Muhammad’s encounter in the Cave of Hira is exceptional in Islam, because it is in this experience that Muhammad first received revelation from Allah, through the intermediary of the Archangel Gabriel. This encounter, therefore, is understood as the pivotal human event of Allah communicating the Islamic message to all mankind through the agency of Muhammad. It is the origin of Islam, and as such it is unambiguously and unquestionably, the singular most important event in human history.
From the perspective of comparative folklore or religion, however, Muhammad’s encounter in the Cave of Hira is understood as a legend, which is to say that it is commonly understood by scholars outside strict Islamic communities as being a type of make-believe, a type of magical fantasy. It is understood as a fantasy imbued with powerful communal meaning, for within the narrative’s community, conviction of the ontological truth of this narrative’s central premise often defines whether a person either is, or is not, a “believer.” The apostasy laws in 23 Muslim nations — 8 of which demand execution for people who leave Islam — are a testament to how this narrative is magnified in intensity by volatile religious emotion.[i] Thus, amongst most of the narrative’s “believers,” Muhammad’s encounter in the Cave of Hira is experienced as being a magical story that is absolutely beyond question, a premise backed up in 8 countries by the death penalty.
It is a conundrum, then, for a skeptic or scholar to attempt a discussion between members within and without the Islamic community about Muhammad’s encounter in the Cave of Hira when many modern Islamic governments murder people who express disbelief of the communal fantasy.