The Path of God’s Messengers (Sunnah)

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

If religion is communication between human beings and their Creator, why do we need to follow the example of messengers, who are human beings like us? From one aspect, messengers are like mail carriers who bring the letter/message from some other source. In the Qur’an, believers are reminded to follow and obey God as well as the messengers. If we obey the messengers, we will be obeying God. Human beings do not mind obeying God and imitating Him (manifesting God’s Attributes). This concept is expressed in a saying of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh): “assume the way of God (Tahallaqu bi ahklaq-ullah).” But we might ask. “Why should we follow the practices of an Arab who lived in the seventh century?” We may think that we are asked to follow a person who is the product of the Arabic culture. However, this is not so. The defining characteristics of the prophets are not the clothes they wear or the language they speak. We follow the message they teach and embody in their life. It is highly likely that this issue is framed this way by Western racial prejudices and the Orientalists. Even though Prophet Jesus and Moses were also from the Arab peninsula, nobody ever claims “why should we follow Jesus’ example, since he lived two thousand years ago and in the Middle East?” God says in the Qur’an:

“Say (to them, o Messenger): “If you indeed love God, then follow me, so that God will love you and forgive you your sins.” God is All-Forgiving, All-Compassionate” (Qur’an, 3:31).

The Qur’anic command is rather general: “Obey the Prophet” (Qur’an, 24:56). How do we obey the Prophet (pbuh)? Human ego is given to us in order to worship God alone. We feel degraded when we start worshiping creatures. We need to guard this sacred sense, not corrupt or misuse it by claiming “I am not going to worship any created being” while deifying some objects or concepts, such as fame, money, lust, etc. Unfortunately, some people have also deified prophets by misusing this God-given sacred sense of worshiping God alone.

When we are following Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)’s practices, we have to take the utmost care not to attribute any divinity to him or to his practices. When we declare faith, we say “I witness that there is no deity but God, Muhammad is His servant (abd) and messenger.” Servant comes first, because we are fallible and prone to attributing divinity to the messengers. Hence, we need to continuously reinforce the fact that we are following the message that was revealed to him and that he exemplified perfectly in his life. In many publications introducing Islam, this declaration of faith is stated as “there is no deity but God, Muhammad is His last messenger.” It is incorrect and omits His servanthood and adds the word last.

“There has come to you (O people) a Messenger from among yourselves; extremely grievous to him is your suffering, full of concern for you is he, and for the believers full of pity and compassion. Still, if they turn away from you (O Messenger), say: “God is sufficient for me; there is no deity but He. In Him have I put my trust, and He is the Lord of the Supreme Throne (as the absolute Ruler and Sustainer of the universe and all creation, Who maintains and protects it)” (Qur’an, 9:128-29)

So he is one of us, and he is there to protect us from harming ourselves. He is very anxious out of love for the believers. If we are a believer, we will find him most kind and merciful to us, because he is bringing the message/glad-tidings (bushrah). If we follow the message, we will not harm ourselves. This verse outlines the main characteristics of messengers. Jesus (pbuh) was the prophet of his time. Moses (pbuh) was the prophet of his time. So this verse is applicable to all prophets. The messengers can be compared to mail carriers in that they are not the source of the message (neither are they philosophers interpreting creation and deducing conclusions on their own).However, we understand from this verse that messengers do not merely deliver the message. If we suffer, the mail carrier is rarely upset. If you receive from the mail carrier a letter from the IRS stating you have to pay a certain amount of fines and you panic, the mail carrier surely would not care. But messengers are not like this; they are anxiously trying to help us.

“…and for the believers full of pity and compassion…” does not mean being kind and merciful to only Muslims. Muslim is the one who submits her will to God’s will. If we overcome our ego and admit that we are being created, and that we must follow the will of our Creator, then we are muslims (submitters). Nursi writes that “The practices of the Messengers are like the ropes descending from the heaven. Whoever holds onto them reaches eternal happiness.”[2]  God speaks to those who submit to God’s guidelines in a different category in the Qur’an, particularly in verses that have to do with practice. However, believers refer to all those who believe in God’s existence. We may come and join God’s religion, but we cannot appropriate it to our self.

Nursi says that “The manifestations of the Most Beautiful Attributes of God are diffused within the practices of the Messengers.”[3]  When we follow the practices of the Messengers (sunnah), we transform all our acts into worship. Following the practices of the Messengers recalls the Messenger; this in turn, is transformed into recollection of the Divine Presence. In this way, while we follow their practices, our ordinary acts become meritorious acts of worship. For through such ordinary actions we think of following God’s Messenger and conceive them as following God’s guidance. From that our heart turns to the Almighty God, the True Guide/Lawgiver. We gain awareness of the Divine Presence and a sense of worship as we realize the manifestations of the Attributes of God in our actions.

One who believes in God will certainly obey Him. And the most acceptable way of obeying Him is the way God’s beloved messengers illustrated through their actions. The One who makes the universe reflect the innumerable manifestations of His beauty and perfections will give the most perfect worshipful state to His messengers who are the most comprehensive and perfect measure and means of displaying His beauty and perfection. As servants of our Creator, we will then struggle to make our conduct a fine example to others and encourage them to follow the example of the messengers so that their fine conduct may appear in others too.

Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: “My Sustainer taught me good conduct and how well He taught me.” Following the practices of the Messengers is to assume a conduct within the bounds of the Glorious Maker’s Attributes. Man is created with infinite innate love for the Creator of the universe. Since we claim to love God, we will try to act in the manner He is pleased with. If I claim to love my spouse yet do everything that I know displeases him, is this love? Love is equivalent with the desire to please the beloved.

The most exalted goal for human beings is to receive Almighty God’s love. To do that, we must resemble the ones whom God loves the most, i.e. the messengers. Aisha is narrated to have said: “His character is the Qur’an’s.” As is the case with all prophets, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is the example of the fine moral qualities described in the Qur’an.

 


[1] Dr. Eren Tatari is the author of Surrendering to God: Understanding Islam in the Modern Age  (Tughra Publications, December 2012).  She is an Assistant Professor at Rollins College, FL focusing on Islam and Muslims in the West.

[2] Nursi 2002, Mathnawi-i Nuriye, Vol. 2, p. 1307.

[3] Nursi 2005, The Words, p. 372.

Belief in God’s Messengers

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

This discussion follows our discussion on belief in the Creator of this cosmos. Only after we establish that there is a Creator, does it make sense to talk about messengers. Thus, we are now taking the existence of a Creator as given.

What comes to our mind when we say “messengers of God”? Why does God appoint some people to convey His message to human beings? What are the function and the qualities of a messenger? If we say messengers are employed by God to remind people of their creation, we suggest that we knew something but forgot it, thus the need for reminder. What is it that we forgot?

“And (remember, O Messenger) when your Lord brought forth from the children of Adam, from their loins, their offspring, and made them bear witness against themselves (asking them): “Am I not your Lord?” They said: “Yes, we do bear witness.” (That covenant was taken) lest you should say on the Day of Resurrection, “We were indeed unaware of this (fact that you are our Lord)”” (Qur’an, 7:172).

After our spirits were created, God asked us all: who is your Lord (Rab)? And we have confirmed that God was our Creator, our Lord. Yet, once we are in this world, we partially forget this reality and struggle to remember our knowledge of God (marifatullah) through our life journey.

We have a natural disposition (fitrah) to submit to the fact that we are being created by a higher being that has control over everything (which then we call God). We have a natural disposition to submit in general, which we might misuse by submitting to those other than God. For example, this morning we had breakfast. Why did we have breakfast? We were hungry and had to eat. We were created in this way; we get hungry, our stomachs hurt and we need to eat; so by eating, we are submitting to the way we are being created. We also have a natural disposition to submit to our feelings: our stress, our happiness, sadness, etc. We are not like machines; we do not just eat and sleep. We are connected to many things in the universe, and we have the need to express our feelings. We also have a natural disposition to forget[2] and go astray by submitting to things other than God. Thus messengers are needed to guide us about how to use these feelings.

Messengers also help to answer our existential questions. Every human being asks the basic existential questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? We need satisfying answers in order to make sense of our existence and have meaning in our lives. Is there anything nonsensical in creation? We might not like pesky flies or spiders in our house, but still their existence is perfect and meaningful in the big picture for the eco-system. Likewise, our creation is not meaningless. If we do not ask the questions and seek answers, our life does not become meaningless; only we do not see its meaning. Just like closing our eyes and not seeing the light does not annul the existence of the sun, our ignorance does not render our life meaningless; rather, it temporarily blinds us. We are the only one devoid of light for that time being.

Our Creator sends us instructors to guide us. If someone were to make a high-tech machine that no one had ever seen the like of and did not send an instructor and a manual to explain what it is for and how it should be used, the machine would be useless. How the maker of the machine would regard the misuse of his machine is also a point to ponder upon.

From one aspect, human beings potentially have the message in the form of natural disposition and conscience. Yet if someone chooses not listen to her natural disposition to search for the meaning of life, no messenger can help. Also, it is very difficult to accept advice and hear criticism from a person who is our equal. Our dignity cannot stand when someone treats us as a child. If someone stops us while we are driving and says we were speeding, we ask if he or she is a police officer. If not, we do not regard this person’s warning. Yet, our reaction and attitude changes drastically when a higher authority is warning us. When it is the maker of the high-tech machine, we are all ears!

Historically we see two lines of people who claim to bring knowledge to guide people. One is the line of the philosophers who use their own reasoning and observe creation and come up with their own conclusions. The other group is the messengers, those who receive revelation from the Creator. Messengers are not philosophers. Philosophers learn through empirical experience. They make conclusions as a result of their experiences and observations. Their conclusions may be correct or incorrect. Their deductions are based on their limited subjective experience. Thus we need sound knowledge from the Maker of creation in order to understand its meaning correctly.

Messengers are not the source of the message. They bring the message from the Creator of human beings, hence the All-Knowing. They bring the message with the emphasis that it is the message from my Creator. Thus, we need to approach the message as a personal message to us from our Creator. Because we are created, we need a messenger to bring the message from our Maker to explain the purpose and the meaning of our existence. Whoever made us and put us in this world should not leave us alone without any guidance. We live, eat, sleep, and will eventually die. It is all pointless unless the real meaning is uncovered. More importantly, God constantly creates us and constantly sends us messages: We constantly receive ayah from the creation and when we open the scriptures to read, God is speaking to us right there and then!

So there are two important points about the distinction between God and the messengers:

 

  1. Our Maker creates, knows, and sustains, and is therefore the Authority, the source of our message.
  2. The message is from our Creator, not the messenger himself, so we should obey the message. We read Prophet Jesus (pbuh)’s sayings and study them to internalize them to guide our life. But we are not following Prophet Jesus (pbuh) thinking that he is a philosopher (which he is not). We follow him to follow God since the message is from Him. I love and follow Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), but I do not love him for his own sake.  What makes the prophets messengers is that they are the bearers of the message from the Creator.

 

Every messenger is a human being. God addresses Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in the Qur’an saying that he is a mortal man like everyone else. Why do the prophets have to be human beings? If the messenger were an angel, we would not be able to comprehend the message with our level of understanding. The message has to be conveyed at our capacity. Our created capacity is limited and cannot have direct relation with the Unlimited Source of the message. Also, messengers have the duty of acting as an example to other human beings. If they had divinity or they were angels, we could/would perhaps have said: “well, he is an angel; I cannot be like him anyways.”

Creation carries messages from its Creator as well, but we can never be sure that we are interpreting creation correctly, due to our biases and shortcomings. A butterfly cannot be a sound point of reference for our guidance, because it can be interpreted as a product of nature or accident, or a nuisance insect. Hence, we need a trustworthy teacher/interpreter to teach us how to interpret what we observe around us. Another name for the Qur’an is the Furqan, meaning criterion (separating right from wrong). It means that the guiding criterion must be a trustworthy source, which is revelation from the Creator.

Creation is “revelation in action” which needs to be read with the guidance of the scriptures (revelation in words). A butterfly is created, so it is considered Revelation in action. The meaning/words of the verbal revelation (scripture) are NOT created (the book that we hold in our hand/the mushaf is of course created). But the bearers of the Scriptures, messengers, are created. What Prophet Jesus or Prophet Muhammad brought as the message is not created, but both Prophet Jesus and Prophet Muhammad are created. Prophet Jesus (pbuh) would point to flowers or other creatures and elucidate what they explain to us. If all of our understandings were the same, he would not have bothered to explain the message conveyed by the flowers.

To summarize, messengers are like preachers to all mankind explaining the supreme sign of the book of the universe. They are leaders: they lead and we follow. They can be thought of as luminous trees whose roots are still alive and whose fruits are fresh and sweet. All messengers declare that “There is no deity but God.” They hold a miraculous message, which solves the mystery of the world, answering our existential questions. With the light they bring, the things we may perceive as evil (sickness, hunger, etc.) become affable with the light of this message.  Again with the light of this message, weeping orphans are seen as reciting God’s Names and offering thanks. Without the message/guidance, we could not have made sense of the creation and our existence.

Messengers are worshipful servants of God (abdullah) who are also manifestations of God’s Attributes. In regard to their messengership (rasul), they are the proof of the Truth, the means to permanent happiness, guiding us to God through “there is no deity but God” (La illaha illallah). Messengers did not seek political domination in their societies. They conquered the minds, spirits, hearts and souls of the people with the truth of the message. This great task requires one to be the appointed official of a Great Authority (God) in order for it to be accomplished.

For example, during the 23 years of his prophethood Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was the first person to submit to the message revealed to him and learn and practice to become a servant of God. He sought eternal happiness through all the Divine Attributes of Perfection, which are manifested through the creation. All created beings joined in his prayer with their natural dispositions, declaring: “Our Sustainer! Let your Attributes of Perfection manifest on us! We too want eternal happiness!” A flower drawing on water through its roots, an animal seeking food with its instincts, an infant nursing, etc. are all examples of creation asking to manifest God’s Attributes of Perfection. Thus, with its natural disposition, each being strives to manifest the Attributes of God reflected through them. Although the created beings are transient in themselves, what they manifest is eternal. We understand from their disposition that they too are happy with what they demonstrate and want to carry on doing so forever since every creature is inclined to sustain its existence.

 


[1] Dr. Eren Tatari is the author of Surrendering to God: Understanding Islam in the Modern Age  (Tughra Publications, December 2012).  She is an Assistant Professor at Rollins College, FL focusing on Islam and Muslims in the West.

[2] It is noteworthy that the word human in the Qur’an is insan, and is driven from the same root with the word nisyan, which means to forget.