Revelation and prophethood – Koran and Bible Compared

Prof. Dr. Christine Schirrmacher


Whoever reads the Koran from beginning to end will realize that much is said about the “prophets”. They play a key role in the concept of revelation in the Koran – and, of course, for Muhammad and his preaching. The Koran, like the Bible, depicts prophets as mortal humans; however, they have a much more significant role for revelation in the Koran than in the Bible. This is true particularly for Muhammad.

The Koran includes many reports of how the prophets preached God’s message to the people. Most of the prophet narratives are based on the reports of the Old Testament, some also on the New Testament. The Koran does not differentiate here among prophets, patriarchs and other people (such as Zacharias in the NT).

God commissions a prophet with a message and admonishes him to distance himself from the idolatry of his countrymen. The prophet thus places himself on God’s side, against his unbelieving countrymen. God proves himself to the prophet to be Creator and Lord (as he does to Abraham); He performs a miracle and protects the prophet from the people’s attacks. The judgment on those who refuse to believe him confirms the prophet’s mission.

The prophet narratives in the Koran – as with most of the other topics – are told mostly in fragments, distributed over many Sures. There are many more implied references than actual reports, as if those listening were already familiar with these other stories (“And when Moses said to his people” …). Besides the report on Joseph (Surah 12) and the story of Kain and Abel, all of the other prophet stories in the Koran are given only in fragments (more on this subject in the lecture on “Joseph in the Bible and in the Koran”).

We know that Muhammad became acquainted with at least part of the Jewish and Christian writings on the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century AD and that he thought at first that he was declaring the same message. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that he took on some of what he heard or that his view of God was also formed by Judeo-Christian ideas. We can assume that he was not aware of the entire OT and NT since during his lifetime only parts of the Bible had been translated into Arabic and the church language of the Arabian Christians was Syrian.

Prophets Without Historical Roots

In analyzing the prophet stories in the Koran, we will recognize that there is no historical order (chronology) to the events, no dates for the reports, no chronology for the sequence of prophets and no clear beginning and end to a prophet narrative. We will hardly find traces of a family history, a dynasty of kings or rulers or references to the history of a particular nation. The prophet stories are suspended in a vacuum. They seem somewhat sterile and cannot be dated back to any year like 5,000 or 1,000 or 2,000 before the “hijra” (Muhammad’s emigration to Medina) because the Koran makes no reference to the times each prophet lived. The exact dates are insignificant for the Koran. The prophet stories are merely illustrations for Muhammad’s own claim to be a messenger of God. The Koran depicts the prophets in so much detail because they justify and illustrate Muhammad’s mission.

The Bible, however, is a book that mentions names, dates, rulers and kings, places and significant historical events in innumerable places, clearly identifying a point in time for the story being told (current archaeological research confirms more and more of these historical statements in the Bible, e.g. the times of the rule of the Pharaohs in Egypt).

Prophets as Templates

The Koran was written by one single author (provided that Muhammad is essentially the author of the Koran) and covers a period of only about 22 years (610-632 AD). The Koran is concerned with history of humanity and the history of other nations only to the extent that other nations are mentioned as examples – that a prophet preached Islamic monotheism to them and they responded to him in belief or unbelief. Muhammad thus sees the Old Testament prophets as “types” or templates that are interchangeable as people. With these marionettes he establishes and justifies his own life story and his mission as a prophet, which his countrymen did not take seriously for the first 12 years.

Even the prophet as an individual has no meaning for the Koran. While we learn about the irascible, anxious character of Moses, for example, or the disobedience and stubbornness of Jonah, and much about the family history of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (conflict, envy, jealousy, injustice, deceit, …), the prophets in the Koran are people without personalities. The prophet becomes significant only because of the mission he is to fulfill: to call the people to monotheism and to warn them of judgment. (Only very seldom is the prophet’s family mentioned as in the case of Abraham and Noah, but even then only to show that within a prophet’s own family people cling to idolatry and persecute and scoff at him – which is also a reference to Muhammad’s own situation.) The prophets’ message in the Koran almost seems to be like a formula: The Koran very strongly simplifies the stories taken from the OT and the NT and gives them one single orientation: the call to Islam, the preaching of monotheism.

Muhammad sees himself in the role of the “one sent from God”, having to endure the jeers of his countrymen and even his family just as many prophets before him. He transfers his own situation onto the prophets before him without detailing the actual events in the past and their specific history. Muhammad uses the prophet stories to justify his own claim to be “one sent from God”.

Prophets as Preachers of Judgment

The Koran mentions several examples of such “unreasonable” nations that experienced God’s judgment for themselves in an earthquake, for example, or other natural disasters: “So we took each one in his sin; of them was he on whom we sent a hurricane and of them was he who was overtaken by the cry and of them was he who we caused the earth to swallow and of them was he whom we drowned”, 29:40, 8:54).

These reports are called “punishment legends”. The number of them increases in the Koran the longer Muhammad must put up with the unbelief and rejection of his countrymen. God’s intervention in judgment affirms and justifies the prophet: what he warned the people about has happened (cf. for example the story of Noah 7:59-64). Muhammad superimposes this “punishment legend” pattern onto his own situation: he too is ridiculed by the people of Mecca; his warnings of judgments are not taken seriously. But God will send judgment and thus legitimate his claims; his lot is like that of most of the prophets before him (38:17).

The prophet must preach the message no matter whether the people believe him, ridicule or persecute him. He preaches verbally (“Read!” or: “Recite!”). Nowhere is he commanded to write down his message, as is frequently the case in the Bible.1

The Koran – Original Revelation but not a New Revelation

The Koran only confirms the message that has been preached many times before. Muhammad’s message is not new, but rather a repetition of what all the prophets of history have already declared (15:10-13) – namely pure monotheism, Islam. According to the Koran, Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus were also preachers of Islam. People (even Jews and Christians) have distorted the message again and again in the course of time, but every prophet sent from God will bring the original revelation again. Only the Koran has remained undistorted to this day. The Koran thus claims to reinterpret and re-evaluate the mission and message of the biblical prophets. Islam sees itself as the “original religion” of humanity that has existed since the beginning and will exist into eternity. All other religions are aberrations and wrong in the end.

The Koran also has a cyclical view of history: The history of humanity is a series, always repeating itself schematically, of the following:

  1. The prophet is commissioned because a nation is engaging in idolatry and has distorted God’s original message
  2. This nation mocks and persecutes the prophet
  3. He threatens punishment and repeatedly warns them
  4. The people refuse to believe
  5. The people are again admonished to repent
  6. A few of the people repent
  7.  Judgment breaks forth and the prophet is justified
    Which Prophets are mentioned in the Koran?

The Koran describes approximately 25 prophets (depending on the count) in detail and mentions about 15 others by name, or refers to them briefly. Most of the prophets originate in the Old and New Testaments; those who know the Bible well will not recognize only a minority of these because they occur only in the Koran.

The most important biblical prophets in the Koran are

  • Adam (Adam) and creation
  • Nuh (Noah) and the great flood
  • Ibrahim (Abraham) and his two sons
  • Isma’il (Ishmael)
  • Ishaq (Isaac)
  • Lut (Lot)
  • Ya’qub (Jacob)
  • Yusuf (Joseph) in Egypt
  • Musa (Moses) and the people of Israel
  • Harun (Aaron)
  • Dawud (David)
  • Sulaiman (Solomon)
  • Ilyas (Elijah)
  • Alyasa’ (Elisha)
  • Yunus (Jonah)
  • Ayyub (Job)
  • Zakariya (Zachariah)
  • Yahyâ (John)
  • Isa (Jesus), sent to Israel

Some of the most important prophets, such as Elijah, David, Solomon, Jonah and Job, are mentioned only marginally in the Koran; other great Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah or Ezekiel are not mentioned at all in the Koran.

Among the prophets the five great prophets have a special role: Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. God made a covenant with them (33:7)2.

Extra-biblical prophets in the Koran

  • Idris (many Muslim theologians identify Idris with Enoch)
  • Hud
  • Dhu l-Kifl
  • Shu’aib (a decendant of Abraham, as some commentators hold, possibly identified with the father-in-law of Moses, Jethro)
  • Salih
  • Muhammad

The most important prophets in the Koran (besides Muhammad) are Abraham (Ibrahim), Noah (Nuh), Moses (Musa) and Jesus (‘Isa), of which the very most important prophets in the Koran besides Muhammad are indubitably Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Of these, Abraham takes a special distinction as the “Progenitor of Islam”.

The Koran also says that God especially honored some individual prophets before others (“Of those messengers some of whom we have caused to excel others … while some of them he exalted above others in degree”, 2:253; see also 17:55).

Several of these prophets in the Koran are given special titles: Adam is the “Chosen One of God” (Arab. safiy Allah), Noah the “Prophet of God” (Arab. nabi Allah), Abraham the “Friend of God” (Arab. khalil Allah), Moses “God’s Speaker” (Arab. kalim Allah) and Muhammad the “One Sent from God” (Arab. rasul Allah), the “Seal” (Arab. khatam) of the Prophets. Muhammad continues the biblical sequence of the prophets: he is the one that inherits, interprets and corrects the Judeo-Christian tradition and surpasses it in his person and message (3:84). Muhammad expects Jews and Christians to recognize his mission on the basis of his pre-eminence. In particular by declaring Abraham the founder and purifier of the Ka’ba in Mecca, he made himself the heir of Judaism and Christianity.

Prophet or Messenger?

The Koran uses two words for “prophet” in Arabic: “nabi” and “rasul”. “Nabi” refers to the prophet, the messenger of God who is sent with a book (Arab. naba’a/II. root = notify, advise, proclaim; V. root = predict, prophesy) (similar in Hebrew “nabi”: speaker, preacher or called one). “Rasul” is the “One Sent from God” (Arab. rasala/IV. root = to send, commission).

Islamic theologians give different figures for the number of prophets there have been in history (numbers such as 1,000, 8,0003 or even 124,000 are frequently cited). Of these the Koran refers to only nine as Ones Sent from God (Arab. rasul, Pl. rusul): Noah, Lot, Ishmael, Moses, Shu’aib, Hud, Salih, Jesus and Muhammad.

Muslim theologians do not provide a clear answer whether there is a semantic difference between the two terms, nor does the Koran offer any definitions. Some theologians claim that while a “nabi” is “one sent from God”, a “rasul” is commissioned by God with a message, gives a law, but furthermore is also a recipient of godly messages that conveys the revelation.4

During the period in Mecca, Muhammad seems to have been called a “rasul” and in Medina a “nabi”.5 Any difference, if there ever clearly was one, seems to have paled in Islamic literature in the course of time.6

The Prophet – Only a Human

Actually – according to the view of Muslim theologians – the prophet, who preaches God’s message to the people, is no different from other people. He is God’s creation; he is mortal and has no other possibilities and no supernatural abilities. The prophet is something special, however, to the extent that God has communicated a message to him, and this message brings him in contact with the supernatural. He perfectly understands God’s message he is to bring to his people.

The Calling as a Prophet

The Koran makes only a few references in Muhammad’s case – and none at all for the other prophets – about how prophets are called by God (only Folk Islam and the prophet biographies include narratives, but these are legends and miracle stories). Muslim theology assumes that the angel Gabriel conveyed his message to Muhammad in individual fragments when Muhammad was about 40 years old, in the month of Ramadan (2:185).

Moreover, it is unclear how the Koran came to exist in its present written form. Islamic theology states that Muhammad could not read or write – therefore the Koran must have been written down by other people (such as his followers, the Caliphs). There is almost a total lack of critical text history and extra-Islamic sources for the history of the Koran (in contrast to the Bible).
Tradition describes the process of communicating the message in different ways: Muhammad himself compared it to a bell’s ring. Other reports state that the Holy Spirit put the content of the revelation into Muhammad’s heart or spoke to him in a dream or through a face. Still other narratives report that the angel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad as a man. Muhammad is also said to have received instructions in heaven – one time about the number of obligatory prayers, for example, as he was traveling through heaven.7 Muhammad himself recalls that he “would often be seized by a fit when receiving a revelation, that foam would come out of his mouth, his head would sink, his face would become pale or glow red; he would cry out like a young camel; the sweat would fall off of him despite the winter weather, etc.”8

God’s Covenant with the Prophets

God makes a covenant with the prophets (33:7), e.g. with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (7:134; 43:149). However, the Koran does not explain with this “covenant” means, nor does it disclose the terms of this covenant. Only in Sure 2:40 does God declare that he will also keep his covenant obligation to the people, but without saying what constitutes this covenant. Sure 9:111 describes God’s covenant obligation to indicate that he assures Paradise to those believers who fight the “jihad” on God’s path.9 Sure 3:81 states that God has obligated the prophets to believe the revelations and messengers He sends them. The people are also obligated to keep the covenant with God, i.e. to obey him (faith, good works and prayer) (2:27; 13:20; 57:8).

In contrast, God’s covenants with the people in the Bible are made for eternity and with absolute certainty. The person who makes a covenant with God is to serve him faithfully all of his life. The man who makes a covenant with his wife – marries her – is to be faithful to her as long as he lives.

The Language of Revelation

There are no prophets in the Koran that bring a new revelation. The message that began with Adam is preached again and again to each nation “in its language”. Moses brought the Torah (Arab. taurah), David the Psalms (Arab. zabur), Jesus the gospel (Arab. indjil), Muhammad the Koran. Muhammad was specifically sent to the Arabs, who had not yet received a message in their language: “And so we have revealed to thee an Arabic Koran … that you may warn of the day of gathering” (add: for the final judgment) (42:7; 12:2; 16:103). But if it is a matter of the “language” of the revelation, the Koran does not explain which languages the other messages were rendered in (Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic?) or whether really all peoples have received a revelation (nowhere does the Koran indicate that it is aware of peoples outside of the Arabian Peninsula). This brings nothing to bear for the Koran – all that is important is for the “sending down” (Arab. tanzil) of an Arabian message to be established.

Muhammad includes the Arabian nation among the other recipients of revelations as “People of the Book” (or “People of the Scripture”). As long as he assumed that his message was consistent with the Jewish and Christian revelation and that Jews and Christians would recognize him as a prophet, he placed all these revelation recipients on one level. Later, when Jews and Christians rejected him and claimed that his message was different (e.g. regarding God’s son and trinity), he placed the Koran above all other revelations and the Arabs above all other peoples: He came to the conclusion that Jews and Christians had distorted their message and that the Koran was the one true, undistorted message. Only the Koran is an exact copy of God’s original revelation kept in heaven, the “Mother of the Book” (Arab. umm al-kitab) (43:4). The Torah and the gospel are thus superseded; the emergence of the Koran has made them worthless.

With this theory of the superiority of the Koran, the Arabic language is also made God’s revelation language and thus placed above all other languages. For Muslim theologians the Koran is “inimitable”, perfect, unsurpassable; thus it was not translated for many centuries. “God only speaks Arabic,” one could say for Islam: the worship of God (pilgrimage, prayer, fasting) is valid before God only in Arabic. Wherever Islam has sent missionaries, it has Arabized the people’s language, their names, their native clothing and their customs and disregarded their native culture.

The language of revelation does not play a decisive role in the Bible. The OT was written predominantly in Hebrew; the NT in Greek; Jesus spoke Aramaic. Nowhere is there an indication that God prefers a particular language or can reveal Himself only in one language. On the contrary: the gospel is to be preached properly and clearly in every language and culture, for in eternity people of all languages, tongues, nations and tribes will gather before God’s throne (Revelation 15) – not only people who speak Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic.

The Position of the Prophet Before God

God allows the prophets of the Koran – mortal beings who have limitations – to glimpse God’s reality to some degree. They receive the certainty that God exists. This takes sometimes place in the Koran in that they request a miracle from God and He fulfills their wish (Abraham; the disciples, Sure 5). Afterwards they can believe in God’s great power and are willing to fulfill His command. The prophets are thus in contact with God’s world and the world of people: God gives them His message, and they pass it on to the people to whom they are sent.
The Prophets’ Miracles – “Miracles of Verification”

The prophet is actually a human being and is unable to accomplish anything supernatural. God can allow him to perform a miracle in order to affirm him, however: his “miracle of verification” (Arab. mu’djiza), to which every prophet is entitled. The Arabic word “mu’djiza” refers to that which makes the prophet’s opponents unable to deny the validity of his mission and silences their objections. This miracle can be a supernatural occurrence or also the ceasing of an otherwise normal event, e.g. water stops flowing.The Koran as a Miracle of Verification for Muhammad’s Mission

As Muhammad failed to be recognized as God’s prophet in the first years following 610 AD by his Arabic countrymen, the Jews and the Christians, and the threatened judgment had not occurred, he had to defend himself from increasing ridicule and threats in his home city of Mecca.

Muhammad’s countrymen demanded that he should perform a miracle like all the earlier prophets had done (20:133). According to the Koran, Muhammad could not and would not perform a miracle. He referred to the Koran as a miracle: for this reason theologians deem the Koran to be Muhammad’s “miracle of verification”. At first Muhammad’s contemporaries did not acknowledge the Koran as a substitute for an authentic miracle (11:13; 10:37-38). Muhammad challenged his contemporaries to create a document similar to the Koran, which they could not do (see 17:88).

Since the revelation itself is the miracle, it is deemed to be inimitable in its language, its logic, its academic nature, its consistency, its reliable prophecies and because of the fact that Muhammad was illiterate. These views are generally recognized.

Distortion of the message of the Prophets?

Although the Koran again and again emphasizes to be the only true message which has not been falsified, it admits at the same time that every prophet – including Muhammad – also received distorted verses. The prophet himself is not aware of that, so he transfers the message to his people, but later has to cancel some verses and to correct others as the Koran testifies:

“Never did we send a messenger or a prophet before you, but when he recited (the message), Satan threw some (vanity) into his desire, but Allah will cancel anything (vain) that Satan throws in. And Allah will confirm his signs, for Allah is full of knowledge and wisdom” (22:52)

That means, Satan (Arab. Iblis) can temporarily add false statements to God’s revelation which are finally corrected by God. At the end of the process, revelation is in perfect shape and the absolute truth, but at the moment when the prophet speaks, he can also transfer what Satan has added to God’s word.

The Koran mentions some more reasons why a revelation from God can be temporarily falsified: E. g., God made Muhammad forget certain things (2:106, 87:6-7), or he later inspired him with a ‘better’ revelation (20:114). In the Bible, we do not read of such a later correction of what has been proclaimed to the people as the word of God. If God commissions his messenger, he then proclaims God’s message from the beginning to the end and does not have to take it back.

The Sinlessness of the Prophets

In Islam, it is generally accepted that a prophet of God is infallible. As a messenger of God he is unable to commit sin, thus all prophets in Islam are considered to be sinless without exception. The Arabic term for “sinlessness” is “’isma” which literally means ‘protection’ or ‘preservation’ from sin and error. The prophet is protected from sin because God had bestowed his mercy on him. (According to the Bible, no human being can be sinless, no prophet, no patriarch, only the son of God, Jesus Christ.)

It is disputed in Islam whether a prophet can perhaps commit ‘small sins’ without intention, whether he has the special protection from sin only while he is preaching or in general, and whether the prophet can err when it comes to wordly affairs. It is quite interesting to note that Muslim theology defines prophets to be sinless, since the Koran reports on serveral instances that prophets asked God for forgiveness for their wrongdoings: Adam in surah 7:23; Noah in 11:47; Abraham in 14:41, Moses in 28:16, David in 38:24; Muhammad in 110:3 and 48:2, although in Muhammad’s case, the Koran does not mention any concrete sins. Surah 93:7 reports that God led Muhammad the straight path which he did not follow beforehand (one could indirectly draw the conclusion that Muhammad erred or was mistaken, although this is not explained in further detail). But there are other Koran verses which tell us that God had to forgive Muhammad (9:43; 94:2). In 48:2 we read, that God had to forgive Muhammad his „wrongdoing“ (or: “faults”). Also in Sunni tradition we find some reports which tell us that Muhammad was doing wrong in some instances.10 We can assume that the doctrine of sinlessness of the prophets came only into existence in about the 10th century.11 In early Islam it was already emphasized that Muhammad did not take part in the preislamic practises of idolatry while his countrymen venerated the gods and idols in the Ka’ba, the most holy sanctuary in preislamic times, before his calling to become a prophet.12

Prophets as Mediators between God and Man

In the Koran, God does not address his people directly, but he conveys his message by the help of a mediator, the angel Gabriel. Gabriel transmits God’s message to the prophet (Muslim theology has emphasized that this was especially the case with Muhammad), and the prophet conveys it to the people:

“It is not fitting for a man that Allah should speak to him, except by inspiration or from behind a veil, or by the sending of a messenger to reveal, with Allah’s permission, what Allah wills, for he is most high, most wise” (42:51).

God transfers his message to the prophet and thus gets in touch with mankind, but there is only indirect contact between God and man. God is hidden to mankind, and even if he sends his revelation, he himself remains in seclusion, he is out of reach for human beings. God could never transcend into the shpere of this world and in any way be closely connected with a prophet, who is a human being, as God and man can never be imagined to be on the same level or only on a level where they could directly communicate to each other. In the Koran, God does not reveal himself, but he sends his message, a book, through a mediator. He does not sacrifice anything of himself by sending the Koran, one could say, as he is not involved “personally” in the process of revelation, whereas the full revelation of the gospel in Jesus Christ cost him all he could sacrifice, his life. That is why sacrificing is a synonym of love in the Bible: if we sacrifice money, time, friendship, hospitality or even our lifes for one another, we are following Jesus’ example (“Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends”; John 15:13).

In the Bible, God has spoken directly and unmistakingly to his prophets (“This is what the Lord said to me”, Jeremiah 13:1; or ”The word came to Jeremiah from the Lord …“; Jeremiah 21:1), God establishes direct communication to his messenger and sometimes to his people. God reveals himself, makes himself known (“I am, who I am”; Exodus 3:13). God has revealed himself in history and “spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son… the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Hebrews 1:1-2). In Jesus Christ, God revealed himself, so he could be seen and even be touched. Through Jesus Christ, God and man came into closest contact one could imagine. In Jesus, God speaks to mankind on a human level, he becomes human himself, which meant suffering and death for him. There is no “sending” of a book which contains laws and rules only, no keeping himself in hiding. In the Bible, God offered his son as a sacrifice in order to redeem his flock. The revelation of his will cost him everything possible, as he gave himself for his people.

Prophets in the Last Judgement: Intercessors and Witnesses

Most Muslim theologians hold that prophets are honoured by God in a special way. In Paradise, they will be in a higher position than the saints, than martyrs and angels.13 They are in a much better position than the “average” believer as they will be preferred by God in the Last Judgement, the “hour” (Arab. “sa’at). In like manner, they will be able to prefer others by interceding for them. They may witness against other people, who did not listen to their preaching on earth, so that they will go to hell. Prophets will not be questioned in their graves after their death like any other believer will expect it.14 Thus prophets do not have to be afraid of death.

So on one hand, prophets are privileged, but on the other hand the Koran seems to hint at the possibility of intercession for Muslim believers after their death in the Last Judgement. Some Koran verses mention God as intercessor (39:44; 32:4), other verses seem to neglect that any human being can intercede for others (40:18; 74:48). Despite of such negative statements, most Muslims are of the opinion that Muhammad will intercede for Muslim believers on the Day of Judgement, whereas Folk Islam teaches that also prophets other than Muhammad as well as martyrs and saints can intercede for the believers (also Abraham or Moses, but also the Caliph ‘Uthman or Muhammad’s grandsons, al-Hasan and al-Husain who are venerated especially in the Shi’a branch of Islam).

When all people are gathered for judgement, a book will be opened which contains all sins and good deeds which have been performed on earth, and the prophets will witness against peoples who had refused to lend their ears to the messengers of God who had warned them of the day of wrath (4:159; 16:89 etc.).

How important is it to believe in the Prophets?

To believe in the sending of the prophets is no question of minor importance in Islam, but is one of the five fundamental articles of faith (besides the belief in God and the sending of Muhammad, belief in the angels, belief in the holy books and in the Last Judgement). Also when pronouncing the Muslim creed “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger”, Muslims daily confess to believe in Muhammad’s prophethood. In other words, the question whether somebody believes in God is unseperably connected with the question whether he accepts the prophethood of Muhammad. There is no faith in God in Islam without accepting Muhammad’s sending. On the other hand, it is no minor offense to insult a prophet in Islam. It is no privat matter, but can be threatened or even punished with the death penalty (Pakistan). Nevertheless, for many Muslims the saints play a more important role in their daily life than the prophets.

The Finality of the Prophets

Muhammad is the last prophet of history, the “seal” of prophets (Arab. “khatam”). He is thus the end of a long line of prophets and the climax of history which can never be exceeded. Whoever has claimed prophethood for himself after Muhammad (like the founder of the Ahmadiyya movement in India at the beginning of the 20th century, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad) must be prepared to be declared a heretic.

Veneration of the Prophets in Folk Islam and Mysticism

In Folk Islam, the prophets are hold in very high esteem, they are venerated like saints, especially Muhammad, who – besides all theological consideration about Islam being the only true monotheistic religion – is strongly idealized and has gotten some godlike features in the course of history. During ritual prayer, Muslims ask God to bestow his blessings upon Muhammad. In Folk Islam people address their prayer to the prophets, many miracles are reported of them. Their graves are sanctuaries, their relics are kept in shrines, as they attract many people who try to touch the relics or the grave in order to get some of the “Baraka” (blessing power) of the prophet or saint.15 Muslim tradition contains numerous reports of miracles performed by Muhammad, which began already when his mother was pregnant with him and continued to happen until this death.

Also in mysticism, the veneration of the prophets is very common. Each “Shaikh” or “Pir” (the leader of a mystical order) would try to date his family’s genealogy back to some important person of Islam’s early history and finally to Muhammad himself. Members of mystical circles always venerate Muhammad as the absolute ideal to follow. Sufis often report to have seen Muhammad in their dreams.16 In Folk Islam and in mysticism, there are many traces of syncretism, which contradict the Islamic idea of monotheism.

In the Bible, it is obvious that prophets are mortal, human beings, who can not hear prayer and are not able to intercede for other people in the Last Judgement.

The Wifes and the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad

Even Muhammad’s wifes and his companions are of interest in order to understand Islam’s teaching about prophets, since they serve as role models for the believers. They are considered to be ideal examples of an Islamic way of life and conduct. Muhammad’s wifes are named the “mothers of the believers”, so the way they dressed and their behaviour are examples for all women of the following generations, they must be imitated (33:32). To follow Muhammad’s example (his “sunna”) and the example of his wifes and companions is obligatory for any Muslim. That means, that the prophet’s “holiness” extends also to his family and his environment – this finds absolutely no parallel in the Bible, where the prophet’s family is not automatically an example only because the prophet preaches God’s word to Israel. For the Shi’a branch of Islam, the prophethood of Muhammad finds its continuation in the “Imam”, which always has to be a relative of Muhammad.

The Significance of the Prophet Muhammad For Islamic Law

Muhammads decisions, his likings and dislikings, as they are reported in Muslim tradition, play an important role for Muslim law as his behaviour and his decisions as a prophet of God are considered to be of normative, legislative character for the Muslim “umma” (community). The “sunna” (customs of Muhammad) does not only give guidelines for all Muslims worldwide, but is also the second source of Islamic law besides the Koran. As Islamic law (the Sharia) is considered not to be an ordinary, man-made law but to be God’s law, Muhammad’s own conduct of affairs is of legislative character, although he was only a human being.

The Prophet Jesus

In the Koran, Jesus calls himself a prophet (19:30-32), he is also named a messenger (4:157), a mortal human being, who has not committed any sin, according to the Koran, in contrast to Muhammad. Jesus was sent to confirm what was revealed by God beforehand and to correct former revelations (like the Torah and the Zabur, the Psalms) where they have been falsified. Jesus’ role is solely defined as being a prophet like all the other prophets before him, who has to preach Islam, sticks to Islamic law (19:31-32) and announces the coming of Muhammad, even if he is depicted as an example of piety and devotion in the Koran (19:45-46)

Prophets in The Bible

In the OT there are many different aspects when it comes to the role of a prophet of God (often called „nabi“ in Hebrew or “man of God”). He preaches the word of God to Israel, but in different times in many different ways. There are prophets who preached only and there are “scripture prophets”. God sent a prohet when Israel turned away from the faith in the God of Israel (Ezekiel) or got involved in politics (Isaiah 7). The prophets of the Bible exhort Israel to return to God and warn of the coming judgement. They are aware of some events in the future, and God sometimes performs miracles through them.

In many instances the Bible discusses the question of the “false prophets”, those, who prophesize in order to get paid for, or those, who only proclaim what people like to hear (Micah 3:5+11:1; 1 Samuel 9:7; Jeremiah 5:31; 6:14; 8:11 etc.) The “false prophets” are not sent by God (Jeremiah 23:21), their visions and dreams are lies (Jeremiah 14:14), and they will be punished by God (Jeremiah 23:30-32).

Prophets in the Bible are the authors of the prophetic books from Isaiah to Malachi, but also other persons like Abraham (Genesis 20:7), Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15-18), Aaron (Exodus 7:1), Samuel (1 Samuel 3:20), Nathan (2 Samuel 7:2), Elia und Elisa, Micah (1 Kings22:9), Mirjam (Exodus 15:20), Deborah (Judges 4:4), Hulda (2 Kings 22:14), Hanna (Luke 2:36) and John the Baptist (Matthew 3:7-11).

God calls the prophets in many different ways to serve him (Isaiah 6; Jonah 1:11ff.) and authorizes them to proclaim his message. They are servants of God (Jeremiah 7:25), serving their people but being even more obliged to God and his commission. The prophet discloses sin (Isaiah 1:2; Jeremiah 7) and brings it to the day light, which can have dangerous effects for him. If God brings judgement over Israel – by the Assyrians or Babylonians’ invasion for example – the prophet suffers with his countrymen because of their sin. He calls his contemporaries to repent (Ezekiel 3:19), and reminds Israel of God’s faithfulness in spite of their grave sin and apostasy. When the prophets call their people to faith, they address Israel in the first place, but in a broader sense, their preaching is also a message to the surrounding peoples who can learn of God’s holiness from his dealing with Israel.

Each word given by a prophet may be different, it may be a concrete warning against sin (Nathan). In many instances prophets start their preaching with: “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel says” (Jeremiah 28:2). Sometimes the prophets directly address to their people, sometimes they speak in parables. The prophet is inspired by visions and dreams or “the word of the Lord came to him” (Ezekiel 1:3). In the NT, Jesus is the fulfillment of all OT prophecies.

  1. Hans Zirker. Der Koran: Zugänge und Lesarten. [The Koran: Additions and Versions.] Primus Verlag: Darmstadt, 1999. pp. 94-95. 

  2. Josef Henninger. Spuren christlicher Glaubenswahrheiten im Koran. [Traces of Truths of the Christian Faith in the Koran.] CH-Schöneck/Beckenried, 1951, S. 35-36. 

  3. Henninger. Spuren. p. 35. 

  4. Hermann Stieglecker mentions this possible differentiation. Die Glaubenslehren des Islam. [The doctrines of faith of Islam.] Ferdinand Schönigh: Paderborn, 1962/1983. p. 153. Cf. also the explanation of the two terms by W. Montgomery Watt, Alfons T. Welch. Der Islam I. [Islam I] W. Kohlhammer: Stuttgart, 1981. p. 222-223. 

  5. Roberto Tottoli. Biblical Prophets in the Qur’an and Muslim Literature. Curzon Press: Richmond/Surrey, 2002. p. 75. 

  6. A. J. Wensinck. “Rasul”. In: Encyclopaedia of Islam VIII, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995. p. 454-455; here p. 455. 

  7. According to Theodor Nöldeke. Geschichte des Korans. (History of the Koran) Georg Olms Verlag: Hildesheim 1909/1981, Part 1. pp. 22-23 based on Islamic tradition. 

  8. Nöldeke. Geschichte. Part 1, p. 24. 

  9. Understood to be among those who “fight on God’s path” are those who died a martyr’s death in the struggle for Islam. 

  10. Compare Stieglecker. Glaubenslehren. p. 477-478. 

  11. Louis Gardet. Islam. Verlag J. P. Bachem: Köln, 1968, p. 68. 

  12. Stieglecker. Glaubenslehren. p. 472-473. 

  13. Stieglecker. Glaubenslehren. p. 707. 

  14. Louis Gardet. Kiyama. in: Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. V, pp. 235-238, here p. 237. 

  15. Every Muslim country has its shrines, graves and sanctuaries, although Wahhabi Islam in Saudi-Arabia strongly opposes any worshipping of saints. If one would count all people making a pilgrimage to one of the saints’ graves and sanctuaries, they would be many more than those making the pilgrimage to the Ka’ba in Mecca. 

  16. Annemarie Schimmel. Mystische Dimensionen des Islam. [Mystical Dimensions of Islam.] Eugen Diederichs Verlag: Köln, 1985, p. 305. Already in the 8th century we witness a specific form of mysticism focussing on Muhammad.