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 second essay, we hope to explore the relationships between nabis and rasools in order to deepen our understanding of the two concepts.
The first relationship we should explore is when these terms are used as a phrase. This phrase is always ‘rasulan nabiya’(messenger prophet) rather than ‘nabiyan rasula’ (prophet messenger). This shows the emphasis is on the first term, rasool rather than nabi. These personalities probably carried out their missions as messengers with the awareness of the ultimate divine higher news (nabuwwah , hence nabi).
The two personalities in Quran called by this phrase are musa and isma’il in 19/51 and 19/54 respectively. This is an interesting combination because, although musa is used frequently in Quran (actually most frequently!), isma’il is not. Let us analyse these two verses:
And vivify in the book musa; surely he was essentially one selected, and he was in essence messenger, a prophet. (19/51)
And vivify in the book isma’il; surely he was essentially a confirmer of the promise, and he was a messenger, a prophet. (19/54)
The first thing we should note about these two verses is that they both appear in the same chapter, Ch 19 (and only three verses apart). Ch 19 is an answer to the problem of ‘zakariya’ who is afflicted with weakness and old age. The Quranic personalities of musa and isma’il are two of the solutions to the zakariya situation. The principle of musa is formulated here as one selected to reform society and. The word ‘isma’il’ means ‘one who hears about el, the impulse to higher existence’. These two principles are taken to be the essence of being ‘messenger – prophet’.
Another relationship of messengers and prophets is that from the point of view of covenants. There are two mentions of a covenant with the prophets and interestingly, none with messengers. Of the two verses which mentions a covenant with the prophets, one of them (3/81) involves a messenger:
And when Allah made a covenant through the prophets: Certainly what I have given you from book and wisdom– then an messenger comes to you verifying that which is with you, you must believe in him, and you must aid him. He said: Do you affirm and accept my convenant in this (matter)? They said: We do affirm. He said: Then bear witness, and I (too) am of the bearers of witness with you.
The first thing to note here is that this covenant is obviously metaphysical (beyond the earthly realm, much like 7/172 which is the covenant of the children of adam). We believe this because the prophets through the passage of time experience a single messenger. The people who attained this higher level of consciousness, the prophets, whom as explained in 3/79-80, had attained the status of the ideal muslim (agents of wholeness and soundness).
These prophets will be visited by a messenger. This obviously cannot be a human messenger but perhaps some cosmic divine agency. This messenger will bring them a portion of the cosmic book and wisdom, referring to the ultimate system of life and the means of bringing benefit to mankind. The prophets who undertake this covenant will believe and assist this cosmic messenger.
This passage continues with 3/82 giving the possibility of the prophets reneging on their covenant. 3/83 gives us the ultimate level of deen (deenillah – power relations of Allah) which is the ideal form of the attainment of peace. 3/84 then tells us various personalities connected with the attainment of the nabi level. Finally 3/85 tells us about the those who seek other than this principle who will be losers in this world and the next.
This covenant may be repeated in 33/7 (it is unlikely that is another covenant from 3/81). In 33/7, 4 personalities are mentioned together –nuh, ibrahim, musa and isa (they are also mentioned together in 42/13). These are probably the best exemplars of those who followed through with the principle of 3/81.
What we can get from this covenant? That the leaders of an islamic community must be able to understand the higher divine news (nabuwwah) and they will be visited by the divine message of truth bringing them confirmations. They are those in the paths of nuh, ibrahim, musa and isa.
In part 3, we will explore the calls to the rasool and nabi and the implications of their contexts.