What is the Meaning of Prophethood and its Function?
God has created no community of beings in the world without a purpose and left them without a guide or leader. It is inconceivable that God Almighty, Who has not left bees without a queen, ants without a leader, and birds and fish without a guide, has left humanity without Prophets to guide them to both spiritual and intellectual and material perfection.
Although man is capable of finding God by reflecting upon natural phenomena, without a Prophet, he is unable to discover the purpose of his creation, from where he comes and what his final destination is in life, and how he should worship his Creator. The Prophets also taught people the meaning of creation and the truth of things and unveiled the mysteries behind both historical and natural events. Again, they instructed people in the relations between man and the universe and between the Divine Scriptures and the universe. But for the Prophets, mankind would not have been able to achieve any scientific development. For, although those who adopt evolutionary approaches in explaining historical events tend to attribute everything to chance and fully deterministic evolution, it was again the Prophets who guided men in intellectual and therefore scientific illumination. For this reason, traditionally, farmers have accepted the Prophet Adam as their first master, tailors, the Prophet Enoch, ship-makers and sailors, the Prophet Noah, watch or clock-makers, the Prophet Joseph, and so on. Also, through the miracles they worked, the Prophets marked the final points in scientific and technological advances and urged people to them.
Both through their personal conduct and through the heavenly religions and Scriptures they conveyed to people, the Prophets have also guided people to develop their inborn capacities and directed them towards the purpose of their creation. Had it not been for the Prophets, man—this fruit of the tree of creation—would be left to decay.
Man needs justice in social life as much as he needs inner peace in his private life. It was again the Prophets who taught people the laws of life and established the rules of a perfect social life on the basis of justice.
Prophethood is the highest rank, the highest honor, possible. It proves the superiority of a man’s inner being to that of others. A prophet is like a branch which arches out from the Divine to the human realm. He is the very heart and tongue of creation. He does not only possess what we call a supreme intellect, which penetrates into the reality of things and events, as is the case with geniuses, but also he is an ideal being, all of whose faculties are harmoniously excellent and active, and who strives and progresses steadily towards heaven, who awaits Divine inspiration for the solutions to the problems he meets, and who is considered to be the connecting point between the things and beings here and the Beyond. His body is subject to and follows his heart—figuratively, the seat of spiritual intellect; his mind likewise is subject to and follows his heart. His perceptions and reflections are always directed to the Names and Attributes of God. He goes to what he perceives; he arrives at the destination he aims for.
A prophet’s perception, developed to the full—seeing, hearing and thus knowing—surpasses that of ordinary people. Nor can his power of perception or understanding be expressed or explained in terms of different wavelengths of light or sound, or in some other such way. It is not within an ordinary man’s power and means to acquire a prophet’s knowledge, which goes beyond the limits of ordinary human nature. However intently deployed, our human powers of analysis and synthesis, can never attain to a prophet’s knowledge.
Through the prophets, man has been able to gain an insight into creation, and thus to find out and to know the meaning of it. But for the prophets and their teachings, man would neither have seen nor understood the true nature and meaning of things and events, nor therefore could he have entered into and coped with what is in and around him.
In addition to conveying the Divine message and guidance, the prophets have also taught man something of God and His Names and Attributes. Their first mission was to teach the reality of this life, its true purpose and meaning. Since God is beyond man’s perception and comprehension, it fell to the prophets to be the most obedient, careful, conscious, self-disciplined of people whilst they were performing their tasks. If there had not been any clear utterances by the prophets about the Creator, the All-Mighty, the All-Knowing, who governs and sustains and cherishes the whole creation, from the smallest atom to the largest nebula, it would never have been possible for man to think or know or say anything right and proper about God.
Everything in the universe tries to, as it were, exhibit the Names and Attributes of the All-Mighty, All-Encompassing Creator. In the same way, the prophets have taken note of, affirmed and been faithful to, the subtle, mysterious relation between God and His Names and Attributes. Their duty was to know and speak about God. Therefore, they entered into the true meaning of things and events, and conveyed it directly and sincerely to their fellow human beings.
Just as, even in the smallest exhibitions, public fairs and the like events, we benefit from a guide or usher, who directs our steps and prepares our attention, so also with the magnificent exhibition of this creation, we are in need of guides who draw attention to the reality of it, direct us towards its purpose and meaning, and show us our way in it.
Is it possible that the One who, in order to make Himself known, ordered this creation, opened to us His works, for our wonder and awe—is it possible that He would not, through some distinguished servants, reveal His names and Attributes to those who long to know Him? If this were so, would it not make His creation a vain work? The Supreme Being who made everything like a tongue and a letter and who revealed His Wisdom and Blessings through such things is absolutely free from vanity and absurdity. Thus, it seems to us, most unlikely that a people in one or other part of the world have been deprived of God’s revelation through His prophets. The Qur’an, indeed, is explicit on this point:
For We assuredly sent amongst every people an Messenger (with the command), ‘Serve God and eschew evil.’ (16:36)
However, mankind forgot the teachings brought by those appointed servants, and over time went astray, sometimes deifying the very men who preached against it, and sank into idolatry.
Throughout the earth there are examples of what man’s imagination has idolized—like the mountain of the gods in ancient Greece or, to this day, the River Ganges in India. Even accepting that there must be a tremendous difference between their first appearance and the actual position now, it is quite impossible to understand the conditions that raised Confucius in China and Brahman and Buddha in India. It is equally difficult to guess what they originally taught, or to know how far time and human degeneration have corrupted the first message.
If the Qur’an, which eradicates doubts, had not introduced Jesus Christ to us, it would not now be possible to have a true picture of his life and his teaching. For priests have confounded the truth about Jesus Christ with the philosophies and idolatries of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, attributing divinity to man, and anthropomorphizing God.
Perhaps it was one of the conditions of the Roman Empire accepting Christianity as the official, state religion, that some of the festivals, holy days, rites and rituals of the church were derived from or imitate directly, the practices of the ancient Romans, Greeks and certain Asian religions like Manihaism.
Considering what the followers of the earlier religions did to their prophets and to their Books, we may well wonder how many prophets have been treated in the same way by their followers over time? From a reliable Islamic source, there is a hadith which says: ‘a prophet’s disciples will carry out his mission after his death but some of his followers will later upset everything he established’ (Sahih al-Muslim, ‘Fada’il al-Sahaba,’ 210–12; Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 417) This is a most important point. Many of the religions which we now consider false turned to falsehoods, superstitions and legends over time through the deliberate malice of their enemies—despite the fact that, originally, they may have come from the purest, Divine source.
To say that someone is a prophet when he is not is tantamount to kufr (unbelief), just as to refuse to believe in a true prophet is also kufr. On the other hand, if the case of these false religions is similar to that of Christianity, that is, if they were distorted by their followers over time, we should look at those religions with some caution and reserve judgment in some measure. We should consider what Buddhism may have been in its true original; similarly, Brahmanism; or the doctrines attributed to Confucius; or shamanism and other such: it may be that we may find in them some remnant of what they were in their origins.
What they were—whether true or false (we do not know)─is not what they are. Supposing the impossible that their founders returned and saw the religion they originally established, they would not now recognize them.
There have been many religions which have been distorted and altered in the world, and consequently it is essential to accept that the purity of their original foundation. The Qur’an says:
There never was a people without a Warner having lived among them. (35:24)
And We assuredly sent among every people a Messenger. (16:36)
These revelations universally declare that God sent Messengers to every people throughout the world. The names of some of these are known to us through the Qur’an, but there is also a large number whose names have not been made known to us. The names we know are 28 out of 124,000 (or perhaps 224,000); even then we do not know exactly where and when many of them lived.
Essentially we are not bound to know all the past prophets. The Qur’an says:
We did in times past send Messengers before you; of them there are some whose stories We have related to you, and some whose story We have not related to you.
In this way, the Qur’an warns us not to deal with some of those whom it does not mention to us.
Recent studies in comparative religion, philosophy and anthropology, have shown how many communities, living at very great distances from each other, share certain concepts and practices. For example, turning from plural to a singular conception of God; in their supplications in times of exceptional stress seeking refuge only in the One Supreme Being and raising their hands and asking something from Him. There are very many such phenomena which indicate a singular source, a single teaching. (We shall not dwell on this point here; the subject is discussed also in answer to the question (p.68, below), ‘How many prophets have been sent to mankind?’)
If primitive tribes cut off from civilization and the influence of the known prophets, have a sure understanding of the Oneness of God, though they may have little understanding of how to live according to that belief, it must be that, as the Qur’an tells us, every people and nation has had its own Message and Messenger:
For every people is a Messenger. When their Messenger comes, the matter is judged between them with justice, and they are not wronged. (10:47)
By Ali Unal
This article has been adapted from Risale- i Nur Collection by Ali Unal