Islam and the Quran

The Notions of “Prophet (Nabi)” and “Messenger (Rasul)” According to The Qur’an and Traditional Islam


 A Misconception with Serious Consequences


Nabi (nabiy) means, “Person whose value is increased by Allah” [1]. Becoming nabi is not a person’s choice. Allah the Almighty invests those He chooses with Book and Wisdom. He mentions the names of 18 prophets (nabi) [2] from Noah to Jesus [3] in Chapter Al An-am verse 83 and its consecutives, and then decrees: “And likewise We elected for Our cause and guided on to a straight path their fathers and their descendants and their brethren.”  (6:83)

Each of the prophets, whose count is narrated to be 124 thousand, is either from ancestors or from brethren or from descendants of the mentioned 18 prophets. So, there remains no prophet who is not referred to. Allah the Almighty decrees:

أُوْلَـئِكَ الَّذِينَ آتَيْنَاهُمُ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحُكْمَ وَالنُّبُوَّةَ

“Those are the ones to whom We granted the Book, and the (ability of right) judgment and the prophet-hood (nubuwwat /being nabi).” (Al-An’am/The Cattle 6:89)

Traditionally, it is believed that four divine books came down. These are Torah, Gospel, Zabur, and Quran.  A narration that is attributed to Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.) is that: 10 pages were given to Adam, 50 pages to Seth, 30 pages to Enoch, and 10 pages to Abraham; 100 pages in total. [4] It adds up to 8 prophets who were given books. However, the verses above remark that each prophet (nabi) was granted a Book and the ability of judgment.  The ability to judge rightly is called ‘Wisdom’ in other verses. [5] The meaning of mentioned ‘judgment’ is explained in the following verse:

“In the beginning, all people were a single community. Then God sent the prophets (nabis) to bring glad tidings and warnings to them. And He sent down with them the Book based on the Truth so that it should judge between the people concerning in which they differ. Those who differed over it were those very people who had been granted the Book. [6] It happened – after those clear proofs came to them- because they coveted the rights of one another. Then God, by His leave, guided those who believed the Truth about which they had differed; God guides whoever exerts the effort for it. [7]” (Al-Baqarah/The Cow 2:213)

The judgment to be made according to the Book is called ‘the Wisdom’.

What promotes the value of prophet (nabi) is that he receives revelation from Allah. One verse is:

قُلْ إِنَّمَا أَنَا بَشَرٌ مِّثْلُكُمْ يُوحَى إِلَيَّ أَنَّمَا إِلَهُكُمْ إِلَهٌ وَاحِدٌ…

“Say, “I am only a man like you, but it has been revealed to me that your god is one God…” (Al-Kahf/The Cave 18:110)

Nabi is precious. Allah the Almighty decrees as the following about His last prophet:

النَّبِيُّ أَوْلَى بِالْمُؤْمِنِينَ مِنْ أَنْفُسِهِمْ وَأَزْوَاجُهُ أُمَّهَاتُهُمْ

“The Prophet (nabi) is more valuable for the believers than themselves, and his wives are their mothers.” (Al-Ahzaab/The Allies 33:6)

Indeed, no other person can be as precious as the one who brings the Book of Allah and communicates It to people and practices It. Allah the Almighty does not call anybody ‘nabi’, but only those whom He promoted to this position. However, some people other than the promoted ones are also called ‘rasul’ or ‘mursal’ in the Qur’an.



The word “rasul = رسول” means both “information that is sent (in other words: the message)” and “the messenger who delivers the sent information”  (Raghib al-Isfahani, Mufradat al-Fazl al-Qur’an, art. رسل).

The information is of higher value than the messenger, and therefore the Almighty God has decreed:
“Muhammad is only a messenger. Messengers have passed on before him. If he dies or gets killed, will you turn about on your heels?” (Al-e Imran 3:144).

The information that the Messenger Muhammad (pbuh) brought is gathered in the Quran, and in this age the “rasul” is the Quran Itself, becoming so after the decease of Messenger of Allah (pbuh). Therefore, the word “rasul” must be translated as “the Book of God”, or “the Messenger of God” depending on the context in the verses.

The words ‘rasul’ and ‘mursal’ both mean ‘that which/who is sent’ [8]. A messenger in general meaning is a person who is responsible for communicating or conveying one’s words to the intended people as is, without manipulating them at all”. The duty is the same for God’s Messengers, too. Allah the Almighty commands:

“So is there upon the messengers (rusul) except [the duty of] clear notification?” (An-Nahl/The Bee 16:35)

“Oh Messenger (rasul)! Deliver what has been revealed to you from your Lord! If you fail to do that, you (will be regarded as you) have not performed as His messenger.” (Al-Ma’ida/The Feast 5:67)

Allah the Almighty calls the messenger that was sent to Prophet Joseph by the King of Egypt as ‘rasul’ (الرَّسُول), and the messenger sent to Prophet Solomon by Bilqis as ‘mursal’ [الْمُرْسَلُونَ) [9]. The verse about the messenger of King of Egypt is as the following:

وَقَالَ الْمَلِكُ ائْتُونِي بِهِ فَلَمَّا جَاءهُ الرَّسُولُ قَالَ ارْجِعْ إِلَى رَبِّكَ فَاسْأَلْهُ مَا بَالُ النِّسْوَةِ اللاَّتِي قَطَّعْنَ أَيْدِيَهُنَّ …

“But when the messenger (rasul) came to him, [Joseph] said, “Return to your master and ask him: what is the case of the women who cut their hands? … ” (Joseph 12:50)

These verses prove that not every rasul is a nabi. However, according to most of the traditionalist scholars, the person who was sent down a Book and his own codes of law is called ‘rasul’; the one who acts by the book and the practice of a rasul is called ‘nabi’. According to those scholars, Prophet Ishmael was not granted a Book or a code of laws, and therefore he was not a rasul, but a nabi. The following verse, however, proves that he was both a rasul and a nabi:

وَاذْكُرْ فِي الْكِتَابِ إِسْمَاعِيلَ إِنَّهُ كَانَ صَادِقَ الْوَعْدِ وَكَانَ رَسُولًا نَّبِيًّا

“And mention in the Book, Ishmael. Indeed, he was true to his promise, and he was a messenger (rasul) and a prophet (nabi).” (Mary 19:54)

So we can see that traditional descriptions of rasul and nabi are not correct.

The messenger (rasul) of Allah cannot add or remove anything to/from God’s words. Allah the almighty decrees:

وَلَوْ تَقَوَّلَ عَلَيْنَا بَعْضَ الْأَقَاوِيلِ . لَأَخَذْنَا مِنْهُ بِالْيَمِينِ . ثُمَّ لَقَطَعْنَا مِنْهُ الْوَتِينَ . فَمَا مِنكُم مِّنْ أَحَدٍ عَنْهُ حَاجِزِينَ

“And if Muhammad had made up some [false] sayings regarding Us, We would have seized him strongly; then We would have cut from him the artery.  And there is no one of you who could withhold [Us] from him.” (Al-Haqqah/The Reality 69:44–47)



Allah the Almighty informs us of His words by means of His Messenger only. So, the words of the Messenger which he speaks while communicating the verses of God are indeed the words of Allah. That means, what the Messenger (Rasul) forbids is what Allah forbids, and what he makes lawful is what Allah makes lawful. Allah the Almighty decrees:

الَّذِينَ يَتَّبِعُونَ الرَّسُولَ النَّبِيَّ الأُمِّيَّ الَّذِي يَجِدُونَهُ مَكْتُوبًا عِندَهُمْ فِي التَّوْرَاةِ وَالإِنْجِيلِ يَأْمُرُهُم بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَاهُمْ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَيُحِلُّ لَهُمُ الطَّيِّبَاتِ وَيُحَرِّمُ عَلَيْهِمُ الْخَبَآئِثَ وَيَضَعُ عَنْهُمْ إِصْرَهُمْ وَالأَغْلاَلَ الَّتِي كَانَتْ عَلَيْهِمْ فَالَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ بِهِ وَعَزَّرُوهُ وَنَصَرُوهُ وَاتَّبَعُواْ النُّورَ الَّذِيَ أُنزِلَ مَعَهُ أُوْلَـئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ

“Those who have protected themselves (Jews and Christians) are the ones who follow the Messenger (rasul), the ummi Prophet (nabi). They find him written in the Torah and the Gospel with them. He enjoins on them what is right and prevents them from what is wrong. He lets them for all clean things and forbids them only from the foul. He relieves them of their burden and the fetters that they used to wear. Those who believe in him support him with respect and help him, and follow the light which is sent down with him will attain the ultimate success.” (Al-Araf/The Elevated Place 7:157)



Prophethood (being nabi) is a title. A Prophet (nabi) is a prophet for 24-hours; however he does not act as a Messenger (rasul) for 24-hours. When he acts in the capacity of a Messenger (rasul) and communicates the verses of God, he says exactly what God has sent down, and so he does not make mistake in his words. However, he may make mistake while acting in the capacity of a prophet (nabi) by making inferences from the verses and implementing those inferences, because practice is different from knowing, and nabi is also a human being who can make mistakes. This is why God always addresses the prophets by the title “nabi” when He warns the prophets (nabi) and mentions their mistakes in the Qur’an. Mistakes are never attributed to the Messenger (rasul) in the Qur’an. For instance, the following verse has been sent down about the captives of Badr:

مَا كَانَ لِنَبِيٍّ أَن يَكُونَ لَهُ أَسْرَى حَتَّى يُثْخِنَ فِي الأَرْضِ تُرِيدُونَ عَرَضَ الدُّنْيَا وَاللّهُ يُرِيدُ الآخِرَةَ وَاللّهُ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ . لَّوْلاَ كِتَابٌ مِّنَ اللّهِ سَبَقَ لَمَسَّكُمْ فِيمَا أَخَذْتُمْ عَذَابٌ عَظِيمٌ.

“It behoves no prophet (nabi) to take captives until he has sufficiently suppressed the enemies in the battlefield. You merely seek the temporary gains of the world whereas God desires for you (the good of the) Hereafter. God is The Strong and He judges rightly.
Had there not been a previous decree from God (that you will have the victory) [10], a supreme chastisement would have afflicted you for what you have taken (the captives).” (Al-Anfal/The Spoils of War 8:67–68)

Putting it together; actions of the Prophet Muhammad that he performs by his title of prophet (nabi) are his personal actions, and he cannot make lawful or forbid anything by the title of Nabi. Allah the Almighty decrees:

يَا أَيُّهَا النَّبِيُّ لِمَ تُحَرِّمُ مَا أَحَلَّ اللَّهُ لَكَ تَبْتَغِي مَرْضَاتَ أَزْوَاجِكَ وَاللَّهُ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ.

“Oh prophet (nabi)! Why do you forbid what Allah has made lawful for you? Is it to please your wives? (Bboe grateful that) Allah forgives and shows mercy.” (At-Tahrim/The Prohibition 66:1)



That is why there is no verse in The Qur’an that commands to obey the prophet (nabi). Otherwise, the prophet (nabi) could act as an intercessor, summon people to himself and cause to join others with Allah. That means, obedience is not to the prophet (nabi), but to the verses he announces and practices as a messenger. Since they are merely the words of Allah, obedience is to Allah only. Allah the Almighty commands:

مَّنْ يُطِعِ الرَّسُولَ فَقَدْ أَطَاعَ اللّهَ

“He who obeys the Messenger thereby obeys Allah.” (An-Nisa/The Women 4:80)

When this significant difference between prophet (nabi) and messenger (rasul) is not comprehended, The Example (Sunnah) is not understood well, and the correlation between The Book and The Example cannot be seen. That is why many scholars took Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.) as the second authority to interpret Qur’an, and corrupted the balance.

There are also messengers who have not received revelation. They deliver the verses which were revealed to the prophet. This is also a significant point. The following verses mention them:

كَذَّبَتْ قَوْمُ نُوحٍ الْمُرْسَلِينَ

“The people of Noah denied the messengers.” (Ash-Shuara’/The Poets 26:105)”

كَذَّبَتْ عَادٌ الْمُرْسَلِينَ

“’Aad denied the messengers.” (Ash-Shuara’/The Poets 26:123)

The only prophet messenger sent to the people of Noah was Noah (p.b.u.h.), and who is sent to Aad was Hud (p.b.u.h.). Other messengers mentioned in the verses are only those who conveyed the verses that were revealed to Noah and Hud.

According to a narration, the following verses are about the messenger sent to Antioch by Prophet Jesus (p.b.u.h.) [11]:

“And cite for them the parable of the people of the town—when the messengers came to it. When We sent to them two but they denied them, so We strengthened them with a third, and they said, “Indeed, we are messengers to you.”
They said, “You are not but human beings like us, and Rahman [12] has not revealed a thing. You are only telling lies.”
They said; “Our Lord knows that we are messengers to you, and we are not responsible except for clear notification.”” (Ya-seen 36:13-17)

These verses are in consistency with the information given in the “Acts (of the Messengers)” chapter of The Bible.

It is essential that there exists messengers which are not prophets. Allah the Almighty decrees:

وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَا مِن رَّسُولٍ إِلاَّ بِلِسَانِ قَوْمِهِ لِيُبَيِّنَ لَهُمْ فَيُضِلُّ اللّهُ مَن يَشَاء وَيَهْدِي مَن يَشَاء وَهُوَ الْعَزِيزُ الْحَكِيمُ .

“We never sent any messenger except in the language of his people, to make things clear for them, and henceforth Allah lets astray who prefers to stray and admits into His guidance who prefers the guidance.” (Abraham 14:4)

Qur’an is Arabic because of the people to whom Muhammad (p.b.u.h.) was sent as messenger. However, he was sent not only to Arabic people, but to all people on earth. Allah the Almighty decrees:

وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَاكَ إِلَّا كَافَّةً لِّلنَّاسِ بَشِيرًا وَنَذِيرًا وَلَكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ النَّاسِ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ.

“And We have not sent you except to the whole mankind as a bringer of good tidings and warnings. But most of the people do not know.” (Saba’ 34:28)

It is therefore quite an important duty for multilingual people to learn from The Qur’an and deliver the message to their people in their own language. Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.) said:

بلغوا عني ولو آية

“Communicate from me, even though one verse.” (Bukhari, Prophets, 50)

This is the duty which all prophets assigned to their people. The Qur’an informs that this is a duty for all Muslims:

“And [mention, Oh Muhammad], when Allah took a covenant from those who were given the Book, [saying], “You must make it clear to the people and not conceal it. But they threw it away behind their backs and exchanged it for a trivial price. What a miserable exchange they made!” (Al-e-Imran/Family of Imran 3:187)

Those who ignore the duty to deliver the message of the Qur’an will fall in a bad situation. It is described in the Qur’an as follows:

“Indeed, those who conceal what We sent down of explanatory evidences and guidance after We made it clear for the people in this Book- those will be cursed by Allah and cursed by those who curse… Except for those who repent and correct themselves and make evident [what they concealed]. Those – I will accept their repentance, and I am The Accepter of Repentance, the Merciful.” (Al-Baqarah/The Cow 2:159-160)

“Those who conceal what Allah revealed in the Book, and exchange it for a trivial price—those eat nothing but fire into their bellies. And Allah will not speak to them on the Day of Rising, nor will He purify them, and they will have a painful chastisement.” (Al-Baqarah/The Cow 2:174)

The Qur’an must be translated into every language accurately, and it must be announced to the people by the messengers who speak their language. Ones who deliver the message must choose Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.) as the role model while performing this duty. Only then, that community would be responsible for believing in the last prophet and the Book he has brought. Allah the Almighty decrees:

وَإِذْ أَخَذَ اللّهُ مِيثَاقَ النَّبِيِّيْنَ لَمَا آتَيْتُكُم مِّن كِتَابٍ وَحِكْمَةٍ ثُمَّ جَاءكُمْ رَسُولٌ مُّصَدِّقٌ لِّمَا مَعَكُمْ لَتُؤْمِنُنَّ بِهِ وَلَتَنصُرُنَّهُ قَالَ أَأَقْرَرْتُمْ وَأَخَذْتُمْ عَلَى ذَلِكُمْ إِصْرِي قَالُواْ أَقْرَرْنَا قَالَ فَاشْهَدُواْ وَأَنَاْ مَعَكُم مِّنَ الشَّاهِدِينَ  .فَمَن تَوَلَّى بَعْدَ ذَلِكَ فَأُوْلَـئِكَ هُمُ الْفَاسِقُونَ.

“And recall when God took oath from the Prophets: ‘This is the Book and the Wisdom which I have given you. But should a messenger come to you confirming that which is already with you, you shall believe in him and shall help him. So saying, God asked: ‘Do you agree and accept to take up the burden of the oath?’ [13] They answered: ‘We agree,’ He said: ‘Then bear witness; and I will be with you among the witnesses. Whoever turns away after that—these are the strayed sinners.” (Al-e-Imran/Family of Imran 3:81-82)

Let’s read the following words of Jesus (p.b.u.h) to trace the above verses in the Bible:

“But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me.” (Bible, Chapter John 16:5-14)

We can understand the matter comprehensively if we replace “he” with “Muhammad”.

No other prophet is going to come after Muhammad (p.b.u.h.). Allah the Almighty decrees:

مَّا كَانَ مُحَمَّدٌ أَبَا أَحَدٍ مِّن رِّجَالِكُمْ وَلَكِن رَّسُولَ اللَّهِ وَخَاتَمَ النَّبِيِّينَ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمًا

“Muhammad is not the father of [any] one of your men, but the Messenger of Allah and last of the prophets. And ever is Allah, of all things, Knowing.” (Al-Ahzaab/The Allies 33:40)

After this, whoever claims that he receives revelation from Allah or attempts to demonstrate his own book like the book of Allah in an aspect, he will be subject to this verse:

وَمَنْ أَظْلَمُ مِمَّنِ افْتَرَ‌ىٰ عَلَى اللَّـهِ كَذِبًا أَوْ قَالَ أُوحِيَ إِلَيَّ وَلَمْ يُوحَ إِلَيْهِ شَيْءٌ وَمَنْ قَالَ سَأُنْزِلُ مِثْلَ مَا أَنْزَلَ اللَّـهُ وَلَوْ تَرَ‌ىٰ إِذِ الظَّالِمُونَ فِي غَمَرَ‌اتِ الْمَوْتِ وَالْمَلَائِكَةُ بَاسِطُو أَيْدِيهِمْ أَخْرِ‌جُوا أَنْفُسَكُمُ الْيَوْمَ تُجْزَوْنَ عَذَابَ الْهُونِ بِمَا كُنْتُمْ تَقُولُونَ عَلَى اللَّـهِ غَيْرَ‌ الْحَقِّ وَكُنْتُمْ عَنْ آيَاتِهِ تَسْتَكْبِرُ‌ونَ

“And who is more wrong-doing than one who invents a lie regarding Allah or says, “It has been revealed to me,” while nothing has been revealed to him, and one who says, “I will reveal [something] like what Allah revealed.” And, if you could only see when the wrongdoers are in the overwhelming pangs of death while the angels extend their hands, [saying], “Discharge your souls! Today you will be recompensed with a humiliating chastisement for what you used to say regarding Allah other than the truth and [that] you were, toward His verses, being arrogant.” (Al-An’am/The Cattle 6:93)

Today, the only thing to do is following the path of Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.) while notifying people of Qur’an, and taking his Example as the only example for our lives.


1-      Not every messenger (rasul) is a prophet (nabi), but every prophet is also a messenger.
2-      Not only did four books come down until now, but every prophet (nabi) was given a Book and Wisdom.
3-      Obeying prophets (nabi) is not commanded, but obeying messengers is a command of Allah, because messengers convey the words of Allah as they are. Thereof, obedience is to Allah only.
4-      This means, that prophets are not legislators in Islam, and The Example of Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.), Sunnah, is not a second code of laws besides the Qur’an. Rather, it is the practice of inferences made from the Qur’an by him.
5-      Messengers do not make mistakes, as long as they convey the message without manipulating, because what they say is the words of Allah.
6-      Prophets are not innocent. They can make mistakes, and they are warned by Allah when they do.
7-      Prophets are not privileged. In case of mistakes, they are warned, but if they would not mind the warnings, Allah would punish them severely.
8-      Every Muslim is responsible for conveying what he/she has learned from Qur’an to people.
9-      People are responsible for Islam only after they are accurately notified in their own language.

[1] The word nabi = النبيُّ is of pattern فَعيلٌ . It is either a subject from the root naba’ = نبأ  meaning, “that brings news/info” , or an object from the root nabva = النَّبْوةُ  meaning “whose value is increased”.
Raghib al-Esfahani prefers the root without hamza, meaning “whose value is increased”. He relies on the following reason:

“Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.) replies a man who called him: “Oh, The nabia Allah: يا نبيء الله”, saying: “I am not the nabia of Allah, but the nabi of Allah: لست بنبيء الله، ولكن نبي الله(al-Mufradat).”
We think this is correct because the nabi of Allah is not a person who brings news from Allah. A person who brings news conveys some information from someone to another. A nabi does not do that only, but he both delivers the message of the Book of Allah to people and practices it in his own life. Therefore his value is increased by Allah.

[2] The word ‘nabi’ is referred to by the word ‘prophet’ throughout the article, in order to keep the text readable. Real meaning of the word ‘nabi’ is the essence of the article, and is explained thoroughly within. [Translator’s note] [3] The order in the verses is: “Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, Job, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, Noah, Zechariah, John, Jesus, Elijah, Ishmael, Elisha, Jonah and Lot. (Peace be upon them!).

[4] Ahmad b. Hanbal, al-Musnad v.5, p.266

[5] Abu Jafar Muhammad b. Jarir at-Tabari (310 h.), Tarikh al-Umam wal Muluk (Tarikh at-Tabari) Beirut 1407, v.I p.187, az-Zamakhshari (467-538 h.), al-Kashshaaf, Commentary of Chapter 28 Surah A’la in The Qur’an.

[6] See, The Qur’an 3:81.

[7] One cannot notice that he is strayed without checking his situation against the Book of Allah. Some of the people that notice it correct themselves, and some of them remain astray, although they know. This causes dissension in communities.

[8] The word ‘messenger’ is used as the translation of words ‘rasul’ or ‘mursal’ throughout the article, in order to keep the text readable [Translator’s note].

[9] See, The Qur’an 27:35.

[10] Allah had promised the Meccan army to Muslims. Related verses are: “And recall when God promised you that one of the two parties would fall to you, and you wished that the one without arms should fall into your hands. But God sought to verify the truth by His words and to (assign you the Meccan army to) annihilate those who conceal (their faith) to the last remnant. He wanted to prove the truth to be true and the false to be false, however averse the criminals might be to it.” (Al-Anfal/The Spoils of War 8:7–8)

[11] Abu Jafar Muhammad b. Jarir at-Tabari (310 h.); Jami al-bayan fi ta’wil al-Qur’an, Tahqiq Ahmad Muhammad Shakir; (1420/2000); v.20, p.500.

[12] Rahman means, endlessly beneficent. People accept that Allah gives everything; but they cannot accept Him giving orders.

[13] This burden has not been laid on Muslims. See The Qur’an 2:286.



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