The verses may be general or specific and the reason for revelation may either confirm the general implications of the verses or their specific implication, or it may qualify them.
- In the first case where the reason for revelation confirms the general implication of the verse, the verse should be interpreted according to its general meaning. For example, Anas ibn Maalik reported that the Jews used to remove their women from their houses when they menstruated. They would not eat, drink, or sit with them in their houses. When the Messenger of Allaah (ﷺ) was asked about it, Allaah revealed the verse,
“They ask you about menstruation. Say: ‘It is a harm, so keep away (sexually) from women during menses. And do not approach them (sexually) until they have become purified. But if they have cleaned themselves, you may approach them (sexually) in the way that Allaah has ordered you. Verily, Allaah loves those who repent often and cleanse themselves.’ ”
Then the Prophet of Allaah (ﷺ) said,
“ Sit with them in your houses, and you may do everything with them except intercourse.”
The general meaning of the verse that menstruating women should not be approached sexually is confirmed by events surrounding its revelation.
2. In the second case, where specific implications of the verse are confirmed by the reason for the revelation, the verse should be interpreted according to its specific meaning. For example, ‘Urwah reported that Aboo Bakr as-Siddeeq set free six or seven slaves, all of whom were being tortured because of their belief in Allaah: Bilaal, ‘Aamir ibn Fuhayrah, an-Nahdeeyah and her daughter, Umm ‘Eesaa, and a slave girl of the Naw’il clan; and the following verses were revealed about him:
“But (the Hell Fire) will be avoided by the most God-fearing, he who gives his wealth for self-purification and does not seek a favor as a reward from anyone, but only seeks the face of his Lord Most High, and he will soon be pleased.”
The wording of the verse mentions “the most God-fearing,” which is a superlative. This is a wording that indicates someone specific, rather than a generality. Thus, these verses should be understood to refer to Aboo Bakr as- Siddeeq, although a general lesson can be learned from his great example of selflessness.
3. However, in the third instance where the reason for revelation is specific and verse is revealed with general implications, the verse should be interpreted in a general way so as to include all circumstances similar to the specific events surrounding the verse’s revelation.
For example, al-Musayyib reported that when Aboo Taalib was on his deathbed, the Prophet of Allaah (ﷺ) came to visit him while Aboo Jahl and ‘Abdullaah ibn Abee Umayyah were with him. The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “O Uncle, say, ‘There is no god but Allaah,’ and I will defend you with it before Allaah.” Then Aboo Jahl and ‘Abdullaah said, “O Aboo Taalib, will you turn away from the creed of ‘Abdul-Muttalib?” They kept on telling him that until he said that he was following the creed of ‘Abdul-Muttalib. The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “I will seek forgiveness for you as long as I am not forbidden to do so.” Then the following verse was revealed:
“It is not fitting for the Prophet (ﷺ) and those who believe to seek forgiveness for the pagans, even if they were close relatives, after it has become clear to them that (their relatives) are dwellers of the Fire.”
Hence, the verse prohibiting prayers seeking forgiveness applies to all Muslims in cases where their parents or relatives have died in a state of disbelief, even though it was revealed in reference to Aboo Taalib before his death. The guiding principle to be followed when interpreting or applying the verses of the Qur’aan is that the lesson lies in the general meaning of the words and not simply in the special circumstances in which they were revealed.
However, know- ledge of the events surrounding the revelations puts the general meaning of the verses in proper context and prevents deviation. For example, Yoosuf ibn Maahak reported that when Marwaan was governor of al-Hijaaz, Caliph Mu‘aawiyah desired that his son Yazeed be caliph after him, so he wrote to Marwaan.
Marwaan then gathered the people of Madeenah and addressed them, inviting them to take an oath of allegiance to Yazeed ibn Mu‘aawiyah as caliph after his father. When he added that it was the sunnah (way) of Aboo Bakr and ‘Umar, ‘Abdur-Rahmaan ibn Abee Bakr answered that it was the sunnah of Heraclius and Caesar. Marwaan then ordered that he be seized, so ‘Abdur- Rahmaan entered ‘Aa’ishah’s house and the soldiers were unable to arrest him. Marwaan then said, “Surely, he is the one about whom this verse was revealed,
When the news of what he said reached ‘Aa’ishah, she said, “Marwaan has lied. By Allaah, it was not about him, and if I wished to name the one about whom it was revealed, I could do so.”
The most famous book devoted to this subject is Asbaab Nuzool al-Qur’aan, by ‘Alee ibn Ahmad al-Waahidee (d. 1076 CE/468 AH). The book has been reprinted many times since its first printing about one hundred years ago. A new edition, printed in 1991, prepared after a comparison of manuscripts in a number of libraries, removed some errors present in the earlier printings. Still, al- Waahidee’s book is a mixture of authentic and weak reports.
Other famous scholars who compiled books on this subject include Ibn Taymeeyah (at-Tibyaan fee Nuzool al-Qur’aan) and Jalaal ad-Deen as-Suyootee (Lubaab an-Nuqool fee Asbaab an-Nuzool). A contemporary hadeeth scholar from Yemen, Muqbil ibn Haadee al-Waadi‘ee, has compiled a comprehensive book of the authentic reasons for revelation entitled as-Saheeh al-Musnad min Asbaab an-Nuzool.