David S. Powers


On his book Muhammad is Not the Father of any of Your Men: The Making of the Last Prophet

Cover Interview of September 03, 2009

A close-up

The non-specialist who is browsing through the book should turn to chapter one, where I discuss the foundation narratives of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  It is interesting that all three narratives are formulated in the idiom of family relationships.  In all three cases, it is the same family that is the subject of the respective narratives, albeit at a different stage in history.  Genealogical connections are critical.  Just as Jesus is said to have been a lineal descendant of Abraham through David, Muhammad is said to have been a lineal descendent of Abraham through Ishmael.

Narratives about domestic relations within the household of the founder are the stage upon which key theological doctrines are performed.  The biblical doctrine of divine election emerges from the story of Abraham’s relationship with his wife Sarah, his concubine Hagar, and his sons Ishmael and Isaac.  Similarly, the Christian doctrine of divine sonship emerges from the details of domestic relations within the household of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.  In both cases, the father-son motif is linked to the theme of sacrifice: God tested Abraham by ordering him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac; and God the Father did sacrifice His beloved son Jesus.  The parallel is no coincidence.  The Christian claim to supersede Judaism is closely related to the narrative dynamics of the Israelite family saga.

The revelations received by Muhammad were intended to restore the religion of Abraham, which had been only imperfectly preserved by Jews and Christians.  At the same time that the Qur’an confirms the general contents of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, it also corrects errors that are said to have crept into the earlier sacred scriptures.  It is important to note that in the Qur’an, prophecy is portrayed as the exclusive possession of a single family that includes Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, and Jesus. In other words, the office is hereditary.

In light of the importance of Abraham and Jesus in the Qur’an, one might expect to find a variant of the father-son cum sacrifice motif in the Islamic foundation narrative.  If so, this expectation is disappointed.  Muhammad is said to have had thirteen wives and concubines, with whom he produced four daughters and four sons.  All four of his sons, however, are said to have died before reaching the age of maturity.  Thus, God apparently could not test the Prophet by instructing him to sacrifice any of his sons.

In Muhammad Is Not the Father of any of Your Men, I argue that Muhammad’s sonlessness was a theological imperative and that, initially, the father-son motif did play a key role in the formation of the Islamic foundation narrative.  Whereas the sons of the Jewish foundation narrative (Ishmael and Isaac) are the natural born offspring of their father, and the son of the Christian narrative is the supernaturally born Son of his Father, the son of the Islamic narrative—a man named Zayd—is the adopted son of his father.

The existence of Zayd is known to most Muslims, although no theological significance is attached to the father-son relationship.  Similarly, students of Islamic history are familiar with Zayd, although no scholar has attempted to explain Muhammad’s relationship with his adopted son in the context of the father-son motif that plays such an important role in Judaism and Christianity.

It is this adopted son of Muhammad’s who stands at the center of my book.  Although Zayd may have been an historical figure, the narratives about him are best seen, in my view, as artful literary compositions.  In these narratives, Zayd’s primary function—indeed, one might say, his sole function—is to make it possible for Muhammad to become the Last Prophet.  He was a resounding success.