History of the Prophets

by Maulana Muhammad Ali

An essential difference between the histories of the prophets as they are narrated in the Holy Quran and the Bible may be pointed out at the very outset. The Bible contains a record of genealogies and some personal history while the Holy Quran deals only with the life-work of a prophet relating to the grand object of reformation and as to how he succeeded in establishing the truth and uprooting evil.

The Arabic word for prophet is nabi, which is derived from naba’ meaning an announcement of great utility, also a prophecy which gives information concerning the future. The word nabi in its literal significance is applicable to anyone to whom prophecies about the future are revealed, but in the technical language of Islam it is applicable only to a man who is chosen by God to deliver His message to mankind. Such a person is also called a rasul (messenger), which literally means one sent. The two words, nabi and rasul, are interchangeable, but rasul literally carries a wider significance, for the angels are also called rusul (messengers) (The Holy Quran, 35:1).

The prophet, according to the Holy Quran, must be a human being, and hence it does not accept the doctrine of incarnation, or God in flesh. The reformation of man is entrusted to men to whom Divine will is revealed, because only a man could serve as a model for men; even an angel could not have served that purpose. How could God in flesh serve as a model for frail human beings who have to meet hundreds of temptations, whereas for God there exists no possible temptation? Hence the Holy Quran has affirmed in the clearest words that only prophets, or men to whom God revealed His will, could be sent as reformers:

“Had there been in the earth angels walking about secure, We would have sent down to them from the heaven an angel as messenger,” (The Holy Quran, 17:95)

“And We sent not before thee any but men to whom We sent revelation… Nor did We give them bodies not eating food.” (The Holy Quran, 21:7–8)

To every prophet was given a book for the guidance of his people:

“So Allah raised prophets as bearers of good news and as warners, and He revealed with them the Book with truth, that it might judge between people concerning that in which they differed.” (The Holy Quran, 2:213)

“Certainly We sent Our messengers with clear arguments, and sent down with them the Book and the measure.” (The Holy Quran, 57:25)

The prophets were all sinless, both their words and their deeds being in accordance with Divine commandments:

“And We sent no messenger before thee but We revealed to him that there is no God but Me, so serve Me. And they say: The Beneficent has taken to Himself a son. Glory be to Him! Nay, they are honoured servants — They speak not before He speaks, and according to His command they act.” (The Holy Quran, 21:25–27)

“And it is not for a prophet to act dishonestly.” (The Holy Quran, 3:161)

Prophets, according to the Holy Quran, were needed to enable man to rise to higher stages of life. In accordance with this Divine scheme, revelation was as much a need for one people as for another. God had endowed all men with the power to conquer nature, not one particular nation to the exclusion of others. He gave His physical sustenance to all men alike. Hence revelation which was needed for the moral and spiritual progress of man could not be given to one man or one nation to the exclusion of others. Prophets were, therefore, sent to every nation, though the names of all of them have not been mentioned in the Quran:

“And there is not a people but a warner has gone among them.” (The Holy Quran, 35:24)

“And for every nation there is a messenger.” (The Holy Quran, 10:47)

“And (We sent) messengers We have mentioned to thee before and messengers We have not mentioned to thee.” (The Holy Quran, 4:164)

That is not all. Belief in the prophets of other nations is one of the fundamental principles of Islam. One of the three chief articles of the faith of a Muslim, as stated at the very commencement of the Holy Quran, is:

“And who believe in that which has been revealed to thee and that which was revealed before thee.” (The Holy Quran, 2:4)

The Quran thus lays down the basis of a brotherhood of the whole human race to which no other heavenly book has made any approach. That God is Lord of all the nations of the world is not here a dry dogma; it is a living principle, not only recognizing that all nations were treated equally, physically as well as spiritually, but going further and making it an article of the faith of a Muslim that he believes in all the prophets, as he believes in the Prophet Muhammad [pbuh]. Surely a universal religion upon which the whole human race could agree could go no further.

It should be borne in mind in reading the histories of the prophets as given in the Holy Quran that the object is not to narrate history as such, but to bring out certain characteristics of the histories of different nations, to mention incidents which contain prophetic allusion to the Holy Prophet’s life, or to the future of Islam, and to comfort the Prophet with illustrations from previous sacred history that truth shall ultimately be established and that opposition shall entirely fail and be overthrown. The Quran does not concern itself with the details of these histories, not even with the details of what messages a prophet delivered to his people or how he was received. It contents itself with the broad facts that every prophet delivered the message of Unity, invited people to obey God and to do good to fellow-men, and aimed at the moral betterment of the people to whom he was sent. It shows, by mentioning prophets of Israelite and non-Israelite nationality, that the cardinal principles of the religion of all the prophets were one and the same. The references in the earlier chapters are generally very brief. Whatever details there are belong to a period when opposition to the Prophet was at its highest, and the object was, no doubt, to tell the opponents when they were at the height of their power that they could not escape their ultimate overthrow. Another point worth noting is that every prophet is spoken of as being sent to a single nation, with the exception of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, who is spoken of as being sent to all the nations of the world.

References mentioned above:

“Praise be to Allah, the Originator of the heavens and the earth, the Maker of the angels, messengers flying on wings, two, and three, and four. He increase in creation what He pleases. Surely Allah is Possessor of power over all things.” (The Holy Quran, 35:1)