Summary of the previous lecture “Need for Prophets”
We started off by answering one question: Why can’t we obtain the information that revelation gives through science? Science can give us some information but it is based on individual perception, which can vary. Science explains partial aspects of life but not the totality of life. It can’t prescribe rules for our conduct, nor can it answer basic questions like the purpose of creation. Finally, we said that science is incapable of singly achieving human happiness because it is not based on comprehensive knowledge of the totality of human nature and its various assets. True knowledge of human nature is only known by Allah the Creator and revelation recognizes the basic elements of the nature of human existence.
We moved on by comparing mystical experiences and revelation. We agreed that both differ. We can’t obtain the same knowledge through divine revelation as we do through mystical experiences. The reason being is that a mystical experience is an individual experience and can’t be transmitted to others whereas revelation is a message to a prophet that is conveyed to the rest of humanity. Also, a mystical experience can have errors and they can be extreme whereas revelation must be accurate because it proceeds from God and it can’t have errors unless people change the documentation of that revelation after the prophet is gone.
A mystical experience normally comes with some kind of personal effort whereas revelation is a divine gift where the prophet does not choose himself, but is rather chosen by God. Additionally, a mystical experience is passive and is satisfying within itself whereas for a prophet the state of revelation is only a stage in the process of conveying that message to his people and fighting the forces of evil. Finally, God is not to be recognized and then just adored but should have our full submission, unwavering commitment and obedience.
Finally, since science and mystical experiences do not contribute to what a revelation is then we needed to address what a revelation actually encompasses. Basically a revelation is a kind of communication between God and the rest of humanity. Revelation sends a particular type of guidance that reforms the life of people and helps achieve their happiness in this life and the hereafter. This message is conveyed through select human beings who are messengers of God. A crucial passage in the Qur’an (42:51) describes three basic channels of revelation. One is through inspiration: God inspiring the prophet with certain knowledge and truth that he explains to his people. Second, speaking to the prophet in a manner that is different from human speech (we don’t know in what form this came) like when God spoke to Moses and Muhammad. Finally the third type is the highest and most important in regards to scripture, is the revelation sent by God through the angel Gabriel to the prophet, who would then communicate the same message as it is to the rest of the people.
2.2 Revelation and Characteristics
Host: Can you elaborate on using the archangel Gabriel as a medium of communication between God and the prophets?
The angel Gabriel is reported to have appeared in two forms when coming with the message to Prophet Muhammad.
The first, is that Gabriel appeared in the human form as a man teaching and dictating certain passages to the prophet. This is most notably reported in the Qur’an in passage 96 verses 1-5. The verses give narration of what happened the first time that Prophet Muhammad received the revelation. He was meditating in the cave of Hira’a outside of Mecca, when a man came to him (Prophet Muhammad finds out later that it was Gabriel) held him and told him to “Read.” The prophet replied, saying that he could not read. As we know, he was illiterate and did not receive an education.
Then the angel, in the form of a man, held him again and told him to read. And the prophet replied that he could not read. Then Gabriel recited the very first revelation of the Qur’an that we still have today in its original wording. In the translation it says “Proclaim! (read!) in the name of thy Lord and Cherisher, Who created. Created man, out of a (mere) clot of congealed blood that hangs. Proclaim! And thy Lord is Most Bountiful. He Who taught (the use of) the pen. Taught man that which he knew not.” (95:1-5)
This translation uses the phrase “that hangs” which is quite amazing about the original expression used in the Qur’an. The verse that God created man from something that hangs had been a mystery for centuries when trying to translate it and many English translators of the Qur’an made the error of translating it in a variety of ways like “congealed clot of blood” but in fact if we stick to the literal Arabic translation it is something “that hangs.” This can be explained very easily through modern science and medicine where the fertilized egg literally hangs on the wall of the uterus. It is amazing that this was revealed 1400 years ago, which helps prove that the revelation was not consisting of Prophet Muhammad’s own thoughts and opinions but revelation from God, since humans did not scientifically know this fact until much later on.
There was also another incidence reported in prophetic tradition, this time in the presence of the companions of the prophet, where angel Gabriel, in the form of a human being, came to the prophet and started asking the prophet questions in their presence. The questions Gabriel asked included what the definition of Islam is, what is involved in faith, what is excellence and what is the Day of Judgment. After he left the prophet told the companions that it was Gabriel who came to teach them through the form of a dialogue.
However, the more common form in which Gabriel brought revelation from God to Prophet Muhammad was by coming, without being seen, and dictating verbally to the Prophet the distinct verses and passages of the Qur’an. Then the prophet would recite the passages to the people around him who would then memorize the passages and commit them to writing. It is important to emphasize that this was not a guarded secret. Many of the companions of the prophet, in authentic narrations, reported being a part of or an audience to this process. This is the main reason why the Qur’an, the last scripture, has been preserved in its entirety.
Host: How did the companions know that angel Gabriel exists? How did they testify to his presence or to seeing him?
First of all there was no physical sight of Gabriel but the physical appearance of the prophet gave the indication that Gabriel was there. Whenever the prophet started uttering the Qur’an during a revelation they noted that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) went through a very spiritual state. They describe that the prophet would be in a state of deep concentration, to the extent that even when the weather was cold it would cause him to perspire. At times he would shiver while under this state of revelation. This was one indication to them that the prophet was undergoing a part of the revelation.
There is also a second indicator, while under that particular state he used to utter verses of the Qur’an, which his companions would in turn promptly write down. The style of the Qur’an is that of God speaking not as a story or narration. God speaks in many parts of the Qur’an such as when He says “Oh you who believe follow the messenger” and is directly addressing the people. So they realize that this was something that Gabriel was dictating to him.
The third indication was a statement made by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself. He said that Gabriel comes to him, that he hears something like the sound of a bell and then hears the dictation of the passages of the Qur’an. So all of these indications put together show that without actually seeing Gabriel the prophet actually felt his presence and received the revelation in this manner.
Host: I would like to bring up a very common misconception that we see in Western literature: until very lately it was thought that Prophet Muhammad had epileptic seizures while in a state of concentration while receiving revelation. Can you address this?
At one time this used to be a popular opinion. Unfortunately, today we find some “scholarly” writings that still support this misconception. I do not claim to be a psychiatrist, but we know from what psychologists tell us that epilepsy is a sort of disease. It is an interruption of the normal function of the brain. The person under an epileptic seizure has convulsions and is not totally conscious and would utter meaningless words and most often would have no memory of what was said. This kind of description has nothing to do with the description of a revelation. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) remembers vividly each and every word that he uttered under that state of revelation. The most significant point is that the Qur’an is available in the same exact words with which the prophet uttered when receiving the revelation. Anyone looking to the Qur’an would definitely know that it is not a meaningless mumbling of incoherent words. The biggest response to what we might call an epileptic assumption on the part of some is the Qur’an itself. Read the Qur’an and see if any person with epilepsy could utter such words that produced a Holy Scripture, which historically impacted the world. It provides guidance in the spiritual, moral, political, economic and social lives of hundreds of millions of people.
I would like to add a couple of observations on this issue concerning epilepsy. If people who raised that issue were atheists, who deny the existence of God and revelation, it might be understandable. But what puzzles me is that many of the scholars who say that a possible explanation of the revelation given to Prophet Muhammad is epilepsy are themselves confessed Jews or Christians. Judaism and Christianity are two major world faiths that are based on revelation. This leads to the question of the use of double standards. No sincere Jew or Christian would ever say the Torah received by Moses was a product of epilepsy. But when it comes to Prophet Muhammad receiving the last revelation- oh then maybe it is not a true revelation from God and so it must be epilepsy!
This leads us to a few straightforward questions. Do you believe in God or not? Do you believe in the unseen or not? If you believe in God and believe that He is capable of conveying His message through prophets to humanity then you believe in the unseen and revelation. So either all prophets were epileptic or they are all genuine prophets receiving their revelation from God.
Host: Let’s move to a more fundamental question that addresses the revelation being an inspiration of God to a specific subset of people? Is the divine confined to a set few? Since Muslims believe that prophet Muhammad is the last of the prophets, does this mean that there are no inspirations after him?
The problem arises in translation; the original word for revelation and inspiration used in the Qur’an is wahi. The best response is to refer to the Qur’an itself to show that there are two ways of defining revelation. It can be defined in a general sense of God inspiring or guiding creatures whether human or not and the special second meaning that of communicating scripture or a Holy Book.
In reference to the first meaning, we discover that the Qur’an uses the term wahi to inspire creatures to survive. An example of this is the honey bee; “And thy Lord taught the bee to build its cells in hills, on trees, and in (men’s) habitations.” (16:68) There isn’t a scripture given to the bees but it is simply inspiration given to them so that they may survive.
The expression wahi is used to express the act of inspiring and guiding good people who a re not necessarily prophets. An example of this are the disciples of Prophet Jesus(PBUH) in Qur’an “And behold! I inspired the disciples to have faith in Me and Mine Messenger. They said, ‘We have faith, and do thou bear witness that we bow to Allah as Muslims” (5:112)
It also talks about God inspiring the mother of Moses when she was afraid that the Pharaoh may take him as an infant and kill him in the Qur’an “So We sent this inspiration to the mother of Moses: Suckle (thy child), but when thou hast fears about him, cast him into the river, but fear not nor grieve: for We shall restore him to thee, and We shall make him one of Our apostles.” (28:7) Without spending too much time on this, there are other meanings for the word wahi for example: in the passage found on (41:12) in the Qur’an it is used in the sense of a command, or to give a sense of informing which is found in this passage (8:12). It is also used to give a subtle sign in passage (19:10). Sometime the word inspiration is used in the evil sense as in (6:112) and (6:121). However, the special meaning of inspiration or guidance in a sense of scripture through a select prophet is something that is limited to select messengers of God. The final revelation in terms of a Holy Book has culminated in the Qur’an.
Host: Since prophets occupy such a central role in the Islamic faith can you tell us what a prophet is in Islam? The word prophet has been used for centuries in different contexts while giving different connotations. I would like very much if you could elaborate on the concept of prophet-hood in Islam.
Islamicaly speaking a prophet is a unique human being selected by God to carry His message and to be a model for His teachings. When comparing the three monotheistic religions (Islam, Judaism and Christianity) we come across two extremes when defining and elaborating on what a prophet is.
The Bible goes to two extremes when defining prophet-hood. One extreme is to deify a pious prophet to the level of God-hood, which is the case with Prophet Jesus (PBUH). The other extreme is exactly the opposite: where major moral sins and cardinal sins, are attributed to great figures whom we all accept as prophets whether we are Muslims, Jews or Christians.
One thing we should emphasize by using the Qur’an to clarify the issue, is that they (prophets) are all humans. There is no question as to the humanity of the messengers. There is nothing that is part human and part divine. There is no half-God half-man. We find an example in the Qur’an where God is addressing Prophet Muhammad “Before thee, also, the apostles We sent were but men, to whom We granted inspiration.” (21:7)
Concerning the great prophet about whom there is a lot of controversy- Prophet Jesus- the Qur’an says, “The similitude of Jesus before Allah is as that of Adam; He created him from dust, then said to him: “Be”. And he was.” (3:59) The similarity is that God who created Adam from neither a mother nor father was able to create Jesus from a mother and not a father.
The third quotation indicates the very fact that prophets are human was one of the underlying reasons why people rejected them, which they should not. An example in the Qur’an, “That was because there came to them apostles with Clear Signs, but they said: “Shall (mere) human beings direct us?” So they rejected (the Message) and turned away.” (64:6) The Qur’an also responds to those who think it is quite strange that God should reveal His message through a normal human being. “Is it a matter of wonderment to men that We have sent Our inspiration to a man from among themselves?- that he should warn mankind (of their danger), and give the good news to the Believers that they have before their Lord the lofty rank of truth. (But) say the Unbelievers: “This is indeed an evident sorcerer!” ” (10:2) To indicate finally the inconsistency of those who reject the prophet-hood of Prophet Muhammad while believing in the prophets before him the Qur’an says, “No just estimate of Allah do they make when they say: “Nothing doth Allah send down to man (by way of revelation)” Say: “Who then sent down the Book which Moses brought?- a light and guidance to man.” (6:91) So it is inconsistent because they believe in Moses but then when it comes to Muhammad they don’t believe in him because he is human.
Host: Give us some examples from the Qur’an in talking about humanity; does it refer to them as human or does it infer on them some sort of superhuman qualities?
The Qur’an is very clear in confirming what was said earlier by giving examples about certain things that humans do. First that they ate and drank: “And the apostles whom We sent before thee were all (men) who ate food and walked through the streets.” (25:20) Talking of Prophet Jesus and his mother, may peace and blessings be upon them, the Qur’an says that Christ was no more than a messenger. Many were the messengers that passed away before him. His mother was a woman of truth. Then it says that they both had to eat their daily food. As a basic rule it also says that prophets in general got married and had children with the exception of a few like Prophet Jesus and John the Baptist because he died or was ascended while young. If they had lived on earth maybe they would have married. After all not every human gets married but in general they married and had children; essentially creating a family. For example in Qur’an it says, “We did send apostles before thee, and appointed for them wives and children.” (13:38)
The Qur’an also shows that prophets may suffer agony, disease and difficulty. An example about Prophet Abraham is, “And when I am ill, it is He Who cures me” (26:80) and “And (remember) Job, when He cried to his Lord, “Truly distress has seized me, but Thou art the Most Merciful of those that are merciful.” ” (21:83) The Qur’an also indicates that a prophet may be killed or die naturally: “We gave Moses the Book and followed him up with a succession of apostles; We gave Jesus the son of Mary clear (Signs) and strengthened him with the holy spirit. Is it that whenever there comes to you an apostle with what ye yourselves desire not, ye are puffed up with pride?- Some ye called impostors, and others ye slay!” (2:87) Also, “Muhammad is no more than an apostle: many Were the apostle that passed away before him. If he died or were slain, will ye then Turn back on your heels?” (3:144) Finally, the Qur’an indicates that a prophet does not control his own destiny: “Say: “I have no power over any good or harm to myself except as Allah willeth.” (7:188)