A friend asked in a recent discussion if Muslims worship Muhammad. As with all good questions, the answer is not as simple as it might appear. It took me back to the Asool, the basic texts of Islam as exemplified in the Quran, the Sunnah, and the books of Fiqh.
On the surface, of course, the theological answer is an unequivocal "No". To associate anything at all with Allah is Shirk, the greatest of all Kaba-eer, the major sins. Muhammad himself proclaimed in Surat Al Kahf (Quran 18:110), "I am only a man like you, to whom it has been revealed that God is One."
At the same time, the Quran sends a mixed message. Surat Al Maidah (Quran 5:92) is one of many verses that enjoins Muslims to "obey Allah and obey his Messenger". Muhammad never once told Muslims to obey God without tacking on, "and me as well". If there was any doubt that obeying Muhammad was equivalent to obeying God, the Quran specifies in Surat Al Nisa (4:80), "He who obeys the Messenger has indeed obeyed Allah." Similarly, there is not a single verse in the Quran that condemns disobedience against Allah without equating it to disobedience against Muhammad. This warning in Surat Al Nisa (4:14) is only one of many, "Whoever disobeys Allah and his Messenger will be cast into the Fire to suffer a disgraceful torment."
If obedience to Muhammad is equivalent to obedience to God, and disobedience to him is the same as disobedience against God, does not the Prophet have a position equal to God?
Christians are known to finish their prayers with the expression, "In the name of Jesus." The reason is that Christians believe Jesus is God, and he promised that prayers made in his name would be answered. Could anyone imagine Muslims similarly praying, "In the name of Muhammad?"
Well, yes. An authentic Hadith that occurred after the death of Muhammad, and which can be read here, noted that whenever there was a drought Caliph Umar bin Al Khattab would ask Abbas to do the rain prayer. The prayer was, "Oh Allah, we seek intercession with you by your Prophet and we ask you for rain." The Hadith ends by saying, "And they were given rain."
During his years in Mecca Muhammad had condemned the Quraysh for their belief that their gods Allat, Uzzah, and Minat were effective intercessors in obtaining favors from God. Only a few years after his death, his followers were invoking his name to receive these same favors.
Not only the name of Muhammad but even his grave was used to evoke rain. A Hadith that can be read here describes the people of Medina pleading with Ayesha, wife of the deceased Prophet, to remove the ceiling over Muhammad's tomb in a time of drought so that nothing would separate his corpse from the throne of God. As soon as they did so, rain poured down. Even the decayed body of the Apostle, according to Muslims, was effective in persuading Allah to send rain.
Perhaps the greatest indication that the position of Muhammad is greater than the place of God is the punishment given to those who offend either the Prophet or Allah. Many Hadith are similar to the one that can be read here. Caliph Umar bin Khattab was informed that a man had been executed for apostatizing from Islam. When the Caliph asked if the man had been given three days to change his mind, he was informed he had not. The Caliph became angry, explaining that a Murtadd should be put in prison for three days and fed bread and water to see if he would recant. Only then should he be executed.
There is no three day grace period granted in Islamic law to those who offend the Prophet. They are to be killed immediately. An Arabic Manual of Law entitled Kitab Ahkam Al Quran (The Book of Quranic Rulings) repeats that the apostate Murtadd is not to be killed until he has been given the opportunity to repent and return to Islam (the reference is available here). Those who insult Muhammad, however, are given no such opportunity to change their minds.
Atheist websites, artists, filmmakers, and authors by the thousands mock God, but Muslims are not up in arms about that. Thousands of people are leaving Islam behind, and even the strictest Salifists agree they should be given a few days to recant. But the cartoonist who draws an unfavorable image of Muhammad, or the scholar who concludes after careful analysis of the original texts that the 62 year old Prophet's sexual conquest of a 17 year old Jewish girl named Sofiya, after torturing and beheading her husband, father, and brother, could only be described as rape, is not even given three minutes, much less three days, to reconsider.
So back to the original question, do Muslims worship Muhammad? Theologically, they can argue they do not. On a practical level, I'm not so sure.
(For readers who know Arabic, this subject was discussed by Rashid in his program Daring Question here and some of the material was adapted from that program).