“The word nabi is derived from naba, meaning an announcement of great utility imparting knowledge of a thing. One lexicologist explains the word nabi as meaning an ambassador between God and rational beings from among His creatures. According to another, a nabi is the man who gives information about God. In Persia and Turkey, the word paighambar, or he who bears a message is used. As an abstract noun, the word nubuwwa (prophethood) occurs 5 times in the Koran.
The Koran says: “There is not a people but a warner has gone among them” (35:24). And again: “Every nation has had an apostle” (10:47). There have been prophets besides those mentioned in the Koran: “And We sent apostles We have mentioned to thee before and apostle We have not mentioned to thee” (4:164).
It is, in fact, stated in a hadith that there have been 1,24,000 prophets, while the Koran contains only about 25 names, among them being several non-Biblical prophets. For example, Hud and Saleh raised up in Arabia, Lukman in Ethiopia, a contemporary of Moses, known as Khizr in Sudan and Dhul Qarnain in Iran.
A nabi is also called rasul (pl. rusul), which means an apostle or messenger (lit., one sent). The two words nabi and rasul are used interchangeably in the Koran, the same person being sometimes called nabi and sometimes rasul; while occasionally both names are combined. The reason seems to be that the prophet has two capacities, viz. he receives messages from God, and imparts them to mankind. He is called nabi in his first, and rasul in his second capacity, but there is one difference. The word rasul has a wider significance, being applicable to every messenger in a literal sense; and the angels are also called divine messenger (rusul) in the Koran (35:1) because they are also bearers of divine messages.
While mentioning the earlier prophets, the Koran says that Noah was sent “to his people” (7:59, 71:1), and so Hud (7:65), and Saleh (7:73), and Shu’aib (7:85). Every one of them was sent to his people. It speaks of Moses as being commanded to “bring forth thy people from darkness into light” (14:5); it speaks of Jesus as “an apostle to the children of Israel” (3:48); but in speaking of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), it says in unequivocal words that “We have not sent thee but to all men as a bearer of good news and as a warner” (34:28). The Arabic words for all men are kaffat-an-lil nass where even al-nass carries the idea of all people, and the addition of kaffa is meant to emphasize further that not a single nation was excluded from the ministration of the Prophet. He is expressly described as being “a warner to all the nations” (25:1). Nay, the Koran repeatedly is itself termed “a reminder for the nations” (68:52, 81:27, 38:87 and 12:104). And he is not only a warner to all the nations, but a mercy to all of them as well: “And We have not sent thee but a mercy to all the nations” (21:107).
It is to be noted that the prophet (nabi) gives a new structure of knowledge, whereas an apostle (rasul) works out the full implication of this new structure. The nabi awakens mankind from its unconscious state (ghafala) and the rasul creates the right conditions to preserve the awakened mind. The nabi also brings the news by standing almost outside history. But the rasul stands right within the historical context, challenges it and transforms it. The believing is the right response to a nabi, whereas obeying is what a rasul requires.