The Benefits of Asbaab an-Nuzool (Reasons for Revelation)
Dr. Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips
Taken from Usool At-Tafseer The Methodology of Qur'anic Interpretation, pp. 194-204
How to Know the Reason for the Revelation of a Verse
The circumstances fro a particular revelation could only be known to the witnesses of the relevant events or someone who was informed by a witness. Therefore, the only reliable source for this knowledge is the sahaabaah. Like the hadeeths of the Prophet (peace be upon him), the reliability of such reports depends upon the reliability of the chain of narrators. The statement of a tabi'ee about the reason for a given revelation is usually considered weak by the scholars of hadeeth if he didn't attribute his opinion to one of the sahaabah. (See Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence, p. 39)
The Benefits of Asbaab an-Nuzool
Knowledge of the reasons for revelation is of great importance to understanding the Qur'aan, as well as many of the Islaamic laws contained in it. The following are some of the benefits provided by knowledge of the reasons for revelation:
1. Asbaab an-nuzool often explain the wisdom underlying the legislation of some of the Islaamic laws. Knowledge of the wisdom behind divine laws provides scholars with general principles which enable them to work out laws for new problems which have similar causes or effects. Asbaab an-nuzool also show the concern of the laws for the general welfare of man in their treatment of problems. This, in turn, makes us aware of Allaah's mercy, which is a fundamental part of all divine laws. For example, Ibn Abbaass reported that Hilaal ibn Umayyah went to the Prophet (peace be upon him) and accused his wife (Hilaal's wife) of adultery with Shurayk ibn Sahmaa'. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said to him, "(Produce) the proof (four witnesses) or else you will receive the punishment (of eighty lashes) on you back." Hilaal replied, "O Messenger of Allah, if one of us sees a man on his woman, should he leave and seek witnesses?" Allah's Messenger again said, "(Produce) the proof or else you will receive the punishment." Hilaal then said, "(I swear) By the One who sent you with the Truth that I am telling the truth. And Allah will surely reveal something to free my back from the punishment." And Jibreel descended with the revelation,
And for those who launch a charge against their spouses, and have (in support) no evidence but their own, - their solitary evidence (can be received) if they bear witness four times (with an oath) by God that they are solemnly telling the truth; And the fifth (oath) (should be) that they solemnly invoke the curse of God on themselves if they tell a lie. But it would avert the punishment from the wife, if she bears witness four times (with an oath) By God, that (her husband) is telling a lie; And the fifth (oath) should be that she solemnly invokes the wrath of God on herself if (her accuser) is telling the truth.(The hadeeth was collected by al-Bukhaaree (Sahih Al-Bukhari, vol. 6, p. 245-6, no. 271), at-Tirmithee, and Ibn Majah.
2. Sometimes the reasons for revelation specify the particular aspect which was intended from the general meaning of the verses. That is, the obvious meaning of the verse may be general enough to include circumstances not intended by Allah. An examples of this is the verse,
Think not that those who exult in what they have brought about, and love to be praised for what they have not done, - think escape the penalty. For them is a penalty Grievous indeed.
Marwaan ibn al-Hakam told his gateman, "O Raafi', go to Ibn 'Abbaass and say to him, 'If every man among us who is happy about what he has brought about and likes to be praised for what he has not done will be punished, then we will all be punished.'" (When he did so) Ibn 'Abbass replied, "What has happened to you all concerning that verse? Verily it was revealed concerning the People of the Book." He then recited (verse previous to it),
And remember God took a covenant from the People of the Book, to make it known and clear to mankind, and not to hide it; but they threw it away behind their backs, and purchased with it some miserable gain! And vile was the bargain they made!
Ibn 'Abbass then said, "When Allah's Messenger (peace be upon him) asked them about something, they concealed it from him and gave something else in its place. They then went out, making him think that they had informed him about what he had asked and they sought his praise and thanks. They were also very happy about having been able to hide from him what he asked about." (Collected by al-Bukhaaree (Sahih Al-Bukhari, vol. 6, p. 73-4, no. 91) and Muslim (Sahih Muslim, vol. 4, p. 1458, no. 6687).
Hence, the verse does not refer to everyone who is happy about what they have done, but specifically those who are happy about being given books of revelation, yet they hide its meanings from those who wish to know the truth.
3. The reason for revelation sometimes clarifies the always which may be deduced from the verses. The obvious meaning of the verse may imply a particular law, whereas the circumstances under which the verse was revealed indicate another law. For example, Urwah once said to his aunt Aaishah, wife of the Prophet (peace be upon him), "Do you know the verse,
Behold! Safa and Marwa are among the Symbols of God. So if those who visit the House in the Season or at other times, should compass them round, it is no sin in them. And if any one obeyeth his own impulse to good, - be sure that God is He Who recogniseth and knoweth.
I do not feel that there is any sin on one who does not walk between them." Aaisha replied, "What a terrible thing you have said, O my nephew! Verily, if the (verse) meant as you interpreted it, it would have been, 'So there is so sin on anyone who does not walk between them.' But verily, it was revealed because the Ansaar, before Islaam, used to dedicate their (hajj or 'umrah) to two idols, Isaaf and Naa'ilah, on the seashore. The people went there, then walked between as-Saffa and al-Marwah, then got their heads shaved. After Islaam they didn't like to walk between them, because of what they used to do during the Day of Ignorance. Hence, Allah revealed the verse, "Verily as-Saffa and al-Marwah are among the shrines of Allah.'" (Sahih Muslim, vol. 2, p. 644, no. 2923. The Qur'aanic verse is from Soorah al-Baqarah (2):158.
In another version she added, "Then Allah's Messenger (peace be upon him) showed how the walk between them should be done. Thus, no one is allowed to drop the walking between them." (Collected by al-Bukharee (Sahih Al-Bukhari, vol. 2, pp. 412-3, no. 706) and Muslim (Sahih Muslim, vol. 2, p. 645, no. 2926).
Although the obvious meaning of the verse indicated that the walking between Mount as-Safaa and Mount al-Marwah was merely (mubaah) (allowable), the reason for revelation indicates that it is waajib (compulsory).
Method of Interpretation
The verses may be general or specific and the reason for revelation may either confirm the general implications of the verses or their specific implication, or it may qualify them.
1. In the first case where the reason for revelation confirms the general implication of the verse, the verse should be interpreted according to its general meaning. For example, Anas ibn Maalik reported that the Jews used to remove their women and from their houses when they menstruated. They would not eat, drink, or sit with them in their houses. When the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) was asked about it, Allah revealed the verse,
They ask thee concerning women's courses. Say: They are a hurt and a pollution: So keep away from women in their courses, and do not approach them until they are clean. But when they have purified themselves, ye may approach them in any manner, time, or place ordained for you by God. For God loves those who turn to Him constantly and He loves those who keep themselves pure and clean.
Then the Prophet of Allah (peace be upon him) said,
"Sit with them in your houses, and you may do everything with them except intercourse." (Collected by Muslim (Sahih Muslim, vol. 1, pp. 175-6, no. 592), Aboo Daawood (Sunan Abu Dawud, vol. 1, p. 64, no. 258), at-Tirmidthee, and Ibn Maajah.
The general meaning of the verse that menstruating women should not be approached sexually is confirmed by events surrounding its revelation.
2. In the second case, where specific implications of the verse are confirmed by the reason for the revelation, the verse should be interpreted according to its specific meaning. For example, Urwah reported that Aboo Bakr as-Siddeeq set free six or seven slaves, all of whom were being tortured because of their belief in Allah: Bilaal, Aamir ibn Fuhayrah, an-Nahdeeyah and her daughter, Umm Eesaa, and a slave girl of the Naw'il clan; and the following verses were revealed about him:
She placed a screen (to screen herself) from them; then We sent her our angel, and he appeared before her as a man in all respects. She said: "I seek refuge from thee to (God) Most Gracious: (come not near) if thou dost fear God." He said: "Nay, I am only an apostle from thy Lord, (to announce) to thee the gift of a holy son. She said: "How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?" He said: "So (it will be): Thy Lord saith, 'that is easy for Me: and (We wish) to appoint him as a Sign unto men and a Mercy from Us': It is a matter (so) decreed." (Urwah's statement was collected by Ibn Abee Haatim. At-Tabaree quotes two supporting narrations, both of them mursal. Tafseer at-Tabaree, vol. 12, p. 260
The wording of the verse mentions "the most God-fearing," which is superlative. This is a wording that indicates someone specific, rather than a generality. Thus, these verses should be understood to refer to Aboo Bakr as-Siddeeq, although a general lesson can be learned from his great example of selflessness.
3. However, in the third instance, where the reason for revelation is specific and the verse is revealed with general implications, the verse should be interpreted in a general way so as to include all circumstances similar to the specific events surrounding the verse's revelation. For example, al-Musayyib reported that when Aboo Taalib was on his deathbed, the Prophet of Allah (peace be upon him) came to visit him while Aboo Jahl and Abdullah ibn Abee Umayyah were with him. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, "O Uncle, say, 'There is not god but Allah,; and I will defend you with it before Allah." Then Aboo Jahl and Abdullah said, "O Aboo Taalib, will you turn away from the creed of Abdul-Mutallib?" They kept on telling him that until he said that he was following the creed of Abdul-Mutallib. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, "I will seek forgiveness for your as long as I am not forbidden to do so."
Then the following verse was revealed:
It is not fitting, for the Prophet and those who believe, that they should pray for forgiveness for Pagans, even though they be of kin, after it is clear to them that they are companions of the Fire.
Hence, the verse prohibiting prayers seeking forgiveness applies to all Muslims in cases where their parents or relatives have died in a state of disbelief, even though it was revealed in reference to Aboo Taalib before his death.
The guiding principle to be followed when interpreting or applying the verses of the Qur'aan is that the lesson lies in the general meaning of the words and not simply in the special circumstances in which they were revealed. However, knowledge of the events surrounding the revelations puts the general meaning of the verses in proper context and prevents deviation. For example, Yoosuf ibn Maahak reported that when Marwaan was governor of al-Hijaaz, Caliph Mu'aawiyah desired that his son Yazeed be caliph after him, so he wrote to Marwaan, Marwaan then gathered the people of Madeenah and addressed them, inviting them to take an oath of allegiance to Yazeed ibn Mu'awiyah as caliph after his father. When he added that it was the sunnah (way) of Aboo Bakr and Umar, Abdur Rahman ibn Abee Bakr answered that it was the sunnah of Heraclius and Caesar. Marwaan then ordered that he be seized, so Abdur Rahmaan entered Aaisha's house and the soldiers were unable to arrest him. Marwaan then said, "Surely, he is the one about whom this verse was revealed,
But (there is one) who says to his parents, "Fie on you! Do ye hold out the promise to me that I shall be raised up, even though generations have passed before me (without rising again)?" And they two seek God's aid, (and rebuke the son): "Woe to thee! Have faith! for the promise of God is true." But he says, "This is nothing but tales of the ancients!"
When the news of what he said reached Aaisha, she said, "Marwaan has lied. By Allah, it was not about him, and if I wished to name the one about whom it was revealed, I could do so." (A combination of narrations collected by al-Bukharee (Sahih Al-Bukhari, vol. 6, p. 338-9, no. 352) and an-Nasaa'ee.
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