In the Quran, the term nabi (نَبِي) is typically translated as prophet, while rasool (رَسُول) is translated as messenger. As stated in previous articles, a prophet is given (āta / آتَيْ) scripture (kitab / كِتَاب), which are direct verbatim words from God. While a messenger sends and confirms an existing message from God.
Another way to think of this is that when a person is receiving direct words from God they are acting in the capacity of a prophet, but when they are sending the message to others they are acting in the capacity of a messenger. The verse that best articulates this distinction can be found in 3:81.
[3:81] GOD took a covenant from the prophets, saying, “I will give you the scripture and wisdom. Afterwards, a messenger will come to confirm all existing scriptures. You shall believe in him and support him.” He said, “Do you agree with this, and pledge to fulfill this covenant?” They said, “We agree.” He said, “You have thus borne witness, and I bear witness along with you.”
وَإِذْ أَخَذَ اللَّهُ مِيثَاقَ النَّبِيِّينَ لَمَا آتَيْتُكُمْ مِنْ كِتَابٍ وَحِكْمَةٍ ثُمَّ جَاءَكُمْ رَسُولٌ مُصَدِّقٌ لِمَا مَعَكُمْ لَتُؤْمِنُنَّ بِهِ وَلَتَنْصُرُنَّهُ قَالَ أَأَقْرَرْتُمْ وَأَخَذْتُمْ عَلَىٰ ذَٰلِكُمْ إِصْرِي قَالُوا أَقْرَرْنَا قَالَ فَاشْهَدُوا وَأَنَا مَعَكُمْ مِنَ الشَّاهِدِينَ
If we look at the roots of these words their meanings become even more clear. For instance, the word (rasool) رَسُول comes from the root ر س ل which has the derivative meaning to send, like in the word أَرْسَلَ (arsala).
Nabi, on the other hand, comes from the root ن ب ا, which has the derivative meaning to inform or news, like in the words أَنْبَاءِ / anbāi and نَبِّئْ / nabbi. This signifies that nabi is the recipient of the new information from God.
But if we go further, we see the original etymology of the word nabi dates back to the 1st millennium BC and the Babylonians. Nabu was the name given to the deity who was considered the god of scribes, literacy, and more specifically writing. His symbol included a stylus resting on a tablet. This further confirms the connection between nabi and scripture, as nabi are the ones who receive scripture – written words they were given by God.
The typical push back to this argument is the false understanding that Muhammad was illiterate and could not read and write, and allocated the crucial task of transcribing the Quran to his companions. This topic was covered in previous articles, but for the sake of this conversation let’s look at the following facts.
In Sura 96 of the Quran, we see the following commandment given by God to Muhammad.
[96:1] Read, in the name of your Lord, who created. [96:2] He created man from an embryo. [96:3] Read, and your Lord, Most Exalted. [96:4] Teaches by means of the pen. [96:5] He teaches man what he never knew.
This commandment clearly tells Muhammad to read. Secondly, it informs us that God teaches by means of the pen. Then in Sura 68, it clarifies that the function of the pen is to write.
[68:1] NuN, the pen, and what they (the people) write.
(١) نون وَالقَلَمِ وَما يَسطُرونَ
The following verse shows that the pen is a tool used to write the words of God.
[31:27] If all the trees on earth were made into pens, and the ocean supplied the ink, augmented by seven more oceans, the words of GOD would not run out. GOD is Almighty, Most Wise.
وَلَوْ أَنَّمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ مِنْ شَجَرَةٍ أَقْلَامٌ وَالْبَحْرُ يَمُدُّهُ مِنْ بَعْدِهِ سَبْعَةُ أَبْحُرٍ مَا نَفِدَتْ كَلِمَاتُ اللَّهِ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ
Furthermore, we see that even the disbelievers acknowledged that Muhammad was the one who was writing the Quran and that he was not illiterate.
[25:5] They also said, “Tales from the past that he wrote down; they were dictated to him day and night.”
(٥) وَقَالُوا أَسَاطِيرُ الْأَوَّلِينَ اكْتَتَبَهَا فَهِيَ تُمْلَىٰ عَلَيْهِ بُكْرَةً وَأَصِيلًا
The Quran acknowledges that Muhammad not only didn’t read the previous scriptures, but he did not “write them with his right hand”.
[29:48] You did not read the previous scriptures, nor did you write them with your right hand. In that case, the rejectors would have had reason to harbor doubts.
(٤٨) وَمَا كُنْتَ تَتْلُو مِنْ قَبْلِهِ مِنْ كِتَابٍ وَلَا تَخُطُّهُ بِيَمِينِكَ إِذًا لَارْتَابَ الْمُبْطِلُونَ
The significance of indicating the writing with the right hand becomes more apparent in the following verses where we are informed what would have happened to the prophet had he brought any other teachings other than what he was commanded. The verse informs us that God would have seized him by the right hand.
[69:44] Had he uttered any other teachings.
[69:45] We would have seized him by the right hand.
[69:46] We would have stopped the revelations to him.
[69:47] None of you could have helped him.
وَلَوْ تَقَوَّلَ عَلَيْنَا بَعْضَ الْأَقَاوِيلِ
لَأَخَذْنَا مِنْهُ بِالْيَمِينِ
ثُمَّ لَقَطَعْنَا مِنْهُ الْوَتِينَ
فَمَا مِنْكُمْ مِنْ أَحَدٍ عَنْهُ حَاجِزِينَ
So from these verses, we see that Muhammad not only could read and write but that he alone wrote the original Quran with his own right hand. This further reinforces the fact that a prophet is one who is given scripture – the direct words from God.