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So far in this series of articles we’ve seen the Qur’anic basis for affirming divine revelations after Muhammad, “the Seal of the Prophets.”
Yet the Qur’an is not the only source of Islamic teachings. As the revealed Word of God, it is of unrivaled importance. Nevertheless, Muslims supplement their understanding of the Qur’an with traditions (called hadiths) of the things Muhammad did and said. Shi‘ites also revere the traditions of Muhammad’s successors, the twelve Imams.
Unlike the Qur’an, the traditions are not immune from corruption—many Islamic scholars consider the majority of existing traditions doubtful or inauthentic. Even those that pass the initial litmus of credibility must be measured against the Qur’an itself, and no tradition that contradicts the Qur’an can be accepted: “Any hadith that does not agree with the Qur’an is a lying embellishment” – Usul Al-Kafi vol. 1, Hadith 203.
Several influential hadiths or traditions record Muhammad saying, “There is no prophet after me.” If this means that there can never be another revelation from God, these traditions contradict what we have seen in the Qur’an, and must be rejected—or at least understood in another way.
“…The Messenger of God (peace and blessings of God be upon him) said, ‘The Hour will not be established until the tribes of my community join the polytheists and worship idols. In my community there will be thirty liars, each of them claiming to be a prophet—but I am the Seal of the Prophets; there is no prophet after me.’” – Jami` al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 2219.
“…The Messenger of God said, ‘If there were to be a prophet after me, he would be ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab [a companion of the Prophet and the second Caliph].’” – Tirmidhi, Hadith 3686.
Finally there is the famous ‘Hadith of Manzila’, showing the high position Muhammad accorded his son-in-law ‘Ali:
“…the Prophet said to ‘Ali, ‘You are to me in the position (manzila) of Aaron to Moses, except that there is no prophet after me.’” – Tirmidhi, Hadith 3751.
At first glance, these traditions seem to nullify the Qur’an’s warning to heed future messengers (Qur’an 7:35). Isn’t their wording direct and unequivocal—“There will be no prophet after me,” full stop?
Not necessarily—context is everything. For example, if a college student is asked, “What class do you have after this?” and replies, “This is my last class,” in context this means it is the student’s last class of the day—not that it is the last class ever and the student is dropping out of college.
The context of these hadiths favors a similar, immediate application. Each of them addresses the nature of succession after the Prophet within the Islamic community. These hadiths tell contemporaries of Muhammad—‘Ali, ‘Umar—that the status of any prophet after Muhammad is denied. We can find the key to understanding these traditions in yet another hadith:
“…the Prophet said, ‘The children of Israel were governed by prophets—whenever a prophet died, another prophet took his place. There will be no prophet after me, but there will be Caliphs (successors, stewards) who will increase in number.’” – Sahih al-Bukhari vol. 4, Hadith 661.
The religions of Jesus, Moses, and Abraham all contained many secondary prophets—usually relatives or descendants of the Prophet-Founder. Isaac was the son of Abraham, Aaron was the brother of Moses. Muhammad’s insistence that “there is no prophet after me” meant to dissuade the Muslims from looking for a new leader to take up the mantle of prophethood after his death. In other words, “The Seal of the Prophets” clearly means Muhammad ruled out a continuous line of prophets within Islam.
This bore repeated emphasis because it departed from the pattern of Judaism and Christianity, and contravened the hopes of the Prophet himself.
Muhammad had a son, Ibrahim, who died in infancy. Upon his death, the grief-stricken Messenger of God is reported to have said, “If he had lived, he would have been a Siddiq (righteous one) and a Prophet” (Sunan ibn Majah, Vol. 6, Hadith 1578). Muhammad had already lost two other sons in infancy—Qasim and ‘Abdullah. The Qur’an alludes to this tragic history in the first line of Sura 33:40:
Muhammad is not the father of any one of your men, but the Messenger of God, and the Seal of the Prophets; God has knowledge of everything.
As “Seal of the Prophets,” Muhammad did indeed confirm the prophets before him. In light of the history of Islam, this title carries the added meaning of his uniqueness within his own dispensation. He did not claim to be the last bearer of God’s message for all time, but the last until the next great Messenger—the event the Qur’an describes as “the Hour” and “the Meeting with God.”
Baha’u’llah, too, knew the heartbreak of losing a dear child—in 1870 his son Mirza Mihdi, “the Most Pure Branch,” fell to his death while immersed in prayer. Although Baha’u’llah chose one of his surviving sons, Abdu’l-Baha, to shepherd the Baha’i community after his passing, the Baha’i Faith, like Islam, does not regard the successors of its Founder as prophets.
With Muhammad, the era of religions guided after the Founder by secondary, supporting prophets thus came to an end. The original message of each of these Prophets and Founders stands alone, needing only authoritative interpretation, until the coming of the next great revelation from God.
In the final part of this series, we will delve into a different aspect of “Seal of the Prophets”—one that relates to the new religious cycle the Baha’i Faith has ushered in.