Chapter 5: Finality of Prophethood

We have said that despite the differences in details all Prophets have delivered the same message and belonged to the same ideological school. The principles and teachings of this school were explained to human society gradually in proportion to its development till the humanity reached the stage when the entire teachings in a comprehensive form were presented. At this point Prophethood came to an end. The Holy Prophet, Muhammad bin Abdullah (Peace be on him and his progeny) was the person through whom the complete ideology was conveyed, and the Holy Qur'an was the last celestial Book. The Holy Qur'an itself says:

"In truth and justice has been perfected the word of your Lord. None can change His words."(Surah al-An'am, 6:115)

Now let us see why in the past the Prophethood was renewed from time to time and so many Prophets were raised in succession, though most of them were not given a new and independent code of law and were sent to promulgate then existing code? Why did this procedure come to an end with the last Prophet since whose time no Prophet, neither a law-giving one nor a preaching one has come, nor will ever come? Here we touch upon the reasons briefly.

Reasons of the Renewal of Prophethood

Though Prophethood is one continuous process and the Divine message, as the religion is not more than one reality, the reasons of the appearance of so many law-giving and preaching Prophets in succession and the termination of Prophethood after the advent of the last Prophet are as under: *

Firstly the ancient man because of his intellectual immaturity was unable to preserve his celestial Book. Usually the Divine Books were either altered and corrupted or were lost totally. Therefore it was necessary that the message should be renewed from time to time. The revelation of the Holy Qur'an corresponded with a period when humanity had passed the period of its childhood and had become able to preserve its intellectual heritage. That is why there could be no alteration in the last Divine and Holy Book. The Muslims committed to memory and recorded in writing every verse of it as it was revealed, and did away with every possibility of addition, omission or alteration in it. Thus one of the reasons of the renewal of Prophethood disappeared.

Secondly, humanity being immature, it was not previously competent enough to have a comprehensive plan for its guidance, and hence it was necessary that it should be guided by the Prophets piecemeal and step by step.

Anyhow, by the period of the final Prophethood humanity had developed to the extent that it was able to have a comprehensive plan of conduct and it was no longer necessary that it should receive guidance stage by stage. Besides the extinction of the old celestial Books and the alteration in them, another reason for the continual renewal of Prophethood was that man in olden days was not able to receive a comprehensive plan.

When his ability sufficiently developed, a comprehensive scheme was put at his disposal and this reason of the renewal of Prophethood also disappeared. Now the Muslim scholars who were specialists in this field, can guide the Muslims in the light of this scheme and can frame the rules and procedures for them to suit every occasion.

Thirdly, the overwhelming majority of the Prophets consisted of the preaching and not the law-giving Prophets. The number of the law-giving Prophets did not exceed the number of the fingers of one hand. The task of the preaching Prophets was to propagate, interpret and promulgate the religious law prevailing during their time. Now the religious scholars of the age of the finality of Prophethood, which is the age of knowledge, are capable of applying the general principles of Islam to the requirements of the time and place and deducing the rules of religious laws.

This process is called Ijtihad. The outstanding Muslim divines in this way perform many duties of the preaching Prophets and some of those even of the law-giving Prophet without being the law-givers themselves.

They guide the Muslim Ummah. Thus, though the need of religion still exists and is expected to be ever increasing with the further cultural development of humanity, the need of the new Prophets and the new revealed Books has ceased to exist. And hence Prophethood has come to an end with the final Prophet.

It is clear from what has been mentioned that intellectual and social maturity of mankind has played a big role in the finality of Prophethood in several ways:

(i) It has enabled man to keep his celestial Book unaltered;

(ii) It has enabled him to receive his evolutionary programme all at once and not by stages;

(iii) It has enabled him to undertake the task of preaching and propagating religion, to set up religious institutions, to exhort people to do what is good and to restrain them from what is evil. Thus there is no longer any need of preaching Prophets who used to preach and propagate the teachings of the law-giving Prophets. This need is now being adequately fulfilled by the religious scholars and Divines;

(iv) From the viewpoint of mental development man has now reached a stage that in pursuance of his Ijtihad he can interpret the revealed words and can apply the relevant principles to all the changing circumstances. This task is also being performed by the religious scholars.

It is evident that the finality of Prophethood does not mean that man is no longer in need of Divine teachings received through revelation. Prophethood has not come to an end because as the result of his mental development man is now able to dispense with religion.

The eminent scholar and great Muslim thinker, Dr Iqbal, in spite of his extraordinarily intelligent discussions of the Islamic questions by which we have personally been greatly benefited and of which we have made use in this and other books, has been involved in a great misunderstanding while explaining the philosophy of the finality of Prophethood. He has based his conclusions on certain points, which we mention below, point by point:

(i) The word 'wahi' (revelation) which literally means 'to whisper', has been used by the Holy Quran in an expanded sense to include every kind of inspired guidance whether its recipient be inorganic material, plants, animals or man. He says:

"This contact with the root of his own being is by no means peculiar to man. Indeed the way in which the word 'wahi' is used in the Holy Qur'an shows that the Holy Qur'an regards it as a universal property of life, though its nature and character are different at different stages of the evolution of life. The plant growing freely in space, the animal developing a new organ to suit a new environment, and a human being receiving light from the inner depths of life, are all cases of inspiration varying in character according to the needs of the recipient, or the needs of the species to which the recipient belongs". (The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, p. 125)

(ii) Wahi or revelation is a sort of instinct and the guidance by means of revelations is a sort of instinctive guidance.

(iii) Wahi is guidance from collective point of view. Human society being a moving unit and subject to the laws of motion, is definitely in need of guidance. The Prophet is just like a receiving set which instinctively receives what is required by mankind in this respect. Dr Iqbal says:

"The world-life intuitively sees its own needs and at critical moments defines its own direction. This is what, in the language of religion, we call Prophetic revelation". (The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, p. 147)

(iv) In their primitive stages the living beings are guided by their instinct. As they go to the higher stages of evolution and their faculties of feeling, imagination and thinking develop, the power of instinct is reduced and is replaced by feeling and thinking Power. Thus the insects have the most numerous and the strongest instincts and man the weakest and the smallest in number.

(v) From sociological point of view human society is passing through an evolutionary process, Just as the animals in their primary stages have been in need of instinct and have gradually developed their faculties of feeling and imagination, and in certain cases of thinking also, and their instinctive guidance has been replaced by the guidance through feeling and imagination, similarly man in his evolutionary process has gradually reached a stage in which his rationality has so developed that his instinctive power (wahi or inspiration) has weakened. Dr Iqbal says:

"During the minority of mankind psychic energy develops what I call Prophetic consciousness - a mode of economizing individual thought and choice by providing ready-made judgements, choices and ways of action. With the birth of reason and critical faculty, however, life in its own interest inhibits the formation and growth of non-rational modes of consciousness through which psychic energy flowed at an earlier stage of human evolution.

Man is primarily governed by passion and instinct. Inductive reason, which alone makes man master of his environment, is in itself an achievement. Once born it must be reinforced by inhibiting the growth of other modes of knowledge". (The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, p. 125).

(vi) Basically the world has passed through two ages: the age of inspiration and the age of rational thinking and reflection on nature and history. The ancient world produced a few great systems of philosophy (like Greek and Roman). Anyhow their value was limited as humanity was still passing through the period of its minority. Dr Iqbal says:

"There is no doubt that the ancient world produced some great systems of philosophy at a time when man was comparatively primitive and governed more or less by suggestion. But we must not forget that this system-building in the ancient world was the work of abstract thought, which cannot go beyond the systematization of vague religious beliefs and traditions, and gives us no hold on the concrete situations of life". (The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, p. 126)

(vii) The Holy Prophet with whom Prophethood came to end belonged to the ancient as well as the modern world. As the source of his inspiration was revelation and not the experimental study of nature and history, he belonged to the ancient world; but as the spirit of his teachings called for rational thinking and the study of nature and history with the birth of which the job of revelation is terminated, he belonged to the modern world. Dr Iqbal says:

"Looking at the matter from this point of view, the Prophet of Islam seems to stand between the ancient and the modern world. In so far as the source of his revelation is concerned, he belongs to the ancient world; and in so far as the spirit of his revelation is concerned, he belongs to the modern world.

In him life discovers other sources of knowledge suitable to its new direction. The birth of Islam is the birth of inductive intellect. In Islam prophecy reaches its perfection in discovering the need of its own abolition. This involves the keen perception that life cannot forever be kept in leading strings; hence, in order to achieve full self-consciousness, man must finally be thrown back on his own resources.

The abolition of priesthood and hereditary kingship in Islam, the constant appeal to reason and experience in the Holy Qur'an and the emphasis it lays on Nature and History as sources of human knowledge, are all different aspects of the same idea of finality". (The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, p. 126)

These are the main points of the philosophy of the finality of Prophethood as conceived by Dr Iqbal. Unfortunately this philosophy is unsound and several of its principles are incorrect.

The first objection to which it is amenable is that if this philosophy was accepted, that would mean that not only there was no longer any need of a new Prophet or a new revelation, but that there was also no need of any guidance by revelation at all, for experimental intellect had taken its place.

This philosophy is the philosophy of the end of religion and not that of the finality of Prophethood. If this philosophy was accepted, the only thing that Islamic revelation could do was to proclaim the end of the era of religion and the beginning of the era of reason and science. Evidently this idea is not only contrary to the belief in the necessity of Islam but is also contrary to the view held by Dr Iqbal himself. All his efforts in fact, are directed to prove that reason and science though necessary for human society are not enough. Man requires faith and religion as much as he requires science and knowledge.

Dr Iqbal says in clear terms that life is in need of fixed principles as well as changing minor factors, and that Ijtihad is meant to apply the set principles to the specific situations. He says:

"The new culture finds the foundation of world-unity in the principle of 'Tawhid' (monotheism). Islam as a polity is the only practical means of making this principle a living factor in the intellectual and emotional life of mankind. It demands loyalty to Allah, not to thrones. And since Allah is the ultimate spiritual basis of all life, loyalty to Him virtually amounts to man's loyalty to his own ideal nature. The ultimate spiritual basis of all life, as conceived by Islam, is eternal and reveals itself in variety and change.

A society based on such a conception of reality must reconcile, in its life, to the categories of permanence and change. It must possess eternal principles to regulate its collective life; because eternity gives us a foothold in the world of perpetual change. But eternal principles when they are understood to exclude all possibilities of change which, according to the Holy Qur'an, is one of the greatest signs of Allah tend to immobilize what is essentially mobile in its nature.

The failure of Europe in political and social science illustrates the former principle; the immobility of Islam during the last 500 years illustrates the latter. What then is the principle of movement in Islam? This is known as 'Ijtihad'." (The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, p. 147)

According to the above statement, guidance of revelation will always be required, and the guidance provided by experimental intellect will never be able to take its place. Dr Iqbal himself supports the principle of the permanent need of guidance. But the philosophy he has put forward to explain the finality of Prophethood, requires that not only there should be no need of any new Prophet and new revelation, but that religion itself should come to an end.

This misleading interpretation of finality by Dr Iqbal means that man's need of guidance and education by the prophets is of the same nature as the need of a class by a child.

The child every year goes to the next class and changes his teacher. Similarly man in every period has gone to the next stage, and required a new code of religious law. When the child reaches the final class, he completes his education and gets a certificate to that effect. Thereafter he is no longer in need of a teacher and can carry on his research independently. In the same way the man of the age of finality with the proclamation of the end of Prophethood has secured the certificate of the completion of his education. He can now undertake the study of Nature and History independently. That is what Ijtihad means. With the end of Prophethood man has reached the stage of self-sufficiency.

There is no doubt that such an interpretation of the finality of Prophethood is wrong. The consequent results of this sort of interpretation are acceptable neither to Dr Iqbal himself, nor to those who have drawn these conclusions from what he has stated.

Further, should the view of Dr Iqbal be correct, the thing which he calls 'inner experience' (spiritual light and inspirations received by saintly persons) should also cease to exist, for it is also supposedly a part of the instinct which languishes with the appearance of experimental intellect. But according to Dr Iqbal that mystic experience still continues to exist. He asserts that from Islamic point of view inner experience is one of the three sources of human knowledge, the other two being Nature and History. Personally also Dr Iqbal has a strong mystic tendency. He firmly believes in inspiration. He says:

"The idea however, does not mean that mystic experience, which qualitatively does not differ from the experience of the Prophets, has now ceased to exist as a vital fact. Indeed the Holy Qur'an regards both 'Anfus' (self) and 'Afaq' (world) as sources of knowledge. Allah reveals His signs in inner as well as outer experience, and it is the duty of man to judge the knowledge yielding capacity of all aspects of experience. The idea of finality, therefore, should not be taken to suggest that the ultimate fate of life is complete displacement of emotion by reason.

Such a thing is neither possible nor desirable. The intellectual value of the idea is that it tends to create an, independent critical attitude towards mystic experience by, generating the belief that all personal authority, claiming a supernatural origin has come to an end in the history of man... Mystic experience then, however unusual and abnormal, must. now be regarded by a Muslim as a perfectly natural experience open to critical scrutiny like other aspects of human experience"., (The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, p. 126)

What Dr Iqbal means to say is that with the end of Prophethood the inspirations and miracles of the saintly persons have, not come to an end, though they are no longer so authoritative, as they were in the past. Prior to the birth of experimented intellect, miracles had a perfectly natural authority.

They were not open to any doubt. But for the intellectually developed man (of the age of finality) these things have ceased to be authoritative, and are now like other occurrences and phenomena open to critical scrutiny. Pre-finality period was that of miracles and supernatural events, but the age of finality is the age of reason, which does not regard any supernatural occurrence as a proof of anything. It judges every reality discovered through a mystic experience in accordance with its own standards.

This part of the remarks of Dr Iqbal is also not sound neither in regard to the pre-finality nor in regard to the post-finality period. We will make our comments on it under the following heading.