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Overlapping Concepts: ''Prophet'' and ''Messenger'' in the Quran

Overlapping Concepts: ''Prophet'' and ''Messenger'' in the Quran

Published in February 7, 2012

Translated by: Ahmed Fathy




1- We have received this important question via email, and we reply to it in this article.

2- The sender of the questions writes the following in his message: (... I'm currently reading your great book "The Quran Is Enough"... But I think that the difference you make between the terms "prophet" and ''messenger'' entails further explanation, especially in verses such as......What do you think? ...).



 Before we give our reply to that question, here is a quotation from our book "The Quran Is Enough" about the difference between the two Quranic terms "prophet" and "messenger":

(... The difference between "prophet" and "messenger": For centuries, people have misunderstood the Quranic command of obeying the messenger as obeying Muhammad as a prophet, as this command means to obey the message itself: the Quran. There is a major difference between the two Quranic terms "prophet" and "messenger"... The term "prophet" means the mortal Muhammad Ibn Abdulla in his daily life affairs, his relations with people living around him, and all his human behavior; some of such demeanors entailed reproach from God in the Quran while addressing him as a prophet; for instance, let us quote these verses: "O prophet! Why do you prohibit what God has permitted for you, seeking to please your wives?!..." (66:1); "It is not for a prophet to take prisoners before he has subdued the land..." (8:67); "It is not for a prophet to act dishonestly. Whoever acts dishonestly will bring his dishonesty on the Day of Resurrection..." (3:161); "It is not for the prophet and those who believe to ask forgiveness for the polytheists, even if they are near relatives, after it has become clear to them that they are people of Hellfire." (9:113); and "God has accepted the repentance of the prophet, and the emigrants, and the supporters - those who followed him in the hour of difficulty - after the hearts of some of them almost swerved. Then He pardoned them. He is Kind towards them, Compassionate." (9:117). God has commanded Muhammad as a prophet to adhere to piety and not to obey the polytheists: "O prophet! Fear God, and do not obey the unbelievers and the hypocrites. God is Knowledgeable and Wise. And follow what is revealed to you from your Lord. God is fully aware of what you do. And put your trust in God. God is enough as a trustee." (33:1-3). Of course, in such verses, God addresses Muhammad as a prophet, and in the following verses about his wives, we find the same thing: "O prophet! Say to your wives, "If you desire the life of this world and its finery, then let me compensate you, and release you kindly." (33:28); "The prophet told something in confidence to one of his wives..." (66:3); "O wives of the prophet! Whoever of you commits a proven indecency, the punishment for her will be doubled. And that would be easy for God." (33:30); "O wives of the prophet! You are not like any other women, if you observe piety..." (33:32); we notice that the Quran never addressed his wives as "wives of the messenger" but "wives of the prophet". The same usage of the term ''prophet'' is notices in Muhammad's relations with people around him: "O prophet! Tell your wives, and your daughters, and the women of the believers..." (33:59); "The prophet is more caring of the believers than they are of themselves, and his wives are mothers to them..." (33:6); "O you who believe! Do not enter the homes of the Prophet, unless you are given permission to come..." (33:53); "...And a faction of them asked the prophet to excuse them, saying, "Our homes are exposed," although they were not exposed. They only wanted to flee." (33:13). We conclude then that the term "prophet" refers to Muhammad as a human being regarding his demeanors and relations with others, and he has been commanded as a prophet to follow the divine revelation. As for the term ''messenger'', it indicates Muhammad ONLY when he uttered Quranic verses, as the messenger is indeed the Quran itself as the divine message, which must be obeyed if one is to obey God: "We did not send any messenger except to be obeyed by God's leave..." (4:64) "Whoever obeys the Messenger is obeying God. And whoever turns away-We did not send you as a watcher over them." (4:80). Muhammad himself as a prophet is commanded in the Quran to follow the divine revelation (i.e., the messenger: the Quranic message). Hence, the repeated Quranic commands of obeying the messenger refer to the Quran itself not to Muhammad, and the prophet has been commanded to say the following: "Say, "Obey God and obey the Messenger."..." (24:54); this means clearly that the messenger is the Quranic message itself. There is no Quranic command at all to obey the prophet, because obedience must be to the messenger: the Quranic message of God, not to Muhammad as a person who was a mere mortal that conveyed the message. Of course, Muhammad was the first one to obey such command, and when God has reproached himself for any mistakes done, the Quranic verses of rebuke address him as the prophet, NOT the messenger at all, because he was a prophet chosen from human beings to inspire the Quran to him. Muhammad was never wrong in conveying the Quran intact and in its entirety; but as a prophet, he had his mistakes and good deeds and God forgave his sins. The Quranic term "messenger" has different meanings in the Quranic text as follows.

* It refers to Muhammad only when he recited and uttered the Quran: "Muhammad is not the father of any of your men; but he is the messenger of God, and the seal of the prophets..." (33:40).

* It refers sometimes to the angel Gabriel: "This is the speech of a noble messenger. Endowed with power, eminent with the Lord of the Throne. Obeyed and honest. Your friend is not possessed. He saw him on the luminous horizon. And He does not withhold knowledge of the Unseen." (81:19-23).

* It refers to angels in general (in the plural form): angels that record our deeds: "Or do they think that We cannot hear their secrets and their conspiracies? Yes indeed, Our messengers are by them, writing down." (43:80); and angels of death who take the souls of deceased persons: "...Until, when Our messengers come to them, to take their souls away, they will say, "Where are they whom you used to pray to besides God?"..." (7:37).

* It refers to any envoy carrying a message from one person to another: "The king said, "Bring him to me." And when the messenger came to him, he said, "Go back to your master..." (12:50).

* It refers repeatedly to the Quranic message itself; it overlaps in this semantic level with Muhammad as he recited the Quranic verses, and we find this meaning in Quranic verses that command real believers to obey the messenger (i.e., the Quran) and this means to obey God, because the Quran is God's Word; Muhammad was the first believer to obey this command of course. This command refers to the Quran as it is still with us and will remain preserved and intact until the end of days, and this command does not refer to Muhammad at all as he died long ago. We infer this from the following verse: "And how could you disbelieve, when God's revelations are being recited to you, and among you is His messenger? Whoever cleaves to God has been guided to a straight path." (3:101). Clearly, in 3:101, the word ''messenger'' refers to the Quran, and not to Muhammad. The same meaning is inferred from the following verse "Anyone who emigrates for the sake of God will find on earth many places of refuge, and plentitude. Anyone who leaves his home, emigrating to God and His messenger, and then is overtaken by death, his compensation falls on God..." (4:100). This means they immigrated to avoid persecution by polytheists resulting from their following God's Word: the messenger or the Quran. these verses has a meaning that goes on after Muhammad's death, as long as the Quran is with us; immigration for the sake of the Quran is still occurring when persecuted ones flee persecution by going elsewhere. In the following verse, the term messenger means the Quran exclusively and not Muhammad reciting it: "That you may believe in God and His messenger, and support Him, and honor Him, and praise Him morning and evening." (48:9); the term ''messenger'' here is the Quran, because the rest of the verse talk about the One God (in singular form in Arabic tongue, not the dual form), not referring to God and Muhammad as separate entities, but to God and the Quran as God's Word, making no distinction between God and His Word in 48:9. The same linguistic note can be said about this verse: "They swear to you by God to please you. But it is more proper for them to please God and His messenger, if they are believers." (9:62). The word ''messenger'' refers to Muhammad (and not the Quran) as he uttered the Quran in this verse: "O Messenger, convey what was revealed to you from your Lord. But if you do not, then you would not have delivered His message..." (5:67). God commands Muhammad and all believers to obey Him and to obey the messenger (i.e., the Quran) in this verse: " The Messenger's sole duty is to convey. God knows what you reveal and what you conceal." (5:99), we find in the Quran no reference to obey the ''prophet'' or that his duty is to convey, a term to indicate the mortal Muhammad in his daily life, while Muhammad is a messenger only when he recited the Quran that people must obey to obey God ...)


Thirdly: our reply:

1- Our book titled "The Quran Is Enough" has no room to discuss the topic of this article at length because the focus is on the main idea of the Quran as the sole source of legislation in Islam and to refute other man-made sources of the so-called fiqh and hadiths that are filled with countless contradictions. Of course, many of the other topics of this book have been elaborated further in separate books, researches, and articles later on, found on our archive.

2- We repeat here that the methodology to ponder and reflect on the Quranic verses is to define the Quranic terms as per its local context in a certain Chapter (and verses preceding and following it) and then within the general context of the term in the whole Quranic text at large, and to group together all verses related to the topic of the research. Besides, one is not to begin researching with an idea formed beforehand that entailed proof, but with neutrality and objectivity and willingness to discard past inherited views that may contradict the Quran as per research results. We personally apply this methodology beginning from 1977 until now in all our Quranist writings. The book titled "The Quran Is Enough" is printed in Cairo in 1990, and it is now on our website in English and in Arabic. The term "prophet" refers to Muhammad in his relations with others and sharia legislations linked only to him during his lifetime and place. As for the term ''messenger'' in relation to Muhammad, in indicates him when he recited or uttered the Quranic verses and Quranic legislations that are valid until the end of days as long as the Quran is with us. Hence, Quranic reproach to Muhammad address him as a prophet not a messenger, and the commands to obey the messenger indicate obeying the Quran; Muhammad was the first believer to obey the command to adhere to the Quran.      

3- The topics not mentioned in our book titled "The Quran Is Enough", which is brief book focusing on the Quranic Truth, are 1) the overlapping between the terms ''prophet'' and ''messenger'' when they both refer to Muhammad himself or to other prophets before him who conveyed divine messages to people. Each of us, human beings, as but one character or personality, but prophets in general has a dual character or personality: mortal prophets chosen to convey God's message, and messengers or bearers of such message verbally told to their people; when they utter it, they are messengers that must be obeyed by real believers who want to obey and please God, and these carriers of the divine messages are the first ones to obey them; this is the cause of shifting between the meanings of ''messenger'' to denote person or the message, and 2) local and unrepeated sharia confined to Muhammad and some of his contemporaries and wives that are in Quranic story of Muhammad and never part of Quranic sharia to other Quran-believing people. Let us provide examples below to explain these two topics.       

3/1: shifting between the meanings of ''messenger'' to denote person or the message and to the term ''prophet'' to indicate Muhammad is directly linked to Quranic story of Muhammad and sharia legislations linked to him. For instance, hypocrites inside the Yathreb city-state hated Muhammad Ibn Abdullah the Meccan of the Qorayish tribe not as a person but because of the message he conveyed: the Quran. Hence, their harming him was defined by persons, location, and time, and yet, they hated and desired to harm the messenger (the message that goes on until now). The Quran is precise in showing when the harm of hypocrites was directed at Muhammad as a prophet and directed at the Quranic message; God says the following about hypocrites in Yathreb: "And among them are those who insult the prophet, and say, "He is all ears." Say, "He listens for your own good. He believes in God, and trusts the believers, and is mercy for those of you who believe." Those who insult the messenger of God will have a painful penalty." (9:61). The first part of this verse indicates local temporal harm by insulting Muhammad verbally as a person, whereas harming and insulting Muhammad after his death for centuries to undermine the Quranic message (hated by hypocrites and disbelievers) is indicated in the second half of this verse, in a miraculous Quranic prediction.  This means that harming Muhammad (as a messenger and a prophet) goes on until now to harm, undermine, and vilify the Quranic message; this harm is ascribing to Muhammad hadiths and other falsehoods to be ascribed to Islam forcibly in the past centuries until now; this is real enmity toward the Quran itself. Thus, the verse "They swear to you by God to please you. But it is more proper for them to please God and His messenger, if they are believers." (9:62) refers to 'messenger' as the Quran as God's message, and not to Muhammad. To obey the Quran is to obey God and not to obey Muhammad, even as a messenger uttering the Quran, people are to obey the Quran he uttered not he as a person. "Do they not know that whoever opposes God and His Messenger, will have the Fire of Hell, abiding in it forever? That is the supreme disgrace." (9:63). We see in this verse that hypocrites waged war and opposed Muhammad and this is linked to certain time and place, but this opposition and seeking to harm is leveled at the Quranic message as well, and the verse 9:63 refers to the fact that such harm (i.e., ascribing falsehoods to Islam and to Muhammad) goes on until now and its punishment in Hell is the same. The essence of this topic is deep-seated hatred toward Islam and the Quran, as we discern from 9:61-68. And such harm that goes on against Islam by its haters will makes such harmers be punished in Hell: "Those who insult God and His messenger, God has cursed them in this life and in the Hereafter, and has prepared for them a demeaning punishment." (33:57)           

3/2: As for Muhammad as a prophet, the verse 33:53 shows to us local time and place, as Muhammad was shy to tell his lingering inquisitive visitors to move away from his house as they stayed for too long, eating and chatting, and he was shy to tell them he needed his privacy and rest time to be able to continue his mission of conveying the Quran; and these chambers of wives of Muhammad had their privacy to be respected, and God does not shy away from telling the Truth.   

3/3: As for Muhammad's voice as a prophet who judged among people using the Quran and recited it to them, believers had obeyed him as a messenger in that case: "When the Quran is recited, listen to it, and pay attention, so that you may experience mercy." (7:204). In contrast, polytheists hated the Quran and undermined it when Muhammad recited it: "Those who disbelieve say, "Do not listen to this Quran, and talk over it, so that you may prevail."" (41:26). This is the context of understanding the verse about raising their voices above that of Muhammad as a prophet: "O you who believe! Do not raise your voices above the voice of the Prophet, and do not speak loudly to him, as you speak loudly to one another, lest your works be in vain without you realizing." (49:2); and hiss voice as a messenger reciting the Quran: "Those who lower their voices before God's messenger - those are they whose hearts God has tested for piety. They will have forgiveness and a great reward." (49:3).

3/4: Polytheists and hypocrites, in Mecca and Yathreb, who hated the Quran used to undermine it and to distract people away from it, and the following legislation is linked only to the lifetime of Muhammad as he preached the Quran: "Have you noted those who were prohibited from conspiring secretly, but then reverted to what they were prohibited from? They conspire to commit sin, and aggression, and defiance of the Messenger. And when they come to you, they greet you with a greeting that God never greeted you with. And they say within themselves, "Why does God not punish us for what we say?" Hell is enough for them. They will roast in it. What a miserable destiny! O you who believe! When you converse secretly, do not converse in sin, and aggression, and disobedience of the Messenger; but converse in virtue and piety; And fear God, to Whom you will be gathered." (58:8-10).

3/5: Another legislation lined only to Muhammad's lifetime is about spoils after self-defense battles, and when they asked him about it, he answered as a messenger conveying the decree of God found on this verse: "They ask you about the bounties. Say, "The bounties are for God and the messenger." So be mindful of God, and settle your differences, and obey God and His Messenger, if you are believers." (8:1). In the very next verse, God reminds all believers in all eras to adhere to piety once they hear God's Verses in the Quran: "The believers are those whose hearts tremble when God is mentioned, and when His revelations are recited to them, they strengthen them in faith, and upon their Lord they rely." (8:2). This is followed by legislations about spoils in 8:3-4 and later on in 59:7, and Muhammad applied such division of shares of spoils and such legislations can still be applied when necessary as the case may be, especially in 59:7. 

3/6: Yet, there are certain legislations confined to Muhammad and his lifetime and place as per events occurring, and they are not lasting legislations to be applied now; they are guiding verses to certain events and situations, such as the verses about the battle of Badr as part of history of Muhammad; see 8:64-71. The same applies to the dress code in the 7th century and it does not apply to our time now: "O prophet! Tell your wives, and your daughters, and the women of the believers, to lengthen their garments. That is more proper, so they will be recognized and not harassed..." (33:59); as hypocrites used to spread vice and harass women in Yathreb: "The hypocrite men and hypocrite women are of one another. They advocate evil, and prohibit righteousness, and withhold their hands. They forgot God, so He forgot them. The hypocrites are the sinners." (9:67). This is why God has warned them severely: "If the hypocrites, and those with sickness in their hearts, and the rumormongers in the City, do not desist, We will incite you against them; then they will not be your neighbors there except for a short while." (33:60). As always, God says nothing but the Truth.

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