Understanding Prophethood

article picked 4U by - Mohammad Shahrour

May 27, 2020

For the purpose of further exploring the difference between prophethood and messengerhood we must now define how we understand prophethood and the role of a prophet. In order to do this, we need to introduce the categories of naba” and khabar which designate two different types of ‘news’:

  1. Naba”: refers to an event in the unseen or unknown world which has either already taken place in the near or distant past or will take place in the near or distant future. Muhammad’s role as a prophet (naby) was to disclose to his fellow men these events which were hidden to them but which, through his announcements, became discernable. These announcements form the book of prophethood which does not contain any legal injunctions. In terms of style and rhetorical expression, prophetic announcements are short, crisp, and concise. A reference to them can be found in the following verse: Those cities, we relate to you [Muhammad] some of their [anba’iha]; their messengers came to them with clear signs, but they would not believe in what they had denied earlier. This Allah seals the hearts of the unbelievers. ( Al-A’raf 7:101)
  1. Khabar: refers to an event in the past or immediate present (not the future) in the tangible or known world which can be empirically seen or reconstructed (if it happened in the distant past) by the people. However, such khabar events may turn into naba” events with the passing of time. For example, what happened to Noah and his people were khabar events for those who personally witnessed them. But over the centuries they turned into naba” events as they became unknown or indiscernible to subsequent generations.

In terms of style and rhetorical expression they are elaborate, lengthy, and detailed. Both categories of ‘news’, naba” and khabar, pertain to the content of al-Quran and form the qur’anic stories; they belong to the book of prophethood and do not contain legal injunctions. With this in mind we say that the miraculous nature ( al-I’jaz) of the book of prophethood is defined by the quality of knowledge it contains; it is i‘jaz-ilmi, or an ‘epistemological miracle’. Not only does it contain precise knowledge of the universal laws that govern the entire universe and nature, but it also hosts historical stories which had either already happened before Muhammad’s time (naba” events to him) or which he himself witnessed (khabar events). For us today, such khabar events have now become naba” events.

The miraculous nature of the book of messenger hood, in contrast, is defined by the soundness and righteousness of its legal instructions: they are valid until the Day of Judgement. It enjoys everlasting validity because it is based on the principle of hanifiyya and because its injunctions are applied within the legal framework of Allah’s limits. The Book, directly revealed into Muhammad’s brain, holds prophethood and messengerhood. It came down as the last of the many messages of Islam which history had accumulated over time and with which Allah has sent his prophets and messengers to all peoples in this world. Islam, as we previously mentioned, started with Noah and found its perfect expression with Muhammad.

Since Muhammad’s death our knowledge of the universe has increased and our legal systems have improved. Humankind as a whole has greatly advanced, so much so that we no longer need another prophet or another revelation as we can now rely on reason and our matured experiences of this world. The scientific institutions of the modern era have inherited prophecies and prophethoods, and the new legislative assemblies and parliaments have inherited ancient messengers and their messenger hoods. In other words, with the ‘seal of the prophets ended too the period of external, moral intervention and consequently, also the role of religious experts.

If the Book is Allah’s revelation as text and content from its first to its last letter, we would need to specify what makes it so different from the other messages and prophecies that have previously been revealed. We believe that the special nature of the Book lies in its sacredness as the last and final revelation. But what do we mean by sacredness?

We take our clue from one of the ninety-nine names of Allah in the Book, al-Qudus, which we translate as ‘the one who governs over the living’. We read in the Book: We also gave Jesus, son of Mary, clear signs and strengthened him with the [ruh al-Qudus ( Al-Baqara 2:87) ruh al-qudus is usually rendered as ‘the Holy Spirit’, but The best phrase to capture this intention is to render it as ‘the spirit of life’ or, perhaps Pneuma Kyrious, ‘Spirit of the Lord’ that provides the way to (eternal) life.

We know that the miraculous ability to reanimate the dead was one of God’s gifts to Jesus. We infer from this that ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’ (muqaddas) means to live, and that a sacred text is a text that shows signs of life or is living. Accordingly, the Book is a sacred text because it is a living text, a text of life, and a text for the living, not the dead. Even if we find in the Book things about people who belong to a different historical period, and who were therefore subject to the ‘becoming’ and ‘progressing’ of their times, it can still be read as if they belonged to the time of our reading of the text—as if the Book was revealed only yesterday! How is this possible? We find the answer in the ontological quality of the text as ‘being’ in-and-for-itself, and of being originated in Allah who is also pure ‘being’ in-and-for-itself.
Both God and text can only be understood by looking at their outward signs and external manifestations, by the ninety-nine names that manifest themselves in the externalities of our existence. As created beings, we will never fully understand the entirety of this universe because only God can do this. What we can do is to gradually comprehend it by a continuous ‘becoming’ of our relative and contingent knowledge.
The ultimate aim is to come closer to God even though we will never fully reach Him. But to facilitate this process of coming near Him we are allowed to make everything in nature subservient, whether we use it wisely and for the benefit of humankind or foolishly and even to the detriment of society and the environment. No one, we repeat, is able, nor should be allowed, to claim total knowledge of the Book in its entirety or its single parts, even if he is a prophet or messenger. If someone claimed to have such total knowledge, he would commit the crime of shirk, as he would become a partner of God in His knowledge and His ‘being’ in-and-for-itself.
If Muhammad had total knowledge of the Book, in its entirety or its single parts, and his interpretations and ijtihads had all the flavor of absolute truth, it would make him a partner of Allah in divine knowledge and, even more ridiculously, the author of the Book. By God, we cannot accuse Muhammad of shirk regarding Allah since he never claimed to possess absolute knowledge of Allah’s Book. But because the scholars overrated the Sunna to such an extent that they began treating Allah’s Book as if Muhammad had been able to write it himself, Muslim believers were given the impression that Muhammad possessed superhuman knowledge.