Priesthood ? and Islam
By: Aftab Ahmad Khan
Priesthood is the office of a spiritual leader expert in the ceremonies of worship and the performance of religious rituals. Though chieftains, kings, and heads of households have sometimes performed priestly functions, in most civilizations the priesthood is a specialized office. The priest's duties are concerned less with magic than with the right performance of ritual acts required by the divine powers. Many African societies, for example, differentiated between shamans and the priests responsible for the worship of tribal ancestors. Sacrifice is often one of the most important duties of the priesthood. Not every highly developed religion possesses priesthood, the most notable exception being Islam.
Priesthood In Israelites:
The priesthood as institution exists among Israelites. The Hebrew; Cohen, (Greek; Hierus, Latin; Sacerdos), always denote one who offers sacrifices. Under the Levitical arrangements the office of the priesthood was limited to the Israeli tribe of Levi, and to only one family of that tribe, the family of Prophet Aaron (Harun, peace be upon him). Their duties have been mentioned in Bible to be manifold (Exodus; 27:20-21; 29:38-44; Leviticus; 6:12; 10:11; 24:8; Numbers;10:1-10; Deuteronomy;17:8-13;33:10; Malachi;2:7). The priests represented the people before God, and offered the various sacrifices prescribed in the law. The priests were well looked after by providing sufficient revenue like: Tenth of the tithes paid to the Levites (Numbers;18:26,28); First-fruits of tree (Numbers;18:8,12-13); Redemption-money of the first-born (Numbers;3:48; 18:15-16); First-born of animals or their substitutes (Numbers;18:17-18); First of the wool of sheep (Deuteronomy;18:4); Show-bread after its removal (Leviticus;24:9; 1Samuel; 21:4-6; Mathew; 12:4); Part of all sacrifices (Leviticus; 7:6-10, 31-34; Numbers;6:19;18:8-11;Deuteronomy;18:3); All devoted things (Numbers;18:14); All restitutions when the owner could not be found (Numbers;5:8) and a fixed portion of the spoil taken in war (Numbers;31:29,41).
Priesthood In Christianity:
The priesthood is the essential institution of Christianity. The Christian Roman Catholic church is characterized by an episcopal hierarchy with the pope as its head and belief in seven sacraments and the authority of tradition. It regards itself as the only legitimate inheritor of the ministry of Jesus, by virtue of an unbroken succession of leaders beginning with St. Peter and continuing to the present day. It holds that the pope is the infallible interpreter of divine revelation. Pope enjoys a very high privileged status, he even ruled Papal States comprising a group of territories in central Italy from 754 until 1870 C.E. They were originally given to the papacy by Pippin III (714-768, the King of the Franks and the father of Charlemagne) and reached their greatest extent in 1859. The last papal state the ‘Vatican City’ was formally established as a separate state by the Lateran Treaty of 1929. Church organization is strictly hierarchical. Within dioceses are parishes, each served by a church and a priest. In the episcopal ChristianChurches, Priest is a member of the second order of the ministry, ranking above deacons and below bishops and having authority to perform certain rites and administer certain sacraments. Only men can enter the priesthood, but women who wish to enter holy orders can become nuns, who are organized into orders and convents. The idea of the “priesthood of all believers” was also a cardinal doctrine of the Reformation, and the Protestant belief that priests are not needed as intermediaries between church members and the Holy Spirit is seen most clearly in sects such as the Society of Friends. Though reformers such as Jan Hus and John Wycliffe attacked abuses in the Roman Catholic Church in the late medieval period.
Islam on Priesthood:
The mainstream Islam abhors the priesthood, the institution misused and corrupted by the Jews and Christians. The concept of Imamah followed by Shi’a Islam can not be compared with the institution of pope, though there appears some semblance. Allah says: “They (Jews and Christians) have taken their rabbis and priests (Ahbar) to be their Lords beside Allah and so they did with Christ (Messiah- Jesus) the son of Mary, although they were commanded in the Torah and the Gospel to worship none but One Elah (Allah); besides Whom there is none worthy of worship. Exalted be He above those whom they associate with Him.”(Qur’an;9:31). Priest worship and the worship of saints and ascetics is a form of superstition to which people have been prone in all ages. The growth of Jewish superstition is shown in the Talmud, and of Christian superstition in the doctrine of papal infallibility and the worship of saints. The mere idea of a separate order of priesthood to stand between Allah and man and be the exclusive repository of Allah's secrets is derogatory to the goodness and all-pervading grace of Allah.
Muslims are required to worship only Allah and seed His help in all matters. Allah asks the believers to say: “ (O' Allah!) You Alone we worship and You Alone we call on for help”(Qur’an;1:5); “O you who have attained to faith! Remain conscious of God, and seek to come closer unto Him, and strive hard in His cause, so that you might attain to a happy state.”(Qur’an;5:35). Muslims are told to seek ardently the means (wasila) by which they may approach Him, and that can only be done by striving with might and main for His cause. This (wasila) is not through human or priests but the way of obedience and performance of good deeds according to the teachings of Qur’an and Sunnah. Allah says: "Those whom they call upon do desire (for themselves) means of access (wasila), to their Lord even those who are nearest: they hope for His Mercy and fear His Wrath: for the Wrath of thy Lord is something to take heed of."(Qur’an;17:57). Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) completed his mission; he was commanded to deliver the complete message of guidance, in unambiguous terms. Allah says: “O Messenger! Deliver the message which has been revealed to you from your Lord, and if you do not, you are not doing justice to your mission. Allah will protect you from the mischief of the people. Rest assured that Allah will not let the unbelievers succeed against you”(Qur’an;5:67). Any laxity in conveyance of message by hiding or concealing result in curse of God: “Those who conceal the clear proofs and the guidance, after We have made it clear in the Book for mankind, will have Allah's curse and that of those who are entitled to curse;”(Qur’an;2:159). The Messenger (peace be upon him) did not conceal any thing and completed his mission, at the time of Farewell Pilgrimage, the Messenger (peace be upon him) said: “Be my witness oh Allah that I have conveyed your message to your people”. It was also revealed from Allah: “..This day have I perfected your religion for you and completed My favor unto you, and have chosen for you as way of life (Din) AL- ISLAM..”(Qur’an;5:3). Hence any effort to introduce any thing new in the basics of Islam is nothing but ignorance, superstition and sacrilege.
The worship of "lords many and gods many" was not confined only to the Pagans. The deification of the son of Mary is put in the verse (Qur’an;9:31) in a special clause by itself, as it held (and still holds) in its thrall a large portion of civilized humanity. At an other place, it is recorded in Qur’an: “Say: "O people of the Book! come to common terms as between us and you: that we worship none but Allah; that we associate no partners with Him; that we erect not from among ourselves Lords and patrons(Cohen, pope, priests, saints) other than Allah." If then they turn back say: "Bear witness that we (at least) are Muslims (bowing to Allah's will).”(Qur’an;3:64).The same remarks apply to the status of saints and pir. They may be pure and sincere according to their faith, (which no one knows except Allah) but no one can protect or claim Lordship over people except Allah, Who says: “When my servants question you about Me, tell them that I am very close to them. I answer the prayer of every suppliant when he calls Me; therefore, they should respond to Me and put their trust in Me, so that they may be rightly guided.”(Qur’an;2:186); “And your Lord says: "Call on Me, I will answer your prayers. Surely those who are too arrogant to worship Me shall soon enter hell in humiliation."(Qur’an;40:60). The corruption of rabbis, priests and pir is a barrier to the true path. Allah says: “O believers! Indeed most of the (Jewish) rabbis and (Christian) priests misappropriate the wealth of people and hinder them from the way of Allah. To those who hoard gold and silver and do not spend it in the way of Allah, proclaim a painful punishment.”(Qur’an;9:34). Hence the divine wisdom of abolishing priesthood through Islam is self evident. Some Muslim communities under the influence of local culture and ignorance, tend to go beyond the limits in extending reverence to the noble preachers of old which is not sanctioned by Islam.
With the passage of time a class of Mullahs (religious teachers, cleric)with priestly tendencies alien to Islam has been developed because, the Muslim rulers encouraged and created this class by not themselves leading the prayers (salah) and delivering the weekly sermon (khutba) on Fridays congregation; which was a direct link between the ruler and people. With the narrowing down the scope of education in Madaris by restricting to the religious education only; this class of Mullah came in to being: hence in certain cases the semi literate people are leading prayers in mosques as prayer leader (Imam), the function which can be performed by any Muslim well versed with Islam. Since ordinary Muslims are dependent upon Mullah for the socio-religious functions like Nikah (marriage contract), reciting Adhan (prayer call) and Qur’anic verses in the ear of new born babies, washing the dead and burial prayer etc, the Mullah enjoys considerable influence over ordinary Muslims. In the words of Dr.Israr Ahmad; The role of Ulema (Mullah) today, instead of being that of an engine capable of propelling the ship of Islam forward, is actually nothing more than that of a heavy anchor which prevents the ship from drifting away in any wrong direction. Although, under the present circumstances, even this is a commendable and substantial service, the fact remains that this is by no means enough. Another aspect of the activity of Ulema (Mullah) that needs correction is their usually strong emphasis on sectarian mattes. A serious stagnation of thought along with dogmatism has set in, ever since the practice of Ijtihad (‘independent reasoning’ as opposed to ‘taqlid’-imitation) was done away with. The religious seminaries and Ulema (Mullah) of every sect are therefore spending most of their time and energies in defending and propagating their particular brands of dogma and rituals, often insisting that any variation in such matters is nothing short of apostasy. Such narrow mindedness has exacerbated the evil of sectarianism and the resulting intolerance among the masses has led to a dangerous trend towards sectarian militancy. There is strong need of policy shift to bring them to mainstream. The superfluous priesthood, (the form it has taken now) has to be restricted by the society whereby each Muslim or at least majority should acquire normal religious knowledge to perform routine religious functions and reduce dependence on Mullah. A class of genuine religious scholars well versed in the theology, basic sciences and comparative religions should always be an asset for Ijtihad, guidance and education of the masses in their religious obligations.
Asceticism and Monasticism :
Asceticism and monasticism is not prescribed in Islam, though the humility or unselfishness that go with asceticism may have its value. Asceticism often means the negation of art and beauty, it has no necessary sanctity attached to it. The beautiful and good things of life are really meant for, and should be the privilege of those with faith in Allah. If they do not always have them in this life, and if there is sometimes the semblance of others having them who do not deserve them, let it be remembered that this is a test from Allah. In the life to come they will be purely for the faithful. Allah says: “Say: Who hath forbidden the adornment (zenah) of God which He has brought forth for His devotees, and the good things of His providing? Say: "All these things are for the enjoyment of the believers in the life of this world though shared by others; but these shall be exclusively theirs on the Day of Resurrection. Thus do We make Our revelations clear for those who understand. Say: The things that my Lord hath indeed forbidden are: shameful deeds whether open or secret; sins and trespasses against truth or reason; assigning of partners to God for which he hath given no authority; and saying things about God of which you have no knowledge.”(Qur’an;7:32-33). The believers should use all kinds of gifts with gratitude which Allah has provided, but excess is not approved of by Allah. Christian monks are praised for particular virtues, though the monasticism is disapproved of. “…But the monasticism which they invented for themselves We did not prescribe for them: (We commanded) only the seeking for the Good pleasure of Allah;…(Qur’an;57:27). Allah certainly requires that men shall renounce the idle pleasures of this world, and turn to the path which leads to good pleasure of Allah. However that does not mean gloomy lives and isolation. Allah's service is done through pure lives in the turmoil of this world. "Our Lord! Give unto us in the world that which is good and in the Hereafter that which is good, and guard us from the doom of Fire."(Qur’an;2:201). This spirit was lost, or at least not fostered by monastic institutions. On the contrary a great part of the "struggle and striving" for noble life was suppressed. The introvert and pessimistic approach would have disastrous consequences. The Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) provides complete guidance; As per Qur’an; “It is He Who has sent amongst the Unlettered an apostle from among themselves to rehearse to them His Signs to sanctify them and to instruct them in Scripture and Wisdom although they had been before in manifest error”(Qur’an;62:2). The Muslims gain spiritual satisfaction through practicing the six fundamentals of Islam and non obligatory (nawafil) modes of worship like additional prayers, fasting and charity (sadaqah).