Summary of Previous Lecture “Revelation & Characteristics”
Two basic areas were discussed in this lecture. One was continuing the discussion concerning the concept of revelation. The main highlight was that the last and most authenticated form of revelation came to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), through the agent angel Gabriel. We know this revelation was dictated to Prophet Muhammad who, without using his own words, uttered the passages of the Qur’an. This is not a guarded secret because it happened often in the presence of many of the companions of the Prophet. It did not happen once or twice, but over the span of over twenty-three years.
The Qur’an, which is the product of these states of revelation, is still available today. We, also, emphasized that no believer can deny a revelation because it is not tangible. After all, divine revelation is the foundation of all monotheistic religions. Anyone who believes in God and His capacity to communicate His will to humanity obviously would have to believe in revelation even though it is not something that can be put in a test-tube. Revelation cannot be discussed under excuses such as hallucinations or epilepsy. They do not share any characteristics with the characteristics of revelation. The state of epilepsy completely differs from the state of revelation.
Additionally there must be a distinction between the various types of inspiration. Besides the very select and special type of divine revelation, which produces the Holy Books communicated to prophets and messengers of God, there are a few other types that are not limited to prophets. We talked about inspiration that teaches things from nature to survive and an example is given in the Qur’an that discusses how bees survive. Another type is inspiring pious people with certain truths. It is still something that is limited to them personally and not a general message that is expected to be conveyed to the rest of humanity.
Then we started to look into the nature of prophet-hood and what traits are found in prophets. The Qur’an heavily documents the mortal humanity of all the prophets and messengers of God. They are just like you and I with all the various physiological functions. They eat, drink, get sick and die. Yet they, prophets and messengers, are a very select type of people who are role models and examples in belief and behavior to the people.
2.3 Islamic and Biblical Versions
Host: Can we draw a parallel between the concept of prophet-hood in Islam and the Biblical and Judaea-Christian traditional concept of prophet-hood?
There are similarities but there are also some key differences between the concepts. Some people make very superficial conclusions by saying that the Qur’an talks about the same prophets that are in the Bible and, therefore, Muhammad must have just taken his information from the Bible. It is true, there are similarities between the major monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Islam and Christianity and they definitely have a great deal in common. The notion of believing in God as the ultimate authority in the universe is present throughout all three faiths. Additionally, the general notion of God sending prophets to guide humanity is quite common in the three monotheistic faiths. The concept of revelation and the belief of God inspiring messengers are also accepted in some form or other.
However, there are some differences that are very important to note. One difference in Islam is the isma or infallibility of the prophets. Both scriptures, the Bible and the Qur’an, will be used to clarify. It was previously mentioned that, in the Muslim point of view, the Bible uses two extremes in defining the characteristics of prophets. The first, in the New Testament, is deifying the prophet to the level of God. While the second, in the Old Testament, diminishes the great prophets’ moral character by believing that they committed cardinal sins. Muslims do not accept either of these. A previous lecture discussed the question of the deification of humans. This lecture will focus on the fallibility or infallibility of the prophets.
Some of the stories in the Old Testament are very different from the stories in the Qur’an. An example of this is the story of the Prophet Jacob and his father Isaac may peace and blessings be upon them both. In the Old Testament the tradition is that the eldest son inherits his father. The Book of Genesis, chapter 27, says that Esau was the elder son of Isaac and he was the one who was supposed to receive the blessing by birthright. When Jacob received the information that his farther was going to bless Esau, he went to his father exploiting the fact that Isaac had weak sight and pretended that he was Esau until Isaac blessed Jacob by the instigation of his mother. Later on Esau and Isaac discovered what happened and said there was no way of changing the event because, even though it was by mistake, Isaac had already blessed Jacob. This story depicts a great prophet, who is adored by Muslims, as a cheater and deceiver who goes to his father and lies to him and pretends to be the other son in order to get that blessing. Islam doesn’t accept this story.
The book of Exodus, chapter 32 verses 1-6, describe how Prophet Aaron the brother of Prophet Moses, may peace and blessings be upon them, participated in collecting gold to make the famous golden calf when Moses went for the ten commandments. It depicts a great respected prophet by Muslims as someone who not only supports idolatry, but also participates in it by helping make the golden calf. Again, Islam does not accept this story.
Another is the story concerning Prophet David. The second book of Samuel discusses the incident when Uriah, one of the commanders of the Prophet David, was away in a battlefield. It says that Prophet David, went on top of the king’s house and from there he saw a beautiful woman bathing. He inquired about her and was told that this was the wife of his commander. He then sent for her and committed adultery with her. When Uriah came back it depicts Prophet David (PBUH) as a person who played all kinds of tricks to hide the crime that he committed. He asked Uriah to go and wash his feet in his home (in other words to sleep with his wife) in order for David to hide the fact that he was the one who impregnated Uriah’s wife. Uriah being very faithful to his soldiers refused and slept outside the doorstep of his house. When this trick did not work it narrates that Prophet David sent a message with Uriah himself to one of his other commanders, Joab and he asked him to put Uriah in the most dangerous spot in the battlefield so that he is more likely to be killed. Of course, it ended with the slaying of Uriah. Any person who does these types of actions would definitely contradict the concept of what a prophet is as explained in the Qur’an and therefore can never be considered prophets.
In fact there are many more stories like these in the Bible. Another is the famous story of when Prophet Abraham went to Egypt with his wife who was so beautiful that Abraham was afraid that Pharaoh might take her away from him or even kill him. So Abraham claimed that she was his sister and let her go into the house of Pharaoh who tried to approach her and have relations with her. There are similar stories about Prophet Solomon marrying pagan wives and then his heart was inclined towards their gods. All of these descriptions are totally contradictory to the text of the Qur’an as well as to the role, function and perception of who the prophets are.
Host: In what sense is the above view of prophet-hood contradictory to the Qur’an and prophetic tradition?
The Qur’an, which relays stories concerning all of these prophets, does not have a single passage that attributes such cardinal sins to any of them that really blemishes the moral character of the prophets as we have sited in various places in the Old Testament. In fact the contrary is true. All of these prophets are mentioned with a great deal of adoration and respect. Prophet David and Prophet Solomon are mentioned to be faithful to God. Prophet Jacob is not a deceiver and cheater but a respected messenger of God.
For example, Prophet Abraham is described in the Qur’an as “a man of truth.” (19:41) He was also described as “devoutly obedient to Allah, (and) true in faith” (16:120). Prophet Ishmael, the first son of Abraham and grandfather to Prophet Muhammad’s great-great grandfather and Isaac was the second son of Abraham and grandfather of all the Israelite prophets, is described as “(strictly) true to what he promised.” (19:54) When God mentions Ishmael as being true to his promise we know that the biggest promise is to obey God and to be faithful to Him.
Prophet Moses is described in the Qur’an as mukhlasan (19:51) which roughly translates as one who was “specially chosen.” As for Prophet Jesus (PBUH), he is given a very tender description: “his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honor in this world and the Hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to Allah.” (3:45) Prophet Muhammad is described as a model: “Ye have indeed in the Messenger of Allah a beautiful pattern (of conduct) for any one whose hope is in Allah and the Final Day, and who engages much in the Praise of Allah.” (33:21) There are many more passages similar to these that glorify the good character and moral conduct of all the prophets. A general description of the prophets is, “These were ever quick in emulation in good works; they used to call on Us with love and reverence, and humble themselves before Us.” (21:90) There is always reverence, respect and praise towards all of the prophets in the Qur’an.
Many of the details in the stories in the Bible are inconsistent with the Muslim view concerning the role and nature of the prophets. A prophet is not someone who just communicates the word of God to the people, but he is also a person who exemplifies, through his behavior, moral standards and actions, the message that he preaches. How then can a prophet be an example to his people when he is a liar, a cheater, a drunk and an adulterer?
All of these descriptions are of people who have no moral values. How can a prophet be a model when his heart is inclined to other idols or pagan deities? This is something that is totally inconceivable to Muslims. The Qur’an indicates that the prophets were especially chosen because they were better than the morally pious. In other words if pious people do not commit these major sins that blemish their moral character then definitely the prophets should be above that. To give documentation on this issue we will use three verses from the Qur’an. The first is “Allah chooses messengers from angels and from men for Allah is He Who hears and sees (all things).” (22:75) Since God knows all he would surely chose those who are better than what the stories in the Bible depict. The second verse is “and to all (the prophets) We gave favor above the nations.” (6:86) The third verse is “And We made them leaders, guiding (men) by Our Command, and We sent them inspiration to do good deeds, to establish regular prayers, and to practice regular charity; and they constantly served Us (and Us only).” (21:73) So the inspiration was not just by message but also through the knowledge and philosophy represented in the meaning and the actions of the prophets’ own lives. This is the essence of the Islamic concept of isma or the infallibility of all the messengers of God.
Host: The last lecture emphasized the humanity of the prophets yet now it is explained that prophets are also infallible. How do you dissipate this inconsistency if there is an inconsistency? Is being infallible inconsistent with being human?
Infallibility is not inconsistent with humanity. If we make the distinction between errors and sins we will be able to shed light on the problem. There are three kinds of sins that will be discussed. The first kind is the sin, which relates to deviation and error in the belief in God. An example of this would be the belief in or worship of other gods. The second type of sin is called the cardinal sin and examples of this are cheating and committing adultery. The last kind of sin comes from unintentional human error in judgment. This doesn’t constitute a violation of the basic moral law or the Ten Commandments nor does it reflect any bad intentions on the part of the person.
Using this structure to facilitate the answer to the infallibility of the prophets, Muslims agree that all of the prophets are absolutely infallible with respect to the first and second type of sins. In the first kind of sin, they can’t be fallible as far as the communication of the message of God and faith. If the prophet makes an error in conveying the message of God then he is not qualified and he is confusing and leading people astray. A passage in the Qur’an says, “and if the apostle were to invent any sayings in Our name, We should certainly seize him by his right hand, And We should certainly then cut off the artery of his heart: Nor could any of you withhold him (from Our wrath).” (69:44-47) This has a symbolic meaning. No true prophet can fall into an error when conveying the proper pure belief as communicated to him by God; or else God would definitely stop him from making this falsification and leading people astray.
As for the second category of sins, everyone agrees that we are human and we have temptation but we also know that there are some sins that are truly cardinal. To steal someone else’s wife and to commit adultery and then cheat to avoid facing this crime is inconsistent and people who are truly pious control themselves enough to not fall into these temptations. Therefore, the select few prophets would never do them.
Then we come to the third category, which consist of errors in judgment that are very minor and usually happen with good intentions. They are not deliberately done. This kind of sin doesn’t contradict the infallibility of the prophets because it does not affect their basic functions as prophets who are the source of revelation and model of human behavior. One example of this third type of sin refers to Prophet Muhammad himself, is in a famous chapter in the Qur’an. The title of this chapter is Abasa (He Frowned) and was revealed as a commentary on and a correction of a particular story. The story relayed in the Qur’an is that Prophet Muhammad, in the early days of Islam, was trying to talk to the leaders of the noble tribe of Quraish about Islam. He had a very good reason to focus on them as they were opinionated leaders that many followed. Prophet Muhammad knew that if he succeeds in showing them the path to the One God and has them reject idolatry this would encourage others to follow. Furthermore, he knew that they were involved in the persecution of Muslims, since they were powerful, and if they themselves came to understand Islam perhaps they would become more sympathetic and stop persecuting Muslims. This was a human judgment that anyone would agree has no clear wrong.
While Prophet Muhammad was talking to them, an old poor blind man by the name of Abu-Allah Ibn Umu Maktub approached the prophet wanting him to learn more about the Qur’an. He kept asking the prophet questions while the prophet was talking with the leaders of Quraish. The prophet again with his human judgment showed minor impatience and frowned at the blind man because the man was already a believer and could wait a little bit while he addressed those who he was trying to guide. Then Gabriel came to him with the chapter Abasa (He Frowned) saying, “(The Prophet) frowned and turned away, Because there came to him the blind man (interrupting). But what could tell thee but that perchance he might grow (in spiritual understanding)? Or that he might receive admonition, and the teaching might profit him? As to one who regards Himself as self-sufficient. To him dost thou attend; Though it is no blame to thee if he grow not (in spiritual understanding). But as to him who came to thee striving earnestly, And with fear (in his heart), Of him wast thou unmindful.” (80:1-9)
This chapter was a very powerful rebuke towards Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) but still it doesn’t accuse him of any moral sins or mistake in belief. It was a simple human judgment with all good intentions but still God shows him that there is wisdom that is higher than human wisdom and that a poor blind person who is a sincere believer is better than a whole bunch of rich powerful unbelievers who are proud and puffed up with pride that they were not listening.
Indeed it is interesting to know that after this incident Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) held this man, Abu-Allah, in great esteem with love and affection and whenever he would meet him he would say “Welcome to he, for whose sake God rebuked me.” This is why many people misunderstand statements made in the Qur’an either commanding great prophets like Abraham and Muhammad or quoting them as they sought the forgiveness of Allah. “So that God could forgive you oh Muhammad what you have done of errors” and they say look this is evidence that these prophets are sinful. This is a very ironic and superficial way of looking at it because though it is an error, it is only an error in human judgment. Also the point that is always forgotten is that a mistake of a prophet is not like the mistake of a common man. Because of the very high standard demanded of a prophet in his morality and behavior then even the slightest mistake is a serious one. Because of their purity no matter how sincere they are they always feel as though they are not doing enough to be worthy of the great honor that God had bestowed up on them (by making them prophets) and so always seek God’s forgiveness.