Discover Islam: Basic Concepts: Qur'an






Links: Back ] Up ] Next ]


History of the Qur’ân

The first words of the Qur’ân were revealed in the 610th year of the Christian Era (C.E.) to a middle-aged man who lived in Makkah, a town of the Arabian Peninsula. Muhammad , the son of ‘Abdullâh of the influential tribe of Quraysh, was born an orphan (his father died before his birth) and lost both his mother and grandfather, his guardian after his mother passed away, before he reached the age of ten. He grew up under an uncle’s care and became well known as an honest and trustworthy merchant. At the age of 25 he married a wealthy widow and lived a quiet, uneventful family life for some 15 years after that.

The Arabs claimed descent from the Prophet Ibrâhîm (Abraham - ) through his son Ismâ’îl (Ishmael - ) and it was widely known that the Ka’bah, a cube-shaped building in the center of Makkah, had been built by the two of them for the worship of Allâh (Almighty God). The Ka’bah was still a central place of worship for the Arab tribes and the tribe of Quraysh held the highest respect among these due to its position as caretaker of the sanctuary. Although it was called the “House of Allâh,” the chief objects of worship there had become a number of idols which were believed to be intercessors with the One true God. While this idolatry was widespread, there were always a handful of individuals who were disgusted with such worship and the practices associated with it and longed to seek out the true religion of their forefather, Ibrâhîm . Muhammad  was one of these individuals who never in his life worshipped any idol and after marriage it became his practice to retreat[1] for several days to the hills of the desert outside Makkah. There he would meditate and pray in solitude, seeking the truth of life by the light of his inner consciousness. It was there, one day, in a cave called Hirâ, that an angel came to him and said to him, “Read!” He said, “I am not a reader,” (for Muhammad  did not learn to read or write in his entire life). Then, as he explained in his own words:

The angel caught me and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read and I replied, “I do not know how to read.” Thereupon he caught me again and pressed me a second time till I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read but again I replied, “I do not know how to read.” Thereupon he caught me for the third time and pressed me and then released me and said, “Read in the name of your Lord, Who has created (all that exists); Has created man from a clot; Read! And your Lord is the Most Noble.[2]

Then Muhammad  returned with this to his home, his heart beating severely. He went to Khadîjah bint Khuwailid (his wife- ) and said, “Cover me! Cover me!” She covered him till his fear was over and after that he told her everything that had happened and said, “I fear that something has happened to me.” Khadîjah replied, “Never! By Allâh, Allâh will never disgrace you: You keep good relations with your kith and kin, help the poor and destitute, serve your guests generously, and assist the deserving calamity-afflicted ones.”[3]

Thus was the beginning of revelation from Allâh that would continue to come for the next 23 years—thirteen of which were spent in Makkah and ten in Madînah (formerly called Yathrib), a city about 200 miles away to which the Prophet Muhammad  was told to move after hostility and opposition from his own tribe and townsfolk became unbearable.


Form and kinds of revelation

The revelation to the Prophet Muhammad  came through several different means. In a famous narration, he said:

“Sometimes it comes to me like the ringing of bells, and that is most difficult upon me; when this state ends all that was said is retained in my memory. And sometimes the angel comes to me in the form of a man.”[4]

Hence, one form of revelation was as the ringing of bells- a metaphor whose sense is not understood by us with certainty. The burden of this form of revelation was, however, often felt and observed by others as his later wife, ‘Âishah , remarked in reference to the above narration:

“I have observed the descent of revelation upon him during a period of severe cold (weather) and yet his forehead used to become drenched with sweat.”[5]

This state of revelation was sometimes so intense that the animal on which he happened to be riding at the time could not stand the burden and would sit down. Once he was resting his head on the thigh of his companion, Zayd bin Thâbit, when revelation began to come. It caused so much pressure on his thigh that Zayd thought his bones would break.[6]

A second means of revelation was that the angel Jibra’îl (Gabriel - ) would appear in the guise of a man (sometimes in the presence of others as well) and convey the message. This was the easiest state of revelation for the Prophet .

Other forms of revelation we will simply list here but more details can be found elsewhere[7]:

·        Appearance of the angel in its original, angelic form.

·        True dreams.

·        Direct discourse with Allâh, as had the prophet Műsâ (Moses - ).

·        Direct inspiration in the heart.

Finally, it should be noted that the Prophet Muhammad  used to receive two kinds of revelation. One was that which comprised the verses of the Qur’ân in which the words and meaning were both from Allâh. This type of revelation is referred to as wahy matluw: the recited revelation. The second type of revelation is that which does not form part of the Qur’ân, but a large number of commands and tenets have been sent through it. In this type, called wahy ghayr matluw (non-recited revelation), only the subject matter was revealed to the Prophet  and he expressed it in his own words and actions. This type of revelation forms a huge corpus of traditions known as the hadîth. Both types of revelation have a definite and binding authority for Muslims although the first is, of course, superior in nature.[8]


A Gradual Revelation

As alluded to previously, the Qur’ân was not revealed all at once to the Prophet Muhammad ; rather it was received bit by bit over a period of 23 years. Sometimes as few as three words were revealed at a time and other times as much as an entire sűrah (“chapter”—discussed later). The Arabs, used to hearing long eulogies in one sitting, were astonished at this mode of revelation. This issue was taken up in the Qur’ân itself:

And those who disbelieve say, “Why has not the Qur’ân been sent down on him all at once?” Thus, (We send down) that We may strengthen your heart (O Prophet) thereby; and We have rehearsed it to you in a well-arranged gradual rehearsal; And they come not to you with a similitude but that We bring to you the Truth (against it), and the best explanation.[9]

Hence, in summary,

·        The Prophet Muhammad  could neither read nor write and neither could most of his followers at the time. Thus, had the entire Qur’ân been revealed all at one time, it would have been, practically speaking, very difficult for the people to memorize and preserve it immediately. Furthermore, although the Prophet  himself was divinely caused to memorize the Qur’ân, it still would have been an immense burden and stress upon him to have received it all at once. We have described his condition at the time of revelation in a previous section. In the Qur’ân itself, Allâh also states:

If We had caused this Qur’ân to descend upon a mountain, you (O Muhammad) verily would have seen it humbled, rent asunder by the fear of Allah.[10]

Stir not your tongue wherewith to hasten it. Lo! Upon Us (rests) the putting together thereof and (giving you the ability of) the reading thereof. And when We read it, follow you the reading. Then lo! Upon Us (rests) the explanation thereof.[11]

·        The Prophet  (and his companions) was being subjected to fresh torture every day. Frequent revelations of the Qur’ân made it easier for him to face these tortures and became a source of sustaining his spirit.

·        A great part of the Qur’ân deals with answers to questions of the people and various events that happened at different times in the growth of the community. Hence, revelation of those verses in their relevant backgrounds was more expedient and it enhanced the insight of the believers. When the Qur’ân exposed that which was unseen, its truth became more manifest.

·        The Qur’ân comprises literally hundreds of principles, commands, and prohibitions. If the entire Qur’ân was revealed all at one time, it would have become obligatory to obey all of it simultaneously and this would have been against the wisdom that has been one of the objectives of the Sharî’ah (Islâmic code of law).


The chronological order of revelation is different than the order in which the Qur’ân was compiled as a written book. The order of revelation was according to the needs and circumstances of particular times. However, as soon as a verse was revealed, the Prophet Muhammad  would dictate it to the scribes and instruct exactly where it fit in the current arrangement. No effort was made after that to maintain the chronological order of revelation, although some of his most famous companions used to swear that they were aware of the cause and circumstance of revelation for every verse in the Qur’ân.

In addition to the reasons mentioned above, the gradual descent of the Qur’ân establishes another miraculous fact about it, which is that despite the piecemeal revelation and its immediate application to very specific contexts in the life of the Prophet , once it was completed in its full form, it contained no contradictions or errors.


“Makkan” and “Madinan” Verses

Although the detailed chronology of revelation was not preserved, to this day there exists a classification of verses and chapters into Makkiy or Madani. The former refers to those verses revealed before the Prophet’s  migration from Makkah (although they may not have been revealed to him in Makkah itself) and the latter refers to those revelations after his migration (even though the Prophet  might have actually been visiting Makkah when such verses were revealed). In short, the distinction is according to time although the designated names give the impression of place.

There are several broad differences in style and subject matter between the two types of verses. In the pre-migration stage, the Muslims had to deal with the idolaters of Makkah on an individual level and there was no Islâmic state. Thus, much emphasis was laid on the restoration of faith and belief, moral reform, building up of Muslim identity and personality, arguments refuting idolatry, and the miraculous status of the Qur’ân. After the migration to Madînah, however, an Islâmic state came into being and people entered the religion in large numbers. Idolatry had been confuted on the literary level and the remaining ideological confrontation was with the people of the previous scriptures (Jews and Christians). For this reason greater emphasis was laid in these revelations on laws and commandments, rights and duties, and refutation of the false innovations and alterations introduced in the previous scriptures.[12]

See appendix A for more details on the characteristics of Makkan and Madînan revelations.



[1] The urge for solitude was the result of initial revelations in the form of good dreams, which would come true like the bright morning light. [Bukhâri 1/3]

[2] Qur’ân 96:1-5.

[3] Bukhâri 1/3.

[4] Bukhâri 1/2.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Approach to the Qur'ânic Sciences, pg. 40.

[7] Ibid 44-45.

[8] Ibid 47.

[9] Qur’ân 25:32-33.

[10] Qur’ân 59:21.

[11] Qur’ân 75:16-19. Revealed in reference to the Prophet’s  behavior during the initial revelations. Faced as he was with the tremendous responsibility of exactly reproducing the Word of Allâh, the Prophet  was afraid lest he should forget the words of Revelation; he, therefore, used to repeat them rapidly while the angel was speaking. To relieve him of this burden, these verses were revealed.

 [12] Ibid 69-70.




Links: Back ] Up ] Next ]



Last modified 08/12/05 09:45 AM - Connecticut Council of Masajid, Inc.