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TAGS: Angels; Criticism and apologetics; Finality; Holy Spirit; Interfaith dialogue; Islam; Manifestations of God; Prophets; Seal of the Prophets
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Analytical overview of the theology of prophethood in both religions.

Comparison of the concepts of Prophet and Messenger in Islam and Manifestation in the Baha'i Faith

by Richard Ater


      In any dialogue between two belief systems the variance of meaning between shared terms can become an obstacle to understanding. Such an obstacle can lead to frustration, further misunderstanding, and even open hostility. The shared terms of Prophet and Messenger in Muslim and Bahá'í dialogue are a case in point.

      The definition of seal of the Prophets (Khatem al-Anbiyya), and its differing interpretation in the two Faiths has, at times, further increased the discord. A popular Bahá'í response to this when faced with the Muslim perspective on the two terms for Prophethood in Arabic, i.e. Nabi and Rasul (Messenger) has been to state that Muhammad was the last of the Nabi, but not of the Rasul. This point has not swayed many Muslims. Most Muslims use the terms interchangeably, and there are Hadith in which Muhammad also claims to be the Seal of the Messengers (Khatem al-Rasuleen). Bahá'u'lláh has also, in an untranslated portion of the Ishraqat, confirmed that Muhammad is, indeed, the Seal of both the Nabi and the Rasul. This being the case, and in order to increase dialogue between Muslims and Bahá'is, it would be beneficial to explore the concept of Messengers and Prophets as used by present day Islam. Then to explore the Bahá'í concept of the Manifestation and to demarcate a clear reference point for the Bahá'í belief in continuation of revelation beyond the point of Prophethood.

      It should be noted that due to restrictions on the length of this paper I have had to be brief in areas where I would have preferred more depth and to generalize at times. I have also had to ignore whole traditions in Islam such as Ibn Arabi's concept of the perfect man so as to keep this paper within its defined length.

      For simplicity's sake the concepts of prophet and messenger will henceforth be subsumed under the term Prophet, while there is some difference theologically between the two for brevity they will be discussed together.

The Prophet as human in Islam

      It has been said that misunderstanding of the role of the Prophet has been, and still is, one of the greatest obstacles to Westerner's appreciation of the Muslim interpretation of Islamic history and culture (Rahman, 1979).

      According to Ulama Tabataba'i of Iran, the laws that can lead to humanity's greatest happiness cannot be constructed merely out of human reason. He points to several secular attempt to do so, such as the French revolution, and comes to the conclusion that human reason has failed to lead us out our misery. Tabataba'i reasons that humanity wants and needs laws and if human reason has not supplied usable laws, then they had to have come from another source. This source which is other than reason is the prophetic consciousness and the consciousness of revelation.

      The Prophets of God were men who propagated the call of revelation and brought definitive proofs of their call. They gave the people elements of the religion of God and made it available to all (Tabataba'i, 1975).

      One of the earliest views of the nature of Prophethood can be seen in the book Qisas al-Anbiyya, The Stories of the Prophets by Al-Imam Ibn Kathir (810-870 AD). In this book Ibn Kathir states, "Allah's Prophets are His messengers to humanity. Their essence is human, and they are the purest of human beings. Allah sent each prophet as a Warner to his community until the advent of the final prophet, Muhammad.." The book goes on to say that indeed we would not know the true story of any of the prophets were it not for Muhammad and the Qur'an. This was so because their stories had been corrupted either by over estimation of the prophets, in the New Testament, or under estimation, in the Old Testament. The book maintains that any mention of sinfulness on the part of the Prophets in the Old Testament are incongruent with the concept of Isma, or infallibility. The concept of the divinity of the Prophet as portrayed in the New Testament is labeled as Shirk, assigning partners to God. Both are dismissed out of hand as incorrect. The concept of isma will be dealt with more thoroughly in this paper later, but for now we can note that the concepts of infallibility and the essential humanity of the prophets were present in Islam as early as the 9th century AD.

      Annemarie Schimmel, in her book And Muhammad is His Messenger, gives us insight into the viewpoint of the average Muslim regarding Muhammad. This in turn gives us insight into how other prophets are viewed. Schimmel covers the view that Muhammad was only a man and that his only prerogative other than this was that he received revelation. As Surah 6:50 states; "Say; I do not say: 'With me are the treasures of God' and I do not know the invisible, and I do not say that I am an angel-I follow only that which is revealed to me." Also Surah 28:56 "You cannot guide on the right path whom you want. It is God who guides!" It is accepted that God's revelation to Muhammad was a gift of grace that he did not deserve, but which had elected him as its vessel. The Qur'an admonishes him: "Verily if We wanted We would take away what We have revealed to you, and then you would not find for yourself a defendant against us."

      In Islamic prophetology the Prophet is sent to a people as a messenger and a Warner, Surah 10:48. Rahman describes Muhammad as a Warner to the people and by extension the other prophets as well. He uses the stories of the prophets as seen in the Qur'an to substantiate this claim (Rahman, 1979). The Meccans asking him when the Day of Judgement would be is given as an example. When asked he would reply that he was called to warn, but didn't know when the Day of Judgement was anymore than they did (Schimmel, 1985).

      Furthermore in Surah 14:8 it is said that God did not send any messenger who did not speak the language of the people He was sent to. Islam holds that God never left the world without a witness in History. Beginning with Adam, the first man and prophet, God has continued to reveal His message to the world. Divine messengers continued to come and instruct humanity until Muhammad who was the Seal of the Prophets. The term in Arabic is khatem al-anbiyya, anbiyya is the plural of nabi which means prophet. The nabi, however, is not charged with proclaiming a new law; that duty belongs to the Rasul, messenger. From what can be deduced from the Qur'an, not all prophets brought a new law, or sharia, only five, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, did. They are referred to as Possessors of determination (Ulu'l 'azm). The other prophets followed the laws of the Possessor of determination who had preceded them. According to a saying of Muhammad reported by Abu Zarr Ghifari there were 124,000 prophets and 313 messengers.

      The Qur'an contains the names of twenty eight, but nothing has hindered Muslims from acknowledging prophets who are not mentioned by name in the Qur'an, but may have appeared in the Far East or the Americas to teach the people of those areas the message of God, (Schimmel, 1985).

      A more modern approach to Muhammad, and by extension, prophethood can be found in the writings of Fazlur Rahman. Rahman, as a believing Muslim, takes for granted the reality of prophethood, but adds modern historical perspective to assist in explaining it, (Rahman, 1979).

      Rahman states that in order to counteract later allegations of epilepsy it was important to stress the normalcy of Muhammad's revelations. To do so the voice of revelation was assigned to an outer voice, a physical angel, to safeguard the "objectivity" of the revelation. At the time when this was going on there were compelling reasons for attempting to explain revelation in such a light. It was during this time that many of the Hadith that claim that Muhammad was seen talking to angels came about. This despite the fact that it is contradicted by the Qur'an which states "We have sent him (the Angel) down upon your heart that you may be a Warner", XXVI, 194. The idea of the angel has become so ingrained in common Muslim thought that any other explanation has become anathema (Rahman, 1979).

      As stated earlier, Rahman describes Muhammad as a Warner to the people and by extension the other prophets as well. This is a common enough claim in orthodox Islam, but where Rahman differs is in his focus on the inner workings of Muhammad as opposed to the traditional focus on externals as seen in most biographies of the prophet. He points to the fact that prior to receiving His first revelation Muhammad had been tormented by thoughts regarding the situation and destiny of man. These thoughts drove Him into periodic retirement and contemplation. It is from the throws of this agonizing search, according to Rahman, that revelation emerged. This is alluded to in the Qur'an, XCIV, 1-3; "Did We not open up your breast and relieve you of the burden which broke your back?" Later writers attempted to actually interpret this passage literally and there are legends of the Angel Gabriel literally opening the prophets breast and cleansing His heart, (Rahman, 1979).

      In several places one finds the admonition; "Obey God and obey His messenger." Muhammad is signaled out by God, he is, as the Qur'an states, an "uswa hasana"; a beautiful model.

      Indeed the Prophets are considered perfect moral models and it is certainly true that whatever Muhammad did is considered exemplary by Muslims. Among the examples of Muhammad's actions is His need for forgiveness. Muhammad in many places calls attention to this. He is quoted as saying, "I ask forgiveness from God seventy times a day. While this seems to fly in the face of the concept of isma, that is the prophetic freedom from sins and defects, it is usually interpreted as Muhammad's effort, whatever His own excellence, to provide an example for His sinful community.

      Muslims are forbidden to distinguish between the prophets and in one tradition tafdil, i.e. preference, is strictly forbidden. In this tradition Muhammad commands the followers; "Do not place me above Yunis ibn Matta, and do not make any comparisons or preferences among the prophets, and do not prefer me to Moses."

      The Prophet is also seen as the perfect example of ethical norms. Muhammad has said, "The best Islam is that you feed the hungry and spread peace among people you now and those you do not know."

      The imitation of Muhammad, "the Beautiful Model," is meant to transform every Muslim into a likeness of the Prophet. This is so that each Muslim can give witness to God's unity through his entire being and existence, (Schimmel, 1985).

      Later Muhammad's "spiritual experiences were united into the doctrine of a singular physical experience, the ascension, of Muhammad into heaven, this was developed by the orthodox on patterns similar to the ascension of Jesus. This view of a physical explanation appears to be contradicted by the Qur'an which states, "The heart has not falsified what it has seen; shall you doubt what it has witnessed, LIII, 11-12.

The Prophet as Superhuman

      Yet, Schimmel points out, that the Qur'an also discussed Muhammad's special role. As God "taught Adam the names" (Surah 2:30), thus He taught Muhammad the Qur'an (Surah 96:3).

      There are popular stories of the Prophet as healer. A special field of science developed in Islam, called at-tibb an-nabawa, "Prophetic medicine," which is still practiced in some areas. This medicine is based on Hadith in which the prophet recommended certain treatments such as cupping or purgatives. Muhammad is often called Tabib, "Physician," and al-Ghazali refers to the prophets as physicians of the soul (Schimmel, 1985).

      Prophets are also considered to have immediate knowledge of everything, granted to Them from God. In Arabic this is called 'ilm laduni.' This idea contradicts the Quranic statement that even Muhammad could not boast the knowledge of future events (Surah 6:50), but it shows that even in early times it was taken for granted that the Prophet's knowledge was greater than the limits of human acquisition, (Schimmel, 1985).

      It is also believed that the prophet had a primordial existence. As the Turkish poet Ashiq Pasha put it:

            Adam was still dust and clay—
            Ahmad was a Prophet then,
            He had been selected by God—
            Utter blessings over Him!

      And yet, according to tradition, Muhammad denied that He would produce any miracle except the Qur'an, (Schimmel, 1985).

      The theological manuals exactly define the qualities of the prophet. The Sanusiyya, a widely used handbook of dogmatics that dates back to the Middle Ages, states that the prophet must possess four necessary attributes. He must be truthful, (sidq). He must be trustworthy, (amana). He must proclaim the Divine Word, (tabligh). And He must be sagacious and intelligent, (fatana). It is impossible for Him to lie, (kidhab), or be treacherous, (khiyana). He cannot be stupid, (balada).

      A further commentary on the Shi'a position is that of Ullama al-Hilli. Al-Hilli claims that the evidence for the goodness of the prophetic mission lies in it's encompassed benefits and freedom from corrupting influences. Among the goodness of the prophetic mission is that reason is supported by the transmission of the laws revealed by the prophets. Some laws can be deduced by reason alone, such as the unity of God. Other laws cannot be deduced by reason alone, such as the stipulation of certain ordinances. Since God wishes certain actions to be performed by humanity, the only way they can be performed is through information brought by the prophets. As a result of the prophetic mission knowledge is acquired of the good and evil actions of which reason has no knowledge independently. Then there is the fact that humanity is not created like other creatures. Because of humanity's special circumstances it is necessary that a unifying factor prevail over society. Such a factor is the sunnah of the prophet and the divine law. A sunnah must have someone to introduce it, who will establish it and lay down its regulations. Such a person would have to be different from others of his species. This persons distinguishing factor could not be something given to him by his fellows as this could cause envy based on his being singled out by others. Therefore this distinguishing factor must come from God, as a miracle, by which men will be led to believe in the prophet's claim. As a result of this the organization of life may be realized and the preservation of the human spirit be maintained.

      Some people differ in their ability to attain virtues from others, the benefit of the prophet is that he can assist the deficient according to their varying dispositions. Since degrees of morality vary it is essential for one who is perfect to give instruction in morality. Finally the prophets make known the rewards for goodness and the punishments for wickedness. Because of all of this the mission of prophethood is necessary.

      In addition to the above, al-Hilli lists other "problems" regarding prophethood. The first is the necessity of the prophetic mission. The prophetic mission is necessary because it encompasses the grace required for the responsibilities which are enjoined on man according to reason. The second concerns the necessity of infallibility. Infallibility is necessary for the prophets in order to gain humanity's confidence and thus attain the prophet's purpose, and because of the necessity for humanity to follow him and of repudiating the acts of sinners.

      There are differences of opinion regarding this point. The Mu'tazila concede the possibility of minor sins to the prophets, either through forgetfulness, or on the basis of interpretation. The Ash'arites hold that minor and major sins, other then unbelief and lying, are possible for the prophets. The Imamiyya maintain that they must have infallibility from all sins. The evidence for this is as follows:
  1. The purpose of the prophet's mission can only be obtained through infallibility. If those to whom a prophet had been sent allowed the possibility of prophets lying and being sinful, they could also allow the possibility of such a thing in what the prophets ordered and forbade and in the actions which they enjoined them to follow. Then the prophets could not call them to obey their orders, and that would be a contradiction of the prophetic mission.
  2. It is necessary to follow the prophet. If he perpetrated a disobedient act one would either have to follow him and commit a disobedient act, which is forbidden, or not follow him, which is also forbidden. Therefore it is necessary that the prophet be infallible so as not to place humanity in an impossible position.
  3. All sinful acts must be repudiated, if the prophet committed a sin, He too, would have to be repudiated. This would hurt the prophet, an act that is forbidden. Therefore all views on the prophet sinning are illogical and absurd.
      It is necessary that the prophet have the perfection of reason, intelligence, perspicacity, and sound judgement. He must not have any form of forgetfulness or anything which would cause the people to shun him, such as a base father, an unchaste mother, coarse manners, physical defects, or any bad habits. He should also be free of all sicknesses and physical deformities.

      The third problem concerns the means of knowing the truthfulness of the prophet's mission. The means of knowing is through the appearance of miracles performed by him. A miracle is bringing into existence something that is abnormal or removing something that is normal. The following conditions must be met for miracles to be accepted.
  1. The prophet's community must be unable to copy the miracle for themselves.
  2. It must be done through the command of God.
  3. It must occur before the Day of Judgement because on the day of judgement normalcy will cease to exist.
  4. It must occur after the claim of prophethood has been made. And
  5. it must be something that breaks the course of normalcy.
      Furthermore, al-Hilli claims that the prophets are greater in status than the angels because of the existence in the prophets of that which conflicts with rational power and his compelling it to submit to reason, (Nasr, 1988).

      Prophecy and revelation have always been limited to a few individuals. God completed and perfected His guidance to humanity through the Prophets. In order to give perfect guidance, God endowed the prophets with 'isma, that is inerrancy. In order to preach the revelation, the prophet had to be free from error and sin (Tabataba'i, 1975).

      The concept of isma basically means protection or freedom and connotes perfect moral integrity. Islam teaches that the Prophets are protected from sin and error lest the Divine Word be polluted by any external stain upon the bearer.

      The Qur'an speaks of this in surah VI, 88; "And We chose Them and guided Them unto a strait path." And surah LXXII, 26-28; "(He is) the knower of the unseen, and He revealeth unto none His secret, save unto every messenger whom He hath chosen, and then He maketh a guard to go before him and a guard behind him, that He may know that they have indeed conveyed the messages of their Lord."

      The prophets were full of truthfulness and purity and they practiced what they preached. What they claimed was the possession of a mysterious consciousness which the invisible world had bestowed upon them. In this way they came to know, from God, what the welfare of humanity should be in the world.

      Tabataba'i states, though, that the law is not enough. That people need a way of determining the truth of the prophet's claims. This is why people have always demanded miracles from the prophets. While Tabataba'i believes that the principle miracle of the prophet is the revelation itself, he goes on to say that the prophet must provide another miracle that the people can accept so that they will in turn believe in the primary miracle of the revelation. These miracles are performed at the beginning of the prophet's mission and upon the request of the believers. By definition these miracles are not impossible or against reason, but rather, "a break in what is habitual".

      In the view of Shi'a Islam revelation and prophecy are complimentary channels. According to Islam, the cycles of revelation have come to a close Muhammad. The revelation of Muhammad is both final and primal. Thus the Qur'an is both the last revelation and 'the' revelation. Muhammad is both the last Prophet and 'the' Prophet. The umma is the last divinely ordained community.

      Tabataba'i goes on to expound the concept of the finality of Islam, stating that as all things must come to an end, so must revelation. He makes the leap that Islam is the end of that revelation. His proof are the following Quranic verses; "For lo! It is an unassailable scripture. Falsehood cannot come at it from before it or behind it", Surah XLI, 41-42. "Muhammad is not the father of any man among you but he is the messenger of God and the Seal of the Prophets", Surah XXXIII, 40. And, "We reveal the scripture unto thee as a exposition of all things", Surah XVI, 89.

The Bahá'í Concept of Manifestation

      There is much in the Bahá'í concept of the Manifestation that Muslims can feel at home with. Both Islam and the Bahá'í faith believe that numerous Messengers have appeared to humanity. Both Islam and the Bahá'í Faith believe that Messengers are sent by God and that what They reveal is God's word, not Their own.

      No Manifestation ever sought to receive a revelation, it was given to Him by God unasked for. As Bahá'u'lláh describes the eve of His own revelation:

      "O King! I was but a man like others, asleep upon My couch, when lo, the breezes of the All-Glorious were wafted over Me, and taught Me the knowledge of all that hath been. This thing is not from Me, but from One Who is Almighty and All-Knowing. And He bade Me lift up My voice between earth and heaven, and for this there befell Me what hath caused the tears of every man of understanding to flow. The learning current amongst men I studied not; their schools I entered not. Ask of the city wherein I dwelt, that thou mayest be well assured that I am not of them who speak falsely. (Bahá'u'lláh: Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, Page: 11)

      Nothing a human being can do, can make him worthy to be a messenger, it is completely within the will of God to decide, (Balyuzi, 1963).

God is unknowable

      The Bahá'í Faith believes that God is unknowable. He is infinite, we are finite. The finite cannot know the infinite. Yet God wants humanity to know Him, so from age to age He manifests Himself to us in human form. Bahá'u'lláh states:

      The door of the knowledge of the Ancient of Days being thus closed in the face of all beings, the Source of infinite grace, according to His saying: "His grace hath transcended all things; My grace hath encompassed them all" hath caused those luminous Gems of Holiness to appear out of the realm of the spirit, in the noble form of the human temple, and be made manifest unto all men, that they may impart unto the world the mysteries of the unchangeable Being, and tell of the subtleties of His imperishable Essence. These sanctified Mirrors, these Day-springs of ancient glory are one and all the Exponents on earth of Him Who is the central Orb of the universe, its Essence and ultimate Purpose.
      (Bahá'u'lláh: The Kitab-i-Iqan, Pages: 99-100)

      We try to understand God through His attributes, but God is above all attributes. To truly believe that God, in His Essence, can be defined by these attributes is to limit God and any God that can be limited is not God.

      Too high art Thou for the praise of those who are nigh unto Thee to ascend unto the heaven of Thy nearness, or for the birds of the hearts of them who are devoted to Thee to attain to the door of Thy gate. I testify that Thou hast been sanctified above all attributes and holy above all names. No God is there but Thee, the Most Exalted, the All-Glorious.
      (Bahá'u'lláh: Prayers and Meditations, Page: 320)

      Abdul-Baha tells us that when we attach attributes to God we do so, not to limit God, but to dissociate Him from the lack of these attributes, (Taherzadeh, 1987). In his Tablet to Auguste Forel, Abdul- Baha states the following:

      As to the attributes and perfections such as will, knowledge, power and other ancient attributes that we ascribe to that Divine Reality, these are the signs that reflect the existence of beings in the visible plane and not the absolute perfections of the Divine Essence that cannot be comprehended. For instance, as we consider created things we observe infinite perfections, and the created things being in the utmost regularity and perfection we infer that the Ancient Power on whom dependeth the existence of these beings, cannot be ignorant; thus we say He is All-Knowing. It is certain that it is not impotent, it must be then All-Powerful; it is not poor, it must be All-Possessing; it is not non-existent, it must be Ever-Living. The purpose is to show that these attributes and perfections that we recount for that Universal Reality are only in order to deny imperfections, rather than to assert the perfections that the human mind can conceive. Thus we say His attributes are unknowable.
      ('Abdu'l-Bahá: Tablet to August Forel, Pages: 17-18)

God can only be known through His Manifestations

      God, who is beyond all comprehension, makes Himself known by revelation. It is in "The Kingdom of Revelation" that the attributes of God are manifested and it is from this "Kingdom" that all the Manifestations are sent. The Manifestations, as the embodiment of Holiness, are the bearers of the Attributes of God. All the attributes of God refer to God revealed to humanity.

      The Manifestations are the word of God made flesh. He is the Logos incarnate. They reveal God to humanity. It is only through them that God is known. It is only through them that God can be reached, all other ways are barred.

      John 14:6-7 Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.

      If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him.

      The Manifestation of God links the world of God with the world of humanity. He is a human being, sharing fully in humanity, having the same joys and sorrows, the same pleasure and pain; but His reality is that of the Holy Spirit. He is the chosen vehicle for God and can be likened to a stainless mirror that reflects God to humanity. God and humanity meet in the Manifestation who is a link between the Creator and the created, (Balyuzi, 1963).

      Bahá'ís believe that the advent of Manifestations is preordained by God. There is an unfolding pattern the goes from age to age. A definite intent. While the world of God is timeless, its contact with us, through revelation, is subject to the dictates of time. Bahá'í' believe that revelation is progressive, and as such, it is determined in relation to time. The Manifestation brings a measure of guidance to humanity that is required for the age in which He appears and His teachings are qualified by the level of growth of humanity at the time He has appeared. The Qur'an also claims this:

      [al-A'raf 7:34] To every people is a term appointed: when their term is reached, not an hour can they cause delay, nor (an hour) can they advance (it in anticipation).

      [al-A'raf 7:35] O ye Children of Adam! whenever there come to you apostles from amongst you, rehearsing My signs unto you,- those who are righteous and mend (their lives),- on them shall be no fear nor shall they grieve.

      [Al-Imran 3:81] Behold! God took the covenant of the prophets, saying: "I give you a Book and Wisdom; then comes to you an apostle, confirming what is with you; do ye believe in him and render him help." God said: "Do ye agree, and take this my Covenant as binding on you?" They said: "We agree." He said: "Then bear witness, and I am with you among the witnesses."

      For Bahá'ís, history is read in terms of the appearance of the Manifestations of God. The teachings, influence, and achievements of the Manifestations of God are what make history. Without reference to the Manifestations history shows no conscious purpose, no direction, no intrinsic meaning, and no ultimate goal, (Balyuzi, 1963).

      When the manifestation comes He sets the standards by which all else is measured. His words are the touchstone that separate truth from falsehood:

      99) Say: O leaders of religion! Weigh not the Book of God with such standards and sciences as are current amongst you, for the Book itself is the unerring Balance established amongst men. In this most perfect Balance whatsoever the peoples and kindreds of the earth possess must be weighed, while the measure of its weight should be tested according to its own standard, did ye but know it.
      (Bahá'u'lláh: The Kitab-i-Aqdas, Page: 56)

      This being the case religious truth cannot be absolute, but must be relative. Relative to the time that the message is given. Every precept the Manifestation gives must, therefor, be translated into terms that are relevant and applicable to His age and audience. This is what Christ meant when He said:

      I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now.

      Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. (John 16:12, 13)

      Abdul-Baha classifies the teachings of the Manifestations into two categories; social laws, that are related to the exigencies and requirements of a particular time, these are ephemeral and can be changed by the next Manifestation, and eternal verities which do not change.

      If, as Bahá'ís believe, the message of the Manifestation must change to suit the times and capacities of the people He is sent to, then it follows that there can never be a final revelation. A final revelation would imply that humanity had frozen in time with no more progression or change possible. Therefore Bahá'ís believe in the concept of progressive revelation, wherein Bahá'u'lláh's revelation is considered the latest, but by no means the last. There can be co concept of a "Seal of the Prophets" as is commonly held in Islam today.

Manifestations of God: Divine or Human?

      The concept of Manifestation in the Bahá'í Faith can be difficult to grasp. Many, both Bahá'í and non-Bahá'í have been confused by it. Some have, mistakenly, thought that Bahá'u'lláh was claiming that He is the Divine essence itself. Bahá'u'lláh, Himself, acknowledges the difficulty of the concept. He states that He himself would not have expounded upon it had the Bab not done so before Him. In the Tablet of Tajalliyat Bahá'u'lláh states:

      By the righteousness of God! But for the anthem of praise voiced by Him Who heralded the divine Revelation, this Wronged One would never have breathed a word which might have struck terror into the hearts of the ignorant and caused them to perish. Dwelling on the glorification of Him Whom God shall make manifest - exalted be His Manifestation - the Bab in the beginning of the Bayan saith: 'He is the One Who shall proclaim under all conditions, "Verily, verily, I am God, no God is there but Me, the Lord of all created things. In truth all others except Me are My creatures. O, My creatures! Me alone do ye worship."'
      (Bahá'u'lláh: Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, Page: 53)

      Adib Taherzadeh, in his study, "The Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh" mentions two points of confusion here. It would appear that Bahá'u'lláh is claiming the station of Godhood for Himself and that He is either saying, then, that all the Manifestations are God or that He is greater than the other Manifestations in which case the belief in the equality of the Manifestations is contradicted.

      To understand the nature of the Manifestation and those writings in which the Manifestation appears to be claiming divinity one must understand the difference between the "Essence of God" and "God revealed to humanity". The former is unknowable, while the latter is comprehensible to humanity, (Taherzadeh, 1987). Bahá'u'lláh in His own writings states that the Manifestations do not comprehend the essence of God, as only an equal can comprehend something else's essence. Bahá'u'lláh, quoted in World Order of Bahá'u'lláh states:

      "From time immemorial," ..."He, the Divine Being, hath been veiled in the ineffable sanctity of His exalted Self, and will everlasting continue to be wrapt in the impenetrable mystery of His unknowable Essence... Ten thousand Prophets, each a Moses, are thunderstruck upon the Sinai of their search at God's forbidding voice, 'Thou shalt never behold Me!'; whilst a myriad Messengers, each as great as Jesus, stand dismayed upon their heavenly thrones by the interdiction 'Mine Essence thou shalt never apprehend!'" "How bewildering to me, insignificant as I am," ... "is the attempt to fathom the sacred depths of Thy knowledge! How futile my efforts to visualize the magnitude of the power inherent in Thine handiwork - the revelation of Thy creative power!" "When I contemplate, O my God, the relationship that bindeth me to Thee," ..."I am moved to proclaim to all created things 'verily I am God!'; and when I consider my own self, lo, I find it coarser than clay!"
      (Shoghi Effendi: World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, Page: 113)

      In His own lifetime Bahá'u'lláh, also, addressed the issue of His divinity, and firmly denied it.

      Either thou or someone else hath said: "Let the Surih of Tawhid be translated, so that all may know and be fully persuaded that the one true God begetteth not, nor is He begotten. Moreover, the Babis believe in his (Bahá'u'lláh's) Divinity and Godhood."

      O Shaykh! This station is the station in which one dieth to himself and liveth in God. Divinity, whenever I mention it, indicateth My complete and absolute self-effacement. This is the station in which I have no control over mine own weal or woe nor over my life nor over my resurrection.
      (Bahá'u'lláh: Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, Page: 41)

      Men have failed to perceive Our purpose in the references We have made to Divinity and Godhood. Were they to apprehend it, they would arise from their places, and cry out: "We, verily, ask pardon of God!" The Seal of the Prophets - may the souls of all else but Him be offered up for His sake - saith: "Manifold are Our relationships with God. At one time, We are He Himself, and He is We Ourself. At another He is that He is, and We are that We are."
      (Bahá'u'lláh: Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, Page: 43)

      Shoghi Effendi further responds:

      To whoever may read these pages a word of warning seems, however, advisable before I proceed further with the development of my argument. Let no one meditating, in the light of the afore-quoted passages, on the nature of the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, mistake its character or misconstrue the intent of its Author. The divinity attributed to so great a Being and the complete incarnation of the names and attributes of God in so exalted a Person should, under no circumstances, be misconceived or misinterpreted. The human temple that has been made the vehicle of so overpowering a Revelation must, if we be faithful to the tenets of our Faith, ever remain entirely distinguished from that "innermost Spirit of Spirits" and "eternal Essence of Essences" - that invisible yet rational God Who, however much we extol the divinity of His Manifestations on earth, can in no wise incarnate His infinite, His unknowable, His incorruptible and all-embracing Reality in the concrete and limited frame of a mortal being. Indeed, the God Who could so incarnate His own reality would, in the light of the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh, cease immediately to be God. So crude and fantastic a theory of Divine incarnation is as removed from, and incompatible with, the essentials of Bahá'í belief as are the no less inadmissible pantheistic and anthropomorphic conceptions of God - both of which the utterances of Bahá'u'lláh emphatically repudiate and the fallacy of which they expose.
      (Shoghi Effendi: World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, Pages: 112-113)

The Equality of the Manifestations

      As to the second question, the equality of the Manifestations, Bahá'u'lláh defends this equality. He states that if some prophets have appeared greater than others, it is only that Their message had to be more limited by the capacity of their followers and not to any lack in Themselves. Bahá'u'lláh addresses this in several passages:

      These Manifestations of God have each a twofold station. One is the station of pure abstraction and essential unity. In this respect, if thou callest them all by one name, and dost ascribe to them the same attributes, thou hast not erred from the truth. Even as He hath revealed: "No distinction do We make between any of His Messengers." For they, one and all, summon the people of the earth to acknowledge the unity of God, and herald unto them the Kawthar of an infinite grace and bounty. They are all invested with the robe of prophethood, and are honored with the mantle of glory. Thus hath Muhammad, the Point of the Qur'an, revealed: "I am all the Prophets." Likewise, He saith: "I am the first Adam, Noah, Moses, and Jesus."...

      The other station is the station of distinction, and pertaineth to the world of creation, and to the limitations thereof. In this respect, each Manifestation of God hath a distinct individuality, a definitely prescribed mission, a predestined revelation, and specially designated limitations. Each one of them is known by a different name, is characterized by a special attribute, fulfils a definite mission, and is entrusted with a particular Revelation. Even as He saith: "Some of the Apostles We have caused to excel the others. To some God hath spoken, some He hath raised and exalted... It is because of this difference in their station and mission that the words and utterances flowing from these Well Springs of Divine knowledge appear to diverge and differ. Otherwise, in the eyes of them that are initiated into the mysteries of Divine wisdom, all their utterances are, in reality, but the expressions of one Truth.
      (Bahá'u'lláh: Gleanings, Pages: 50-53)

      These attributes of God are not, and have never been, vouchsafed specially unto certain Prophets, and withheld from others. Nay, all the Prophets of God, His well-favored, His holy and chosen Messengers are, without exception, the bearers of His names, and the embodiments of His attributes. They only differ in the intensity of their revelation, and the comparative potency of their light. Even as He hath revealed: "Some of the Apostles We have caused to excel the others."...

      That a certain attribute of God hath not been outwardly manifested by these Essences of Detachment doth in no wise imply that they who are the Day Springs of God's attributes and the Treasuries of His holy names did not actually possess it.
      (Bahá'u'lláh: Gleanings, Pages: 48-49)

      Shoghi Effendi expounds on this theme further:

      That all the Messengers of God should be regarded as "abiding in the same Tabernacle, soaring in the same Heaven, seated upon the same Throne, uttering the same Speech, and proclaiming the same Faith" must, however much we may extol the measure of Divine Revelation vouchsafed to mankind at this crowning stage of its evolution, remain the unalterable foundation and central tenet of Bahá'í belief. Any variations in the splendor which each of these Manifestations of the Light of God has shed upon the world should be ascribed not to any inherent superiority involved in the essential character of any one of them, but rather to the progressive capacity, the ever-increasing spiritual receptiveness, which mankind, in its progress towards maturity, has invariably manifested.
      (Shoghi Effendi: World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, Page: 166)

      Thus, it is seen in the Writings of the Bahá'í Faith that the equality of the Manifestations is upheld.

Proofs of the Manifestations

      HM Balyuzi in his wonderful treatise on the Manifestation of God, "The Word Made Flesh", which has been a source and an inspiration in this paper, has a list of proofs for determining the Manifestation of God.

      The first proof is that the Manifestation remains steadfast, firm, and unyielding in the face of opposition. Bahá'u'lláh, speaking of the Bab, states the following:

      Another proof and evidence of the truth of this Revelation, which amongst all other proofs shineth as the sun, is the constancy of the eternal Beauty in proclaiming the Faith of God. Though young and tender of age, and though the Cause He revealed was contrary to the desire of all the peoples of earth, both high and low, rich and poor, exalted and abased, king and subject, yet He arose and steadfastly proclaimed it. All have known and heard this. He was afraid of no one; He was regardless of consequences. Could such a thing be made manifest except through the power of a divine Revelation, and the potency of God's invincible Will? By the righteousness of God! Were any one to entertain so great a Revelation in his heart, the thought of such a declaration would alone confound him! Were the hearts of all men to be crowded into his heart, he would still hesitate to venture upon so awful an enterprise. He could achieve it only by the permission of God, only if the channel of his heart were to be linked with the Source of divine grace, and his soul be assured of the unfailing sustenance of the Almighty. To what, We wonder, do they ascribe so great a daring? Do they accuse Him of folly as they accused the Prophets of old? Or do they maintain that His motive was none other than leadership and the acquisition of earthly riches?

      Gracious God! In His Book, which He hath entitled "Qayyumu'l-Asma'," - the first, the greatest and mightiest of all books - He prophesied His own martyrdom. In it is this passage: "O thou Remnant of God! I have sacrificed myself wholly for Thee; I have accepted curses for Thy sake; and have yearned for naught but martyrdom in the path of Thy love. Sufficient Witness unto me is God, the Exalted, the Protector, the Ancient of Days!"
      (Bahá'u'lláh: The Kitab-i-Iqan, Pages: 230-231)

      The second proof is that the Manifestation changes the hearts of humanity. He comes to darkest and most degraded place of His time and His message transforms human beings.

      The Arabians were in the utmost state of degradation. They were bloodthirsty and barbarous, so savage and degraded that the Arabian father often buried his own daughter alive. Consider: Could any barbarism be lower than this? The nation consisted of warring, hostile tribal peoples inhabiting the vast Arabian peninsula, and their business consisted in fighting and pillaging each other, making captive women and children, killing each other. Muhammad appeared among such a people. He educated and unified these barbarous tribes, put an end to their shedding of blood. Through His education they reached such a degree of civilization that they subdued and governed continents and nations. What a great civilization was established in Spain by the Muslims! What a marvelous civilization was founded in Morocco by the Moors! What a powerful caliphate or successorship was set up in Baghdad! How much Islam served and furthered the cause of science!
      ('Abdu'l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace, Pages: 346-347)

      The final proof, to Balyuzi, is that the Manifestation can resolve the complexities of the age he lives in. He does this through inate knowledge. His knowledge is not acquired through formal training, but is a gift from God.


      Bahá'ís believe that the Manifestations of God are capable of performing great miracles. Nothing is impossible for them, but; and here the Bahá'í viewpoint differs from Islam, miracles are not proof of the Messenger. Miracles can be denied by those who have not seen them. As Abdul-Baha commented, when asked about miracles performed by Bahá'u'lláh:

      But these narratives are not decisive proofs and evidences to all; the hearer might perhaps say that this account may not be in accordance with what occurred, for it is known that other sects recount miracles performed by their founders. For instance, the followers of Brahmanism relate miracles. From what evidence may we know that those are false and that these are true? If these are fables, the others also are fables; if these are generally accepted, so also the others are generally accepted. Consequently, these accounts are not satisfactory proofs. Yes, miracles are proofs for the eyewitness only, and even he may regard them not as a miracle but as an enchantment. Extraordinary feats have also been related of some conjurors.

      Briefly, my meaning is that many wonderful things were done by Bahá'u'lláh, but we do not recount them, as they do not constitute proofs and evidences for all the peoples of the earth, and they are not decisive proofs even for those who see them: they may think that they are merely enchantments.
      ('Abdu'l-Bahá: Some Answered Questions, Page: 37)


      In this paper I have tried to show the differences in concept between Prophet and Messenger in Islam and the concept of Manifestation in the Bahá'í Faith. As can be seen the differences have turned out to be smaller than appears on the surface. Both Bahá'ís and Muslims assert that God is, in Himself, unknowable. Both assert that God sends messengers to make Himself known and to guide humanity. Both assert the stainless characters of these messengers.

      Where differences lie appears to be in what is acceptable proofs for these messengers, with Islam relying on the miraculous more than the Bahá'í Faith does, and in the finality of revelation. Much has been written about the Bahá'í stance on finality in regards to Islam's claims. For brevity's sake I will not discuss it here. I refer others to the writings of Moojan Momen and Seena Fazel and Khazeh Fananapazir.

      This paper is not meant to be an ends in itself, but a means to spur on further discussion. It is hoped that it has accomplished this task.


      Abdul-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Wilmette, Il., 1982.

      Abdul-Baha, Some answered Questions. Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Wilmette, Il, 1981.

      Abdul-Baha, Tablet to Auguste Forel. Mars program.

      Ali, Abdullah Yusef, The Holy Qur'an: Text Translation and Commentary. McGregor & Werner Inc., 1972.

      Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh. Bahá'í Publishing Trust Wilmette, Il., 1976.

      Bahá'u'lláh, Kitab-i-Aqdas. Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Wilmette, Il., 1992.

      Bahá'u'lláh, Kitab-i-Iqan. Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Wilmette, Il., 1970.

      Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh. Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Wilmette, Il., 1988.

      Balyuzi, H.M., Bahá'u'lláh. Mirat Publications, New Delhi, 1974.

      Glasse, Cyril, The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam. Harper, San Francisco, 1991.

      Al-Hilli, The Shi'i View of Revelation and Prophecy in Shi'ism: Doctrines, Thought, and Spirituality. ED; Nasr, H.N., Dabashi, H., & Nasr, S.V.R., State University of New York Press, 1988.

      Ibn Kathir, Stories of the Prophets. Al-Nour Publishing, Mansoura, Egypt, 1990.

      Rahman, Fazlur, Islam. University of Chicago Press, 1979.

      Al-Tabataba'i, Sayyid Muhammad Husayn, Shi'ite Islam. State University of New York Press, 1975.

      Taherzadeh, Adib, The Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, Vol Four. George Ronald Publisher, Oxford, 1992.
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