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. 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 tribe of Levi, and to only one family of that tribe, the family of Prophet Aaron (Harun, peace be upon him). Their duties were 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).
The priesthood is the essential institution of Christianity, though Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him) strictly forbade the excesses in adornment of prophets and pious, when he said: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you build the tombs of the prophets, and adorn the sepulchers of the righteous”(Matthew;23:29). 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. Sacrament is a visible form of invisible grace, especially: In the Eastern, Roman Catholic, and some other Western Christian churches, any of the traditional seven rites that were claimed to be instituted by Jesus and recorded in the New Testament and that confer sanctifying grace. In most other Western Christian churches, the two rites, Baptism and the Eucharist, that were claimed to be instituted by Jesus to confer sanctifying grace. The Christian Roman Catholic Church 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 Christian Churches, 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.
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 Ilah (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. 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 exist as 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.
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 (zeenah) 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. Allah says: “…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 somber lives and isolation. Allah’s service is done through pure lives in the turmoil of this world. The Qur’anic prayer is the testimony: “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) additional prayers like the midnight prayer (tahajjud) , fasting and charity (sadaqah).