Prophets are people who are understood as conveying God’s words or messages to their communities. Contrary to the popular image that many people have, prophets are not necessarily people peering far into the future and making predictions. Rather, their messages are very much focused on a particular time, a particular place, and a particular community.
When those hearing the prophetic words fail to respond appropriately to the message, the prophets often warn of future consequences. The future, in the case of prophets, is something that will happen fairly soon if listeners don’t adhere to the message. In many instances, the adherents in later generations who embrace the prophetic message understand the message to be not only relevant in the context in which it was given but also for other people at other times and—in some cases—for all humankind.
Examples of biblical prophets abound. Let’s consider the important prophetic figure of Moses from the Hebrew Bible. Moses is introduced in the book of Exodus, the second book of the Bible. In the third chapter of Exodus, we read a powerful story about Moses being confronted by a burning bush. He encounters this bush that is consumed in flame but is not being destroyed. Moses investigates this miraculous event, and the text reports that God’s voice addresses him with the command to remove his sandals, for he is standing on holy ground. Moses is told that the time of Israel’s redemption is at hand and that he, Moses, will be the instrument for leading the people out of Egypt and out of slavery into a land flowing with milk and honey.
Moses’s first response is one of unworthiness. He doesn’t feel worthy of this calling, and he asks God to release him from this mission.
Moses’s response to this divine charge establishes a pattern that we will see mirrored in the other prophets; namely, Moses’s first response is one of unworthiness. He doesn’t feel worthy of this calling, and he asks God to release him from this mission. God assures Moses that God will be with him as he performs the task.
As the book of Exodus unfolds, we get a number of dramatic stories about Moses’s confrontation with the pharaoh. Various miraculous events occur, such as the parting of the Red Sea and the meeting of God on Mount Sinai, where Moses goes and meets directly with God to receive the tablets with the Ten Commandments.
Later in the story, while the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, the Bible records stories of Moses going out periodically to the Tent of Meeting—the place where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. Moses would go into the Tent of Meeting and God would descend in a pillar of smoke to speak with Moses, “face to face, as a friend.” Moses would come out, and his face would shine in such a way that it struck fear into the hearts of people. These are clear symbols of Moses’s role as a prophet—one who speaks not only to God but on behalf of God to a particular people at a given time and a given place.
The Doubt of the Prophet—Why Choose Me?
One of the things that one finds among the prophets is that they are often revered much more after the fact than they are in the time in which they’re living. This is very much the case with the prophet Muhammad.
Muhammad couldn’t imagine that he, in fact, was being called to be a prophet, all the more so because he was an unlettered person; he couldn’t read or write.
Muhammad was born in the city of Mecca. He was raised within the tribe that controlled Mecca, the Quraysh. He was called to be a prophet at age 40, when he was out on Mount Hira near Mecca. He returned with very much the same sort of story as Hebrew prophets such as Jeremiah and Isaiah; namely, his first response was one of unworthiness. He couldn’t imagine that he, in fact, was being called to be a prophet, all the more so because he was an unlettered person; he couldn’t read or write. He seemed completely unable to embrace this kind of task.
Muhammad’s first response, in fact, is very much like what I suspect most of us would imagine our response to be to some kind of angelic visitation. Namely, he rushed off the mountain, went home, and told his spouse Khadijah: “I don’t know if I’m losing my mind or what’s going on here,” because he couldn’t imagine that really he was being called to be a prophet.
Prophets are often incredulous that they are being chosen for this task, and it’s actually sort of a sign of a prophet.
Over time, he accepted this role. His wife and others affirmed what was happening, and he accepted his mission and responsibility. Prophets are often incredulous that they are being chosen for this task, and it’s actually sort of a sign of a prophet. A prophet is not somebody who is jumping up and down raising his hand for the teacher to call him.
“Occasions of Revelation”
Another similarity in the way the prophets pursue their respective messages is that they are primarily directed to particular times and places. The context of Moses leading the children of Israel out through the wilderness toward the Promised Land is quite different from Jeremiah’s searing words to a corrupt political and religious establishment in Jerusalem, an establishment literally on the very brink of being overwhelmed by the Babylonians. Comprehending their respective prophetic utterances requires an understanding of their particular contexts.
While Muslims perceive the Qur’an to be the eternal word of God, containing truths that transcend time and place, you begin with a proper interpretation of the passages that are in what are called the “occasions of revelation.” To interpret the Qur’an, the first thing one has to do is know what are the occasions, what are the settings in which this particular passage was revealed. Sometimes they’re fragmentary, and you have to understand the background to get the point. For example, in the 80th chapter of the Qur’an—titled “He Frowned”—the context is particularly important. Here are the first five verses:
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.
He frowned and turned away because the blind man came unto him.
What could inform thee but that he might grow (in grace) or take heed
… so the [remainder] might avail him?
As for him who thinketh himself independent, unto him thou payest regard.
What went on here, according to the interpreters, is that one day, Muhammad explained the message of Islam to a prominent member of the Koresh—thinking that if he embraced the message, then the movement would be well on its way. While he was doing this, a poor man came and tugged at his cloak from behind. Muhammad scowled, frowned at the man, and turned away, essentially saying, “Can’t you see I’m dealing with somebody who is very important here and explaining Islam to them?” Then the revelation came that admonished him and, through him, all Muslims subsequently: Don’t turn away from any sincere inquiry because of someone’s status.
The Words of God
Judaism and Islam in some ways present the role of the prophet very differently. In both traditions, they’re inspired by God, but they often formulate their inspiration in different ways.
When Muhammad speaks the words that become the Qur’an, these are not his words at all. They are literally understood as God’s words placed into him.
In the Hebrew context, the prophet takes in the word of God, and it’s often his own voice that speaks the word or puts it into a human context. In the Islamic understanding, the role of the prophet is much more mechanical. When Muhammad speaks the words that become the Qur’an, these are not his words at all. They are literally understood as God’s words placed into him.
To illustrate this, Muslims often speak about the Qur’an as the validating miracle of Muhammad’s role as a prophet. The majesty and unparalleled beauty of the Qur’an is proof of its divine origin.