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Last Updated: 2015/11/03
Summary of question
How is it possible to differentiate between someone who falsely claims to be a prophet and one who is a true prophet?
question
How is it possible to differentiate between someone who falsely claims to be a prophet and one who is a true prophet?
Concise answer
1. In Arabic, the term ‘wahy’ literally means giving a message quickly and secretly. In Islamic terminology, ‘wahy’ is the revealing or disclosing of some form of truth or knowledge through communication with Allah, with or without an intermediary.
2. Not only ‘wahy’ in its literal meaning is used about people who are not prophets but it has also been used in regards to animals and inanimate objects.  For instance, in the Quran, there are verses in which the word ‘wahy’ has been applied to Moses’ mother when she was inspired to do something to save her child. Also, the word ‘wahy’ has been used to make reference to instinctive and existential matters such as the bees making their hives or the rotation of the earth and terrestrial objects.
3. Some mystics have used term ‘wahy’ and claimed it but they have intended the literal meaning of the word i.e. inspiration.  The word ‘wahy’ in its technical sense is particular to prophets but inspiration includes others as well.
4. If a person claims to receive revelation in its technical meaning which means prophethood, the only way through which his claim can be verified in the first step is “miracle”.
5. Islam defines a miracle as an extraordinary act or event that is contrary to the laws of nature and can only come about through the direct intervention of God Almighty Himself. It is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and used by the person who claims to be a prophet to prove his prophethood or to challenge others. A good example is the Moses’ rod which turned into a serpent, and Prophet Jesus’ miracle was to revive the dead or the Holy Quran which is the miracle of the Seal of Prophets (S).  Therefore, if a person showing extraordinary action makes a claim, it cannot be a miracle; rather it can be a magic show or a marvelous act. Also, if a supernatural action (kiramat) is not in accordance with his claims, it is not considered to be a miracle. 
6. A miracle is considered to be a proof of someone being a prophet in such a way that both a miracle and revelation are among the supernatural phenomena related to the unseen. However, the revelation is something visible to others and that the angels who bring forth the revelation is not and cannot be seen by people other than the prophets. Therefore, the prophets using miracles, which are beyond the power of human beings, prove that they are connected to the infinite divine source. Through the miracles shown by prophets, one can rest assured that the prophets’ claim to prophethood is true and honest.
7. It is impossible for a liar to show any miracles because it is dichotomous with Allah’s wisdom and guidance.  If such a person is able to show any miracles, it would lead the entire mankind away from the right path. In other words, they will be misguided because this miracle would lead to chaos and misunderstanding as it would, then, be difficult for people to distinguish a true prophet from a liar.  It can even cause some people to deny and reject the true prophet and this is in conflict with the purpose of sending prophets and public guidance.  Therefore, there must a criterion through which people may discern the true prophet from a liar and that criterion is “miracle”. 
8.  There are other ways to distinguish a true prophet and to verify his claim of prophethood. Among them, for instance, is to examine the content of the message he brings forth in terms of how consistent it is and how it goes along with the human reason and nature.  Hence, if a message, which has been assumed to be that of God, runs counter to man’s sound reason as well as to something which is indisputable from a rational point of view, it is definitely a lie.  Likewise, if there is inconsistency and dichotomy between the various parts of the message or between two messages, it is yet another sign of the claimer being a liar.
9. A study of the claimant’s behavior and conduct in terms of moral, psychological and behavioral integrity can be considered to be a way through which a person’s claim of being a prophet can be verified.
10. If a preceding prophet introduces the next prophet or gives the news of the prophet after him and even the explicit report in some of the divine books can be ways through which the real prophet can be identified and this is true with the Prophet of Islam, peace be upon him and his family.
 
Detailed Answer
Meaning of ‘wahy’
The word ‘wahy’ (lit. revelation) has a literal meaning and technical one.[1] Wahy literally means giving a message quickly and secretly[2] which also includes inspiration.  As for the technical meaning of ‘wahy’, it refers to “a special kind of perception and intuition (not rational thinking) which no one but only a few human beings have access to and are endowed with (i.e. the prophets) and that it is hidden to the apparent senses and rational discernment.”[3]
Not only ‘wahy’ in its literal meaning is used about people who are not prophets but it has also been used in regards to animals and inanimate objects.  For instance, in the Quran, there are verses in which the word ‘wahy’ has been applied to Moses’ mother when, for protecting her son, she was inspired to put her child in a box and let the child to be carried away by the Nile river.[4] Also, the word ‘wahy’ has been used to make reference to instinctive and existential matters such as the bees making their hives,[5] producing honey or the rotation of the earth and terrestrial objects.[6]
Some mystics have also used ‘wahy’ in their statements which obviously refer to the literal meaning of the word or to inspiration or intuition.
Ibn Arabi says: “The domination of revelation over the individual who receives revelation is much strong than the domination of his nature which is the very self of the audience. God says, ‘I am closer to him than his jugular vein.”[7] Hence, o’ noble servant of God, whenever you suspect whether or not God has sent down his revelation upon you, you should look into your own self and see as to whether you have a state of doubt and hesitation within yourself or not.  If you can still can think, decide and analyze, rest assured that you have not been exposed to revelation and you have not received it. However, if something reaches you that completely dispossesses you of everything and turns you blind and deaf as well as creates a barrier between you and your thought and meditational mood, making you completely subservient, then know that you have received revelation.”[8]
Indeed, there is much to write in this regard in its appropriate place and we are not going to go into the detail for the sake of brevity. We will suffice to mentioning the sayings of some scholars, theosophists and mystics.  In his Mafatih al-Ghaib, Sadrul Muta’llehin, better known as Mulla Sadra, first gives a short description of ways through which one may achieve knowledge (acquisition, attraction and forgiveness) and that divine teaching without an intermediary can take place in two ways: revelation and inspiration.  He, then, says, “In short, inspiration (ilham) is something common to all prophets and awliya (saints) but revelation (wahy) is something which is prerogative of the prophets because no one other than a prophet receives revelation.”[9]  Later on, Mulla Sadra describes revelation and inspiration in another way explicating the role of intermediary in receiving inspiration and revelation.”[10]
In the preface to “Fusus al-Hekam” by Ibn Arabi, Qaysari elaborates on the difference between inspiration and revelation and after highlighting the differences, he says: “Revelation is one of the prerogatives of prophethood… and inspiration is one of the characteristics of wilayah and …”[11]
Therefore, people may, at any time, claim revelation but it must be verified as to what he means by revelation. Does he means revelation in its technical senses which is prophethood or he means a degree of understanding through intuition and inspiration? In the second supposition, he is a gnostic (‘ārif), not a prophet. To ascertain the veracity of his words, one must refer to the writings with relevance to this issue. In case, however, he means the technical revelation and claims that angels are descending down upon him bringing him words from Allah, then the question arises as to how one should distinguish a true prophet from a liar?
It seems that the question also seeks to explore the same thing. The goal is to find out how a prophet’s claim can be verified. Therefore, the question can be rephrased as such: If someone claims to be a prophet, how can we verify his claim?
If someone claims to be a prophet and receiving revelation from God, he must present signs and evidence to prove his claim because revelation is not something to be visualized and the angel who brings down the revelation also cannot be seen by anyone except the prophet. The angel has no sign to be seen by people.  To prove something which is not visible requires something supernatural which is visible (i.e. miracle) and which people may believe and then confirm the claim of the prophet who is connected to a metaphysical and supernatural source and receives revelation relying on it.  Through the miracle he shows he communicates with Allah and can do something which normal people cannot do and for this reason, they should accept him.
It becomes clear through this explanation that the fact that every ummah (nation) rightly expected their prophet to show them a miracle is true. The prophets also fulfilled their expectations by showing miracles and evidence: “Certainly We sent Our messengers with clear arguments (live miracles and evidence), and sent down with them the Book and the balance that men may conduct themselves with equity.”[12]
Definition of Miracle
There are different definitions of ‘miracle’ (mu’jiza) and the most common definition is: “An extraordinary event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore attributed to a divine agency and is not possible to be done by a man even if he puts into it all his efforts.”[13]
Given the definition of the term miracle, there are certain characteristic which can be used to describe it better: First, miracle is something which is not possible to be done by others. No one has the power and ability to show miracle as it cannot be taught or learnt because it is supernatural. Secondly, a miracle is such that the addressees of the prophet quite well discern as it is attributed to a divine agency, a cause that cannot be overpowered, nor can it be made invalid or void…[14] In fact, when Allah steps in, miracles happen.
For example, we can remind you of Prophet Jesus’ miracle of reviving the dead which was impossible and inexplicable in terms of natural and scientific laws. Moreover, the miracle was accompanied with Jesus’ claim to have been sent forth as prophet by Allah and the miracle was shown by him to prove that he had been sent by the divine agency who could not be overpowered.
Such actions by the prophets are a clear proof that ‘wahy’ – which is also supernatural – can be materialized. Based on a well-known principle “the rules of homogenous things is the same, whether they are permissible or impermissible”[15], it can be concluded that in the same way that a rod can be turned into a serpent with the help of an unseen power, the words of Allah can also be received from the unseen. Thus, not only the recipient learns it but he can also let others know it.
Therefore, the most important way to verify the claims of someone about revelation and prophethood, is “miracle” and one can believe in someone with reliance on the miracle he shows to prove his prophetic mission. In fact, the miracle leaves no excuse for people to deny someone’s claim; it is a proof that seals the path to non-believers to cook any excuse or make any pretext for not surrendering themselves to the invitation of prophets.
It can be asked: Is it impossible for someone to falsely claim to be a prophet and show a miracle at the same time?
The answer is: It is not rationally impossible but Allah, Who is Exalted, Kind, Gracious and has lofty attributes, is expected not to  give a miracle into the hand of a pseudo claimant of prophethood, or else, people will be misguided. In other words, one must either never listen to the claims of everyone who claims to be a prophet and must reject him and this is against the divine goal which is to invite people to believe in Allah and be guided in the right path or there must be a way to identify the true and truthful prophet through miracle at the hand of a truthful claimant of prophethood which would ultimately help achieve and realize the divine objective which is the guidance, prosperity and salvation of humanity.
For this reason, some theologians are of the view that the only way to identify a true prophet from a false one is miracle at his hand.[16] Although it is appropriate to say that the most important and most reliable way to identify a true prophet is a miracle, there are also other ways to prove his prophethood.  Among them, for instance, is to examine the content of the message he brings forth in terms of how consistent it is and how it goes along with the human reason and nature.  Hence, if a message, which has been assumed to be that of God, runs counter to man’s sound reason as well as to something which is indisputable from a rational point of view, it is definitely a lie.[17]  Likewise, if there is inconsistency and dichotomy between the various parts of the message or between two messages, it is yet another sign of the claimer being a liar.  The Holy Quran says: “Do they not then meditate on the Quran? And if it were from anyone other than Allah, they would have found in it many a discrepancy.”[18]
 A study of the claimant’s behavior and conduct in terms of moral, psychological and behavioral integrity can be considered to be a way through which a person’s claim of being a prophet can be verified. If a claimant does not act upon what he preaches or he is not honest in his sayings or does things that are despicable or is greedy and covetous and does not respect other’s right and privacy, it can be said that all these are signs belying him.
Another way to identify a true prophet is that if a preceding prophet introduces the next prophet or gives the news of the next prophet, then his claim to prophethood is proved. Therefore, it is possible that at times the prophethood of a prophet can be proved without a miracle, even though in this regard such prophethood can be relying on the prophet before him or his contemporary.
In some cases, there have been some prophets who have lived in the time of other prophets and that miracle shown by one of them would have sufficed for the other to be confirmed as prophet. For example, Ibrahim and Lot (AS) lived in the same time and both of them were prophets. If the prophethood of Ibrahim is proved and he says that Lot is a prophet, the people should accept and they have no reason to deny his prophecy. This is how people come to know that he is the messenger of Allah.[19]
Also, there is no doubt as to the prophethood of the great Prophet of Islam as there are numerous glad-tidings from the previous prophets. In addition to the numerous miracles shown by the holy Prophet (S), some recognized him as they recognized their own children and they knew he was a prophet:
«يعرفونه كمايعرفون ابناءهم»[20]
Before the Prophet of Islam (S) was sent forth, Jesus (AS) had given the news of his coming mentioning his holy name:
«و اذ قال عيسى بن مريم يا بنى اسرائيل انى رسول الله اليكم... و مبشراً برسول ياتى من بعدى اسمه احمد، فلّما جائهم بالبينات قالوا هذا سحر مبين»[21]
“And when Isa son of Marium said: O children of Israel! surely I am the messenger of Allah to you, verifying that which is before me of the Taurat and giving the good news of a Messenger who will come after me, his name being Ahmad, but when he came to them with clear arguments they said: This is clear magic.”
The conclusion is that the glad-tidings and attributes of the Seal of Prophet (S) found in Torah and the Gospel are yet another way to recognize the divine prophet, and the Quranic verses clearly make reference to it. This is one example:
«الذين يتبعون الرسول النبى الامى الذى يجدونه مكتوباً عندهم فى التوراة و الانجيل»[22]
“Those who follow the messenger, the Prophet who can neither read nor write, whom they will find described in the Torah and the Gospel (which are) with them.”
And there are other verses in this regard.[23] Apart from what was stated above, for further information in this regard, one can refer to Torah and Gospel and other books that have been written specifically on this subject.[24]
 

[1] Vide: "Revelation and Its Nature”, question 88.
[2] Raghib Isfahani, find the Arabic word “wahy”, p.515.
[3] Vide: Tabatabai, Sayyid Muhammad Hussein, al-Mizan fi Tafsir al-Qur’an, vol.2, p. 159, Tehran, Dar al-Kotob al-Islamiyyah, second edition.
[4] Taha, 38; Qasas, 7.
[5] Nah, 68.
[6] Fussilat, 11 and 12; Zilzal, 5.
[7] Qaf, 16.
[8] Ibn Arabic, Mohyiddin, al-Fotuhat al-Makkiyyah, vol.2, p.78, Egypt, Dar al-Arabia al-Kubra.
[9] Vide: Mafatih al-Ghaib, vol.1, p.224, 221.
[10] Ibid, 224.
[11] Qaysari, Preface to Fusus al-Hekam by Ibn Arabi, Note under the seventh chapter.
[12]  Hadid, 25.
[13] Javadi Amoli, Abdullah, Thematic Category of the Holy Quran, vol.1, p.89.
[14] Al-Mizan fi Tafsir al-Quran, vol.1, p.4.
[15] «حكم الامثال فيما يجوز و فيما لايجوز واحد» This is a philosophical rule with different applications in different areas. Vide: Ibrahimi Dinani, Ghulam Hussein, Qawa’ed Kulli Falsafi dar Falsafa-e Islami (The General Philosophical Principles in Islamic Philosophy), vol.1, p.208.
[16] Lahiji, Abdur Razzaq, Sarmaaya Iman (The Asset of Faith), p.85; Muzaffar, Sheikh Muhammad Reza, Aqaed al-Imamiyah, p.77.
[17]It is necessary to note that it is possible that all human beings may not, in all cases, realize this dichotomy or inconsistency between the message and reason and there are even many cases in the prophets’ teachings which the human mind is not able to perceive or the human nature does not, at least, attains such a perception where is something which is presented as a proof to people must bear clear signs that would not be doubted by them. Vide:  Mesbah Yazdi, Muhammad Taqi, Ma’aref Quran (The Quranic Sciences), vol.4 and 5, p.66 and 69.
[18] Nisa, 82.
[19] Vide: Ma'aref Quran, vol.4-5, p.71.
[20] Baqara, 146; al-An'am, 20; Vide; al-Mizan, vol.1, al-Mizan, vol.1, p.326 – 327; vol.7, p.40 – 41 and vol.8, p. 282 – 278.
[21] Saff, 6.
[22] A'araf, 157.
[23] Fath,29; Shu'ara, 197; Behar al-Anwar, vol.15, p.174 – 248.
[24] Behar al-Anwar, vol.15, p.174 – 248; John, chap.14, 16-30, chap. 15: 26; Barnaba, chap. 39, 41, 44, 54, 55 and 136.
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