Did Moses prophesy the coming of Muhammad? A look at Deut. 18

A typical Muslim claim is that Muhammad is not simply another prophet claiming to correct or purify or complete the revelation of Jesus Christ, such as Joseph Smith or Mani or Sun Myung Moon, or any of the plethora of others which Christ himself anticipated and warned against accepting. Instead, Muhammad is claimed by the Qur’an (and thus by the faithful Muslim) to have been anticipated by the Bible itself. Two relevant passages, often quoted to this effect, from the Qur’an are from Surah al-A’raaf, and Surah as-Saff.

“Those who follow the unlettered messenger-prophet, whose name they find written in the Taurat and the Injil…”
~Surah (al-A’raaf) 7:157

“When Jesus the son of Mary said: “O Children of Israel! Verily I am a messenger of God to you confirming what is before you of the Torah and bearing the glad tidings of a Messenger who shall come after me whose name is Ahmed, but when he (Ahmed) came to them, they said: “This is a manifest sorcery!”
~Surah (as-Saff) 61:6

Naturally Christians and Jews have always found this to be a bold and curious claim. Notice that the first passage actually implies that the prophet’s name itself is found in the Torah or Gospels (though Ingil can also refer to the New Testament). Now, this claim is one which is supported, sometimes, with a host of eclectic arguments with which Christians are seldom familiar.

For instance, we can turn to the way Christ prophesies the coming of (outpouring of) the Holy Spirit upon the Church when he said:

“ο δε παρακλητος το πνευμα το αγιον ο πεμψει ο πατηρ εν τω ονοματι μου εκεινος υμας διδαξει παντα και υπομνησει υμας παντα α ειπον υμιν”

“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”
~John 14:26

The argument will go roughly as follows: first, the Muslim will say that this refers not to the Holy Spirit, but to the prophet Muhammad. The argument is that the Greek word ‘Paraklitos’ used above may have morphed over time (given scribal errors) from another quite different word: ‘Periklutos’. This argument is hard to swallow since the same form ‘Parakletos’ is used elsewhere (see John 14:16; 15:26; 16:7). So then the argument becomes that Christian scribes changed it intentionally, which is even harder to swallow when considering that out of all of the variant readings among the thousands upon thousands of manuscripts we have, no such variant is attested. The argument is, however, that if the word Periklutos had been used by Jesus then it would translate to him saying that the ‘Praised one’ would come after him. In Arabic, this would be the name ‘Ahmed’ which though it is not quite the same as the name Muhammad, has the same three (consonantal?) root letters. Thus, it is a reference to Muhammad, just as Surah 61:6 said (or so it is argued). This reading, however, is over-ambitious. Not only does it not fit the context of John 14, in which Jesus is consoling his immediate disciples and promising to send the Paraklitos/Periklutos to them, but it seems impossible to imagine that the original author of the Gospel of John anticipated any other prophet to come after Jesus. The very structure and content of the rest of the Gospel, along with the curious absence of any (other) references to a coming prophet after Jesus, militate against the original reading of the verse being of a ‘praised one’. Nevermind that in the New Testament Jesus himself warns his followers that many false prophets will come after him in his name who will deceive many (Matthew 24:11), and the New Testament, in the Pauline epistles, enjoins steadfast faith on Christians such that even if an Apostle or an Angel were to preach any other Gospel than the one revealed to them they ought to regard it as a false Gospel (Galatians 1:8) because of how strongly Jesus warned of coming false prophets. Nevermind  that historically there just were no Christians or Gnostic groups who anticipated another prophet to come after Jesus, nor did any early Christian documents, whether from Apostolic Fathers, Ante-Nicene Fathers, or pseudepigraphical works. Even without these historical problems, the exegetical problem alone seems sufficient to dismiss this suggestion, since the original Gospel of John cannot be thought to have involved an anticipation of a prophet after Jesus’ time. One would at best have to argue that the saying of Jesus which circulated in the free oral tradition was eventually misheard and written down by the original author of the Gospel of John wrongly, but in that case the Muslim would be mistaken in identifying this passage as an instance of Muhammad’s name being contained in the pages of the New Testament.

This is just one example of how some Muslims have tried to locate Muhammad in the pages of the Biblical text.

It behooves us to ask, therefore, what of other passages in the Bible, and specifically, what to make of this claim that Muhammad is predicted even in the Torah? Well, the most popular passage to which Muslims look to ground the claim that Muhammad is prophesied even in the Torah is Deuteronomy 18, where Moses predicts the coming of a prophet like himself.

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: ‘If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.’ Then the Lord replied to me: ‘They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.’ You may say to yourself, ‘How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?’ If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.
~Deuteronomy 18:15-22

This passage is applied explicitly to Christ in the New Testament in St. Stephen’s speech before his martyrdom (which made him the first Christian Martyr). There it becomes clear that Christ himself is this prophet (of course Christians believe that Christ is a prophet as well, just as we believe he was also an Apostle – see Hebrews 3:1).

There are several points which the Christian can make in order to evacuate this Muslim claim of any persuasiveness. First, we can point out that the passage prophesies that this prophet like Moses would come “from among your brethren,” meaning from one of the tribes of Israel. Some Muslim apologists have argued that this phrase ‘from among your brethren’ refers not to the Jewish people at all, but rather to the Arab people, precisely because the Arabs are the ‘brethren’ of the Jewish people. However, there is no precedence for this, as the Torah only ever seems to refer to members of the twelve tribes in this way. For example, within Deuteronomy itself we can see the phrase being used this way, such as:

You shall surely set a king over you whom the Lord your God chooses; one from among your brethren you shall set as king over you; you may not set a foreigner over you, who is not your brother.
~Deuteronomy 17:15

 

However, we need not even look elsewhere in the book of Deuteronomy, but in the preamble to the very prophesy from verses 15-22, we find the term ‘brethren’ being used less ambiguously:

The priests, the Levites—all the tribe of Levi—shall have no part nor inheritance with Israel; they shall eat the offerings of the Lord made by fire, and His portion. Therefore they shall have no inheritance among their brethren; the Lord is their inheritance, as He said to them.
~Deuteronomy 18:1-2

It is clear that the pericope in Deuteronomy 18 is using ‘brethren’ to refer to the tribes of Israel other than the Levites. Moreover, we have to note that the prophet was to arise precisely for the Jewish people: “I will raise up for them…” (i.e., for the people of Israel). It seems implausible to suggest that the Prophet Muhammad was one whom God raised up for the people of Israel, especially given the context: the Jews had just besought the Lord their God, through Moses, to no longer manifest his presence among them by appearing as he had done at Horeb where his power was manifested by a great and terrible voice and a great fire (Deuteronomy 4:10-15). God made his presence known to the Israelites and they found it too terrible to bear. However, notice that God, according to Moses, saw that what his people had said was good, and intended instead to manifest his presence in the mouth and ministry of a prophet to come. Christians believe, as the pages of the New Testament reflect, that Jesus was this long-awaited prophet, and that in Jesus the full presence of God is manifested and tabernacles among men. Thus, it seems fitting that in order for God to manifest his presence in communion with his people, in a way alternative to the fire at Horeb, he did so by taking upon himself the human condition, which is what Christians believe God did and does in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. However, questions of Christology aside, it seems absurd to suggest that somehow God planned to make his presence among his people evident by sending a prophet who was not from Israel, to a people who were not descendants of those to whom Moses was speaking.

However, more to the point, the pericope of Deuteronomy 18:15-22 has a corresponding  pericope in the very closing words of the Torah. The closing words of the Torah read as follows:

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequalled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.
~Deuteronomy 34:10-12

The Torah’s very last words are interestingly anticipatory, and the attention is turned from Moses, to a prophet coming after him who would be like him. It seems obvious that these last words of the Torah are referring back to the figure of Moses’ prophesy, and are elaborating or reiterating the anticipation alluded to earlier – almost as though this prophet to come was he for whom the Torah and Moses were to be heralds. The passage also outlines the ways in which the Jewish people expected the coming prophet to be ‘like Moses’ (sometimes Muslims will create lists of ways in which Jesus and Muhammad were similar to Moses, and thus argue that Muhammad had more similarities – but the key here, as Deuteronomy makes clear, were significant similarities, including a ministry demonstrating the power which Moses’ ministry had in the sight of all of Israel). However, if this passage at the end of the Torah is referring back to Deuteronomy 18, then the Torah itself clarifies what ‘from among your brethren’ referred to, as it says here explicitly that the anticipation was for “a prophet [arisen] in Israel.”

In conclusion, it seems evident upon careful exegesis that Deuteronomy 18:15-22 cannot be used to situate some prophetic prediction of the prophet of Islam. This doesn’t mean there may not be other passages (though I maintain there are not), but it does at least mean, if my arguments are good, that these passages we’ve looked at (Deuteronomy 18:15-22 and John 14:26) cannot be cited as passages in which Muhammad is referred to.

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About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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