Skip to main content



NUBŪWAH communicating with supernatural beings or realms, is a major element in religious life. It is usually accomplished by persons acting as direct or indirect intermediaries, be they human, divine, or part human and part divine. Shamans, mystics, and soothsayers are examples of direct intermediaries. Unlike them, indirect intermediaries do not communicate with the divine except through a text that they presume to interpret in order to uncover the sacred message embedded within it. Someone who deciphers entrails, casts horoscopes, reads magical numbers, or performs charismatic exegesis is an indirect intermediary. Some individuals can be direct as well as indirect intermediaries, and they may also intermediate on special occasions rather than regularly or predictably.

Important intermediaries are referred to in English by such terms as prophet and apostle, in Greek by prophētēs and promantis, in Hebrew by navi', in Arabic by nabī or rasūl, and in Persian and Turkish by payghambar or peygamber. Since each label has connotations associated with the religious outlook of a particular culture, generic terms are needed to facilitate comparative discussions. All of these terms refer to some kind of "commissioned communicator"a human being who feels called upon to speak on behalf of a force perceived to be beyond his or her control. Within monotheistic communities, commissioned communication took on the form of messengership; it involved delivering intelligible messages to other human beings from the Unseen that reinterpreted, and often challenged, the status quo.

This minimal definition distinguishes messengers from such commissioned communicators as shamans or soothsayersspirit helpers whose primary function is not to deliver intelligible messages but to invoke friendly spirits during trance. It also excludes a phenomenon sometimes called prophecy, one in which the "messages" take the unintelligible form of speaking in tongues. However, there have been prophets, such as the African Isaiah Shembe, who delivered intelligible and unintelligible messages alternately. Since the "mystery letters" that begin certain chapters in the Qurʾān have remained unintelligible, albeit subject to intense scrutiny and multiple interpretations, it can be said that messengers must deliver intelligible messages as a primary task but may also deliver unintelligible ones. In Islamic exegesis of the Qurʾān, this distinction is observed through two key words provided in sūrah 3:7: muhkamat, referring to passages that form a firm or categorical basis for gauging the divine will, and mutashabihat, referring to metaphoric or allegorical passages and also to the mystery letters at the outset of some Qurʾanic chapters.

Within these parameters, the social roles of commissioned communicators vary significantly. Some "publish" their message in response to the request of other human beings; others, only in response to an inner urging interpreted as having a supernatural source. Biblical prophets did both; the human channels for the Greek oracles, only the former; and Muammad, only the latter. Although the sense that they have been called usually precludes social and political passivity as a response, there is no mandate that such figures mobilize and lead others. Sometimes their messages are random and disorganized; they may also have only local significance. At other times, they are canonized into a book with decisive moral guidelines that are deemed to have universal applicability.

Beyond functional similarities, there are historical reasons to argue that messengers can be grouped for purposes of cross-cultural study; few roles have such strong diachronic commonalities as messengership. Monotheistic messengership grew out of an ancient tradition of direct mediation between the divine and the human, prevalent throughout the Mediterranean and the Nile-to-Oxus regions. After it emergedfirst in Judaism, then in Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Islamthe role was conveyed to various societies not only through scriptures but also through a shared folklore. To the present day, these common symbols, figures, and stories have continued to supply standards against which claimants to the role can be evaluated. Near-contemporary messenger figures, such as Tenskwatwa, Joseph Smith, Bahāʾ Allāh, and Isaiah Shembe, were culturally unconnected yet they shared the inheritance of messengership. Their temporal convergence underscores the extent to which messengership is a central religious phenomenon, at once diffuse and pervasive. Yet scholarly labor has remained narrowly focused on only a fraction of the relevant data, with Old Testament prophethood remaining the norm for most comparative generalizations. If few comparativists have paid attention to Islam, a religious tradition in which messengers and messengership are central, Islamicists, for their part, have continued to neglect the cross-creedal, comparative dimensions of nubūwah.

The Qurʾanic Messenger Figure

The Qurʾān, the foundational text of Islam, uses two Arabic nouns for messenger figures: nabī and rasūl. The latter frequently appears in the phrase rasūl Allāh (messenger of God), which became the preferred term for Muammad and a key element in the shahādah, or profession of faith, as central to Islam as baptism is to Christianity. A common Persian equivalent, payghambar, literally means "messenger," as does rasūl. The noun for the role or office of nabī is nubūwah, just as risālah is sometimes used to denote the mission or message of a rasūl.

Much has been made of the Qurʾanic use of two terms for such figures. Both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars have tried to clarify the presumed distinctions between the two. Some have concluded that the words are interchangeable; others have identified nabī as a word for figures who are called to receive revelation, and reserved rasūl for those who not only receive revelation but also are sent on a mission to a particular community. Some have linked nabī to ordinary messengers, while marking as rasūl only seven prophets, those deemed to be the greatest: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus and Muammad. A less common interpretation links nabī with messengers who were descended from Abraham and therefore specially gifted with nubūwah, while rasūl is said to connote a messenger sent to bring his own community to God. Further complicating the picture is that angels can be denoted as rusūl (sūrah 35:1), but never as nabiyūn.

While the full significance of this etymological complexity remains unclear, its very existence calls attention to the fact that in the Qurʾān nubūwah is a rich, vital and evocative topic. Nubūwah has been the primary vehicle by which the divine communicates with humankind. It involves a long and continuous chain of revelation-bearers who were related both functionally and genealogically. They were sent to help God communicate to humankind his desire for their surrender (islām) to his will. They were therefore all given the same message, except that certain ones were sent to fulfill very specific leadership missions within their own communities. The chain stretched from the very first human, Adam, to the deliverer of the Qurʾān, Muammad. It included figures considered prophets by Jews and Christians (Abraham, Jacob, Moses), along with others familiar to them but not classed by them as prophets (Joseph, David, Jesus). It included still others entirely unfamiliar to any but Arabs (Hūd, āli, Shu'ayb). Joseph is the subject of the longest Qurʾanic narrative (sūrah 12).

All these prophets share Abrahamic descent. Abraham was the patriarch of a single family whose lineages, for Israelites and Arabs respectively, stemmed from Isaac or Isāq and Ishmael or Ismāʾīl. In accepting islām or submission, in surrendering to God's absolute authority, and in putting themselves in the only right relationship with him, Arabs contemporaneous with Muammad not only acknowledged their own forefathers as divine messengers, they also saw themselves as returning to their original religion, and also to the original religion of all humankind. Mecca was the natural center of this reclaimed trust that now became the new religion of Islam. Before it became the birthplace of Muammad, Mecca had been the site of Abraham's house of God, at its center the Kaʿbah or sacred mosque, and within the Kaʿbah the Black Stone vouchsafed to Ismā'īl as a divine bequest.

Muammad is Abraham's legatee and more. As rasūl Allāh, messenger of God, Muammad becomes the composite of all the major messengers who preceded hima radical monotheist like Abraham, a lawgiver and warrior like Moses, and a friend of God like Jesus. What others received partially Muammad received in full. He is given a perfect form of the revealed truth that God has sent through every messenger since the beginning of humankind. Functionally Muam-mad resembles his predecessors and becomes who he is by comparison with them:

  • He is chosen by God from among his own people, neither seeking to be chosen, nor showing enthusiasm for the task. He is guided by God, whose guidance is parceled out as needed. He is distinct from the angels, who are neither human nor divine. He is mortal and subject to death.
  • He polarizes his audience: he is believed by some and opposed by many, including Satan, partly because he rejects polytheistic ancestral custom in favor of tawīd, that is, the declaration of God's unequivocal and unqualified oneness. Those who oppose him call him a liar. They harm his person and expel him from his hometown. Yet they are marked in turn by God through the term kufr. A kafir (unbeliever) exhibits kufr: one who is both unfaithful and ungrateful displays infidelity and ingratitude to the Almighty. Kufr becomes one of the strongest terms of opprobrium in the Qurʾān, and the status of kafir amounts to a sentence of spiritual and social exile for Muslims.
  • He has two major functions related to the Day of Judgment: to bring good tidings of the possibility of salvation, and to warn of punishment for wrongdoers and naysayers (the kuffar, plural of kafir ). Both functions are announced and supported in the noble book, the holy Qurʾān, which God reveals to humankind through the agency of Muammad.
  • He possesses a constellation of exemplary personal characteristics: patience, unswerving devotion, compassion, trust in God, and a pure faith that is the absolute opposite of shirk. A mushrik performs shirk: one who professes loyalty to others along with God (an idolator or polytheist) denies God's oneness (tawīd) and replaces it with diluted loyalty (shirk).
  • Obeying God extends to honoring his prophet and upholding his community. Obedience means belief in God's book, the angels, and the last day, but it also means esteeming the prophet and his companions, and then helping to establish an ummah, that is, a community based on God's revelation and committed to establishing the rules necessary for its survival and expansion.

The special significance of nabī/rasūl is further underscored by the Qurʾanic insistence on distinguishing this from other roles that presumed divine-human mediation in seventh-century Arabia. The major competitive roles were kāhin (diviner, shaman, seer) and shāʿir (poet). Both recur in the Qurʾān but with different valuations. Divination is never explicitly condemned; prophecy, in one sense, is a perfected form of divination. Poetry, however, is condemned, largely because the poet's inspiration is seen to be his own and not divine. Muammad's task was not unlike the biblical nevi'im, who had to distinguish themselves from figures claiming direct mediation with the divine while lacking the historical and moral significance reserved for prophets.

Notably absent from the Qurʾān's picture of nubūwah is the element of futurism, or prophecy as prediction, that dominates many Christian understandings of Old Testament prophetic action. Although many of Muammad's messages are future-oriented in an apocalyptic sense, prediction of specific historical events is virtually absent. (Sūrah 105 is an exception. It predicts the destruction of a Yemeni Christian army intent on invading Mecca. But even that is a prediction given after the fact, since the failed invasion took place in the year of Muammad's birth.) Miraculous acts are also absent; Muammad's message is seen as an encompassing and ongoing miracle. The giving of the Qurʾān validates Muammad as messenger without the need for ancillary proof from the redirection of nature. One future event is predicted, the end of time, also known as the Day of Judgment. Neither specified nor left open to debate, the Day of Judgment will be knowable from clear signs, vividly described in sūrah 82.

The Sealing of Prophecy

Shortly after Muammad's death, the core of his supporters articulated and enforced a particular understanding of the Qurʾanic reference to Muammad as khatm al-anbiyā,ʾ or "seal of the nabīs " (sūrah 33:40). Muammad was said to be the culmination and termination of that long process of direct revelation that God had begun with Adam. The decision to view Muammad in this way was necessitated by competing claims to revelation of other Arab tribal leaders. Although it invalidated them and made Muammad unique, it did not demote previous messengers. Rather, accepting the finality of Muammad's messengership became an essential part of being a Muslim; it redefined Muslims as Abrahamic loyalists who embraced but also fulfilled prophecies given earlier to Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians. Although the decision did not entirely prevent later Muslims from using the labels nabī and rasūl or even claiming to bring a new Qurʾān, it did restrict such activity: claimants were compelled to make implicit rather than explicit claims to be "like" Muammad.

It is difficult to overestimate the historical impact of the concept of nubūwah as exemplified in Muammad's life and clarified after his death. It expanded previous Perso-Semitic notions of prophetic action, and stretched them to new limits. Not only did it direct the course of leadership patterns within Islamic societies, but it also affected almost all subsequent non-Muslim conceptualizations of prophecy and prophets.

Literary developments

Muslims enlarged previous notions of nubūwah simply by putting all messengers into a class that ended with Muammad. Just as Muammad had to be shown to be like them, they had to be shown to be like Muammad. This "leveling" is particularly evident in three literary genres, adīth, sīrah, and qia al-anbiyā.'

The adīth comprise an expansive and contested corpus of reports that convey Muammad's sunnah his exemplary words, deeds, and silent approval. Their content varies enormously within Sunnī and Shīʿī branches of Islam, but common to all adīth compilations is the notion that the nabī became a personal exemplar of unprecedented and unparalleled authority. The wide circulation of adīth about other nabīs, especially Moses, Joseph, Abraham, and Jesus, made them exemplary as well. Later Muslim scholars explored the possibility of extrascriptural revelation to prophets, especially in a subclass of adīth known as adīth qudsī, which quote direct speech from God to Muammad that does not appear in Qurʾān but remains authoritative beyond "ordinary" adīth.

The chain of Muslim messengers grew so large that by some counts it was said to number 124,000. It also included figures not considered prophets by non-Muslims, principal among them Jesus. Muslims viewed Jesus as a major rasūl, a completely human emissary whom God saved from dying by substituting another on the cross. Thus they preserved, in reworked form, an early Judeo-Christian view of Jesus that had fallen into disuse with the rise of Gentile Christianity and the conciliar decrees of the Roman church.

Using the adīth as an important source, a genre known as sīrah presented the life of Muammad specifically as the life of a messenger of God. Most early sīrahs were written in the crosscultural, multicreedal environment of the empire's central cities; some, such as the Sīrat Rasūl Allāh of Ibn Isāq (d. 768), were produced by converts to Islam. They sought to establish Muammad's legitimacy with regard to previous messengers and, by extension, the right of Muslims to rule over Jewish and Christian subjects. They viewed Muammad's particular blend of social, military, and political leadership, as well as his revelatory utterances, spiritual guidance, and lawgiving, as a standard against which others could be measured. Perso-Semitic concepts of prophetic leadership became institutionalized and idealized for the first time in history: Muammad not only brought a book but also constructed, on the basis of that book, a lasting, divinely guided community. Gradually, a Muslim vision of world history crystallized: Muammad's creation of a divinely guided community culminated earlier epochs marked by divine-human mediation, at the same time that its own initial epoch, the so-called period of the first three generations, projected an ever present ideal for leading the good Muslim life. While Muammad was preeminent among messengers, a small number of others, most notably Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, were also held in high esteem as major messengers. Jews and Christians had been sent "Muslim" messengers but had misconstrued or diluted their messages. As a consequence, with the advent of Islam they had yet another option to become Muslim, but if they chose to remain as People of the Book, that is, scriptuaries like Muslims but not fully Muslim in their outlook, they could remain protected minorities (dhimmīs) under Islamic rule.

The sīrah of Ibn Isāq also established a paradigm for the career of the messenger of God that many Muslim leaders tried to emulate, even when they were not claiming nubūwah for themselves. It described a birth and infancy filled with propitious occurrences and omens; a youth of involvement with conventional religious practices accompanied by spiritual searching and confusion; a sudden call at age forty, resisted three times; acceptance by a few and rejection by most; emigration (hijrah ); and consolidation of power in an adopted home and a triumphal return to the original home. Gradually legists and theologians elaborated other dalāʾil al-nubūwah (signs of prophethood), such as a mark between the shoulders, innocence of youth, and paranormal experiences. They went on to develop, by the thirteenth century, the doctrine of ʿimah (protection from sin and error), which was applied broadly to Muammad and selectively to previous messengers. Thereafter, insulting Muammad became a serious misdeed, and Mecca and Medina were closed to non-Muslims. Eventually the scholars added an eschatological role: Muammad would lead his community into Paradise, and there intercede for those whom God had excluded.

The comparability of Muammad with all previous messengers, and vice versa, came to be demonstrated in another literary form, qia al-anbiyāʾ ("tales of the nabīs "). By the time al-Kisāʾī (fl. 1200) composed one of its most famous works, the genre had become comprehensive, dramatic, and influential. Because its authors believed in prophetic continuity, they could rework non-Muslim tales about the prophets into an Islamic vision of the religious history of the world. When the predictive, miracle-working facets of Jewish and Christian prophecy resurfaced here, they did so in "islamized" fashion. The preempting of pre-Islamic messengers and the exalting of Muammad assumed architectural form in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. A late seventh-century monument constructed by the Umayyad Caliph ʿAbd al-Malik, it hallows the memory of the Prophet's night journey (israʾ) and his subsequent ascent (Miʾrāj) to the highest heaven, alluded to in the Qurʾān (sūrah 12) but more fully elaborated in adīth.

Sufism and Philosophy

Another kind of reinterpretation, consolidation, and expansion of the concept of nubūwah occurred when ūfī thinkers gave these stories an esoteric, interiorized meaning. Messengers became prototypes for individual spiritual development, illustrating the ability of human beings to receive divine inspiration. In well-known early modern examples of the genre, Taʾwīl al-aādīth and al-Fauz al-Kabir of the Indian ūfī theologian Shāh Walī Allāh (d.1762), numerous messengers exhibit one or more aspects of the ūfī search for truth, even as they exemplify humanity's complete dependence on God. They are quintessential servants and friends of God who serve as instruments in God's plan as they strive for human perfection in their devotion, self-control, and discipline. For example, Adam is a microcosm of all the realities of the universe, physical and spiritual. His fall was designed by God to ensure his becoming an earthly delegate: the prohibitions against eating from the tree were revealed in a dream; the violation of the prohibitions were brought about by satanic action. Noah is the first messenger to lead a community forcibly to God's will, bringing law in order to subordinate animal to spiritual impulses. Abraham exemplifies utter devotion to God and the unstinting pursuit of the true religion. Joseph triumphs over affliction by his constancy. For many ūfīs, Muammad is insān al-kāmil, the perfect or universal human being who epitomizes union with God.

Muslim philosophers found it more difficult to appreciate Muammad's mission as messenger. At the least, they distinguished prophetic truthwhich is communicated in easily comprehensible everyday language and expressed in stories and analogies that appeal to the common people in particular communitiesfrom philosophical truth, which is universal, esoteric, abstract, and rational. Some, such as al-Kindī (d. after 870), saw prophetic and philosophical truth as two sides of the same coin, the former a parable for the latter. Others, however, publicly stated that the two truths should not contradict each other but privately thought of revelation as a vulgar form of higher truth. For example, al-Fārābī (c. 870950) implied that prophetic knowledge was inferior to philosophical knowledge by demonstrating that the true knowerthe philosopher-kinghad to do what the prophets had done, and more. According to Ibn ufayl (d. 1185), ultimate truth could be gained without recourse to divine revelation. It was available to reflective, reasoning human beings like the island-dwelling protagonist of his philosophical story ayy ibn Yaqān (Living, son of the wakeful), its very title a play on one of the 99 divine names (al-ayy) attributed to God. Despite such condescension, many philosophers did value Muammad's lawgiving role since it fostered the ordering of society that they too cherished and pursued.

Leadership and Legitimacy

In the Islamic faith, as in other religious traditions, the death of the final messenger and the cessation of new revelation tended to enhance the importance of other forms of leadership based on divine guidance and inspiration. Simultaneously, the maintenance of the stability grounded in revelation had to coexist, as in other traditions, with the pursuit of the spontaneity that had characterized the faith in its origins. The growth of a multivalent conception of nubūwah provided numerous ways in which its legitimacy could be emulated without being imitated, in stability and spontaneity alike.

When nubūwah was sealed, its authority had to flow into other leadership roles if the ummah was to survive. However, because none of them could duplicate the legitimacy of nubūwah, each had to establish a particular identity that could never compete successfully with nubūwah. Out of this paradox was born one of the great problems of Islamic civilizationthe inimitability of the ideal leader.

Among Sunnī Muslims, the ending of nubūwah eventuated in a relationship of mutual dependence between the khalīfahs (caliphs), whose temporal authority protected and defended the unity of the ummah, and the ʿulamāʾ (religious scholars), whose acquisition of authentic religious knowledge enabled them to define the proper Muslim life. These men, like rabbis, acted as indirect intermediaries, teasing out the legal and moral implications of God's direct revelations and shaping them into a system of rules: the sharīʿah. Thus were preserved the spiritual guidance and earthly power of the prophetic experience, if not its immediacy. Although neither ʿulamāʾ nor khalīfahs could claim Muammad's full authority, both derived their legitimacy from him, and jointly they possessed the two powers he had combined.

The leadership model preferred by Shīʿī Muslims, imāmah, overcame this bifurcation with paradoxical consequences: it both greatly extended and radically contained charismatic authority; its successful combination of spiritual and temporal power was bought at the price of never exercising the latter; and by virtue of its having to remain distinct from nubūwah, imāmah eventually became the superior of the two. The imāms of the major Shīʿah group (the Ithna ʿasharīya or Twelvers) were twelve descendants of Muammad believed to have inherited his blood and physical traits and were inspired by god to interpret the meaning of revealed truth without altering it, a belief also common to the Ismā'īlīyyah, the other major group of Shīʿah. They were conceived in God's mind as the principle of absolute good, which was transmitted into the loins of the nabīs and the wombs of holy women as entities of light and made concrete after Muammad's death. Together with the messengers, the imāms are the proofs of God, and while the earth has been without a messenger since the death of Muammad, it is never without an imām. The imāms become the "speaking Qurʾān," guarding the true meaning of the "silent Qurʾān" and interpreting it as alive and fresh in their time.

In one Shīʿī view, these special qualities and esoteric knowledge are wilāyat Allāh, the custodianship of God. The wilayat Allāh was entrusted to the angel Gabriel from the creation of the world. Gabriel gave it to all the prophets and finally to Muammad, who passed it on to his cousin and son-in-law ʿAlī, who in turn passed it on to Muammad's grandsons and through them to the rest of the imāms. Thus the imāms became the only individuals capable of bringing divine guidance to the world after Muammad sealed nubūwah. Though they were the only rightful spiritual and temporal authorities after Muammad, a series of erroneous decisions by the Muslim majority postponed their actual exercise of temporal power until the return of their last member, the Mahdī (messiah).

Despite the overlap of nubūwah and imāmah, all but the very extremist Shīʿah refused to call the imāms nabī, insisting on one fundamental distinction: the imāms, unlike Muammad, did not bring a new revelation or a new law. However, since they possessed all the other qualities of the messenger as well as the distinct, inimitable, and infallible characteristics of the imām, it was easy for their devoted followers to view them as preeminent. Indeed, the very absence of new revelation further enhanced the authority of imāms : they and they alone knew the message of the Qurʾān due to their error-free (maʿūm) abilities in charismatic exegesis.

In Shiʿi popular devotion nubūwah and imāmah were inextricably conflated. All the messengers of God came to be thought of as having participated in the suffering of the holy family. The ahl al-bayt, or people of the household (of Muammad), included ʿAlī, Muammad's cousin, Alī's wife, who was also Muammad's daughter, Fāimah, and their sons asan and usayn. They endured what earlier prophets had anticipated, themselves tasting a little of the fate of Muammad's family through their own persecution. Shiʿi devotional poetry expanded the tales of the prophets in new ways by likening them to the experiences of the holy family and the imāms ; at the same time, their mournful verses elevated the imāms above all antecedent figures except Muammad. Thus imāmah completed nubūwah in such a perfect pattern of divine logic that the latter came to be, in the eyes of many of the Shiʿah, merely a precursor to the former.

Among both Sunnīs and the Shīʿah, other roles reflected the impact of the sealing of nubūwah. The ūfī shaykh identified with the spiritual, if not genealogical, legacy of the nabī because he could receive individual divine inspiration and achieve intimacy with God. In so doing, such figures reclaimed the immediacy of the nabī 's experience; sometimes they also emulated his political and social activism, as did Sayyid Idrīs (18901983), the Libyan nationalist leader of the Sanusiyah.

Perhaps even more important are the myriad apocalyptic, millenarian, and reformist figures, Sunnī and Shīʿī alike, who have adopted labels such as mujaddid (centennial renewer), mahdī (divinely guided one, the messiah), or mujāhid/jihādī (leader of a jihād). Often these figures have emerged in circumstances perceived to be like those of Muammad, for example, in an area where Islam was imperfectly established or not established at all. Although a few, such as the Almohad mahdī Ibn Tūmart (c. 10821130), may have claimed to bring new revelation, most managed to emulate Muammad's activist, reformist leadership without making dangerously explicit claims to his most distinguishing characteristic. By reintroducing Muammad's spiritual spontaneity and social renewal, and by emulating aspects of his sunnah and sīrah, they have evoked nubūwah without claiming it. Such was the case with the Indian ūfī reformer, Ahmad Sirhindi (d. 1624), who viewed his own time on the cusp of a new millennium in the Islamic calendar (ah 1000= 1592 ce) as a moment of degeneracy and decay not unlike that facing Muammad in his day. The Day of Judgment was imminent, the process of decay could only be reversed by a renewer, in this case, a millennial renewer (mujaddid-i alf-i thani), on whom God entrusted prophetic perfections. Neither Sirhindi's claim nor that of later renewers, such as the Yemeni jurist Muammad al-Shawkani (d. 1834), has gone unchallenged, but their claims do expand the notion of prophetic charisma even while upholding the finality of Muammad as a law-giving prophet.

Exchanges with Non-Muslims

The impact of the concept of nubūwah extended beyond the Muslim community, too. While developing it, Muslims were beginning to interact with their empire's subject population of Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. In the course of the ensuing polemic, each group had to adjust its understanding of the history of messengership so as to remain distinct from the others. Post-Islamic Zoroastrian biographies of Zarathushtra viewed him as an Islamic-type payghambar, a messenger sent with a book to a particular community. Some went on to exalt him above all other messengers, just as Muslims exalted Muammad. Arab Christian reactions were diametrically opposite: they defined genuine prophets as everything they argued Muammad was notdevoid of earthly motives, noncommercial, nonmilitant, and miracle working. This familiar picture of prophethood, somewhat awkward from the point of view of the Old Testament, eventually found its way into Western Christian medieval polemic as well. Muslims accommodated themselves to Christian polemic by clarifying the doctrine of iʿjāz al-Qurʾān (the miracle of the Qurʾān): the inimitability of the Qurʾān, combined with Muammad's illiteracy, constituted the greatest miracle. It was God-given and it needed no lesser demonstrations of divine agency to confirm Muammad's unique status among messengers.

Miracle working also found other routes into Islamic views of Muammad. In popular literature, as well as in genres like qia al-anbiyā,' the mountain began to come to him as his life story filled with a plethora of extracanonical prodigies. Such glorification appears, for example, in one of the most lastingly popular poems used to celebrate Muammad's birthday, or mawlid. Though a companion of the Prophet, Kaʾb ibn Zuhayr (d. c. 630), composed the earliest panegyric of Muammad, the Burdah or Mantle Poem of al-Būīrī (d. 1298), which was composed in Egypt during the Crusades, has become the most famous. It warns against succumbing to temptations of the flesh and then develops a depiction of Muammad as above all a high-minded helper from heaven attentive to all who call his name. In popular practice, Muammad's tomb became a place to seek his earthly intercession.

Modern Muslim thinkers have continued to enlarge the concept of nubūwah by emphasizing particular dimensions of Muammad's sunnah; because the adīth document the sunnah, they have become more important than ever. In modernist thought, the messenger's mission is often likened to that of the modern social reformer; his ability to serve as a moral exemplar and rehabilitator in a time of decay is stressed. According to such interpretations, Muammad's teachings demonstrated the primacy of the social in humankind's goals and encouraged the use of consultation and cooperation, indeed flexibility. His ability to relate eternal truth to his own special circumstances was a model of and justification for applying Islamic principles according to circumstances.

Despite such updating, one aspect of nubūwah, its having come to an end with Muammad, remains non-negotiable. In the last century, a group of former Shīʿī Muslims accepted the possibility of new revelation and new messengers. The explicit claims of their messenger, Bahāʾ Allāh (18171892), led inevitably to the founding of a separate religious tradition, just as it did within Christianity for the Mormon followers of his American near-contemporary Joseph Smith (18051844). Even more explosive within the arc of Islamic cultural politics has been the attempt of Ahmadis to redefine prophecy after Muammad. The Ahmadis ascribed to their eponym, the South Asian reformer Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (d. 1908), the qualities of a renewer who is also the mahdī and the masī (or messiah). They defined themselves in the tradition of ūfī reformers like Ahmad Sirhindi and Shāh Walī Allāh, and enjoyed enormous success worldwide as a missionary movement within Islam. Yet their adversaries saw them as kuffar, those who denied the finality of Muammad's claim to nubūwah and were therefore outside the pale of Islam. The Ahmadi movement ignited a fierce controversy in British South Asia and then after 1948, in Pakistan. It did not subside even when the National Assembly of Pakistan amended the 1973 constitution to declare the Ahmadis a non-Muslim minority. A subsequent 1984 presidential decree attempted to criminalize the entire Ahmadi community. In South Asia and elsewhere nubūwah clearly remains as critical an issue today as it was at Islam's inception.

See Also

Imamate; Prophecy; Walāyah.


There is no single comprehensive study of nubūwah, but the issue has been addressed within a number of broader investigations. Tor Andrae's classic work, Die person Muhammeds in lehre und glauben seiner gemeinde (Stockholm, 1918), offers valuable insights into the process by which the figure of Muammad and his mission as messenger of God expanded and deepened through centuries of devotion. A thorough survey and synthesis of previous views on the Qurʾanic distinction between nabī and rasūl can be found in Willem A. Bijlefeld's "A Prophet and More Than a Prophet?" Muslim World 59 (January 1969): 128, which also suggests a new and less dichotomous interpretation.

William A. Graham's Divine Word and Prophetic Word in Early Islam (The Hague, 1977), especially part 1, "Revelation in Early Islam," provides an imaginative description of how two separate sacred messages, scripture and prophetic example, crystallized out of the unitary prophetic experience; the bibliography includes many major European works on Muammad. On the Shīʿī tradition in particular, Mahmoud M. Ayoub's Redemptive Suffering in Islam: A Study of the Devotional Aspects of ʿAshurā' in Twelver Shīʿism (The Hague, 1978) presents extensive materials on the history of the prophets as it was incorporated into the history of Shīʿī martyrdom, while Abdulaziz Abdulhussein Sachedina's Islamic Messianism: The Idea of Mahdī in Twelver Shʿism (Albany, 1981) offers a clear and effective historical account that includes an examination of the relationship between imām and nabī in Shīʿī thought. One unusual effort to explain the appearance and displacement of Muammad's competitors in the claim to divine messengership is Dale F. Eickelman's "Musaylima: An Approach to the Social Anthropology of Seventh Century Arabia," Journal of the Social and Economic History of the Orient 10 (1967): 1752. The impact of early Muslim-Christian polemic on evolving notions of revelation and prophetic mission in both communities, a topic that has not garnered much attention, receives enlightening treatment in two articles by Sidney H. Griffith, "Comparative Religion in the Apologetics of the First Christian Arabian Theologians," in Proceedings of the PMR Conference (annual publication of the Patristic, Mediaeval and Renaissance Conference) 4 (1979), pp. 6387, and "The Prophet Muammad: His Scripture and His Message according to the Christian Apologies in Arabic and Syriac from the First Abbasid Century," in La vie du prophète Mahomet: Colloque de Strasbourg, 1980 (Paris, 1983), pp. 99146.

Another perspective can be gleaned from Sven S. Hartman's, "Secrets for Muslims in Parse Scriptures," in Islam and Its Cultural Divergence, edited by Girdhari L. Tikku (Urbana, Ill., 1971), pp. 6775, which traces the impact of nubūwah on post-Islamic Zoroastrian conceptualizations of Zarathushtra. For a look at the impact of Muammad's biographical representation on the careers of nineteenth-century West African Muslim reformers and the complementary effect of the reformers' own lives on their representations of Muammad's career, see Marilyn R. Waldman, "The Popular Appeal of the Prophetic Paradigm in West Africa," Contributions to Asian Studies 17 (1982): 110114. In the twentieth-century context, an Egyptian study of the Prophet's life is analyzed by Antoine Wessels in A Modern Arabic Biography of Muammad: A Critical Study of Muammad usayn Haykal's ayat Muammad (Leiden, 1972). Study of the controversial Ahmadi movement has been enhanced by Yohanan Friedmann's Prophecy Continuous: Aspects of Ahmadi Religious Thought and Its Medieval Background (Berkeley, 1989), while the status of renewal among Sunnī jurists has been highlighted through Bernard Haykel's Revival and Reform in Islam: The Legacy of Muammad al-Shawkani (Cambridge, 2003).

In addition to these critical studies, a number of primary sources, reflecting various genres and time periods, are available in English translation. The Life of Muammad: A Translation of [Ibn] Isāq's Sīrat Rasūl Allāh, translated by Alfred Guillaume (1955; reprint, Lahore, 1967), is the well-known eighth-century biography that sought to establish the Prophet's legitimacy in regard to Judeo-Christian messenger figures. It, along with other early sources, has now been subjected to critical review and speculative revaluation by a host of scholars drawn to the question of Islamic origins. For the most comprehensive overview of this debate, and also the variant stances of its protagonists, see Herbert Berg, ed. Method and Theory in the Study of Islamic Origins (Leiden, 2003). A tenth-century example of a philosophical middle position on the relationship between philosophical and revealed truth, and between the philosopher-king and the messenger of God, can be found in Alfarabi's Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, translated by Muhsin Mahdī (New York, 1962), part 1, "The Attainment of Happiness," while Ibn ufayl's Hayy Ibn Yaqān can be enjoyed, along with a spirited commentary, in Lenn Evan Goodman's book of the same title (Los Angeles, 1983). The Tales of the Prophets of al-Kisā'ī, translated by Wheeler M. Thackston, Jr. (Boston, 1978), reflects the important genre of qia al-anbiyā' in which extracanonical Jewish and Christian tales are adduced in an Islamic context. "The Mantle Poem of al-Buīrī" also exists in translation, in A Reader on Islam, edited by Arthur Jeffery (The Hague, 1962), pp. 605620; it presents another form of popular literature, the devotional poem that commemorates the Prophet's birthday and stresses the miraculous dimension of his life. A Mystical Interpretation of Prophetic Tales by an Indian Muslim, Shāh Walī Allāh's Ta'wīl al-Aādīth, has been translated by J. M. S. Baljon (Leiden, 1973), and despite some flaws, it offers an example of ūfī esoteric interpretation by a major eighteenth-century Indian mystic and theologian, whose own legacy and stature as a renewer have become better known through the translation of his magnum opus, The Conclusive Argument from God: Shāh Walī Allāh of Delhi's Hujjat Allāh al-Baligha, translated by Marcia K. Hermansen (Leiden, 1996).

Marilyn Robinson Waldman (1987)

Bruce B. Lawrence (2005)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Nubūwah." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 21 Oct. 2018 <>.

"Nubūwah." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (October 21, 2018).

"Nubūwah." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved October 21, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.