One of the most amazing and wonderful insights provided by the Islamic tradition is the statement found in the Hadith collections of Musnad Ahmad and Tabarani that God has sent 124,000 prophets to humanity.
This very large number seems unbelievable, especially in those days when people knew nothing about the hundreds of tribes, nations, cultures, languages and religions in the western hemisphere and Australia. In Papua-New Guinea alone there are over 830 languages spoken by a population of about four million people; and the African continent is home to some of the most multilingual countries in the world. For example, Cameroon with a population of around 27 million people, and over 250 different languages that are spoken as first languages.
Even more amazing, this very large number comes from the Islamic religious tradition; which is based on only one man–Prophet Muhammad, who transmitted only one Sacred Scripture– the Qur’an.
The “124.000 prophets” number flows from the Qur’anic teaching that God has sent one or more prophets to every human society in the world, from the smallest to the largest, to teach them in their own language: “We have not sent any Messenger except with the language of his people so he can make things clear to them. (Qur’an 14:4)
Since there are over 7.000 languages now spoken, and another 10-20,000 that were spoken over the previous 10,000 years but have now died out, all human societies have been taught the way God wants each of them to conduct their Divine worship (Qur’an 21:25), and the behavioral rules they should observe (Qur’an 16:90-92).
The Qur’an also teaches that God could have made all humans the same: one nation with one language and one religion, but God preferred that we be many nations, with many languages and many religions. “To each among you we have prescribed a law and an open way. if Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is Allah. He will show you the truth of the matters in which you dispute.” (Qur’an 5:48)
Each God given monotheistic religion has the moral values within it to lead its followers to live the life God wants their community to live, if they themselves practice these virtues. God’s test for each community is to see how faithful and observant their own followers are: and not to proclaim that their religion is better than the others.
As the Qur’an says: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (and not despise each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah, is the most righteous of you. Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things)”. (49:13)
Thus, it seems strange that most Islamic scholars think that of the 124,000 prophets; none of them have been female prophets; when the Torah itself asserts that Miriam was a Hebrew prophet (Exodus 15:20); and Prophet Micah listed three prophets as being sent to lead Israel’s exodus from Egypt: “For I brought you up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, and I sent before you [Prophet] Moses, [Prophet] Aaron, and [Prophet] Miriam (Micah 6:4). And Numbers 12:2 quotes Miriam and Aaron, saying, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?”
If Miriam is a Prophet, when and what did God speak through Prophet Miriam? What was Miriam’s Torah (teaching)?
Some of the Rabbis say Prophet Miriam wrote down the narrative oral Torah from Genesis 12 through 50 while Moses was in Midian. Midrash Exodus Rabbah 5:18 and Tanhumah Va’era 6 state that the Israelite slaves in Egypt “possessed scrolls which they read.” This probably refers to the oral narrative Torah that Miriam the prophet wrote down for them.
Prophet Miriam also might have written the first fifteen chapters of Exodus, from “these are the names” to the song she and all the Jewish women sang when the Israelites safely crossed the Sea of Reeds. As the Torah states, “Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and with all the women following her, dancing with tambourines; Miriam sang this refrain: Sing to the Lord . . .” (Exodus 15:21).
Prophet Miriam also might have directly written the Exodus narrative at Marah where “the Lord placed statute and ordinance” on the Jewish people” to get them ready for the covenant at Sinai. What do “statue and ordinance” refer to?
The Mechilta records two opinions. In the opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua, “statute” refers to Shabbat, and “ordinance” refers to honoring parents. Rabbi Eliezer Hamodai says “statute” refers to sexual prohibitions, as it says in Vayikra 18:30, “that you not commit any of these abominable customs,” and “chukot,” that is “ordinances,” refers to laws about robbery, laws about fines, and laws about injuries/damages.
Both of these sages refer to the same set of laws, Leviticus 18:26, which begins “You shall observe my statutes and my ordinances” and ends at 19:37 with “You shall observe my statutes and my ordinances.”
This section includes the Mitsvot to observe the Sabbath (19:3 and 30) and to revere your parents (19:3), as Rabbi Joshua states. It also includes Mitsvot relating to honest business practices (19:13 and 36), robbery (19:13), and prostitution (19:29), as Rabbi Eliezer Hamodai states. This section, sometimes called the holiness code, also includes the Mitsvot to love your neighbor as yourself (19:18) and the Mitsvah to love the stranger as yourself because you were strangers in the land of Egypt (19:34).
Some rabbis say this section (Leviticus 18:26 through 19:37) was given to Moses at Marah and written down as a special memorial book (Exodus 17:14). It was originally part of the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20:1–24:7) and only later moved and inserted as part of the priests’ rulebook. Many modern rabbis say this section was given to Miriam as oral law Torah and was included in the covenant at Sinai but was not written down until later.
Also, biblical scholar Wendy Zierler states: “Miriam’s role brackets the Exodus story at its beginning and end. The story begins with Moses’ sister standing by the threatening banks of a river, watching as her baby brother is drawn safely from the water. It ends with Miriam standing by the previously threatening banks of the Reed Sea, watching as the Jewish people are drawn safely out of the parted waters, and then singing and dancing in triumph.”
Some feminist readers view Miriam’s chorus leasing in Exodus 15:21 as evidence identifying the song more closely with Miriam than with Moses. Historians and archaeologists point to evidence of ancient women’s leadership roles, particularly in composing and performing songs of triumph, and suggest the song may have been ascribed to Miriam before it was transferred to Moses.
Returning to the final form of the text, we can see evidence that Miriam, not Moses, sings for the entire people. Whereas Moses opens his song with אָשִׁירָה, “I shall sing” (Exodus 15:1), Miriam says שִׁירוּ, “sing” (15:21), in the imperative plural, suggesting that she is leading the entire people.