This is a magical world brimming with wonders, diverse and remarkable. One finds here myriads of beings and creatures with distinct characteristics. If one were to cast a glance over different objects, one would find that sensibility and consciousness go on increasing gradually from inorganic matter to human beings. The smallest particle of the universal kingdom known as ether or atom has no sense perception and consciousness but a faint trace of life appears in the minerals. In the vegetable kingdom sensitiveness of an involuntary nature is discernible in the form of germination and growth while a still higher type of sensibility accompanied by a limited consciousness can be seen in the animal life. Then, in man, the sense perception reaches its perfection with the appearance of volition and consciousness. The inorganic matter is, accordingly, free from every kind of responsibility; vegetables respond to the law of life and death; animals are liable to a bit higher responsiveness; while man has to shoulder the responsibility of everything done by him. In the case of man, too, this responsibility varies according to his sensibility, consciousness and will: the children, the adults, the foolish, the learned, the wise, all are accountable for their actions in proportion to the lack or abundance of these powers.
Now, let us examine this question from another angle. Nature takes upon herself the responsibility to sustain creatures to the extent they lack sensibility, consciousness and volition; she goes on shifting her responsibility to each in proportion to these potentialities developed by it. Who rears the diamonds and rubies in the bosom of mountains and who feeds the fish in the oceans? Who brings up the wild animals? Who provides nourishment to the fowls in the air and who attends to their ailments and illness? Why do the animals of the same species living in mountains and jungles, under different climatic conditions, develop different characteristics? Why are the dogs of Europe different in appearance from those in Africa? Why does nature provide them with different types of paws and furs and skins according to different physical and climatic conditions?
These differences indicate the ways in which nature helps every being in such manner as it lacks will and consciousness and withdraws its care to the extent each develops the capabilities to maintain itself. Man has to earn his own living. He has to cultivate and grow foodstuff for meeting his needs. He has also not been provided with the coat of short and fine soft hair as some of the animals do have for protecting themselves against the rigors of climate. Likewise, he has himself to cure his illness and heal his wounds. On the other hand, nature undertakes the responsibility of protecting other creations, to the extent they lack will and perception, against their enemies. She arms them with different coats of mail: to some are given claws and canine teeth, horn to others; some are taught to fly, or to swim, or to run; while others fend off their enemies by biting or stinging. But, look at the man. The poor fellow has neither the tusks of the elephant, nor the claws of the lion, nor even the horns or pointed teeth or stings and poison glands. He has been created weak and defenseless but the great weapons of sense perception, consciousness and volition at his command more than make up for his deficiencies and enable him to subdue powerful elephants and ferocious lions. He can catch poisonous snakes, birds flying in the air and fishes living in high waters. He can contrive a variety of arms and armaments for his defense.
To whichever philosophy or religion you may subscribe, you would nonetheless agree that man is held responsible for his actions by virtue of possessing the senses and consciousness and intellect as well as will and determination. The responsibility devolving on man is known, in the phraseology of Islam, as takleef-i-shar’ee or religious obligation, which is laid on every man according to his competence depending on his strength. The guiding principle as laid down by Allâh in this regard is –
Allâh tasketh not a soul beyond its scope.
This is the burden on man which has been alluded to in the Qur’ân as amanat or divine trust – a trust which was first offered to the minerals within the earth and the lofty mountains and the heavens higher up in the skies, but none had the courage to shoulder this onerous responsibility.
Lo! We offered the trust unto the heavens and the earth and the hills, but they shrank from bearing it and were afraid of it. And man assumed it. Lo! he hath proved a tyrant and a fool.
The burdensome trust undertaken by man has been pithily expressed by a poet (Hafiz of Shiraz) who says:
“The heavens shrank to bear the burden of Trust,
To my lot it fell as the dice was cast.”
Tyranny signifies, in its ultimate analysis, a behavior exceeding one’s limits, the tyrants are more often foolish enthusiasts. Likewise, ignorance is nothing but excesses of intellect. The antithesis of tyranny is justice and moderation and that of ignorance, knowledge and understanding. And since man is by nature inclined towards extravagance, he requires knowledge and constraint to enlighten his path. This is why the Qur’ân speaks of these two, knowledge and moderation, as faith and righteousness.
By the declining day, Lo! Man is in a state of loss, Save those who believe and do good works, And exhort one another to truth and exhort one another to endurance.
The ‘loss’ spoken of in this verse is excesses or ignorance, which is restrained by faith and good deeds. Allâh cites ‘the declining day’ or the time as a witness to man’s loss because the past of mankind bears a testimony to his excesses. For the great majority of people have always been a pawn in the game of a few enthusiasts and over-ambitious persons, Thomas Carlyle has aptly remarked that ‘the history of the world is but the biography of great men.’ History of the world tends to show that the peoples and nations have ever been exploited by their compatriots save when they have not been deprived of faith and righteousness. This has invariably been the cause of decline and extinction of every nation.
Read the scripture of any religion or the homilies teaching moral lessons and you would see that the same drama of conflict between knowledge and ignorance, between tyranny and justice has been enacted in different ways. You would find faith and righteousness arrayed against the forces of darkness and ignorance, tyranny and disbelief. It is always the story of those upholding higher human virtues locked in battle against the wicked and the iniquitous. What are, after all, the great epics like the Iliad of the Greeks, the Parallel Lives of the Romans, the Shâhnâma of the Iranians and the Râmâyana and Mahâbhârata of the Hindus? Every nation has had similar events in its life or that of the founder of an era who had enkindled and kept alive the heroism and the urge of the people to fight the evil. These epics speak of these great events so as to teach every nation that it should give up the ways of wickedness and take to the path of virtue and goodness. What do the major portion of the Torah, the Psalms, the Gospels and the Qur’ân consist of? They tell us the stories of downfall of the wicked and disbelieving people spreading corruption on the earth, and of the rise of virtuous and pious in their place, so that we may take lessons from them and become virtuous, just and Allâh-fearing. This is why all the prophets and saints of yore were sent by Allâh, they taught the ways of virtuous living to the ‘nations of old; and then came the last of them, as a mercy for the whole mankind, so that his life may serve as a beacon of light and guidance for mankind to the end of time. This is what the Qur’ân declares in these words through the Prophet of Islam:
I dwelt among you a whole lifetime before it (came to me). Have you then no sense.
The revelation from Allâh sets forth, in this verse, the life of the holy Prophet as an intrinsic evidence of his prophethood.
History has, however, preserved the life-stories of men, thousands in number, who had achieved eminence in one field or the other. All of them have left their imprints on the pages of history. There are amongst them emperors surrounded by the splendor of royal courts, an array of military commanders and generals, philosophers lost in their thoughts, mighty conquerors intoxicated with power, poets singing to cheer their own solitude with sweet songs and the affluent rolling in riches. All of them have an attraction of their own for the sons of Adam. Whether it be Hannibal of Carthage, or Alexander of Macedonia, or Caesar of Rome, or Darius of Iran, or yet Napoleon of France, the life of each has a fascination for the posterity. Similarly alluring are the lives of all philosophers from Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Diogenes of the ancients to Spencer of England. Even the lives of Nimrod and Pharaoh, Abû Jahl and Abû Lahab and Korah depict yet another trait of human nature and character; but the question is, who, amongst these, can be deemed as a model of goodness and virtue fit to be followed by other human beings? Great generals and conquerors, indeed, were they, who swept everything before them by their sword, but did they also succeed in leaving an ennobling example of their lives to be followed by.others? They had won brilliant victories, but were they able to cut the shackles of superstition and credulous beliefs? Did they solve any social problem besetting equality and brotherhood of human beings? Did they succeed in restoring our moral and spiritual health and happiness or in eradicating the faults and failings of our desires? Did they present any model of moral rectitude and decorous behavior for the posterity?
World has given birth to great poets. But, these were painters of fantasy, merely starry-eyed utopians unfit to be assigned any place in the Republic of Plato. They have solved no problem of man, since Homer to this day, save feeding the fire of human emotions and helping man’s imagination to run riot with their visions and dreams. No practical model of righteous action could they ever produce with their musical thoughts and rhythmical creations. How correctly the Qur’ân brings in its verdict on the poets:
As for the poets, the erring follow them. Hast thou not seen how they stray in every valley, And how they say that which they do not? Save those who believe and do good work.
The Qur’ân also tells us why the exquisite expressions of the verse-makers have been of little use to humanity. They run after every idea aimlessly without any set purpose; more often sinking to the depth of human folly rather than soaring in the height of divine light. The poetry emanating from minds steeped in faith can, sometimes, be effective and enlightening and a restorer of truth and justice. History of the world, however, bears ample proof of the unprofitableness of the poets. There have been sages and philosophers who have plumbed the secrets of nature beyond the limits of perception and changed the concept of things and materials. They have, nevertheless, failed to produce any blueprint for the practical guidance of humanity. For their flight of imagination lacked practical wisdom, they could never provide man with any guidance in the discharge of his obligations. Aristotle was the precursor of ethical philosophy now studied in every university. His brilliant exposition of ethical impulsions is esteemed highly both by the learned and the learners, but how many of them have been able to betake the path of virtue by reading his dissertations? Teachers well-versed in ethical philosophy can be found almost in every institution of higher learning, who know all about its premises and principles, but has their impact been ever felt beyond their class-rooms? On the contrary, we find that very often their conduct and behavior are no better than those of the man on the street. To walk in the right path one has not to hear the sermons but to see the living examples of cardinal virtues.
Powerful kings and emperors have also appeared on the stage of this world. They have extended their dominions, played with the life and property of their fellow beings, extracted wealth through taxes and tithes from some and bestowed their bounties on others. They have demeaned one to exalt the other. The Book of Allâh presents, in the words of the Queen of Sheba, this rare picture of their doings on the earth:
Lo! kings, when they enter a township, ruin it and make the honor of its people shame.
The swords of mighty kings have hanged over the heads of criminals in thoroughfares and market places, but they have failed to reach the guilt concealed in the minds and hearts of men. They have enforced law and order in the habitations and townships, but the kingdom of spirit has ever been beyond their reach, or, rather, their own courts and castles have been the breeding dens of moral confusion and spiritual anarchy. What else have the kings like Alexanders and Caesars left for us? How many lawgivers has the world seen from Solon to this day? Their laws were not only short-lived but have also failed to cleanse the hearts and purify the morals. Subsequent rulers always placed a new set of laws on the statute book, albeit more often to further their own interests than to enforce the rules of equity. The world has not changed even today. Still, the legislatures in every country make and unmake laws endlessly, but seldom their labors are for the benefit of the people whom they profess to represent. It is more the interest of the powers that be which they seek to promote.
These are, broadly, the higher sections of society which could be expected to work for the welfare of humanity. If you give further thought to the matter you would see that whatever light of goodness and virtue you find in the world today, it owes its existence to the pure-hearted souls whom you know by the name of prophets and messengers of Allâh. Wherever you come across compassion and justice and a sincere desire to alleviate the sufferings of the poor and the downtrodden, no matter whether these are found in the cave of a mountain or a dense forest or a populous city, they are due to the call given by one of these men of Allâh. The Qur’ân tells us:
There is not a nation but a warner hath passed among them.
For every folk a guide.
The lustre of their teachings is to be found today in every country and nation; the savages of Africa and the civilized nations of Europe are both equally indebted to them for edification of their souls. Of all the groups of men we have mentioned afore, the most august are they, for they rule not over the bodies of men like the kings, but their authority is enshrined in the hearts of the people. Their kingdom is not of lands and countries, but of hearts and spirits: they do not wield the sword, yet they obliterate the stains of guilt and iniquity at one stroke; they are not dreamy-eyed songsmiths, yet the sweetness of their speech delights the soul; they are neither senators nor law-makers, yet the laws given by them regulate the conduct of statesmen and judges, kings and subjects from age to age. This is not a question of faith or conviction but a matter of fact and history. One has to see whether it has actually been so or not. The edicts of Patliputra’s Ashoka are engraved on the pillars of stones, but those of the Buddha are inscribed in the hearts of people. The decrees of the rulers of Ujjain, Hastinapur, Delhi and Kannauj are no more to be found today, but the Dharma Shâstra of Manu still prevails. The statutes of Hamurabbi, the King of Babel, have long been buried under the dust, but Abraham’s ( ) teachings are still alive! Pharaoh’s imprudent demand to pay divine honors to him was as transient as the clouds, but Moses ( ) still lives in his teachings. How long did the laws of Solon remain in force, but the laws of Torah are still the measure of justice! The Roman Law which nailed Jesus Christ ( ) to the Cross became extinct long ago, but the doctrines of love that flowed from the lips of Jesus ( ) still redeem the wrongdoers and wash them of their sins. The Abû-Jahls of Mecca, the Chosroes of Iran and the Caesars of Rome are all dead and gone, but the Lord of Madina ( ) still rules over the hearts of people in every part of the world.
If these facts are correct, one would have to concede, not on grounds of faith, but through reason and logic of stubborn facts, that no other class of people except the prophets has worked for the welfare and happiness of mankind in its truest sense; theirs was the endeavor consisting of virtue and goodness, purity of heart, moderation and temperance. They all came to this world as messengers of Allâh to preach the gospel of Truth and Faith, and they left their footsteps of righteousness to be followed by the coming generations. It is from their teachings alone that the rulers and the ruled, the rich and the poor and the learned and the illiterate can derive equal benefit.
That is Our argument. We gave it unto Abraham against the folk. We raise unto degrees of wisdom whom We will. Lo! thy Lord is Wise, Aware. And We bestowed upon him Ishâq (Isaac) and Ya’qûb (Jacob); each of them We guided; and Nûh (Noah) did We guide aforetime; and of his seed [We guided] Dâwûd (David) and Sulaymân (Solomon) and Ayyûb (Job) and Yûsuf (Joseph) and Mûsa (Moses) and Hârûn (Aaron). Thus do we reward the good. And Zakariyyâ (Zachariah) and Yahyâ (John) and ‘Îsâ (Jesus) and Ilyâs (Elias). Each one (of them) was of the righteous. And Ismâ’îl (Ishmael) and al-Yasa’ (Elisha) and Yûnus (Jonah) and Lût (Lot). Each one (of them) did We prefer above (Our) creatures, With some of their forefathers and their off-spring and their brethren; and We chose them and guided them unto a straight path. Such is the guidance of Allâh wherewith He guideth whom He will of His bondmen. But if they had set up (for worship) aught beside Him, (all) that they did would have been vain. Those are they unto whom We gave the Scripture and command and prophethood. But if these disbelieve therein, then indeed We shall entrust it to a people who will not be disbelievers therein. Those are they whom Allâh guideth, so follow their guidance.
These luminous verses of the Qur’ân speak of a particular group among men, some of whom have been mentioned by name, who had been sent to cure the spiritual ailments of mankind and restore its moral health. They were men, holy and angelic in spirit, who preached the word of Allâh in different times and climes and in every land. Whatever of moral rectitude and righteousness, purity and chastity man possesses today, it is all their legacy, and in following their footsteps alone lies the salvation and well-being of humanity.
The prophets adorn and illuminate the soul of man: the zealous preachings of Noah, the unshakable principle of Allâh’s oneness upheld by Abraham, the patrimony of resignation to Divine will bequeathed by Isaac, the self-sacrifice of Ishmael, the indefatigable efforts of Moses, the faithfulness of Aaron, the self-resignation of Jacob, the lamentations of David, the wisdom of Solomon, the litanies of Zachariah, the chastity of John, the piety of Jesus, the penitence of Jonah, the strenuous exertion of Lot and the endurance of Job have made the life of man winsome and bright. To these consecrated souls can be traced every virtue and goodness found in the world today – peace be upon them all.
There is, however, no denying the fact that culture and civilization, progress and improvement, in short, everything that has contributed towards welfare and material progress of mankind and helped man to raise himself to the level of vicegerent of Allâh on earth, has been brought about by the combined effort of all men. Astronomers have discovered the movements of heavenly bodies, chemists have found out the properties of substances, physicians have searched the medicines for curing diseases, architects have developed the science and designs of structures and artisans have given birth to useful crafts and fine arts, and all of them have thus a share in the making of our world. We ought to be thankful to all of them. Nevertheless, we are even more obliged to offer our thanks to those who have decorated the world within us. They are the physicians who have cured us of our greed and envy, diagnosed the ailments of our souls and refurbished its lost energy and vigor. They elaborated our behavior patterns and aptitudes, ideas and intentions and showed us the way of attaining purity of heart and sublimity of spirit. It was through the efforts of these Allâh-moved souls that the cultural attainments were refined and embellished, the link between man and Allâh, the slave and the Lord, was established. How could the world have attained its excellence if we had been denied the knowledge received through prophetic teachings? We are, verily, indebted more to these men of Allâh than to any other class or group of persons. This is the compliment due to the prophets of Allâh and it ought to be paid by all of us whenever their name comes on the lips of anyone. And, this is the benediction taught by Islam to be offered for them: ‘O Allâh! Have mercy and peace on all of them.’
For nothing in this fleeting world is eternal, these impeccable guides of humanity had also to make their exit from this fleeting world and go to their everlasting home after they had completed the task for which they had been sent by Allâh. The subsequent generations have thus to preserve the records of their lives, sayings and doings. In fact, the documented portraits of the masters of old and the records of their achievements going by the name of history and biography are the only means for conserving the arts and sciences, discoveries and ideas of the earlier generations. We have undoubtedly some lesson in every past experience and, for that reason, the purification of our spirits and morals depends on following in the footsteps of these exalted teachers of morality and their pure-hearted followers. People have hitherto drawn inspiration from their sublime examples and shall continue to do so in future also. We are therefore, duty-bound, more than anything else, to preserve the accounts and endeavors of the prophets for our own guidance and betterment.
But, no philosophy, no education and no teaching, howsoever elevated and exalted, can inspire the people unless its preacher or teacher has a loving personality capable of commanding the affection and reverence of his followers. Recently, when I was returning home in February, 1924, after a brief visit to Hijaz and Egypt, I happened to enjoy the company of the celebrated poet, Dr. Rabindranath Tagore, who was coming back from America by the same ship. A fellow passenger asked Tagore: “How is it that Brahmo Samaj has not succeeded in its mission although its creed was exceedingly fair, it enjoined reverence to all religions and their founders; and its fundamental principles, being exceedingly logical and satisfying, were formulated in the light of modern science and philosophy?” The poet-philosopher reached the core of the matter when he replied: “It could not fare well because it had no personality behind it to set up a practical example and attract and inspire the people.” Truly, no religion can succeed without the shining example of a gifted teacher.
We, thus, need men of Allâh, pure-hearted and impeccable, who are specimen of human perfection, for our guidance and salvation. May Allâh bless them all.