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Occasion of Revelation
Imam Hamiduddin Farahi
(Tr. by:Tariq Haashmi)


It is commonly held that the sha’n-i nuzul1 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.2

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)

When those 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 incident?3

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 Qiyamah:

ثُمَّه إِنَّ عَلَيْنَا بَيَانَهُ (٧٥:١٩)

Then upon Us is its explanation. (75:19)

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 يَتَّقُونَ (١٨٧:٢)

In this 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 orphans4 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.5

(Translated from Farahi’s Fatihah Nizam al-Qur’an by Tariq Mahmood Hashmi)







1. The term refers to the occasion of revelation of a surah or part of a surah of the Holy Qur’an. 

2. Suyuti, al-Itqan, 1st ed., vol. 1 (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1996), 93-94.

3. Razi  Tafsir al-Kabir, 2nd ed., vol. 13 (Tehran: Dar al-Kutub al ‘Ilmiyyah, n.d.), 2-3.

4. Sometimes a man feels the need to marry more than one woman for the welfare of the orphans or to fulfill any other pressing social or moral responsibility. (Islahi)

5. This has been briefly discussed in our commentary on the Qur’an 2:283. (author)

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