Prophet (Nabi) vs. Messenger (Rasul)

There is much debate regarding what is the difference between a prophet and a messenger. The best verse that clarifies this difference can be found in the following verse.

[3:81] GOD took a covenant from the prophets (l-nabiyīna), saying, “I will GIVE YOU (ātaytukum) the SCRIPTURE (kitābin) and wisdom. afterwards, a MESSENGER (warasūlihi) will come to CONFIRM (مُصَدِّقٌ) all existing scriptures. You shall believe in him and support him.” He said, “Do you agree with this, and pledge to fulfill this covenant?” They said, “We agree.” He said, “You have thus borne witness, and I bear witness along with you.”

وَإِذْ أَخَذَ اللَّهُ مِيثَاقَ النَّبِيِّينَ لَمَا آتَيْتُكُمْ مِنْ كِتَابٍ وَحِكْمَةٍ ثُمَّ جَاءَكُمْ رَسُولٌ مُصَدِّقٌ لِمَا مَعَكُمْ لَتُؤْمِنُنَّ بِهِ وَلَتَنْصُرُنَّهُ قَالَ أَأَقْرَرْتُمْ وَأَخَذْتُمْ عَلَىٰ ذَٰلِكُمْ إِصْرِي قَالُوا أَقْرَرْنَا قَالَ فَاشْهَدُوا وَأَنَا مَعَكُمْ مِنَ الشَّاهِدِينَ

3:81 informs us of the difference in function between a prophet and a messenger, that a prophet is “given” scripture, while a messenger “confirms” scripture.

3:81 uses the expression “آتَيْتُكُمْ مِنْ كِتَابٍ” which translates to “I have given you [all] the scripture.” You will never see this kind of phrase in reference to a messengers (rasool) in the Quran, only prophets (nabi).

Consistently in the Quran we see that it is only the prophets that are “given” scripture (كِتَابٍ).

[3:79] Never would a human being whom GOD blessed with the scripture and prophethood say to the people, “Idolize me beside GOD.” Instead, (he would say), “Devote yourselves absolutely to your Lord alone,” according to the scripture you preach and the teachings you learn.

مَا كَانَ لِبَشَرٍ أَنْ يُؤْتِيَهُ اللَّهُ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحُكْمَ وَالنُّبُوَّةَ ثُمَّ يَقُولَ لِلنَّاسِ كُونُوا عِبَادًا لِي مِنْ دُونِ اللَّهِ وَلَٰكِنْ كُونُوا رَبَّانِيِّينَ بِمَا كُنْتُمْ تُعَلِّمُونَ الْكِتَابَ وَبِمَا كُنْتُمْ تَدْرُسُونَ

[6:89] Those were the ones to whom we have given the scripture, wisdom, and prophethood. If these people disbelieve, we will substitute others in their place, and the new people will not be disbelievers.

 أُولَٰئِكَ الَّذِينَ آتَيْنَاهُمُ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحُكْمَ وَالنُّبُوَّةَ فَإِنْ يَكْفُرْ بِهَا هَٰؤُلَاءِ فَقَدْ وَكَّلْنَا بِهَا قَوْمًا لَيْسُوا بِهَا بِكَافِرِينَ

[45:16] We have given the Children of Israel the scripture, wisdom, and prophethood, and provided them with good provisions; we bestowed upon them more blessings than any other people.

 وَلَقَدْ آتَيْنَا بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحُكْمَ وَالنُّبُوَّةَ وَرَزَقْنَاهُمْ مِنَ الطَّيِّبَاتِ وَفَضَّلْنَاهُمْ عَلَى الْعَالَمِينَ

The Quran uses three different words in the context of revelation.

كِتَابٍ – scripture
آيَاتٍ – signs
وَحْيٌ – inspiration

While آيَاتٍ and وَحْيٌ apply to both prophets and messengers, كِتَابٍ (scripture) in the Quran is consistently “given” to only prophets.

Also, it is worth pointing out the difference between نَزَّلَ (revealed or sent down) and أُوتِيَ (to be given). While نَزَّلَ can apply to prophets and messengers, أُوتِيَ in the context of كِتَابٍ only applies to prophets.

Consistently in the Quran we see that God uses the term “to confirm” along with messenger, as is shown in 3:81, but we will never see prophets in conjunction with confirmation in the Quran.

[2:101] Now that a messenger from GOD has come to them, and even though he proves and confirms their own scripture, some followers of the scripture (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) disregard GOD’s scripture behind their backs, as if they never had any scripture.

 وَلَمَّا جَاءَهُمْ رَسُولٌ مِنْ عِنْدِ اللَّهِ مُصَدِّقٌ لِمَا مَعَهُمْ نَبَذَ فَرِيقٌ مِنَ الَّذِينَ أُوتُوا الْكِتَابَ كِتَابَ اللَّهِ وَرَاءَ ظُهُورِهِمْ كَأَنَّهُمْ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ

[61:6] Recall that Jesus, son of Mary, said, “O Children of Israel, I am GOD’s messenger to you, confirming the Torah and bringing good news of a messenger to come after me whose name will be even more praised (Ahmad).” Then, when he showed them the clear proofs, they said, “This is profound magic.”

وَإِذْ قَالَ عِيسَى ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ يَابَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ إِنِّي رَسُولُ اللَّهِ إِلَيْكُمْ مُصَدِّقًا لِمَا بَيْنَ يَدَيَّ مِنَ التَّوْرَاةِ وَمُبَشِّرًا بِرَسُولٍ يَأْتِي مِنْ بَعْدِي اسْمُهُ أَحْمَدُ فَلَمَّا جَاءَهُمْ بِالْبَيِّنَاتِ قَالُوا هَٰذَا سِحْرٌ مُبِينٌ

Additionally, we see in the Quran that messengers are also used to recite and teach the revelations, but we will not see this in conjunction with prophets in the Quran.

[2:129] “Our Lord, and raise among them a messenger to recite to them Your revelations, teach them the scripture and wisdom, and purify them. You are the Almighty, Most Wise.”

رَبَّنَا وَابْعَثْ فِيهِمْ رَسُولًا مِنْهُمْ يَتْلُو عَلَيْهِمْ آيَاتِكَ وَيُعَلِّمُهُمُ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحِكْمَةَ وَيُزَكِّيهِمْ إِنَّكَ أَنْتَ الْعَزِيزُ الْحَكِيمُ

[2:151] (Blessings) such as the sending of a messenger from among you to recite our revelations to you, purify you, teach you the scripture and wisdom, and to teach you what you never knew.

كَمَا أَرْسَلْنَا فِيكُمْ رَسُولًا مِنْكُمْ يَتْلُو عَلَيْكُمْ آيَاتِنَا وَيُزَكِّيكُمْ وَيُعَلِّمُكُمُ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحِكْمَةَ وَيُعَلِّمُكُمْ مَا لَمْ تَكُونُوا تَعْلَمُونَ

To put it another way, prophets are given scripture, while messengers confirm (recite/teach) scripture. Therefore, when someone is given a scripture they are serving as a function of a prophet, when they are confirming, reciting, teaching they are serving as a function of a messenger. This is the difference between receiving and delivering.

Further confirmation of this, is that the Arabic for prophet is nabi which means “news”, while the Arabic for messenger is rasool which means “to send.” Therefore, the receiving is a function of a prophet and the disseminating is a function of a messenger.

This makes every prophet by default a messenger, but not every messenger a prophet. The reason for this is because we do not have a prophet who was given scripture who did not also disseminate that scripture to his people. This is why you see the expression رَسُولًا نَبِيًّا (messenger prophet) used twice in the Quran, but you will not see نَبِيًّا رَسُولًا (prophet messenger). This is because prophet supersedes messenger as not all messengers are prophets, but all prophets are messengers.

[19:51] Mention in the scripture Moses. He was devoted, and he was a messenger prophet.

وَاذْكُرْ فِي الْكِتَابِ مُوسَىٰ إِنَّهُ كَانَ مُخْلَصًا وَكَانَ رَسُولًا نَبِيًّا

[19:54] And mention in the scripture Ismail. He was truthful when he made a promise, and he was a messenger prophet.

وَاذْكُرْ فِي الْكِتَابِ إِسْمَاعِيلَ إِنَّهُ كَانَ صَادِقَ الْوَعْدِ وَكَانَ رَسُولًا نَبِيًّا

In verses 19:51 and 19:54 God calls Moses and Ismail “Wa kana Rasoula Nabiyan” or messenger prophet. In plain English, “Moses/Ismail was a messenger who was also a prophet”.

This expression is chosen by God to emphasize that every prophet is a messenger, but every messenger may not be a prophet. Nowhere, in the Quran the opposite expression “prophet messenger” or “Nabiyan Rasoula” has been used.

Some will make the claim that “Messenger Prophet” means that all messengers are prophets; God has the answer in the following verses that the messenger is a subset of prophet. This is further reinforced in 19:56 where the expression “Wakana Siddiqan Nabiya” which translates to “he was a saint, prophet. While all prophets (nabi) are “Saddiq”, however all “Saddiq” are not prophets.

Similarly in verses 17:93,94, we find the expression “Bashara (human) Rasula”, a human who is also a messenger, but not every human is a messenger. And in verse 17:95, we find, “Malaka (angel) Rasula”, an angel who is also a messenger, but not every angel is a messenger.

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