Reading the Qur’an: The Seal of the Prophets

[This semester, I am blogging my course on the Qur’an. You can see my previous post here and the whole series here.]

The Arabic text displayed above means: “Muhammad is not the father of any one of you men; he is God’s Messenger and the seal of the prophets: God knows everything” (Qur’an 33:40, Haleem trans.). This is one of the most pivotal verses of the Qur’an, clarifying that Muhammad is not just one among many prophets, who happens to have been sent to the Arab tribes of Mecca, but indeed the conclusion to the sequence of prophets that has been continually reiterated and rearticulated throughout the Qur’anic revelation. It seems like a fitting verse with which to begin my final post in this series of reflections on teaching the Qur’an. Though my students have papers left to write (for which they have selected very interesting topics), classes have concluded, and we have both read through the entire text of the Qur’an and finished with an account of the conquest of Mecca, the farewell pilgrimage, and the death of the Prophet.

One of my primary emphases in the course has been the comparison with biblical stories, which helps to clarify the theological goals of the Qur’an. In some cases, the agenda guiding the Qur’an’s revisionism is clear — for instance, Qur’anic versions of the story almost always omit any of the moral ambiguity of the biblical versions. Taking a step back and looking at the full sweep of Muhammad’s career, however, I believe that there is a much more thorough-going revision and rearticulation of the monotheistic prophetic tradition than one would detect by focusing on the stories one by one.

I have already discussed Muhammad’s clear identification with Moses, but more important, I think, is his role as a “hinge” figure in the sequence of the prophets. For the first few prophets, the formula was fairly simple: prophet preaches, people reject him, city is destroyed. This happened most dramatically in the case of Noah, but also repeated itself on a smaller scale with the extra-biblical prophets (Hud and Salih) whom the Qur’an associates with ruined cities that would have been familiar to Muhammad’s original listeners. Things are a bit more complicated in the case of Abraham, who departs from his father and community but does not presage their destruction, despite his efforts (not paralleled in the Bible) to convince them of monotheism. While previous prophets did have small surviving communities of followers, Abraham seems to be the first truly future-oriented prophet. He asks God in several places whether his descendants will be blessed as well, and God says: basically, that’s up to them. The Qur’an is absolutely sure — in this agreeing with both Jesus and Paul — that physical descent from Abraham is no substitute for faithfulness to God. And even though the Arab tribes are supposedly descended from Abraham via Ishmael, and indeed have possession of the sacred shrine built by Abraham and Ishmael in Mecca (apparently they travelled much more widely than in the biblical account), the Qur’an never once suggests that the Arabs should regard themselves as “chosen” simply because of their descent from Abraham.

In this narrative, Moses represents a hinge figure, who combines the gesture of the earliest prophets with that of Abraham. In the early revelations, you could be forgiven for viewing him as a prophet to “Pharaoh’s people” (interestingly never referred to as Egyptians), whose preaching and its rejection ushers in a particularly dramatic act of divine wrath. In other words, he could just be a prophet in the style of Noah, Hud, or Salih. But he also founds a faithful community, with explicit laws and the clear expectation of continuity over time. And lo and behold, the Jewish community that Moses founded does continue to exist and pay at least some lip service to that revelation in Moses’s time, though Muhammad is far from satisfied with their faithfulness and more often views them as rivals and traitors. (David and Solomon factor in here as well, though I’m not quite sure how they fit yet.)

Jesus is an interesting case. On the one hand, the Qur’an absolutely rejects Christianity’s claim that Jesus was divine — that is an unacceptable deviation from monotheism. On the other hand, it also doubles down on most of the signs that Christians point to as evidence of Jesus’s divinity, most notably the virgin birth. I’d suggest that this plays a few different roles in the rhetorical strategy of the Qur’an. First, Jesus’s failure to persuade his fellow Jews to be faithful to Moses’s revelation — which is his sole message in the Qur’anic version — is nothing short of spectacular. In this regard, his miracles only highlight the failure of his ministry (adding to the Qur’an’s contention that Muhammad doesn’t need to do miracles) and the stubbornness of his audience. The Jews do not only reject and revile him, but attempt to murder him. They are not successful, as the Qur’an adopts a form of Docetism (which is, once again, usually associated with high claims of Christ’s divinity!) and claims that the crucifixion was an illusion perpetrated on the Jews and Jesus actually escaped with no problem. This is a way of having your cake and eating it to — a suffering prophet, which makes no sense within the Qur’an’s moral system, is avoided, but the Jews still bear the guilt of killing him.

This whole anti-Jewish bent is of course deeply objectionable on any number of levels. But it does highlight that there is nothing automatic about faithfulness to God. It needs to be re-won, again and again, every generation. There is no “chosen people” who get a free pass just because of who their daddy is. On this, the Qur’an is absolutely unambiguous.

This is where Muhammad comes in. On the one hand, he achieves something similar to Moses by founding a new faithful community after being driven out of the city. He can presumably hope for greater success insofar as this community is founded on the literal memorization and recitation of the clear Qur’anic revelation — which is 100% clear and absolutely chock-full of repeated reminders. (I have some questions about this strategy and its historical results, but let’s leave that aside for now.) On the other hand, by conquering Mecca, purifying the shrine, and securing everyone’s submission to Islam, Muhammad does the unprecedented: he wins over Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s people. No other prophet has achieved this, not even Abraham, who was dealing primarily with his own family members. Even Jonah, who is noted as the only prophet to have successfully won over his target city, is not up to the same level, since he was an outsider to the community whose salvation he facilitated and has no record of founding his own community.

In short, Muhammad is the seal of the prophets because he fully achieves all the varied goals of all the previous prophets. He completes the cycle by finishing out the sequence of logical possibilities for the outcome of a prophetic mission. Hence, when he gives his sermon during the Farewell Pilgrimage, he can declare that the cycle of time has been completed. All the possibilities have been actualized and hence the Qur’anic message — which fully incorporates all previous prophetic messages in their “corrected” versions — is the permanent deposit of the prophetic teaching, an unceasingly repeated reminder of the monotheistic demand.

2 thoughts on “Reading the Qur’an: The Seal of the Prophets

  1. Hi Adam, good series. I liked your sardonic Abraham aside ‘apparently they travelled much more widely than in the biblical account’ – in which, of course, he travels implausibly widely. Could you expand on the Qu’ran adopting a form of Docetism? Gabriel Said Reynolds has an interesting paper, but the problem I have with this arguement is that the Qu’ran’s view of the nature of reality itself (Jesus aside) is itself generally docetic ‘the life of the world is but matter of illusion’.

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