Summary of Previous Lecture “Islamic & Biblical Versions”
The lecture focused on the nature of prophet-hood itself and the basic fundamental characteristics of a prophet. From an Islamic standpoint, there are no extreme characteristics that prophets had as is shown in scriptures prior to the Qur’an. One of those extremes is the deification of a prophet to the status of God or son of God as is the case of Prophet Jesus (PBUH) in the Bible. The Qur’an indicates that there is no half man- half God and there is no God in human form.
The other extreme that was quite clear in the Old Testament is to accuse prophets of committing cardinal sins that weaken their faith and moral character. The Qur’an, the words of God and the last revelation, indicates very clearly that prophets are selected by God because they have the best character and moral behavior for other human beings to use as their guide to living a pious life.
There is a distinction between the sins and they usually fall into three categories. First of all, a prophet can not make a mistake in matters of belief like those attributed to prophets in the Old Testament. They do not have inclinations towards other gods or pagan idols because then they would not be entrusted with the message. Second, a prophet can never commit a cardinal sin or commit any sin that blemishes his basic moral character. For example, a prophet cannot violate the Ten Commandments because he is the example for the people. The third type of sin, however, is one that a prophet quite possibly could commit. It is to commit minor errors in judgment, which if important even God would correct as was sighted from the Qur’an. On the whole, these are minor mistakes that are mostly unavoidable and usually stem from good intentions. The Qur’an insists that prophets are the best models of piety and guidance for the people.
2.4 Prophecy, Ingenuity and Miracles
Host: Is it implied that every prophet has a prophecy. Is a prophecy necessary for a person to be called a prophet? How does Islam view this?
A prophecy is different from prophet-hood. A prophecy in itself doesn’t make a prophet nor is it a condition for a person to become a prophet. It is a kind of gift that God endows to certain prophets. One doesn’t have to be a prophet to receive a prophecy. Many people experience certain levels of propheciessuch as having dreams of things that come true in real life. It is not because of their intelligence or their ability but it is something that is endowed on them by God. That is why Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was quoted as saying that if you have these phenomena of seeing dreams come true it is metaphorically equivalent of one fortieth of prophet-hood. Prophecy is only one minor aspect of prophet-hood and doesn’t make one a prophet.
Also we find that in the early days before Prophet Muhammad started receiving the revelation of the Qur’an, revelation started with him in the way of dreams becoming vivid and coming true in real life. On the other hand a prophet may be given certain information by God for telling things that are going to happen in the future. This applies to many prophets of the Old Testament as well as Prophet Muhammad. There are many examples in the Qur’an of events and happenings being predicted and then actually occurring. In that sense a Muslim would not reject the notion of prophecy but they don’t over emphasize that a prophet is only so because of having a prophecy.
Host: A lot of people claim that a prophet has to be a genius. Some say that the Prophet Muhammad was not what the Muslims claim (uneducated and illiterate) but that he was a genius. How do we relate the concept of ingenuity to prophets from an Islamic stand point?
If you mean being a genius is that the prophets are intelligent wise people, then there is no question about this. It is consistent with their roles as prophets. They receive the revelation and are supposed to use various techniques and skills so that they may reach people and attract them to the wisdom of the revelation and lead them throughout their lives. In that sense, wisdom and intelligence is a useful tool that the prophet uses in order to fulfill his role and there is no dispute on this question. God chooses people not only because they are pious but also because they have the innate ability and skill set to communicate His message to the rest of humanity.
On the other hand, some people would put it in such away as to exclude the concept of revelation. For those who don’t believe in unseen things such as an angel coming with the revelation, then a prophet must be very intelligent, a genius who just with his own mind, can see things vividly and teach people all this wisdom. Islam finds this way of putting it as objectionable not only with respect to Prophet Muhammad but with respect to all the prophets based on two important grounds.
The first reason, goes back to the first lecture in this series, where it is mentioned that one of the main reasons humanity needs prophets is because there is information that is not subject and discoverable through normal sources such as science. The knowledge of the unseen is something that nobody can guess such as what will happen in the life after death, when the world will end, and what signs will lead to that. These are some of the things that no matter how intelligent or wise a person may be they can not really get to the answer on their own. So they need the direct communication from God.
The other reason is even more important. All of those great prophets throughout history, whether they are Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus or Muhammad (may peace and blessings be upon them all), insisted that what they taught was direct revelation from God and was not a product of their own thinking or their own ingenuity. To say that there was no revelation and that the only explanation of the phenomena of prophet-hood is their ingenuity would be to accuse them in a subtle way of lying and cheating when they say that revelation is not of their own thought. The prophets are intelligent and wise but their wisdom and intellect is not the source of what they taught.
Host: Another manifestation that is sometimes misconceived as a necessity for someone to be a prophet is the performance of miracles. How do Muslims view the idea of miracles and does every prophet perform them?
When one reviews human history and focus on how people explain things one finds that there is deviation in one extreme or another (“history is written by the victors”). This also applies to miracles as well. We find some people who are so preoccupied with miracles to the point of being superstitious. This would leave the door open for people who want to exploit superstitious people by claiming the ability to cause miracles and magical healing for commercial purposes. This is all done to exploit people’s inclination to think of the spiritual and unseen. This is one extreme.
On the other hand some people believe that there is no such thing as a miracle and any talk of them is just superstition. Even when something occurs that is difficult to explain, they refuse to believe that there is no scientific explanation to it. They adopt a 100% rational approach to miracles. This is also ironic because not everything can be explained by science or rational interpretation.
The approach taken in the Qur’an can be understood by using the term (for miracle in the Qur’an) ayah. Ayah roughly translates to a sign. It is a sign given by God to a prophet in order to show the people his trustfulness and elaborate on an aspect of his claim. Muslims believe in and accept miracles and know that the prophets did actually perform them. The Qur’an tells the story of Abraham and when the people tried to kill him by putting him in a large fire. However, Allah ordered the fire not to burn him. Again we can’t explain this scientifically but it did happen and Abraham came out of the fire safely (21:68-69). Also, in chapter 26 verse 63 the Qur’an tells about Prophet Moses parting the sea and saving the Israelites while the Pharaoh and his soldiers drowned. Additionally, the third chapter of the Qur’an discusses the miraculous birth of John the Baptist despite the fact that his mother was barren and both her and her husband Zachariah were advanced in age. In the same chapter verses 45 to 49, the discussion of the most miraculous birth of Prophet Jesus (PBUH) is found. In chapter 17 verse 88 it talks about the most outstanding and perpetual miracle of Prophet Muhammad, which is the Qur’an itself.
On the whole it is important to realize that there were some prophets, not necessarily all, who were given an ayah to implore the people, to appeal them and somehow attract their attention to listen. The Qur’an is most positive in clarifying that these miracles are not self produced by the prophets but are given to them by God: “It was not (possible) for any apostle to bring a sign except by the leave of Allah.” (40:78)
Host: Can we elaborate more on the importance of miracles in the message of a particular prophet?
A prophecy is only one aspect of prophet-hood and miracles are another but they are not necessarily the central core of the message that the prophets are preaching. The prophet or messenger of God, as viewed in Islam, is not someone to prophesy or do miracles instead he is a guide. The core of his purpose is to communicate the message given to him by God, to exemplify revelation in his life and to lead people to the right and pious path.
On the terms of its relative importance it is quite safe to say that physical miracles that the prophet produce are more appealing to those with less maturity where the physical attraction makes them think further on the message of the prophet. A more mature person need not emphasize the physical miracle but rather the intellectual and spiritual miracle of the message. The Qur’an indicates that even if the prophets produced the physical miracles they, in themselves, are not conclusive in proving the people the message of the prophet. Two passages in the Qur’an (7:183 and 17:58) will be focused on. The passages convey that in the past physical miracles were given but those who did not believe still rejected the message of the prophet despite the miracles. Not only did they deny but in some cases they also killed the very prophet they had just seen perform the miracles.
During the time of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) people came to him and demanded all kinds of miracles. One passage gives an example of one of these demands. They demanded of him to cause springs to gush from the earth, to cause the sky to fall into pieces on them, to bring God and the angels to them face to face, or if he was a prophet he should have a house made of gold and he should have a ladder that leads up into the sky and he should come back down with a book they could read. (17:90-93) Even with all of these requests it is obvious that people with this attitude would never be satiated. These verses conclude appropriately by saying “”Say:” Glory to my Lord! Am I aught but a man,- an apostle?”” The Qur’an is telling Prophet Muhammad to respond to these demands by reminding them that he is only a man and that these miracles are not the main point behind his message. Prophet Muhammad had many miracles but the greatest miracle given to any prophet is perpetual and we have it in our hands; the Qur’an. In that sense Muslims don’t over emphasize the role of miracles nor do they deny them.
Host: In the Old Testament there are scores of prophets mentioned. How many prophets are mentioned in the Qur’an?
Those that are mentioned specifically by name are a total of twenty-five. Eighteen of which appear in four successive verses of the Qur’an in: “That was the reasoning about Us, which We gave to Abraham (to use) against his people: We raise whom We will, degree after degree: for thy Lord is full of wisdom and knowledge. We gave him Isaac and Jacob: all (three) guided: and before him, We guided Noah, and among his progeny, David, Solomon, Job, Joseph, Moses, and Aaron: thus do We reward those who do good: And Zakariya and John, and Jesus and Elias: all in the ranks of the righteous: And Isma’il and Elisha, and Jonas, and Lot: and to all We gave favor above the nations.” (6:83-86) In five other places in the Qur’an the other seven are mentioned. They are Adam, regarded as the first prophet, Hued, Shuaib, Idrees, Thulkifl (believed to be Issaquah) Salleh and finally prophet Muhammad may peace and blessings be upon them all. A total of twenty-five are mentioned by name in the Qur’an and most of them are familiar to the Judaea Christian faiths.
Host: Since they are mentioned in the Qur’an it is taken for granted that Muslims have to believe in them and their existence, but what about other prophets? What is the stand of Muslims towards other prophets outside of the 25?
When the Qur’an mentioned the twenty-five names it also indicated that these were not the only prophets that were raised to humanity. Indeed the Qur’an says, “and there never was a people, without a warner having lived among them (in the past)” (35:24) the warner in this context is the same as a prophet.
More specifically “to every people (was sent) an apostle.” (10:47)
“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.” (40:78) So there are prophets whose names do not necessarily appear in the Qur’an. This I think is quite interesting because some people might wonder why the Qur’an mostly mentions prophets who are raised largely in the Middle East. Does that simply say that the grace of God is limited to the Middle East? Were there prophets elsewhere? Yes there were prophets elsewhere but it is quite clear also that the emphasis on the descendants of Prophet Abraham has good reason because they are the foundation of the three monotheistic faiths that we know of today (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). Those people were much closer to monotheism despite the slight differences among them from other nations who deviated to idolatry or polytheism or other forms of worship; but the Qur’an doesn’t say that there is no possibility of other prophets.
In fact in one of my visits to South Africa we went to visit a very primitive, simple Zulu tribe in their own cottages. I was surprised to learn that they also have some believe in a higher God that can’t be seen. One wonders if this is from the influence of Islam in Africa or that it’s possible they had a prophet in the past of their own, there is no historical record, but perhaps the idea might have come through a genuine prophet of God.
Host: Where do Muslims stand in regards to prophets; whether they are mentioned in the Qur’an or not? Do they just believe in their existence? Do they believe the stories about them literally? Are they just historical lessons? How do Muslims view them?
The stories are not there just for historical interest. The Qur’an mentions the stories of many of those prophets; sometimes more than once. These stories are told somewhat differently. For those who are familiar with the Bible, it is not just a chronology telling a story as such. The Qur’an discusses the story and at times omits some minor details while focusing on the lessons that can be learned from studying the history of those prophets. As stated earlier, it is not just for historical interest.
Believing in the prophets is part and partial of being a Muslim. It is documented in the Qur’an that belief in all the prophets is obligatory on every Muslim. It specifically says, “Say ye: We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Isma’il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to (all) prophets from their Lord: We make no difference between one (prophet) and another of them: And we bow to Allah (in Islam).” (2:136)
According to this citation, a Muslim is obligated to accept and revere all of the prophets. The Qur’an also ties between the belief in the prophets and righteousness to one another. One can’t be righteous and reject genuine prophets. An example is “It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces towards East or West; but it is righteousness- to believe in Allah and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity; to fulfill the contracts which ye have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the Allah fearing.” (2:177)
The Qur’an indicates very clearly that to deny one prophet means that one is denying all of them as “Those who deny Allah and His apostles, and (those who) wish to separate Allah from His apostles, saying: “We believe in some but reject others”: And (those who) wish to take a course midway. They are in truth (equally) unbelievers; and we have prepared for unbelievers a humiliating punishment.” (4:150-151)
The only qualification that a Muslim would have for accepting a prophet as a genuine prophet is that at least his name should appear in the Qur’an. We are not denying that there might have been other prophets but to be sure of a prophet he must be confirmed in the last revelation of God, which is the Qur’an. The second qualification, this could be discussed in a separate session, is that the Qur’an indicates very clearly that Prophet Muhammad was the last of the prophets, which means that anyone claiming prophet-hood after Muhammad is not a genuine prophet. This second qualification is discussed in detail in a later section.