What authority are God's messengers given?

The messengers of God are sent to deliver various messages from God, while the messengers who are also Prophets are assigned the task of delivering God's Scriptures to mankind. It is important for believers to understand the role of the messengers and also the authority that God gives them. It is of equal importance to understand what lies outside the authority of the messengers of God. We find that the majority of the cases of idolizing a messenger of God can be traced to the fact that the followers of a messenger ascribe to him greater authority than what God has given him.

What a Messenger is

1- Deliverer of God's message

A messenger of God is entrusted with the task of delivering a message from God to the people. The message entrusted to a messenger can be any one or combination of the following:

1- Delivering a new Book/Scripture to a people.
2- Delivering specific messages to a people.
3- Unveiling information that has been kept hidden inside a Scripture.
4- Confirming an existing Scripture and calling the people to return to the path of God after they have deviated.

Delivering God's message is therefore the focal point and duty of any messenger. God sees to it that His messengers accomplish this duty to its completion.

O you messenger, deliver what is brought down to you from your Lord. If you do not, then you have not delivered His message. 5:67

2- Warner, deliverer of news, teacher and purifier

When God sends a messenger to a people, this messenger does not deliver the message and leaves in the way a postman does after delivering a letter, rather, the messenger spends his whole life as a preacher to his people. Numerous Quranic verses tell us that messengers are sent as warners, deliverers of news, teachers and purifiers. We have many examples in the Quran of messengers who spent many years attempting to guide their people and purify them from their sins. The despairing words of Noah to God in Sura 71 provide such example:

We have sent Noah to his people, "Warn your people before a painful punishment comes to them." He said, "O my people, I am a clear warner to you. You shall worship God, revere Him and obey me. He will then forgive you your sins and defer you for a specified term. When God's specified time arrives it cannot be delayed if you only knew." He said, "My Lord, I have called my people night and day, but my calling only increased their desire to run away! Whenever I invited them, that You may forgive them, they placed their fingers in their ears, covered themselves with their clothes, persisted and acted with great arrogance. Then I invited them publicly. Then I announced to them openly and spoke to them privately." 71:1-9

Messengers are sent to their people as teachers and purifiers (by inviting them to the straight path of God):

We also sent you a messenger from amongst you to recite Our revelations to you and to purify you, and to teach you the Scripture and wisdom, and to teach you what you knew not. 2:151

Messengers are also sent as warners and deliverers of news:

We have sent you (O Messenger) with the truth as a bearer of news and a warner. 2:119

3- Witness on Judgement Day

We have sent to you a messenger as a witness over you, just as we sent to Pharaoh a messenger. 73:15

Everyone among the people of the Book was required to believe in him before his death. On the Day of Resurrection, he (Jesus) will be a witness against them. 4:159

How will it be when We bring a witness from every nation, and bring you as a witness over these? 4:41

What a Messenger is not

As presented above, the Quranic words are clear in establishing what authority is given to God's messengers. Equally, God makes it very clear as to what authority is not given to His messengers.

1- Warner but not Enforcer

We read a clear message in the Quran related to the role of the messenger as a deliverer of God's message without being an enforcer of the message:

You shall remind, for you are but a reminder. You are not a controller over them. 88:21-22

Follow what has been revealed to you from your Lord, there is no god but He, and keep away from the mushrikeen. Had God willed, they would not have committed shirk. We did not appoint you as a guardian over them, nor are you a trustee over them. 6:106-107

God asserts that the messenger is only to deliver the message and warn. A messenger is not appointed as a guardian, nor an enforcer.

Say, "O people, the truth has come to you from your Lord. Whoever is guided is guided for himself and whoever goes astray does so to his own detriment. I am not a trustee over you." 10:108

If they turn away, your sole mission is the delivery (of the message). God is Seer of the people. 3:20

Say, 'It is the truth from your Lord', then whoever wills shall believe and whoever wills shall disbelieve. 18:29

Once again, the emphasis on the fact that the messenger has no power to enforce the message on anyone is strongly stated.

2- Deliverer of God's Law but not Law Maker

In the case of a Prophet, he delivers to his people the Scripture that contains God's law. We read in the Quran that the role of the Law Maker is one that is exclusively retained by God Almighty.

When God gave Moses a complete and detailed law (7:145), God commanded Moses and the people of Israel to adhere closely to the Law of God and never to follow any other Law (Leviticus 18:1-5).

Similarly, when God revealed the Quran to Muhammad, God commanded Muhammad and all his followers to follow the Law of God in the Quran and no other source:

Shall I seek other than God as a law maker, when He has revealed to you this Book fully detailed? 6:114

It is stressed in the Quran, in more than one verse, that no human being (messengers included) has the right to authorise any religious laws not specifically authorised in the Quran. It is also asserted that whoever follows such laws falls automatically into the trap of shirk:

Or do they have 'shuraka' (partners with God) who legislate for them religious laws which were not authorised by God? If it were not for a decisive decree, they would have been judged immediately. Indeed the transgressors shall have a painful punishment. 42:21

God in His infinite wisdom knows very well that in spite of all these firm assurances, there will still be those who argue in favour of assigning the right of law making to the messenger they follow. For that, God deliberately included a very significant incident in the Quran as a reminder for all believers:

O you Prophet, why do you prohibit what God has made lawful for you, seeking to please your wives? God is Forgiver, Merciful. 66:1

This glorious verse confirms a number of issues:

1- We gather from the Quranic words above that Prophet Muhammad had prohibited an item that was made lawful by God. Many accounts of this incident have been narrated. Perhaps the most common is the one where it is told that the Prophet prohibited honey on himself following a domestic dispute with some of his wives. It is important here to stay focused on the message of 66:1 rather than be distracted by any details that are not mentioned in the verse. The nature of the item which the Prophet prohibited and the details of the dispute are irrelevant. What matters is that the Prophet made the mistake of prohibiting something which was made lawful by God. This could have been honey, figs, peanuts or anything else. In other words, the Prophet played the role of a law maker, when his sole role was only to deliver God's message (5:92).

2- We then read the very significant words at the end of the verse "God is Forgiver, Merciful".

In other words, God is telling the Prophet that he made a mistake but that God would forgive him as God is the Most Merciful.

3- It is also important to note that God did not include the words of 66:1 in the Quran to belittle the Prophet in the eyes of the reader of the Quran. Not at all, we read throughout the Quran that God's messengers are spoken of highly and are well praised. Then why does God include this incident in the Quran? The obvious answer is that God sets this as a reminder for all believers across all time that no one, not even God's Prophets, have the authority to play the role of a law maker.

3- Honourable men with resolve but also accountable

God selects men with firm resolve who are worthy of delivering His messages to the people as messengers:

So be patient, just like the messengers who had resolve were patient. 46:35

The messengers of God are honourable men with excellent character:

They said, "The Almighty has taken a son." Glory to Him! Rather, they (messengers) are but honoured servants. 21:26

You (O Muhammad) are of a great moral character. 68:4

We have tested before them the people of Pharaoh and an honourable messenger (Moses) came to them. 44:17

O John, you shall uphold the Scripture firmly. We endowed him with good judgement as a young boy, as well as kindness from Us and purity, he was reverent. He treated his parents with kindness and respect and was not a disobedient tyrant. 19:12-14

Indeed, Abraham was forbearing, extremely kind and devoted. 11:75

And mention in the Book Abraham; he was a truthful Prophet. 19:41

He said, "I am the messenger of your Lord, to grant you a pure son (Jesus)." 19:19

And mention in the Book Moses. He was faithful and he was a Messenger Prophet. 19:51

And mention in the Book Ishmael. He was true to his promise and he was a Messenger Prophet. 19:54

The messengers of God are righteous men who fear God:

And We granted him (Abraham) Isaac and Jacob, as extra blessings, and We made both of them righteous. 21:72

We admitted him (Lot) into Our mercy. Indeed, he was one of the righteous.21:75

Also, Ishmael, Enoch and Ezekiel; each one was among the steadfast.
We admitted them into Our mercy. They were among the righteous. 21:85-86

However, the Quran also stresses the fact that all will stand in front of the Almighty and be accountable. This applies to all humans including God's messengers.

The Quran confirms that all the messengers will be held accountable, just as the rest of the human race will be held accountable:

We will question those to whom the message has been sent, and We will question the messengers. 7:6

When the sky is split open, and when the mountains are blown up, and when the messengers are gathered to their appointed time. 77:9-12

Indeed, there is none in the heavens and the earth who does not come to the Almighty as a servant. 19:93

4- Blessed with wisdom but not infallible

In order to enable the messengers to accomplish their assigned mission, God blesses His messengers with wisdom:

We also sent you a messenger from amongst you to recite Our revelations to you and to purify you, and to teach you the Scripture and wisdom, and to teach you what you knew not. 2:151

Our Lord, and raise in their midst a messenger from themselves to recite to them Your revelations, and teach them the Scripture and the wisdom, and purify them. You are the Dignified, the Wise. 2:129

When Jesus came with the clear proofs, he said, "I come to bring you wisdom and to clarify some of the matters in which you dispute. You shall revere God and obey me. 43:63

Other verses also assert the same truth that God endows His messengers with wisdom, such as: Joseph (12:22), Lot (21:74), Moses (28:14) and David (38:20).

However, the Quran also emphasises that the messengers of God are not infallible. They are able to make mistakes just like anyone else. Many examples are given in the Quran for specific mistakes committed by various messengers and Prophets. We note that Prophet Muhammad was reprimanded in the Quran six times for mistakes he committed (8:67-68, 9:43, 9:113, 33:37, 66:1 and 80:1-11). We read in 48:2 about God telling Muhammad that He will forgive all his past and future sins. Obviously God would not say these words to an infallible man who never commits any errors.

Mistakes for other messengers include Moses killing an innocent man, Jonah abandoning God's mission half way through its completion, Solomon forgetting his prayer, Joseph (when he was in prison) putting his trust and fate in the ruler's hand when he should have remembered that God is the only One to decide his fate.

Perhaps, the principal reason we are told of all these mistakes in the Quran is to establish the fact that God's messengers are human beings like all of us and that they should not be idolised or regarded as divine infallible figures.

Say (O Muhammad), "I am no more than a human like you, and it has been inspired to me that your god is but One God. So whoever longs to meet his Lord shall do good deeds and never associate anyone in the worship of his Lord." 18:110

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The above are some of the Quranic verses that assert what messengers are, as well as what they are not.

Sadly, and after all these clear Quranic assurances, the majority of Muslims still regard Prophet Muhammad as an infallible human being who never committed any errors and that he had the authority to make laws and prohibitions besides God!