1Islam is derived from the Arabic word ‘Salema’, which in English might be interpreted in a number of ways, i.e. peace, purity, submission and obedience . However, in its religious context, Islam implies a submission to the will of God and obedience to His law. Today, Islam often projects itself as a way of life for those who believe in God and want to live a life of worship and obedience to God.

Note: From an agnostic perspective, it always seems contradictory that an all-powerful God, the creator of everything, requires obedience when it would clearly be within God's power to demand it. Of course, while free-will might be cited at this point, it still seems to create an ambiguity in God's ability. Of course, given that Islam is God's third attempt to convey 'his' requirements of humanity, possibly we should not be too surprised in a degree of confusion in the overall message. See subsequent discussion  entitled the 'Probability of God' that further considers the nature of God as a rational intelligence.

However, despite the insertion of an agnostic perspective in the note above, the stated reward for following its doctrine is forgiveness from God and an everlasting life in Heaven. As a simple summary, the creed of Islam might be reduced to three central axioms of belief:

  • Belief in one God
  • The revelation of the Prophet Muhammad
  • The recording of these revelations in the Quran

As such, Islam is a monotheistic faith where the followers of Islam, i.e. Muslims, are expected to believe that the Quran is the flawless and the final revelation of God given to mankind through the prophet Muhammad. While Islam recognizes the Torah and Bible as religious scriptures, Muslims believe that these works have been misinterpreted or distorted by their followers. Therefore, they believe the Quran to be corrective of Jewish and Christian scriptures. However, despite these theological differences, Muslims would initially appear to believe in the same monotheist deity as the Judeo-Christian religions and its roots tracing back to a common ancestry in Abraham around 1800-1700 BCE. However, as unitarian monotheists, Muslims strongly disagree with the Christian theology concerning the Trinity of God and only accept Jesus as a prophet rather than the Son of God. Another distinction is that Islam does not allow any visual images or depictions of God, as they believe God is incorporeal and therefore any depiction of God would be meaningless and idolatry.

So, what is the authority underpinning Islamic belief?

Clearly, any examination of the source of authority related to Islamic belief must focus on the life of Muhammad and the recording of the Quran. The first important claim is that the word of God was revealed to Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel on numerous occasions between the years 610 and his death in 632. The second is that these revelations were memorized by Muhammad and his followers and eventually recorded in the Quran. The Quran consists of 114 chapters or suras comprising of 6,616 verses or ayas, which is said to amount to 77,943 words.

When was the Quran written?

In truth, it would seem that there is no hard evidence as to exactly when the first Quran was compiled, but anecdotal evidence suggests  that the Quran was first written down, in its entirety, somewhere between 646-650 CE from material originating from Muhammad before his death in 632 CE. However, other evidence suggests that the first recognisable version of the Quran did not appear until the time of the third Caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, between 650 and 656 CE; while others scholars have gone further by suggesting that the final version, as recognised today, may not have been fully compiled much before 750 CE. Of course, any delay in the actual writing of the Quran might be seen to throw doubt on the claim that the Quran was Muhammad‘s sole miracle, even though much of the historical evidence suggests that the Quran did not exist in its current written form during Muhammad‘s lifetime. If so, it would seem that Muhammad could never have verified the flawless compilation of the Quran before his death. In this context, we might understand why there is so much controversy surrounding the chronology of the Quran.

Note: The historic authenticity and accuracy of the Quran as a record of Mohammad's revelations with the Angel Gabriel over some 20+ years might be questioned on so many levels. However, like the Torah and New Testament that preceded it, the Quran is still the primary 'weight of authority' that underpins religious faith.

But what of the revelations of Muhammad?

Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, is based on a belief that God or Allah wants to communicate with humanity, but in the case of Islam, the character of Allah is different in that he does not reveal himself to humanity in any personal way. Therefore, Allah sends his word through prophets. Equally, because the character of Allah is transcendent and unapproachable, only a one-way communication from God to humanity is possible. According to Muslim tradition, the revelations were essentially dictated to Muhammad in installments via the angel Gabriel as an exact word-for-word copy of an eternal heavenly book, including punctuation, titles and divisions of chapters. As a consequence, every letter and every word is free from human influence and it is this `fact` that is said to form the basis of the Quran's religious authority. However, from a more sceptical perspective, it could be argued that there was only ever one, uncorroborated source to this authority, which is the man who claims to have received the revelations, i.e. Muhammad. While Muslims believe the Quran to be the flawless word of God, it shares one aspect with other religious scriptures, i.e. it appears that many of God’s words are framed in social and political interpretation, which are not timeless, but merely reflect the age in which they were written. In the case of the Quran, it appears to borrow from the legal traditions of earlier Byzantine and Persian cultures and a theology rooted in the Torah, dating back to Abraham. Therefore, like Judaism and Christianity, Islam now faces the same issue of trying to reconcile the teachings of its historical religious scriptures with the changing social norms of the 21st century. For example, the attitude towards women has changed considerably in the last 12 centuries and therefore it does not seem unreasonable to ask whether all future social development must continue to be rooted in the social norms of 7-8th century Arabia.

So what is known of Muhammad's life?

The following summary is believed to align to a generally accepted version of Muhammad's life, although historians still question many of the facts in this account. However, what details are known might still help us gain some perspective of Islam’s claim of religious authority. According to traditional Muslim history, Mohammad was born in 570 CE in Mecca and died 632 CE in Medina, which is today part of Saudi Arabia. The main sources of information about Muhammad are the Quran and the hadiths plus early biographies. The hadiths are not a biography, rather a collection of sayings and actions of Muhammad and his companions. Likewise, the Quran is not a biography of Muhammad; it simply provides some information about his life. Therefore, some have  argued that any statements taken from these documents, which are an integral part of the religious doctrine of Islam, cannot be immediately accepted as an impartial description of actual historical events. As such, the earliest surviving biographies are the `Life of the Apostle of God` by Ibn Ishaq, dated around 768 CE, and subsequently edited by Ibn Hisham in 833 CE and al-Waqidi's biography of Muhammad in 822CE. This timeline shows these biographies to be written some 1-2 centuries after Muhammad's death and the title may give some hint of the narrative. Of course, by this time, these men were documenting historical events central to the doctrine of an Islamic empire that was growing to be the geo-political successor of the Roman Empire in North Africa and the Middle East. Therefore, even these documents might be viewed with some caution; as history itself shows us that the recording of events often depends on the perspective of the victor.

What else might help us to better understand Muhammad’s life?

It is said that Muhammad was born into the tribe of the Quraish in Mecca. His father's and mother’s names are thought to have been Abdullah and Aminah, and while the family were said to be both prosperous and influential, his father died before he was born. At that time, it was the tradition within Muhammad's family tribe to hand over their infants to a nurse from a Bedouin tribe, believing the desert air to be a healthier environment for a child. Some sources also claim that Muhammad may have had health problems, possibly suffering from fits, which caused his mother to ask the Bedouin nurse to keep the child for longer. Contrary to these speculative claims, Muhammad's mother is believed to have died when he is only six and therefore, more as a consequence of losing both parents, he spends much of his childhood among the nomadic tribes and follows the caravans on the main trade routes through Mecca. Later, in his life, a wealthy widow named Khadijah asks Muhammad to oversee her trading business, but becomes attracted to his skill and appearance, such that she proposes marriage, when he is 25 and she is 40. While they had six children, two boys and four girls, both of the sons died early in life. So, the first part of Muhammad’s adult life starts, at the age of 25, when his older wife entrusts him with her business affairs and for the next 15 years he lives the life of a prosperous, but unremarkable merchant, except for one exception. From time to time, Muhammad is said to have withdrawn into the mountains to meditate and pray and on one such occasion, in 610 CE, he has a vision of the archangel Gabriel that will change the direction of his life. However, before pursuing this key aspect of Muhammad’s life, we should possibly tried to understand a little more about the culture he lived in.

So what is known about the culture surrounding Muhammad at this time?

Geologically, it is known that the Arabian Peninsula was both arid and volcanic, which made wide-spread agriculture almost impossible, except near oases or springs. As a consequence, the Arabian landscape is described as only being ‘dotted’ with towns and cities adjacent to the largest oases, the largest of these being Mecca and Medina. However, for many, survival in such desert conditions depended on the existence of nomadic Bedouin communities that travelled from place to place seeking water and pasture for their flocks. At this time, most Bedouin groups operated as kin-related clans, which while often belonging to some larger tribal group, seldom met as such. In this context, it was mostly clan councils that determined the distribution and use of water resources, critical to nomadic life. Some larger clans might also have been comprised of free warriors and slaves, as clashes over water rights, animals or any number of perceived slights to a clan’s honour might lead to violence. However, the constant feuding within Bedouin society also prevented it from forming any larger and more powerful alliances. Of course, in retrospect, it might be recognised that these tribes always had the potential to play an important role in the formation of any future Islamic empire. However, at the start of the 7th century, Medina might be described as the primary agricultural settlement, while Mecca acted as a financial marketplace for many of the surrounding tribes. From a pre-Islamic perspective, many would have believed in various gods or goddesses, who were often seen as the protectors of individual tribes and linked to more tangible objects or places, such as trees, springs and wells. History indicates that there was an important pre-Islamic shrine in Mecca, called the Kaaba, which is thought to have housed over 360 idols of tribal deities, which would have been the site of an annual pilgrimage.


Note: Today, the Qurân considers that the construction of the Kaaba was carried out by Abraham and that it was the first house built for humanity to worship Allah and, as such, it is now considered the most sacred site in Islam. However, history might suggest that many of today’s established religions quickly came to recognise the expediency of integrating the focus of older religious beliefs into the storyline of any new emerging religion.

Beside its tribal gods, many Arabs of that time may have retained a general belief in a supreme deity, i.e. Allah, although if seen as remote from the everyday struggle for existence, this description of a deity may have been less of an object of cultural worship at that time.

How did Muhammad’s visionary revelations  start to change this picture?

From about 613 CE, it is believed that Muhammad started to preach in Mecca about the existence of one all-powerful, but merciful God. It is said that he acknowledges that other prophets, e.g. Abraham, Moses and Jesus, had also preached the same truth in the past. However, his strict vision of monotheism was not popular within the general culture of Mecca given the preference towards long-standing tribal deities. So while Muhammad begins to win some converts to his new creed, he also makes powerful enemies among the traders of Mecca. In 622 CE, there is a plot to assassinate him and he and his followers are forced to flee to Medina, some 300 kilometres to the north. This event is considered by many to mark the beginning of Islam, although it appears to pre-date the creed of Islam in terms of any written form of the Quran. In Medina, Muhammad starts to win new converts among the surrounding Bedouin clans, such that this emerging force is perceived as a threat to the Quraysh of Mecca, who then initiate a series of attacks on Medina. However, Muhammad's forces win a series of important victories over the Quraysh, which eventually leads to a truce, in 628 CE, such that Muhammad and his followers are allowed to visit the Kaaba in Mecca. From a purely historical viewpoint, Muhammad's return to Mecca, in 629 CE, might also be interpreted as a reflection of his growing political leadership, as well as his ability to convince the Bedouin tribesmen of his religious revelations. Either way, by 630, many of the citizens of Mecca start to accept the new religion; although some might question whether this was a matter of the head over the heart in the face of mounting social-political pressure. However, despite this success, Muhammad only lives for another two years after effectively taking control of Mecca and although Muhammad has several daughters by his first wife, he has no living son and so, given the customs of the time, there was no obvious successor.

What might this tell us about Muhammad’s life?

If we were to try to encapsulate the significant periods of Muhammad life, there appears to be two distinct periods. The first in Mecca, from 613-622, in which he attempts to establish a new religious creed with only limited success, as he is eventually forced to flee to Medina. The second, and more successful period is in Medina, from 622-630, which eventually leads to winning the battle with Mecca. However,  what has puzzled many historians is how such a fledging ‘Islamic’ empire would grow to conquer Jerusalem, in 638 C.E, just 6 years after the death of Muhammad and prior to any known evidence of the Quran in written form.

So how do we separate fact from fiction at this point?

In part, historians have been wrestling, unsuccessfully, with this issue for over a thousand years, so this discussion will not be so presumptuous as to assume that it knows the answer. However, if we step back from the description in which Muhammad is revered as a religious prophet and simply consider him as a man, who was the product of an Arabic-Bedouin culture in the 6/7th century, we might gain some practical perspective. However, before going down this road, let us address the sensitivity that many Muslims will have to this line of speculative enquiry head on. There are many people in the world who believe different things and each should have a right to come to their own judgement about the role of God in their lives. However, the right to a given religious belief has to be accompanied by the right of others to question the tenets of faith of the various, and contradicting, religions now in existence. While the following discussion will question aspects of Islamic belief, the approach is no different to that taken with Judaism and Christianity, as such it is not intended to be deliberately offensive or blasphemous to any specific religion. However, honest inquiry has to be allowed to challenge accepted history, especially when its appears to rest on anecdotal evidence. Of course, if any aspect of this discussion can be shown to be wrong in respect to known historical evidence, it will be corrected.

So was Muhammad, man or myth?

When this question was asked of the Christian description of Jesus, there was a suggestion that the man may have been lost to myth. This assessment was based on the perception that simply too much of Jesus’ life cannot be corroborated in any factual history, as written in a contemporary period, while many other claims simply transcend into a metaphysical belief. While for many having a deeply held religious conviction, this may appear to be a one-dimensional assessment of an agnostic. However, history does seem to repeatedly show us that the description of any historic ‘icon’ tends to involves a great detail of selective truth to the point that it can become a total fabrication of an actual life. However, in direct response to the question above, there would appear to be enough historical evidence to support the claim that Muhammad was indeed an real man of history, who lived a life as outlined above, although the more miraculous aspects are questionable.

So does myth still surround the man?

While the traditional account is that the Quran was revealed to Muhammad and written down in segments, there is no evidence that supports its existence before Muhammad’s death, at least, in any form recognised today. Therefore, this tends to lead to secondary questions as to who actually wrote the Quran, plus why and when.  However, before speculating on such a sensitive issue, it might be worth revaluating some key aspects of Muhammad’s life in terms of the  wider history of the Middle East. As indicated, the history of the Jews and Arabs can be linked to a common ancestor in the form of the biblical Abraham, dating back to some 1800-1700 BCE.  Based on accounts taken from the Torah scriptures, Abraham is considered to be the founding father of both the Jewish and Arabic identities and therefore must play a pivotal role in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

So who were Abraham’s descendants?

The historic scriptures suggest that Abraham had a wife Sarah, who eventually had a son called Isaac very late in their lives. However, before conceiving Isaac, Abraham had taken Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar, either as a concubine or as another wife, who then gave birth to his first son called Ishmael. Purely by way of background, Abraham is also said to have married Keturah and that they had another six sons, Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. The biblical references also suggest that Abraham may have had other concubines and other children. However, Ishmael was Abraham’s first born son and would therefore normally be considered the rightful heir of Abraham; except that the Jewish scriptures go onto suggest that God’s covenant with Abraham required him to acknowledge Isaac as his heir, not Ishmael. As a consequence, Ishmael and his mother Hagar were sent away, i.e. effectively banish to the desert on Sarah’s insistence, so that it was Isaac that became heir to Abraham, at least, within the Jewish account. Without going into the lengthy details, Ishmael is said to eventually become the founder of the Arabic tribes according to both the Hebrew Torah and the Quran, while Isaac would become one of the three patriarchs of the Israelites. In the context of this common history, it is not so surprising that Ishmael descendants might also have retained some preference for a monotheistic form of religion.

What bearing might this history have on the development of Islam?

Of course, Ishmael and Muhammad are separated by nearly 2,500 years of history and during this time, the idea of monotheism in the form of Judaism and Christianity became wide-spread across the middle eastern world, due to the expansion of the Roman Empire. By 330CE, the Roman Emperor Constantine had moved his capital from Rome to the Greek city of Byzantiumin in order to be safe from barbarian invasion and renamed the city - Constantinople. In a historical context, Constantine is also remembered for being the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, although whether this religious conversion was more a matter of political expediency might be debated. Certainly, history would suggest that Constantine was an astute politician and recognised the growing importance of religion in stabilising political power. For example, in 325 CE, Constantine called a general council of the Church in Nicea, because he was worried about the political split in his empire due to theological differences in the Christian church. In essence, one side argued that the Father created the Son and therefore could not be co-eternal with Him. This meant that Jesus was not God and was therefore subject to the Father. The other side argued that the Father and the Son shared the same nature, while remaining two separate entities. Again, whether Constantine’s real focus was on the theological debate or the political fallout might be debated, but he ended up supporting the decision that would lead to a redefinition of monotheism. As such, most Christians would become trinitarian monotheists, whereas Judaism, and the subsequent emergence of Islam would strongly support the idea of unitarian monotheism. Whether Mohammad was aware of this difference is unknown, but clearly the fall out of this debate had several centuries to reach the city of Jerusalem and possibly onto both Mecca and Medina.

But why is Jerusalem being introduced to this picture?

As previously outlined, many historians have puzzled over how a 'fledgling' Islamic empire managed to conquered Jerusalem, in 638 C.E, just 6 years after the death of Muhammad and possibly prior to any known evidence of the Quran in written form. For after Muhammad’s death, in 632 CE, there was no obvious successor, although two possibilities quickly emerged in Abu Bakr, the father of Muhammad's wife A'isha, and Ali, a cousin of Muhammad and the husband of Muhammad's daughter Fatima. However, it was Abu Bakr who was elected, and takes the title 'khalifat rasul-Allah' which is translated as 'successor of the Messenger of God' that also introduces the word ‘caliph’ to the other languages of the world. However, the first Caliph, Abu Bakr lives no more than two years after the death of Muhammad. Even so, within this brief time, the Arabic armies have begun their astonishing expansion, subduing the whole of Arabia and striking as far north as Palestine. Abu Bakr is then succeeded, in 634, by Omar, another father-in-law of Muhammad, who in 638 captures the city of Jerusalem. Six years later Omar is stabbed and killed in the mosque at Medina and Uthman is chosen as the third caliph, who was a son-in-law of Muhammad. By the end of his reign, in 656, and still only 20 years after Muhammad’s death, the emerging Islamic empire has conquered as far afield as north Africa, Turkey and Afghanistan. As such, some historians have sought to understand what catalyst really drove the rapid expansion of the Islamic empire, i.e.

Did the Quran forge the empire or did empire come to understand the political importance of the Quran, such that it influenced its writing?

Clearly, this is a contentious issues that will be sensitive to many Muslims, but it is hoped that they will understand why some people outside their faith consider it a necessary question. For example, Islam like Christianity, has a very attractive description of Jannah, or Heaven, for those who adhere to the doctrine of faith. In a more sceptical context, the description of an afterlife might also be seen as an expedient means of political and social control, which was undoubtedly the case within both Judaism and Christianity. So while noting the implication of the question above, it seems that Muhammad’s life is central to the formation of the Islamic identity and possibly provides the best explanation for its rapid expansion into an empire. In support of this argument, we might reflect that Muhammad’s childhood probably left him with a deep empathy for the Bedouin way of life, which may have been a significant factor in his later success in Medina. Of course, prior to  Medina, Muhammad had spent most of his early adulthood as a merchant in and around Mecca, i.e. 595-610, until he has his first vision, which sets him on the path of being a prophet. Muhammad is said to have started preaching in Mecca in 613, but a large number of Mohammed's followers had to seek refuge in Abyssinia, as early as 615, due to the resistance in Mecca to Mohammed’s new creed, which subsequently led to Muhammad being forced to flee to Medina in 622.

So what changed in Medina?

Clan and religious feuding had been a way of life in Medina for a long time, but there was an increasing realisation that the old tribal  ways of settling disputes via a blood-feud was becoming unworkable without somebody to arbitrate the disputes. So, although Muhammad’s life as a prophet in Mecca might not have been a total success, it was enough to establish Muhammad’s status, such that he was invited by a delegation from Medina to act as an neutral arbitrator to help resolve the constant feuding, not only between different Bedouin clans, but also its Jewish inhabitants. In return, Medina offered to protect Muhammad and his followers from further persecution from Mecca, but in accepting this offer, Muhammad becomes not only a religious prophet, but a political figure with influence extending into the surrounding Bedouin tribes. An example of Muhammad’s growing stature as a political leader might be seen in the drafting of a document known as the ‘Constitution of Medina’, which established an alliance between a majority of the Bedouin tribes and the Muslim emigrants from Mecca. However, this document also defined the rights and duties of all citizens and the relationship between the different communities in Medina, specifically the Jewish population, who were known as the ‘People of the Book’. Initially, Muhammad may have considered both Jews and Christians as possible allies in his opposition to more pagan-like practices as, in principle, they were all rooted in the idea of monotheism dating back to Abraham. Therefore, Muhammad anticipated their support and so drafted the Constitution of Medina so as to demand the political loyalty of the Jews and Christians in return for religious and cultural autonomy. However, the Jewish and Christian communities effectively rejected Muhammad’s religious vision, such that his attitude towards both the Jews and Christians appears to have quickly hardened. After only two years, Mohammed's relationship with these communities had deteriorated to the point that most remaining Jews were either expelled or executed for cooperating with Mohammed's enemies.

Muhammad: merchant, religious prophet, political leader or military strategist?

As time progresses and the antagonism between Mecca and Medina continues to escalate, Mohammed has to defend his position in the region through a number of military campaigns. Due to the success of these campaigns, Muhammad now completes a transition from merchant to religious prophet to political leader and finally military strategists. So, in the process of expanding his role as an arbitrator of tribal disputes to include directing military campaigns, Muhammad had effectively created an alliance with even greater resources than Mecca, although Mecca had made its own alliances with some of the Bedouin tribes. In the end, it seems that these two large alliances had no other option but to go to war. However, Muhammad may have also come to understand the wisdom of political compromise and, in the end, Mecca and Medina sign the ‘Treaty of Hudaybiyyah’ that committed both sides to a ten-year truce and allowed Muhammad and his follower to return to Mecca to for the purpose of pilgrimage.

But is this enough to explain the rise of the Islamic empire?

While only a tentative sketch of a complex and not well documented period of history, the evidence suggests that after Muhammad's death, his father-in-law, Abu Bakr, assumed the leadership of the Muslim community. Although Abu Bakr lives no more than two years after the death of Muhammad, it can be argued that Muhammad's legacy had already established the foundation of what would quickly expand into an Islamic empire, based on the growing social cohesion of Muhammad’s religious vision and the unification of military forces created by years of conflict between Mecca and Medina. As a consequence, the Arabic armies were able to continue with an expansion, which first unified the whole of Arabia and then proceeded north into Palestine. Abu Bakr is then succeeded, in 634, by Omar, who in 638 captures the city of Jerusalem. In 644, Uthman becomes the third caliph and by the end of his reign, in 656, the emerging Islamic empire has conquered as far afield as north Africa, Turkey and Afghanistan. Of course, the speed of this expansion might also have to be seen in the context of the collapse of the Roman Empire, but that is another story in itself.

But what of the writing of the Quran?

While the issue of the dictation of the word of God through the angel Gabriel to Muhammad is a matter of obvious importance to Muslims, from an agnostic perspective, the chronology of the actual compilation of the Quran might not have been that important to the expansion of Islam as a growing political and military force in the 7th century. Of course, this is not to under-estimate the importance and power of a religious creed, whose followers and soldiers believed in the reward of forgiveness from God and an everlasting life in Heaven. However, it is probable that most of those fighting for Islam, in the 7th century, would not have been able to read the Quran, even if it had existed in a written form. Therefore, it might be argued that the original power of the Quran was not in its written form, but in the verbal telling and believing of Muhammad’s vision. However, what can be said with certainty is that, today, Islam has grown to have over a billion followers from all over the globe and is said to be the second largest religion in the world. As such, there is no denying the importance of Islam, along with Judaism and Christianity, in forging a view of the world that is accepted as a religious truth by a large percentage of the world's population. However, the primary concern of this discussion is not whether Islam is a popular religious belief; but rather whether Islam provides any real insight to the nature of the universe? The answer to this question must ultimately hinge on whether Muhammad did truly receive the divine words of God, all 77,943 of them plus its punctuation. Of course, this question cannot be answered in absolute terms, all we might say is that, throughout history, many people have claimed to have talked to God. Whether we believe there is any truth in any of these claims will often depend on the cultural education/indoctrination of our formative years and whether they align to the worldview we now hold.

So  how much of even this brief historical review reflects  a ‘truthful’ account?  

While this discussion has made sceptical comments against some of the claims pertaining to the religious authority assumed by the Islamic faith, it has generally tried to remain factual, in as far as ‘the facts’ can be verified by history. Of course, like other religions, Islam also appears to transcend the physical into the metaphysical with its claim that the Quran represents the word of God as dictated to Muhammad by the archangel Gabriel. However, the following quote might suggests a different  history:

By analysing, dissecting and carefully interpreting the contents of the Qur’an, the Ahadith (Muhammad’s traditions) and Sirah (Muhammad’s biography) the author has identified several parties who had undoubtedly contributed to the composition of the Qur’anic verses. It was not Allah who wrote the Qur’an; it was not even Muhammad alone who did this either. The Qur’an is not the creation of a single entity or a single person. There were several parties involved in the composition, scribing, amending, inserting and deleting the Qur’anic verses. The most important personalities involved in the creation of the Qur’an were: Imrul Qays, Zayd b. Amr, Hasan b. Thabit, Salman, Bahira, ibn Qumta, Waraqa and Ubayy b. Ka’b. Muhammad, himself, was involved in the make-up of a limited number of verses, but the most influential person who motivated Muhammad in the invention of Islam and the opus of the Qur’an, perhaps, was Zayd b. Amr who preached ‘Hanifism’. Muhammad later metamorphosed Zayd’s ‘Hanifism’ into Islam. Therefore, the assertion that Islam is not a new religion stands to be true. However, the important finding is that the Qur’an is definitely not the words of Allah—it is a human-made scripture which Muhammad simply passed up as Allah’s final words to mankind. Another important aspect of this essay is that among the ancient religions that the writers of the Qur’an incorporated in it, perhaps the practices of the Sabeans is crucial. In fact, the rituals of 5 prayers and the 30-day fasting were actually adapted from the Sabeans. Qur’an, thus, is a compilation of various religious books that existed during Muhammad’s time. Muhammad, not Allah, simply adopted, picked and chose from various sources and created the Qur’an. While many parties contributed to the Qur’an, Muhammad became its chief editor—to say it plainly. Abul Kasem

As a ‘non-believer’, born into a different culture and a different time with only limited access to the details of Muhammad's life, it is difficult to come to any definitive judgement of the historical facts. However, the issue of education versus indoctrination is cited as being of specific concern in terms of the extent to which Muslin’s are expected to simply believe, without question, in the authority of its scriptures on the fear of being accused of blasphemy:

Blasphemy in Islam is any impious utterance or action concerning God, Muhammad or anything considered sacred in Islam. While the Quran admonishes blasphemy, it does not necessarily specify the punishment for blasphemy, although the hadiths, which are another source of Sharia law, suggest various punishments for blasphemy, including death. Depending on which sect of Islam applies, the punishment may depend on whether the blasphemer is Muslim or non-Muslim, man or woman. Within this context, the punishment may range from a fine, imprisonment, flogging, amputation, hanging  or beheading.  

Like the text of other ancient religious scriptures, the Quran often reflects a culture of intolerance towards non-believers of its particular form of monotheism at the time of its writing. In this respect, examples can be highlighted in which the Quran appears to advocate the killing of non-Muslims and what would now be seen as human rights abuses towards minorities and women. History also suggests that the Islamic empire expanded based on Jihad, i.e. holy wars, and the killing of non-believers, although we also have to recognise the crimes against humanity committed by the Christian Crusaders in its many ‘holy wars’.  As a consequence, it may be argued that any fundamentalist position, be it anchored in the antiquity of Jewish, Christian or Islamic scriptures, will fail to accept the need for human morality to evolve.  

The greatest tragedy in mankind's entire history
may be the hijacking of morality by religion.
Arthur C. Clarke