Summary of Previous Lecture "Prophecy, Ingenuity & Miracles"
The last lecture continued exploring the definition of prophet-hood in Islam. Five basic points were touched upon. One was the difference between prophecy and prophet-hood. A person is not a prophet because he has a prophecy or the ability to foretell the future. A prophecy is only one minor aspect of a prophet’s message. Prophets are basically sent for the guidance of the people.
The second issue was the relationship between ingenuity and prophet-hood. Prophets are intelligent, wise people but this doesn’t mean that their teachings are emanating form their own wisdom and thinking because their teachings are direct revelations that are received from God.
The third issue was the relationship between miracles and prophet-hood. Just like prophecies, miracles are one aspect of the message of prophet-hood that should be put in the proper perspective without undermining or over-emphasizing. God has given some prophets certain signs to use in convincing the skeptics. These miracles should not be regarded in themselves as the core essence of the message of the prophets. Even the skeptics who had demanded those miracles didn’t believe after seeing them.
The fourth issue was the question on the number of prophets to walk the earth. The Qur’an, the word of God as revealed to Muhammad, mentions the names of twenty-five prophets most of which are known to the Jewish and Christian faiths. There are a few that are not necessarily mentioned in the Bible, however. Additionally, according to the Qur’an there were many other prophets in different parts of the world in different times whose names do not appear in the Qur’an. And all of these are regarded as prophets of Islam.
Finally, the question was raised about the obligation of the Muslim to believe in all prophets. This belief in the prophets is part and partial of the statement of Islamic creed. When a person says “I believe that there is no deity but Allah and that Muhammad is his messenger” by mentioning the name Muhammad in fact one is accepting all prophets that were sent before him. This is because to believe in Muhammad one must believe in all the previous prophets leading up to Muhammad.
2.5 Finality of Prophet-hood
Host: What is the main mission and task of a prophet?
Put in a nutshell, the main mission of a prophet is Islam. A previous lecture under the monotheism section, discusses the word Islam and it’s meaning. Islam means submitting oneself to the will of God and accepting His guidance and to conduct ones life accordingly. This is the essence of the message of all the prophets from Abraham to Muhammad throughout history, and even before Abraham to Prophet Noah. It follows from this then that all the prophets are regarded as Muslim brothers. In fact, the Qur’an does refer the prophets and their followers as Muslims. They are Muslims in the sense of submitting willingly to the Will of Allah. However, four basic points explore this further by specifying which areas of knowledge are derived from the prophets and their mission.
First of all, a prophet is essentially sent to help us understand more clearly about God and His attributes. This is knowledge that we can’t otherwise get by our own means and is essential to provide clarity in our understanding so as not to get mixed up in the realm of philosophy and theology. The proper appropriate knowledge is gained through the prophets. This helps in avoiding divided loyalty by knowing there is only one single creator for the entire universe.
The Qur'an states, “Not an apostle did We send before thee without this inspiration sent by Us to him: that there is no god but I; therefore worship and serve Me.” (21:25) Chapter eleven contains several stories about different prophets and all of them are quoted to have said identical words to their people to “worship God, you have no other deity but Him.” This shows that this is what unifies the message of all the prophets. The Qur’an also indicates that one can’t achieve true servitude to God alone unless one shuns all false gods. An example is in one verse in the Qur'an, “For We assuredly sent amongst every People an apostle, (with the Command), “Serve Allah, and eschew Evil.”” (16:36)
The second basic mission of a prophet is to communicate information about the unseen because this can’t be obtained in a lab or by our own thoughts. Life after death, the manner in which life after death is, The Day of Judgment, and the signs of the approach of The Day of Judgment are all matters that have to be communicated to us directly. The Qur'an states, “He (alone) knows the Unseen, nor does He make any one acquainted with His Mysteries,-Except an apostle whom He has chosen.” (72:26-27) This clarifies that the unseen is known only by God and only the information He wishes to communicate He makes available to a messenger or prophet.
A third basic function is that a prophet is supposed to show the way, to tell and explain how salvation can be achieved in this life and the hereafter, how to conduct our lives, what pleases and displeases God, what our role on earth and what our position is in the universe at large, where we are going, and what our relationships with one another should be like. These are all things we need guidance in. The Qur’an says, “Mankind was one single nation, and Allah sent Messengers with glad tidings and warnings” (2:13)
The Islamic approach to guidance is not through preaching but instead that guidance is shown through the prophets’ way of life. They’re lives should exemplify what they preach. This is why the previous lecture discusses the infallibility of the prophets and their high moral characters. They are not just preachers but they are supposed to help people in reaching higher spiritual plateaus. An example of this in the Qur’an mentions the mission of Prophet Muhammad: “Allah did confer a great favor on the believers when He sent among them an apostle from among themselves, rehearsing unto them the Signs of Allah, sanctifying them, and instructing them in Scripture and Wisdom, while, before that, they had been in manifest error.” (3:164)
A fourth mission of the prophet, which may sound surprising but is indeed within the Islamic approach of integrating religion into life, is to actually participate in the struggle to establish social justice on earth. The prophets even physically participated in fighting the forces of evil, oppression and exploitation. The evidence of this is shown in the Qur'an: “We sent aforetime our apostles with Clear Signs and sent down with them the Book and the Balance (of Right and Wrong), that men may stand forth in justice.” (57:25) This shows that a prophet’s participation in leading his people to fight evil is part of his mission. These basic four points can be summarized in the fulfillment of the true submission on an individual and collective level.
Host: Does Islam view the prophets as represented in a preferential hierarchy? Does Islam differentiate or distinguish between prophets on any level?
It depends on what one mean by hierarchy or status; the basic rule is that if a person is making distinctions between prophets on a phonetic or prejudicial basis with the notion of trying to belittle this prophet or that prophet then it is forbidden. From the Qur’an itself we find, “The Messenger believeth in what hath been revealed to him from his Lord, as do the men of faith. Each one (of them) believeth in Allah, His angels, His books, and His apostles. “We make no distinction (they say) between one and another of His apostles.” And they say: "We hear, and we obey: (We seek) Thy forgiveness, our Lord, and to Thee is the end of all journeys.” (2:285) This verse establishes the basis but within the basic rule of the brotherhood of all the prophets.
If one means distinction in that some prophets played a more important role in the uplifting of their people then surely there is a variation of roles. In the same chapter in the Qur’an it states, “Those apostles We endowed with gifts, some above others” (2:253) God has chosen to give more to one than the other. Even within this general distinction, that God mentions about prophets, there is one term used to describe the characteristic of the prophets in Arabic it is ululazm, which translates to prophets with resolution. This term appears in “Therefore patiently persevere, as did (all) apostles of inflexible purpose” (46:35) or as did the resolute among messengers or those who suffered most. Many jurists believe that these include five prophets who are all mentioned in one verse in the Qur’an “And remember We took from the prophets their covenant: As (We did) from thee (Muhammad): from Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus the son of Mary: We took from them a solemn covenant” (33:7) They are regarded to be the great five from among all the prophets. Furthermore within these categories of resolute prophets or the greatest of all prophets definitely the one who played the greatest role among all of them was the very last Prophet Muhammad because of the fact that his message was universal and directed to all humanity to bring them together under the same final scripture, which was given him by God.
It is important, however, to emphasize the distinction on the basis of fanaticism is rejected in Islam. The distinction on the basis of ‘my prophet and your prophet’ is ironic because there is nothing called ‘your prophet and my prophet’ for any sincere follower of the previous prophets should regard them as part of one brotherhood. They are all our prophets not mine or yours.
Host: You mentioned the finality of the revelation given to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), some skeptics would ask why is a final revelation needed. Why not perpetual prophets?
I attended a lecture once in which the lecturer explained how some believe that anyone could qualify in becoming a prophet. Some people take it in a very loose sense. It depends of course on what the logic of Islam is concerning this whole issue of prophet-hood, which in turn explains why a universal and final revelation is needed.
To start with, the bedrock of Islam, the very cornerstone, is the belief in monotheism. There is one creator not even persons within the same god but the absolute One Creator in every respect. In addition to the oneness of God, is the oneness of humanity as the Qur’an emphasizes that all humans originated from Adam and Eve and they were both created from dust. Then there is the one earth that we all share; one universe that is part of the whole system; one basic law that rules the universe that God has established in nature; one basic aim for this humanity in its pursuit in material as well as spiritual progress and it follows that there must also be one prophet-hood and one mission that all prophets carried throughout history.
If one looks into the history of previous prophets one knows that in many cases a prophet is sent then after a few hundred years another prophet is sent simply because the teachings of the first prophet were either lost, forgotten or somewhat changed.
The other point also is that without having unity people will be tempted to say no ‘I follow my prophet. I follow this prophet or that,’ whereas all prophets are carrying essentially the same message. It makes a lot of sense that a prophet would be sent to culminate, crystallize and bring together, with the guidance from God of course, the entire essence of divine revelations throughout history through a prophet whose revelation will not be lost or changed. This is found in the case of the Qur’an as the only scripture known in the history of mankind that was written down directly from the mouth of the prophet with substantial documented evidence proving its intactness till this day.
There was a need for a prophet whose mission is not only for his own people (as in the case of all other prophets) but for humanity in its entirety, and a prophet whose mission was not only valid in the time that he was sent but carries within itself elements of flexibility and applicability for all times to come. This whole issue of the various aspects of oneness makes it quite sensible to unite all of humanity at a certain point in time under the same aim, same God and same prophet.
Host: Why did the final revelation and the seal of the prophets appear in the year 600 A.D. why not before or after?
No prophet or messenger prior to Prophet Muhammad claimed in explicit terms that his message was the last. We find that in both the Old and New Testaments there is always mention of someone to come. Never is there someone claiming to be the final and last prophet. Only in the case of Islam we find that this is documented from the word of God, the Qur’an, as well as in the words of Prophet Muhammad.
After all, the selection of the proper time is something that has been done by God himself. God chose that time as the most appropriate. If we try as humans to understand why not before or after then it is only our human attempt to understand this and we are not able to judge the wisdom of God.
Four basic points are relevant here. First of all the means of transportation and communication were very difficult in the past. It was not practical to have a prophet who has a great number of followers and have them go all over the world to spread the message. There were degrees of travel, but it wasn’t until after the 7th century forward did the extent of movement and contact between people became greater and with modern technology it is becoming much easier to communicate the message.
A second basic reason is the means of writing and preservation of the message. The prophet is a human being; he would live for a few years then die. The only authentic teachings would be something that is preserved scrupulously preferably in writing so that things will not be forgotten or mixed up. There is extensive evidence that the previous revelations given to previous prophets are no longer completely intact. Over the centuries some pieces were lost whether in translation or in actuality. There were various reasons for this as the believers were attacked, persecuted, their Holy Books were destroyed and some people wrote whatever they recalled. There were problems that occurred and everybody readily admits this when one studies history of the various scriptures prior to Islam. With this difficulty it is quite possible that, even though the prophet was honest in communicating what was given to him, the message might have undergone loss or change.
A third possible reason is that whatever remained of the teachings of the prophets prior to Muhammad were often mixed up with philosophical ideas, theological speculation and, at times, with mythology that preceded the mission of these prophets. This made it very difficult for people to sift out the exact words of the prophet.
A fourth and perhaps more important reason is the stage of maturity of humanity. In the past, a prophet was sent then another prophet would come with a slightly modified mission even though it was basically the same. It makes more sense that once humanity reaches a level where a universal general message, which carries the elements of flexibility and applicability, can be given to them. The divine gives the permanent unchangeable laws and the human mind tries its best to interpret them and find detailed and specific applications depending on the need of time and place.
If one looks at all of these four points, one finds that with the advent of Prophet Muhammad ample historical evidence is available that the message given to him was preserved and is intact and has not been mixed up with the teachings of anyone else. We find that the Qur'an is separate from the words of Muhammad when he is not receiving revelation. His word is considered Hadeeth, which is a separate book from the Qur’an. The purity of the revelation has been preserved. We also see that within a few years after his death the message of Islam reached nearly half of the known world at that time and today it has reached all corners of the world. The timing was selected by God because there are logical reasons it happened at that particular time.
Host: Is the door of guidance closed since Muhammad is the seal of prophets?
I think that mixes up the role of prophets with reformers. A prophet is not sent to us to show us where to place the traffic lights or how to collect municipal taxes or how to organize a school board. A prophet gives the broader guidance.
Especially the last message, the message of Islam, is basically a broad guidance that can’t be changed with time and place. Of course there are principles and laws of freedom, equality and human brotherhood and so on. Within the framework of Islam it is quite possible for people to be inspired on an individual level. But once the message of the prophet-hood had been completed the revelation was preserved. The Qur’an itself asserts that this is the final revelation; the most perfect complete and comprehensive code of life. We don’t need another prophet for the details. People can work out things and think but if there are problems then comes in the concept of ishtihad in Islam by trying to apply the divine law by exerting effort and working it out under certain conditions or a certain period of time.
There is no contradiction between the finality of prophet-hood and continuation of guidance in different lower forms. We are not saying that people won’t go off the proper path but when they do they do not need a new prophet since the message is still intact. Historically speaking since the assertion that Muhammad is the last prophet was made in the 7th century of the Christian era there has never been a prophet who can really resemble in any remote form any of the great prophets of the past (Abraham, Moses or Jesus). And there has not been anyone who had a revelation that could be compared in any way with the Torah, Bible or the Qur’an. This in itself is a historical manifestation.
A few examples from the Qur’an about Prophet Muhammad’s finality are “Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but (he is) the Messenger of Allah, and the Seal of the Prophets: and Allah has full knowledge of all things,” (33:40) and “I am sent unto you all, as the Messenger of Allah,” (7:158) and lastly, “This day have I perfected your religion for you, completed My favour upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion.” (5:3)