The Quran distinguishes between a prophet (nabi) and a messenger (rasool).
Prophet / Nabi
The term nabi / نَّبِيِّ comes from the root ن ب ا which has the following derivative meanings in the Quran: to inform, information, news, and prophecy in addition to prophet and prophethood. Therefore a prophet has obtained new information. Throughout the Quran, we see that only prophets (nabi) are given (ata / آتَيْ ) this new information in the form of kitab (scripture – specific words from God to be shared with others).
Some individuals consider that kitab must be in the written form e.g. ink and paper, but what makes kitab (scripture) is not defined by the medium used. What makes kitab (scripture) is that it is the direct words from the Creator. Unlike other forms of revelation from God (e.g. wahi, ruh, ayat) which can come in the forms of inspiration, a sign, or a vision, and require the individual who received these revelations having to articulate its meaning in their own words, this is not the case for kitab. So whether kitab is transmitted orally or written on tablets, papyrus, paper, electronically or any other form imaginable is irrelevant as long as it is capable of transmitting the literal words of God.
Messenger / Rasool
The term rasool / رَسُول comes from the root ر س ل which has the derivative meaning in the Quran as either to send or a messenger. Therefore the function of the messenger is to deliver the message.
So this means that when an individual is given (ata / آتَيْ) direct words from God then they are acting in the capacity of a prophet, but when they are disseminating that information to others then they are acting in the capacity of a messenger. This also shows that every prophet by default is a messenger. This is because no prophet was given a kitab, the literal words of God, who did not share the words of God as a messenger.
This is why you see the expression رَسُولًا نَبِيًّا (messenger, prophet) used twice in the Quran, but you will not see نَبِيًّا رَسُولًا (prophet, messenger). This is because prophet supersedes messenger as not all messengers are prophets, but all prophets are messengers.
[19:51] Mention in the scripture Moses. He was devoted, and he was a messenger prophet.
وَاذْكُرْ فِي الْكِتَابِ مُوسَىٰ إِنَّهُ كَانَ مُخْلَصًا وَكَانَ رَسُولًا نَبِيًّا
[19:54] And mention in the scripture Ismail. He was truthful when he made a promise, and he was a messenger prophet.
وَاذْكُرْ فِي الْكِتَابِ إِسْمَاعِيلَ إِنَّهُ كَانَ صَادِقَ الْوَعْدِ وَكَانَ رَسُولًا نَبِيًّا
In verses 19:51 and 19:54 God calls Moses and Ismail “Wa kana Rasoula Nabiyan” or messenger, prophet. In plain English, Moses and Ismail were messengers who were also prophets.
This expression is chosen by God to emphasize that every prophet is a messenger, but every messenger may not be a prophet. Nowhere, in the Quran the opposite expression “prophet messenger” or “Nabiyan Rasoula” has been used.
Some will make the claim that “Messenger Prophet” means that all messengers are prophets; God has the answer in the following verses that the messenger is a subset of prophet. This is further reinforced in 19:56 where the expression “Wakana Siddiqan Nabiya” which translates to “he was a saint, prophet. While all prophets (nabi) are “Saddiq”, however all “Saddiq” are not prophets.
Similarly, in verses 17:93,94, we find the expression “Bashara (human) Rasula”, a human who is also a messenger, but not every human is a messenger.
[17:93] “Or unless you own a luxurious mansion, or unless you climb into the sky. Even if you do climb, we will not believe unless you bring a book that we can read.”* Say, “Glory be to my Lord. Am I any more than a human messenger?“
أَوْ يَكُونَ لَكَ بَيْتٌ مِنْ زُخْرُفٍ أَوْ تَرْقَىٰ فِي السَّمَاءِ وَلَنْ نُؤْمِنَ لِرُقِيِّكَ حَتَّىٰ تُنَزِّلَ عَلَيْنَا كِتَابًا نَقْرَؤُهُ قُلْ سُبْحَانَ رَبِّي هَلْ كُنْتُ إِلَّا بَشَرًا رَسُولًا
[17:94] What prevented the people from believing when the guidance came to them, is their saying, “Did GOD send a human messenger?”
وَمَا مَنَعَ النَّاسَ أَنْ يُؤْمِنُوا إِذْ جَاءَهُمُ الْهُدَىٰ إِلَّا أَنْ قَالُوا أَبَعَثَ اللَّهُ بَشَرًا رَسُولًا
And in verse 17:95, we find, “Malaka (angel) Rasula”, an angel who is also a messenger, but not every angel is a messenger.
[17:95] Say, “If the earth were inhabited by angels, we would have sent down to them from the sky an angel messenger.”
قُلْ لَوْ كَانَ فِي الْأَرْضِ مَلَائِكَةٌ يَمْشُونَ مُطْمَئِنِّينَ لَنَزَّلْنَا عَلَيْهِمْ مِنَ السَّمَاءِ مَلَكًا رَسُولًا
What Was Adam?
Despite nowhere in the Quran explicitly identifying Adam as a prophet or messenger, we can evaluate what God informed us of Adam and our understanding of the meanings of rasul (messenger) and nabi (prophet) to determine if either of these terms apply to Adam.
The first time we are introduced to Adam in the Quran is the following verse, where we are informed that Adam was given specific names directly from God.
[2:31] He taught Adam all the names then presented them to the angels, saying, “Give Me the names of these, if you are right.”
وَعَلَّمَ آدَمَ الْأَسْمَاءَ كُلَّهَا ثُمَّ عَرَضَهُمْ عَلَى الْمَلَائِكَةِ فَقَالَ أَنْبِئُونِي بِأَسْمَاءِ هَٰؤُلَاءِ إِنْ كُنْتُمْ صَادِقِينَ
What else is worth pointing out is that God is asking the angels to “Give Me the names of these, if you are truthful ones (sadageen).” Interesting enough the term sadageen can be understood as “truthful ones” but also as someone who confirms a thing as true. Consistently, in the Quran we see that sadag is paired with the function of a messenger (rasul), because a messenger is confirming the scripture, kitab – the words of God.
[2:101] Now that a messenger from GOD has come to them, and even though he proves and confirms their own scripture, some followers of the scripture (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) disregard GOD’s scripture behind their backs, as if they never had any scripture.
وَلَمَّا جَاءَهُمْ رَسُولٌ مِنْ عِنْدِ اللَّهِ مُصَدِّقٌ لِمَا مَعَهُمْ نَبَذَ فَرِيقٌ مِنَ الَّذِينَ أُوتُوا الْكِتَابَ كِتَابَ اللَّهِ وَرَاءَ ظُهُورِهِمْ كَأَنَّهُمْ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ
[61:6] Recall that Jesus, son of Mary, said, “O Children of Israel, I am GOD’s messenger to you, confirming the Torah and bringing good news of a messenger to come after me whose name will be even more praised (Ahmad).” Then, when he showed them the clear proofs, they said, “This is profound magic.”
وَإِذْ قَالَ عِيسَى ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ يَابَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ إِنِّي رَسُولُ اللَّهِ إِلَيْكُمْ مُصَدِّقًا لِمَا بَيْنَ يَدَيَّ مِنَ التَّوْرَاةِ وَمُبَشِّرًا بِرَسُولٍ يَأْتِي مِنْ بَعْدِي اسْمُهُ أَحْمَدُ فَلَمَّا جَاءَهُمْ بِالْبَيِّنَاتِ قَالُوا هَٰذَا سِحْرٌ مُبِينٌ
If we continue, we see in the following verse that God commanded Adam to “inform” the angels of these specific names that God taught him.
[2:33] He said, “O Adam, tell them their names.” When he told them their names, He said, “Did I not tell you that I know the secrets of the heavens and the earth? I know what you declare, and what you conceal.”
قَالَ يَاآدَمُ أَنْبِئْهُمْ بِأَسْمَائِهِمْ فَلَمَّا أَنْبَأَهُمْ بِأَسْمَائِهِمْ قَالَ أَلَمْ أَقُلْ لَكُمْ إِنِّي أَعْلَمُ غَيْبَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَأَعْلَمُ مَا تُبْدُونَ وَمَا كُنْتُمْ تَكْتُمُونَ
This is particularly interesting that in the previous verse Adam was taught specific names by God (2:31). Then in the following verse we see Adam was commanded to literally “inform” the angles of these names (2:33). As mentioned above the word for “inform them” “أَنْبِئْهُمْ / anba-ahum” comes from the same root as the word nabi (prophet).
So Adam was given specific words from God, this makes Adam a nabi (prophet). Then he was asked to disseminate the information he was given to the angles and thus confirming what God taught him, which would make him a rasul (messenger).
Then additionally, we see that after Satan caused Adam to slip which caused his temporary exile to Earth where God gave Adam again “specific words” so that he can be redeemed.
[2:37] Then, Adam received from his Lord words, whereby He redeemed him. He is the Redeemer, Most Merciful.
(٣٧) فَتَلَقَّىٰ آدَمُ مِنْ رَبِّهِ كَلِمَاتٍ فَتَابَ عَلَيْهِ إِنَّهُ هُوَ التَّوَّابُ الرَّحِيمُ
Since this was not ayat, ruh, or wahi, but instead specific words “kalamat” from God therefore again this would signify that Adam was a prophet (nabi), and unless someone thinks that he kept these words for himself, this would also constitute him as a messenger (rasul) when he shared these words with others.