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The Chronology and Background of Quranic Revelation


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By Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani

Translated by Dr. Swaleh Siddiqui. Revised and Edited by Rafiq Abdur Rehman and Bilal Ali

The Noble Quran is Allah’s Divine Word. Hence it is secure in a Preserved Tablet about which the Quran states:

Rather, [this] Quran is a glorious Heavenly Recitation, [that you receive, O Prophet, and] in a [Heavenly] Tablet, [it is] well-preserved. (al-Buruj, 85:21-22)

From the Preserved Tablet the descension of the Quran took place in two stages. First, it was sent as a whole to Bayt al-‘Izzah (The House of Honor), the exalted house of worship located in the heavens. This exalted house, also known as Bayt al-Ma‘mur, is a heavenly house situated directly above the Ka‘bah and serves as a place of worship for angels. This first descension took place on Laylat al-Qadr (or the Night of Power).

The second descension of the Quran was a gradual revelation to the Noble Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) that reached its completion after twenty-three years. These two modalities of the Quranic revelations become clear through indications within the Holy Quran itself. Additionally, Imams Nasa’i, Bayhaqi, al-Hakim, Ibn Abi Shaybah, Tabarani, and others have reported several narrations from Sayyiduna ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) which affirm that the first descent of the Noble Quran was to the firmament of the world and took place all at one time while the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) was blessed with the second descension gradually. (al-Itqan 1:41)

Explaining the wisdom behind the first descension of the Noble Quran on the firmament facing the world, Imam Abu Shamah states that it aimed at demonstrating the exalted majesty of the Noble Quran and at the same time inform the angels that it was the last scripture meant to be sent down for the guidance of the people of this earth.

Imam Zarqani in his Manahil al-‘Irfan additionally points out that the purpose of the two separate descents was to affirm that the Book is free from any doubt about its Divinity and that apart from its preservation in the memory of the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace), it is also preserved in two other places, namely the Preserved Tablet and Bayt al-‘Izzah. (Manahil al-‘Irfan 1:39)

It is generally agreed upon by the scholars that the second gradual descension upon the heart of the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) began when he was forty years of age. According to the widely-accepted view based on authentic reports, this descent commenced on the Night of Power. This was also the same date on which, eleven years later, the Battle of Badr would came to pass. However, nothing definite can be said about the exact date of Ramadan when this night fell. There are some reports which identify it to be the seventeenth Ramadan while others place it on the nineteenth, and still others indicate the night of the twenty- seventh. (Tafsir Ibn Jarir 10:7)

The First Verses to be Revealed

It is authentically reported that the first verses to be revealed to the Holy Prophet were the initial verses of Surat al-‘Alaq. According to Sahih al-Bukhari, Sayyidah ‘A’ishah (may Allah be pleased with her) narrates that the very first revelations came to the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) through true dreams. Thereafter began an inner urge to worship in seclusion and meditate.

During this period, he would spend night after night in the Cave of Hira and remain in seclusion devoted to worship until one day Allah sent an angel to the cave and the first thing he said was, “Iqra’ (Read, or recite)!”

The Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) replied: “I am unable to read/recite”.  The subsequent events were described by the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, himself. He states, “The angel then embraced me so hard that I was in much difficulty. Then he let go of me and said again, ‘Read/Recite!’ I again replied, ‘I am unable to read/recite.’ The angel embraced me again even harder and then let go, saying, ‘Read/Recite!’ I again replied, ‘I am unable to read/recite.’ He embraced me a third time and then let go, reciting: “Read, [O Prophet,] in the name of your Lord who created! He has created man from a clinging clot. Read! For your Lord is the most Gracious [One], who has taught man what he has known not!” (Surat al-‘Alaq, 96:1-5)

These were the first verses to be revealed. Thereafter, a period of three years passed without any further revelation. This is known as the period of fatrat al-wahi (or pause from revelation). After three years, the same angel who had visited the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) in the Cave of Hira’ appeared before him between the sky and the earth and read to him the verses of Surat al-Muddaththir. Thereafter, the process of wahi continued again.

The Makki and Madani Verses

You may have noticed that the titles of various chapters of the Quran denote them to be makki (or Meccan, Makkan, Makkiyyah) or madani (Medinan, Medinite, Madaniyyah). It is essential to understand the exact connotation of these terms. Most the Quranic commentators believe that a makki verse is that verse which was revealed before the Prophet’s arrival in Madinah after his migration from Makkah. Others purport that makki verses are those that were revealed in the city of Makkah and madani verses are those that were revealed in Madinah. Most of the commentators, however, maintain that this view is incorrect because there are several verses which were not revealed in Makkah but because they were revealed in before Hijrah are classified as makki. Hence the verses that were revealed at Mina, ‘Arafat, during the Mi‘raj (Ascension), and even during the migration from Makkah to Madinah are classified as makki verses. Similarly, there were many verses which were not revealed in Madinah yet are still labeled madani.

The Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) undertook several journeys after the migration in which he even travelled hundreds of miles away from Madinah, yet all the verses revealed on these journeys have been classified as madani, so much so that even the verses that were revealed in Makkah itself or in its surrounding areas during the Conquest of Makkah or the Treaty of Hudaybiyah are classified as madani. Hence the verse, “Surely, Allah commands you to fulfill trust obligations towards those entitled to them (4:58)”, is madani although it was revealed in Makkah. (al- Burhan 1:88, Manahil al-‘Irfan, 1:88)

Then there are some surahs which are either wholly makki or wholly madani. For instance, Surat al-Muddaththir is wholly makki and Surat Aal ‘Imran is entirely madani. It also so happens that some surahs as a whole are makkan but contain one or more madani verses. For example, Surat al-A‘raf is a makki surah but several verses within it are madani.  Conversely, Surat al-Hajj is madani but four of its verses are makki.

It should thus be clear that the classification of a surah as makki or madani is based on the nature of the majority of its verses, although occasionally a surah is classified as makki because its initial verses were revealed before the Migration, although the subsequent verses were revealed afterwards. (Manahil al-‘Irfan 1:192)

Characteristics of Makki and Madani Verses

After a thorough analysis of both makki and madani surahs, the scholars of exegesis (tafsir) discovered a set of characteristics that aid in identifying whether a surah is makki or madani. Some of these attributes are universal while others only hold true most of the time. The universal rules are as follows:

1. Every surah in which the word كلّا (never) appears is makki. This word has been used 33 times in 15 different surahs, and all such occur in the second half of the Quran.

2. Every surah containing a verse of prostration (ayat sajdat al-tilawah) is makki. This rule only applies if one takes the Hanafi stance in regards to the verses of prostration, since according to them there is no verse of prostration in the madani Surat al-Hajj. According to Imam Shafi‘i, however, there is a verse of prostration in Surat al-Hajj and so this chapter of the Quran would thus be the exception to the rule.
3. Every surah, with the exception of Surat al-Baqarah, in which the story of Adam and Iblis finds mention is makki.

4. Every surah in which permission for jihad or a description of its injunctions is given is madani.

5. Every ayah in which there is mention of the hypocrites is madani. Note that the verses on the hypocrites in Surat al-‘Ankabut are madani although the surah as a whole is makki.

The following characteristics are general and apply to most cases, but with exceptions as well:

1. In makki surahs, generally the form of address used is يا أيها الناس (O people!), while in madani surahs it is يا أيها الذين آمنوا (O you who believe!).

2. Makki surah and ayahs are generally short and concise while madani verses and chapters are long and detailed.

3. Makki surahs generally deal topics such as affirmation of the oneness of Allah, prophethood, affirmation of the Hereafter, the panorama of the Resurrection, words of comfort for the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) and events relating to previous nations. The number of injunctions and laws in these surahs is significantly smaller in comparison to the madani surahs where family and social laws, injunctions of war, and expositions of limits (hudud) and duties appear frequently.

4. Makki surahs speak of confrontation with idolaters while madani surahs speak of confrontation with the People of the Book and hypocrites.

5. The style of makki surahs contains more rhetoric devices, as they contain many metaphors, similes, and allegories, along with the use of extensive vocabulary. Conversely, the style of the madani surahs is comparatively simple.

This difference in the style of makki and madani surahs owes its origin to a difference in environment, circumstances, and addressees. During the Makkan stage of Islam, Muslims deal primarily with the idolaters of Arabia as no Islamic state yet existed. Hence, during this period more emphasis was laid on the correction of faith and beliefs, reformation of morals, logical refutation of the idolaters, and the miraculous nature of the Holy Quran.

On the other hand, an Islamic state had been established in Madinah. People were coming into the fold of Islam in large numbers. Idolaters stood refuted already at an intellectual level, and the ideological confrontation was now wholly directed towards the People of the Book. Therefore, greater attention was laid on education in injunctions, laws, limits and duties, and on the refutation of the People of the Book. The style and mode of speech was adopted accordingly. (Manahil al-‘Irfan 198-232)

The Gradual Revelation of the Quran

It was mentioned earlier that the Noble Quran was not revealed to the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) suddenly or instantly at one time. Rather, it was revealed in piecemeal over the span of nearly twenty-three years. At times, Jibra’il (upon him be peace) came with a single verse or even a small portion of a verse. Then there were times when several verses would be revealed at once. The smallest portion of the Quran to be revealed was غير أولى الضرر  (al-Nisa’, 4:94) which forms part of a longer verse. On the other hand, the whole of Surat al-An‘am was revealed at one time. (Tafsir Ibn Kathir 2:122)

Rather than being revealed all at once, why was the Quran revealed little by little? The polytheists of Arabia, accustomed to hearing long eulogies in one sitting, had themselves posed this question to the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace). Allah Almighty took it upon Himself to answer the question in the following words:

Moreover, those who disbelieve have said: If only the Quran was sent down to him all at once, [then truly it would be from God]! Yet even so [is it revealed gradually], so that We may set firm your heart with it, [O Prophet]; thus have We recited it [to you] in a measured recital. And never do they bring forth for you any [false argument by way of example, but that We have brought forth for you the truth [of it] and [its] best exposition. (Surat al-Furqan, 25:32-33)

Imam Razi has presented several reasons for the gradual revelation of the Quran in his exegesis of the above verse. Below is a summary of his presentation of what he says:

1. The Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) was unlettered (ummi). He could not read or write, hence if the entire Quran had been revealed at one time it would have been difficult to remember and document. On the other hand, Sayyiduna Musa (upon him be peace) was well-lettered and so the Torah was revealed to him as a complete scripture at one time.
2.  If the entire Quran had been revealed all at once, immediate compliance of all its injunctions would have become obligatory and this would have contradicted the wisdom of gradualness that is of the objectives of the Shari‘ah.
3. The Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) was subject to torture on a daily basis. That Jibra’il (upon him be peace) came, again and again, with the words of the Noble Quran, made his stand against these tortures bearable and gave strength to his heart.

4. A large portion of the Quran is devoted to answers given to questions posed by the people, and other portions deal with the details of particular events. Therefore, the revelation of those verses was appropriate at the time when those questions were asked or when those events came to pass. This increased the insight of Muslims, and when the Quran unfolded that which was unseen, its truth became all the more manifest. (al-Tafsir al-Kabir 6:336)

Causes of Revelation

Verses of the Quran are of two types. The first type of verses comprises those that Allah Almighty sent down on His own and that were not caused by some particular event nor prompted by a question. The second type comprises those verses that were revealed in reference to some incident or enquiry. These events or enquiries are often termed the “background” or “causes” of these verses. In the terminology of the commentators, this background or causes are called the asbab al-nuzul (lit. causes of revelation) or the sha’n al-nuzul (lit. background of revelation). For instance, the following verse in Surat al-Baqarah:

Moreover, you shall not marry idolatrous women until they believe [in God alone]. For a believing bondwoman is most surely better than an idolatrous woman – even if she should please you. (Surat al-Baqarah, 2:221)

The verse was revealed in the wake of a particular event. During the Days of Ignorance, Sayyiduna Marthad ibn Abi Marthad al-Ghanawi (may Allah be pleased with him) had a relationship with a woman named ‘Anaq. After embracing Islam, he migrated to Madinah while ‘Anaq stayed behind in Makkah. After some time, Sayyiduna Marthad (may Allah be pleased with him) visited Makkah for some business. ‘Anaq came to him with an invitation to sin. Sayyiduna Marthad (may Allah be pleased with him) flatly refused, stating: “Islam has come between you and I.” However, he was willing to marry her if the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) approved. Upon returning to Madinah, Marthad (may Allah be pleased with him) sought permission to marry the woman. Thereupon, this verse was revealed, and marriage to polytheistic women was thus prohibited. (Asbab al-Nuzul of Wahidi 38)

This event is the sha’n or sabab of revelation behind the verse mentioned above. The background of revelation is, therefore, very important in the exegesis of the Quran. There are many verses the meaning of which cannot be correctly understood unless the circumstances underlying their revelation are known.

[Taken from the introduction to Mufti Muhammad Shafi‘ al-‘Uthmani’s Ma‘arif al-Qur’an and Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani’s An Approach to the Quranic Sciences with language and content editing by Bilal Ali. Translation of Quranic verses has been taken from Ahmad Zaki Hammad’s The Gracious Quran]

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