The Prophets: A Blessing for humankind
Convergence between the Christian Understanding and the Risale-i Nur
Thomas Michel, S.J.
The purpose of this paper is simple. First I want to explain the concept of prophecy according to the beliefs of Christian faith and to see how Christians understand prophecy as a blessing for humankind. Secondly, I would like to take some points raised in the Risale-i Nur to show how, according to this commentary on the Holy Quran, God has blessed humankind through the prophets. Thus, I hope that the points of convergence and divergence will become clear.
Christian concept of prophethood
The Christian view of prophecy has been summarized by the prominent Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner in his article on Prophetism in the theological compendium Sacramentum Mundi. (1) As you listen to this list of the characteristics of the prophet according to Christian faith, I invite Muslim participants to reflect on whether and how these elements are found in the life and mission of Muhammad as found in the Quran and hadith. Similarly, Christians can reflect on Gospel passages to see how these points are exemplified in the life and teaching of Jesus.
1) The prophet always comes with a new message
2) and has to produce his own credentials.
3) The uniqueness of his vocation is essential to the prophet.
4) He is the religious revolutionary,
5) the critic of society,
6) and does not confine himself to truths which are already evident his hearers.
7) He sees himself as the instrument of the personal, living God,
8) bringing a message not meant for himself alone, but primarily for others.
9) The word is constitutive of the prophet and his mission.
10) In his criticism of religion and society and interpretation of historical events,
11) the prophet exerts an influence upon events
12) by making known their real depth and truth
13) and by offering a new and forward-looking situation in his criticism of society.
14) In seeking to transform the status quo,
15) the prophet is the organizer of religious and social changes
16) and thus institutionalizes his message.
It is worth taking a closer look at these points. I will not presume to try to teach Muslims about your prophet, Muhammad, but I will note some ways in which Jesus exemplifies these characteristics.
The prophet brings a new message (1). He is not simply a teacher of old truths, but is bringing a message that his hearers perceive as new. In the Gospels, Jesus hearers are constantly saying, This is something new. New doesnt necessarily mean different from what the earlier prophets taught. Often the prophet repeats and confirms what the earlier prophets taught, but he does it in a new way and - this is important - with new authority. He has been directly authorized by God to bring people a fresh, unexpected message that calls them to a new commitment.
The prophet produces his own credentials (2). The Jewish leaders were always challenging Jesus to say by what right he was teaching, healing and casting out demons. Did he have permission from the Jewish High Priest, or was he doing this on his own? Similarly, Muslims will remember how the pagans of Mecca used to challenge Muhammad to produce evidence that his message was really from God.
Each prophet is unique (3). In the Bible, some of the prophets, like Elijah and Elisha, were miracle-workers. Ezekiel and Isaiah had ecstatic experiences and used to deliver their messages through symbolic acts and gestures. Amos delivered angry denunciations of society, whereas Hosea reflected on his unhappy family life. Jeremiah never wanted to be a prophet, but God called him to do so against his will. Elijah and Nathan had dealings with kings, while John the Baptist left city-life to live and preach in the desert. The prophet never did what was expected and didnt fit into the usual patterns or traditional religious bureaucracies.
The prophet is a religious revolutionary (4), a critic of society (5). Jesus broke the Jewish law to eat with sinners, to heal people on the Sabbath (Saturday). He foresaw a day in which people would no longer need to worship God in the Jerusalem Temple. He drove the money-changers out of the Temple and criticized the religious leaders of his time who laid heavy burdens on people and wouldnt lift a finger to remove them. Similarly, Muslims recall how Muhammad criticized the pagan Arabs for killing their infant daughters, for stealing the property of widows and orphans, for charging heavy interest on loans, for wastefully spending their money on frivolous things, for oppressing their slaves.
The prophet doesnt simply state the obvious or repeat platitudes (6). His teaching comes from God and teaches people what they cannot know by use of reason and science. He insists that he is not speaking on his own, but is delivering a message that comes directly from God. In Johns Gospel, Jesus says that he speaks only what he has heard from God. The prophet is thus Gods instrument, spokesman, mouthpiece (7). The prophets message is mainly meant for others (8). It is not for self-improvement, but rather Gods way to communicate His will to humankind. We think of John the Baptist preaching to the Jews who came out into the desert to listen, of Jesus preaching to the simple people in Galilee about the need to repent and allow God to rule over their lives and his telling the religious scholars that they too need to repent. We remember also how Muhammad delivered his message to the pagans of Mecca, telling them to repent, to believe in God and the Last Day and to do good works.
The prophet is the messenger of the Word of God (9). He is distinguished from other religious figures such as the priest, the mystic, the shaman, and the teacher of wisdom, precisely by his claim to be bearer of revelation. He does not restate traditional teaching in the manner of a preacher nor offer his own insight into what has been previously revealed, as does the theologian. What he brings is a new revelation which he received from God. Without credentials beyond his own claim to bear a divine message, the prophet is the charismatic outsider both separate from and critical of the political and religious establishment.
The prophet criticizes religious practices (10) of his time and interprets historical events (11). We think of Jesus criticizing the religious scholars and of Muhammad condemning the pagan practices associated with the Kaba. Jesus interpreted the events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and showed how these were connected with the peoples unwillingness to accept him whom God had sent (12). Similarly, Muhammad spoke about the people of Noah, of the tribes of Ad and Thammud, who rejected their prophets, of Pharaoh who rejected the message of Moses, and interpreted the history, showing how those peoples were destroyed because of their refusal to believe. Thus, the prophets are saying, it is no accident that these things are happening. God is at work in human history (12).
When the prophet criticizes the unbelief and immorality of his people, he is always looking to the future (13). Jesus envisions a day when it wont matter if people worship God on this mountain or that, but they will worship God in spirit and in truth. Jesus looks forward to the day when the Holy Spirit will come and guide people according to the fullness of truth. He began to call disciples and form them into a community that would live in a new way, one characterized by love and faith (14). Similarly, in Mecca, Muhammad began to form a community that would live according to the message of Islam and in Madina he taught the ways that communal life would be regulated (15). Thus, after Jesus death, his disciples believed that in and through Jesus, God had brought about a dramatic change in peoples relation to God, expressed in the life of the new community of Christians (16). By the time of Muhammads death, the Islamic community that would live according to the Quranic teaching and the example of Muhammad was formed.
The uniqueness of each religion
When we look at these Christian characteristics of prophecy and when we reflect on the ways that these qualities were expressed in the lives of the prophets, we find many similarities between the Christian and the Islamic understanding of prophecy. By this, I do not mean to imply that Christian faith and Islamic faith are saying the same thing. The differences between religions are just as important as the points of convergence.
It is the differences that make each religious community unique, distinguished from all others. We each regard the uniqueness of our faith, our community as Gods special blessing to us. For us Christians, Jesus is The Prophet, who not only taught Gods message and perfectly embodied it in the way he lived, but we believe that Jesus had a special, unequaled relationship to God which resulted in his life and death as having a unique power to save us and reconcile us to God. This is what distinguishes Christian faith from that of Jews or Muslims.
Similarly, for Muslims it is the belief that Muhammad is the final prophet who brought the complete and perfect message of the Quran, so that by following the Quran and the sunna of Muhammad Muslims live according to the sharia or Islamic way of life. It is this second phrase of the shahada, Muhammadun rasulullah, that distinguishes Muslims from other monotheists, such as Jews and Christians, who with Muslims affirm la ilaha illAllah.
I believe that Christians and Muslims can rejoice and celebrate not only what we have in common, our points of convergence, but also we can glorify God because of what is unique in the faith of each. I thank God for what makes me a Christian, and I also thank God for what makes you Muslims. We need not belabor the points where we differ, because we are all returning to God and at that time God will inform us about the points where we disagreed.
This is the greatest benefit to humankind that God has bestowed in the prophets, our faith. Through what we have received by way of the prophets, we come to know God, to serve God, and to love God. We receive the promise of our eternal life with God. What greater benefit could we imagine as the result of Gods goodness through the prophets?
The prophets, a blessing for humankind, according to Said Nursi
In the Islamic tradition, so many Muslims down through the centuries have reflected and commented on the benefits to humankind of Gods sending prophets, I cannot hope to address all that has been written on the subject but will limit myself to a few remarks on what Said Nursi has had to say in the Risale-i Nur.
1. The prophetic and the philosophical. Said Nursi understands the spiritual and intellectual history of humankind, of whatever nation, religion or culture, as following simultaneously two currents. He describes it with the image of a tree whose trunk divides into two main branches, which themselves continue dividing into numerous smaller branches. One current is that of prophethood and religion and the other is the human philosophical tradition. (2) When these two currents interact and cooperate, teaching and learning from each other, the result is prosperity and social harmony for humankind. When the two currents proceed separately or run counter to one another, the result is disorder, war, confusion and moral degradation.
The reason for this is that the prophets bring to mankind Gods teaching on peoples duties toward God, toward their neighbor, and towards themselves. In other words, the prophets offer Gods guidance on how people should behave and how society should be structured. Thus, the prophets teach that people should approach God humbly, recognizing each ones limitations of knowledge, strength, and goodness, and serve God as a faithful servant. This is what the Quran means by saying that believers should be guided by God-given morals.
The philosophical tradition, or what today might be called the scientific approach, is not totally in error. Science and philosophy discover real truths and can offer a measure of guidance for ordering society and bettering the human condition. Philosophy can even arrive at some understanding about God. What philosophical reflection can not perceive by itself is human frailty and neediness and the infinite distance that separates humanity from divinity. A true understanding of a persons place in the world can be attained only when the philosophical current is willing to learn from the prophetic. As Said Nursi says,
The self-seeking rule of philosophy, Try to imitate the Necessarily Existent One, is mankinds aim for perfection. No indeed, the essence of humanity has been kneaded with impotence, weakness, poverty, and need, while the essence of the Necessarily Existent One is infinitely omnipotent, powerful, self-sufficient, and without need. (3)
It is not only in coming to recognize ones proper place before God that the insights of the prophetic tradition are essential. Also, for a correct understanding of social life, the teachings of the prophets are a sure guide. The prophets show the interrelatedness of all things and teach mutual interdependence. The importance of referring to prophetic teaching for a balanced relationship to nature and the responsible use of the benefits of the natural world, which today we call ecology, was foreseen by Said Nursi.
A religious approach to nature recognizes the unity of creation and that all that exists in nature is a blessing from God to be used by people with moderation and gratitude. However, an approach to nature that is divorced from the prophetic guidance reduces creation to a mass of raw material - oil, forests, water, animal life etc. - which is there to be selfishly exploited, fought over, and taken by the most powerful. Life then follows the law of the jungle and conflict is seen as essential to social life. Said Nursi puts it as follows:
Among the principles of the line of prophethood concerning social life are those of mutual assistance, magnanimity, and generosity. These have been harnessed for the help and assistance of all things from the sun and moon down to even plants. For the assistance of animals, for example, and the benefit of animals for human beings, and even that of particles of food for the cells of the body. Whereas, one of the principles of the line of philosophy concerning social life is conflict, which springs from the misuse of their inborn dispositions by tyrants, brutish men, and savage beasts. Indeed, they have accepted this principle at so fundamental and general a level that they declare: Life is conflict. (4)
This perception of Said Nursi has broad implications. It has relevance for the ecological crisis which the world is facing at the present time, but it is equally important to understand the moral crisis facing humanity at this moment. Once again the world has been plunged into another bloody, destructive war. A wealthy, powerful nation has attacked and, not surprisingly, defeated a small country of limited means to defend itself. As a result, a tyrant has been deposed, but in the process many innocent people have lost their lives, families have lost their breadwinners, many others must go through life maimed or with terrible burns covering their bodies.
If one accepts conflict as a fundamental principle, according to what Said Nursi calls the philosophical current, one might regard this as a victory, but if people view human society according to the prophetic current, which takes human solidarity, mutual assistance, and generosity as basic axioms of human interaction, this recourse to overwhelming force and use of violence must be seen as a defeat and setback for humanity. If the billions of dollars spent on this destructive war had been used for education, health care, and ecological preservation, the present generation would be handing on a far better world to future generations. The recent war in Iraq, in my opinion, thus exemplifies well what happens when the philosophical current becomes divorced from the line of prophetic teaching.
2. Speaking to the heart. A second blessing of the prophets for humankind, according to the Risale-i Nur, is that prophetic teaching is not limited to offering information to the mind about religious subjects, but goes beyond that to teach the human heart about God. Of itself, the acquisition of information or cognitive knowledge cannot change attitudes, cannot transform people, cannot provide people with the courage and strength to change their lives.
This can only come about by a change of heart, and this is what prophetic teaching is all about. In the view of Said Nursi, of all the teachings of the prophets, the most exalted is that of Gods oneness. Although through philosophy the mind might arrive at a concept of monotheism, such knowledge is able to reside in the heart only among those who follow prophetic guidance. He states:
It is because Divine beauty and perfection are to be seen with the heart in the affirmation of Divine unity and perceived by the spirit that all the saints and holy people have found their sweetest illumination and most delectable spiritual sustenance in repeated recitation of There is no god but God, the profession of Divine unity. Because Divine grandeur, magnificence, and glory, and the absolute sovereignty of the Eternal One are realized in the profession of Divine unity that Gods Noble Messenger (Peace and blessings be upon him) declared: The best thing I and the prophets before me have said is: There is no god but God. (5)
3. Revealing the mystery of life. A third way in which the prophets have benefitted humankind is by revealing the mystery of life itself, as a gift flowing from the eternal life of God. According to Nursi: The essential nature of life also looks to the pillar of belief in the prophets, and proves it indirectly. The universe was created for life, and life is the greatest manifestation of the Pre-Eternal Self-Subsistent One, His perfect inscription, His most beautiful work of art. Eternal Life shows Itself through the sending of prophets and revealing of scriptures, for if there were no Books or prophets, that Pre-Eternal Life would not be known. (6)
He goes on to say that just as we know someone is alive by their speech, so also we know that God exists and is alive through the Word that God speaks through the prophets. One could say that the prophetic revelations manifest the self-communication of Gods own life (7) to humanity or, as Said Nursi puts, it the Scriptures are the rays, manifestations, and communications of that pre-eternal Life. (8)
Yes, the infinite miracles bestowed by God on the prophets (Peace be upon them) each one being like a confirmation of their mission; the heavenly blows dealt to their opponents, each being like a proof of their truthfulness; their individual perfections, each one being like an indication of their righteousness; their veracious teachings; the strength of their faith, a witness to their honesty; their supreme seriousness and readiness to self-sacrifice; the sacred books and pages held by their hands; their countless pupils who through following their paths attain truth, perfection and light, thus proving again the truthfulness of the teachings; the unanimous agreement of the prophets - those most earnest warners - and their followers in all positive matters; their concord, mutual support and affinity - all of this constitutes so powerful a proof that no power on earth can confront it, and no doubt or hesitation can survive it. (9)
In other words, God has confirmed the mission of the prophets in many ways, through miracles, by defending them against their opponents, by the Sacred Books which they delivered, and by generations of pious believers who have followed the prophets teaching and example. God has confirmed the truthfulness of their message, their moral uprightness, their seriousness of purpose and, in their innumerable followers, the process whereby God makes use of the mission of the prophets to change human hearts and open paths to truth, goodness, and genuine happiness. In this way, the eternal mystery of life which had always resided in God comes to be communicated to humankind, so that by following the prophetic message men and women can live in a way that produces benefits for themselves and work for the welfare of others.
Belief in the prophets, according to Said Nursi, is a pillar of faith because it is through the prophets that lifes deepest mystery has been revealed.
The cosmos was created for the sake of life, and life is in turn one of the supreme manifestations of the Living, Self-Subsistent and Eternal One. It is one of His most perfect designs, one of His most beautiful arts. The eternal life of God shows itself only through the sending of messengers and the revelation of books. If there were no books or prophets, then eternal life would remain unknown. When a man speaks, he is recognized to be alive. Similarly, it is the prophets and revealed books that make manifest the words and decrees of the Being Who, from behind the world of the unseen that is veiled by the cosmos, speaks, talks, and emits His commands and prohibitions. (10)
This must be considered the greatest blessing for humankind that has come through the prophets. Through prophetic revelation, ordinary men and women can come to know something of Gods own eternal life. If it were not for the prophets, the cosmos would act as a veil to conceal Gods reality and His beautiful names and qualities. However, through the prophets, the veil is lifted and the cosmos itself is revealed to be Gods masterpiece of creative art, a path by which humans can be guided to praise and proclaim the magnificence of the Creator. What greater benefit could the prophets be imagined to provide for the happiness of humankind than their being bearers of the revelation of Gods eternal life?
1Karl Rahner, Prophetism, Encyclopedia of Theology: The Concise Sacramentum Mundi, New York: Crossroad, 1986, pp. 1286-1289.
2The Words, Thirtieth Word, First Aim, p. 561.
3The Words, Thirtieth Word, First Aim, p. 564.
5The Rays, The Second Ray, First Station, p. 17.
6The Flashes, The Thirtieth Flash, The Divine Name of Ever-Living, p. 434. Cf. also The Words, Tenth Word, Second Part of the Addendum, p.122.
7The Words, Tenth Word, Introduction, p. 72.
8The Flashes, The Thirtieth Flash, The Divine Name of Ever-Living, p. 434.
9The Rays, The Supreme Sign, First Chapter, p. 142.
10The Words, Tenth Word, Second Part of the Addendum, What one can learn from the prophets, p. 122.
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