By Dr. Abdullah Khouj
People usually gain knowledge from two sources. The first is the common source of knowledge through observation and experimentation. For example, a child learns from imitation and instruction; that is, he acquires his knowledge from his physical environment. A student learns from his teacher. A laborer learns from his supervisor and peers. And from this learning process, people can acquire experience, but it is always subjective and contingent upon his own situation.
The second source of knowledge is revealed truth. People need this source of knowledge as objective guidance to free them from worshipping themselves or anything other than Allah (The God), so that they can regulate their lives in accordance with Allah’s objective truth.
Allah does not reveal this truth directly to every individual, and therefore He selects certain persons to transmit this knowledge to mankind. These persons are called prophets. The English word “God” can be used in place of the Arabic “Allah” if we understand that Allah or God is Absolute in every way, beyond space, time, form, quantity, and concept, or any other kind of differentiation and limitation.
What is a Prophet?
The Qur’an declares that a prophet is a human being chosen by Allah to be a model for people to demonstrate by his example the principles of Allah’s message. People follow his instructions because he is an ideal human being in his character, humanity, and dedication to apply Allah’s Law and Plan. Prophets teach people at whatever level is most suitable for the particular people to understand all they need to know about the Hereafter, the Day of Judgment, and the purpose of this life. No man can know these truths by himself.
The Purpose of Prophets
Allah selects prophets in order to:
1) Free human beings from the crude worship of their own power, wealth, materialistic pleasures, and prestige, as well as from the more subtle worship of their own ideas and subjective knowledge, so that they can worship Allah alone.
For We assuredly sent amongst every people an apostle, (with the command), “Serve God, and eschew Evil”: (16:36)
The Qur’an emphasizes that worshipping Allah is the ultimate purpose of man’s nature and therefore is the ultimate source of his happiness both in this limited life and forever. Freeing man from distorted worship of false gods- which affronts his dignity as a human being, restricts his intellectual horizons, limits him to passive reaction to everything he encounters, and lowers his spiritual potential – is one of the main purposes of prophets.
2) Explain truths about certain aspects of human life which the human mind cannot reach unaided, especially the Hereafter. The truth of the Hereafter gives meaning to human responsibility. Thus the mission of prophets is to make people aware that the present life is temporal, that there is another life and that the fruits of this life justly determine one’s future in either Heaven or Hell. Thus, our last abode depends on the mercy of Allah and our deeds.
And to every soul will be paid in full (the fruit) of its deeds; and (God) knoweth best all that they do. The unbelievers will be led to Hell in crowd: Until, when they arrive there, its gates will be opened. And its keepers will say, “Did not apostles come to you from among yourselves, rehearsing to you the Signs of your Lord, and warning you of the Meeting of this Day of yours?” The answer will be: “True: but the decree of punishment has been proved true against then unbelievers!” (To them) will be said: “Enter ye the gates of Hell, to dwell therein: And evil is (this) abode of the arrogant!” And those who feared their Lord will be let to the garden in crowds: Until behold, they arrive there; its gates will be opened; and its keepers will say: “Peace be upon you! Well have ye done! Enter ye here, to dwell therein.” (39:70-73)
3) Bring balance and harmony in human society and order in every person’s life, so that all persons can achieve their ultimate aims by cooperating with and relying on one another. The Prophet accomplishes this purpose by explaining the duties and rights of individuals, their relationships with one another and by pointing out the right path through the moral example of his own life.
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; and We sent down iron, in which is (material for) mighty war, as well as many benefits for mankind, that God may test who it’s that will help, unseen, him and His apostles: for God is full of strength, exalted in might (and able to enforce his will). (57:25)
Each prophet’s teaching was tailored to the unique problems, needs, and comprehension of his own people, but the general message was always the same. The most universal expression of the eternal truths revealed through all the prophets is in the final and complete revelation of the Qur’an. Its unlimited depths of wisdom will meet the needs of all men at every level of human understanding in every culture and era of human history until the end of time.
And it is your Lord that knoweth best all beings that are in the heavens and on earth: We did bestow on some prophets more (and other) gifts than on others: and We gave to David (the gift of) the Psalms. (17:55)
The distinction among prophets, however, does not permit anyone to value one prophet above another.
The apostle believeth in what hath been revealed to him from his Lord, as do the men of faith. Each one (of them) believeth in God, 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)
4) Call people to moral virtue, advise them to follow the higher needs and innate aspirations of their human nature, and serve as a model of human nature in doing so.
It is He Who has sent amongst the unlettered an apostle from among themselves, to rehearse to them His Signs, to sanctify them, and to instruct them in Scripture and Wisdom,–although they had been, before, in manifest error: (62:2)
Those were the (prophets) who received God’s guidance: copy the guidance they received; say: “No reward for this do I ask of you: this is no less than a message for the nations.” (6: 90)
The four in brief are the major purposes of prophethood. If these are the purposes, what are the characteristics that make a person a prophet?
Who is a Prophet
The Qur’an describes specific traits of every prophet:
- He is a created Being like all our fellow men. This humanity of a prophet witnesses the dignity of all mankind and shows that every person is capable of being a higher being among creatures. Therefore the nature of the prophet as a human being makes it easy for other humans to relate to him and to follow his teachings. If a prophet were an angel he would be an impossible model for us humans to follow. And therefore the prophet has the following characteristics:
- He does not know what is not given to man to know except by revelation. He cannot transcend the “laws of nature” through miracles unless Allah desires this in fulfillment of His own purposes.
Say: “I have no power over any good or harm to myself except as God willeth. If I had knowledge of the unseen, I should have multiplied all good, and no evil should have touched me: I am but a warner, and a bringer of glad tidings to those who have faith.” (7:188)
Say: “I tell you not that with me are the Treasures of God, nor do I know what is hidden, nor do I tell you I am an angel. I but follow what is revealed to me.” Say: “Can the blind be held equal to the seeing?” will ye then consider not? (6:50)
- He eats and drinks like any human being.
And they say: “What sort of an apostle is this, who eats food, and walks through the streets? Why has not an angel been sent down to him to give admonition with him?” (25:7).
- He lives, loves, and dies like any other human being.
We granted not to any before thee permanent life (here): if then thou shouldst die, would they live permanently? Every soul shall have a taste of meath: And We test you by evil and by good by way of trial. To us must ye return. (21:34-35).
- He is not a god. The Qur’an does not accept divinity in any prophet.
It is not (possible) that a man, to whom is given the ‘Book, and wisdom, and the prophetic office, should say to people: “Be ye my worshippers rather than God’s”: On the contrary (he would say): “Be ye worshippers of Him Who is truly the Cherisher of all: for ye have taught the Book and ye have studied it earnestly.” Nor would he instruct you to take angels and prophets for lords and patrons. What! Would he bid you to unbelief after ye have bowed your will (to God in Islam)? (3:79-80)
- He does not commit sins or indulge in prohibited activities, because he has been selected by Allah as a model for all men. Therefore the Qur’an does not consider that prophethood is a product of genius or that it can be acquired by human will. Instead it is a spiritual stage above genius or anything man can achieve by his own merits or effort. This is why Allah granted to the prophets a spiritual perception and a constant consciousness of Allah beyond what other human beings can attain, so that they can receive the revelation or (Wahy).
Ye have indeed in the Apostle of God a beautiful pattern (of conduct) for anyone whose hope is in God and the Final Day, and who engages much in the praise of God. (33:21)
- He receives revelation, which is communication from Allah, the Creator, the Omniscient, to those He chose from among his servants to be a prophet and messenger. This communication is not like that between the observed and the observer, nor like that among human intellects, but is a kind directly infused perception, certain knowledge beyond human experience. This is why revelation of transcendent truth is one of the common signs of all prophets.
We have sent thee inspiration, as We sent it to Noah and the messengers after him: We sent inspiration to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes, to Jesus, Job, Jonah, Aaron, and Solomon, and to David We gave the Psalms. (4:163)
The Qur’an, however, makes clear several kinds of revelation.
It is not fitting for a man that God should speak to him except by inspiration, or from behind a veil, or by the sending of a messenger to reveal, with God’s permission, what God wills: for He is Most High, Most Wise. (42:51)
This verse shows that revelation was accomplished in three ways:
- Divine insight, which occurs through divine enlightenment, whereby the prophet understands the substance of the Message without actual words.
- Direct speech from Allah to the prophet, where the prophet hears the words, as did Moses, and understands Allah’s Will through the speech.
When Moses came to the place appointed by Us and his Lord addressed him, he said: “0 my Lord! Show (Thyself) to me, that I may look upon Thee.” God said. “By no means canst thou see Me (direct); but look upon the mount; if it abide in its place, then shalt thou see Me.” When his Lord manifested His glory on the Mount, He made it as dust, and Moses fell down in a swoon. When he recovered his senses he said: Glory be to Thee! To thee I turn in repentance, and I am the first to believe.” (7:143)
- Angelic relay, whereby a spiritual force, known by the name Gabriel may transmit the Divine Message in human words, as was the case with the Qur’an.
Verily this is a Revelation from the Lord of the worlds: with it came down the Spirit of Faith and Truth. (26:192-193)
The term Spirit of Faith and Truth (Alruh-al-amin) is another name of Gabriel, or conversely Gabriel is another name for this Spirit.
Signs of True Prophethood
People recognize certain methods to distinguish the validity of any information that they cannot test by themselves either scientifically or otherwise. The following are the two basic methods:
- The individual giving the information is of known mental health and integrity of thought, free of illusions and imagination; and there must be at least a minimum of rational justification for belief.
- The individual giving the information is known as an honest and truthful person in transferring the knowledge; this requires him to be a straightforward and righteous person who can be trusted to convey the truth even though it may contradict his own personal interests and benefits.
These two signs were clear marks of all the chosen prophets of Allah. In addition, their prophethood is proven by miracles, which are unusual events beyond what men have believed possible without Divine action. They could be signs to show the validity of the communication between Allah and human beings, as well as evidence to make people believe the Divine Message transferred by the human prophet to mankind.
Islam attests that miracles did happen in the past and during the time of the Prophet Muhammad, (peace be upon him) but the materially miraculous should not distract from the greatest of all miracles, which is the Qur’an.
And We have explained to man, in this Qur’an, every kind of similitude: Yet the greater part of men refuse (to receive it) except with ingratitude! They say: “We shall not believe in thee, until thou cause a spring to gush forth for us from the earth, “or (until) thou have a garden of date trees and vines, and cause rivers to gush forth in their midst, carrying abundant water: “or thou cause the sky to fall in pieces, as thou sayest (will happen), against us: or thou bring God and the angels before (us) face to face: “or thou have a house adorned with gold, or thou mount a ladder right into the skies. No, we shall not even believe in thy mounting until thou send down to us a book that we could read.” Say: “Glory to my Lord! Am I aught but a man,–an apostle?” (17:89-93)
The Seal of the Prophets
The Qur’an assures us that there were numerous prophets, some mentioned in scriptures and some not.
We did aforetime send apostles before thee: of them there are some whose story We have related to thee, and some whose story We have not related to thee. It was not (possible) for any apostle to bring a Sign except by the leave of God: But when the command of God issued, the matter was decided in truth and justice, and there perished, there and then, those who stood on falsehoods. (40: 78)
The Qur’an also explains that all these Messages were calling for Islam, which means submission to Allah. And all these prophets were calling for belief in Allah.
The Qur’an also declares that all the prophets in the past were chosen to deliver Messages to certain peoples or nations most suitable to their culture and relevant to their needs.
And remember, Moses said to his people: “0 my people! Why do ye vex and insult me, though ye know that I am the apostle of God (sent) to you?” Then when they went wrong, God let their hearts go wrong. For God guides not those who are rebellious transgressors. And remember, Jesus, the son of Mary, said: “0 children of Israel! I am the apostle of God (sent) to you, confirming the Law (which came) before me, and giving glad tidings of an Apostle to come after me, whose name shall be Ahmad.” But when he came to them with Clear Signs, they said, “This is evident sorcery!” (61:5-6)
One should note that reference to the “Apostle to come after me, whose name shall be Ahmad” or “the praised one” is a direct translation of the Greek word periklytos, which is considered by Islamic scholars to be a corruption of the word parakletos or paraclete.
But the Message of the last prophet, Muhammad (PBUH), was universal for all mankind and directed man’s thinking away from a fascination with either genuine miracles or false magic in order to help men contemplate the entire cosmos and the signs of Allah in all His creation. In other words, the Final Prophecy or Divine Message shifts the emphasis from suspension of the laws of nature to the laws themselves as evidence of Allah’s Mercy and Love for all of us. This Final Message also directs each person’s attention to understand himself through knowledge and to consider knowledge as a duty and as a first step to self-recognition.
Say: “0 men! I am sent unto you all, as the Apostle of God, to Whom belongeth the dominion of the heavens and the earth: there is no god but He: it is He that giveth both life and death. So believe in God and His Apostle, the unlettered Prophet, who believeth in God and His Words: follow him that (so) ye may be guided.” (7:158)
Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but (he is) the Apostle of God, and the seal of the prophets: and God has full knowledge of all things. (33: 40)
The above explains briefly the concepts of prophethood and prophetic mission in human existence. They naturally lead the human mind to believe in the prophets’ great mission as human beings and in their Messages from Allah, as well as to follow their instructions, which have culminated in the Qur’an and Islam.