Answered by Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller
Question: Many Pakistanis and people of the Naqshbandi tariqa (and maybe of others) consider the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) to be Nur Allah, the ‘Light of Allah’, and find it offensive that we call the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) bashar, a ‘human being’, even though the Qur’an states him to be so. I have also been made aware of a hadith in Tirmidhi that states that the prophets (upon whom be peace) were created from the Nur of Allah and the first amongst them was the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace). Do you have any knowledge about this matter?
Answer: The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) is the Light of Allah, something a believer can say because the Qur’an affirms it in the verse
“There has come to you a Light from Allah, and a Manifest Book” (Qur’an 5:15).
in which the word Light has been explained by a number of classic Qur’anic exegetes as follows:
(Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti:) “It is the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace)” (Tafsir al-Jalalayn, 139).
(Ibn Jarir al-Tabari:) “By Light He means Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace), through whom Allah has illuminated the truth, manifested Islam, and obliterated polytheism; since he is a light for whoever seeks illumination from him, which makes plain the truth” (Jami‘ al-bayan, 6.161).
(Fakhr al-Razi:) “There are various positions about it, the first being that the Light is Muhammad, and the Book is the Qur’an ” (al-Tafsir al-kabir, 11:194).
(al-Baghawi:) “It means Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace), or, according to a weaker position, Islam” (Ma‘alam al-Tanzil, 2.228).
And Qurtubi (Ahkam al-Qur’an , 6.118) and Mawardi (al-Nukat wa al-‘uyun, 2.22) mention that interpreting Nur as “Muhammad” (Allah bless him and give him peace) was also the position by [the Imam of Arabic grammar Ibrahim ibn Muhammad] al-Zajjaj (d. 311/923).
All of which shows that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), is a light from Allah, according to the Qur’an . This is the interpretation of the earliest exegetes, for al-Tabari was the sheikh of the salaf (early Muslims) in tafsir; while explaining Nur as “Islam” is an interpretation that came later.
As for the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) being a bashar or ‘human being’, there is no doubt of this, because it is Qur’an and ‘aqida. Yet the Qur’an does not simply state that he is a human being, but rather says,
“Say: I am but a man like you who is divinely inspired that your god is but One God” (Qur’an 18:110)
The important qualificatory phrase in this verse shows us that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) was a completely different sort of human being from anyone else, then or now. For none of us can say he is divinely inspired as the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) was. Rather, as is said in a poetic ode to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) which is often sung at gatherings after singing the Qasida al-Burda [Ode of the Prophetic Mantle] by al-Busayri:
Muhammad is a human being, but not like humankind;
He is a ruby, while people are as stones.
Though the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) is the Light of Allah, he is of course a created light. Someone who believes otherwise has made the mistake of the Christians with Jesus (upon whom be peace), or the Hindus with their Avatars. We saw in the discussion at the end of question (5) above that an ascriptive (idafa) construction like Nur Allah does not show that this Nur or ‘Light’ is an attribute of Allah. Rather, the ascriptive construction in this case is a kind called idafa tashrif, or an ‘ascription of ennoblement’, like the title Bayt Allah ‘The House of Allah’ for the Kaaba in Mecca, named this for its nobility, not that Allah lives inside, much less that it is divine attribute. Or like the she-camel that was sent to Thamud, which was called in the Qur’an Naqat Allah ‘The She-Camel of Allah’ as an ascription of ennoblement; namely, because of its inviolability in the Shari‘a of that time—not that it was ridden by Allah, or was a divine attribute.
As for the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) being the first of creation, among the Islamic scholars who have compiled works on his characteristics is the hadith master (hafiz) Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti with his two-volume hadith work al-Khasa’is al-kubra [The greater compendium of unique attributes], of which the first chapter is entitled “The Uniqueness of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) in Being the First of the Prophets to Be Created, the Priority of His Prophethood, and the Taking of the Covenant with Him.” The chapter’s first hadith was reported by Ibn Abi Hatim in his Tafsir [Qur’anic exegesis] , and by Abu Nu‘aym in Dala’il al-nabuwwa [Proofs of prophethood], from numerous chains of transmission, from Qatada, who related it from Hasan [al-Basri], from Abu Hurayra (Allah be well pleased with him), that of the Qur’anic verse
“And lo, We took from the prophets their covenant, and from you, and Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus son of Mary; and We took from them a momentous
covenant” (Qur’an 33:7)
that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “I was the first of the Prophets to be created and the last of them to be sent.” Suyuti records nine other hadiths indicating that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) was the first of the prophets to be created; among them the hadith reported by Bukhari in his Tarikh [History], and by Ahmad, Tabarani, Hakim, and Bayhaqi, that Maysara al-Fajr (Allah be well pleased with him) said, “I asked, ‘O Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace), when were you a Prophet?’ and he said, ‘While Adam was between soul and body’” (al-Khasa’is al-kubra, 3-4).
As for “a hadith in Tirmidhi that states that the prophets (upon whom be peace) were created from the Nur of Allah and the first amongst them was the prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace),” I find it hard to imagine that it is in Tirmidhi or elsewhere with an acceptable channel of transmission, for Suyuti would hardly have failed to mention it in his Khasa’is, since this is the sort of thing the book is about, and Suyuti is a hadith master (hafiz), yet it is not there. In any case, the Qur’an is sufficient about the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) being a light from Allah.
Finally, in the metaphysic of the Sufis, or at least those whom I have met, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) is both the ‘Light of Allah’ and ‘a human being’, and the inability to join between the two aspects is a lack of understanding of the greatness of al-Haqiqa al-Muhammadiyya, the ‘Muhammadan Reality’.
To gain an idea of their point of departure, we may note that the entire universe has been created by Allah in order that His names and attributes might be manifest, that is, in order that He might be known, for He says,
“Nor did I create jinn and men, except to worship Me” (Qur’an 51:56).
(al-Baghawi:) Mujahid [ibn Jabr al-Makki (d. 104/722)], said this means ‘except to know Me’ which is a sound interpretation, since if He had not created them, they would not have known His existence and His oneness (Ma‘alam al-tanzil, 5.230).
Now, the divine names, such as, al-Rahman ‘the All-merciful’, al-Karim ‘the Most Generous’, al-Rafi‘ ‘He-Who-Raises’, al-Khafid ‘He-Who-Lowers’, al-Sabur ‘the Most Patient’ al-Muntaqim ‘the Avenger’, and the others, entail and comprise the existence of the entire spectrum of human conditions—but particularly, ultimately, eternally, and at their fullest manifestation—the outcomes of paradise and hell.
These outcomes in their turn entail a logos or determining order that governs them, an illuminatory law that renders them and the states of their inhabitants transparent and intelligible, an ultimate standard. This is what we call the Shari‘ia or ‘Sacred Law’, inseparable in principle from its divine origin, for it is one with Allah’s speech, the Qur’an , and the sunna, His act of inspiration to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). Part of the Law is that “none of you shall enter paradise by his works” (rather through Allah’s mercy), but the levels within it do correspond to works whose qualities and conditions are given in the revelation.
From the point of view of manifesting the divine attributes and names—their ultimate outcomes consisting in the destinies of human beings, without which they would remain unmanifest—the appearance of the Islamic Shari‘a, in its final and perfected form at the end of human history, is the raison d’être, or ‘reason for being’, of the whole created universe; and ontologically prior to it in the timelessly preeternal knowledge of Allah Most High.
And the focal point of this light of lights, the head of the whole matter of its appearance, and the site of its manifestation—in a sense the résumé of all created being and occasion for its appearance—is the al-Haqiqa al-Muhammadiyya, or ‘Muhammadan Reality’ the Holy Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), whose consciousness was identical with this Shari‘a.
We cannot ever claim to know all of the Prophet’s perfections (Allah bless him and give him peace), only that Allah describes him in His book as ‘light’; while at the same time, he had to be a human being, in order that the Sacred Law could be manifest, and the imperative of obeying it be binding on every human being. And Allah knows best.