"Who Was Muhammad?"
A Debate between David Wood and Ali Ataie

By Mary Jo Sharp
(Confident Christianity)

The main objective of this debate was to take a critical look at the prophet of Islam, Muhammad. David Wood, the Christian apologist, began the debate with a warning that "this is not going to be pretty" and that this would be no "interfaith picnic." He foreshadowed two-hours of swift, aggressive jousting between two apologists that was enjoyable to the end. One prominent feature of this debate was the personal nature of the material as it related to the two men. For Wood, the material was based on the study of Islam he labored through with his best friend Nabeel, who was a Muslim. For Ali Ataie, the Muslim apologist, the material was central to his own beloved faith.

Wood opened with three hard lines of evidence to support his overall argument: 1) Reasons why Christians reject Muhammad as a prophet, 2) The dismantling of two popular arguments for establishing Muhammad as a prophet of Islam: the arguments from scientific evidence and from literary excellence, and, 3) The questioning of the reliability of Muhammad’s character in the areas of his alleged demon possession, the "satanic verses," his acts of brutality, his numerous wives (exceeding the number he allowed to his followers), and his sexual relations with a nine-year-old girl, Aisha. After presenting his supporting material, Wood stated that the usual Muslim response to the accusations against Muhammad is to point out perceived problems with Christianity, or specifically with Jesus. He made sure the audience understood this rhetorical maneuver as the tu quoque fallacy, which is not a legitimate argument in defense of Muhammad’s character. Wood concluded his presentation by stating that the Muslim apologist must show good reasons why the Christian or non-Muslim should accept Muhammad as a prophet in light of these evidences to the contrary.

Ali Ataie responded by arguing that a seeker should never accept the enemy’s account of the prophet’s life, because that account cannot be trusted. Ataie intimated that the Christian apologetic concerning Muhammad is a surface level critique of the Islamic texts, a mere ‘smokescreen.’ "The skeptic like Mr. Wood can’t possibly entertain the notion" that the prophet’s defense is God himself, Ataie asserted, due to the mental depravity of the skeptic’s mind. Ataie cited the testimony of a few Western academics, including Christians, who revered the prophet for his excellent moral character. He then pursued answers to some of Wood’s accusations. He offered reasons for the exceptions in marital law (the numbers of wives allowable for the prophet versus his followers) as necessitated from external circumstances and Muhammad’s position as head of state. Ataie quoted the Hadith as evidence of the prophet’s character, explaining that Muhammad was a wise and gentle man who gave women unprecedented rights, "even for the 20th century." He pointed out concerns with certain activities of Jesus in the Old Testament (since Christians believe Jesus is God), equating those events with the controversial events surrounding Muhammad’s life. Finally, Ataie tendered a rebuttal of Wood’s satanic verses argument by claiming the sources as untrustworthy and the content as poorly interpreted.

Throughout the debate, the intensity remained from both sides; however, the evidence waned from the Muslim side. Ataie presented evidences that would convince a Muslim that Muhammad was a true prophet, but the arguments Wood proposed were meant to show that non-Muslims have no reason to accept Muhammad. Wood supported his arguments with multiple sources, including some of the most trusted works on Muhammad’s life, such as Sahih Al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim. But he also referenced several other historical works, including The History of al-Tabari, Ibn Sa'd, Ibn al-Mundhir, Ibn Mardauyah, Musa ibn 'Uqba, and Abu Ma'shar. Wood also utilized the earliest work on Muhammad’s life, the Sirat Rasul Allah by Ibn Ishaq. Ataie did not answer Wood’s arguments on the evidence from these works. Instead, he offered other Hadith, a different interpretation of the passages used, or other evidences of the prophet’s life. This was not a rebuttal of the arguments—it was shifting the argument. Ataie’s other answers entailed his understanding of culture and history, which, as Wood mentioned, was just mistaken.

Ataie also leveled an unsubstantiated claim against Wood’s integrity. Ataie questioned Wood’s scholarship, stating that anyone could go to Wood’s website, pick out any article on Islam and find only one source, Ibn Ishaq, backing his objections to Muhammad. I decided to take up his challenge, since I certainly did not expect Ataie to make an easily falsifiable mistake. I went to the "Answering Infidels" website (*) and, of the fifteen articles listed, only two used Ibn Ishaq as the primary or sole source—"Murdered by Muhammad: The Brutal Deaths of Islam’s Earliest Enemies" and "Is Islam a Religion of Peace?" The other articles quote numerous sources including trusted Hadith, such as Sahih Al-Bukhari. The inclusion of this material in Ataie’s well-prepared opening statement calls into question his use of rhetoric in place of supporting evidence—a charge he leveled against Wood earlier.

Ataie is a skilled speaker, but certain problems with his methodology made him difficult to believe. First, over and over in the debate, Ataie used a double-standard when discussing the Islamic texts versus the Biblical texts. He accused Wood of looking at the Qur’an and Hadith at the surface level, pulling verses out of context; Ataie then proceeded with that very process when utilizing Scriptures from the Bible. (Just as important, he never actually demonstrated that Wood was misusing any Muslim text.) Second, Ataie erred in his information concerning Jesus and the Old Testament. He quoted the Jewish Talmud in an argument attempting to show that Jesus inspired Scripture affirming sexual relations between three-year-old girls and adult men. Since, as Wood pointed out, no Christians accept the Talmud as inspired text, Ataie’s argument was plainly wrong. Third, when Ataie presented his facts and evidences, he rarely gave the sources; however, Wood freely offered the source documents used for his information, allowing the audience to investigate his claims for themselves. Some of Ataie’s arguments, such as the Muslim raiding of the caravans to reclaim their own possessions, could have been sound arguments, if they had just been supported with evidence. Fourth, Ataie used unsubstantiated claims in the question and answer session; for instance, he claimed that the first century Jewish-Christian sources mentioning Jesus had been destroyed by "Christian Trinitarians." Suggestions like this need some kind of evidence, but Ataie offered none. Fifth, the amount of sarcasm and ad hominem attacks used in Ataie’s presentation was detrimental to his reliability. Sixth, Ataie left arguments unanswered—for example, Wood’s refutation of the argument from literary excellence. These problems weighted the debate to the Christian side, since Wood answered nearly all of Ataie’s objections regarding Islam.

In the end, when the dust settled, Ataie had presented more (misinformed) material about Jesus than he had offered in defense of Muhammad. His case lacked a solid defense of the accusations brought against the prophet of Islam. Muhammad’s spiritual liabilities remained in question and his actions revealed a non-peaceful man (e.g., as Wood showed, Muhammad had men’s hands and feet cut off and eyes burned out with hot nails). Point for point, Wood’s original arguments bore the brunt of this carefully prepared assault, yet his arguments emerged unscathed. I can confidently say that this debate went to David Wood.

The Ataie-Wood debate may be purchased here.

Responses to Ali Ataie
Answering Islam Home Page