What I find mentioned in a revelatory text, for instance the idea of of prophets and the idea of believing in prophets, I should expect and ask the text to explain. I should not rush outside the text towards tradition or culture to understand the concept. In my view, a fundamental choice needs to be made about what the Quran means by the concepts it uses, such as the concept of prophets. As someone looking for a message from my maker, I should read the message in a way that allows me to confirm that someone mentioned in that text is indeed a prophet. I should be able to confirm and agree with the text’s claim that it is desirable that I care about prophets.
In light of the above and in light of what I understand the Quran’s concept of prophets, it is my view that the Quran presents prophets as examples of what we might call prophetic understandings or prophetic perspectives on reality. As opposed to what? As opposed to my current, culturally acquired, already-at-work-even-if-I-am-not-aware-of-it perspective. Everyone already has some perspective on reality. The Quran introduces a prophetic perspectives in various ways. They are perspectives that I can take on, that I should take on. And I should see how the world looks from that perspective. Then, I may reject it or accept it. It is as prophetic perspectives that I as a human being, here and now, confirm the need the truth of prophets and prophecy.
Thus, to “follow” a prophet is to assent to, and follow the prophetic perspective. I say “the” prophetic perspective because I understand there to be a core that distinguishes a prophetic perspective in the Quran from all non-prophetic perspectives. As I share my understanding of verses from the Quran, you might get a better sense of what I mean by a prophetic perspective.
I should not that in lived life, I constantly move between perspectives but revelation speaks of the fundamentally different directions towards which I may orient myself and hence speaks in, if you may, black and white – a prophetic perspective in the way Quran describes it and its anti-thesis as the Quran describes it. But let me say a word about the importance of understanding concepts of the Quran from the Quran i.e. to ask my maker to teach me the meaning of the concepts he uses.
Consider, for instance, that I told you to follow a “medical doctor.” Now, if you follow the doctor to her home in your car, you are following the doctor qua driver. You are not following the medical doctor. You would need to understand “medical doctorhood” in order to understand what following a doctor means and only then can you actually start to follow the doctor qua doctor. One therefore needs to understand the concept of prophecy as true and meaningful from the text that asks us to follow the prophet as the text explains it. And we would need to attend carefully to what a prophet does that is “prophetic” in the Quran. In my view, to follow a prophet is to take a prophetic perspective on things – this I do, or fail to do, every day and every moment in fact. This simple idea means that prophet is not to be understood as a historical, cultural or ethnic hero or a man of high moral virtue. Prophets are mentioned in the Quran, as I shall discuss later, as offering a perspective that humans can and need to acquire in order to make sense of the world in a way that leads to safety and peace of heart and, without which, there is no respite, no refuge for the human being and there is only fear, grief and despair.
Much confusion (and an immense amount of religious literature, culture and tradition) has resulted from separating prophets/messengers from the message. I reject this separation. And you should consider it a serious matter. Much more needs to be said on the subject. Till we meet again!