Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad was the last prophet and messenger of God. By way of clarification it should be stated immediately that in Islam the role of a prophet or a messenger is far more important than in Christianity. Both the Old and the New Testament speak of prophets who have a very minor role in the community (2 Kings 2:15, 1 Cor 12:10, Acts 13:1 etc.). In Islam, however, a prophet or a messenger expresses the will of God for a nation or all humankind. The message delivered by him is binding on those to whom it is sent and a rejection of him is a rejection of God.
The work of a messenger, furthermore, change earlier religious laws and create a new religious community. The belief that the Prophet Muhammad is the last prophet and messenger of God therefore means that after him there will not arise any person who will be authorized by God to express his will for others in a binding way and/or institute a new religious direction by a new expression of the religious truth and forming a religious community around that expression. Any person claiming to have such authority is suffering from self-deception and/or is lying, no matter how smart he may be or how many miraculous deeds he may perform.
In the following pages I will discuss two questions about this belief: Is this belief an authentic Islamic belief? Is this belief reasonable?
THE AUTHENTICITY OF THE BELIEF
A belief can be considered an authentic Islamic belief in the following two senses: a) the belief is accepted widely and for a long period of time; b) the belief is duly supported by the primary sources of Islam: the Qur`an and the Hadith. In the first sense the belief is obviously authentic. We need to examine the authenticity of the belief in the second sense.
Basis in the Qur`anic
The Qur`an says:
Muhammad is not the father of any male among you, but he is the messenger of God and the seal of the prophets; and God is aware of all things (33:40).
The Arabic word for seal is khatam which by a change of vowel can also be read as khatim, meaning "that which puts the seal". Both words are derivatives of khatama, which means both to end or conclude something or to put a seal in order to indicate such an end or conclusion (see, e.g., Lisan al-'Arab, Qamus, Aqrab al-Muwarid).
No matter how the word is supplied with vowels, which were omitted in the original Arabic script, the most reasonable way, if not the only way, to understand the verse is that Muhammad completed and closed the prophethood as a seal marks the completion and closure of a document, that is, he was the last prophet. This interpretation is also clear from the reference to the Prophet not leaving behind any son.
To understand this reference we need to recall that in the Arab society before Islam it was extremely important for a man to have a son. In fact the birth of a female was an occasion of sadness, as the Qur`an itself testifies:
They assign to God daughters -- Glory be to him! -- while to themselves (the sons) that they desire. When one of them is given the news of (the birth) of a female, his face is darkened and he is wroth inside. He hides himself from the people because of (what he considers to be) the ill of the news he has been given. (He asks himself): shall I keep it in contempt or bury it in the dust. Evil indeed is their judgment (both in regard to attributing daughters to God and the choices they give themselves regarding their own daughters) (16:57-59).
Some indeed buried their daughters alive. In regard to this the Qur`an says, referring to the day of judgment:
And when (about) the girl-infant who was buried alive (it) is asked, For what sin was she killed? (81:8-9).
Connected with this type of attitude was the belief that it is only through a son that a man gets posterity. A person without a son was called abtar (one who is cut off). The disbelievers applied this description to the Prophet because he did not have sons, although he did have daughters when he started his mission. Regarding this the Qur`an says:
We gave you (O Prophet) the abundance (of blessings);
So pray to your Lord and sacrifice;
It is surely your insulter who will be cut off (abtar) (108:1-3).
Turning to the description "seal of the prophets" the meaning of the reference to the absence of a male descendant of the Prophet now becomes clear: Muhammad may not live on through his male descendants according to your way of thinking, but he will live on forever in a much more important way. For because of its finality, his prophethood will last forever and will be a source of everlasting and abundant blessings. (And in this way he will also deal a blow to your attitudes towards daughters.)
The above interpretation is further supported by the fact that the Qur`an never looks forward to a future revelation or prophet. Thus in the very beginning of the Qur`an the characteristics of the pious are given include the following:
(The pious are) those who believe in what is sent down to you (O my Prophet) and in what was sent down before you (2:4).
There is no reference to what will be sent down after the Prophet. Nowhere else the Qur`an refers to a future prophet or revelation. The significance of this observation can be seen more clearly by a comparison with the Old and the New Testaments, where there are frequent references to future revelations. Thus in the Old Testament we find this promise of a future prophet or a series of prophets:
The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me [like Moses] from your own people; you shall heed such a prophet (Deut 18:15; see also 18:18).
Indeed, a great deal of the Old Testament is a prophecy of future revelation of one kind or another. Likewise, the New Testament also looks forward to future revelation:
And I [Jesus], will ask the Father and he will send you another Paraclete to be with you forever (John 14:16). I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come (John 16:12-13).
Here it is besides the point whether the Paraclete is the Holy Spirit or the Prophet Muhammad, a question I have discussed in detail in Islam and Its Prophet. The significant point here is that Jesus looks forward to a future revelation.
In contrast to both the Old and New Testaments, the chronologically last verse or one of the last verses of the Qur`an declares:
Today I have completed my religion for you and perfected my favor on you and chosen al-islam as your religion (part of 5:3).
The Qur`an regards itself as coming in fulfillment of earlier prophecy:
Say, whether or not you believe in it, the fact is that those who possessed knowledge before it fall on their faces in humble prostration when it is recited to them. And they say, Glory to our Lord and Sustainer: Surely the promise of Our Lord and Sustainer was to be fulfilled! (17:107-108; see also, 7:157, 61:6).
But it does not prophesy for the coming after it of another revelation. Its prophecy is only of its own inevitable final victory:
He it is who has sent his messenger with the guidance and the religion of truth that he may make it prevail over all religion, however much those who practice shirk may be averse (61:9).
This prevailing of Islam is not understood to be through any human force, but simply the result of the inevitable victory of a truer expression of the same religion over other expressions. Notice that the Qur`an does not say "prevail over all religions" but over all religion (in the singular). Every religion is really trying to express the same truth. Islam is the clearest and most effective expression of that truth and therefore is destined to replace all other expressions. It is like when a better and more economical model of a product such as the computer or the car comes on the market it necessarily replaces after due time the older less efficient and more expensive model.
The claimants of prophethood that have arisen from within the Muslim world and who therefore recognize the divine origin of the Qur`an or the followers of such claimants have tried to explain the words "seal (or last) of the prophets" in other ways. For example, it is said that the expression means: "the Prophet has reached the ultimate in excellence in all respect," that is, he was the last or seal of the prophets in the sense that he carried prophethood to its final point of development. In regard to such an interpretation the following points may be noted: First, the interpretation has doubtful support in the usage of the word khatam; it is certainly not supported by its usual meaning. Second, any interpretation of the expression must explain why it is combined in the Qur`an with the observation that the Prophet had no male descendant. Understanding "last" in the sense of the final development does not adequately provide the required explanation. Third, the view can be at the most accepted as a secondary interpretation which supports the primary interpretation in the sense that the prophethood has come to end by virtue of reaching its final development.
MESSENGER AND PROPHET
The Qur`anic verse under consideration says that Muhammad was a messenger and the seal of the prophets. That there is a difference between a prophet and a messenger is clear from this verse as well as others (e.g. 22:52). But what is the difference?
The Qur`an assumes that the meaning of a prophet is well understood by its hearers. He is a figure who is inspired by God for some form of guidance for a people. He may not necessarily bring a new law or establish a new religious community, for in 4:44 a reference is made to the Israelite prophets who judged by the Torah rather than by a new law brought by them.
The messenger means one who is sent by God with a message. He also receives divine inspiration, for otherwise he cannot be "sent" by God. Hence every messenger is a prophet. All nations have received messengers, for the Qur`an says: "And for every nation there is a messenger" (10:47). Moreover, the messenger is meant to be obeyed: "We sent no messenger save that he should be obeyed by God's leave" (4:64). Nations that rejected the messengers sent to them were destroyed or punished (26: 105-191). Similar statements are not made about prophets. It thus appears that God acts through a messenger more decisively than through a mere prophet.
In view of the above comments we can conclude that if there is no prophet after the Prophet Muhammad, then there is also no messenger after him.
It should be pointed out in passing that the belief in the finality of the prophethood of Muhammad is not a belief implying an exclusive view of revelation, although it necessarily excludes from the list of true prophets all those who claimed prophethood after him such as Ghulam Ahmad of India, Bahaullah of Persia and Joseph Smith of the USA. It is not like the belief of some Christians that Jesus is the only way to God and to the truth. To be the last prophet does not mean to be the only true prophet. Quite to the contrary the concept becomes meaningful only under the assumption that there were other true prophets.
Furthermore, the belief is not meant to glorify the Prophet Muhammad above other prophets. In Qur`an 2:285 the Prophet and the believers with him say: "We do not discriminate between any of his messengers" although "some of them [God] favored more than others" (2:253). Whatever the Prophet's place in the history of revelation, it is described in the Qur`an as a favor from God:
This is a bounty of God which he bestows upon whom he will. And God is full of bounty (62:4).
In the Hadith also we find that on the one hand the Prophet is quoted as saying that he should not be praised above the other prophets (Muslim, kitab al-fada'il, bab min fada'il Musa), and on the other hand there are other ahadith in which the Prophet is obviously described as more favored by God than other prophets. In this way both the Qur`an and the Hadith are aiming to do justice to two considerations: 1) the relative position and proper place of the various prophets be brought forward; 2) avoiding any rivalry among the followers of the prophets or pride on their part.
NO CEASING OF DIVINE COMMUNICATION WITH INDIVIDUALS
Another point of clarification to be noted in regard to the belief that prophethood has come to an end with the coming of Muhammad, is that this does not mean that all communication between God and human beings has ceased. God does continue to guide and inspire human beings in various ways as individuals in their particular lives. For the Quran says that God inspires (alhama) each soul as to what is good and what is bad:
Consider a self (or soul) and what constituted its character and potential;
And inspired it about what is wrong for it and what is right for it.
He is indeed successful who causes it to grow.
And he is indeed a failure who stunts it (91:7-10).
What has come to an end with the Prophet Muhammad is prophetic revelation whereby God chooses a person to communicate with a nation or whole humankind.
Basis in Hadith
The Hadith, of course, are subject to the question of authenticity when we use it primarily as a source of what the Prophet of Islam taught. But it can also be used as a source of how Muslims in the first few centuries of the Islamic calendar understood his teachings. Sometimes even in this latter use the Hadith may help establish the authenticity of a Muslim belief. Thus if a certain belief has some support in the Qur`an, or at least it is not contradicted by the Qur`an and it is also supported by some ahadith without being challenged by other ahadith of equal reliability, then such a belief can be confidently viewed as an authentic Islamic belief. This precisely is the case with the belief that the Prophet Muhammad was the last of the true prophets of God. This belief has, as we have seen, support in the Qur`an. It is also, as we now show, stated in many ahadith without being challenged by any others.
The documentation of ahadith stating clearly that the Prophet of Islam was the last in the line of true prophets begins in the second century when larger collections of traditions about the Prophet were produced and continues upto the fourth century when the compilation of the major collections came to an end. In the second-century book, Sirah Rasul Allah by Ibn Ishaq (d. 151), we read that on the eve of his departure for the battle of Tabuk,
the Messenger of God left 'Ali behind him to look after his family, and ordered him to stay with them. The hypocrites thereupon began to speak ill of him, saying that he had been left behind because he was a burden on him and he wanted to get rid of him. Taking his weapons, 'Ali went after the Messenger of God and caught up with him when he halted in al-Jurf. He told him what the hypocrites were saying. The Messenger of God replied: "They lie. I left you behind because of what I have left behind [i.e., my family], so go back as my representative to my family and yours. Are you not happy, 'Ali, that you stand in relation to me as Aaron did in relation to Moses [when he was left behind by Moses before going to the Mount Sinai], except that there will be no prophet after me?" So 'Ali returned to Madinah and the Messenger of God went his way.
In the same second century, Mu'watta of Imam Malik (d. 179) the Prophet is reported as saying:
I am Muhammad, I am Ahmad, I am the al-Mahi (the Effacer) in that through me infidelity shall be erased; I am the al-Hashir (Assembler) in that people shall be assembled after me. And I am al-‘Aqib (the Last) (kitab al-asma' al-nabi; see also, Bukhari, kitab al-manaqib, bab al-asma' al-nabi, Muslim, kitab al-fadai'l, bab al-asma' al-nabi, Tirmidhi, kitab al-adab, bab al-asma' al-nabi; Mustadrak Hakim, kitab al-tarikh, btab al-asma' al-nabi)
It is noteworthy that here two names are explained: al-Mahi and al-Hashir. The remaining three are not explained. The reason could only be that they and their meaning were well known. This is indeed the case with Muhammad and Ahmad (Quran 61:6). It must also be the case with al-‘Aqib. Literally this word means, "that which comes later or last". Thus the Quran repeatedly refers to the end or the last state or the final fate of a person or nation as al-‘aqibah (feminine of al-‘aqib) (3:137, 7:86, 11:49, 12:109 etc). The Prophet bears the title al-‘Aqib in the sense that he was the last of the prophets. This is the only possible sense, since our sources do not suggest any other sense in which the title would have been so well understood that no explanation was required.
The explanation of the title al-Hashir in the above hadith -- "in that people shall be assembled after me" -- has been understood in two ways. First: the assembling of humankind on the day of resurrection will take place after the resurrection of the Prophet. That is, the Prophet will be the first to be resurrected and in this way he will usher in the events connected with the day of resurrection and judgment. Second: the day of resurrection and judgment will succeed the Prophet, without any other prophet coming during his time and that day. That is, while earlier prophets were succeeded by other prophets, the Prophet Muhammad will be followed by the day of assembling and judgment.
In the third century we find many more books containing traditions about the finality of the prophethood of Muhammad (may God honor and bless him evermore). This does not mean that all these traditions originated in the third century. It is quite probable that many of these traditions existed in the two earlier centuries. The reason that books that have come down to us from the first two centuries do not contain these traditions is that those books were not meant to be comprehensive collections of Hadith. They reflected specific concerns of their authors on specific topics and largely drew on what was available in particular centers. In contrast the comprehensive books compiled in the third century were produced after extensive search all over the Muslim world.
Of the third-century books of Hadith the most trusted are Bukhari and Muslim. They both record the above tradition from Mu'watta referring to the name, al-‘Aqib. They also twice record the tradition where Ali is compared with Aaron, once in the chapter on 'Ali's merits and once in the account of the battle of Tabuk. In addition, they also contain the following traditions:
The Prophet said: "The children of Israel used to be guided by prophets. When a prophet passed away, another prophet succeeded him. But no prophet will come after me; there will only be khulafa` (caliphs) who will increase in number (that is, more and more will claim to be khulafa')." The people asked, "O Messenger of God, What do you order us (in view of such multiplicity of claims)? " He said, "Obey the one who is given the pledge of allegiance first. Fulfill their rights, for God will ask them about (any shortcomings) in ruling those God has put under their guardianship" (Bukhari, kitab hadith al-anbiya`, bab ma dhukira 'an bani isra`il).
The Prophet said: My position in relation to the other prophets is like this: A man built a house, completing it and adorning it well except for a place of one brick. When the people entered the house, they marvelled at its beauty and said, But for the place of this one brick (how much more splendid the house will be) (Bukhari, kitab al-manaqib, bab khatim al-nabiyyin; Muslim, kitab al-fada'il, bab khatam al-nabiyyin; see also Tirmidhi, kitab al-manaqib, bab fadl al-nabi and kitab al-adab, bab al-amthal; Musnad Abu Da`ud Tayalisi, murwiyyat Jabir bin ‘Abd Allah; and Musnad Ahmad, murwiyyat Ubayy bin Ka'b, Abu Sa'id Khudri and Abu Hurayrahh).
The obvious implication of the similitude is that the Prophet is the one missing brick and he completes the house of prophethood so that no empty niche is left there to provide room for another prophet. This implicit meaning is clarified in another version in Bukhari which adds the words: "I am like unto that one missing brick and I am the last in the line of the prophets." Notice here the Prophet is not glorified above other prophets; he is just a missing brick like other bricks. This is consistent with the hadith from Muslim quoted earlier in which the Prophet says that he should not be praised above other prophets. The purpose that some traditions discourage Muslims from praising the Prophet above other prophets is no doubt, as noted earlier, to avoid any rivalry among followers of various prophets or pride on their part. But, of course, some traditions do praise the Prophet Muhammad above other prophets, although whatever way he was superior to others is nothing but a favor of God. One tradition which is relevant to our topic is the following:
The Holy Prophet said: God has favored me more than the other prophets in six ways: 1) I have been endowed with the gift of speech which is brief but full of knowledge. 2) I was granted victory owing to my awe. 3) The spoils of war were made lawful unto me. 4) The whole earth has been made the place of worship for me and it has become the means of purification for me also. 5) I have been sent to the whole world. 6) And the line of prophets has come to its final end in me (Muslim, Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah; quoted from Tafsir Ibn Kathir).
Item 3 about the spoils of war is problematic because earlier prophets (such as David who is a prophet in the Qur`an) are known to have taken war booty (2 Samuuel 8:7-8) and the Mosaic Law which was accepted by subsequent prophets expressly permits it (Deut 20:14). However, our interest here is in item 6 where the Prophet is clearly described as the last of the prophets. Another tradition in Muslim relevant to the subject is:
Abu Hurayrahh used to say that one prayer performed in the Messenger of God's Mosque (in Madinah) is more blessed than a thousand prayers performed in other mosques except the Sacred Mosque (in Makkahh). This is because the Messenger of God is the last (akhir) of the prophets and his mosque is the last (akhir) of the mosques (built by prophets). (Muslim, kitab al-hajj, bab fadl al-salah bi masjid Makkahh wa al-Madinah).
The tradition in Muslim goes on to discuss whether the part about the last mosque Abu Hurayrah added himself or he is quoting the Prophet. The tradition has in view three mosques: the Sacred Mosque in Makkah (connected with Abraham), the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem (connected with the Israelite figures), the Prophet's Mosque in Madinah. The third of these mosques is the last because the Prophet is the last prophet. Ahmadis, followers of one of the claimants of prophethood, say that just as "the last mosque" does not mean that there were no mosques built after the mosque of Madinah, similarly "the last prophet" does not mean that there will be no prophet after Muhammad. But then what does the word "last" (akhir) mean? It is said that the word means something like "most excellent". But this meaning will not apply to "the last mosque" because the Prophet's mosque in Madinah is not the most excellent, the sacred mosque in Makkah is. Besides such an interpretation concentrates too much on a single tradition and does not explain all the other traditions on the subject.
The Prophet said: Among the people preceding you there used to be muhaddithun (those who spoke under some form of divine inspiration, other than a prophetic revelation). If there are any such persons among my followers, it is 'Umar bin al-Khattab (Bukhari, kitab ahadith al-anbiya`, bab hasbiya allah; see also, Muslim, kitab al-fada'il, bab min fada'il 'Umar).
The Prophet said: Among the children of Israel who went before you there were such people who had communication with God (yukallamun), even though they were not prophets. If there is any such person from among my people it is 'Umar (Bukhari, kitab al-manaqib, bab manaqib 'Umar).
A later collection of traditions, Tirmidhi, records the following tradition:
The Prophet said: "If a prophet were to succeed me, it would have been 'Umar bin al-Khattab" (Tirmidhi, kitab al-manaqib, bab manaqib 'Umar).
In all three versions, regardless of the meaning of muhaddithun or yukallamun it is clear that the possibility of a prophet after the Prophet Muhammad is excluded.
The Prophet said: Good (and true) dreams (al-ru'ya al-salihah) are a part of the forty-six parts of prophethood.
The Prophet said: Nothing is left of prophethood (after me) except al-mubashshirat. People said: What is meant by al-mubashshirat. He said: good dreams (Bukhari, kitab al-ru'ya, bab, al-ru'ya al-salihah ..., bab al-mubashshirat, see also Muslim, Nasa'i, Abu Dawud, kitab al-ru'ya, Musnad Ahmad, murawwiyat Abu Tufayl; the hadith about the forty-six parts of prophethood is also found in Mu'watta, kitab al-ru'ya).
In other words there is no possibility of prophetic revelation in the future. At the most if some one receives an inspiration from God he or she will receive it in the form of "good and true dreams." Incidently, this and some of the other ahadith quoted earlier are consistent with what we said above, namely, that end of prophethood does not mean that all divine communication with individuals has ceased.
Outside Bukhari and Muslim, we find, in addition to the hadith about 'Umar from Tirmidhi, the following:
One day the Prophet came out of his house and joined our company. His manner gave us the impression as if he were leaving us.' He said, 'I am Muhammad, the unlettered prophet of God' and repeated this statement three times. Then he affirmed: "There will be no prophet after me' (Musnad Ahmad, murawwiyat '‘Abd Allah bin ‘Amr ibn al-‘As)
The Prophet said: There is no prophet after me and there is no community of followers (of true prophets) after my community (Bayhaqi, kitab al-ru'ya; Tabarani)
The Prophet affirmed: "The chain of messengers and prophets has come to an end. There shall be no messenger nor prophet after me" (Tirmidhi, kitab al-ru'ya, bab dhahab al-nubuwwah, Musnad Ahmad, murawwiyat Anas bin Malik).
This last tradition answers a question that seems to have arisen in the interpretation of 33:40. The verse describes the Prophet Muhammad as the seal of the prophets which raised the question whether he also concluded the series of messengers. The tradition answers the question in the affirmative. Apparently the question was not important in earlier centuries because it is not addressed in earlier books of Hadith nor of Tafsir. This is because the Qur`an is fairly clear that every messenger is a prophet and the one who is the last prophet is also of necessity the last messenger. A relatively late commentary on the Qur`an, the one by Ibn Kathir (died A.H. 774) does raise and answer the question: "This verse is a clear proof of the fact that no prophet will come after Muhammad and if there is no prophet, then how can there be a messenger after him? For the office of a messenger holds prominence over the office of a prophet. Every messenger is a prophet, but all prophets are not messengers. ... Hence anyone who claims to be a prophet or a messenger of God after Muhammad is a liar, an impostor, a dajjal (one who covers the truth like the antichrist), has gone astray and leads astray, no matter what manner of extraordinary deeds, jugglery, magical feats, and wonders he brings forth."
No challenge from any other hadith
Against the continuous testimony by the Hadith literature, documented above, in favor of the belief in the conclusion of the prophethood with Muhammad (may God honor and bless him evermore), there is no hadith that contradicts it. At the most one could refer to a saying attributed to 'A'isha, the Prophet's wife: "Say that he (i.e., the Prophet) is khatam (seal) of the prophets, but do not say, there is no prophet after him." But attestation of this saying is very late and no early oral authority is known for it. Also, it is a view of ‘A'ishah which by itself cannot be a source of Islamic belief, unless it represents a consensus among the companions of the Prophet. This is obviously not the case, since we have earlier quoted ahadith in which the Prophet himself is quoted as saying, "There is no prophet after me". But most importantly we need to inquire into what the saying is attempting to communicate, regardless of whether it is authentic or not.
In order to understand the saying we have to recall a question that arose after the compilation of the major collections of hadith: How can it be said that there is no prophet after Muhammad when according to some ahadith Jesus will come again near the end of the world? The question is raised and answered by Zamakhshari in his comment on 33:40: "If you ask how Muhammad can be the last of the prophets when Jesus will appear towards the end of the world, I shall reply that the finality of the prophethood of Muhammad means that no one will be endowed with prophethood after him. Jesus is among those upon whom prophethood was endowed before Muhammad. Moreover, Jesus will appear as a follower of Muhammad and he will offer prayers with his face towards the Qiblah of Islam, as a member of the community of the Muslims." We can now understand the meaning of the saying attributed to 'A'ishah: The Prophet Muhammad is indeed the last prophet but it is not quite accurate to say that no prophet will come after him since the return of the Prophet Jesus will take place after him.
It is interesting to note that the literature on prophetic traditions does not deal with the relationship between the end of prophethood with Muhammad and the return of Jesus after him, although both beliefs are mentioned in ahadith. Clearly, in earlier centuries Muslims saw no contradiction between the two beliefs probably because the understanding expressed by Zamakhshari was taken for granted. This suggests that the saying attributed to 'A'ishah originated after the period of the compilation of the major books of hadith, that is, after the fourth century of the Islamic calendar. This is why it has no chain of narration and no early source.
Classical commentators and jurists
After the time of the hadith compilation we come to the time of the great classical commentators of the Qur`an and other Islamic scholars, although one major commentator, Ibn Jarir al-Tabari (224 A.H.-310 A.H.) lived in about the same period when the major collections of Hadith were being compiled. In view of the solid foundation provided by the Qur`an and the Hadith for the belief in the end of prophethood it is hardly surprising that there exists an equally solid consensus among the commentators and other scholars. Thus Al-Tabari interprets the words, "seal of the prophets" as follows: The Prophet Muhammad "has closed and sealed the prophethood and the door (of prophethood) shall not open for anyone till the end of the world."
After Al-Tabari a major commentator is Baghawi (died 510 A.H.). He writes in his commentary Ma`lam al-Tanzil: "God brought the line of Prophets to an end with him. Hence he is the final Prophet.......Ibn `Abbas affirms that (in this verse) God has given his verdict that no prophet will come after the Prophet Muhammad."
Next important commentator is Zamakhshari (467 A.H.-538 A.H), whom we have already quoted. After him there is Imam Razi (543 A.H.-606 A.H.), who wrote a massive commentary on the Qur`an entitled al-Tafsir al-Kabir. He explains the relevant Quranic passage thus: "In this context the term khatam al-nabiyyin has been used in the sense that a prophet whose ministry is not final may leave some injunctions or commandments incomplete or unexplained, thus providing scope for a succeeding prophet to complete the task. But the prophet who will have no successor is more considerate and provides clear guidelines for his followers, for he is like a father who knows that after him there will be no guardian or patron to look after his son."
Baydawi (died A.H. 685), in his commentary, Anwar al-Tanzil, writes: "In other words he, Muhammad, is the last of the prophets. He is the one in whom the line of prophets ends or the one whose advent has sealed the office of prophethood. The appearance of Jesus (peace be upon him) after the Prophet Muhammad is not a contradiction of the finality of Muhammad's prophethood, because Jesus will appear as a follower of the Shari‘ah of Muhammad."
Indeed, there is no single Muslim commentator of the Qur`an, modern or ancient, who expresses any different view. This is not because these commentators agree on everything. On many verses their interpretations can differ considerably. But on the meaning of the "seal of the prophets" there is no disagreement.
The view unanimously expressed by the commentators is also reflected in Islamic law or fiqh, where the question of the position of a person who does not believe in the finality of Muhammad's prophethood is answered. Again the unanimous answer is that such a person is not a Muslim. Thus, for example, in the Hanafi school, which has the largest number of adherents, the following position is attributed to Abu Hanifah (80 A.H.-150 A.H.), the founder of the school: A man laid claim to prophethood and said "Let me show you the proofs of my prophethood." Abu Hanifah warned the people: "Anyone who asks of this man the credentials of prophethood, shall become an apostate, for the Prophet of God has explicitly declared: "No prophet will come after me" (Manaqib al- Imam al-Azam Abi Hanifah, by Ibn Ahmad al-Makki). It is for this reason that the Muslim ummah has declared the Ahmadis a non-Muslim sect. Their entry into the sacred precincts of Makkahh is prohibited like the entry of other non-Muslims. It should be noted that the Muslim ummah as a whole is extremely reluctant to declare as non-Muslim any group describing itself as a Muslim group. Probably the Ahmadis are the only example. This one example is by no means a manifestation of intolerance. For tolerance does not mean that the followers of a religion cannot decide what beliefs define their religion and must be adhered to by all those who want to join them.
Philosophers and Sufis
At one point some philosophers and extremist Sufis probably said things that might not have been entirely consistent with the belief in the finality of Muhammad's prophethood. This is seen from a passing reference to philosophers and sufis by 'Iyad (died 544 A.H.), an Islamic qadi or judge, in the following statement: "He who lays a claim to prophethood or affirms that a man can attain the office of prophethood by his efforts or can attain the status of a prophet through purification of soul, as is alleged by some philosophers and extremist Sufis; and likewise a person who does not claim to be a prophet, but declares that he is the recipient of divine revelation, all such persons are apostates and deniers of the prophethood of Muhammad, for Muhammad has conveyed the message of God to us that he is the final prophet and no prophet will come after him. He had also conveyed to us the divine message that he has finally sealed the office of Prophethood and that he has been sent as a prophet and a messenger to the whole of humankind. It is the consensus of the entire Ummah that these words of the Holy Prophet are clear enough and eloquently speak of the fact that they can admit of no other interpretation or amendment in their meaning. Hence there is no doubt that all these sects are outside the pale of Islam not only from the view-point of the consensus of the Ummah but also on the ground of these words having been transmitted with utmost authenticity" (Shifa', Vol. 2, 270- 271).
Here the philosophers and extremist Sufis seem to be admitting the possibility that by self development one can acquire the status of a prophet, although they are not necessarily saying that someone will actually do so. We may admit that such opinions were expressed by some people who called themselves Muslims. But that by itself does not constitute a proof that the belief in question is not authentic. Only a challenge to the belief on the basis of the sources of Islam can prove that, and no such challenge is in sight.
Reputed Sufis in fact believed in the last prophethood of Muhammad. Thus both Ibn ‘Arabi and al-Ghazali (450 A.H-505 A.H.) affirm the belief. A statement by the latter is particularly interesting.
Al-Ghazali wants to prove the following point: If we go by only the words of the revelation, then many possibilities of interpretation may exist, some of which may seriously undermine the purpose of revelation. Hence in interpreting revelation we need to look at how it was understood in the community. If there exists a consensus in the community about any one interpretation of a principle, belief or law, then this consensus must reflect the intended interpretation of that principle, belief or law and such a consensus must be binding. In order to make this point he takes the example of the belief in the end of prophethood and says in al-iqtisad fi al-i‘tiqad:
[If the right of denying the authority of consensus be admitted, it will give rise to many errors. For example,] if someone says that it is possible for a messenger of God to rise after our prophet Muhammad, one cannot hesitate to pronounce him as non-believer. For, in the course of a discussion a person who wants to prove this (that any hesitation in pronouncing such a person as a non-believer is a sin) will inevitably require the aid of consensus. For reason cannot decide the matter. As for the received tradition, the person (who says that a `new messenger' can still arise) will not be incapable of making various interpretations of the prophetic tradition la nabiya ba`di ("There is no prophet after me") and God's words khatam al-nabiyyin ("seal of the prophets"). Thus he might say that by khatam al-nabiyyin God means the last of the prominent messengers. If you argue that nabiyyin (prophets) is general and is used without any specification, then it is not difficult to give a general term a specific meaning. In respect of the prophetic tradition la nabiya ba`di ("There is no prophet after me"), such a person can say that this expression does not cover messengers and there is a difference between a messenger and prophet, prophet being (according to his view) superior to a messenger (so that a prophet cannot arise after the Prophet Muhammad but a messenger can still arise). Similarly, he can put forward many other arguments, which on the basis of the language used cannot be rejected. Indeed, we admit the possibility of even more remote interpretations of words used in the symbolic statements (zawahir al-tashbih). We cannot even say that a person who makes such interpretations is guilty of rejecting the clear injunctions. But in refuting him we shall say that the entire ummah by a consensus understands that the word (la nabiya ba`di) in view of the circumstances of the Prophet means that neither a prophet nor a messenger will ever arise after him. There is no room for any different interpretation nor for giving special meaning (to the term nabiyyin, prophets). If, therefore, any one denies this interpretation, he can (in the first place) be described only as the denier of the consensus. (And then in the second place, if the consensus is considered binding, we can unhesitatingly pronounce such a person a non-believer.)
By way of a conclusion of our discussion of the first of the two questions raised at the beginning of this article we contrast the belief in the end of prophethood with a couple of other beliefs in Islam and Christianity. This should enable the reader to assess more fully the strength of the evidence presented above.
It is widely believed by Muslims that the punishment of adultery by a married person is death by stoning. This belief is duly supported by many ahadith but we cannot take the consensus to the first century and back to the Qur`an. In fact, the Qur`an contradicts this belief and ahadith have preserved evidence that in earlier centuries some Muslims rejected the stoning penalty on the grounds that it is not mentioned in the Qur`an. Contrast this with the fact that the belief in the end of prophethood has considerable basis in the Qur`an and there has been a solid consensus of the Muslims on it throughout the centuries.
The point can be further illustrated by an example of a Christian belief: The belief in Jesus as God. In the Bible there are many statements that stand in the way of this belief, which holders of the belief have to explain in some ways. And throughout history there have raged fierce battles between those who worshipped Jesus as God and those who regarded him as a creature of God. Only in the fourth century of the Christian era the belief became an official teaching of the church and achieved some measure of consensus -- a somewhat shaky consensus with controversy about the belief starting periodically. This is again in contrast to the fact that in the Qur`an and the Hadith there is no statement that stands in the way of the belief in the end of prophethood that have to be explained away and there has never been any real challenge to the consensus of the Muslims on it. This is certainly not because Muslims do not have serious differences of opinions, for the literature of Islam is full of controversies over numerous issues.
REASONABLENESS OF THE BELIEF
In his writings Bahaullah has ridiculed the Muslim belief in the end of prophethood as if this is a logical absurdity. Yet if one believes in the end of the world, this belief, far from being a logical absurdity is seen to be a logical necessity. For if history as we know it is bound to come to an end, then there has to be at least one last prophet. The question therefore is whether the belief in the end of the world is an absurd belief. Apart from the fact that such a belief is found in the teachings of many of the prophets whom Bahaullah recognises, this belief is consistent with whatever we known about the universe. In this universe everything is in a state of transition. It is therefore to be expected that this world as we know it will one day be radically transformed so that it is no longer possible to think of it as the same world as before. This, as noted before, necessarily leads to the conclusion that there has to be a last prophet.
One basis on which the belief in a last prophet is ridiculed by Bahaullah is that new questions always arise and therefore there is need for new revelation to answer those questions. This objection, however, assumes that the purpose of the messengers of God is to answer all questions. If this was so, then why has God given humankind a strong intellect and intuition? The truth is that the purpose of the prophets is not to answer for us all necessary questions but to enable us to answer all necessary questions. They bring human beings in touch with their true nature (fitrah), enabling them to use their God-given faculties to answer all necessary questions. Of course this process is not irreversible in that it is possible that despite the work of the prophets people once again get disoriented from their true nature and their God-given faculties and judgment get blurred, disabling them from finding solutions to the questions they face. Before Islam this situation could prompt the rising of another prophet, but after the Prophet Muhammad this work will be done by reformers from within his followers. This is because through him the religious truth has been expressed in a sufficiently universal and complete way and has been preserved in its original form. Prior to him a new prophet was required under one or more of the following situations.
There was need for a prophet to be sent to a certain nation to which no prophet had been sent before and the message brought by the prophet of another nation either could not have reached these people or it was not expressed in a way suitable for them.
The teachings of earlier prophets had been forgotten by the people or distorted so that they could no longer properly guide the people.
The teachings of the earlier prophets did not provide complete enough guidance so that there was need for some further guidance from God.
But when finally the Prophet Muhammad came with a complete, universal and faithfully preserved revelation from God which has reached or can reach all nations, there remained no need for a new prophet. Through his well-preserved revelatory words and deeds the spirit of prophecy has achieved a permanent and universal presence in the world and hence the need for a new prophet has been removed forever.
Another reason that Bahaullah ridicules the Muslim belief in the end of prophethood is that for him it means that mercies of God have come to an end. But God can shower his mercies on humankind either through a new prophetic revelation or a well-preserved existing revelation. Muslims in any case believe that Muhammad is the source of everlasting mercies of God for all the nations till the day of judgment. Far from the mercies of God coming to an end with the conclusion of prophethood, they have become everlasting. Through his word and example, fortunate among the human beings will forever experience the presence of God and receive his abundant grace. As God says in the Qur`an:
We have not sent you (O Muhammad) save as a mercy for all humankind.
We have given you (O Muhammad) kawthar (a source of abundant grace).
EVIDENCE FROM HISTORY
History provides further rational support for the belief in the end of prophethood. History shows that the first religion to spread across the globe and have a large number of followers was paganism, although it was a diffused tradition without any central founding figure. Then there was Buddhism which swept a large part of Asia and has been followed for centuries. Buddhism was followed five or six centuries later by Christianity. About another six centuries after Christianity there came Islam. But more than fourteen centuries have passed and no new major religion has appeared in history, whether centered around a founding figure or not. This supports both that there was need for Islam after Buddhism and Christianity and that there is no need for any other religion after Islam. For if there were no need for Islam after Buddhism and Christianity it would not have emerged in history and would not have found such wide acceptance for so long and if there were need for a new religion after Islam it should have emerged by now and found a wide acceptance. For, it may be safely assumed that no new religion gets accepted by a major part of the human population for centuries unless there is a genuine need for it.
Of course, followers of Joseph Smith, Bahaullah and Ghulam Ahmad will say that their religions have emerged after Islam and will in the future find world-wide acceptance. But their claims conflict with one another and therefore at least two of them are under self-deception and/or are liars. Moreover, for the moment at least all three new religions are marginal religious movements with very little impact on the world at large. The belief in the end of prophethood is a prophecy that this marginality will be one of the permanent features of these religions.
A LOOK AT BAHAISM
I conclude this article by a closer examination of one of the three religions or sects founded by claimants of prophethood in the past couple of centuries.
As we noted earlier, one reason that Bahaullah ridicules the Islamic belief in the end of prophethood is that there always arise new questions which require fresh guidance from God. Let us see three new things that Bahaullah has introduced into religion and see what new questions they answer that are not answered or could not be answered within the earlier religious traditions.
First, Bahaullah has replaced the lunar year which determines Muslim holidays by a solar year divided into nineteen months of nineteen years. This has two implications.
A) It has fixed the lengths of the months, which can make the organization of the society smoother. But the same result could have been achieved either by adopting the common calendar which is now followed throughout the world or by promoting the view that the start and end of the lunar months be determined by astronomical calculations. Any one of these two solutions are in fact far more convenient and economical. For Bahaullah's innovation would require that at one point the world should change to his new system. However, our experience with the Y2K problem, which cost the world an estimated 100 billion dollars, shows that such a change would be fraught with unnecessary dangers and expenses.
B) Bahaullah's rearrangement of calendar has shortened the Muslim month of fasting. But if in the past centuries when human beings were less protected against heat and cold, God required believers to fast for thirty days despite saying that "God wants ease not hardship for you", now that most of us are living in much more comfortable conditions how is it that he wants them to fast for 19 days? The truth is that fasting is the most popular of the practices of Islam, which shows that it was never the sort of thing that needed to be made easier by the advent of another prophet.
Second, Bahaullah has "prohibited" slavery. In regard to this we need to make two important observations.
A) It is easy to take a pen and write beautiful things or beautiful sounding things, but to actually effect changes in history is the real job. Divine intervention through a prophet should achieve this latter, harder task. But when Bahaullah lived, slavery was on its way out already. In prohibiting it, he was simply following a strong existing trend. Abraham Lincoln, in eliminating slavery from his country, where it was a really big and serious problem, did more for the slaves than did Bahaullah's prohibition of slavery on paper. If a prophet was needed to eliminate slavery, God might have appointed Lincoln as a prophet.
B) The Islamic teachings about slavery are such that a reformer within Islam could have done whatever he or she wanted for eliminating slavery. A prophet was hardly necessary. Let us briefly review those teachings.
Freeing of slaves is part of being a believer in the Qur`an:
What will make you understand what it is, that steep upward road (that leads to God and salvation)?
It is the freeing of one in bondage;
Or the feeding on a day of hunger
An orphan near of kin,
Or some needy [stranger] lying in the dust.
Then he is among those who have faith and who exhort one another to perseverance and exhort one another to compassion (90:12-17).
This is an early Makkahn passage. But since the Orientalists love to say that Muhammad's Makkan message was one of love and compassion which he later abandoned in Madinah, we also quote a passage from a late chapter of the Madinan period:
Virtue is not that you turn your faces to the East or the West. But virtuous is he who has faith in God and the last day ... and gives his wealth, for love of God, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask for help and to set those in bondage free ... (2:177).
The freeing of slaves is not only to be done at an individual level, but also a portion of the government or community funds is to be used for this purpose.
And the offerings are only for the poor ... for the freeing of those in bondage and those overburdened with debts ... [this is] an ordinance of God and God is all knowing and wise (9:60).
If a believer does not free one of his slaves, it is only because the slave does not want to be freed or is incapable of supporting himself. For the Qur`an lays down the law:
And if any of those whom you own as slaves want a deed of freedom, write it out for them if you know of some good in them. Also, give them some of the wealth of God that he has given you (24:33).
The slaves that are for some reason or the other not freed, are to be treated with kindness:
And serve God and do not associate any partners in his Godhead. Show kindness to parents, and to near kindred, and orphans, and the needy, and to the neighbor who is of kin and the neighbor who is not of kin, and the companion by your side, and the wayfarer, and those whom you own as slaves ... (4:36).
This is further stressed in the prophetic traditions. Thus there is the well-known story of Zayd bin Harithah, a slave of the Prophet. Zayd's father and uncle came to take him with them. They were willing to pay any price. The Prophet said that they need not pay anything; they can take Zayd if he wants to go with them. But Zayd decided to stay with the Prophet rather than go with his father and uncle. Later the Prophet adopted him as his son. The following traditions, which give rules about the treatment of slaves, are quoted from Bukhari, fi al-'itaq wa fadli hi:
The Prophet said: Your slaves are your brothers upon whom God has given you authority. So, if one has one's brothers under one's control, one should feed them with the like of what one eats and clothe them with the like of what one wears. You should not overburden them with what they cannot bear, and if you do so, help them with the work.
The Prophet said: One should not say to any one, "my slave" ('abdi) or "my slave-girl" (amati), but should say, "my lad" (fatai), "my lass" (fatati), and "my boy" (ghulami).
The Prophet said: He who has a slave-girl and teaches her good manners and improves her education and then manumits her and marries her, will get a double reward.
In classical Islamic law enslaving of a free person without war is prohibited. A Muslim or a non-Muslim dhimmi (one who in exchange for a tax is given protection by the Muslim government) cannot be enslaved even in a war. Prisoners of war may be enslaved only in a nation that would enslave Muslim prisoners of war. In the presence of an international treaty about the treatment of prisoners, enslaving prisoners of war will also be prohibited.
Thus Islam prohibits slavery, but not in the way some people may in our age want it to prohibited. They expect that a passage in the Qur`an should say: "From now on free all the slaves and do not make any new ones and fight any one who makes or keeps a slave". In the real world things do not work that way, not even when a prophet of God is amongst us. The Qur`an and the Hadith have the wisdom to take into account factors that produced slavery in the first place as well as the consequences of freeing slaves by a legal decree. We can imagine some of these consequences from the American experience, where Lincoln had to use only legal instruments to eliminate slavery. It created a civil war and only after one and a half century the descendants of slaves have begun to gain some measure of acceptance and integration into the economic and social life of the country. In contrast, in the Muslim world slaves to the extent that they existed enjoyed as slaves greater acceptance and integration than did blacks in America as free men for most of their history after the emancipation. This is dramatically illustrated by the fact that slaves could rise to become kings, as is shown by the fact that there was a "slave dynasty" of kings in India.
In any case in the light of the Qur`anic verses, prophetic traditions, and fiqhi positions reviewed above, it is clear that Islam wants a world without slavery. They leave no need of a new prophet to eliminate slavery. The Qur`anic revelation provides enough basis for Muslim reformers to come forward and legally ban slavery, if at any time it becomes clear that this is the wisest thing to do. New major prophet is expected when earlier revelation does not provide basis to move forward. This can be seen in relation to the emergence of Islam. There were so many things that could not be done within the earlier Judeo-Christian tradition. Thus, for example, the idea that salvation and revelation were first channeled through one nation (Israel) and then through one individual (Jesus) got so firmly established in the Christian tradition that a truly universal view of salvation and revelation could not be established within the Judeo-Christian tradition. Also, the belief in the divinity of a man had taken deep roots in the Christian tradition so that it could not be combated from within that tradition. Only a new prophet could correct these and other errors introduced and sanctified in the earlier religious traditions. Now contrast this with Bahaullah's "prohibition" of slavery. There never was in the history of Islam any time when Muslims believed that slavery is desirable and the world should always have some slaves. At the most one could say that Muslims were not doing enough to realize the Islamic ideal of ridding the world of slavery. But that hardly requires a new prophet. Any reformers really concerned with fully eliminating slavery could achieve the task within Islam.
Third, Bahaullah established a movement to form a world government. The idea of such a government is not new. In Islam, especially its Shi'a branch, to which Bahaullah originally belonged, there is a belief in Imam Mahdi who will come as a world ruler and fill the earth with peace and justice. What is new in Bahaism is that it has started a movement to create such a world government. That there will be some kind of world government is highly likely in view of the world increasingly becoming a global village. But the formation of such a government will be the result of an interplay of global political and economic forces at an opportune time. And it is probable that when it happens Bahaism will be simply bypassed. In any case, it is not clear why a new prophet was needed for forming such a government. Why, for example, a Muslim reformer and Imam cannot achieve this task, considering the fact that it is one of the missions of Islam to unite all humankind in a single brotherhood/sisterhood under the one true God?
Dr. Ahmad Shafaat (August, 2004)