Characteristics Of Prophets
This article covers the characteristics of prophets.
Total Dependency on Revelation and Submission to God
Although every Prophet was intelligent and endowed with a comprehensive understanding and a pure soul, these play no role in God’s choice of a Prophet. Most Prophets, including Prophet Muhammad, were unlettered and therefore taught by God. Prophet Muhammad, despite his illiteracy, was blessed with a knowledge of the past and the future, and insight into every branch of knowledge. He did not attend any school or have any human teachers, yet even his enemies admitted (and still do) that he displayed perfect justice in family affairs, perfect competency in state administration, and perfect command of armies.
God specially brought up prophets. To cite an example, the Last Prophet recalled: “I intended twice in my childhood to attend a wedding ceremony. On both occasions, I was overpowered by sleep halfway [and thus was protected against any sin I would later prohibit]”1; and “While repairing the Ka‘ba, prior to my Prophethood, I was carrying stones. As everyone did, I wrapped my garment’s lower part over my shoulder to avoid injury. Part of my thigh was left uncovered. All of a sudden, the angel I had seen several times in my childhood appeared to me in all his majesty. I fell down and fainted. That was the first and last time I uncovered any part of my body that God ordered to be covered.”2
Prophets were protected by God against all sins, for they were created for a special purpose. They were protected from going astray, for even a minor deviation could result in humanity’s almost complete deviation.
Prophethood is distinguished by Divine Revelation:
And thus have We revealed to you a spirit of Our command. You would not have known what the Book was, and what faith was. But We have made it a light whereby We guide whom We will of Our servants. And you, surely you guide unto a straight path. (42:52)
As a result, Prophets never spoke on their own accord: Nor does he speak of (his own) desire. It is naught but a Revelation revealed (53:3-4).
Prophet Muhammad, particularly when asked about the essentials of belief, would wait for Revelation. Sometimes the polytheists asked him to alter the Qur’an. But as it is a Divine Scripture whose wording and meaning belong completely to God, he would reply, as instructed by God: Say: “It is not for me to alter it of my own accord. I follow nothing, except what is revealed to me” (10:15).
Prophets submitted themselves wholly to God and fulfilled their mission solely because God commanded them to. They never compromised or deviated from their way in order to achieve success. When confronted with threats or seductive offers, they replied with words similar to those of the Prophet: “If you were even to put the sun in my right hand, and the moon in the left, I will never give up preaching my cause.” He knew that the Qur’an is the Word of God, and so bore all hardship and opposition.3
Trustworthiness and Asking No Wage
Prophets were completely trustworthy and asked no wage for their services. This very important characteristic is mentioned five times in Surat al-Shu‘ara’. All Prophets said the same thing:
“I am for you a trustworthy Messenger, so serve you God, and obey you me. I ask of you no wage for this; my wage falls only upon the Lord of the Worlds” (26:107-9, 125-27, 143-45, 162-64, 178-80).
Among his own people, Prophet Muhammad was famous for his trustworthiness even before his proclamation of Prophethood. He was known as al-Amin (the Trustworthy). Like his predecessors, he asked no wage for calling to God.
Prophets never thought of material gain, spiritual reward, or even Paradise—they strove only for God’s good pleasure and to see humanity guided to the truth. Prophet Muhammad was the foremost in this respect. As he devoted his life to humanity’s welfare in this world, he will do so in the Place of Gathering. While everybody else will care only about themselves, he will prostrate before God, pray for the Muslims’ salvation, and intercede with God on behalf of others.4
Those who intend to spread the perennial values of Islam should follow these practices. Any message based on an impure intention, regardless of eloquence, will have no effect on people. This point is frequently emphasized in the Qur’an:
Follow those who ask of you no wage, and are themselves rightly guided (36:21).
Imam Busiri expresses the altruism, sincerity, and patience of God’s Messenger in vivid language: “Mountains desired to run on his either side in heaps of gold, but he refused.” The Messenger once said: “A day comes when I am hungry so as to endure it with patience; on another day I am full to praise my Lord, acquiring thus the reward of both patience and praising.”
‘A’isha reported that sometimes no food was cooked for four successive days in their house.5 Abu Hurayra also reports: “Once I went into the Prophet’s room. He was praying while seated and groaning. I asked him if he was ill. He replied that he was too hungry to stand. I began to sob bitterly, but he stopped me, saying: “Don’t cry, for one who endures hunger here will be safe from God’s torment in the next.”6
One day he told Gabriel: “It has been several days since someone has lit a fire to cook food in the house of Muhammad’s family.” An angel appeared and asked: “O Messenger of God, God greets you and asks if you would like to be a Prophet–king or a Prophet–slave?” He turned to Gabriel, who recommended humility. The Prophet raised his voice and replied: “I wish to be a Prophet–slave, who entreats God in hunger one day and thanks to Him in satisfaction the next.”7
God’s Messenger used to eat with slaves and servants. Once a woman saw him eating and remarked: “He’s eating as if he were a slave.” God’s Messenger responded: “Could there be a better slave than me? I am a slave of God.”8
God’s Messenger is, by virtue of being a slave of God, our master and that of creation, as eloquently stated by Galip Dede:
An exalted king, the King of the Messengers, O my Master.
You are an endless source of help for the helpless, O my Master.
God honored you by swearing by your life in the Qur’an, O my Master.
In the Divine Presence, you are the greatest, O my Master.
You are the beloved, lauded and praised one of God, O my Master.
Our “eternal” king you are, sent to us by God, O my Master.
Another indispensable characteristic is sincerity, which in this context means “purity of intention, to do everything solely for the sake of God.” We are told to worship God sincerely:
They were commanded only to serve God, making the religion His sincerely, people of pure faith, and to perform the prayer, and pay the alms (98:5).
God also mentions sincerity as the foremost attribute of the Prophets: And mention Moses in the Book;
he was made sincere, and he was a Messenger, a Prophet (19:51).
We worship God only because we are His servants and He has told us to do so. Obeying Him allows us to secure His approval and be rewarded in the Hereafter. Said Nursi, the great twentieth-century Turkish thinker, said: “Do what you do only for God’s sake, start for God’s sake, work for God’s sake, and act within the sphere of God’s good approval.”9
God’s Last Prophet worshiped God so sincerely that people could say: “No one can remain as humble as he was at the beginning of his career or quest after attaining its height. Prophet Muhammad was an exception to this.” He is so great and sublime that we still stand out of respect for him, although he used to warn his Companions: “When I come upon you, don’t stand up as the Persians do (for their elders).”10 Although his Companions had complete respect for him, he considered himself a poor slave of God. On the day he conquered Makka, he was the same as when he humbly had begun his mission. At the outset of his mission, he would sit and eat with the poor and slaves. As he entered Makka in triumph, he rode a mule in such deep submission and humility before God that his forehead touched its pack-saddle. He was prostrating before God and taking refuge in Him from being a tyrannical, haughty conqueror.
God’s Messenger had one intention: to please God and worship Him sincerely. He worshiped Him at a level of perfect goodness and sincerity, as he himself stated in a famous Tradition: “Perfect goodness or virtue is to worship God as if you were seeing Him, and while you see Him not, yet truly He sees you.”11
Calling People wisely and With Kindness
Another attribute of the Prophets is calling people to the way of God with wisdom and fair exhortation. They never resorted to demagogy and dialectics, but acted and spoke with wisdom. God ordered His Last and Greatest Messenger:
Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and reason with them in the best way (16:125).
People are more than just minds or hearts. We are complex beings with many faculties, including the mind, intellect, heart, and soul. All of our faculties, even the innermost ones, require satisfaction. The Prophets addressed all of them.
Those taught by the Prophets acquired certainty, and their view of things differed from those with limited external sight and devoid of insight and spiritual vision. Their conviction of religious truths was unshakable, and they were continually fed with Divine Revelation. They combined speech with action, knowledge with practice, and action with contemplation. ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, among others, would say: “If the veil of the Unseen were lifted up, my certainty would not increase.”12 There was no further degree of certainty left for them to attain.
The education is given by the Prophets to their disciples, or the function of the Prophets, is described precisely in the Qur’an:
We have sent among you, of yourselves, a Messenger, to recite Our signs to you and to purify you, and to teach you the Book and Wisdom, and to teach you what you know not. (2:151)
Calling Humanity to God’s Unity
The cornerstone of the Prophetic mission was to preach Divine Unity. All Prophets concentrated on this basic principle:
O my people, serve God: You have no god other than He (11:84).
God has sent at least one Prophet to every people. The fact that all of them, regardless of time or place, agree on one basic principle shows that they did not speak or act on their own; rather, they did no more than teaching the Message received from God. Philosophers and thinkers, no matter how great they may be, disagree among themselves because they depend on their own intellect and findings. Frequently, the same philosophical or sociological school contains different opinions.
Such a disagreement was out of the question among the Prophets, and this is another evidence that they were taught by a Single, Eternal Teacher—God—and not guided by defective human reasoning. Such unity of belief is also strong evidence of Divine Unity, the fundamental principle of their mission, as declared by Prophet Muhammad: “The most meritorious of the words spoken by me and the Prophets before me is:
‘There is no god but God, He is One, having no partners.’”13
By M. Fethullah Gulen
1 Ibn Kathir, Al-Bidaya, 2:350.
2 Bukhari, “Hajj,” 42; Ibn Kathir, Al-Bidaya, 2:350.
3 Ibn Hisham, Sira, 2:285.
4 Bukhari, “Tawhid,” 36; Muslim, “Iman,” 326.
5 Bukhari, “Riqaq,” 17; Muslim, “Zuhd,” 28.
6 Muttaqi al-Hindi, Kanz al-‘Ummal, 7:199.
7 Ibn Hanbal, 2:231; Haythami, Majma‘ al-Zawa’id, 9:18-19.
8 Haythami, 9:21.
9 Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, The Words, “The First Word,” 5.
10 Abu Dawud, “Adab,” 152; Ibn Hanbal, 5:253.
11 Bukhari, “Iman,” 47; Muslim, “Iman,” 5:7.
12 ‘Ali al-Qari, Al-Asrar al-Marfu‘a, 286.
13 Imam Malik, Muwatta, “Hajj,” 246; Hindi, Kanz al-‘Ummal, 5:73.