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Blogging the Qur'an by Ziauddin Sardar- Part 35: Models for Humankind: Part 1

By Ziauddin Sardar

June 16, 2008

Prophecy is one of the major themes of the Qur'an. The entire premise of the Qur'an is that God guides humanity away from error and sin towards goodness and justice, and prophecy is the principal agency through which this guidance is made manifest.

Prophecy brings "good news", it makes us aware of humanity's potential for advancement, to be uplifted and ultimately even perfect our existence while it warns of the possibility that we can sink, as individuals and communities, into the depths of ignorance and barbarity. The function of prophecy is to keep humanity on the right track, both physical and morally, to inspire nobler and higher sentiments and instil in men and women virtues that take them closer to the divine.

Prophecy is thus not only the method through which God communicates his message to humanity; it is also a sign of his mercy and favour.

The Qur'an makes it clear that prophecy is a universal phenomenon and one that was recurrent in human history before its revelation. Both aspects are important as instructive elements of the worldview set out by the Qur'an. God is the creator of all humanity and "we have dispatched a messenger to every nation" (16:36).

Just as our created human nature includes the capacity to recognise and respond to our origin, God, so all people are included in the historic process of receiving guidance from God. Prophecy is not the special possession of any one people but belongs to all people. Furthermore, together these universals point towards shared common moral principals and values in the experience and ideas of all peoples and nations, which provide the potential to work together to achieve human advancement.

The second aspect reminds us that prophecy exists within history and depends upon the response of human beings caught in all the foibles and failings of human nature as well as different historic circumstances. In history people have both lived up to the challenge of God's guidance delivered through prophecy and twisted and diverted the message to their own interests and ends. Prophecy instructs us both in God's mercy and the record of human frailty. To be in receipt of God's guidance does not automatically make a society or individual righteous and good. Prophecy is a challenge to both faith and reason that has to be met in each generation.

The  prophets are not just the bearers of the divine message; they also demonstrate how the message is to be interpreted in daily life and practical detail. This is why they are "only human beings" (14:11) who come from within the community. They understand the suffering of the community, are anxious about its turmoil, and are trusted by all (9:128-9).

They are chosen because of their pure character and special personalities, and endowed with knowledge and wisdom to "recite his signs" (3:164) to their communities. They become guides and leaders, and communicate the revelation from God to their people without fear and with resoluteness and patience.

The Qur'an distinguishes between two types of prophets: Rasul and Nabi. Although both are divinely inspired, only Rasuls, or messengers, are recipients of revelation in the form of a book: "These were the men to whom we gave the book, and authority, and prophethood" (40:78). Thus, while every Rasul is a Nabi, not all Nabis are Rasuls. And we should note that the resolute warners, who by their faith, submission to God's word, and exemplary character in holding to their charge from God despite the opposition of their society, provide role models for all humanity in the Qur'an and include both men and women.

As communicators of revelation, both Rasuls and Nabis serve as "witnesses" to the divine message. On the Day of Judgment, these witnesses will be called and truth will be clear from falsehood: "We shall call a witness from every community, and say, 'produce your evidence', and then they will know that truth belongs to God alone; the gods they invented will forsake them" (28:75).

Adam was the first Nabi and Muhammad is the last Rasul. All prophets are one community; and they communicated the same message of unity of God and the importance of upholding justice and equity (42:13).

The common core of the message delivered by all prophets reinforces the concept of universality and oneness of God. It also requires Muslims to respect all prophets, named and unnamed in the Qur'an. Between Adam and Muhammad the Qur'an mentions 23 other prophets, many being familiar names from the Bible: Idris (Enoch) (19:56-57, 21:85-86); Noah (6:84); Hud (11:50-60); Saleh (11:61-66); Abraham (6:83, 11:69-76); Isma'il (Ishmael) (6:84, 19:54-55); Ishaq (Isaac) (11:70-74); Lut (Lot) (7:80-84); Ya'qub (Jacob) (11:71); Yousef (Joseph) (6:84 and the whole of Sura 12); Shu'aib (7:85, 11: 84); Ayyub (Job) (6:84); Moses (6:84, 20:9-99); Harun (Aaron) (6:84, 20:90); Dhu'l-kifl (Ezekiel) (21:85-86, 38:48); Dawud (David) (6:84); Sulaiman (Solomon) (6:84); Ilias (Elias) (6:85); Al-Yasa (Elisha) (6:86); Yunus (Jonah) (6:86); Zakariya (Zechariah) (6:85); Yahya (John) (6:85) and Isa (Jesus) (3: 45-48; 43:57-59; 19:88-98; 5:116-117; 19:16-36; 5:46-47; 5:72-75; 43: 63-65).

Naturally, the Qur'an focuses attention on Muhammad, the prophet who received the last revelation from God. His critics accused him of being a fortune-teller, a madman, and a poet - poets were thought to be invaded by spirits when they delivered their poetry. He is none of these things, says the Qur'an, but the last prophet: "Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but he is the messenger of God and the seal of the prophets" (33:40). He is "the unlettered prophet" (7:157) who is endowed with an "exalted character" (68:4). He is loving, kind and gentle: "had you been severe and harsh-hearted, they would have broken away from about you" (3:159).

The Qur'an describes a specific event in the life of the Prophet Muhammad known as the "night journey". It is a journey that takes the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to the mosque in Jerusalem: "Glory be to him who made his servant travel by night from the sacred place of worship to the furthest place of worship, whose surroundings we have blessed, to show him some of our signs" (17:1). This part of the night journey, known as isra, is the first stage of the journey followed by the Meraj, the prophet's ascension to heaven. Here, Muhammad "soared up and stood, poised on the highest point of the horizon; then he approached and came on down, and stood two bow-lengths off or even closer"; and "he saw some of his Lord's greatest signs" (53:1-18).

Muslims scholars differ in their opinion about whether the ascension was a bodily journey or a spiritual experience. Mythology even has the prophet riding a white mystical beast, Buraq, taller than a donkey, but smaller than a mule. Its step is said to cover a distance equal to the range of its vision. The prophet tied it up in Jerusalem and then went up through the seven heavens, meeting other prophets as he went, culminating with Abraham. Myths even have Muhammad bargaining with God about the number of times Muslims are supposed to pray during the day!

But the Qur'an makes it clear that Isra and Meraj are spiritual journeys, a vision. Later on in Sûrah of the star, which contains the description of Meraj, the event is clearly described as a vision: "the vision we showed you was only a test for people" (17:60). Muhammad saw "Lord's greatest signs" with a spiritual eye. The experience gave him hope at a time when his situation in Mecca was one of utter helplessness.



A Man from Among Us

By Madeleine Bunting

June 16, 2008

The verses referring to the Prophet Muhammad seem like a very important set so I will be reading Zia closely, because it seems that here is the Qur’an’s representation of who he is and how he should be regarded.

We are told he is "unlettered" more than once; he has been chosen "from among yourselves". This echoed for me the parable in the New Testament that God chooses the stone thrown away by the builder for the keystone in the arch. The prophet is not someone exceptional or out of the ordinary.

But he becomes extraordinary, and I think, a puzzling figure for Christians with their own tradition of a prophet who is both human and divine. When I read and hear of the deference to the prophet, I hear resonances in it of the Christian worship of Christ. Now, I know this is a Christian projection but it makes it hard for anyone with a Christian heritage (and that covers much of the west) to understand how Muslims both revere this man and yet insist they don't worship him. Perhaps Zia can help shed more light on this.

The next problem is how to understand the Prophet Muhammad in relation to previous prophets. Muslims see him as the final and complete revelation from God and this of course is something that Christians can never accept. Can Zia explain more here about the Islamic understanding of Christ and he relates to Muhammad?

I notice one of the verses (40:78) refers to "messengers sent before you - some we have mentioned and some not". I presume those mentioned are the Old Testament prophets but I'm particularly intrigued by the idea that there are more prophets that have not been mentioned in the scriptures - is that correct?

Finally, I'm greatly impressed by another set of verses - 80:1-12. As I read them, they are essentially a reprimand to the prophet in which God rebukes him for not continuing to focus on the disbelieving notables rather than on the blind believer. They have "gone out of their way" to talk to those whose self-satisfaction has stunted their spiritual growth, but ignored the blind man who could have "grown in the spirit." Not only is there a message here of real significance - don't allow yourself to be impressed by status, don't indulge the ego talking to people who will never listen - but also, I like the idea that the prophet makes a mistake here. A prophet who makes mistakes is indeed "from among" us


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