Prophets of Allah were not fortune-tellers or poets

Friday Khutba by Dr Zahid Aziz, for Lahore Ahmadiyya UK, 26 April 2024

“And surely this is a revelation from the Lord of the worlds. The Faithful Spirit has brought it, on your heart that you (O Prophet) may be a warner, in plain Arabic language. …

And the devils have not brought it. And it is not befitting for them, nor have they the power to do (it). Surely they are far removed from hearing it. …

Shall I inform you upon whom the devils descend? They descend upon every lying, sinful one — they give ear (to falsehood), and most of them are liars. And (as for) the poets — the deviators follow them.” — ch. 26, v. 192–195, 210–212, 221–224

وَ اِنَّہٗ لَتَنۡزِیۡلُ رَبِّ الۡعٰلَمِیۡنَ ﴿۱۹۲﴾ؕ  نَزَلَ بِہِ الرُّوۡحُ الۡاَمِیۡنُ ﴿۱۹۳﴾ۙ  عَلٰی قَلۡبِکَ لِتَکُوۡنَ مِنَ الۡمُنۡذِرِیۡنَ ﴿۱۹۴  بِلِسَانٍ عَرَبِیٍّ مُّبِیۡنٍ ﴿۱۹۵﴾ؕ

وَ مَا تَنَزَّلَتۡ بِہِ الشَّیٰطِیۡنُ ﴿۲۱۰  وَ مَا یَنۡۢبَغِیۡ لَہُمۡ وَ مَا یَسۡتَطِیۡعُوۡنَ ﴿۲۱۱﴾ؕ  اِنَّہُمۡ عَنِ السَّمۡعِ لَمَعۡزُوۡلُوۡنَ ﴿۲۱۲﴾ؕ 

ہَلۡ اُنَبِّئُکُمۡ عَلٰی مَنۡ تَنَزَّلُ الشَّیٰطِیۡنُ ﴿۲۲۱﴾ؕ  تَنَزَّلُ عَلٰی کُلِّ اَفَّاکٍ اَثِیۡمٍ ﴿۲۲۲﴾ۙ  یُّلۡقُوۡنَ السَّمۡعَ وَ اَکۡثَرُہُمۡ کٰذِبُوۡنَ ﴿۲۲۳﴾ؕ  وَ الشُّعَرَآءُ یَتَّبِعُہُمُ الۡغَاوٗنَ ﴿۲۲۴﴾ؕ

I have recited some verses from the end of a long chapter of the Quran, whose title is Ash-Shu‘ara or The Poets. Poets are only mentioned once in it, near the end of the chapter. Most of the chapter goes through the histories of seven prophets: Moses, Abraham, Noah and four others. It ends by referring to the Holy Prophet Muhammad, and the verses I have quoted are from that section. Here the chapter rejects the allegation of his opponents that he was nothing other than a fortune-teller who learnt from the devil or that he was merely the composer of good-sounding poetry. Of course, this applies to all the prophets, and the missions of many notable ones are mentioned in this chapter before ending with the Holy Prophet Muhammad.

The opponents of the Holy Prophet were familiar with fortune-tellers in their society who claimed to predict the future. Another word in English for such fortune-tellers is soothsayers. They predicted the future by reading the stars (what we also call astrology or horoscopes) or by some forms of magic or through contact with what were believed to be supernatural spirits. It was believed by people that evil spirits could catch some of what God was saying and then deliver those news in some distorted form to these soothsayers. So a soothsayer could sometimes be wrong in his prediction. Today also we read about certain individuals who are said to possess the gift or power of giving news of future happenings.

By the way, this is not the same as scientific predictions based on knowledge. They are not made on the basis of some secret knowledge given to a particular individual which others cannot access. They are made on the basis of data and information available to everyone, which anyone can assess and draw conclusions from.

When the Arabs among whom the Holy Prophet arose saw that the revelation that came to him contained predictions of what would happen to them, they accused him of being such a fortune-teller, who was learning news from the devil. On the other hand, they could not deny the beauty of the words and the language style of the Quran. So they said that this was because he was a poet, who is good at crafting words which attract people.

In this chapter of the Quran, God informs them that prophets are not fortune-tellers or poets. They arise to urge people to give up their evil ways and to do good, and to warn them that if they persist in their evil ways then they could meet with destruction. Out of the seven prophets mentioned in this chapter, regarding six of them it is said that the first message they conveyed to their people and the leaders of their people was that they should “guard against evil”, that is, guard themselves against committing the evils they were indulging in. Such a message and warning is never conveyed by a fortune-teller, nor is it ever the basic mission of a poet. The next thing which five of these prophets said was:

“Surely I am a faithful messenger to you people” (26: 107, 125, 143, 162 and 178).

The word for “faithful” here is amīn. It comes from the word aman, means peace and satisfaction in the heart. A person is said to be amīn if people can feel fully satisfied and be at peace that they can trust him with their welfare. This verse tells us that every messenger had only the interests of his people at heart, and had no other motive for presenting himself as a prophet and messenger.

After saying “Surely I am a faithful messenger to you people”, each of these messengers added:

“And I ask of you no reward for it: my reward is only with the Lord of the worlds” (26:109, 125, 145, 164 and 180).

This clearly distinguishes them from fortune-tellers and poets. Their work is done as their livelihood and they earn money from people by their talents. The advice of the prophets to their people is given free of cost. In certain walks of life there are experts who give advice free if you ask them a question relating to their field. There is an amusing saying about this, which is: “Free advice is worth every cent”! This is a humorous way of saying that advice given free is not of much value, and for proper advice you should seek a paid service. But prophets gave people the best advice at no cost to them. Their only recompense was that in the eyes of God they had done the duty for which he sent them.

Moving on to the verses about the Holy Prophet at the end of this chapter, which I recited above, they start by announcing:

“And surely this is a revelation from the Lord of the worlds” (26:192).

 In case of the seven prophets mentioned before in this chapter, each one is said to have come to his people, or in case of Moses that he came for his people to rescue them from the Pharaoh. But the Holy Prophet Muhammad can address each and every nation of the world because his revelation has come from the Lord of all the nations of the world. Then it is added:

The Faithful Spirit has brought it, on your heart that you (O Prophet) may be a warner, in plain Arabic language” (26:193–194).

The Faithful Spirit, or Rūḥ-ul-Amīn, is the angel Gabriel or Jibrīl. Unlike what was believed about the fortune-tellers, the knowledge from God which came to the Holy Prophet was brought by a trustworthy agency, not by some evil spirit who was eavesdropping on what God was saying. Earlier I noted that the word amīn was applied to five of the prophets mentioned in this chapter. This was also a name given to the Holy Prophet by his fellow citizens long before God made him a prophet, because they knew that he was entirely trustworthy. So God sends revelation through a thoroughly reliable agency to an equally reliable messenger to convey to people. This is quite unlike how fortune-tellers obtained their information.

The revelation was brought to the heart of the Holy Prophet. Although he heard it but it was not the sound that can be heard by human ears. To understand this, when we have a dream we hear people in the dream talking, but it is not any sound that could be heard. He was appointed as a warner whose warning was conveyed in “plain Arabic language”. Fortune-tellers usually make predictions in double meaning language, so that whatever happens they can claim that the prediction was correct. You can see this by reading horoscopes. Poets use a language which arouses your emotions and you can latch on to its rhythm. But a prophet’s revelation uses direct, plain language, as it is intended to change the behaviour of the hearer for the better.

After this the Quran clarifies:

And the devils have not brought it. And it is not befitting for them, nor have they the power to do (it). Surely they are far removed from hearing it.”

If we look at the teachings of the Quran, they teach such a height of goodness that it is directly opposite to what the devils put in people’s minds to do. And the Quran turned followers of the devils, the pre-Islamic Arabs, into enemies of the devils. This statement is also a reply to the false story on the basis of which the novelist Sir Salman Rushdie wrote his book The Satanic Verses. He no doubt thought that, with his high literary accomplishments and talents, he was being very clever in constructing a novel based on a false old story which says that, on one occasion, the devil had interfered in the revelation of the Holy Prophet Muhammad and had added some words into it in praise of some idols. However, the Holy Quran, since it is from God and not the work of a human, refuted his theory 1400 years ago.

As I recited at the beginning, the Quran then says a little later:

“Shall I inform you upon whom the devils descend? They descend upon every lying, sinful one — they give ear (to falsehood), and most of them are liars.”

As the Holy Prophet Muhammad was universally admitted to be truthful, even by his opponents, the devils could not descend upon him with any message. Those people who are themselves liars and sinners, and listen to the lies of others and repeat them, in particular against a true religion or movement, they invite the devils to come to them, who mislead them further. After this, the chapter mentions poets in this way:

“And (as for) the poets — the deviators follow them. Do you not see that they wander (roam around aimlessly) in every valley, and that they say that which they do not do?” (26:224–226)

The Holy Prophet Muhammad was accused of being just a poet, meaning that he was only good at composing fine-sounding words, and nothing more; he was what is called an idle visionary who only talks. The reply given to this here makes three points: (1) Poets cannot bring about reform in the characters of their admirers and devotees, and among their followers are bad people as well. But the Holy Prophet’s followers were righteous due to his teachings and example. (2) Poets don’t have any clear mission, purpose or even beliefs. They roam around, stumbling from one idea to another. For example, this is what we see in the writings of the great Muslim poet, Allama Dr Sir Muhammad Iqbal. On the other hand, a prophet, or a man sent by God, is very clear about his teachings and what he wants to achieve through his mission.

The third point mentioned here about poets is that “they say things which they do not do.” Poets take up many just causes. For example, they write poems against oppression, injustice and poverty, which are quite moving. But they make unrealistic exaggerations while practically they do nothing, and they lead lives by values opposite to what they preach. A famous Western song writer, in his song entitled Imagine, says to people: “Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can. No need for greed or hunger. A brotherhood of man. Imagine all the people, Sharing all the world.” But he himself at his death left an enormous fortune estimated at hundreds of millions of US dollars.

On the other hand, the Holy Prophet Muhammad actually gave up all his possessions and showed no greed. As to hunger, although he couldn’t remove hunger from the world but he placed himself in the position of the hungry in his daily life. He established a brotherhood of man, and shared all his material possession with others. He did not ask people to imagine anything, but showed it to them. May Allah shower blessings on him in abundance, ameen.