By Mufti Muhammad Taqi Uthmani
The Glorious Qur’an is the Divine Word of Allah. It is protected in a Preserved Tablet about which the Glorious Qur’an says:
But this is an honored Qur’an. [Inscribed] in a Preserved Slate. (Al-Buruj 85:21-22)
From the Preserved Tablet, the Glorious Qur’an was revealed 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 al-Bayt al-Ma`mur, is a heavenly house situated directly above the Ka`bah, a place of worship for angels. This first revelation took place on Laylat al-Qadr (or the Night of Power) in the month of Ramadan.
The second revelation of the Glorious Qur’an was a gradual revelation to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that reached its completion after twenty-three years. These two types of revelations of the Glorious Qur’an become clear through indications within the Glorious Qur’an itself. Additionally, Imams Nasa’i, al-Bayhaqi, Al-Hakim, Ibn Abi Shaybah, At-Tabarani, and others have reported several narrations from ‘Abdullah ibn `Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) which affirm that the first descent of the Glorious Qur’an was to the firmament of the world and took place all at one time while the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was blessed with the second descent gradually. (Al-Itqan 1:41)
Explaining the wisdom behind the first descent of the Glorious Qur’an on the firmament facing the world, Imam Abu Shamah states that it aimed at demonstrating the exalted majesty of the Glorious Qur’an 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 Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), 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 revelation upon the heart of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) began when he was forty years of age. According to the widely-accepted view based on authentic narrations, this descent commenced on the Night of Power. This was also the same date on which, eleven years later, the Battle of Badr would come to pass. However, nothing definite can be said about the exact date of Ramadan when this night fell. There are some narrations 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)
First Verses of the Glorious Qur’an
It was reported that the first verses revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) were the beginning verses of Surat al-`Alaq. According to Sahih al-Bukhari, ‘A`ishah (may Allah be pleased with her) narrates that the very first revelations came to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) 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 Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) replied: “I am unable to read/recite”. The subsequent events were described by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) 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:
Recite in the name of your Lord who created. Created man from a clinging substance. Recite, and your Lord is the most Generous. Who taught by the pen. Taught man that which he knew not. (Al-`Alaq 96:1-5)
These verses were revealed first. Thereafter, a period of three years passed without any further revelation. This is known as the period of Fatrat Inqita` Al-Wahi (or pause from revelation). After three years, the same angel who had visited the Prophet (peace be upon him) 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 (revelation) continued again.
Al- Makki and Al-Madani Verses
You may have noticed that the titles of various chapters of the Glorious Qur’an 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 Glorious Qur’anic commentators believe that a Makki verse is that which was revealed before the Prophet’s arrival in Al-Madinah after his migration from Makkah. Others purport that Makki verses are those that were revealed in the city of Makkah and Al-Madani verses are those that were revealed in Al-Madinah.
Why was the Glorious Qur’an Revealed Gradually?
It was mentioned earlier that the Glorious Qur’an was not revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) suddenly or instantly at one time. Rather, it was revealed in piecemeal over the span of nearly twenty-three years. At times, Jibril (peace be upon him) 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 Glorious Qur’an to be revealed was “other than the disabled.” (An-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 Glorious Qur’an revealed little by little? The polytheists of Arabia, accustomed to hearing long eulogies in one sitting, had themselves posed this question to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Allah Almighty took it upon Himself to answer the question in the following words:
And those who disbelieve say, “Why was the Qur’an not revealed to him all at once?” Thus [it is] that We may strengthen thereby your heart. And We have spaced it distinctly. And they do not come to you with an argument except that We bring you the truth and the best explanation. (Al-Furqan 25:32-33)
Imam Ar-Razi has presented several reasons for the gradual revelation of the Glorious Qur’an in his exegesis of the above verse. Below is a summary of his presentation of what he says:
1. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was unlettered (ummi). He could not read or write, hence if the entire Glorious Qur’an had been revealed at one time it would have been difficult to remember and document. On the other hand, the Prophet Musa (peace be upon him) was well-lettered and so the Torah was revealed to him as a complete scripture at one time.
2. If the entire Glorious Qur’an had been revealed all at once, immediate compliance of all its commands 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 (peace be upon him) was subject to torture on a daily basis. That Jibril (peace be upon him) came, again and again, with the words of the Glorious Qur’an, made his stand against these tortures bearable and gave strength to his heart.
4. A large portion of the Glorious Qur’an 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 Glorious Qur’an unfolded that which was unseen, its truth became all the more manifest. (Al-Tafsir Al-Kabir 6:336)
The Word of Allah: Causes of Revelation
Verses of the Glorious Qur’an 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 An-Nuzul (causes of revelation) or the Sha’n An-Nuzul (background of revelation). For instance, the following verse in Surat Al-Baqarah:
And do not marry polytheistic women until they believe. And a believing slave woman is better than a polytheist, even though she might please you. And do not marry polytheistic men [to your women] until they believe. And a believing slave is better than a polytheist, even though he might please you. (Al-Baqarah 2:221)
The verse was revealed in the wake of a particular event. During the Days of Ignorance, 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 Al-Madinah while ‘Anaq stayed behind in Makkah. After some time, Marthad visited Makkah for some business. ‘Anaq came to him with an invitation to sin. Marthad flatly refused, stating: “Islam has come between you and me.” However, he was willing to marry her if the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) approved. Upon returning to Al-Madinah, Marthad sought permission to marry the woman. Thereupon, this verse was revealed, and marriage to polytheistic women was thus prohibited. (Asbab An-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 Glorious Qur’an. There are many verses the meaning of which cannot be correctly understood unless the circumstances underlying their revelation are known.
Translated by Dr. Swaleh Siddiqi. Revised and Edited by Rafiq `Abdur-Rahman and Bilal `Ali