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PROPHET HOOD. The commonest term for prophet-hood in the Islamic religious vocabulary is nubuwah, from the Arabic root n-b-‘, meaning “elevate” or “announce.” The latter meaning is predominant in the Qur’anic understanding of the prophet, nab!, as “one who announces.” The first meaning is also employed by Islamic religious scholars to express the elevated status of the prophet among humankind or the elevating effect of the prophet’s communication on those who receive it.
The Qur’an uses the term “prophet” generically (pl., nabiyun or anbiya’) of persons called by God to communicate a divinely given message to humankind (nas, Qur’an 16.44) and to the unseen world of the spirits (jinn, 46.29). A second term for prophet is rasul (pl., rusul), derived from the Arabic root r-s-l meaning “send.” Whereas nabi expresses the communicative nature of prophethood, rasul emphasizes its emissary function of delivering the message in the language of a particular community (14.4, 16.36). Distinguishing these roles, which the Qur’an often invests in a single person, Muslim exegetes have considered the nabi to be a recipient of divine revelation in the form of general moral teaching, exemplified in the prophet’s own life; rasul denotes a prophet whose revelation contains God’s specific commands and prohibitions in the form of an ethical code (shad `ah. recorded in the scriptural form of a book (kitab) as guidance (hudd) for a particular community in this world (5.48) and as the standard by which its members will be judged on the last day (10.47).
The Qur’an presents belief in prophethood as the corollary of faith in God, the two being linked in the Muslim testimony of faith (Shahadah): “I testify that there is no god but God; I testify that Muhammad is the messenger (rasul) of God.” Islamic religious thought deals extensively with prophethood as a mercy of God toward creation, given without obligation as the noblest expression of God’s consistent guidance of humankind to the good. Prophethood meets an absolute human need and provides the means by which humans can respond individually and collectively to God in an active faith that “enjoins right conduct and forbids indecency” (3.104). The prophet is a witness (shahid) of God’s unity (tawhid), an announcer (mubashshir) of the righteous conduct (din) God wills for this world, and the warner (nadhir) of God’s judgment on the last day. The messenger also has the eschatological role of being witness on the day of judgment in respect of the human community to which he was sent.
God’s free initiative in revelation entails God’s liberty to have chosen for prophetic responsibility any human being up to the prophet Muhammad, whom the Qur’an designates “the Seal of the Prophets” (33.40). Rationality of mind and sincerity of heart were the only human qualifications on which Muslim scholars insisted. To such men-and, some scholars such as Ibn Hazm argued, such women-God communicated through wahy, the general Qur’anic term for “revelation” (42.51). Wahy embraces two dimensions: that of God’s general inspiration (ilham) of rational and nonrational creatures; more precisely, it signifies special revelation that God caused to descend (tanzil) upon those God chose as prophets. These persons remain fully human but are elevated (note the first meaning of the Arabic root n-b-‘) to the highest degree of intellectual and moral excellence, superior even to the angels, as exemplified especially in the character of the prophet Muhammad (68.4).
The perfection of the prophets is expressed in the Islamic doctrine of infallibility (`ismah), which, though nowhere explicit in the Qur’an, was elaborated in the classical creeds of Islam. Infallibility applied to four defining attributes of prophethood: fidelity (amanah) to divine commands, veracity (sidq) respecting what God gave them to communicate, sagacity (fatanah) in understanding its meaning, and the transmission (tabligh) of the message itself. Classical Islam saw miracle (mu`jizah) as the external evidence of the elevated human qualities of prophets. In the prophet Muhammad’s case, however, the sole miracle the Qur’an admits is that of the Qur’an itself, an inimitable scripture in perfect Arabic that no human, least of all one presumed unlettered (ummi, 7.157), could emulate (2.23-24).
The Qur’anic concept of prophethood turns on the twin principles of plurality and unity. The Qur’an names many though not all prophets (40.78); Adam is implied to be the first (2.37) and Muhammad is designated as the last (33.40). While nowhere enumerating the prophets, the Qur’an teaches that every human community received its messenger in the medium of its own language (16.36). Equally it insists that, though many, the prophets were united in a single community of truth (23.52). Coming from the one and only God, the essence of revelation to all prophets was one and the same. The Qur’an symbolizes the unity of prophethood in the concept of a prehistorical covenant (mithdq) that God struck with the prophets before their human creation, that they would serve no god but God (3.81, 33-7). Historical prophethood is seen to be reiterative of this primordial covenant, elaborated in terms of moral teaching. Prophets therefore did not bring “new” revelations, nor was prophethood understood as a progressive unfolding of God’s will. By this same covenant, however, the Qur’an attests that all the prophets looked forward to the coming of Muhammad as the final messenger who would confirm all that had been revealed to them (3.81) and universalize prophethood for the remainder of human history (21.107).
Prophethood is therefore always defined in terms of Muhammad’s experience, recorded in the traditions (hadith). The wahy descended on him as “a heavy word,” which he heard as a reverberating bell, causing him profuse sweating. Muhammad also testified to the visual experience of seeing the angel Gabriel, who transmitted the revelation (2.97). Audition (sam`) and vision (ru’yd) testify to an invasive power taking control of the human senses. It was in this state that Muhammad is believed to have repeated the words dictated by the angel as a recitation (qur’an), thus reproducing the word of God.
Classical Islam favored an eschatological emphasis on the role of the prophet, particularly Muhammad, as intercessor (shafi`) on behalf of believers-a doctrine which finds ambiguous sanctuary in the Qur’an (10.3). Muhammad’s personal conduct (sunnah) was also emulated by pious Muslims as a way of expressing love for God, with the promised reward of God’s reciprocal forgiveness (3.31). Resurgent Islam is today committed to the struggle of actualizing the content of Muhammad’s nubuwah in renewed Islamic community. Prophecy in this perspective is seen to be fulfilled in the political realm, as society conforms to the will of God.
[See also Muhammad, article on Role of the Prophet in Muslim Thought and Practice; Revelation; Theology.]
BIBLIOGRAPHY
`Abduh, Muhammad. The Theology of Unity. Translated by Ishaq Musa’ad and Kenneth Cragg. London, 1966. English translation of the treatise of the Egyptian Muslim modernist, Muhammad `Abduh (d. 1905), entitled Risalat al-tawhid, containing an extended discussion of prophethood.
Gardet, Louis. Islam: Religion et communaute. Paris, 1967. Concise survey of major trends in classical Islamic religious thought. Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Ideals and Realities of Islam. London, 1966. Perceptive restatement of classical Islamic views of the fundamentals of the faith.
Rahman, Fazlur. Prophecy in Islam: Philosophy and Orthodoxy. London, 1958. Brilliant account of classical Islamic debates between theologians and philosophers about the nature of prophecy and its relationship to human intellect.
Tabataba’i, Muhammad Husayn. Shiite Islam. Translated from Persian and edited with an introduction and notes by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Albany, N.Y., 1975. Modern Shi’i statement of faith, with a useful discussion of prophethood in Shi’i perspective.
Watt, W. Montgomery. Islamic Revelation in the Modern World. Edinburgh, 1969. Careful account of classical Islamic concepts of revelation and prophethood, with comparative Christian and psychoanalytic perspectives.
Wensinck, A. J. The Muslim Creed: Its Genesis and Historical Development (1932). London, 1965. History of the development of Islamic religious thought.
DAVID A. KERR

Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/prophet-hood/
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  • writerPosted On: June 15, 2017
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