Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Revisiting the issue of Muhammad and Epilepsy Pt. 1

Exposing More of Jamal Badawi’s Misinformation

Sam Shamoun 

In this series I am going to address Jamal Badawi’s attempt to refute the assertion that Muhammad suffered from epileptic seizures, which led him to see and hear things that convinced him he was a prophet of the true God. 


The following lengthy reference helps put this charge of epilepsy into perspective.

Early Visions 

According to early Muslim traditions, the young pagan Muhammad experienced miraculous visions. There is the trustworthy account in which Muhammad claimed that a heavenly being had split open his stomach, stirred his insides around, and then sewed him back up!2 

Muhammad himself later refers to this episode in Sura 94:1, which is literally translated: 

Did We not open thy breast for thee? 

While all the early Muslim writers, including the relatives of Muhammad, place this event in Muhammad’s youth, later Muslim apologists, out of embarrassment, have tried to move it to a period after his call to be a prophet. But the historical evidence is entirely against this move. 

As to the meaning of his belly being split open and his insides stirred, we are not told. But this story is so well documented that it cannot be denied. 

Many Middle East scholars have felt that these early religious episodes may have been the result of some kind of mental problem or the medical problem of epilepsy. 

Muhammad’s Mother 

Muhammad’s mother, Aminah, was of an excitable nature and often claimed that she was visited by spirits, or jinns. 

She also at times claimed to have visions and religious experiences. Muhammad’s mother was involved in what we call today the “occult arts,” and this basic orientation is thought by some scholars to have been inherited by her son.3 

The Possibility of Epilepsy 

But other scholars suggest that perhaps Muhammad’s early visions were the result of a combination of epileptic seizures and an overactive imagination. 

Early Muslim tradition records the fact that when Muhammad was about to receive a revelation from Allah, he would often fall down on the ground, his body would begin to jerk, his eyes would roll backward, and he would perspire profusely. They would often cover him with a blanket during such episodes. It was while Muhammad was in such a trancelike state that he would receive divine visitations. After the trance, he would rise and proclaim what had been handed down to him. 

From the description of the bodily movements that were often connected with his trances, many scholars have stated that these were epileptic seizures. 

For example, the Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam, published by Cornell University, points out that the Hadith itself describes “the half-abnormal ecstatic condition with which he was overcome” (p. 274). 

What must be remembered is that in the Arab culture of Muhammad’s day, epileptic seizures were interpreted as a religious sign of either demonic possession or divine visitation. 

Muhammad initially considered both options as possible interpretations of his experience. At first he worried about the possibility that he was demon possessed. This led him to attempt to commit suicide. 

But his devoted wife was able to stop him from committing suicide by persuading him that he was such a good man that he could not possibly be demon possessed. More about this later. 

We are aware that to even speak of the serious possibility that Muhammad may have had epileptic seizures is very offensive to Muslims. It is blasphemous for them to even consider such an interpretation. 

But we would fail to convey to the reader all the facts about Muhammad if we left this out. How can we hide what many Middle East scholars have said? 

Western scholars do not deny that Muhammad had experiences of some kind. But they also believe that such experiences must be interpreted and that everyone has the right to make up his own mind as to what these experiences were. 

Just as Muslims are free to interpret them as divine visitations, non-Muslims are free to interpret them as epileptic seizures, demon possession, an overactive imagination, fraud, religious hysteria, or whatever gives them an adequate explanation of what Muhammad was experiencing.4 

The reader will have to make up his own mind. Our task is to set before him all the possible options. In McClintock and Strong’s encyclopedia we read the following: 

Muhammad was endowed with a nervous constitution and a lively imagination. It was not at all unnatural for him to come after a time to regard himself as actually called of God to build up his people in a new faith. 

Muhammad, as we gather from the oldest and most trust-worthy narratives, was an epileptic, and as such, was considered to be possessed of evil spirits. 

At first, he believed the sayings, but gradually he came to the conclusion, confirmed by his friends, that demons had no power over so pure and pious a man as he was, and he conceived the idea that he was not controlled by evil spirits, but that he was visited by angels whom he, disposed to hallucinations, a vision, an audition, afflicted with the morbid state of body and mind, saw in dreams. Or even while awake, conceived he saw. What seemed to him good and true after such epileptic attacks, he esteemed revelation in which he, at least in the first stage of his pathetic course, firmly believed and which imparted to his pensive, variable character, the necessary courage and endurance to brave all mortifications and perils.5 

Modern Reticence 

We fully understand the modern reticence to point out that Muhammad’s epileptic seizures could have been the source of his religious trances. 

We understand that this statement will offend the sensibilities of some Muslims. But our intent is not to offend but to inform, and to establish that according to the descriptions of the physical characteristics which manifested themselves when Muhammad fell into a trance, as recorded in early Muslim traditions, we must not automatically rule out the possibility of epilepsy. 

That epileptic seizures were viewed as visitations of the gods or the possession of a person by evil spirits is part of pre-Islamic Arabian superstition and religious life. 

This reality, coupled with the fact that these two options were the only ones that Muhammad himself considered as possible explanations for his trances, leads one to the conclusion that he either had epilepsy or something like it. 

We cannot simply ignore historical facts or seek to rewrite history in order to avoid hurting the feelings of those who do not want to hear the truth. Facts are facts regardless of how someone feels about them. 

An entire generation of Islamic scholars have gone on record stating that we must consider the possibility that Muhammad was afflicted with epilepsy and that this manifested itself early on by the vision of Muhammad’s belly being split open and then later by all of his “prophetic” trances. 

2 Alfred Guillaume, Islam, pp. 24–25. 

3 John McClintock and James Strong, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981 reprint), 6:406. 

4 Hurgronji, Mohammedanism (Westport, CT: Hyperion Press, 1981), p. 46. 

5 McClintock and Strong, Cyclopedia, 6:406. For further documentation of such symptoms as falling to the ground, profuse sweating, odd noises, etc., see Pfander, The Balance of Truth, pp. 343–348. (Dr. Robert A. Morey, The Islamic Invasion: Confronting the World’s Fastest Growing Religion [Xulon press, 2011], Part Four: The Prophet of Islam, 6. The Life of Muhammad, pp. 74-80) 


Here is how Badawi replied to Dr. Morey’s charge that Muhammad suffered from epileptic seizures: 

In my tapes in the Islamic teaching series, in album 6, I discussed in detail the scientific information available about the four major types of epilepsy; YOU CAN FIND THEM IN BRITANNICA or any other source. And I showed in a way that does not leave any ray of doubt that the revelation coming to the prophet does not fit in any of those categories whatsoever. That's a challenge; it's a matter of science! If we have a psychiatrist here we can actually get his opinion. It is there; it is quoted FROM BRITANNICA AND OTHER AUTHORITIES. One of the characteristic of MOST kinds of epilepsy is that the person under epilepsy would be uttering words that does not have any meaning... confused because epilepsy is discharge of electric currents in the sides of the brain! It is well known, it’s the ABC of science, isn't it? And as a result the person doesn't have any coherent thing to say. Like one psychiatrist once put it... he said if all the wisdom, beauty, and guidance and moral teaching included in the Quran were a result of epileptic seizures the world would be much better having many more epileptic people like Muhammad! It is so silly to keep harping at this notion of epilepsy having been rejected even by scientists themselves.” (“Is the Quran the word of God?", November 9, 1996) 

Since Badawi appealed to authorities such as Britannica we are going to examine them in the next part of our rebuttal. This will help us see whether Badawi is correct, that Muhammad’s reported condition during the times when he was supposedly receiving revelation doesn’t fit the description of an epileptic, or was this simply another instance of Badawi distorting his sources in order to cover up for his prophet.

With the foregoing in perspective we are ready to proceed to the second part of our rebuttal.