Islam’s Views Of The Number Of Prophets – OpEd


Islamic traditions relate that Allah has sent 124,000 prophets to teach monotheism to all human beings. Prophets were sent to the whole of mankind in different lands and at different times. One version of a hadith puts the number of different prophets sent to all mankind as 124,000 (Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 5, 169) The Qur’an states: “There never was a people without a Warner (prophet or messenger) having lived among them’ (35:24); and “We (Allah) would never visit our wrath (chastise any community) until We had sent a Messenger to give warning’ (17:15)

Most non-Muslims, and even some Muslims, think 124,000 prophets is a great exaggeration, but it is not once one understands the evolution of religions before the time of Adam. 

Estimates of the worldwide population of humans before the beginnings of agriculture range from I million to 10 million. Before humans left Africa in large numbers, about 60-70,000 years ago, the figure was probably 1-3 million. Humans lived in small groups of hunter-gatherer bands as anthropologists call them of about 30-100 individuals. Some time before leaving Africa, the religious activities of the bands became strong enough to unite and transform the smaller bands of 30-200 individuals into much larger populations of clans and tribes of many hundreds of individuals. 

There are limits to the size of personal networks of bands of individual humans. Many studies have found the mean size of extended networks (the largest component of a band’s person’s social network) to be about 100 and 200 (see Boissevain 1974:117; Hill and Dunbar 2003; McCarty et al. 2001; Roberts et al. 2009; Stiller and Dunbar 2007). Religion provided the bonds that enabled bands of many dozens to become tribes of many hundreds.

Our human species originally emerged in Africa about 200-300 thousand years ago and until about 30–60 thousand years ago typically used tools and tool-making techniques now referred to as Middle Stone Age toolkits. About 30-60,000 years ago distinct Later Stone Age toolkits for humans like us began to emerge in northern, eastern, and southern Africa and spread out of Africa and throughout Eurasia. 

It was during this time that pre-Adam religions brought smaller tribes together into the larger size tribes that led to the demise of the three pre-Homo Species hominin species that were around: the Neanderthals in Europe and western Asia, the Denisovans in East Asia, and the “hobbits” from the Indonesian island of Flores.

I think the major reason Homo Sapiens alone survived is because they were fruitful and multiplied better than the others; and because they spread throughout the world faster. They had turned from bands and clans of families with dozens of fighters into tribes of many clans and tribes with many hundreds of fighters held together by their tribal religious celebrations, yearly pilgrimages, ancestral myths, and shaman-priests. 

These tribes pushed the smaller bands and clans away from the best resources, especially during times of prolonged drought. Their greater tribal numbers also resulted in more variety of skills and discoveries as well as greater opportunities to engage in long distance trade. The Qur’an itself refers to all these advantages.

“Humanity was [of] one religion [pre-Adam polytheism]; then Allah sent the prophets as bringers of good tidings and warners and sent down with them Scripture (Torah, Zabur, Evangel, and the Qur’an) in truth to judge between the people concerning that in which they differed. And none differed over the Scripture except those who were given it – after the clear proofs came to them – out of jealous animosity among themselves. And Allah guided those who believed to the truth concerning that over which they had differed, by His permission. And Allah guides whom He wills to a straight path. (2:213)

Polytheistic nature religions brought clans together into tribes; but for monotheism to grow beyond Hanif individuals, God had to send prophets. This is why Genesis tells us that only in later generations did the descendants of Adam begin to use the name of the one God written in the Bible (YHVH Genesis 4:26) “Then men began to call upon the name of YHVH-the LORD” Thus, Adam and Eve are the archetypes of ‘civilized by religion’ Homo Sapiens.

Small groups that lack an incest taboo will be plagued by the ills of inbreeding; so exogamy in mating will be selected for over the generations. As ancestor worship strengthens kinship ties over more and more generations, it also expands kinship ties over more nomadic bands creating larger clans and tribes. 

These clans and tribes must have gathered periodically at a special religious place to exchange future mates. They also started exchanging i.e. trading for desirable objects not found in their usual locale. Seashells, obsidian, red ocher and other materials have been found in campsites and graves more than 100-200 miles away from their closest source. The stronger the attraction of a special place, the greater the effort that distant clans will make to attend, so gathering spots that are turned into sacred sites of pilgrimage through special seasonal rites will enrich human communities both socially and economically. 

There are scholars who think that Homo Sapiens advanced trade networks helped them to out compete Homo Neanderthals in Europe (recent studies of Homo Neanderthal DNA show that our genome does contain between 1-4% Homo Neanderthals genes; (see Science News 1/1/11 p. 28)

The need for all the clans to show up about the same time leads to fixed seasonal holy days and religious calendars. The need to mark time for pilgrimage festivals led people to study the cycle of the moon and the movement of the constellations. 

I have not devoted much attention to the development of beliefs about God in this essay. First of all, we know next to nothing about the God concepts of prehistoric humans, except that they made many thousands of carved statues of which hundreds of female birth goddesses have been found. Second, while beliefs about God are of great concern to Monotheists, most other religions focus much more attention on myths about the interactions between the Gods, magic and anti-magic rituals, dietary self-discipline, public and private life cycle rituals, standards of social and personal behavior, healing sickness and sin, and community ceremonies and celebrations. 

Formal creeds and religious beliefs are a small and recent development within the much larger domain of feelings of trust and group loyalty that have been evolving among primates for tens of thousands of years. 

Recent brain studies have shown how biologically organic trust and sharing are to human minds. Activities that build group loyalty and interpersonal trust enhance individual survival and promote individual spirituality much more than cognitive beliefs and ideologies. But urbanization, writing and mass communications may be changing this. Written revelation introduced a tremendous force expanding the power of religion both in space and time.  

The development of a class of religious scholars who study sacred scriptures and attempt to spread the sacred teachings among the people only happens when a religion has a “book”. The impact of religions with written revelations on historic human culture is comparable to the impact of modern science and invention on 20th century lifestyles. Both together will make the 21st century a turning point in human destiny.

What role does God (the One God of the revealed religions) play in all this? According to Genesis 4:26 humans only began to call upon the name of the Lord in the days of Enosh. That could mean that prior to Enosh prehistoric religions evolved naturally. Only with the rise of scriptural revelations did the One God enter into human consciousness. 

Or it could mean that human consciousness had risen to the level of being able to receive Divine communication from the One God. It took over 3,000 years for monotheism to spread world-wide even with scriptural revelations so it is not surprising that it took almost a 100,000 years to get humans ready to receive revelations.  

Spirituality among Homo Sapiens has been evolving for at least 100-150,000 years. Religion is as deeply, if not more deeply rooted, in the HS brain as art or music. Recent studies, especially those on adult twins who were raised apart, suggest genes contribute about 40% of the variability in a person’s general religiousness. 

The idea that reason, socialism or modern science would replace spiritual and religious thinking has turned out to be a wish fulfillment fantasy of some people, many of whom bear a grudge against religion and spirituality. Religious rituals and ideas are ubiquitous among humans and continue to evolve as the creative intelligent minds of Homo Sapiens encounter changes in their environment. This will most likely continue as long as humans have creative intelligent minds. 

Or as Albert Einstein put it: “What is the meaning of human life, or of organic life altogether? To answer this question at all implies a religion. Is there any sense then, you ask, in asking it? I answer, people who regard their own life and that of their fellow creatures as meaningless, are not merely unfortunate, but almost disqualified for life.” (The World as I See It, Sacramento, Ca. Citadel Press, 1993 p.5)

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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