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Muhammad as the Last Messenger—A New Perspective

Dan Gebhardt | Jun 9, 2016

PART 1 IN SERIES The Seal of the Prophets Who Came Before

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Dan Gebhardt | Jun 9, 2016

PART 1 IN SERIES The Seal of the Prophets Who Came Before

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the prophet Muhammad’s role as the “Last Messenger” in orthodox Islam. Movements that are Muslim to all outward appearances, such as the Ahmadi movement in Pakistan, are labeled ‘unbelievers’ due to their novel interpretation of Muhammad’s finality.

The Baha’i teachings do affirm Muhammad as “Seal of the Prophets” or, in Arabic, Khātam al-Nabiyyīn. However, the orthodox meaning of the word ‘Seal’—that Muhammad was the last bearer of a divine message for all time—is so widely assumed in the Muslim world that it can block any deeper reflection on the Baha’i message.

In view of this, let’s consider an important Qur’an-based argument for continued revelation in this short series of essays. Baha’u’llah refers to this particular argument throughout his writings. Gaining a better understanding of it will not only help us get a firmer grasp of the Qur’an, but of the Baha’i worldview itself.

On the day that Baha’u’llah declared his mission as a prophet of God in 1863, he revealed a holy Tablet called the City of Patience, or the Tablet of Job. In this important tablet, Baha’u’llah revisited an approach to the Qur’an’s passage about ‘Sealing,’ Qur’an 33:40, that he had previously discussed in The Book of Certitude and in other works, such as Gems of Divine Mysteries.

Baha’u’llah points out that although the Qur’an describes Muhammad as the “Seal of the Prophets,” it also promises a future meeting with God (liqā’ Allāh, Qur’an 33:44). Yet there is an obvious tension between ‘meeting God’ and the Qur’an’s teaching that God completely transcends the conditions of the physical, as well as the mental world:

(He is) the Creator of the heavens and the earth: He has made for you pairs from among yourselves, and pairs among cattle: by this means does He multiply you: there is nothing whatever like unto Him, and He is the One that hears and sees (all things)” – Qur’an 42:11.

No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all vision: He is above all comprehension, yet is acquainted with all things. – Qur’an 6.103.

In the Tablet of Patience, Baha’u’llah expresses it this way:

Say: Verily God is sanctified from coming and descent. For He is Single, Transcendent, Whose knowledge encompasses all the heavens and the earth. For He never comes in His Essence nor can He be seen in His Innermost Being and cannot be recognized in His Divine Ipseity [Selfhood] and He cannot be comprehended with all His attributes. – provisional translation by Dr. Khazeh Fananapazir. (compare Book of Certitude, para. 104)

Confronted with the Qur’anic promise of a ‘meeting with God,’ then, we have two basic choices:

  1. To retreat into paradox—that the divine Essence is beyond the reach of the senses and yet at Judgment Day we will nevertheless, somehow, see the uncreated Godhead (which is close to the traditional Ash‘ari Sunni view)
  2. To accept that the promised ‘meeting’ with God refers to the appearance of an agent from within the universe who represents God.

Taking the first alternative is to insist, without asking how, that we will somehow see God with our bodily, physical eyes. It is difficult to find a reason against this view because it is a view apart from reason. In contrast, the Qur’an constantly invites us to use our minds and reflect, in passages like 2:171; 3:190; 13:4; 16:12; 30:24; 40:67; 45:5; 57:17 and many more.

In the second alternative, call God’s agent what you will—messenger, oracle, theophany, manifestation—and we cannot avoid the implication of a renewal of divine revelation. So, whatever the meaning of ‘Seal of the Prophets’ as it applies to Prophet Muhammad, it cannot mean he was the last bearer of a divine revelation for all time.

In the Tablet of the City of Patience, Baha’u’llah continues:

Thus He that cometh is the Manifestation of His own Self and indeed He did come in the Name of ‘Ali [i.e. ‘Ali Muhammad the Bab] and ye gathered around Him with the claws of hatred and passed sentence on Him, O concourse of divines, and were not ashamed in the face of Him Who created you and fashioned you…” – Ibid.

This powerful scriptural argument, laid out in detail in the Book of Certitude and alluded to in Gems of Divine Mysteries, and so lucidly restated by Baha’u’llah on the day he declared his mission, regards Muhammad as the seal of those prophets who preceded him and the initiator of a series of divine messengers who would come after him.

Next: God and the Prophets: One and the Same

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  • Rowshan Mustapha
    Jun 14, 2016
    Dear Mr. Gebhardt, you may wish to read my book ISLAM: THE ROAD AHEAD published by BPT India, or contact me on ([email protected]). You may find a few ideas about the subject of your interesting article.
    • Dan Gebhardt
      Jun 19, 2016
      Dear Rowshan,
      Thank you for this recommendation! It was hard to locate this book but I found it on the Baha'i Publishing Trust India website using the diacritic in the search - "Islám: The Road Ahead" A very necessary subject, and I look forward to reading!
  • Hooshang S. Afshar
    Jun 10, 2016
    In the past, too, the religious leaders presumed their religion and messenger were final. The Quran addresses the deniers thus:
    64. The Jews say: "Allah's hand is tied up." Be their hands tied up and be they accursed for the (blasphemy) they utter. Nay, both His hands are widely outstretched: He giveth and spendeth (of His bounty) as He pleaseth. But the revelation that cometh to thee from Allah increaseth in most of them their obstinate rebellion and blasphemy. Amongst them We have placed enmity and hatred till the Day of Judgment. Every time they kindle the fire of ...war, Allah doth extinguish it; but they (ever) strive to do mischief on earth. And Allah loveth not those who do mischief. Qur'an (Yusuf Ali tr), Surah 5
    Every religion has a set time:
    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). Qur'an 7
    43. No people can hasten their term, nor can they delay (it). Qur'an 23
    38.....For each period is a Book (revealed). Qur'an 13
    39. Allah doth blot out or confirm what He pleaseth: with Him is the Mother of the Book. ibid
    Quran makes it clear that ‘messenger’ and ‘prophet’ have different roles / functions:
    52. Never did We send a Messenger, rasul, or a Prophet, nabi, before thee, but,....Quran 22
    51. Also mention in the Book (the story of) Moses: for he was specially chosen, and he was a Messenger (and) a Prophet. Qur'an19
    53. And, out of Our Mercy, We gave him his brother Aaron, (also) a Prophet, nabi. Quran 19
    The obvious meaning of the above verses taken together is that no religion is last as one expires, when reaches its term, a new one is revealed, and yes, the Prophet Muhammad was the last prophet, nabi (as the divine persons who came after Him were called Imams not nabi). Seal also means approval / commendation.
    The following verses state that in the 'future' Messengers and guidance will come to mankind.
    And a warning to all peoples who ignore them.
    35. O ye children of Adam! whenever there come (in future) to you Messengers 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. Qur'an 7
    123. He said: "Get ye down, both of you -- all together, from the Garden, with enmity one to another; but if, as is sure, there comes to you guidance from Me, whosoever follows My guidance, will not lose his way, nor fall into misery.
    124. "But whosoever turns away from My Message, verily for him is a life narrowed down, and We shall raise him up blind on the Day of Judgment."
    125. He will say: "O my Lord! why hast thou raised me up blind, while I had sight (before)?"
    126. (Allah) will say: "Thus didst thou, when Our Signs came unto thee, disregard them: so wilt thou, this day, be disregarded."
    127. And thus do We recompense him who transgresses beyond bounds and believes not in the Signs of his Lord: and the Penalty of the Hereafter is far more grievous and more enduring.
    128. It is not a warning to such men (to call to mind) how many generations before them We destroyed, in whose haunts they (now) move? Verily, in this are Signs for men endued with understanding.
    (The Qur'an (Yusuf Ali tr), Surah 20)
    • Dan Gebhardt
      Jun 19, 2016
      Thank you Hooshang for mentioning these important verses!
  • Martijn Rep
    Jun 9, 2016
    Thank you. Interesting that in the wikipedia entry on the Seal of the Prophets the interpretation of Baha'u'llah is also mentioned:
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