The words Nabi and Rasul have been used in the holy Quran interchangeably (2:213-214). In essence, they both mean the same thing, i.e., a Nabi or Rasul is a pious person chosen by Allah to receive divine guidance and commandments by Allah’s Will and convey these to his people during his lifetime. Only the style of doing so makes them either a Nabi or a Rasul; otherwise, their mission is the same and there is no difference among them. Since time is a continuum and people are born and die, and are succeeded by other people, the chain of Allah’s selected persons as Nabi and Rasul continued in different eras from the first prophet Adam to the last prophet Muhammad, sallallaho alaihe wasallam (S). The reason why this chain ended with Muhammad (S) while people have continued to be born and die and are still being succeeded by coming generations is an interesting question and that is what we will try to answer in this essay and explore what difference there is, if any, in the mission of a Nabi and a Rasul.
Nabi is translated in English as prophet and Rasul as messenger. Peyghambar is also used for Rasul in some translations. However, the two words are used to coney the same meaning. A Rasul can be an agnel or a human being (22:75), but the holy Quran makes a clear distinction between an angel Rasul(11:69) and a human Rasul (7:35). A Nabi can be a person chosen by Allah, or a person whom people call a nabi for his closeness of Allah such as saint or wali who has attained god consciousness. But this nabi cannot claim to be Nabi Allah publicly. He keeps his God consciousness only to himself. We will discuss this mystical concept later in the essay. Both Nabi Allah and Rasul Allah are people who have been tasked by Allah with the divine mission of informing people about the purpose of creation, acceptance of the one and only Creator and the dos and don’ts in the journey of man from his temporal existence to a permanent world.
In the holy Quran, there are certain characteristics that are associated with Rasul but not with Nabi, but there are also characteristics that are common to both Nabi and Rasul. There are also exceptions, and a generalisation cannot be made to distinguish a Nabi from a Rasul. This is because Allah has provided only limited information to humans about His prophets through the Quran and earlier Scriptures (40:78). The information available to Muslims from the Talmudic literature about the prophets of Bani Israel cannot be entirely relied upon because some of its accounts either conflict with or are unverifiable from the Islamic texts (Quran and Hadith).
In the holy Quran, Rasul is used for two meanings. The first meaning refers to angels, including archangel Jibril, who acted as a medium of communication between Allah and His chosen persons most of whom were prophets. For example, angels came to visit Prophets Ibrahim and Lüt and informed them about the disaster that had been prepared by Allah for the oppressors. Angels also visited human beings who were not Nabi such as Maryam, daughter of Imran and mother of Isa, who was given the news of a son without a father at the Will of Allah. After completing their mission as bearers of the divine message, the angel Rasuls returned to their abode and did not live with humans in this world to see its implementation.
The second meaning of Rasul refers to Allah’s chosen human beings who came from the fraternity of Nabis. These Rasuls were from their people. They had parents, spouses and children (13:38). Allah chose them to receive the divine book (Kitab) and command (Hukm). They were tasked to inform their people about His omniscience and omnipotence and to embrace goodness and peace. Those who accepted the divine message were named Muslims. Those who rejected their Rasuls became Kaafir (from Kufr meaning rejector or denier of the divine message).
In Surah A’le-Imran verses 79-81, Allah mentions that He took a covenant from his Nabis that they will confirm and support a Rasul who came after them with a book and command from Allah to reinforce the divine message for the guidance of idol worshippers, disbelievers and transgressors. Taking this covenant was important because Allah selected Rasuls from the college of Nabis and their support and acceptance of the Rasuls of their time was Allah’s grand design to provide guidance to as many people as were present in their times.
It is for this reason that there could be more than one Nabi or Rasul in the same time span in history. Prophet Ibrahim and prophet Lüt were contemporaries but were assigned different peoples. Prophet Musa visited Khizr who some scholars believe was also a Nabi. Prophet Musa was a Rasul and a Nabi (19:51) while his brother Haroon was only a Nabi (19:53). Prophet Ibrahim was a Nabi (19:41) and a Rasul (9:70; 87:19). His eldest son Ismail was a Rasul and a Nabi (19:54) and his younger son Ishaq was a Nabi (37:112).
Sometimes Allah sent more than one Rasul to a locality to reinforce their mission of warning the unbelievers against their corrupt and antisocial practices. In surah Yaseen there is a reference to a place believed to be ancient Anatolia where Allah sent three Rasuls but still the people rejected the divine message and were destroyed for their transgression and arrogance (36:29). The names of the Rasuls mentioned in the Quran whose nations were destroyed for repeatedly refusing the divine message are Nuh, Lüt, Hüd, Saleh, Shuaib and Musa.
According to the holy Quran four Rasuls including Prophet Muhammad (S) were given a divine book and a sharia law for their people. They were Ibrahim, Daüd, Musa and Mohammad (S). The message of all divine scriptures was the same; acceptance of the sole and supreme Creator of the universal order (that there is no god but Allah) and the importance for humans to do good deeds (aml al-saleh) in this mortal world (belief in resurrection) to be successful in the permanent life of the hereafter (Jannat Adn and hüm feeha khalidün).
Human beings have three quintessential weaknesses. The first is the fear of the supreme being where all power rests; the second is the desire for possession of material things; and the third is the attainment of permanence when the second desire is fulfilled. The Divine Message addressed these three concerns of people from Prophets Adam to Muhammad (S). The divine message brought to the people by their prophets informed them that the supreme being who controlled everything including life and death was no one except Allah; that the faithful would enter Paradise as a reward for their obedience to Allah and His Rasul, and for the good deeds performed in this world which meant keeping peace and serving humanity; and finally in Paradise they would live forever and would never be expelled again. These were the very fears addressed by Shaitan when he tempted Adam and Hawa to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree (7:40).
Not all Nabis were Rasuls, such as Ishaq (37:112), Yakub (19:51), Yahya (3:39), Idrees (19:56), Haroon (19:53), Yüsha or Shamweel (2:247) and Yusuf (40:34). They preached the word of Allah to their contacts by adhering to their current or predecessor Rasul’s sharia law and divine book. Nabis did not publicise their message, or went viral, to use the broadcast terminology.
From this a general principle can be derived that while a Rasul received a new sharia law and a divine book from Allah for going public, a Nabi was only assigned the task of guiding his close circle about the sharia law and the divine book of his fellow or predecessor Rasul. Two notable exceptions in this general principle are Ismail and Isa, whom Allah calls a Nabi and a Rasul in the Quran, but we are not told if Ismail who lived in Makkah away from his father Ibrahim was given a different sharia law and a divine book for his people. Allah knows best.
Another difference is that a Rasul is a Nabi before he becomes a Rasul. In the parables of prophets narrated in the many chapters of the Quran, we learn that some Nabis were appointed Rasuls at a certain time in their life. But once they became Rasul they remained so for the rest of their lives. Some Rasuls lived very long (972 years for Shees and 950 years for Nüh).
Some Rasuls lived a short life (30 years for Isa before his ascension to heaven and 40 years for Uzair). Prophet Musa completed a period of ten years as a trainee Nabi under prophet Shoaib before Allah appointed him Rasul and ordered him to go to the Pharaoh and declare that there was no god except Allah and that Musa was Allah’s Rasul (20:47). Prophets Ibrahim and Muhammad (S) were also given their responsibilities as Rasul after they had completed a certain time establishing themselves as truthful and trustworthy men in their community. When Prophet Isa addressed the bewildered crowd from his cradle, he told them he was a servant of Allah and a Nabi (19:30) but later when he addressed Bani Israel, he told them he was a Rasul who was sent to verify the divine scripture given by Allah to Prophet Musa (61:6). Allah also testifies in the Quran that Isa was a Rasul (3:171).
Rasuls were given miracles from Allah to convince their people that the divine message they brought was not their creation but the word of God. These miracles sometimes changed people’s mind to accept the divine message after rejecting it initially such as the magicians in Pharaoh’s court who refused to follow the orders of the king after seeing the miracles of Musa (7:121).
But there were also people who refused to change their pagan faith and called these miracles nothing more than a trick. People who demanded miracles from their Rasuls and got them and yet did not believe in the divine message and continued oppression and disobedience were destroyed (16:113). Surah Al-Shua’ra mentions several nations that disobeyed their Rasuls and were removed(23:44). People who accepted the divine message after seeing miracles were blessed with provisions and a peaceful and contented life of the hereafter (4:69).
A Rasul or Nabi could not do anything from his own will without receiving the divine instructions. In Surah Al-Kahf we learn that Prophet Muhammad (S) had to wait for divine revelation about the details of the people of cave which the Jews of Medina had asked to test him if he was a prophet, because he had not said ‘Ay Yasha Allah’ when he undertook to answer their questions (18:23).
A Rasul or Nabi could not leave his community without Allah’s permission. In Surah Yunus and other Surahs in the Quran we learn about the repentance of Prophet Yunus who left his community in Northern Iraq fearing that they will be destroyed by Allah for rejecting the divine message but instead he was reprimanded for abandoning them. In the boat which he took to flee, he was thrown in the ocean and swallowed by a whale and would not have left its belly had he not repented and was forgiven by Allah (37:144).
A Rasul or Nabi did not have the power to save his son from a calamity or seek forgiveness for his father if Allah decided that he was not to be saved for his Kufr (Nuh’s son (11:46) and Ibrahim’s father (9:114).
The number of Nabis Allah sent in this world since Prophet Adam far exceeds the number of Rasuls appointed by Allah to guide humanity. According to Hadith, Allah sent 124 thousand Nabis in this world but the number of Rasuls sent by Allah is only 313. The Quran mentions the names of 25 Nabis, 16 among them were Rasuls. As a fundamental article of their faith, Muslims are required to believe in Allah, His angels, His divine books and His Rasuls. They are also required to believe that all Rasuls are equal and there is no difference among them (2:285).
Unlike a Rasul, a Nabi does not go out and seek his public acceptance by acclaim, nor does he seek to change the law of his nation if it is not compatible with the sharia law of the last Rasul. Prophet Yusuf was a Nabi but he did not challenge the faith of the king of Egypt who consulted him about his dreams. A Nabi guides people in low ley but he does not convey God’s exact words to them, which is a function assigned only to a Rasul, the messenger of Allah.
To further illustrate the difference between a Nabi and Rasul, it could be said that Nabuwat is by birth while Risalat is by appointment. A Nabi who was born with God consciousness could be chosen by Allah to be sent as Rasul to a specific nation and preach to them the divine message till his death. A Nabi was a soft preacher who did not actively defend himself against aggression, but a Rasul was an active preacher who had the divine permission to resist oppression and unlawful authority in self-defence. Prophet Muhammad (S) migrated from his city when there was a threat to his life, but he also participated in some battles (Ghazwa) when the enemies of Muslims attacked Medina or breached peace agreements.
When a Nabi preached to his people and they did not listen to him, he did not admonish them nor sought Allah’s punishment for them. Many unbelieving nations executed their Nabis (5:70) or forced them to go into exile because they were not prepared to give up their idol worship and corrupt living. Some of the known Nabis in this category included Nabi Isaiah, Zachariah Yahya, Zulkifl, Danial and Uzair.
Allah sent Rasuls in every community and nation with His divine message (16:36) and until such time they rejected the message and persisted with oppression and mischief, Allah did not destroy them (20:208). Nabis and Rasuls were local to their community and spoke the native language (13:4 and 14:4), but they also travelled when commanded by Allah. Prophets Ibrahim and Yakub travelled away from their native towns. Prophet Muhammad (S) migrated to Medina where he spent the rest of his life even after the conquest of Makkah.
When Allah declared Prophet Muhammad (S) as a blessing for all worlds (21:107) and confirmed that He had completed the religion of Islam (5:3), the door of prophethood whether Nabi or Rasul closed after Muhammad (S). There will be no new Rasul nor Nabi after Muhammad (S) until the end of time. This is one of the great mercies of Allah on the Muslims. Imagine if the door of Nabuwat had not been closed after Prophet Muhammad (S), Muslims would have divided into hundreds of groups with each group claiming a different Nabi as a guide in their time and abandoning the divine book and sharia law of Prophet Muhammad (S). But this would not happen because Allah has undertaken to protect the Quran (15:9)
In the late 12th century, the Andalusian sufi scholar Ibn Al Arabi claimed that it was possible for a Muslim saint (wali) to attain spiritual evolution and reach the state of prophetic consciousness. This led later sufi scholars to interpret Ibn Al Arabi’s mystical philosophy as continuation of the institution of Nabi while agreeing that the holy Quran and the sharia law given by prophet Muhammad (S) was final and that there would be no divine book or Rasul after him. These interpretations have caused a storm of controversy about the finality of prophethood. People ignore that Ibn Al Arabi’s prophetic consciousness does not refer to Rasul and Nabi as we understand from the Quran, but it refers to the state of a Muslim saint or wali who achieves prophetic consciousness though his personal spiritual development.
So even if we acknowledge that a wali can be called a nabi in Ibn Al Arabi’s mystical sense, that nabi is not at liberty to share his prophetic consciousness with others in a public manner as a Rasul would have shared the revelations of Allah with his people, nor is this nabi allowed to start a community of his own to follow his sayings and his interpretation of the holy Quran. In this mystical explanation, there is room for hundreds of spiritually advanced nabis to coexist in the world quietly at any given time, without contradicting the fact that the door of Nabuwat and Risalat is closed permanently till the end of time.
A Nabi does not assert and ask the Ummah to acknowledge his Nabuwat. He continues to glorify Allah and peach the divine message without the need to make a community of his own and bind them to follow his interpretation of the holy Quran. Anyone who makes a claim to Nabuwat after Prophet Muhammad (S) will be strongly rejected by the Ummah and fail to seek endorsement of his false claim.
On the day of Judgement Allah will call each nation by the name of its religious leader, whether a Rasool or god, whom that nation followed, such as the nation of Musa, nation of Isa, followers of Uza, followers of Nasr etc. And in each nation people will be either given a clear chit of salvation in their right hand or given a charge sheet in their left hand which will determine their final abode (17:71). On Judgement Day, may Allah call us with the Ummah of Mohammad (S) and give the parchment of our deeds in our right hand which is the ultimate success of our total being (64:9). Ameen.
Legend: The first two numbers in parenthesis ( ) refer to Surah number and the numbers that follow the colon sign : refer to Ayah number in the Quran.