By Hani Hamdan, Engage Minnesota.
Knowing the way Muslims view prophets can be beneficial when formulating a good understanding of Islam and Muslims. The majority of prophets mentioned in the Qur’an are shared with the Old and New Testaments. Muslims recognize and revere Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and others. Muslims also believe that Adam received prophethood after leaving the Garden and they also believe Ishmael and kings David and Solomon to be prophets as well.
But there is a general notable difference between the stories of prophets in the Qur’an when compared to the Bible – a difference that yields an important aspect of the Islamic view of prophethood.
Islam considers prophets to be at the highest levels of human manners and civility. To illustrate this high level of regard, the official Islamic scholarly view throughout history has been that no matter how pious and adherent to the ordains and prohibitions of Islam, no one can claim to come close to the level of piety and adherence to religion of any of the prophets.
Another exhibit of the Islamic regard for prophets is the Islamic belief that prophets do not perform sins such as getting drunk or lusting after married women. And when they do fall into error, they are sure to repent quickly and publicly. Indeed, the Qur’anic depiction of prophets is that of asserted purity. They are not perfect, but they are sure to be the closest to perfection while still being human.
Muslims find it absurd that Noah, according to the Bible, would become drunk and curse his son Canaan, or that David would lust after the wife of one of his commanders and send him to battle so that he would be killed in order for David to marry her.
In fact, the only mistake mentioned in the Qur’an on behalf of David, peace be upon him, is that he once issued judgement in a matter after hearing only the poor plaintiff’s side and before listening to the wealthy defendant. After he realized this error, which he viewed with such magnanimity, he prostrated to God and stayed in the prostrating position for a very long time until he was forgiven.
David is also described in the Qur’an as a staunch worshipper who would spend plenty of time singing the praises of God. Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said that David used to fast every other day of his life.
The only mistake that Noah, peace be upon him, was reported to have made in the Qur’an was that he politely asked God about a son of his who had refused to join him on his Arc and drowned in the Flood. Noah’s question was stemming from the fact that God told him to carry “his family” on the Arc, and his son was part of his family. God advised Noah not to ask about his son, saying “Oh Noah, he is not from among your family. He is a wrongful deed, so ask Me not that of which you have no knowledge”. Noah considered it a grave act that he asked the question and supplicated God for forgiveness.
The story of prophet Lot getting drunk and having intercourse with his daughters is absent from the Qur’anic narrative and rejected by Muslim scholars.
The same applies to all prophets mentioned in the Qur’an. None of them drank, committed adultery, incest, murder, rape, or performed any other similar acts. Even the act of Moses killing a man was described in the Qur’an as an accident. Moses, peace be upon him, punched the man to deter him from attacking an Israelite and the man’s death was unexpected and unintended.
To Christians and Jews, prophets sinning in the Old and New Testaments are prophets being human. It is a reminder that even the best of God’s creation can fall into sin. It is also a reminder of God’s mercy and forgiveness. Muslims, however, have a different perspective on this matter.
To Muslims, prophets are chosen by God to be role models for humanity throughout the ages. There are many historic and contemporary Muslim figures who lived a life free of sins like adultery, murder, and drinking. Therefore, if ordinary people can stay away from such sins, it only makes sense that Islam vindicates prophets from them.
Thus the mercy of God is manifest in the fact that He would only make prohibitions that humans are capable of adhering to, not ones that even prophets fail to adhere to.
What this understanding does is that it serves to create a higher standard of morality for Muslim societies. Another important effect of the Islamic depiction of prophets is that it enhances the fairness of God in the minds on Muslims when they see that His prohibitions are fully attainable, as exemplified by prophets. If He prohibits something such as adultery, then it must be within normal human capability to never commit it. God then sets examples using prophets of how humans can indeed live a life free of adultery, and the majority of Muslims worldwide adhere to this prohibition. The same goes for other major sins.
The Qur’an makes sure to explicitly praise prophets by name and exonerate some of them who have been wrongfully accused by later generations. For example, God declares squarely in the Qur’an that Solomon, peace be upon him, never practiced sorcery, a belief that tainted his image. In fact, when reading the Qur’an, one reaches the conclusion that the thorough polishing of the image of prophets in the minds of Muslims is one of the Qur’an’s very objectives.