Mawlana Qasim Nanotwi’s Exegesis of the Phrase “Seal of the Ambiya” in Tahzir al-Naas


Tahzirun Naas is a treatise in the form of a legal response (fatwa) from Mawlana Qasim Nanotwi to a question posed regarding the narration of ‘Abdullah Ibn ‘Abbas (Radhiyallahu anhu) confirming the existence of  Ambiya like the Ambiya on this earth, on six other ‘earths’ (planets). Is this narration authentic? How does acceptance of the narration impact on Rasulullah’s (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam) status as the last and final Nabi? [Tahzir al-Naas min Inkaar Athar ibn ‘Abbas, Mawlana Qasim Nanotwi, Idarat al-‘Aziz Publishers, 2001, p. 40] 

He begins with a lengthy explanation of the term “Seal of the Ambiya” mentioned in the Qur’aan, which he states if fully understood, will assist in answering the question. Then he presents an exegetical dilemma on the interpretation of this phrase in the context of the  Qur’aanic verse. In the understanding of the common people, this simply means the last of a series of Ambiya. However, appearing before or after in the chronological sense, does not of itself confer excellence, for example, Nabi Ibrahim (Alayhis salaam) is superior to many Ambiya who came after him. (ibid. p. 41)  The term “Seal of the Ambiya” must be a term of merit and praise for two reasons:

First, those things which are not of relevance in relation to his Nubuwwat, e.g. physical form, colour, lineage, etc. are not given as titles to him in the Qur’aan, so its mention without merit would be imagined as an “excess” in His (Allah’s) Speech, as there would be no difference whether it is  mentioned or not.

Second, with respect to the people of perfection, like Ambiya and Auliya, titles used for them are for the purpose of lauding them with praise and merit, as is clear from historical writings. Thus the assumption that such titles are without any intent of praise may lead to denigration of  the greatness of Rasulullah (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam). (ibid. p. 42)

An objection to this reasoning is that the term “Seal of the Ambiya” in this meaning (i.e. without intent of praise) is not devoid of purpose and benefit, as Islam, being the final religion, must negate the legitimacy of any false future claimants to Nubuwwat who will be the cause of the misguidance of many. Hence, with this meaning of “the Seal of the Ambiya,” this door of misguidance is closed. (ibid. p. 42)
The (term of) Conjunction  (istidraak) in the Qur’an 33:40 implies that the term “Seal of the Ambiya” affirms Spiritual Fatherhood (as well) 

Mawlana Nanotwi explains that, even then, (i.e. if the only meaning of the term) “Seal of the Ambiya” is “last Nabi chronologically speaking” then this meaning is not free of difficulties. This is because the verse reads: “Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but the Messenger of Allah and the Seal of the Ambiya.” (33:40). The word “but” (laakin) is a conjunction (‘atf) used for istidraak (rectification), that is, to correct (or eliminate) a doubt (shubh) or false assumption that may have been created from the previous sentence. Hence, the sentence that he is “the Messenger of Allah and the Seal of the Ambiya,” corrects a possible misconception that may arise from the sentence, “Muhammad is not the father of any of your men.” (ibid. p. 42)

While the verse clearly negates biological and physical (jismani) fatherhood, the doubt may arise that he does not deserve the respect a father deserves, or that he does not hold the position of a spiritual (ma‘nawi) father to anyone. This erroneous assumption is corrected by the sentence, “but the Messenger of Allah and the Seal of Ambiya.” Thus, by this latter sentence, the doubt that he is not the “father” in any sense of the word is eliminated. Spiritual fatherhood of this Ummah is implicit in the phrase “the Messenger of Allah,” and  that he is the spiritual fatherhood of all previous Ambiya, and by implication of  their peoples, is established by the phrase “the Seal of the Ambiya.” (ibid. p. 57) 

The term “Messenger” implies he is the spiritual father of the Ummah. Mawlana Nanotwi explains this at length in conjunction with the verse of the Qur’an which states, “The Rasool is closer to the believers than themselves.” (33:6) Because our belief is a consequence of his revelation from Allah. Mawlana Nanotwi writes extensively on this point based on linguistic, theological and philological analyses. (ibid. pp. 58-64)

Essential Sealship and its Proofs

In his elaboration, Mawlana Nanotwi explains that the status of the Nubuwwat of Rasulullah (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam) is absolutely independent in that it was not an acquisition from any other Nabi, but was a direct bestowal to him by Allah Ta’ala, while the Nubuwwat of all others  is derived from his Nubuwwat. Therefore, their Nubuwwat and all the excellences of their respective Nubuwwat terminated upon his Nubuwwat. Thus, even in this sense he is the “Seal of the Ambiya.” (ibid. p. 43) Mawlana Nanotwi elaborately substantiates this in three ways:

First, verse 3:81 of the Qur’aan: “[Remember] when We took the covenant of the Ambiya: Indeed, that which I have given to you of the Book and Wisdom, then (when) a Messenger [i.e. Muhammad – Sallallahu alayhi wasallam] confirming what is with you comes to you, believe in him and aid him.” This verse proves that Rasulullah (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam) is the “Nabi of the Ambiya” (Nabi al-Anbiya), hence all the Ambiya are commanded to believe in him and to aid him if he were to appear in their time. Thus, Mawlana Nanotwi concludes that their Nubuwwat is subject to his absolute Nubuwwat. This is also indicated by the hadith which states: “If Musa (Alayhis salaam) was living, he would have had no option but to follow me.”  This is also indicated by the fact that when Nabi ‘Isa (Alaihis salaam) returns to earth, he will be a follower of Rasulullah (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam). In this way, the Nubuwwat of all other Ambiya ends at the Nubuwwat of the Seal of the Ambiya (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam). His Nubuwwat is not an effusion (faydh) of or an acquisition by the medium (bi wasitah) of any other Nubuwwat. On the other hand, the Nubuwwat of all the other Ambiya is an effusion of his Nubuwwat. Hence,  all the excellences of the Ambiya are accumulated in his Nubuwwat and Seal. The hadith, “I was the Seal of the Ambiya by Allah while Aadam was an admixture of clay,” can be understood in this way, that his Nubuwwat was the initial springboard of Nubuwwat from which the other Ambiya acquired their Nubuwwat. (ibid. p. 44)

Second, there are two types of excellences: knowledge and deeds. Four categories of people are praised in the Qur’an: The Ambiya, the Auliya (siddiqeen), the Shuhada (martyrs) and the Saliheen (the pious). (4:69). The first two have excellences in knowledge and the second two in deeds. The Ambiya are the sources of perfection in knowledge and the Auliya are the repositories for this. The Shuhada are the source of perfection in deeds and the pious are the repositories for this. The word nabi is derived from naba’a which means to inform, and siddeeq is derived from saddaqa which means to assent, so the Ambiya are the fountainheads of knowledge and the Auliya are its repositories i.e. those who assent to that knowledge. This is also corroborated by the hadith, “Whatever Allah infused into my breast, I infused into the breast of Abu Bakr,” who is known as “the greatest Siddeeq.”

Here, Mawlana Nanotwi also makes the point that because Nubuwwat is perfection in knowledge and not deeds, apparently (bi-zaahir) a follower’s deeds may become equal to or exceed the deeds of Rasulullah (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam). (ibid. pp. 44-48) The reason he mentions “apparently” or “outwardly” is because this is in terms of the “quantity” and not the quality of deeds. His knowledge is both quantitatively and qualitatively superior.

Although this statement was misused by the detractors (the Qabar Pujaris) of Mawlana Nanotwi to malign him, the very same point was articulated by Imam al-Razi under verse 2:34 of the Qur’an, in which he says, “We do indeed find in the Ummah those who have a longer life and strive more rigorously than Rasulullah (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam).” This statement of fact, that sometimes outwardly a follower performs more good deeds than Rasulullah (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam) was used by al-Razi as a premise in his argument just as it was by Mawlana Nanotwi.  

Mawlana Nanotwi also explains in some detail how martyrdom and piety are perfections in deeds and not knowledge. (pp. 48-49)

The knowledge of Rasulullah (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam) was complete and perfect, while the knowledge of the  other  Ambiya was not as complete and perfect as his. Hence, he said, “I was taught (‘ullimtu),” or “I was given (utitu) the knowledge of the first and the last,” i.e. my knowledge encompasses the spiritual knowledge of all peoples. This is because he is the true knower (‘alim haqiqi) while the knowledge of all other knowers is derived from him. In the same way our knowledge from our sensual faculties combine in our rational soul (nafs natiqah). The senses do not themselves “perceive,” knowledge of the divine and  transcendental realities which combine in Rasulullah (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam) and originate in him, while for everyone else before and after him, it is derived from him. Verse 3:81 of the Qur’an describes Rasulullah (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam) as “confirming all that which is with you [i.e. the Ambiya],”. Here the word ma (that) is general (‘aam), hence it includes all the knowledge in the Scriptures of the Ambiya who  were sent previously. Hence, his absolute knowledge – absolute in the sense that it is not derived from any other person, but was bestowed to him directly by Allah. Absolute knowledge is a necessary corollary of his absolute Nubuwwat since Nubuwwat is perfection in knowledge. Another proof which Mawlana Nanotwi presents for this perfection in knowledge is his greatest miracle, the Qur’aan, which is a Book of knowledge and “an explanation of all things”   (Qur’an 16:89). (ibid. pp. 44-50) 

Third, the hadith, “I was a Nabi while Aadam was between body and spirit” proves that his Nubuwwat was established at a time before the creation of Aadam (Alayhis salaam), and that his Nubuwwat supersedes the Nubuwwat of  all the Ambiya. (ibid. p. 50)

On the basis of these evidences Mawlana Nanotwi concludes that the Nubuwwat of Rasulullah (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam) is absolute, i.e. it is not derived from any other Nabi, while that of other Ambiya is of a secondary nature having been derived from his Nubuwwat. In this manner the term, “the Seal of the Ambiya stated in the Verse” implies that Rasulullah (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam) is the spiritual father of the Ambiya. This meaning is the logical extrapolation of the conjunctive term  laakin (istidraak) in the verse.

Chronological Seal of the Ambiya (Khatm Nubuwwat Zamani) is a Necessary Consequence of the Intrinsic Seal (Khatm Nubuwwat Zaati):

Mawlana Nanotwi explains that the Intrinsic Seal as described above also necessarily implies that he is the last of all the Ambiya chronologically. This is because a hypothetical new nabi will either bring a new shariat, or he will not. In both cases, the Intrinsic Seal of Rasulullah (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam) prevents this from happening.  

In the assumption, if the hypothetical nabi who was commissioned after the Seal of the Ambiya came with a different law, this would mean a nabi of lower status abrogated the law of a Nabi of superior status, and this is contrary to the rule established in verse 2:106 of the Qur’aan which states: “We do not abrogate any revelation, or cause it to be forgotten, except we bring better than it or the like of it.” (ibid. p. 52)

And if he were to bring the same law, this nubuwwat would hold no meaning as Nubuwwat is a perfection in knowledge and all knowledge has culminated in Rasulullah (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam), and his perfect knowledge in the Book that is an “explanation of all things” will forever be preserved (Qur’an 15:9) as opposed to the Ambiya of lesser status – the Ambiya of Bani  Israaeel. The knowledge given to them was corrupted by their followers. Therefore, no new nabi can appear after the Seal of the Ambiya, with or without a new law. Hence, chronological finality (ta’akkhur zamaani) is a necessary consequence of Absolute finality. (ibid. pp. 52-53)

The Multiple Meanings of Finality

Coming first or last (taqaddum/ta’akhkhur) is a generic (jinsi) attribute which manifests in three different ways: chronological (zamaani), spatial (makaani) and positional (rutbi). Seal (khaatam) implies finality. It also bears these three possible meanings. If however only one of the three meanings is meant in the statement “Seal of the Ambiya”,  i.e. it is either khaatam zamaan al-nabiyyin (seal  as applicable to the chronological order  of the Ambiya), or khaatam rutbat al-nabiyyin (seal pertaining to the status of the Ambiya) or khaatam makaan al-nabiyyin (seal of the place of the Ambiya). However, in such generic words, if all meanings can be adopted, then  that is the preferred option. Hence, the preferred view according to Mawlana Nanotwi is that the evident indication (dalala mutabiqi) of the term “the Seal of the Ambiya” is finality in terms of time, place and position. (ibid.p. 53-55)

This is akin to the verse, “Wine, gambling, altars and divining arrows, are only filth (rijs),” (5:90) where “filth” is a general (‘aam) word including physical and spiritual filth since wine is a  physical/material filth and the others  are spiritual filth. In the same way “filth” is inclusive of a number of sub-categories with differing qualities included under its general meaning, “Seal” is inclusive of a number of sub-categories under its general meaning. Finality in merit was explained as Absolute Sealship. Chronological finality means his era came after all the Ambiya. And, spatial finality entails Nubuwwat manifesting on the highest of all earths, which is explained in Ahaadith which reveal that the earth we inhabit is the uppermost of all earths. The other six earths also have Ambiya as confirmed in the narration of Ibn ‘Abbas (Radhiyallahu anhu) in the question. 

Conclusion

The benefit of this interpretation, Mawlana Nanotwi insists, is that it eliminates the ambiguity (istidraak) present in the verse. It explains what Seal means in the best possible way, while not compromising on the chronological finality of Rasulullah (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam). He writes: “Now you can see that if this view is accepted, the conjunction between the two sentences, will become clear, and the meaning of the Seal is established in the best possible way. At the same time Chronological Seal is also not lost.” (ibid. p. 57)

Al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi’s Explanation of the Designation, “Seal of the Ambiya” in Kitaab Khaatm al-Awliya’

Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad ibn ‘Ali ibn al-Hasan al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi (230 – 320H), a great Scholar of Hadith and Usul, author of the well-known work Nawaadir al-Usul, and from the great masters of Tasawwuf, wrote in his work Kitaab Khaatm al-Awliya’:

A speaker said to him [al-Hakim  al-Tirmidhi]: What is the Seal of Nubuwwat?

He replied: The Proof of Allah over His creation, in realisation of His (Exalted is He) statement: “and give good news to those who believe that they have a ‘Pedestal of Truth’ with their Rabb.” (10:2)

So Allah certified for Rasulullah (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam) true servitude. Thus when the Judge appears in His majesty and greatness, on that plane, and He says: “O My bondsmen! I created you only for My obeisance (i.e. to worship Me)! Therefore, worship Me (in total submission)!” There will be no sense or movement left for anyone due to the awe and grandeur of that position, except Muhammad (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam). For by that Pedestal of truth that he has, he proceeds ahead of all the ranks of Ambiya and Rusul (Messengers) because he was (enabled to offer) the highest stage of obeisance to Allah Azza Wa Jal. So Allah will accept it [i.e. obeisance] from him and elevate him to the Praised Platform (al-maqam al-mahmud) near the Divine Kursi. Thereupon, the veil over that Seal will be removed, and Noor will encompass him. The rays of that Seal will shine over him. From his heart to his tongue will spring such praise which none from His creation had hitherto heard. Thus, all the Ambiya will know that Muhammad (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam) was the most knowledgeable of them regarding  Allah Azza Wa Jal. He will be the first converser and the first intercessor, so he will be given the Standard of Praise and Keys of Generosity. The Standard of Praise is for the bulk of the believers while the Keys of Generosity for the Ambiya. The Seal of Nubuwwat has a profound condition and station, more profound than you can bear, so I hope that this much is sufficient for you of its knowledge.”

So Muhammad (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam) becomes the  intercessor for the Ambiya, the Auliya and for others  besides them. Do you not see his (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam) speech regarding the station of the Praised Platform: “Even Ibrahim the Khaleel (Friend) of the Allah, The Merciful, will need me on that day”? That was narrated to me by Jarud from al-Nadr ibn Shumayl from Hisham al-Dastawa’i from Hammad who traced it to Rasulullah (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam). Do you not see that Allah Azza Wa Jal mentioned good news to the believers in many verses but did not mention it except with a condition: “and give good news to those who believe and do righteous deeds”   (2:25) and he mentioned it here without a condition [i.e. without the condition of “righteous works”]: “and give good news to those who believe that they have a Pedestal of Truth with their Rabb,” informing them that the salvation of all on that day is through this Pedestal of Truth [i.e. Rasulullah (Sallallahu alayhi Wasallam)]

As for the proof, it is as though He says to the Ambiya (Alayhimus salaam): “O Assembly of Ambiya! This is Muhammad. He came at the end of time, weak in body, weak in might, weak in livelihood, short in life. He produced what you have seen of true obeisance and copious knowledge. And you in your speech, your lives and your bodies did not produce what he produced.” Thereupon, the veil over the Seal will be removed, and all talk will end, and it will become a proof over all creation; because the object which is sealed is guarded. And thus is Allah’s (Exalted is He) administration over us in this world: when a thing is found with its seal, doubt is removed and argumentation ends amongst people.

So Allah gathered the particles of Nubuwwat for Muhammad (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam) and He perfected them and sealed them with His seal. So neither his self (nafs) nor his enemy can find a path to enter the place of his Nubuwwat due to that Seal. Do you not see the hadith of al-Hasan al-Basri (Rahmatullah alayh) from Anas ibn Malik (Radhiyallahu anhu)? In the hadith of intercession by Rasulullah (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam) that he said: “When they come to Aadam they will ask him to intercede for them by their Rabb. Aadam will say to them: ‘What is your opinion, if your goods were collected in your absence and then sealed [i.e. tied away], will the goods only be approached from the seal? So go to Muhammad for he is the Seal of the Ambiya.’” Its meaning according to us is that Nubuwwat in its entirety has culminated in Muhammad (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam). His heart was made a vessel for the perfection of Nubuwwat and then it was sealed.

Allah did not leave the proof concealed in the inside of his heart for He made it manifest. Between his shoulders  that Seal was conspicuous like the egg of a pigeon. This is for him a great station the story of which is long.
Indeed the one who is blind to this information, he thinks that the interpretation of “the Seal of the Ambiya” is only that he is the last of them in being sent. But what virtue is there in this? And what perfection in knowledge is there in this? This is the interpretation of ignorant people.
Most recite khaatam (seal) with fath on the ta’. As for those from the Salaf who recited with kasr on the ta’ [i.e. as khaatim], its interpretation is that he is a khaatim (sealer) in the sense of the active participle. That is, he sealed Nubuwwat by the Seal which he was given. Confirming this reality is what was narrated in the hadith of the Ascension (Mi‘raj) from the hadith of Abu Ja‘far al-Razi from al-Rabi‘ ibn Abi al-‘Aliyah from what he mentioned regarding the meeting of the Ambiya in the Aqsa Musjid: “So every Nabi (Alayh Salaam) mentioned the favour of Allah upon him, and it was from the speech of Allah’s Messenger (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam) that he said: ‘He made me the Sealer and the Opener.’ So Ibrahim (Alayhis salaam) said: ‘By this, Muhammad is superior to all of you.’”

[Kitaab Khaatm al-Awliya’, Edited by Othman I. Yahya, Imperial Catholique, Beirut, pp. 338-342]

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