History of the Prophets

by Maulana Muhammad Ali


Abraham and Moses are the two prophets whose histories are given the greatest prominence in the Holy Quran, Abraham being spoken of over 40 times and Moses nearly 50 times. The importance of Abraham was due to the fact that he was accepted by all the three different communities that resided in Arabia, the Jews, the Christians, and the idolaters, and was thus in a way the link which united them, notwithstanding the divergence of their religious views. It is for this reason that they are again and again invited to the religion of Abraham:

“And they say: Be Jews or Christians, you will be on the right course. Say: Nay, (we follow) the religion of Abraham, the upright one, and he was not one of the polytheists.” (The Holy Quran, 2:135)

“And who is better in religion than he who submits himself entirely to Allah while doing good (to others) and follows the faith of Abraham, the upright one?” (The Holy Quran, 4:125)

“Say: As for me, my Lord has guided me to the right path—a right religion, the faith of Abraham, the upright one, and he was not of the polytheists.” (The Holy Quran, 6:161)

And notwithstanding that the righteousness of Abraham was an established fact with these three communities, Abraham’s religion was not the religion of any of them:

“Abraham was not a Jew nor a Christian, but he was (an) upright (man), a Muslim; and he was not one of the polytheists.” (The Holy Quran, 3:67)

The three communities are in fact told to find out the common element of the three religions, for only that could be the religion of Abraham. This was the existence of the One Supreme God. The word hanif, which I have translated upright, is most frequently used in connection with Abraham. The root-word, hanf means inclining, or declining, and hence hanif means one inclining to a right state, according to Raghib, the best authority on the lexicology of the Holy Quran. Wherever used, it seems to indicate a firmness in sticking to the right state as opposed to an inclining to polytheism on the part of the Jews and the Christians.

Abraham appears in the Holy Quran as the most forceful preacher against idolatry and polytheism of every kind, and his zeal to rid humanity of this grossest of superstitions gives us really a picture of the Holy Prophet’s mind. In fact, every prophet in the Holy Quran represents a particular phase of the character of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, and Abraham stands for the iconoclastic tendency on the one hand and entire submission to God on the other. His preaching against idolatry is referred to in 6:74; 19:42­–48; 21:52–65; 26:69–84; 29:16, 17; 37:85–96; 43:26, 27. He also preaches against the worship of heavenly bodies; see 6:74–82; 37:88, 89. But he went a step further and broke the idols, and this he did after he had plainly told his people that he would make clear to them the helplessness of their supposed deities:

“And by Allah! I will certainly plan against your idols after you go away, turning your backs. So he broke them into pieces, except the chief of them, that haply they may return to it.” (The Holy Quran, 21:57, 58)

The same incident is also referred to earlier, in 37:91–96 [The Holy Quran], where Abraham is spoken of as having broken them secretly, i.e., in the absence of their worshippers. As a result of this, opposition to Abraham took a bitter turn but God made all plans against him fruitless:

“They said: Burn him, and help your gods, if you are going to do (anything). We said: O fire, be a coolness and peace for Abraham: And they intended a plan against him, but We made them the greater losers. And We delivered him and Lot” (The Holy Quran, 21:68–71).

“So naught was the answer of his people except that they said: Slay him or burn him! But Allah delivered him from the fire.” (The Holy Quran, 29:24)

The opponents had a plan to burn him, but that plan failed. Whether Abraham was actually cast into fire is not stated.

The breaking of the idols by Abraham was no doubt a prophecy that the idols which now polluted the House sanctified by Abraham would ultimately be broken by the Holy Prophet, and so it happened after the conquest of Makka [Makkah]. Abraham’s zeal for the establishment of the Unity of God is also displayed by his leaving enduring traditions among the Arabs that he was a preacher of unity:

“And he made it a word to continue in his posterity that they might return” (The Holy Quran, 43:28),

where it refers to the worship of one God.

The second phase of Abraham’s character in which he represents the Holy Prophet is his entire submission to God. Though every prophet, undoubtedly submitted to God, yet particular stress is laid upon Abraham’s submission, see 2:124, 131; 3:67; 4:125; 16:120; 37:103 [The Holy Quran]. It was his complete submission to God that made him a guide for all people:

“And when his Lord tried Abraham with certain commands he fulfilled them. He said: Surely I will make thee a leader of men.” (The Holy Quran, 2:124)

Abraham’s desire was that his offspring should also be raised to the dignity of leadership, but he was told that

“the covenant of God does not include the unjust.” (The Holy Quran, 2:124)

Abraham’s submission to God was so perfect that when he received a commandment to sacrifice his only son Ishmael, he did not hesitate a minute though

“when they both submitted and he had thrown him down upon his forehead,”

the voice of God came to him that he had

“fulfilled the vision” (The Holy Quran, 37:103–105),

in obedience to which he was going to sacrifice his son, and that the sacrifice of a goat should commemorate the occasion (The Holy Quran, 37:107), as a sign that the animal in man was to be sacrificed to the divine in him. Thus, the incident affords an illustration of the complete submission of Abraham to God, and contains, no doubt, a prophetic reference to the complete submission of the Holy Prophet Muhammad and his followers, who showed their willingness to lay down their own lives and the lives of those dearest to them to defend the truth.

It may be remarked here that the Holy Quran speaks of Ishmael as being the son whom Abraham was ordered to sacrifice, as it speaks of the good news of Isaac’s birth being given to Abraham after the incident of the sacrifice (The Holy Quran, 37:112). This contradicts the Bible statement, which speaks of Isaac as being the son who was ordered to be sacrificed. But the Bible contradicts itself when it says:

“Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac” (Genesis, 22:2).

He is again called

“thine only son”

in verses 12 and 16. Now Isaac could not, by any stretch of imagination, be called an

“only son,”

as Ishmael was much older than Isaac. Only Ishmael could be called an only son before Isaac’s birth, and, therefore, the text has no doubt been altered in favour of Isaac. Moreover, both the Bible and the Holy Quran agree that a ram was sacrificed instead of the lad, but the sacrifice of a ram is commemorated among Ishmael’s descendants, not among Isaac’s, and this is additional testimony to the truth of what the Quran states.

Another important point relating to Abraham is his connection and that of Ishmael with the Kaba [Kabah], the sacred house at Makka [Makkah]. The Quran does not leave the least doubt about it. It was here that Abraham had left Ishmael, not in the wilderness of Beersheba as stated in the Bible. This is shown by Abraham’s prayer as referred to in the Holy Quran:

“Our Lord, I have settled a part of my offspring in a valley unproductive of fruit near Thy Sacred House, our Lord, that they may keep up prayer.” (The Holy Quran, 14:37)

From this, as also from a saying of the Holy Prophet, it further appears that Abraham had left Ishmael in Arabia in accordance with a Divine commandment, not at the instigation of his wife Sarah, as the Bible would have it (Genesis, 21:10). In fact, it was all done in accordance with a Divine scheme, so that

“the stone”

which the builders rejected should become

“the head of the corner” (Matthew, 21:42; Psalms, 118:22).

Ishmael was that stone, for whereas from the descendants of Israel came numerous prophets, from the descendants of him who was cast into the wilderness, and whom the Israelites began to hate though he was their brother, came the last of the prophets who became the head of the corner.

The strong connection of Abraham and Ishmael with the Ka’ba [Kabah] is thus voiced in the Holy Quran:

“When Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundations of the house: our Lord, accept from us” (The Holy Quran, 2:127).

From this it appears that Abraham and Ishmael rebuilt the Ka’ba [Kabah]. That it was there already is shown by 14:37 [The Holy Quran], as also by 3:96 [The Holy Quran] which calls it

“the first house appointed for men.”

Abraham is also stated to have prayed for Makka [Makkah] to be made the spiritual centre of the world:

“My Lord, make this city secure, and save me and my sons from worshipping idols” (The Holy Quran, 14:35; 2:126).

And Abraham and Ishmael prayed for the raising up of a prophet from among their descendants:

“Our Lord, and make us both submissive to Thee, and (raise) from our offspring, a nation submissive to Thee, and show us our ways of devotion and turn to us (mercifully); surely Thou art the Oft-returning (to mercy), the Merciful. Our Lord, and raise up in them a Messenger from among them who shall recite to them Thy messages and teach them the Book and the wisdom, and purify them. Surely Thou art the Mighty, the Wise.” (The Holy Quran, 2:128, 129)

It is in reference to this prayer that the Holy Prophet is reported to have said:

“I am the prayer of my father Abraham.”

The prayer for

“a nation submitting to Thee”

or a Muslim nation, as contained in 2:128 [The Holy Quran], was clearly prophetical at the time of its revelation, for the circumstances then were against such a nation coming into existence, and the few scattered Muslims against overwhelming numbers of opponents who were bent upon their extermination, could not be called a nation.

Another trait of Abraham’s character in which he represents the Holy Prophet is that he was very lenient towards his foes, so much so that he pleaded for Lot’s people to be saved, though he knew that they were transgressors (The Holy Quran, 11:74–76). His prayer contains the memorable words:

“So whoever follows me, he is surely of me; and whoever disobeys me, Thou surely art Forgiving, Merciful” (The Holy Quran, 14:36).

He thus invoked Divine mercy even for his enemies, and this notwithstanding that he had to sever connection with these opponents:

“We are clear of you and of that which you serve besides Allah. We disbelieve in you and there has arisen enmity and hatred between us and you forever until you believe in Allah alone” (The Holy Quran, 60:4).

Exactly in the same manner was the Holy Prophet compelled to sever his connection with the unbelievers; yet, in his hour of triumph when all those enemies who had left no stone unturned to annihilate the Muslims were at his mercy, he forgave them all. On another occasion when the Prophet was asked to pray for the destruction of his enemies when he had received severe injuries in the battle of Uhud, he raised his hands and prayed thus:

“O Allah! Forgive my people, for they do not know.”