An 18th- or 19th-century bilingual biography of the Prophet Muhammad from Eastern Europe

Prophecy and revelation in Islam

Muhammad is the Prophet of Islam. Professor Walid Saleh explains the role of prophecy in Islam, discussing the primacy of the Prophet Muhammad and his life, as well as exploring other biblical and Arabian prophets present in the Qur’an, and the tradition of literature about them.

The British Library has a large number of these books, which are often called ‘Lives of the Prophets’. As Islam spread out beyond the Arabian Peninsula, the stories of the prophets gained popularity. The familiarity of figures from other monotheistic religions and belief systems allowed for these stories to be integrated rapidly into local cultures. As such they have been written in every language that Muslims use, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Swahili, Malay, Urdu and many others. They continue to be retold and remain popular stories.

When the Qur’an summarises the points that a Muslim must accept as a matter of faith, the list includes: belief in the Oneness of God (tawhid), in angels, in prophecy (nubuwwah) and in revelation (wahy). Muslims also have to believe in resurrection and judgement. There are three major players in the Qur’an: God who wants to guide humanity, humanity who are ignorant of God and the prophets and messengers who are selected by God to communicate his word to humanity. Prophets are thus the most important part of human history in the Qur’an, and Islam.

Al-Qazwini’s Wonders of Creation

Image of the Archangel Jibrail from al-Qazwini’s Wonders of Creation. The angel is in the centre of the page, wearing multi-coloured and patterned robes, with striped wings, that are spread out behind him.

The Archangel Jibrail from the first part of al-Qazwini’s ‘wonders of the creation’ devoted to the cosmography of the heavens. Southern India, 16th century.

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What is the Islamic view of prophecy?

Prophecy is seen by Muslims as an essential part of human history. God, Muslims believe, has always chosen individuals to communicate with, and He then ‘sends’ these prophets to a specific community to convey His words and will. Prophets are thus chosen by God as messengers (rasul), who convey a message (risalah). God speaks to these messengers in various ways, mostly by a process called inspiration (wahy). There are two terms for the word prophet in Arabic, rasul, messenger, and nabi, prophesier. It is understood that some prophets are given books (kitab), which gather the revelation or the messages proclaimed by a prophet. These books contain the preaching of the prophet concerned, on behalf of God. These books are thus the word of God. Prophets are fully human, they eat and sleep, and some marry and have children. Some have the ability to perform miracles, acts that break the laws of nature, such as making rocks gush with water, splitting the sea or resurrecting the dead. Muhammad, according to Muslims, split the moon into two halves and ascended to Heaven one night to meet God.

Who was the Prophet Muhammad?

Muhammad was a messenger chosen by God to convey his message, transmitted in the Qur’an, the foundational scripture of the Muslim community.

The Ma’il Qur’an

8th-century Ma'il Qur'an. The caligraphy is in a black or dark brown script, sloping across the page. There is minimal decoration, apart from some small red circles that denote the end of a verse.

The earliest Qur’an manuscripts were produced in the mid-to-late 7th century, and ancient copies from this period have only survived in fragments. This 8th-century manuscript is one of the oldest Qur’ans in the world and contains about two-thirds of the complete Qur’an text.

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Public Domain. Please consider cultural, religious & ethical sensitivities when re-using this material.

Muslims believe that Muhammad was the last prophet. He was the last of a line of prophets sent by God to guide humanity, the seal of the prophets (khatam al-nabiyyin, Q. 33.40). Muhammad was born in Mecca in Arabia around the year 570 CE. His father died before he was born and he grew up in his grandfather’s house. We know about the life of Muhammad from the biographies written by Muslims, which are called the sirah. Works telling the life of the Prophet continue to be popular across the world in all Muslim communities.

Dastan-i Mirac

Folio 87v of the Mi’raj of the Prophet. The text is in two colomns in Arabic script. In between the line is a the Slavic translation, written in modified Arabic characters with special letters to indicate sounds that do not exist in Arabic or Turkic.

An 18th- or 19th-century bilingual biography of the Prophet Muhammad from Eastern Europe; in Oghuz Turkic with an interlinear Slavic translation. Such texts were important for passing on knowledge of the Prophet to Tatar communities in Lithuania, Belarus and Poland, many of which use local Slavic languages or Lithuanian for everyday communication.

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The Prophet’s biography tells us that Muhammad was a bright, honest and trustworthy young man who worked in commerce. He married a woman by the name of Khadija who was older than him. At the age of forty Muhammad started to experience visions and hear revelations. He soon realised that he had been chosen for a task: to preach to his own tribe about the one true God. Muhammad wanted his people to stop worshipping many gods and worship the one true God, the creator of the universe. When he started preaching very few people believed in him, and even when he performed miracles people accused him of being a magician and possessed by demons. Muhammad preached to his tribe for ten years, but he never succeeded in converting them. Eventually they wanted to kill him, and he migrated to another city, Medina (previously called Yathrib).

When did the religion of Islam begin to flourish?

The migration to Medina is called Hijrah in Arabic. This became the most important point in the life of Muhammad, and the year Muhammad migrated to Medina is the beginning of the Muslim calendar. Muslims started counting years from that year, corresponding to 622 CE. In Medina Muhammad wrote a treaty with the inhabitants of the city, including its Jewish tribes. This treaty is called the Constitution of Medina. It declares that the Muslims are a nation, a religious community (ummah) and that Medina is a religious shrine and a holy city.

Depiction of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina

Depiction of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in a 19th-century Indian style. The image of Mecca is in the centre, with a floral design above and below it, enclosed in a gold and blue border.

The holy city of Medina, as depicted in a copy of the Dala’il al-khayrat (Guide to Goodness), a devotional prayer-book, produced in India in the 19th century.

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Muhammad became the leader of his new community in Medina, which then began to grow, and conquered his native city, Mecca. Eventually, Muhammad became the most powerful leader in Arabia and the tribes accepted his position as a prophet and as the head of the community. Muhammad left for the Muslims two major items: the Qur’an, which has the word of God as revealed to Muhammad, and the notion of the Muslims as being a nation or a community united under one God. Although Muhammad performed other miracles, his most important miracle is the Qur’an. It is seen as both the message of God to humanity and the miracle that points to the truth of this message.

How does Muhammad inspire Muslims today?

Muhammad was, and is, also seen by Muslims to represent the perfect human being and the most exemplary role model (uswa hasana, Q. 33.21). Testimonies about what Muhammad said became the second most important source of religious truth. Thus in addition to the Qur’an, which is the word of God, Muslims collected the sayings of Muhammad and called them Hadith. Together with the Qur'an, the Prophet's sayings are his most important legacy and inheritance. The story of Muhammad and his career naturally became the most important story in Islam. His career as the Prophet became the ideal story of prophecy.

Hadith collection

Hadith Collection. The page is wider than usual, with an aged brown colour. Calligraphy is mainly in black, with some key words in red.

Our oldest dated manuscript of al-Bukhari’s collection of hadith, one of the six canonical hadith collections that are widely accepted by Sunni Muslims.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Is Muhammad the only Qur’anic prophet?

Muhammad was the last in a long line of prophets; indeed, the Qur’an does not tell the stories of kings or kingdoms, but rather tells the story of prophets and their preaching. Most of the preaching of the prophets is about two major issues. The first is that the world is created by one God, and people should worship this true God. The other is that people should behave morally and not harm each other, feeding the poor, looking after orphans, not stealing or being greedy, not killing, not swearing falsely and being kind and loving to one’s parents. The Qur’an through the prophets is telling humanity that our worth is based on how good we are as human beings. Those who do good deeds and believe in the one true God will be saved and rewarded.

Biblical prophets

As the Qur’an shares many of the same stories as the Bible it is not surprising that many of the same figures also feature, such as Ibrahim (Abraham, the father of all the prophets), Musa (Moses, the leader of the Israelites), Yusuf (Joseph) and Isa (Jesus), the prophet before Muhammad.

A Sufi biographical dictionary, the Majalis al-'ushshaq

Page of a Sufi biographical dictionary, f026v

Yusuf (Joseph) being sold as a slave. From Majālis al-ʻushshāq by Kamāl al-Dīn Gāzurgāhī. Safavid Iran, end of the 16th century.

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The Qur’an believes that the core message of all the prophets is the same: as carriers of revelation they came to declare that there is one God, the creator and preserver of the universe, and that human beings have to worship and submit to His will. Islam, meaning ‘submission’ to God, is seen as the core message of all the prophets sent by God. There are several narrative similarities between the Qur’an and its biblical forerunners: it shares the same story about the creation of the world with the Hebrew Bible, it also shares with the New Testament the idea that the world will come to an end, followed by a resurrection of the dead and a judgement that will see humanity divided into the damned in Hell and the saved in Paradise. Along with Abraham, the Qur’an features the stories of several of the Patriarchs in the Old Testament, Noah, David and Solomon. Their stories in the Qur’an, however, differ on details, and more importantly on the significance of these stories and what they mean to future generations.

Stories of the Prophets

Image of Noah and the Ark from a 16th-century Persian 'Stories of the Prophets'. Noah sits in the centre of the Ark, with golden flames behind his head (denotign his status of prophet). On one side are two women, with veils covering their mouths and hair. On the other side are three men, one with a beard, and tow without facial hair (presumably adolescents or children). At the bottom of the Ark are pairs of assorted animals, among them camels and lions. In the foreground you can see minarets of buildings being engulfed by the flood. The boat has a flag with the Surah of Victory inscribed on it.

Nuh (Noah) and his family in the Ark with pairs of animals. Inscription of Surah Al Fath, the Surah of Victory, on the flag. Safavid Iran, end of the 16th century.

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Mostly, the story is presented as a failed attempt to convince a people to obey God. The stories are told in the Qur’an to convince people that God wants the best for human beings, and the best way to be saved is to follow the prophets that God sends them. Each community gets the chance to have a prophet and hear through him about the one God. People who obey this prophet are saved, those who do not are usually destroyed.

Arabian prophets

In addition to familiar names from the Bible, the Qur’an has stories about tribes of Arabia, ancient Arab tribes that have since disappeared from history. These tribes had never received the Word of God before, but were seen as part of God’s plan for humanity. Thus each deserved a prophet to tell them about God. Two Qur’anic prophets are Hud and Salih. Hud was sent to the people of Aad, a prosperous but proud civilisation. He preached about the one true God, but his people derided him and continued to worship their gods and put their faith in earthly goods and riches. As punishment God sent a tremendous storm that destroyed Aad.

Stories of the Prophets

Stories of the Prophets. On the right-hand side are three men, one of whom is Hud (shown by his golden halo). On the left-hand side are four other men. In the middle, suspended in the air above their heads, are two further men. The men are all wearign long colourful robes, with turbans on their heads.

Men being dashed to the ground by the storm that had been raised by Hud’s prayers to defeat his enemies. Hud is seen with a golden halo, which signifies his status as a prophet. Safavid Iran, end of 16th century.

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Salih was sent to the tribe of Thamud, who came after the people of Aad. He brought a blessed camel to them as a miracle, which they were asked not to harm. The people killed the camel and refused to believe in God. God punished them with an earthquake. The stories in the Qur’an are thus also meant to warn people not to disobey God.

What place do these prophets have in Islam?

In addition to the Qur’an, Muslims started to tell the stories of these prophets in more detail, expanding on the narrative contained in the scripture. A distinct genre of extra-Qur’anic tradition developed, with collections of stories proving among the most popular works in the Islamic world. These books usually start with the creation of the world, then the story of Adam and Eve, the story of their children Cain and Abel and the story of Noah.

Stories of the Prophets

The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden (f 11r). There are two figures naked appart from a grass skirt (the figures an indistinguiable from one another)  who are pursued by a figure with a club, they are accompanied by the peacock and dragon. There is a background of dark green foliage and flowers.

Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, accompanied by the peacock and the dragon who, at Satan's instigation, had been responsible for their fall. Safavid Iran, end of 16th century.

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They continue with the stories of Abraham and the Israelites, the Arabian prophets Hud and Salih, then the stories of David, Solomon and Balaam and Jonah are also told before usually ending with the story of Jesus. Thus all human history before the coming of Muhammad is understood as the story of the prophets that God sent to humanity.

Qisas al-anbiya

Fragment of a page of Qisas al anbiya. The paper is aged and worn, held together in paces with tape. The writing is faded, in two columns.

The conclusion of al-Rabghuzi’s 15th-century collection of stories about the prophets, written in late Khwarezmian Turkic. Rabghuzi’s work was an important step in transmitting the stories of the prophets to Muslim Turkic peoples living in Central Asia, Western China and Central Siberia.

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  • Walid A. Saleh
  • Walid A. Saleh is a Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Toronto. He is a specialists on the Qur'an and the history of Qur'anic commentary tradition. His first book was on the Qur'an commentary of al-Tha`labi (d. 1035) and his second monography was on the reception of the Bible in Islam. He is working now on an introduction to the Qur'an commentary tradition.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.