The Qur’aan is a book of universal guidance for all peoples in all times until the Day of Judgment, showing them the correct path in their relations with their Creator and in their relations with themselves as individuals and groups.
At the same time, the Qur’aan was revealed to one man living in a specific time and place among a specific community. On occasions, certain events would occur about which the Prophet’s followers were unsure, or on other occasions they might actually ask him about some matters which were unclear to them.
In response to these and similar needs, verses were revealed to the Prophet (ﷺ). These events represent the context in which revelation came and are referred to as “ asbaab an-nuzool” (reasons for revelation). The Qur’aan, therefore, uses the particular to give instructions of universal significance.
For example, when Khawlah bint Tha‘labah’s husband, Aws ibn as-Saamit, turned his back on her in the marriage bed (thihaar), she went to complain to the Prophet (ﷺ). ‘Aa’ishah, wife of the Prophet (ﷺ), said, “Blessed is He who hears all things. Verily, I heard some of what Khawlah bint Tha‘labah said while she was complaining about her husband to the Prophet (ﷺ). She said, ‘O Messenger of Allaah (ﷺ), he ate up my youth and I spread my stomach for him.
Now that I have grown old and stopped having children, he has turned his back on me. O Allaah, verily I complain to You!’ An evening did not pass before Jibreel came down with these verses:
‘Allaah has heard the statement of the one who disputes with you about her husband’ ”
Hence, the reasons for revelation (asbaab an-nuzool) could be defined as incidents recorded during the prophethood of Muhammad (ﷺ) about which Qur’aanic verses or chapters were revealed at the time of their occurrence.
How To Know the Reason for the Revelation of a Verse
The circumstances for a particular revelation could only be known to the witnesses of the relevant events or someone who was informed by a witness. Therefore, the only reliable source for this knowledge is the sahaabah. Like the hadeeths of the Prophet (ﷺ), the reliability of such reports depends upon the reliability of the chain of narrators.
The statement of a tabi‘ee about the reason for a given revelation is usually considered weak by the scholars of hadeeth if he didn’t attribute his opinion to one of the sahaabah.
Knowledge of the reasons for revelation is of great importance to understanding the Qur’aan, as well as many of the Islaamic laws contained in it. The following are some of the benefits provided by knowledge of the reasons for revelation:
- Asbaab an-nuzool often explain the wisdom underlying the legislation of some of the Islaamic laws. Knowledge of the wisdom behind divine laws provides scholars with general principles which enable them to work out laws for new problems which have similar causes or effects.
- Asbaab an-nuzool also show the concern of the laws for the general welfare of man in their treatment of problems. This, in turn, makes us aware of Allaah’s mercy, which is a fundamental part of all divine laws.
- For example, Ibn ‘Abbaas reported that Hilaal ibn Umayyah went to the Prophet (ﷺ) and accused his wife (Hilaal’s wife) of adultery with Shurayk ibn Sahmaa’. The Prophet (ﷺ) said to him, “ (Produce) the proof (four witnesses) or else you will receive the punishment (of eighty lashes) on your back.” Hilaal replied, “ O Messenger of Allaah (ﷺ), if one of us sees a man on his woman, should he leave and seek witnesses?” Allaah’s Messenger again said, “(Produce) the proof or else you will receive the punishment.” Hilaal then said, “(I swear) By the One who sent you with the Truth that I am telling the truth. And Allaah will surely reveal something to free my back from the punishment.” And Jibreel descended with the revelation,
“And for those who accuse their wives without witnesses except themselves, the testimony of one of them (can be accepted) by bearing witness (with an oath) by Allaah four times that he is telling the truth, and the fifth time that the curse of Allaah be upon him if he is telling a lie. However, it would avert punishment from (the wife) if she bears witness four times (with an oath) by Allaah that he is lying, and the fifth (time) that Allaah’s wrath be upon her if he was truthful.”,
2. Sometimes the reasons for revelation specify the particular aspect which was intended from the general meaning of the verses. That is, the obvious meaning of the verse may be general enough to include circumstances not intended by Allaah. An example of this is the verse
“You should not think that those who are happy with what they have brought about and enjoy being praised for things they have not done, will successfully escape the punishment. They will have a painful punishment.”
Marwaan told his gateman, “O Raafi‘, go to Ibn ‘Abbaas and say to him, ‘If every man among us who is happy about what he has brought about and likes to be praised for what he has not done will be punished, then we will all be punished.’ ” (When he did so) Ibn ‘Abbaas replied, “What has happened to you all concerning that verse? Verily it was revealed concerning the People of the Book.” He then recited (the verse previous to it),
“And when Allaah took the solemn pledge of those who were given a Book (of revelation), (saying to them), ‘Make it known to mankind, and do not conceal it!’ But they cast this (pledge) behind their backs and bartered it away for a trifling gain; and how evil was their bargain.”
Ibn ‘Abbaas then said, “When Allaah’s Messenger (ﷺ) asked them about something, they concealed it from him and gave something else in its place. They then went out, making him think that they had informed him about what he had asked and they sought his praise and thanks.
They were also very happy about having been able to hide from him what he asked about.” Hence, the verse does not refer to everyone who is happy about what they have done, but specifically those who are happy about being given books of revelation, yet they hide its meanings from those who wish to know the truth.
3. The reason for revelation sometimes clarifies the laws which may be deduced from the verses. The obvious meaning of the verse may imply a particular law, whereas the circumstances under which the verse was revealed indicate another law. For example, ‘Urwah once said to his aunt ‘Aa’ishah, wife of the Prophet (ﷺ), “Do you know the verse,
‘Verily as-Safaa and al-Marwah are among the shrines of Allaah, so there is no sin on anyone who walks between them when making hajj or ‘umrah’?
I do not feel that there is any sin on one who does not walk between them.” ‘Aa’ishah replied, “What a terrible thing you have said, O my nephew! Verily, if the (verse) meant as you interpreted it, it would have been, ‘So there is so sin on anyone who does not walk between them.’ But verily, it was revealed because the Ansaar, before Islaam, used to dedicate their (hajj or ‘umrah) to two idols, Isaaf and Naa’ilah, on the seashore.
The people went there, then walked between as- Safaa and al-Marwah, then got their heads shaved. After Islaam they didn’t like to walk between them, because of what they used to do during the Days of Ignorance. Hence, Allaah revealed the verse,
‘Verily as-Safaa and al-Marwah are among the shrines of Allaah…’
In another version she added, “Then Allaah’s Messenger (ﷺ) showed how the walk between them should be done. Thus, no one is allowed to drop the walking between them.” Although the obvious meaning of the verse indicated that the walking between Mount as-Safaa and Mount al-Marwah was merely mubaah (allowable), the reason for revelation indicates that it is waajib (compulsory).