For Muhammad, a prophet was essentially a messenger from God who brought a warning. He told people to turn away from idolatry and back to the worship of the one true God. He also denounced social evils. For example, in his preaching in Mecca, Muhammad attacked the neglect of the poor and the killing of newborn girls.
There is no doubt that Muhammad’s concept of the identity and destiny of a prophet was based on his contact with Jews and Christians. He saw himself as one in a line of prophets that began with Adam. He realised that a prophet must expect opposition and even rejection, but he saw that God also vindicated his prophets. Noah, for example, preached to his contemporaries, warning them to turn back to God and of judgement to come. They ridiculed and rejected him. But then the flood came, destroying his enemies, while he and his family were saved. In the Qur’an, one of Noah’s sons refuses to join him in the ark and is lost.
Muhammad believed that this pattern was reproducing itself in his own life. Rejected by his own people in Mecca, he was able to move to Medina and became strong and powerful. God gave him success over his enemies, both Jews and Arabs, and he eventually returned to Mecca in triumph.
But what of Jesus?
The life of Jesus clearly did not fit into this pattern. Jesus died a humiliating death. God did not step in to save him. We do not know how much Muhammad understood of Jesus’ resurrection, but whatever he did know, he clearly did not feel it was a sufficient vindication. This led to some of the most famous and often quoted verses of the Qur’an:
And for their [the Jews] saying, ‘We have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the Messenger of God.’ In fact, they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but it appeared to them as if they did. Indeed, those who differ about him are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it, except the following of assumptions. Certainly, they did not kill him. Rather, God raised him up to Himself. God is Mighty and Wise. (Sura 4:157-8)
The interpretation of these verses is not clear. It is often suggested that the phrase ‘but it appeared to them’ means that the appearance of Jesus was put on someone else, most likely Judas Iscariot, and that he was then crucified in Jesus’ place. Meanwhile, God rescued Jesus and took him up to heaven.
So here we see the stark difference between the Muslim and Christian concepts of a prophet. In Islam, the prophet ultimately triumphs in this world. His enemies are defeated and put to shame; he is victorious. He brings the people back to God. If they refuse, they are judged. If the prophet needs to use force, then so be it; he is justified in doing so in God’s cause. For the Christian, the prophet is indeed someone who brings God’s message, but he must be prepared to face rejection and suffering with no guarantee of triumph in this life. His reward will be with God. He will not impose his message by force, but only by preaching, love, prayer and example.