Why Prophets Are Sent
This article helps us understand why prophets are sent.
To Illuminate Humanity’s way
Today, our greatest problem is that many do not recognize Prophet Muhammad and that others neglect or refuse to follow his way. God sent him, as He sent all previous Prophets, to illuminate our way:
God was gracious to the believers when He raised up among them a Messenger from themselves who recites to them the verses (of His Book) and shows them His signs [in their selves and in the universe], purifies them [of their sins and deviations], and instructs them in the Book and the Wisdom. They were evidently in manifest misguidance before. (3:164)
God sent Messengers to guide people to the truth and so they could be purified of sin. Those who were enlightened by the Messengers found the way to the Divine Presence and attained the highest rank of humanity. In the words of Ibrahim Haqqi: “God declared that He could not be contained by the Heavens and Earth. He can be known and reached only through hearts.” This is why Messengers led humanity to the knowledge of God.
Those who follow this guidance are touched by Him in their innermost selves, whether it is called heart, soul, or conscience, for only that can have true knowledge of God. Minds cannot comprehend Him, and philosophy cannot reach Him. Therefore, the Prophets purified souls so they could be mirrors in which God might manifest Himself. Prophet Muhammad left us the Qur’an and Sunnah to show us how to live in a way that fulfills the purpose for which the Prophets were sent.
Here, it is necessary to emphasize three points.
First, Prophets were not ordinary men; rather, they were chosen men through whom God manifested Himself. God chose them and paid great attention to their upbringing so that they always would seek to gain His approval. Like his predecessors, Prophet Muhammad always pursued God’s approval and good pleasure. His last words were: “To Rafiq al-A‘la (the Highest Abode).” His wife ‘A’isha gives the following account of his last moments:
I was with him during his last moments. Whenever he became ill, he would ask me to pray for him and, expecting my prayer to be accepted through the blessing of his auspicious hand, I held his hand and prayed. During his last illness, I wanted to do the same and pray, when he suddenly withdrew his hand and said: “To Rafiq al-A‘la.”1
Second, the world is never left devoid of successors who devote their lives to preaching and teaching the truth. They should seek what the Prophets sought, preach what the Prophets preached, and strictly follow the Prophets in enjoining and spreading good and discouraging and forbidding evil.
Third, death is not total annihilation, but rather a changing of worlds without completely breaking away from this one. In the case of martyrs, whose spiritual degree is lower than a Prophet’s, the Qur’an says: Say not of those slain in God’s way: “They are dead,” they are alive but you understand not (2:154). So we cannot say that Prophets are dead. Thus Prophet Muhammad did not die as we understand this word; he only changed places and passed into another dimension or degree of life.
Those who can penetrate other dimensions with their inner faculties experience different dimensions of time and space, see different creatures, and look into things and events from different viewpoints. We consider things and events according to the stream in which we are.
Those who rise high enough to see all dimensions of this stream have the scope of their sight enlarged as they ascend higher. Thus their capacity and judgment when considering matters are more comprehensive. Such people might be sitting with us and, at the same time, in the presence of God’s Messenger. While praying with us, some may be leading the same prayer in the Hereafter before the angels. There is a particular class of saints called abdal (substitutes). When one dies, he or she is replaced immediately with a new one who can see the Prophet whenever they wish. Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, a sixteenth-century scholar, once said: “I have seen God’s Messenger 28 times while awake.”
To Guide People To The Service of God
God declared in the Qur’an:
I have not created jinn and humanity except to serve me (51:56).
We were not created only to eat, drink, and reproduce; these are natural facts of our life and natural needs. Our main purpose is to recognize and serve God. All Prophets were sent to show us how to do this:
We never sent a Messenger before you except that We revealed to him: “There is no god but I, so serve Me” (21:25), and:
We sent forth among every nation a Messenger, saying: “Serve God, and eschew taghut [idols and tyrants, Satan and his followers].” Then some of them God guided and some were justly disposed to misguidance. (16:36)
God sent Prophets to guide us to His service. Their missions were the same. However, whereas the earlier Prophets were sent to their own people and for a set period, Prophet Muhammad was sent as a mercy to humanity and jinn, and for all time.
According to an authentic narration, Ibn Mas‘ud reports the Prophet’s preaching to the jinn:
Once God’s Messenger and I went somewhere. He drew a circle around me and told me not to leave it until he returned. He left, and after a while, some tumult broke out on the other side. I wondered whether something had happened to him, but as he had told me to stay put until he returned, I did so. Sometime later, he returned and I asked him about the uproar. He replied: “The jinn have believed and taken the oath of allegiance to me. When some of them insisted on unbelief, fighting broke out. The uproar you heard was the fighting. This implies that my life is about to end.”2
God’s Messenger used this last sentence to indicate that he had been sent to open the way to the guidance of humanity and jinn. Once this had been done, there would be no reason for him to live, for he would have nothing more to do. This also implies that believers should never neglect their essential duties here, and should pray, as instructed by God’s Messenger:
“O God, make me die if death is good for me; or else, make me live as long as living is good for me!”3
To Teach People God’s Laws
Another purpose for sending Prophets is to reveal Divine Commandments (i.e., the five daily prayers, fasting Ramadan, paying zakat, and not indulging in any illicit sexual relations, alcohol, and gambling). This function is called Messengership. According to the Qur’an: They deliver the Messages of God and fear Him, and do not fear anyone except God (33:39). In addition, God told the Prophet:
O Messenger, deliver that which has been sent down to you from your Lord; for if you do not, you will have not performed His Messengership. God protects you against people; verily God will not guide the people of unbelief. (5:67)
The Messenger was sent to enlighten humanity about all dimensions of human life. Any neglect in delivering God’s Message would amount to leaving humanity in darkness. For this reason, he continually sought unadulterated minds and hearts to which he could impart God’s Message.
God’s Messenger might have talked to people like Abu Bakr and ‘Umar only a few times before they embraced Islam. But when it came to people like Abu Jahl, it was a different story. Each time he met them, he would say: “Proclaim there is no god but God and be saved.” He would visit places where people gathered and make the same call. Occasional fairs were held in Makka and such nearby places as ‘Arafat, Mina, Muzdalifah, and ‘Aqabah. He would go to them every year, looking for receptive people.
When the Makkan polytheists’ indifference was replaced with derision and mocking, and then with increasingly unbearable persecution, torture, and boycott, God’s Messenger took Zayd ibn Haritha with him and went to Ta’if. But the people of this city also treated him harshly. The children lined up on either side of the road and threw stones at him. As he was wearing no armor, by the time he had left the town and found a tree under which to rest, he was bleeding profusely. He held up his hands and supplicated:
O God, unto You I complain of my frailty, lack of resources and significance before those people. O Most Merciful of the merciful, You are the Lord of the oppressed and are my Lord. To whom do You abandon me? To that stranger who looks askance and grimaces at me? Or to that enemy to whom You have given mastery over me? If Your indignation is not directed at me, I have no worry. But Your grace is much greater for me to wish for. I seek refuge in the light of Your Countenance, which illumines all darkness and by which the affairs of this life and the Hereafter have been rightly ordered, lest Your wrath alight upon me, or Your indignation descend upon me. I expect Your forgiveness until You are pleased. There is no resource or power but in You.
After saying this, he noticed that a tray had been placed before him. Addas, a Christian slave from Nineveh, had seen God’s Messenger being stoned and tormented from the vineyard in which he was working. Putting some grapes on a tray, he had brought them to him. God’s Messenger said “In the name of God” and began to eat. This surprised Addas, for it was the first time he had heard this phrase among the polytheists. So he asked God’s Messenger who he was and why he had come to Ta’if. Upon hearing the answer, “I am Muhammad, from Makka, the Last Prophet,” he said with tears in his eyes, Addas remarked: “God has made me find you,” and embraced Islam.4
Prophet Muhammad was entirely focused on his mission. As a result, the circle of light around him broadened day by day, and the party of unbelief became more and more frustrated: They desire to extinguish with their mouths God’s light; and God refuses but to perfect His light, though the unbelievers are averse (9:32). When no more could be done in Makka, he emigrated to Madina and continued his mission there. Here he faced a different problem: established communities of hostile Jews and, eventually, the fifth column of Hypocrites who would ally themselves with his enemies.
In the twenty-third year of his mission, he began to feel that his life was drawing close to the end. He had performed the minor pilgrimage (‘umrah) a few times, but never the major pilgrimage (hajj). He was able to do this during this final year. Ascending ‘Arafat on the back of his camel, he preached what has become known as the Farewell Sermon. In it, he stressed that feuds and interest-based transactions were forbidden and that women have certain rights, and talked about family ties as well as tribal and national relationships.
A huge, tearful congregation listened to him. While speaking, he frequently asked them if he had communicated God’s Message. With each testimony, he raised his index finger toward Heaven and said: “O God, be witness!”5 In deep consciousness of Divine service, he might have thought: “God sent me to perform the duty of Messengership. Just as these people bore witness that I fulfilled this duty, I hope I may be regarded as having truly done it.” He was prepared to meet God in perfect satisfaction.
To Be Examples
Prophets were sent to serve as examples who must be followed consciously. After mentioning the Prophets in Surat al-An‘am, God told His last Messenger: Those are they whom God has guided, so follow their guidance (6:90). In particular, we are told to follow Muhammad’s example: You have a good example in God’s Messenger for whoever hopes for God and the Last Day, and remembers God oft (33:21).
God’s Messenger is our leader. Just as we pray as he prayed, we must strive to live as he lived. Those who followed him during the first Islamic century were real representatives of true Islamic life. God’s Messenger says of them:
Muslim armies will arrive, after me, at the gates of cities. They will be asked: “Did any of you see the Prophet?” The answer will be affirmative, and the gates will be opened for them. Those who succeed them also will perform jihad and be asked: “Did any of you see those who saw the Prophet?” They will reply in the affirmative, and the cities will be conquered by them. As for the third generation, its members will be asked: “Did any of you see those who saw the followers of the Prophet’s Companions?” When this question is answered in the affirmative, their conquest will be successful.6
In another narration by Bukhari and Muslim, God’s Messenger says: “The best of you are those who live in my period, then those who succeed them, and then those who follow them.”7
Those three generations strictly followed the Prophet and, accordingly, were granted great victories throughout the world. Moses had predicted them: “The banners of the holy ones are in their hands.”8 They are the Companions of Prophet Muhammad and those who follow his way in every century.
In a Tradition, although with a weak chain of transmission, God’s Messenger declares: “The pious scholars of my nation resemble the Prophets of the Children of Israel.”9 ‘Umar submitted himself to God so sincerely that, as a servant of God, he was far more effective than had been expected. During his caliphate, Iran, Iraq, and Egypt were conquered. Muslim armies marched throughout a vast area, led by such great commanders as Abu ‘Ubayda ibn al-Jarrah, Shurahbil ibn Hasana, Sa‘d ibn Abi Waqqas, ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, and Yazid ibn Abi Sufyan.
Jerusalem was conquered during ‘Umar’s caliphate. When the Muslims’ supreme commander asked its priests to submit the keys of the city, they answered: “We cannot see among you the man to whom we are to submit the keys.” They had read in their religious books a description of who was qualified to receive the keys.
So the priests and Muslim commanders waited while ‘Umar and his servant were riding a camel, by turns, toward Jerusalem.
Although ‘Umar ruled over vast lands, he did not own a camel. He borrowed one from the state treasury and set out with his servant. When they approached the river Jordan, his waiting commanders on the other side were excited, praying: “O God, let ‘Umar be the one riding when they reach the river, for these Romans are fond of pomp and display. They may not esteem us if they see the caliph pulling a camel ridden by a servant.” But God had destined the latter scenario. When ‘Umar approached, the priests noticed, among other things, several patches on his robe. This was the man described in their books, and so they gave him the keys of Jerusalem.
‘Umar never deviated from the path of God’s Messenger. While on his deathbed, after being fatally stabbed by a Magian slave, he refused food and water because he was too weak. However, he always prayed when it was time to do so, even if it caused his wounds to bleed. He would say: “Those who don’t pray have nothing to do with Islam.”10 An exemplary follower of God’s Messenger, his own example would be followed by succeeding generations.
To Establish Balance
At a time when some people lived in monasteries and others drowned in luxury, Prophet Muhammad came with the Qur’anic instruction:
Seek the Last Abode amidst that which God has given you, and do not forget your portion of the present world (28:77).
All Prophets came to establish balance between the material and spiritual life, reason and soul, this world and the next, and indulgence and abstinence. While we should declare all that God has bestowed on us to show our gratitude and due praise for Him (And as for your Lord’s blessing and bounty, declare it [93:11]), we must not forget that we will have to account for every good we enjoy (Then you shall be questioned that day concerning every good you enjoy [102:8]).
The Prophet inculcated this principle so deeply in his Companions’ hearts that it could be seen in every aspect of their lives. For example, once when breaking fast during Ramadan, Abu Bakr, the first caliph, was offered a glass of cold water. He had just taken a sip when he suddenly burst into tears and stopped drinking. When asked why, he replied: “Once I was with God’s Messenger. He acted as if he were pushing something with his hand and saying to it: ‘Keep away from me!’ I asked him what he was doing, and he replied: ‘The world appeared to me in an ideal form, with all its pomp and luxury. I pushed it away, saying: “Leave me. You can’t seduce me.” It withdrew and said: “I can’t conquer you, but I swear by God I’ll captivate those who come after you.’” After narrating this Tradition, Abu Bakr concluded: “Just now, I thought that the world tempted me with a glass of cold water, and I wept.”11
Abu Bakr and most Companions lived a balanced life, despite the fact that they had every chance to live in comfort.
To Be God’s Witnesses
Prophets also were sent so that people cannot plead ignorance in the Hereafter. Regarding this, the Qur’an says: Messengers bearing good tidings and warning, so that humanity might have no argument against God (4:165).
Humanity, which has followed many so-called guides or leaders only to be led astray, has received true guidance through the Prophets. These servants of God were created for a special mission. Already Prophets in their mothers’ wombs, their births were extraordinary. Their lives resembled a beautiful symphony, perfectly harmonious and balanced. Their words were like sweet melodies that penetrated souls.
All of existence, animate or inanimate, hearkened to them. Trees and rocks would greet Prophet Muhammad, and he would answer them. In his well-known Qasidat al-Bur‘a, Busiri says: “Trees answered his call, prostrating.” When he called them, trees came to him. Both living beings and inanimate objects acquired meaning through his advent, existence became a “cosmos” out of “chaos,” and each thing became a tongue glorifying God with praise:
There is not a thing that does not glorify Him with praise, but you do not understand their glorification (17:44).
The extraordinary harmony in the universe displays God’s Existence and Unity. Nothing is created in vain and without purpose:
Does humanity think it will be left aimless? (75:36).
If the Prophets had not been sent, we might have had an argument against being punished in the Hereafter. But, as the Qur’an states:
We never punish until We have sent a Messenger (17:15),
God sent Prophets so that people could and can distinguish good from evil. Thus, people cannot plead ignorance when they must defend their actions on the Day of Judgment.
By M. Fethullah Gulen
1 Bukhari, “Maghazi,” 78; Muslim, “Salam,” 50,51; Abu Dawud, “Tib,” 19.
2 Tabari, Jami‘ al-Bayan, 24:33; Ibn Hanbal, 1:499.
3 Bukhari, “Marda,” 19; Muslim, “Dhikr,” 10.
4 Ibn Hisham, Sira, 2:60-63; Ibn Kathir, Al-Bidaya, 3:166.
5 Ibn Maja, “Manasik,” 84; Abu Dawud, “Manasik,” 56.
6 Bukhari, “Fada’il al-Ashab,” 1; Muslim, “Fada’il al-Sahaba,” 208-9.
7 Bukhari, “Fada’il al-Ashab,” 1; Muslim, “Fada’il al-Sahaba,” 212.
8 Ibrahim al-Halabi, Sira, 1:218.
9 ‘Ajluni, Kashf al-Khafa’, 2:83.
10 Ibn Sa‘d, Tabaqat, 3:350; Haythami, Majma‘ al-Zawa’id, 1:295.
11 Abu Nu‘aym, Hilyat al-Awliya’ wa Tabaqat al-Asfiya’, 1:30-31.