ASBAB AL NUZUL
Introduction – ASBAB AL NUZUL
The Qur’an is the heart and soul of Islam. It is the ultimate and uncontested authority in the worldview of Islam which decides truth from falsehood and right from wrong.1 Everything that is Islamic has its origin in or takes inspiration from the Qur’an, whether it is a question of norms of daily life, tenets of faith, law or spirituality. The firm idea that the Qur’an is Islam’s normative text is not a belated conclusion that Muslim apologetics had awoken to or accredited their sacred Book with late in history.
This is echoed time and again in the Glorious Qur’an itself: (The month of Ramadan in which was revealed the Qur’an, a guidance for mankind, and a clear proof of the guidance and the Criterion (of right and wrong)…) [II:185], (And We reveal of the Qur’an that which is healing and a mercy for believers…) [XXVII:82], (Lo! This Qur’an guideth unto that which is straightest…) [XXVII:9]. This same firm conviction is also reiterated in many traditions of the Prophet of Islam, God’s blessings and peace be upon him.
In one of these traditions he is reported to have said at the farewell pilgrimage (Hajjat al-Wada‘), at the end of his sermon: “I have left with you two things which, if you were to adhere to them, you will never err: the Book of Allah and my practice”.2 In another tradition, Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib also reported that the Prophet said: “[…] The Book of Allah contains the narrations of nations that have come before you and the news of nations that will come after you as it is the ultimate judgment between you […]. Whoever seeks guidance in other than it, Allah will send him astray. It is God’s firm Rope, the Wise Remembrance and the Straight Path […]. Its wonders are endless”.
And because the Qur’an is the highest code for Muslims in everything relating to their spiritual, religious, ethical, social and legal matters, they have been strongly prompted to study and teach it. In fact, when carried out with sincere intention, studying the Word of God and teaching it to others is considered one of the greatest acts of worship in Islam.
“The best among you are those who learn the Qur’an and teach it to others”, declared the Messenger of God, God’s blessings and peace be upon him.3 The prophetic Companions were in the habit of memorising small passages from the Qur’an at a time, ten verses at a time as reported by the prophetic Companion ‘Abd Allah ibn Mas‘ud. Once the practice of all the guidance and injunctions contained in these small passages which they memorised were perfected, they went back to the Prophet to learn more. They also taught what they had learnt by helping others to memorise what they knew and also, and most importantly one may add, through their practical example which reflected directly what they had learnt from the Qur’an.
The Qur’an lent itself easily to the prophetic Companions. They understood its comprehensive content in all its details with relative ease because it was revealed in their mother tongue. Moreover, for as long as the Messenger of God, God’s blessings and peace be upon him, was in their midst, the Qur’an continued to be easily understood by Muslims. The prophetic Companions confined themselves, at this stage, to simply receiving and understanding what was communicated to them. They listened to the Prophet and followed him. And whenever something seemed problematic to them, they questioned him to clarify the matter.
They were therefore completely dependent on the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, for their understanding of the Qur’an. After the death of the Prophet, the prophetic Companions moved from a phase of dependency vis-à-vis the Prophet in everything relating to the understanding of the texts of the Qur’an and the prophetic Practice to a phase of dependency on their own ability to fathom the scope and implications of the same texts.4
However, it quickly became clear that the prophetic Companions differed in their understanding of the purports and implications of some passages of the Qur’an and certain traditions from the prophetic Practice. It is true that such disagreements between the prophetic Companions existed in the Prophet’s lifetime.
But the Prophet was the supreme authority who resolved their difference of opinion. With the disappearance of this supreme authority, difference of opinion among the prophetic Companions was left open and even accepted as legitimate. It was accepted as legitimate because the prophetic Companions followed, in their understanding of the Qur’an, a clear and well- defined methodology which they inherited from the Prophet as well as from their long acquaintance with the Qur’anic text whose revelation in instalments they personally witnessed.
The necessity and extreme importance of codifying the knowledge and methodological tools required
for a proper understanding and interpretation of the Qur’an, and also of some other disciplines, was greatly felt when the prophetic Companions dispersed in different parts of the Muslim world. Other social, political and theological factors also played a major role in channelling the efforts of Muslim scholarship to codify the knowledge inherited from the Prophet and his Companions. Less than three decades after the death of the Prophet, different ethnic groups came under the fold of Islam. Muslims also came into contact with the pre- Islamic religions of Byzantium and Persia. Political dissent and schisms among Muslims impacted on how some Muslims approached their religion at the intellectual, theological and practical levels. And matters were further complicated by the emergence of the Kharijites, the Shi‘ites and the Mu‘tazilites within the House of Islam. Against this backdrop, the sciences of the Qur’an (‘Ulum al-Qur’an) emerged as a separate discipline, just as Islamic law, theology, Hadith and other specialised branches of knowledge did emerge as independent disciplines.
A quick glance at the contents of any major classical work on the sciences of the Qur’an5 will reveal that Muslim scholars have left nothing to chance and did exert a great deal of effort to cover every possible aspect that the commentator of the Qur’an might need in his or her objective appreciation of the Qur’an; aspects without which a comprehensive understanding and interpretation of the Book of Islam is extremely difficult, and even impossible. These sciences deal, among others, with the knowledge of the first and the last passages of the Qur’an to be revealed; the portions of the Qur’an revealed in Mecca and those revealed in Medina; the passages of the Qur’an revealed while the Prophet was travelling; those passages which were revealed at night and those which were revealed during the day; the sections of the Qur’an which were revealed in summer and those which were revealed in winter; how the Qur’an was sent down; the different names of the Qur’an and Surahs; the collection and ordering of the Qur’an; the names of the prophetic Companions who memorised the Qur’an and the names of those who transmitted it; the different types of recitation (al-Qira’at), those which are accepted and those which are not; the proper pronunciation and recitation of the Qur’an; the different Arabic dialects used in the Qur’an; the foreign vocabulary of the Qur’an; homonyms and key-words which the commentator of the Qur’an needs to know; the clear and obscure verses (al-Ayat al-Muhkamat/al-Ayat al-Mutashabihat); the passages of the Qur’an which are of general applicability and those which are of particular applicability; the abrogating and abrogated passages of the Qur’an (al-Nasikh/al-Mansukh); the passages which require details and explanation in order to be properly understood and those passages which do not require further elaboration; the passages whose purport is applied without restriction and those which are applied with restriction; the inimitability of the Qur’an, etc. It is not our intention here to give a detailed list of all the topics covered in works on the sciences of the Qur’an. If we have listed quite a few of these topics above, it is only in order to show the seriousness with which Muslim scholars have approached their Holy Book and their thorough and comprehensive way of exploring it.6
One of these sciences of the Qur’an is the Asbab al-Nuzul, i.e. the occasions, reasons or causes of revelation. The Qur’an, as is well known, was revealed in instalments over a period of nearly twenty three years. Muslim scholars agree that the revelations of the Qur’an can be divided into two broad types. One type includes passages of the Qur’an which were revealed in response to specific events, incidents or questions put forward to the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace. The second type includes passages of the Qur’an which were not direct responses to any historical or social development in the life of the Muslim community.7
A thorough understanding and full appreciation of the scope of the first type of Qur’anic passages, therefore, depend on knowing the circumstances, facts and details of the events which occasioned them. Such knowledge is an invaluable tool for grasping the meanings of this type of Qur’anic verses. Knowledge of the occasions about which particular Qur’anic passages were revealed also helps in understanding the motif or wisdom behind the legislation of certain legal rulings. Delimiting the scope and extent of the legal applicability of certain Qur’anic passages is also another factor which highlights the
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