Originally published on Mind in Momentum.
Was the Qur’ān sent down gradually over the span of the Prophet’s mission of twenty three years or was it sent down singularly, all at once (jumlatan), in the night of Qadr?
We read in 97:1 “Surely we sent it (the Qur’ān) down in the night of Qadr”; in 44:3 “Surely we sent down [the Book] in a blessed Night” and finally in 2:185 “It is the month of Ramaḍān in which we sent down the Qur’ān”.
On the other side, we read in 25:32 “And those who disbelieve say ‘Why is the Qur’ān not revealed to him (Prophet) all at once?’ [Answer them:] This is so we can strengthen your (Prophet’s) heart while we have recited it in a gradual fashion“, and in 17:106, “And [it is] a Qur’an which We have separated [by intervals] that you might recite it to the people over a prolonged period. And We have sent it down progressively”
It is easy to see why such a question would arise given the apparent contradiction between the two set of verses. In fact, some critics of Islam have also raised this as a counter argument to the consistency of the Qur’ān. Despite their dislike, scholars have provided different explanations which we will briefly cover in this writing.
- The revelation began on the night of Qadr in the month of Ramaḍān and was gradually revealed to the Prophet over the span of his mission.
- Each year the amount that was required for the guidance of the people was revealed to the Prophet in the month of Ramaḍān
- The Qur’ān has three modes of existence and each were revealed differently.
- The Qur’ān was sent down twice: once, in complete, to the heart of the Prophet on the night of Qadr and the other, gradually, as he recited it to the people.
View 1: Commencement
The beginning of an important event is itself important. We remember the starting dates for the formation of countries, the break of wars, the era of a new ruler and even something as conventional as the beginning of the year to mark the complete cycle of the Earth around the Sun. Similarly, the descent of the Qur’ān in the night of Qadr deserves exclusive mentioning for it was the first time after a long period of darkness prevailing the human condition that their Lord endowed His favour upon them and reopened the gates of the heavens and revelation onto them.
This view is attributed to Zamakhshari, Imam Razi, Ibn Shahr Ashub, Sheikh Mufid and the contemporary Sheikh Mohammad Hadi Ma’rifat.
Objection: “It is the month of Ramaḍān in which we sent down the Qur’ān” has no indication to the Qur’ān commencing on this month.
Reply: This depends on how we interpret the alif lam of al-Qur’ān (lit: the Qur’ān) in the verse. When it is read as alif lam ‘ahd, the definitive article referring to the Qur’ān as a specific book, the objection holds. However, when it is read as alif lam al-jins, the definitive article referring to the type of a thing, al-Qur’ān no longer points to a specific book, rather, to the type of thing it is: revelation from God. We can then loosely translate the verse as: “It is the month of Ramaḍān which we sent down revelation”. When read in this fashion, there is no reason to assume that the descent in the month of Ramaḍān was different in nature to other times; they were all ultimately revelation. What makes Ramaḍān and the night of Qadr significant is the beginning of this majestic downward trajectory of light from the Divine.
Objection: In “It is the month of Ramaḍān in which we sent down the Qur’ān as a guidance for mankind and clear proofs of guidance and criterion”, the Qur’ān in question is one which guides all of humanity. Whereas, according to your view, only a small portion of the Qur’ān was revealed up until that time; how can a small number of verses be described in this way? It is more fitting of the Qur’ān we hold today in its entirety to be given this description.
Reply: Here God intends the description for the Qur’ān which has the ability to be a guidance for mankind; even if the then-descended verses did not fully encapsulate the ability to be a source of guidance, the potential Qur’ān which will be completed over 23 years will have this ability.
This is an interesting reply; however, the use of past tense in “sent down” voids this possibility. The verse is referring to a Qur’ān that has already been completed, not one which will be completed.
We can counter with: The phrase “as a guidance for mankind” is not a description of the Qur’ān, but for the act of sending down: “we [began] sending down the Qur’ān for the guidance of mankind…”. The descent was for the purpose of guidance.
The problem still persists: we agree that the phrase is explaining the wisdom behind the descent, but descent in and of itself is a concept when it is not manifested in the real world; what gives it a reality and value is what is being descended. In other words; although, conceptually we can divide “descent” and “the descended”; but realistically speaking, in the external world descent has no identify of itself without the descended, the noble Qur’ān.
Objection: It is commonly held among scholars that the first verses of the Qur’ān (“Read in the name of your Lord who Created”) were revealed in the 27th of Rajab 3 years prior to the night of Qadr. Are these verses not part of the Qur’ān?
To answer…we say that the beginning of the Prophetic mission (on the 27th of Rajab) is different from the commencement of the Qur’ān’s revelation as a Heavenly Scripture.
The Qur’ān as a Heavenly Book and a divine eternal constitution, was only revealed three years later, in the interim, the Prophet hid his mission from the people at large (Sh Hadi Ma’rifat, Introduction to the sciences of the Qur’ān, vol 1. 142-143).
Sheikh Hadi wishes to differentiate between the verses revealed before Qadr and that after by the token of the Prophet’s mission becoming public on that night and thereon the Qur’ān officially taking the guise of a universal, divine and eternal constitution for all of humanity. The Qur’ān with these features began on the night of Qadr.
May God bless the soul of the late Sheikh; however, this reply is not convincing. Are the first five verses of Surah ‘alaq really not part of the Qur’ān as an universal and divine constitution? What about the opening chapter of the Book, al-Fatiha, which was also revealed before the night of Qadr and which Muslims recite at least 10 times a day for their prayers? Is the most symbolic and frequently recited chapter of the Qur’ān not part of the Qur’ān? Is it not the founding stone upon which this Book rests on?
View 2: Yearly
Attributed to Ibn Jurayj and also to the famous companion Ibn Abbas.
Objection: This view contradicts the literal meaning of the verses we mentioned above. The use of past tense “we sent down” is not suitable for an event that happens every year; rather, “we send down” or “we are sending it down” would have been more appropriate expressions.
View 3: Three modes of the Qur’ān
Sayed Nur al-Din Araki in his commentary Qur’ān and the Intellect” claims:
“The descent upon the ears [i.e, the current recited Qur’ān] is like a star-like series…the descent on his heart, as the Qur’ān has spoken of it, by Gabriel on his heart as it was in the month of Ramaḍān; so the intermediary level of the Qur’ān is in accordance with the intermediacy of the Prophet…as for the descent on his spirit, that was without the intermediacy of the angel” (p. 109).
Sayed Araki hasn’t substantiated this view more than what was quoted above but perhaps we can argue on his behalf from the Qur’ān itself.
“The first level of the Qur’ān can be understood from ‘Indeed we have made it an Arabic Qur’ān’ (43:3), for Arabicness is a description of speech, words and writing. Written and linguistic existence is under the domain of convention and returns to the natural world.
The intermediate level of descent can be understood from ‘Indeed it a descent from the Lord of the worlds; the Trustworthy Spirit (Gabriel) has brought it down; on your heart so that you may one of the warners’ (26:193). In this stage the Prophet, in addition to the heard words and letters…received with his heart the meaning and precepts of the Qur’ān via Gabriel” (Tasnim, Ayt J Amoli).
The transcendent mode of the Qur’ān resides in the Divine realm and has to be directly received per “Indeed you receive the Qur’ān from [the vicinity] of the Wise and Knowing” (27:6). The Qur’ān in the Divine vicinity (maqam ladunni) is not received by descent, for there is no descent for affairs of that realm, rather it is received by ascent. And so he received this noble mode of the Qur’ān the night of Ascent “So he neared and neared, then he was [as close] as the distance of two bow lengths or nearer, then we revealed to Our servant what we revealed” (53:9). (Paraphrased from Tasnim, Ayt J Amoli)
View 4: Two descents
When we examine and compare the two set of verses, we find that the Arabic word used for the descent of the Qur’ān on the night of Qadr is inzal as opposed to the word use for the gradual descent tanzīl. This indicates two types of descent; one on Qadr and one gradually over 20 years. al-Raghib says:
The difference betweeen inzal and tanzīl in describing the Qur’ān…is that tanzīl is exclusively used to indicate descent one installment after another whereas inzal is general.
‘Allāmah Tabataba’i accepts this view and adds:
The Book has another reality beyond what we comprehend through ordinary understanding. It is a reality with a coherent unity which cannot be divided or broken into parts. This division [which we witness with the read Qur’ān] into sections seen in the Scripture only happened subsequent to the coherent unity. God said, (This is) a Book whose verses are strengthened and then expounded (11:1); this is indeed a noble Qur’ān in the Hidden Book which none touches save the purified (56:77-79).
So what is meant by the Qur’ān’s being sent down on the Night of Qadr is the Book’s consolidated reality being sent down, all at once, to the Messenger’s heart, just as the divided Bok was gradually sent down in parts, also to his heart, throughout the duration of his calling as as Prophet” (Paraphrased from Tabatabai’, al-Mizan, vol. 2, 14-16).
‘Allāmah, may Allah have mercy on his soul, also refers to the following verse as a means of justifying his position, “And do not rush with the Qur’ān before its revelation has been completed to you” (20:114) suggesting that the Prophet knew the revelation before the angel would descend down with it and is commanded to be patient in announcing it until the process is complete. We can suppose a similar argument with “Do not move your tongue with it, as to hasten with its recitation. Indeed upon Us is its collection and its recitation” (75:16-17).
The author of Majma’ al-Bayān, Tabarsi, has interpreted the first verse as: do not ask for the descent of the Qur’ān before it is revealed onto you, for God sends down the Qur’ān according to when it is needed and appropriate. (Vol 1: 115). This interpretation is less indicative of the Prophet’s knowledge of the Qur’ān before its descent, however, it does not negate it either; for he can be aware of the verses while its announcement to the people is contingent on God’s permission and the angel’s descent; and hence the asking.
This interpretation also implies that the Prophet did not have sufficient insight to know the appropriate time to announce the Qur’ān, to such an extent that God had to officially remind him that you must withdraw until we see it befitting. Perhaps we can reply: the verse is is not reprimanding the Prophet for hastiness, rather, emphasizing to the people that no word of the Qur’ān is uttered by Mohammad (s) unless it is by the permission of God.
But more importantly, what historical evidence do we have the Prophet was haste in asking for revelation? (Tasnim, Ayt J Amoli).
Zamakhshari in his commentary, al-Kashhaf has also proposed another possibility: do not hasten with its recitation [to the people] until the angel has completed its announcement [to you], and do not read it with the angel fearing you will forget it, “We will read it to you, so you will not forget” (87:6).
If we accept his suggestion then “Upon us its collection and recitation” can be read as: do not hasten in its announcement for we are the ones who collect it, it will not be lost, and we will repeat its recitation until you will not forget.
However, “We will read it to you, so you will not forget” was sent during the early days of his mission and before the verse in question. Therefore, it is not sensible after God’s affirmation to His Prophet that he will not forget and is safeguarded from making mistakes with the reciting of the Qur’ān, the Prophet would out of fear of forgetfulness recite while Gabriel has not finished the revelation. Furthermore, the Qur’ān describes the Prophet with “Surely you possess a magnificent character” once again prior to the verse in question; if he would wait for the disbelievers to finish their speech before he would speak, how can we suppose that he will not practice this etiquette for a noble being like Gabriel. (Tasnim, Ayt J Amoli)
Additionally, if interrupting normal speech is outside his “magnificent character”; what does that leave for interrupting the recitation of the Qur’ān when it contradicts “when the Qur’ān is recited, listen to it and pay attention, so that you may receive Mercy.” (7:204) ?
Proponents of the in-complete descent like Sheikh Sadūq and Mūllā Fayḍ Kashānī also use the following hadith reported by ‘Ayashi as backing evidence where Imam Sadiq has reported to have said:
The Qur’ān came down complete in the month of Ramaḍān to the Inhabited House (bayt al-ma’mur). Then it was sent down from Inhabited House over twenty years.
The report is also found with some additions in al-Kafi of Sheikh Kulayni. Putting aside the analysis on the authenticity of the report, we can ask two questions: what is the point of this two stage descent and why has the in-complete descent onto the Inhabited House been equated to the heart of the Prophet, while the report itself is empty of such indication?
It appears, in attempt to answer the first question and to reconcile between the Qur’ān and these reports, the commentators have equated the House to the Prophet’s heart. The two stage descent is to enlighten the heart of the Prophet with the reality of the Qur’ān in the beginning of his mission and upon this reveal the verses gradually to him. As ‘Allāmah Majlisi says in justifying Sheikh Saduq’s position:
It appears that Saduq (god have mercy on his soul) wishes to reconcile between the reports and the verses, and remove the assumed contradiction between them…[by suggesting that] the Qur’ān was sent down from the Protected Tablet unto the fourth sky (the Inhabited House) and from there to Earth gradually. And it was descended in-complete onto the heart of the Prophet…so that he may be aware of it not that he should recite it to the people (al-Khulasah al-‘‘Allāmah, p248).
This does answer the first question but still requires the unsubstantiated and esoteric (ta’wili) effort in interpreting the House as the heart.
Objection: The night of Qadr is a night in which all matters and affairs are organised, divided and categorised per “In this night, all wise affairs are divided” (44:4). It is unfitting that in this setting of division and composition, the coherent, consolidated, singular reality of the Qur’ān, a non-composite entity, descends from the Divine to the Prophet.
Ayatollah Jawadi Amoli, may Allah prolong his life, a student of ‘Allāmah, has extended on the ideas of his teacher and attempted to solve the problems associated with it including the above objection.
He says the Qur’ān that descended upon the heart of the Prophet on Qadr is non-composite, undivided and basic, and at the same time it is divided, detailed and elaborated. There are technicalities in his explanation which we can skip and instead communicate it to the modern reader with an analogy they’ll better understand. Imagine you have downloaded a copy of the Qur’ān in PDF format; the file from one perspective is singular and basic; but at the same time, within it are thousands of verses of the Qur’ān; and in this light it is divided and elaborated. Given this dual nature, there is no problem in it descending on the night of division and composition.
Objection: There are usages of tanzīl in the Qur’ān not used for graduality but for all at once descent; therefore, we cannot use the aforementioned difference between tanzīl and inzal as a basis for the two types of descent you have argued for. For example, in “And they say, ‘Why has a sign (miracle) not been sent down to him from his Lord?’” (6:37), the verb used is from the root tanzīl, whereas it would generally be more suitable for a miracle to descend at once, not gradually.
Reply: The verse refers to the request of the heads of Quraysh adamantly challenging the Prophet to bring another miracle besides the Qur’ān not considering it to be enough of a sign. In this light, because they are comparing this miracle to the Qur’ān, and the Qur’ān was read to them gradually, that is in the tanzīli form, its sensible for them to ask for another miracle to be sent in the same fashion.
Additionaly, tanzīl can be used for both graduality as it can be used for multiplicity (kithrah). Given this, in general, in cases where the usage appears incompatible, we have to investigate further and examine the wisdom for Allah’s usage of that form of the verb rather the other.
Objection: According to this view, the Prophet had accurate knowledge about the verses of the Qur’ān long before they were revealed in their respective occasions. What is the point of the gradual descent via Gabriel when the Prophet can himself reveal the verses?
Reply: The descent of Gabriel still has benefits:
- “[We sent the Qūr’ān gradually] to strengthen your heart.” Thus, each time the angel of revelation would communicate with the Holy Prophet (s), it was a form of spiritual vitalization and reassurance which he critically needed throughout his difficult mission.
- It illustrates the central role submission, selflessness and ūbudīyyah (lit: servanthood to God) played in the revealing of the Qūr’ān. Although he had knowledge of the verses, but this is the Creator’s exclusive project and each step needs to be carried out with His directions. In other words, God’s permission is inherently fused in the revelation of the Qūr’ān and without the Prophet’s submission to this fact, no descent can occur.
Objection: How can you reconcile between his previous knowledge and his behaviour in light of the general tone of the Qūr’ān portraying the Prophet as unaware of the verses before their descent. For example, in “If a corrupt person brings you news, then verify it” (49:6), he ordered his companions to discipline a group of people based on the false news of Walīd ibn Ūqbah, but the verse ordered that he investigate further before making any disciplinary action. Verses like these show that he interacted with the revelation as it descended gradually, not via some previous knowledge.
This is a weighty objection. We can potentially concede with: the Prophet did not act upon his previous knowledge but rather dealt with the situations on face value. Generally speaking this is a satisfactory answer, but even so, at times the Prophet’s behaviour indicates otherwise. For example, in the aforementioned incident, it has been reported that the Holy Messenger showed anger after Walīd delivered this false news. If he was aware of the truth behind the incident, what meaning would his anger have?
Unless, we claim even reactions of this sort were based on wisdoms unknown to us. However, this ambiguity only favours the objection not the defendant.
Upon our discussion, the reader can testify to the difficulty of writing a decisive conclusion; for no view goes without some considerable objection. Credit is owed to all these respected scholars for enlightening our puzzled minds on this discussion. However, Sayed Nur al-Din’s explanation and in particular that of ‘Allāmah demonstrate a stronger ability in resolving the apparent contradiction between the verses. They both resort to some philosophical and esoteric elements for explaining their respective positions; which is both a point of strength and one of questioning. Philosophy and esoterics are domains with great degrees of flexibility, granting consistency to both views and perhaps further room for others to offer competing explanations. Keeping all this in mind, comparing all the presented views, ‘Allāmah’s explanation (View 4) with Ayt J Amoli’s strengthening presents the most comprehensive solution to our initial question.
و الحمد لله
Ali Safdari is a BA in Philosophy and Physics from University of Sydney and has been studying in the Islamic Seminary of Qom since 2018.