Jul 212014

This is the Introduction to the Book “The First and Last Revelations of the Qur’an

The Qur’an was revealed by God to Prophet Muhammad over 22 years from 610 CE when he was in Mecca until his death in 632 CE in Medina. He migrated to Medina in 622 CE. This is one verse that describes this gradual revelation of the Qur’an:

A Qur’an which We have divided that you may read it to people at intervals. We sent it down, sending it down! (17.106)

At times an individual verse and at others a number of verses were revealed to the Prophet. As soon as a verse was inspired to the Prophet, he conveyed it to the Muslims, who memorized it, and had it written down. Leather, parchment, shoulder-bones, rib-bones, stones, and leaf stalks of date palms were used as writing material. The consensus, based on Ḥadīth sources, is that the Qur’an was compiled in one volume by the Prophet’s Companions after him. I find this claim extremely incredible, as it would have been in conflict with the natural course of action of the Prophet and early Muslims with regard to the Book they most revered, but this subject is outside the scope of this book.

The compiled volume of the Qur’an is known as the “muṣḥaf.” This Arabic word means a “collection or volume of written sheets,” but it has developed the technical meaning of the “compiled written sheets of the Qur’an.”

People often use the terms “Qur’an” and “muṣḥaf” interchangeably, which is an inaccurate use. “Qur’an” is the name of the revelation whereas the term “muṣḥaf” denotes the written record of that revelation. This important distinction will be maintained in this book. The term “Qur’an” is used to refer to the revelation, whereas “muṣḥaf” denotes how this revelation is laid out in a book form.

The Qur’an consists of 114 chapters. The longest chapter, which is number 2 (al-Baqara), has 286 verses. The shortest chapters have 3 verses each. These are chapters 103 (al-ʿAṣr), 108 (al-Kawthar), and 110 (al-Naṣr). In total, there are 6,326 verses in the Qur’an.

It is agreed by all that the Qur’anic chapters are not listed in the muṣḥaf in the chronological order of their revelation. For instance, the first chapter in the muṣḥaf is not the first chapter of the Qur’an, i.e. not the first chapter that was revealed. In fact, while the muṣḥaf starts with a Meccan chapter, the next 4 chapters are all from the Medina period. Similarly, the first and last verses in the muṣḥaf do not represent the first and last verses of the Qur’an.

Scholars have disagreed on how the chapters came to be in this order in the muṣḥaf. One group thinks that it was done according to the Prophet’s instructions, another believes the Companions who compiled it after the Prophet chose this particular order, whereas a third group takes the view that the order was chosen by the Prophet and his Companions.

I do not think the order of the chapters is insignificant to be left to the Companions to decide or discuss with the Prophet. One modern researcher convincingly notes that if the order of the chapters was chosen by those who compiled the Qur’an and it was not instructed by the Prophet, they would have mentioned the reasoning behind the organization they chose, yet there is no such explanation. He also notes that there is no clear obvious reasoning behind the current structure.

The order of the verses within each chapter is also not necessarily chronological. But unlike the case of the order of the chapters, there is consensus that the verses were ordered in their respective chapters by the Prophet. There are a number of ḥadīths in which the Prophet is said to have ordered a newly revealed verse to be inserted in a particular position in a partially revealed chapter.

As the order of the chapters and verses in the muṣḥaf does not reflect the chronology of their revelation, scholars have invested considerable time and effort to determine various aspects of the chronology of the revealed text. Knowing the chronology of the revelation can be helpful, even at times necessary, for interpreting the Qur’anic text, learning about the life of the Prophet and early Muslims, and understanding the Qur’anic legal rulings.

These efforts have developed into a sub-science within the broader discipline of ʿUlūm al-Qur’an (The Sciences of the Qur’an). This relatively late term denotes the study of various aspects of the Qur’an and its history. One particularly famous work is Al-Itqān fī ʿUlūm al-Qur’an by the 9th century Hijrī scholar Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī.

More specifically in this subdomain, scholars have been interested in identifying the first verse that was revealed on certain subjects, such as the first verse that permitted the Muslims to take arms to defend themselves against their enemies, the first revelation that dealt with the drinking of alcohol, and the first inspiration about the permitted and prohibited foods. A specific enquiry that attracted considerable interest is determining the first and last verses and chapters of the Qur’an, which is the subject of this book.

Copyright © 2014 Louay Fatoohi
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Apr 172013

In a previous article on The Meaning of “Sunna” in the Qur’an, I explained how this term developed the technical meaning of the way of life of Prophet Muhammad. In an earlier article on The Meaning of “Ḥadīth” in the Qur’an, I discussed that this term developed the specific meaning of reports about the Sunna of the Prophet.

The terms “Sunna” and “Ḥadīth” are often used interchangeably. This use is inaccurate. As I explained, “Sunna” denotes what the Prophet said, did, approved, and disapproved of, explicitly or implicitly. “Ḥadīth,” on the other hand, refers to the reports of such narrations. 

Furthermore, while “Ḥadīth” and “Sunna” are used synonymously because the Ḥadīth literature is the main source of the Sunna of the Prophet, it is not its only source. There are two others sources. First, practices of the people of Medina were considered to have come from the Prophet. Medina is the city where the Prophet lived his last ten years, where most legislations of the new religion were revealed in the Qur’an or devised by the Prophet, and where the first three caliphs and most Companions continued to live. The assumption, which was effectively promoted by Mālik bin Anas (93/715-179/796), is that Medinese practice could not have come from other than the Prophet. Even what is attributed to Companions is linked to the Prophet on the assumption that these elite Muslims could have only behaved and legislated in accordance with what they learned from their Master. Malik even rejected ḥadīths that contradicted the established practices of the people of Medina. 

The third source of Sunna is the biography of the Prophet or “sīra.” The Prophet’s oldest surviving and most accepted biography is by Ibn Hishām (d. 218/833), which is a freely edited version of Ibn Isḥāq’s (d. 151/768). 

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Jan 262013

This is a summary of the third Abdullah Yusuf Ali Memorial Lecture which I will deliver. For more information about the lecture, visit my blog or the lecture page on the organizer’s website.

The term “Qur’an” stands for verses that God revealed to Prophet Muhammad over 22 years. These revelations were compiled and written down in what is known as the “mushaf.” So the mushaf is the written record of the Qur’an. Most people, including many Muslims, use the terms “Qur’an” and “mushaf” interchangeably.

However, there are a number of narratives in the books of Hadith that specify or refer to verses and even complete chapters (surahs) of the Qur’an that are said to have been “withdrawn” by God during the life of the Prophet. The total number of these alleged verses is in the hundreds! As a result, these Qur’anic verses and chapters were not included in the mushaf. Such narratives are found in all major compilations of Hadith, including Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud, Ibn Majah, Tirmidhi, Nasa’i, and others.

These hadiths suggest that the withdrawn verses fall in two categories. First, verses that the Prophet and the Muslims were made to forget by God. Second, verses that were still being remembered. Accepting such narratives as authentic, scholars have considered the process of withdrawing verses a form of a broader divine phenomenon that they called “naskh” or “abrogation”. Abrogation is mainly a legal principle, but it has been applied to the withdrawal of the texts of Qur’anic verses.

Abrogation refers to the mechanism used by God to withdraw the ruling of a verse, its text, or both its ruling and text. In the last two modes of abrogation, the verse does not exist in the mushaf. Most of the alleged verses that are not found in the mushaf are said to have been abrogated with their rulings, but there are a few that are said to have had their texts abrogated even though their rulings are still operative. An example of these is the so-called “stoning verse.”

Scholars have needed to resort to what they consider a divine mechanism to explain how the texts of some Qur’anic verses were withdrawn. Otherwise, it would have looked as if some verses of the Qur’an were wrongly not recorded in the mushaf. This would have questioned the process of compiling the mushaf and, ultimately, the integrity of the latter. This is why they resorted to abrogation, and which is why this doctrine is at the heart of the ongoing debate between Muslims and non-Muslims about the integrity of the process of compiling and writing down the revelation of the Qur’an. But is abrogation the real answer to this extremely important question? If no, what could be the real answer?

I will present the kind of Hadith narratives that suggest that he mushaf does not contain all of the Qur’anic verses and discuss serious issues concerning their credibility. I will also introduce abrogation, trace its historical development, discuss its various modes, and give examples of its role in forming Islamic law and its explanatory function with respects to the withdrawal of the supposed verses.

I will also introduce the controversies surrounding this doctrine and explain how different assumptions, interpretations, and approaches lead to completely different views of abrogation. While most scholars have given abrogation a major role in both the formation of Islamic law and the compilation of the mushaf, a growing minority has rejected the historicity of abrogation, considering it a confused doctrine under which different concepts and phenomena have been lumped together. Indeed, even scholars who accept abrogation have expressed very different understandings of what this doctrine is supposed to be!

Exposing the inauthenticity of those hadiths and the non-historicity of abrogation while quoting the Qur’an itself, I will show that the mushaf has preserved every verse and word of the Qur’an that was revealed to Prophet Muhammad.

Copyright © 2013 Louay Fatoohi
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Mar 122011

The term “hadith” is one of the most used Islamic terms by both Muslims and non-Muslims. But despite its importance there is often a good deal of ambiguity about what it exactly means. It is often used inconsistently and inaccurately. This article aims at clarifying the exact meaning of this term.

The noun “hadith” occurs in the Qur’an twenty three times (4.42, 4.78, 4.87, 4.140, 6.68, 7.185, 12.111, 18.6, 20.9, 31.6, 33.53, 39.23, 45.6, 51.24, 52.34, 53.59, 56.81, 66.3, 68.44, 77.50, 79.15, 85.17, 88.1). Its plural form “ahadith” is found five times (12.6, 12.21, 12.101, 23.44, 34.19). In these twenty eight verses, the term broadly means “narrative,” “story,” “speech,” or “news,” which may or may not be religious. For instance, God describes the Qur’an as “the best of hadith” (39.23), refers to the story of Moses as the “hadith of Moses” (20.9), and says about nations that He destroyed for rejecting the messengers He sent to them “We have made them ahadith” (23.44). Other variations of this term occur in another eight Qur’anic verses (2.76, 18.70, 20.113, 21.2, 26.5, 65.1, 93.11, 99.4).

Of the thirty six occurrences of the term “hadith” only one is linked to something specific to Prophet Muhammad. This is verse 93.11 where the Prophet is commanded by God to speak about His favor to him, i.e. making him a Prophet: “As for the favor of your Lord, haddith (speak about).” But even in this solitary instance, the verb “haddith” is used in its generic meaning. Indeed, the verb is used in another verse to refer to the speech of disbelievers (2.76).

But the term “hadith” has acquired in Islamic literature the very specific meaning of reports about what the Prophet said, did, approved, and disapproved of, explicitly or implicitly. Indeed, hadith is considered as the main source of the “Sunna” or “customary behavior” of the Prophet. The other source is the “sira” or “biography” of the Prophet. It is this technical meaning of the term “hadith” that the rest of this article focuses on.

Any hadith consists of two parts, the first is known as “isnad” or “sanad,” and the second is known as “matn.” The generic meaning of “isnad,” whose plural is “asanid,” is “support” or “foundation.” But in the terminology of hadith it refers to the chain of transmitters of the hadith. These narrators are called “isnad” because they provide the “support” for the historicity of the hadith.

Lexically, “matn” denotes the visible part of something. In the technical language of Islamic literature, “matn” denotes the saying, behavior, or incident that is being reported by the chain of transmitters. To illustrate these concepts, this is a hadith about using the visibility of the new moon to determine the beginning and the end of the fasting month of Ramadan:

Yahya bin Bukair told us on that al-Laith said, that ‘Uqail said, that ibn Shihab said, that Salim said, that ibn ‘Umar said that he heard the Messenger of Allah say: “When you see it start your fast and when you see it break your fast. If it was cloudy, make an estimate [for the start of end of the fasting month].” (Bukhari, 1900)

The chain of transmission, or isnad, is marked in red whereas what is being reported, or matn, is in green.

Hadith narratives at times quote the Prophet directly:

Sa‘id bin Yahya bin Sa‘id al-Qurashi told us that his father said, that Abu Burda bin Abdullah bin Abi Burda said, that Abi Burda said, that Abi Musa said that people asked: “O Messenger of Allah! Whose practice of Islam is the best?” He said: “The one who does not cause harm to Muslims by his tongue or hand.” (Bukhari, 11)

A hadith may not quote the Prophet directly but report what he was heard saying or seen doing:

‘Abda bin ‘Abdullah told us that ‘Abdul Samad said, that ‘Abdullah bin al-Muthanna said, that Thumama bin ‘Abdullah said, that Anas said about the Prophet that when he said something he repeated it three times until it was fully understood and that when he encountered people he greeted them three times. (Bukhari, 95)

A hadith may show the Prophet’s tacit approval of something, as in this example in which the Messenger does not stop Muslims from keeping his cut hair:

Muhammad bin Abdul Rahim told us that Sa‘id bin Sulaiman said, that ‘Abbad said, that ibn ‘Awn said, that ibn Sirin said, that Anas said that when the Messenger of Allah had his hair cut Abu Talha was the first to take his hair. (Bukhari, 171)

But even in Islamic literature the term “hadith” has been used in a broader sense. Some of the reports found in the collections of hadith detail things that “Sahaba (Companions)” of the Prophet said or did, rather than the Messenger himself. At times, this may be a statement reflecting the view of a Companion:

‘Ali said: “Speak to people about what they know. Do you want them to accuse Allah and His Messenger of lying?” It was ‘Ubaidullah bin Musa on the authority of Ma‘ruf bin Kharrabudh, on the authority of Abil Tufail, on the authority of ‘Ali [who reported this] (Bukhari, 127)

The implication of such hadiths is that the teaching conveyed by the Companion reflects what he learned from the Prophet.

It should be noted, however, that the term “Companion” is used rather loosely by scholars. While some individuals, such as ‘Ali bin Abi Talib who transmitted the hadith above, spent many years in the company of the Prophet, others are called Companions for only seeing the Prophet! For instance, in his book al-Isaba fi Ma‘rifat al-Sahaba (Identifying the Companions Correctly), ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani (d. 852/1448) calls “Companion” any “Muslim who met the Prophet, believed in him, and died while still a believer.”

Another interesting feature of hadith 127 is that its isnad follows the matn, which is the opposite of the normal situation.

The following hadith reports a statement by a Companion rather than something the Prophet said, but because it is about a pledge given by that Companion to the Prophet, the implication is that the Companion’s words and actions were approved by the Prophet:

Musaddad told us that Yahya said, that Ismail said, that Qais bin Abi Hazim said, that Jarir bin ‘Abdullah said: “I pledged to the Messenger of Allah that I will perform the prayer, pay the obligatory alms, and give good advice to every Muslim.” (Bukhari, 57)

In the text of hadiths, variations of “hadith” are also used in the generic sense of this term, i.e. not referring specifically to sayings of the Prophet. For instance, the term “haddathana (told us)” is frequently used with individuals who are quoted as the source of hadith. In fact, all of the hadiths quoted above use the term “haddathana (told us)” in reference to at least one of the narrators.

Another feature of the hadith literature worth noting is that a hadith may exist in a number of different wordings and different chains of transmission. For example, this hadith is clearly a different version of the hadith above:

Ya‘qub bin Ibrahim told us that Hushaim said, that Sayyar said, that al-Sha‘bi said, that Jarir bin ‘Abdullah said: “I pledged to the Prophet listening and obeying, so he taught me to add ‘as much as I can, and to give good advice to every Muslim’” (Bukhari, 7402)

Significatly, the last part of the statement that hadith 57 attributes to Jarir appears in hadith 7402 as something the Prophet said.

Unlike the Qur’an whose authenticity is accepted by all Muslims, a hadith may or may not be authentic. Muslim denominations differ on which hadiths are authentic and which are not. Sunni Muslims have particularly high regard for the two hadith collections of Bukhari (194-256/810-870) and his student Muslim (206-261/821-875). They call them “sahih (correct)” to reflect their almost complete confidence that they contain authentic hadiths only. Other highly regarded hadith collections are those of Abu Dawud (202-275/817-888), ibn Maja (209-273/824-887), al-Tirmidhi (209-279/824-892), and al-Nasai (215-303 / 830-915). All six were compiled as late as about two and a half centuries after the Prophet, although they relied on earlier sources.

Shia scholars do not have as much confidence in those sources, in particular as they contain many narratives attributed to Companions of the Prophet that the Shais do not trust because they think they showed animosity toward ‘Ali bin Abi Talib — the Prophet’s close Companion and cousin, fourth caliph, and the first Shia imam. The Shias rely on other compilations of hadith and the accounts related through their imams. One of the most respected hadith books by the Shias is al-Kafi by Muhammad al-Kulaini (250-329/864-940).

While there are clear differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims in their assessment of the authenticity of hadith collections, differences about hadith are not confined to the Sunni/Shia divide. Scholars within any denomination have also differed on whether certain hadiths are genuine or not. Yet because of the importance of hadith as the main source of the Sunna, which is considered the second source of legislation in Islam, Muslim scholars have developed a complex system for critiquing hadiths. This system classifies hadiths into a number of different categories of historical reliability. The classification system aims to describe the likelihood of each hadith being authentic, i.e. how likely that the hadith accurately describes a historical event. There are many categories that range from the “sahih (correct/authentic)” and “hasan (agreeable)” to the “dha‘if (weak)” and “maudu‘ (forged).”

The hadith classification system focuses almost exclusively on the reliability of the chain of transmission. For instance, if one of the narrators in the isnad lacked credibility or is known to have lied then that would discredit the hadith. Similarly, if the hadith was originally reported on the authority of someone who did not meet the Prophet then that would put the hadith in a lower category, and so on.

This near complete concentration of hadith criticism on the chain of transmission reflects the scholars’ view that they could not tell whether a reported event or saying by the Prophet is likely to have happened on the basis of its details, i.e. matn. They could not claim to have the ability to judge, for instance, whether the Prophet could have given a particular instruction or not, because that might implicitly be the equivalent of claiming a level of knowledge that is comparable to that of the Prophet. There are some hadiths that were challenged on the basis of their matns despite the reliability of their chains of transmission — for instance, if they were found to be in conflict with other accepted hadiths — but these are relatively small in number. Significantly, in these cases, scholars are being “forced” to consider the matn, which is a completely different approach from giving matn at least as important a position as isnad in hadith criticism.

In my view, relying almost completely on the credibility of the chain or transmitters and not examining the substance of the hadith to take a view on its credibility is an extreme position that is highly insufficient and likely to mislead:

  • First, examining the chain of transmission can at times allow the scholar to form a firm view on its reliability, but this is not always the case. It is often an extremely difficult task that is fraught with difficulties some of which are insurmountable. Let’s take a hadith whose narrators are considered to be reliable and who are known to have met each other, so they could have heard the matn of the hadith from each other. It is still perfectly possible that the matn of this hadith might be unhistorical. This could be the result of an innocent mistake by one of the narrators or outright forgery. The older any such mistake or forgery the more difficult it is to spot it by later scholars.
  • Second, the Qur’an has a wealth of information and principles that can be used to assess the credibility of the matn of any hadith, so one is not relying completely on their own judgment. The Qur’an, after all, is the word of God which can be used to examine the reliability and accuracy of any other statement, including what people have attributed to the Prophet.
  • Third, one can reject the historicity of any hadith whose matn looks illogical, unreasonable or absurd. The status of Muhammad as the Messenger of God would rule out the possibility of him behaving in the way some hadiths claim or making the kind of statements that are found in some hadith reports.

The science of hadith criticism that Muslim scholars have meticulously developed over the centuries has provided scrutiny of the numerous hadiths. But inevitable limitations in this human system mean complete submission to it was always going to be the wrong approach. The Qur’an is indispensable when assessing the reliability of the matn of the hadith. Similarly, any hadith that attributes an unreasonable or absurd statement or behavior to the Prophet should be rejected regardless of the chain of transmission attached to it. Hadith criticism over-relies on the chain of transmission to the point of making the matn almost irrelevant. This, in my view, has been a serious flaw in hadith criticism which has resulted in the acceptance of a large number of inauthentic hadiths.

Copyright © 2011 Louay Fatoohi
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May 092010

In a previous article on The Difference Between “Qur’an” and “Mushaf” I explained that the Qur’an’s chapters (singular: sura; plural: suwar) and verses (singular: aya; plural: ayat) are not compiled in the mushaf in the chronological order of their revelation. There is consensus that it was Prophet Muhammad who identified the place of each verse within its chapter. There are a number of hadiths (narratives about the Prophet) in the Musnad of Ahmad bin Hanbal (164-241 H / 780-855 CE), Sunnan of at-Tarmithi (209-279 H / 824-892 CE), and other hadith sources that state that the Messenger used to tell the recorders of the revelation in which chapters to place newly revealed verses. As for the order of the chapters in the mushaf, some scholars think it was determined by the Prophet, others suggest it was the companions, and a third group reckons it was a combination of both.

The fact that the chapters and verses are not chronologically listed in the mushaf means, among other things, that the earliest verse that was revealed to Prophet Muhammad is not the first verse of the first chapter in the mushaf. Similarly, the last verse to be revealed is not the last verse of the mushaf. Put differently, the first and last verses of the mushaf do not represent the first and last verses of the Qur’an. Like all aspects of the Qur’an, identifying its first verse and last one has continued to attract the attention of Muslims scholars down the centuries. In this article, we will focus on the question of the first verse of the Qur’an.

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 shown favour to, not of those whom You have been angry with nor 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.

For a more detailed and most comprehensive study of this subject, see this book:


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