Divinely Inspired Ignorance?

How Muhammad failed the "test of a prophet" again and again

Jochen Katz

The Qur'an speaks of a certain encounter that Muhammad had with some Jews, and their arguments by which they resisted and rejected Muhammad and his message. In this passage (S. 3:181-185) we also find the following statement:

Those same men said, ‘God has made covenant with us, that we believe not any Messenger until he brings to us a sacrifice devoured by fire.’ Say: ‘Messengers have come to you before me bearing clear signs, and that you spoke of; why therefore did you slay them, if you speak truly?’ S. 3:183 Arberry

This is a somewhat cryptic statement that we need to unpack in order to understand what it means, and to see the reasons why it is wrong.

Obviously, this fire is not a usual fire that is lit by people to burn a sacrifice (or anything else), but a miraculous fire. It is supposed to be an authenticating sign given by God that this messenger is a true prophet of God; i.e. this verse refers to "fire from heaven". It is God himself who sends the fire to devour the sacrifice. This understanding is also reflected in many Muslim translations of this verse. I will quote only two:

Those (Jews) who said: "Verily, Allah has taken our promise not to believe in any Messenger unless he brings to us an offering which the fire (from heaven) shall devour." Say: "Verily, there came to you Messengers before me, with clear signs and even with what you speak of; why then did you kill them, if you are truthful?" Al-Hilali & Khan

(The same are) those who say: Lo! Allah hath charged us that we believe not in any messenger until he bring us an offering which fire (from heaven) shall devour. Say (unto them, O Muhammad): Messengers came unto you before me with miracles, and with that (very miracle) which ye describe. Why then did ye slay them? (Answer that) if ye are truthful! Pickthall

Whom is Muhammad talking about?

Which messenger brought fire from heaven to devour a sacrifice and was (then) slain by whom? The nearer and wider context of this verse makes it most likely that this refers to a dispute Muhammad had with some Jews (as also Al-Hilali & Khan indicate in their translation). Thus, the reference point for this discussion has to be the Jewish scriptures, the Old Testament of the Bible.

Biblical facts: It is true, there were several occasions on which God sent fire to devour a sacrifice prepared by a prophet, judge or king of Israel (Leviticus 9:23-24, Judges 6:20-22, 1 Chronicles 21:26, 2 Chronicles 7:1-3, 1 Kings 18). Moreover, the Bible speaks often about false prophets and gives the Children of Israel a number of criteria to distinguish false prophets from true prophets (1, 2). It is also correct that on one occasion fire from heaven consumed a sacrifice as a sign of confirmation for the divine authority of the prophet Elijah over against the prophets of the false god Baal (1 Kings 18).

However, "bringing a sacrifice devoured by fire from heaven" was never made a general criterion or a distinguishing sign that Israelites should demand from everyone who claims to be a prophet. No such command is in the Bible. Such a "covenant" does not exist. Moreover, the vast majority of the true prophets sent by God never experienced this particular miracle.

Therefore, we need to ask: Who lied?

The statement, ‘God has made covenant with us, that we believe not any Messenger until he brings to us a sacrifice devoured by fire’, was either a lie by these Jews, or the author of the Qur'an / Muhammad lied by putting this wrong statement into the mouth of the Jews, although they never made such a claim.

In the latter case, if Muhammad made up this false argument and put it into the mouth of the Jews, then he is a liar and is disqualified as a prophet from God. If the author of the Qur'an invents false statements about the Jews (or anyone else for that matter), then the Qur'an is exposed as cheap polemics, and it does not come from God who is the truth.

In the former case, Muhammad had the perfect occasion to show that he is truly inspired by God by exposing that the claim of these Jews is wrong. He could simply have said: "God tells me that you are lying. Show me where in your scriptures you are commanded this!" They would not have been able to show it. His opponents would have been silenced, and Muhammad would have gained credibility.

Excursus: Muhammad had to struggle over and over again with the problem that he was not able to do any miracles. He claimed to be a prophet from the same God who had sent the earlier prophets. On the one hand, he included many stories about the miracles done by these earlier prophets in his own message; on the other hand, he demanded from his audience to be accepted as another prophet like them but without showing any miracle that would authenticate his divine authority.

It is no surprise that Muhammad was confronted time and again with the sceptical question, "Why has no sign (miracle) been sent down upon him from his Lord?", or some similar formulation. Such questions are found in S. 2:118, 6:37, 10:20, 11:12, 13:7, 13:27, 20:133, 29:50. There are a number of different ways that Muhammad / the author of the Qur'an responds to such demands. One answer that is given a number of times is the claim that even if God were to send such miraculous signs, they would still not believe (2:145, 17:59, 28:48, 37:14-15), i.e. there is no point in giving miracles. (Muhammad and Miracles is a detailed article discussing the statements of the Quran on this matter.)

S. 3:183 belongs to this group of verses that seek to directly or indirectly divert the attention from Muhammad's lack of miracles by claiming that there is no point in giving them. Specifically, the demand of the Jews is answered here by a rhetorical question: Why do you demand a miracle when you killed the earlier prophets that performed various miracles for you, including the specific miracle which you are demanding from me?

Back to the main topic of this article. S. 3:183 reports an objectively wrong statement, an assertion that was allegedly made by some Jews who opposed Muhammad's claim to prophethood. We may never know whether these particular Jews tried to trick or deceive Muhammad with this "divine criterion", and the Qur'an only recorded this, or if Muhammad lied about the Jews.

Be that as it may, the question now is how does an inspired prophet respond to a false claim about God's earlier revelation? Even though Muhammad was not able to perform miracles, if he had exposed their false claim, he could have made some progress in regard to his own credibility.

However, instead of exposing their demand as a false claim, a fabrication, he attacks the honesty or sincerety of the questioners. Instead of dealing with the content of their criterion of prophethood, he uses an ad hominem approach in order to avoid the uncomfortable issue of his own authentication:

Those (Jews) who said: "Verily, Allah has taken our promise not to believe in any Messenger unless he brings to us an offering which the fire (from heaven) shall devour." Say: "Verily, there came to you Messengers before me, with clear signs and even with what you speak of; why then did you kill them, if you are truthful?" S. 3:183 Al-Hilali & Khan

These Jews put before Muhammad a criterion or test of prophethood that he was not able to satisfy. Seeing attack as his only way of defense, Muhammad in return questions their sincerety. The accusation and conclusion that is implicit in the rhetorical question given to them in response is this: Because you killed the prophets which came to you with miracles, you are not truthful and have therefore no right to question me. Suddenly the question is no longer what is the correct criterion for a true prophet, and whether Muhammad satisfies this criterion, but the issue now is the sincerety of the people questioning Muhammad.

Given that Muhammad was not able to show any miracles to authenticate his claim to be a true prophet of God, this was probably the best he could do. In some way, that was a clever move. Too bad that the Qur'an does not give any room for the comments of the Jews on Muhammad's diversion tactics. However, those skeptical Jews were a constant threat to Muhammad's credibility. He was not willing to tolerate that his authority be undermined by a repeated questioning of his status as a prophet. Therefore, Muhammad decided to get rid of them, and he expelled or killed all the Jews living in Medina in order to solve this problem once and for all, see the section on Muhammad and the Jews.

Viewing it as Muhammad's personal response, as coming from an imperfect human being, I can understand all that. However, Islam expects us to believe that the Qur'an is not Muhammad's word, but God's word. His answer to the claim of those Jews was allegedly not Muhammad's idea, but God told him to give this answer. And that causes considerable problems.

God knew exactly that the criterion put forward by these Jews was wrong. God never gave such a command, and he is not forgetful about his earlier revelations. God could have given a decisive answer that would have exposed them as fabricating a command of God.

Muhammad, on the other hand, was ignorant on the matter. He may have had a suspicion that these Jews tried to deceive him, but he was not sure, and their criterion could just as well be taken from their scriptures. Therefore, he could not directly charge them with deception in this specific matter. He ends his answer with "if you are truthful", which is not only part of his counterattack, but also an admission of his own ignorance. This is the first indication that the answer did not come from God but from Muhammad's mind.

Furthermore, the answer reveals not only the uncertainty of the author, it contains also a clear error and thus exposes his ignorance about certain facts of Biblical history. Muhammad does not only raise a question about the honesty and sincerety of these Jews, he also makes positive statements which can be checked against the Bible.

The answer, "Verily, there came to you Messengers before me, with clear signs and even with what you speak of; why then did you kill them, ...?" presents three statements as if they were facts:

  1. Messengers (from God) came to the Jews who brought clear signs, i.e. miracles.
  2. At least some of these came even with the specific sign that fire from heaven devoured a sacrifice that they had prepared.
  3. The Jews killed those messengers.

Whom is Muhammad talking about? What are the names of those alleged messengers? Again, Muhammad is not certain enough about the details, so he remains vague in his statements. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that this idea is inspired by the story of Elijah's confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel that is reported in 1 Kings 18 and belongs to the better known stories of the Bible. [Read at least 1 Kings 18:25-39 if you are not familiar with the story, but it would be even better to read the whole story of Elijah starting in 1 Kings 16:29.]

The first statement is true: God sent messengers / prophets to the Israelites and some of them God confirmed with miracles.

The second statement is questionable: The Qur'an seems to speak about a plurality of messengers who prepared a sacrifice that was then devoured by fire which was sent directly by God as a public confirmation that these are true prophets.

However, Elijah was the only prophet to whom this sign was given before a skeptical audience so that the people should see that Elijah's God was the true God, and that Elijah was truly sent by God.

There were a number of further occasions where a sacrifice was devoured by fire sent by God, but in none of these cases did it serve the purpose of confirming the prophet as being a true prophet. In Leviticus 9:23-24 fire from the Lord devours the sacrifice prepared by Aaron according to the instructions of Moses. However, Moses had already done many miracles and the people did not doubt his divine authority. The fire did not come to confirm Moses as a prophet. The occasion was the inauguration of the priestly service of Aaron and his sons. In Judges 6:20-22 we read that Gideon's offering is consumed by fire from the Lord, but it is a sign only for Gideon to confirm for him that it is really the Lord who is speaking to him. It is not a sign that Gideon brings to the people. There is nobody else present. In 1 Chronicles 21:26 God sent fire on the sacrifice after David's prayer of repentance as sign that God had accepted David's repentance for the sin he had committed. David was the king of Israel and nobody questioned his authority. The fire was not to confirm David as prophet or king, but to show him that his repentance and sacrifice was accepted by God. Finally, in 2 Chronicles 7:1-3 God sent fire from heaven in response to Solomon's prayer at the dedication of the Temple. Again, there was no question about Solomon's authority. He was the king. God gave this fire as a sign that he accepted the Temple as the place where his presence would dwell.

There was only one time when God authenticated a prophet before the people by sending fire on a sacrifice, and that was the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). The second statement is wrong when it claims this was given as a sign of public authentification for several messengers.

The third statement is definitely false: Even if we allow all the above given names of people who experienced that God sent fire to devour their sacrifice (Moses, Aaron, Gideon, David, Solomon, Elijah), there is not even one among them who was killed by the Jews. Ironically, the only prophet whom this miracle was given as confirmation, did not even die on this earth, but was taken up to heaven by God (2 Kings 2:11). It is true that there were plans to kill Elijah, but it was not the Jews who tried to kill him. Ahab, the king of Israel, had married Jezebel, a foreign woman who brought an idolatrous pagan religion with her. She sought to kill Elijah after he had defeated and killed the false prophets of Baal (1 Kings 19:1-2). However, God protected Elijah and, eventually, Elijah was taken to heaven without dying (2 Kings 2:11).

As so often, the author of the Qur'an messed up on the details of the Biblical stories. It is true that a number of prophets sent to the Jews were persecuted and some even killed. It is also true that there were some men of God who experienced that fire from the Lord devoured their sacrifice. However, not one of those men of God who were given the sign of "fire from heaven devouring their sacrifice" were killed by the Jews.

God certainly knew this. But Muhammad was ignorant about the details and often confused the Biblical stories (*). This error is again strong evidence that Muhammad himself is the author, and it was not God who gave him this response as an answer to the Jews.

Again, the answer to the Jews was made up by Muhammad, and the error contained in it exposes the ignorance of the author. This is a false claim in the Qur'an and it constitutes evidence that Muhammad fabricated himself[1] what he claimed to have received as divine revelation. To claim that God is the author of the Qur'an is an insult to God, because it means to ascribe ignorance to God and blame him for the errors in the Qur'an.

Without question, the issue of testing a prophet is very important. In the Bible God spoke several times about the matter of how to discern true prophets from false prophets (1, 2). Muhammad was confronted with this question a number of times, but this core issue was only evaded by the author of the Quran. The Jews came with a criterion. Why has Allah not corrected their wrong criterion and given the right criterion? Instead, Muhammad simply evaded the matter with an ad hominem attack on the questioner. That is not what I would expect from God. It is unworthy of God. That observation also points to Muhammad as the originator of this text. Muhammad did not have an answer on this matter.[2]

A possible Muslim objection

Some Muslims may try to avoid the charge that Muhammad's answer in the Qur'an was ignorant by claiming either that the Bible is wrong on Elijah, or that this passage does not talk about Elijah but about some other prophets whose story is not recorded in the Old Testament.

This explanation does not work. After all, Muhammad's counterattack will only be able to silence the Jews if they know what he is talking about. If they are not aware of any prophet who brought fire from heaven and which was then killed by the Jews, Muhammad's answer will not be able to convince them, but only make them laugh about his ignorance. And what the Jews know about their prophets is found in their scriptures. The answer presupposes that this is a known fact among the Jews. But Muhammad was wrong in this assumption. Again, I would love to know what these Jews said in response, whether in direct response to Muhammad, or only among themselves, but the Qur'an does not report that.

An internal contradiction

We have seen that the third statement above is false according to the Bible. However, it is worse than that. The author of the Qur'an does not only say that "some Jews (in the past) killed those messengers" but "why then did YOU kill them", addressing the questioners directly. This is not only factually wrong, it also contradicts the teaching of Islam in other passages of the Qur'an.

According to Islam there is no original sin and no one is accused or punished for what his parents did. We know that during Muhammad's time there were no prophets sent to the Jews. Nevertheless, in this verse Muhammad is accusing the Jews of his time of killing the prophets. This contradicts his own message and theology. This matter is discussed in more detail in footnote 2 of the companion article, Which Prophets Did the Jews Kill?

How Muhammad failed the test in multiple ways

Some Jews came to Muhammad and confronted him with a test of his prophethood. This is only fair, since Muhammad demanded from them that they would accept him as a prophet, and the Bible tells us that we should test everyone who comes claiming to be a prophet. This encounter became a test of Muhammad's prophethood in several ways, and Muhammad failed in all respects.

First, Muhammad failed because he did not satisfy the criterion of a physical miracle to authenticate his claim to be a prophet of God like the earlier prophets. The Jews were wrong to demand only this one specific sign of "fire that devoures a sacrifice", but their scriptures report how God regularly confirmed his true prophets with miracles. The Jews were certainly justified to expect that a genuine prophet of God would have a confirming supernatural sign.

Muhammad was not able to bring any miracles of the kind given to the earlier prophets, neither fire from heaven, nor any other supernatural sign.

Second, even if the claim of the Jews that God's test is fire from heaven was wrong, being faced with a false claim is a test in itself. Perhaps this was even intentional, i.e. the test which the Jews brought was not on the surface of their claim; they didn't actually want to see supernatural fire, but they wanted to see whether Muhammad was able to give an answer to their trick question that exhibited divine insight. Intentional or not, Muhammad failed this "test behind the test" because he did not recognize that the criterion was not genuine.

Third, Muhammad failed because his answer contained a factually wrong statement that exposed his ignorance of the Bible. The Jews didn't kill any prophet who had brought the miracle of fire from God which devoured a sacrifice.

And it doesn't help Muhammad at all that he attributed his wrong answer to God. On the contrary, by doing so he exposed himself as a false prophet.

The first two failures may be specific to this particular encounter, but the third one we see over and over again in the Qur'an. Muhammad was not a prophet from God because his allegedly divine revelation contains numerous false statements ranging from apparently small numerical inaccuracies, e.g. the age of Noah (*), to more substantial errors regarding the history of Israel and the Jewish prophets (like the one discussed in this present article) to grave misrepresentations of essential doctrines of the Christian Faith, like the crucifixion of Jesus (*), his divine sonship (*), and the doctrine of the Trinity (*).

In addition to that there is the questionable morality of Muhammad (endorsing marriage to minors in general and having sex with a nine-year old himself, the assassination of his critics, etc.), his being a victim of magic, etc., see the articles listed in the section on the person of Muhammad (*).


1. If we recognize that Muhammad fabricated revelation and put forged words in the mouth of God, then it becomes a definite possibility that he may as well have forged the whole thing and put false claims into the mouth of the Jews, even though they never said this. However, this is only a side note, Muhammad failed the test of a true prophet in either case. The main purpose of this verse may actually be something else. This verse belongs to a series of similar verses. It is one of Muhammad's frequent attacks against the Jews, see the article Which Prophets Did the Jews Kill?

2. In fact, the issue of false prophets is totally absent from the Quran. In my opinion, the reason is obvious: Muhammad preferred not to stir up trouble. If he gave criteria, people could wake up to the fact that prophets are not simply to be believed but that God expects the believers to test people who claim to be prophets. Claims to prophethood are to be questioned and closely examined. Muhammad could not risk that. God's true prophets never had to fear such questioning. Only false prophets have a problem in this regard. And it is obvious that Muhammad did not like the idea that people would evaluate his claim to prophethood based on objective criteria.

Contradictions in the Qur'an
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