Prophethood (al-Nubuwah) is the third Pillar of Faith according to Shi'a theology, after belief in One God and God's justice. Muslims believe in all the Prophets that God has appointed to guide mankind.
It is one of the five Pillars of Faith in Shi’a Islam.
Muslims believe that there are 124,000 Prophets and these include Adam, Noah, Ibrahim, Moses, Jesus and God’s final Prophet, Muhammad.
Muslims believe that the doctrine of Prophethood illustrates God's mercy by sending Prophets to mankind in order to guide them towards what is good.
Without a Prophet who is a role model, who is divinely-inspired and displays supreme moral conduct, human beings would fall into ignorance and error. As such, Muslims believe Prophet Muhammad is ‘the best human being’ and a ‘mercy to all the worlds.’
One of the signs of the Prophets of God is that they are able to perform miracles in order to show people they are authentic messengers.
In addition, people can have confidence in the truth of the messages they bring and the guidance they receive from God. Muslims believe a prophet of God should be emulated in his private and public life so that one can become a better human being.
Nubuwah essentially denotes the idea of making known, informing, bringing news and communicating. As such, a Nabi (Prophet) is literally one who informs others by bringing a message and Nubuwwah means Prophethood.
According to Allamah Hilli, the 14th century Shi’a scholar, God appointed Prophets to benefit mankind’s existence.
In order for societies to be Just and prosperous and not fall foul to the limitations, biases and corruption of human beings, there needs to be an enlightened guide and law-giver that can assist mankind to distinguish between justice and injustice and to remind people of the existence of the Creator and invite others to goodness.
Accordining to the Qur'an, there are several objectives of a Prophet:
1. The primary objective is consolidating the foundation of Tawhid (Oneness of God).
The Qur’an states:
‘And certainly we raised in every nation a messenger saying: Serve Allah and shun the false Gods’ (16:36).
This was the prime call of all Prophets appointed by God, since the time of Adam.
2. The second objective of a Prophet is to provide mankind with moral guidance, wisdom and intellectual sciences.
‘He it is who has sent among the unlettered ones a Messenger of their own, to recite unto them His revelations and to make them grow [in purity], and to teach them the scripture and wisdom’ (62:2).
A Prophet cannot be a Prophet unless he is conveying and explaining a message from God. Hence, a person may be inspired, enlightened and wise but he cannot be regarded as a Prophet unless there is a message given to him by God. A Prophet may perform miracles in order to demonstrate the truthfulness of his claim.
3. The third aspect of the doctrine of Nubuwah is the accurate propagation of God’s message to people by a Prophet. If one of the main goals of Prophethood is to invite people to Tawhid, how can we trust that a Prophet is telling the truth? How do we know that his character is one worthy of following?
Here, Shi’a scholars cite the principle of ‘Isma (infallibility or sinlessness) which refers to a Prophet’s immunity from sin. They argue that God bestows a special grace on His messengers which protects them from any kind of sin and error. This does not mean that Prophets do not have free will. On the contrary, they have the ability to commit sins but due to the pure nature of the Prophets' soul, God bestows "a special form of kindness because of which he chooses not to forsake obedience and to commit sin."
The relevance of Nubuwah is the ability of God’s Prophets to reform the human condition by encouraging people to reflect on their actions and beliefs.
Considering that ilm al-kalam (the science of theology) is an aqli (rational-based evidence) and naqli (transmitted-based evidence) discipline, the doctrine of Prophethood (Nubuwah) is explained by both rational and scriptural arguments.
Nubuwah is derived from the three-lettered Arabic root of ‘nun, ba’ and ya'.’ It denotes the idea of making known, informing, bringing news and communicating. As such, a Nabi (Prophet) is literally one who informs others and Nubuwah means Prophethood.
According to Allamah Hilli, the 14th century scholar, God has appointed Prophets to benefit mankind’s existence. In order for societies to be just and prosperous and not fall foul of the limitations, biases and corruption of human beings, there needs to be an enlightened guide and law-giver that assists mankind in distinguishing between justice and injustice and to remind people of the existence of the Creator and invite others to goodness.
This theological point is based on the Shi’a and Mu’tazilite view (as opposed to the Asharite view) that morality is intelligible and Prophets can understand and communicate what is right or wrong about an action. As such, Nubuwah is a rational belief from the viewpoint of a Muslim because the aim is to follow correct guidance from a Prophet that is divinely-inspired.
Purpose of a Prophet
According to the Qur'an there are several objectives of a Prophet.
The primary objective is consolidating the foundation of Tawhid (Oneness of God).
The Qur’an states: ‘And certainly We raised in every nation a messenger saying: Serve Allah and shun the false Gods’ (16:36).
This has been the prime call of all Prophets appointed by God, since the time of Adam.
The second objective of the Prophet is to provide mankind with moral guidance, wisdom and intellectual sciences:
‘He it is Who has sent among the unlettered ones a Messenger of their own, to recite unto them His revelations and to make them grow [in purity], and to teach them the Scripture and wisdom’ (62:2).
Thirdly, a Prophet is tasked with establishing justice in society:
‘We verily sent Our Messengers with clear proofs and revealed with them the Scripture and the Balance, that mankind might observe right measure’ (57:25).
Fourth, a Prophet is appointed to be a law-giver and to solve disputes:
‘Mankind were one community and then God sent Prophets as bearers of good tidings and as warners and He sent down with them the Scripture with truth that it might judge between that in which they differed’ (2:213).
Fifth, a Prophet is a link between God and human beings communicating His message, particularly in dispelling any arguments by those who state that humanity was never guided:
‘Messengers bearing good news and warning, in order that mankind might have no argument against God after the Messengers. God is ever Mighty, Wise’ (4:165).
The scriptural proofs, primarily from the Qur’an, are there to confirm and explicate the rational arguments behind the appointment of Prophets as a necessary action in order to remove ignorance from humanity. Teaching wisdom and implementing justice are crucial to the functioning of a stable society, hence, what the Qur’an argues is also what the intellect demands of society. According to scholars, this combination of rational and scriptural deliberations characterises ilm al-kalam as a discursive science, using a variety of intellectual methods across fields such as philosophy (Falsafa) and logic (Mantiq) to explain a doctrine.
Recognising a Prophet
Closely associated with the doctrine of Nubuwah is the issue of how to identify an authentic Messenger of God.
Allamah Hilli states that a Prophet is a "man who brings a message from God without the mediation of any human being." And by the term “man”, angels are excluded. And by the term, “a bringer of a message from God”, everyone is excluded who conveys a message from any besides Allah (s.w.t).
This means that a Prophet can be accepted by his fellow human beings as he is one of them, not another creature of God.
As a Prophet cannot be a Prophet unless he is bringing and explaining a message from God, a person may be inspired, enlightened and wise but he cannot be regarded as a Prophet unless there is message given to him by God. A message may be in the form of scriptural revelation like the Qur’an, or in the form of exhortations to people. But how do we know that a message has been given to a Prophet by God? The doctrine of Nubuwah explains this by referring to the concept of miracles.
What Determines a Miracle
A miracle is often defined as an interruption of the laws of nature by God which produces a unique event.
In Arabic, a miracle is called 'Mu’jiza'. However, when we examine the past tense verb of mu’jiza,‘ajaza, we arrive at its foundational meaning: ‘to be weak, to lack strength or to be incapable of.’ This means Mu’jiza is something in which the human being feels weak in front of or incapable of. Technically, this is a more accurate meaning of Mu’jiza since it exposes the intervention by the Divine but also the limited state and reaction of the one who witnesses the miracle.
According to scholars, the reason why the doctrine of Nubuwah uses miracles is because it is a distinct sign of a Prophet; all Prophets of God have the ability to carry out miracles. More importantly, the performance of miracles, establishes the authenticity of their claim.
Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) was appointed to call mankind to Tawhid and did so by reciting eloquent verses of the Qur’an which contained profound spiritual teachings to his people. What is interesting is that the diverse knowledge of these verses, which he could not have known, raised curiosity in people’s minds as to how Muhammad could produce such beautiful Arabic, which surpassed the poets of the time. This in itself was a miracle proving that Muhammad’s (s.a.w.) claim as a Prophet was neither magical nor confused, something he was accused of. Here, miracles are meant to root out false emissaries and aid the message of God. There have been none from that time until today that have been able to produce something equivalent to that miracle. As such, miracles ‘must break the ordinary course of nature’, showing the truthfulness of the Prophet and allow others to rely on his claim.
On the part of God, Allamah Hilli states that God would not want people to follow a liar and incite them to evil. "As for the third, if he were not truthful in his claim to be a Prophet, then he would be a liar. And that is false, since it would necessitate the inciting of Mukallafs (adherence) to obey a liar, and that is evil which the Wise (Allah) would not commit."
This shows that miracles are performed in line with the prevailing fields of expertise of the time (so that people can recognise the miracle) but at the same time, are intended to surpass those fields of expertise (thus establishing the uniqueness of a Prophet). A Hadith by the 8th Imam, Ali b. Musa al-Ridha (a.s), explains this:
‘This is because when God sent Moses (peace be upon him), what prevailed among the people of this time was magic. Thus, he brought them from God something that no one among them could perform, and which rendered their magic null and void; and with that He established the proof for them. And God sent Jesus (peace be upon him) at a time when chronic illnesses had appeared and people needed the medical sciences. Jesus brought them from God something the like of which they did not have, and by means of which he raised them from the dead, and healed the blind and the lepers, with God’s leave. Thus, he established the proof of them. And God sent Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny) at a time when the art of oration and poetry was prevalent among the people of his time. Thus, he brought them from God his exhortations and his wisdom, which rendered speeches null and void, and he established his proof over them.’
The third aspect of the doctrine of Nubuwah is the accurate dissemination of God’s message to people by a Prophet.
If one of the main goals of Prophethood is to invite people to Tawhid, how can we trust that a Prophet is telling the truth? How do we know that his character is one worthy to follow? Here Shi'a theologians cite the principle of ‘isma (infallibility or sinlessness) which refers to a Prophet’s immunity from sin. They argue that God bestows a special grace (lutf) on His messengers which protects them from any kind of sin and error.
Accordingly they argue that the principle of ‘isma ensures that a Prophet is truthfully and accurately transmitting the Divine message to humanity because he cannot make any errors or mistakes in his transmission. Furthermore, a Prophet cannot be regarded as a sinner or hypocrite because in both his public and private life, a Prophet remains obedient towards God.
As Nasir al-Din Tusi (1274AD) states: ''Isma is essential for the Messengers, in order that their sayings be trusted, and the purpose of prophecy be realised.'' This has been the mainstream theological view till today.
Shaykh Ja’far Sobhani, a current jurist and theologian states: ''For were there to be any likelihood of error or mistake [in respect of the station of being protected against all disobedience and sin], the trust of the people in the Prophet would be shaken, and they would not be able to rely upon the other messages of the Prophet; in consequence, the whole purpose of the revelation would be undermined''.
Sobhani cites the following verse of the Qur’an as proof of this point:
‘[He is the] Knower of the unseen, and He does reveal his unseen unto none except unto every Messenger whom He has chosen. Then He sends a guard in front of and behind him, so that He may ascertain that they have conveyed the messages of their Lord. He is aware of all their doings and He keeps count of all things.’ [72:26-28]
Again, the rational arguments of being able to trust the Prophet and the Prophet accurately transmitting the Divine message are fused with the scriptural argument of God’s lutf, exemplified by God making a "guard to go before him and a guard behind him."
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Khu'i, Al-Sayyid Abu al-Qasim al-Musawi.The Prolegomena to the Qur’an.(Translated by Abdulaziz Sachedina). (Oxford University Press, 1998)
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