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Islamic authorities use words nabi and rasul for non-prophets
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Islamic authorities use words nabi and rasul for non-prophets

Here we give examples of the use of the words nabi and rasul for non-prophets by the highest Islamic authorities, both ancient and modern.[1]

1. The Holy Quran

1. Ordinary messengers called rasul and mursal

Relating the history of the prophet Joseph (Yusuf), the Quran records:

“So when the messenger (rasul) came to him…” (12:50).
Rasul here refers to a messenger sent by the king to convey a message to Joseph in prison.

Messengers sent by the Queen of Sheba to Solomon (Sulaiman) are called mursal in the following verse which records her as saying:

“And I am going to send them a present, and see what answer the messengers bring back” (27:35).

2. Holy Prophet’s Companions called rasul

A verse in the Quran says:

“O ye messengers (rusul), eat of the good things and do good deeds” (23:51).
The word used here for “messengers” is rusul, plural of rasul.

In the renowned, classical dictionary of the Quran, the Mufradat of Raghib, it is recorded that “messengers” here, being in the plural, means the Holy Prophet Muhammad and his chief Companions.

3. The three messengers

In Sura Yasin of the Quran, there is a story of three messengers being sent to a town, who said to the people: “We are messengers to you” (36:13-21). Renowned commentators of the Quran have held that these three were not real messengers, but only saints who are called mursal here metaphorically.

Explaining this verse, Shah Ismail Shaheed (d. 1831), famous Muslim religious leader in India, writes:

“Bearing in mind the relationship between muhaddasiyyat (sainthood) and messengership, it should be accepted that a muhaddas is also called a rasūl.” [2]

(Abqaat, Urdu translation by Manazir Ahsan Gilani, published in A.P., India, p. 402).

4. “And no muhaddas

A verse in the Quran says:

“We sent before you (O Muhammad) no messenger and no prophet, but when he desired, the devil made a suggestion respecting his desire; but Allah annuls what the devil casts…” (22:52)
This verse mentions messengers and prophets (rasul and nabi) and states that their revelation is protected by Allah against the interference of the devil.

Regarding the words “no messenger and no prophet”, Ibn Abbas, a Companion of the Holy Prophet Muhammad and a renowned authority on the Holy Quran, said:

“And no muhaddas.”

(See Bukhari, book: ‘Qualities of the Companions’, chapter: Umar. This statement occurs at end of hadith number 3689.)

The meaning is that the mention of messenger and prophet in this verse includes muhaddas as well, and the verse amounts to saying: “no messenger and no prophet and no muhaddas”.

Besides Bukhari, these words of Ibn Abbas are also mentioned by the following authorities:

  • ‘Umdat al-Qari, a commentary on Bukhari, ch. Qualities of Umar.
  • Shah Waliullah of Delhi. See his book Al-Khair al-Kasir, Fifth Khizana (see p. 97 of its English translation, published by Ashraf, Lahore, 1974).
  • Shah Ismail Shaheed writes:

    “The reason why messengership (risalat) is sometimes ascribed to those who are muhaddas is that the Quranic verse, ‘We sent before you no messenger and no prophet’, is reported in a reading from Ibn Abbas with the words ‘and no muhaddas’ added.”
    (Abqaat, p. 401).

2. The Hadith

1. Bukhari

(i) In a long narration in Bukhari, a Companion of the Holy Prophet, Ka‘b ibn Mālik, relates:

“When forty out of the fifty nights elapsed, then the rasul of the rasul of Allah came to me…”

— Book: Expeditions (Maghā), hadith number 4418.

Here a messenger sent by the Holy Prophet is described as his rasul.

(ii) During his last illness the Holy Prophet sent a message to Hazrat Abu Bakr to lead the prayer, as he was too weak to come out. It is related:

“The messenger (rasul) went to Abu Bakr and said: The Messenger of Allah (rasul-ullah) orders you to lead the people in the prayer.”

— Book: Call to Prayer (Adhān), hadith number 687.

Again a messenger sent by the Holy Prophet is called a rasul.

(iii) A man describes his meeting with Hazrat Uthman when the latter was Khalifa. He says:

“Then the messenger (rasul) of Uthman came and I went to him (i.e., to Uthman)…”

— Book: Excellences of the Companions (Faḍā’il Aṣḥāb), hadith number 3696.

Here a messenger sent by a Muslim ruler is called a rasul.

(iv) There is a famous incident that the Holy Prophet, shortly after taking up his mission, climbed the Safa mountain and called upon all the clans of the Quraish to assemble around him. He asked them if they would believe him if he were to tell them that he could see an enemy on its way to attack them, and they replied that they would believe him as they knew him to be truthful. It is stated in a hadith relating to this event:

“Any clan which could not come sent its messenger (rasul) to see what it was.”

— Book: Commentary on the Quran, in explanation of 26:214, hadith number 4770.

Evidently, each of these observers sent by the clans, who is called a rasul, was an unbeliever.

2. Other Hadith collections

(i) The following well-known incident is in Abu Dawud:

“When the Messenger of Allah decided to send Mu‘adh (ibn Jabal) to Yaman (as Governor), he asked him how he would decide cases. Mu‘adh replied: ‘By the Book of Allah’. He asked: ‘But if you do not find (any direction) in it’. He replied: ‘Then by the practice (Sunnah) of the Messenger of Allah’. ‘But if you do not find (any direction) in the Sunnah’, he asked. ‘Then I will exercise my judgment and spare no effort’, Mu‘adh replied.

The Messenger of Allah said: ‘Praise be to Allah Who has granted the messenger (rasul) of His Messenger (rasul) what pleases the Messenger of Allah (rasul-ullah) ’.”

— Abu Dawud, book: Office of the Judge (al-aqḍiyah), ch. 11, hadith number 3592.

Here the Holy Prophet himself has described a Companion, whom he is sending, as rasul of the rasul of Allah.

(ii) In a well-known hadith, the Holy Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said that the total number of prophets who appeared is 124,000. Shah Waliullah, the renowned Muslim mujaddid, philosopher and writer, who lived in the 18th century C.E., writes as follows about this hadith:

“Know that the hadith which mentions a very large number of prophets includes muhaddases in its count.”

(Al-Khair al-Kasir, p. 246; see p. 97 of the English translation published by Ashraf, Lahore, 1974)

Shah Ismail Shaheed wrote as follows:
“Some scholars of Hadith have said that in the report quoted from the Holy Prophet about the number of prophets, the word nabi refers not only to prophets but also to muhaddases.”

(Abqaat, pp. 401-402)

3. Arab usage

1. The eminent Egyptian author, Taha Husain, writing about the students of the Islamic reformer and scholar Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905), describes them as follows:

“They were messengers (rusul) of reform, renovation and renaissance.”

(Fis-Saif, Cairo, 1933, p. 44)

Here the word rusul is applied to those who brought a message of reform for Islam (i.e., removing un-Islamic beliefs prevalent among the Muslims, and restoring the original teachings of Islam).

2. When the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited Saudi Arabia country in 1956, he was greeted with the words: Marḥaba rasūl as-Salām. A news-item in a Pakistan Urdu newspaper stated:

“Karachi, 26 September — The embassy of Saudi Arabia has said in a press note that when Pandit Nehru reached Riyadh, people greeted him with slogans of ‘Welcome, envoy of peace’ but a news agency wrongly reported that upon Nehru’s arrival there were slogans of Paighambar of peace. In fact, while translating this the Arabic alphabets have been ignored. In Arabic the word rasul means envoy or emissary, and certainly not Paighambar. The slogan in Arabic was Marḥaba rasūl as-Salām.”

(Daily Kohistan, Pakistan, 27 September 1956; quoted from Paigham Sulh, 3 October 1956, p. 3).

Paighambar is the Urdu and Persian word applied to messengers of Allah, such as Moses, Jesus and the Holy Prophet Muhammad. This press note is clarifying that the description of Nehru as rasul in this slogan does not mean that he is being called a messenger in the way that the prophets were called messengers, but that the word rasul here only meant an envoy or emissary who was bringing a message of peace.

4. Muslim scholars

1. Mujaddid Alif Sani (d. 1624)

Referring to the first two Khalifas of Islam (Hazrat Abu Bakr and Umar), this great Mujaddid of India, Shaikh Ahmad of Sirhind, wrote:

“These two men, on account of their eminence and greatness, are counted among the prophets and have their qualities.”

(Maktubat, Daftar I, part iv, letter no. 251, p. 64)

He has thus applied the word ‘prophet’ to Hazrat Abu Bakr and Umar, who were not prophets.

2. Jalal-ud-Din Rumi (d. 1273)

Rumi was one of the greatest mystical poets and philosophers of Islamic history, and his work Masnawi is commonly known as ‘the Quran in the Iranian language’. He has used the word prophet for non-prophets in the following verses of poetry:

  1. “O disciple! He (your spiritual guide) is the prophet of the time because he reflects the Holy Prophet’s light.”
  2. “In the path of virtue, be anxious to serve humanity, so that you may attain prophethood within the Muslim nation.”
We give below the opinion of three modern-day Muslim theologians on these verses.

a. Allama Khalid Mahmud, an opponent of the Ahmadiyya Movement, quotes the second verse above and explains it as follows:

In the path of virtue be anxious to serve humanity, so that you may attain prophethood within the Muslim nation.

This does not refer to the attainment of the rank of prophethood, but the attainment of qualities of prophethood. If there is brevity here, it should be interpreted in the light of Maulana Rumi’s belief about the finality of prophethood given earlier. To interpret a writing contrary to the intent of the author is utterly against the rules of knowledge and integrity. In this respect, the Maulana refers to every spiritual guide who follows the Sunnah as metaphorically a prophet: ‘O disciple, he is the prophet of his time, for he shows the light of the Prophet’.”

(‘Aqīdat al-Ummah fī Ma‘ni Khatam an-Nubuwwat, p. 112)

We only ask Allama Khalid Mahmud to apply the same “rules of knowledge and integrity” when studying the writings of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, and not interpret them “contrary to the intent of the author”!

b. Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi (d. 1977) was an Indian religious scholar of recent times. Regarding the use of the word nabi for saints, who are not prophets, he once wrote in his newspaper as follows:

“Recently, by co-incidence, I found an example of it in the poetry of Maulana Rumi. And that too, not in some apocryphal work, but in the renowned and famous, authentic book Masnawi. Regarding the status and excellence of the spiritual guide it is written:

‘When you give your hand into the hand of a spiritual guide, you seek to imbibe wisdom as the mentor is the knowing and discerning. O disciple, he is a prophet of his time, as his person radiates the light of the Prophet.’

It is clearly stated here that the perfect spiritual guide is the prophet of the time because he reflects the light of prophethood. Great theologians, philosophers, and spiritual men have written commentaries on the Masnawi, but none of them took exception to this form of expression. Rumi’s own son, Sultan Walad, has made the following comment:

‘The exaggeration in likening a saint to a prophet refers to the penetrating effect of his guidance; otherwise, at no time was prophethood thinkable after the Holy Prophet Muhammad.’— Masnawi, vol. v, p. 67, footnote 13, printed at Kanpur.

Obviously we will still call it lacking in due caution, but it is equally obvious that instances of such lack of caution are to be found in the writings of the great religious leaders of classical times.”

(Newspaper Sidq Jadeed, 8 August 1952)

c. In an introduction to Rumi’s Masnawi, Maulana Sajjad Ahmad writes:
“Usually the word nabi is used in a specialised sense, but Rumi applies nabi to reformers of a high rank, as in the verse: ‘In the path of virtue be anxious to serve humanity, so that you may attain prophethood within the Muslim nation’.”

(Muqaddama Masnawi Rumi, p. 23)

3. Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi

He quotes the classical theologian Sayyid Abdul Wahhab Shi‘rani and then gives his own comment:

“ ‘When the Holy Prophet Muhammad realised that some people among his followers would take the termination of revelation with dislike, he proposed a part of messengership (risalat) for the specially-chosen ones of his nation. He instructed those who were present at his preaching to convey the teachings to those who were absent. Hence he commanded them to deliver the message, so that the word rusul (pl. of rasul) may apply to them.’

Now look, in this text he has referred to mere preaching as messengership (risalat).”

(Al-Tanbiyya al-Tarbi fi Tanziyya Ibn Arabi, pp. 100-101)

4. Maulana Sanaullah of Panipat

A classical commentator of the Quran, he writes in his commentary:

Rasul has a broad significance, applying both to men and angels.… Some scholars say that, as a general metaphor, the word rasul is applied to saints as well.”

(Tafsir Mazhari, p. 140)

5. Maulana Mufti Kifayatullah

He was an Indian Muslim theologian of the 20th century, and head of the Jami‘at al-‘Ulama, India. He defined a muhaddas as follows:

“A muhaddas is he who receives the word of God by special revelation. Some scholars consider such a one to be a prophet of a low rank, and others consider him to be a saint of a high order.”

(Majalis al-Abrar, footnote, p. 18)

5. Muslim saints calling themselves prophets

1. Abu Bakr Shibli (d. 945 C.E.)

It is recorded of this famous Iraqi saint:

“Have you not considered this, that when the Holy Prophet Muhammad appeared in the form of Shibli, he (Shibli) said to a student of his who was a recipient of visions: Bear witness that I am the Messenger of God. So the student said: I bear witness that you are indeed the Messenger of God. This is not something unlawful and wrong. It is just as a sleeping man (in a dream) sees one person in the form of another. And a low-ranking type of vision is one where what a person sees in a dream he sees while awake.”

(Al-Insan al-Kamil, vol. ii, p. 46, by Abdul Qadir Jili; see also the English translation in R. A. Nicholson's Studies in Islamic Mysticism, Cambridge University Press, 1980, p. 105)

2. Abdul Qadir Jilani (d. 1166 C.E.)

i. The following spiritual experience was related by him:

“God gave me the blessing of attending at Madina. One day I was busy in the remembrance of God in solitude when He took me from this world and from my own self, and then returned me. And I was saying: ‘Had Moses been alive he would have obeyed me.’ This was as if I was the author (of the Saying), and not as relating this Saying. So I knew that this was due to me being drawn away by God. I was effaced (fana) in the Holy Prophet, and at that time I was not just so-and-so (i.e., Abdul Qadir), but I was certainly Muhammad. Otherwise, what I had said would merely have been relating something from the Holy Prophet.”

(Saif ar-Rabbani by Sayyid Muhammad Makki, published in Bombay, p. 100)

The words Had Moses been alive he would have obeyed me are a Saying of the Holy Prophet Muhammad.

ii. He writes in a poem:

“I was in the higher world with the light of Muhammad, In God’s secret knowledge was my prophethood.”

(From poem known as Qasida Ruhi)

3. Khawaja Mu‘in-ud-Din Chishti of Ajmer (d. 1236 C.E.)

He was the mujaddid of his time and the saint who laid the foundations of the propagation of Islam in India.

i. He wrote the following verses:

“Every moment the Holy Spirit (angel Gabriel) inspires into Mu‘in,
So it is not me who says this, but the fact is that I am the second Jesus.”

(Diwān Khawaja Ajmeri, ode no. 70, p. 102)

ii. It is recorded:
“Once in our presence a man came to enter into the discipleship of the Khawaja of Ajmer. The Khawaja asked him to recite the Kalima (i.e., There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah). The man recited the Kalima. The Khawaja said to him: Say it like this, There is no god but Allah and Chishti is the Messenger of Allah. The man did so, and the Khawaja accepted the pledge from him and invested him with the robe of honour.”

(Fawā’id as-Sālikīn, p. 18)

4. Farid-ud-Din Shakar Ganj of Pak Patan (d. 1265 C.E.)

He says in a poetic verse:

“I am wali (saint), I am Ali, I am nabi (prophet).”

(Haqīqat Gulzār Sābirī, sixth edition published by Maktaba Sabiriyya, Qasur, Pakistan, 1983, p. 414)

6. Modern Muslim Scholars

1. Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi (d. 1943)

He was a very famous Deobandi religious scholar. In his magazine, he published a letter written to him by a disciple as follows:

“I see in a dream that while reciting the Kalima, ‘There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah’, I am using your name instead of ‘Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah’. Thinking that I am wrong, I repeat the Kalima, but despite wishing in my heart to say it correctly, my tongue involuntarily says ‘Ashraf Ali’ instead of the Holy Prophet’s name.… When I wake up and remember my mistake in the Kalima,… to make amends for the mistake I send blessings upon the Holy Prophet. However, I am still saying: ‘O Allah, bless our master, prophet and leader Ashraf Ali’, even though I am awake and not dreaming. But I am helpless, and my tongue is not in my control.”
The reply given by Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi, printed after the letter, is as follows:
“In this incident, it was intended to satisfy you that the one to whom you turn (for spiritual guidance, i.e. Ashraf Ali) is a follower of the Holy Prophet’s example.”

(Monthly Al-Imdād, issue for the month of Safar, 1336 A.H., circa 1918, p. 35)

2. Allama Sir Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938)

In praise of the perfect believer, he writes in a poem:

“No one knows the secret that the believer, apparently only reciting the Quran, is in reality the Quran.

The world is a house of idols, and the man of truth is Khalīl (i.e., Abraham); this is the idea which lies concealed in la ilaha (There is no god but Allah).

The true believer strikes like lightening from the sky, his fuel is the cities and uninhabited areas of east and west.

We are as yet enveloped in the darkness of creation, but he takes part in running the world.

He is Kalim (Moses), and Masih (Messiah), and Khalil (Abraham),[3]

He is Muhammad, he is the Book, he is Gabriel.”

An interpreter of Iqbal, Professor Yusuf Salim Chishti, explains this as follows:
“He is the heir to the spiritual qualities of Moses, Jesus, Abraham and Muhammad, peace be upon them all. In him is manifested the image of the attributes of the prophets. He is potentially a prophet, but not actually a prophet because prophethood has come to an end. This point has been explained by Mujaddid Alif Sani in his Maktubat.”

(Yusuf Salim Chishti, Sharh Jawaid Nama, Ishrat Publishing House, Anarkali, Lahore, 1956, pp. 1198-1199)


[1] Transliteration is nabī and rasūl.

[2]Transliteration is muḥaddathiyyat and muḥaddath.

[3]Transliteration is Kalīm, Masīḥ, and Khalīl.