Why did Muhammad briefly become a polytheist?
Excerpt from Chapter 15: Mecca
What Muslims call the “satanic verses” aren’t in the Koran. At least, they aren’t anymore. According to Muslim tradition, they were uttered by the Prophet and thus entered scripture, but were expunged when he realized they had been inspired by Satan.
The verses involve three goddesses—Al-Lat, Al-’Uzza, and Manat—who had a big following in Arabia and whom some pagans considered daughters of Allah. Acknowledging their existence and power would have made it easier for Muhammad to do business with their adherents, and some of their adherents were influential. A nearby town where some Meccan elites owned property featured a shrine to Al-Lat.
Apparently Muhammad succumbed to the temptation. In the now expunged utterance, he said of the three goddesses that they are “exalted,” adding: “And truly their intercession may be expected.”
This concession seems to have proved in one sense or another ill advised. Maybe the pagans rebuffed Muhammad’s overture, and maybe his followers rebelled at his apostasy. (According to Muslim tradition, pagans applauded the initiative but then Muhammad got negative feedback from the angel Gabriel.) In any event, the sura was amended. Today it calls these goddesses not “exalted” but “mere names,” and there’s no mention of them having the power to intercede in anything.
The idea of Muhammad turning suddenly polytheistic doesn’t fit easily into Muslim tradition, and it is precisely this “theological inconvenience”—the label we put on comparable Christian and Jewish anomalies in chapter 10—that gives the story credibility. As the seminal twentieth-century scholar of Islam Montgomery Watt put it, the story is “so strange that it must be true in essentials.”
And certainly the moral of the story makes sense: when people see the prospect of non-zero-sum interaction across religious bounds, tolerance grows. Hopes of fruitful alliance tempted Muhammad to forsake monotheism.
Even in Meccan suras that didn’t get expunged, there are signs of Muhammad trying to build interfaith coalitions. He seems, for starters, to be reaching out to Jews. The evidence for this doesn’t lie in his extensive reference to Jewish scripture. (It is natural that he’d cite the Judeo-Christian Bible as authority for his otherwise radical pronouncements, given its connection to the august and cosmopolitan Byzantine Empire.) Rather, the evidence lies in the fact that while in Mecca he says nothing bad about the Jews and says some flattering things about their ancestors. God, in his “prescience,” chose “the children of Israel … above all peoples.”
And in a sura normally dated late in the Meccan period, Muhammad seems eager to reach an accommodation with both Jews and Christians. The sura explains how to relate to recipients of “earlier revelations.” Muslims are not to argue with them “unless in the mildest manner” (though if the Christian or Jew in question has behaved “injuriously toward you” no such reserve is in order). Instead, they should emphasize common ground: “We believe in what hath been sent down to us and hath been sent down to you. Our God and your God is one.”
In short, Muhammad was a savvy politician, eager to build coalitions, mindful of muting differences that would impede that project.…