InsightJanuary February 2005

On the Search for Divine Revelation Outside of It

Rashid Shaz

Divine revelation is a definite and self-contained entity. Even after its revelation if supplementary materials for human guidance are needed then it would be considered a lack or an inadequacy of the divine revelation. At all places in the Qur’an where divine guidance has been alluded to, it has been clarified beyond doubt that whenever such guidance was sent, it was sent in the most comprehensive form, including all details related to it. Verses like ثم آتينا موسى الكتاب تماماً (Al- Ina’m: 154) and وكتبنا له في الألواح من كل شئي موعظة و تفصيلا لكل شئي (Al- A’raf: 145), in fact, point to the fact that after the revelation of Torah, the Israelites did not need any other supplementary sources for their guidance. The attitude of the Qur’an towards its addressee, as evidenced in verses like –  افغير الله ابتغى حكما وهو الذي أنزل إليكم الكتاب مفصلاَ(Al- Ina’m: 115) is a pointer to its nature of being complete, comprehensive and definitive. Be they the Divine scrolls revealed to earlier prophets or the Qur’an revealed to Prophet Muhammad, if they do not have the status of being the primary and seminal sources of guidance, then they raise questions about the very nature of the divine revelation. As the Qur’an is the final document in the chain of divine revelations, it has the status of the guide to humanity after the Prophet. This is the reason why it includes the wisdom revealed to the past prophets. The style of the Qur’an at numerous places aims at teaching lessons to the present community through the narration of the stories of the earlier communities. These parables provide them the guidance to lead life righteously. وما كان هذا القرآن أن يفترى من دون الله ولكن تصديق الذي بين يديه وتفصيل الكتب لا ريب فيه من رب العالمين (Yunus: 37).

The allusions in the Qur’an to the earlier prophets and their descriptions should be seen in their historical perspective. The Israelites who are known to have built a thick barrier of interpretive literature around the Divine Revelation, and who have piled up so much ancillary sources of elucidation and interpretation around Talmud that practically the Pentateuch has been overshadowed by them in matters of providing guidance to the community. They are among the people who have been given احسن تفصيلاَ لكل شئي But they considered the Divine Book inadequate and built a veritable jungle of interpretive literature around it.  As a result they strayed from the path of Divine guidance and began to follow the judgment of the people. Despite having a comprehensive Book ( كتاباً تفصيلاً) among them, the search for divine revelations outside it was a pursuit that, despite their deep religiosity, led the Israelites to a dead end. The frequent allusions in the Qur’an about the comprehensive Book in the context of the past communities and then drawing attention of the Muslims to the fact that the most comprehensive Book has been revealed to the Prophet are meant to forewarn them about this danger lest they also, at some particular moment of their history, begin to consider this comprehensive and clear Book as inadequate, and like the rabbis and Pharisees of the earlier communities, the scholars of Islam build a similar barrier of interpretive and elucidatory literature around the Divine Revelation.

The way the Qur’an reprimands the earlier communities for their deviation from the true religious path and aberrations in their thoughts makes it amply clear that deviation in religion emanates from misguided religious thinking. It is not possible for the clergy to become deities or prophets or lawgivers without according a high status to history and interpretation. If history takes the place of Divine Revelation or takes precedence over it, in both these cases the clergy usurps the right to explain and interpret Divine Revelation. When the Israeli rabbis attempt to derive laws from the sayings of the elders ignoring the commandments in Pentateuch, they, in fact, accord history as holy a status as the Divine Revelation, through their interpretation. This barrier of history around the Divine Revelation in the context of the earlier prophets has come under discussion in the Qur’an that regards it as a serious aberration.[1] If one comes to think of it, in history, the harm caused by the so-called religious thinking to religion has been greater than that caused by any non-religious or oppositional, even inimical thinking. History can thickly overlay Divine Revelation, and if it wears the cloak of holiness, it can strike Divine Revelation from within. While those who make opposition to Divine Revelation their main objective, operate from outside the bounds of history. They either get marginalised on the periphery of history or history itself throws them in a morgue like a paralysed part where, despite all their historical importance, they get frozen in the trashcan of history. However, sacred history that strikes Divine Revelation from within and, despite the presence of the Divine Text, creates a wedge of interpretation and elucidation around it that makes Divine Revelation almost redundant. Like the earlier communities, if Muslims of today have started regarding the Qur’an as a book of holy practices rather than the Book of Guidance, its main reason is the attack of the sacred history from within.

For common people, the personality of the Prophet is something of a paradox and its balanced assessment is not possible without the strictest scrutiny of the Divine Revelation. To accept a person just like oneself as a prophet demands an extraordinary intellectual leap. It is like walking on a bridge thinner than hair and sharper than a sword. The acceptance or denial of the Prophet is such a thin line that determines the birth of two communities. The Prophet is neither absolutely human nor angelic. Those who are ready to recognise only his human aspects deny his apostleship, and those who regard him as purely angelic exaggerate this particular aspect of his personality and, in a way, defeat the very purpose of apostleship. Between these two extremes of denial (kufr) and associationsim or polytheism (shirk), the recognition of the Prophet is an extremely delicate task, and it is not always possible for societies to do it properly in all situations. It is not at all surprising if the events surrounding a person with whom God may be in dialogue, or on whom His message is revealed, and whose existence defines the relationship between the heavens and the earth, take on the aspect of holiness and forms a sacred history in the succeeding years.

History has its own temptations, especially the history which defines the relationship between the heavens and the earth, or which encompasses the occasions and circumstances of Divine Revelation. It is neither possible for the believers to regard them as mere facts of history and read them as such, nor is it desirable on an emotional or conscious level. The way the lofty attributes of the Prophet have been mentioned in the Qur’an [محمد رسول الله والذين معه  (Al- Fatah: 29)] strengthens the belief that it is not a common history, but the sayings of those great human beings whose lofty and sacred attributes have provided a successful model for the future. However, the role human perception plays in awarding a particular status to history and investing it with sacred and angelic qualities, so that it serves as a model, makes a great difference because the human perception or human recording of history cannot be equated with Divine perception or Revelatory truth. The earlier communities had committed the same mistake regarding the historical accounts and practices of their prophets. Rather than depending solely on Divine information regarding the Divine Revelation, they accorded human history an immutable and sacred status, paving the way for the substitution of Divine Revelation with human history.

The Israelites not only accorded the times and practices of Moses the status of sacred history, regarding them as oral Divine Revelation as opposed to the written Divine Revelation of Moses. They went still further and gave currency to the belief that the written Divine Revelations can be properly understood only through the oral Divine Revelations. Thus, history was not only equated with Divine Revelation, but got precedence over it in matters of interpretation and elucidation. Christ who had come basically to retrieve the lost sheep of the Israelites and who was greatly upset by the spectacle of meaningless debates among the rabbis and Pharisees on matters of Jurisprudence considered the barrier of interpretive literature around Torah to be a rejection of the Book itself. Criticising the attitude of the Pharisees towards religion when Christ said, “They sift flies and swallow camels”[2] he was, in fact, referring to the particular juristic school of human judgements (aara al-rijal) that had almost rejected Torah in preference to times and practices of the prophet of the time. Christ’s call to true religion created a stir in the still and stagnant pool of the religious thinking of the Israelites. However, in the subsequent years, when this call changed its tone and tenor in the hands of his followers because of the changing political and evangelical configurations, when he began to be seen as Prophet for the whole world instead of a bringer of glad tidings and counsellor to the Israelites. For the Israelites only, and when, far away from the practices of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the followers of Christ spread to different corners of the world for evangelical purposes, then the practices and days of Christ assumed as much importance as the message of Christ. Christ’s teachings based on Divine Revelation got mixed up with his times and practices in such a way that what to speak of separating them from one another, a new belief was formed with reference to the Word of God that Christ himself was the very embodiment of the Divine Revelation and that as long as he lived on the earth, every moment that he spent, every act that he did, every message that he transmitted, and every policy that he undertook was guided by it. As for their historical consciousness, the Israelites regarded themselves as a community that had a deep sense of the importance of history. It has been their strong belief that as the followers of Torah, they have a special place in the Divine scheme of things. They believe that they took upon themselves the responsibility of Torah at a moment when all other communities, because of their deplorable state, were not ready to accept this responsibility. The awareness of this special status actuated the Israelites not only to make all possible efforts to preserve their history, but also accorded it a much higher status than it deserves. Christ himself was the severest critic of such a view of history that invests it with holiness, and he passed the strongest strictures on historical jurisprudence and rabbinic laws. What is surprising is that his followers not only placed history and Divine Revelation on the same footing, but went a step further and conferred on history the status of the Divine Revelation. It might be that Christ’s companions did not write the testaments from this angle of holy history, in practice, however, these books are now read not as books of history but as books of Divine Revelation, or at least, as the genuine manifestations of Divine Revelation. In this continuum, if the times and practices of Prophet Muhammad are accorded a sacred status, or like the earlier communities, if the followers of Prophet Muhammad begin to see wahi ghair matlu in his sayings and practices, it will simply be an extension of the deviant historical attitude coming down from the earlier ages.

The age of Prophet Muhammad with all its circumstances and ethos is certainly very important. However, unlike Moses or Christ or other prophets who were sent to particular communities or regions, the apostleship of Muhammad  was meant for the whole universe and, as the last and final Prophet, his teachings were to be valid till doomsday. If the Prophet who was meant for the whole humanity and whose status was to remain intact till the Final Hour is seen merely as a historical character, limited by time and space, and if the cultural manifestations around him are considered to have impact on the model or sunnah provided by him, then it is quite natural that questions would be raised about his mission that transcends history. Then one cannot deny the truth that however much we accord the times and practices of the Prophet the status of history or sacred history and follow it reverentially or regard it as a precedent, a return to the age and time of the Prophet is not possible for us on a historical plane. Whether the age of the Prophet is equated with Divine Revelation or whether it is regarded as pure history, on the levels of both emotion and intellect, we can only do this much that we put the seal of our belief on the information coming to us after being filtered through history. However, it would be essential for those who want to see Muhammad as the Prophet of the present and the future, beyond the confining bounds of time and space, that rather than depending on human sources and human perceptions regarding the Prophet’s time and his practices, they should seek guidance from the Divine Revelation itself, where his (Prophet’s) teachings and practices would be found here and there like sparks of authentic history. A history that is not simply fossilized information but that contains intimations for the future.

Notes and References

[1] Pointing to the deviation in the thinking of the People of the Book, the Qur’an says:

إتخذوا أحبارهم و رهبانهم أرباباً من دون الله (Al Taubah: 31)

[2] The embellishment of the law by the Pharisees and Sadducees (rabbis of Jesus’ day) were condemned by Jesus in Matthew 15:6, Luke 11:46, 52 and in other similar verses.

The jurisprudence propounded by the clergy not only made God’s worship immensely complex, but also the unnecessary restrictions and insistence on self-imposed rituals paved the way for human interference in the act of God. The Israeli rabbis could not abide by the following instruction of the Torah:

“You shall not add to the word which I am Commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.” [Deuteronomy 4:2]

Under these circumstances, Jesus Christ had to make the fossilized and soulless attitude the target of his attack in his Sermon on the Mount.


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