The Koran is the only book of revelation that includes within itself a theory of prophethood which includes other religions. There have always been (since the days of Adam) people inspired by Allah who urged their society to avoid destruction by turning away from its corrupt and unjust ways and turning to the One God who created all humans. The Koran mentions 25 prophets by name (most of them known to non-Muslims too) and Muslims believe there were one hundred twenty four thousand others, whose names are now unknown.
Of the 25 mentioned by name in the Koran only five revealed books of sacred scripture, and only Moses, David, Jesus and Muhammad revealed books of sacred scripture that are the bases for three religions that still flourish today.
According to the Koran, every nation in the world receives at least one prophet who speaks to it in its own language. However, one nation, the Children of Israel, has received a great many prophets. The Koran doesn’t explicitly tell us why so many prophets arose within the Children of Israel but a careful reading of the Koran reveals the answer.
This was what I learned from a profound and enlightening essay by Irfan Ahmad Kahn in a book entitled Jewish-Muslim Encounters edited by Charles Selengut (Paragon House 2001). The book is a collection of 11 papers given at a conference in Cordoba, Spain sponsored by the Inter-Religious Federation for World Peace.
Almost all prophets, according to Kahn, are like Hud who was sent to Ad or Salih who was sent to Thamud to warn them of their impending destruction due to their corrupt and immoral ways and to call them to repentance. However, the prophets of the Children of Israel are different.. First, Abraham is the only prophet we know of whose two sons, Isma’il and Ishaq, are also prophets. Indeed, Abraham’s grandson Ya’qub and great grandson Yusuf are also prophets. Thus starting with Abraham Allah established a family dynasty of prophets.
With Joseph and his brothers (the tribes) the extended family became the 12 tribes of Israel or as they are usually called the Children of Israel/Ya’qub. The Children of Israel were blessed with many prophets inviting them to stay firm in their faith to God; this is expressed in various places in the Qur’an “When death approached Ya’qub, he said to his sons, ‘Who will (you) worship after I am gone?’ They answered, ‘We will worship your God, the God of our forefathers, Abraham, Ishmael, Issac, the One God. Unto Him we will surrender ourselves.’” (2:132)
Second, when Moses/Musa is sent by Allah he comes not primarily to warn or rebuke the Children of Israel (his own people) but he is sent “to Pharaoh” ( 20:24, 51:38, 73:15 and 79:17), “to Pharaoh and his chiefs” (al-mala) (7:103, 10:75, 11:97, 23:46, and 43:46) “to Pharaoh and his people” (27:12). Musa is sent to Pharaoh to warn him of the destruction that will fall on Egypt if he doesn’t stop setting himself up as a God and doesn’t let the Children of Israel go free. Musa comes to rebuke Pharaoh and to rescue the Children of Israel.
Only when the Jewish nation is free from Egyptian bondage do they receive the Torah from God, by the hand of Moses without any mediation of an angel. This very enlightening essay by Irfan Ahmad Kahn stimulated me as a Reform Rabbi to realize that the evidence from the Qur’an shows that Islam praises the unique place of the Children of Israel among other nations as opposed to the accusations of some who blame the Qur’an as being antagonistic toward Jews.
From Abraham’s descendants comes a religious community based not just on belief but also on family and tribal ties. Converts to Judaism, who usually marry into the Jewish community, are like adopted children. This is why Judaism, although it welcomes converts from any people, has never engaged in a determined large scale missionary enterprise.
The principle that God makes a covenant with a whole people and not just with the faithful believers helps me understand a powerful verse in the Koran. At Sinai, when Allah gives the Jewish People the Torah, He makes a covenant with the Children of Israel. Allah raises the mountain above the whole people saying, “Hold firmly to what We have given you (the Torah) and remember what is in it.” (2:63) This same event is also described in the Midrash.
The whole nation’s fate stands under the shadow of mount Sinai, and this explains the miracle of all Israel agreeing to the covenant. This may be the reason why in Islamic tradition Musa is the only prophet whose book comes not from an angel but directly from Allah.
Individuals who hear a prophet may choose to believe or disbelieve, but when God Himself makes ‘an offer that you can’t refuse’, everyone is in for all generations to come, and then has to struggle with living up to the deal. The many prophets that address the Children of Israel are teachers and guides more than rebukers because the covenant between God and the Umma of b’nai Israel is for all generations.
Thus the covenant is not just for the community of the faithful; but for the whole community of Israel, which includes some whose hearts are like rocks that spring forth streams, while others only yield water when split, and others sink for fear of Allah.(2:74) It is this last segment of the Children of Israel that Prophet Muhammad refers to when he rebukes the Children of Israel.
The Koran correctly understood doesn’t attack all of Israel. Every community, including the Muslim umma contains groups of faithful believers and a party who disbelieve.
Rabbi Maller’s web site is: www.rabbimaller.com