On Divine Communication & Messengers
by Mateen A. Khan, Piscataway NJ
A version of this article was first published in Al-Madania Magazine.
In this series so far, we have established the Creator’s existence after a brief discussion on epistemology and then, followed it with an explanation of some of His attributes. Building upon what we’ve covered, we now turn our focus to divine communication or revelation (al-waḥī).
First, recall there are three types of existents: necessary, possible, and impossible. Necessary existents must exist, while their non-existence is inconceivable, e.g., the Creator. Impossible existents are inherently inconceivable, and they cannot exist, e.g., another Creator besides Allah. Possible existents, previously referred to as contingents, are those whose existence are not necessary but merely possible. Their existence depends on a creator bringing them into existence. So, these are things Allah creates out of His wisdom and love for His creation. Among them is divine messengership (al-risālah). In other words, He did not have to communicate with us, but He chose to do so.
Unlike other creatures, humans have been gifted with an intellect and free will. Without divine revelation, these gifts would have been a curse, as they lead to questions without definite answers. What is the purpose of our creation? What is moral and what is immoral? Is there something additional to the visible universe, and how does it affect us?
The answers to these questions – knowledge of purpose, expectations, benefits, and harms – necessitate divine communication through messengers. We will further outline some of what necessitates revelation now.
1. A Creator Entails Purpose
Indeed, no intelligent being creates except with purpose, and Allah is no exception. The creation by an All-Wise Creator must be one full of wisdom. Purposeless actions and play are the traits of lesser beings. Allah ta`āla states in Surah al-Mu’minūn, “So did you think We created you for nothing and you will not be brought back to Us?” Free-will without purpose is like being stranded in an expansive sea with a boat and an oar. What are we doing here, and which direction should we go? What is our purpose? We cannot see into the mind of our Creator, nor does our thinking or wisdom compare with His. Without communication from Him, some would argue and debate purpose to no definitive conclusion, others would go about with no purpose as animals do, and others would simply never entertain the question.
2. Directions for the Deputies
When Allah chose to create humans and jinn, He was like a king dealing with his kingdom. Intellect and free will allow us to act outside the boundaries that restrict other creatures. Such gifts must come with responsibilities. If someone gifted found himself with those who are handicapped, naturally, a responsibility falls on his shoulders as a caretaker. As we find ourselves uniquely gifted among Allah’s creatures, we would be expected to act as the deputies (al-khulafā’) for Him. Allah confirms this in Surah al-Baqarah, “(Remember) when your Lord said to the angels, ‘I am going to create a deputy on the earth!’” The ultimate knowledge of responsibility and the directions to carry it out must come from Allah.
Additionally, as kings do, Allah has willed to hold us responsible for fulfilling His commands. They come with promises of reward and threats of punishment. The commands of what is obligatory, optional, permissible, or impermissible need to be conveyed. Otherwise, we would argue ignorance on the day of judgement for not having been warned. He states, “Whoever adopts the right path does so for his own benefit, and whoever goes astray does so to his own detriment, and no bearer of burden shall bear the burden of another, and it is not Our way to punish (anyone) unless We send a Messenger.” (Surah al-Isrā 15)
3. Benefits v. Harms
Had Allah created without informing us about the reality of this world, what awaits after death, or what is hidden of other realities, then His creating would have been without wisdom. This is not fitting for an all-wise, omniscient, and loving Creator. As our bodies need nourishment and are susceptible to disease, He created food and medication to fulfill that need. Similarly, our intellects and souls have needs and are susceptible to disease. We require guidance to nourish and treat them. It is unbefitting that He would not have guided us in this way.
Said differently, from poisonous foods to the spikes of the Ṣirāṭ, much of what can harm us cannot be known intellectually. Our life is too short to learn all that benefits us in this world by trial and error. We rely on others’ prior experience or knowledge. Similarly, we cannot elucidate some life-decisions and the benefits and harms which await us in the grave and Hereafter on our own. They are beyond our intellect, senses, and other empiric means. Those that have passed on to witness the unseen cannot report back to us. The knowledge of these things can only come from Allah.
As deputies over Allah’s kingdom and for our own interests, we require a moral system. Meaning, we require the knowledge of right and wrong. Delineating ethics is an apparent need crossing all fields in our lives. When is it permissible to fight? Who is deserving of certain resources? What are the limits of our actions? The questions seemingly have no limit and new ones arise daily. If left to the whims and intellects of people, ethical questions are rarely resolved with any certainty or objectivity. They vary from person to person, place to place, and time to time. Often, even the same individual will flip-flop on moral issues. Hence, we are mostly incompetent in differentiating right from wrong. True, there are a few in each generation who recognize good on their own: Companions like Abū Bakr, who even in Jāhiliyyah never worshiped idols, Zayd ibn `Amr ibn Nufayl al-Qurashī, who accepted tawḥīd before meeting the Prophet ﷺ, or Abū Dharr al-Ghifārī, who worshiped Allah before accepting Islam. If Allah – through revelation and messengers – makes this search easy on His servants, then that is a favor from Allah and a mercy as He said about the Prophet ﷺ, “We have not sent you but as a mercy for all the worlds.” (Surah al-Anbiyā’ 107)
5. The Intellect’s Deficiency
As individuals and as communities, we also differ on what path we should take in different matters. This includes worldly matters from economics to family, and religious matters like belief and worship. Despite untold days and lifetimes of investigation, contemplation, and coordination, our intellects have failed to unify on a single path. Would it not make sense that Allah guide us towards a beneficial path rather than us stumbling through our lives?
As an aside, some, who abandon religion alleging differences in religions have led to great conflict, only open themselves to greater discord from individuals and no grounding of thought. For the self-interests and whims of men have led to unimaginable harm and destruction unrivaled by any religion even if we exclude when those same men used religion for their pursuits.
6. Worship & Gratitude
Our creation is masterful, and the surrounding universe is mind-blowing. From free-will to family to the permitted pleasures of this world, He has given us innumerable gifts. The Creator is a Being worth our attention, gratitude, and worship. How do we express these? Should we play instruments and dance as some religions do? Do we sacrifice people as some have done? No amount of rational thinking will replace direct knowledge from Allah. He has revealed to us various ways of worship and thanks. Each of them brings us closer to Him and benefits us in other ways.
Men as Messengers
The need for divine communication should be clear now. As for how to do that, Allah could have communicated in many ways. He could have communicated His messages to us directly. However, if one were to receive such messages and witness Him as we witness the apparent, it would have defeated the purpose of mandating belief (al-īmān). Believing in Him would be no different than believing the Sun exists and obeying Him would be no different than following the orders of military personnel as you stood before them. He could have had all of us arrive at the correct conclusions by necessity. However, this would negate free will and choice, and this life would not have been a test as He desired. We would have been akin to angels. Rather, Allah chose to communicate through messengers. Allah chose from an almost infinite number of creations to communicate to us with selected humans similar in nature to us. Humans towards whom we would have a natural affinity and who can serve as practical examples of what is required of us.
In summary, messengers are required to convey revelation between the Creator and His creation. They serve to remove ignorance and doubts, give clear direction and purpose, and indicate benefits in the dunyā and ākhirah. Although, sending messengers was not incumbent on Allah, it is expected from the All-Wise (al-Ḥakīm). Thus, the scholars have said our need for messengers is proven without doubt (thābitun qaṭ`an).