Muhammad versus the Apostle Paul
Updated: Apr 8
Muhammad, the progenitor of Islam, was considered to have engaged in numerous visions with the angel Gabriel. Gabriel relayed the word of God that Muhammad shared with his companions to memorize and whose contents were transcribed to become the Qur'an. On the other hand, the Apostle Paul encountered Jesus Christ in a singular vision, leading to his conversion to Christianity. Paul, from his inspiration, wrote 13 of the 27 books in the New Testament. Between the two, billions of people have had their lives spiritually enhanced. These two men had a lot of similarities. Let's investigate.
Muhammad Before Divine Intervention
Many people think of Muhammad as pure from birth, but history does not suggest that. Muhammad was born and lived in a pagan city, Mecca. The Ka'ba, the holy house built by Abraham, was there but was inhabited by 360 idols. He would have known of each icon and who it represented. Before his time with Gabriel, he was a trader and traveled in caravans. His success in his tribe would have depended on being an upstanding community member. He likely worshiped pagan gods before his divine intervention.
I know that there are people who will object to that conclusion. I base that conclusion on open sources available for research. First, there are numerous references of hadith where Muhammad co-exists with idols. For example, Muhammad eats food offered on altars. Bukhari, probably the most well-known collector of hadiths, tells us this: (volume 7, book 67, number 407):
"Allah's Apostle (Muhammad) said that he met Zaid bin' Amr Nufail at a place near Baldah, and this had happened before Allah's Apostle received the Divine inspiration. Allah's Apostle presented a dish of meat (that had been offered to him by the pagans) to Zaid bin' Amr, but Zaid refused to eat of it and then said (to the pagans), "I do not eat of what you slaughter on your stone altars, nor do I eat except that on which Allah's Name has been mentioned on slaughtering."
In other words, Muhammad ate food that had been sacrificed to idols from a plate given to him by pagans and passed the plate on to his friend.
Another source cited by F.E. Peters in his book, Muhammad and the Religion of Islam, carried this information, "
The Prophet slaughtered a ewe for one of the idols; then, he roasted it and carried it with him. Then Zayd ibn Amr ibn Nufayl met us in the upper part of the valley; The Prophet said, "Would you like some food?" He said, "Yes." Then the Prophet put before him the (meat of the ewe). He (that is, Zayd ibn Amr) said: "What did you sacrifice to, O Muhammad? "He said, "To one of the idols."
A noted historian of the Arab peoples, Philip K. Hitti, accepts the veracity of F.E. Peter's claim:
“Al-'Uzza, a goddess comparable to Venus and signified by the morning star, had her cult in a village east of Mecca. According to legend, this god was the most revered idol among the Quraysh, and Muhammad, as a young man, offered her a sacrifice.” (Hitti, History of the Arabs from the Earliest Times to the Present. (It might be noted that al-Uzza was considered one of the three "daughters of God." If you remember, the scandal about the Satanic verses involved Muhammad offering Quraysh tribe members the opportunity to keep the three daughters if they worshiped Allah as their primary god.)
Let me refer to one last hadith to bring this part about Muhammad to a close. Before the Prophet's religious conversion, Muhammad's first wife, Khadijah, kept an idol of al-Uzza in her house (Tafsir 53:19-26). The family used to worship it just before bedtime. Sometimes, Muhammad would complain that he was affected by the Evil Eye. Khadijah would send for a sorceress to charm it away when that occurred.
In conclusion, while it was Muhammad's destiny to be Allah's final Prophet, his destiny would not be complete without experiencing the impact of idols on him and his tribe.
The Apostle Paul
The Apostle Paul was from Tarsus, and when we first encountered him in the New Testament, he went by the name Saul. Before his conversion, Saul initially opposed the followers of Jesus and vehemently sought to end the spread of the Gospel. Saul was a well-educated young man who was on his way to becoming a rabbi. Saul was a zealous man of the Jewish faith. He is first mentioned in the New Testament as being present at the stoning of Stephen, who was the first Christian martyr. According to Acts 7:57-58, Saul approved of killing Stephen. If you read the description of stoning in my book Muslim Mechanics, you will realize how horrid a death that is.
Saul was born in Tarsus, which we recognize today in Southeast Turkey. Tarsus was a learning center of great importance alongside Alexandria and Athens. Notably, Jewish citizens of Tarsus were granted Roman citizenship. At some point, Saul moved to Jerusalem and studied religion under Gamaliel, a Pharisee and an esteemed rabbi (Acts 22:3). As a young student of Judaism; Saul writes, "I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today." Saul also participated in a tent-making apprenticeship at some point in the years before his conversion (Acts 18:3).
Saul devoted his days to terrorizing Jesus' followers to prohibit what he believed to be a false message.
"I persecuted the followers of this way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished" (Acts 22:4-5).
On his way to Damascus, Saul intended to continue his vicious plans to stop Christians. Instead, Jesus intervened in Saul's life in a powerful way that would forever change his life and mission. Saul describes what happened:
"As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?' 'Who are you, Lord?' Saul asked. 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,' he replied. 'Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.' Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes, he could see nothing. So, they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind and did not eat or drink anything" (Acts 9:3-6, 8-9).
This temporary blindness led Saul to the home of a believer, Ananias, who healed him. God healed Saul through Ananias because it was a temporary blindness that God used to get Saul's attention and turn his hardened heart soft to Jesus. For Saul, a physical healing and spiritual renewal took place in this encounter when he was healed.
Paul was converted and called to follow Jesus boldly. He went on to join the mission of the apostles to spread the Gospel of salvation in Jesus. He founded churches, wrote letters, and led a ministry in which many men and women were part of spreading the Gospel and building up the church. Though the details are unknown, Paul was eventually sentenced to death and was a martyr for Christ in Rome. While Islam does not recognize Paul as a Prophet, he has all of the attributes of one.
So, what similarities do both men share? They both led disparate lives before their spiritual conversions. They both worshiped the gods that their community worshiped. Muhammad lived around idols and lived in a society that worshiped idols. It is plausible he worshiped idols himself. Paul was born a Jew and raised to become a Jewish scholar and holy man. He was political and zealous in protecting his beliefs, even if it meant killing others. After their conversion, both men dedicated their lives to serving their almighty master. At different times, they experienced rejection, ridicule, and rebuff. But they persevered and died in the pursuit of their spiritual beliefs.
Image Credit: The Apostle Paul painted by Rembrandt, Wikipedia Commons