Milad al-Nabi: Remembering the Spirituality of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family)

Talismanic Pendant
“there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger” – Talismanic Pendant, Qajar, 19th century CE. Aga Khan Museum.

On the occasion of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny), it is important to remember the all-important spiritual nature of the Messenger of God. Unfortunately, certain modern discussions about the Prophet tend to portray him as merely the deliverer of the Qur’an, akin to a scriptural fax machine. This limited viewpoint is patently incorrect. According to the Qur’an itself, the Prophet of Islam is not only the revealer of the Qur’an but also its expounder (16:44, 5:15; 5:19; 16:44; 16:64; 14:4). Revealing the Qur’an actually comprises just a portion of Muhammad’s mission on earth which also includes teaching, purification, and guidance (62:2, 3:164, 2:151). In his lifetime, the Qur’an was only an oral recitation and not a physical scripture. Muhammad was commanded to only convey this qur’an to the people in stages (17:106) and not all at once in the form of a fixed text. All religious and spiritual guidance was given by Muhammad on God’s behalf: “He who obeys the Prophet obeys God” (4:80); “The Prophet has more authority over the believers than their own souls (33:6).” The Qur’an was truly a guidance, light and mercy to the people but only through the teaching and exposition of Muhammad.

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Milad al-Nabi: Remembering the Spirituality of the Prophet Muhammad
Diagram summarizes the two topics of this post – the Prophet-Believer relationship and the God-Prophet relationship.

One of the most important functions of Prophet Muhammad is that of an intercessor. An intercessor is a person or entity who mediates between God and human beings. The Qur’an commands Muslims to seek such a means of approach (wasilah) to God (5:35). In this role of intercessor, the Prophet receives the bay‘ah of the believers on behalf of God: “He who gives their bay‘ah to you, verily he has given it to God Himself” (48:10). When the believers seek the forgiveness of God, they are by in the Qur’an to come before Muhammad to seek forgiveness and Muhammad must pray to God on their behalf for them to be forgiven (4:64). When the believers seek to atone for their wrongful actions, the Prophet Muhammad is told to “take alms from their wealth so that you may purify and sanctify them” (9:103). Indeed, the prayers and blessings of Muhammad are a source of tranquility (sakan) for those be prays over (9:103). These duties of accepting repentance, purifying believers, and taking their offerings are duties that Muhammad performs in person, but the Qur’an affirms that it is actually God who has performed them (9:104).

The Qur’an, when read very closely, describes the Prophet Muhammad with a number of names and titles that are drawn from or identical to the Names and Attributes of God Himself. The mercy and kindness shown by Muhammad to the believers is said to be the Mercy of God Himself (3:159). Just as God forgives the sins of the believers, Muhammad too is commanded to forgive them (3:159, 5:13, 7:199). While God is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth (24:36), Muhammad is a light-giving lamp (33:47) and the Light sent down to make things clear to the believers (5:15). God is the Guardian of the believers along with Muhammad. The Prophet of Islam is described as merciful (rahim) and kind (ra’uf) just as God Himself is described as such (9:128). The All-Merciful (al-Rahman) is God while the Mercy (rahmah) to all the worlds is Muhammad. The very physical presence of Muhammad in the world is what wards of God’s punishment from the people (8:33). God guides whom He wills (2:272) while Muhammad, through God’s spirit (ruh) and light (nur) guides people to the Straight Path (42:52). God is the Purifier of human souls and Muhammad is the one who purifies the believers (9:103). God is the most great (al-‘azim) and Muhammad’s character is great (‘azim). In the centuries after the death of Muhammad, Muslims of all schools expanded and interpreted these ideas. Muslims of esoteric traditions such as Shi‘ism and Sufism also believe that God first created the pre-eternal Light of Muhammad (nur Muhammadi) in the spiritual world before the creation of the physical world and the historical Muhammad.

Finally, just focusing on a handful of the above spiritual functions of Muḥammad shows the need for a spiritual heir and successor to the Prophet. If Muḥammad was responsible for guiding the Believers on behalf of God, praying for the Believer’s forgiveness (4:64), taking offerings from them to purify them (9:102-104) on God’s behalf, sending blessings upon them for their tranquility (9:103), judging between them (4:65), and accepting their obedience on behalf of God – all during his own lifetime, does this not necessitate the presence of someone who continues to perform these spiritual functions for the Believers in every age and time after the departure of the Prophet? If the answer is negative, then doesn’t this contradict the very justice of God? Why would God bless the people of one particular time and age with a person who performs all of the above functions and then deprive the countless number of human beings who live after him of the same blessing? The only logical conclusion is that a person like the Prophet Muḥammad must always be present in the world to continue his spiritual and religious mission. The status of Muḥammad as the Seal of the Prophets only signifies the conclusion of scriptural revelation and legislative prophecy. But Divine inspiration (ta’yīd) and spiritual guardianship (walāyah) must always continue – otherwise, humanity would be wholly deprived of Divine guidance. Thus, the successor of Muḥammad with respect to divine inspiration (ta’yīd) and the functions of walāyah – the person who continues to guide the Believers on God’s behalf, to pray for their forgiveness, to accept their offerings and purify them on God’s behalf, to send blessings upon them, to judge between them, and accept their obedience on behalf of God – is the hereditary Imām from the progeny or Ahl al-Bayt of Muḥammad.

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The Status of the Prophet Muḥammad in the Qur’ān:

  • The Prophet Muḥammad is inspired by the Holy Spirit (42:52, 26:192-194)
  • The Prophet Muḥammad is the mercy (raḥmah) to the worlds (21:107)
  • The Prophet Muḥammad is merciful (raḥīm) to the Believers (9:128)
  • The Prophet Muḥammad is kind (ra’ūf) the Believers (9:128)
  • The Prophet Muḥammad is an honourable Messenger (rasūl karīm) (69:40; 81:19-21)
  • The Prophet Muḥammad is light (nūr) from God (5:15) and a radiant lamp (sirāj munīr) (33:46)
  • The Prophet Muḥammad (like Prophet Abraham) is gentle (ḥalīm) to the Believers (11:75)
  • The Prophet Muḥammad is the possessor of power (dhū al-quwwah) (81:20-21)
  • The Prophet Muḥammad is the teacher (mu‘allim) of the Book and Wisdom and new knowledge (62:2; 3:164; 2:151)
  • The Prophet Muḥammad, like his predecessors, is patient (ṣabūr) (38:16, 46:34)
  • The Prophet is the witness (shahīd) of humankind on the Day of Judgment (2:143, 33:46; 4:41)
  • The Prophet Muḥammad is the guardian (walī) of the Believers (5:55)
  • The Prophet Muḥammad prays to God for the Believer’s forgiveness (4:64, 63:5, 3:159, 60:12, 24:62)
  • The Prophet Muḥammad forgives the Believers (5:13; 3:159; 7:199)
  • The Prophet Muḥammad guides the Believers to the Straight Path (45:25)
  • The Prophet Muḥammad’s nature or character is sublime (‘aẓīm) (68:4)
  • The Prophet Muḥammad is the judge of the believers (4:65; 4:105; 24:51; 33:36)
  • The Prophet Muḥammad makes things clear to the Believers (5:15; 5:19; 16:44; 16:64; 14:4)
  • The Prophet Muḥammad purifies and sanctifies the believers (9:103)
  • The Prophet Muḥammad holds authority (awlā) over the Believers (33:6)
  • The Prophet Muḥammad summons the Believers to that which gives them life (8:24).
  • The Prophet Muḥammad recites the Signs of God (2:151).
  • The Prophet Muḥammad sends ṣalawāt (blessings, prayers) upon the Believers (9:103)
  • The Prophet Muḥammad receives offerings (ṣadaqa) from the Believers (9:103; 58:12)
  • The Prophet Muḥammad brings the people from darkness to Light (14:1; 14:5 65:11)
  • The Prophet Muḥammad is a beautiful pattern for the Believers (33:21)
  • The Prophet Muḥammad is the object of great respect and veneration (48:9, 49:1-3)
  • The Prophet Muḥammad commands the lawful and forbids the wrong (7:157)
  • He who gives their allegiance (bay‘ah) to the Prophet Muḥammad has given it to God (48:10)
  • He who obeys the Prophet Muḥammad, obeys God (4:80; 4:64)

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