Prophets were raised and sent to the whole of mankind in different lands and at different times. One version of a hadith puts the number of prophets sent to mankind as 124,000 (Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 5, 169); another puts the number at 224,000. Both of these versions, however, should be critically evaluated according to the science of Hadith. Besides, whether the number was 124 or 224 thousand is not important. What is essential is that no land, people or period was neglected; prophets were sent to all. The Qur’an says:
There never was a people without a Warner having lived among them’ (35:24)
We would never visit our wrath (chastise any community) until We had sent a Messenger to give warning’ (17:15)
To punish a people for any wrong they may do without their being warned beforehand by a prophet from God is contrary to His Glory and Grace. The warning precedes responsibility which may be followed by reward or punishment: So anyone who has done an atom’s weight of good, shall see it. And anyone who has done an atom’s weight of evil, shall see it (99:7–8). If a people have not been sent any Warner, they will not know what is good and evil, and so will not be chastised for it. However, since every individual will be called to account for good and evil deeds, we may infer that to every people has been sent an Messenger: For We assuredly sent amongst every people a messenger with (the command), ‘Serve God and eschew evil’ (16:36).
The prophets were not, as some people mistakenly suppose, raised only in the Arabian Peninsula. Such a claim is contrary to the teachings of the Qur’an and is not based upon any evidence. In fact, we do not even know all of the prophets who were raised in the Arabian Peninsula, let alone in other places of the world. Whether they were 124 or 224 thousand, we know for certain only 28, and the prophethood of three out of these 28 is not wholly certain. The Qur’an gives us the names of all 28, from Adam, the first, to Muhammad, the last, upon them be peace. Nor can we say with confidence where these 28 emerged. It is supposed that the tomb of Adam and the place of his reunion with Eve is Jeddah, but this information is not certain and sound. We do not know by any means where the very first prophet carried out his mission. By contrast, we do know a little about the location of Abraham: We know that, at some time, he was in some part of Anatolia, Syria and Babylon. Lot was associated with the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, around the Dead Sea; Shu‘ayb with Madyan, and Moses with Egypt. Yahya (John the Baptist) and Zakariyya (Zechariah) with Mediterranean countries—probably they may have crossed to Anatolia, since Christians link Mary and Jesus with Ephesus. But these associations are not certain and not based upon any strong evidence.
We also know the names of some of the other prophets sent to the Israelite peoples, but we do not know the names of any others, nor where they appeared. Moreover, because their teachings have been distorted and lost over time, it is quite impossible for us to say anything about who those prophets were and where they were sent.
There may be many religions once of Divine origin which have become distorted and lost their truth. That is why we cannot definitely say that such and such persons were sent as prophets to such and such places. We may speculate that Confucius, Buddha (or perhaps even Socrates?) were prophets, but it can be only speculation. Let us be clear on this: we are not saying that they were prophets. What the history of religions tells us about those men is not satisfactory, and based upon information gathered from different sources. However, it is known that at the time Confucius and Buddha lived, their teachings influenced great numbers of people. Today, what is practiced by their followers—no doubt because of distortions in the original teachings—does not appeal to sense and nature; rather it is extremely unnatural: who can be attracted to the sanctification of animals, or the extremes of asceticism and sense deprivation, or to such customs as the cremation of wives with their deceased husbands?
Of Socrates, some have said that he was a philosopher under the influence of Judaism, but there is no documentary evidence to support such a claim. Words attributed to Socrates by Plato imply that he (Socrates) was ‘inspired’ from a very early age to ‘instruct’ people in true understanding and true belief. But it is not clear that such words are correctly attributed, nor is it clear what exactly these words were understood to mean. Only this much is reliable—that Socrates taught in an environment and in a manner which supports the use of reason.
Let us again stress that we are not saying that these ancient teachers were indeed prophets. To say that someone is a prophet when he is not is kufr, an unbelief as grave as refusing to believe in a true prophet. We say only that it may perhaps have been so, given the hadith that mentions either 124 or 224 thousand prophets as having appeared in all parts of the world. In the light of this hadith, the findings of recent studies of religious beliefs and practices in different lands are more easily understood.
In particular, the observations of Professor Mahmud Mustafa on two tribes of primitive Africans confirm what has been said above. He remarks that the Maw-Maws believe in God and call him Mucay. This God is one and only, and acts alone in His deeds. He does not beget nor is begotten. He has no associate and no partner. He is not seen or sensed, but only known through His works. He dwells high up in the heavens, and ordains everything from there. That is why the Maw-Maws raise their hands when praying. Another tribe, the Neyam-Neyam, expresses similar themes. There is one God who decrees and ordains everything. What He says is absolute. It is He who makes everything in the forest move according to His will, He who sends thunderbolts against those He is angry with.
As is obvious, the general concept of God ascribed to by these tribes is similar, certainly comparable, to what we find in the Qur’an. Certainly the creed of the Maw-Maws comes very close to the content of the sura al-Ikhlas in the Qur’an.
How could these primitive tribes, worlds apart and removed from civilization and from the influence of the prophets known to us, come to so pure and sound a concept of God? This reminds us of the Qur’anic verse which refers explicitly to every people, none being excluded: ‘For every people there is a messenger. When their messenger comes, the matter is judged between them with justice, and they are not wronged’ (10:47).
Professor Adil, from Kirkuk in Iraq, a mathematician of Riyadh University, when I met him in 1968, spoke of the many native American Indians he had met whilst studying for his Ph.D. in the U.S.A. He had been struck by how many of them believe in One God who never eats and drinks nor is constrained by time; He rules and governs all things in the universe, everything without exception being under His sovereignty and dependent on His will. They also referred to some of God’s attributes that He has no partner, and if He did, there would surely be conflicts between the partners. How does one reconcile the alleged ‘primitiveness’ of such peoples with such loftiness in their concept of God? It certainly seems that true Messengers conveyed these truths to them, truths still present in what remains of soundness in their actual, present beliefs. As the original Message was passed down the generations it may have suffered slight, gradual alterations until it became confused and obscured.
In sum, the Qur’an, and history and present reality confirm that God has chosen and sent prophets to every people in different parts of the world, though we only know for certain the exact places of four of them, and though we do not know for certain their exact number.
This article has been adapted from Risale- i Nur Collection.