The fourth fundamental article of faith in Islam is belief in all the prophets. This article is in fact a logical conclusion to the third one. The same philosophy as underlies the belief in all books also necessitates belief in all the prophets. The Holy Quran speaks of the many prophets who mostly belong to the Middle Eastern line of prophethood, beginning with Adam upto the time of Muhammad, peace be upon him. But there are exceptions to the rule. There are two things which are specifically mentioned in the Quran relating to this issue:
a) Although the names and short histories of some prophets were revealed to the Holy Founder of Islam, the list is in no way exhaustive. They are just specimen names, and there are a large number of prophets do not find mention in the Quran.
b) In the list of prophets who are specifically mentioned, there are certain names which do not seem to belong to the prophets of Israel. Many commentators therefore are inclined to believe that they are non-Arab prophets who are included in the list just for the sake of representation of the outer world. For instance, Dhul-Kifl is one name in the list of prophets which is unheard of in the Arab or Semitic references. Some scholars seem to have traced this name to Buddha, who was of Kapeel, which was the capital of a small state situated on the border of India and Nepal. Buddha not only belonged to Kapeel, but was many a time referred to as being 'Of Kapeel'. This is exactly what is meant by the word 'Dhul-Kifl'. It should be remembered that the consonant 'p' is not present in Arabic, and the nearest one to it is 'fa'. Hence, Kapeel transliterated into Arabic becomes Kifl.
Apart from the evidence of the Quran, there is one reference which is controversial among the commentators. There is a tradition reported from the Holy Prophet (sa) which speaks of an Indian prophet by name. In his words:
There was a prophet of God in India who was dark in colour and his name was Kahan.1
Now anyone acquainted with the history of Indian religions would immediately connect this description to Lord Krishna, who is invariably described in the Hindu literature as being dark of complexion. Also, the title Kanhaya is added to his name Krishna. Kanhaya contains the same consonants K,N,H as does the name Kahan -- in no way an insignificant similarity. But whether any non-Arab prophet was mentioned by name or not is only an academic discussion. There is no denying the fact that the Holy Quran makes it incumbent on every Muslim not only to believe in all the prophets, but it also clearly informs us that in every region of the world and in every age, God did raise messengers and prophets.
This belief in principle in the truth of the founding prophets and also the minor prophets of other religions is a unique declaration of the Quran, absent in all other divine books. It throws light on the universality of creation as well as on the universality of Islam itself. If the Quranic claim that the teachings of the Quran are for the entire world is true, then it has to recognise the truth of all prophets. Otherwise the followers of so many different religions will not find any connecting bridge between themselves and Islam.
The recognition of the truth of all books and the recognition of the truth of all prophets is a revolutionary declaration which has many benefits for man as a whole. Among other things, it powerfully paves the way for inter-religious peace and harmony. How can one be at peace with the followers of other religions if one considers them to be impostors and if one monopolises the truth only for the religious divines of one's own faith?
It is a universal observation that the followers of various religions tend to know very little about the doctrinal aspects of their own religions. It is the ordained priesthood or other leaders who seem to be the custodians of religious knowledge, and it is to them that the common people turn when they stand in need of religious guidance. Such people are far more sensitive to the question of the honour of their prophets and divines than they are even on the issue of God and His honour.
Apart from Islam, none of the divine books of religions bear testimony to the truth of the founders of other religions. The absence of any recognition of the truth of prophets other than their own has insulated religions from one another, each one claiming to monopolise truth, each viewing the prophets of other religions as impostors. Although in every day life we do not find this expressed in such strong terms, the hard reality remains, that if the followers of any religion take their beliefs seriously, they have to consider all other religions to be false, even at their sources. It is impossible to conceive a Christian, a true believer in Christianity as he understands it today, who would testify to the truth of Buddha, Krishna and Zoroaster. Particularly, the Christian stance against the Holy Prophet (sa) of Islam is exactly the one mentioned above; they have to denounce him as an impostor, otherwise the only alternative for them is to become Muslims. The orientalists discussing this subject have always maintained this position very clearly, many among them having gone to the extent of showing undisguised hostility towards the founder of Islam on the premise that he had to be false. The same applies to other religions alike.
Although in every day life we do not come across such glaring examples of discourtesy and insult, but whether one keeps one's views to oneself or expresses them openly, the barrier still remains. It is evident from this that the followers of all religions have compartmentalised themselves against all others, and the barrier between truth and falsehood, right or wrong does succeed in preventing the religious harmony so much needed by man today.
Of course, there are very civilised and educated Christians in the world, who out of courtesy would not offend the sensibilities of Muslims by denouncing the Holy Prophet (sa) of Islam as an impostor. However the Christians, in accordance with their beliefs, have no option but to reject the truth of the founder of Islam. In the case of a Muslim however, it is a completely different story. When he speaks of Jesus Christ or Moses or Krishna or Buddha with veneration and love, he does so because he has no other option. It is a part of the fundamental article of his faith to extend not just a human courtesy, but to genuinely believe in their truth and honour. In the light of this, this article of faith appears to hold an importance of global scale. It establishes inter- religious peace and harmony and genuinely creates an atmosphere of mutual trust and love. Like the Unity of God it holds the intrinsic quality of being irreplaceable -- there is no alternative.
The Promised Messiah, Hadrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, has summarised the Islamic belief in other prophets as follows:
One of the principles which forms the basis of my belief refers to the established religions of the world. These religions have met with wide acceptance in various regions of the earth. They have acquired a measure of age, and have reached a stage of maturity. God has informed me that none of these religions were false at their source and none of the prophets impostors.2
This is a beautiful principle, which promotes peace and harmony, and which lays the foundation for reconciliation, and which helps the moral condition of man. All prophets that have appeared in the world, regardless of whether they dwelt in India or Persia or China, or in some other country, we believe in the truth of them, one and all. 3
With the establishment of this fact that there had to be prophets all over the world in all ages who originated from God, the stage seems to be set for a universal prophet. The acceptance of a universal prophet requires a reciprocity. When you expect others to believe in someone you consider to be true, it would certainly help if you bear witness to the truth of such holy people in whom the other party has unshakeable faith.
Islam therefore lays down the foundation for the universality of a single prophet. As such the claim of the Quran -- that the Holy Prophet (sa) was raised not only for Arabia but for the whole of mankind -- is founded on a sound philosophy. We find mention in every religion of a utopian future or golden age when all mankind would be brought under the one flag. But there does not seem to be any foundation laid for the unification of man in his beliefs and dogmas. It was for the first time in the history of religion that Islam paved the way for a universal religion by the declaration that all the people of the world, at different times, were blessed with the advent of divine messengers.
According to the Holy Quran, the institution of prophethood is universal and timeless. There are two terms used to indicate the same office, each with slightly different connotations. The term An-Nabi has the connotation of prophecy. Those whom God chooses to represent Him are implanted with the knowledge of certain important events regarding the future. They are also told of things past, which were unknown to the people, and his knowledge of them stand as a sign of his being informed by an All-Knowing Being. Prophecy as such establishes the truth of the prophets, so that people may submit to them and accept their message.
The second term used in connection with prophets, is Al-Rasool or Messenger. This refers to such contents of the prophet's revelation as deal with important messages to be delivered to mankind on God's behalf. Those messages could be speaking of a new code of law, or they could simply be admonishing people for their past lapses in reference to previous revealed laws.
Both these functions unite in a single person, and as such all prophets can be termed as messengers, and all messengers as prophets.
According to Islam, all prophets are human beings and none bear superhuman characteristics. Wherever some miracles are attributed to prophets, which are understood to indicate their superhuman character, the categorical and clear statements of the Quran reject such a notion. Raising of the dead is one of such miracles attributed to certain prophets. Although similar descriptions are found in many divine scriptures or religious books, according to the Quran they are not meant to be taken literally, but have a metaphorical connotation. For instance, it is attributed to Jesus (as) that he raised the dead into a new life. But the Holy Quran speaks of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) in the same terms, with the same words being applied to his miracle of spiritual revival. Similar is the case of creating birds out of clay and causing them to fly in the name of God. These birds are only human beings who are bestowed with the faculty of spiritual flight, as against the earthly people.
No prophet is granted an exceptionally long term of life which makes him distinctly different and above the brotherhood of prophets to which he belongs. Nor is any prophet mentioned as having risen bodily to remote recesses of the universe. Wherever there is such mention, it is spiritual ascent which is meant, not bodily ascent, which the Quran categorically declares is against the character of prophets. When the Holy Founder of Islam was required by the People of the Book to physically ascend to heaven and bring back a book, the answer which God taught him was simply this:
Say to them: 'My Lord is far above (such childish conduct). I am no more than a human being and a prophet.' Surah Bani-Israel (Ch. 17: V.94)
This answer rejects all claims about other prophets who are understood to have ascended physically to heaven. The argument implied in this answer is that no human being and no prophet can rise bodily to heaven, otherwise the Prophet Muhammad (sa) could also have repeated the same miracle. The emphasis on the human characteristics of prophets and their human limitations is one of the most beautiful features of fundamental Islamic teachings. Prophets rise above their fellow human beings not because they were gifted with superhuman qualities, but only because they gave a better account of the qualities that they had been gifted with. They remained human despite having ascended to great spiritual heights, and their conduct as such is inimitable by other human beings.
On the issue of continuity of prophecy, Islam categorically declares the Holy Prophet (sa) of Islam to be the last of the law- bearing prophets and the Quran to be the last Divine book of law, perfected and protected till the end of time. Obviously a book which is perfect and also protected from interpolation transcends alteration. No change is warranted on both counts. As long as a book is perfect and protected from human interpolation, no change is justified.
As far as prophecy other than law-bearing prophecy is concerned, the possibility of its continuity is clearly mentioned in the Quran. Again there are clear prophecies about such divine Founder of Islam and the Holy Book -- the Quran. The following verse of Surah Al-Nisa leaves no ambiguity about this:
And whoso obeys Allah and this Messenger of His shall be among those on whom Allah has bestowed His blessings, namely, the Prophets, the Truthful, the Martyrs, and the Righteous. Surah Al-Nisa (Ch. 4: V.70)
In short, Islam is declared in the Quran to be the last perfected religion for the benefit of mankind, after which no new teaching would be revealed to annul the teachings of Islam, nor would a new independent prophet be born outside the domain of Islam; any new prophet would be completely subordinate to the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa.
The prophets always came to deliver a message. That message was not confined to the areas of beliefs, but also covered the areasre of practices and implementation of the beliefs. The teachings are divided into two large categories:
- How to improve one's relationship with God.
- How to conduct oneself in relation to one's fellow human beings.
These two categories in fact cover all aspects of religious laws. We cannot enter into a lengthy discussion of how this task is carried out to perfection in Islam, but perhaps it would be appropriate to illustrate a few important features of this teaching of universal character.