By Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani

Since the Holy Quran was revealed to our beloved prophet Sayyiduna Muhammad al-Mustafa (upon him blessings and peace) by means of wahi (revelation), an understanding of some particulars about wahi is imperative at the very outset of delving into the study of the Quran and its exegesis.

The Need for Revelation

Every Muslim knows that Allah Almighty sent man into this world as a matter of testing him and that in return for his being obligated with certain duties the entire universe was placed at his service. For this reason, man, once he is in the world, must do two things:

  1. Make the best use of this world and of things created in it.
  2. While using this world to his advantage, keep the injunctions of Allah Almighty in sight and do nothing that goes against His will and pleasure.

For these two functions man needs knowledge. Therefore, unless he knows the reality of this world, the properties of different things, and the manner in which they can be put to use, he cannot use anything in this world to his advantage. Likewise, unless and until he knows the will of Allah Almighty as to what pleases Him and what displeases Him, it will be impossible for him to lead a life in line with the will of Allah Almighty.

Allah Almighty, along with the creation of man, created three things through which he could continue receiving knowledge of the above-mentioned matters of concern. These are:

1. The five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.
2. Reason.
3. Revelation (wahi)

Consequently, man discovers many things through his senses, many others through reason, and the knowledge of things he cannot attain through these two sources are bestowed upon him through wahi.

The arrangement between these three sources of knowledge is such that each one has its limits and a particular sphere of activity beyond which it does not work. In natural sequence, the knowledge of things man collects through his senses cannot be deduced through bland reason. For instance, one knows by seeing a wall with one’s eyes that its color is white. But, should one close their eyes and try to discover the color of the wall on the sole strength of their reason, it would be impossible. Similarly, the knowledge of things that comes through reason cannot be discovered by senses alone. For instance, one cannot discover who made the wall by simply seeing it with one’s eyes or touching it with one’s hands. Reason is needed to arrive at that conclusion.

In short, reason gives no guidance as far as the five senses work efficiently, and when the five senses become helpless reason starts to function. But even the guidance given by reason is not unlimited. It too has its limits. There are things the knowledge of which can neither be acquired through senses nor through reason. For instance, to find out how that very wall can be used to please Allah Almighty and in what manner of its use will it displease Him, neither the senses nor reason can be of use here. In order to provide man the answer to such questions, the source that Allah Almighty prescribed is what is known as wahi (revelation). The method it follows is that Allah Almighty selects one of His servants, ordains him as His messenger, and then to him He reveals His Word. This Word is wahi.

It should thus be clear that wahi is the highest source of knowledge for man which offers him the answer to questions about life which cannot be solved by means of reason and the senses but which are nonetheless necessary to know. It should further be apparent that reason and perception alone are not sufficient to show man the way. It is rather all the more necessary, almost inevitable, that divine revelation be there for his guidance. Since wahi is needed where reason does not function, it is therefore not necessary that everything communicated through wahi be compulsively comprehended through reason.

On the contrary, as reason is of no help in ascertaining the color of some object since that is the job of the senses, so is the gracious transmission of knowledge of many religious beliefs the sole prerogative of wahi and not of reason. Furthermore, trusting reason alone for their comprehension is not sound or correct.

To begin with, it is totally senseless to discuss the issue of wahi with a person who, Allah forbid, does not accept the very existence of Allah. But, for a person who believes in the existence of Allah Almighty and has faith in His perfect power, it is not at all difficult to understand that wahi is a rational need, that it is possible, and that it is real. If one has faith in the fact that the universe has been created by an absolutely powerful entity and that He is the One who has sent man down here to accomplish some particular mission, how then is it possible to imagine that He, after once having created man, would leave him off in total darkness without explaining to him why he came into the world, what his duties were, where he was destined to go, and how he could realize the purpose of his life? How could a person, sound in intellect, send one of his servants on a trip with a designated mission without ever telling him the purpose of the trip while he is leaving, nor explaining it to him later on through some message? When a man of ordinary reason cannot do such a thing, how then can it be imagined with respect to the most Holy Lord of the Universe under Whose ultimate wisdom the system of all the worlds is functioning? After all, how is it possible that the Being that created such a mind-boggling system composed of the moon, the sun, the sky, the earth, the stars and the planets, would remain unable to institute some arrangement of communication with His servants through which human beings could be given guidance about the purpose of their lives? If one has iman, or faith, in the ultimate wisdom of Allah Almighty then admitting that He did not forsake His servants in darkness and ignorance will become all the more necessary. Surely, He has instituted some regular system for their guidance. This regular system of guidance is known as wahi (revelation) and risalah (prophethood).

It is thus crystal clear that wahi is not only a religious belief but also a rational need the rejection of which amounts to a rejection of the ultimate wisdom of Allah Almighty.

The Modes of Descent

This sacred sequence of wahi (revelation) and risalah (prophethood) came to an end with the last of the prophets, Muhammad al-Mustafa (upon him blessings and peace). Nevermore shall wahi descend upon any man nor is there any need for it. Wahi used to come to the Holy Prophet (Upon him blessings and peace) in several forms and modes. In a hadith from Sahih al-Bukhari, Sayyidah ‘A’ishah (may Allah be pleased with her) says that Sayyiduna Harith ibn Hisham (may Allah be pleased with him) once asked the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) as to how wahi came to him. The Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) replied that “there are times when I hear something like the chiming of bells and this mode of wahi is the hardest on me. After that, when this chime-sequence ends, that which has been said by the sound seems to have been committed to my memory. And then there are times when the angel appears before me in the shape of a man.” (Sahih al-Bukhari 2:1)

As regards the likening of the sound of wahi to the sound of bells in the hadith cited above, Imam Muhi al-Din Ibn al-‘Arabi has provided two explanations. First, the sound of wahi is continuous like the sound of a bell which does not break off in between. Second, when a bell rings continuously it is generally difficult for the listener to determine the direction of its sound because its sound seems to be coming from all directions. And the Divine Word too carries with it the distinction that it has no one single direction. In fact, the sound gives the impression of being heard from all directions. A correct realization of this phenomenon is just not possible without auditory experience. However, for ease of comprehension the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) simply likened it to the sound of bells. (Fayd al-Bari 1:19,20)

With the descent of wahi in this mode, the Holy Prophet (Upon him blessings and peace)  came under very heavy strain. Sayyidah ‘A’ishah (may Allah be pleased with her) says towards the end of this very hadith that she had seen the coming of wahi to him during days of extreme winter. When the progression of wahi ceased, his blessed forehead would have already become dripping wet with sweat despite the chilly weather. In yet another narration, Sayyidah ‘A’ishah (may Allah be pleased with her)  relates: “When wahi came to him, his breath would seem to stop, his radiant face would change, turning pale like the branch of a date palm, the front teeth would shiver from cold, and he would perspire so much that its drops would roll down like pearls.” (al-Itqan1:46)

On occasions, so much intensity would be generated in this state of wahi that the animal he would be riding at that time would sit down, wilting under his weight. Once, when he was resting his blessed head on the lap of Sayyiduna Zayd ibn Thabit (may Allah be pleased with him), wahi began to descend. This released so much weight upon Sayyiduna Zayd’s thigh that it seemed like it would break. (Zad al-Ma‘ad 1:18,19)

There were times when a low-volume sound of the revelation could be perceived by others. Sayyiduna ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) says: “When wahi came to him, a sound somewhat similar to the buzzing of honey-bees could be heard close to his luminous face. (Tabwib Musnad Ahmad 20:212)

Under the second mode of wahi an angel would come to him in some human form and deliver Allah’s message. Generally, under such occasions Sayyiduna Jibra’il (upon him be peace) used to come to him in the form of Sayyiduna Dihyah al-Kalbi (may Allah be pleased with him). At other times, he would come in other forms. In any case, this mode of the revelation through Sayyiduna Jibra’il (upon him be peace) appearing in human form was the easiest on the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace). (al-Itqan 1:46)

The third mode of the coming of wahi was when Sayyiduna Jibra’il (upon him be peace)  would appear in his original form without having taken the shape of a man. This, however, only occurred thrice in his entire lifetime. The first instance was when the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) himself wished to see Jibra’il in his real form and shape. The second time, it was during the Mi‘raj (the Ascension to Heaven), and the third time it was at Ajyadd in Makkah during the very early days of prophethood. The first two occurrences stand proven authentically. The last incident, however, suffers from weak chains of authority and is therefore doubtful. (Fath al-Bari 1:18,19)

The fourth mode of revelation is distinguished by being a direct two-way conversation with Allah Almighty. This honor was bestowed upon the Holy Prophet only once, that is on the occasion of the Mi‘raj while awake. Additionally, once in a dream it is reported that the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) engaged in a conversation with Allah Almighty.

Under the fifth mode of wahi, Sayyiduna Jibra’il  (upon him blessings and peace) would, without appearing physically in any form, allow some words of the divine message to fall into his heart. This is technically known as nafh fi ’l-ruh, or blowing into the heart. (Fath al-Bari 1:18,19)

[Taken from the introduction to Mufti Muhammad Shafi‘ al-‘Uthmani’s Ma‘arif al-Qur’an.]