In the early years of the Prophet Muhammad's mission, a man who had come to Makkah on a pilgrimage was asked on his return to his country what was new in Makkah. "Muhammad has claimed prophethood," he answered, but the only person of any distinction who has become a follower of his is the son of Abu Qahafah (Abu Bakr). From this answer one can tell what people thought of the Prophet in A.D. 6I0, when he commenced his mission. In those days, his opponents used to refer to him as if he were a village lad, calling him Ibn Abi Kabshah, i.e. the son of his village foster parents, simply in order to deride him. Those who preferred to be more polite would call him "a youth from the Quraysh."
This was how the Prophet was referred to in his own lifetime. Now, centuries later, things have changed. The prophethood of Muhammad is no longer a controversial matter; it has become an established fact. Now, when one thinks of the Prophet Muhammad, it is a great historical personality that springs to mind, one who has been a subject of discussion for generation upon generation over the last 1500 years. If this history were to be taken away from the Prophet of Islam, he would return to being "Ibn Abi Kabshah" in the eyes of men. Were this to happen, there is not a shadow of a doubt that the number of Muslims in the world today would be counted in scores rather than in hundreds of millions. It is very difficult to recognize a prophet of God when he comes in the guise of 'Ibn Abi Kabshah'. On the other hand, to accept one who has become an established historical personality is relatively easy. The Prophet of Islam has now secured what the Qur'an calls a "position of praise and glory."(Qur'an, 17:79) Small wonder, then, that those who sing his praises run into thousands of millions.
It was this factor, which contributed more than anything to the denial of prophets by their peoples in previous ages. "This is just an ordinary person," people would say. "Up till now we knew him by his common name. How did he become a prophet of God all of a sudden?" "Whenever a prophet comes among his people, this objection is raised, posing a serious impediment to the acceptance by a prophet's contemporaries of his teachings.
All of the prophets, at the time of their emergence, were greeted with suspicion and scepticism. The psychological barrier preventing people from believing in one who, in their eyes, appeared like anyone else, proved insurmountable for most people. When they failed to believe in the prophets, however, they were punished according to the law of God.
Now God decided to send a prophet who would break down this barrier. There would be no room for doubt about whether his claim to prophethood was genuine or the result of over-zealous ambition. He would take his place in history as a prophet of God. His name would stand out in the seas of time, like a beacon beckoning people to belief. There would be no difficulty for people in recognizing him as God's Prophet, believing in him, and winning a share in God's eternal blessings.
There are several traditions according to which the Prophet is reported as saying that his followers would be more numerous than those of any other prophet. This is another way of making the same point. After Muhammad, on whom be peace, there would be no other prophet. Never again would his followers have to choose between belief and disbelief. They would continue to grow in number until the coming of the Last Day.
A look at Israelite history will help to illustrate this point. The Jews who lived in the time of Jesus believed in God's law as revealed to Moses. Yet when a new prophet—Jesus, the son of Mary—arose amongst them, they denied him. They continued to believe in their own historic prophet and refused to believe in the prophet of their day. Seven hundred years later, the Prophet of Arabia was sent to the world. By this time the number of Christians in the world had increased considerably. History, however, was to repeat itself. Christians were not prepared to believe in an Ishmaeli, rather than an Israeli Prophet. Again they retained their faith in a historically established Prophet—Jesus—but did not believe in a contemporary one—Muhammad. Except for a few Christians who accepted Islam, those who had been believers in Jesus became disbelievers in his successor.
Thanks to the termination of prophethood, the followers of Muhammad are never again going to have to choose between an ancient Prophet and a modern one. Never again—at least in the present world—will they be forced to opt for the old or the new—something which occurs in the community of an historic Prophet when a contemporary Prophet visits them. The installation of the Prophet Muhammad on the pinnacle of history, on what the Qur'an calls "a position of praise and glory,”(Qur'an, 17:79) is one factor contributing to his being "a mercy for all nations."(Qur'an, 2I:107) Historically, the position of Muhammad as a Prophet of God cannot be questioned; that is the nature of his position of praise and glory in this world. On the Day of Resurrection, it will be made manifest in the form of special divine favour being conferred upon him.
It would be a mistake to think that the Prophet Muhammad's elevation to such a position was a simple matter of selection. It was to bring a revolution in human history. Only an individual of the highest moral calibre, only one able to perform unparalleled feats of self-sacrifice and steadfastness would be considered fit to be chosen. For this task the Lord saw fit to call upon Muhammad:
You who are wrapped up in your vestment, arise and give warning. Magnify your Lord, cleanse your garments, and keep away from all pollution. Bestow no favours expecting gain. Be patient for your Lord's sake. (Qur'an, 74:1-7)
The great soul "wrapped up in his vestment' responded to the call and participated in the divine scheme with wholehearted dedication, although many were his trials and tribulations before the prophetic mission, which was to be a mercy for the whole world, reached completion. The coming of repeated prophets, one after the other, to the world, had been a severe test for humanity. Now this era had passed and there would be one acknowledged Prophet for all time, enabling people to enter into the sphere of God's mercy in an unending procession.
With God's choice of Muhammad, then, prophethood was given historical credibility. This meant that no more prophets had to come to the world in future. But it was not merely a matter of divine proclamation. Certain conditions had to be fulfilled before this could happen. Firstly, God's commandments relating to every walk of human life had to be revealed. This was duly accomplished as the Qur'an itself states: "It is He who has revealed the Qur'an for you fully explained."(Qur'an, 6:114) Secondly, a perfect pattern had to be presented before mankind. The Prophet Muhammad provided mankind with just such a "good example,"(Qur'an, 33:21) and this condition was fulfilled. Thirdly, there had to be arrangement for the permanent preservation of the Qur'an. This task Almighty God took upon Himself: "It was We who revealed Qur'an, and We will certainly preserve it." (Qur'an, 15: 9)
God's way with previous prophets had been to send them with certain signs and miracles. The prophets, for their part, left no stone unturned in discharging their duty to communicate the word of God to their peoples. In the process they proved that they had been sent by God by performing wondrous acts. If, in spite of all this, people did not believe, then there was no more that the prophets could do. It was now time for God's angels to take action, bringing down punishment on the disbelievers.
With the final Prophet, however, it was decided that the people he addressed should not be subjected to this form of divine punishment. Rather, the Prophet himself, along with his companions, were told that those who still did not believe and who actually attacked Islam would be punished at the hands of the Muslims. (Qur'an, 9:14) In other words, the task which used to be performed by angels would be accomplished by the hands of men.
It was due to this divine verdict that even after emigration and after having fully communicated the word of God to them until there remained no rational ground for denial, yet, unlike the peoples in the times of the previous prophets, they were visited by no all-consuming manifestation of the wrath of God. Rather, the Prophet and his companions were made to confront them on the battlefield. God's succour assisted the believers against their foes, and they emerged victorious. So it was that God's religion was established on the Arabian Peninsula in the form of a State.
It is God's way to reveal His commandments in the context of relevant circumstances. Since the religion the Prophet left to the world had to be complete in every detail, so had his mission to pass through every walk of human life. Only then would a correct pattern of life dealing with matters of both individual and general concern be established for coming generations. As Muslims continued to engage themselves in defuse against non-Muslims who refused to believe and attacked them, the granting of God's revelation was nearing completion. Commandments relating to different situations were being revealed, not all at the same time, but gradually, in accordance with the prevailing situations. The decision to have disbelievers punished at the hands of Muslims rather than by angels thus played an important part in the completion of Shari'ah, for only if the Prophet were made to face every form of human situation would he be able to display every facet of the Islamic way of life. The course that events themselves took enabled the Prophet to show, not only how one should live at home, but how one should conduct oneself on the battlefield, and in position of power. The model that he left for coming generations covers every walk of life, and stands preserved until the coming of the Last Day.
The provision that God made for the termination of prophethood also produced circumstances conducive to the preservation of the Qur'an, the revealed word of God. If previous scriptures had not been preserved in their original form, it was because no protective power had emerged in support of them. But the Prophet and his companions fought against their adversaries and established Islamic rule in a substantial portion of the globe, so that the Book of God enjoyed state protection, its immunity from all attempts to change or destroy it being thus ensured. The Qur'an was preserved for one thousand years in this way, with one generation passing it on to the next under the protective wing of an Islamic government. Then mankind entered the age of the printing press, and there was no further danger of the Qur'an being destroyed.
It would be a mistake to think that all this was accomplished smoothly. In order to establish Islam as the ruling religion, thus ensuring the preservation of the Book of God, the Prophet and his companions had to suffer torments of unbearable intensity. The pagans wanted to see miracles. The Prophet, too, would have liked to have been able to produce miraculous signs of his prophethood. But it was not to be. Instead, the Prophet's character and demeanour had to take the place of miracles. The Prophet's opponents were not visited by any celestial or terrestrial punishment from God, as had been the case with those who denied the prophets of old. The Prophet and his companions had themselves to do what earthquakes and volcanoes had previously been used for—punish the disbelievers. The Book of God was not revealed all at once; the period of revelation extended over twenty-three years. During this time the Muslims, under the leadership of the Prophet, had to cross all the deep rivers and climb every high mountain of life, so that the path, which God desired His servants to follow, could be fully mapped out.
The trials, which the Prophet and his companions underwent during this, period, reached a height of intensity called in the Qur'an "a tremendous shaking." (Qur'an, 33:11) The Prophet was given the immensely arduous directive not to compromise in any way with his oppressors. (Qur’an, 17:75) However difficult the circumstances, he and his companions were given no leave to "stay behind," (Qur'an, 9:119) in face of the call of God. Were the Prophet's wives to demand as much as two meals a day, then they were given notice to choose between "this life and all its finery", on the one hand, or God and His Messenger on the other. (Qur'an, 33:28)
The establishment of the prophethood, which would become a subject of "praise and glory”, was the most hazardous project in the entire annals of human history. Even the Prophet was forced to admit that he had been persecuted "as no other Prophet" had been. In the words of his wife 'A'ishah, he was "shattered" by the treatment meted out to him in spite of he and his companions having denied themselves the comforts, even the necessities of life, in order to make the prophethood of Muhammad "a mercy for all nations."
This is the great favour, which the Prophet Muhammad bestowed upon the human race. Because of it his followers have been called upon to invoke peace and blessings upon him until the end of time. His family and his companions are also included in this invocation, for they stood by the Prophet through thick and thin, remaining with him throughout the most gruelling afflictions. It is only natural that those who acknowledge the favour of the Prophet of Islam should express their gratitude to him. The peace and blessings, which Muslims invoke upon their Prophet, are an expression of their gratitude in the form of prayer. As the Prophet himself said: "Miserly is the one who hears mention of my name, and does not invoke peace and blessing upon me." (Hadith of Tirmidhi and Nasa'I)