Ecumenical & Interfaith, Muslim Ministry
Who Is Muhammad in Islam? Prophet, Priest, or King?
July 6, 2020
Updated July 9, 2020
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In Christianity, if we want to describe Jesus, we use the words prophet, priest, and king to describe who he is, what he did, and what he continues to do. In this article, I will use those three terms to describe the person of Muhammad from Islamic sources. What we will come to see is that Muhammad is very much another prophet, priest, and king than the Lord Jesus Christ of Christianity. We will conclude by asking, “which one of these has the truly exalted character as a prophet, priest, and king?” Before we begin, there are a few preliminary remarks that must be attended to.
Whereas the existence, call, prophetic ministry, and honorifics of the person of Muhammad are a given in Islam, recent studies by non-Muslims have called the existence of this literal person into question. For example, a book by Robert Spencer entitled Did Muhammad Exist suggests that he might well have been a Robin Hood figure made by the Caliph Abdu Malik to have a hero for a new religion. Spencer then argues that the entire religion with biographies, sacred texts, traditions, and devotional literature was all an invention.
In this article, I am going to keep Spencer’s arguments in mind, but will quote Islamic sources as they relate to their religion’s leader. These sources will include devotional literature, poems, the biography of Muhammad, stories of the prophets, traditions, and the Qur’an as they are viewed by contemporary Muslims, namely that they all form the incontestable fabric of their religion.
The Biblical view
Since the concept of a prophet pre-dates Islam, a good place to observe this position is in the Bible. In the Old Testament terms, prophets were those who were commissioned by God to do two things, namely speak on behalf of God, and to foretell the future. Frequently their writings begin with “….and the word of God came to [name of prophet] and the prophet was told to speak out a message or a vision, with the words, “thus says the LORD.” This is what is called forth-telling, or speaking on behalf of God. In the second case, the visions that prophets received, often foretold the future, for example in the case of Daniel he had visions of beasts and so forth that laid out historical events that would take place later. In the same way, the apostle John in the New Testament book of Revelations did the same.
The Bible has several tests for ascertaining the veracity of what prophets spoke, with Deuteronomy 18 and I John 4:2 listing at least five criteria, namely:
Jesus was not only a person with messages from God; he embodied the Word of God. Thus in Luke 24:19, Jesus is called “a prophet mighty in deed and word in the sight of God and some of the people.”
The Islamic view
The word for prophet in Arabic, nabi, is borrowed from Hebrew or Aramaic and as the Biblical view, the Islamic view denotes ‘one who receives divine revelation.’ This term is frequently paired with rasul or messenger in the Qur’an and the commentator al-Baydawi said that a rasul is a prophet with a message to start a new religion, and a nabi is one who continues an old one. This distinction is important, as it places Muhammad in the class of a prophet who started a new religion and continued an old one. What is meant by this is that supposedly, Islam is the oldest and original religion and Jews and Christians corrupted it, and Muhammad had to come with a new prophetic message to correct these corruptions.
As much as there are many prophets recognized by Islam (as many as 144,000) only a few came with books, and among these are Moses, David, Jesus, and Muhammad. The Quran says that each of them was ‘given’ books. They are said to have been chosen by God, guided by him, sent in succession (Q 2:87), on closer terms with God than other humans, and Muhammad came to be described as “God’s beloved” and ‘The Prophet.’ Known as the ‘seal of the prophets’, Muhammad is also described as the best and the last of them. This dynamic shows up at the celebrations for his birthday, called Mawlid. There his praises are sung with the following words:
.. At the time of his birth there occurred many strange and miraculous things, as signs that God would raise the prophethood to a place of prominence, make it prosper, and that Muhammad was His chosen favourite.
The songs then tell of changes in the celestial order all due to his coming. This theme is also picked up in a love poem to Muhammad, written by an Egyptian who supposedly was cured by Muhammad’s mantle. The title speaks volumes: “The Glittering Galaxy of Stars in Praise of the Best of God’s Creatures.”
A common theme in the stories of prophets found in the Qur’an and in the genre the Lives of the Prophets is that Allah sent a prophet with a message to a people who were misguided, then the people rejected the message, Allah punished the nations that refused to listen, eventually, the prophet was vindicated, and some people accepted the message. In structuring the Qur’an this way, Muhammad is showing that his life has ample historical precedents to validate his mission.
Among the illustrious list of those found in paradise, due to their having obeyed Allah and Muhammad, are prophets (Q. 4:69). This raises the question if Jesus would be present in the Islamic paradise.
The Biblical view
Even though Islam does not have the office of a priest, per se, it still bears some resemblances to the priesthood of the Bible. In the Old Testament, God chose a group of people who would represent Him to the people, and who would represent the people to him. Drawn from the tribe of Levi, they followed elaborate prescribed purification rituals to make themselves acceptable to God. They also offered various types of blood sacrifices in an attempt to make atonement to God. These offerings and rituals are described as a foreshadowing of a better sinless priest, with a better perfect sacrifice, and guaranteed acceptance by God, all due to the death of Jesus. Thus in Hebrews 3:1, Jesus is called the Apostle and High Priest of the Christian faith. Just as the Old Testament priesthood, he is the ultimate representative of God to people in his Incarnation, and he continues to represent his people to God through his intercession.
Just as Jesus was said to be without sin and so could be the perfect mediator between God and humans, there are stories with similar echoes about Muhammad. Besides a story that he was purified when he was a boy by angels who “removed a black blemish” from his heart, it is related that just before his night journey (see Q 17:1) to Jerusalem and then to his heavenly ascent to visit with Allah, Muhammad had to be made ritually pure. The exegete al-Tabari relates that the angel Gabriel asked for water from the Zamzam spring in Mecca to cleanse Muhammad’s heart. After opening Muhammad’s chest, Gabriel washes it three times and removes all of his sins (Q. 94:1). In place of them, he inserts admirable qualities of submission, faith, and gentleness. In this way, Muhammad is purified to meet with Allah. Another rendition by Abu Sa‘id al-Khudri has Muhammad ascend to the highest heavens where he bathes in the “river of mercy” and he has Muhammad relate, “it cleansed me from all my sins in advance.”
In a similar manner to a priest, the story of the night journey relates how Muhammad interceded to Allah for his people. The story states “God raised the Prophet Muhammad higher than this until he reached the Lotus Tree, and he was next to the great door of the Mighty Lord himself. He was the distance of two bow lengths or less from God when God revealed things to him.” Here he was given the orders for the frequency of daily prayers, and when he reported these to Moses, Moses asked Muhammad to intercede with Allah to lessen the burden. This happened and the daily prayers were reduced from fifty to five.
Just as a priest was the mediator of forgiveness from God to the people, so Muhammad is positioned as one who can pray for forgiveness. In Q 4:64 one sees this dynamic when some people “wronged themselves” and came to Muhammad to pray for Allah’s forgiveness, they would find that Allah was forgiving an compassionate after “the messenger had prayed for forgiveness for them.”A Christian might hear echoes of Christ’s intercession in this statement.
It is noteworthy that Muslims continue the tradition of ritual purification by means of their ablutions (washings) before their prayers. These are an attempt to cleanse the person of their sins.
Just as Jesus the High Priest intercedes as a mediator for his people, Muhammad is also said to be a mediator for Muslims on the day of judgment. A hadith responds to the question, “who is able to make intercession on the last day?” Recorded by at-Tirmidhi and attributed to Abu Said Khudri, it begins by suggesting that Muhammad stated, “I am the leader of the descendants on the day of judgment, and this is no boast.” Then this hadith describes people running from one prophet to another—including Adam, Abraham, and Jesus—and asking if they could intercede for them. They all reply in the negative and even Jesus is reported to say, “I am not fit for this, go to Muhammad the servant whose past and future sins were forgiven by Allah.” Muhammad is then pictured as interceding for Muslims, with Allah saying, “‘(Muhammad!) Raise your head. Ask, and your request will be granted; say, and your saying will be listened to; intercede, and your intercession will be accepted.’”
In Islam, we see are echoes of rites of purification akin to the Old Testament, the need for the purification of a priest, in this case, Muhammad who represents people to Allah and Allah to Muslims.
The Biblical view
By definition, a king is a person who has the right to rule over a kingdom and has subjects within this realm. A king has the right to legislate laws within his realm and to defend his territory. Kings are often models of behavior and ethical standards.
In the Old Testament, anointed kings like David were also the representatives of God on earth, and in Psalm 47:7 God is called the “King of the whole earth” and Jesus is called “The King of kings and Lord of lords” in Revelation 19:6. As an anointed king in the line of David, Jesus the royal Son said that he came to usher in the kingdom of God on earth, and his divine rulership was evident in how he could take charge of winds and waves, have authority over the demonic, and eventually ascend to sit on the throne with God the Father. Ephesians 1: 20-23 describes the all-encompassing authority of Christ as,
God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church.
Interestingly, there are some similarities between Jesus the newborn King who will sit on the throne of David, and reports around the birth of Muhammad.
In the biblical picture, throngs of angels announce the glories of the one whom the wise men describe as the King of the Jews, and whom they worship. In the Islamic picture, there is a report that the newborn Muhammad fell to the ground from his cradle and he pressed his hands on the earth. Thereafter he looked up at the sky and this was interpreted as a sign that he would be the ruler of the whole earth. Another tradition reports that in the hands of the baby Muhammad were three white pearls, and these were interpreted as the keys of prophethood, victory, and bloodshed. What we see is a conscious effort to ascribe global rulership to Muhammad.
Whereas the Bible describes Jesus as a King who will wage war at the end of time in order to usher in the kingdom in its fullness, Muhammad also took on the role of a war-like king. In a tradition in the collection of Sahih Muslim, we read a report that Muhammad said,
I have been commanded to war against people till they testify to the fact that there is no God but Allah and believe in me that I am the messenger from the Lord and in all that I have brought… (Sahih Muslim, book 1, no. 31)
While Jesus was on earth, he fought against spiritual powers like the Devil, but not physically against the Roman occupiers of his homeland. He told his followers to put their swords away and to pray for their enemies. In contrast, Muhammad was reported by Abu Hurairah to have said, “I have been made victorious with terror (cast into the hearts of my enemies)…” (Sahih Bukhari, book 4:52.220).
The former Islamic historian and former professor at al-Azhar University in Egypt, Mark Gabriel (pseudonym) carefully studied Islamic historical texts in Arabic and made a comparison between them and Jesus’ statements in the Gospels and especially the Sermon on the Mount. He details these in his book, Jesus and Muhammad, and concludes that although these two founders of the world’s largest religions—Christianity and Islam—both exhibited king-like qualities, the way that they exercised them were dramatically different. In his words, “I had to conclude that fundamental differences [between them] far outweigh superficial similarities.” The first was the Prince of Peace and the second was the man of war. Gabriel found that these characteristics of Jesus in the Bible made him worth following and he became a Christian.
The Muslim scholar Sheikh Mubarak Ahmad in his article “Was Muhammad a Prophet or a King?” He states that although technically Muhammad was not a king, he was more than that, and he describes him as an emperor. He goes on to defend this position by the fact that Muhammad avoided all the pomp and circumstance that is usually associated with kingship. He uses the qur’anic text “And in the Messenger of God, you have a perfect model [uswa hasana]” (Q.33:21) to describe him.
A glance over biographies of the life of Muhammad reveals words like lawgiver, warrior, statesman, enforcer of treaties, general, and organizer of political life and principal recipient of war booty. These certainly describe a person with king-like qualities.
Who is the model Prophet, Priest, and King? Jesus or Muhammad?
In the previous section, reference was made to Q 33:21. In context, this verse describes Muhammad’s actions at the Battle of the Trench as one who fought courageously. Yet in Islamic thought, this “excellent pattern” (Sahih), “excellent exemplar” (Shakir), “good example” (Khan, Arberry), “best model” (Maududi), and “beautiful exemplar” has far-reaching consequences. The exegete Maududi states, “therefore, the verse demands that the Muslims should take the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) life as a model for themselves in every affair of life and should mold their character and personality according to it.”
Another verse in the Qur’an describes Muhammad as khuluqin azeem or the personification of the highest moral excellence (Q 68:4). Various renditions include “exalted character”, “great moral character,” “tremendous nature,” “exalted standard of character.” This text is explained by Sa`id bin Abi `Arubah who reported from Qatadah that “Allah gave him the exalted character, which included the qualities of modesty, kindness, bravery, pardoning, gentleness and every other good characteristic.”
Thus, one could summarize the life of Muslim piety as emulating WDMD or What Did Muhammad Do? Yet the question must be asked, “Is this truly the best example for life?”
Mark Gabriel, who we mentioned above, examined that very question in-depth and became convinced that the answer was Jesus Christ. How will your Muslim friends answer that question? How will you help them? Perhaps some questions will help:
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Thanks, John, for your comparison of Christianity to that of Islam, especially the roles of prophet, priest, and king as displayed by the respective leaders of each religion. Your comparison is so illegitimate that it hardly makes any sense to read it. From the start you make Christ the ultimate standard to which you compare Mohammed. Of course Mohammed is going to fail the test. And Christ would fail just as fatally if you were to make Mohammed the standard of perfection to whom you compared Jesus. Any Muslim would laugh at your comparison, it is so unfairly unbalanced, and falls far short of objectivity. Your comparison is like comparing a fine wine to that of Welch’s grape juice. There is no comparison. To the person who is not religious, Christian or a Muslim, such a comparison as you make is embarrassing. But thanks, John, for making an attempt.
Thanks for engaging, Roger.
To answer your challenge, perhaps I could picture the situation in a different way. Imagine that you had an ancestor named King Gelwicks. He was a model king, kind, compassionate, generous, just and a protector of his subjects. All of your family from the time he reigned talked about his exploits and derived a sense of identity from having such an honored ancestor.
Now imagine that someone named John Span came along and took on the name Gelwicks in order to gain some of this honor. He told everyone that if King Gelwicks was good, he was even better. In fact this Span person called himself Emperor Gelwicks. He established a huge following, but members of the original Gelwicks family said that he had hijacked their family name, their family history, and their family honor.
My question to you. Should the Gelwicks family care in the least about the chain of events?
If they protested, should they be called "unfairly unbalanced", "lacking in objectivity" and "embarrasing?"
Thanks, John, for wanting to carry out this comparison. You realize that you are attempting to compare apples to oranges. Jesus and Mohammed are completely different characters in their respective roles and religions. You are attempting to compare God to a human being. Muslims believe in a single solitary God (Allah) unlike Christians, who believe in a Triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Jesus (the Son) is God. How do you even begin to compare God to a human? Christians claim that God is perfect in all his attributes. Mohammed makes no such claim. Your comparison would be like comparing God to John Span. There is no comparison. So by setting up Jesus as your ideal standard bearer for prophet, priest, and king, no one, including Mohammed, will ever measure up. So the comparison is completely unbalanced and lacking in objectivity. It’s a non-starter.
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