THE IMPORTANCE OF THE PROPHETS
“Will you not use your intellect?”
—The Koran (28:60)
“God did not create anything
more valuable than the intellect.”
—The Prophet (Ghazali, Ihya, 1/217)
Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) was a cultural historian whose interests ranged from the evolution of cities to the adverse effects of technology on society, to the human condition. Although Mumford was not a religious person (he once described his views as “organic humanism”), neither was he anti-religious, and he captured some essential insights into the nature of prophethood and its social impact in The Conduct of Life. I propose to do a review article, to analyze the account he gives there, supplementing it with additional information where necessary. Unless otherwise indicated, Mumford quotes are from that source. While Mumford came from a Judeo-Christian background, much of what he says is also applicable to Mohammed, the Prophet. I will try to indicate these instances as we come across them.
How Does a Prophet Arise?
Let us begin with the prelude to the arrival of a prophet. Elsewhere, Mumford calls this process “Etherealization” and deals with it in summary fashion, providing only the main headings: 1. Disembodiment, 2. Alienation, 3. Detachment, 4. Illumination. Let me attempt to flesh these out.
1. Disembodiment: This is the stage where human beings cease to abide by God’s law. Society embarks on a long-drawn-out process of decline and decay. According to Mumford (writing in The Condition of Man), Jewish civilization had reached its high point toward the end of the sixth century BC; it was at a low ebb by the time Jesus arrived.
At such a point, people break their covenant with God and start believing in other things. Superstition rules the day. Even the elites indulge in fortune-telling, magic, conjuring spirits. In old times, people used to make graven idols and worship them. Today, this takes the form of “‘shipping” money, power, sex, rock stars, famous actors/actresses, or football players. Whatever you are preoccupied with, that is your idol. Products of man’s own hand, such as computers, artificial intelligence (AI), or the internet, may also become objects of worship. (In the TV series Person of Interest, a character keeps referring to the resident AI as God.)
Concomitantly, the physical plant of society begins to exhibit the products of this secular and/or superstitious frame of mind. To paraphrase Nietzsche, poppies grow where churches used to be. Art, music, and sculpture cease to produce God-inspired items and begin to churn out secular or superstitious works. The whole culture and with it, our minds, are flooded with an overabundance of the latter.
In the Prophet’s time, too, idolatry and sexual license were rampant. Thus, the Prophet arrived into the darkest darkness as a light.
2. Alienation: Elsewhere, Mumford calls this “disenchantment.” People become estranged from a society they see as increasingly misdirected and misruled; they are disillusioned with where it is heading. “Going to hell in a handbasket” becomes a slogan on everyone’s lips. Some people begin to seek alternative ways of enlightenment.
In his youth, the Prophet joined an alliance called “the League of the Virtuous” with other young people to improve the conditions of society. After life’s burdens overtook him, he only had a chance to return to these concerns in later life. But by then, he also knew that reforming society was no easy task, that an inner transformation was also required.
3. Detachment: Elsewhere, Mumford calls this “disengagement” and “withdrawal.” This is the stage where people retire to a secluded corner, if not a cave, to practise meditation. Like Moses on the mountaintop, like Jesus in the desert, the Prophet withdrew to the cave at Mount Hira and engaged in ascetic practices.
4. Illumination: The Lord makes Himself known to one who is worthy, showing His signs and bestowing visions upon him. This is also an assignment of social duty. One who has been granted illumination also has the task of informing others of what needs to be done. Likewise, the Prophet was visited by the archangel Gabriel in the cave, given the duty of prophethood, and his Ascension to God (miraj) occurred some years later. His inward journey thus reached its culmination. As Joseph Campbell put it in The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949): “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” (Campbell’s description of the Hero’s Journey as Departure-Initiation-Return parallels that of Mumford.) The Prophet came back from his Ascension with a boon to all humanity: the gift of Formal Prayer.
The Light of Prophethood moved from the forehead of one prophet to the next,
until it shone, full-bloom, on the face of the Last Prophet (not shown).
(Afterwards, it continued as the Light of Sainthood or the Saintlight.)
The Primacy of the Prophets
Let me now try to summarize Mumford’s sociological treatment of prophets, interspersed with my occasional comments. Points of special interest are highlighted in yellow:
Situated as they are in nature, human beings have their work cut out for them. The basic necessities of food, drink, breathing and reproduction constrain them just as they do the rest of the animal kingdom. Moreover, human beings are conditioned by the society they are born into or live in, whether this be a tribe, a city, or a nation. Local customs, local mores define their existence.
But at a certain moment in history, a transformation takes place: one that is as important as the invention of language. Man seeks a new self, he becomes part of a more universal society.
One can call this the birth of the true human being, the emergence of a transcendent self not bound by the customs and strictures of the society one is born into. This, in fact, has been the aim of the classic religions for three thousand years. This change is a profound one, and given to humans neither by nature nor by culture: “the glimpse of higher pinnacles of development, in and through and ultimately beyond the person.”
In order to understand the change in question, the process that gave rise to the universal religions needs to be examined. At a crucial moment in history, (when, as we have seen, society and civilization hit rock bottom), a person detaches himself from his local society, experiences rebirth, and becomes part of a universal community. This person has a vocation: he is a tent-maker, a tailor, or (like the Prophet) a businessman, but he now takes up a new vocation: that of being truly and fully human. He steps beyond the animal needs that constrain most of us, and though he still fulfills the necessary biological functions, he realizes human potentials that are only latent in others.
This creator of a universally human mode of feeling and thinking and behaving first announces himself by stripping off the symbols of his local culture: in his very nakedness he seems [to his detractors] a monster, and in his innocence a cheat.
This is exactly how the Meccan oligarchy viewed Mohammed. They felt threatened by his mission.
But on a few open minds he leaves an impression so singular they never forget it: they have at last seen a Man. With this avatar of Universal Man, this second birth, a new stage of development opens for humanity at large.
The term Mumford uses, “Universal Man,” is an alternate translation for “Perfect Human” (insan al-kâmil) in Sufism. (He does not give any indication of having been acquainted with Sufism, so he obviously meant it in a more general sense.)
According to Sufis, the self progresses through seven stages of selfhood and is reborn in a different condition at the end (“Die before you die”—the Prophet). The Grand Saint Abdelqader Geylani says that birds too are twice-born: “In its first birth, the bird consists of an egg. If it is not reborn, leaving its shell behind, it can never fly.” Elsewhere, Mumford defines the divine as “that which further[s] the processes of [spiritual] growth and ma[kes] it possible for man to slough off his dead selves, as the snake sloughs off its skin” (The Condition of Man (1944), p. 55). He might almost be talking about the seven stages of the self. He also says that a radical change of attitude is needed: “an assertion of the primacy of the person, and a shift from outer circumstances to inner values.” (Ibid.)
What attracts men to this new type of person?—he who urges them to leave their familiar paths in the fertile valleys of life, and climb, with constant effort, with hazard-tempting skill, often facing mortal danger, up to the rocky pinnacles and the ice-clad summits, where finally the climber himself is the only representative of life? Why do men dream, even for a moment, that his way is a better way than their way, and that the lonely climb, with no promise of a safe return, will yield a higher reward than three solid meals, a soft bed, and a warm fire in the ancestral village below?
The reason should be evident, for the greatest of all human rewards is surely not animal satiety: therefore not health, not wealth, not luxury: not a multiplicity of sexual partners or an endless procession of feasts, all followed by drowsy oblivion. The greatest reward is a sense of possibilities above this lowland existence: the inner strength that spurns security; the vision one achieves only from the heights, after the hard effort of the climb. Because the new prophet represents, in excess, the highest but weakest side of man’s nature, he exercises a peculiar fascination over his fellows. ... Even to believe in its existence, too often requires a special act of faith: [a] faith in all that gives life the sense of some more ultimate goal than the endless cycle of animal necessities.
Or, as Master Ahmet Kayhan observed: “Let’s eat, drink, have children, suffer their worries and get out of here. Is this all we came here for?” (The Teachings of a Perfect Master (TPM), p. 50.)
The new person embodies that faith and confirms it: he speaks from cosmic as well as human perspectives: on behalf of the timeless [the Eternal], the unconditioned [the Essence], the universal. He gives forth new laws that defy those of the tribe, and outlines new duties that supplant the familiar old ones: his message flows, like a stream of fresh water from the mountain top, to remove the barnacles of superstition that cling to the tribal hulk and hamper even its daily sailings. With the cleansing of law and custom, the new self emerges: a self capable of leading a life not included in the tribal pattern, capable of moving outside the circle of the tribe or the city and embracing men molded by other earth-forces and social pressures: a self capable finally of detaching itself, in some degree, from even the most urgent biological needs: renouncing life, yet guarding it and fostering it more watchfully than it had been fostered and guarded before.
This transformation often takes place in complete isolation. The odds are stacked against the prophet and the new way of life, for initially he is exactly in the minority of one. Hence, the society he lives in must also be prepared to accept the message, to rebel against the accepted way of life. (If his own community does not accept him, he may, like the Prophet, have to migrate to one that does.) Once a proper venue is found, however, many changes will take place with remarkable swiftness. Changes that might otherwise take a millennium, under the impact of the new personality, occur almost overnight: “every element in the community re-aligns itself as a group of iron filings re-arrange themselves in a definite pattern once they are brought within the range of a magnet.”
Can Any Prophet Be Regarded as God?
The short answer, according to Mumford, is “No.”
Does this mean that we must accept the enlargement of the new personality, through the agency of a cult, a priesthood, and a church, into a cosmic myth and a veritable all-embracing God? Not in the least... this trick of enlargement is perhaps but a special case of the general tendency to over-value an object of love. The god that Buddha in time became was expressly denied by the fundamental beliefs of Buddha himself. As for Jesus… he said: “Why call ye me good? Only God is good.” [Mark 10:18] ls that not a simple profession of his purely human dimensions? Those words, left as it were by inadvertence in the New Testament, are so strikingly in contradiction to the usual claims of Jesus’s divinity that they have an exceptional ring of authenticity, though they demolish the assumptions upon which most of the New Testament and the Pauline Epistles rest.
The new leader need not exercise, or pretend to exercise, omnipotent or even super-normal powers: certainly, in their own lifetimes, neither... Confucius nor Buddha nor Moses nor Mahomet made any claim to being a God.
This does not mean that a prophet can be regarded as a run-of-the-mill human being, as any other Tom, Dick or Harry:
But the real miracle is in fact far more astounding than the healing of the sick, the raising of the dead, or the moving of mountains: for the birth of a universal personality is the equivalent, if not more than the equivalent, of the sudden appearance of a new species in nature. Through the creation and incarnation of a universal [personality], a whole civilization may not merely alter its composite face but deeply change many other dynamic constituents of its character. By strenuous discipline and devout imitation, each follower of the new prophet assumes [that identity] for himself, and in time his own very bones and flesh begin, as it were, to fill in these ideal outlines: by a second birth he achieves a nature no less distinctive than that given by his first birth.
From the Local to the Universal
How a person becomes what he pretends to be is a problem that has still not been satisfactorily explained. (In Sufism, this is called Imitation versus Realization.) Unless this is achieved, however, that is, unless the experience can be more or less replicated, the total transformation of other human beings will not be possible: “it is only by a repetition of the original experience, by incarnation and conversion, that the original change can keep from lapsing into a social stereotype, given to vain repetitions and empty rituals, incapable of producing the freedom, the autonomy, the creativity of the original person.” Although even the smallest effort has its reward, the path of least action is the way of the ordinary householder; the path of exertion, of striving for higher attainment, is the way of the saints.
Every great religious prophet has been the harbinger of a more universal way of life, which unites his fellows into a wider community that ideally encompasses all mankind. In that sense, the new leader is the individual embodiment of a whole society; and from his personality, his new attitude, his fresh aims, his daily practices, not least from little hints he drops by the way without developing them, the complex activities of a higher society will take form. In time a discipline and a common system of education will be perfected in an attempt to carry forward the original miracle of his detachment and transcendence. Yet the pressures of a closed society will limit the full scope of this movement: neither Buddhism nor Christianity nor Islam, the most extensive attempts at unification, has actually encompassed more than a small portion of mankind. But the original effort, even when it stops short of its ideal goal, profoundly alters every institution; and transfigures every possibility.
Although modern man scoffs at the concept of prophethood, he is clueless when it comes to understanding its reality. (To paraphrase The Upanishads: if you think you know the truth about God and His prophets, know that you know little indeed.) Even modern scholars are helpless in dealing with this truth, unable to overcome their preconceptions and hiding their ignorance behind a pile of verbiage:
This transformation, as I have hinted, has never been satisfactorily described in all its details... How could conventional modern scholars describe a change that takes place, in the first instance, in a single individual, not in a mass: above all an interior change not verified by substantial contemporary documents, a change whose very existence can only be deduced from its remote consequences?
Mumford calls the actualization of a prophet’s path in society “Materialization.” Like etherealization, this too occurs in stages: “In The Condition of Man I sought to summarize the stages of this whole transformation from personality to community under the heads of Formulation, Incarnation, Incorporation, and Embodiment.”
The first step in the integration of a more universal person [into society], the step of formulation, involves a change of ideas and, more deeply, an alteration of feeling, attitude, and expectancy... Often in the early stages, the new attitude hardly even achieves the status of a full-blown philosophy: it is still too fluid and unformed, too much the product of solitary illumination… there is something esoteric in these early manifestations. At their deepest levels, they are a wordless sense of fresh potentialities for life.
In the case of the Prophet, I’m reminded here of the early Meccan chapters of the Koran. Brief, poetic, sublime, they speak to us of horizons not yet fathomed. Probably, after the first chapter of the Koran (the Opening), it might be best for a newcomer to read the Koran in reverse. These final chapters are certainly the ones memorized most for recitation during Formal Prayer. In fact, in the renowned Sufi Ibn Arabi’s great work, “Meccan Revelations” (Futûhât al-Makkiya), Chapters 270 through 383, 114 in all, correspond to the 114 suras of the Koran in reverse order, beginning with the last (114th) sura and ending with the first (as Michel Chodkiewicz has pointed out). One thus “ascends” to the Opening Chapter.
All these early formulations [take] place centuries before the ideas [are] clarified, deepened, and given a dynamic impetus through the act of incarnation [emulation]: for men become susceptible to ideas, not by discussion and argument, but by seeing them personified and by loving the person who so embodies them. The prophet must live the life so that others may know the doctrine: he hands down the idea in a form deeper than words to his followers and successors; and they, in turn, must dramatically install themselves in his role.
Now we come to the third stage [consolidation]. The direct effect of the prophet upon his community is fitful and limited during his lifetime: He reaches only a handful of disciples; and these, as often as not, are the weaklings, the rejected ones, the outcasts, who have nothing to lose. Before he can touch even such people, no small part of his life has been spent in the process of defining his mission, fitting himself for it.
This corresponds to the Prophet’s time in Mecca. Such was the opposition to him that, as historian Arnold Toynbee put it, “Muhammad himself was in daily danger of meeting Jesus’s fate.” Once he emigrated to Medina he proved to be, again according to Toynbee, “not only a prophet but also a political genius.”
This self-transformation, incidentally, is so little understood... Even among those who come directly under the prophet’s influence, the faithful handful, the process of rebirth and renewal takes place slowly, haltingly: the disciples are at first witnesses rather than active participants: if they are fascinated by this new species of man, they are also full of doubts and resistances... Moreover, those who are most desirous of being re-born are not always thoroughly transformed: even while the master is living they fall away from him, and though their conversion be ardent, they may not in the end succeed in changing their ways as fully as they had, in their first generous espousal, believed possible... For one who stands on the bank and looks at a swimmer, swimming looks easy; but once the novice takes to the water himself, he can scarcely make half a dozen strokes before he sinks: it takes practice as well as faith to be able to keep one’s head above water. So with this greater change.
To give substance to this new personality, one must do more than repeat the master’s precepts, capture his gestures, imitate his voice: the whole routine and discipline of life must in time be altered.
Finally, the prophet’s doctrine and example permeate society, informing and building a civilization, like a seed that grows into a tree:
Once the new person appears... The rites of sex and marriage, the conduct of economic life and the administration of government, in the end every social institution, must be altered so as to support the new person and make possible his social existence and his participation in all the activities from which, in the first instance, he had withdrawn and had apparently left behind him.
In short, if the rebirth begins as an inner private change, it must be confirmed by an outer public one, before the new self can achieve a universal nature, superimposed on the more limited secular culture. Until these processes of incorporation and embodiment have taken place, the new personality will remain unformed, inoperative, insecure, subject to early extinction. ln the end, the very environment must be made over: everything, from costume to architecture, will be re-modeled and will in some degree record and express further the inner change that has taken place.
By the time the final stage is reached, in which a whole society has been re-shaped by the new doctrine and cult, a further transformation has taken place: this curtails the great leap that the originating personality, departing from existing practices without yet being hampered by the new ones his own doctrine in turn brings into existence, has actually made. For the original intuitions of the new religion, and the image of the new person as partly incarnated in the prophet himself, must pass through many minds before they take hold in society. On the way, they will encounter the inertia and resistance, yes, the downright hostility, of many venerable institutions…
In the act of adapting... to the existing order and its favored “way of life” [the adherents of] the new religion will, often without any conscious guile, alter the original intentions of the prophet and even contradict his demands... At many points, then, the need for adaptability, as a condition for survival, may lead to wholesale perversions and betrayals…
"A word of truth, used in the service of falsehood." —Ali (the Fourth Caliph)
The more extensive the claims of the new personality, the greater are the chances for this perversion... Every radical transformation takes place within a society that is, by sheer force of habit if nothing more, deeply alien to the new impulses and the new forms; for what is any established institution but a Society for the Prevention of Change? … Left to themselves many would be content to accept their animal lot: the common tribal self suffices and one birth in a lifetime is enough for them. So in every culture, during the period of its reintegration and renewal, there is a constant tug between the old self and the new self... the final results are often deplorable and in time they cast undue discredit upon the original doctrine...
The death of a Man of Knowledge is the death of the world. In the case of the Prophet, many deviations from his Path have occurred through the centuries, from the Kharijites down to the less savory present-day manifestations. These, however...
... Do Not Invalidate the Truth
As Mumford succinctly puts it:
But not by such lapses can one account for the new religion’s widespread influence and for the amazing persistence of a new vision of man’s potentialities: a vision sometimes transmitted through tens of millions of people for two or three thousand years. What actually survives of the new person is what counts: the image of a human being of the largest spiritual capacities: the mutant of a new social species. Since it is the total personality that becomes operative in this great conversion... as Walt Whitman put it, “I and mine do not convince by arguments: we convince by our presence.” So they communicate, even at many removes, through a living chain of believers, the true apostolic succession [chain of transmission], and by the echoes that still reverberate on the air, the after-image that still lingers on the retina, many centuries after they have gone.
If words alone conveyed the message of the new person, the influence of the great prophets would be hard to understand; for their affirmations and acts differ in no special way from those of many other men of genius. [N]o mere examination of the new doctrine can fully account for their impact... If scattered intuitions and insights [alone] were capable of transforming life, they are indeed present in every great literature in quantities copious enough to produce a change. But the impress of a new personality is of a different order: through him many diffused and scattered ideas unite to produce, not other new ideas, but a man. [In the sense of human being, inclusive of both genders.]
It is as if a phase transition, a crystallization occurs, first within one person, then in all society.
Divine or human, heavenly or mundane, the fact is that, at certain intervals of history, the potentialities for a more universal culture, a more co-operative life, and a richly dramatic development of the human theme become visible in the image and example of a single human being. At that moment a universal man appears and under his direction a universal society becomes possible... The imitation of that example provides a new destination for society, and a new set of values and purposes, which start it moving on a new path. Centuries and millennia may pass before that impulse ceases to enrich civilization…
By loving and imitating the parental, life-nurturing image of the new person, by bowing to his wisdom, by following in his footsteps, by accepting his ideal figure as a true and central image of man, toward which all smaller figures should approximate, peoples of the most diverse backgrounds and histories achieve a common bond and pursue a common goal.
* * *
I have dwelt on Mumford’s treatment at length because, with rare insight and eloquence, he outlines a different, sympathetic picture and a better map concerning what prophethood is all about. Using an unbiased intellect and acute powers of observation, he is able to discern truths that few others have remarked upon. This means that, using the same tool, anyone can reach the same conclusions, provided s/he is as well-informed as Mumford evidently was.
Why is reason important? Because it can, like Mumford has done, discern the truth—if it can act without bias. That is why children, those who are not fully awake, and the mentally unstable are not held accountable, for they lack powers of reasoning. Those who are deprived of free will are also not responsible, for while they may be in possession of their mental faculties, they have no freedom of choice.
So here’s what I think: don’t base your judgment of a religion on the failings of its all-too-human believers. Study, investigate. If, in the end, you find the precepts of a religion to your liking, that’s fine.
If you don’t, that’s OK, too.
The Most Important Thing
Finally, we may ask ourselves: what has Mumford missed?
All through his extraordinary analysis, Mumford has not posed one crucial question: why does a prophet (and after the Last Prophet, a Sufi saint) go through that transformation? In other words, what is it that makes one worthy of receiving such a stupendous gift?
The enlightenment of the West is the enlightenment of the mind, of reason. The enlightenment of the East is spiritual illumination. We need both, for the spirit and the mind are not the same thing. Moreover, the mind has its limitations, for “the heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of” (Pascal). The ideal thing is to combine the mind and the heart, to speak from a place where both have their say. That is wisdom, it is what the prophets have done. And what they all emphasize is ethics (though this is not always apparent from the Bible). Visions prove to be temporary, even when they are authentic and not delusional. (Acid (LSD) users felt transported to the highest reaches of consciousness, yet they would fall out with each other when it came to performing the simplest chores, like who was going to do the dishes.)
What is most important is that spiritual growth is predicated on morality. The Prophet makes this plain: “Do you know who is bankrupt? ‘Bankrupt’ is one who [has] Prayer, Charity, and Fasting to their credit. However, s/he has insulted this person, slandered that one, wrongfully taken another’s wealth, shed someone else’s blood, beaten up somebody else...” (Muslim 2581, Tirmidhi.) In other words, morality is the bedrock on which everything else rests, and without which none of one’s observances count for much. And conversely—if you are serious about your religion and diligently try to fulfill its precepts, a little will go a long way: “Be sincere in your religion. Then, (relatively) few works will be enough for you.” (Hâkim, Mustadrak, 8.4.306.)
The Sufis have compared spiritual development to a greased pole: no matter how high you climb, and no matter how adept you are, if you’re morally deficient, you will not be able to hold onto your achievements, but will inevitably slip to the bottom sooner or later. All one’s efforts could come to naught. For spiritual growth, the Sufis have identified a higher stage of morality. They call it “courtesy” or noble conduct (adab), which is an even more refined state of thinking and acting—with compassion, with consideration, with lovingkindness. The Prophet said: “I have come to perfect your ethics.”
And that’s the important thing: it’s ethics, it’s morality.*
“Materialization and etherealization are the inhalation and exhalation of the same breath...” (The Condition of Man, p. 73.) (This is what Ibn Arabi called “the breath of the Compassionate.”)
*Note: Those who criticize the Prophet for his multiple marriages, thereby imputing to him a deficiency in morality, confuse polygamy with fornication and casual sex—whereas these were the very things the Prophet himself was dead set against. Anyone who has been married knows that marriage is not exactly a walk in the park. A person married to two or three spouses finds that the complications and responsibilities are more than two or three times those of being married to a single woman. That the Prophet accepted these additional burdens for the sake of an alliance, or to save a woman widowed in combat by bringing her under the legal protection of marriage, should not be held against him, especially when one considers that Solomon had hundreds of wives and even Abraham had two. As Mumford observes above, “the greatest of all human rewards is surely not... a multiplicity of sexual partners.”
(Summarized and excerpted from Lewis Mumford, The Conduct of Life (1951), pp. 92-107.)
(DISCLAIMER: The excerpt above is reproduced in the spirit of fair use, for educational and illustrative purposes only, and in an effort to rescue some of Mumford’s astute observations from oblivion. I’m sure Mumford himself would have approved.)