Surah 21: The Prophets, Part 1

A frustrating thing about Arabic is its plurals. English has a few words that change radically from their singular to plural forms: mouse to mice, loaf to loaves, tooth to teeth. In Arabic, about 41% of the mainstream nouns change radically to become plural (and adjectives do this too, wah!). The word for “prophet” in Arabic is nabii, but to become plural it becomes anbiyaa’. And that’s the title of today’s surah: The Prophets.

Who are the prophets? You might laugh that we are asking that at this point in the Quran, which has spent so much time listing and describing and enjoining and praising and validating the prophets. Yet here we are again, meeting the prophets. As usual it is in the context of establishing Muhammad as the latest iteration of a legacy of God reaching out to mankind. There is an economy of message in returning to this topic today. With a sweeping look at the prophetic line, the surah is able to reprove multiple points in its opponents’ theologies, assert its own theology, and set up its lore of inspirational figures.

What are You Doing, Muhammad?

Something striking about Muhammad is how late he was in life to start his ministry. The traditional account of his age at the start of his ministry is 40 years. At this point in life he had already established himself as a successful and respected trader, married an influential woman, and fathered daughters who were already married into the broader Quraysh community (excepting Fatima, the youngest). Muhammad was established and part of the establishment, so naturally you can imagine there was confusion when he started a religious revolution against the very heart of Meccan society: pagan ritual and pilgrimage. We haven’t read the earliest suwar of Muhammad’s ministry yet and don’t have much of a sense of what it first looked like when he started. By the time of today’s surah, which is traditionally believed to have been revealed somewhere in the middle of Muhammad’s time in Mecca, the community still hasn’t come to a consensus on what to think about Muhammad.

Ayah 3 records that some people perceive that Muhammad is just a man, but still find something disturbingly mystical about him and fear him as a user of magic. Ayah 5 also records some other explanations for his behavior: he’s a poet, he’s a liar, he’s deluded by intense dreams. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? A lot of organizations hostile to Islam still propose these identities as ways to write off Muhammad. Some promote that he suffered from a complex combination of mental disorders that gave him hallucinations, that he received his revelations from a false angel, or that he was merely a skilled poet and rhetorician. None of these claims are particularly new or modern, most of them can be found in ancient Christian documents starting from the very point Christians started to become aware of Islam (which was largely in the conquests after Muhammad’s death). It is important to understand that a large portion of these sources are aggressive, libelous, and/or uninformed. While there still is room for non-aggressive discussion of whether Muhammad’s ministry was sourced from sickness, skill, or deception, please recognize that all such conversations are speculative. Except for Muhammad’s actual corpse enshrined in Medina, we have no impartial evidence as to who Muhammad actually was. All of his known biographical details stem from sources interested in either advertising his character as exemplary or defaming him as evil.

Naturally, the way the Quran explains Muhammad’s ministry is by explaining that he is the latest continuation of a chain of prophets. The first 47 ayat are mostly centered around explaining the nature of prophethood, which also involves a good bit of divine flexing. Ayah 7 seems to assume that Muhammad’s audience is already familiar with prophets, for it calls upon Muhammad to ask the people what message these prophets carried. The surah also anticipates needing to correct false ideas of prophethood. There is a specific denial that any prophet would claim godhood or demi-godhood, and note that this denial is not being leveled at a specific community or prophet. We might expect it to be targeted at Christians, but Jesus hardly features in the material, and so there could be other cultures and religions targeted by these comments. Prophets are declared to be normal mortals who eat food, preach, live to see God’s declaration of judgement fulfilled, and die. All prophets are servants/slaves to God and obey His commands without independent will (ayat 26-27). They cannot intercede for anyone except those of whom God approves. All prophets are declared to have been preaching Islamic theology. The text never says such as concisely, but it does say that Muhammad’s message is the same message as prior prophets’ and contextualizes this with sermons on monotheistic worship and the judgement/resurrection.

Meet the Prophets

Today’s surah presents quite a listing of characters, though please note that the list doesn’t include all the prophets mentioned in the Quran. In fact, there is debate as to whether all the characters mentioned are prophets per se, with a few traditionally being categorized as righteous individuals. I don’t usually like presenting you with summaries, preferring that you read the material directly (which you should do, as I’m not going to breakdown these stories and you’ll miss out), but there are several things it is easier for me to point out if I collate the cameos into a concise list.

  • Moses and Aaron
    • Mentioned as a precedent for Muhammad’s prophethood
  • Abraham
    • Destroyed tribe’s idols as a youth
    • Saved from execution-by-fire
    • Delivered to a blessed land along with Lot
  • Isaac and Jacob
    • Leaders of their community
    • Inspired in matters of charity and worship
  • Lot
    • Given divine wisdom
    • Saved from wicked people
  • Noah
    • Prayed to be saved from The Flood and the people who denied his prophethood
  • David and Solomon
    • Wise judges, with specific reference made to them settling a matter of trespassing sheep
    • God taught David how to make protective coats of armor
    • Solomon granted control over the wind, and he sent it toward a land God had blessed (this could possibly be a metaphorical way of saying Solomon conquered/expanded the Promised Land)
    • Solomon also commanded some satans as laborers for [pearl] diving and other tasks
  • Job
    • Suffered and still praised God, thus was rewarded
  • Ishmael, Idriis, Dhul-Kifl
    • Were patient
  • Man of the fish
    • Abandoned his ministry in anger, was punished by God and repented, was then saved from punishment
  • Zechariah
    • Nuclear family (i.e. John the Baptist and fulfilled wife) given to Zechariah as answer to prayer
  • The one who guarded her chastity
    • had a son through God’s spirit (the text does not directly say Gabriel)

So one thing, the prophets are not listed in strictly chronological order, but rather the Quran meanders through them according to its own stream of thought. Several of the prophets are grouped together by their themes, and I particularly thought it was interesting where Ishmael was placed. In the Bible, Ishmael has the paradoxical identity of being a son of Abraham but not a Hebrew. Being a Hebrew involved inheriting Abraham’s covenantal promise from God, and Ishmael was given a different legacy. The same thing seems to happen here, as Ishmael is not grouped with Abraham’s Hebrew progeny (Isaac and Jacob) but instead appears later with the characters Idriis and Dhul-Kifl. These latter characters are linked in Muslim tradition to Enoch and Ezekiel respectively, but textual evidence for this link doesn’t exist in the Quran. (Inasmuch as I could find, for I searched for their names and couldn’t find any Quranic stories about them.) I speculate that these three appearing together is evidence of them being understood as Arab characters, since Ishmael is traditionally credited with founding the Arab identity, and that the traditional linkage of these Arab-named characters to Biblical characters happened later as Muslims sought to tie in more Biblical lore.

For another thing, until Zechariah and Mary, none of the Hebrew characters are exact to their biblical versions. I’m not saying that they are very different, but they are still quite different. Lot is wise and Noah persecuted. Job is represented as being rewarded for praising God in hardship, which undermines the majority content of the Book of Job. Jonah approximates his Biblical portrayal but this surah leaves him in a state of reconciliation with God. David invents armor and Solomon becomes a supernatural conqueror with control over some of the satans. Abraham’s lengthy story comes not from the Bible but from an old middrash aggadah, and I find it conspicuous that it is this story that is the most fidelitous to its older form.

And lastly, I wanted to note that Mary is included in a list of prophets, and that her mention gets more attention than her son’s. She is not a named character in this list (neither is Jonah) but rather her identity is defined by her vigilant chastity. Mary’s ambiguous contribution to Islamic feminism continues.

Why are They Mentioned?

Unlike the other times we’ve had prophets listed and summarized, the prophetic cameos in Al-Anbiyyaa’ don’t seem to be mentioned to affirm Muhammad’s prophethood. While our other cycles of early prophets have portrayed messianic figures facing resistance –story arcs that translate forward to reflect upon Muhammad’s own situation– most of these prophets are being described by elements that make them distinct and lack story arcs. Many of them even lack messianic purpose. Muhammad did not escape a flood, shatter idols (yet), be miraculously saved from a death penalty, invent armor, conquer land (yet), receive male heirs upon request, or abandon his ministry in anger. So while this gallery of prophetic figures tells of a continual and diverse prophetic presence in the world, its cameos do not relate to or affirm Muhammad’s ministry except through the broadest strokes of prophethood. In fact, that most of the stories feature miraculous elements (but with almost no mention in the narratives of those miracles not being received) potentially undermines Muhammad’s claim to being the latest of this chain of prophethood.

I don’t perceive in these stories a strong redactive purpose. There is the natural contradiction in that the Quran’s protagonists are paragons while the Bible’s are inherently flawed beings, however it doesn’t feel like the Quran is making an effort to assert this difference. When I sensed that Moses and Aaron’s stories were being redacted in Al-ʕaraaf, that was because I saw the Quran taking considerable time and space to show us its redacted versions. This surah is telling –not showing– us the virtues of its protagonists. For example, the most contradictory portrayal of a character form his Biblical appearance is King Solomon. 1 Chronicles 22:6-10, David is banned from building the Temple because he is a warrior whose career was defined by bloodshed, and so the task is given to Solomon since God has promised Solomon a peaceful reign. Let’s say the surah wanted to deny that militant action jeapordized religious legacy, and that God did not mind having his temple associated with a warrior leader (indeed, this would be relevant to Muhammad’s ministry). If this surah had redactive intent, it would’ve been more elaborate in describing Solomon’s military career, maybe including story of Solomon receiving orders from God to build the temple as reward for his great leadership, including his warfare. Instead, the surah just posits that Solomon was miraculous and militant. Rather than forcing contradiction, it seems to more be assuming that these details are part and parcel of being an epically wonderful king. These details are so simply posited that they don’t seem to be expecting quarrel from their audience.

I haven’t said this before, but it needs to be mentioned: that these protagonists are being denied flaws is also not a habit exclusive to the Quran. There is a natural desire for people to want to see the founders of their heritage as righteous people. After all, if we inherited our beliefs from flawed people, who’s to say that those beliefs aren’t flawed too? In America, our founding fathers are often whitewashed –or at least their flaws are downplayed– and some Americans react rather poorly to that whitewash being scraped through. Religious adherents likewise like to whitewash or ignore the faults of their founders in our traditions and portrayals of them. This can be found even in Christian scriptures, with 2 Peter 4-7 thrusting more upright prophetic identities upon Noah and Lot than actually exist in Genesis. From the skeptical point of view, there is a chance that Muhammad is echoing traditional views of these characters as he reveals the Quran, and that he hasn’t yet found the deep cut of disturbing or theologically distressing stories that need redaction. But even without this whitewashing tradition, Islam has greater investment in needing to see near-perfection in its foundational figures in order to defend the purity of God’s instructions. Since the Quran’s authority is derived from being as pure a product of God as Earth can hope for, Islam becomes a little more invested than other religions in having its characters be paragons who would have no inclination to bungle divine revelation.

So why are these stories being mentioned? If not to point to Muhammad, and if not to redact Judeo-Christian scriptures, then why? Well, I think one big reason is simply to name drop. Though this surah is identified as Meccan and Muhammad’s majority audience would have been pagan, I still insist that the pagans would be able to recognize Judeo-Christian characters. These people were international tradesman and mercenaries, after all, and there were Jewish and Christian communities throughout the Arabian peninsula. This list of prophets connects Muhammad to these communities and gives him a heritage. He can deny objections that the religion he’s teaching is new, but rather claim that it is very old –the original faith. In other suwar, we have heard that the pagans object to abandoning their religion because it was a rich heritage from their ancestors. With this list of prophets, Muhammad is likewise claiming a rich heritage that can compete with the pagans’.


This surah provides more Muhammad with a heritage of many ancient and colorful exemplars. Yet it also highlights the awkward fact that Muhammad’s ministry is very plain in comparison with his claimed predecessors. Particularly when you look at Muhammad’s Meccan experience, he had accomplished almost nothing prophetic. He had no miracles. He had no conquests. He only had a message that was unpopular with the establishment. The most extraordinary thing about Muhammad’s ministry at this point is that he should have started it at all.

The pagans are challenged to prove their religion too, and we can speculate that their hands were just as empty given that the surah does not take time to deny any presentation. At least in other places where the Quran has challenged the pagans to produce a surah, it also takes time to dismiss that their resulting suwar are sufficient. It doesn’t even do that here. Without any confirming miracles on their end, we can notice that Muhammad did have this advantage in the public sight: his beliefs jeopardized his secure place in society, whereas his opponents were only maintaining a status quo that profited themselves. Someone taking loss for their beliefs testifies much better than when someone maintains an advantageous status quo through theirs.

What is interesting is that in this particular surah there is no defense of Muhammad’s lack of miracles at all. Other suwar go out of their way to describe miracles as futile in changing the hearts of disbelievers, but not this one. Instead, we get this quote in ayah 6: “Not a [single] city which We destroyed believed before them, so will they believe?” Notice the sample group of this sentence: those who were destroyed. Mecca is not being linked to communities who were preached to –communities who have the potential to go either way– but is rather being linked to communities already destroyed. This surah assumes that Mecca will be destroyed and that the main body of Meccans will not believe –for that is just part and parcel of their fated destruction. With this certainty implied in the surah, the destruction seems to be much sooner than the general “end of the world.” Muhammad doesn’t have a miracle –yet– but the surah warns them: don’t be hasty.

Just noting this as I still try and find poetic mechanisms in the Quran. Every ayah in this surah ends with either -iin, -uun, or -iim. This is not hard to accomplish in Arabic since -iin and -uun are plural endings for words that keep their original form when they become plural (ex. muslim becomes muslimiin/muslimuun), and -uun is also the ending for plural masculine verbs in the present tense (ex: “they believe” is yu’minuun). Thus they are very common syllables. Three of the five times -iim closes a verse is through the name Ibrahiim. There is no sequence to how these endings appear, nor can I find a metrical system for the verses. This light rhyming trend is similar to the one we saw in Al-Fatiha.

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