the Jews with equality (23). Later, after gaining political power and after having conquered a number of Jewish tribes, Muhammad received a revelation to “take not Jews and Christians as friends. They are friends of one another. Who of you takes them as friends is one of them. God will not guide the unjust people” (24). Ibn Warraq notes that Muhammad’s initial covenant with the Jews was made not from any conviction that Jews deserved equal treatment with Muslims, but merely to neutralize the politically influential Jewish clans until he could build up enough political power of his own to overtake and subdue them (25).
Thus, Muhammad did not believe in equality among all people, did not demonstrate love toward all mankind, and feigned respect toward the Jews only as a means to a political end. Surely we cannot hold up Muhammad as a model for the way humans ought to treat one another. Jesus and the example he set do provide for such a model of respect and dignity for one another.
Jesus taught his disciples, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28). Certain liberal scholars and other liberal elites have suggested that, despite Jesus’ teaching on adultery, Jesus himself engaged in an affair with Mary Magdalene. But this assertion is completely false and without support. The only support offered is from extra-biblical sources, such as the Gospel of Mary and the Nag Hamidi writings, both of which have been deemed to be unreliable, legendary, and written by Gnostics with the intent of discrediting the work of Jesus. Making an accusation is one thing; supporting the accusation with hard evidence is quite another. No evidence exists to support that Jesus ever had any sort of relationship with any of his followers.
However, there is evidence that Muhammad did engage in lust, and possibly illicit relationships.
- Muhammad’s adopted son Zaid had a wife named Zaynab who apparently was quite attractive. History records that Muhammad went to visit Zaid one day, but he was gone and Zaynab, dressed very revealingly, greeted Muhammad at the door. Muhammad apparently excused himself for fear of succumbing to his carnal desire for her. His followers noted that Muhammad was captivated by Zaynab’s physical attractiveness, and it was noted that Muhammad desired to have her as his own wife. Zaid, wanting to remain faithful to Muhammad and do everything to please him, divorced Zaynab so that Muhammad could marry her. In modern societies, marrying one’s daughter and cousin would be viewed as incest. Clearly, the evidence points to the fact that Muhammad’s desire for Zaynab was based purely on lust and carnal desire for her. Muhammad did not marry Zaynab because she was a widow who needed to be provided for, the excuse many Muslim apologists use to justify Muhammad's multiple marriages.
- Furthermore, there is at least the suggestion in the Hadith that Muhammad was perhaps engaging in illicit behavior with Zaynab before he married her. Abu Dawud records a woman named Hamnah, a sister of Zaynab, who one day sought Muhammad for counsel and found him and Zaynab alone at her house (26). One can only speculate why Muhammad would place himself in a situation where he knew he would be tempted to engage in carnal activity with Zaynab, alone in her home and away from the view of anyone else, especially after having lustful thoughts about her after seeing her naked.
One day a group of Pharisees accused Jesus and his disciples of defilement because they were eating with unwashed hands. Jesus responded that it was not what goes into a body that defiles a man, but what comes out of man from within his heart. Jesus said that man is defiled by evil thoughts, adulteries, fornication, murder, theft, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness (Mark 7:21-22). As a sinless man, Jesus never engaged in any of these behaviors. Specifically with regard to deceit, the prophet Isaiah said of Jesus that no deceit was found in his mouth (Is. 53:9, 1 Peter 2:22).
Muhammad approved of deceit and condoned lying, as a means to an end. In his biography we find:
- Three tribes had gathered together to do battle with Muhammad: the Qurayza, Quraysh, and Ghatafan. One of the new converts to Islam, from the Ghatafan tribe, approached Muhammad to inquire how he might help in the battle effort. Since they were still unaware of his conversion Muhammad dispatched him among these three tribes with the explicit instruction to deceive them with a believable story, because war is deceit. The story worked, and distrust was sowed among the three tribes so that the battle against Muhammad’s people was averted (27). While some may argue that this was a smart, strategic decision on Muhammad’s part to avoid what was sure to be overwhelming odds against the three tribes combined, it nevertheless underscores that Muhammad was not averse to using deceit to his advantage.
In another situation, one of Muhammad’s converts had a significant sum of money scattered among the merchants of Mecca that he wished to collect. If he told these merchants the truth about his relationship with Muhammad, he would never recover his money. He approached Muhammad with permission to retrieve his money, and confessed to Muhammad, “I must tell lies.” Muhammad’s response was, “Tell them” (28).
Thus, once again we find Muhammad less than an ideal example of ethical and moral behavior.
After this brief examination and comparison of a few specific examples of moral and ethical behaviors between Jesus and Muhammad, we must conclude that Jesus, and not Muhammad, provides the standard of moral excellence to which every person should aspire. Jesus’ teaching and the example he set, which includes truthfulness, respect, honesty, patience, without vengeance, and the admonition to treat and love our neighbors as ourselves, are the ethical and moral qualities on which civilized societies thrive. The opposing characteristics, which we find exemplified in the life of Muhammad, typically are found in power hungry despots whose interests are of a purely selfish nature. After achieving political power in Medina, Muhammad’s life is a picture of unbridled power, which he used to fulfill every desire he had, from plundering nearby tribes just to take possession of their wealth, to influencing his followers to give up their wives so he could have them. As the British historian Lord Acton said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Such was Muhammad.
1. Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1987), 238-239.
2. Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 216.
3. Muhammad ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad, A. Guillaume, translator (Karachi, Pakistan: Oxford University Press, 1967), 246-247.
4. Ibid., p. 551.
6. Ibid., p. 676.
7. Ibn Warraq, Why I Am Not a Muslim (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2003), 94.
8. Ibn Ishaq, p. 289.
9. Ibid., 639.
10. Ibid., 304.
11. Ibid., 368.
12. Warraq, 94.
13. Ibn Ishaq, 369.
14. Ibid., 384.
15. Ibid., 482
16. Ibid., 550.
17. Ibid., 385-386.
18. Ibid., 387.
19. Ibid., 464.
20. Ibid., 485-486.
21. Ibid., 497
22. Ibid., 515.
23. Ibid., 231-233.
24. Ibid., 364.
25. Ibn Warraq, 92.
26. Abu Dawud, Sunan of Abu Dawud, Book 1, number 287, [on-line], available at http://www.usc.edu/dept/MSA/fundamentals/hadithsunnah/abudawud/001.sat.html#001.0287.
27. Ibn Ishaq, 458-459.
28. Ibid., 519.