The Significance of Segmented Revelation
Dr. Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips
Taken from Usool At-Tafseer The Methodology of Qur'anic Interpretation, pp. 135-146
There are a number of reasons why the second revelation took place in segments rather than all at once, as happened with the former books of revelation. The following are only a summary of the most obvious reasons:
1. Steadying the Prophet's Heart
The Prophet (peace be upon him) was face with many trials at the hands of his enemies among the idolaters and the Jews. They called him a liar and a fake and tried every possible way to break his spirit. Whenever the pressure of his opponents reached its peak and became virtually unbearable, Allah would reveal certain verses to comfort the Prophet (peace be upon him). For example:
Those who reject Faith say: "Why is not the Qur'an revealed to him all at once? Thus (is it revealed), that We may strengthen thy heart thereby, and We have rehearsed it to thee in slow, well-arranged stages, gradually.
Allaah would also give him confidence by reminding him of the trials of the former prophets and how they were eventually given success. For example,
Rejected were the apostles before thee: with patience and constancy they bore their rejection and their wrongs, until Our aid did reach them: there is none that can alter the words (and decrees) of God. Already hast thou received some account of those apostles.
At other times Allaah would actually promise him help and victory:
And that God may help thee with powerful help.
Or Allaah would inform him of the failure of his enemies:
Say to those who reject Faith: "Soon will ye be vanquished and gathered together to Hell, - an evil bed indeed (to lie on)!
Thus, certain segments of the Qur'an were revealed at various point [sic] in his mission specifically to comfort the Prophet (peace be upon him) and give him steadfastness and confidence in order to fulfill his obligation of propagating Islam.
2. Gentleness With the Prophet (peace be upon him)
The descent of revelation was a great burden which usually left the Prophet (peace be upon him) drained and weak. 'Aa'ishah reported that once, on an extremely cold day, she saw him when revelation came and left him. And, in spite of the cold weather, his forehead was dripping with sweat. (Sahih Al-Bukhari, vol. 1, p. 2, no. 2). Even Allaah Himself referred to the Qur'aan as being weighty and burdensome:
Soon shall We send down to thee a weighty Message.
And, in order to emphasize the greatness, power and weight of the word of God, Allaah set forth the following metaphor:
Had We sent down this Qur'an on a mountain, verily, thou wouldst have seen it humble itself and cleave asunder for fear of God. Such are the similitudes which We propound to men, that they may reflect.
Thus, the revelation of the final word of Allah in one stroke would have been too much for the Prophet (peace be upon him) to bear. Such a revelation would have placed him under the most extreme pressure. It was, therefore, broken down into bearable segments and revealed gradually. In this way the Prophet (peace be upon him) would only be burdened for short periods of time and his mission would not be hampered by long periods of recovery. Thus, the segmented method of revelation represents the gentle manner in which Allah dealt with His last messenger due to the might and glory of the final message.
3. Gradation in Legislation
The method by which the Qur'aan was used to present the principles of Islaam was a gradual method. All of the principles were not enjoined in the beginning or all at once during any stage. The early soorahs of the Qur'aan were aimed at treating the main problem which confronted the worship of Allaah and His unity: shirk (the worship of other than Allah). Belief in Allaah's supremacy and unity had to be built and the false gods of creation had to be removed. Thus, the early soorahs concentrated on tawheed (belief in Allah's unity and that He is the only true deity deserving of worship) and the other major pillar of eemaan, (faith) belief in the Resurrection and Judgment. It was not until after twelve years of building eemaan that salaah was made compulsory, during the Prophet's Ascent (mi'raaj) to the heavens. (See Sahih Muslim, vol. 1, pp. 100-3, no. 309. Ibn Hishaam mentions reports of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his companions praying from the early days of the Makkan period although it was not yet obligatory, and ash-Shaafi'ee state in the early days prayer at night was obligatory, as is indicated by the beginning of Soorah Muzammil, but that the final verse of the same soorah abrogated the obligation. See Fat-h al-Baaree, vol. 1, p. 554 and ar-Raheeq al-Makhtum, p. 78.)
On year before the Hijrah, the Qur'aanic verses began to stress salaah as a requirement fo the believers. It was not until two years after the Hijrah that the Qur'aanic verses turned to sawm and zakaah and enjoined them on Muslims. (Zakaah was mentioned in Makkan verses (e.g., 30:38-9, 27:1-3, 31:4, 41:6-7), but as the Muslims were without a state, it was left to individuals to pay it, and there were no restrictions or qualifications as to the amount of zakaah required on each category of wealth. See Fiqh az-Zakaah¸ vol. 1, pp. 52-61. See also Zaad al-Ma'aad, vol. 2, p. 30.
Finally, in the sixth year after the Hijrah, the verses of the Qur'an revealed hajj as an obligation for whoever is able to perform it. (See Nayl al-Awtaar, vol. 4, pp. 337-8).
Aa'isha mentioned that the first thing to be revealed of the Qur'aan dealt with Heaven and Hell and that it was only after some time that issues of legal and illegal acts were dealt with. She said, "If the first thing to be revealed had been, 'Don't drink liquor,' or 'Don't commit adultery and fornication,' they would have said, 'We will never give [it] up.;" (Sahih Al-Bukhari, vol. 6, pp. 483-4, no. 515)
If the Qur'aan had been revealed all at once, it would not have been possible to establish the laws in a gradual fashion. This method was particularly important for the first generation of Muslims who would later establish Islaam in the earth. It was necessary for them to have a clear understanding of the principles of Islaam because the later generations of Muslims would depend on their interpretation and practice of Islaam.
4. Facilitating the Preservation of the Qur'aan
Since the majority of the Prophet's followers were unable to read or write, the main method or preserving the Qur'aan became that of memorization. So, if the whole Qur'aan had been revealed at once, they would have been unable to memorize all of it due to its length.
Even the few who were able to write would have been unable to record all of it, due to the scarcity of writing materials at the time. Thus, the revelation of the Qur'aan in sections made it easier for the companions to memorize the whole Qur'aan and teach it to each other. Umar ibn al-Khattab was reported to have said, "Learn the Qur'aan five verses at a time, for verily, Jibreel used to descend with the Qur'aan for the Prophet (peace be upon him) five times a day. (Collected by al-Bayhaqee in Shu'ab al-Eemaan and quoted by as-Suyootee in al-Itqaan, vol. 1, pp. 124-5. As-Suyootee notes, however, that it is authentically established that some passages were revealed ten verses at one time, and on some occasions only a part of a verse would be revealed.)
This also made it easier for the scribes of the Prophet (peace be upon him) to record all of the Qur'aan during his lifetime. This early preservation of Qur'aan was critical to maintaining the purity of the teachings of Islaam, as it was the alterations in earlier books of revelation which led their followers astray. The gradual revelation of the Qur'aan also gave them a greater opportunity to contemplate the meanings of the verses. This, in turn, caused them to question the Prophet (peace be upon him) in order to clarify certain points or verify certain interpretations. Thus, this generation was able to gain a truly deep understanding of the Qur'aan. This was of great importance, because their practical implementation of the principles of the Qur'aan became a guided to later generations of Muslims and continues to be one to this day. Such an understanding would not have been possible had the Qur'aan been revealed all at once.
5. Dealing With Problems as They Arose
Often the verses of the Qur'aan would be revealed to deal specifically with problems which faced the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his companions. Sometimes people would ask the Prophet (peace be upon him) questions about which he had no knowledge, and Allaah would reveal the answer. For example, it was reported that the story about Thul-Qarnayn was revealed because the Jews asked the Prophet (peace be upon him) about him, as a test of his prophethood. Allah revealed:
They ask thee concerning Zul-qarnain. Say, "I will rehearse to you something of his story."
At other times, verses would be revealed to correct an error made by the Prophet (peace be upon him) himself. An example of this is in Soorah at-Tawbah, in which Allaah told the Prophet (peace be upon him),
God give thee grace! why didst thou grant them until those who told the truth were seen by thee in a clear light, and thou hadst proved the liars?
Mujaahid said the verse was revealed about some people who advised others, "Ask the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) to excuse you (from participating in the expedition to Tabook). If he gives you permission, stay home, and if he doesn't permit you, stay home, (anyway)." Ibn Katheer said "The Most High is saying, 'You shouldn't have given permission to any of them to stay behind so you could have known who was truthful in his display of obedience to you and who was lying. For they were firm in their intention to stay behind.' " (Tafseer Ibn Katheer, vol. 2, p. 375)
Verses were also revealed to correct wrong attitudes which were widespread among the Muslims of that time. An example of such a revelation is the case of the Battle of Hunayn. Muslims had left to do battle with the disbelievers feeling that they were sure to be victorious , since their numbers exceeded that of the enemy many times over. The enemy ambushed them and caused them to turn on their heels and flee in defeat. However, after that initial lesson, Allah gave them success over the enemy in the same battle. Then, He revealed the following verse:
Assuredly God did help you in many battle-fields and on the day of Hunain: Behold! your great numbers elated you, but they availed you naught: the land, for all that it is wide, did constrain you, and ye turned back in retreat.
By dealing with the various incidents at the time that they occurred, the Qur'aan was able to reach those involved more directly. Corrections made immediately after errors take place tend to have a greater impact than general advice given long before or after. If the Qur'aan had been revealed all at once, it would not have been possible to treat these and similar problems within their context.
6. An Indication of the Qur'aan's Source
The revelation of the Qur'aan in segments over twenty-three years is clear proof that it is Allah's word, alone, and not that of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) or any other member of creation. That is proven by the unity and consistency of expression from beginning to end. Its basic subject matter is intimately interwoven throughout its one hundred and fourteen chapters, and all of the chapters seem interconnected like priceless pearls on a single necklace. Its rhyme and rhythm flow unhindered through every verse in the book in a unified style, in spite of the variations in subject matter and sentence structure.
How could such a consistency arise when the Qur'aan was not available in its complete form from the beginning? How could it arise when its verses and chapters often dealt with incidents occurring at various stages of the movement? How could it be the product of the mind of a man who could neither read or write, nor had he displayed any special ability to compose prior to the beginning of his mission? Even the greatest of writers have variations in their styles, especially over long periods of time. Therefore the fact that the Qur'aan was revealed in sections over a period of twenty-three years clearly proves that its origin was not of this world. Its source had to be the Lord of the Worlds, Allah, Most Great and Glorious. Allah Himself pointed to this fact in the Qur'aan, saying,
Do they not consider the Qur'an (with care)? Had it been from other Than God, they would surely have found therein Much discrepancy.
Whenever the Prophet (peace be upon him) had a new revelation, he would tell his companions to put it after other earlier revelations or before them. The Prophet (peace be upon him) had no idea what he was going to face in the future or how long he was going to live. His life was filled with a multitude of incidents which, without a doubt, altered his mood and his mode of expression. Yet, the Qur'aan in no way reflected these differences. The Qur'aan is definitely not the product of Muhammad (peace be upon him), as some would like to claim, and that fact is proven by the Qur'an itself.
Educational Benefits of Segmented Revelation
The process of education depends on the following two basic principles: (a) taking into account the mental level of the students, and (b) developing their mental, spiritual and physical abilities with material which guides their thought processes in the correct direction. Both of these important principles have been carefully taken into consideration by the revelation of the Qur'aan in segments. Gradation of legislation took into account the level of the Muslim community during its various stages of development. The revelation of corrections and answers at the time when they were most needed trained, developed and guided the mental, spiritual and physical faculties in the right direction.
The question which naturally arises here is why the earlier books of revelation were revealed as a whole. The answer to this question lies in the role of the earlier books and the history of prophethood. The earlier books were sent for short periods in human history and were directed to specific nations or tribes. They contained principles which were not tie or situation oriented and could be revealed all at once, at the beginning of a mission or at any point during it. It should also be noted that the earlier books were not in themselves miracles, whereas in the case of the Last Prophet (peace be upon him), it was the major miracle given to him, for, as was mentioned earlier, the segmentation of the revelation combined with the consistency of style was a proof of its divine origin. Also, the earlier prophets were both preceded and followed by other prophets, so each prophet and his book represented a segment of the overall revelation. Thus, the gradation in legislation took place from prophet to prophet. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was the last of the prophets and his book of revelation contained the essential messages of all previous books. Thus, his followers had to be properly prepared to carry the final message to the world. As such, the gradation in legislation had to take place within the message itself.
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