Of Prophets and Messengers

Of Prophets and Messengers

Neha Mehrotra | nm3148@columbia.edu

Photo by Neha Mehrotra

At times, the class at the Islamic Cultural Center of New York felt like elementary school. The imam would start off in a sing-song manner only to pause right before the end; at this point, he would linger expectantly, waiting for the congregants to finish his sentence. 

“The relation between Abraham and Ismail is….” he would begin.

“Son,” the congregants would resound. 

“From Ismail came the Muslims and from Jesus …?”


The entire exchange is a tennis match, the ball being thrown to and fro, with participation from both sides. And though this equality ensures inclusivity, it also strikes one as infantilizing, transforming the imam into a paternal figure and the participants into children. Perhaps that is part of the appeal. 

It is Saturday evening at the cultural center, located on Manhattan’s East Side, at 96th Street and Third Avenue. Between the Maghrib and Isha prayers, Imam Saad Jalloh leads the weekly teaching, known as Dars. Saturday’s Dars focuses on Fiqh, i.e., Islamic jurisprudence. Fiqh classes explore sharia, or divine law, as revealed in the Quran and Sunnah (teachings of Prophet Muhammad). Today, the emphasis is on Allah’s prophets and messengers: the difference between them, their rank and hierarchy relative to each other, the source of their knowledge, and finally, the teaching that they imparted. 

A religious and cultural institution “serving the neighbouring Muslim community of Manhattan in particular and entire Muslim community of America in general,” the Islamic Cultural Center was established in the 1960s by Muslim ambassadors from Saudi Arabia, Libya and Malaysia among others. Jalloh, himself, comes from Sierra Leone. In today’s sermon, he starts off simple, highlighting the basic characteristics that comprise prophets and messengers. “Allah placed 120,000 prophets and messengers here on Earth. He made sure that they had the best message, best family lineage, made them very good looking, with the best characteristics and best behavior. They were the best among all human beings.”

During the sermon, the imam speaks in Arabic and then repeats his words in broken English. This seems catered to accommodate the diversity of Muslims who frequent the mosque: from lifetime New Yorkers, to migrants from the Middle East, to South Asian Muslims, all of whom pray side by side in this giant prayer hall. Not everyone, however, is afforded unbridled access to the entire space. In keeping with the rules in mosques all around the world, men and women sit, and pray, separately. During this sermon too, the imam and approximately 50 male congregants sit in the main prayer hall out front. Two women and I sit at the back, separated from the main hall by a thick curtain. We cannot see the imam, and we definitely cannot respond to the periodic questions he throws out to his audience. 

The imam goes on to make a somewhat confusing comparison between messengers and prophets. “Messengers will come and spread God’s message. Prophets will revive this message. So every messenger is a prophet but every prophet is not a messenger,” he says. He doesn’t stop there. He explains that even within the ranks of the messengers and prophets, there are degrees of superiority. “Some are higher ranking than others. We prefer some messengers over others. We consider some better than others.”

However, as if catching himself in time, the imam continues: “But that doesn’t mean they are unequal. Regardless of rank, all prophets and messengers are commissioned by the same God with the same message. They worship the one God, Allah. All is One. The prophets may have different levels of expertise, different geographical spheres of influence, different miracles. But these are just different approaches that all converge into the same goal. All is One.”

Jalloh seems caught in a precarious balance: between the qualitative differences in the messengers of God, and the underlying unity of their message. He is effectively walking the tightrope between inequity and equality, trying to highlight one without letting go of the other. 

He ends the sermon with something like a warning: “Prophethood is a blessing that Allah grants to whoever he wishes. It’s not something you can work hard at until you get it. No one can achieve prophethood by working hard. No one can reach prophethood by garnering knowledge. It’s all up to Allah. Prophethood is a direct appointment from Allah. He decides and he has the final say.”

Jalloh’s last words are decisive; not like his lingering half-sentences of earlier, where he waited for congregants to finish his thought. In this case, Imam Jalloh, like Allah, has the final say.