The nature of revelation
How do we have the Qur’an as it is today?
Allah Almighty’s final and complete divine book of guidance is the Holy Quran.
This compilation of Allah Almighty’s words as revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) over 1400 years ago did not descend in one go. They came in parts, however the Quran we have is not in the chronological order in which he received it.
So how did the Quran become the Quran as we know it?
Revelation (wahy) descended in stages over 23 years; during which time, Islam was introduced, spread and became victorious. It responded to people’s questions, matters of confusion and provided solutions to their problems. In essence, it responded to their personal, societal and spiritual needs.
What is revelation?
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) famously experienced his first encounter with Allah Almighty’s message during the month of Ramadan when he was 40 years old, in the cave of Hira which is outside Makkah. The next revelation came after a short interval.
The gaps between revelations varied as well as the length of revelations. Some came as complete verses (ayah’s), others were fragments of verses, however, sometimes they were entire chapters (surah’s).
The verses descended by a few different methods. Sometimes, the Prophet (peace be upon him) would hear a sound, like the ringing of a bell and during this time he would find the words of Allah Almighty imprinted in his memory/on his heart, at other times, they would be brought by the angel, Jibril, who had come with Allah Almighty’s message to other Prophets before him. The angel would mostly come in human shape, as an extraordinarily handsome man. In two instances, Jibril, appeared in his real form.
What was the first revelation?
The opening five verses of Surah Alaq were the first words spoken to the Prophet (peace be upon him) by the angel Jibril.
‘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.’ (Chapter 96: Verses 1-5)
Thus according to the majority of the scholars, Surah Al Fatihah, The Opening, which is the first surah in the Quran, was not the first surah to be revealed. (Although there is an opinion that it may have been the first complete chapter to have been revealed in its entirety). It appears to have been revealed within the first two years of Prophet-hood, after chapter Al Muddathir had been revealed. Some scholars think it was revealed twice, once in Makkah and then again in Madina.
Undoubtedly, it is the most fitting beginning to Allah Almighty’s Book due to its nobility and importance. This has not been through human choice – Allah Almighty chose this sequence for His Book and sent Angel Jibril to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in order to confirm this in the last year of the Prophet’s life (peace be upon him).
How do we have the order of the Quran as it is?
Angel Jibril would come to the Prophet (peace be upon him) every Ramadan and revise the whole Qur’an with him. However, in the last year of the Prophet’s life(peace be upon him), in 10 AH, (632 AD), he rehearsed it twice – in the Revelation order and then in its final order. This was the final year, the final check and this is the accepted sequence, which we have to this day.
What is the difference between Makki and Madani revelations?
Revelations fall into two main periods in which they were sent. The first revelations came to the Prophet (peace beupon him) while he lived in Makkah. For the first three years, he preached in secret to those closest to him. Over the next ten years, as per Allah Almighty’s command, he preached publicly. This period in his life was initially characterised by incredulity and hostility from the ruling tribes who resisted his message. When they were unable to suppress him, they launched increasingly fierce and co-ordinated opposition to him and his followers, culminating in brutal persecution and sanctions. Unable despite this to prevent the spread of Islam, they eventually planned his assassination.
Reflecting the freshness of the message to an audience entrenched in an alternate world-view and set of values, Makki verses generally relate to establishing belief in one God and building faith (imaan) through reinforcing the concept of accountability in the hereafter.
When brutality reached a climatic point in Makkah, the Prophet (peace be upon him) was instructed that all Muslims should emigrate from Makkah to the desert oasis, which came to be known as Madinah. Here the Prophet (peace be upon him) was welcomed with jubilation by the indigenous tribes and he founded the first Islamic community. Thus the Madani verses generally relate to the code for living with integrity, giving us guidelines in personal and family matters as well as building a society and establishing law, peace and justice.
Why were ideas introduced in stages and not in one go?
As original revelations were conveyed fresh from Allah Almighty through his Prophet (peace be upon him) to these Arab tribes, each message had an immediate impact on its ever-evolving audience who was receiving and responding to the messages, profoundly altering their attitudes, relationships and lives. There were certain concepts which would have been too dramatic for them to apply overnight. Hence some were introduced gradually over the course of Muhammad’s Prophethood and these would become definitive later.
This process of gradualism is known as tadarruj and is a very essential principle of the Qur’an. The prohibition of alcohol, for example, was not instructed until after the final verses of Surah Al Baqarah were revealed in Madina and the Deen of Islam had been around for 15-16 years. Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) related that had the first thing to have been revealed been the prohibition of drink, the people would not have responded.
What was were the final revelations?
- The final complete chapter
According to the hadith related by Ibn Abbas and Umar (may Allah be pleased with them) Surah Nasr is the last complete surah to be revealed. When these words were sent, the Prophet (peace be upon him) knew that he had completed his mission – Islam had spread throughout the Arabian peninsula, transforming the entire region and its people and his death was imminent.
‘When the victory of Allah has come and the conquest,
And you see the people entering into the religion of Allah in multitudes,
Then exalt [Him] with praise of your Lord and ask forgiveness of Him. Indeed, He is ever- Accepting of repentance.’ (Chapter 110: Verses 1-3)
- The final part of a verse
The well-known verse from Surah Ma’idah was the last fragment of a verse to be revealed:
‘This Day have I perfected for you for your religion, completed My favour upon you and chosen for you Islam as your Deen.’ (Chapter 5: Verse 3)
In the final order of the Qur’an, this verse falls within the fifth surah, rather than the last, which is An Naas – a closing prayer for protection from Allah Almighty.
Poignantly, the last complete verse to be revealed appears in Surah Al Baqarah:
‘And be afraid of the Day when you shall be brought back to Allah. Then, every person shall be paid what he earned, and they shall not be dealt with unjustly’ (Chapter 2: Verse 281)
It is disagreed upon as to whether the Qur’an should be studied in revelation order; the majority opinion is that Allah Almighty has conveyed to us the final order, which He has chosen and it is this we are obliged to study. While the former can cause confusion, it is useful, however, to know whether verses relate to the Makkan (Makki) or Madinan (Madani) period of revelation.
As the final sequence of the Qur’an is very different to the revelation order we need to study the tafseer (analysis) of the Qur’an to understand it properly.
What are the different types of tafseer?
Tafseer can also be of various genres: linguistic/ rational/ jurisdictive (fiqhi)/ reflective and spiritual. Fiqhi tafseer are important in establishing rulings. A famous example of this is the tafseer compiled by Imam al Qurtubi, and this genre of tafseer preceded the evolution of a new Islamic science of the Ayat ul Ahkam – a study of the verses related to rulings. Ibn Arabi’s compendium of reflections was compiled by Ibn Ghurab into a single book, while the only complete spiritual tafseer to date is that of Imam Al Qushayri, which comprises three volumes. Another important and well – recognised school of tafseer is Tafseer al Mathur, a rational tafseer relying heavily on explaining Quranic verses through ahadith, traditions related to the life of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Examples of this include Tafseer Ibn Kathir and As Suyuti’s Tafseer Al Jalalayn.
The Quran is Allah Almighty’s word and is for all people at all times and such is Allah Almighty’s immense wisdom that He nurtured the early believers, challenged the pagan society in which it was revealed intellectually and yet, gave us His Book of Guidance to last unaffected by time, place and situation.