The Suspension of Revelation

This is a guest post that has been taken from the Light of the Furqan blog.

ص و القرآن ذي الذكر

By the Qur’an bearing the Reminder1

This post is the sixth in a series of summaries of Ayatollah Hādī Ma’rifat’s book entitled, Amūzish Ulūm Qurānī (Learning the Qurānic Sciences). For an introduction to Ayatollah Hādī Ma’rifat and his works, click here. To read the previous post which covered Sheikh Mufīd and Sadūq’s discussion concerning the revelation of the Qurān, click here.

The dialogue between Sheikh Sadūq and Mufīd provided sufficient context in terms of the discussion of how the Qurān came to be revealed. What is certain, from the previous discussion, is that whether or not the Qurān was revealed all at once, it was definitely revealed piecemeal. This is a fact upon which there is general agreement, and as sheikh Ma’rifat points out, the Qurān seems to be indicative of this as well in the following verse,

وَ قُرْءَانًا فَرَقْنَاهُ لِتَقْرَأَهُ عَلىَ النَّاسِ عَلىَ‏ مُكْثٍ وَ نَزَّلْنَاهُ تَنزِيلا

We have sent the Qurān in [discrete] parts so that you may read it to the people a little at a time, and We have sent it down piecemeal2 3

Sheikh Ma’rifat focuses his discussion on this aspect of the revelation of the Qurān. His discussion centers around the question of when the revelation of the Qurān began and how long it continued for.

This is an interesting subject considering that there seem to be two dates to consider when discussing the beginning of revelation. The first is referred to as the mab’ath i.e. the beginning of the Prophet’s prophethood. There is a difference of opinions concerning the specific date of this event, sheikh Ma’rifat adopts a common view, claiming that this event occurred on the 27th of Rajab, when the Prophet was 40 years old4. It is famously narrated that the first five verses of Sūrah al-‘Alaq were revealed upon the Prophet on this occasion5. The other date that should be considered is that of the Qurān being revealed in Ramadhan which is indicated by many verses and narrations.

Sheikh Ma’rifat attempts to reconcile these two dates. But in order to do that, he first makes note of an important point. That is, Sheikh Ma’rifat asserts that the Qurān was revealed over the course of 20 years, as indicated by the narration mentioned in the previous post, which is as follows,

Hafs bin Ghiyāth narrates from Imam al-Sādiq,

“I asked him [Imam al-Sādiq] about what Allah has said in the Qurān, ‘The month of Ramadhān is that in which the Qurān was revealed…’6 whilst at the same time, Allah revealed the Qurān over 20 years from beginning to end.

Abū ‘Abdallah responded, ‘The Qurān was sent down as one piece in the month of Ramadhān to bayt al-ma’mūr7 and then sent down over a period of 20 years’”8

Now as sheikh Ma’rifat notes, mab’ath occurred when the Prophet was 40 and the Prophet passed away at the age of 63. This leaves a period of 23 years as the duration of the Prophet’s prophethood, whilst the narration claims that the Qurān was revealed for a period of 20 years.

It is by taking this into account that sheikh Ma’rifat comes to discuss what is known as the fatrah (the period). This was a period of 3 years during which the Qurān was not revealed upon the Prophet and in which he preached Islam in a secretive manner to only his closest family and relatives. Sheikh Ma’rifat and many other exegetes place this period to have occurred right after the mab’ath, after which there was no revelation for three years. This period, according to many exegetes, ended with the revelation of the following verse at which point that the Prophet climbed a mountain and made an open declaration inviting all to Islam in Mecca,

فَاصْدَعْ بِمَا تُؤْمَرُ وَ أَعْرِضْ عَنِ الْمُشْرِكِين‏

So proclaim what you have been commanded, and turn away from the polytheists9

After having brought up these discussions, sheikh Ma’rifat attempts to solve the difference in dates by claiming that indeed the first five verses of Sūrah al-‘Alaq were revealed upon the Prophet during mab’ath, however they were not “formally” revealed as a part of the Qurān . Later on, they were revealed again, formally as a part of the Qurān , after the beginning of revelation which Sheikh Ma’rifat claims began 3 years after the mab’ath during Ramadhān.

In summary, sheikh Ma’rifat claims that there was a series of verses that were revealed to the Prophet on the date of the mab’ath, however, these verses were not revealed “as the Qurān”, they were just divine revelation. It was after this, that the Prophet began to preach Islam in a hidden manner, to only those whom he had hope of them converting. This stage, referred to as the fatrah, lasted 3 years, until the month of Ramadhān of the third year after the beginning of his Prophethood, in which the Qurān began to be formally revealed. It was at this time that verse 94 of Sūrah al-Hajr (quoted above) was revealed to the Prophet and he began to preach to the people of Mecca openly.

When attempting to analyse the argument that Sheikh Ma’rifat makes, it is interesting to look at the claim concerning the period of 3 years in which it is claimed that the Prophet did not preach openly. This is a view that many exegetes have held10 and as Allamah Tabātabāī asserts, there are narrations that support this event. However Sheikh Yūsufī Gharavī offers some very interesting criticism concerning the fatrah.

Sheikh Gharavī’s criticism lies around trying to put the fatrah into context within the Qurān and history. He begins by quoting Allamah Tabātabāī’s summary of Sūrah al-Hajr which is the chapter in which the verse telling the Prophet to preach openly was revealed.

‘Allāmah Tabātabāī writes as follows,

This chapter contains remarks concerning the ridicule of the Prophet carried out by the disbelievers, their accusations of him being deranged as well as their claims of the Qurān being the prattling of a mad man. The chapter contains consolation for the Prophet and he is commanded to adopt patience…

The chapter also contains the verse, “…فَاصْدَعْ بِمَا تُؤْمَرُ”, and this verse is indicative of what history has recorded, that is, the Prophet would not preach openly during the beginning of Prophethood for 3-5 years…he would not preach to anyone except those whom he had hopes of them bringing faith…(it was after the revelation of this verse that he) came to the people and made an open proclamation11.

Sheikh Gharavī then asks some questions in relation to what ‘Allāmah Tabātabāī claims, that is, if the Prophet did not preach to anyone except those whom he had hopes of them bringing faith, and this number of people was very small, then who were the people ridiculing the Prophet? Also, why was the Prophet being consoled when he had not made an open proclamation? If the Prophet was preaching to such a limited amount of people, then why does it seem that the scorn directed towards him is overwhelming to the extent that he is being consoled about it? These are all important questions and as sheikh Gharavī notes, not just ‘Allāmah Tabātabāī but most exegetes in general fail to offer any sort of answers to these critical questions.

Sheikh Gharavī moves on to note that according to sheikh Ma’rifat, as well as other exegetes, Sūrah al-Hajar was the 54th chapter to be revealed12. 53 chapters were revealed before this chapter, many of which contain verses that are indicative of the Prophet being significantly ridiculed.

Sheikh Gharavī quotes ‘allāmah Tabātabāī when summarising Sūrah al-Shu’arā, the 47th chapter to be revealed according to sheikh Ma’rifat’s table. Allāmah Tabātabāī writes,

The purpose of this chapter was to offer consolation to the Prophet for his people’s denial of him and the Quran. Sometimes they would accuse him of being deranged and other times that he was a poet13.

Once again, sheikh Gharavī begs the question as to who these people were who were denying the Prophet and the Qurān seeing as this chapter was revealed before any sort of command of open proclamation. In fact, it is interesting to note that the verse about youm al-indhār (The Day of Warning) was revealed at the end of this chapter, which is as follows,

 وَ أَنذِرْ عَشِيرَتَكَ الْأَقْرَبِين‏

Warn the nearest of your kinsfolk14

This is a verse which many exegetes interpret as a command for the Prophet to invite his family to Islam in what was later on referred to as youm al-indhār15. This verse, however, was revealed at the end of the chapter. Thus even before that, as ‘allāmah Tabātabāī summarised, the Prophet was ridiculed and denied. In fact, in chapters as early as Sūrah al-Muzammil, which is argued to be one of the earliest chapters to be revealed, there are verses such as follows,

وَ اصْبرِْ عَلىَ‏ مَا يَقُولُون‏

And be patient over what they say16

Allamah Tabrisī explains this verse as being patient in relation to, “the disbelievers and their denial, malice and accusations of sorcery and storytelling”17. Again, this does not seem to fit in with the claim of the Prophet preaching in secrecy seeing as such verses acknowledge the existence of significant scorn in relation to the Prophet.

Overall, as demonstrated by sheikh Gharavī’s criticism, it seems that the claim of the Prophet preaching in a secret manner for 3 years is very weak. Also, some scholars such as sheikh Ma’rifat make the claim that revelation was not revealed during these 3 years. This also seems far fetched, as demonstrated in depth by sheikh Gharavī in his work, Mousou’ah al-Tarīkh al-Islamī as well as by sheikh Ma’rifat himself through the chronology of revelation which he proposes. For example, sheikh Ma’rifat proposes that Sūrah al-Hajr was the 54th chapter to be revealed, and that this was the chapter after which the Qurān began to be revealed piecemeal. Such a claim begs the question of when the previous 53 chapters were revealed. Also, it does not answer the contextual questions that sheikh Gharavī proposes, that is, if the Qurān was not being revealed and/or preached during the aforementioned three years, then why do so many early chapters (dated to the early years of Prophethood) assert as such.

This brings about a question of methodology. As ‘allāmah Tabātabāī mentions, there are historical sources supporting the occurrence of the fatrah. It is an event upon which many exegetes have agreed upon. If one strictly looks at historical texts or narrations then a strong argument can be made for the occurrence of the fatrah. However, if one adopts a methodology where one attempts to place events into their relative contexts, then there are certain questions which when left unanswered offer significant challenges to the claim of the fatrah.

Anyhow, as always, my purpose is to encourage thought and I hope that I leave behind more questions than answers. In relation to the answers of any such questions I can only say that God knows best.

و الله اعلم

  1. Suād 38:1
  2. al-Isrā 17:106
  3. There is an apparent reason provided for the Qurān being revealed piecemeal as opposed to all at once within the Qurān. This is found in al-Furqān 25:32, “The faithless say, ‘Why has not the Qurān been sent down to him all at once?’ So it is, that We may strengthen your heart with it, and We have recited it (to you) in a measured tone”
  4. Sheikh Mufīd presents the same date in Masār al-Shī’ah pg.59, Tabarī mentions that the maba’th occurred while the prophet was at the age of 40; Tabarī, Jāmi’ al-Bayān fī Tafsīr al-Qurān v. 2 pg. 292
  5.  Al-Mas’ūdī, Murūj al-Dhahab v. 2 pg. 282
  6. al-Baqra 2:185
  7. Often translated as “the oft-frequented house”
  8. Kulaynī, Usul al-Kāfī v. 2 pg. 649
  9. al-Hajr 15:94
  10. Western scholars have also adopted this view as seen in the revised edition of Bell’s Introduction to the Qurān, where it is indicated that revelation began in the year 610 C.E. and the Prophet started preaching in 613 C.E., Bell, Introduction to the Qurān pg. 15
  11. Tabātabāī , al-Mīzan fī Tafsīr al-Qurān v. 12 pg. 96
  12. Sheikh Ma’rifat proposes an order of revelation according to narrations from Ibn ‘Abbās that he says many scholars have agreed with, and quotes Zarkashī in this regard; refer to Ma’rifat, Al-Tamhīd fī ‘Ulūm al-Qurān v. 1 pg. 168-170
  13. Tabātabāī , al-Mīzan fī Tafsīr al-Qurān v. 15 pg. 249
  14.  al-Shu’arā 26:214
  15. For a narration of the event, refer to, Tabarī, Jāmi’ al-Bayān fī Tafsīr al-Qurān v. 19 pg. 75
  16. Muzamil 73:10
  17. Tabrisī, Majma’ al-Bayān v. 10 pg. 571

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