By Eileen Maddocks
Muḥammad said in the Quran that He was the Seal of the Prophets. “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” (Qur’án 33:40, Yusuf Ali translation). This fundamental Islamic belief means that no Prophet would come after Muhammad. Then why would God send the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh in the nineteenth century? The explanation lies in the concept of progressive revelation and the cycles of religion.
When I first explored the Bahá’í Faith about thirty years ago, I was excited to learn that God has sent a series of Prophets and that all of them confirmed the eternal verities, the spiritual teachings, of previous Prophets. All of them spoke the truth! In addition, each also imparted higher levels of spiritual understanding than previous Prophets had. An analogy can be made to humanity being like children in school. Basics must be taught first and more advanced concepts later. The alphabet must be taught before one can learn to read, and simple mathematics must precede algebra. Jesus lamented, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear” (John 16:12). However, He also spoke of the day when the next Prophet, the Spirit of truth, would come. “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you” (John 16:13‒15).
Each of the divinely sent Prophets also abrogated some of the previous divinely ordained social laws and introduced new ones that were appropriate for the times of their ministries. For example, Jesus nullified the Jewish laws of divorce and the Sabbath, and the early church was inspired to drop many Jewish laws that were no longer relevant to the spirit of Christ.
Thus have the Prophets of God functioned within a system that is sometimes called progressive revelation.
The Bahá’í Writings allude to countless Prophets, now mostly remembered only in legends and myths, that have been sent at various times to all peoples on earth. Divine light has shone everywhere among all of humanity. The most famous of these great souls, the ones remembered most vividly today and linked to current world religions, are Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, and Muḥammad. Then came the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh.
Bahá’u’lláh described these Prophets as pure reflections of God, as mirrors reflecting His beauty, might, and glory while taking human form and living among us. He wrote, “These Mirrors will everlastingly succeed each other, and will continue to reflect the light of the Ancient of Days.”
Each Prophet of God brought a divinely-revealed message for the spiritual progress of humanity. “He hath manifested unto man the Day Stars of His divine guidance, the Symbols of His divine unity, and hath ordained the knowledge of these sanctified Beings to be identical with the knowledge of His own self.” The mandate of these Prophets was twofold. The first was to liberate men from the darkness of ignorance and to guide them to spiritual light. The second, built on the first, was to ensure the peace and tranquility of mankind and to provide all the means by which that can be established. Bahá’u’lláh also wrote:
Contemplate with thine inward eye the chain of successive Revelations that hath linked the Manifestation of Adam with that of the Báb. I testify before God that each one of these Manifestations hath been sent down through the operation of the Divine Will and Purpose, that each hath been the bearer of a specific Message, that each hath been entrusted with a divinely-revealed Book and been commissioned to unravel the mysteries of a mighty Tablet. The measure of the Revelation with which every one of them hath been identified had been definitely fore-ordained.
Most if not all of the teachings of the earlier Prophets have been lost, with a few memories preserved through allegorical mythology. Certain aspects of the Revelations from preliterate times were preserved in this manner, such as the symbolic accounts of Adam and Noah. The scribes who later committed this divine heritage to writing may have not understood the inner meanings, but they were somehow compelled to protect these records and ultimately to include them in the canon of the Hebrew Bible.
Progressive revelation unfolded in the Middle East with a succession of Prophets of God, each with His own Revelation and Book, within what is called the Adamic Cycle. The Adamic Cycle, also known as the Prophetic Cycle and the Prophetic Era, culminated with the advent of Báb. The Bahá ’í Cycle started with the missions of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, whose teachings will ultimately bring humankind to spiritual maturity. The Bahá’í Cycle is also known as the Cycle of Fulfillment. The coming of the Báb in 1844 CE was the link between the Adamic cycle and the Cycle of Fulfillment. These two cycles constitute a universal cycle. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explained:
Each of the Manifestations [Prophets] of God has likewise a cycle wherein His religion and His law are in full force and effect. When His cycle is ended through the advent of a new Manifestation, a new cycle begins. Thus, cycles are inaugurated, concluded, and renewed, until a universal cycle is completed in the world of existence and momentous events transpire which efface every record and trace of the past; then a new universal cycle begins in the world, for the realm of existence has no beginning. . . . We are in the cycle which began with Adam and whose universal Manifestation is Bahá’u’lláh.
Muḥammad was the last Prophet in the Adamic Cycle, which was closed by the Báb. Muḥammad was the Seal of the Prophets for the Adamic Cycle.
Each Prophet also foretold the coming of the next, which was often misunderstood by His followers as a literal return of that Prophet or of a sacred being connected with Him. These foretellings referred, however, to the return of the spiritual essence of God.
These Holy Beings occupy special stations far beyond those of humans. They came indeed to save us from sin, to educate us so that we can we can grow spiritually and claim our divine heritage.
Man is the supreme Talisman. Lack of a proper education hath, however, deprived him of that which he doth inherently possess. Through a word proceeding out of the mouth of God he was called into being; by one word more he was guided to recognize the Source of his education; by yet another word his station and destiny were safeguarded. The Great Being saith: Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value.
1 Prophets with a capital “P” mean Prophets of God, and prophets with a small “p” refer to the classical prophets of the Hebrew Bible.
2 Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, no. 10.2, p. 13. This book is in print and is also available for reading online at http://bahai-library.com/bahaullah_gleanings_writings_bahaullah
3 Ibid., no. 50.1,p. 50.
4 Ibid., no. 31.1, p. 31. In the Bahá’í Writings, the term Manifestation of God means Prophet of God.
5 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, no. 41.4‒5, p. 183. This book is in print and is also available for reading online at http://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/abdul-baha/some-answered-questions/.