One of the greatest stories in Traditional Islam is the coming of the Quran to Prophet Muhammad. In this story, the Prophet was said to be meditating in the cave of Hira’ when the angel Jibreel visited him and made him recite Chapter 96 Verses 1-5. This is almost universally recognised as the first revelation. Subsequently, over the course of 23 years, he received portions of the Quran till it became complete. There were periods where he received nothing, making his very despondent. There were times when verses came to answer questions posed by his companions or outsiders.
This story has no basis in Quran itself. It is a theory projected onto it possibly for the following reasons:
A. To make it seem as if Quran is for Prophet Muhammad and his companions alone. If it was revealed to answer their situation, then that situation must been solved (since Quran comes from Allah who has ultimate knowledge). We cannot recreate those situations and so Quran’s capacity to match our situation diminishes considerably. Therefore, we need to rely on Hadith and Sunnah for guidance.
- To undermine the textuality of Quran. If Quran was revealed in fragments and put together only later on, it sends a message that its arrangement does not matter as much. Not coincidentally, only a few Traditionalist scholars have focussed on it (called ‘nazm’ in Traditiona literature). Malik ibn Anas (the founder of the Maliki legal school) even denied it had any significance at all.
Can this story be true? In our analysis, we find that there are deeply rooted problems if one takes them as such. These problems are as follows:
1. We cannot determine which version of these ‘occasions of revelation’ (asbab an-nuzool in Traditional literature) to follow. They are not in Quran nor even mostly not in Hadith literature. Furthermore, there are versions even within a single collection! A simple test would be to ask a few Sunni scholars about the second passage revealed and to see the varied answers. Therefore, it is difficult to see what the actual occasions are even if we did buy into the idea.
- In the worldview of the ‘occasions of revelation’, verses came down as a response to a question or event. What if these questions were never asked or events never happened. Did Allah ‘force’ these events to take place? Meaning He acted like a puppeteer and made the actors like puppets on a string? If so, then Quran is not an answer to human needs but rather artificial ones. It does not answer our nature. On the other hand, if there was freewill involved, then what if the actors never actually did or said those things. Would the eternal laws of Quran be changed? If so, Quran would not be of the quality it claims to be, at the apex of human being.
- Most chapters did not come down all at once. Rather, in fragments. This is even true for the ‘first revelation’ (96/1-5) which actually has 19 verses in total. When reading chapters in fragments, we would not get the complete message because it is Allah who divides Quran (it is divided by His name, 17/105 and 41/2-3) This being the case, misunderstanding the chapter would be quite likely. In the case of bigger chapters, textuality is very important in order to identify the stages in its process. For example, the first call to those who believed (2/104) comes after a long passage to bani israil detailing its social evolution (2/47-103). Therefore, those who have believed (in past tense) would have believed in this social evolution. Quran is a highly contextualised book and sweeping generalisations kill off this organicity.
- There are many verses which do not have any ‘occasions of revelation’ pegged to them. Would that mean that they cannot be understood? This is simply untrue if one reads them . Why were their occasions of revelation not recorded? If Quran came down gradually, then all of it must have done so. It is unthinkable that half of it came down gradually and the other half came as a text! Unfortunately, this render the hypothesis of gradual revelation fatally flawed.
In the next part, we will examine Quranic evidence used by proponents of gradual revelation. In doing so, it is hoped that the context will clarify that it is about gradually revealing meaning rather than text. Furthermore, there is a story in Quran which proves quite conclusively that Quran came down at once. Stay tuned for part 2!