What is it?
What does it mean for people?
Did all the prophets appear in the Arabian Peninsula?
Were there any people among whom a prophet was not raised?
If so, can those to whom prophets were not sent be held responsible for their beliefs and actions?
Prophethood is the highest rank, the highest honour, possible. It proves the superiority of a man’s inner being to that of others. A prophet is like a branch which arches out from the Divine to the human realm. He is the very heart and tongue of creation. He may not possess what in a worldly sense, we call a supreme intellect, nor a particular skill or talent such as some geniuses have shown. Rather, he is an ideal being, all of whose faculties are harmoniously excellent and active, and who strives and progresses steadily towards heaven; one who awaits Divine inspiration for the solutions to the problems he meets, and who is considered to be the connecting point between the things and beings here and the Beyond. His body is subject to and follows his heart, figuratively, the seat of spiritual intellect; his mind likewise is subject to and follows his heart. His perceptions and reflections are always directed to the Names and Attributes of Allah. He goes to what he perceives; he arrives at the destination he aims for.
A prophet’s perception, developed to the full surpasses that of ordinary people. Nor can his power of perception or understanding be expressed or explained in terms of different wavelengths of light or sound, or in some other such way. It is not within an ordinary man’s power and means to acquire a prophet’s knowledge, which goes beyond the limits of ordinary human nature. However intently deployed, our human powers of analysis and synthesis can never attain to a prophet’s knowledge.
Through the prophets, man has been able to gain an insight into creation, and thus to find out and to know the meaning of it. But for the prophets and their teachings, man would neither have seen nor understood the true nature and meaning of things and events, nor, therefore, could he have entered into and coped with what is in and around him.
In addition to conveying the Divine message and guidance, the prophets have also taught man something of Allah and His Names and Attributes. Their first mission was to teach the reality of this life, its true purpose and meaning. Since Allah is beyond man’s perception and comprehension, it fell to the prophets to be the most obedient, careful, conscious, self-disciplined of people whilst they were performing their tasks. If there had not been any clear utterances by the prophets about the Creator, the All-Mighty, the All- Knowing, who governs and sustains and cherishes the whole creation, from the smallest atom to the largest nebula, it would never have been possible for man to think or know or say anything right and proper about Allah.
Everything in the universe tries to, as it were, exhibit the Names and Attributes of the All-Mighty, All-Encompassing Creator. In the same way, the prophets have taken note of, affirmed and been faithful to, the subtle, mysterious relation between Allah and His Names and Attributes. Their first duty was to know and speak about Allah. Therefore, they entered into the true meaning of things and events, and conveyed it directly and sincerely to their fellow human beings.
Just as, even in the smallest exhibitions, public fairs and the like events, we benefit from a guide or usher, who directs our steps and prepares our attention, so also with the magnificent exhibition of this creation, we are in need of guides who draw attention to the reality of it, direct us towards its purpose and meaning, and show us our way in it.
Is it possible that the One Who ordered this creation, opened to us His works, for our wonder and awe, Who desires to make Himself known through His creation, Who chose distinguished servants to guide our attention-is it possible that He would not, through these distinguished servants, reveal His names and Attributes to those who long to know Him? If this were so, would it not make His creation a vain work? The Supreme Being Who made everything like a tongue and a letter and Who revealed His Wisdom and Blessings through such things is absolutely free from vanity and absurdity. Thus, it seems to us, most unlikely that any people in one or other part of the world has been deprived of Allah’s revelation through His prophets. The Qur’an, indeed, is explicit on this point:
For We assuredly send amongst every people an Apostle (with the command), ‘Serve Allah and eschew evil. ’(al-NahI, 16.36)
However, mankind forgot the teachings brought by those appointed servants and over time went astray, sometimes deifying the very men who preached against it, and sank into idolatry.
Throughout the earth there are examples of what man’s imagination has idolized-like the mountain of the gods in ancient Greece or, to this day, the River Ganges in India. Even accepting that there must be a tremendous difference between their first appearance and the actual position now, it is quite impossible to understand the conditions that raised Confucius in China and Brahman and Buddha in India. It is equally difficult to guess what they originally taught, or to know how far time and human degeneration have corrupted the first message.
If the Qur’an, which eradicates doubts, had not introduced Jesus Christ to us, it would not now be possible to have a true picture of his life and his teaching. For priests have confounded the truth about Jesus Christ with the philosophies and idolatries of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, attributing divinity to man, and anthropomorphizing God. The concept of the Trinity is certainly a priestly, human corruption-insulting as it is to common sense and reason and, still more shameful, impudent towards Allah.
Perhaps it was one of the conditions of the Roman Empire accepting Christianity as the official, state religion, that the festival, holy days, rites and rituals of the church are so obviously and shamelessly derived from, or imitate directly, the idolatrous practices of the ancient Romans and Greeks. For, without the enlightening revelation of the Qur’an, it is very difficult to tell the Jesus Christ worshipped in the Christian church from Adonis or Dionysus.
Considering that Christianity is relatively recent and considering what the Christians did to their prophet and to their Book, we may well wonder how many ‘Christs’ have been treated in the same way by their followers over time? From a reliable Islamic source, there is a hadith which says: ‘a prophet’s disciples will carry out his mission after his death but some of his followers will also upset everything he established’ (Muslim, Fada’il al-Sahaba, 210-12; lbn Hanbal Musnad, 417) This is a most important point. Many of the religions which we now consider false turned to falsehoods, superstitions and legends over time through the deliberate malice of their enemies-despite the fact that, originally, they may have come from the purest, Divine source.
To say that someone is a prophet when he is not is tantamount to kufr (unbelief), just as to refuse to believe in a true prophet is also kufr. On the other hand, if the case of these false religions is similar to that of Christianity, that is, if they were distorted by their followers over time, we should look at those religions with some caution and reserve judgement in some measure. We should consider what Buddhism may have been in its true original; similarly, Brahmanism; or the doctrines attributed to Confucius; or shamanism and other such: it may be that we may find in them some remnant of what they were in their origins.
What they were-whether true or false (we do not know)-is not what they are. Supposing the impossible that their founders returned and saw the religion they originally established, they would not now recognize them.
There have been many religions which have been distorted and altered in the world, and consequently it is essential to accept the purity of their original foundation. The Our’an says:
There never was a people without a Warner having lived among them. (al-Fatir, 35.24)
And We assuredly sent among every people an Apostle. (al-NahI, 16.36)
These revelations universally declare that Allah sent Messengers to every people throughout the world. The names of some of these are known to us through the Qur’an, but there is also a large number whose names have not been made known to us. The names we know are 28 out of 124,000 (or perhaps 224,000); even then we do not know exactly where and when many of them lived.
Essentially we are not bound to know all the past prophets. The Qur’an says:
We did in times past send Apostles before you; of them there are some whose stories We have related to you, and some whose story We have not related to you. (al-Ghafir, 40.78)
In this way, the Qur’an warns us not to deal with some of those whom it does not mention to us.
Recent studies in comparative religion, philosophy and anthropology, have shown how many communities, living at very great distances from each other, share certain concepts and practices. For example, turning from plural to a singular conception of God; in their supplications in times of exceptional stress seeking refuge only in the One Supreme Being and raising their hands and asking something from Him. There are very many such phenomena which indicate a singular source, a single teaching.
If primitive tribes cut off from civilization and the influence of the known prophets, have a sure understanding of the Oneness of Allah, though they may have little understanding of how to live according to that belief, it must be that, as the Qur’an tells us, every people and nation has had its own Message and Messenger:
To every people was sent an Apostle. When their Apostle comes (before them), the matter will be judged between them with justice, and they will not be wronged. (Yunus, 10.47)
No people and no land are excluded from that commandment.
This brings us to the question of whether those who claim they have not been sent a prophet will be held responsible for their beliefs and actions. As we have just explained, there is no reason to believe that any peoples in the world have been deprived altogether of the prophets’ light. There may have been periods in which darkness seemed to prevail. But such were temporary darknesses, after which the Grace and Blessing of Allah again enlightened the people through revelation to His chosen servants. Thus, whether it be less or more, every people, at some point in their history, saw or heard or experienced to the full, the mercy of revelation. Nevertheless, we must allow that, in some instances, the destruction of the beliefs which the prophets established was so absolute, and people introduced so many distortions into the religion and bizarre rites of worship, that the true teachings were generally, if not altogether, lost by the people. In such cases, a long interregnum of darkness may have replaced enlightenment. Though darkness is ever followed by an enlightenment, and an enlightenment by darkness, there may be some peoples who remained in darkness as it were unknowingly and against their own will. For such people there are glad tidings in the Qur’an. These are not punished or blamed for the wrong they may do, until and unless due warning has been conveyed to them: We would never visit our wrath on any community until We had sent an Apostle to give warning (al-Isra’, 17.15). That is, the warning precedes responsibility and then reward or punishment.
As for the details of this matter, the imams of the Islamic schools of thought think differently. For instance, Imam Maturidi and his school argue that no people can be excused given that there is plenty of evidence pointing to the One Creator which leads to belief in Him. By contrast, the Ashari school, referring to the Qur’anic verse quoted above, argue that warning and guidance must precede judgement and people can only be held responsible if they have been sent a prophet. There is a third body of scholars who have combined these two positions. They hold that those who have not been sent any prophet and thus have not wilfully strayed into unbelief or worshipped idols are ahl-i najat (the people who will be excused and so escape the punishment and who, as Allah wills, may be saved). For, in fact, some people cannot analyze the things and events around them, cannot penetrate to their meaning, nor deduce therefrom the right course of belief and action. Such people are first taught the right way, given explanations and directions on how to act and then, in line with their actions thereafter, are answerable and accordingly rewarded or punished. But as for those who wilfully take to unbelief or adopt a hostile, negative attitude to belief and religion, or knowingly defy Allah and His commandments, they will certainly be questioned and punished for their deviation and corruption, even though they live in the farthest, most desolate and deserted region of the world.
To summarize: no region or people has been altogether deprived of Divine enlightenment through Allah’s chosen servants, His prophets. Directly or indirectly, all people of all periods have, at some time in their history, known or been aware of a prophet and of his teaching. A period during which the names of the prophets have been forgotten and their teachings completely eroded, until another prophet is sent, is described as an interregnum. It is accepted that people who live in those periods would not be punished but rather excused, on the condition that they have not knowingly and wilfully deviated into polytheism or atheism.
And Allah, the All-Knowing and All-Encompassing, knows best.