We believe in them, and we follow them, but who are they? God Almighty had made it compulsory on mankind to believe and follow the prophets He has sent for us, but who is a prophet, and what is his purpose? Can anyone become a prophet? In this article, we will take a detailed look at who exactly is a prophet, the purpose of a prophet, and all the different questions and misconceptions related to them in the Islamic teachings.
In this article, we shall discuss the following:
- Who Is Called a Prophet According to the Quran?
- What Is the Purpose of a Prophet?
- What Is the Difference Between Nabi and Rasool?
- Who Can Become a Prophet?
- Can Prophethood Be Inherited?
- Can Females Become Prophets?
- Who Was the First and Last Prophet?
- What are the qualities of a Prophet?
- What Is a False Prophet?
- What Does It Mean to Be a Prophet?
- Who Are the Five Major Messengers According to the Quran?
- What Is the Difference Between a Prophet and an Angel?
Who Is Called a Prophet According to the Quran?
Prophets or messengers are people who are sent by God Almighty directly, without the intervention of any other human being, to convey the message that God has made them responsible for.1 They are sent for the guidance of mankind and are the intermediary between God Almighty and mankind.2
They typically come with a miracle, something extraordinary that no other can do, to prove that they are genuinely from God Almighty and that He has guided them. Some examples as mentioned in the Quran may include, Prophet Ibrahim who was thrown into a huge fire and was unharmed by it, Prophet Moses and his staff that was convertible to a snake, Prophet Jesus who was born miraculously to a virgin mother, Prophet Muhammad who brought the words of God, the Noble Quran while being unschooled.
Prophets were appointed mainly to guide mankind to the straight path, the Godly path of monotheism. It is their primary job, and it is no ordinary one either, especially considering that mankind naturally has tendencies to care more about its temporary carnal desires than the permanent, long-lasting heavenly ones. Allah mentions in the Noble Quran:
وَإِذْ آتَيْنَا مُوسَى الْكِتَابَ وَالْفُرْقَانَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَهْتَدُونَ ﴿٥٣﴾
And [remember] when We provided Moses with the Scripture and the Criterion in order that you may be guided.3
Additionally, they were sent as warners and as the ones who deliver glad tidings from God Almighty. Allah says in the Noble Quran:
وَمَا نُرْسِلُ الْمُرْسَلِينَ إِلَّا مُبَشِّرِينَ وَمُنذِرِينَ ۖ فَمَنْ آمَنَ وَأَصْلَحَ فَلَا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ ﴿٤٨﴾
We have not sent messengers except as givers of good news and warners, so whoever believes and reforms then neither will they fear nor will they grieve.4
The guidance that they provide for mankind is not one of a material kind. It is not simple knowledge of how things work around us, for example, “How does gravity work?” It is rather a Godly and radiant one, enlightening the straight path of life, showing us how to be with God and His creations, regardless of how advanced we may be concerning science and technology. They guide us not only by their tongue and words but also by their innocent and infallible actions. Precisely put, they are considered the embodiment of guidance itself.
In the Noble Quran, both the words نبی and رسول have been used to convey the meaning of someone sent by God Almighty to guide mankind. Though some scholars claimed no difference between these two words and have considered them legally interchangeable, most scholars have distinctly defined the two and explained the differences.
Of the most prominent and accepted premises regarding the difference between a nabi and rasool is that the latter is of greater status than the former and that the former is the foundation of the latter. Meaning that every rasool is a nabi but not every nabi is a rasool.5 As for the qualitative difference, a rasool is said to have brought a new and upgraded religion (deen) than the previous rasool, rendering the previous religion outdated, and a nabi is one who simply administers and follows the religion of the latest rasool, guiding mankind to the straight path, reminding man of what might have deteriorated since the last prophet.6
According to the Islamic teachings, prophethood is a high and Godly status. Therefore, only God can appoint a prophet, considering his vast, unlimited, and complete knowledge of all human beings. God Almighty says in the Noble Quran:
هُوَ الَّذِي بَعَثَ فِي الْأُمِّيِّينَ رَسُولًا مِّنْهُمْ يَتْلُو عَلَيْهِمْ آيَاتِهِ وَيُزَكِّيهِمْ وَيُعَلِّمُهُمُ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحِكْمَةَ وَإِن كَانُوا مِن قَبْلُ لَفِي ضَلَالٍ مُّبِينٍ ﴿٢﴾
It is He who sent a messenger to the illiterate people, a messenger from among themselves, to recite His signs to them to purify and to teach them Book and wisdom. Indeed, they were in a glaring error before [this].7
Allah appoints prophets based on the firmness of their beliefs and their practical and ethical efforts in achieving the pleasure and satisfaction of God Almighty, not based on wealth or any other worldly factor.
Of course, after the Noble Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family), there is no prophet or messenger sent by God Almighty. Meaning that the Noble Prophet was the last of all the prophets, hence the title خاتم النبیین (Seal of the Prophets), as Allah says in the Noble Quran:
مَّا كَانَ مُحَمَّدٌ أَبَا أَحَدٍ مِّن رِّجَالِكُمْ وَلَٰكِن رَّسُولَ اللَّهِ وَخَاتَمَ النَّبِيِّينَ ۗ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمًا ﴿٤٠﴾
Muhammad is not the father of anyone among you, but he is a messenger of God and the last prophet, and [you should know that] God knows all things.8
According to Islamic teachings, prophethood is not an inheritance to be passed on from one generation to the other, though many of the fathers of the prophets were also prophets. Genetics does have a role to play, but the final decision maker on who to appoint as a prophet is God Almighty Himself, the knower of all the good and evil within man. Perhaps, the son of a prophet might be of a bad character, like the son of Prophet Nuh (Noah), not worthy, desiring, and qualified to become a prophet.
وَوَرِثَ سُلَيْمَانُ دَاوُودَ ۖ وَقَالَ يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ عُلِّمْنَا مَنطِقَ الطَّيْرِ وَأُوتِينَا مِن كُلِّ شَيْءٍ ۖ إِنَّ هَٰذَا لَهُوَ الْفَضْلُ الْمُبِينُ ﴿١٦﴾
And Solomon was David’s heir. And he said, “O people! We have been taught the language of birds, and have been given of all things. Indeed, it is a great favor.”9
The inheritance referred to in the verse above is not the inheritance of prophethood because prophethood is not something that is inherited. Rather it is granted by Allah the Almighty. Prophet Sulayman inherited all the wealth of Prophet Dawood, and not his prophethood.
No female was or can become a Prophet considering the incompatibility of a female’s responsibilities and the responsibilities a prophet has to bear. However, this does mean that a female cannot attain a Godly status. Examples such as Lady Asiah, Lady Mary, Lady Fatimah, and so on prove that a woman can also reach a Godly and infallible status.
According to Islamic teachings, man possesses no natural superiority over women. Rather all have their natural and rightful place in the eyes of Allah. God Almighty considers the criteria of nobility to be taqwa (piety). That is, one may be nobler than the other through taqwa, and not through its natural gender:
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَىٰ وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا ۚ إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِندَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ ﴿١٣﴾
O people! Indeed, We have created you from a male and a female, and We have made you [different] nations and tribes that you may know one another [so, you should know that these differences are not the criteria for any kind of superiority.] Indeed, the dearest of you in the sight of God are the most pious of you. Indeed God is All-Knowing, All-Aware.10
Read More: Women in the Quran
The first prophet was آدم (Adam) and is known to be the father of mankind, considering that he was the first of all human beings. He was created with clay and was sent down to earth with his wife, حواء (Hawwa – Eve). This couple gave birth to Habeel and Qabeel (Abel and Cain). Subsequently, man’s progeny flourished on planet earth.
The last prophet is Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family), as Allah Himself clarifies in the Quran in the abovementioned verse from Surah Ahzab (33:40). Of course, Allah’s guidance did not stop after the Noble Prophet. The true successors after the Noble Prophet were and are responsible for guiding mankind and ensure manifest proof of what is good and evil reaches man. Nonetheless, this does not mean that no one can ever reach a Godly status, like the status of the prophets. By the passing of time and the perfection of mankind’s knowledge of God’s message and the revelation of the Noble Quran, man now has a better than ever opportunity to uplift himself to a Godly status by understanding the Noble Quran the way it should be understood.
[CTA: Understanding the Quran Course]
According to Islamic belief, Prophets are pure and righteous personalities whom God Almighty sends for mankind. And, they must possess specific characteristics and qualities before they can execute the responsibilities Allah has defined for them (a few of which we mentioned above). These qualities include:
- They must have some form of revelation from God Almighty.
- They possess knowledge of the Unseen (meaning they possess knowledge that is not accessible through the five human or animal senses and is beyond the scope of being acquired, and it only is given by God).11
- They are all innocent of any crime and are infallible to any sin.12
- Their supplications (dua) and prayers are accepted by God Almighty.13
A false prophet is anyone who claims to be a prophet of God but without actually being appointed by God. We can tell a false prophet from a true one easily by requesting a miracle from them. If the so-called prophet claims to be sent from God, then he must have some form of an extraordinary sign to show us as proof and evidence that God is indeed backing him. There were many false prophets in history; however, most were easily rejected owing to insufficient evidence.
However, in this day and age, we are never a victim of such an issue. Prophet Muhammad, a trustworthy and truthful man, who is a prophet of God, has announced that he is the final Prophet and no Prophet shall follow after him, as Allah verifies:
مَّا كَانَ مُحَمَّدٌ أَبَا أَحَدٍ مِّن رِّجَالِكُمْ وَلَٰكِن رَّسُولَ اللَّهِ وَخَاتَمَ النَّبِيِّينَ ۗ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمًا ﴿٤٠﴾
Muhammad is not the father of anyone among you, but he is a messenger of God and the last prophet, and [you should know that] God knows all things.14
This does not mean that there is no form of guidance after him since we have the concept of Imamah (successors of the Prophet, serving as infallible leaders to guide and train mankind to the right path).
Being a Prophet, though it is of high Godly status, really means to be a political, cultural, spiritual, and all-rounded leader and mentor. This high status cannot be achieved through any material means; only God Almighty can bless the qualified, deserving, and righteous ones with such a status.
With high status comes great responsibility. Amongst the Prophets, there is a difference in status as well, which meaning that the higher the capacity of a prophet, the greater the responsibility, and the more the responsibility a prophet fulfills, the higher the status he acquires in the eyes of Allah. Prophets had to go through severe hardship to prove their true faith in God before being appointed as prophets. Even after they were appointed as prophets, the hardships of the duties and responsibilities they had were not bearable by any ordinary man. For example:
- Prophet Ibrahim was thrown into the fire for not obeying the idols and destroying the idols of the idol-worshipers while they were away. However, God saved him from the fire, causing the fire to go cold for Prophet Ibrahim exclusively. He was also ordered to leave his infant son Prophet Ismail and his wife, Hajar, in the plains of Mecca. It is indeed a great hardship to bear as a father and husband to leave the family in the trust of God in a desert plain.
- Prophet Musa was tasked to return the Children of Israel from under the tyrannical reign of Pharaoh to their promised land. He had to face serious struggles in fulfilling this responsibility from its inception, like confronting Pharaoh himself.
- Prophet Muhammad had to go through mockery, stoning (in Ta’ib), insults, and many other calamities before he was able to propagate Islam and the Quranic teachings in a relatively peaceful place (Medina). He not only endured the hardship that befallen upon him, but he also took the burden of the hardships his family and companions had to go through.15
Who Are the Five Major Messengers According to the Quran?
In the Noble Quran, twenty-six (26) names of the hundred and twenty-four thousand (124,000) prophets Allah sent to mankind have been mentioned. Note that all prophets are important, and disbelief in any of them would result in kufr (disbelief in religion) because they all came with one fundamental message of monotheism. However, of the prophets mentioned in the Quran, there are five (5) prophets known as the اولوالعزم (Ulul Azm), meaning those possessing strong determination and went through severe hardship (some of which are mentioned above). These five Prophets are:
- Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family)
- Prophet Nuh (Noah)
- Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham)
- Prophet Musa (Moses)
- Prophet Isa (Jesus)
Allah says the following in the Noble Quran about the five major prophets known as ‘Ulul Azm:
فَاصْبِرْ كَمَا صَبَرَ أُولُو الْعَزْمِ مِنَ الرُّسُلِ وَلَا تَسْتَعْجِل لَّهُمْ ۚ كَأَنَّهُمْ يَوْمَ يَرَوْنَ مَا يُوعَدُونَ لَمْ يَلْبَثُوا إِلَّا سَاعَةً مِّن نَّهَارٍ ۚ بَلَاغٌ ۚ فَهَلْ يُهْلَكُ إِلَّا الْقَوْمُ الْفَاسِقُونَ ﴿٣٥﴾
Have patience as the Ulul al-‘Azm among the messengers exercised patience and do not seek to hasten [the punishment] for them. When they will see what they are promised, [they will see that the life of the world passed soon] as though they had stayed an hour of a day [in the world]. This is an announcement. Will anyone, but the transgressors be destroyed?16
God Almighty also clearly mentions the names of the five major prophets in another verse:
وَإِذْ أَخَذْنَا مِنَ النَّبِيِّينَ مِيثَاقَهُمْ وَمِنكَ وَمِن نُّوحٍ وَإِبْرَاهِيمَ وَمُوسَىٰ وَعِيسَى ابْنِ مَرْيَمَ ۖ وَأَخَذْنَا مِنْهُم مِّيثَاقًا غَلِيظًا ﴿٧﴾
And when We made a covenant with the Prophets and with you and with Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus son of Mary, and We made a solemn covenant with them.17
Angels are a different form of being than a prophet. A prophet is a human being sent by God Almighty to guide other human beings to the right path. Though no prophet was sinful and were all infallible, they were all human beings just like others. They ate, drank, slept, and carried out all the other responsibilities a human being is tasked with. Some think that prophets should be different and should not have human qualities, and if they do have human qualities, they should be superior like the kings. The Noble Quran mentions this question asked by such people:
وَقَالُوا مَالِ هَٰذَا الرَّسُولِ يَأْكُلُ الطَّعَامَ وَيَمْشِي فِي الْأَسْوَاقِ ۙ لَوْلَا أُنزِلَ إِلَيْهِ مَلَكٌ فَيَكُونَ مَعَهُ نَذِيرًا ﴿٧﴾
And they say, “What a messenger he is! He eats food and walks in the markets! And why isn’t an angel sent down along with him to be a warner?18
Although in terms of spirituality and closeness to God Almighty, prophets are close to God, they lived among the people just like ordinary human beings. The disbelievers wanted to lead people astray from God by insulting the prophets that they were mere mankind, as the Noble Quran mentions:
وَقَالَ الْمَلَأُ مِن قَوْمِهِ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا وَكَذَّبُوا بِلِقَاءِ الْآخِرَةِ وَأَتْرَفْنَاهُمْ فِي الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا مَا هَٰذَا إِلَّا بَشَرٌ مِّثْلُكُمْ يَأْكُلُ مِمَّا تَأْكُلُونَ مِنْهُ وَيَشْرَبُ مِمَّا تَشْرَبُونَ ﴿٣٣﴾
And the disbelieving eminent figures among his tribe whom We had provided with luxury in the life of this world, and they denied the Hereafter said [to the rest], “He is only a human being like you. He eats what you eat and he drinks what you drink.19
According to Islamic beliefs, it is a spiritual advantage for the prophets to be mankind, because mankind can reach higher status than angels with the freedom of choice and will that Allah has provided them with.
Read More: Angels in the Quran
From the above, we can conclude that prophets and messengers are people who are sent by God Almighty directly, without the intervention of any other human being to convey the message that God has made them responsible for. They are mainly appointed to guide mankind to the straight path and train them to stand steadfast against evil.
In the Quran, the words nabi and rasool have been used to refer to the prophets and messengers. The difference between a nabi and a rasool is that the latter is of higher status and the former is the fundamental one, which means every rasool is a nabi but not every nabi is a rasool. Prophethood cannot be inherited. Rather a prophet is appointed solely by Allah. First of the prophets was Prophet Adam and the last of them is Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon them all), and there is no prophet after Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family).