Michael LaPine, USA
Western academic discussion on the significance of the term “Seal of the Prophets” made a breakthrough in the 1980s with the publication of Yochanan Friedman’s Finality of Prophethood in Sunni Islam (JSAI 7, 1986) and Guy G. Stroumsa’s research, Seal of the Prophets: The Nature of A Manichaean Metaphor (JSAI 7, 1986). Using historical-critical methods, both writers presented a challenge to the world on the significance of the metaphor in Surah al-Ahzab, 33:41. In their view, the notion of “finality” is a post-Quranic idea, and “seal” implies something much richer. The only academic challenge to Friedman to date came from the late Uri Rubin. (Rubin, Uri, The Seal of the Prophets and the Finality of Prophecy: On the Interpretation of the Quranic Surah al-Ahzab, Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenlandischen Gesellschaft, Band 164-Heft 1, 2014) Rubin defended the widespread notion that the prophetic seal implies finality. His rebuttal has been cited many times, but there has been no critical feedback on it yet.
Rubin’s central claim is that the case for the “finality” of prophecy is firmly rooted in the etymology of the word “seal.” He begins the discussion by examining the word “musadiqun” (confirmation) and its relationship to “khatam (seal)”. It is to be noted that scholarship has long attested that khatam can have several meanings, including that of confirmation. This fact has made other secular scholars question certain assumptions pertinent to Islamic theologians. Rubin writes, “Muhammad’s description as a Messenger of God and the Seal of the Prophets seems to be a fulfilment of the history of past prophecies.” (Rubin, p. 74) Rubin notes that the term “musadiqun” found in the Quran (such as in Surah Aal-e-‘Imran, 3:4-5) denotes confirmation of previous revelations. Rubin feels the meaning of “seal” in the Quranic term “Seal of the Prophets” seems to mean more than “fulfilment”. (Ibid., 74) Since musaadiq is used in the Quran to indicate confirmation, he argues, then the seal must have meaning beyond confirmation or fulfilment. It is thus reasoned by Rubin that “seal” cannot be limited to mean “confirmation,” since the term is already used in the Quran to refer to the role of the prophets in confirming previous dispensations.
We have no problem with Rubin’s point that “seal” must connote more than mere confirmation. Extensive use of the term in Biblical literature proves that there is more to the term “seal”. (Analysing ‘the seal’ metaphor in Judeo-Christian literature, www.alhakam.org/analysing-the-seal-metaphor-in-judeo-christian-literature/) But why does Rubin choose to ignore the extensive literature on the religious significance of the term and merely derive “finality” from the word?
Rubin claims that “scepticism” (Rubin, p. 75) of the view that the seal (via 33:41) implies finality is based on “Extra-Quranic material” and not on the Quran itself, especially not on the function of the root kh-t-m.” (Rubin, p. 75) In effect, Rubin has proposed a methodology that supposedly relies on the Quran alone. Other items scholars find relevant (Hadith, Bible, and Near Eastern literature) are put aside. Rubin claims that he could derive “finality” purely from the etymology of the word kh-t-m.
The dismissal of “extra-Quranic material” is an odd position for an academic. Academic scholars claim they are taking a historical-critical approach to the Quran. The historical-critical approach is a way “to understand the text at hand in the light of views, concepts, and modes of expression current in the historical situation from which it originated, and of events and developments contemporaneous with it.” (Nicolai Sinai, Historical-Critical Readings of the Abrahamic Scriptures, in Adam J. Silverstein and Guy G. Stroumsa (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the Abrahamic Religions [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015]) The historical-critical method will try to understand an ancient text like the Quran by using sources such as Hadith and other documents pertinent to 6th-century Arabia. By ignoring “extra-Quranic sources”, Rubin is guilty of not employing the historical-critical method and thereby not engaging in discourse satisfactory to academic standards. Interestingly enough, Rubin’s position puts him in line with certain thinkers who deny the validity of Hadith and sunnah. Not using traditional sources to understand the Holy Quran is a strange approach for an academic.
Ironically, Rubin uses a dictionary in his paper (The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur’an byArthur Jeffery) to back up his claims. Jeffrey’s work uses “extra-Quranic” material. The thesis of Jeffrey’s work was to show how some Quranic words have a non-Arabic origin. How can Rubin claim he is avoiding “extra-Quranic material” when he is doing just that by utilising Jeffrey’s dictionary? We will see more of Rubin’s methodological inconsistencies later. As opposed to the “Quran-only” approach, Khalil Andani argues that the Quran should be used as the primary text (but not the only one) in attempting to understand theological developments. (Academic Talk – Speaking Quran: Revelation in Sunni and Shia Ismaili Islam, Andani, Khalil, April 11, 2017; www.youtube.com/watch?v=w9_csA1hjM0) Modern scholarship recognises the Quran as the oldest Islamic document, which gives it priority in understanding the development of Islam. However, it is hard to fathom that an academic would suggest ignoring related material when understanding the Holy Quran.
The main point of Rubin’s argument from etymology is that “seal” in 33:41 must be understood to denote finality because Rubin believes kh-t-m denotes finality in every other case. He writes, “In all the occurrences of this verb in the Quran,” the word seal means “to seal something so that (it) remains closed.” (Rubin, p. 74) The “seal” in 33:41 is not a verb but a noun, and therefore Rubin writes, “The noun ‘khatam’, of which the verb khatama is a derivative, may well stand for a prophet with whom God has sealed (closed up) the universal line of prophetic revelation.” (Ibid., 74) Following this line of argument, Rubin concludes that “Seal of Prophets” must indicate cessation of prophecy if we are to be consistent with the Quran and not rely on outside sources. The line of argumentation for Rubin’s etymology argument raises a lot of questions. Do “all occurrences” of the verb khatama indicate closure? And assuming khatama does indicate “closure”, as a verb, would it mean that the noun variant of the word khatam in Surah al-Ahzab, 33:41, would also necessitate closure? Also, is the type of consistency Rubin is appealing to really congruent with the rich word morphology of the Quran? In other words, are we being true to the text of the Quran by interpreting the seal in 33:41 in the same sense as other variations of the word?
The assertion that the verbal form of kh-t-m as used in the Quran always means “closure” is theologically problematic in the passages at hand. Surah al-Baqarah says, for example, “Allah has set a seal on their hearts and their ears, and over their eyes is a covering, and for them is a great punishment.” (2:8). A problem with any translation is that the translator may unintentionally misconstrue the meaning. In this case, “seal” appears to be a noun, but it is used as a verb in Arabic. How can we understand the meaning of “seal” above? Is there an actual “seal” on the hearts, as the text seems to say? When the Quran says God sealed the hearts, the meaning is obviously not literal because there is no physical process disrupting blood flow to the heart. The meaning of “seal” is obviously metaphorical. In the other places where the verb “seal” is mentioned (6:46, 36:65, 42:24, 45:23), the Quran also discusses the sealing of hearts, which is also in a metaphorical sense.
Can we understand the Quranic sealing of the hearts to mean that God has “closed” something to the disbelievers? If so, what did God close? A superficial understanding may have the reader believe God closed off his mercy. But Islamic theologians have argued that God has never closed the door of His mercy. When Surah al-Baqarah, 2:8, says that God sealed the hearts of the disbelievers, this is understood as a result of their “willful indifference” to divine laws. (Five Volume Commentary, p. 45-46) The fate of the disbelievers is “sealed” in that their spiritual failure is assured.
A look at the Bible may help us understand the meaning of sealing, as the notion of “sealing” people is shared by the other Abrahamic faiths. This has implications for understanding the sealing of hearts in the Quran. The Bible uses related language to show that God has marked specific groups of people to separate them from others. The Book of Revelations (Rev 13:16) mentions that in the end days, the evil principalities will force people to have the mark of the beast placed on their foreheads and right arms. The Bible also says that God marks the good people to dissociate them from the bad. The prophet Ezekiel mentions the marks on the foreheads of those who cried against abominations. (Ezekiel 9:4) The Song of Songs 8:6 describes Israel as a “seal” on the heart and arm of God. The Torah says, “This observance will be for you like a sign on your hand and a reminder on your forehead that this law of the Lord is to be on your lips. For the Lord brought you out of Egypt with his mighty hand.” (Exodus 13:9) Jewish men don tefillin (phylacteries) in prayer based on this commandment, which they understand literally. But interestingly enough, the Karaites, a Jewish sect that rejects rabbinical traditions outside the Bible, interpret the verse metaphorically to signify the need to be cognisant of God. A metaphorical understanding of God sealing people has a clear basis in Biblical and Quranic understanding.
Rubin claims he is being consistent in understanding the seal of 33:41 to indicate closure because he believes the Quran conveys this everywhere else. The premise of the argument is problematic, but it may appear true to novices of Arabic. A student with an elementary knowledge of Arabic would know Rubin’s assertion is based on faulty logic. When learning the Quran, we are often able to figure out the meaning of a word based on its relationship to other words that have the same trilateral root. Surah al-Maidah says the Jews “kindled (awqadu) the fire of war” (5:65.) The verb awqadu is from the tri-lateral root dha-qa-wa. The same tri-lateral root forms the noun “waqadu” (fuel) in Surah Aal-e-‘Imran, 3:11. Fuel and kindling are related in meaning, although one is a verb and the other is a noun. This will suffice, though, to demonstrate why someone may come to the conclusion that we can understand a word in the Quran by simply looking at the way the same tri-lateral root is used in other passages.
It is a mistaken assumption that two words sharing the same trilateral root must have similar meanings. The fact that we could see the relationship between words based on trilateral roots does not imply there is a meaningful relationship in all cases. The noun basharan is based on the tri-lateral root ba-sha-ra and means man. Bushra, another noun from the same root, means glad tidings. To give one more example, people understand “jinn” to mean the unperceived beings that sometimes haunt mankind. However, the same trilateral root (j-n-n) also gives us ajinnatun, which means foetuses (Surah an-Najm, 53:33). The tri-lateral root h-j-r will give us the noun stone (hijar) but as an adjective, it could mean hijrun, forbidden (Surah al-An‘am, 6:14). In these examples, we see that tri-lateral relationships based on roots do not always necessitate relationships based on meaning. Likewise, we cannot assume that the “seal” of 33:41 has the same meaning as its verbal forms elsewhere simply because it has the same root. The examples show we cannot even assume two nouns from the same trilateral root have the same meaning, so how could we entertain Rubin’s claim that the seal in 33:41, a noun, has the same meaning as the five verbal forms of khatam elsewhere in the Quran? Rubin produced the first academic translation of the Quran into Hebrew, so he should have known enough about the Arabic language to not make this mistake. (The Quran: Hebrew Translation from the Arabic with Annotations, New Edition, www.academia.edu/45674001/_THE_QUR_AN_HEBREW_TRANSLATION_FROM_THE_ARABIC_WITH_ANNOTATIONS_NEW_EDITION)
Rubin tried to interpret the meaning of “seal” in 33:41 based on the verbal forms of the trilateral roots used in other places of the Quran. We showed that this strategy is faulty. If, for example, we tried to translate ajinnatun (53:33), a word that occurs only once in the Quran, based on the many times “jinn” is used, we would mistakenly believe that we were once jinn in our mother’s wombs! It is not enough to interpret the Quran by looking at other trilateral roots in the Quran. That is why it is important to learn the Arabic language that the Quran is based on.
Rubin’s claim that “all occurrences” of the verb khatama imply closure is not his own but one that he acknowledges is based on someone else’s research. Rubin cites Arne A Ambros’ A Concise Dictionary of Koranic Arabic in the footnote for that statement (Ibid., 74, footnote 25). The dictionary seems to be a recognised work, but it is not without critique. Marianne Bjelland Kartzow, a professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Oslo, pointed out that apart from a few cases, the dictionary uses a translation strategy based on the root meaning of a word as opposed to a strategy that is a “co-textually based poly-semantic translation” (The Ambiguous Figure of the Neighbor in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Texts and Receptions, edited by Marianne Bjelland Kartzow). This strategy is problematic because the Arabic language is polysemantic in nature. Scholars understand meanings by examining the morphology of words as well as semantically related vocabulary. A semantic domain encompasses a range of meanings. For example, the word “run” could mean to move fast, or to operate a computer. The lack of details for semantic domains in Ambros’ work is shared by other critics as well. Hämeen-Anttila, a professor of Arabic language and Islamic Studies at the University of Edinburgh, notes the limitations of Ambros’ work because of the latter’s focus on the meaning of words as opposed to their etymology. Hämeen-Anttila notes the major differences between a standard lexicon of classical Hebrew, which has 4,000 items (Hämeen-Anttila, p. 438). Ambros only has 50 listed in the bibliography. (Hämeen-Anttila, Jaakko, Wiener Zeitschrift Für Die Kunde Des Morgenlandes 96 (2006): 438–44, www.jstor.org/stable/23862654) Brandon Colas, an intelligence analyst with the UK Defence Intelligence, found Ambros’ dictionary “less helpful” for the same reasons. (Understanding the Idea: Dynamic Equivalence and the Accurate Translation of Jihadist Concepts, Brandon Colas; Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Volume 42, 2019 – Issue 9, footnote 12)
Quranic Arabic is rich in meaning, so a student of the Quran would need sources to guide him or her. These sources must help one understand the polysemantic nature of the Arabic language. Why would Rubin pick a book as limited in detail as Ambros’ dictionary, when there are better materials? Why did Rubin not turn to the classical dictionaries to understand the meaning of “seal” in 33:41? He could have cited Lisan al-Arab, Lane’s Lexicon, and Mufradat. These works demonstrate the various possibilities of meaning available.
We can add that if Rubin truly wanted to be consistent, he would note that “all occurrences” of the verb khatama are metaphorical in nature. Thus, following Rubin’s own logic, we can derive that the noun “seal” i.e., “khatam” in 33:41 is also metaphorical. After all, it would not make any sense to say the Prophet Muhammadsa was a literal “seal.” He was a human being. The question we must ask is: How could we understand the metaphorical “Seal of the Prophets” in a way that is consistent with the general as well as the immediate context of the term in the Quran?
The other dictionary cited by Rubin (Rubin, p. 74, footnote 27), the Foreign Vocabulary of the Quran by A. Jeffrey, is done so in a selective manner. In “foreign vocabulary” under the section with “seal”, Jeffrey quotes the scholar Hartwig Hirshfield, who noted the world seal was of Jewish origin. Hirshfield said the term derives from Haggai 2:23. The word “seal” is used to indicate Zerubablel’s spiritual attainment. (The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur’an, A Jeffrey, Part 8, p. 121 www.answering-islam.org/Books/Jeffery/Vocabulary/part8.htm) Hirshfield’s discussion (in Jeffery’s work) is on the same page as the footnote (Jefferys, p. 121) Rubin uses. The discussion here contradicts Rubin’s own understanding of “seal”. Why does Rubin not mention these findings in his own paper? Perhaps Rubin disagrees that we can understand the “Seal of the Prophets” as having a Judeo-Christian basis. However, Rubin does not bother to even cite this contrary information. Is he trying to hide the research from us?
The second set of arguments Rubin makes is based on the pre-Islamic meaning of “seal.” Rubin argues that because there is evidence that “seal” is understood to imply finality in pre-Islamic texts, it must do so in Quran 33:41. It is to be noted that Rubin does not deny the rich meaning of khatam. He specifically mentioned Guy Stroumsa’s article as an example in which the seal metaphor in different texts refers to “confirmation or attestation, not of finality” (Rubin, p. 90). Rubin even admitted that the reliance on pre-Islamic sources is “absolutely justified” (Ibid.) because khatam is used to mean confirmation in multiple Semitic languages. Rubin argues that the ideas of “confirmation and finality are closely intertwined.” (Ibid., 91) For Rubin, the “Seal of the Prophets” implies both confirmation as well as finality.
What does Rubin mean when he claims “confirmation” and “finality” are “closely intertwined” in the “seal” metaphor? Does every use of “seal” denote confirmation and finality? There is no reason to think a seal must denote finality in every instance. The meaning of the word must depend on the context. Scholars of Semitic languages have long pointed out that “khatam” came to mean “finish” or end” in their use prior to Islam. (Marjo Korpel, ‘μt;wjø / tm,t,jo – seal, signet ring’, www.otw-site.eu/KLY/kly.php, p. 9). The fact that the notion of the word seal implying finality can be found in some examples prior to Islam would not prove that “seal” denotes finality in all cases, as we know from understanding the etymology of the word.
Rubin uses A. Jeffreys’ The Quran as Scripture to claim that the seal metaphor already implied finality prior to Islam. (Rubin, p. 90, footnote 96) Therein, Jeffrey says that “seal” denotes “obsignatio, finis, & conclusio.” (The Quran as Scripture, Part IV, Arthur Jeffery, www.answering-islam.org/Books/Jeffery/Scripture/part4.htm) In The Quran as Scripture, Jeffreys argued that “Seal of the Prophets” is understood to imply finality. He uses the Christian New Testament (Hebrews 1:1) as well as writings on the Prophet Mani of the Manichean faith, specifically Mani’s title as the “seal of the prophets.” The interpretation of Hebrews 1:1 would have to be reconciled with other passages (Matthew 23:34, etc.). Both Jeffreys and Strouma (Strouma, 69) noted that the title “seal of the prophets” attributed to Mani came from Arabic historians and not the writings of Manichean followers themselves. Thus, these examples are not helpful for Rubin’s claim.
Aside from Islamic texts, Rubin also tried to use pre-Islamic scholars to claim “seal” was understood to imply finality. He finds a writing from Tertullian; “There is now, neither vision nor prophet announcing the Christ as going to come.” (Rubin, p. 91) The Church Father went on to challenge the Jews to produce a prophet or miracle like the ones seen in the times of the Old Testament, but everything ended in Christ accordingly. Rubin wants us to understand that, according to Tertullian, there is no more prophecy or miracles because everything has concluded in the person of Jesus Christ.
Rubin’s understanding of Tertullian’s theology is not correct, though. It is well known that Tertullian believed in miraculous gifts of the spirit. Tertullian used the existence of the Montanist sects to prove to his contemporaries that prophecy still occurred, and he wrote in defence of them. The citation from Rubin was a polemic against the Jews, who denied that Jesusas was the Messiah. In other words, Tertullian was not arguing that prophecy ceased in absolute terms but that the revelatory gifts given to Israel were all fulfilled in Christ. (Heresy or Prophecy: Tertullian’s Theology of the Holy Spirit in Early Christianity, Simone K. Degbe (2014) Open Science Repository Religion and Theology, Online (open-access), https://s3.amazonaws.com/opensciencerepository/Papers/45011812/Open-Science-Repository-45011812.pdf)
It may be of interest to see how Rubin handles the ahadith that seemingly contradict the notion of Prophetic cessation. Rubin takes on the Holy Prophet’ssa statement on the death of his son Ibrahimas. The hadith “By God, if Ibrahim lived, he would be a prophet” (Ibn Majah) is understood by Friedman to demonstrate that the notion of prophetic “finality” is a late development in Islamic history. “I beg to differ” (Rubin, p. 77), he tries to connect the Holy Prophet’ssa words at Ibrahim’sas demise to an event prior to his son’s birth. There are different versions of the event, in which suspicion is raised against Maryra the Copt. An account is related in which the Prophet Muhammadsa heard that the servant Ma’boor was inside the home of Maryra. In that account, the Prophetsa tells Alira to take his sword and kill Ma’boor. Subsequently, Alira learns that Ma’boor is an eunuch, and the suspicion is obviously unfounded. Other accounts are related in which the angel Gabriel appears to the Holy Prophetsa and confirms the legitimacy of Ibrahim’sra birth. Rubin notes that the different accounts “share a common object, namely, to restore the dignity and purity of Muhammad’s family.” And that Ibrahim’sas description as a prophet “is based on the perception that prophecy is hereditary.” (Rubin, p. 79)
Rubin chooses the most sensational version of the narrative on Ibrahim’sas paternity to change the obvious meaning of the Prophet’ssa hadith. According to Rubin, Prophet Muhammadsa called Ibrahimas a prophet because this proved the child’s legitimacy. This account of Mary’sra suspicion is from al-Waqidi. (Women around the Messenger”, Muhammad Ali Qutb, International Islamic Publishing House, p. 130 https://ia802806.us.archive.org/1/items/women-around-the-messenger/Women%20Around%20the%20Messenger-pbuh.pdf)
For a concise discussion on Waqidi’s unreliability, refer to The Life and Character of The Seal of Prophets, Vol. 1, pp. 43-48.
Dr Yasir Qadhi, a Sunni theologian, argues, however, that classical Islamic scholarship finds the more reliable version of events in Sahih Muslim. (Seerah of Prophet Muhammad 97 – Maria the Copt & Death of Ibrahim, Dr Yasir Qadhi | 19th Nov 2014 www.youtube.com/watch?v=lvBgwrl-UC0; transcript https://arqadhi.blogspot.com/2015/11/097-maria-copt-death-of-ibrahim.html) Dr Qadhi relates that when there was initial suspicion, the Holy Prophetsa asked Alira to take his sword and meet Ma’boor. Dr Qadhi explains that according to Ibn Qayyim, the Holy Prophetsa was asking Alira to investigate the rumours, not to kill Ma’boor. The account of the Holy Prophetsa asking Alira to kill Ma’boor is suspicious since it falls out of Prophet Muhammad’ssa character.
In any case, the significance of that story is too minimal to warrant a connection to the Holy Prophet’ssa words on Ibrahim’sas demise. If al-Waqidi’s version of events is true, then why are they not reflected in the Quran? This is a legitimate question for Rubin because he spends much space relating 33:40 to the account of Zayd’sra broken marriage. Ten verses in Surah an-Nur (11-20) were revealed in response to accusations against Lady Ayeshara. If we are to believe Rubin’s account of angels confirming Ibrahim’sas lineage, an account deemed weak (Ali Qutb, p. 130, footnote 44), then wouldn’t we expect the Quran to also clear Ibrahim’sas legitimacy? The fact that the Quran knows no such story means that Rubin’s attempt at “contextualising” the Hadith is not substantial. Even if Rubin’s theory is correct, then what do we do with the Hadith that indicates Ibrahimas would have become a prophet? Rubin would have us believe the Prophet Muhammadsa only claimed his son was a prophet to prove his heritage, not that Ibrahim was really a prophet. Rubin accuses the Holy Prophetsa of deception. No sincere believer can believe that their prophet would intentionally make such a knowingly false claim. Rubin’s understanding of the Hadith depends on speculation and the alleged dishonesty of the Prophetsa.
An epistle of Walid II, an Umayyad Caliph, is cited to prove that prophetic cessation had an early origin. (Rubin, p. 88) The words God “sealed up through his prophetic revelation” (wa-khatama bihi wahyahu) (Rubin, p. 88) are up for interpretation, but what is important for us is what we can learn about the word seal in various languages based on its religious significance and not a political one by the latter rulers.
We could see Rubin’s hypocrisy in his discussion of sayings attributed to Ayeshara and Umayya ibn Salt. On Ayesha’sra hadith (“Say, he is the seal of the prophets, but not that there is no prophet after him” [Al-Dur al-Manthur]), Rubin writes that it could only be understood according to Ibn Mughira. The latter opined that this was in reference to the second coming of Jesus. Rubin then mentions Ummaya b. Salt’s line of poetry; “With him, God has sealed up any prophet that was before him. As well as any prophet after him.” (Friedman, p. 184) Rubin argues that it “seems” the words “only repeat” (Rubin, p. 95) the belief in the second coming of Jesus. But why does Rubin think these two statements relate to a “second coming belief? Nowhere in the Quran does it state that Jesusas will return. The “second coming” is referenced in the hadith and is arguably misunderstood in secondary sources by the time Christian theological speculations entered Islamic thought. We would expect a scholar like Rubin to know this. So why is Rubin using “extra-Quranic material” to understand the Quran here when he already stated his methodology and expunged it? Would not Rubin be more consistent with himself if he tried to interpret the Ayeshara hadith and Ibn Salt’s poetry according to the Quran alone?