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THE LITERAL DEFINITION / MEANING OF NABI

The Literal Definition of Nabī.
This short paper aims to outline the literal discussions on the word Nabī (Prophet). It is
hoped that such an analysis will enable us to understand the station of nabuwwa better in
Islam and appreciate the true rank given by Allāh to His selected servants. The analysis
has been taken primarily from Ziā al-Qur’ān, the commentary of the Qur’ān written by
Ziā al-Ummah Pīr Muhammad Karam Shāh Sahib, may Allah descend His infinite mercy
upon him. 1
There are three opinions regarding the origins of the word Nabī:
.(نْبوة) Nabwa. 1
2. Nabāwa (نباوة .(
3. Naba’ (نبأ .(
Opinions One & Two. The literal meaning of nabwa and nabāwa is ‘exaltedness’. On this basis, a Nabī is socalled because he is lofty and exalted from other humans, because of his proximity to Allāh.
Opinion Three.
The third opinion – and the most trusted one as favoured by Allāma Jawharī and Farrā’ –
is that the word stems from naba’, which means ‘news’. Allāma Afsahānī writes that
naba’ does not refer to ordinary news. Rather news is only considered naba’ when it
fulfills three attributes:
1. It is useful.
2. It is important and grand.
3. The listener benefits knowledge from it, which in its least form is ‘overwhelming
.(ظن غالب) ‘thought
The Qur’ān affirms the usage of naba’ to mean ‘important news’ in several places:
عم یتساءلون عن النبأ العظیم
‘What are they asking one another? About the great news.’ (78: 1-2).

1 Zia al-Qur’an, Vol IV, Surah Ahzab. Verse One.
وأنبئكم بما تأكلون و ما تدخرون في بیوتكم
‘[And Jesus said] ‘I shall inform you of the news of what you eat and what you store in
your houses.’ (3: 49).
On this basis, Nabī derives from naba’, to either mean:

• The giver of important news. Here, the word Nabī will give the meaning of the
subject. Moreover, because it features on the template of فعیل rather than فاعل ,it gives the
meaning of a more permanent attribute (Allāh is described as the سمیع and not the سامع
because he is always listening, not just sometimes). In other words, a prophet is one who
gives important news on a continual basis.
• The one provided with important news. Here, the word Nabī will give the meaning of
the object. In Arabic, مفعول اسم can sometimes appear on the template of فعیل ;for example,
the word جریح means ‘wounded’.

From this brief analysis, the following can be deduced:
• A Prophet does not give ordinary news, but news of worth and significance.
• Such news is thus news of the unseen (غیب .(This is proven by the fact that when Allāh
describes news of the unseen in the Qur’ān, he uses the word naba’. For instance:

ذالك من أنباء الغیب نوحیھ الیك

‘That is news of the unseen which We inspire you with.’ (3:44). (Note, anbā’ in the verse
is the plural form of naba’).

It is on the literal basis of the word that Āla Hazrat Ahmad Razā Khān defines a Nabī as
‘someone who gives news of the unseen.’

• A Prophet delivers important news on a continuous, permanent basis.
• If it is assumed that the word Nabī gives the meaning of the object, then this affirms our
belief that prophets do not know their knowledge independently, but through the means
of Allāh.

Dr. Hafiz Ather Hussain al-Azhari.
BA Principles of Theology, al-Azhar University, Cairo, Egypt.
MA Arabic and Islamic Studies, Dar al-Ulum Muhammadia Ghawsia, Bhera, Pakistan.
BA Political Science, MPhil Theology & PhD Theology, University of Birmingham

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