The Human Nature of the Prophets

 

The Qur’an is absolutely clear that all those it describes as prophets were human beings. Even though their lives may have involved some miracles, they lived like every human being. They needed food and drink, worked, fell ill, got married, and so on.

As we explained earlier, prophets were sent by God, so they were also messengers. Yet the polytheistic population of Arabia, and many other peoples and cultures, believed that any individual sent by God or a god must be divine in some way. But as all prophets were known to be human beings to their peoples, their human nature became one argument used by the disbelievers to reject their claims as messengers sent by God.

The Qur’an mentions a number of prophets who had to defend themselves against the claim that since they were human beings, they could not have been God’s messengers. They include Noah (11.27, 23.24), Ṣāliḥ (26.154, 54.24), Shu‘ayb (26.186), Moses and Aaron (23.47), and Muhammad (17.94, 21.3).

In the following verses, God explains that messengers who were sent to teach human beings religion had to be humans themselves, and that had the population of the Earth been angels, His messengers to them would also have been angels:

And nothing prevented people from believing when the guidance came to them except that they said: “What! Has Allah sent a human being to be a messenger?” (17.94) Say [O Muhammad!]: “Had there been on earth angels walking about feeling secure, We would certainly have sent down to them from the heaven an angel as a messenger.” (17.95)

For instance, when the prophet Ṣāliḥ was sent to his people, they rejected him, with one reason being that they could not believe that, being human like them, he could have received revelation from God. Even if they could accept that God may have chosen a human being as a messenger, they argued, they could not believe that it could have been Ṣāliḥ:

The [people of] Thamūd rejected their warnings. (54.23) They said: “A human being from among ourselves that we are to follow? In that case we would be in delusion and madness. (54.24) Has the Remembrance been sent down to him from among us? He must be an insolent liar.” (54.25)

The following verses show a typical exchange between prophets and their disbelieving people where the former argue that they could not come up with miracles at will, to satisfy their doubting people, as they were mere human beings who could perform miracles only when God allows this:

Their messengers said: “Is there a doubt about Allah, the Creator of the heavens and the earth? It is He who invites you, in order that He may forgive you your sins and give you respite until an appointed term.” They said: “You are no more than human beings, like us! You wish to turn us away from what our fathers used to worship; bring us then some clear authority.” (14.10) Their messengers said to them: “True, we are human beings like you, but Allah confers His favour on such of his servants as He pleases. It is not for us to bring you an authority except as Allah permits. And on Allah let all believers rely.” (14.11)

Like all other prophets, Jesus was a human being. The Qur’an tells us that Jesus stressed his human nature in his teachings and that his deification was the result of changes made to his original message after him by some of his followers. Jesus told people that he was God’s servant and prophet, and that he also had to worship God like he was calling them to do:

I am Allah’s servant. He has given me the Book and has made me a prophet. (19.30) He has made me blessed wherever I may be. He has enjoined upon me prayer and almsgiving so long as I remain alive. (19.31)

I should note that the Arabic term ‘abd, which I have translated as “servant,” also means “slave.” It is used in the Qur’an to indicate the total submission and servitude of the created to the Creator.

Significantly, the New Testament also describes Jesus as a “servant.” This title is used once for Jesus in the Gospels:

This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.” (Matt. 12:17-18)

In the Book of Acts, the title “servant” of God is used for Jesus twice by Peter after he healed a crippled man (also Acts 3:26):

The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. (Acts 3:13)

Peter and John twice call Jesus God’s “servant” after they were released by the Sanhedrin (also Acts 4:30):

For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel. (Acts 4:27)

But, of course, the New Testament also promotes Jesus’ divinity. Describing Jesus as both “servant” of God and “divine” is another aspect of Jesus’ confused nature in the New Testament. It looks even more so when one notes that Jesus himself is reported to have clearly differentiated between the servant and his master in several parables and sayings, such as this:

A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. (Matt. 10:24-25)

This Pauline passage is one clear example of Jesus’ confused nature in the New Testament:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phi. 2:5-8)

In the Qur’an, servanthood is a description of the created, whereas lordship and divinity are exclusive descriptions of the Creator. The Qur’anic term ‘abd (servant or slave) does not apply to Jesus only, but to all created beings.

Jesus asked people to obey him, because he was a trustworthy messenger of God — his and everybody else’s Lord:

Keep your duty to Allah, and obey me. (43.63) Allah is my Lord and your Lord. So worship Him. This is a straight way. (43.64)

The Qur’an stresses that Jesus’ unique, miraculous conception did not mean that he was not a human being. He was a miraculously created human being like the first human being:

The likeness of Jesus in Allah’s eye is as the likeness of Adam. He created him of dust, then He said to him “Be!” and he is. (3.59)

Note also the emphasis in this verse that Jesus was created of dust like all human beings (22.5, 30.20). I have discussed in detail elsewhere the nature of the miraculous creation of Jesus as a human being (Fatoohi, 2007: 99-119).

In the New Testament, Paul also makes a link between Jesus and Adam, but one that is completely different from the Qur’an’s. He links the two through his doctrine of Atonement. He explains that because Adam sinned, all his descendants inherited this sin which causes death. Through his resurrection, Jesus can free people from their sins and give them eternal life. After describing Jesus as a second Adam who gives life, Paul goes on to talk about the creation of the two:

Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. (1 Cor. 15:45-50)

What Paul says, as he stresses that Jesus and Adam were of completely different natures, is the exact opposite to the Qur’an’s statement which confirms the similarity between the creation of Adam and Jesus as being both from dust. Paul has stated in another epistle that Jesus “was descended from David according to the flesh” (Rom. 1:3), clearly indicating that Jesus had another, deeper reality than his human body.

Paul’s misguided comparison between Jesus and Adam looks to me a “contextual displacement” of the authentic comparison between the two that God must have made in the book that He revealed to Jesus and/or which Jesus himself spoke of, which is repeated in the Qur’an. I have coined the term “contextual displacement” to refer to a special kind of textual corruption in Jewish and Christian writings where “a character, event, or statement appears in one context in the Qur’an and in a different context in other sources.” Contextual displacements are the results of “the Bible’s editors moving figures, events, and statements from their correct, original contexts” (Fatoohi, 2007: 39).

          

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