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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:
- 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)
- 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