By: Sachiko Murata and William C. Chttick IslamiCity* -
The Universality and Uniqueness of Prophecy
Prophecy is the means whereby God offers guidance to human beings through human intermediaries. Just as God's mercy takes precedence over his wrath and thereby determines the nature of wrath, so also God's guidance takes precedence over his misguidance. Guidance itself demands the existence of misguidance. Without the misguidance that is embodied by Satan, the prophetic messages would be meaningless. Without distance, there can be no nearness; without wrong, no right; without darkness, no perception of light. All the distinctions that allow for a cosmos to exist depend upon the diversification and differentiation of the divine qualities. On the moral and spiritual level, this diversification becomes manifest through the paths of guidance and misguidance, represented by the prophets and the satans.
Wherever there have been prophets, there have been satans. The Koran uses the word satans to refer both to some of the jinn and to some human beings. To be a satan is to be an enemy of the prophets and an embodiment of misguidance:
We have appointed to every prophet an enemy-satans from among mankind and jinn, revealing fancy words to each other as delusion. Yet, had thy Lord willed, they would never have done it. So leave them with what they are fabricating. (Quran 6:112)
Just as Adam, our father and the first prophet, was faced with Iblis, so also we are faced with Iblis, his offspring, and their followers. Misguidance is a universal phenomenon, found in the outside world and within ourselves. In the same way, guidance is a universal phenomenon. In other words, the human race is inconceivable without both prophets and satans, because human beings are defined by the freedom they received when they were made in the divine form. They are able to choose among the divine attributes, because all the divine attributes are found within themselves. Just as they can choose God's right hand by following guidance, so also they can choose his left hand by following misguidance. Without that choice, they would not have been free to accept the Trust.
As we have seen, the fundamental message of the prophets is tawhid. In the Islamic perspective, all prophets have brought the first Shahadah: "We never sent a messenger before thee save that We revealed to him, saying, There is no god but I, so worship Me'" (Quran 21:25). In contrast to the first Shahadah, which designates a divine guidance that is embodied by all prophets, the second Shahadah refers to the domain of the specific message brought by Muhammad. Other prophets had their own messages that correspond to the second Shahadah:
Every nation has its messenger. (Quran 10:47)
We have sent no messenger save with the tongue of his people. (Quran 14:4)
To every one of you [messengers] We have appointed a right way and an open road. (Quran 5:48)
The Koran insists that Muslims should not differentiate among the prophets of God. Each prophet, after all, was sent by God with guidance, and the primary message of each is the same:
Say: We have faith in God, and in that which has been sent down on Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, and Jacob, and the Tribes, and that which was given to Moses and Jesus and the prophets by their Lord. We make no distinction among any of them, and to Him we have submitted. (Quran 2:136; cf. 2:285, 3:84)
The Koran tells us in several verses that the later prophets came to confirm the messages of the earlier prophets:
And when Jesus son of Mary said, "Children of Israel, I am indeed God's messenger to you, confirming the Torah that has gone before me... ."(Quran 61:6)
He has sent down upon thee the Book with the truth, confirming what was before it, and He sent down the Torah and the Gospel aforetime, as guidance to the people. (Quran 3:3)
At the same time, the Koran makes clear that the details of the messages differ. Any distinction that can be made among the messengers has to be made on the basis of the difference in their messages:
And those messengers-some We have preferred above others. Among them was he to whom God spoke, and He raised some in degrees. And We gave Jesus son of Mary the clear explications, and We confirmed him with the Holy Spirit. (Quran 2:253)
And We have preferred some prophets over others, and We gave David the Psalms. (Quran 17:55)
The idea that every messenger comes with a message that is specific to the people to whom he was sent and that differs in details from other messages is deeply rooted in the Islamic consciousness and is reflected in the titles that are customarily given to the great messengers in Islamic texts. Each title designates the special quality of the messenger that distinguishes him from other messengers. Thus, one of the verses just quoted refers to him "to whom God spoke." Most commentators think that this is a reference to Moses, to whom Islamic sources give the title kalim (speaking companion), because God spoke to him from the burning bush without the intermediary of Gabriel, and because the Koran says, "And unto Moses We spoke directly" (Quran 4:164). But the commentators add that it may also refer to Adam, to whom God spoke in the Garden, and to Muhammad, to whom God spoke during Muhammad's ascent to God (the mir'aj). In a similar way, Jesus is usually called God's "spirit," and Abraham his "close friend" (khalil).
In Islamic countries, especially among people untouched by modern education, there is a common belief that all religions accept the first Shahadah, but that each religion has a specific second Shahadah that differs from that of the Muslims. Thus it is thought that the Christians say, 'There is no god but God and Jesus is the spirit of God," while the Jews say, 'There is no god but God and Moses is God's speaking companion."
The Koran recognizes explicitly that, although the first Shahadah never changes, the domain covered by the second Shahadah differs from message to message. Hence, all the laws that are proper to Jews, for example, are not necessarily proper for Christians, nor do the rulings of the Muslim Shariah have any universality (despite the claims of some Muslims). For example, in the following verse, God explains that the Jews have prohibitions that do not apply to Muslims:
And to the Jewry We have forbidden every beast with claws; and of oxen and sheep We have forbidden them the fat of them, save what their backs carry, or their entrails, or what is mingled with the bone. (Quran 6:145)
Similarly, the Koran places the following words, which are directed at the Children of Israel, in Jesus' mouth, thus indicating that his Shariah differs from that of Moses.
[I have been sent] to confirm the truth of the Torah that is before me, and to make lawful to you certain things that before were forbidden unto you. (Quran 3:50)
An often recited prayer at the end of Sura 2 of the Koran says, "Our Lord ..., charge us not with a burden such as Thou didst lay upon those before us" (Quran 2:286). The commentators say that this refers to the Torah, which is a heavy burden, in contrast to the Muslim Shariah, which, in the words of a hadith, is "easy, congenial" (sahl samh).
One of the most delightful expressions of the differing messages entrusted to the prophets is found in the standard accounts of the Prophet's ascent to God, the mi'raj. Muhammad met a number of prophets on his way up through the heavens. When he met God, God gave him instructions for his community. On the way back down, Muhammad stopped in each heaven to bid farewell to the prophets. In the sixth heaven, right below the seventh, he met Moses. Moses asked him what sort of acts of worship God had given him for his community. He replied that God had given him fifty salats per day. Moses told him that he had better go back and ask God to lighten the burden. He knew from sorry experience that the people would not be able to carry out such difficult instructions. The Prophet continues:
I went back, and when He had reduced them by ten, I returned to Moses. Moses said the same as before, so I went back, and when He had reduced them by ten more, I returned to Moses....
Finally, after Muhammad had moved back and forth between God and Moses several times, God reduced the salats to five. Moses then said to Muhammad:
Your people are not capable of observing five salats. I have tested people before your time and have labored earnestly to prevail over the Children of Israel. So go back to your Lord and ask Him to make things lighter for your people.
But by this point, the Prophet was too embarrassed to continue asking for reductions. Hence he said: "I have asked my Lord till I am ashamed, but now I am satisfied and I submit."
Nowadays, discussion of Islamic teachings about prophecy can quickly raise emotions among Muslims. Probably the main reason for this is that in many Islamic countries, religion plays a far greater role in daily life than it does in Europe and America. Hence, generally speaking, political positions are posed in religious terms, and opposition to the policies of other countries can take the form of criticism of other religions.
A second factor that helps keep emotions high in discussions of prophecy is that modernized Muslims commonly take the attitude - as do many people in the West as well - that it is not they who are at fault. Shortcomings must belong to other people, and so whatever the problem may be, the blame must lie in the opponent's court. This attitude is common throughout the world. For those who recognize the truth of myth, it is highly significant that Iblis was the first person to put the blame in the other's court. It is he who said, "Now, because You have led me astray . . ." (Quran 7:16). If people followed the example of Adam and Eve, they would look more closely at themselves and find room to recognize that "We have wronged ourselves" (Quran 7:23).
Do not think that Iblis's position is found only in politics. It is an everyday reality for all of us. For example, think about the way in which students react when they receive their grades. It is not uncommon to hear someone say, "I got an A in physics, but that lousy English teacher gave me a C-." This is Iblis's reaction-the light is mine, but he led me astray. I did good, but any evil is someone else's fault. The reaction of Adam and Eve would be the following: "How kind of that physics teacher to give me an A, but I really messed up in English and received a C-, so I will have to work much harder to make up for my own shortcomings."
In short, in the contemporary political situation, ideology is often posed in terms of the war of good against evil. In such a situation, those who would stress the universality of the Koranic message rarely meet with much success. It is too easy to think that the other guy is at fault and we are fine. And in order to think that way, it is necessary to forget that God's mercy extends to all creatures. If people did remember that God's mercy takes precedence over his wrath, they might have to start searching for faults in themselves and to leave the others to God. They might have to accept that the C- was a gift and that they should have flunked.
Excerpted from the book "The Vision of Islam" by Sachiko Murata and William C. Chittick. Please Click on image below to buy this book.