Human destiny, by Islamic lights, is a matter of man having been placed on this earth by God, so that he may be put to the test – the test being of his capacity to make correct moral choices. It is for this purpose that man has been given complete freedom, for without such freedom, the divine test would have no meaning, no validity.
It is required of man that he should lead his life on earth following a regimen of strict self-discipline. Wherein should he find the guiding principles for such a course? The answer, according to Islam, is in prophethood. Throughout the history of mankind, God appointed certain human beings – prophets –who would be the recipients and conveyors of His guidance as sent through His angels. The last in the series was the Prophet Muhammad.
The concept of prophethood is totally different from that of incarnation. According to the latter concept, God Himself is re-born in human shape on earth in order to give succour to humanity Propehthood, according to Islam, is of quite another order of being. A prophet in the Islamic sense is a man, just like any other human being: his uniqueness resides solely in his also being a messenger of God.
A messenger is not an ‘inspired’ person in the simple sense of the word. By Islamic tenets, prophethood is dependent not on inspiration, but on divine revelation. Inspiration is a common psychological phenomenon, of the kind experienced by a poet, whereas revelation is a true and direct divine communication. It was consciously sent and also consciously received by the Prophet. The Qur’an is a collection of these divine revelations; which the Prophet received over a period of 23 years.
According to Islam, prophethood is not acquired but God-given. That is, it is not possible to engage in spiritual exercises and then, as a result, be elevated to prophethood. Not even the Prophet had any say in this matter of selection. The choice depends upon God alone.
The Prophet’s responsibility was to communicate the divine message to humanity. In doing so, if he received a negative response from the people, or even in extreme cases was persecuted, he had nevertheless to follow a strict policy of avoidance of confrontation, and had unilaterally to adopt the path of patience and forbearance. He was responsible only in so far as the conveying of the message was concerned. As for the response to, or acceptance of the message, that entirely depended on the addressees. But clearly, the greater the number who accepted the message, the greater the sphere in which a practical system of guidance sent by God became established.