The Incoherence and Incompleteness of the Quran:

Was Muhammad the Last Messenger?

Sam Shamoun

The Quran teaches that Muhammad is the seal of the prophets, with the implication being that he is the last prophet:

Muhammad is not the father of any man among you, but he is the messenger of Allah and the Seal of the Prophets; and Allah is ever Aware of all things. S. 33:40 Pickthall

Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but he is the Apostle of Allah and the Last of the prophets; and Allah is cognizant of all things. S. 33:40 Shakir

Note, however, that this verse does not say that he is the last messenger, or the seal of apostleship. That will become important in this discussion.

The Quran distinguishes between a messenger and a prophet:

Never did We send a Messenger or a Prophet before you, but; when he did recite the revelation or narrated or spoke, Shaitan (Satan) threw (some falsehood) in it. But Allah abolishes that which Shaitan (Satan) throws in. Then Allah establishes His Revelations. And Allah is All-Knower, All-Wise: S. 22:52 Al-Hilali & Khan

One of Islam’s premiere commentators named Al-Zamakhshari commented on the preceding passage:

We have never sent any messenger or prophet: (This) is a clear proof that a distinction exists between a messenger (rasul) and a prophet (nabi). (It is related) from the Prophet that he was asked about the prophets, whereupon he said: ‘(There are) one hundred and twenty-four thousand.’ When he was then asked how many messengers there were among them, he answered: ‘The great host of three hundred and thirteen.’ The distinction between the two is that a messenger is one of the prophets to whom, together with the verification miracle (mu‘jiza), the Book is sent down. A prophet, on the other hand, who is not a messenger, is one to whom no book is sent down, but who was commanded only to restrain the people on the basis of the earlier revealed law (shari‘a). (Helmut Gätje, The Qur'an and its Exegesis [Oneworld Publications, Oxford 1996], p. 54)

The Quran does not support al-Zamakhshari’s distinction between a messenger and a prophet. In fact, even though the Quran says that messengers were sent with the Book (cf. 40:70; 57:25) it also says that the prophets were given Scriptures to pass on:

(All) people are a single nation; so Allah raised PROPHETS as bearers of good news and as warners, and He revealed WITH THEM THE BOOK WITH TRUTH, that it might judge between people in that in which they differed; and none but the very people who were given it differed about it after clear arguments had come to them, revolting among themselves; so Allah has guided by His will those who believe to the truth about which they differed and Allah guides whom He pleases to the right path. S. 2:213 Shakir

That is Our argument. We gave it unto Abraham against his folk. We raise unto degrees of wisdom whom We will. Lo! thy Lord is Wise, Aware. And We bestowed upon him Isaac and Jacob; each of them We guided; and Noah did We guide aforetime; and of his seed (We guided) David and Solomon and Job and Joseph and Moses and Aaron. Thus do We reward the good. And Zachariah and John and Jesus and Elias. Each one (of them) was of the righteous. And Ishmael and Elisha and Jonah and Lot. Each one (of them) did We prefer above (Our) creatures, With some of their forefathers and their offspring and their brethren; and We chose them and guided them unto a straight path. Such is the guidance of Allah wherewith He guideth whom He will of His bondmen. But if they had set up (for worship) aught beside Him, (all) that they did would have been vain. Those are they unto whom We gave the Scripture and command and prophethood. But if these disbelieve therein, then indeed We shall entrust it to a people who will not be disbelievers therein. S. 6:83-89 Pickthall

And WE bestowed on him Isaac and Jacob, and WE placed Prophethood and the Book among his descendants, and WE gave him his reward in this life, and in the Hereafter he will, surely, be among the righteous. S. 29:27 Sher Ali

And certainly We gave the Book and the wisdom and the prophecy to the children of Israel, and We gave them of the goodly things, and We made them excel the nations. S. 45:16 Shakir

And We verily sent Noah and Abraham and placed the prophethood and the scripture among their seed, and among them there is he who goeth right, but many of them are evil-livers. S. 57:26 Pickthall

The preceding citations make it quite evident that all prophets received Scriptures. Some will try to argue that Aaron is called a prophet and he didn’t receive a Book, proving that not all prophets were given a scripture to pass on:

And, out of Our Mercy, We gave him his brother Aaron, (also) a prophet. S. 19:53 Y. Ali

Those who would make such an argument have obviously not read the Quran carefully since it plainly says that he did receive a book along with Moses:

And WE gave Moses and Aaron the Discrimination and a Light and a Reminder for the righteous, S. 21:48 Sher Ali

And We verily gave grace unto Moses and Aaron … And We gave THEM the clear Scripture. S. 37:113, 117 Pickthall

Moreover, James Arlandson’s research on how and when the Quran uses the titles "Prophet" and "Messenger" for Muhammad also seems to support the conclusion that "Prophet" is not only the later (being used for Muhammad only two times in the late Meccan Sura 7), but also the more important title of the two, see the article Jesus and Muhammad: their roles and natures.

To summarize what we have seen thus far, the Quran says that Muhammad is the last prophet but it does not state that he is the last messenger. It also teaches that there is a difference between a prophet and a messenger and that Allah gives prophets Scriptures to pass on. The Quran, however, fails to adequately explain what are the exact differences which distinguishes these two offices from each other.

Based on Muhammad’s statement that there were 124,000 prophets and 313 of them were messengers (see the commentary by Al-Zamakhshari), the classical understanding is that messengers are a special subgroup of prophets, and their distinction was that they came with new revelation, a book, a new law, but the prophets only warned the people and merely pointed back to an already existing law. Yet this understanding is contrary to what the Quran actually says, since it repeatedly connects prophets with the scriptures that were given to them.

After the prior understanding has now been shown wrong, the question remains, what exactly is the relationship between the group of prophets and the group of messengers? What makes somebody a prophet? What makes somebody a messenger? The Quran makes a distinction between prophets and messengers but does not explicitly tell us what the difference is between them.

Are these two groups completely distinct? Do they have some intersection? Is one even contained in the other?

Since the foregoing discussion established that it is the prophets who received the scripture, this suggests that the relationship may be just the opposite of the classical understanding, i.e. all prophets (the smaller group) are messengers (members of the larger group) but not vice versa. The only conclusion that we can derive with certainty from the Quranic data is that there are some people who were both prophets and messengers, e.g. Jesus is given both titles:

O people of the scripture, do not transgress the limits of your religion, and do not say about GOD except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was a messenger of GOD, and His word that He had sent to Mary, and a revelation from Him. Therefore, you shall believe in GOD and His messengers. You shall not say, "Trinity." You shall refrain from this for your own good. GOD is only one god. Be He glorified; He is much too glorious to have a son. To Him belongs everything in the heavens and everything on earth. GOD suffices as Lord and Master. Sura 4:171 Khalifa

Jesus said, ‘I am a servant of ALLAH. HE has given me the Book, and has made me a Prophet; And HE has made me blessed wheresoever I may be, and has enjoined upon me Prayer and almsgiving so long as I live; And HE has made me dutiful towards my mother, and has not made me arrogant and graceless; And peace was on me the day I was born, and peace will be on me the day I shall die, and the day I shall be raised up to life again.’ That was Jesus, son of Mary. This is a statement of the truth concerning which they entertain doubt. S. 19:30-34 Sher Ali

What makes this interesting is that the Quran asserts that Allah took a covenant from the prophets to assist an unnamed messenger who was to come:

It is not (possible) that a man, to whom is given the Book, and Wisdom, and the prophetic office, should say to people: "Be ye my worshippers rather than God’s": on the contrary (He would say) "Be ye worshippers of Him Who is truly the Cherisher of all: For ye have taught the Book and ye have studied it earnestly." Nor would he instruct you to take angels and prophets for Lords and patrons. What! would he bid you to unbelief after ye have bowed your will (To God in Islam)? Behold! God took the covenant of the prophets, saying: "I give you a Book and Wisdom; then comes to you an apostle, confirming what is with you; do ye believe in him and render him help." God said: "Do ye agree, and take this my Covenant as binding on you?" They said: "We agree." He said: "Then bear witness, and I am with you among the witnesses." S. 3:79-81 Y. Ali

Other versions render Sura 3:81 slightly different:

AND, LO, God accepted, THROUGH THE PROPHETS, this solemn pledge [from the followers of earlier revelation]: "If, after all the revelation and the wisdom which I have vouchsafed unto you, there comes to you an apostle confirming the truth already in your possession, you must believe in him and succour him. Do you" - said He – "acknowledge and accept My bond on this condition?" They answered: "We do acknowledge it." Said He: "Then bear witness [thereto], and I shall be your witness." S. 3:81 Asad

Asad noted:

Lit., "the solemn pledge of the prophets". Zamakhshari holds that what is meant here is a pledge taken from the community as a whole: a pledge consisting in their acceptance of the messages conveyed through the prophets. (Source)

The late Muhammad Ali translated it similarly to Asad:

And when Allah made a covenant THROUGH THE PROPHETS: Certainly what I have been given you of Book and Wisdom – then a Messenger comes to you verifying that which is with you, you shall believe in him, and you shall aid him. He said: Do you affirm and accept My compact in this (matter)? They said: We do affirm. He said: Then bear witness that I (too) am of the bearers of witness with you. M. Ali (Source)

Ali explains the reason for his formulation in a footnote:

81a. Mithaq al-nabiyyin means literally the covenant of the prophets, and may therefore signify either the covenant of the prophets with Allah or the covenant of the prophets with their people. As the words that follow are plainly addressed to the people, the Jews and the Christians being particularly addressed in the last two verses, I adopt the latter interpretation, and therefore translate the words as meaning a covenant through the prophets. Both Moses and Jesus especially laid an obligation on their people to accept the prophet about whom they prophesied. Thus, through Moses, Almighty God had warned the Israelites, after promising them "a prophet from among their brethren like unto thee", and that "Whosoever will not hearken unto My words which he shall speak in My name, I will require of him" (Deut. 18:19). And Jesus was equally emphatic when, prophesying the advent of the Comforter, he added: "He will guide you into all the truth; for he shall not speak of himself, but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak" (John 16:13). As a matter of fact the Prophet had his advent foretold by all the prophets of the world. The new Testament bears testimony to this: "Whom the heaven must receive until the time of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all of His holy prophets since the world began. For Moses truly said unto the fathers, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me: him shall ye hear in all things whatsoever he shall say unto you" (Acts 3:21, 22). The covenant referred to was made through each prophet separately as he appeared in the world. And just as all the prophets foretold the advent of the Prophet Muhammad and laid an obligation upon their people to accept him, so the Prophet Muhammad also told his followers to believe in all the prophets that had appeared among different people in different ages, and this is stated in what follows. The truth of the first statement that all the prophets foretold the advent of the Prophet Muhammad is borne out by the second statement that the Prophet would bear testimony to the truth of all the prophets of the world. (Source)

What makes Ali’s comments all the more ironic is that he was an Ahmadiyya, a sect whose founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad claimed to be another prophet after Muhammad and the promised Messiah. We will see why this is ironic shortly. Ali’s view is the typical one espoused by Muslims, that the messenger whom the others had to confirm was Muhammad.

However, what these Muslims fail to mention is that the Quran duly states that Muhammad happened to be one of these very prophets from whom Allah took a covenant:

The Prophet is closer to the believers than their selves, and his wives are (as) their mothers. And the owners of kinship are closer one to another in the ordinance of Allah than (other) believers and the fugitives (who fled from Mecca), except that ye should do kindness to your friends. This is written in the Book (of nature). And when We exacted a covenant from the prophets, and from thee (O Muhammad) and from Noah and Abraham and Moses and Jesus son of Mary. We took from them a solemn covenant; That He may ask the loyal of their loyalty. And He hath prepared a painful doom for the unfaithful. S. 33:6-8 Pickthall

The only other reference to Allah’s covenant with or through the prophets is Sura 3:81. Therefore, if this text is interpreted in light of what is stated in Surah 3:81 then it is quite apparent that Allah took a covenant from Muhammad as well, which means that he too, as well as his community, had to uphold the messenger who would come to confirm the Scriptures given to all the prophets.

The Quran’s incoherence on this point has allowed for specific Muslims to argue that Allah intended to send at least one more messenger after Muhammad. One such person was the late Rashad Khalifa who was murdered by bloodthirsty Muslims. The readers can even see some of the arguments used by both himself and his followers and read for themselves how they have been able to successfully use Suras 3:81, 33:7 and 40 to their advantage:

The author of the Quran could have avoided all this confusion, thereby preventing individuals from using these references to support their claim, by simply inserting the name of Muhammad or by saying that Muhammad was the last messenger. In other words, the author could have written Sura 3:81 to say that a messenger is coming whose name is such and such, explicitly mentioning that messenger by name, much like the words he put into the mouth of Jesus:

And call to mind when Jesus, son of Mary, said, ‘O children of Israel, surely, I am ALLAH's Messenger unto you, fulfilling that which is before me of the prophecies of the Torah, and giving glad tidings of a Messenger who will come after me, his name being Ahmad. And when he came to them with clear proofs, they said, this is manifest sorcery.’ Sura 61:6

(Note: Even this passage’s meaning is debated since it is not certain whether this is giving the proper name of someone to come, or is simply giving a specific description of that person. For more on these points please read this article.)

Or it could have said in Sura 33:40 that Muhammad was the last prophet and the last messenger. Unfortunately for orthodox Muslims, the Quran clearly failed to use such language.

As it stands, certain sects have capitalized (quite successfully we might add) on the Quran’s incoherence and incompleteness, specifically in its failure to state more explicitly and clearly that Muhammad was the last messenger.

There is another problem that arises from the above, specifically from this particular passage:

And that is OUR argument which WE gave to Abraham against his people. WE exalt in decrees of rank whomso WE please. Thy Lord is indeed Wise, All-Knowing. And WE gave him Isaac and Jacob; each did WE guide aright, and Noah did WE guide aright aforetime, and of his progeny, David and Solomon and Job and Joseph and Moses and Aaron. Thus do WE reward those who do good. And WE guided Zachariah and John and Jesus and Elias; each one of them was of the righteous. And WE also guided Ishmael and Elisha and Jonah and Lot! and each one of them did WE exalt above the people. And WE exalted some of their fathers and their children and their brethren, and WE chose them and WE guided them in the straight path. That is the guidance of ALLAH. HE guides thereby those of HIS servants whom HE pleases. And if they had worshiped aught beside HIM, surely all they did would have been of no avail to them. It is to these whom WE gave the Book and dominion and Prophethood. But if they are ungrateful for these favours it matters not, for WE have now entrusted them to a people who are not ungrateful for them. S. 6:83-89 Sher Ali

The foregoing claims that all the above prophets were given scriptures. There is even a reference to the pages or scrolls of Abraham:

Lo! This is in the former scrolls. The Books of Abraham and Moses. S. 87:18-19 Pickthall

In light of the foregoing we would like the Muslims to show us what were the Scriptures which Abraham, Lot, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Elijah received. We would like for them to provide the pre-Islamic evidence, MSS, any archaeological or biblical data that supports what the Quran says here. So far we are not aware of any evidence that such scriptures ever existed.

Even if Muslims want to reject all the evidence given in this article, and insist on the classical understanding of the terms prophet and messenger, the above question would still be a problem, since we read:

And mention in the Book (the Qur'an) Isma'il (Ishmael). Verily! He was true to what he promised, and he was a Messenger, (and) a Prophet. S. 19:54 Al-Hilali & Khan

Ishmael is called both a messenger and a prophet. Whether it is the prophet or the messenger who comes with a new book and new law, where is Ishmael's book? Where is his Sharia? Where is even the slightest pre-Islamic evidence that such a thing ever existed?

Further reading

Is Muhammad the Last Prophet?

The Incoherence of the Qur'an
Articles by Sam Shamoun
Answering Islam Home Page