Chapter 5 : Understanding the Text

Chapter 5 : Understanding the Text


The growth and development of the Muslim umma is marked by two great phases:

Naturally the revelation from Allah to guide the Muslims also responded, to some extent, to these particular situations.

The Makkan Phase

The Makkan phase of the revelation lasted about 13 years, from the first revelation up to the hijra.

This phase is determined by the prime task of the Prophet to call people to Islam. The main themes of this call, based on the Qur'anic revelation are:

The role of the Prophet in this phase is in particular that of an announcer and Warner.

The Madinan Phase

The Madinan phase lasted about ten years, from the hijra to the death of the Prophet. While the basic themes of the Makkan phase remain, the factor of the Muslims' growing together into a community and the formation of the umma, now makes its presence clearly felt.

In Madina, there are four groups of people to be met:

In addition to these the Qur'an also continued to address al-nas, 'mankind' i.e. all people, and referred to the disbelievers and ignorant ones.

Makkan and Madinan Suras

Suras of the Qur'an have also been classified, according to their origin, into Makkan and Madinan suras.

A sura is said to be of Makkan origin, when its beginning was revealed in the Makkan phase, even if it contains verses from Madina.

A sura is said to be of Madinan origin, when its beginning was revealed in the Madinan phase, even if it has verses from the Makkan period in its text. [Mabani, in GdQ, 1, p.59.]

The following 85 suras are, according to Zarkashi, [Zarkashi, B.: Al-burhan fi 'ulum al-Qur’an, Cairo, 1958,Vol. 1,p.193.] of Makkan origin:

96, 68, 73, 74, 111, 81, 87, 92, 89, 93, 94, 103, 100, 108, 102, 107, 109, 105,113,114,112,53,80,97,91,85,95, 106,101,75, 104,77,50,90,86,54,38,7,72,36,25,35, 19,20, 56,26,27, 28, 17, 10, 11, 12, 15, 6, 37, 31, 34, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 51, 88, 18, 16, 71, 14, 21, 23, 32, 52, 67, 69, 70, 78, 79, 82, 84,

There is a difference of opinion as to what was last revealed in Makka. Some say, following Ibn 'Abbas, that it was Sura 29 (al-ankabut); others say Sura 23 (al-mu'minun); still others say Sura 83 (al-mutaffifin). Some believe that Sura 83 is actually Madinan.

The following 29 suras are, according to Zarkashi, [Zarkashi. Vol. 1, p. 194. For another list see fihrist. 1, pp. 52-3.] of Madinan origin:

2, 8, 3, 33, 60, 4, 99, 57, 47, 13, 55, 76, 65, 98, 59, 110, 24, 22, 63, 58, 49, 66, 61, 62, 64, 48, 9, 5.

Some hold that Sura 1 (al-fatiha) is of Makkan, others that it is of Madinan, origin.

The Makkan suras constitute about 11, and the Madinan about 19 juz' of the text.

From the above division it is obvious that the Madinan suras are the longer ones and comprise a much larger part of the Qur'an.


According to a list based upon Nu'man b. Bashir and given in the fihrist of al-Nadim, [Fihrist, I. pp.49-52.] the chronological order of the revelation of the suras is as follows:

96, 68, 73, 74, 111, 81, 94, 103, 89, 93, 92, 100, 108, 102, 107, 109, 105, 112, 113, 114, 53, 80, 97, 91, 85, 95, 106, 101, 75, 104, 77, 50, 90, 55, 72, 36, 7, 25, 35, 19, 20, 56, 26, 27, 28, 17, 11, 12, 10, 15, 37, 31, 23, 34, 21, 37, 40, 41, 47, 43, 44, 45, 46, 51, 88, 18, 6, 16, 71, 14, 32, 52, 67, 69, 70, 78, 79, 82, 84, 30, 29, 83, 54, 86.

Why is it important to know the chronology of the suras and verses, although the Qur'an is not arranged in chronological order?

To know the origin and order of some of the revelation is important for understanding its meaning which can often be more easily grasped if one knows the time and circumstances that relate to it. For instance, many ayat from the Makkan period may be especially meaningful to Muslims living in a strongly un-Islamic environment, while some of the Madinan period would appeal much to Muslims who are in the process of formation of the umma. In some cases, unless one knows which of two or more related verses was revealed first, one cannot decide which legal ruling is now binding upon the Muslims. Here knowledge of the chronology is directly linked with the issue of al-nasikh wa al-mansukh. [See below for details.] It is also important to know the chronology of verses in order to understand the gradual development of many Muslim practices, attitudes and laws such as e.g. towards prohibition of alcohol, towards fighting, etc. and to see how these matters developed historically, i.e. during the lifetime of the Prophet in order to understand their full implications. [For example as far as fighting the enemy is concerned, the first verse revealed on this particular subject is from Sura al-hajj (22). This verse is from the Madinan period and it becomes clear from this that Muslims were not drawn to fight against the non-Muslims before the hijra. This has important implications for our own planning and thinking, e.g. to decide when Islam has to be defended today with verbal and when with physical means.]

Knowledge about the Makkan and Madinan suras derived from the sahaba and tabi'un and nothing is said about this by the Prophet himself. [al-Baqillani, in Qattan, op. cit., p.55.] This is because at his time everyone was a witness and well aware of the occasions of revelation.

Often there is internal evidence, as to which, part of the revelation is Makkan or Madinan. There are a number of guiding criteria, which help to distinguish between them:

Makkan suras are usually short, Madinan ones longer, e.g.:
Juz' 30 is overwhelmingly Makkan. It has 543 (Makkan) ayat.
Juz' 18 is overwhelmingly Madinan. It has (only) 117 (Madinan) ayat.

There are however exceptions in both cases.


The knowledge of Makkan and Madinan revelations is one of the important branches of ''ulum al-Qur’an. It is not merely of historical interest, but particularly important for the understanding and interpretation of the respective verses.

Many suras of the Qur'an do contain material from both periods of revelation, and in some cases there exists difference of opinion among scholars concerning the classification of a particular passage. However, on the whole, it is a well-established distinction, fully employed in the science of tafsir and best derived from the internal evidence of the text of the Qur'an itself.