A belief in revelation and Prophethood emanates from a particular conception of the world and man, which involves a belief in the universality of Divine guidance. The principle of universal guidance is a part of the monotheistic conception of the world as presented by Islam. As Allah, the Almighty is a compulsorily self-existing in every respect and absolutely Beneficent, He extends His favour to every species of the existing things in accordance with its capability and guides it on its evolutionary journey. This guidance covers everything from the tiniest particle to the largest star and from the lowest lifeless existence to the highest living being known to us, that is man. That is why the Holy Qur'an has used the word revelation in connection with the guidance of inorganic material, plants and animals as it has used it in connection with the guidance of man.
No existing thing in this world is at rest. Everything is moving towards its goal. At the same time all indications show that everything is pushed to its goal by a mysterious force existing within it. It is this force that is called Divine guidance. The Holy Qur'an reports that Prophet Musa said to the Fir'awn of his time:
"Our Lord is He who gave everything its distinctive nature and then guided it." (Surah Ta Ha, 20:50)
Our world is a world of goals. Everything is being attracted to its evolutionary goal by an inner force, or Divine guidance.
The word wahi meaning revelation has been repeatedly used in the Holy Qur'an. The way how it has been used and the occasions on which it has been used, show that the Holy Qur'an does not consider the revelation to be confined to man. The Holy Qur'an believes it to be effective in the case of everything, at least in the case of all living beings. That is why it talks of revelation even to the bee. All that may be said is that revelation and guidance have degrees which vary in accordance with the degree of the evolution of the different things.
The highest degree of revelation is that which is made to the Prophets. This kind of revelation is based on man's need of Divine guidance so that he may proceed towards a goal beyond the perceptible and material world, to which he must go in any case. In addition, revelation meets man's requirements in his social life which needs a Divinely sanctioned law. We have already explained man's need to an evolutionary ideology and his inability to frame such an ideology himself.
The Prophets are a sort of a receiving set in human form. They are chosen individuals capable of receiving guidance and knowledge from the invisible world. It is Allah alone who can judge who is fit to be a Prophet. The Holy Qur'an says.
"Allah knows best whom to entrust with His message." (Surah al-An'am, 6:124)
Though revelation is a phenomenon, which is beyond the purview of direct human perception and experiment, its impact can be felt, like the impact of many other forces, in the effects which it produces. Divine revelation produces a deep and tremendous impact on the personality of its recipient, that is the Prophet. It 'raises' the Prophet to truth. In other words, it. stimulates his talents and faculties and brings about a deep and big revolution in his person for the good of humanity. It endows him with an absolute conviction. History has not witnessed such a conviction as that of the Prophets and the persons produced by them.
The Prophets who through revelation come in contact with the source of existence, have certain distinguishing characteristics to which we refer below:
Every Prophet raised by Allah was endowed with a kind of supernatural power by means of which he worked one or more miracles to prove the truth and Divinity of his message and mission.
The Holy Qur'an calls the miracles wrought by the Prophets by the will of Allah, 'Ayat' that is the sign of Prophethood. The Holy Qur'an says that in every age the people have asked the Prophets of their time to work some miracles for them. The demand being reasonable and logical, the Prophets acceded to it, because otherwise it was not possible for those who sought truth, to acknowledge their Prophethood. Anyway the Prophets declined to accede to a request for a miracle if it was made with an intention other than seeking truth. For example, if an offer was made in the form of a bargain and the people said to a Prophet that they would embrace his faith only if he worked a particular miracle, their request was ignored. However, the Holy Qur'an has recounted many miracles of the Prophets, such as bringing the dead to life, curing the incurable, speaking in the cradle, turning a staff into a serpent, describing the unknown and foretelling future events.
Another distinguishing feature of the Prophets is their infallibility, that is their immunity from committing a sin or making a mistake. The Prophets are not carried away by their personal desires. They do not err. Their infallibility is indisputable. But what does their infallibility actually mean? Does it mean that whenever they are about to commit a sin or to make a mistake, an angel comes and stops them in the same way as a father prevents his child from going astray?
Or does it mean that the Prophets have been created in such a way that they are incapable of doing anything wrong just like an angel who, for example, cannot commit adultery for he has no sexual desire, or like a machine, which makes no mistake because it has no brain?
Or is it that the reason why the Prophets do not sin nor do they err is that they have been endowed with a particular degree of intuition, faith and conviction?
Yes, that is the only right explanation. Now let us take up each of these two kinds of immunity separately.
Man is a free being. He himself determines what is beneficial to him and what is harmful, and on that basis he decides what he should do. His judgement plays an important role in his choice. It is impossible that he should choose to do a thing which according to his judgement is rather harmful to him than beneficial. For example a sensible man interested in his life would never throw himself down from a hilltop nor would take a lethal poison.
Individuals vary from the viewpoint of the strength of their faith and the extent of their consciousness of the consequences of a sin. The stronger their faith and the keener their consciousness, the less sins they will commit. Should the faith of a man be so strong that while committing a sin he feels as if he was throwing himself down from the top of a hill, the chance of his sinning will be nil. We call this state infallibility. Here infallibility originates from the perfection of faith and piety. To be infallible and immune, man does not require an external force to restrain him from committing sins, nor is there any need of his being powerless by nature. Not to commit a sin is not commendable if a man is unable to commit it, or is prevented from committing it by an external force. The position of a man who is unable to commit a sin is similar to that of a prisoner who is unable to commit a fraud. Naturally a prisoner cannot be described as an honest and upright man.
Immunity of the Prophets from sins and errors is an outcome of their intuition. A mistake occurs when a man comes into contact with a reality through his internal and external senses and forms some mental pictures of it which he analyses with the help of his mental faculties. In that case he may make a mistake in arranging his mental pictures or applying them to the external reality. But when he comprehends an external reality direct through a special sense, having no need of forming any mental picture of it, and his very apprehension of a reality means his direct contact with it, the question of making any mistake does not arise.
The Prophets have, a contact with the realities of the world from within themselves. Naturally no mistake can be imagined to exist in a reality itself. For example, if we put 100 rosary beads in a receptacle, then put another 100 beads in it and repeat this act 100 times, we may not be able to keep the count correctly and may not be sure whether we have repeated the action 100 times, 99 times or 101 times. But the actual reality cannot be different from what it is. Though the action has been repeated 100 times, the actual number of the beads can neither be less nor more than what it is. The men who are in the midst of reality and close to the root of existence are immune from making any kind of mistake. They are infallible.
From here the difference between the Prophets and the geniuses also becomes clear. The geniuses are the persons of exalted intellectual power and extraordinary understanding. They work on their own mental data and arrive at a conclusion by means of their intellectual power. They sometimes make mistakes in their calculations.
The Prophets besides being blessed with their intellectual and calculating powers, are equipped with an additional power called revelation, which the geniuses lack. Hence there can be no comparison between the geniuses and the Prophets. They belong to two different categories. We can make a comparison between the seeing or the hearing power of two persons, but we cannot compare one man's seeing power with another man's hearing power and say which is stronger. The geniuses have an extraordinary thinking power, whereas the Prophets have quite a different power called revelation. They maintain a close contact with the Source of existence. Therefore it is wrong to draw a comparison between the two.
The Prophethood begins with a spiritual journey from the creation to Allah and gain proximity to Him, which implies turning away from the externality to the internality. Anyhow, eventually it ends by the Prophet's returning to the people with a view to reforming human life and guiding it to the right path.
In Arabic there are two words for the Prophet, Nabi and Rasul. The first literally means a bringer of news and the second a messenger.
A Prophet conveys the message of Allah to the people and awakens and organizes their dormant powers. He invites them to Allah and to all that pleases Him, namely peace, cordiality, reformation, non-violence, veracity, uprightness, justice, emancipation from everything ungodly, love and all other virtues. A Prophet delivers humanity from the shackles of submission to base desires and false gods.
Dr. Iqbal describing the difference between the Prophets and all other individuals having 'unitary experience' says: "The mystic does not wish to return from the repose of his 'unitary experience'; and even when he does return, as he must, his return does not mean much for mankind at large. The Prophet's return is creative. He returns to insert himself into the sweep of time with a view to control the forces of history, and thereby to create a fresh world of ideals. For the mystic the repose of 'unitary experience' is something final; for the Prophet it is the awakening within him and the unleashing psychological forces, calculated to completely transform the human world." (The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, p. 124).
As the Prophets have a trust in Allah and are never oblivious of the mission entrusted to them by Him, they accomplish their duty with utmost sincerity. They have no aim other than the guidance of humanity as ordered by Allah, and ask for no remuneration for the performance of their mission.
The Holy Qur'an in Surah ash-Shu'ara has summed up what many of the Prophets said to their peoples. Of course every Prophet had a message for his people which was suited to the problems they faced. Anyhow there was a point which was revealed in the message of every Prophet. Each of them said: "I want no remuneration or wages from you". Therefore sincerity is one of the distinguishing features of Prophethood; and that is why the message of the Prophets has always been so firm.
As the Prophets felt that they had been 'raised' and they did not entertain the least doubt about the fact that they had been entrusted with an essential and useful mission, preached their message and defended it with unprecedented firmness and utmost conviction.
When Prophet Musa and his brother, Harun went to Fir'awn, they had no appurtenances with them except the woolen clothes on their body and their wooden staffs in their hands. They asked Fir'awn to accept their message and told him firmly that if he would accept it, his honour would be safeguarded, otherwise he would lose his government. Fir'awn was stunned by what they said.
In the early days of his Prophethood when the number of the Muslims did not exceed that of the fingers of the two hands, the Holy Prophet of Islam one day, known in history as the Day of the Warning, assembled elders of the Bani Hashim, conveyed his message to them and firmly and expressly told them that his religion was going to spread throughout the world and that it was in their own interest to embrace it. To them these words were unbelievable. They looked at each other with wide open eyes and dispersed without uttering a word.
When his uncle, Abu Talib conveyed to him the message of the Quraysh, saying that they were willing to select him their king, to give to him in marriage the most beautiful daughter of the tribe and make him the most wealthy member of their society, provided he gave up his preachings, the Holy Prophet said in reply that he was not going to budge an inch from his sacred mission even if they put the sun in one of his hands and the moon in the other.
Just as infallibility is a necessary outcome of a Prophet's communication with Allah, similarly sincerity and firmness are also the essential characteristics of Prophethood.
The Prophets harness all the forces at their disposal and set them in motion for constructive purposes, that is to reform both the individual and society or in other words, to ensure human welfare. It is impossible that their activities should corrupt any individual or cause harm to society at large. Therefore if the preachings of a claimant of Prophethood lead to corruption or indecency, paralyze human power or cause decline of society, that is clear proof of his being an imposter. Dr Iqbal in this connection has very aptly said: "Another way of judging the value of a Prophet's religious experience would be to examine the type of manhood that he has created, and the cultural world that has sprung out of the spirit of his message". (The Reconstruction of Religious thought in Islam, p. 124)
His struggle against idolatry, myths, ignorance, false ideas and tyranny is another sign of the truth of a Prophet. It is impossible that in the message of a person selected by Allah to be His Prophet there should be anything smacking of idolatry, supporting tyranny and injustice or tolerating polytheism, ignorance, myths, cruelty or despotism.
Monotheism, reason and justice are some of the principles which have been preached by all the Prophets. The message of only those who preach these principles is worth consideration and they alone can be asked to produce a proof or a miracle. If the message preached by a person contains an element indisputably unreasonable or contrary to the principles of monotheism and justice, or supporting tyranny, then it is not worth consideration at all. In such a case it is absolutely unnecessary to ask him to produce a proof of his claim. Similar is the case of a pretender, who commits a sin, makes a blunder or is unable to guide people because of a physical defect or some loathsome disease like leprosy, or because his teachings do not have constructive effect on human life. Even if such a pretender works miracles, it is absurd to follow him.
The Prophets, in spite of having many supernatural qualities, such as infallibility, the power of working miracles, the incomparable power of guidance, and reconstruction and the power of making unique struggle against polytheism, myths and tyranny, are after all human beings. They, like all other men eat, sleep, walk, beget and eventually die. They are subject to all essential human needs. They are obligated to perform the same religious duties as others. They like others are subject to all the religious laws conveyed through them.
Sometimes they have even some additional duties. The pre-dawn prayers which are supererogatory for others were obligatory for the Holy Prophet. The Prophets never considered themselves to be exempted from any religious injunctions. They, more than others had fear of Allah and they more than others worshipped Him. They offered prayers; kept fast; took part in the holy war; paid zakat and showed kindness to others. The Prophets worked hard for their own weal as well as the weal for the others. They were never a burden on anyone else in their life.
The revelation and the features connected with it constitute the only difference between the Prophets and others. The fact that they receive revelation does not exclude them from the category of human being. On the other hand it makes them a model of the perfect man. That is the reason why they are so fit to guide others.
Generally speaking, the Prophets can be divided into two categories: The first category, which is in minority, is composed of those Prophets to whom independent codes of law were revealed, and who were ordered to guide the people on the basis of these codes. The Holy Qur'an has termed them the 'high-minded' Prophets. We do not know their number exactly. The Holy Qur'an expressly says that it has recounted the stories of only a few of the Prophets. Had it recounted the stories of all of them or at least had stated that it had recounted the stories of all those who were important among them, we might have known the number of the high-minded Prophets. Anyhow, we know that Nuh, Ibrahim, Musa, 'Isa and Muhammad, the last Prophet (Peace be on them) are included among them. Independent codes of law were revealed to all 'high-minded' Prophets, who were asked to train their followers on the basis of them.
The second category of the Prophets consists of those who had not their own independent codes of law but were asked to preach and propagate the already existing Divine laws. Most of the Prophets belong to this category which includes such names as those of Hud, Salih, Lut, Ishaq, Yaqub, Yusuf, Yushu, Shuayb, Harun, Zachariyyah and Yahya (may peace be upon them).