To write this answer, I reviewed all of the chapters of the Qur'an, carefully reviewing the stories of previous Prophets and Messengers (as) and how they gave dawa to their people. In particular, whether there were are any evidences or clues that suggested they sought political power and authority as the Prophet Muhammed (saw) did during his dawa.
What I found was surprising: the evidence overwhelmingly suggests all previous Messengers (as) targeted political power and authority in order to establish Islam.
Prophets (anbiya) were sent to societies that accepted revelation, organised social life accordingly, but some aspects of revelation had become distorted or lost. Messengers (rusul) on the other hand were sent to societies that rejected revelation as the basis for social organisation so messengers had to address societal change and reformation - necessitating acquiring power and authority thereby coming into conflict with rulers, influentials and elites who usually had interests in maintaining the status quo. Read about the differences between nabi and rasool here.
Dawa of Messengers - Power and Authority
All of the documented conversations Messengers (as) had with the elites and leaders of their nations speak of taking power from them or reducing their power. By transferring power to the messenger, the goal was to establish Allah's deen and a new trajectory for society.
I'll illustrate this by considering all of the stories of the messengers mentioned in the Qur'an.
Adam (as) was the head and origin of humanity, there is no dispute on this. He was the first Prophet in human history responsible for the start of mankind.
After him, Nuh (as) was the first messenger (rasul) who came with a new shari'ah as his nation had abandoned it. The Qur'an doesn't detail how many converted, but it narrates some stories illustrating political authority was the main target of his dawa and the elites were the subject of his discussions.
لَقَدۡ اَرۡسَلۡنَا نُوۡحًا اِلٰى قَوۡمِهٖ فَقَالَ يٰقَوۡمِ اعۡبُدُوا اللّٰهَ مَا لَـكُمۡ مِّنۡ اِلٰهٍ غَيۡرُهٗ ؕ اِنِّىۡۤ اَخَافُ عَلَيۡكُمۡ عَذَابَ يَوۡمٍ عَظِيۡمٍ
"We had certainly sent Nuh to his NATION, and he said, "O my people, serve Allah; you have no deity other than Him. Indeed, I fear for you the punishment of a tremendous Day.
The ELITES among his people, "Indeed, we see you in clear error."" (Qur'an 7:60-61)
Their response also included disparaging references to those of lower rank who were inclined to agree with Nuh's public call:
قَالُوۡۤا اَنُؤۡمِنُ لَكَ وَاتَّبَعَكَ الۡاَرۡذَلُوۡنَؕ
"Shall we accept you even though it is the lowest of people who follow you?" (26:111)
The meaning of political leadership was noted by Zamakshari when he commented on the story:
أَنْ يَطْلُبَ الْفَضْلُ عَلَيكُمْ وَيَرْأَسُكُمْ
"He wants superiority over you and leads you (yar'asukum)." (Zamakshari, al-Kashaf, Vol. 3, p. 183)
When they refused, a new plan was followed to establish the deen; namely removing people who rejected the deen by the flood and Nuh (as) would lead the rest who would implement what Allah ordained.
Read this answer for the full discussion.
Prophet Hud (as) also focused his dawa on the elites and leaders as can be seen in the following verses:
وَاِلٰى عَادٍ اَخَاهُمۡ هُوۡدًا ؕ قَالَ يٰقَوۡمِ اعۡبُدُوا اللّٰهَ مَا لَـكُمۡ مِّنۡ اِلٰهٍ غَيۡرُهٗ ؕ اَفَلَا تَتَّقُوۡنَ
"And to the 'Aad [We sent] their brother Hud. He said, "O my NATION, serve Allah ; you have no deity other than Him. Then will you not fear Him?"
The elites who disbelieved among his nation said, "Indeed, we see you in foolishness, and indeed, we think you are of the liars."" (Qur'an 7:65-66)
He describes their deeds which could not be done except by people of power. For example, he told them:
أَتَبْنُونَ بِكُلِّ رِيعٍ آيَةً تَعْبَثُونَ وَتَتَّخِذُونَ مَصَانِعَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَخْلُدُونَ وَإِذَا بَطَشْتُمْ بَطَشْتُمْ جَبَّارِينَ
"Do you construct on every elevation a sign (of luxury), amusing yourselves, and take for yourselves palaces and fortresses that you might abide eternally?
And when you strike, you strike as tyrants." (Qur'an 26:128-131)
The word sign (ayah) here could refer to several meanings, such as signs of wealth and power as Razi argued:
أَنَّهُمْ كَانُوا يَبْنُونَ فِي الْأَمَاكِنِ الْمُرْتَفِعَةِ لِيُعْرَفَ بِذَلِكَ غِنَاهُمْ تَفَاخُرًا
"They were, out of pride, building (houses) in high places to (make people) know their wealth." (Razi, Mafateeh al-Ghayb, Vol. 24, p. 522)
The word palaces (masani'a) also means great buildings such as palaces similar to fortresses and castles as Baydawi clarified (Baydawi, Anwar al-Tanzeel, Vol. 4, p. 145).
People in the society who could build huge palaces seeking eternity, wealthy buildings for luxury and leading wars in which they would be tyrants are certainly the leaders and elites in the society who were the target of Hud's (as) dawa.
Salih (as) was sent to the people of Thamud.The nature of his dawa suggests he too targeted the elites and leaders, while it was only the poor and weak who heard about his call believed in him. A careful reading of the verses indicates the address was to the leaders and elites, as the weak in the society could not and did not possess properties. Moreover they were the only ones who had the ability and power to abuse and criticise the mustad'afeen (downtrodden) who believed in Salih (as).
وَاِلٰى ثَمُوۡدَ اَخَاهُمۡ صٰلِحًا ۘ قَالَ يٰقَوۡمِ اعۡبُدُوۡا اللّٰهَ مَا لَـكُمۡ مِّنۡ اِلٰهٍ غَيۡرُهٗ ؕ قَدۡ جَآءَتۡكُمۡ بَيِّنَةٌ مِّنۡ رَّبِّكُمۡ ؕ هٰذِهٖ نَاقَةُ اللّٰهِ لَـكُمۡ اٰيَةً فَذَرُوۡهَا تَاۡكُلۡ فِىۡۤ اَرۡضِ اللّٰهِوَلَا تَمَسُّوۡهَا بِسُوۡٓءٍ فَيَاۡخُذَكُمۡ عَذَابٌ اَ لِيۡمٌ
"And to the Thamud [We sent] their brother Salih. He said, "O my people, serve Allah; you have no deity other than Him...
And remember when He made you successors carve from the mountains, homes. Then remember the favors of Allah and do not commit abuse on the earth, spreading corruption."
The ELITES who were arrogant among his NATION said to those who were oppressed - to those who believed among them, "Do you [actually] know that Salih is sent from his Lord?" They said, "Indeed, in that with which he was sent, we are believers."" (Qur'an 8:74-76)
He counted the blessings of Allah upon them, such as their palaces and carving of mountains into homes:
وَاذْكُرُوا إِذْ جَعَلَكُمْ خُلَفَاءَ مِنْ بَعْدِ عَادٍ وَبَوَّأَكُمْ فِي الْأَرْضِ تَتَّخِذُونَ مِنْ سُهُولِهَا قُصُورًا وَتَنْحِتُونَ الْجِبَالَ بُيُوتًا فَاذْكُرُوا آلَاءَ اللَّهِ وَلَا تَعْثَوْا فِي الْأَرْضِ مُفْسِدِينَ
"And remember when He made you successors after the Aad and settled you in the land, (and) you take for yourselves palaces from its plains and carve from the mountains, homes. Then remember the favours of Allah and do not commit abuse on the earth, spreading corruption." (Qur'an 7:74)
When the people of power refused to apply the deen, Allah ordered him to leave with his followers and follow the deen; these people would be destroyed. It is similar to the Meccan notion of leaving the disbelievers after their repeated rejection and seeking the establishment of deen in another place.
Ibrahim and Lut (as):
The story of Ibrahim (as) was also a key story in Islam as Allah ordered Muslims to take it as a model and follow him. He initially engaged his own nation seeking to establish a divine way of life that required authority and power to be fused with revelation over them:
وَاتۡلُ عَلَيۡهِمۡ نَبَاَ اِبۡرٰهِيۡمَۘ اِذۡ قَالَ لِاَبِيۡهِ وَقَوۡمِهٖ مَا تَعۡبُدُوۡنَ
"And recount to them the story of Abraham when he asked his father and his nation: "What do you serve?" (And then Abraham prayed): "My Lord, endow me with rule and join me with the righteous..." (Qur'an 26:69-75)
Even when Ibrahim (as) was calling the people, there are many clues indicating they were the elites and leaders. For example they were the ones ordering others to bring Ibrahim (as) and to collect the wood for the fire to burn Ibrahim with. It was narrated this fire was in front of al-Namrud's palace (al-Kashaf, Vol. 3, p. 126), so he and his officials would be the parties engaged in dawa.
Ibrahim (as) then engaged with al-Namrud, the strongest power on earth of his time and the early suras narrate what happened.
Prophet Lut (as), who was a contemporary of Ibrahim (as), when persecuted by his people, prayed wishing to have a powerful authority and a strong shelter preventing them from harming him:
قَالَ لَوْ أَنَّ لِي بِكُمْ قُوَّةً أَوْ آوِي إِلَى رُكْنٍ شَدِيدٍ
"He said, 'If only I had against you power or could take refuge in a strong support'" (Qur'an 11:80)
Scholars and commentators unanimously agree he was seeking the political and military support by this statement. They argue he seeks the support of his clan (asheerah) and strong ansar and followers (victory givers).
For a full discussion for this, read this answer.
Shu'ayb (as) was sent to the people of Madyan, who were merchants. They rejected and denied his dawa, arguing how could they accept his deen when he was one of their weak citizens:
قَالُوا يَا شُعَيْبُ مَا نَفْقَهُ كَثِيرًا مِمَّا تَقُولُ وَإِنَّا لَنَرَاكَ فِينَا ضَعِيفًا وَلَوْلَا رَهْطُكَ لَرَجَمْنَاكَ وَمَا أَنْتَ عَلَيْنَا بِعَزِيزٍ
"They said, 'O Shu'ayb, we do not understand much of what you say, and indeed, we consider you among us as weak. And if not for your family, we would have stoned you [to death]; and you are not to us one respected.'" (Qur'an 11:91)
If the people who were the target of dawa rejected the deen because Shu'ayb was weak, it implies they were strong i.e. the elites and leaders, who could impose penalties and punishments.
Yunus (as) was a rasool (Qur'an 30:139) who was sent to a rejecting nation with the deen of Allah to establish the Divine trajectory. When this nation rejected his call, their attitude made him angry and he left the city. He then drew in the sea and was swallowed by a whale. Allah later forgave him after he repented and was brought again to a place near to the city. Upon returning to the city he saw that the people had repented when they saw that the punishment was about to come.
There is no mention in the Qur'an and Sunnah of how he approached them in dawa. But after he was back again, he sent a boy to the king telling him he was alive and was greeting him:
فَخَرَجَ فَإِذَا هُوَ بِغُلامٍ يَرْعَى غَنَمًا فَقَالَ: مِمَّنْ أَنْتَ يَا غُلامُ؟ قَالَ: مِنْ قَوْمِ يُونُسَ قَالَ: فَإِذَا رَجَعَتْ إِلَيْهِمْ، فَأَقْرِئْهُمُ السَّلامَ وَأَخْبِرْهُمْ أَنَّكَ لَقِيتَ يُونُسَ… فَرَجَعَ الْغَلامُ إِلَى قَوْمِهِ، وَكَانَ لَهُ إِخْوَةٌ فَكَانَ فِي مَنَعَةٍ، فَأَتَى الْمَلِكَ فَقَالَ: إِنِّي لَقَيْتُ يُونُسَ وَهُوَ يَقْرَأُ عَلَيْكُمُ السَّلامَ
"When he came out, he saw a man gesturing the sheep. He asked him: from where, O boy? The boy answered: from the people of Yunus (as).
He said, when you go back to them, greet them and tell them that you met Yunus. …
The man went back to the people, he was protected by his brothers so he went to the king and said: I met Yunus and he is greeting you. …" (Musanaf Abi Shaybah 31,866)
This gives the impression Yunus (as) had conversations with him before and he discussed the issues of the ruling. Because when the king heard this from the boy, he gave him the power of ruling:
فَخَرَجَ فَإِذَا هُوَ بِغُلامٍ يَرْعَى غَنَمًا فَقَالَ: فَتَنَاوَلَ الْمَلِكُ يَدَ الْغُلامِ فَأَجْلَسَهُ فِي مَجْلِسِهِ وَقَالَ: أَنْتَ أَحَقُّ بِهَذَا الْمَكَانِ مِنِّي وَأَقَامَ لَهُمْ أَمْرَهُمْ ذَلِكَ الْغُلامُ أَرْبَعِينَ سَنَةً
"He took the boy's hand and sat him in his throne and said: You deserve this position more than me. The boy ruled them for forty years." (Ibid)
This indicates the previous discussion before the promise of punishment and repentance was focusing on rule by Allah's legislation and to establish his deen. The thing that was immediately established after repentance.
Musa and Harun (as):
The dawa of prophets and messengers appearing between Yunus (as) and Musa (as) is not mentioned in the Qur'an. But Musa (as) and his brother Harun (as) were sent to Pharaoh (fir'awn) who was the leader of the most powerful state.
The main aim of Musa's (as) dawa was also to seek political authority and the rule of Egypt to establish the deen of Allah. This is clearly spelt out at the start of Sura Qasas.
اِنَّ فِرۡعَوۡنَ عَلَا فِى الۡاَرۡضِ وَجَعَلَ اَهۡلَهَا شِيَـعًا يَّسۡتَضۡعِفُ طَآئِفَةً مِّنۡهُمۡ يُذَبِّحُ اَبۡنَآءَهُمۡ وَيَسۡتَحۡىٖ نِسَآءَهُمۡ ؕ اِنَّهٗ كَانَ مِنَ الۡمُفۡسِدِيۡنَ وَنُرِيۡدُ اَنۡ نَّمُنَّ عَلَى الَّذِيۡنَ اسۡتُضۡعِفُوۡا فِى الۡاَرۡضِ وَنَجۡعَلَهُمۡ اَـئِمَّةً وَّنَجۡعَلَهُمُ الۡوٰرِثِيۡنَۙ وَنُمَكِّنَ لَهُمۡ فِى الۡاَرۡضِ وَنُرِىَ فِرۡعَوۡنَ وَهَامٰنَ وَجُنُوۡدَهُمَا مِنۡهُمۡ مَّا كَانُوۡا يَحۡذَرُوۡنَ
"Indeed Pharaoh exalted himself in the land, factionalising its people, oppressing one group, slaughtering their sons and sparing their women. Truly he was corrupt. And We wanted to confer favor upon those who were oppressed in the land and make them leaders and make them inheritors..." (28:4-6)
Pharaoh and the citizens of Egypt understood this and resisted Musa (as), with Musa (as) ultimately taking power and the oppressed ruling by the deen of Allah.
For a full discussion of this, read this answer.
Dawud and Sulayman (as):
Prophets Dawud and Sulayman (as) were two powerful kings. Dawud (as) preceded Sulayman (as) in power and Allah says that he gave them the rule and knowledge:
وَكُلًّا آتَيْنَا حُكْمًا وَعِلْمًا
"To each (of them) we gave (the power of) judgement and knowledge." (Qur'an 21:79)
Allah says regarding the former:
وَآتَاهُ اللَّهُ الْمُلْكَ وَالْحِكْمَةَ
"Allah gave him rule and wisdom (or Prophethood)." (Qur'an 2:251)
Allah also told him he has made the caliph on earth and ordered him to judge between people by justice:
يَا دَاوُودُ إِنَّا جَعَلْنَاكَ خَلِيفَةً فِي الْأَرْضِ فَاحْكُمْ بَيْنَ النَّاسِ بِالْحَقِّ
"O Dawud, indeed We have made you a caliph upon the earth, so judge between the people in truth." (Qur'an 38:26)
Allah also said the former was a leading king who negotiated with other leading kingdoms and helped to establish the deen of Allah in their kingdoms as in the story of the queen of Saba.
So, they did not only seek political power, but also the domination of the deen of Allah over all other kingdoms. It does not mean the previous Prophets and Messengers selfishly wanted to control the world, but they sought to establish justice amongst humanity by the only factor in the community that could make this happen.
The messenger Yusuf (as) was established as a ruler (according to some accounts administrator) after the King of Egypt embraced his call:
وَقَالَ الْمَلِكُ ائْتُونِي بِهِ أَسْتَخْلِصْهُ لِنَفْسِي فَلَمَّا كَلَّمَهُ قَالَ إِنَّكَ الْيَوْمَ لَدَيْنَا مَكِينٌ أَمِينٌ
"And the king said: ‘Bring him to me that I may attach him to my person.’ Then, when he spoke to him, he said: ‘Verily, this day, you are with us high in rank and fully trusted." (Qur'an 12:54)
وَكَذَٰلِكَ مَكَّنَّا لِيُوسُفَ فِي الْأَرْضِ يَتَبَوَّأُ مِنْهَا حَيْثُ يَشَاءُ نُصِيبُ بِرَحْمَتِنَا مَن نَّشَاءُ وَلَا نُضِيعُ أَجْرَ الْمُحْسِنِينَ
"Thus did We give full authority to Yusuf in the land, to take possession therein, as when or where he likes. We bestow of Our Mercy on whom We please, and We make not to be lost the reward of Al-Muhsinun (the doers of good)”"(Qur'an 12:56)
The Messenger (saw) called his nation (qawm) to collectively submit in accordance with revelation and to institutionalise it promising them the treasures of Rome and Persia in this life and jannah in the next. He did this initially at a banquet with influentials from his own clan and then the elites of clans of Quraysh (mala'un). Through rumours, individuals heard about him and believed him, becoming his companions whom he then cultured secretly to build a political party. Abbas (ra) narrated:
"The man was Muhammad ibn Abdullah, his nephew, who believed Allah had sent him as a Messenger and the treasures of the emperors of Rome and Persia would be opened for him ..." (Ibn Ishaq, al-Seera wa al-Maghazi, pp. 137-138)
His people mocked him:
"The kings of the earth have come who will own the treasures of Persia and Rome. They would then wolf-whistle (in mockery)." (Bayhaqi, Dala'il an-Nubuwwah, Vol. 2, p. 317)
Even on the deathbed of his uncle he kept conveying his call to the elites:
The Messenger (saw) finally addressed his uncle saying, "Oh my uncle! All I want these people to do is to accept a single statement that would make all the Arabs serve them and make all the non-Arabs pay them taxes."
Taken aback by this, they exclaimed, "Only one statement! By the oath of your father, we are prepared to accept ten such statements! What is this statement?"
Abu Talib also asked, "Oh my nephew! What is this statement?"
The Messenger (saw) replied, "Laa Ilaaha Illallah (There is none worthy of worship but Allah)."
Upon hearing this, they hastily stood up and brushing down their clothing, they said, "Does he make all the gods into one god... This is something very strange." (Ahmed, Nisa'i, Tirmidhi, Ibn Abi Hatim)
When the elites rejected him, Allah ordered him to target their support base. After the Meccans rejected his message, he sought out other tribal leaders, finally being accepted by Medinan junior elites, who undertook a coup which led him to migrating there. The deen of Islam became visible. The details of the seerah narrative can be read here.
After reviewing all the stories of previous prophets and messengers, I can only but conclude they all sought political power and authority to ensure collective submission of their nation to Allah, i.e., Islam.
Abu Zahrah, Safwat al-Tafaseer
Baghawi, Ma'alim al-Tanzeel
Baydawi, Anwar al-Tanzeel
Matrudi, Ta'wilaat Ahl al-Sunnah
Musanaf Abi Shaybah
Nasafi, Madarik al-Tanzeel
Qurtubi, al-Jami Li-Ahzam al-Qur'an
Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb
Samarqandi, Bahr al-Ulum
Shawkani, Fath al-Qadeer
Tabari, Jami al-Bayan
Wahidi, al-Tafseer al-Waseet
Wahidi, Wajeez fi al-Tafseer
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