The Qur'an has been revealed for guidance, for all times and situations to come. However, various ayat were revealed at a particular time in history and in particular circumstances. The Arabic word sabab (pl. asbab) means reason, cause and 'marifa asbab al-nuzul' is the knowledge about the reasons of the revelations, i.e. the knowledge about the particular events and circumstances in history that are related to the revelation of particular passages from the Qur'an.
Wahidi (d. 468/1075), one of the best classical scholars in this field wrote: 'The knowledge about Tafsir of the ayat is not possible without occupying oneself with their stories and explanation of (the reasons) for their revelation.' [Asbab al-nuzul, by al-Wahidi al-Nisaburi. Cairo, 1968, p 4]
Knowledge about the asbab al-nuzul helps one to understand the circumstances in which a particular revelation occurred, which sheds light on its implications and gives guidance to the explanation (tafsir) and application of the aya in question for other situations.
In particular, knowledge about the asbab al-nuzul helps one to understand:
The direct and immediate meaning and implication of an aya, as it can be seen within its original context.
The imminent reason underlying a legal ruling.
The original intent of the aya.
Whether the meaning of an aya is specific or of general application, and if so, under which circumstances it is to be applied.
The historical situation at the time of the Prophet and the development of the early Muslim community.
'To God belong the East and the West: whithersoever ye turn, there is the presence of God, for God is all-pervading, all-knowing' (2:115).
Without knowing the sabab (reason), one might easily conclude that this revelation permits the Muslim to face any direction when performing prayer, while it is well known that to face qibla is one of the conditions without which prayer becomes invalid. The circumstances in which this revelation occurred explains its implications:
According to Wahidi
[op. cit. pp. 20-21] a group of Muslims travelled on a dark night and
they did not know where the qibla was, so they later realised that they had
prayed in the wrong direction. They asked the Prophet about it and he kept
silent until the above verse was revealed. '
[Based on a report from Jabir b. 'Abdullah. Wahidi also informs us about some
other situations when the aya reportedly applied:
- That one may pray voluntary prayer on one's riding camel, in whichever direction it may turn (based on Ibn 'Umar).
- That the Companions of the Prophet asked why they were ordered to pray for the dead Negus of Abyssinia, who had prayed towards a different qibla than their own (based on Ibn 'Abbas and 'Ata').
- That the Jews asked, why the qibla of the Muslims had been changed from bait al-maqdis (based on Ibn Abi Talha).
See Wahidi, op.cit., p.21. All this supports the view (to which in particular K. Murad drew my attention) of Suyuti based on Zarkashi (Suyuti, Lubab an nuzul, Tunis, 1981, p.7.) that when the suhaba of the Prophet spoke about an aya of the Qur'an, saying 'It was revealed concerning ...'(nazalat fi kadha) they do not restrict themselves to narrating a single 'cause' for the revelation of an aya but rather refer to the 'situations' to which particular verses where found applicable during the lifetime of the Prophet while the occasion of the first revelation of the aya may have been much earlier. In this lie great avenues for understanding and tafsir of the Qur'anic message.] Taking into account this reason for the revelation one cannot come to the wrong conclusion that it is unimportant where to turn in prayer. The scholars say however that this verse excuses the mistake of those who un-willingly and under adverse circumstances fail to observe the correct qibla.
The well-known asbab al-nuzul have been related to us by the reliable Companions of the Prophet Muhammad. Only reports which are sahih can be considered fully reliable, as is the case in the science of hadith generally. A particular condition here is also that the person who relates it should have been present at the time and occasion of the event (the revelation). [Wahidi. p.4.] Reports from tab'iun only, not going back to the Prophet and his Companions are to be considered weak (da'if). Hence one cannot accept the mere opinion of writers or people that such and such verse might have been revealed on such and such occasion. Rather one needs to know exactly who related this incident, whether he himself was present, and who transmitted it to us.
There are two kinds of reports on asbab al-nuzul:
In the first kind (definite) the narrator clearly indicates that the event he relates is the sabab al-nuzul.
Narrated Ibn 'Abbas: the verse 'Obey Allah and obey the apostle and those of you (Muslims) who are in authority ...' (4: 59) was revealed in connection with 'Abdullah bin Hudafa bin Qais bin 'Adi when the Prophet appointed him as the commander of a sariyya (army detachment). [Bukhari, VI, No. 108.]
In the second kind (probable) the narrator does not indicate clearly that the event narrated is the sabab al-nuzul, but suggests this probability.
Narrated 'Urwa: Az-Zubair quarrelled with a man from the Ansar because of a natural mountainous stream at Al-Harra. The Prophet said: O Zubair, irrigate (your land) and then let the water flow to your neighbour. The Ansar said: O Allah's apostle (this is because) he is your cousin? At that the Prophet's face became red (with anger) and he said: O Zubair. Irrigate (your land) and then withhold the water till it fills the land up to the walls and then let if flow to your neighbour. So the Prophet enabled Az-Zubair to take his full right after the Ansari provoked his anger.
The Prophet had previously given an order that was in favour of both of them. Az-Zubair said: 'I don't think but this verse was revealed in this connection: But no, by your Lord, they can have no faith, until they make you judge in all disputes between them' (4: 65). [Bukhari, VI, No. 109.]
There are three kinds of 'reasons' which are connected with revelation of particular passages from the Qur'an:
Revelation in response to an event or a general situation.
Revelation in response to a particular question that has been asked by someone.
Revelation for other reasons, known or not known to us.
Narrated Ibn 'Abbas: The Prophet went out towards Al-Batha' and ascended the mountain and shouted: 'O Sabahah', so the Quraish people gathered around him. He said: 'Do you see? If I tell you that an enemy is going to attack you in the morning or in the evening, will you believe me?' They replied: 'Yes'. He said- 'Then I am a plain Warner to you of a coming severe punishment'. Abu Lahab said: 'Is it for this reason that you have gathered us? May you perish!' Then Allah revealed 'Perish the hands of Abu Lahab' (Sura 111: verse 1). [Bukhari, VI, No. 496.]
The Sura concerning Abu Lahab was revealed in response to this event, when Abu Lahab said: 'May you perish!'
Sura 2:158 concerning Safa and Marwa was revealed in response to a particular situation in Makka during the time of the Prophet.
Narrated 'Urwa: I asked 'A'isha (regarding the Sa'i between As-Safa and Al-Marwa). She said: 'Out of reverence to the idol Manat which was placed in Al-Mushallal those who used to assume Ihram in its name, used not to perform Sa'i between As-Safa and Al-Marwa (because there were two other idols between these two hills). So Allah revealed: Verily As.-Safa and Al-Marwa are among the symbols of Allah.' Thereupon Allah's apostle and the Muslims used to perform Sa'i (between them). Sufyan said: The (idol) Manat was at Al-Mushallal in Qudaid. 'A'isha added: 'The verse was revealed in connection with the Ansar. They and (the tribe of) Ghassan used to assume Ihram in the name of Manat before they embraced Islam'. 'A'isha added 'There were men from the Ansar who used to assume Ihram in the name of Manat which was an idol between Makka and Medina. They said, O Allah's Apostle! We used not to perform the Tawaf (sa'i) between As-Safa and Al-Marwa out of reverence to Manat. ' [Bukhari, VI, No. 384; also Nos. 22. 23.]
In response to this situation 2: 158 was revealed.
On many occasions the Muslims addressed questions to the Prophet concerning Islamic beliefs and the Islamic way of life. An example of the many occasions when a revelation was revealed in response to such a question posed to the Prophet is Sura 4:11
Narrated Jabir: The Prophet and Abu Bakr came on foot to pay me a visit (during my illness) at Banu Salama's (dwellings). The Prophet found me unconscious, so he asked for water and performed the ablution from it and sprinkled some water over me. I came to my senses and said O Allah's apostle! What do you order me to do as regards my wealth?
So there was revealed 'Allah commands you as regards your children's (inheritance)' (4: 11). [Bukhari, VI, No. 101.]
The verse in question is concerned with inheritance and explains the rules of inheritance for children as follows:
God (thus) directs you as regards your children's (inheritance):
'To the male a portion equal to that of two females: if only daughters, two or more, their share is two-thirds of the inheritance. If only one, her share is half ...' (4:11).
On other occasions, the Prophet himself asked questions. Sura 19: 64 was revealed in response to such a question by the Prophet Muhammad:
Narrated Ibn 'Abbas: The Prophet said to the Angel Gabriel, What prevents you from visiting us more often than you visit us now? So there was revealed: 'And we (angels) descend not but by the command of your Lord. To Him belongs what is before us and what is behind us ...' (19: 64).' [Bukhari, VI, No. 255.]
There are numerous occasions when revelation was sent down providing guidance concerning general questions that had arisen in the Muslim community.
Thabit narrated from Anas: Among the Jews, when a woman menstruated, they did not dine with her, nor did they live with them in their houses; so the Companions of the apostle (may peace be upon him) asked the apostle (may peace be upon him) and Allah the Exalted revealed:
'And they ask you about menstruation: say it is a pollution, so keep away from women during menstruation' to the end (Qur'an 2: 222).
The messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said: Do everything except intercourse ... [Muslim, I. No. 592.]
This report is also a good example of how the Prophet himself explained the meanings of the revelation when such questions arose.
Often a general rule which became part of the Qur'anic revelation, was first revealed in response to the circumstances or needs of a particular person, e.g. Sura 2:196:
'... And if any of you is ill, or has an ailment in his scalp (necessitating shaving) he should in compensation either fast or feed the poor or offer sacrifice ...' Ka'b bin 'Ujra said this verse - and if one of you is ill or has an ailment in his scalp, - was revealed concerning me. I had lice on my head and I mentioned this to the Prophet and he said: Shave (your head) and compensate by fasting three days or a sacrifice or feed six poor, for each poor one Sa'. [Muslim, II, Nos. 2735, 2738, 2739; Wahidi, op.cit., p.31. One sa' is a cubic measure of approx. 2.6 kg.]
This is again an example of the Prophet himself explaining the revelation in detail. At other times such revelation could not be applied but to the respective person. The best example of such a revelation is Sura Lahab (111) already referred to above. Other examples are references to the Prophet Muhammad in the Qur’an, such as e.g. Sura 75: 16:
Narrated Ibn 'Abbas (as regards Allah's statement) 'Move not your tongue concerning (the Qur'an) to make haste therewith' (75:16).
When the Angel Gabriel revealed the divine inspiration to Allah's Apostle he moved his tongue and lips, and that stage used to be very hard for him, and that movement indicated that revelation was taking place. So Allah revealed in Sura al-qiyama which begins: 'I do swear by the Day of Resurrection ...'
The Verses: 'Move not your tongue concerning (the Qur'an) to make haste therewith. It is for us to collect it (Qur'an) in your mind and give you the ability to recite it by heart' (75:16-17). [Bukhari. VI. No. 451.]
From the reports of the sahaba it appears that particular passages of the Qur'an were revealed in response to more than one event, situation or question, or that the application of a particular passage of the Qur'an was for more than one particular occasion, as pointed out above.
Sura al-ikhlas (112) firstly responds to the mushrikun in Makka before the hijra, and secondly to the ahl al-kitab encountered in Madina after the hijra. [Itqan, I, p.35; Wahidi, op.cit., pp.262-3.]
Another example is Sura 9: 113:
This aya was revealed firstly in connection with the death of the Prophet's uncle Abu Talib, where Muhammad said 'I will keep on asking (Allah for) forgiveness for you unless I am forbidden to do so'. Then there 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 has become clear to them that they are the companions of the Fire. [Bukhari, VI, No. 197.]
The other occasion reported is when the Companions and in particular 'Umar b. al-Khattab found the Prophet shedding tears when he visited the graveyard. The Prophet explained that he had visited his mother's grave and that he had asked his Lord's permission to visit it which had been granted to him and that he had also asked his Lord's permission to pray for her forgiveness which had not been granted to him and the above aya had been revealed. [Wahidi, op. cit., p. 152.]
A well-known example for several revelations, which are connected with one particular circumstance, are three verses which according to reliable reports, came down in response to the question of Umm Salama, whether or why only the men had been referred to in the Qur'an, as being rewarded. According to Al-Hakim and Tirmidhi the verses 3:195, 4: 32 and 33:35 were revealed in response to this question:
'And their Lord has accepted of them and answered them: Never will I suffer to be lost the work of any of you be he male or female: Ye are members, one of another: those who have left their homes, or have been driven out therefrom, or suffered harm in My cause, or fought or been slain - verily I will blot out from them their iniquities and admit them into gardens with rivers flowing beneath; a reward from the presence of God and from His presence is the best of rewards' (3: 195).
'And in no wise covet those things in which God has bestowed His gifts more freely on some of you than on others; to men is allotted what they earn and to women what they earn: but ask God of His bounty for God has full knowledge of all things' (4: 32).
'For Muslim men and women - for believing men and women - for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast, for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in God's praise - for them has God prepared forgiveness and great reward' (33:35). [Salih, op cit., p. 148]
It also occurs that the Companions of the Prophet when mentioning a revelation, differed in their views about its sabab al-nuzul. This is due to the fact that as already shown above there have been various asbab for one particular revelation, and each of the persons reporting the circumstances had been present only on one of the various occasions.
Otherwise several views about the same revelation have to be judged on their merits according to the rules of 'ulum al-,hadith, and one of them will be found to be stronger than the others.
There are two reports concerning the revelation of Sura 17: 85:
According to Ibn 'Abbas, as reported in Tirmidhi, the Quraish asked the Jews to give them something they could ask the Prophet about and they were advised to ask about the Spirit (al-ruh). Then the aya 17:85 was revealed.
From Ibn Mas'ud, as reported in Bukhari, it is related that he said:
While I was in the company of the Prophet on a farm, and he was reclining on a palm leaf stalk, some Jews passed by. Some of them said to the others: Ask him about the Spirit. Some of them said: What urges you to ask him about it. Others said: (Don't) lest he should give you a reply which you dislike, but they said, Ask him. So they asked him about the Spirit. The Prophet kept quiet and did not give them any answer. I knew that he was being divinely inspired so I stayed at my place. When the divine inspiration had been revealed, the Prophet said 'They ask you (O Muhammad) concerning the Spirit. Say: "the Spirit", its knowledge is with my Lord and from the knowledge it is only a little that has been given to you (mankind)' (17: 85).
The second report, although the first one has been declared sahih by Tirmidhi, is considered to be stronger because it comes from Ibn Mas'ud, who says that he was present on the occasion of the revelation, while the report from Ibn 'Abbas in Tirmidhi does not contain this information. [See Salih, op.cit., pp. 145-6; Bukhari, VI, No. 245.]
Another question leads directly to the field of tafsir, but is still connected with asbab al-nuzul. When one knows about the sabab al-nuzul, it is still to be decided whether the revelation has a specific implication for the particular occasion it was connected with, or whether it is of general implication and needs to be applied by all Muslims at all times.
'As to the thief, male or female, cut off his or her hands: a punishment by way of example, from God, for their crime: and God is exalted in power' (5: 41).
This verse although it was revealed concerning a specific person who had stolen a piece of armour and had been punished accordingly, is of general application. [See Wahidi, op.cit., p.111; also Tafsir Ibn al-Jauzi, Beirut, 1964, Vol.II, p.348.]
In some cases scholars have provided us with the background of certain events that have been narrated in the Qur'an. Obviously, however, such information does not belong to the field of asbab al-nuzul. Although it may help to understand the message of the revelation, it is not related in a direct and reliable way, showing immediate reason for or the occasion of the revelation.
'Seest thou not how thy Lord dealt with the companions of the elephant?' (105:1).
The following passage from a book of tafsir, although it contains information about the background of the event narrated in the sura, does not belong to the field of asbab al-nuzul:
(The companions of the elephant) had come from the Yemen and wanted to destroy the Ka'ba (they were) from Abyssinia and their leader was Abraha al-Ashram, the Abyssinian. [Tujibi, mukhtasar min tafsir al-Tabari, Cairo, 1970, II, p.529.]
The branch of 'ulum al-Qur’an concerned with the asbab al-nuzul is one of the most important areas of knowledge for the proper understanding and explanation of the Qur'anic revelation. The message of the Qur'an is guidance for all times. However its ayat were revealed at particular points of time in history and in particular circumstances.
One of the most crucial steps in meaningful interpretation is to distinguish between that part which is attached solely to the historical event and that part, which, although attached to the historical event, also has wider implications. The knowledge of asbab al-nuzul helps to distinguish between these two by:
Clarifying the events and circumstances, which are connected with the revelation of certain ayat.
- Illustrating the application of such ayat by referring to situations, when the Companions of the Prophet found them proper and applicable.