Wahy and Ilham (Revelation and Inspiration)

Revelation and inspiration are two subjects that have been much discussed in Islamic religious sciences, as well as by Sufis, as they are each an important dimension of effusion and manifestation. The Sufis have mostly recollected Revelation and inspiration when manifestation is discussed, and since the former ceased after the migration of the Last of the Prophets, upon him be peace and blessings, to the eternal world, the latter has been the focus of discussions concerning the subject.

Telling someone about something, suggestion or gesture, sending a messenger, speaking to someone so privately that no one else can hear, conveying knowledge and information into someone's heart that one would otherwise be required to study, directing some being to act in a certain way without the will of that being, and enabling that being to succeed in some tasks or activities—all these are some of the meanings of Revelation and inspiration.

According to the methodologists in Islamic religious sciences, Revelation means that God conveys or imparts some knowledge from His Presence to His Prophets with or without a means. It is also used for the spiritual words that He puts into the hearts of the Prophets in ways unknown to us. The one who is nearest of all to God, upon him be peace and blessings, who was honored with all types of Revelation, said: "The Spirit of Holiness has been breathed into my spirit." Thus, he stated that Revelation is a spiritual communication between God and His Prophets; however, he made no further explanation as to how it occurs.

Revelation, which can be described as breathing into hearts, occurs within a wide area, ranging from various manifestations to the Master of creation, upon him be peace and blessings, to the inspiration in the heart of the mother of the Prophet Moses, as stated in the verse, We inspired into Moses' mother (28:7), and thereafter to what we can define as God's direction or guiding, which is mentioned in the verse, Your Lord has inspired the honeybee (16:68). Revelation sometimes occurs as a suggestion through a single sound, gesture or hint, without speech. So, when we mention Revelation, we may sometimes mean this, without meaning Revelation in the religious sense. The revelation mentioned in the verse, So he (Zachariah) came out to his people from the sanctuary, and revealed (signified) to them: "Glorify your Lord at daybreak and in the afternoon" (19:11), and that in the verse, The satans reveal (do whisper and make suggestions) to their confidants to contend with you… (6:121), are of the kind that mean suggestion, signifying, and whispering.

Revelation, in the sense that God Almighty speaks to His Prophets, occurred in any one of the three ways below (42:51):

  • It is not for any mortal that God should speak to him unless it be by Revelation: That is, God Almighty directly puts His message in the Prophet's heart and the Prophet knows that this message is from God.
  • Or from behind a veil: That is, the Almighty conveys His decrees to His chosen servants through their internal and external receptors such as their ears and inner senses.
  • Or by sending a messenger (angel) to reveal, by His leave, whatever He wills (to reveal): That is, the Almighty charges one obeyed and trustworthy (angel) who is embodied in a certain form.

God Almighty conveyed His messages to the Prophets, His noble servants, in one of these three ways. In most cases, He employed an angel. According to the Qur'an and the Prophet's authentic Sunna, this angel is Gabriel, whom God describes in the Qur'an as one that is obeyed and trustworthy (81:21). This is the soundest and most elevated way of Revelation. In addition, such a being, mediating between God and His Prophets, is a witness on behalf of the Revealer for those who received the Revelation. So, revealing through an angel is regarded as the main means of Revelation.

Although Revelation came to the great ones among the Prophets mostly by means of an angel, Revelation is also an interactive phenomenon between God and the hearts of His chosen servants. This point is worth deep consideration. Such a transcendent interaction is a special, most elevated favor of God to those who are qualified for it; there is no other rank in the world comparable to it. This interaction occurs in the form of Revelation with the Prophets and of inspiration with the saints. Although Prophets and saints appear to share the same heavenly table in being favored with this metaphysical interaction, Revelation is an objective address which is clear in meaning and binding as a Divine message, one that is witnessed and confirmed by the One Who sends it, as well as the one who conveys it. As for inspiration, it is of a particular nature, open to interpretation, and since it is not conveyed by an angel, it is neither witnessed nor confirmed. Therefore, it is not a binding Divine message.

Both Revelation and inspiration indicate the metaphysical, angelic aspect of humanity. As stated in, I have breathed into him out of My Spirit (38:72), it was by virtue of this breathing as a spiritual means or reason that the Prophet Adam, upon him be peace, was favored with vicegerency or regency on the earth. This breathing, which was the origin of the human spirit and therefore human life, is comparable to Revelation. Just as the spirit is the source and mechanism of human life, so too is the Revelation a source and mechanism of the spiritual life of humanity, as it can be seen that God sometimes uses spirit in the same meaning as Revelation: He conveys the spirit (the life-giving Revelation, from the immaterial realm) of His command to whom He wills of His servants(40:15).

In the person of the Prophet Adam, upon him be peace and blessings, humankind has been honored with both of these favors. That is, Adam and his descendants were equipped with potential vicegerency through God's initial breathing into them out of His "Spirit," and then some among them were qualified to be honored with Prophethood, or sainthood, by God's sending them Revelation or inspiration. This can also be viewed as a three-step development. First, God Almighty honored matter with the human spirit through His initial breathing of spirit into it. In the second step, human nature was purified of bad morals or vices and directed toward virtues and therefore toward true humanity by God's breathing something of Revelation or inspiration into it. In the third step, those whose nature was perfectly purified were made, through special favors, the doves in the realms where spirits fly.

Based on this reality, we can say that generations that are not trained and fed by Revelation cannot attain true or perfect human life, nor can those whose breasts do not effervesce with inspiration be honored with vicegerency in the sense of improving the earth with truly useful and necessary operations. In fact, Revelation is an absolutely necessary foundation for the intellectual and spiritual life of humanity, and inspiration is the means by which Revelation develops and flourishes over time to meet the necessities and intellectual levels of every age.

Inspiration, this extremely important source which is based on the Qur'an and the Sunna and which finds its true worth in conformability with them, keeps silent where it must do so out of respect for the Qur'an and the Sunna, speaking only based upon them, and never attempts to transgress them or use them to confirm any possible errors. Although it is not a source of objective knowledge, it has always served as a source of recourse, like a spring of sweet, fresh water. Some distinguished scholars have regarded inspiration to be among the stipulations that are necessary to do ijtihad, that is, to deduce new laws based on the Qur'an and Sunna to meet the emerging requirements in every age, and have thus evaluated it as the deciding factor when there are conflicting views.

Saints pay greater attention and value to inspiration and assign an even broader area for it. The breadth of the area where inspiration is applicable depends on our scope of knowledge and ability to use it. We can consider this as transforming knowledge into actions and deepening in inspiration through knowledge of God so that we are able to be open to Divine favors. We can liken this process to winds that move clouds of rain. As long as these winds blow or are blown, inspiration pours like heavy rain. When it does not come like heavy rain, it comes in drizzles. The Master of creation, upon him be perfect blessings and peace, proclaims: "God inspires what they do not know in the ones who practice what they know." This can be viewed as a wonder of knowledge. Those who have expert knowledge of the matter call the acquired knowledge that causes inspiration to come "the knowledge of what is outward and explicit" or "the knowledge acquired," while the knowledge that arises through inspiration is considered to be "the knowledge of what is inward and implicit" or "the knowledge bestowed as a pure favor."

Inspiration is acceptable and regarded as sound so long as it is in conformity with the indisputable principles and foundations established by the Qur'an and the Sunna, and as long as it can be viewed as an origin of rules of a secondary degree. However, it is of a subjective character, and therefore it is not binding on others. But the Revelation which comes to the Prophets, is an objective, binding phenomenon. Revelation takes place beyond the spheres of the human soul and sensations, and its certainty transcends the conviction which comes from mere knowledge. As mentioned above, it usually occurs by means of an angelic envoy. As for what is stated in the verse, And He revealed to His servant what He revealed (53:10), it is one of the ways in which Revelation comes. This verse, as particularly related to the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, expresses a direct, heavenly, unique favor—an extra reward—in accordance with the spirit of the Ascension, for the hero of nearness to God. The angel who brought the Revelation of the Qur'an taught the Prophet how to recite it. This was guidance in a particular field of one who was superior in general terms by one who was inferior.

Muhyi'd-Din ibn al-'Arabi regards Revelation as a development from the rank of absorption,[1] or concentration on the Divine Being, toward the rank of elaboration, where the Divine Being manifests Himself with His Speech. According to him, whatever there is in the name of existence consists of a development from a concentrated or compacted form toward elaboration or expansion. Another important one who was aware of the Divine mysteries interprets the phenomenon of Revelation as transition from existence as knowledge to existence perceived. This second interpretation can be viewed as the willful, direct, or indirect effusion of Divine Knowledge in the form of Speech to one endowed with the required intellectual and spiritual equipment.

Another phenomenon discussed in connection with inspiration is that of imparting information. Inspiration is knowledge or perception that radiates in the heart as a Divine grace. It cannot be the source of any objective, binding religious rule, although it can be seen and accepted as a means of illumination and clarification in some respects by those who receive it and those who follow them as guides. Imparting information occurs in parallel with, or is proportionate to, human effort. Without any efforts on the part of a human being, imparting information cannot occur. However, inspiration is a Divine gift in which human effort has little part. Unlike Revelation, inspiration comes without any intermediary and is a special, direct way of communication. According to the majority of scholars, the angels of Revelation do not come and bring messages to people other than the Prophets.

Both Revelation and inspiration are special favors of God to those endowed with the special intellectual and spiritual equipment for receiving them. The purpose for these favors is to convey God's decrees to His servants. Both Prophets and saints approach Revelation and inspiration in terms of their responsibility to personally practice and represent God's decrees in their lives and convey them to others, without ever thinking of boasting about them, or seeing them as a means of special rank.

As 'Abdu'l-Wahhab ash-Sharani[2] points out, both feeling and receiving the Divine effusions of Revelation and inspiration require a special disposition, as well as intellectual and spiritual endowments. It is by developing such intellectual and spiritual endowments that Prophets or saints train some of their emotions and faculties which are regarded as the origin of certain vices in human nature, and restrict them in such a way that they are able to use them as required by the Divine purpose for their creation. This is also the way in which they develop or deepen in spirituality. Human beings rise to the point where they can perceive the metaphysical breezes that blow in different wavelengths in proportion to their struggling against or training the faculties that are the origins of vices in their nature; these breezes stimulate the spirit toward moral and spiritual perfection. Such people can even rise to the horizon unrestricted by the measures of our time and space, where they can acquire knowledge of many things pertaining to the Unseen.

The Prophets are incomparable heroes of this attainment. After these most illustrious servants of God come the saints and the purified, exacting scholars, who are regarded as His other noble servants in the heavens and on the earth. Divided into such classes of the godly, virtuous ones and those favored with God's special nearness, these noble servants of God receive and convey God's decrees like a central system, and give guidance to those traveling on the way to God.

O God! Show us the truth as truth and enable us to observe it, and show us falsehood as falsehood and enable us to avoid it. And bestow Your blessings and peace upon our master, Muhammad, and on His Family and Companions, altogether.

[1] For the rank of absorption (Maqam Jam'), see M. Fethullah Gülen, Emerald Hills of the Heart – Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, The Light, NJ, 2004, vol. 2, pp. 199–205. (Tr.)

[2] Imam 'Abdu'l-Wahhab ash-Sharani (897/1492–973/1566): A great scholar of the sixteenth century. He lived in Egypt, and wrote books on jurisprudence, theology, Sufism, medicine, and grammar. Kitab al-Mizan ("The Book on Balance") is his most famous book. (Tr.)
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