Seal of the Prophets
In surah al-ahzab of the holy Qur'ān, we are told that Muhammad (sallallahu 'alaihi wa salam) is "khātama al-nabiyīna", a phrase which is variously translated as "the Seal of the Prophets" or as "the Last of the Prophets":
Ma kana muhammadun aba ahadin min rijalikum walakin rasoola Allahi wa khatama alnnabiyyeena wakana Allahu bikulli shay-in AAaleeman
Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but (he is) the Messenger of Allah, and the Seal of the Prophets: and Allah has full knowledge of all things.
surah al-ahzab (33:40) tr by Yusuf Ali
Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but he is the Messenger of Allah and the Last of the Prophets; and Allah is cognizant of all things.
surah al-ahzab (33:40) tr by M. H. Shakir
What does that phrase "khātama al-nabiyīna" mean?
The most commonly held interpretation of the phrase "khātama al-nabiyīna" is that khātam means finality or end, thereby indicating that Muhammad is the final prophet and that there will be no further prophets.
However, some scholars interpret the word khātam to indicate honor, superiority or authenticity of the message delivered by Muhammad, while other scholars offer the interpretation that the finality simply indicates that the law-giving is complete and that there will not be any additional new laws given by other prophets.
In this article, we'll examine the word khātam and explore the beauty and significance of some of the most common interpretations of the phrase "khātama al-nabiyīna".
Note: This article is intended to be "food for thought". If you already have a firm opinion regarding the meaning of the phrase "khātama al-nabiyīna", please disregard the following comments and forgive me for my foolishness. But, if you would like to explore some of the possible meanings of the phrase, please read on.
The key to the meaning of this verse is the word "khātam", and specifically it is of great importance to understand the meaning of that word in the era of Classical Arabic, during the time period when the Qur'ān was being written.
In Classical Arabic (as used at the time the Qur'ān was recorded), the root kh-t-m (from which the word khātam is derived) clearly points toward the idea of the placing of an impression of a signet-ring upon something, that is, the idea of a "seal". (see, for example, Arabic-English Lexicon, Edward W. Lane, p702). And, due to this primary significance of the root kh-t-m, many Muslim scholars refer to Muhammad as "the seal of the prophets".
So, then, what is a "seal"?
Throughout the region from Egypt through Arabia and Persia, kings and other important officials had a long-standing tradition, dating back hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of years BCE, of using clay or wax stamped with a personal mark (often using a cylindrical roller or a finger-ring) to verify and authenticate their official written communications in such a manner that no one would dispute either the author or the content of the message.
For example, the following image shows a cylindrical agate roller and the seal of Dārayavauš (Darius the Great), a Persian emperor, from around 500 BCE. (The cuneiform inscription written along the side is in three languages: Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian, says 'Darius the great king'.)
When someone encountered a decree which had such a king's seal, the presence of that seal was a clear sign for all to see, and they respected the decree because it was from their king. Likewise, the decrees of all the prophets, as sealed by the person of Muhammad (who is a "Seal of the Prophets"), call for our respect and honor because the seal verifies the decrees as being from the King of kings.
Often such a seal was put at the end or closure of a document, and therefore the word khātam also conveys somewhat of a sense of referring to the last part or the final portion of something. Thus, many choose to employ the translation "last of the prophets" or "final prophet".
Nonetheless, the primary significance of the word khātam is that something is being shown to be authentic and uncorrupted by means of an official seal (which is often put at the end or closure of the document). Thus, the word khātam may indicate a means to seal, complete or finalize something in such a manner that neither anything fraudulent can be added to it, nor anything valid be removed from it. Clearly the life and teachings of Muhammad are a seal which verifies, corroborates, and authenticates the great ideals and guidance which other prophets also delivered to mankind.
The Arabic root kh-t-m which was used to describe Muhammad is identical to the Aramaic h-t-m root used at the time of Jesus, both of which are derived from the ancient Hebrew root h-t-m meaning "to seal, or to set a seal upon". Furthermore, the ancient Semitic roots point toward an effort made to prevent corruption or contamination of something. As such a seal, Muhammad was sent as a sign to mankind that the teachings of the prophets do indeed call us to the remembrance and praise of Allāh, and remind us that only satisfactory way to live is in humble submission to the will of Allāh.
Note that a signet-ring seal does not necessarily preclude the possibility of further messages, but rather the intent of the seal is really to certify who the message has come from, and to certify that the message is valid.
In the Arabic-English Lexicon, Edward W. Lane (p703) specifically mentions that "khatam" was used in Classical Arabic to depict "a seal, stamp or mark of the Lord upon his servants".
Such is the case with the prophet Muhammad, whose presence is a "seal" which reminds us to recognize and praise Allāh, and to turn our attention and reverence to the guidance of Allāh, just as the other prophets have also told us in their own ways, a call which was then (and still is today) largely being ignored and forgotten.
It is also significant to note that the word khātam, as used in surah al-ahzab, is not prefixed in any way to indicate the meaning is "the seal" (indicating the one and only seal), but rather the grammatical form used in this verse would seem to be accurately interpreted simply as "a seal".
Rumi offers an insight into the use of the word khātam as a mark of mastery:
He (Muhammad) has been raised to the station of Khātam by the grace of God. There can never be his like before him or after. When a master excels all others in his art, don’t you use the word ‘khātam’ to convey the idea that he has excelled all others in his domain?
Jalaluddin Rumi, Mathnawi, Vol VI:171-172
End of new laws?
Ibn Arabi offers an interpretation of khātam which could allow for future prophets, yet indicates that any future prophets would not bring any new laws:
That prophethood which ended with the advent of the Prophet, is only law-bearing prophethood and not the status of prophethood. Thus now there will be no law that cancels the law of the Prophet or that adds to its commandments.
Ibn Arabi, al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya (The Meccan openings), Vol 2
There is a long-standing tradition among many scholars of interpreting the phrase "khātama al-nabiyīna" to mean that Muhammad was the last and final prophet (see for example http://www.muslim.org/islam/khatam.htm and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seal_of_the_prophets), and many Arabic dictionaries and lexicons accordingly describe the phrase "khātama al-nabiyīna" as meaning "last of the prophets".
Unfortunately, the "last of the prophets" viewpoint is somewhat divisive, since it gives Muhammad a special role, and precludes the possibility of Allah ever choosing to send any additional prophets to guide mankind.
Furthermore, the interpretation "last of the prophets" seems to be in conflict with a number of verses of the Qur'ān which tell us that God mercifully sends prophets to every generation, and to every land:
And for every nation there is a messenger...
surah yunus (10:47)
Surely We have sent you with the truth as a bearer of good news and a warner; and there is not a people but a warner has gone among them.
surah fatir (35:24)
For We assuredly send amongst every People a messenger, (with the Command), "Serve Allah, and eschew Evil"...
surah al-nahl (16:36)
The verses quoted above clearly show that Allāh has promised to send warners and messengers whenever people and nations are in need of such guidance. Since mankind is continually evolving and changing, in order to send prophets amongst "every people" and "every nation" the verses quoted seem to indicate that it must be possible for additional prophets to be sent whenever Allāh's wisdom chooses to do so.
There are many other words which could have been used in the Qur'ān to clearly say "the last" or "the final", but the Qur'ān clearly uses the word "khātam", perhaps to indicate that Muhammad was sent as "a seal" of the Divine Message (that is, as one who verifies both the authority of the message and the content of the message), the same Divine Message which the previous prophets had brought to mankind, yet which was (and still is) being misused, abused and neglected by mankind.
The Qur'ān specifically warns us against divisive or sectarian behavior:
surah al-anam (6:159)
Turn ye back in repentance to Him, and fear Him: establish regular prayers, and be not ye among those who join gods with Allah,- or those who split up their Religion, and become (mere) Sects,- each party rejoicing in that which is with itself!
surah al-rum (30:31-32)
Muhammad himself clearly stated that he did not believe that he was in any way different from the vast number (by some accounts hundreds of thousands) of other prophets whom God has chosen to deliver a message to mankind, and the Qur'ān supports that viewpoint by saying:
Muhammad is no more than a messenger: many
were the messengers that passed away before him.
The Qur'ān clearly states that the messages delivered by all the prophets should be heard and understood, not just the message of any one specific prophet.
The Qur'ānic guidance that we should "make no distinction between one and another of His messengers" is repeated several times in order to emphasize how important such a viewpoint really is. Here are some relevant examples from the Qur'ān:
Surely those who disbelieve in Allah and His messengers and (those who) desire to make a distinction between Allah and His messengers and say: We believe in some and disbelieve in others, and desire to take a course between (this and) that.
The Messenger believeth in what hath been revealed to him from
his Lord, as do the men of faith. Each one (of them) believeth in Allah, His
angels, His books, and His messengers. "We make no distinction
between one and another of His messengers." ...
If this thought-provoking article has been in any way offensive or troubling, please forgive my foolishness.
May there be no strife or compulsion regarding the
interpretation of the phrase "khātama al-nabiyīna".
Please feel free to use
the interpretation which best suits your beliefs and which best
helps you to a be kinder, more generous and more loving
Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out
clear from error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah
hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never
breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things.
What really matters in this life is that we each become willing and
useful instruments of the Divine Presence, allowing the
precious gifts of love, harmony and beauty to flow freely
into the world through our thoughts, words and actions.
And, in doing so, may we remember with respect the great prophet Muhammad (sallallahu 'alaihi wa salam) as one who was sent to mankind to be an example, warner and messenger, helping to remind us of the One upon whom we all depend, the One who gives us life, the One who deserves all praise, the One whose Divine Presence we must each strive to honor, cherish and allow to flow through us into this world in every moment of every day.
last updated Aug 13, 2011