By Mubashir Iqbal Kitaba
History is shaped by people. Inevitably, some leave more of a mark than others. Amongst those standing out, the central figures of the major world religions have had an impact far beyond their own followers. The three Abrahamic faiths- Judaism, Christianity and Islam- continue to influence world events millennia after founders walked on the earth.
The purpose of this essay is to provide a better insight into the monotheistic world-view to which these three men subscribed to and which has not lost any of its relevance in the contemporary world. The impact of these Prophets was both religious and political. They called for belief and moral conduct, and by doing so often conflicted with the established order based on corrupt practices and oppression.
Musa[Moses](AS) lived at a time of the mighty tyrant ruler, the Pharaoh, and rose from a member of the oppressed classes to a formidable antagonist, ultimately bringing down the whole edifice of arrogant power. He was ideally placed to play this role by having been brought up in the household of the pharaoh himself.
Just as a Prophet’s work continues to leave an impact long after his departure from this world; his arrival is usually preceded by a period of high anticipation. Moses was no different in this respect: tales of a savior of the oppressed Israelites were making the rounds in Egypt and grew so strong that the ruling class felt the need to take precautionary measures to prevent the birth of this champion of the people they had enslaved. The pharaoh ordered that every newborn male child would be put to death during the year his arrival was foretold, leaving only the female babies alive.
Moses is usually seen as the liberator as well as the law-giver for the Israelites. However, like all lives, his life is complex and not done justice by over simplifying. In the Quran, after God relays the story of appointing Moses as a caller towards monotheism, we learn about the discourse between Moses and pharaoh, with the former challenging the claim of pharaoh to divinity.
After his conversation with God, and as frightening as this encounter was, it set him up for his mission in life to go and confront pharaoh with the demand to release the Israelites from bondage. It helped him overcome the fear to face up to the tyrant who would surely have him killed, and it provided him with miracles heeded to make the pharaoh’s magicians take notice. Pharaoh, who considered himself a God to be worshipped, was anything delighted to have Moses come back and challenge him with a higher authority, demanding the release of the Israelites on whose slave labor, the Egyptian economy depended.
In order to humiliate Moses, the pharaoh arranged for a magnificent public event, and the magicians who had been honing their skills in preparations were given further prizes and incentives should they with the contest.
Nobody doubted the outcome, yet when Moses’ staff devoured all the magic they conjured and rendered it void, the magicians realized that a greater power was involved and submitted to Moses and his religion, much to the dismay of the pharaoh.
“Then the wizards were all flung down prostrate, crying: we believe in the Lord of Aaron and Moses. (Pharaoh) said: you put faith in him before I give you permission. He is your chief who taught you magic. Now, surely I shall cut of your hands and your feet alternatively; and I shall crucify you on the trunks of palm trees, and you shall know for certain which of us has sterner and more lasting punishment. They said: we choose you not above the clear proofs that have come to us, and above Him who created us. So decree what you will decree. You will end for us only this life of the world. We believe in our Lord, that He may forgive us our sins and the magic to which you did force us. Allah is better and more lasting”. (Quran 20:70-73). Hence, Moses had successfully called to monotheism, the belief and worship of the single deity.
Moses was a strong and determined man, devoted to the worship of the only one God, facing up to the greatest tyrant in human history, yet in need of guidance himself and unable to fully rally his own people behind him and make them see the truth for what it was.
The story of the next major prophet to whom we turn our attention, Jesus is not all too different in this respect.
Isa[Jesus] (AS): Due to his unusual entry and exit from this world, having been born like Adam, without a father, “The likeness of Jesus is as the likeness of Adam, He created him from dust, and then He said to him: Be! And he is”. (Quran 3:59) and having been spared death by being raised to heaven prior to his return or second coming. Jesus is so unusual amongst the prophets that some have mistakenly elevated him to divine status. As they focus on his spiritual activities and miracles, it is often forgotten that he also played a political role in confronting the Jewish Pharisees.
Since being born to a virgin is not something people take for granted, Jesus’ mother Mary was faced with accusations of infidelity when she returned from a secluded place after having given birth to him. “Then she brought to her own people carrying him. They said: O Mary! You have come with an amazing thing. O sister of Aaron! Your father was not a wicked man nor was your mother a harlot”. (Quran 19:17-28)
Among the gifts, Jesus was given to be able to talk already as a baby in the cradle, and speaking in defense of his mother.
As he grew up, he displayed both knowledge and wisdom and extended the powers of a healer ensuring his popularity. Yet he never sought fame or following for himself, always instead pointing to the one who sent him God. “When Allah says: O Jesus, son of Mary! Did you say to mankind: take me and my mother for two gods besides Allah? He says: Be glorified it was not for me to utter that to which I had no right” (Quran 5:16)
The Israelites , who as we have seen, found it difficult to keep to Moses instructions without deviation, had established an elaborate Rabbinical system by the time Jesus was born, which replaced the simplicity of the laws of Moses with a complicated set of interpretations. Naturally, they saw Jesus’ call to return to the spirit of the law and the essence of the belief in God as a challenge to their authority. Ultimately, they plotted to have him removed or killed. Whilst not all Christians ascribe divinity to Jesus, most believe that the Jews succeeded in having him crucified by the Romans.
The Quran contradicts this account by declaring that they had no certainty about the matter and it only appeared to them as if, “….they killed him not nor crucified him but it appeared so to them, and those who disagree concerning it are in doubt of it; they have no knowledge of it except pursuit of conjecture, they killed him not for certain”. (Quran 4:157)
In other words, they crucified someone else in his stead whilst God raised Jesus to Himself, saving him from the intended crucifixion- a death described in the Bible as curse. Trinitarian Christianity later tried to explain that it was necessary for God to curse and sacrifice his only son in order to save the rest of humanity from original sin. Yet, the Bible does not support the idea of cruel and punishing God who kills the innocent for the sins of others.
Muhammad (SAW) too was both a spiritual leader and a reformer, but because unlike other Prophets before him , he succeeded in establishing a organized social structure following the rules he brought, many biographers focus more on his political career than his spiritual teachings. His miracles too receive little attention since they are dwarfed by that ongoing miracle, the Quran, preserved unchanged since the days of its revelations.
Muhammad (SAW) was born into a noble family in Mecca, and was respected in society, and it was only after he had been called to Prophethood by the angel Gabriel, the very same society turned against him. They did not resent him as a person, but feared his message of equality before God.
Initially, his call to reject idolatry and submit the only true God was only directed at his family and friends. When it became a public invitation however, the upholders of the established order, who benefited from the influx of pilgrims and wealth connected to their existing religion, became increasingly intolerant of this new movement and responded with slander and vilification as well as physical persecution.
Many years later, when Prophet Muhammad (SAW) liberated Mecca from polytheism and inequality, he delivered the following address; “There is no God but Allah. He has no associate. He has made good his promise that He held to His bondman and helped all his confederates. O people of Quraish, surely God has abolished from you all pride of the time of ignorance and all pride in your ancestry, because all men are descended from Adam, and Adam was made of clay”.
When Muhammad (SAW) returned to Mecca, he was the undisputed ruler of united Arabia, and Islam began to spread in all directions across the world. Within just over two decades Muhammad (SAW) had transformed a remote desert community with superstitious practices into an enlightened world power with a written constitution and a refined code of law, establishing universities and cultural centers across the then known world.
Belief and Good Works
All the prophets of God, including these great three shared a common goal: to re-orientate people’s minds towards their Creator and thereby encourage them to act piously and responsibly.
They preached that only the one true God deserved to be worshipped and neither loyalty to, or fear of a despotic ruler, nor subservience to the trappings of wealth and influence – as represented in the golden calf or the idols once housed in the Kaabah – should interface with such true belief.
Their faith, therefore, demanded to be expressed publically through a change in behavior and society. They preached Justice, compassion and equality before God. They demanded an end to usury, exploitation and oppression.
Moses (AS), Jesus(AS), and Muhammad (SAW) essentially brought the same message around which humanity could unite and build a prosperous future without false divisions.
—The author is a PhD Research Scholar. He can be reached at: [email protected]