Reasons of Revelation
We have been looking at the way the reasons of revelation can aid us in developing a sound understanding of the Qur’an. Here we look at this issue with much more depth.
Imam ash-Shatibi radi allahu `anhu (may God be pleased with him) states in al-Muwafaqat:
“Knowledge of the reasons of revelation as it descended is a must for the person desiring knowledge of the Qur’an. The evidences for this position are:
- The sciences: semantics and rhetoric by which we come to know of the miraculous nature of the structure of Qur’an, aside from knowledge of the aims of the language of the Arabs, revolves around the implications of context.
- Knowledge of the reasons of revelation as it descended is an understanding of the meaningful indications derived from context.
- Language carries subtle meaning embedded in the way it is used that cannot be understood except through understanding context.
Neglect in understanding the reasons of revelation as it descended lleads [the reader] to misread the intent of the verses of the Qur’an.”
Imam ar-Razi (ra) said: “If we know the reasons of revelation, it becomes clear to us what was intended,” (Usul at-Tafsir wa Qawaidihi).
Imam Ibn Taymiyah (ra) said: “Familiarity with the reasons of revelation supports understanding of a verse. For indeed knowledge of a reason leads us to what generated it.”
Shaikh Ahmad Sa’ad Ibrahim Abdur Rahman al-Azhari (h) commenting on the statement of Imam Ibn Taymiyah (ra) saying, “Indeed familiarity and knowledge of the reasons of revelation supports a sound understanding of a verse.”
Imam Ibn Daqiq al-Eid (ra) said: “By cultivating familiarity and knowledge of the reasons for revelation one firmly trots a strong path to understanding the meaning of the Qur’an,” (Muqaddima Usul at Tafsir).
Imam Shah Wali Ullah (ra) argued in Fauz al-Kabir Fi Usul at-Tafsir:
“There are stories and narrations related by the scholars of hadith [narration] that are found in the books of Qur’anic commentary that communicate the various occasions and reasons for which verses of the Qur’an were revealed. These occasions and reasons for revelation can be classed into two types:
- An event that occurred that serves the function of encouraging growth in the belief of Muslims and in their commitment to Allah. This is the case on the occasion of the battles of Uhud and the Confederates. During these events Allah praises the people of belief and casts blame upon the people of hypocrisy. These occasions are a declaration of difference between the two groups is blatantly made clear and a line of division is drawn between them. Because these events and the descriptive characteristics of the two groups are mentioned with frequency in the Qur’an, but in a brief and summarized form it is imperative to explain these two occasions with the purpose of enlightening the reader of the Qur’an about the incidents and background that are referred to in brief.
- A story of which the meaning of the verse stands independent of it and consequently the verse’s content is understood without needing to refer to the story referenced. The exegetical maxim that governs this type of situation is that “meaning is predicated upon the general intent of the language and not upon a particular contextual event or specific reason. The scholars of Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir) relate various stories and events with the aim of relating them to accompany specific verses so that they support and aid us to understand their import but in this later case the verse stands on its own independent and in no need of these stories and events.”
The position of Imam Shah Wali Ullah (ra) is reaffirmed by Shaikh Muhammad Abdul Adheem az-Zarqani al-Azhari (ra) (Minahal al Irfan, v.1). Shaikh Khalid as-Sabt (h) says: “the major portion of the Qur’an was revealed with no mention of there being a specific reason for its descent. On the other hand, there are portions of the Qur’an that descended in response to a particular occasion or to a question posed. Possessing this type of knowledge is a condition for interpreting the Qur’an. The reasons and occasions of revelation clarify a ruling or speak to a particular situation during the time of revelation,” (Qawaid at Tafsir, v. 1).
There is no difference among the scholars regarding the function of the reasons of revelation in determining the meaning of a verse. Some scholars have mentioned that this type of knowledge clarifies matters that can be misunderstood as well as prevents misunderstanding. Shaikh Muhammad Abdul Adheem az-Zarqani al-Azhari (ra) adds that this knowledge facilitates understanding and memorization of the Qur’an. He also relates the position that the knowledge of the reasons of the occasions of revelation is only to be based upon sound narrations. We only arrive at this knowledge by means of reliable transmission. Consequently, ijtihad is not a source of reference for this knowledge (Minahal al Irfan, v.1).
In reading Imam Shah Wali Ullah (ra) in light of the position of Shaikh az- Zarqani al-Azhari (ra), one is left with a question: “If the only means to understanding the reasons and occasions of revelation is a sound narration then what of the stories of the people of the Book?” Imam Ibn Taymiyah (ra) says: these stories are of three categories:
- Those which are in our possession and we know their authenticity and are verified by the Qur’an.
- Stories that we are aware of their falsity by way of their contradiction to what was revealed to us.
- Those stories that we are silent on, we neither reject nor accept them.
Shaikh Ahmad Sa’ad Ibrahim Abdur Rahman al-Azhari (h) commenting on Imam Ibn Taymiyah’s Muqaddima says: “The introduction of the stories of the people of the Book into Qur’anic exegesis has been the cause of differences of opinion among the scholars of Qur’anic commentary due to the fact that we find contradictory narrations used to understand the Qur’an that can not be verified nor are they related from an infallible source. Here the sound position is as Shaikh az- Zarqani al-Azhari (ra) related: ‘We only arrive at this knowledge by means of reliable transmission consequently ijtihad is not a source of reference for this knowledge (Minahal al Irfan, v.1).’”
For this reason we find many contemporary scholars ensure that their work on Qur’anic commentary is divest of stories that are nor verifiable nor sound. The problem we face is that many people have predicated an understanding about Prophets or stories related in the Qur’an upon narrations which are not verifiable and by doing so, they violate a fundamental principle of Qur’anic commentary and that is that we must possess a sound knowledge of the occasions and reasons of revelation. Even if the stories are narrated not as a means to understand the Qur’an but instead are used to encourage faith, they cloud the reality of the Qur’an and Prophet-hood because the basis of the knowledge is unfounded.
Imam Suyuti (ra) narrates:
The Chapter of the Qur’an entitled “Sincerity” was revealed in Mecca and contains four verses. The first verse of the chapter (Say: He, Allah, is One) according to Imam at-Tirmidhi (ra) who narrated from al-Hakum and Ibn Khuzaimah by way of Abi Aliyah from Ubayy Bin Ka’ab that: “The polytheists said to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ relate to us the lineage of your Rabb [Lord]. So Allah revealed this verse: (Say: He, Allah, is One).”
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