How we can judge whether prophecy is authentic?

  • July 29 2019
  • Tag: Christianity
Can we judge we when prophecy is authentic?

The status of prophecy in Islam is markedly different from that which pertains in the Old Testament. Islam envisages a cycle of prophecy beginning with Adam, the first human, and proceeding through the Biblical prophets to Jesus and finally culminating in the figure of Muhammad with whom the cycle is complete. Thus the age of prophecy is over and there can be no new prophets - anyone claiming prophetic revelation within an Islamic context is thus ipso facto a false prophet. This is not to say however that the prophetic impulse was totally absent post Muhammad as it survived in the mystical side of the religion where “The Sufi mystics were to see themselves as the heirs to the prophets, by virtue of being God’s special friends”(1) (Baldick, 1989, p. 7). The great scholar of Islam Henry Corbin amplifies this point(2)

Everyone in Islam is unanimous in professing that the cycle of prophecy came to an end with Muhammad, Seal of the prophets. For Shi’ism, however, the closing of the cycle of prophecy coincided with the opening of the cycle of the walāyah, the cycle of spiritual Initiation… what in fact came to an end, according to the Shi’ite authors, was ‘legislative prophecy’. Prophecy pure and simple characterizes the spiritual state of those who before Islam were called nabīsbut who from then on were designated awliyā: the name was changed, but the thing itself remained. (Corbin, 2014, p. 3).

Corbin is here underlining a key conception of prophecy in all the major monotheistic religions; that of the prophets as a group being distinguishable in rank, stature and function. What has come to an end here in the Islamic view is the function of the prophet as lawgiver. It is still possible to enter the same space the prophets inhabited (which we may call the ‘prophetic space’ and which Corbin terms the mundus imaginalis) to take part in the “heralding or carrying of otherness” (Cornelius, 2014, p. 6) but there is now no mandate for human speech on behalf of the divine in terms of lawgiving. In one sense it may be seen as God’s messages shifting from the collective to the individual. It follows that the question of validation of prophecy in Islam is a moot one; the prophetic chain is in place and cannot be added to or subtracted from - this position is implicit in accepting Islam - however there remains the possibility of a prophetic illumination via the same channels as the prophets

In a spiritual universe in which prophecy is a reality, there is an open passage between Heaven and earth, and the individual intellect has the open possibility to be illuminated by the angelic agency that brought the revelation to the Prophet. Although the term wahyor “revelation” in its Islamic sense is reserved for the prophets (anbiyā) in the Quranic sense, the possibility of illumination from above is open to all who fulfil the necessary conditions provided by the revealed religion itself. (Nasr, 2006, p. 228).

Thus the ‘prophetic space’ remains accessible and the methods of approaching it are essentially overlapping with those we see in the Old Testament prophets (i.e. meditation, prayer, fasting, music or other trance-induction techniques) and are similarly employed by the Islamic mystics to achieve “religious inspiration which passes over into ecstasy. Inasmuch as they also pronounce prophecies and messages from the spiritual world they may justly be included in the prophetic type in the world of religion” (Lindblom, 1967, p. 10).

What we have termed the ‘prophetic space’ is the place where illumination occurs and may be seen as synonymous with Corbin’s mundus imaginalis which in turn corresponds to the idea of the alam al Mithal in Islamic cosmology or, in Corbin’s terminology, the Imaginal Realm. The Imaginal is held to be an area juxtaposed between the physical world we inhabit and the higher spiritual worlds (alam al Arwah), sometimes it is identified with the barzakh (literally: ‘separation’) which is a place akin to purgatory in Christian theology. It is in this locale that are “manifested all ideas and actions in suitable physical form before they are actually born into the world” (Rafiabadi, 2005, p. 170). The imaginal then constitutes and intermediary point between the material and spiritual worlds. In one sense an individual exercising the prophetic function mirrors and embodies this ‘bridging’ aspect between two worlds for the prophet also serves an intermediary between God and the people, visiting the ‘other’ to return with a message. Again we may see an analogue here with prophecy in practice for the prophet does not approach God directly; there again must be the intermediary whether it is a motif such as a burning bush or, as in the Islamic tradition, God’s messenger the angel Gabriel. In some cases this intermediate aspect is played out in the act of revealing of the prophecy to the people as in Exodus 4:15 where “Yahweh said to Moses ‘Aaron… shall speak for you to the people; he shall serve as a mouth to you, and you shall act the part of God to him.’ What Aaron is here in relation to Moses, every prophet is in relation to Yahweh” (Lindblom, 1967, p. 114). In Corbin’s schemata each individual has an inner prophet they might strive to identify with(3) and which their Angel speaks to as a form of inner individual revelation. The ‘call’ of the angel is therefore a call to movement, to turning away from objectional things, to move towards God. If this call is heeded then this is the analogue of the validation of prophecy. One knows one is moving in the Imaginal realm, the world of the creative and the poetic, because one learns a different way of seeing

It is poets who come closest to speaking the language of the Angels. It is a language of images and Imagination… to read the text, the world, and the soul in this way frees the tings of the world from their literality and reveals them as images and frees them for the images that they in turn liberate. (Cheetham, 2012, pp. 98-99).

It is this poetic imagination - a form of revelation in essence – which provides the authentication for the individual. It is inspiration and it comes from outside oneself, from the ‘other’. It is a living connection with the historical line of Old Testament prophets who themselves were often a prototype of the figure of the bard and “gave their utterances in poetic form, and hence in chanted style, and were known to use musical instruments” (Eaton, 1997, p. 14)(4). In a sense, the validation of authenticity from this standpoint is knowing what one has moved away from; the static, the hidebound - and that one is indeed on a journey, a journey which “itself has no end for there is no end to imagining – the essence of Imagination is to flow” (Cheetham, 2012, p. 106).

Corbin himself was a Christian thinker and, rejecting the doctrine of the incarnation as he did, would have felt in tune with current academic view that “in a way Islam is Christianity: technically from a Christian standpoint, it is a Christian sect, since it recognizes Jesus as the Christ; from a Muslim standpoint, it is the religion of the Messiah, which the Christians have deformed” (Baldick, 1989, p. 2) and he saw in Islam, particularly in its mystical aspect and in Shi’ism, the continuation of the prophetic tradition which been curtailed in Christianity since the 2ndcentury C.E. when

…any possibility of a new prophetic revelation dispensed by the Angels, or of a prophetic hermeneutics, was cut off, at least for and by the Great Church. From that time on the authority of the Great Church substituted itself for individual prophetic inspiration; this authority presupposes and at the same time legitimises the existence of a dogmatic magistery, and the dogma states everything that can or should be said. (Corbin, 1981, p. 82)

For the Christian Church prophecy does not exist as a living tradition and hence is very much in the position of non-mystical strands of Islam which see the prophetic tradition as in stasis and something that once pertained historically but is no longer active. In any event, prophecy as an equivalence of illumination as Corbin frames it, was never really a concept that took root in Christian thought. Christ is seen as the fulfilment of prophecy and, being held to be divine rather having status of prophet in the same way he does in Islamic thought, does not have the same equivalence as the traditional figure of a prophet. Likewise, Paul and the Apostles were often deemed to prophesy - and encouraged Church members to both follow suit and test those who did - but again they are not necessarily acting in the same tradition as the earlier Israelite prophets. The scholar J Reiling identifies three distinct strands of prophetic expression in early (pre 2ndcentury as in Corbin’s cut-off point) Christianity - the itinerant prophet, the local prophet and congregational prophecy (Reiling,1973, p. 10) - with congregational prophecy being clearly the form that Paul and the Apostles were referencing in the New Testament. This type of prophetic expression would seem to be a clear move away from the ‘individual’ approach outlined by Corbin as described above and the first step towards a more institutional understanding of prophecy which would later evolve and incorporate the functions of teaching and Church leadership.

In his 2006 book Prophecy and Discernment R. W. L. Moberley cites a definition of true and false prophecy given by the Biblical scholar William McKane

Whether a prophet is true or false depends on the content of his utterance which is available to public scrutiny, whether as heard or read, and not on the interior psychological state associated with his utterance. (McKane quoted in Moberley, 2006, p. 28)

We would argue that both conditions are true and that two different forms of prophecy have existed simultaneously, both of which have their roots and origins in what McKane evaluates as the ‘psychological state’ of the prophet and which Corbin and the esoteric streams in orthodox traditions would regard as the Imaginal Realm, what we have termed above the ‘prophetic space’.

The prophet enters this space through a variety of techniques and, once there, is in a state of being where he or she can receive revelation from the ‘other’. This we would argue is foundational to the prophetic (and indeed shamanic) experience. The difference in prophets is in part a difference of being and character but moreover there are prophets who have functions as Lawgivers. When the era of prophetic lawgiving fell away it was still possible for the individual to access the prophetic space on their own account for their own personal being and journey to God, just as it always had been. In the final analysis the authenticating of prophecy is, in a very real sense, a personal issue – if one is a practitioner of a given religion in a given period of time, say, then the matter of authentication would centre around the degree to which the prophet’s messages aligned with what the community had already established as a bedrock of belief. Indeed, this is one of the aspects of the prophetic calling; to cement and reinforce the structure of the community and keep them aligned to the core tenets of their faith. The matter of individual prophetic interaction is harder to pin down. It may be that the mystery of it is just that – a mystery but one which we can each only unravel in our own personal space. We shall conclude then with another quote from William McKane, again cited by Moberley

I shall assume, without argument, that there is a transcendental dimension, an encounter of the prophet with God, though I am aware of the logical disadvantage of producing such an ultimate -an unanalysable – mystery out of the hat. (McKane quoted in Moberley, 2006, p. 29)


  1. ‘God’s friends’ is another term for the Sufis who are more commonly known as the Saints - in Arabic: awliyā’
  2. Corbin is here speaking specifically of Shi’ism as that was his particular field of interest but his points can be applied in a wider sense to Sufism as a whole whether nominally Sunni or Shi’i
  3. In Sufi cosmology the prophets are identified with inner states of being – the ‘reality of Moses’, the ‘reality of Jesus’ etc – which form an ascending ladder which the mystical aspirant must climb by achieving identification with each.
  4. It is also of interest that Muhammad received revelation in poetic form and indeed the name Qur’an itself means ‘recital’ and has a marked poetic structure.

Reference List

  • Ashe, G. (2002) The Book of Prophecy. Orion
  • Baldick, J. (1989) Mystical Islam. I B Tauris.
  • Carroll, R. P. (1979) When Prophecy Failed: Reactions and responses to failure in the Old Testament prophetic traditions. SCM Press.
  • Cheetham T. (2012) All the World an Icon. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.
  • Corbin, H. (2014) History of Islamic Philosophy. Routledge.
  • Corbin, H. (19) Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press
  • Cornelius, G. (2014) The Divinatory Dialogue: Theoros and Hermeios
  • Cornelius, G. (2015) Prophecy and Provenance.
  • Eaton, J. (1997) Mysterious Messengers. A Course on Hebrew Prophecy from Amos Onwards. W B Eerdmans Publishing.
  • Jong, M. J. de. (2006) Isaiah among the Ancient Near Eastern Prophets : a comparative study of the earliest stages of the Isaiah tradition and the Neo-Assyrian prophecies.
  • Jong, M. J de. (2012) ‘The Fallacy of True and False in Prophecy Illustrated by Jer 28:8-9’, Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, 12(10). Journal of Hebrew Scriptures
  • Lange, A. (2007). ‘Greek Seers and Israelite-Jewish Prophets’. Vetus Testamentum, 57(4), 461-482.
  • Lindblom, J. (1967) Prophecy in Ancient Israel. Oxford, Basil Blackwell.
  • Moberley, R. W. L. (2006) Prophecy and Discernment. Cambridge University Press.
  • Nasr, S. H. (2006) Islamic Philosophy from its Origin to the Presentv. SUNY Press.
  • Porter, J.R. (1981) ‘Ancient Israel’ in Divination and Oracles, ed. M. Loewe and C. Blacker, George Allen & Unwin
  • Rafiabadi, H. N. (2005) Saints and Saviours of Islam. Sarup and Sons, New Delhi.
  • Reiling, J. (1973) Hermas and Christian Prophecy. Brill, Leiden.v
  • Voss, A. (2015) ‘Prophecy’ in Ghosts, Spirits and Psychics: The Paranormal from Alchemy to Zombies, ed. M. Cardin, ABC-CLIO, 233-236.
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