Now one would think that the title, at least to a monotheist, would be pretty common sense. Yet to many Muslims (let alone Christians) it’s not the case. And even where they do not openly oppose such a sentiment, it still leaves them uncomfortable. Why? Because they’re told that to elevate God above all else is fine, but there’s an underlying sentiment that if their Prophet is not up there with Him then that’s plain blasphemy. Yet is it God alone who occupies the highest station, both in our practices and in our hearts, “Exalted be God, the true King, there is no God but Him, the Lord of the glorious throne.” (Quran 23:116)
The Prophets of God were fierce in their loyalty to the Most High, all motivations were for God – and the language and messaging they used never changed. In the Torah we find Melchizedek king and priest of Jerusalem saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And praise be to God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.” Abraham turned to the king of Sodom, “With raised hand I have sworn an oath to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, that I will accept nothing belonging to you…so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’ (Genesis 17:18-23) The Israelite Prophets would speak with unswerving devotion about God inciting their people to do the same, and so too did the Ishmaelite Prophet Muhammad and his apostles. In one instance, the Ishmaelite Prophet told his people, “Do not say: What God wills and Muhammad wills. But say: what God wills and then what Muhammad wills.” (al-Darimi)
Now, can a person venerate the final Prophet too much? If by venerate we mean hold feelings that are appropriate to his (and other Prophets’) station as God’s chosen and the best of human beings, then no – it’s a moot question. And of course, nobody is suggesting that veneration is mutually exclusive – that it’s either God or any of the Prophets.
So why ask it?
Well, the question is understandably motivated by a legitimate unease towards the unspoken way some Muslims replace God with the final Prophet as a living entity active in the daily affairs of believers. Many of those who feel this unease are western converts from Christianity, Judaism and polytheistic faiths. Having already fled this unease in search of pure Abrahamic monotheism, they’re quite apprehensive coming across the same sentiments they have just abandoned. And many Muslims from ethno-religious communities intuitively feel the unease as well. However, intimidated by sectarian louts they are made to feel that to declare God as priority in such contexts is somehow wrong! People who’ve never heard of Ibn Wahhab nor even met a salafi are pejoratively called Wahhabis by the cultists who suggest that ‘Wahhabis’ sit around insulting the Prophet. In their misplaced zeal they can’t even lie properly – no believer does such things, and even a sectarian lie against opponents ought to be credible!
For monotheists, there is never a reason to be defensive or engender an uncivilised pitchfork mentality that folk religion incites when God’s station is being upheld. Qatila (in a disputed narration) relates that a Jewish man once came to the Prophet and said, “You lot associate peers with God (shirk), for you say: As God wills and you will, and: I swear by the Ka’bah.” Rather than getting defensive and insecure about it as some do today, the Prophet corrected those wanting to take an oath to say: “By the Lord of the Ka’bah” and “As God wills and then as you will.” (al-Nasa’i) In fact, so pedantic was the Prophet about this that Adi b. Hatim relates that once the Prophet heard an orator say, “Those who obey God and His messenger are rightly guided, and those who disobey the two has strayed.” The Prophet replied, “What a bad orator you are! Say: “those who disobey God and His messenger…” Clearly, the Prophet felt it inappropriate that he should be included even in the same pronoun! Trying to find excuses to get around this point is synonymous with Christian attempts related to Christ. After explicitly stating that Jesus “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage (as in he never stated it!) rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant,” (Philippians 2:6-7), the author Paul of Tarsus still relates divinity to him. My point here isn’t that some Muslims necessarily do this with Muhammad, but what we frequently see is that despite the attempt of messengers to make clear distinctions, some will insist on blurring that distinction although they affirm that the messengers did or said something contrary to the sentiment under question.
Now to get this clearly let’s go back to first principles: God did not put humans on earth to serve (ubudiyyah) Prophets nor to venerate them, that isn’t God’s will – and ALL scriptures are decisive about this. In fact Muslims make this point to Christians all of the time. Our purpose on earth is simply to praise and glorify God, extol His name, and purify ourselves for Him (see: Quran 2:31). Nothing else fulfils this purpose. This is not a Muhammadan religion that starts with him, nor did it begin 1400 years ago. Our connection to the Prophets has always been to support them and uphold them as exemplars in order to meet this purpose – not to undermine it. Noah was told to say to his people: “I am a clear warner to you. Serve God, be mindful of Him, and obey me.” (Quran 71:3) Jesus said, “Who will come with me to help God?” (Quran 61:14) Moses made a pledge on behalf of God from the Children of Israel, and God said: “I am with you: if you keep up the prayer, pay the zakat, believe in My messengers and support them, and lend God a good loan.” (Quran 5:12)
In regards to the final Messenger, may God’s peace be on him,
God said, ‘I bring My punishment on whoever I will, but My mercy encompasses all things. I shall ordain My mercy for those who are conscious of God and pay the prescribed alms; who believe in Our Revelations; who follow the Messenger– the unlettered prophet they find described in the Torah that is with them, and in the Gospel– who commands them to do right and forbids them to do wrong, who makes good things lawful to them and bad things unlawful, and relieves them of their burdens, and the iron collars that were on them. So it is those who believe him, honour and help him, and who follow the light which has been sent down with him, who will succeed.’ Say [Muhammad]: ‘People, I am the Messenger of God to you all, from Him who has control over the heavens and the earth. There is no God but Him; He gives life and death.’ So believe in God and His Messenger, the unlettered prophet who believes in God and His words, and follow him so that you may find guidance.Quran 7:156-158
Our moral obligation to God is to support this most venerable cohort of the Most High and to honour them. Beyond a basic and universal etiquette, different cultures will express ‘honouring’ differently – we respect their right to do so. But those with inherited pagan attitudes blur the boundary between men and God, with their understanding of ‘honouring’ a Prophet straddling the line of apotheosis. Yes, outward actions such as blatant idolatry might be unacceptable, but inwardly (the most important thing), the heart seems confused between the type of veneration afforded to God as opposed to men, even if they are Prophets.
An unswerving commitment to support and honour God’s elect as opposed to serving/worshipping them is behind the statement of Abu Bakr who said upon the Prophet’s sad passing: “Whoever worshipped Muhammad, then Muhammad is dead, but whoever worshipped God, then God is alive and shall never die.” (Al-Bukhari) Abu Bakr’s point was that our servitude to God is not premised on the Prophet’s presence, and though he may not be in the picture so to speak, God is and shall be for eternity. Abu Bakr astutely tempered their emotions by reminding them who it is that they serve, and what their mission on earth is. Using hadiths on the noble virtues of the Prophet, him being the sayyid of messengers, or the Quranic verse on salawat, all for sectarian ends, is not only poor reasoning, but ignorance on what being a sayyid means and what the salawat is about – all of course very significant things that contribute to the mosaic of understanding on how to relate to the final messenger of God.
Some claim that they are remembering God by proxy, that’s to say they remember God by mostly remembering the Prophet. Some go even further to say remembering the Prophet is to remember God. Whilst they employ intellectual hermeneutics to justify this, the heart doesn’t really work that way. God expects direct and unmediated devotion. I make no bones about it (and those still caught up in their own historical aversions with the “Wahhabis” remain irrelevant to me): it sounds terribly similar to what the Arab pagans would say: “We only serve them because they bring us closer to Allah.” (Quran 39:3) On this Quranic verse, al-Qurtubi quotes Qatadah as saying: “When it was said to them: Who is your Lord and creator? And who created the heavens and earth and sent water from the skies? They said: God. Then it is said to them: What is the meaning then of your service to these idols? They said: They bring us closer to God and intercede for us with Him!”
What is notable is that the following verse refers to the Christians and pagans by mentioning those who speak of God’s ‘offspring’, linking these sentiments together, and which also ties into the Prophet’s insightful point: “Do not exaggerate my praises as the Christians have done with the son of Mary. I am only a servant, so refer to me as the servant of God and His messenger.” (al-Bukhari) I’m not saying that sectarians who advocate God by proxy see themselves as worshipping Muhammad or serving him, nor that they resolutely are, but that they are at the early stages of the exaggeration the Prophet referred to, both in speech and heartfelt sentiments, and others have also taken this path. Here I’m simply challenging any justification for it.
What is often lost in this unjustifiably emotive context is that when Muhammad is referred to as the messenger of God, God is telling us that the message he came with (the Quran) is genuinely from God. He is no self-serving false Prophet nor is the Quran his own invention – it is a continuation of revelation and the final amendments to the Abrahamic Law. So for us to honour the Prophet and believe in Him primarily manifests as taking revelation very seriously. Relevantly, the famous ascetic Sahl b. Abdullah once said: “The sign of loving God is loving the Quran. The sign of loving the Quran is loving the Prophet. The sign of loving the Prophet is loving the Prophetic tradition. The sign of loving God, the Quran, the Prophet and the Prophetic tradition is loving the afterlife. The sign of loving the afterlife is loving oneself, and the sign of loving oneself is to despise materialism…”
“But what’s wrong with remembering the Prophet?!” is a usual and misplaced rejoinder. Nobody said there’s anything wrong it, it’s not even the topic of conversation! Remembering the Prophet as an exemplar in the story of monotheism amongst Sapiens, as well as to bind oneself to the cohort of God’s elect throughout human history is godly – without doubt. My only point here is that making the Prophet the motivation of our actions instead of God, or being mindful of the Prophet as one ought to be of God – simply out of veneration – is offensive to the Most High and the efforts of His final Prophet, and a disregard for all God has done and continues to do for us.
In sum, there is nothing wrong with upholding the station of God to be far above men no matter what anyone says, and as per the Prophet’s instruction, we must always remain vigilant in remaining balanced in all things, and here between dishonouring the Prophets and placing them (may their names and efforts endure) anywhere near God’s station.
Believers should care little for juvenile sectarian banter born of emotional reactions and folk religion, nor meander to it – whether it’s Muslim or Christian. The monotheist’s zeal and vigilance must remain for God the Most High. We pray to meet God as true believers, thankful and worshipful submitters to His will, on the religion of Abraham, and following the guidance of His final messenger, Muhammad. We honour God’s messengers, but it is to God that we shall return.
“Peace be on the messengers, and praise be to God the Lord of all the worlds.” (Quran 37:182)
(This article is already very long and there’s much more nuance and detail that ought to be included, but I hope the general proposition is understood.)