Sources have discussed five different views and possibilities about which verse was revealed first:
1) The first verse of chapter 96. In the oldest surviving biography of Prophet Muhammad, Ibn Hisham (d. 218 H / 833 CE) states that Gabriel appeared to Muhammad one night when he was sleeping in a cave on a mountain called Hira’ in Mecca, where he used to go for a spiritual retreat for a month every year (see my article One Night in a Cave that Changed History Forever). Carrying a book, Gabriel commanded him to “read.” Muhammad refused the order twice before finally asking about what he was supposed to read. Gabriel replied with following verses of the Qur’an:
Read [O Muhammad!] in the name of your Lord who created. (96.1) He created man from a clot. (96.2) Read, and your Lord is the Most Honorable (96.3) who taught with the pen. (96.4)
Muhammad then recited the verses in his sleep. When he woke up, he felt as if the words had been engraved on his heart. On his way down from the mountain, the Prophet heard a voice from heaven saying: “O Muhammad! You are the messenger of Allah, and I am Gabriel.”
In his renowned collection of hadith, al-Bukhari (194-256 H / 810-870 CE) gives a slightly different version of this story in which he adds verse 93.5 to the first revealed verses. The hadith is attributed to ‘A’isha, the wife of the Prophet:
The commencement of the divine inspiration to the Messenger of Allah was in the form of good dreams which came true like bright daylight, and then the love of seclusion was bestowed on him. He used to go into seclusion in the Cave of Hira’ where he used to worship [Allah alone] continuously for many days before he would desire to see his family. He used to take with him the journey food for the stay and would then come back to [his wife] Khadija to take food for another stay, until suddenly the Truth descended upon him while he was in the Cave of Hira’. The angel came to him and asked him to read. The Prophet replied, “I do not know how to read.”
The Prophet added, “The angel caught me [forcefully] and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read and I replied, ‘I do not know how to read.’ So he caught me again and pressed me a second time till I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read but again I replied, ‘I do not know how to read.’ So he caught me for the third time and pressed me, and then released me and said:
Read [O Muhammad!] in the name of your Lord who created. (96.1) He created man from a clot. (96.2) Read, and your Lord is the Most Honorable (96.3) who taught with the pen, (96.4) taught man what he did not know. (96.5)
The Messenger of Allah returned with the inspiration and with his heart beating fast. Then he went to [his wife] Khadija bint Khuwailid and said: “Cover me! Cover me!” They covered him until his fear was over, and after that he told her everything that had happened. He said: “I fear that something bad may happen to me.” Khadija replied: “Never! By Allah, Allah will never disgrace you. You keep good relations with your kin, assist the weak, help the poor, serve your guests generously, and assist the calamity-afflicted ones.”
Khadija then took Muhammad to her cousin, Waraqa bin Nawfal. This blind old man had converted to Christianity and had knowledge of the Injil that was revealed to Jesus. after listening to Muhammad’s story, Waraqa told him that he has received the same divine revelation that was given to Moses and prophesied that Muhammad’s people would expel him at some point as all those who received such revelation where mistreated by their peoples.
This hadith is reported by Muslim (206-261 H / 821-875 CE) also. It is the source of the consensus of scholars that 96.1-5 where the first Qur’anic verses to be revealed.
2) Verse 74.1. One such claim is reported by al-Bukhari and Muslim on the authority of Yahya bin Abi Kathir:
I asked Abu Salama bin Abd Ar-Rahman about the first revelation of the Qur’an. He said: “O you who are clothed.” I said: “They say [it is rather]: ‘Read in the name of your Lord who created.’” Abu Salama replied: “I asked Jabir bin Abdullah, may Allah be pleased with them, about that, and told him as you said, but Jabir replied: ‘I would not tell you other than what the Messenger of Allah, Allah’s prayer and peace be upon him, told us: “I went to stay in Hira’. After finishing my stay, and while I was coming down, I was called upon. I looked right, left, front, and behind, but could not see anyone. But when I raised my head I saw something. I then came to Khadija and said: ‘Cover me, and pour cold water on me!’” He said: “They covered me and poured cold water on me.” He said: “Then the following verses were revealed: ‘O you who are clothed (74.1)! Arise and warn (74.2)! And your Lord do magnify (74.3).’”’”
Scholars have tried to reconcile this hadith with the one attributed to ‘A’isha. It has been suggested that Jabir’s hadith does not talk about the very first revelation of the Qur’an, but rather about the verses that were first revealed after the well-known period of cessation of revelation (fatrat al-wahyi) to the Prophet. This view is based on a second hadith attributed to Jabir and is reported by az-Zuhri:
Abu Salama told me on the authority of Jabir bin Abdullah, may Allah be pleased with both of them: “I heard the Prophet, Allah’s prayer and peace be on him, talk about the period of cessation of revelation. He said: ‘While I was walking, I heard a voice from heaven. I raised my head and saw the angel who visited me in Hira’ sitting on a chair between the heaven and earth. I was terrified, so I returned [home] and said: “cover me, cover me.” They covered me, so Allah, high is He, revealed: “O you who are clothed (74.1)! Arise and warn (74.2)! And your Lord do magnify. (74.3) And purify your clothes. (74.4) And abomination shun. (74.5)” This was before prayer was made obligatory. The “abomination” refers to the idols [the Arabs used to worship].
True, this hadith states that the reported event took place after the cessation of revelation that followed the Prophet’s first meeting with Gabriel during which, presumably, the first verses of chapter 96 were revealed. But this observation does not deal with the problem in Jabir’s first hadith: its unambiguous rejection that the verses of chapter 96 were the first to be revealed. One attempt to explain away the contradiction has been to suggest that Jabir was reporting what he had heard from the Prophet about the cessation of revelation and that he, mistakenly, interpreted the Prophet’s words to be about the first verses ever to be revealed. This explanation has been adopted by classical scholars as well as modern ones, such as Muhammad az-Zarqani in his well-known book Manahil Al-‘irfan fi ‘ulum al-Qur’an (The Springs of Knowledge of the Sciences of the Qur’an) . The fact scholars can take this highly speculative view about how Jabir could have completely misunderstood something so obvious shows the extent of the reluctance of scholars to take the much more likely view that the hadiths reported by al-Bukhari and Muslim, who wrote their hadith compilations over two centuries after the Prophet, might have some inaccuracies. If the first part of the hadith which clearly rejects the case for 96.1 in preference for 74.1 is deemed unhistorical, then the remaining of Jabir’s first hadith would be reconcilable with ‘Ai’sha’s and Jabir’s second.
Another attempt to avoid attributing inaccuracy to hadiths reported by the “two Shaikhs,” as al-Bukhari and his student Muslim are known, is to suggest that Jabir’s first hadith was about which “whole chapter,” not “single verse,” was revealed first. One reference to this view is found in As-Suyuti’s renowned book al-Itqan fi ‘Ulum al-Qur’an (Perfection in the Sciences of the Qur’an) . The problem, however, is that there is nothing in Jabir’s first hadith to suggest that it was about the first chapter rather than the first verse. Again, scholars have been more prepared to interpolate and extrapolate the text with pure speculation, which does not dispel the contradiction anyway.
A third attempt, also reported by as-Suyuti, is to suggest that Jabir did not mean the first verses ever but only the first verses that include warnings to people, or what some described as the first verses that moved Muhammad’s Prophethood into the phase of the delivery of the message!
As I said, it is perfectly possible to reconcile all these hadiths by simply ignoring the first part in Jabir’s first hadith. But this is more of a problem than a solution for those who believe that everything in the books of al-Bukhari and Muslim is sahih or “correct,” i.e. every hadith is a totally accurate narrative about what the Prophet said and did.
3) The first verse in the mushaf, i.e. verse 1 of chapter 1 which is known as al-Fatiha (the Opening). The view that this was the first verse to be revealed is a hadith reported by, among others, Abu Bakr al-Bayhaqi (d. 384 H / 994 CE):
[Muhammad said to Khadija]: “When I am alone I hear a call, and I become scared about myself that this may be something bad.” She said: “May Allah forbid! He would not do that to you. You deliver what you are trusted with, look after your relatives, and do not say but the truth.” When Abu Bakr came in Khadija mentioned his (Muhammad’s) words to him and said to him: “Go with Muhammad to Waraqa.” They went to see Waraqa and Muhammad told him: “When I am alone I hear a call coming from behind me, so I run forward to escape.” Waraqa said: “Do not do that. If he (the caller) comes to you then stay put until you hear what he has got to say then come and let me know.” When later Muhammad was alone, he was called: “O Muhammad! Say: ‘In the Name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate. (1.1) Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the worlds, (1.2) the Merciful, the Compassionate, (1.3) the ruler of the Day of Judgment. (1.4) You we worship and You we ask for help from. (1.5) Guide us to the right path, (1.6) the path of those whom You have not shown favour to, not of those whom You have been angry with not of those who go astray. (1.7)’”
Two arguments were made against this view. First, this hadith is mursal, i.e. it is not traced to a companion of the prophet but to one of their successors. Second, this hadith does not mean that the revelation of al-Fatiha was the first revelation, which took place in the Hira’ cave, but it shows that the chapter of al-Fatiha was revealed after that. This objection, which aZ-Zarqani raises, is too weak. The narrative clearly shows that Muhammad had not been familiar with Gabriel before he followed Waraqa’s advice and responded to the caller. It clearly contradicts the hadith that states that the first verses are those of chapter 96.
4) The basmala, i.e. “In the Name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate,” which starts all chapters of the Qur’an except chapter 9. This view is based on a hadith that al-Wahidi (d. 468 H / 1076 CE) — in his famous book on the causes of the revelation of various verses, Asbab an-Nuzul — attributes to ‘Ukruma and al-Hasan al-Basri. They state that “in the Name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate” was the first verse to be revealed, so this is the first revealed verse and 96 is the first whole chapter to be revealed. One objection to this view is that this hadith is mursal rather than linked to a companion of the Prophet. A different attempt to reconcile this hadith with those that present 96.1-5 as the first verses is the suggestion that the basmala is in the beginning of all but one Qur’anic chapter anyway, so it must have been revealed with and before 96.1-5. The contradiction in this suggestion, however, is that it treats both 96.1 and the basmala as the first revealed verse! This attempt is focused on reconciling the contradictory hadiths, so it yields a contradiction of its own.
5) Unidentified verse from a chapter that speaks about paradise and hell. This view is derived from a hadith in al-Bukhari and Muslim in which ‘A’isha is reported to have said: “The first to have been revealed of it (the Qur’an) is one of the detailed chapters in which paradise and hell are mentioned.” As-Suyuti, who is the minority of scholars who mention the fifth view, suggests a rather convoluted reconciliation in which this hadith, those of about chapter 96, and the ones about chapter 74 are all reconciled.
The overwhelming majority of scholars accept that 96.1 was the first revealed verse, although they differ at times in their treatment of the other reports. I am inclined to agree that 96-1.5 were the first verses of the Qur’an to be revealed. It is possible that the basmala preceded 96.1 and was thus revealed first, but this not mentioned in the reported hadiths about 96.1-5. I am minded to think that this suggestion is likely to be a later conclusion by scholars who, noting that this verse precedes every chapter in the mushaf but one, concluded that it must have been the first verse of the Qur’an too.
I also disagree with the attempts to reconcile all reported hadiths — including those about chapter 74, which are found in both al-Bukhari and Muslim — simply because the hadiths are clearly contradictory and irreconcilable. It is not an act that contravenes Islam, the Qur’an, or Prophetic teachings to think a hadith reported some two centuries after the Prophet might have inaccuracy. Not that the hadiths we discussed in this article are the only, let alone the best, example on inconsistencies and contradictions within the same book of hadith or between different hadith books. It is also important to note that suggesting that scholars of hadith have made mistakes is reflective of the limitations that every human being has and is in no way implying that they did not work as hard as they could or that they were not sincere enough in their efforts.