Who Know Who Mo?

A Review of the Debate on Muhammad's Prophethood by David Wood and Ali Ataie


Personally, I'm not a fan of live debates when it comes to determining the truth of complex issues such as this one. As I've stated elsewhere regarding live, oral debates, I think it is too easy to get away with unsubstantiated soundbites and wow the audience with fallacies like appeals to emotion, red herrings, and so on. Additionally, arguments made by one side often go unaddressed due to time constraints (and this debate was no exception), which can be frustrating to the attentive listener. Also, in contrast to written debates, the debaters have no time to do any research in order to rebut an argument that his or her opponent utilizes with which he or she may not be familiar. Thus, I think debates such as the one under review make two potentially positive contributions for the listener: 1) They give some proverbial "food for thought" for listeners from which to build, hopefully prompting them to conduct their own further research on the debated topics, and 2) They can be highly entertaining.

Wood and Ataie both demonstrate why they are well-suited to the debate podium. Both speak clearly and with a great deal of confidence, they express their arguments in concise, yet understandable and often persuasive ways, both have good senses of humor (a good characteristic particularly in a debate as highly charged as this one!), and they both know the relevant subject material very well. The format of this particular venue was as follows: each debater was given 30 minutes for an opening case followed by 15 minute periods for rebuttal. This was followed by a Q/A session where Wood and Ataie took turns asking the other 5 questions (hopefully) relevant to the subject at hand.

Wood spoke first, detailing arguments as to why he thought that Muhammad could not have been a true prophet of God by pointing out 1) numerous incidents/episodes from early Islamic sources that seem to cast Muhammad in a negative light (e.g. his thoughts that he may have been demon-possessed [including a discussion of the Satanic verses and several suicide attempts that resulted from these concerns], Muhammad's bewitchment by a contemporary Jew, the consummation of his marriage to the nine year old 'Aisha, and several alleged murders that Muhammad sanctioned); 2) the failure of typical Muslim apologetic arguments, particularly in regard to the Qur'an's supposed scientific precision and the common claim that it is inimitable; and 3) the discontinuity of his message with prior revelation (including the well-attested crucifixion of Jesus vs. S. 4:157 of the Qur'an where it is said that Jesus only appeared to be crucified).

Ataie's defense of Muhammad's prophethood, on the other hand, included the giving of many historical examples where Muhammad was merciful [such as when he conquered Mecca and the alleged forgiveness he bestowed upon his enemies there, the same ones that had persecuted him before he acquired significant military power], allusions to alleged Biblical prophecies that pointed to Muhammad (e.g. Song of Songs 5:16), demonstrations of many "violent verses" in the Bible, and defenses against many of Wood's claims of the problematic episodes in Muhammad's ministry per the Islamic sources.

At the heart of this debate stood the question as to how reliable the relevant sources are in regard to the problematic episodes to which Wood alludes.  While Wood and Ataie could agree on the historicity of certain issues (such as the murder of Ka'b bin Al-Ashraf that was sanctioned by Muhammad and Muhammad's marriage to 'Aisha), Ataie took issue with Wood's use of Ibn Ishaq's biography of Muhammad from whence many of these episodes are attested, including the murders of Asma bint Marwan and Abu Afak, as well as the suicide attempts.  Ataie argued that the biography of Ibn Ishaq cannot be considered essentially reliable, particularly when it comes to episodes that are not directly corroborated by (what he considers to be) the more historically-reliable Hadith (i.e. sayings attributed to Muhammad that were originally transmitted through oral tradition), and hence the historicity of the episodes alluded to by Wood cannot be maintained.

Nevertheless, I thought Wood's case for the essential historicity of the incidents in question proved too powerful simply to dismiss. While many of the given stories may not overlap in the sources, the stories/teachings detailed throughout the Qur'an, Sira (i.e. biographies, including that of Ibn Ishaq), Hadith, Tabari, etc. combine to paint a portrait of Muhammad that undeniably includes a degree of violence as well as apprehension about his calling. The fact that the murder of Ka'b bin Al-Ashraf IS found in the Hadith (the historicity of which is confirmed by Ataie) demonstrates that Muhammad was willing to have individuals killed that insulted him (though Muslims might add that there's more to the story – on which see the links below).  This in turn corroborates the historicity of such stories found in the Sira that were pointed out by Wood since they are consistent with similar actions that Muhammad performed, upon which both debaters agreed regarding historicity.  Additionally, these are the types of stories unlikely to have been fabricated and propagated by the early Muslims uncritically since they portray Muhammad in a negative light.  In this sense they meet the oft-used "criterion of embarrassment" utilized in New Testament studies (which would certainly have applicability in other documents as well).

Furthermore, in the Q/A session, Ataie made some comments that the Gospel of Thomas could serve as a viable source about the historical Jesus if it can be shown to be as early as the canonical Gospels (or earlier). This is a very valid enterprise in theory, and by making this argument Ataie is indeed validating the concept that the earliest sources do have to be taken seriously in debates regarding historicity. However, one must wonder if he applies this concept consistently in the case of Muhammad, since the Sira from which many of the controversial stories about Muhammad derive are often treated as ahistorical while the Hadith (which in most cases were not penned until about a century AFTER the penning of Ibn Ishaq's biography) are treated as historically trustworthy.  Ataie would respond that the Hadith were studied very meticulously by early Islamic scholars (e.g. Bukhari, Muslim) and with very rigorous standards of approach, hence the fact that they come later does not necessarily imply that they are less reliable historically.  While this is certainly true in theory, the biographies must still be afforded their due given their relative earliness compared with the Hadith collations, and Ataie's claim that the stories found in Ibn Ishaq are ahistorical if not backed by an isnad (i.e. chain of transmission) begs several questions (e.g. Does a story have to have an isnad to be historically reliable?; What if this was simply common, accepted knowledge at the time?).

Ataie's case was also marred by his repeated allusions to violent Biblical passages throughout the debate.  Interestingly, Wood turned out to be prophetic when he stated in his opening speech (before Ataie spoke) that Muslims are constantly committing this fallacy when debating this issue. The reason it is a fallacy is because such an approach, if successful, would only serve to condemn the Bible ALONG WITH Muhammad.  In other words, attacking the Bible for what is perceived to be morally repugnant verses and commands won't do a thing to exonerate Muhammad. I found Ataie's approach in this regard to be not only fallacious but also quite curious.

In the end, I think that Wood won this debate not because he is necessarily the best debater and/or the more persuasive speaker, but simply because the data is on his side. Ataie had too tough a mountain to climb to be persuasive against somebody that was simply revealing the data as it is found in the earliest Islamic sources. And, of course, his constant tangents on Biblical issues did not help either, at least not in a debate about the alleged prophethood of Muhammad. Of course, the other aforementioned issues were also discussed in the debate and were considered in my personal scoring (e.g. alleged scientific foreknowledge in the Qur'an), but once again it was these particular alleged episodes associated with the historical Muhammad (and for some odd reason certain controversial Biblical passages) that were discussed the most. In the end, I scored the debate an 80/20 victory for Wood.

But, this review can only serve to paint a broad portrait of what was discussed during the debate. Furthermore, these are admittedly complex issues that deserve a considerable amount of attention before judging them too softly or harshly. For those looking for a very entertaining debate and one that imparts some very interesting, and probably to many folks surprising, historical(?) information regarding the historical Muhammad, this is a good resource. I will once again though reiterate my disclaimer in the opening paragraph that those really thirsting for the truth on such issues should consult those earliest Islamic sources and read this information for themselves.

For those interested in how I personally scored the debate I leave below my scorecard. Essentially I chose topics where I thought that one side either made an overall better case or at least submitted data worthy of consideration. For each topic I made a subjective evaluation of the magnitude of the data/arguments presented in the context of the debate and assigned it a value of 1 to 5 (with 5 representing the highest magnitude). For arguments that I scored a 4 or 5, this essentially meant that (given the data presented in the debate) I found that argument to be not only convincing but also relevant. The arguments to which I'd assign a 1 or 2 would be points established that I found convincing (again, given only the information/data presented in the debate) yet perhaps only marginally relevant. Arguments presented that I felt were irrelevant to the debate at hand (such as Ataie's constant tangents to Biblical verses) would perhaps have merited considerable value in other venues, yet I did not figure them into the scoring for this debate. Finally, some points of argument that came up for which I wasn't impressed one way or the next (i.e. the so-called scientific precision of the Qur'an) I did not give points to either side.

Brief discussion of Ataie's victorious points

There can be no doubt that, regardless of whether or not he is worthy of being considered one of God's great prophets (let alone the last and most important prophet), Muhammad performed a number of good acts and made positive contributions. Some of these acts Ataie discussed (such as examples of mercy on the battlefield). This is very important to consider against the kinds of less positive acts and events in Muhammad's life to which Wood alludes. Therefore I gave Ataie a full complement of points for this. The subject of polygamy was also debated back and forth as well. Wood mentioned in particular that it was inconsistent for Muhammad, who was supposed to set the example, to command his followers to take a maximum of 4 wives while he had at least eleven. Ataie stated that it was necessary for Muhammad to have had a number of wives from various tribes in order to unite Arabia. Whether or not this argument can truly be substantiated, I don't recall Wood attempting to refute Ataie from this point forward, and so within the context of the debate I felt that Ataie deserved a couple of points for this. Then, there is the alleged prophecy of Song of Songs 5:16: “His mouth is sweetness itself; he is altogether lovely. This is my lover, this my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.” The phrase “altogether lovely” in Hebrew is machmad, which can be translated as “praised”. Since Muhammad's name means “praised one” it is often asserted by Muslims that this was a prophecy of Muhammad. In this particular context, however, an adjective is being replaced by a noun (i.e. “altogether lovely” vs. “Muhammad”), and this exercise by some creative Muslim apologists I find to be quite a stretch to say the least. Nevertheless, although it is probably being quite charitable of me, I gave Ataie a point for this since Wood did not refute it.

Brief discussion of Wood's victorious points

Essentially, I found Wood to be most impressive because I felt that he established quite successfully the historicity of the sources from which his arguments were derived. As mentioned earlier in this review, across a broad-spectrum of sources (the Qur'an, Hadith, biographies, and histories, e.g. al-Tabari) Wood was able to establish a consistent picture of Muhammad which supported the overall historicity of at least most of the events to which he alludes (some of these individual episodes find overlap among the various sources while some do not). Therefore, I felt that Wood won the debates over the historicity of the murders that Muhammad sanctioned, his caravan raids, his sometimes questionable use of slaves (e.g. allowing the Muslim soldiers to have sex with the female slaves), his bewitchment, and the Satanic verses. In regard to the latter, Wood made an interesting allusion to Deuteronomy 18:20 (“But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded him to say, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death.”) which, from a Biblical point-of-view, would prove Muhammad not to be a prophet. Despite Ataie's valiant effort to defend Muhammad's marriage to the young Aisha, I found Wood to be more compelling in this area of debate as well. There was some discussion over the Qur'an's alleged supernatural eloquence to which I found Wood's allusions to the contrary comments of al-Nadr (bin al-Harith) interesting, earning him a point. Finally, the data Wood presented supporting the historicity of the crucifixion of Jesus (in contrast to the apparent contrary claim of the Qur'an in Surah 4:157) was compelling.


Ataie    Wood
Topic Points    Topic Points
  1. Mo's merciful episodes   5          1. Historicity of crucifixion   5
  2. Polygamy defended   2 2. Historicity of Mo's murders   5
  3. Song of Songs “prophecy”      1 3. Historicity of Satanic verses   5
4. Mo's suicide attempts   3
5. Marriage to Aisha and implications      3
6. Lack of eloquence of Qur'an   1
7. Mo's caravan raids   3
8. Mo's use of slaves   3
9. Mo's bewitchment   3
TOTAL:      8 TOTAL:    31

In the meantime, more information on the debated subjects can be found on the internet. Below we list some of the main topics and links to treatments of these controversial subjects (some from a critical viewpoint and others from defenses of criticisms leveled against Muhammad as the result of these alleged episodes).

Muhammad Inspired by a Malevolent Spirit? (Includes discussions of the satanic verses and suicide attempts)





Muhammad's Brutality?





Muhammad's Marriage to 'Aisha



Defensive (Note: Some argue against historicity, others against claims of amorality)


Rebuttals to Ali Ataie
Articles by Wildcat
Answering Islam Home Page