It is commonly held that the sha’n-i nuzul
is in fact a narration of a particular incident or incidents, which spurred the
revelation of a verse or set of verses. I am afraid this is not correct. The sha’n-i nuzul of a revelation, in fact, refers to the circumstances encompassing
the addressees of the Holy Qur’an at the moment of revelation. The Holy Qur’an,
in fact, deals with a certain issue or a set of issues as the central theme of
all the surahs. The whole address revolves round that issue or a set of issues.
Therefore, the best way to ascertain the sha’n-i nuzul is to deliberate upon the
contents of the surah per se, because surahs are always addressed while keeping
such circumstances in view. Just as an expert doctor identifies the ailment a
patient is suffering from by simply analyzing the medicines mentioned in the
prescription, in precisely the same manner, an expert is expected to identify
the sha’n-i nuzul of the Qur’anic text by examining a surah. In a meaningful
discourse, the discourse and its theme must possess mutual affinity and
relationship, just as a well-fitted dress is in accordance with the shape of the
body. It goes without saying that the components of a meaningful discourse are
closely knit. When a tradition says that a certain verse was revealed regarding
a particular incident it indicates the circumstances in which the audience were
at the time of that particular revelation. Thus we come to know of the immediate
reasons for the revelation of the surah. Suyuti writes:
و قال الزركشي في البرهان: قد عرف من عادة الصحابة والتابعين أن
أحدهم إذا قال: نزلت هذه الآية في كذا, فإنه يريد بذلك أنها تتضمن هذا الحكم, لا أن
هذا كان السبب في نزولها, فهو من جنس الاستدلال على الحكم بالآية, لا من جنس النقل
لما وقع. قلت : والذي يتحرر في سبب النزول أنه: ما نزلت اللآية أيام وقوعه
Zarkashi writes in al-Burhan: It
is evident from the convention followed by the Companions and the Successors
that when they say that such and such verse was revealed about such and such
incident they mean that the verse embodies a ruling about that issue. It doesn’t
mean that the revelation of a particular verse/s was primarily prompted by that
incident. The narratives are not told just in order to report that incident.
This phenomenon, in fact, involves deducing a decree from the verse regarding
the issue [covered in the relevant sha’n-i nuzul narrative]. It does not involve
mere reporting the historical fact about the revelation of the verse. I believe
that it is very important to appreciate that it is not necessary that a verse
should have been revealed at the time when the incident took place.
The above quoted views of Zarkashi solves the problem
faced by Razi while interpreting the following verse of the Holy Qur’an:
وَإِذَا جَاءكَ الَّذِينَ يُؤْمِنُونَ بِآيَاتِنَا (٥٤:٦)
who belief in our revelations come to you. (6:54)
Imam Razi writes:
و لي ها هنا إشكال, و هو: أن الناس اتفقوا أَن هذه السورة نزلت
دفعة واحدة و إذا كان الأمر كذالك, فكيف أن يمكن يقال في كل واحدة من آيات السورة
ان سبب نزولها هو الأمر الفلانى بعينه.
I am quite mystified here. The
scholars are unanimous that the whole surah was revealed at one time. Then how
could one say that such and such verse of the surah is prompted by such and such
Therefore, in my opinion, as is obvious from the above
discussion, all the surahs were revealed to deal with matters, which needed an
explanation, while taking care that text of the surahs remained coherent and
free of ambiguities. We experience that an expert orator delivers a speech
regarding conditions and demands before him, in such a way that he does not
mention a particular issue yet his speech covers all the pertinent issues.
Likewise, sometimes he mentions a particular person or incident but his address
is all embracing and universal in nature. Same is the case with the revelation
of the Holy Qur’an as can be discerned from the following verse:
وَ إِنْ تَسْئَلُوْا عَنْهَا حِيْنَ يُنَزَّلُ الْقُرْآنُ
تُبْدَ لَكُمْ (١٠١:٥)
If you ask about them during the
time the Qur’an is being revealed they will be made known to you. (5:101)
This verse testifies to the fact that the Holy Qur’an,
during the course of its revelation, would answer queries that arose in the
minds of its addressees without disturbing the flow of its discourse. So when a
surah would be completed while meeting the objectives of the discourse, it did
not lack any thing regarding the clarification of the matter and nor did it bear
any thing in excess.
Sometimes this need was not fully met and another surah
would be revealed to fully clarify the issue. The occasion of revelation would
still be the same but the surah would be couched in new style to avoid monotony
and uniformity in the discourse. That is why the surahs revealed in the
beginning commonly dealt with subjects like resurrection, monotheism, belief in
the Messengers of Allah among others. In all such surahs covering similar
topics, different styles were adopted. Sometimes it was felt that a particular
thing in a surah needed an explanation so an explanatory verse would be revealed
and placed there. This was in accordance with the promise Allah made in Surah
ثُمَّه إِنَّ عَلَيْنَا بَيَانَهُ (٧٥:١٩)
Then upon Us is its explanation.
In such cases, the discourse would follow the context of
the surah rather than its period of revelation. Usually such verses would be
followed by an assertion explaining that the part under question was revealed in
order to make something clear. Therefore, verses similar to the following would
be placed at the end of the clarifying directive:
كَذَلِكَ يُبَيِّنُ اللّهُ آيَاتِهِ لِلنَّاسِ لَعَلَّهُمْ
manner, Allah explains his verses to make people understand so that they may be
fearful. (2: 187)
If we want to be completely convinced and satisfied
regarding the explanation of a certain part of the Holy Qur’an, we should not
let go of the context of the verses lest we become like a wanderer in a desert
who gets to a crossroad in the dark of night not knowing where to proceed. Thus
the occasion of revelation of a surah should be determined from the text of the
surah alone. Only those narratives should be considered worthwhile in this
regard which are in harmony with the context of the surah rather than those
which disrupt its coherence. Therefore, the most well-grounded view regarding an
occasion of revelation is that which is determined with the help of the context.
One should strongly adhere to it. When a general decree is revealed on a certain
occasion, this (occasion and condition) alludes to the reason and wisdom behind
that decree. For instance, the Holy Qur’an mentions both monogamy and polygamy.
If we consider the sha’n-i nuzul by reflecting on the context, it becomes clear
that the first practice is adopted in order to do justice with the orphans
while the second is a requirement of justice with the wives. The two directives
themselves are based on the common underlying reason of justice with the weak.
Circumstances will tell which one is applicable in a particular situation.
Similar is the case of pledging some item as collateral for a loan. To take
something precious from a brother in this way is an act of obvious meanness.
Therefore, the Almighty allowed us to resort to this process only and only when
we feel no way out of such an arrangement and clearly directed us to return the
things taken thus immediately after the need is fulfilled.
(Translated from Farahi’s Fatihah Nizam al-Qur’an by Tariq