John the Baptist, according to the narratives of the four Evangelists, was a cousin and contemporary of Jesus, being only about six months older than the latter. The Qur'an does not mention anything about the life and work of this Prophet except that God, through the angels, announced to his father Zachariah: "And the angels called out to him when he was standing in the sanctuary worshipping, saying: 'Allah gives you glad tidings of John, who shall confirm a Word of Allah. He shall be a master and caste, a Prophet and from the righteous.'" Ch:3:39 Qur'an. Nothing is known about his infancy, except that he was a Nazarite living in the wilderness, eating locusts and wild honey, covering his body with a cloth made of camel's hair, tied with a leather girdle. He is believed to have belonged to a Jewish religious sect called the "Essenes," from whom issued the early Christian "Ibionites" whose principal characteristic was to abstain from worldly pleasures. In fact, the Qur'anic descriptive term of this hermit Prophet - "hasura," which means "chaste" in every sense of the word - shows that he led a celibate life of chastity, poverty, and piety. He was not seen from his early youth until he was a man of thirty or more, when he began his mission of preaching repentance and baptizing the penitent sinners with water. Great multitudes were drawn to the wilderness of Judea to hear the fiery sermons of the new Prophet; and the penitent Jews were baptized by him in the water of the River Jordan. He reprimanded the educated but fanatical Pharisees and the Priests, and threatened the learned but rationalistic Saduqees (Saducees) with the coming vengeance. He declared that he was baptizing them with water only as a sign of purification of the heart by penance. He promulgated that there was coming after him another Prophet who would baptized them with the Holy Spirit and fire; who would gather together his wheat into his granaries and burn the chaff with an inextinguishable fire.
He further declared that he who was coming afterwards was to such an extent superior to himself in power and dignity that the Baptist confessed to be unfit or unworthy to bow down to untie and loose the laces of his shoes. It was on one of these great baptismal performances of Prophet Yahya (St. John the Baptist) that Jesus of Nazareth also entered into the water of the Jordan and was baptized by the Prophet like everybody else. Mark (i. 9) and Luke (iii. 21), who report this baptism of Jesus by John, are unaware of the remarks of John on this point as mentioned in Matthew (iii), where it is stated that the Baptist said to Jesus: "I need to be baptized by thee, and didst thou come to me?" To which the latter is reported to have replied: "Let us fulfill the righteousness"; and then he baptized him. The Synoptics state that the spirit of prophecy came down to Jesus in the shape of a dove as he went out from the water, and a voice was heard saying: "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased."
The Fourth Gospel knows nothing about Jesus being baptized by John; but tells us that the Baptist, when he saw Jesus, exclaimed "Behold the Lamb of God," etc. (John i). This Gospel pretends that Andrew was a disciple of the Baptist, and having abandoned his master brought his brother Simon to Jesus (John i) - a story flagrantly contradicting the statements of the other Evangelists (Matt. iv. 18-19, Mark i. 16-18). In St. Luke the story is altogether different: here Jesus knows Simon Peter before he is made a disciple (Luke iv. 38, 39); and the circumstance which led the Master to enlist the sons of Jonah and of Zebedee in the list of his disciples is totally strange to the other Evangelists (Luke vi 1-11). The four Gospels of the Trinitarian Churches contain many contradictory statements about the dialogs between the two cousin prophets. In the Fourth Gospel we read that the Baptist did not know who Jesus was until after his baptism, when a Spirit like a pigeon came down and dwelt in him (John i); whereas St. Luke tells us that the Baptist, while a foetus in the womb of his mother, knew and worshipped Jesus, who was also a younger foetus in the womb of Mary (Luke i. 44). Then, again, we are told that the Baptist while in prison, where he was beheaded (Matt. xi. xiv), did not know the real nature of the mission of Jesus!
There is a mysterious indication hidden in the questions put to the Prophet Yahya by the Priests and the Levites. They ask the Baptist: "Art thou Messiah? art thou Elijah?" And when he answers "No!" they say: "If thou art neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, and nor that Prophet, why then dost thou baptize?" (John i). It will therefore be noticed that, according to the Fourth Gospel, John the Baptist was neither the Messiah nor Elijah, nor that Prophet! And I venture to ask the Christian Churches, who believe that the inspirer of all these contradictory statements is the Holy Ghost - i.e. the third of the three gods - whom did those Jewish Priests and the levites mean by "And that Prophet"? And if you pretend not to know whom the Hebrew clergy meant, do your popes and patriarchs know who "and that Prophet" is? If not, than what is the earthly use of these spurious and interpolated Gospels? If, on the contrary, you do know who that Prophet is, then why do you keep silent?
In the above quotation (John i) it is expressly stated that the Baptist said he was not a Prophet; whereas Jesus is reported to have said that "no men born of women were ever greater than John" (Matt. xi). Did Jesus really make such a declaration? Was John the Baptist greater than Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus himself? And in what did his superiority and greatness consist? If this testimony of Jesus about the son of Zachariah be authentic and true, then the greatness of the "Eater of the Locusts in the wilderness" can only consist in his absolute abnegation, self-denial, and refraining from the world with all its luxuries and pleasures; his ardent wish to invite the people to penance; and his good tidings about "that Prophet."
Or did his greatness consist - as the Churches will have it - in being a cousin, contemporary and witness of Jesus? The value and greatness of a man, as well as of a Prophet, can be determined and appreciated by his work. We are absolutely ignorant of the number of persons converted through the sermons and purified by the baptism of John. Nor are we informed with regard to the effect of that conversion upon the attitude of the penitent Jews towards the "Lamb of God!"
Christ is said to have declared that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of the Prophet Elijah (Matt. xi. 14, xvii. 12; Luke i. 17), whereas John expressly told the Jewish deputation that he was not Elijah, nor Christ, nor that Prophet (John i).
Now can one, from these Gospels full of statements opposing and denying each other, form a correct conclusion? Or can one try to find out the truth? The charge is exceedingly grave and serious, because the persons concerned are not ordinary mortals like ourselves, but two Prophets who were both created in the womb by the Spirit and born miraculously - one had no father, while the parents of the other were sterile and an impotent nonagenarian couple. The gravity of the charge is even more serious when we come to consider the nature of the documents in which these contradictory statements are written. The narrators are the Evangelists, persons alleged to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, and the record believed to be a revelation! Yet there is a lie, a false statement, or a forgery somewhere. Elijah (or Elias) is said to come before "that Prophet" (Mal. iv. 5, 6); Jesus says, "John is Elijah"; John says, "I am not Elijah", and it is the sacred Scripture of the Christians which makes both these affirmative and negative statements!
It is absolutely impossible to get at the truth, the true religion, from these Gospels, unless they are read and examined from an Islamic and Unitarian point of view. It is only then that the truth can be extracted from the false, and the authentic distinguished from the spurious. It is the spirit and the faith of Islam that can alone sift the Bible and cast away the chaff and error from its pages. Before proceeding farther to show that the Prophet foretold by the Baptist could be none other than Prophet Muhammad, I must draw the serious attention of my readers to one or two other important points.
It may, in the first place, be remarked that the Muslims have the highest reverence and veneration for all the Prophets, particularly for those whose names are mentioned in the Qur'an, like John ("Yahya") and Jesus (" 'Isa"); and believe that the Apostles or Disciples of Jesus were holy men. But as we do not possess their genuine and unadulterated writings we consequently cannot for a moment imagine the possibility that either of these two great Worshipers of Allah could have contradicted each other.
Another important matter to be noted is the very significant silence of the Gospel of Barnabas about John the Baptist. This Gospel, which never mentions the name of Yahya, puts his prophecy about the "more powerful Prophet" into the mouth of Jesus Christ. Therein Christ, while speaking of the Spirit of Prophet Muhammad as having been created before that of other Prophets, says that it was so glorious that when he comes Jesus would consider himself unworthy to kneel and undo the laces of his shoes.
The great "Crier" in the wilderness, in the course of his sermons to the multitudes, used to cry aloud and say: "I baptize you with water unto repentance and the forgiveness of sins. But there is one that comes after me who is stronger than I, the laces of whose shoes I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Spirit and with fire." These words are differently reported by the Evangelists, but all show the same sense of the highest respect and consideration in regard to the imposing personality and the majestic dignity of the powerful Prophet herein foretold. These words of the Baptist are very descriptive of the Oriental manner of hospitality and honor accorded to a dignified visitor. The moment the visitor steps in, either the host or one of the members of the family rushes to take off his shoes, and escorts him to a couch or cushion. When the guest leaves the same respectful performance is repeated; he is helped to put on his shoes, the host on his knees tying the laces.
What John the Baptist means to say is that if he were to meet that dignified Prophet he would certainly consider himself unworthy of the honor of bowing to untie the laces of his shoes. From this homage paid beforehand by the Baptist one thing is certain: that the foretold Prophet was known to all the Prophets as their Adon, Lord, and Sultan; otherwise such an honorable person, chaste and sinless Messenger of Allah as Prophet Yahya, would not have made such a humble confession.
Now remains the task of determining the identity of "that Prophet." This article, therefore, must be divided into two parts, namely:
A. The foretold Prophet was not Jesus Christ; and
B. The foretold Prophet was Muhammad.
Everybody knows that the Christian Churches have always regarded John the Baptist as a subordinate of Jesus, and his herald. All the Christian commentators show Jesus as the object of John's witness and prophecy.
Although the language of the Evangelists has been distorted by interpolators to that direction, yet the fraud or error cannot for ever escape the searching eye of a critic and an impartial examiner. Jesus could not be the object of John's witness because:
(1) The very preposition "after" clearly excludes Jesus from being the foretold Prophet. They were both contemporaries and born in one and the same year. "He that is coming after me" says John, "is stronger than I." This "after" indicates the future to be at some indefinite distance; and in the prophetical language it expresses one or more cycles of time. It is well known to the Sufis and those who lead a spiritual life and one of contemplation that at every cycle, which is considered to be equivalent of five or six centuries, there appears one great Luminary Soul surrounded by several satellites who appear in different parts of the world, and introduce great religious and social movements which last for several generations until another shining Prophet, accompanied by many disciples and companions, appears with prodigious reforms and enlightenment. The history of the true religion, from Prophets Abraham to Muhammad, is thus decorated with such epoch-making events under Prophets Abraham, Moses, David, Zorobabel, Jesus, and Muhammad. Each of these epochs is marked with special characteristic features. Each one makes a progress and then begins to fade away and decay until another luminary appears on the scene, and so on down to the advent of John, Jesus, and the satellite Apostles.
John found his nation already toiling under the iron yoke of Rome, with its wicked Herods and their pagan legions. He beheld the ignorant Jewish people misled by a corrupt and arrogant clergy, the Scriptures corrupted and replaced by a superstitious ancestral literature. He found that that people had lost all hope of salvation, except that Prophet Abraham, who was their father, would save them. He told them that Abraham did not want them for his children because they were unworthy of such father, but that "God could raise children for Abraham from the stones" (Matt. iii). Then they had a faint hope in a Messiah, a descendant from the family of David, whom they expected then, as they do to-day, to come and restore the kingdom of that monarch in Jerusalem.
Now when the Jewish deputation from Jerusalem asked, "Art thou the Messiah?" he indignantly replied in the negative to this as well as to their subsequent questions. God alone knows what rebukes and reprimands they heard from those fiery utterings of the Holy Prophet of the Wilderness which the Church or the Synagogue have been careful not to let appear in writing.
Leaving aside the exaggerations, which have been evidently added to the Gospels, we fully believe that the Baptist introduced Jesus as the true Messiah, and advised the multitudes to obey him and follow his injunctions and his gospel. But he clearly told his people that there was another, and the last, great Luminary, who was so glorious and dignified in the presence of Allah that he (John) was not fit to undo the laces of his shoes.
(2) It was not Jesus Christ who could be intended by John, because if such were the case he would have followed Jesus and submitted to him like a disciple and a subordinate. But such was not the case. On the contrary, we find him preaching baptizing, receiving initiates and disciples, chastizing King Herod, scolding the Jewish hierarchy, and foretelling the coming of another Prophet "more powerful" than himself, without taking the least notice of the presence of his cousin in Judea or Galilee.
(3) Although the Christian Churches have made of Jesus Christ a god or son of a god, the fact that he was circumcised like every Israelite, and baptized by St. John like an ordinary Jew, proves the case to be just the reverse. The words interchanged between the Baptist and the baptized in the River Jordan appear to be an interpolation or a commonalty for they are contradictory and of a deceptive character. If Jesus were in reality the person whom the Baptist foretold as "more powerful" than himself, so much so that he was "not worthy to kneel and unloose his shoes," and that "he would baptize with the Spirit and fire," there would be no necessity nor any sense in his being baptized by his inferior in the river like an ordinary penitent Jew! The expression of Jesus, "It behoves us to fulfill all the justice," is incomprehensible. Why and how "all the justice" would be accomplished by them if Jesus were baptized? This expression is utterly unintelligible. It is either an interpolation or a clause deliberately mutilated. Here is another instance which presents itself to be solved and interpreted by the Islamic spirit. From a Muslim point of view the only sense in this expression of Jesus would be that John, through the eye of a Seer or "Sophi," perceived the prophetical character of the Nazarene, and thought him for a moment to be the Last Great Prophet of Allah, and consequently shrank from baptizing him; and that it was only when Jesus confessed his own identity that he consented to baptize him.
(4) The fact that John while in prison sent his disciples to Jesus, asking him: "Art thou that Prophet who is to come, or shall we expect another one?" clearly shows that the Baptist did not know the gift of prophecy in Jesus until he heard - while in the prison - of his miracles. This testimony of St. Matthew (xi. 3) contradicts and invalidates that of the Fourth Gospel (John i), where it is stated that the Baptist, on seeing Jesus, exclaimed: "Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away (or bears) the sin of the world!" The fourth Evangelist knows nothing of the cruel martyrdom of John (Matt. xiv; Mark vi. 14-29).
From Muslims and unitarian point of belief, it is a moral impossibility that a Prophet like the Baptist, whom the Holy Qur'an describes, Sayyidan, Master wa Hasuran, chaste, wa Nabiyyan, a prophet, mina from 's-Salihlina, the righteous" should use such a paganish expression about Jesus Christ. The very nature and essence of John's mission was to preach penance - that is to say, every man is responsible for his sin and must bear it, or take it away himself by repentence. The baptism was only an outward ablution or washing as a sign of the remission of sins, but it is the contribution, the confession (to God, and to him who is injured by that sin - if absolutely necessary) and the promise not to repeat it, that can take it away. If Jesus were the "Lamb of God," to take away the sin of the world, then John's preaching would be - God forbid! - ridiculous and meaningless! Besides, John better than anyone else knew that such words from his lips would have caused - as has been the case - an irreparable error which would entirely disfigure and deform the Church of Christ. The root of the error which has soiled the religion of the Churches is to be sought and found out in this silly "vicarious sacrifice" business! Has the "Lamb of God" taken away the sin of the world? The dark pages of the "Ecclesiastical History" of any of the numerous hostile and "heretical" Churches will answer with a big No! The "lambs" in the confessional-boxes can tell you by their groanings under the tremendous weight of the multi-colored sins loaded upon their shoulders that the Christians, notwithstanding their science and civilization, commit more horrible sins, murders, thefts, intemperances, adulteries, wars, oppressions, robberies, and insatiable greed for conquest and money than all the rest of mankind put together.
(5) John the Baptist could not be the precursor of Jesus Christ in the sense in which the Churches interpret his mission. He is presented to us by the Gospels as a "voice crying aloud in the wilderness," as the fulfillment of a passage in Isaiah (xl. 3), and as a herald of Jesus Christ on the authority of the Prophet Malakhi (Mal. iii. 1). To assert that the mission or duty of the Baptist was to prepare the way for Jesus - the former in the capacity of a precursor and the latter in that of a triumphant Conqueror coming "suddenly to his temple," and there to establish his religion of "Shalom" and make Jerusalem with its temple more glorious than before (Hag. ii. 8) - is to confess the absolute failure of the whole enterprise.
Nevertheless one thing is as true as two and two make four - that the whole project, according to the extravagant view of the Christians, proves a total failure. For, from whatever point of view we examine the interpretations of the Churches, the failure appears to be obvious. Instead of receiving his prince in Jerusalem at the Gate of the Temple clad in diadem and purple, amidst the frantic acclamations of the Jews, the precursor receives him, naked like himself, in the middle of the River Jordan; and then to introduce him, after immersing or plunging his master into the water, to the crowds as "behold, this is the Messiah!" or "this is the Son of God!" or elsewhere "behold the Lamb of God!" would either be tantamount to simply insulting the people of Israel or to blaspheming; or to purely mocking Jesus as well as making himself ridiculous.
The true nature of the austere ascetic's mission, and the true sense of his preaching, is altogether misunderstood by the Churches, but understood by the Jewish priests and casuists who obstinately rejected it. I shall deal with this in my next article, and show that the nature of John's mission as well as the object of Christ's message to the Jews was quite different to what the Churches pretend to believe.