It is a simple truth that a person can only be deemed a messenger of God if one can first ascertain that the message he or she brings is a message from God. Like I have noted before, being open to considering something a message from my maker and the maker of the universe is not the same as affirming or ascertaining that the message is from my maker. I need to be able to understand and decide if something is a message or not. I do not think it is meaningful or inevitable (even if common) to start with a baseless claim about who or what one is and who was or wasn’t a messenger of God. I cannot make such a claim on account of some identity that I claim for myself or on account of an identity others ascribe to be because of where I am born or on account of some story about who we are that I have been told by others. If I am to believe someone is a messenger of my maker, I need to see if the message is from my maker or not. To ignore this simple truth is to set oneself up for much confusion and dissatisfaction up the road. If a person’s engagement with the Quran or revelation does not take this simple point into account, I have found that whatever they have to say about what the Quran is saying is often deeply confusing, runs into contradictions and is just intellectually dissatisfying. Just because I am looking for revelation and can’t make sense of the world and my life on my own, doesn’t mean I am going to start swallowing everything that anyone presents to me as a message from God. My reason is from whoever made me and unless you are that one, you can’t tell me to stop using it just because in your world, the use of reason does not sit well with your religious beliefs or piety etc. To me, the deepest spirituality and the deepest judgments of reason must reconcile and agree or else I have not found what my heart seeks. This witnessing of the truth of revelation is a life-long process which happen every day or moment when I engage revelation’s claims in the midst of lived everyday life and choices and interpretations of events and things. It doesn’t all happen all at once and each questioning and witnessing of the truth of revelation can produce a renewed meaning which benefits me only as long as I am given consciousness of it. When this witness and meaning is taken away (a blessed moment as well but the question ‘why is it blessed’ – like the moment that Eesa or any other messenger passes away, according to the Quran) is a different discussion for another day), I have to ask for it again and it is given again. Moving on..
The Quran makes the claim that Muhammad is not the father of any man but he is the messenger of God and is the seal or last of the callers/prophets and the verse ends by claiming that God was/is knowing or knowledgeable of everything (without any single exception). This is verse 33:40 of the Quran. What is the truth of these verse? What is the message and is it from my maker and can I confirm its truth? How would I? This is not a rhetorical question for me. It is a real question. If its not your question because you have already convinced yourself that this is true and meaningful to you as a message from your maker, then you can spare yourself the trouble of reading what comes next. If not, I can share what I think about this verse.
I think the ending of the verse is an interesting clue for how I may confirm the truth and guidance of this verse. To start with, the idea that Muhammad (the one who is being given this message to convey to others) is not the father of any of us is an interesting claim, juxtaposed with the idea of him, instead, being a messenger of God. It speaks well to my reason. I tend to value a lot of things that my father says and does simply because he is my father not because I think they are the best or most meaningful things someone should do. I want my father honored by others for that reason too – he is my father. There is a kind of attachment, honor, love and affirmation I want for my father (or mother) that is not related to what message they bring to me from my maker. It is interesting and compelling to me that this verse, itself a part of the message, wants to assert that what should be important to me about the one who is conveying this message is his role as messenger of God. I should not imagine that I should or am expected to love or honor or agree with Muhammad from the kind of filial sentimentality that I might feel for my father or mother or family. What is important about Muhammad is his messengership and hence the message he bears. And so the claim that he is the seal of the messengers is to be understood as a claim about the finality or ultimacy of the message he bears. This is all reasonable and interesting to me.
Among many self-descriptions of the Quran as a message or revelation or guidance etc., let me note one, for instance. 10:57. “O MANKIND! There has come unto you a counsel from your Sustainer, and a cure for all that may be in the hearts, and guidance and rahma/mercy/grace unto “mu’minin” i.e. unto all who would get security and safety from witnessing the truth of that guidance (my interpretive rendering of mu’minin in this context).”
So if I am to put it briefly (taking 33:40 and many verses like10:57 together for instance), I understand revelation to be claiming that Muhammad’s message is such guidance and such healing that were I to understand it, I would not need any further explanation or guidance about the meaning of existence and about all the questions and worries that afflict my heart at the deepest level. What, I am driven to ask, is it that my heart truly needs? What are its deepest wounds and worries? Now, to take hint from the ending of the verse 33:40 itself, how much power or knowledge, and knowledge/power over how many of the things, would I need someone to have for me to feel fully at ease with existence and for me to trust that everything has been, is, and will be absolutely fine? How much? Another way of putting it is: IF nothing at all in existence remains mute or confusing or meaningless (including periodic and frequent experiences of meaninglessness and need for answers) after I have received a guidance, would anything additional be needed? And, is the message of the Quran such a message or guidance? In order for me to witness the finality of the messenger of a message, I would need to witness to the consummate nature of the guidance it offers. I would have to check this throughout life and, in principle, remain open to the possibility that this may not be adequate guidance for a given situation or not give a satisfactory meaning to all things that my heart needs to find meaning in, for it to be at peace. To the extent that I find the guidance of the message to be such consummate guidance that I don’t find anything in my heart that remains unaddressed, nothing in existence and experience that remains a troubling mystery or confusion, nothing in existence that does not convey truth and meaning to me, to THAT extent I can witness the truth of the finality of the messenger/person who is mentioned in the Quran as having been given the message to convey to others.
The verse ends by asserting that God, the One who is the sustainer of everything that I witness is One who must (I should reflect and try to ascertain) be all-knowing. He must have knowledge of all beings to give them existence, to give them the form they have, the qualities they have, the relations and connections they have with other beings and how they work and fit together. There are many many verses in the Quran that provide much matter for contemplation about who the sustainer of this world is, what he is doing that I can see in order to know what kind of sustainer he is. In this verse, only all encompassing knowledge is mentioned as an indication. All beings witness to the knowledge of the one who makes them and sustains them. Their existence and their function in existence witnesses that whoever makes and sustains them does so from absolute knowledge. The ant is fed by the one who has knowledge of the ant and whose knowledge encompasses the water, the soil, the skies, the rain, the nutrients, the sun, the solar system and so on. One without knowledge of all cannot be the One who feeds the ant. The One who makes and sustains the ant must be one of absolute knowledge of all things. This is one example. The Quran mentions these as signs to reflect on so that we can fill our heart with some confidence, one drop at a time, that the One who sustains everything can be trusted. He knows what he is doing. My life and everything else is in the hands of a knowing one – as knowing in my eyes as my witnessing the signs can lead me to be sure. The Quran argues that if I were to reflect on the signs as it asks me to, I will come to see that everything, without exception, is reciting the names of the maker and sustainer of all things. Each thing will say to me, “I am not the source of my existence – I exist in the name of the Life-giver, the all-knowing, the merciful one and so on..” My sadness at loss will speak to me and say “I am not your sadness. You did not make me. Someone sends me to you. And whoever makes you sad at a loss is telling you, through that sadness, that he wills and wants NO loss for you. He wants abundance for you. He is showing you a sign in your own self. So and so forth. If I am able to listen to everything speak as the Quran makes it speak and conclude (to whatever degree) that it resolves my heart’s conundrums, to that degree I can witness the finality of Muhammad’s messengership. I have rushed through examples (from the ant to the feeling of sadness). They are things in the world. If things like these speak meaningfully and satisfactorily to me when the Quran makes them speak (in the language of la-ilaha, in the language of bismillah etc), then I can come to feel that there is nothing I find lacking that some other message or guidance should fulfill. When I do not feel the need for a different message (this is not the same as the need I may feel for reminder of the same message or a deeper understanding or awareness of a somewhat satisfactory message), I can witness and confirm that the messenger of this message is the last for me. The Quran, by saying he is the last, is challenging me to see if anything remains unanswered in my heart if I take its guidance to heart. Each one of us will have to choose to take up the challenge or not.