The reference comes from Islamic tradition, which asserts that Muhammad, a prosperous Arabian merchant from the Quraysh tribe of Mecca, was forty years old, he was praying in a cave in the mountains near Mecca. As he passed the entire night in devotion, an angel came to him and commanded him to read and recite what he read. Muhammad replied, “I do not know how to read.”
The spiritual being, however, would brook no objections. According to a hadith recorded by Bukhari, he pressed his will upon Muhammad in a terrifying fashion, even going so far as to menace him physically:
(The Prophet added), “The angel caught me (forcefully) and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it anymore. He then released me and again asked me to read, and I replied, ‘I do not know how to read.’ Thereupon he caught me again and pressed me a second time till I could not bear it anymore. He then released me and asked me again to read, but again I replied, ‘I do not know how to read (or, what shall I read?).’ Thereupon he caught me for the third time and pressed me and then released me and said, ‘Read! In the Name of your Lord, Who has created (all that exists). Has created man from a clot. Read! And Your Lord is Most Generous…[unto]…that which he knew not.’” (V. 96:5)
This is the famous first revelation of the Qur’an, now found as sura 96:1-5. In the standard Islamic version of this event, it was the angel Gabriel who appeared to Muhammad, but the earliest Islamic sources present a slightly more complex picture. The ninth-century Islamic historian Ibn Sa’d records a Muslim tradition asserting that an angel named Seraphel originally visited Muhammad, and was replaced by Gabriel after three years. He also records the fact that “the learned and those versed in Sirah literature” contradicted this tradition, and maintained that only Gabriel ever appeared to Muhammad. Nevertheless, it is hard to see how anyone would have gotten the idea that another angel was involved with Muhammad if Islamic tradition had been absolutely certain from the first moment that it was Gabriel.
At the beginning Muhammad regarded his spiritual encounter with considerable agitation. According to Ibn Sa’d, he “suffered much pain and his face turned dust-coloured.” According to the eighth-century Islamic historian Ibn Ishaq, he wondered if he had been demonically possessed, and even contemplated suicide:
I will go to the top of the mountain and throw myself down that I may kill myself and gain rest. So I went forth to do so and then when I was midway on the mountain, I heard a voice from heaven saying: “O Muhammad! Thou art an apostle of God and I am Gabriel.” I raised my head towards heaven to see (who was speaking) and lo, Gabriel in the form of a man with feet astride the horizon, saying, “O Muhammad! Thou art the apostle of God and I am Gabriel.”
Muhammad returned to his wife Khadija in tremendous distress. According to Aisha (via Bukhari):
“Then Allah’s Messenger returned with that (the Revelation), and his heart severely beating; (and the) muscles between his neck and shoulders were trembling till he came upon Khadija (his wife) and said, ‘Cover me!’ They covered him, till his fear was over, and after that he said, ‘O Khadija! What is wrong with me? I was afraid that something bad might happen to me.’ Then he told her all that had happened.”
Ibn Ishaq says that he repeated to her his initial fears: “Woe is me, poet or possessed.” He meant “poet” in the sense of one who received ecstatic, and possibly demonic, visions. But according to Bukhari, Khadija had more confidence in Muhammad than he did in himself. She took Muhammad to see her uncle Waraqa, a Nestorian Christian priest, who told Muhammad the identity of his angelic visitor: “This is the same one who keeps the secrets (angel Gabriel) whom Allah had sent to Moses.” And so Muhammad became convinced that he was a prophet.
Thanks to Hatun Tash DCCI Ministries.