Thursday, October 3, 2019

'Muhammad in the Bible': A Reply

The other day, I came across what I'll call a 'poster' - an image, given below - purporting to diagram an assortment of references to "Muhammad in the Bible."  It deserves a response.  (I suspect that this 'poster' is derived from the work of Muslim apologist Jamal Badawi, known to use a very similar range of proof-texts and sources; but whether he himself distilled it into this picture, I won't profess to know.  So it will henceforth just be the 'poster' or the 'Islamic apologetics poster,' and its creator deemed anonymous.)

Before I give a response, I'd like to say that I have at times discouraged budding Christian apologists from indulging in mere catenas of 'proof-texts' from Muslim sources - lists of bare citations to different ayat in the Qur'an or assorted ahadith.  It behooves a critic of Islam, in approaching Islamic texts, to at least try to approach them responsibly.  That means attending to the historical and cultural setting, and it means checking to see how Islamic scholars have commented on that ayah or hadith.  Otherwise, we're just showing our ignorance, and the likelihood of making an embarrassing misstep - and thus undermining the credibility of whatever else we have to say - is increased.

Just the same, it would be wise - if not even wiser - for Muslim apologists to take greater care when turning to Christian literature!  A proof-texting approach is likely going to lead to an embarrassing misstep and undermining the credibility of what the Muslim apologist wishes to defend.  Rather, a Muslim apologist needs to approach Christian texts responsibly.  That means taking note of the historical and cultural setting of each passage.  It also means reading that verse in its literary context.  It also means attending to the subsequent history of interpretation, particularly how Christian biblical scholars have handled that passage.  I would submit that the following 'Islamic apologetics poster' is a prime case of how not to do it:

(Before proceeding, may I just note, first, that 'Ezekiel' is interposed between Aaron and David?  That is a weak grasp on biblical chronology, every bit as much so as it would be to, say, put Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328) before Ali ibn Abi Talib (601-661)!  And yet this distorted chronology can be found perpetrated by the medieval Muslim historian Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (839-923), whose account of Israelite leadership in his famed Tarikh moves from Joshua to Caleb to Ezekiel.  The refusal here to rectify al-Tabari's error reveals, I think, the mindset underlying this poster - and already it does not impress the discerning observer.)

Some of the references here are not, evidently, claimed to be direct references to Muhammad, so far as I can tell.  They merely highlight references to Ishmael in biblical history.  Such, for instance, is the dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael into the desert, demanded by Sarah in Genesis 21:10 ("Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac"), and the subsequent promise that Ishmael would produce a powerful nation, as per Genesis 21:18 ("Lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation"; cf. also Genesis 17:20).  It should be noted that many nations are described as "great nations."  The Babylonians are a 'great nation' ("Behold, a people is coming from the north country, a great nation is stirring from the farthest parts of the earth; they lay hold on bow and javelin, they are cruel and have no mercy, the sound of them is like the roaring sea, they ride on horses, set in array as a man for battle, against you, O daughter of Zion" [Jeremiah 6:22-23]), but also ultimately opposed by a group of 'great nations' ("I am stirring up and bringing against Babylon a gathering of great nations, from the north country, and they shall array themselves against her" [Jeremiah 50:9]).  So, too, the Assyrians had presided over a confederacy of 'great nations' ("Under its shadow lived all great nations" [Ezekiel 31:6]).  (Naturally, then, spiritual 'greatness' is not in view, and so no implications regarding Muhammad can be intended in Genesis 21:18.)

The poster also provides citations for certain locations, and it is unclear whether the author intends to offer those as prophetic references to Muhammad or not.  Such, for instance, is the citation to two verses mentioning Paran.  Ishmael came at first to dwell in the desert of Paran ("He lived in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt" [Genesis 21:21]), though (nota bene) the text does not explicitly say that either Ishmael or the majority of his descendants continued to dwell in the desert of Paran; and God is said to have "shone forth from Mount Paran" (Deuteronomy 33:2).  But this latter point does later get incorporated into an apologetic argument, so we'll deal with it in its canonical position.

Q:  Deuteronomy 18:18 predicts the rise of a prophet 'from among your brothers.'  The Israelites were descended from Abraham's son Isaac, whereas Muhammad descended from Isaac's brother Ishmael.  So, is Deuteronomy 18:18 a specific prediction of Muhammad as a prophet born from the Ishmaelites?

This argument has been a part of Islamic apologetics for a long time - since the caliphate of al-Mahdi (r. 775-785), at least, given that the record of the Church of the East patriarch Timothy I's dialogue with al-Mahdi (the third Abbasid caliph) presents al-Mahdi as using it (and, in the next caliph's reign, Ibn al-Layth appealed to it as well), as did Ali ibn Sahl Rabban al-Tabari (c.838-c.870) in the ninth century.  A few hundred years later, in the twelfth century, the Christian writer Dionysius Bar Salibi (d. 1171) still had to counter it in his Response to the Arabs.  In the thirteenth century, Shihab al-Din al-Qarafi (1228-1285) continued making the same argument, as did Shams al-Din Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Abi Talib al-Ansari al-Dimashqi (1256-1327) in the fourteenth century and Jewish convert Abd al-Salam al-Muhtadi at the close of the fifteenth century.  And so it has continued down through the years, and appeals to Deuteronomy 18 have been made by modern Muslim apologists like Ahmad Deedat (1918-2005), Jamal Badawi, Zakir Naik, Ali Ataie, Kais al-Kalby, and plenty of others.

It first has to be said that, although the Ishmaelites, in biblical genealogy, did have an ancestral relation to the Israelites (in being descended from Isaac's older half-brother), they were not the closest in relation (and were, in fact, matched by several other nations in terms of genealogical proximity).  Isaac had two sons, Jacob and Esau - the former was the ancestor of the Israelites, the latter was the ancestor of the Edomites.  (To Jacob and Esau, the sons of Ishmael mentioned in Genesis 25:13-15, including Nebaioth and Kedar, both of whom are claimed by different putative genealogies as Muhammad's patrilineal ancestor.  We might also note that, per Genesis 25:1-4, Abraham had a number of later children who, as half-brothers to Isaac, stand in the same relation to Israel as did Ishmael; and this includes Midian, while Sheba and Dedan have the same relation to Israel as do Nebaioth and Kedar.)

So the Edomites stood in closer genealogical relation than the Ishmaelites did to Israel, and so if this verse were predicted a foreign prophet from a related nation, then we would have more right to expect an Edomite/Idumean prophet than an Ishmaelite prophet.  (Timothy I made this point to al-Mahdi, saying, "The Israelites have many other brethren besides the Arabs."  Similarly, Bar-Salibi, stressing that "the Idumaeans are related to the Hebrews" but are nonetheless Gentiles.  So al-Dimashqi was plainly wrong to later write that "the people of Israel have no brothers except the people of Ishmael."  The Edomites are a chief counterexample, to which the Midianites, Sabaeans, and Dedanites/Lihyanites might also be added.)  Indeed, in just this sense, it was possible to refer to the Edomites as Israel's brothers: "You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother" (Deuteronomy 23:7; cf. Numbers 20:14; Amos 1:9-11; Obadiah 10).  So if the text required that 'your brothers' refer to a genealogically linked non-Israelite nation and excluded the Israelites themselves (which is how many Islamic apologists throughout the centuries have assumed Deuteronomy 18 must be read), even then there is little ground for supposing a descendant of Kedar or Nebaioth to be the clear referent; and so the Islamic apologist's work would still be incomplete.  (Biblically speaking, only the Edomites, as fellow descendants of Isaac and not just of Abraham, are suggested to be a 'brother'-nation to Israel; and this, too, suggests that Ishmaelites might not have been thought of in those terms, might not have 'made the cut' to begin with.  Ali Ataie attempts to get around this by laying claim to Esau as "a progenitor of the Arab peoples" (!), but fails to provide evidence either for the Edomites being regarded as 'Arab' or for Muhammad as an Edomite.)

But, in fact, this verse's phrase "from among your brothers" is not a reference to a separate nation, but is a reference to the Israelites themselves.  The Israelites are one another's "brothers," in Deuteronomic language.  They are told that "if among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within the land that Yahweh your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother" (Deuteronomy 15:7).  This is referring to a fellow Israelite (not an Edomite, Midianite, Shebaite, Dedanite, or Ishmaelite).  Just a few verses later, the text refers to "your brother, a Hebrew man or Hebrew woman" (Deuteronomy 15:12), and the two passages form part of a single unit on sabbatical years - a practice operative within the Israelite community.  A couple chapters later, when the subject of kingship over Israel is introduced, the command is that "one from among your brothers you shall set as king over you; you may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother" (Deuteronomy 17:15).  Here again, 'from among your brothers' must indicate a fellow-Israelite - as, indeed, even Islamic tradition agrees that Israelites were kings over Israel, in the Qur'anic retellings of the stories of Saul (Talut), David (Dawud), and Solomon (Sulayman).  Shortly thereafter, in a section discussing provisions for the Levites and, as a subset thereof, the priests, the text indicates that the Levites "shall have no inheritance among their brothers" (Deuteronomy 18:2).  Who are the Levites' "brothers" here?  The remainder of Israel.  (See also Hebrews 7:5.)

(So, as we can see, the Edomites were designated as "brothers" only in contexts that called for appeals to kinship as a basis for non-hostility between the two separate groups, for which purpose a more extended sense of kinship proved useful.  But these other passages, on the other hand, concern the positive duties and privileges of co-membership in the one nation - Israel - that constitutes the covenantal community.  Deuteronomy 18:18 is very clearly aligned with the latter usage rather than the former.)

All of this indicates why it is implausible to assume that Deuteronomy 18:18's reference to "your brothers" is a reference to a separate Abraham-descended nation.  Rather, the only natural reading of the phrase is intra-Israelite, just as in Deuteronomy 15:12 and 17:15.  Deuteronomy 18:18 cannot be a prophecy of an Ishmaelite prophet like Muhammad ibn Abdullah.  Commentators are agreed as they read the text at 18:18 - as Peter Craigie notes, the phrase requires that "true prophets are native Israelites"; as Daniel Block notes, "the prophets would be fellow Israelites"; as J. Gordon McConville notes, "the immediate qualification of the prophet, as of the king, is that he shall be an Israelite."  This agreement is widespread because it is a certitude.

This is even more strongly confirmed when we read the verse in its immediate literary context.  After treating the provision for the Levites, we come to a passage in which the Israelites are told more about the guidance they will receive "when you come into the land that Yahweh your God is giving you" (Deuteronomy 18:9).  In particular, the pseudo-revelatory practice of the pagan nations are ruled out: no divination, no fortune-telling, no omen-interpretation, no necromancy.  The Israelites are not allowed "to listen to fortune-tellers and diviners" (Deuteronomy 18:14).  Instead, when it comes to revelatory practices, they are to listen to Yahweh's appointed prophets, who will emerge not from their neighboring nations (as pagan pseudo-revelatory figures did) but specifically out of the Israelite community: "Yahweh your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers - it is to him you shall listen - just as you desired of Yahweh your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, 'Let me not hear again the voice of Yahweh my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.'  And Yahweh said to me, 'They are right in what they have spoken.  I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers.  And I will put my words in my mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him'" (Deuteronomy 18:15-18).  Thereafter, God offers regulations for judging prophets as false: "when a prophet speaks in the name of Yahweh, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that Yahweh has not spoken" (Deuteronomy 18:22).

What is happening here?  In its literary context, Deuteronomy is sketching a system of checks and balances among the assorted institutions in Israelite society: monarchy, judiciary, priesthood, and prophecy being among them.  An excellent treatment of this may be found in the second chapter of Joshua Berman's book Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought.  Each of the people fulfilling those roles is chosen in a distinct way, each has prerogatives, and each has dutiful limits.  Berman describes this as "a collective power strategy" or "collective power structure."  As he reads the present passage on "the jurisdiction of the prophet," he observes that the repeated thrust about the prophet being drawn "from your midst, from your brethren" is meant to emphasize that "he is not the member of any elite lineage, does not possess inherent powers, but rather, an ordinary citizen.  Though the prophet receives divine communication, he never participates in the cult in order to communicate with the Lord.  Nor does this inspired individual play any role whatever in the justice system.  The emphasis on the citizenry as the ultimate authoritative body is seen here as well, as the prophet's validation is determined by the people (18:20-22), not by the priests, the king, the judges, the elders, or other prophets" (71).

So this passage, at least on first blush, points to all true Israelite prophets who were to come - to the Israelite recognition of prophethood itself as such, as a relevant institution in Israelite society.  And we find this recognized in Jewish traditions of interpretation, as in the rabbinic remark: "From that time on, the Israelites merited that prophets should be raised among them, as it is said, 'I will raise thee up a prophet.' - I was going to raise up a prophet from among them in the future, but by their merits they brought it about sooner" (Mekilta de Rabbi Ishmael, Bahodesh 9).

And yet it's also very true that interpretation of the passage came to recognize that this line of prophets was leading somewhere - that there was a telos, a greater specific prophet toward whom it was leading.  Some Jewish thinkers associated this with a particular Old Testament prophet - for instance, Rabbi Judah bar Simon in the fourth century (a couple centuries before Muhammad's birth) suggested that the text was indicating Jeremiah (see Pesikta de Rab Kahana 13.6).  But an eschatological reading was more common.  The Jewish community at Qumran, for instance, maintained already in the first century BC that their community would abide by its original rule "until there come the Prophet and the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel" (1QS 9.11; see also, from the same place and century, 4Q175 1.5-8, which quotes Deuteronomy 18:18-19 in an eschatological florilegium).  Similarly, a few hundred years later in the second-century Jewish text Testament of Benjamin 9.2, "the twelve tribes ... and all the nations" are exhorted to look forward to "such time as the Most High shall send forth his salvation through the ministration of the unique Prophet."  See also first-century Jewish expectation of "the Prophet" recorded in John 6:14; 7:40.

(Perhaps this eschatological reading of Deuteronomy 18:18 was spurred by Deuteronomy 34:10-11, which acknowledged that at least some subsequent prophets lacked the intimacy of friendship with Yahweh that Moses had enjoyed [cf. Exodus 33:11]; and hence, this verse sets the stage for an eschatological Prophet who would be "like Moses, whom Yahweh knew face-to-face" and whose prophetic career would be especially characterized by 'signs' and 'wonders.'

The New Testament is very clear about an eschatological use of Deuteronomy 18:18.  And it is not a non-Israelite like Muhammad (contrast Qur'an 6:57-58; 28:48 with Deuteronomy 34:11), but rather the wonder-working Israelite Messiah: Jesus.  Jesus himself announced that "Moses... wrote about me" (John 5:46; cf. Luke 24:27), and the Deuteronomic promise of a Prophet, read eschatologically, is assuredly one of the passages Jesus had in mind when making that assertion.  (See also the Apostle Philip's designation of Jesus as "him of whom Moses in the Law... wrote," in John 1:45 - again, Philip likely has an eschatological reading of Deuteronomy 18 in mind.)

Following his Teacher, the Apostle Peter also applied this passage to Jesus: "Repent and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you: Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.  Moses said, 'The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.  You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you.  And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.'  And all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came after him, also proclaimed these days" (Acts 3:19-24).  (Muslim apologist Ali Ataie alleges that Luke has merely lied and that Peter would never have preached this; but Luke's reliability as a historian has stood the test of time, and his account of Peter's sermon may be counted as one which those who heard Peter would have recognized.)

Similarly, Stephen, in narrating the history of Israel in a way that emphasizes the persecuted prophets who "announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One whom you have now betrayed and murdered" (Acts 7:52), also makes reference to this: "This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, 'God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers'" (Acts 7:37). In keeping with Jewish interpretative tradition, which escalated the Deuteronomic promise to an eschatological telos, Peter and Stephen do precisely that - and so claim that Jesus, as the summit of Israel's prophetic tradition and as the inaugurator of the eschaton, is the ultimate fulfillment of this promise.  (Another first-century Christian writing acknowledges Jesus as the summit of the prophetic tradition [Hebrews 1:1-2] while also announcing that "Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses" [Hebrews 3:3]; though the author here does not cite Deuteronomy 18.)

Similarly, the Gospel of Matthew, presenting us with five segments of teaching discourse (corresponding to the Five Books of Moses), one of which is delivered from a mountain (the 'Sermon on the Mount,' given resonances of Mount Sinai), consciously makes the case for Jesus as a New Moses in the relevant senses required by Deuteronomy 18:15 in an eschatological reading - see Howard Teeple, The Mosaic Eschatological Prophet (1957); Dale Allison, The New Moses: A Matthean Typology (2013); William Sturm, A New Moses for a New Israel (2018); Patrick Schreiner, Matthew, Disciple and Scribe (2019), chapter 5; and virtually any commentary on the Gospel of Matthew in existence.

This widespread first-century (and subsequent) Christian reading - seeing in the Deuteronomic promise an eschatological Prophet, and identifying that Prophet with Jesus the Messiah - is a plausible one.  But the Islamic reading that emerged six or seven centuries later - seeing a unique prophecy of Muhammad the Ishmaelite as a final prophet after the Messiah - is simply not a plausible reading of the text in its historical, literary, or theological context.  Deuteronomy 18:18 does not point to Muhammad.  This verse bears no fruit for Islamic apologetic purposes.

Q:  Deuteronomy 33:2 refers to someone coming from Mount Paran (a place previously associated with Ishmael) with ten thousand troops.  Is this a prophecy of Muhammad, who dwelt in such lands and led large armies?

Ibn al-Layth makes perhaps the earliest Islamic apologetic appeal to this verse in the late eighth century, as did Ali ibn Sahl Rabban al-Tabari in the ninth century, al-Dimashqi in the fourteenth, and al-Muhtadi in the fifteenth.  It certainly hasn't been quite as popular to cite Deuteronomy 33 as to use Deuteronomy 18, though it does show up in Islamic apologetics here and there these days (as seen in its modern-day use by Jamal Badawi, Kais al-Kalby, and others).

Our first question, as a preliminary: Where was Paran?  Was it, as the poster suggests, a region that included Mecca and/or Medina? 

Islamic tradition tends to insist that the Desert of Paran was the Hijaz.  That is, for instance, what al-Dimashqi thought, asserting in the 1300s that "Paran is Mecca and the mountains of Paran are those of the Hijaz."  In the same era, Najm al-Din al-Tufi similarly claimed that "the mountains of Paran are the mountains of Mecca and the Hijaz as people have come to know them."  Al-Muhtadi similarly held that "Mount Paran is a mountain in the Hijaz."  Before them, Ibn Rabban likewise assumed that Paran referred to the region surrounding Mecca.  Some of today's Muslim apologists tend to follow that lead, as when Kais al-Kalby matter-of-factly claims that "Paran... today is the city of Makkah."

But is this how Paran depicted in our earliest sources, contained in the Old Testament?

The Desert of Paran was a place occasionally visited in biblical narratives.  For instance, much as Ishmael had at least initially lived in the Desert of Paran (Genesis 21:21), so the Israelites camped in the Desert of Paran for a time in their wilderness journey (Numbers 10:12; 12:16).  It was there that Kadesh was located (Numbers 13:26).  It was, evidently, a region from which the Negev was especially accessible, since it was from Paran that spies were sent through the Negev to the Canaanite hill country (Numbers 13:3,17).  This Desert of Paran was later perhaps visited by David, if the Masoretic Text is accurate at 1 Samuel 25:1.  But it was also a stopping point for an Edomite prince en route to Egypt: Hadad the Edomite passed through first Midian and then Paran while journeying to Egypt in 1 Kings 11:8.

Note again that, from Paran, it was very easy for Hagar to procure an Egyptian wife for Ishmael, as per Genesis 21:21 - access that would be quite easy indeed if Hagar and Ishmael settled in a region of what we now know as the Sinai Peninsula.  The authentic story of Hagar and Ishmael does not necessitate that Paran be identified with the Arabian Peninsula.  The alleged presence of Hagar and Ishmael at Mecca, though a cherished part of Islamic lore, has precisely zero attestation before Muhammad, who lived several thousand years after Ishmael.  Muhammad may have believed that the Kaaba was originally constructed by Abraham and Ishmael (Qur'an 2:125-127), may have believed that the region around Mecca was later settled by Abraham's (Ishmaelite) descendants (Qur'an 14:35-37), and may have retrojected features of later Islamic piety back onto Ishmael (Qur'an 19:54-55), but evidence for pre-Islamic traditions about Abraham and Ishmael in the Hijaz are distinctly wanting and cannot overtake the weight of earlier testimony for a Sinaitic Paran.  That Ishmaelites dwelled in Paran need not make Paran an Arabian region in the modern sense; it only suggests that the descendants of Ishmael enjoyed a wider geographic distribution - as Theodoret of Cyrrhus suggests in the fifth century when he declares that "the desert is full of [Ishmael's] race from the borders of Egypt to Babylon" (Questions on Genesis 73).  This, and the scriptural notice of Ishmael's initial residence in Paran, would explain why the Jewish imagination continued to associate Paran so strongly with the Ishmaelites.  Pre-Islamic rabbinic views of Ishmael never saw him as a constructive and virtuous figure the way the Qur'an later would; rather, they view Ishmael as a thief, murderer, and destroyer (see Genesis Rabbah 45.9 and 53.15; Midrash Tanhuma Shemot 1), and at times even an idolater (Targum Neofiti Genesis 21:9; Targum Ps-Jonathan 21:15-16; Sifre Deuteronomy 31), though some held out hope that he repented before Abraham's death (b. Bava Batra 16b].  Contemporaneous Christian commentators like John Chrysostom (e.g., Homilies on Genesis 46.17) can sometimes be less hostile and more sympathetic toward Ishmael.  Jerome stated that Ishmael's "descendants would dwell in the desert..., the Saracens who wander with no fixed abode and often invade all the nations who border on the desert, and they are attacked by all" (Hebrew Questions on Genesis 16:12).  But at no time do either Jewish or Christian teachers in the pre-Islamic period betray an awareness of any divergent tradition wherein Ishmael built a sanctuary - plausibly because there was no such tradition in the pre-Islamic period (as, quite plausibly, it was a novel introduction by Muhammad).

Post-biblical but pre-Islamic attestation for the location of Paran/Pharan does not correspond with the novel Islamic supposition.  The first-century pagan naturalist Pliny the Elder was aware of 'Pharan' as "a country on the frontiers of Arabia" (Natural History 37.40), but his understanding of 'Arabia' was much broader than just what we know now as the Arabian Peninsula - "Arabia... extends to the Red Sea" and includes, e.g., Lake Bardawil on the Sinai Peninsula's northern coast facing the Mediterranean (Natural History 5.12).  Pliny's presentation of Paran/Pharan as being on Arabia's borders might suggest something further than the Hijaz, and certainly would be compatible with any portion of the Sinai Peninsula.  And just so, the second-century pagan geographer Claudius Ptolemy understood "the village Pharan" to be located within the Roman province of Arabia Petraea (which included the Sinai Peninsula but not the Hijazi heartland of Mecca and Medina, which lay outside the Roman Empire), and said that the southern border of the province (and the Sinai Peninsula) is provided at the "Pharan promonotory" which juts out where the "Heroopolites bay" [i.e., the Gulf of Suez] meets the "Arabian bay" [i.e., the Gulf of Aqaba] (Geography 5.16).  In the third century, the Jewish rabbi Jose ben Hanina suggested that Paran was one of five names applying to the Sinai Peninsula wilderness (b. Shabbat 89a-b).

Then, in the early fourth century, Eusebius of Caesarea did attempt to place the 'city' of Pharan "beyond Arabia on the south, a three-day journey east of Aila [i.e., Aqaba in southern Jordan] (in the desert Pharan) where scripture affirms Ishmael dwelled" (Onomasticon).  But a half-century after Eusebius, the Jewish-Christian bishop Epiphanius of Salamis spoke about how Ishmael "founded the city of Paran in the wilderness" and then "had twelve children" who are "the ancestors of the tribes of the Hagarenes, or Ishmaelites, though today they are called Saracens," while Ishmael's half-brothers "were dispersed over the land called Arabia Felix" (Panarion 4.1.6-7).  A few years later, the pilgrim Egeria describes Paran/Pharan - which she visited herself - as "thirty-five miles from the mountain of God," from which she traveled onward "to a staging post, that is, in the desert of Pharan" (Itinerarium 6.1).  Egeria is clear that the Mount Sinai she knows is just several days away from Clysma, a city situated on the Gulf of Suez, and that her Mount Sinai overlooks a church (i.e., St. Catherine's Monastery) whose garden contains the burning bush (Itinerarium 4.7-8).  Egeria's description makes clear that the Paran/Pharan she knew was at Wadi Feiran in the Sinai Peninsula (and so not in the Hijaz).  Jerome, a decade or so after Egeria, agreed that Paran is not so far from Mount Sinai.  In the early fifth century, Cyril of Alexandria (born and raised in Egypt) declared that "Paran is situated to the far south, where Horeb is also said to be, the place where Moses represented the people of Israel to God when he determined the norms of behavior," and glossed Mount Paran allegorically as the family tree of Jesus (Commentary on the Prophets Nahum and Habakkuk 126-128).  While not directly commenting on its geographical position, Theodoret of Cyrrhus in the fifth century stated that the Israelites journeying from Egypt "had enjoyed God's care in both the wilderness of Paran and in Seir" (Questions on Deuteronomy 44.1).

Is the central Hijaz area near Mecca and Medina the best fit for the Desert of Paran?  Even apart from the work of geographers and commentators in late antiquity and the early middle ages, likely not.  The Hijaz is certainly not naturally on the way when venturing from the Edomite capital (in southern Jordan) to Egypt, especially not during a time of military crisis as was the Edomites' flight to Egyptian refuge described in 1 Kings 11.  The 'Kadesh' situated in the Desert of Paran is very unlikely to have been in the Hijaz: Kadesh is widely acknowledged to have been at 'Ain Qudeirat, with 'Ain Qadis, a site six miles away, being the leading runner-up candidate (though a minority of scholars allow Kadesh in Paran to have been in the vicinity of Petra).  The best treatments of the journey of the wilderness wanderings do not put the Desert of Paran anywhere close to the Hijaz.  James K. Hoffmeier notes that a number of scholars identify Paran as the eastern side of the Tih Plateau (located in central Sinai), while acknowledging Yohanan Aharoni's suspicion that 'Paran' could also function in reference to the entire Sinai (with Roland de Vaux going further, suggesting that 'Sinai' was actually a smaller region and that 'Paran' was the ancient name for the peninsula).  But in particular, the location in question is held to be at, or to include, Wadi Feiran, a prominent riverbed in the peninsula.  In none of these cases is Paran identified as the whole of, or as part of, or as encompassing, the Hijaz.  This suggests that neither Mecca nor Medina is situated in a region that Moses would have recognized as 'Paran,' much less as 'Mount Paran' (which Hoffmeier suspects is simply another name for Mount Sinai).  And so it cannot be said that Muhammad "shone forth from Mount Paran" (Deuteronomy 33:2).

(Even so, let's not be hasty: I have seen some Muslims attempt to point to a folktale narrated by Ibn Hisham (early ninth century) in his Kitab al-Tijan fi Muluk Himyar and attributed to Wahb ibn Munabbih (late-seventh/early-eighth-century) - about two thousand years after the time of Moses - in which the reference to a 'Hill of Faran' outside Mecca is alleged to be evidence that Paran is (or is in) the Hijaz, with that hill being the Mount Paran in question.  Does this pan out?  No: even accepting the folktale on its own terms, the hill is named after the (imagined) post-Solomonic Israelite king Faran ibn Ya'qub ibn Sibt ibn Yamin, based out of a Jerusalem while the First Temple is standing, who is claimed to be allied to the Romans or Byzantines and to have been killed on that hill by the Meccan king 'Amr ibn Midad ibn 'Abd al-Masih ibn Nufayla during a battle called the Day of Shunayf (so named for Faran's alleged Roman ally Shunayf ibn Hiraql).  Now, when is this supposed to have happened?  The framing of the tale is one told to Iyad ibn Nizar ibn Ma'ad by 'Amr's brother Harith ibn Midad, who had spent a long time in exile (perhaps three centuries) prior to their encounter.  Nizar is, in some genealogical traditions, a rather distant ancestor of Muhammad's, and Iyad was the supposed progenitor of one tribal subgroup in northern Arabia.  Attempting to read the folktale historically, one might suggest that Ma'ad lived in the sixth century BC, placing Iyad around the turn of the fifth century BC and suggesting that the pivotal events happened around the eighth century BC.  But if so, neither Faran nor his alleged father, grandfather, or great-grandfather can be identified with any historical kings of Judah; nor can Shunayf or his father Hiraql (i.e., Heraclius) be identified with any kings of Rome during the Roman monarchical period.  Nor is a Judahite-Roman alliance against the Meccans at all historically plausible, nor could the Rome of that era provided the large army attributed in the folktale to Shunayf's command.  One's suspicions may also be raised by the end of the tale, in which Iyad visits the tomb of Midad, 'Abd al-Masih, and Nufayla and finds their treasure guarded by "a black dragon with red eyes."  (Note also the probable anachronism in that 'Amr and Harith appear to be the grandsons of a man whose name means "Servant of Christ"!)  In short, one need not place must historical stock in this folktale.  But aside from all those concerns, the Hill of Faran - if it really existed by that name at all - must have acquired that name after the time of Moses.  And since non-Hijazi locations are referred to as 'Paran' in the Torah and since the purported Meccan 'Hill of Faran' could not acquire that name until a post-Deuteronomic era, it provides no help in identifying the 'Paran' of Deuteronomy 33:2.  Hence, the previously noted reasons for rejecting the Hijaz as a candidate for 'Paran' remain decisive.)

Now, bracketing all of that, is Muhammad the one 'coming from Mount Paran' with ten thousand troops in Deuteronomy 33:2?  No.  This chapter is couched as the final blessing-song sung by Moses on Israel, and the verse reads this way: "Yahweh came from Sinai and dawned from Seir upon us; he shone forth from Mount Paran; he came from the ten thousands of his holy ones, with flaming fire at his right hand."  Not only do the Hebrew perfect verbs used here suggest an event that has already taken place by the end of Moses' life, but the referent in this passage is Yahweh, the God of Israel.  Unless a Muslim really wants to contend that Muhammad is God (!), which is anathema to the very core of Islamic theology, that factor alone should remove this verse entirely from the arsenal of Islamic apologetics - it is God who is said to 'shine forth from Mount Paran,' not a prophet.  The emergence of this verse's use in Islamic apologetics was no doubt facilitated by the replacement of the divine name by titles in non-Hebrew editions - hence, Islamic apologetics like Ibn Rabban could assume that "the name 'lord' here refers to the Prophet," a contention rendered impossible once the actual text of Deuteronomy 33:2 is considered.  Later attempts in Islamic apologetics to compensate for this earlier mistake, by claiming that the name 'Yahweh' can be fairly applied to a prophet who simply 'represents' God, are utterly unsupported and can be dismissed as mere sorry desperation.

Not only is the subject of this sentence clearly identified as 'Yahweh,' using the unique name of God, but only a mere human being (such as even a prophet) is never the subject of the verb for 'shine forth' here.  We are told elsewhere that "out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth" (Psalm 50:2).  The psalmist can pray for "Yahweh, God of vengeance, God of vengeance" to "shine forth" (Psalm 94:1), for this God who is "the Shepherd of Israel... enthroned upon the cherubim" to "shine forth" (Psalm 80:1).  Job can also pray for God not to "shine upon the schemes of the wicked" (Job 10:3).  Even extra-biblically, the plaster wall inscription at Kuntillet 'Ajrud - in a religiously compromised Israelite setting of the late ninth or early eighth century BC - speaks poetically of an occasion when "El [i.e., God] shone forth... and mountains melted and peaks grew weak."  Occasionally, light itself can be the subject of this verb, as in Job 3:4 ("may God above not seek it nor light shine upon it"), as can lightning, as in Job 37:15 ("God... causes the lightning of his cloud to shine").  Missing from this list is the prospect for supposing that a prophet 'shone forth'!  And, of course, the fact that the subject is explicitly identified as Yahweh, God, and not a prophet is decisive.

So, what is actually happening here in this verse?  Yahweh is being celebrated for his victorious guidance of Israel through the desert.  The text plays on Egyptian solar imagery, and 'Mount Paran,' like Seir, functions here merely as a notable way station on the theophanic journey of triumph that Yahweh takes in leading his people out of Egypt.  A similar thought, without Paran, is mentioned in an old Hebrew victory song: "Yahweh, when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the region of Edom, the earth trembled and the heavens dropped, yes, the clouds dropped water; the mountains quaked before Yahweh, even Sinai before Yahweh, the God of Israel" (Judges 5:4-5).  So, the significance of Seir and Paran in this passage are related.  As Hoffmeier explains, "the references to Edom, Seir, and Teman in these paeans only mean that YHWH's campaigns that began at Sinai and moved north and his theophany (that is, his glory in the tabernacle) passed through the regions of Edom, just as the narratives in Numbers 10:11--21:35 report" (Ancient Israel in Sinai 129-130).

(A rabbinic approach to the verse should be noted here, for the sake of completeness.  At some point, the verse came to be read as though it said that "the Lord came to Sinai after having first risen at Seir," etc.  Some rabbis in the third or fourth century (or even before) wove a tale in which God approached each of the neighboring nations and offered them the gift of the Torah, only to be refused after explaining its ethical requirements: the Edomites refused after hearing the Torah's prohibition on murder, citing Genesis 27:40; the Ammonites and Moabites refused after hearing the Torah's prohibition on adultery, citing Genesis 19:36; the Ishmaelites refused after hearing the Torah's prohibition on theft, citing Genesis 16:12 and 40:15; and so only then, having left other nations without an excuse, did the Lord come to Mount Sinai and offer the Torah to a receptive Israelite nation [Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, Bahodesh 5; cf. m. Bava Kappa 4.3; b. Avodah Zarah 2b; Sifre Deuteronomy 343].  Rabbis in later centuries concurred with this approach: "The verse indicates that the Holy One went around among all the peoples of the world to have them accept the Torah, but they would not accept it" [Pesikta de Rab Kahana supplement 1.15; see also 5.8]; and Rashi in the eleventh century upheld the same line of thought.  While this is not a historically likely reading of the verse, it certainly would not be of much help to Islamic apologetics.)

Some Muslim apologists past (like al-Dimashqi and al-Muhtadi) and present (like Kais al-Kalby) have tried to turn this into a prophecy of three great messengers whom they accept: 'Sinai' signifying Moses, 'Seir' signifying Jesus, and then 'Paran' signifying Muhammad.  (Al-Muhtadi sees this as designating four collections of scripture, with the phrase 'ten thousands of his holy ones' [or, as he renders it, 'the multitude of holiness'] referring to the Psalms/Zabur.)  Consequently, some of these Muslim apologists have tried to claim that 'Seir' refers to Nazareth.  Perhaps they are confused by the similar-sounding Palestinian town Si'ir.  But this town was also known in the Old Testament as 'Zior' (Joshua 15:54), which is spelled quite differently and is also about a hundred miles south of Nazareth.  Now, it is also true that there was a northern 'Mount Seir' as mentioned in Joshua 15:10, which some scholars have identified with the vicinity of Saris (the former Palestinian Arab village) between Kesalon/Kasla and Kiriath-jearim, now replaced by the moshavim Shoresh and Sho'eva.  (This is also to be identified, then, with the 'Sarid' of Joshua 19:10.)  This Saris was still over 60 miles south of Nazareth.  Thus, neither Zior/Si'ir nor Seir/Saris are natural place-names to mention if Nazareth was to be understood, even in retrospect.  Although Nazareth had not been founded yet in the time when Deuteronomy was written, nevertheless several place-names in its vicinity would have been readily available, such as Nahalal, Shimron, Kattath/Kithron (sometimes identified with Cana), Hannathon, and other towns included in the tribal allotment of territory to Zebulun.

Just as neither Zior nor Saris can be associated plausibly with Nazareth, neither Zior nor Saris is likely to have been the referent of Deuteronomy 33:2, which was, rather, the original southern Mount Seir (after which, one might speculate, the Israelites at some juncture perhaps named the northern one).  As Judges 5:4 has already shown us, 'Seir' was a known place name for the mountainous region of northwestern Edom: there are further references, after all, to "the land of Seir, the country of Edom" (Genesis 32:3); Esau is frequently connected with this Seir (e.g., Genesis 36:8; plus, "I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession" [Deuteronomy 2:5]); and the latter stretch of the Israelites' wilderness journey did involve passing near Mount Seir (see Deuteronomy 1:2).  Even apart from biblical writings, Abdi-Heba, a pre-Israelite chieftain in Jerusalem, notes his military engagements "as far as the land of Sheru," i.e., Seir (EA 288.26).  Centuries later, the 7th-century-BC Assyrian king Ashurbanipal mentions having fought "in the city Sa'arri," i.e., Seir.  Al-Dimashqi and his latter followers are merely wrong, so his case for identifying Sinai, Seir, and Paran with the three key messengers Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad is a failed case.  (Al-Muhtadi acknowledges that Seir is an Edomite location ["Esau, the brother of Jacob..., was king on Mount Seir"], but tries to salvage the argument's structure through the more ridiculous claim that "the Christians were from the lineage of Esau"!  Modern Muslim apologist Ali Ataie grants that "it seems very unlikely that Seir is in reference to Jesus since this was actually the mountainous land inhabited by the Edomites.")

What does make the best sense here is to read the sequence of Sinai--Seir--Paran as a reference to the wilderness journey of the Israelites, throughout which Yahweh their God accompanied them and displayed his might in their protection and guidance.  It was, of course, at Sinai where God gave them the Torah's laws (Leviticus 26:46; Nehemiah 9:13), in spite of infamous scenes like the Israelites' worship using a golden-calf idol, per Exodus 32.  In Seir, the Israelites attempted to venture out without God against the Ammonites and suffered loss (Deuteronomy 1:44); but when they obeyed his command to keep peace with the local Edomite population to whom God had allotted that land, they prospered (Deuteronomy 2:1-8).  In Paran, the Israelites sent forth spies into Canaan and then rebelled in light of the unfavorable majority-report; yet, through the intercession of Moses, God displayed immense love (Numbers 14:19-20).  All three place-names connect intimately and dearly with the wilderness journey of the Israelites.  All three were also locations of both human rebellion and divine mercy, revealing the sustenance and salvation of an undeserving nation through grace.

(Although Habakkuk 3:3 ["God came from Teman and the Holy One from Mount Paran"] is not cited in the poster, it should be noted that it sometimes plays an outsized role in Islamic biblical apologetics, attested already by figures like Ibn Rabban, al-Qarafi, and others.  The prophet Habakkuk is intentionally referring back to Deuteronomy 33:2, so much of what has been said above is applicable also here.  The role of Seir is now being played by Teman, another well-known Edomite locale [cf. Jeremiah 49:7, linking "Edom" and "Teman," as well as the references to Teman in oracles about Edom given in Amos 1:11-12 and Obadiah 9].  (Kais al-Kalby's claim that Teman is a large region that includes Bethlehem should be disregarded in light of the textual evidence; Teman was a place over a hundred miles from Bethlehem.)  Habakkuk is redescribing the exodus and wilderness journey throughout his Habakkuk 3:3-16 prayer, following a call for Yahweh to "revive" his former "work" - i.e., give struggling Israel a second dose of exodus-style salvation.  The reference cannot be to Muhammad, for the same reasons that Deuteronomy 33:2 cannot.) 

There are a couple schools of thought on the 'holy ones' in great number here.  In one approach, the 'ten thousands' - or, really, "multitudes" (as the figure is not a precise number) - 'of his holy ones' are the Israelites themselves, following Yahweh (and Moses) through the desert.  Another approach takes them as angels or members of the divine council, appearing with God on the mountain.  (Rabbi Judah the Prince, in the late second or early third century, is reported to have taken this latter approach, as did Theodoret of Cyrrhus in the fifth century [Questions on Deuteronomy 44.1].)  Both of these approaches have their backers among ancient and modern commentators.

But there is simply no feasible way to transmute this verse into a reference to Muhammad leading a large army out of Medina to go capture Mecca (or any other scene or aspect of Muhammad's life or career).  To do so would be to do drastic violence to the context, and even just the text itself.  It is impossible for this passage to be a prophecy about Muhammad.

Q: In Isaiah 21, it seems like there are references to someone fleeing to Tema, an Arabian location (per Genesis 25:13-14) and to fighting against the denizens of Kedar.  Is this a prophecy of Muhammad moving from Mecca to Medina, followed by the Battle of Badr?

Here, at least, we do finally have an oracle dedicated explicitly to Arabian concerns!  (I'll note that I'm pleased to see that these proof-texts are drawn exclusively from the oracle about Arabia [Isaiah 21:13-17], and not - as is too often the case in Islamic apologetic appeals to Isaiah 21 - lines about camels from the oracle about Babylon [Isaiah 21:7], a much weaker appeal that was used already in the eighth century by al-Mahdi and Ibn al-Layth and that enjoyed currency for centuries thereafter.)  Islamic apologetic appeal to Isaiah 21:13-17 dates back at least to the ninth century and Ibn Rabban, who contended that the fleeing people were "the Arabs when they rose to fight against the neighboring nations, Persians, Greeks, and others, who separated them from water and pasture." A specific identification with the hegira and the Battle of Badr is made by Jamal Badawi and Kais al-Kalby (who flatly states, "Isaiah 21:13-17 describes the Battle of Badr").

The oracle addresses the "caravans of Dedanites" (Isaiah 21:13), and it calls upon the "inhabitants of the land of Tema" to "meet the fugitive with bread" (Isaiah 21:14).  These fugitives have "fled from the swords, from the drawn sword, from the bent bow, and from the press of battle" (Isaiah 21:15).  Then, in a prose addendum, God tells Isaiah that "within a year, according to the years of a hired worker, all the glory of Kedar will come to an end, and the remainder of the archers of the mighty men of the sons of Kedar will be few, for Yahweh the God of Israel has spoken" (Isaiah 21:16-17).  Here there will be no 'slam dunks,' because even if this did somehow refer to Muhammad, it wouldn't be terribly significant - this is a fairly short oracle set in alongside a bunch of oracles (most of greater extent) concerning a variety of other nations.

So, is a Muhammad-era reading necessary or even likely?  Well, no.  This is, specifically, a collection of oracles concerning Babylon and its allies in Isaiah's own time period.  During that era, Babylon had not yet become the dominant world-power it was about to be, but was encouraging revolt among the vassal-states of the Assyrian Empire (see Isaiah 39:1 for an example of Babylon under Marduk-apla-iddina II aiming to do exactly that with Hezekiah's Judah; and compare with similar activity, also by Marduk-apla-iddina II, mentioned in the twelfth year of Sargon II's annals).  A great deal of Babylonian access to the Mediterranean would have been, as commentator John Oswalt observes, "across the northern end of Arabia through the oases of Dumah and Temah."  We know that some Arabian tribal confederations had been within Assyria's sphere of influence: in 738 BC, the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III's annals mention "Zabibe, queen of the Arabs," as someone who pays him tribute.  In that text, he mentions having imposed tribute on "the land Qedar [and] the Arabs."  As for the specific place names we'll encounter in Isaiah 21:13-17, which are what David F. Graf calls "the three major oases in northwest Arabia":
  • Dumah, known to the Assyrians as Adummatu (and possibly also as Dumetu and Duma) and sometimes also designated as part of al-Jawf or the Wadi al-Sirhan, was the northwestern Arabian oasis now known as Dumet ej-Jendel, located around 29°48'N 39°52'E.  We know that the Assyrian kings Sennacherib and Esarhaddon engaged in military action there.  David Graf refers to it as "the Qedarite capital."
  • Tayma (also spelled as Temah, Teima, and Tema), located around 27°37'N 38°32'E, is a considerable distance further southeast along the Incense Route.  (Note the distinction between Tayma/Teima/Tema, which is a northern Arabian location, versus Teman, which is an Edomite location - I've seen people get tripped up by this before!)  In the early eighth century BC, a governor of the lower Euphrates region named Ninurta-kudurri-usur makes mention of "the people of Tema and Shaba [i.e., the Sabaeans], whose own country is far away," and how he captured and plundered one of their trade caravans.  Aside from further references to Tayma by Assyrian kings like Tiglath-Pileser III and Sennacherib, we also know that Tayma is where the Babylonian king Nabu-na'id (Nabonidus) chose as his self-imposed exile later on in the 550s BC - not only did he mention it in his own records and not only did his Persian successors say so ("the king was in Tayma"), and not only have archaeologists found stelae by him at Tayma, but they have also turned up carvings in the local Taymanitic script referring to nbnd mlk bbl, "Nabonidus king of Babylon."  In a stela recovered in Harran, the Babylonian king Nabonidus describes his self-imposed exile as a time in his reign when "I walked the road between the cities Tēmā, Dadānu, Padakku [i.e., Fadak, a garden oasis 87 miles from Medina], Ḫibrā [Khaybar], Yadīḫu [possibly al-Hait in the Ha'il Region], and (then) as far Yatribu [i.e., Yathrib, later known as Medina]."  It is hence impossible, as Ali Ataie attempts, to claim that Tayma is Medina - they are clearly distinguished over a millennium before the birth of Muhammad.  The location of Tayma is not in doubt, and it cannot be identified (as Ali Ataie attempts to do) with other known places such as Medina.  They are clearly distinguished over a millennium before Muhammad.
  • Dedan/Dadan is yet further southeast, located around 26°37'N 37°55'E, and can be identified with the al-Khuraybah ruins nearby the oasis now known as al-'Ula.  The site of al-'Ula used to be the capital of a Dadanite kingdom, which later (after the 550s BC) was taken over by the Banu Lihyan and became part of the Lihyanite kingdom and eventually, by the fourth or second century BC, came under the sway of the Minaeans who established a trading settlement there.  At al-'Ula, a variety of inscriptions have emerged verifying its identity as ancient Dedan/Dadan.  The Lihyanite inscription JSLih 349, for instance, dates itself by reference to "Abd the governor of Dadan."  In the inscription of Nabonidus quoted above, note that he places Dadan between Tayma and Fadak/Khaybar on his southward journey toward Medina; hence, it is impossible to (as Ali Ataie attempts) identify Dadan with Mecca. 
What Isaiah is warning here is that these Arabian tribes should not trust in Babylon's enticements against Assyrian power, because Babylon is about to be rendered incapable to help them.  (And, indeed, Sennacherib's victory over Babylon in 702 BC would have been a severe restriction on Babylon's capacity to meddle and intervene, with Sennacherib bringing Babylon to greater ruin about thirteen years later in 689 BC.  Isaiah is likely prophesying in the latter half of the 700s BC here.)  As the trust of these tribes backfires, merchant caravans are going to need to hurriedly flee the roads and receive hospitality from the people of Tayma.

Is this a historically plausible reading?  Yes.  Other sources do note that Assyrian incursions into northern Arabia did occur throughout this period, and that they could cause significant disruption to northern Arabians' lives.  So, to begin offering examples of Assyrian intrusions into northern Arabia, Tiglath-Pileser III (r.745-727) mentions that not only did he campaign against Rezin of Aram-Damascus (r.754-732), but he similarly campaigned against "Samsi, queen of the Arabs, who had transgressed her oath."  (This was an extension of the same campaign in which he installed Hoshea as king of Israel instead of Pekah - so, 732 BC.  Some commentators assign the Isaiah 21 oracle specifically to this occasion.)  Tiglath-Pileser explains: "As for Samsi, queen of the Arabs, at Mount Saqurri [possibly around Jebel al-Arab in southern Syria], I defeated 9,400 of her people. ... Samsi became startled by my mighty weapons and she brought camels, she-camels, with their young, to Assyria before me.  I placed a representative over her."  (Samsi, he says, had fled "to the desert [possibly to Wadi al-Sirhan], a place where one is always thirsty," to escape the attack, after which he'd burned the camp she'd left behind.)  Among the things Tiglath-Pileser took away from her were "the thrones of her gods" and the "staffs of her goddesses."  That text also mentions that "the cities Mas'a [and] Tayma, the (tribe) Saba, the people of the cities Hayappa, Badanu, (and) Hatte, (and) the (tribes) Idiba'ilu," who dwell in a "remote country," came to bring tribute "and kissed my feet," after which Tiglath-Pileser "appointed Idibi'ilu as the gatekeeper facing Egypt."  Yet in a further text, he mentions action against "Idibi'ilu the Arab." 

The surviving records of Tiglath-Pileser's son and heir Shalmaneser V (r.727-722) are rather silent on Arabian affairs, but those of Shalmaneser's brother and successor Sargon II (r.722-705) are not.  Sargon, in the annals of his seventh year (c.715 BC), mentions that he hadn't received tribute from "the tribes of Tamud, Ibadid, Marsimanu, and Haiapa, distant Arabs, who know neither high nor low official," and so he "struck them down," and as for some of the survivors, he "deported" them "and settled them in Samaria."  He then received tribute from "Samsi, queen of the Arabs" and from "It'amra the Sabaean, the kings of the seacoast and the desert."  (Note Sargon's mention of 'Tamud,' almost certainly the 'Thamud' tribe or tribal confederation mentioned in Qur'an 7:73-79.)

Sargon II was succeeded by his son Sennacherib (r.705-681), who engaged in further attacks on Arabia.  His records of his campaign in 703 BC indicate that he "captured alive... Basqanu, a brother of Iati'e, queen of the Arabs, along with their troops.  I seized the chariots, wagons, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, Bactrian camels that he had abandoned during the battle."  Sennacherib's further records from the 690s BC include reference to having "carried off Te'elhunu, queen of the Arabs, together with her gods," and having taken away "thousands of camels from her."  (In this connection, Dumah - which Sennacherib called "the city Adummatu... located in the desert" - is explicitly mentioned.)  Sennacherib also clearly had dealings of some sort with the Sabaeans around 683 BC, given that he inscribed six cylindrical beads as having been part of "the audience gift that Karib-il, king of the land Saba, presented to me."  (More fully, from Sennacherib's records: "While laying the foundation of the akītu-house, the audience gift of Karib-il, king of the land Saba - pappardilû-stone, choice stones, and fine aromatics - was presented to me; and from that audience gift I laid stones and aromatics in its foundation.")

Although less likely to be within Isaiah's purview, it's worth noting that Sennacherib was succeeded by his own son Esarhaddon (r.681-669), who likewise engaged in Arabian campaigns.  For instance, referring again to Dumah, Esarhaddon records at length:
As for the city Adummatu, the fortress of the Arabs, which Sennacherib, king of Assyria, my father who engendered me, conquered - and whose goods, possessions, and gods, together with Apkallatu queen of the Arabs, he plundered and brought to Assyria - Hazael, king of the Arabs, came to Nineveh, my capital city, with his heavy audience gift and kissed my feet.  He implored me to give back his gods, and I had pity on him.  I refurbished the gods Atar-samayin, Daya, Nuhaya, Ruldawu, Abirillu, and Atar-quruma, the gods of the Arabs ... I placed the lady Tabua, who was raised in the palace of my father, as ruler over them and returned her to her land with her gods.  I added 65 camels and 10 donkeys to the previous tribute and imposed it on him.  Hazael died, and I placed Iata his son on his throne.  I added ten minas of gold, one thousand choice stones, fifty camels, and one hundred bags of aromatics to the tribute of his father and imposed it on him.  Later, Uabu, to exercise kingship, incited all of the Arabs to rebel against Iata.  I, Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, king of the four quarters, who loves loyalty and abhors treachery, sent my battle troops to the aid of Iata, and they trampled all of the Arabs, threw Uabu (together with the soldiers who were with him) into fetters, and brought them to me.  I placed them in neck stocks and tied them to the side of my gate.

Esarhaddon, in a slightly later inscription, "collected camels from all the Arab kings and loaded them with water skins" so as to use them in support of a campaign against Egypt.  His own son and heir Ashurbanipal (r.668-627), furthermore stated that "Iauta, son of Hazael, the king of the land Qedar who does obeisance to me," later "sinned against my treaty" and "incited the people of the land of the Arabs to rebel with him."  Accordingly, Ashurbanipal proceeds to describe how his troops "struck down with the sword the people of the land of the Arabs, as many as had risen up against me, and set fire to pavilions and tents, their abodes, consigned them to the god Gira. ... As for the rest of the Arabs who had fled from my weapons, the heroic god Erra struck them down: Famine broke out among them, and they ate the flesh of their children on account of their hunger. ... As for Iauta, hardship befell him and he fled alone.  Abi-Yate, son of Te'ri, came to Nineveh and kissed my feet," so "I installed him as king in place of Iauta."  (But this Abi-Yate had evidently earlier been one of Iauta's officers, for Ashurbanipal records that during the rebellion, Iauta "gave his forces to Abi-Yate and Aya-ammu, sons of Te'ri; he sent them to aid Shamash-shum-ukin, my hostile brother."  He also notes that there were two Iautas: "Iauta, son of Hazael, son of the brother of the father of Iauta, son of Bir-Dada, who made himself king of the land of the Arabs."  He elsewhere refers to one of these as "Uaite/Iauta, the king of the land Sumu'el," whom he captured alive.)

Ashurbanipal further refers to yet another "king of the land Qedar" at the same time, by the name of Ammu-ladin, who was captured on Ashurbanipal's behalf by the Moabite king.  It was on this occasion that Ashurbanipal began receiving tribute from the Nabateans.  (In connection with all these events, Ashurbanipal mentions having "inflicted a heavy defeat on Adiya, the queen of the land of the Arabs," and having "burned her tents with fire.  I captured her alive and brought her to Assyria, together with the plunder of her land."  In another inscription, he refers to her as "Adiya, wife of Iauta, the king of the land of the Arabs.")

Later, he complains that "Abi-Yate, the son of Te'ri, who did not remember my kindness," allied with the Nabatean king Natnu against Ashurbanipal, so the Assyrian troops then "marched in pursuit of Iauta, the king of the land of the Arabs, and Abi-Yate, who had come with forces of the land of the Nabateans."  On this further campaign, they reached Hurarina and there "brought about the defeat of the Yisamme, the confederation of the god Atar-samayin, and the Nabateans," and then continued onward to Qurasitu where they "surrounded the confederation of the god Atar-samayin and the Qedarites of Iauta, son of Bir-Dada, king of the land of the Arabs," and deported his people to Damascus.  Continuing onward, Ashurbanipal's army reached "the city Hulhuliti at Mount Hukkuruna" and there defeated "Abi-Yate, son of Te'ri, the Qedarite," capturing him and his brother Aya-ammu alive.  The fugitives from the battle fled onto the "rugged mountain," while Ashurbanipal cut off the water supply to cities like "Manhabbi, Apparu, Tenuquri, Sayuran, Marqana, Saratein, Enzikarme, Ta'na, and Saraqa," compelling the residents to drink the blood of their camels to survive.

All this to establish the recurring Assyrian invasions of Arabia, and the need on such occasions for people to flee from the areas under attack.  Thus, as Oswalt explains, in times such as those invasions, "inner Arabia would become a haven for those fleeing from the warfare which would engulf the more fertile lands around the edges of the desert.  But Arabia itself could not escape that warfare.  Isaiah's word is that those who have trusted the nations will succumb with those nations.  Within a year, figured as precisely as an indentured servant would calculate his time of service, all the glory (kabod) of the Arabian merchants will also have collapsed under the weight (kobed) of battle."

All this is unlikely to have much to do with Muhammad's hijra followed by the Battle of Badr, as the poster suggests.  In particular, the timing would be off.  The latest date I've seen proposed for Muhammad's entry into Yathrib/Medina is in September/October 622 (likelier July 622), whereas the Battle of Badr transpired in March 624 - more than a year.  Given Isaiah's stress on the precision of the duration ("within a year, according to the years of a hired worker"), this is a bit more of a stretch - even assuming that Isaiah does not mean, more specifically, within a year from the time when he spoke the words in the first place, which was over 1300 years before the Battle of Badr!

Also note that Dedan, the southernmost named point of reference in Isaiah's oracle, is still about 190 miles north Medina, which itself is 70-80 miles northeast of Badr and over 200 miles north of Mecca.  None of the mentioned place names can be associated with locations as distant as the Islamic-apologetic reading would require: Dumah/Dumat, Tayma/Tema, and Dadan/Dedan are each hundreds of miles from Medina, Badr, and Mecca.  (Again, Ali Ataie's claim that "Dedan and Tema may be considered as Mecca and Medina respectively" is entirely incorrect, as demonstrated above.)  So the "caravans of Dedan" fleeing from violence cannot be Muslims leaving pagan-dominated Mecca (which is hundreds of miles away from Dedan).  The "inhabitants of the land of Tema" asked to "meet the fugitive with bread" cannot be the residents of Yathrib/Medina (which is hundreds of miles away from Tema).  Consequently, it is intensely unlikely - indeed, impossible - that the prophecy about the devastation of "the archers of the mighty men of the sons of Kedar" could be about the Battle of Badr. 

Isaiah's prophecy just fits vastly better with a reference to an Assyrian invasion of Arabia in the context of support for Babylonian rebellion.  No leap to Muhammad is warranted here, particularly in light of the aptness of the Assyrian-invasion background.  This is not a prophecy of Muhammad.

Q:  Could Isaiah 28 be a prophecy of Muhammad?  It refers to 'the residue of his people' (28:5) and someone 'weaned from milk, drawn from breast' (28:9).

Frankly, the appearance of Isaiah 28:5-9 on this Islamic apologetics poster is a bit perplexing.  Actually, I'm flummoxed.  What is our anonymous Islamic apologist thinking here?  What is supposed to be meant?  More familiar is the appeal to Isaiah 28:11 made by, e.g., Jamal Badawi, Kais al-Kalby, et al.; but, strangely, the poster omits that verse.

Let's read Isaiah 28 as a whole section.  It refers first to a judgment against 'Ephraim,' the northern Israelite kingdom: "The proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim will be trodden underfoot" (Isaiah 28:3).  The beauty of Ephraim's glory will fade (Isaiah 28:4).  It is in this context that we read a promise interjected that "in that day, Yahweh of Hosts will be a crown of glory and a diadem of beauty to the remnant of his people, and a spirit of justice to him who sits in judgment and strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate" (Isaiah 28:5-6).  The 'remnant of his people' refers to an Israelite remnant, the repentant survivors of the judgment being prophesied here.  (Noteworthy: the Jewish interpretation preserved in the Targum Isaiah renders Isaiah 28:5 as declaring that "in that time, the Messiah of the Lord of hosts will be a diadem of joy and a crown of praise, to the remnant of his people.")

Later, in a continued condemnation of drunkenness of Ephraim's priests and prophets, Isaiah quotes their mentality: "To whom will he teach knowledge, and to whom will he explain the message?  Those who are weaned from the milk, those taken from the breast?  For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little" (Isaiah 28:9-10).  Isaiah warns that, because the Ephraimites refused to hear when God spoke to them in plain language, he would indeed punish them by giving them the kind of garbled message they mocked Isaiah's prophecies as being (Isaiah 28:11-13).  (With due respect to Badawi et al., the 'strange lips' are not Muhammad's difficulty delivering revelation, nor is the 'foreign tongue' here Arabic.  These phrases are parallel and both refer to the language of Assyrian oppressors of God's people!)

The reference to 'those who are weaned from the milk, those taken from the breast' is the mockery of the Ephraimite priests and prophets.  As Old Testament scholar John Oswalt comments: "The drunkards lash out at the prophet, telling him that they are old enough to know what they are doing and that they do not need somebody to keep harping on their sins."  Their thought is "that the prophet was treating them like toddlers in attempting to teach them righteousness."  Their punishment is that, if they won't hear the sensible prophecies of Isaiah, "they will indeed hear the harsh repetitive words, but from the lips of Assyrian taskmasters.  Since they would not learn the simple truths of life from God's spokesmen, they will learn them at the end of whip and prod."

Nothing in this passage lends itself to providing biblical support to Muhammad's claim to prophecy.

Q:  Could Isaiah 42 be a prophecy of Muhammad?  It speaks of someone called "my elect"  (42:1); it mentions the villages of Kedar (42:11); it indicates preaching against the 'deaf and blind' (42:16) and against 'graven images' (42:17); and it refers to the preacher being persecuted through being 'robbed and spoiled' and 'snared in holes' without deliverance (42:22).  Is this Muhammad?

This line of Islamic interpretation of Isaiah 42 has a particularly long heritage, particularly if al-Bukhari is correct in attributing to Abdullah ibn 'Amr ibn al-'As (who died in AD 684) a hadith in which Qur'an 48:8 is understood as an allusion to a passage in "the Torah" which he reads as similar in its gist to Isaiah 42:1-4: "Verily we have sent you as a witness, as a bringer of glad tidings and as a warner, and as a protector for the illiterates.  You are my slave and my messenger, and I have named you al-Mutawakkil.  You are neither hard-hearted nor of fierce character, nor one who shouts in the markets.  You do not return evil for evil, but excuse and forgive.  Allah will not take you unto him until he guides through you a curved nation on the right path by causing them to say, 'None has the right to be worshipped but Allah.'  With such a statement, he will cause to open blind eyes, deaf ears, and hardened hearts."  The attempt to paraphrase Isaiah 42:1-4 is unmistakable.  So this view of Isaiah 42 must go back to the mid-ninth century (the time of al-Bukhari) at the latest, and plausibly all the way to the late seventh century (as is rendered additionally plausible by Ibn al-Layth's appeal to it in the late eighth century, prior to al-Bukhari).  Within Islamic biblical interpretation, then, it has an established history (and can be found employed by numerous Islamic apologists from Ibn Rabban on down to Ali Ataie, Jamal Badawi, Kais al-Kalby, et al. - though, again, the apparent force of Ibn Rabbah's use relies on mistaking 'Lord,' here representing the divine name 'Yahweh,' for a human title).

But as we enter the latter portions of the Book of Isaiah, we need to begin by taking a large-scale view of what's going on.  These latter oracles of hope center on a figure known as 'my Servant' - a role given to the Israelite remnant, but ultimately to be whittled down to a one-person remnant, carrying out the Servant mission.  Isaiah 42 is the first of these 'Servant Songs.'

As we open the passage, Yahweh, through the prophet, announces "my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights" (Isaiah 42:1).  The identity of this 'servant' must wait to be seen, but nothing in this verse alone suggests that Muhammad is the figure in question.  The Greek translation even reads: "Jacob is my servant, I will lay hold of him; Israel is my chosen, my soul has accepted him."  That already doesn't bode well for putting Muhammad in here.  But this is only picking up the cues from Isaiah 41:8: "You, Israel, my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham my friend."  (The description of the servant as a 'chosen one' is often claimed by Muslim apologists to connect to Muhammad's title al-Mustafa, said to carry a comparable meaning; but the Hebrew word here is not etymologically linked, and Isaiah 43-45 will on several occasions clearly apply this rather common biblical term to Israel: "Israel my chosen one" [Isaiah 45:4], "my chosen people" [Isaiah 43:20].)

The prophet proceeds to describe this Servant figure.  Yahweh has placed his divine Spirit within the servant, so that the servant will "bring forth justice to the nations" (Isaiah 42:1).  (Kais al-Kalby claims that the fact that the servant is to bring justice to the Gentile nations requires that the servant-figure himself be a Gentile prophet; but this does not follow, as repeated identification of the servant-figure with 'Israel' should suggest!)  In doing so, the servant will not be combative: "He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench" (Isaiah 42:2).  Yahweh tells the servant, "I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind" (Isaiah 42:6-7).  The appointment of this servant is a sign of "new things" that are being declared (Isaiah 42:9).

In response to the announcement of Yahweh's upcoming redemptive deeds, the whole world is called upon to "sing to Yahweh a new song" (Isaiah 42:10), even the most distant parts.  This includes "the desert and its cities..., the villages that Kedar inhabits," but also "the habitants of Sela (a known Edomite locale, today in Jordan)," "the top of the mountains," and "the coastlands/islands" (Isaiah 42:11-12).  As part of Yahweh's victory through the servant, God pledges to "lead the blind in a way that they do not know" (Isaiah 42:16), all while shaming idolaters (Isaiah 42:17).

It is popular these days, however, for Muslim apologists to contend that the "Sela" referred to in Isaiah 42 is referring to a mountain or hill near Medina, thereby raising the probability of a prophecy here regarding Muhammad.  Ali Ataie attempts to claim Sela as a southern Arabian location; Kais al-Kalby describes it as a "mountain... right next to the city of Medina."  To this end, Islamic apologists may point to various ahadith that refer to "Sila" or "the mountain of Sila" as a hill visible from Medina (Bukhari 1013-1014), while also mentioning sheep grazing at "Sala'" (Bukhari 2304) and Muhammad praying on "the mountain of Sala'" (Bukhari 4418).

To this, it may first be said that the onus is on the Muslim apologist to establish that the name 'Sela' was, in fact, applied to a Medina-adjacent hill in pre-Islamic times - in particular, in Isaianic times (about 1,300 years prior to the lifetime of Muhammad).  Generally, only post-Islamic evidence is cited to this end, and this is insufficient to carry the argument.  Until pre-Islamic evidence is supplied, the Islamic case is simply not worth serious consideration here.  Second, even granting that there was a Medinan Sela in Isaiah's time, the prima facie plausibility of a reference here is extremely low.  A Medinan Sela would not carry significant international renown.  The reference would have been incomprehensible to Isaiah's audience, who could not be presumed to recognize the name of a distant hill.  Other geographic references in the immediate literary context are national or regional.  Other international geographic references comment in the prophetic literature are to cities.  Thus, had Isaiah wished to prophesy about Muhammad, he would have spoken about "Yathrib" (a recognizable place at the time, albeit probably not familiar to most outside the region), not about "Sela."  Third, just as we should prefer identifying Isaiah's "Sela" as a fortified place over a rather ordinary hill, so we should a priori prefer a location closer to Isaiah, and hence more familiar to his audience.  This suggests an Edomite Sela over a Medinan Sela hundreds more miles away.

But even if we grant that the name 'Sela' had a referent near Medina in Isaiah's time, and even if we disregard the prima facie implausibility of any reference to it by Isaiah, we still have to weigh the probabilities based on textual evidence.  And here, the Medinan thesis is likewise seen to fail.  The Old Testament historical books are clear that, when they refer to Sela, they mean an Edomite location.  During the reign of King Amaziah of Judah, prior to the beginning of Isaiah's prophetic career, Amaziah is said to have "struck down ten thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt and took Sela by storm, and called it Joktheel, which is its name to this day" (2 Kings 14:7).  Isaiah, during the early portions of his career, then issues an oracle against the Moabites and mentions Sela as a nearby locale outside their borders, i.e., in the Edomite territory: "Send a lamb to the ruler of the land from Sela, by way of the desert, to the mount of the daughter of Zion" (Isaiah 16:1).  The prophet Obadiah, writing about the Edomites at an indeterminate time (within a century or two of Isaiah), describes the Edomites as those "who live in the cleft of Sela," or "the Rock" (Obadiah 1:3).

Later writers suggest that Edomite Sela and Nabatean Petra were one and the same - both names meaning "the Rock" in their respective languages, and the regions being the same.  So, in fact, the Septuagint (original Greek translation of the Old Testament) renders Isaiah 42:11: "Rejoice, O wilderness and its villages, O homesteads and those who inhabit Kedar.  Those who inhabit Petra will rejoice; they will shout from the tops of the mountains."  Indeed, not far from Petra, the seal inscription of seventh-century-BC Edomite king Qausgabri (from about 670 BC) was recovered at Umm el-Biyara.  Under its name of 'Petra,' then, the Greek geographer Strabo, writing during the lifetime of Jesus six centuries before Muhammad, explains that Petra is "the capital of the Nabateans," a rocky fortress surrounded by desert (Geography 16.4.21).  Later, the Madaba Mosaic Map - created in a church in Madaba, now in Jordan, prior to the birth of Muhammad - locates "Petra in the land of Edom, also Iechtoel [i.e., Joktheel], also Rekem, where Amessias [i.e., Amaziah] subjugated Edom in Gemela." 

For such reasons, commentators overwhelmingly agree that the Sela of Isaiah 42:11 is an Edomite locale.  John N. Oswalt (1998) considers it most likely that Isaiah means specifically "the Edomite city later identified with Petra," with the secondary option being a general reference to "the rocks" - but the Medinan Sela thesis is not even worth mentioning.  Joseph Blenkinsopp (2000) explicitly concurs with the identification of Sela as "Petra... in Edom."  John Goldingay and David Payne (2006) take Isaiah's Sela as "an important town in Edom."  Ivan D. Friesen (2009) observes in this context that "Sela is a city of the Edomites southeast of the Dead Sea."  And so forth, for other commentators.  I can find none who regard the Medinan Sela thesis as meriting consideration, much less assent.  Modern specialized studies have identified the biblical Sela specifically either with Umm al-Biyara in Petra or with Khirbat Sil' (or as-Sila') north of Busayra/Bozrah - not with a hill or mountain near Yathrib/Medina in the Hijaz.  Burton MacDonald, in his 2000 study of Edomite geography, explicitly states that the Edomite Sela is that referred to in Isaiah 42:11.  He, and other scholars, these days prefer as-Sila' over Umm al-Biyara - and it should be noted that as-Sila' is even further away from Medina than Petra is.

Now, the Islamic apologists insisting on a Medinan Sela frequently assume that Isaiah 42:11 requires a human figure who has personally visited Sela and Kedar; and that, since Muhammad did visit the historic territory of the Qedarites during his expedition to Tabuk in October 630 and is said to have prayed atop the mountain of Sala' before the Battle of the Trench in December 626, this point is commonly the be-all and end-all of Islamic engagement with Isaiah 42.  In response to this, all the points above for discounting a Medinan reference in Isaiah 42 militate against it being applied here.  Muhammad is not recorded to have personally ventured any further north than the vicinity of Tabuk, though during his lifetime, he did dispatch an army to Mu'tah - and so failed to reach the Edomite Sela to which Isaiah actually refers.  Second, the literary context extends beyond a single verse here.  If the Islamic case regarding Isaiah 42:11 is to succeed in the way it has been posed, its defenders must also explain when Muhammad visited "the top of the mountains" (Isaiah 42:11d), "the coastlands" or (in some translations) "islands" (Isaiah 42:12), "the sea" (Isaiah 42:10), and "the ends of the earth" (Isaiah 42:9).

But, third, the text actually does not require the Servant to personally and physically visit the places mentioned, as the Islamic apologists have assumed!  Nowhere is anyone said to 'visit' Sela and Kedar here.  Rather, the existing residents are called upon to sing praises to Yahweh in response to the rise of the Servant.  Later, in Isaiah 49:13, the skies will be called upon to similarly 'sing for joy.'  The same is true of the resurrected in Isaiah 26:19, those healed of speechlessness in Isaiah 35:6, the watchmen of Zion in Isaiah 52:8, and - in a strong parallel to the present passage - those from both geographical extremes (and, by implication, everywhere in between) in Isaiah 24:14-15.  Eliciting song does not require a personal physical visitation, and Isaiah 42 does not say that it does.  And, moreover, the literary context requiring an Israelite identity for the Isaianic Servant here renders this whole argument moot anyway.  So this particular twist on the Islamic apologetic appeal to Isaiah 42 is based simply on a sloppy and eisegetical treatment of the text.

(A note on a different understanding of Isaiah 42: The old Aramaic paraphrase in the Targum Isaiah renders 'Sela' here as the common noun for cliff, and applies it to cliff-tombs, associating the rejoicing with the general resurrection: "Let the dead sing for joy when they come forth from their tombs."  This approach is also pursued in rabbinic literature such as Midrash Tehillim 104.23, which explicitly construes Isaiah 42:10-12 as a prophecy of the general resurrection, at which time "the dead will sing a song" to God, and Deuteronomy Rabbah 7.6, which likewise explains Isaiah 42:11 in terms of "the Revival of the Dead."  This is an alternative approach to Isaiah 42 which is even less congenial to Islamic apologetics, since Muhammad did not cause the dead to be raised and so cannot even in principle be the cause of resurrection-based rejoicing.)

There may be a further problem here for the Islamic case.  The Islamic apologists would have it here that Muhammad did, in fact, cause rejoicing in Qedar and in Sela (if the latter be understood, per impossibile, as a location near Medina).  But even if we grant that, the Islamic case is problematized in two other ways.  First, the text would then require Muhammad to be causing the residents of Qedar and Sela not merely to rejoice but to "sing" (Isaiah 42:10).  However, Muhammad's reputation is not that of a great encourager of singing.  Furthermore, the text would then require Muhammad to be causing the residents of Qedar and Sela to "give glory to Yahweh" (Isaiah 42:12).  Valid questions may be raised as to whether Muhammad's proclamation of Allah is sufficient to meet this stricture, given that Isaiah emphasizes 'Yahweh' as the covenantal name of the God he's praising: "I am Yahweh, that is my name" (Isaiah 42:8). 

Also, Jamal Badawi and Kais al-Kalby's claim that the 'new song' referenced in Isaiah 42:10 refers distinctly to a new language - i.e., Arabic - being selected as a medium of revelation, cannot be sustained.  The psalmists repeatedly call for the employment of a 'new song' by Hebrew-speaking Israelites, and no change of language is contemplated.  See, for instance, the Davidic declaration that God "put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God" (Psalm 40:3), or the broader call in Psalm 98:1 to "sing to Yahweh a new song, for he has done marvelous things."  A 'new song' is a response to a fresh redemptive act by God; and this is how the phrase is later employed in Revelation 5:9 and 14:3.  Moreover, even if Isaiah 42:10 did refer to the employment of a different language, it would be just as plausible to identify that language as the language of the coastal or island nations of the Mediterranean, or the language spoken in Sela (Edomite then, or Nabataean Aramaic later on), as the Old Arabic spoken by the Qedarites.  With that settled, we may move on and return to the narrative flow of Isaiah 42.

For all that the servant is pledged to do in these verses, we find - as we read on - that the servant is, unfortunately, spiritually "blind" and "deaf" (Isaiah 42:19).  The servant in question "sees many things but does not observe them; his ears are open, but he does not hear" (Isaiah 42:20).  Israel is supposed to be this Servant but, taken as a whole, is failing to bring the message of Yahweh's "new things" to the nations.  No one is being enlightened by compromised Israel as "the servant of Yahweh."  As a result, Israel - for whom Yahweh gave a glorious Torah/Law - is "a people plundered and looted; they are all of them trapped in holes and hidden in prisons; they have become plunder with none to rescue, spoil with none to say 'Restore!'" (Isaiah 42:22).  This people must be Israel: "Who gave up Jacob to the looter, Israel to the plunderers?  Was it not Yahweh, against whom we've sinned, in whose ways they wouldn't walk and whose law they wouldn't obey?" (Isaiah 42:24).

Consequently, later 'Servant Songs' would have to hand this mission over to a faithful remnant.  In Isaiah 44, the 'Servant' is still Israel ("But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen" [Isaiah 44:1], "Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant" [Isaiah 44:21]) in exile awaiting redemption, a blessing granted in Isaiah 45 to "my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen" (Isaiah 45:4), leading to the announcement that "Yahweh has redeemed his servant Jacob" (Isaiah 48:20).  By Isaiah 49, we hear a first-person monologue by the Servant, who is now a faithful remnant (and perhaps even a remnant of one): both corporate Israel ("He said to me: You are my servant Israel, in whom I will be glorified" [Isaiah 49:3]) and commissioned to rescue corporate Israel ("Yahweh... formed me from the womb to be his Servant to bring Jacob back to him and that Israel might be gathered to him" [Isaiah 49:5]), with that mission expanding also outward toward the other nations ("It is too light a thing that you should be my [Yahweh's] servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth" [Isaiah 49:6]).

After further promises to a restored Zion, the Servant affirms fidelity and non-retaliation under persecution ("I gave my back to those who strike and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting" [Isaiah 50:6]), and the prophet issues a call for all to obey the Servant's voice (Isaiah 50:10).  Further celebration of the people's impending ransom (e.g., Isaiah 51:11) and a censure of Jerusalem's then-present depraved state (Isaiah 51:17-23) lead to further hope of redemption (Isaiah 52:1-10) and a call to return on a new exodus journey (Isaiah 52:11-12).  This leads up to the assumption of the Servant role by a figure with a marred appearance (Isaiah 52:14) who would be "despised and rejected by men" (Isaiah 53:3) and would be "pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities" (Isaiah 53:5), in that "Yahweh has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:6).  This would culminate in his quiet acquiescence in the face of slaughter (Isaiah 53:7), upon which the Servant would be "taken away" by "oppression and judgment," being "cut off out of the land of the living" (Isaiah 53:8), so that he would be buried in a "grave" (Isaiah 53:9).  He would thus have "poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many" (Isaiah 53:12).  But this serves Yahweh's purposes: the Servant's soul would be made a guilt-offering, and yet beyond that sacrifice, he would yet "prolong his days" (Isaiah 53:10) and would receive "a portion with the great" (Isaiah 53:12).  (And even some Muslim readers, like Najm al-Din al-Tufi, have concurred that Isaiah 53 is "specifically related" to Christ - that "in this chapter," Isaiah offers "a presentation of prophecies regarding Christ, his crucifixion with the criminals, and his bearing sins."  Al-Tufi's attempts to explain Isaiah 53 without the actual death of the Servant, though, are not only desperate but tragicomic.)  This oracle then gives way to a large-scale celebration of redemption in Isaiah 54, the promise of an "everlasting covenant" in Isaiah 55:3, and the full-fledged inclusion of former foreigners and other formerly disqualified persons into the covenant community in Isaiah 56:1-8.

As New Testament scholar Ben Witherington writes: "Israel as God's servant may be blind and deaf, but God is going to pave the way for their return to Zion ... It is possible to conclude that we are being told here that 'my servant' Israel failed in their mission to be a light to the nations, and so as we move from Isaiah 42 to Isaiah 49, God in turn moves from a corporate servant to an individual one in Isaiah 49."  It is in that sense that New Testament writers borrow language from Isaiah 42:1-4 and apply it to Jesus, as we see in Matthew 12:18-21 (with an allusion to Isaiah 42:1 also quite likely in Matthew 17:5).  Jesus ultimately fulfills the Servant mission outlined for Israel, and correspondingly lives out the description in Isaiah 42:1-4 without falling prey to the failings of Isaiah 42:19-25.

So Jesus, taking up the quintessential Israelite role of the Servant in his capacity as Messiah (i.e., a one-man remnant finally up to the task), is the true fulfillment of Isaiah 42.  (And note well that even some rabbis understood Isaiah 42 in messianic terms.  An early Aramaic paraphrase of Isaiah not only rendered Isaiah 52:13 as saying that "my servant the Messiah shall prosper" (though while radically altering the following text to avoid any signs of suffering in Isaiah 53), but also read Isaiah 42:1 as referring to "my servant, the Messiah, whom I bring."  Similarly, in the later Midrash Tehillim 2.9, commenting on Psalm 2:7, quotes both Isaiah 52:13 and Isaiah 42:1 and records the comment of Rabbi Yudan - perhaps a mid-fourth-century amora, placing him several centuries before either Muhammad or Abdallah ibn 'Amr ibn al-'As - that "all these goodly promises are in the decree of the King, the King of Kings, who will fulfill them for the lord Messiah."  The Midrash Tehillim 42.5, meanwhile, applies Isaiah 42:1 to a "redeemer" described as "the Messiah, son of David."   This post-Christian rabbinic testimony dovetails with Christian readings of Isaiah 42 and precludes the Islamic apologetic reading of Isaiah 42, well in advance and with no motive - least of all after the rise of Christianity - to artificially foist a messianic reading onto the passage.)

At this point, a Muslim might raise a question like: "How does Jesus bring joy and song to the Qedarite villages and to the inhabitants of Sela?  There doesn't seem to be a connection there - not like there could be for Muhammad!"  First, it must be observed that Qedar and Sela are commanded or invited to joy and song, much as the psalmist calls on all breathing things to praise Yahweh (Psalm 150:6).  If our present experience reveals breathing things that refuse to obey, it does not negate the invitation; and if we should find Qedar and Sela refusing the joy of the gospel and its songs, that would not negate the Isaianic invitation.  Evidence of a positive response from Sela and Qedar, or rather the descendants of those who dwelled in those places during Isaiah's time, is therefore not essential to the application of these passages to Jesus.  (Note also, again, that nothing in this passage would require Jesus to physically set foot in Sela or Qedar; there is merely a command that those dwelling there should celebrate him and Yahweh's saving activity in and through him.)

Nevertheless, indications of a positive response may be found.  Already on Pentecost, less than two months after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Peter's preaching found reception among Jewish visitors to Jerusalem who came from - and would return to - linguistically Arab territories (Acts 2:11).  Sela in Edom was not far from Tophet/Tafilah or Bozrah/Busaira, all of which in the first century would have fallen within the territory of the Nabatean kingdom, a region designated Arabia Petraea (headquartered in the Hellenistic-Nabatean city Petra).  (And the first-century Jewish historian Josephus identifies Ishmaelites as the settlers of Nabatea: "Ishmael's twelve sons... inhabited all the country from the Euphrates to the Red Sea and called it 'Nabatene': they are an Arabian nation..." [Antiquities 1.12.4].)  One of the Apostle Paul's first missionary endeavors was in Nabatea/Arabia Petraea (Galatians 1:17), and subsequently he had to evade capture by the ethnarch who oversaw the Nabatean quarter of Damascus (2 Corinthians 11:32-33).  This ethnarch worked for "King Aretas," Paul says - i.e., Aretas IV, the Nabatean king who ruled from Petra, which either itself was, or was near, Sela.  The Apostle Paul had evidently become a wanted man in Aretas IV's sight on account of Paul's missionary work at and around Sela.  In the early fourth century, Eusebius of Caesarea observes that more work remained to be done: "Petra is a certain city in Palestine where superstitious people are submerged in a great and demonic deception, but he [i.e., Isaiah] says that even the inhabitants of this city will share in the grace, for 'those who inhabit Petra will rejoice' [Isaiah 42:11].  The fulfillment of these words in actuality confirmed the truth that this prophecy is about the churches of Christ and about the city of those who dwell on the rock, and they are found in the wildernesses of the Saracens all around us" (Commentary on Isaiah 42:11-12).  Over the coming centuries, we have evidence (in the form of church ruins and assorted records) of churches in these former Nabatean cities, indicating that the good news of Jesus Christ was indeed sung there in obedience to Isaiah 42:11. 

As for the Qedarites and other Arab groups, Dionysius of Alexandria in the third century speaks of the churches in 'Arabia' as well as 'the Syrias' all "rejoicing in concord and brotherly love, glorifying God" (in Eusebius, Eccleisastical History 7.5.2).  In the fourth century, we know of an Arab bishop named Moses who tended to the spiritual needs of Arab Christian nomads (Rufinus of Aquileia, Ecclesiastical History 11.6).  In the mid-fifth century, church historian Sozomen mentions the successful late-fourth- to early-fifth-century evangelization of a northern Arabian tribal confederation then known as the Salihids, a portion of "the Saracens" who, under the influence of desert-dwelling monks and priests, "were converted to Christianity not long before the present reign" (Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History 6.38).  Living at the same time, Theodoret of Cyrrhus is aware of "descendants of Ishmael" whom he describes as "Christian nomads" (Questions on Leviticus 38), and attributes some of this to the influence of the north-Syrian ascetic Symeon Stylites, "for the Ishmaelites, who were enslaved in their many tens of thousands to the darkness of impiety, have been illuminated by his standing on the pillar. ... The Ishmaelites, arriving in companies, two or three hundred at the same time, sometimes even a thousand, disown with shouts their ancestral imposture; and, smashing in front of this great luminary the idols they had venerated and renouncing the orgies of Aphrodite (it was this demon whose worship they had adopted originally), they receive the benefit of the divine mysteries, accepting laws from this sacred tongue and bidding farewell to their ancestral customs ... I myself was an eyewitness of this..." (History of the Monks of Syria 26.13-14).  Indeed, al-Tabari observes a tradition (which he ascribes to Ibn Ishaq) that the Apostle Bartholomew, disciple of Jesus, was himself the first one sent to evangelize in the Hijaz!  And so Cyril of Alexandria, in the early fifth century, sees this passage as reason to hope that the "extensive desert to the south of Judah occupied by the Saracen and Arab nations... would in due course be granted grace and salvation through Christ" (Commentary on Isaiah 42:11).

All that is, at least, a taste of fulfillment of Isaiah 42, as the rise of the Messiah has proven an occasion for formerly pagan lands (including the regions around Sela and Qedar) to glorify God through Jesus Christ!  (And note that, were Christians to adopt the rabbinic link between Isaiah 42:11 and the resurrection of the dead, this would be an even easier case to make, as Jesus was famous for raising the dead during his ministry (Matthew 11:5 / Luke 7:22), has himself been raised from the dead (Acts 4:10; 13:30), and will be the cause of the general resurrection yet to come (John 5:28-29; Romans 8:11)!)

A Christian reading of Isaiah 42, then, is certainly highly viable (and, indeed, more than viable).  What, again, about the Islamic reading?  Is this a prophecy of Muhammad?  Simply put: No.  Why not?  Because Muhammad is not Israel, nor an Israelite upon whom the uniquely Israelite 'Servant' role might devolve.  (And so he is certainly not the Messiah - a title reserved even in the Qur'an for Jesus!)

Isaiah's prophecy here is filled with concepts that have little purchase in Islamic theology, and Muhammad is simply a non-starter.  The 'servant' is supposed to be a light to the nations, but Israel is this 'servant' and has let its own blindness compromise the mission, calling down punishment.  (If Isaiah 42 were a prophecy exclusively about Muhammad, it would perhaps not be terribly complimentary: "Who is blind as [Muhammad]?  He sees many things but does not observe them; his ears are open, but he does not hear."  That is not, I take it, the impression of Muhammad that the Islamic apologist wishes to give!  But, fortunately... this is not at all about Muhammad.)

So we cannot say that Muhammad is Israel, nor can we say that Muhammad is eligible to inherit and bear this 'Servant' role of Israel.  He simply has no meaningful connection to biblical Israel.  Nor does the course of Muhammad's life match the trajectory of the Servant Songs.  Not only do the Servant Songs depict a figure who, at the height of his mission, refuses to defend himself, but the Servant is sent to accomplish the repentance and renewal of Israel as well as the illumination of the nations, and the Servant finally bears the sins of others, is accused and judged and rejected and killed and buried, and then prospers.  While Ibn Rabban (for instance) did try to claim Isaiah 49 as also a prophecy of Muhammad, even he did not attempt to apply the final Servant Song to Muhammad!  Muhammad simply has no link to Isaiah 42, early-medieval hadith and modern Islamic apologists alike notwithstanding.

Q:  Psalm 84 refers to the 'Valley of Baca.'  Is that Mecca?  And if so, is this psalm about Muhammad? 

There is, evidently, a tradition of Muslim interpretation of the psalm's 'Valley of Baca' as referring to Mecca - or, perhaps more specifically, to the Kaaba and its immediate environs - based on the interchangeability of 'Bakkah' and 'Makkah' in the South Arabian dialect, and consequently the use of 'Bakkah' in the Qur'an (3:96).  (See the discussion of 'Bakkah' and 'Makkah' in Tafsir Anwar-ul-Bayan, Tafsir al-Jalalayn [which specifically derives the variant form 'Bakkah' "because it 'crushes' (tabukku) the necks of tyrants"], and of course Tafsir Ibn Kathir [which derives the variant 'Bakkah' in two different ways: first that it "means 'it brings weeping' (buka) to the tyrants and arrogant, meaning they cry and become humble in its vicinity," and second that "people do buka next to it, meaning they gather around it"].  But note that this 'Baca = Mecca' approach to Psalm 84 has seldom figured prominently in Islamic apologetics, though Jamal Badawi, Kais al-Kalby, and Ali Ataie all make the claim.)

And yet, for all that, these derivations are not likely to be the same as the ha-baka in Psalm 84:6.  For one, note the definite article!  This has led a number of scholars to note the verbal resemblance to the Hebrew verb for 'weep' (bakah), rather as Ibn Kathir had observed.  But unless Ibn Kathir's derivation of Bakkah in his setting is correct, any similarity with a specific Arabic place-name noted over a thousand years later is unlikely to be connected (and still less so when that Arabic toponym is more commonly pronounced and spelled differently).  Rather, this 'Valley of the Baca' is plausibly an arid valley outside Jerusalem.  Indeed, if ha-baka in Psalm 84:6 is connected to 'balsam trees' (bekaim), this could simply be an alternative name for the familiar Valley of Rephaim, not too far from Jerusalem.

Consider the whole point of Psalm 84.  It is a praise of God's sanctuary in Jerusalem: the Temple.  The psalm opens with praises for Yahweh's "dwelling place" (Psalm 84:1) and the singer's soul's yearning for "the courts of Yahweh" (Psalm 84:2).  The singer dreams wistfully of the sparrows that nest "at your altars, O Yahweh of Hosts, my King and my God" (Psalm 84:3).  The singer is aware of temple personnel "who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise" (Psalm 84:4).  The singer blesses those whose hearts dwell on the highways leading to Zion (Psalm 84:5).  These highways lead through 'the Valley of the Baca,' which is well-watered (Psalm 84:6), but the travelers through there each "appear before God in Zion" (Psalm 84:7).  (If this psalm is a pilgrim song to be sung when approaching the Jerusalem temple to pray for rain at the start of the agricultural year, then verse 6 would be describing the refreshment brought on Judean land by the autumn rains.)  The singer then cries out to Yahweh as the "God of Jacob" (Psalm 84:8), and praises the unsurpassed value of spending time in Yahweh's "courts," for "I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness" (Psalm 84:10).  The poem ends with further praise for the blessings that Yahweh gives those who trust him and walk uprightly (Psalm 84:11-12).

This psalm is intensely focused on Zion.  The sanctuary in question cannot be the Kaaba, given the reference to altars and to singing personnel.  (Did the Kaaba ever have anything that could be described as "courts"?)  Nor does the connection made between Yahweh and Jacob (Ishmael's nephew) hint at an Arabian connection here.  Nothing in Psalm 84, taken as a literary unit, demonstrates that the true 'house of God' was in Mecca rather than Jerusalem.  No prophecy pertinent to Muhammad's career is to be found in Psalm 84 in its original context.

Traditional Jewish interpretation is likewise unhelpful to Islamic apologetics.  Ancient rabbis took 'Valley of the Baca' to mean, indeed, "valley of weeping," and said that this was Gehenna: "The 'valley of weeping' is Gehenna, for, as Rabbi Eleazar said, 'It is the place where the wicked will be slaughtered.'  'They make it a place of springs' - that is, their tears will flow as copiously as a spring" (Midrash Tehillim 84.3).  Other rabbis similarly explained Psalm 84:7 as meaning that the wicked "make their tears to flow like fountains till the very fires of hell become cool with their tears" (Exodus Rabbah 7.4).  This line of interpretation would continue even to the eleventh-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzachi ('Rashi'), who explained Psalm 84:7 as applying to "those who transgress your Law and who are therefore in the deepest part of Gehenna engaged in weeping and wailing.  'They make it into a spring' with their tears."  Presumably, no Muslim apologist wishes to adopt this line of reasoning and say that Mecca is hell!

Neither does the history of pre-Islamic Christian interpretation suggest helpful material for the Islamic apologist here.  Jerome of Stridon, of the late fourth and early fifth centuries, takes the biblical phrase as 'the valley of tears,' and understands it to be a description of this world as opposed to the heights of Paradise, which calls for sorrow: "We are not on the heights of Paradise but in the lowliness of earth ... For the time being, we are in the valley of tears, and this world is the place for weeping, not for rejoicing" (Homilies on Psalms 16).  Also in the fifth century, Augustine of Hippo understood this psalm's 'valley of weeping' to be in the depths of the human heart, which can gain "upward steps" only by "the grace of God" (Exposition on the Psalms 84.10).  Also in the fifth century, Theodoret of Cyrrhus collected these approaches: On one level, "a 'vale of tears' is the present life, in which Adam eats bread in the sweat of his brow and Eve bears children in pain"; on another level, the weeping is a condition of the human heart which will lead to eschatological blessing; and on yet a third level, the Baca of Psalm 84:7 is the 'Bochim' of Judges 2:5, a specific place in Israel at which the Israelites were rebuked by an angel and responded by weeping (Commentary on the Psalms 84.4).  None of these approaches lends itself to the Islamic case.

Surveying all three aspects of the verse - the original context of Psalm 84, the pre-Islamic Jewish interpretations of Psalm 84, and the pre-Islamic Christian interpretations of Psalm 84 - we find precisely nothing that connects Psalm 84:7 to Mecca.  The Islamic apologetic case on this point is a complete failure.  We may therefore move on.

Q:  Does Matthew 21 portray Jesus as prophesying the career of Muhammad?  In it, he makes mention of a rejected stone becoming head of the corner (21:42), and then says that the kingdom of God would be withdrawn from the Jews and given to another nation who would be more fruitful (21:43)?

Now we at last move into the New Testament, and respond to a novel Islamic apologetic appeal to Matthew 21 - a move that lacks much precedent, so far as I can see, in more traditional Islamic apologetic literature of the prior centuries, but which is made by some modern Muslim apologists like, e.g., Kais al-Kalby and Jamal Badawi.

Once again, we need to read the chapter as a whole.  Matthew 21 begins with the story of the Triumphal Entry, in which Jesus - the paradoxical King - enters Jerusalem.  Matthew observes Jesus' entry on a donkey colt and ties it to the prophecy found in Zechariah 9:9 (Matthew 21:5).  The pilgrim crowds are portrayed as hailing Jesus as the saving Son of David, and they sing a line from Psalm 118:26 ("Blessed is he who comes in the name of Yahweh [or, the Lord]"), which will become important (Matthew 21:9).

Because of Jesus' entry like this, "the whole city was stirred up" (Matthew 21:10).  Jesus is next seen as causing a ruckus in the temple courts - he viewed the exclusionary activities of the money-changers as an offense to the temple's mission as seen in Isaiah 56:7, "a house of prayer for all peoples" (see Matthew 21:12-13).  He also performed healings there in the temple courts, and even children were celebrating him (Matthew 21:14-15).  However, religious power-brokers ("the chief priests and the scribes") were offended and incensed (Matthew 21:16).  After performing a sign of judgment to announce Israel's failure to show the fruit of faith in their Messiah (Matthew 21:17-22), Jesus returns to the temple courts and once again faces the challenge of the religious power-brokers, which he fends off rather easily (Matthew 21:23-27).

Jesus then launches into two stories, both of which are geared toward these 'chief priests.'  The first notes that repentant scofflaws are more noble than those who mouth all the right pieties but fail to follow through (Matthew 21:28-30).  The chief priests are in exactly the latter category, because they failed to heed John the Baptist when he called on them to repent - instead, the chief priests mouth the right pieties, but they don't follow through when the kingdom is announced to them.  Therefore, even prostitutes who repent and believe the good news of the kingdom will enter with God's approval, whereas "the chief priests and scribes" (or, as later described, "the chief priests and the Pharisees") who persist on their course will not (Matthew 21:31-32).

The second story, a more famous one, involves a vineyard owner who leases the vineyard to tenant farmers, then sends assorted servants to go collect the owner's rightful share of the crop, as per the contract.  However, the tenants repeatedly abuse and even murder these servants.  At last, the owner sends his own son, but the tenants murder him as well.  Consequently, the owner would naturally take great offense - enough to overwhelm the tenants with force, and then lease the vineyard to more responsible tenants instead (Matthew 21:33-41).  The implication is clear: the owner is God while the vineyard is Israel ("for the vineyard of Yahweh of Hosts is the house of Israel" [Isaiah 5:7]); the tenants are the religious leaders in Israel; the servants are the prophets; and the son is Jesus.  (Compare also the renditions of this parable in Mark 12:1-12 and Luke 20:9-18.)

In Jesus' own explanation, he turns back to the same psalm which the pilgrims had been singing: "The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.  This is Yahweh's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes" (Psalm 118:22-23, quoted in Matthew 21:42).  Jesus means that he is the Stone whom the builders (Israel's religious leaders) would reject, but who would be greatly honored by God.  (Note that, just earlier in the chapter, Matthew takes the pilgrims' quotations from Psalm 118:26 as a reference to Jesus; that laid the groundwork for seeing Jesus in his own quotation from Psalm 118:22 now.)  It is as a consequence of the death of Jesus that "the kingdom of God" would be "taken away" from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and would instead be given to a more fruitful people - the leaders of the church as the New Israel (Matthew 21:43).  If the chief priests and Pharisees wish to continue opposing Jesus, it will only mean their own loss: "The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him" (Matthew 21:44). 

The language here used to describe the encounters between 'this stone' and opponents is drawn from earlier passages in the prophets.  (The claim of, e.g., Badawi that the 'stone' here is the Ishmaelite nation, once rejected from inheritance but later raised to indomitable military superiority, is wholly alien to the historical and literary context of this passage, and may be dismissed.  So may al-Kalby's claim that the 'stone' is the Kaaba itself, rejected by the Israelites when they built the temple in Jerusalem but now restored to its preeminence as a sanctuary - this, too, is alien to the passage.)  Isaiah had presented God himself as a "Stone of Offense and a Rock of Stumbling" in "both houses of Israel," warning that "many shall stumble on it: they shall fall and be broken" (Isaiah 8:14-15).  Daniel likewise had a dream about God's kingdom is inaugurated by a "Stone" that would "break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever" (Daniel 2:44-45).  (And while some Muslim apologists have attempted to read Daniel 2:44-45 itself as a prophecy of Muhammad, that too has no basis and is unsuccessful.)

So, is it reasonable to think that Muhammad is the 'rejected stone' who becomes the 'cornerstone' in this passage?  No.  The use of Psalm 118 is integrated too well into the parable, which refers to the relevant figure as the vineyard owner's son.  In context, Jesus is clearly referring to himself, as already noted: he is the one who claims God for his Father, he is the one who fulfills Isaiah's and Daniel's prophecies about a divine Stone set amidst Israel, he is the one whom Israel's 'builders' (the chief priests and other leaders) rejected.  In addressing those very chief priests not so long thereafter, Peter, following his Teacher's instruction, explicitly identified Jesus as the rejected Stone: "Jesus of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead..., is the stone rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone" (Acts 4:10-11).  Peter would later describe Jesus as "a living Stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious" (1 Peter 2:4).  Peter is merely continuing the interpretative tradition regarding Psalm 118 that Jesus himself initiated.  Scholars broadly agree that Jesus is employing wordplay between 'stone' (eben) and 'son' (ben) here - after all, the Aramaic paraphrase of Psalm 118:22 even reads "the son which the builders rejected."  (Indeed, the obviousness of Jesus' claim to sonship through this parable is what drove Muslim apologist Shabir Ally to endeavor - unsuccessfully - to discredit the parable itself, an effort at cross-purposes with the poster's aims to utilize the parable and Jesus' application thereof!)  Muhammad cannot fairly be viewed as the vineyard owner's son from the parable (who suffered a violent death and stood in a filial relationship to the owner who represents God), and so Muhammad cannot be whom Jesus meant as the 'rejected stone.'

In the parable, it is after the son is killed that the owner comes, punishes the tenants, and transfers the vineyard to alternative tenants.  So, too, it is after the stone is rejected that it becomes a cornerstone.  Both of these mean that, in rejecting Jesus, the "chief priests and the Pharisees" are sealing their own loss of God's kingdom.  This cannot refer to something that happens only in the early seventh century AD with Muhammad.  Consequently, Matthew 21:44 cannot be referring to the Arabs or Muslims as the inheritors of the kingdom.

Q:  Lastly, could Jesus' prophecy about a coming Comforter, in John 16:7-15, be a prophecy about Muhammad?

This one is perennially popular in Islamic apologetics, it seems.  The attempt to understand the 'Helper' or 'Comforter' here as Muhammad goes back, again, to at least the eighth-century caliphal reign of al-Mahdi.  Ibn Qutaybah and Ibn Rabban utilized a similar argument in the ninth century, as (in a more garbled form) did the Shi'a scholar Ibn Babawayh in the tenth (but purporting to relay the argument of the eighth Shi'a imam Ali ibn Musa al-Ridha in the early ninth century).  Four centuries later, Najm al-Din al-Tufi claimed this passage as "truly Christ's annunciation of Muhammad."  It has been a commonplace in Islamic biblical interpretation ever since (consider its use by Ahmad Deedat, Jamal Badawi, Akbarally Meherally, Ali Ataie, and countless others), so it's unsurprising to see it here.

The suggestion is sometimes made that, with some rearrangement of the letters, the 'Comforter' / 'Advocate' / 'Helper' (Parakletos) can be turned into Periklytos, which is then suggested to mean "the much-praised" and to be a Greek term equivalent to the Arabic name/title 'Ahmad,' as per Qur'an 61:6.  It should, of course, be noted that the textual evidence for the word 'periklytos' appearing in any copy of the Gospel of John is exactly zero.  In particular, no pre-Qur'anic manuscript of the Gospel of John can be found that reads 'periklytos.'  And pre-Islamic Christian writings frequently refer to the Holy Spirit as 'the Paraclete,' alluding to the known text of the Gospel of John, such as Irenaeus of Lyons' late-second century book Against Heresies (3.11.9) and Origen of Alexandria's mid-third-century Commentary on the Gospel of John (20.263).  This is so even in Latin writings that borrow 'Paraclete' as a proper noun, such as Tertullian of Carthage's early-third-century treatises Against Praxeas (1.5-7) and On Flight in Persecution (1.1) and Novatian of Rome's mid-third-century treatise On the Trinity (16.2; 29.3,8).  (These grounds render it truly beyond belief that 'periklytos' should have been the original reading.)  Even if a very strong theory of tahrif were adopted and so early and widespread textual corruption is posited (but when, where, and how?), there is simply no motive for anyone to change 'periklytos' to 'parakletos,' rather than simply interpret it in a congenial way.  But 'parakletos' makes significantly better sense as a reading (as it should, being the uniform reading of all Johannine manuscripts and all other witnesses, quite securely dated centuries before Muhammad was born)!

(It is, moreover, far from clear the earlier forms of this Islamic apologetic argument rely on reading 'periklytos' in the first place - that may be a later development.  Al-Dimashqi, for instance, merely glosses 'parakletos' as meaning "the messenger" - which is, at any rate, inaccurate - but does not appear to be conjecturing a textual emendation of the word.  And Ibn Rabban's earlier approach required a numerological calculation regarding 'Paracleta' in Syriac as numerically equivalent to, and hence in a sense code for, the Arabic phrase 'Muhammad the rightly-guiding prophet, son of Abdullah' - an argument, silly though it may be, that would collapse with any attempt to emend parakletos to periklytos!  Al-Kalby avoids arguing textual emendation here, but attempts to claim that 'parakletos' itself means "praised one" - which is purely and simply false.)

To read Jesus' words in context is the best antidote to all this.  He tells his disciples that he will soon be returning to the One who sent him [i.e., God] (John 16:5).  He then says that unless he departs, the Parakletos will not come to them; however, if Jesus returns to the presence of God, then he will send the Parakletos to his disciples (John 16:7).  This Parakletos, upon coming, "will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment" (John 16:8).  The Parakletos will convict the world for not believing in Jesus, for instance (John 16:9).  The Parakletos is also called "the Spirit of Truth" and would continue Jesus' teaching ministry to his own disciples (John 16:13).  This Spirit of Truth would "glorify" Jesus (John 16:15).  All of this builds on Jesus' prior statement that he would "send [the Parakletos] to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth, who proceeds from the Father," and that this Spirit of Truth "will bear witness about me" (John 15:26).  That in itself also builds on Jesus' even earlier statement about "the Parakletos, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name" (John 14:26).  This is the Parakletos whom Jesus said the Father would give to his disciples "to be with you forever" (John 14:16).

(Ali Ataie, who does not lean on the periklytos substitute, attempts to argue that the original reading was simply "the Parakletos, the Spirit," without the word 'Holy,' and claims that this is preserved in the late-fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus.  Not only is this completely inaccurate - the text of John 14:26 in Codex Sinaiticus does read ta pn[eum]a to agion, 'Holy Spirit' - but so do even earlier manuscripts like P66, which includes the term 'Holy Spirit' in this verse and was written around 200 AD, as does the late-second or early-third-century P75.  The presence of 'Holy Spirit' as the identity of the 'Paraclete' is an inescapable datum of the text, Ataie's pleas notwithstanding.)

Can Muhammad be the Paraclete?  No, not even within the boundaries of Islamic theology.  Jesus says that he himself will send the Paraclete, but it does not seem that Muslims can affirm that Jesus is the one who sent Muhammad into the world (and this was Dionysius Bar-Salibi's reply eight centuries ago to Muslim attempts to identify Muhammad as the Paraclete).  Jesus says that the Paraclete will be sent specifically to his own disciples, but Muhammad was not sent to them.  It would also be a stretch to say that Muhammad "proceeds from the Father," or that Muhammad testifies to Jesus' Sonship, or that Muhammad primarily glorified Jesus.  Clearly, Muhammad has not been continually with Jesus' disciples (or even his own followers) continuously since he came - he is now deceased, which the Parakletos cannot be.  (Some, like al-Qarafi, tried to salvage the Islamic case here by reducing the text to meaning only that Muhammad's message would stick with people.  The weakness of this reading, compared with the text itself, should be plainly apparent.  Al-Qarafi's alteration is just not what the text says.)  

It would be even more of a stretch to say that Muhammad is "the Holy Spirit" or "the Spirit of Truth" - although some Muslim apologists have, incredibly, endeavored to reduce these titles to honorifics bestowed on Muhammad!  In particular, a few Muslim apologists have attempted to argue that 'spirit' can be a biblical term for prophets.  Evidence for this contention is sorely lacking.  Presumably, they have in mind 1 John 4:1 ("Test the spirits to see if they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world"), but this is not identifying 'spirit' and 'prophet' as synonymous or even overlapping categories.  Rather, it is a call to discern the spirit behind the activity of the professed prophet: is the prophet acting under the influence of God's own Holy Spirit, or are he instead one of the "foolish prophets who follow their own spirit and have seen nothing" (Ezekiel 13:3) or perhaps even speaking as a result of the influence of a "lying spirit" (1 Kings 22:22-23)?  None of these passages treat 'spirit' and 'prophet' as synonymous.  Rather, "Holy Spirit" and "Spirit of Truth" are established references that cannot be twisted to serve Islamic apologetic ends here.

The Parakletos of whom Jesus speaks is God's own Spirit, mentioned numerous times in the prior scriptures.  During the time of Moses, God "put in the midst of them his Holy Spirit" (Isaiah 63:11).  When Israel rebelled against God, they were said to have "rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit" (Isaiah 63:10).  David, in repentance from his sin, asked God to "take not your Holy Spirit from me" (Psalm 51:11).  The conception of Jesus in the womb of the Virgin Mary took place through the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18-20).  John the Baptist testifies that Jesus "baptizes with the Holy Spirit" (John 1:33).  Jesus would later breathe on his disciples and bid them "receive the Holy Spirit" (John 20:22).  Jesus is talking about a Spirit "whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.  You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you" (John 14:17).

None of that can be Muhammad.  Muhammad was not placed in the midst of Israel during the wilderness journey under Moses.  Israel's rebellion during Moses' day was not an act of grieving Muhammad.  David did not ask God to let him keep his Muhammad.  The conception of Jesus in the womb of the Virgin Mary was not through Muhammad.  Jesus did not baptize with Muhammad and did not breathe onto his disciples so that they could receive Muhammad.  Muhammad was not dwelling with the disciples and certainly was not about to be in them.  It is not the case that the world would not be able to see Muhammad.  (Timothy I of Baghdad made this point in dialogue with al-Mahdi in the eighth century: "If Muhammad were the Paraclete..., Muhammad would be invisible and without a human body.")  But all these things are true, not of Muhammad, but of God's own Spirit.  So John 16 does not offer us a prophecy of the mission of Muhammad, as he is not the Paraclete and is not here spoken of by Jesus.  Once again, the Islamic apologetic appeal is an unsuccessful one.


This brings us, canonically, to the end of the verses cited by the poster.  It should be clear that these biblical verses contain no support for Islamic apologetics - none of them can reasonably be maintained to be a prophecy of Muhammad or the events of his career.  Not even a typological reading is likely to get there!

(It should be noted that, although not included on this poster, there are a variety of other verses, such as Isaiah 29:12 and Song of Songs 5:16, which are sometimes cited by Muslims and claimed to be prophecies concerning Muhammad.  The same treatment is sometimes accorded to a larger stretch of text selected from Isaiah 60.  Such claims do not hold up any better, but since the poster didn't include them, I'm not responding to them here at this time.  Perhaps at a future time.)

No doubt, more sophisticated Islamic apologetics are available.  (For their sake, I'd rather hope so!)  Yet I do not think any - at least not so far as I've seen - will ultimately be successful.  And that is simply because the good news of Jesus Christ is true news.  Believe the gospel!

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