There is little doubt that at the beginning of his prophetic career Muhammad sincerely believed that he was called by God and was receiving God’s message for his people. He saw himself as one of a long line of prophets that began with Adam and included the great prophets of the Jews, but also Ishmael and two Arab prophets, Hud and Salih.
He thought therefore that his revelations were simply repeating and confirming the books that earlier prophets had brought:
It is God who sent down to you in truth the Book [i.e. the Qur’an] confirming what went before it; and He sent down the Torah and the Injil before as a guide to mankind… (Sura 3:3)
A famous verse encourages Muhammad to consult ‘those who have been reading the book from before you’ if he is in doubt concerning what has been revealed to him:
If you are in doubt about what we have revealed to you, then ask those who have been reading the book from before you… (Sura 10:94)
However, in Medina many Jews (for Muhammad had more contact with them than with Christians at this point) refused to accept Muhammad as a prophet. His attitude towards them became harsh and negative. In several Qur’anic passages he accused them of misusing their scriptures:
But because of their [the Jews] breach of the covenant, We [God] cursed them and made their hearts grow hard. They changed the words from their places and they have forgotten a good part of the message that was sent them… (Sura 5:14)
Scholars debate whether Muhammad was simply accusing them of verbal trickery as they read their scriptures to him or of making actual changes in the written text. But once Muhammad had achieved a position of power, it mattered little. The Qur’an was God’s authoritative word and, if there were contradictions with the previous books, the Qur’an was final.
As a result, Muslims today do not accept the Bible as a reliable book. They believe that it was God’s word once, but no more. It has been corrupted by the Jews and the Christians.
However, as Christians we have several effective lines of response. First, we may ask how man could change God’s word. Is man stronger than his creator?
Secondly, we have God’s promises to protect his word. Did not Jesus say: ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away’ (Luke 21:33)? Was Jesus mistaken?
Thirdly, we have the testimony of ancient manuscripts, with complete copies of the New Testament dating back to the fourth century, well before the time of Muhammad.
Finally, we can remind Muslims of the love of both Jews and Christians for their holy books. We are called ‘the people of the book’ in the Qur’an, and those who truly loved their books were ready to give their lives to preserve them in times of severe persecution.
Our goal is not to win an argument, but to encourage our Muslim friends to read the Bible for themselves. Once they begin to do this, the Bible will start to speak to them, ‘for God’s word is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart’ (Hebrews 4:12).