[By Muhammad Mustafa A’zami]
From early Islamic history we now turn to face Prophet Muhammad’s (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam) message itself, to its nature as well as to its link with the teachings of earlier prophets. Allah created humanity for the singular purpose of worshipping Him, though He is in no need of anyone’s worship as it adds nothing to His supremacy. The manner of worship was not left to the dictates of individuals or communities, but was explicitly delineated through the dispatching of prophets and messengers. As all messengers received their commission from the same Creator, so the core message remained essentially the same; only some of the practical details were altered. Nooh (Noah), Ibrahim (Abraham), Isma’il (Ishmael), Ya’qub (Jacob), Ishaq (Isaac), Yusuf (Joseph), Dawud (David), Sulaiman (Solomon), ‘Isa (Jesus) (alayhimus salaam) and the countless others He sent forth each bore a message of finite scope, intended for a particular community at a particular time. These were all invariably corrupted or lost, nullifying the message and leaving its followers in the throes of idolatry, superstition, or fabrication. With Prophet Muhammad (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam) however, the time was ripe for a message that would not be hedged in by national boundaries or a particular epoch, a faith that could never be nullified because it was intended for all people and for all time.
Islam refers to the Jews and Christians as ‘people of the Book’. These three religions have a common patriarch in Ibrahim (alayhissalaam), and hypothetically worship the same God that was worshipped by Ibrahim and his sons Isma’il and Ishaq (alayhimus salaam). In discussing these religions we inevitably encounter some common terms, but though the words appear similar to the eyes the underlying implications often are not. For example, the Qur’an states explicitly that everything in the universe has been created for the sole purpose of worshipping Allah, while in the faulty Jewish mythology the entire universe was created for the merit of the children of Israel. In addition the Israelite prophets were false attributed as supposedly indulged in fashioning images of false gods (Aaron) or committed adultery (David), while Islam insists on the virtuous character of all the prophets. Meanwhile, the Christian concept of a trinity-with Jesus being the sole member of the God -head visible within church confines-thoroughly contradicts the precise Oneness of Allah in Islam. We will therefore briefly cover the nature of prophethood in the light of Islam; this will lay the groundwork for the fundamental differences between Islam and the two preceding corrupted monotheistic religions, and define some of the ideals that Allah conveyed to the world at large in His final revelation.
The Creator and some if His Attributes
Clearly we did not create ourselves, as no creature has the power to create itself out of nothingness. Allah asks in the Holy Qur’an:
Were they created of nothing, or were they themselves the creators
All creation therefore emanates from a Creator.
“That is Allah, your Lord! There is no god but He the Creator of all things, so worship Him; He has the power to dispose of all affairs” [Qur’an 52:35].
“We have indeed created man in the best of moulds.” [Qur’an 6:102]
The Creator is unique, nothing has been fashioned into His Image. He is also without kin, the one and only God. [Qur’an 95:4]
“Say: He is Allah, The One; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He did not beget, nor is He begotten; and there isnone like unto Him.” [Qur’an 112:1-4].
He is gracious, merciful and loving. He rewards good deeds most generously if done with sincerity, and accepts repentance from the truly penitent. He forgives as He pleases, but does not forgive those who ascribe other gods besides Him and die unrepentant.
“Say: O my servants who have transgressed against their souls! despair not if the mercy of Allah :for Allah forgives all sins: for He is oft-forgiving, Most Merciful” [Qur’an 39:53].
Allah forgives not that partners should be set up with Him;but He forgives anything else to whom Hepleases; whoever sets up partners with Allah has committed a most heinous sin indeed.” [Qur’an 4:48]
The Purpose Behind Mankind’s Creation Allah created humans solely that they may worship Him.
“I have created jinns and men, only that they may serve Me.” [Qur’an 51:56]
Given that food, water, shelter, reproduction and thousands of other matters are inextricably tied to human survival, Islam has transformed all of these into acts of worship, so long as the intention behind them is to better serve Allah.
The Message of the Prophets
Within mankind, Allah instilled a nature that leads instinctively to His worship alone, provided there is no external interference This is clear from the Hadith of the Prophet, “There is none born but is created to his true nature [Islam]. It is his parents who make him a Jew or a Christian or a Magian … ” [Muslim] . To compensate for such interferences He dispatched messengers from time to time, to displace the webs of idolatry and superstition and guide people to the proper way of worship.
“Nor would We send down Our wrath until We had sent a messenger (to give warning).” [Qur’an 17:15].
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The Creator purged His messengers, paragons of virtue and piety without exception, from all evil. They were model examples of human behaviour, and instructed their respective communities to follow their lead in the worship of Allah. Their core message throughout history was ageless.
“Never did We dispatch a messenger before you without revealing to him this: that there is no god but I ; therefore worship and serve Me.” [Qur’an 21:25].
And the message of all the prophets was,
“So be mindful if Allah (proclaimed the messengers) and obey me.” [Qur’an 26:108]. See also the sarne Sura verses: 110, 126,131,144,150, 163 and 179. This indicates that all the prophets have asked the same from their community.
The concise phrase Laa ilaaha Illallaah (there is no god but Allah) is the core belief uniting all the prophets from Adam to Muhammad (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam; the Qur’an approaches this theme time and again, particularly calling the attention of Jews and Christians to this point.
The Final Messenger
In the arid heat of Makkah, Prophet Ibrahim (alayhissalaam) thought of the nomads who would come to settle in that barren valley and entreated his Creator:
“Our Lord! send amongst them a Messenger if their own who shall rehearse Your Signs to them and instruct them in the Book and Wisdom) and purify them for You are the Exalted in Might the Wise.” [Qur’an 2:129].
And at a fixed time, in the same barren land, Allah planted the fruit of Ibrahim’s (alayhissalaam) supplication in the form of His last messenger to all humanity.
“Muhammad (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam) is not the father of any of your men, but [he is] the Messenger of Allah, and the Seal of the Prophets.” [Qur’an 33:40].
“We have not sent you but [as a messenger] to all mankind, giving them glad tidings and warning them [against sin]; but most people are not aware” [Qur’an 34:28].
“We have not sent you but as a mercy for all worlds.” [Qur’an 21:107].
As Allah Willed it, so it came to be, that an unlettered shepherd should carry the burden of receiving, teaching and disseminating a revelation that was intended to last till the end of history: a heavier responsibility than that shouldered by all previous messengers combined.
Receiving the Revelations
Concerning the revelation of the Qur’an we find verse 2:185,
“The month of Ramadan in which the Qur’an was [first] bestowed from on High as a guidance unto man and a self-evident proof of that guidance…”
And in verse 97:1, “Behold, from on High We bestowed this [divine writ] on the Night of Destiny.”
Over a span of twenty-three years the Qur’an came to be revealed bit-by-bit according to the impending circumstances. Ibn ‘Abbas radhiyallahu anhu (d. 68 A.H.), one of the greatest scholars among the Companions, explains that the Qur’an was sent in its entirety to the lowest heaven of the world (Bait al-‘Izza) in one night, arriving from there to the earth in stages as necessary. (As Suyuti, al-Itqan, 1:117).
The reception of revelation (wahy) is outside the realm of the common person’s experiences. For the previous fourteen centuries no true messenger has existed, nor will there be another, so to understand the phenomenon of walhy we have to depend solely on the reports that come authentically from the Prophet, and from those trustworthy individuals who witnessed him ( There are many events thatcan be described to, but not fully comprehended by, someone whose limited range of experiences gets in the way. An easy example is describing a landscape (let alone its colours!) to a blind person, or chirping of birds to someone who is deaf, They may be able to appreciate some of the description, but not to the full extent of someone blessed with hearing and eyesight. In the same sense, the descriptions of the wahy and how the Prophet felt during its reception are, to the rest of us, matters beyond our full comprehension). “These narrations may perhaps mirror what other prophets experienced as well, in the throes of divine communication.
➡Al-Harith bin Hisham inquired, “O Messenger of Allah, how does the revelation come to you?” He replied, “Sometimes it comes like the ringing of a bell, and that is the hardest on me, then it leaves me and I retain what it said. And sometimes the angel approaches me in human form and speaks to me, and retain what he said.” (Al-Bukhari, Sah’ih, Bad’ al-Wahy:1). ‘A’isha related, “Verily I saw the Prophet when the revelation descended upon him on a day severe with cold, before leaving him. And behold, his brow was streaming with sweat.'” (ibid, Bad’ al-Wahy.1)
➡ Ya’la once told ‘Umar (radhiyallahu anhu) of his desire to observe the Prophet while he was receiving wahy. At the next opportunity ‘Umar (rashiyallahu anhu) called out to him, and he witnessed the Prophet with his face red, breathing with a snore. Then the Prophet appeared relieved [of that burden],” (Muslim, Sahih, Manasik:6).
➡ Zaid bin Thabit (radhiyallahu anhu) stated, “Ibn Umm-Maktum came to the Prophet while he was dictating to me the verse:
‘Not equal are those believers who sit … ‘ [Qur’an 4:95].
On hearing the verse Ibn Umm- Maktum said, ‘O Prophet of Allah, if I had the means I would most certainly have participated in jihad.’ He was a blind man. So Allah revealed [the remainder of the verse] to the Prophet while his thigh was on mine and it became so heavy that I feared my thigh would break.” (Al-Bukhari, Sahih, jihad:30).
Clear physiological changes enmeshed the Prophet during the reception of wahy, but at all other times his manner and speech were normal. He never possessed any control as to when, where, and what the revelations would say, as is evident from numerous incidents. I have chosen the following two examples arbitrarily:
➡In the case of some people slandering his wife ‘A’isha, and accusing her of mischief with a Companion, the Prophet received no immediate revelation. In fact he suffered for an entire month because of these rumours before Allah declared her innocence:
“And why did you not (O people), when you heard (the rumour), say, ‘It is not right of us to speak of this: glory to ‘You (our Lord) this is a most serious slander ” [Qur’an 24:16].
➡Meanwhile, in the case of Ibn Umm-Maktum’s objection on account of his blindness, the Prophet received the revelation instantly:
Not equal are those believers who sit (at home)—excepting those who are disabled and those who strive and fight in the cause of Allah with their goods and their lives.” [Qur’an 4:95].
Also read: Wahy (Divine Revelation) and its True Nature
The Beginning of Wahy and the Miracle of Qur’an
Preparing the future prophet for his role was a gradual process, a time in which puzzling occurrences and visions seemed to percipitate about him, and in which the Archangel Jibrail (alayhis salaam) repeatedly let his presence be known. [Ibn Hajar, Fathul Bari, viii: 716] Appearing before Prophet Muhammad (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam) suddenly one day while he was secluded in a cave Jibrail commanded him to read; he replied that he did not know how to read. The angel repeated his demand thrice, and received the same confused and frightened answer thrice, before revealing to this unsuspecting Prophet the very first verses he was to hear of the Qur’an:
Read! in the name of your Lord and Cherisher, Who created. Created man, out of a leech-like clot. Proclaim! And your Lord is Most Bountiful. He Who taught [the use of the Pen] Taught man that which he knew not.” [Qur’an 96:1-5].
Shaken from this unexpected encounter and carrying this greatest of burdens, Prophet Muhammad (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam) returned trembling to his wife Khadijah and implored her to conceal him, till some measure of calmness had returned to him. As an Arab he was familiar with all sorts of Arabic expressions, with poetry and prose, but nothing bore resemblance to these verses; he had heard something the likes of which he had never heard before. These ineffable Words, this Qur’an, became the first and greatest miracle bestowed upon him. In another time and place Moses had been granted his own miracles-light emanating from his hands, the transformation of his stick into a slithering snake -as signs of his prophethood. Compare that to the subtlety of Muhammad’s case: in the solitude of a mountain cave an angel beckons an unlettered man to read. His miracles included no snakes, no plagues, no curing of lepers or raising of the dead, but Words unlike anything that had ever fallen on human ears.
The Impact of the Prophet’s Recitation on the Polytheists
The passage of time helped to settle the Prophet into his new role, and as he busied himself expounding Islam to his closest companions by day, so Allah encouraged him to recite the Qur’an during the stillness of night.
“O enwrapped one! Keep awake [in prayer] at night all but a small part if one-half thereof or make it a little less than that or add to it [at will]; and [during that time] recite the Qur’an calmly and distinctly, with your mind attuned to its meaning.” [Qur’an 73:1-4].
Let us chronicle the effect of these recitations on the idolaters. Ibn Ishaq writes:
Muhammad bin Muslim bin Shihab az-Zuhri told me that he was informed that Abu Sufyan bin Harb, Abu Jahl bin Hisham, and al-Akhnas bin Shanq bin ‘Amr bin Wahb ath-Thaqafi (an ally of Bani Zuhra), had ventured out by night to eavesdrop on the Prophet as he recited in his house. Each of the three chose an appropriate place, and none knew the exact whereabouts of his comrades. So they passed the night listening to him. At dawn they dispersed and, meeting one another on the way back, each of them chided his companions, “Do not repeat this again, lest one of the simpletons spots you and becomes suspicious“. Then they left, only to return on the second night, eavesdrop again, and chide each other at dawn. When this recurred on the third night, they confronted each other the next morning and said, “We will not leave until we take a solemn oath never to return“. After this oath they dispersed. A few hours later al-Akhnas took his walking stick and, approaching the house of Abu Sufyan, inquired his opinion as to what they had heard from the Prophet. He replied, “By God, I heard things whose meanings I cannot comprehend, nor what is intended by them“. Al-Akhnas said, “Such is also the case with me“. Then he proceeded to Abu jahl’s house and asked the same question. He answered, “What, indeed, did I hear! We and the tribe of ‘Abd Manaf have always rivalled each other in honour. They have fed the poor, and so have we; they have assumed other people’s troubles, and so have we; they have shown generosity, and so have we. We have matched each other like two stallions of equal speed.Then they proclaimed, ‘We have a prophet who receives revelations from the heavens’. When will we acquire anything like that? By God, we will never believe him or call him truthful.” [Ibn Hisham, Sira, vol. 1-2, pp. 315-16].
Despite the severity of their hatred the Prophet continued reciting, and the eavesdroppers continued to increase till they constituted a sizeable portion of Quraish, each of them wary of having his secret exposed. [Ibn Ishaq, as-Seyr wa al-Maghazi, pp. 205-6] The Prophet was not asked to argue with his antagonists about Allah’s Oneness because the Qur’an, clearly not the work of a man, contained within itself thelogical proof of the existence and Oneness of Allah. Yet as his recitations spilled from the stillness of night into the bustle of day and became public, Makkah’s anxieties were quickly brought to the boil.
With a popular fair fast approaching, some people from amongst Quraish approached al-Walid bin al-Mughira, a man of some standing. Head dressed them, “The time of the fair has come round again and representatives of the Arabs will come to you. They will have heard about this fellow of yours, so agree upon one opinion without dispute so that none will give the lie to the other.” They said, “Give us your opinion about him,” and he replied,
“No, you speak and I will listen.” So they said, “He is a kahin (clairvoyant).” al-Walld responded, “By God, he is not that, for he has not the unintelligent murmuring and rhymed speech of the kahin“, “Then he is possessed.” “No, he is not that. We have seen possessed ones, and here there is no choking, no spasmodic movements or whispering.” “Then he is a poet.” “No, he is no poet, for we know poetry in all its forms and meters.” “Then he is a sorcerer.” “No, we have seen sorcerers and their sorcery, and here there is no spitting and no knots.” “Then what are we to say, O Abu ‘Abd Shams?” He replied, “By God, his speech is sweet, his root is as a palmtree whose branches are fruitful, and everything you have said would be known as false. The nearest thing to the truth is your saying that he is a sahir (sorcerer), who has brought a message by which he separates a man from his father, or from his brother, or from his wife, or from his family.” [Ibn Ishaq, as-Seyr wa al-Maghazi, edited by Suhail Zakkar, p. 151; Ibn Hisham, Sira, vol. 1-2, pp. 270-71].
We find the same phenomenon in the case of Abu Bakr, who built a mosque in Makkah next to his own house and devoted himself to regular prayer and recitation of the Holy Qur’an. The polytheists approached Ibn Addaghinna, who was responsible for protecting Abu Bakr, and asked him to prevent Abu Bakr from reading the Qur’an because, among other things, women and children were known to eavesdrop on his recitations, and were naturally more susceptible to such an influence.” [Ibn Hisham, Sira, vol. 1-2, p. 373; al-Baladhuri, Ansab, i:206].
The Prophet’s Role Regarding the Qur’an
The Qur’an consistently employs derivations of talà (recited): yutlà atlū, tatlū, Jatlū etc. We read this in verses 2:129, 2:151, 3:164, 22:30, 29:45 and 62:2, among many others; all of them allude to the Prophet’s role of disseminating the revelations throughout the community. But recitation alone is insufficient if it is unaccompanied by instruction. The Prophet’s responsibilities towards the Word of Allah are easily discerned in the following verses, the first being from Prophet Ibrahim’s supplication:
“Our Lord! Send amongst them a messenger of their own who shall rehearse Your Signs to them and instruct them in the Book and Wisdom and purify them.” [Qur’an 2:129].
“Allah has conferred a great favour on the Believers indeed, sending among them a messenger from amongst themselves who rehearses unto them the Signs of Allah, and purifies them, and instructs them in the Book and Wisdom.” [Qur’an 3:164].
“A similar favour you have already received in that We have sent among you a messenger of your own, rehearsing to you Our Signs, and purifying you, and instructing you in the Book and Wisdom.” [Qur’an 2:151].
And in Sura al-Qiyama:
“Do not move your tongue concerning (the Qur’an) to make haste there with. It is for Us to collect it (inyourheart) so you may recite (and compile it). But when We have recited it, follow its recital (as promulgated): Nay more, it is for Us to explain it (through your tongue).” [Qur’an 75:16-19].
The above verse concerns the Prophet’s eagerness to memorise the Qur’an whilst it was still being revealed. In his haste to commit verses to memory before they slipped away,he would move his tongue in anticipation of the coming words. By assuring him that there was no need for haste, that all verses would etch themselves unerringly into his heart, Allah was taking full responsibility for the timeless preservation of the Qur’an.
Recitation of the Qur’an in Turns with Jibrail
To continually refresh the Prophet’s memory, the Archangel Jibril (alayhis salaam) would visit him particularly for that purpose every year. Quoting a few hadiths in this regard:
➡Fatima (radhiyallahu anha) said, “The Prophet informed me secretly, Jibril (alayhis salaam) used to recite the Qur’an to me and I to him once a year, but this year he has recited the entire Qur’an with me twice. I do not think but that my death is approaching.”’ [Al-Bukhari, sahih, Fadha’il al-Qur’an: 7]
➡Ibn ‘Abbas (radhiyallahu anhu) reported that the Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam) would meet with Jibril (alayhis salaam) every night during the month of Ramadan, till the end of the month, each reciting to the other. [Al-Bukhari, sahih, Saum:7]
➡ Abu Huraira (radhiyallahu anhu) said that the Prophet and Jibril would recite the Qur’an to each other once every year, during Ramadan, but that in the year of his death they recited it twice. [Al-Bukhari, sahih, Fadha’il al-Qur’an: 7]
➡ ‘Ibn Mas’ud (radhiyallahu anhu) gave a similar report to the above, adding, “Whenever the Prophet and Jibril finished reciting to each other I would recite to the Prophet as well, and he would inform me that my recitation was eloquent.” [ At-Tabari, at-Tafsir, i:28]
➡ The Prophet, Zaid bin Thabit, and Ubayy b.Ka’b recited to one another after his last session with jibril [A. Jeffery (ed.), Muqaddimatan, p. 227]. The Prophet also recited twice to Ubayy in the year he passed away [ibid, p. 74; also Tahir al-jaza’iri, at-Tibyan, p. 126 ].
Each of the above hadiths describes these recitations between Archangel and Prophet using the term Mu’ārada. (Mu’ārada is from Mufā’ala, meaning that two people are engaged in the same action. For example muqātala: to fight each other. Thus Mu’ārada indicates that Jibril (alayhis salaam) would read once while the Prophet listened, then vice-versa. This general practice continues to this day. A few of the Companions were in fact privy to this Mu’ārada between the Prophet and Jibril, such as ‘Uthman [Ibn Kathir, Fadha’il, vii:440], Zaid bin Thabit, and ‘Abdullah bin Mas’ud).
The Prophet’s duties towards the wahy were myriad: he was the instrument of divine reception, the one who supervised proper compilation, provided the necessary explanations, encouraged community-wide dissemination, and taught to his Companions. Naturally, Allah did not descend to earth to explain the meaning of this verse or that; by stating that “it is for Us to explain it” instead of “it is for you (Prophet Muhammad) to explain it”, Allah was conferring full legitimacy on the Prophet’s elucidation of all verses not as guess work on his part, but rather as divine inspiration from Allah Himself, The same holds true regarding the compilation of the Qur’an.
And so after memorisation, the responsibilities of recitation, compilation, education and explanation coalesced into the Prophet’s prime objectives throughout his prophethood, duties he discharged with tremendous resolve, sanctioned in his efforts by Allah. As for explanation of the wahy, the literature of the Prophet’s sunna as a whole constitutes his elucidation of the Qur’an, his incorporation of its teachings into practical everyday life.
A Few Remarks on Orientalist Claims
Some (Anti-Islamic) Orientalist writers have put forward strange theories regarding the Qur’an’s revelation. Noldeke for instance claims that Prophet Muhammad (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam) forgot the earliest revelations, while Rev.Mingana states that neither the Prophet nor the Muslim community held the Qur’an in high esteem till long afterwards when, with the rapid expansion of the Muslim state, they at last thought it perhaps worthwhile to preserve these verses for future generations. Approaching the issue from a logical viewpoint is sufficient to dispel these non-sensitic claims.
Infact this logical approach works regardless of whether the orientalist believes in Muhammad (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam) as a prophet or not, because either way he would have done his utmost to preserve what he was claiming to be the Word of Allah. If he truly was Allah’s messenger then the case is obvious: preserving the Book was his sacred duty. As discussed earlier, the Qur’an was the first and greatest miracle ever bestowed upon him, its very nature a testimony that no man had penned it. To casually neglect this miracle, the sole proof that he was indeed Allah’s Prophet, would have been abysmally stupid.
Any theory (of the duffer orientalists) claiming even an iota of indifference is entirely irrational. If a theorist proffers no satisfactory explanation as to why the Prophet would act so grievously against his own interests (let alone the commands of Allah), then the theory is quite simply a throw away statement with no basis in fact.
Memorising, teaching, recording, compiling, and explaining: these, as we have stated, were the prime objectives of the Prophet Muhammad (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam), and such was the magnetism of the Qur’an that even the polytheists found themselves inclined to lend it their attentive ears. In subsequent chapters we will deal in some depth with the precautions taken by the Prophet and the early Muslim community, to ensure thatthe Qur’an circulated in its pure, unadulterated form. Before ending this article let us turn our attention to the present, and gauge how successfully the Qur’an has been taught in our times. Muslims across the globe are passing through one of their bleakest periods in history, an era where hope and faith seem to hang precariously in the balance everyday. Yet there are countless Muslims numbering in the hundreds of thousands and covering every age group, gender, and continent who have committed the entire Qur’an to memory. Compare this with the Bible, translated (wholly or partially) into two thousand languages and dialects, printed and distributed on a massive scale with funds that would place the budgets of third world countries to shame. For all this effort, the Bible remains a bestseller that many are eager to purchase but few care to read. And the extent of this neglect runs far deeper than one could possibly imagine. On January 26th, 1997, The Sunday Times published the results of a survey by its correspondents Rajeev Syal and Cherry Norton regarding the Ten Commandments. A random poll of two hundred members of the Anglican clergy revealed that two-thirds of Britain’s vicars could not recall all Ten Commandments. These were not even lay Christians but vicars. This basic code of morality for Jews and Christians is a mere handful of lines; the Qur’an on the other hand, fully memorised by hundreds of thousands, translates into roughly 9000 Iines. A clearer picture of the Qur’an’s esteemed influence and the Prophet’s educational success cannot be imagined.
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