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Prophethood

By:
David A. Kerr
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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Prophethood

The most common term for prophethood in the Islamic religious vocabulary is nubūwah, from the Arabic root n-b-ʿ, meaning “elevate” or “announce.” The latter meaning is predominant in the Qurʿānic understanding of the prophet, nabī, as “one who announces.” The first meaning is also employed by Islamic religious scholars to express the elevated status of the prophet among humankind or the elevating effect of the prophet's communication on those who receive it.

The Qurʿān uses the term “prophet” generically (pl., nabīyūn or anbiyāʿ) of persons called by God to communicate a divinely given message to humankind (nās, Qurʿān 16:44) and to the unseen world of the spirits (jinn, 46:29). A second term for prophet is rasūl (pl., rusul), derived from the Arabic root r-s-l meaning “send.” Whereas nabī expresses the communicative nature of prophethood, rasūl emphasizes its emissary function of delivering the message in the language of a particular community (14:4, 16:36). Distinguishing these roles, which the Qurʿān often invests in a single person, Muslim exegetes have considered the nabī to be a recipient of divine revelation in the form of general moral teaching, exemplified in the prophet's own life; rasūl denotes a prophet whose revelation contains God's specific commands and prohibitions in the form of an ethical code (sharīʿah) recorded in the scriptural form of a book (kitāb) as guidance (hudān) for a particular community in this world (5:48) and as the standard by which its members will be judged on the last day (10:47).

The Qurʿān presents belief in prophethood as the corollary of faith in God, the two being linked in the Muslim testimony of faith (shahādah): “I testify that there is no god but God; I testify that Muḥammad is the messenger (rasūl) of God.” Islamic religious thought deals extensively with prophethood as a mercy of God toward creation, given without obligation as the noblest expression of God's consistent guidance of humankind to the good. Prophethood meets an absolute human need and provides the means by which humans can respond individually and collectively to God in an active faith that “enjoins right conduct and forbids indecency” (3:104). The prophet is a witness (shahīd) of God's unity (tawḥīd), an announcer (mubashshir) of the righteous conduct (dīn) God wills for this world, and the warner (nadhīr) of God's judgment on the Last Day. The messenger also has the eschatological role of being witness on the day of judgment in respect of the human community to which he was sent.

God's free initiative in revelation entails God's liberty to have chosen for prophetic responsibility any human being up to the prophet Muḥammad, whom the Qurʿān designates “the Seal of the Prophets” (33:40). Rationality of mind and sincerity of heart were the only human qualifications on which Muslim scholars insisted. To such men—and, some scholars such as Ibn Ḥazm argued, such women—God communicated through waḥy, the general Qurʿānic term for “revelation” (42:51). Waḥy embraces two dimensions: that of God's general inspiration (ilhām) of rational and nonrational creatures; more precisely, it signifies special revelation that God caused to descend (tanzīl) upon those God chose as prophets. These persons remain fully human but are elevated (note the first meaning of the Arabic root n-b-ʿ) to the highest degree of intellectual and moral excellence, superior even to the angels, as exemplified especially in the character of the prophet Muḥammad (68:4).

The perfection of the prophets is expressed in the Islamic doctrine of infallibility (ʿiṣmah), which, though nowhere explicit in the Qurʿān, was elaborated in the classical creeds of Islam. Infallibility applied to four defining attributes of prophethood: fidelity (amānah) to divine commands, veracity (ṣidq) respecting what God gave them to communicate, sagacity (faṭānah) in understanding its meaning, and the transmission (tablīgh) of the message itself. Classical Islam saw miracles (muʿjizah) as the external evidence of the elevated human qualities of prophets. In the prophet Muḥammad's case, however, the sole miracle the Qurʿān admits is that of the Qurʿān itself, an inimitable scripture in perfect Arabic that no human, least of all one presumed unlettered (ummī, 7:157), could emulate (2:23–24).

The Qurʿānic concept of prophethood turns on the twin principles of plurality and unity. The Qurʿān names many though not all prophets (40:78); Adam is implied to be the first (2:37) and Muḥammad is designated as the last (33:40). Although nowhere enumerating the prophets, the Qurʿān teaches that every human community received its messenger in the medium of its own language (16:36). Equally it insists that, though many, the prophets were united in a single community of truth (23:52). Coming from the one and only God, the essence of revelation to all prophets was one and the same. The Qurʿān symbolizes the unity of prophethood in the concept of a prehistorical covenant (mīthāq) that God struck with the prophets before their human creation, that they would serve no god but God (3:81, 33:7). Historical prophethood is seen to be reiterative of this primordial covenant, elaborated in terms of moral teaching. Prophets therefore did not bring “new” revelations, nor was prophethood understood as a progressive unfolding of God's will. By this same covenant, however, the Qurʿān attests that all the prophets looked forward to the coming of Muḥammad as the final messenger who would confirm all that had been revealed to them (3:81) and universalize prophethood for the remainder of human history (21:107).

Prophethood is therefore always defined in terms of Muḥammad's experience, recorded in the traditions (ḥadīth). The waḥy descended on him as “a heavy word,” which he heard as a reverberating bell, causing him profuse sweating. Muḥammad also testified to the visual experience of seeing the angel Gabriel, who transmitted the revelation (2:97). Audition (samāʿ) and vision (ruʿyah) testify to an invasive power taking control of the human senses. It was in this state that Muḥammad is believed to have repeated the words dictated by the angel as a recitation (qurʿān), thus reproducing the word of God.

Classical Islam favored an eschatological emphasis on the role of the prophet, particularly Muḥammad, as intercessor (shafīʿ) on behalf of believers—a doctrine that finds ambiguous sanctuary in the Qurʿān (10.3). Muḥammad's personal conduct (sunnah) was also emulated by pious Muslims as a way of expressing love for God, with the promised reward of God's reciprocal forgiveness (3:31). Resurgent Islam is today committed to the struggle of actualizing the content of Muḥammad's nubūwah in renewed Islamic community. Prophecy in this perspective is seen to be fulfilled in the political realm, as society conforms to the will of God.

See also MUḥAMMAD, subentry on ROLE OF THE PROPHET IN MUSLIM THOUGHT AND PRACTICE; REVELATION; and THEOLOGY.

Bibliography

  • ʿAbduh, Muḥammad. The Theology of Unity. Translated by Ishaq Musaʿad and Kenneth Cragg. London, 1966. English translation of the treatise of the Egyptian Muslim modernist, Muḥammad ʿAbduh (d. 1905), entitled Risālat al-tawḥīd, containing an extended discussion of prophethood.
  • Gardet, Louis. L’Islam, religion et communauté. Paris, 1967. Concise survey of major trends in classical Islamic religious thought.
  • Haneef, Suzanne. A History of the Prophets of Islam: Derived from the Qurʿān, Aḥādith, and Commentaries. Vols. 1 and 2. Chicago, 2002.
  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Ideals and Realities of Islam. London, 1966. Perceptive restatement of classical Islamic views of the fundamentals of the faith.
  • Rahman, Fazlur. Prophecy in Islam: Philosophy and Orthodoxy. London, 1958. Brilliant account of classical Islamic debates between theologians and philosophers about the nature of prophecy and its relationship to human intellect.
  • Smith, Jane I.Islam in America. New York, 1999.
  • Ṭabāṭabāʿī, Muḥammad. Shiʿite Islam. Translated and edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Albany, N.Y., 1975. Modern Shīʿī statement of faith, with a useful discussion of prophethood in Shīʿī perspective.
  • Takim, Liyakatali. The Heirs of the Prophet: Charisma and Religious Authority in Shiʿite Islam. Albany, N.Y., 2006.
  • Turner, Colin. Islam: The Basics. London and New York, 2006.
  • Watt, W. Montgomery. Islamic Revelation in the Modern World. Edinburgh, 1969. Careful account of classical Islamic concepts of revelation and prophethood, with comparative Christian and psychoanalytic perspectives.
  • Wensinck, A. J.The Muslim Creed: Its Genesis and Historical Development. London, 1965. History of the development of Islamic religious thought.
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