The religious approach to reading Quran can make it very inaccessible and irrelevant. As a religious text, Quran is very distant. It was revealed to Prophet Muhammad 1400 years ago and there it stays. The Prophet’s Sunna, something to which all Muslims aspire to follow, becomes mainly about his alleged religious duties and laws. This is not the concern of Quran at all.
However, when you remove this religious lens and make Quran very ‘present’, it becomes perfectly relevant to our lives. One aspect which especially becomes prominent is its leadership wisdom. This wisdom comes from two particular words which are connected to Prophet Muhammad and thus normally off-limits – they are nabi and rasool. These two words always appear in a way related to leadership roles and capacities in Quran. In this essay, we hope to introduce this idea and analyse a few aspects of their usage. This analysis does not hope to be exhaustive because there is too much ground to cover. That will be reserved for subsequent parts.
The first point we need to consider are the meanings of the words themselves. Both ‘nabi’ and ‘rasool’ have their own specific meanings. ‘Nabi’ comes from the word ‘naba’ which means news or a high place. ‘Rasool’ comes from the word ‘risala’ which means message or epistle. Therefore, the concept of ‘leading’ (like in the English word ‘leader’) is not inherent in the meaning but rather discerned through the context. Instead both these words seem to be centred on embodiment of news and messages and contextually, the divinely originated aspects of both. Hence the first thing we can surmise about the Quranic notion of leadership is that it is based on these individuals’ connection with the higher news and divine message.
The next point we then need to consider is – why are there two terms – nabi and rasool? In Traditional circles, the nabi is said to be one who receives divine messages but does not have to convey them and the rasool receives them and is obligated to convey them to his people. There may be some truth to this given some contexts (like the nabi being privy to secret information in 66/3) but not others (like 33/1) . Nevertheless, there is still a difference between how the terms are used contextually.
A major example of this difference is in the command to obey (ta’a), Quran always uses ‘obey Allah and the messenger’ (3/132) or ‘obey Allah and obey the messenger’ (for example 5/92). This is because obeying the messenger is obeying Allah himself (as per 4/80). This being the case, one is not compromising the total worship of Allah by obeying the messenger. Rather one is obeying the messages conveyed or portrayed by this individual. ‘rasool’ is better translated as ‘one who personifies the message’ rather than simply ‘messenger’(like the word ‘mursal’). This implies that the leader of the community is one who nurtures the message within him or her.
Compare this with the indirect connection of ‘obey’ (ta’a) with the nabi. In the only occurrence from Quran (60/12) which alludes to this, we find that it is asked from the disempowered believers who join his community. In doing so, they made certain pledges. One of these pledges is not to rebel against the nabi in that which is universally recognised (wa laa ya’sinaka fee ma’roof – 60/12). So while for the rasool it’s a direct obedience, in the case of the nabi it’s an indirect obedience which is expressed in the reluctance to rebel in matters of universal recognition.
These are subtle but most interesting differences which we can see in the leadership of the rasool and nabi. In lifting these qualities, we may thus be able to utilise Quranic wisdom and thus bring benefit in our lives.
Part 2: The covenant linking nabis and rasuls