Uses of Word Nabi (Prophet)

Classical Muslim Saints and Scholars apply Nabi to Non-prophets

The Muslim Thinker, July/August/September 1990 Issue (Issue 4, pp. 14–20)

The words nabi (prophet) and rasul (messenger) are generally applied only in their narrow, specialised sense, referring to the great prophets of God in whom Muslims are required to believe. The Last and final such Prophet was the Holy Prophet Muhammad, after whom no prophet is to come. However, without violating the finality of prophethood, these words have been applied, in a broad and non-technical sense, to the saints who arose within Islam.

1.  Mujaddid Alif Sani (d. 1624):

Referring to the first two Khalifas [Caliphs] of Islam (Hazrat Abu Bakr and Umar), this great Mujaddid [Reformer] of India wrote:

“These two men, on account of their eminence and greatness, are counted among the prophets (singular, nabi) 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 muhaddases [non-prophet who receives revelation] and not prophets.

2.  Jalal-ud-Din Rumi (d. 1273):

He was one of the greatest mystical poets and philosophers of Islamic history, and his work Masnawi [Masnavi] 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 is a leading opponent of the Ahmadiyya Movement who attended the Cape Town court case in 1987 to assist the anti-Ahmadi side. In a book he has quoted and explained these verses 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 [Practices of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)] as metaphorically a prophet: ‘O disciple, he is the prophet of the time, because he reflects the Holy Prophet’s light’.” (Aqidat al-Umma fi Mani Khatam an-Nubuwwat, p. 112)

We only ask Allama Khalid Mahmud to apply the same principle to the writings of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. During the court hearings, referred to above, this passage was quoted in the presence of Allama Khalid Mahmud.

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 the prophet of the time because he reflects the Holy Prophet’s light.’

“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)

(Note: Hazrat Mirza did not show any “lack of caution” in his use of these terms. He was anxious to take the greatest care to ensure that these terms were not misunderstood and abused.)

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 (d. 1943):

He quotes the classical theologian Sayyid Abdul Wahhab Shirani 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 apostleship (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 [pleural of rasul] may apply to them.’

“Now look, in this text he has referred to mere preaching as apostleship.” (Al-Tanbiyya al-Tarbi fi Tanziyya Ibn Arabi, pp. 100-101)

4.  Maulana Sana-ullah 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 Kifayat-ullah:

He was a theologian of this century, and head of the Jamiat 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)

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.   Khwaja Muin-ud-Din Chishti of Ajmer (d. 1236 C.E.):

He was the Mujaddid [Reformer] of his time and the saint who laid the foundations of the propagation of Islam in India. He wrote the following verses:

i.    [In the first verse:]

“Every moment the Holy Spirit [angel Gabriel] inspires into Muin,
“So it is not me who says this, but the fact is that I am the second Jesus.” (Diwan Khwaja Ajmeri, ode no. 70, p. 102)

ii. It is recorded:

“Once in our presence a man came to enter into the discipleship of the Khwaja of Ajmer. The Khwaja 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 Khwaja 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 Khwaja accepted the pledge from him and invested him with the robe of honour.” (Fawaid as-Salikin, 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].” (Haqiqat Gulzar Sabiri, sixth edition published by Maktaba Sabiriyya, Qasur, Pakistan, 1983, p. 414.)