The prophets come as guides to show the path toward God. This also occurs on several levels, the way of the outward law, Shari’ah, the inward way of the Tariqah.
In the course of the history of the textual traditions of the Shia – Tafsir, Hadith, Kalam, Hikmat, Irfan – there is a movement towards idealization: the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny) is understood as the climaxing personification of the theory of prophethood as elaborated over the course of the centuries. This is not to deny the historical person or to oppose the historical person to the idealization, for there is a single person who appears in history who was orphaned and raised by an uncle and experienced all the details of the life of the famous religious leader of Arabia some six hundred years after Christ (peace be upon him), but at the same time is one who was appointed by God and given a mission of warning and bearing the glad tidings of divine mercy and sovereignty, and again, is the same person who is the pure light of God’s first creation and for the sake of whom the entire world has been created. In Shia thought, these are not to be understood as opposing paradigms, but as different hierarchically ordered aspects of a single reality. The lowest level of such aspects is that of the Arabian man’s physical history, his movements, and what he ate. At a higher level, there is the person Muhammad as prophet and apostle of God, the recipient of divine revelation, and divine guide. Finally, there is Muhammad as the light of the intellect, pure illumination and virtue, a cosmic reality totally annihilated in divinity. This division is reflected in Haydar Amuli’s division of Shari’at, Tariqat, and Haqiqat, and in Mulla Sadra’s division of the sensory, imaginal, and intellectual worlds.
Muslim writers often divide their discussions of prophethood into general discussions of what it means to be a prophet and specific discussions of the prophethood of Muhammad, or, as Faidh Kashani puts it, between absolute and restricted prophethood. As Faidh writes, “The restricted is based on the absolute, and the absolute is manifest in the restricted.” In Muhammad, however, the instance and the universal paradigm are united in one, in a manner analogous to Plato’s early theory of the forms as perfect paradigms, except that for Plato, the paradigm could never exist as concrete embodied reality, for material existence was itself seen as contrary to the ideality of the forms. In Shia thought, on the other hand, there is a single reality that is at once material and immaterial, corporeal and non-corporeal, but at different levels of its existence.
The prophets come as guides to show the path toward God. This also occurs on several levels, the way of the outward law, Shari’ah, the inward way of the Tariqah, and the fully realized way of the truth, Haqiqah. All three of these levels are brought to completion by the Prophet Muhammad, although in different ways. With respect to the law, he is the final prophet to bring a divine law and book. With him, the succession of prophets comes to an end, but divine guidance continues through the succession of the Imams. God completes His religion through Muhammad when the Qur’an has been revealed and Muhammad has announced the divine appointment of Imam Ali (peace be upon him). These two “weighty things” (Thaqalayn) – the Qur’an and the Household of the Prophet (peace be upon them) – are like two points that determine a line that extends toward the realization or Haqiqah, indicated by “the Pond” (Kawthar), in accordance with the famous narration in which the Prophet is reported to have said:
“Verily, I am leaving behind two precious things (Thaqalayn) among you: the Book of God and my kindred (‘Itrah), my household (Ahlul Bayt), for indeed, the two will never separate until they come back to me by the Pond (of al-Kawthar on Judgment Day).”
The series of divine prophets is one of those who brought divine law, which is the exoteric aspect of Deen (religion in the sense of divine guidance). With the passing away of the Prophet, not only does the individual pass away, but the entire series of prophets also comes to an end. Universal or absolute prophethood is in this way, too, united with the individual prophethood of Muhammad. The esoteric aspect of his mission and the mission of prophethood in general, however, continues through the series that constitutes the Imamate, for the Prophet is not only prophet, but Wali too; and it is his Walayah that continues through the sequence of Imamate. According to some Shia narrations, the Pond is also a symbol for the Prophet’s daughter, Lady Fatima Zahra (peace be upon her), the wife of Imam Ali. Her position as daughter and wife makes her the link that joins prophethood and Imamate, the exoteric and esoteric. The ultimate realization is the offspring of the manifest and the spouse of the hidden. These relations between the external, interior and realization, however, are not merely abstract speculations, for they speak directly to the establishment and spiritual direction of the religious community. Hence, the Narration of Thaqalayn is not merely descriptive; rather, it is guidance to the believers, that they should cling to the divine Book of revelation and the leadership of the Imams in order to approach the Kingdom of God on Judgment Day.
Hajj Muhammad Legenhausen teaches at the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute in Qom, Iran. His blog can be accessed at http://peacethroughunderstanding.blogspot.com.