“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
Jesus, during His crucifixion
“May Allah curse the Jews and Christians, for they built the places of worship at the graves of their Prophets.”
Muhammad, on his deathbed
Although some varieties of relativism compel adherents to treat all religious claims as equally true, and while the “new atheists” often maintain that all religious claims are equally false, a cautious examination of the evidence shows that all religions are not created equal. Whereas Christian beliefs about Jesus are based entirely on sources written within the lifetimes of eyewitnesses, Muslim beliefs about Muhammad are based on documents composed more than a century after his death. Nevertheless, even if we take these late Islamic sources seriously, additional problems immediately arise. Muhammad’s moral teachings and example, especially in the areas of sex and violence, can be shocking to those unfamiliar with Muslim sources. When viewed against the backdrop of the New Testament picture of Jesus, Muhammad’s example only serves to highlight Jesus’ moral excellence. Further, Jesus and Muhammad taught radically different theologies, but we have firm grounds for accepting Christian theology and rejecting Islamic theology. All available evidence confirms that Jesus rose from the dead. Islam, however, falls short on two fronts—Muhammad could offer no compelling reason to believe he was a prophet, and his teachings lead to a dilemma that can only be avoided by abandoning Islam.
As Jesus of Nazareth hung from a cross—barely recognizable, skin dangling like ribbons, muscles and inner tissues exposed, covered only by His own drying yet still flowing blood — He asked His Father to forgive the people who had treated Him this way. Six centuries later, Muhammad lay dying, his internal organs shutting down after being poisoned by a Jewish woman whose family had been slaughtered by Muslim invaders. His prayer was for Allah to curse Jews and Christians.
A careful comparison of Jesus and Muhammad reveals that Christianity and Islam are far more different than is commonly thought. In terms of historical evidence and ethical teachings, the founders of history’s two most popular religions are poles apart. When we factor in the dissimilarity of their central messages and of the divine support backing these messages, the gulf between Christianity and Islam couldn’t be deeper. Muhammad seems inextricably tied to a particular culture during a specific time period. Jesus appears timeless.
While several ancient non-Christian writings refer to Jesus, virtually everything we know about His life is based on sources contained in the New Testament. The four Gospels, the book of Acts, and numerous letters were all written either by eyewitnesses themselves or within the lifetimes of eyewitnesses. Having multiple, independent, early sources allows us to form a reliable picture of the historical Jesus.
The historian’s task is far more difficult when we turn to Islam’s origins. The Qur’an tells us next to nothing about Muhammad (at least, not explicitly). Our earliest detailed biographical source for the prophet of Islam is Ibn Ishaq’s Life of Muhammad, which was written more than a century after Muhammad’s death. Modern Muslims, however, have declared that Ibn Ishaq’s methodology was defective, forcing them to turn to even later works for information concerning their prophet. Islam’s most trusted collections of stories about Muhammad (e.g., Sahih al-Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, etc.) were written approximately two centuries (or more) after the events they report.
Needless to say, two centuries is ample time for embellishment and outright fabrication. Quests for early Islamic historical data have uncovered little, and the general movement among scholars of Islamic studies over the past century has been toward greater skepticism. Of course, there is no shortage of New Testament scholars who are highly critical of Christian beliefs (e.g., Jesus’ miracles and divine nature). But there is a crucial difference between skepticism about Jesus and skepticism about Muhammad. Whereas critics of Christianity have to contend with and explain away a significant amount of early historical evidence, critics of Islam do not.