Narrations about the prophets are among the most important elements in the Qur’an. We shall examine the characteristics common to all prophets and some of the related themes that graphically illustrate the significance of their lives and roles as recipients of divine revelation. Examination of one of these themes and essential characteristics may blow you away.
This examination shall refer to the Qur’an as the source, to determine what Allah Himself (glory to Him in the highest) “highlighted,” using structure and repetitions characteristic of the Qur’an, and what He included in Qur’anic descriptions of the prophets. Some of these characteristics are obvious or are clearly defined in the Quran, undisputed, and need no explanation.
Those characteristics would be:
1) Each prophet was given a message from Allah to deliver to his people. The message could be in the form of a book, as with the Quran, the Injeel (Gospel), or the Torah (Towra in Arabic transliteration — transliterations vary because the original Arabic letters often have no English equivalent in sound, so these are approximations). It could also be an oral/ verbal message. In the case of Noah (Nooh), the oral message was physically supplemented by the building of the ark, both a means of survival of the coming flood, and a symbol of Allah’s protection and the truth of His revelations regarding the future.
2) The message of each prophet was delivered by the archangel Jibreel (Gabriel).
3) Each prophet had signs or miracles associated with their prophecy, and Prophet Mohammad, the final prophet, was given only one miracle: the Quran, the final divine revelation given in the form of a book, protected from human intervention or adulteration, and unchanged.
4) Each prophet had to go away from his community to a place where he was alone in order to receive the message. He was also required to purify himself in some way.
5) Each prophet had father-son issues. More will be explained below regarding this point.
6) Many prophets, especially the major ones, had to undergo a sort of rebirth, symbolically and/or literally (in the sense of undergoing a transformation, not literally dying and being reborn). More on this is also explained below.
7) Each prophet had to fight against a community or people who had established a religion, way of life, or system (with which they ruled or conducted their lives), which was against Allah’s religion or way/ system in some way. Each prophet was therefore scorned, rejected, harmed, threatened, or even killed by his own people, and endured many difficulties. Some suffered different additional difficulties. Each prophet’s signs or miracles were given by Allah as a means of helping demonstrate to the people that he was indeed bringing a message from a higher power: The Highest Power, and to show that his authority to guide came from the Highest Source. The Jews were a unique case, having been sent many messengers/ prophets to confirm prior revelations (books) and reaffirm their faith, among other things. Prophet Mohammad was unique in that he was sent to all people.
The most frequently and extensively mentioned prophet in the Qur’an is Prophet Moses (Moosa), whose life exemplifies the highly symbolic characteristics of prophets’ lives.
From the time he was born, death loomed over his horizon, and he certainly had prominent father and father-figure conflicts and separations. Which is the first common characteristic of the prophets I will discuss: father-son separations and conflicts. Even before he was born, Moses’ (Moosa’s) father died. At the same time, the Pharaoh of Egypt, his country of birth, was demanding that all sons born to the children of Israel (as a nation, not only direct descendants of Israel, also known as Prophet Yaqub or Jacob) in every other year be killed. Moses (Moosa) was born in the year of child-slaughter (his elder brother Haroon or Aaron having been born in the child-sparing year), and in those days, news of the birth of a son was not something one could hide from the Pharaoh’s henchmen. But Allah had already chosen Moses (Moosa) to be His prophet and messenger. Therefore He communicated to Moosa’s mother how to save her son, by putting him in a reed basket/ark that would float down the Nile under Allah’s watch. Imagine the heart-rending difficulty of that request. Which was a no-brainer when compared to the imminent and assured slaughter of her own son. Moosa had a sister who also followed the little watercraft and was very concerned about the infant’s fate.
Under Allah’s guidance, the infant washed ashore on the banks of the Pharaoh’s palace, where a servant discovered him and brought him to Pharaoh’s wife, who herself became, notably, a faithful believing woman. She instantly felt love for him and took baby Moosa in as if her own child, as she could not bear children herself. Moosa was carried under Allah’s watch alone through water to the family of Pharaoh, who adopted him. The Pharaoh refused to consider the child except as someone his wife liked, so let her have what she wanted.
Note that this is a rebirth, the first of several rebirths in Moosa’s life. His new father, in spite of that “father’s” will, is the Pharaoh. Each rebirth is signified by a passage through a water-related channel where death is imminent but is held off (by Allah). Alhough Pharaoh considered Moosa as an adopted child, and allowed his wife to take care of him as her own, they did not get along. When Moosa refused all attempts by other women to breastfeed him, Pharaoh’s wife sent for all nursing women to come and attempt to feed him. Moosa’s mother responded — finally, infant Moosa accepted breastfeeding, from his real mother — and thus mother and child were reunited, while keeping their true relationship, and his origins, a secret.
Similarities to other prophets already have appeared. The prophet Yousef (Joseph), son of Yaqub (Jacob), also experienced a rebirth after being removed from his father as a child by his jealous brothers who wanted to kill him. He was reborn from a well, another place of water, after having been left there by his brothers to die, but under the watch of Allah alone. Travelers brought him out of the well and he was taken to, ultimately… a Pharaoh’s palace! There he was raised up in a new and separate existence, enduring a prison term that ended up being about nine years — note, like the period of human gestation — from which he emerged in a place of honor, able to put his conniving, jealous brothers in a position of weakness, and be joyfully reunited with his heartbroken father and one sympathetic brother.
The themes of near-death, passage through a place of water, separation from father, gestation and rebirth in a place of honor are clear in both narratives, of prophets Yusuf and Moosa. And as for the Pharaoh father figure’s death threat to the future prophet Moosa, one is reminded of prophet Ismail, whose father Ibrahim (Abraham) saw a dream which was interpreted as Allah’s command that he slaughter his own son! Then Allah replaced his son with a lamb at the last minute, thus saving his son’s life. But first prophet Ibraheem had to surrender to Allah’s will to commit the ultimate betrayal of a father to his son, by killing him — except that here the “killing” was ritual slaughter in the same way that ritual animal slaughter was performed as a part of Allah’s religion.
Importantly, Ismail was, as related in the Quran, a willing participant in the sacrifice, stating that he would be “patient” with God’s will, even offering encouragement to his father that since this is God’s will, he is absolutely ready and willing and his father should not feel bad about it. This is in stark contrast to the Biblical and Hebraic versions where the son — a different son in these versions, Isaac (Is’haq in Arabic) — is not a willing participant but rather is bound to the altar, and even unaware that the sacrifice is to be of himself until the last minute. In the Quranic version, both father and son mutually agree to submit to this act requested by Allah to show their absolute faith in Allah’s goodness even when it doesn’t look good. Their faith was rewarded: it was only a test.
Since the crucial issue here is father-son conflict (here resolved by Allah), we will examine that aspect in the Quran. Here the father is a prophet and hence shows no animosity towards his son. But in the case of prophet Ibraheem’s father, the latter was an idolator who literally had his son burned at the stake — but Allah ordered the fire to be “cold and peaceful on Ibraheem,” which effectively prevented burning and saved Ibraheem’s life. The difference between this story and that of Ismail and his father is quite different, except that both involve a father killing his son and only Allah intervening to save the son. Ibraheem’s rebellion against his father’s religion was in fact a quest for truth as he, by a process of elimination and logical consideration (told in the Quran), freely chose to set a new path and reject the nonsense religion of his family.
Similarly, we have the prophet Moosa whose figurative “father” was going to kill him except that Allah alone arranged for his escape from death — and return to that same father-figure. That stepfather was, of course, the Pharaoh.
Later in life, prophet Moosa escaped from a second attempt by that father-figure to kill him and his people. That would be the well-known event in which the prophet Moosa (Moses) led his people (nation), the “children of Israel” (Yaqub or Jacob was also called Israel), across the Red Sea out of Egypt toward the promised land. The Quran describes this event, how Moosa used his “stick” or cane — which he used for various purposes (not for assistance in walking) and which Allah transformed into a means of performing miracles — with the will and power of Allah he invoked, to part the Red Sea in a miraculous way. The Quran describes the sea as parting into two “walls” on either side of a path of literally dry land which Prophet Moosa and his people crossed to safety on the other side, Pharaoh’s army in pursuit. Once Moosa and his people reached the other side, Pharaoh’s army were in the middle of the path, chasing, when suddenly, the walls of water crashed down and drowned Pharaoh and his army. The Quran describes how Pharaoh, seeing his life over, called upon Allah, saying that he now believed in the God of Moosa (Moses) and Haroon (Aaron), hoping for forgiveness, but it was too late. Note that the escape route was a miraculously created path directly through water, a spectacular rebirth, and consistent with the water passageways of Moosa’s other “rebirths.”
Backtracking a moment, Prophet Moosa first left the Pharaoh in a less spectacular way, escaping from Egypt because he had killed an Egyptian man in the heat of an argument and was therefore “wanted.” Details of his travels out of Egypt are not revealed, but it is revealed that he came to a place called “Madyan” where he met two young unmarried women who were waiting in line to draw water from a well. Shepherds were giving water to their sheep, causing the women to wait for a very long time to get water, so Moosa came to their defense, and drew the water for them from the well and carried it also for them. This impressed them and their father, a believing and faithful man, who offered one of his daughter’s hands in marriage, with the caveat that Moosa stay and work for him for 8 or 10 years as he liked. He chose the shorter period, but a midway point would be nine months, the human gestation period. Note also that he met the women at a place of water, and after that his rebirth as a prophet, which was a huge and transformational event, took place.
When that “gestation” period ended, Moosa went with his wife (and family perhaps, but no family was mentioned) to a place away from Madyan where he saw fire in the distance and went towards it to take some of it to his family and give them warmth and light. But when he reached the light, he was terrified when the voice of Allah spoke to him directly, making him perform miracles by Allah’s will, by empowering his stick and also by making his hand turn white and glowing when he would put it in his pocket and remove it. Then Moosa was ordered to return to the Pharaoh “for he has gone way beyond his limits in evil and aggression” (a very wordy translation of one Arabic word) and bring him the message of God, to stop these horrible acts and fear Allah. Moosa had been transformed into a prophet. So Prophet Moosa was first sent to the Pharaoh, but also to the children of Israel whom Pharaoh enslaved and oppressed. Their delivery across the Red Sea was literally the rebirth of a nation.
There is so much more, but here we have touched on the characteristic of father-son conflict that frequently occurs in the Quran. In the case of the Prophet Aissa (Jesus), this was taken to another level, Jesus, having been born without a father at all! This shows another side of the significance of the virgin birth — the absence of a father.
Even Jesus’ mother, Maryam (Mary), had no father (her father was deceased), as related in the Quran. Her mother asks Allah to grant her daughter faith and wisdom and right guidance, saying “the female is not like the male.” She is then raised by her uncle Zakaraya (Zacharaiah) who takes note of her faith and purity. Allah selects her to bear and deliver Aissa (Jesus) — whose birth itself is miraculous and yet also difficult as his mother endures ostracization from her community and must deliver him alone. The creation of Aissa is by a word — kun, “be!”. Which is one of the reasons Aissa is called “Word”.
Aissa (Jesus) also speaks (as an adult would) while only an infant immediately after birth: a miracle symbolizing the Word or message replacing the father! He is literally born a prophet, his first job, successfully accomplished, being to defend his mother, an infant telling people of his own prophesy. By not having a father and by being instead “fathered” by Allah’s word, Aissa, as a sign or example, symbolically shows us something about the father (authority)/ son (inheritor and future generation) issue. In this case, there was no father. And yet, there was also no problem with that — except in the minds of those who presumed Maryam had committed adultery. The Quran does not mention “Joseph” the supposed “betrothed” of Maryam (Mary), but on the contrary no such person exists. Maryam endures the family’s ridicule by fasting from speech for three days, during which time the infant Jesus (Aissa) speaks for her. Clearly, that made an impression.
Briefly, there was also conflict of sorts between Prophet David (Dawood) and his son Solomon (Suleiman), in which Solomon corrected his father’s incorrect judgement in a dispute. Although prophet Yusuf (Joseph) and his father loved one another, the jealousy of Yusuf’s brothers brought about the separation of father and son that appears in most of the histories of the prophets.
So why is this father-son conflict so central? It was, as an aside, also a feature of heroes in Greek hero myths. But the reason goes beyond this conflict being a central part of human existence. In Allah’s way (religion), breaking with “tradition” as a mere repetition of generations’ choices, is extremely important for maintaining high morals and just law. Rebellion, in a sense, when done for Good, is an essential part of religion, of faith, of Islam, of surrender to Allah alone. The prophets did not “walk in their father’s footaeps” but rather forged new paths. This is, if you think about it, essential for survival. Each generation faces a changed and different world from that of their parents, and the same judgments that worked for the parents may not be applicable to the son’s era. Change and development are essential to human survival and improvement of his lot. Therefore, all the prophets had to be original and free thinkers, not followers of inherited ideas.
Understanding this first and critical characteristic of the prophets is also very important in understanding Islam, of what it means to surrender to Allah, not humankind. It is humans who have twisted the message of the Quran and invented an almost unrecognizable religion going by the name Islam. But by studying the Quran in the spirit of the prophets, free-thinkers and liberators, not constrained and nervous micromanagers of an inherited “tradition,” we can regain that original path sent with the Quran, the path not of mindless brutality and self-serving idolatrous slave mentality, but of compassion, the rule of law, justice, and faith in a Supreme Power who is not like anything created, not human-like at all, but beyond our sensual “visualization,” not “like” anything, but rather a compelling power challenging us to be our best selves, free and rational yet also reverent and responsible. Prophet Mohammad, an orphan, was sent the Quran to “confirm” all the revelations that came before, to guide humankind to peace, compassion, and higher intellect. To reach that goal, we must, like the prophets, question “tradition” and inherited dogma, use our minds, and especially free ourselves from the dictates of self-appointed authority figures whose interest is maintaining their power and the status quo, not our best interest, and not necessarily justice. And the Quran is the best source of guidance when read and understood in that spirit.