Wanted: Prophets for a Jaded Age

In the Islamic tradition, Muhammad is the seal of the prophets, the last in a long line that dates to Adam himself. This is a divine truth, coming as it is from the Qur’an, but it also has an earthly, political sense.

Ever the keen politician, (which is part of his prophethood), Muhammad may have wanted to keep the then young Islamic community intact. Another prophet might have divided it along religious, if not political lines. Even so, nothing stopped other Arabs from producing their own prophet after Muhammad’s death, to which his followers responded by going to war. Neither did prophethood seal avert the conflict that erupted between Ali, the Prophet’s grandson on the one hand, and Mu’awiyah, the governor of Syria on the other. Both men, and their followers fought for the leadership of the community. 

This, of course, is not to blame Muhammad. Yet even though the Islamic community was rent, he was right to say that he was the last Prophet, and in ways that he might not have known. If we define prophets as those who come with a religious message and effect a massive change in world history, no one else has come close. For sure, (false, for some) prophets have arisen since then, but none have had the impact that Muhammad, the Buddha, or Jesus had.

That Muhammad was the last is to be regretted today. We could certainly use a Prophet right about now. In real life. In the flesh. We do have all the scriptural guidance we need, from the Bible and Torah to the Qur’an and the Buddhist scriptures. Even so, our world today is nowhere near to putting religious ideals into practice, at least in a wider socio-political sphere.  The caliphate – a dream of somejihadis – has not made a comeback. The kingdom of God, though amongst us, has not yet arrived.

But how can a Prophet rise today? Religion has gotten a bad rap, not least in the eyes of atheists like Richard Dawkins. And justifiably so in many aspects. Huge atrocities as well as tiny everyday injustices have been committed in its name.  It has been as much a tool of unification as of division. And anyway, if indeed a prophet would come to save us, who’s to say the process and result would be painless and bloodless? Did not Jesus once say he brought not peace but a sword?

Secondly, it’s harder for prophets and preachers to speak authoritatively on a global, revolutionary scale. In today’s plural, multicultural, and relativistic age, no one is in sole custody of absolute truth (if ever there was one). Some preachers and prophets see themselves as chosen ones, even reincarnations of a deity, but many treat them with indifference at best, and disdain at worst. Their supporters and believers, meanwhile, are thought deluded. Other prophets (saints, philanthropists, et.al) do gain a following. They are much admired too, but they have had no revolutionary impact to match that of Muhammad, Jesus, or the Buddha.

Thirdly, our modern, secular, and technological age has blunted our sense of “enchantment.” It’s harder for some of us to get a sense of the supernatural in a scientific, supercomputer age, however much we go to Church or the masjid, take to the New Age, or enjoy magic and fantasy in literature, TV and film.

And so it seems that though religion is very much alive these days, from devout Christians to dedicated jihadis, another prophet of Muhammad’s or Jesus’ stature would be hard-pressed to speak and convince a very huge portion of the planet, let alone set things right. Then again, prophets have always faced the odds.

Perhaps yearning for a Prophet or a Messiah is an indication of how the worse things have become. Is it a symptom of a doubt that we of secularist persuasion – capitalists, democracy activists, socialists, etc. – are no longer capable of redeeming ourselves, hence the (re)turn to religion? But what if religion has fallen too? What if a Prophet brought in his wake life and prosperity for some and death and destruction for others? Again, did not Jesus once say he brought not peace but a sword?

And so it seems we have no other but to keep the faith, whatever it may be. But in this day and age, perhaps it’s better than not having one at all.

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