An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur’an
Ahmad Von Denffer
CHAPTER 5 : Understanding the Text
MAKKAN AND MADINAN REVELATIONS
The growth and development of the Muslim umma is marked by two great phases:
- The period in Makka, before the hijra (A.D. 622).
- The period in Madina, after the hijra.
Naturally the revelation from Allah to guide the Muslims also responded, to some extent, to these particular situations.
The Makkan Phase
The Makkan phase of the revelation lasted about 13 years, from the first revelation up to the hijra.
This phase is determined by the prime task of the Prophet to call people to Islam. The main themes of this call, based on the Qur’anic revelation are:
- Allah and His unity (tawhid).
- The coming resurrection and judgement.
- Righteous conduct.
The role of the Prophet in this phase is in particular that of an announcer and Warner.
The Madinan Phase
The Madinan phase lasted about ten years, from the hijra to the death of the Prophet. While the basic themes of the Makkan phase remain, the factor of the Muslims’ growing together into a community and the formation of the umma, now makes its presence clearly felt.
In Madina, there are four groups of people to be met:
- The muhajirun, who migrated from Makka to Madina.
- The ansar, who originated from Madina and helped the muhajirun.
- The munafiqun, who are from Madina and pretended to support the Muslims.
- The ahl al-kitab, i.e. Jews and Christians, with their respective scriptures.
In addition to these the Qur’an also continued to address al-nas, ‘mankind’ i.e. all people, and referred to the disbelievers and ignorant ones.
Makkan and Madinan Suras
Suras of the Qur’an have also been classified, according to their origin, into Makkan and Madinan suras.
A sura is said to be of Makkan origin, when its beginning was revealed in the Makkan phase, even if it contains verses from Madina.
A sura is said to be of Madinan origin, when its beginning was revealed in the Madinan phase, even if it has verses from the Makkan period in its text. [Mabani, in GdQ, 1, p.59.]
The following 85 suras are, according to Zarkashi, [Zarkashi, B.: Al-burhan fi ‘ulum al-Qur’an, Cairo, 1958,Vol. 1,p.193.] of Makkan origin:
96, 68, 73, 74, 111, 81, 87, 92, 89, 93, 94, 103, 100, 108, 102, 107, 109, 105,113,114,112,53,80,97,91,85,95, 106,101,75, 104,77,50,90,86,54,38,7,72,36,25,35, 19,20, 56,26,27, 28, 17, 10, 11, 12, 15, 6, 37, 31, 34, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 51, 88, 18, 16, 71, 14, 21, 23, 32, 52, 67, 69, 70, 78, 79, 82, 84,
There is a difference of opinion as to what was last revealed in Makka. Some say, following Ibn ‘Abbas, that it was Sura 29 (al-ankabut); others say Sura 23 (al-mu’minun); still others say Sura 83 (al-mutaffifin). Some believe that Sura 83 is actually Madinan.
The following 29 suras are, according to Zarkashi, [Zarkashi. Vol. 1, p. 194. For another list see fihrist. 1, pp. 52-3.] of Madinan origin:
2, 8, 3, 33, 60, 4, 99, 57, 47, 13, 55, 76, 65, 98, 59, 110, 24, 22, 63, 58, 49, 66, 61, 62, 64, 48, 9, 5.
Some hold that Sura 1 (al-fatiha) is of Makkan, others that it is of Madinan, origin.
The Makkan suras constitute about 11, and the Madinan about 19 juz‘ of the text.
From the above division it is obvious that the Madinan suras are the longer ones and comprise a much larger part of the Qur’an.
According to a list based upon Nu’man b. Bashir and given in the fihrist of al-Nadim, [Fihrist, I. pp.49-52.] the chronological order of the revelation of the suras is as follows:
96, 68, 73, 74, 111, 81, 94, 103, 89, 93, 92, 100, 108, 102, 107, 109, 105, 112, 113, 114, 53, 80, 97, 91, 85, 95, 106, 101, 75, 104, 77, 50, 90, 55, 72, 36, 7, 25, 35, 19, 20, 56, 26, 27, 28, 17, 11, 12, 10, 15, 37, 31, 23, 34, 21, 37, 40, 41, 47, 43, 44, 45, 46, 51, 88, 18, 6, 16, 71, 14, 32, 52, 67, 69, 70, 78, 79, 82, 84, 30, 29, 83, 54, 86.
Why is it important to know the chronology of the suras and verses, although the Qur’an is not arranged in chronological order?
To know the origin and order of some of the revelation is important for understanding its meaning which can often be more easily grasped if one knows the time and circumstances that relate to it. For instance, many ayat from the Makkan period may be especially meaningful to Muslims living in a strongly un-Islamic environment, while some of the Madinan period would appeal much to Muslims who are in the process of formation of the umma. In some cases, unless one knows which of two or more related verses was revealed first, one cannot decide which legal ruling is now binding upon the Muslims. Here knowledge of the chronology is directly linked with the issue of al-nasikh wa al-mansukh. [See below for details.] It is also important to know the chronology of verses in order to understand the gradual development of many Muslim practices, attitudes and laws such as e.g. towards prohibition of alcohol, towards fighting, etc. and to see how these matters developed historically, i.e. during the lifetime of the Prophet in order to understand their full implications. [For example as far as fighting the enemy is concerned, the first verse revealed on this particular subject is from Sura al-hajj (22). This verse is from the Madinan period and it becomes clear from this that Muslims were not drawn to fight against the non-Muslims before the hijra. This has important implications for our own planning and thinking, e.g. to decide when Islam has to be defended today with verbal and when with physical means.]
Knowledge about the Makkan and Madinan suras derived from the sahaba and tabi’un and nothing is said about this by the Prophet himself. [al-Baqillani, in Qattan, op. cit., p.55.] This is because at his time everyone was a witness and well aware of the occasions of revelation.
Often there is internal evidence, as to which, part of the revelation is Makkan or Madinan. There are a number of guiding criteria, which help to distinguish between them:
- The theme. Does it belong to the Makkan or Madinan period? e.g. verses about warfare (9: 5) are only revealed after hijra.
- Sometimes there is a direct reference, such as e.g. to Abu Lahab in Sura 111, or to the Battle of Badr in Sura 3: 123.
- The length. Makkan ayat are often short, Madinan ones longer, e.g.: Sura al-shu’ara'(26) is Makkan. It has 227 ayat. Sura al-anfal (8) is Madinan. It has (only) 75 ayat.
Makkan suras are usually short, Madinan ones longer, e.g.:
Juz’ 30 is overwhelmingly Makkan. It has 543 (Makkan) ayat.
Juz’ 18 is overwhelmingly Madinan. It has (only) 117 (Madinan) ayat.
There are however exceptions in both cases.
- The form of address. Often the address: ‘O ye who believe’, and ‘O people of the book’ indicates a Madinan origin, while the addresses ‘O Mankind’ and ‘O People’ are usually of Makkan origin.
- The theme. Among the Makkan themes are tawhid, shirk, day of resurrection, moral corruption, stories of the Prophets. These topics are also found in Madinan suras, but usually only touched upon briefly. Madinan themes which are not found in Makkan revelations are of social and legal implications, concerning marriage, divorce, inheritance, punishment, etc.
- There are 19 suras with so-called huruf tahajji (such as alif , lam , mim , etc . ) . All these suras are Makkan, except Sura al-baqara (2) and Al ‘Imran (3).
- All ayat with the word kalla are Makkan.
- All suras containing sajda are Makkan.
- Most of the suras of the group mufassal, beginning with Sura qaf (50) in the latter part of the Qur’an are Makkan .
- All references to the munafiqun are from Madina (except Sura al-‘ankabut (29). Its verse 11 is Makkan.
The knowledge of Makkan and Madinan revelations is one of the important branches of ”ulum al-Qur’an. It is not merely of historical interest, but particularly important for the understanding and interpretation of the respective verses.
Many suras of the Qur’an do contain material from both periods of revelation, and in some cases there exists difference of opinion among scholars concerning the classification of a particular passage. However, on the whole, it is a well-established distinction, fully employed in the science of tafsir and best derived from the internal evidence of the text of the Qur’an itself.
The Qur’an has been revealed for guidance, for all times and situations to come. However, various ayat were revealed at a particular time in history and in particular circumstances. The Arabic word sabab (pl. asbab) means reason, cause and ‘marifa asbab al-nuzul’ is the knowledge about the reasons of the revelations, i.e. the knowledge about the particular events and circumstances in history that are related to the revelation of particular passages from the Qur’an.
Wahidi (d. 468/1075), one of the best classical scholars in this field wrote: ‘The knowledge about Tafsir of the ayat is not possible without occupying oneself with their stories and explanation of (the reasons) for their revelation.’ [Asbab al-nuzul, by al-Wahidi al-Nisaburi. Cairo, 1968, p 4]
Knowledge about the asbab al-nuzul helps one to understand the circumstances in which a particular revelation occurred, which sheds light on its implications and gives guidance to the explanation (tafsir) and application of the aya in question for other situations.
In particular, knowledge about the asbab al-nuzul helps one to understand:
- The direct and immediate meaning and implication of an aya, as it can be seen within its original context.
- The imminent reason underlying a legal ruling.
- The original intent of the aya.
- Whether the meaning of an aya is specific or of general application, and if so, under which circumstances it is to be applied.
- The historical situation at the time of the Prophet and the development of the early Muslim community.
‘To God belong the East and the West: whithersoever ye turn, there is the presence of God, for God is all-pervading, all-knowing’ (2:115).
Without knowing the sabab (reason), one might easily conclude that this revelation permits the Muslim to face any direction when performing prayer, while it is well known that to face qibla is one of the conditions without which prayer becomes invalid. The circumstances in which this revelation occurred explains its implications:
According to Wahidi [op. cit. pp. 20-21] a group of Muslims travelled on a dark night and they did not know where the qibla was, so they later realised that they had prayed in the wrong direction. They asked the Prophet about it and he kept silent until the above verse was revealed. ‘ [Based on a report from Jabir b. ‘Abdullah. Wahidi also informs us about some other situations when the aya reportedly applied:
– That one may pray voluntary prayer on one’s riding camel, in whichever direction it may turn (based on Ibn ‘Umar).
– That the Companions of the Prophet asked why they were ordered to pray for the dead Negus of Abyssinia, who had prayed towards a different qibla than their own (based on Ibn ‘Abbas and ‘Ata’).
– That the Jews asked, why the qibla of the Muslims had been changed from bait al-maqdis (based on Ibn Abi Talha).
See Wahidi, op.cit., p.21. All this supports the view (to which in particular K. Murad drew my attention) of Suyuti based on Zarkashi (Suyuti, Lubab an nuzul, Tunis, 1981, p.7.) that when the suhaba of the Prophet spoke about an aya of the Qur’an, saying ‘It was revealed concerning …'(nazalat fi kadha) they do not restrict themselves to narrating a single ’cause’ for the revelation of an aya but rather refer to the ‘situations’ to which particular verses where found applicable during the lifetime of the Prophet while the occasion of the first revelation of the aya may have been much earlier. In this lie great avenues for understanding and tafsir of the Qur’anic message.] Taking into account this reason for the revelation one cannot come to the wrong conclusion that it is unimportant where to turn in prayer. The scholars say however that this verse excuses the mistake of those who un-willingly and under adverse circumstances fail to observe the correct qibla.
How it is Known
The well-known asbab al-nuzul have been related to us by the reliable Companions of the Prophet Muhammad. Only reports which are sahih can be considered fully reliable, as is the case in the science of hadith generally. A particular condition here is also that the person who relates it should have been present at the time and occasion of the event (the revelation). [Wahidi. p.4.] Reports from tab’iun only, not going back to the Prophet and his Companions are to be considered weak (da’if). Hence one cannot accept the mere opinion of writers or people that such and such verse might have been revealed on such and such occasion. Rather one needs to know exactly who related this incident, whether he himself was present, and who transmitted it to us.
Kinds of Reports
There are two kinds of reports on asbab al-nuzul:
- Definite reports.
- Probable reports.
In the first kind (definite) the narrator clearly indicates that the event he relates is the sabab al-nuzul.
Narrated Ibn ‘Abbas: the verse ‘Obey Allah and obey the apostle and those of you (Muslims) who are in authority …’ (4: 59) was revealed in connection with ‘Abdullah bin Hudafa bin Qais bin ‘Adi when the Prophet appointed him as the commander of a sariyya (army detachment). [Bukhari, VI, No. 108.]
In the second kind (probable) the narrator does not indicate clearly that the event narrated is the sabab al-nuzul, but suggests this probability.
Narrated ‘Urwa: Az-Zubair quarrelled with a man from the Ansar because of a natural mountainous stream at Al-Harra. The Prophet said: O Zubair, irrigate (your land) and then let the water flow to your neighbour. The Ansar said: O Allah’s apostle (this is because) he is your cousin? At that the Prophet’s face became red (with anger) and he said: O Zubair. Irrigate (your land) and then withhold the water till it fills the land up to the walls and then let if flow to your neighbour. So the Prophet enabled Az-Zubair to take his full right after the Ansari provoked his anger.
The Prophet had previously given an order that was in favour of both of them. Az-Zubair said: ‘I don’t think but this verse was revealed in this connection: But no, by your Lord, they can have no faith, until they make you judge in all disputes between them’ (4: 65). [Bukhari, VI, No. 109.]
Kinds of Reasons
There are three kinds of ‘reasons’ which are connected with revelation of particular passages from the Qur’an:
- Revelation in response to an event or a general situation.
- Revelation in response to a particular question that has been asked by someone.
- Revelation for other reasons, known or not known to us.
Response to an Event
Narrated Ibn ‘Abbas: The Prophet went out towards Al-Batha’ and ascended the mountain and shouted: ‘O Sabahah’, so the Quraish people gathered around him. He said: ‘Do you see? If I tell you that an enemy is going to attack you in the morning or in the evening, will you believe me?’ They replied: ‘Yes’. He said- ‘Then I am a plain Warner to you of a coming severe punishment’. Abu Lahab said: ‘Is it for this reason that you have gathered us? May you perish!’ Then Allah revealed ‘Perish the hands of Abu Lahab’ (Sura 111: verse 1). [Bukhari, VI, No. 496.]
The Sura concerning Abu Lahab was revealed in response to this event, when Abu Lahab said: ‘May you perish!’
Response to a Particular Situation
Sura 2:158 concerning Safa and Marwa was revealed in response to a particular situation in Makka during the time of the Prophet.
Narrated ‘Urwa: I asked ‘A’isha (regarding the Sa’i between As-Safa and Al-Marwa). She said: ‘Out of reverence to the idol Manat which was placed in Al-Mushallal those who used to assume Ihram in its name, used not to perform Sa’i between As-Safa and Al-Marwa (because there were two other idols between these two hills). So Allah revealed: Verily As.-Safa and Al-Marwa are among the symbols of Allah.’ Thereupon Allah’s apostle and the Muslims used to perform Sa’i (between them). Sufyan said: The (idol) Manat was at Al-Mushallal in Qudaid. ‘A’isha added: ‘The verse was revealed in connection with the Ansar. They and (the tribe of) Ghassan used to assume Ihram in the name of Manat before they embraced Islam’. ‘A’isha added ‘There were men from the Ansar who used to assume Ihram in the name of Manat which was an idol between Makka and Medina. They said, O Allah’s Apostle! We used not to perform the Tawaf (sa’i) between As-Safa and Al-Marwa out of reverence to Manat. ‘ [Bukhari, VI, No. 384; also Nos. 22. 23.]
In response to this situation 2: 158 was revealed.
Question to the Prophet
On many occasions the Muslims addressed questions to the Prophet concerning Islamic beliefs and the Islamic way of life. An example of the many occasions when a revelation was revealed in response to such a question posed to the Prophet is Sura 4:11
Narrated Jabir: The Prophet and Abu Bakr came on foot to pay me a visit (during my illness) at Banu Salama’s (dwellings). The Prophet found me unconscious, so he asked for water and performed the ablution from it and sprinkled some water over me. I came to my senses and said O Allah’s apostle! What do you order me to do as regards my wealth?
So there was revealed ‘Allah commands you as regards your children’s (inheritance)’ (4: 11). [Bukhari, VI, No. 101.]
The verse in question is concerned with inheritance and explains the rules of inheritance for children as follows:
God (thus) directs you as regards your children’s (inheritance):
‘To the male a portion equal to that of two females: if only daughters, two or more, their share is two-thirds of the inheritance. If only one, her share is half …’ (4:11).
Question by the Prophet
On other occasions, the Prophet himself asked questions. Sura 19: 64 was revealed in response to such a question by the Prophet Muhammad:
Narrated Ibn ‘Abbas: The Prophet said to the Angel Gabriel, What prevents you from visiting us more often than you visit us now? So there was revealed: ‘And we (angels) descend not but by the command of your Lord. To Him belongs what is before us and what is behind us …’ (19: 64).’ [Bukhari, VI, No. 255.]
Response to a General Question
There are numerous occasions when revelation was sent down providing guidance concerning general questions that had arisen in the Muslim community.
Thabit narrated from Anas: Among the Jews, when a woman menstruated, they did not dine with her, nor did they live with them in their houses; so the Companions of the apostle (may peace be upon him) asked the apostle (may peace be upon him) and Allah the Exalted revealed:
‘And they ask you about menstruation: say it is a pollution, so keep away from women during menstruation’ to the end (Qur’an 2: 222).
The messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said: Do everything except intercourse … [Muslim, I. No. 592.]
This report is also a good example of how the Prophet himself explained the meanings of the revelation when such questions arose.
Often a general rule which became part of the Qur’anic revelation, was first revealed in response to the circumstances or needs of a particular person, e.g. Sura 2:196:
‘… And if any of you is ill, or has an ailment in his scalp (necessitating shaving) he should in compensation either fast or feed the poor or offer sacrifice …’ Ka’b bin ‘Ujra said this verse – and if one of you is ill or has an ailment in his scalp, – was revealed concerning me. I had lice on my head and I mentioned this to the Prophet and he said: Shave (your head) and compensate by fasting three days or a sacrifice or feed six poor, for each poor one Sa’. [Muslim, II, Nos. 2735, 2738, 2739; Wahidi, op.cit., p.31. One sa’ is a cubic measure of approx. 2.6 kg.]
This is again an example of the Prophet himself explaining the revelation in detail. At other times such revelation could not be applied but to the respective person. The best example of such a revelation is Sura Lahab (111) already referred to above. Other examples are references to the Prophet Muhammad in the Qur’an, such as e.g. Sura 75: 16:
Narrated Ibn ‘Abbas (as regards Allah’s statement) ‘Move not your tongue concerning (the Qur’an) to make haste therewith’ (75:16).
When the Angel Gabriel revealed the divine inspiration to Allah’s Apostle he moved his tongue and lips, and that stage used to be very hard for him, and that movement indicated that revelation was taking place. So Allah revealed in Sura al-qiyama which begins: ‘I do swear by the Day of Resurrection …’
The Verses: ‘Move not your tongue concerning (the Qur’an) to make haste therewith. It is for us to collect it (Qur’an) in your mind and give you the ability to recite it by heart’ (75:16-17). [Bukhari. VI. No. 451.]
Several Asbab and One Revelation
From the reports of the sahaba it appears that particular passages of the Qur’an were revealed in response to more than one event, situation or question, or that the application of a particular passage of the Qur’an was for more than one particular occasion, as pointed out above.
Sura al-ikhlas (112) firstly responds to the mushrikun in Makka before the hijra, and secondly to the ahl al-kitab encountered in Madina after the hijra. [Itqan, I, p.35; Wahidi, op.cit., pp.262-3.]
Another example is Sura 9: 113:
This aya was revealed firstly in connection with the death of the Prophet’s uncle Abu Talib, where Muhammad said ‘I will keep on asking (Allah for) forgiveness for you unless I am forbidden to do so’. Then there was revealed: it is not fitting for the Prophet and those who believe that they should pray for forgiveness for pagans, even though they be of kin, after it has become clear to them that they are the companions of the Fire. [Bukhari, VI, No. 197.]
The other occasion reported is when the Companions and in particular ‘Umar b. al-Khattab found the Prophet shedding tears when he visited the graveyard. The Prophet explained that he had visited his mother’s grave and that he had asked his Lord’s permission to visit it which had been granted to him and that he had also asked his Lord’s permission to pray for her forgiveness which had not been granted to him and the above aya had been revealed. [Wahidi, op. cit., p. 152.]
Several Revelations and One Sabab
A well-known example for several revelations, which are connected with one particular circumstance, are three verses which according to reliable reports, came down in response to the question of Umm Salama, whether or why only the men had been referred to in the Qur’an, as being rewarded. According to Al-Hakim and Tirmidhi the verses 3:195, 4: 32 and 33:35 were revealed in response to this question:
‘And their Lord has accepted of them and answered them: Never will I suffer to be lost the work of any of you be he male or female: Ye are members, one of another: those who have left their homes, or have been driven out therefrom, or suffered harm in My cause, or fought or been slain – verily I will blot out from them their iniquities and admit them into gardens with rivers flowing beneath; a reward from the presence of God and from His presence is the best of rewards’ (3: 195).
‘And in no wise covet those things in which God has bestowed His gifts more freely on some of you than on others; to men is allotted what they earn and to women what they earn: but ask God of His bounty for God has full knowledge of all things’ (4: 32).
‘For Muslim men and women – for believing men and women – for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast, for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in God’s praise – for them has God prepared forgiveness and great reward’ (33:35). [Salih, op cit., p. 148]
Several Views on Sabab al-Nuzul
It also occurs that the Companions of the Prophet when mentioning a revelation, differed in their views about its sabab al-nuzul. This is due to the fact that as already shown above there have been various asbab for one particular revelation, and each of the persons reporting the circumstances had been present only on one of the various occasions.
Otherwise several views about the same revelation have to be judged on their merits according to the rules of ‘ulum al-,hadith, and one of them will be found to be stronger than the others.
There are two reports concerning the revelation of Sura 17: 85:
According to Ibn ‘Abbas, as reported in Tirmidhi, the Quraish asked the Jews to give them something they could ask the Prophet about and they were advised to ask about the Spirit (al-ruh). Then the aya 17:85 was revealed.
From Ibn Mas’ud, as reported in Bukhari, it is related that he said:
While I was in the company of the Prophet on a farm, and he was reclining on a palm leaf stalk, some Jews passed by. Some of them said to the others: Ask him about the Spirit. Some of them said: What urges you to ask him about it. Others said: (Don’t) lest he should give you a reply which you dislike, but they said, Ask him. So they asked him about the Spirit. The Prophet kept quiet and did not give them any answer. I knew that he was being divinely inspired so I stayed at my place. When the divine inspiration had been revealed, the Prophet said ‘They ask you (O Muhammad) concerning the Spirit. Say: “the Spirit”, its knowledge is with my Lord and from the knowledge it is only a little that has been given to you (mankind)’ (17: 85).
The second report, although the first one has been declared sahih by Tirmidhi, is considered to be stronger because it comes from Ibn Mas’ud, who says that he was present on the occasion of the revelation, while the report from Ibn ‘Abbas in Tirmidhi does not contain this information. [See Salih, op.cit., pp. 145-6; Bukhari, VI, No. 245.]
Specific or General?
Another question leads directly to the field of tafsir, but is still connected with asbab al-nuzul. When one knows about the sabab al-nuzul, it is still to be decided whether the revelation has a specific implication for the particular occasion it was connected with, or whether it is of general implication and needs to be applied by all Muslims at all times.
‘As to the thief, male or female, cut off his or her hands: a punishment by way of example, from God, for their crime: and God is exalted in power’ (5: 41).
This verse although it was revealed concerning a specific person who had stolen a piece of armour and had been punished accordingly, is of general application. [See Wahidi, op.cit., p.111; also Tafsir Ibn al-Jauzi, Beirut, 1964, Vol.II, p.348.]
What is not Asbab al-Nuzul
In some cases scholars have provided us with the background of certain events that have been narrated in the Qur’an. Obviously, however, such information does not belong to the field of asbab al-nuzul. Although it may help to understand the message of the revelation, it is not related in a direct and reliable way, showing immediate reason for or the occasion of the revelation.
‘Seest thou not how thy Lord dealt with the companions of the elephant?’ (105:1).
The following passage from a book of tafsir, although it contains information about the background of the event narrated in the sura, does not belong to the field of asbab al-nuzul:
(The companions of the elephant) had come from the Yemen and wanted to destroy the Ka’ba (they were) from Abyssinia and their leader was Abraha al-Ashram, the Abyssinian. [Tujibi, mukhtasar min tafsir al-Tabari, Cairo, 1970, II, p.529.]
The branch of ‘ulum al-Qur’an concerned with the asbab al-nuzul is one of the most important areas of knowledge for the proper understanding and explanation of the Qur’anic revelation. The message of the Qur’an is guidance for all times. However its ayat were revealed at particular points of time in history and in particular circumstances.
One of the most crucial steps in meaningful interpretation is to distinguish between that part which is attached solely to the historical event and that part, which, although attached to the historical event, also has wider implications. The knowledge of asbab al-nuzul helps to distinguish between these two by:
- Clarifying the events and circumstances, which are connected with the revelation of certain ayat.
- Illustrating the application of such ayat by referring to situations, when the Companions of the Prophet found them proper and applicable.
AL-NASIKH WA AL-MANSUKH
The revelations from Allah as found in the Qur’an touch on a variety of subjects, among them beliefs, history, tales of the prophets, day of judgement, Paradise and Hell, and many others. Particularly important are the ahkam (legal rulings), because they prescribe the manner of legal relationships between people, as Allah wishes them to be observed.
While the basic message of Islam remains always the same, the legal rulings have varied throughout the ages, and many prophets before Muhammad brought particular codes of law (shari’a) for their respective communities.
The Arabic words ‘nasikh’ and ‘mansukh’ are both derived from the same root word ‘nasakha’ which carries meanings such as ‘to abolish, to replace, to withdraw, to abrogate’.
The word nasikh (an active participle) means ‘the abrogating’, while mansukh (passive) means ‘the abrogated’. In technical language these terms refer to certain parts of the Qur’anic revelation, which have been ‘abrogated’ by others. Naturally the abrogated passage is the one called ‘mansukh’ while the abrogating one is called ‘nasikh’.
The Qur’an on Naskh
The principle of naskh (abrogation) is referred to in the Qur’an itself and is not a later historical development:
‘None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause it to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar: knowest thou that God has power over all things?’ (2: 106). [Some however say that this refers to the revelations before the Qur’an, which have now been substituted by the Qur’an itself. See Mawdudi. The Meaning of the Qur’an, Lahore, 1967, Vol. I, p.102. note 109.]
How it came about
When the message of Islam was presented to the Arabs as something new, and different from their way of life, it was introduced in stages. The Qur’an brought important changes gradually, to allow the people to adjust to the new prescriptions.
There are three verses in the Qur’an concerning the drinking of wine. Wine drinking was very widespread in pre-Islamic times and, although a social evil, highly esteemed. The three verses which finally led to the prohibition of intoxicating substances were revealed in stages (4: 43, 2: 219; 5: 93-4).
Why it is important
Knowledge of al-nasikh wa al-mansukh is important because it concerns the correct and exact application of the laws of Allah. It is specifically concerned with legal revelations:
- It is one of the important pre-conditions for explanation (tafsir) of the Qur’an.
- It is one of the important pre-conditions for understanding and application of the Islamic law (hukm, shari’a).
- It sheds light on the historical development of the Islamic legal code.
- It helps to understand the immediate meaning of the ayat concerned.
Tafsir (explanation of the Qur’an) or legal ruling is not acceptable from a person who does not have such knowledge.
How do we know it?
As in the field of asbab al-nuzul, the information about al-nasikh wa al-mansukh cannot be accepted upon mere personal opinion, guesswork or hearsay, but must be based on reliable reports, according to the ulum al-hadith, and should go back to the Prophet and his Companions.
The report must also clearly state which part of the revelation is nasikh and which is mansukh.
Some scholars say that there are three ways of knowing about al-nasikh wa al-mansukh:
- Report from the Prophet or Companions.
- Ijma’ (consensus of the umma upon what is nasikh and what mansukh).
- Knowledge about which part of the Qur’an preceded another part in the history of revelation. [Qattan, op.cit., p. 199]
Narrated Mujahid (regarding the verse):
Those of you who die and leave wives behind, they (their wives) shall await (as regards their marriage) for four months and ten days (2: 234).
The widow, according to this verse, was to spend this period of waiting with her husband’s family, so Allah revealed: Those of you who die and leave wives (i.e. widows) should bequeath for their wives, a year’s maintenance and residence without turning them out, but if they leave (their residence) there is no blame on you for what they do with themselves, provided it is honourable (i.e. Lawful marriage) (2: 240).
So Allah entitled the widow to be bequeathed extra maintenance for seven months and 20 nights and that is the completion of one year. If she wished, she could stay (in her husband’s home) according to the will, and she could leave it if she wished, as Allah says: Without turning them out, but if they leave (the residence) there is no blame on you.
So the idea (i.e. four months and ten days) is obligatory for her.
‘Ata’ said: Ibn ‘Abbas said: This verse i.e. the statement of Allah … without turning one out … cancelled the obligation of staying for the waiting period in her late husband’s house, and she can complete this period wherever she likes.
‘Ata’ said: If she wished, she could complete her ‘idda by staying in her late husband’s residence according to the will or leave it according to Allah’s statement:
‘There is no blame on you for what they do with themselves.’
‘Ata’ added: Later the regulations of inheritance came and abrogated the order of the dwelling of the widow (in her dead husband’s house) so she could complete the ‘idda wherever she likes. And it was no longer necessary to provide her with a residence.
Ibn Abbas said: This verse abrogated her (i.e. the widow’s) dwelling in her dead husband’s house and she could complete the ‘idda (i.e. four months and ten days) (wherever she liked, as Allah’s statement says: …’without turning them out …’ [Bukhari, VI, No. 54.]
This report explains clearly which part of the revelation is nasikh and which is mansukh. Mujahid was one of the well-known tab’iun and Ibn ‘Abbas was a Companion of the Prophet.
What is Abrogated?
According to some scholars the Qur’an abrogates only the Qur’an. They base their view on suras 2: 106 and 16: 101. According to them the Qur’an does not abrogate the sunna nor does the sunna abrogate the Qur’an. This is, in particular, the view held by Shafi’i. [For details see Kitab al-risala, Cairo, n.d., pp.30-73; English translation by M. Khadduri, op.cit., pp. 12345; for a brief summary of Ash-Shafi’i’s views see also Seeman, K., Ash-Shafi’is Risala, Lahore, 1961, pp.53-85.]
Others are of the opinion that the Qur’an may abrogate the Qur’an as well as the sunna. They base their view on Sura 53: 34.
There is also the view that there are four classes of naskh:
- Qur’an abrogates Qur’an.
- Qur’an abrogates sunna.
- Sunna abrogates Qur’an.
- Sunna abrogates sunna. [Qattan, op.cit, pp. 201-2.]
In this discussion, we shall only consider the abrogation in the Qur’an, and leave aside the abrogation in the sunna.
Three Kinds of Naskh in the Qur’an
[Ibn Salama, al-nasikh wa al-mansukh, Cairo, 1966, p.5.]
The scholars have divided abrogation into three kinds:
- Abrogation of the recited (verse) together with the legal ruling.
- Abrogation of the legal ruling without the recited (verse).
- Abrogation of the recited (verse) without the legal ruling.
For abrogation of the recited (verse) together with its legal ruling:
‘A’isha (Allah be pleased with her) reported that it had been revealed in the Holy Qur’an that ten clear sucklings make the marriage unlawful, then it was abrogated (and substituted) by five sucklings and Allah’s apostle (may peace be upon him) died and it was before that time (found) in the Holy Qur’an (and recited by the Muslims). [34 Muslim, II, No. 3421.]
For abrogation of a legal ruling without the recited (verse):
‘O Prophet! We have made lawful to thee thy wives to whom thou has paid their dowers; and those whom thy right hand possesses out of the prisoners of war whom God has assigned to thee; and daughters of thy paternal uncles and aunts and daughters of thy maternal uncles and aunts, who migrated (from Makka) with thee; and any believing woman who dedicates her soul to the Prophet if the Prophet wishes to wed her; – this only for thee and not for the believers (at large);We know what we have appointed for them as to their wives and the captives whom their right hands possess; – in order that there should be no difficulty for thee and God is oft-forgiving, most merciful’ (33: 50).
‘It is not lawful for thee (to marry more) women after this, nor to change them for (other) wives, even though their beauty attract thee, except any thy right hand should possess (as handmaidens); and God doth watch over all things’ (33: 52).
This is one of the few very clear examples of naskh, though only concerning the Prophet specifically, since for Muslims in general the number of wives has been restricted to four. (Sura 4:3).
For abrogation of the recited (verse) without the legal ruling:
‘Abdullah bin ‘Abbas reported that ‘Umar bin Khattab sat on the pulpit of Allah’s messenger (may peace be upon him) and said: Verily Allah sent Muhammad (may peace be upon him) with truth and he sent down the book upon him, and the verse of stoning was included in what was sent down to him. We recited it, retained it in our memory and understood it. Allah’s messenger (may peace be upon him) awarded the punishment of stoning to death (to the married adulterer and adulteress) and after him, we also awarded the punishment of stoning. I am afraid that with the lapse of time, the people (may forget it) and may say: We do not find the punishment of stoning in the book of Allah, and thus go astray by abandoning this duty prescribed by Allah. Stoning is a duty laid down in Allah’s book for married men and women who commit adultery when proof is established, or if there is pregnancy or a confession. [Muslim, III, No. 4194; Bukhari, VIII, No. 816.]
The punishment of stoning for adultery by married people has been retained in the sunna, while it is not included in the Qur’an .
The Abrogated Verses
There are, according to Ibn Salama, [Op cit., see pp.6-8 for the names of these suras.] a well-known author on the subject:
- 43 suras with neither nasikh or mansukh.
- 6 suras with nasikh but no mansukh.
- 40 suras with mansukh but no nasikh.
- 25 suras with both nasikh and mansukh.
According to Suyuti’s Itqan there are 21 instances in the Qur’an, where a revelation has been abrogated by another.
He also indicates that there is a difference of opinion about some of these: e.g. 4: 8, 24: 58, etc. [Itqan, II, pp.20-3; Kamal, op.cit., pp.101-9 also gives Suyuti’s complete list.]
Some scholars have attempted to reduce the number of abrogations in the Qur’an even further, by explaining the relationships between the verses in some special ways, e.g. by pointing out that no legal abrogation is involved, or that for certain reasons the naskh is not genuine
Shah Waliullah (d. 1759) the great Muslim scholar from India only retained the following 5 out of Suyuti’s 21 cases as genuine:
|Mansukh 2: 180||nasikh 4: 11, 12|
|Mansukh 2:240||nasikh 2: 234.|
|Mansukh 8:65||nasikh 8: 62.|
|Mansukh 30:50||nasikh 33: 52.|
|Mansukh 58: 12||nasikh 58: 13.|
A case listed by Suyuti, which has no direct legal implication is the following:
Narrated Ibn ‘Abbas: When the verse: ‘If there are 20 amongst you, patient and persevering, they will overcome two hundred’, was revealed, it became hard on the Muslims, when it became compulsory that one Muslim ought not to flee before 10 (non-Muslims) so Allah lightened the order by revealing: ‘but now Allah has lightened your (task) for He knows that there is weakness in you. But (even so) if there are 100 amongst you who are patient and persevering, they will overcome 200 (non-Muslims)’ (8: 66).
So when Allah reduced the number of enemies that Muslims should withstand, their patience and perseverence against the enemy decreased as much as their task was lightened for them. [Bukhari, VI, No.176.]
Still others hold that there are no genuine (sahih) reports available on this issue, going back to the Prophet, while those going back to the Companions contradict each other. [Ali, M.M.: The Religion of Islam, Lahore, 1936, p.32. It may be pointed out that Ali’s treatment of the subject is not very thorough. Of the three examp1es he cites in support of his opinion (‘in most cases, where a report is traceable to one Companion who held a certain verse to have been abrogated, there is another report traceable to another Companion, through the fact that the verse was not abrogated’ – p. 33) two are definitely not in his favour, while the third can be easily explained. His first case concerns Sura 2:180 (inheritance). It has certainly been superseded by other verses, e.g. 4:7-9 and that is probably all that is meant, when saying it is mansukh Ali’s second case, ‘2:184, is considered by Ibn ‘Umar as having been abrogated while Ibn ‘Abbas says it was not’ . See below, where I have quoted this very hadith from Ibn ‘Abbas (Bukhari, VI, No.32) where Ibn ‘Abbas himself explains why he does not hold it as abrogated. The third case is, like the first one, definitely not in support of Ali: ‘2: 240 was abrogated according to Ibn Zubair, while Mujahid says it was not’. This is wrong, see Sahih Bukhari, VI, Nos. 53 and 54, where both Ibn Zubair and Mujahid hold the verse to be abrogated. Furthermore both Ibn Zubair and Mujahid are tabi’un, and not Companions (sahaba).]
Therefore to them the issue of nasikh wa al mansukh is perhaps not of great importance. However, it is clear from the Qur’an itself, (e.g. in the case of inheritance, 2: 180; 4: 7-9, etc.) that abrogation occurred occasionally. Hence it is wrong to completely ignore the subject.
Abrogation and Specification
There is of course a difference between abrogation and specification. By the latter is meant that one revelation explains in more detail or according to specific circumstances how another revelation should be understood.
Sura 2:183 says ‘O you who believe, fasting is prescribed to you …’
Narrated ‘Ata’ that he heard Ibn ‘Abbas reciting the Divine verse ‘for those who can do it is a ransom, the feeding of one that is indigent’ (2:184).
Ibn ‘Abbas said ‘This verse is not abrogated but it is meant for old men and old women who have no strength to fast, so they should feed one poor person for each day of fasting (instead of fasting). [Bukhari, VI, No. 32.]
It is quite clear that the second verse (2:184) does not abrogate the rule of fasting from the first verse (2:183) but explains that in a specific case, that of feeble old people, there is a way of making up for the loss of fast.
In the same way the verses concerning intoxicating drinks can be understood as specifications rather than abrogations (see 4:43;2:219;5:93-4).
The Qur’an, in 2:106, refers to the concept of naskh. However, there is a difference of opinion about the extent to which al-nasikh wa-al mansukh does in fact occur in the text of the Qur’an. The information concerning al-nasikh wa-al mansukh must be treated with great caution as, for all reports concerning the text of the Qur’an, two independent witnesses are required. Many of the examples which the scholars have drawn upon to illustrate this question (and I have quoted them for the same purpose) are based on one witness only. ‘A’isha alone reported that 10 or 5 sucklings had been part of the Qur’anic recitation, and only ‘Umar reported that the ‘verse of stoning’ had been included in the Qur’anic text. These legal rulings are not included in the Qur’an precisely because they were not considered reliable, being based on one witness only. Similarly, other examples about naskh, based on the words of Ibn ‘Abbas or Mujahid alone, are to be judged by the same measure.
However, as mentioned there remain a small number of verses which, as far as can be ascertained from the internal evidence of the Qur’an, have been superseded by other verses in the Qur’an.
VARIETY OF MODES
What is the meaning of al-ahruf al-sab’a?
The word sab’a means seven, and ahruf is the plural form of harf, which has many meanings, among them ‘edge’ border, letter, word’, etc. In technical language it describes the variety of modes of the Qur’an transmitted to us, also expressed in various forms of writing the text.
Read the two versions of Sura 2:9 given on plates 7 and 8. Disregard the difference in style of writing. The first example is from a Qur’an from North Africa, the second from a Qur’an from Jordan. In the North African version, the word ‘yukhadi’una’ (they deceive) is used twice, while in the Jordan version, the word occurs as ‘yakhda’una’ in the second instant. Both are correct and accepted readings, since they have been transmitted to us. Also there is no objection from the viewpoint of grammar or correct language and the writing without vowel signs can carry both readings.
The Language of the Quraish
In the time of the Prophet Muhammad when the Qur’an was revealed, the Arab tribes scattered all over the peninsula, spoke a number of dialects, each containing peculiar words and idioms.
The language of the Quraish had developed into a form of ‘high Arabic’ due to the many influences it absorbed, being spoken at the main centre of trade and pilgrimage in Arabia. Hence this language was obviously the most suitable to carry the messages of revelation which were to reach all peoples and not be restricted to a particular tribe.
The Seven Modes
The hadith reports tell us that the Qur’an was actually revealed in seven modes (al-ahruf al-sab’a). This has been narrated by more than ten of the Prophet’s Companions, among them Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, Ibn Mas’ud, Ibn ‘Abbas and others. [Itqan, I, p. 41.]
The following is the hadith in Bukhari:
‘Narrated ‘Abdullah bin ‘Abbas: Allah’s apostle said: Gabriel recited the Qur’an to me in one way. Then I requested him (to read it in another way), and continued asking him to recite it in other ways, and he recited it in several ways till he ultimately recited it in seven different ways’. [Bukhari, VI No. 513.]
On another occasion, ‘Umar complained to the Prophet that Hisham had recited Sura al-furqan in a way different from what ‘Umar had heard from the Prophet, but the Prophet said: ‘… this Qur’an has been revealed to be recited in seven different ways, so recite of it whichever is easier for you’. [Bukhari, VI No. 514.]
Salman is reported to have said that he read a passage from 5:82 in the presence of the Prophet in the following two versions, the first of which is now in the Qur’anic text, while the second constitutes a variant reading according to ‘Ubay b. Ka’b: [Ibn Abi Dawud., p. 129.]
- dhalika bi-anna minhum qissisina wa ruhbana.
- dhalika bi-anna minhum siddiqina wa ruhbana.
[Ibn Abi Dawud., p. 103.]
Muslim scholars have put forward a number of explanations and benefits for the Muslim umma deriving from the revelation of the Qur’anic message in several modes. Among these the following are most important:
- To make the reading, pronunciation and memorisation more easy, as many people were illiterate in the Prophet’s time.
- To unite the new Muslim community on the basis of one common language, the Arabic of the Quraish, with minor variations accepted, according to spoken language.
- To show something of the unique nature of the Qur’an, in the realm of language.
- To show something of the unique nature of the Qur’an, in the realm of meaning and legal rulings.
- To explain a legal ruling in more detail.
There is a difference of opinion among classical Muslim scholars on the subject of the ‘seven modes’, to the extent that one of them was able to say: ‘the degree of difference of opinion (ikhtilaf) among the scholars is to the extent of 35 sayings’. [Itqan, I, p.45.]
Some of these different opinions are that the ‘seven modes’ are:
- Different languages (dialects) current among the Arabs at the time of revelation, such as e.g. Quraish, Hudhail, Tamim, etc., who had different ways of pronunciations which could even affect the spelling, e.g.
al-tabuh and al-tabut. (2: 248) [See Kamal, op. cit., p.46.]
or: hiyaka for iyaka (1:5).
or: atta for hatta (12: 35).
- It may also be the usage of words from the different languages in the Qur’an (this is considered one of the most sound views).
- Usage of synonyms in the Qur’an, i.e. that a variety of expressions describe one and the same concept. A well-known example is Sura 101: 5, which reads as ‘Ka-l-‘ihni-l-manfush‘, but in another version ‘Ka-s-sufi-l-manfush‘ both meaning ‘like carded wool’. The word arshidna was read in place of ihdina (Sura 1: 6), etc. [Both examples from Ibn Mas’ud. This view is also very close to the Idea of various dialects. and many scholars tend to accept such usage of synonyms, as meaning the seven modes’.]
- Different aspects of the revelation, such as e.g. order, prohibitions, promise, narrations, etc.
- Seven differences, such as possible ways of reading words and structures in the Qur’an, e.g. the word ‘trusts’ in 23: 8 which can be read both ‘trust’ (sg.) or ‘trusts’ (pl.) according to the plain text without vowels: li-amanatihim or li-amanatihim .
- Slightly different wordings of a particular passage, such as e.g. in 9: 100: ‘Gardens under which rivers flow’ which some read as ‘Gardens from under which rivers flow’, adding the word ‘from’ (min) to the text.
- Different ways of pronunciation as they have been explained in great detail by the scholars of qira’a (recitation) such as e.g. imala, idgham, etc. [This view has also been favoured by many, because it does not cause much controversy.]
However, even non-Muslim orientalists concede that ‘no major differences of doctrines can be constructed on the basis of the parallel readings based on the ‘Uthmanic consonantal outline, yet ascribed to mushafs other than his. All the rival readings unquestionably represent one and the same text. They are substantially agreed in what they transmit … [Burton, J,: The Collection of the Qur’an, Cambridge. 1977, p. 171.]
From these different opinions, of which only some have been listed above, by way of illustration, a generally-accepted conclusion is that the ‘seven modes’ are at the basis of several distinct ways of reciting the Qur’an, reflecting the different usage at the time of revelation, comprising variations in pronunciation and even minor differences in wording. The ‘seven ‘ahruf are however, not identical with the well-known ‘seven readings’. These came about in a later age. Although much of what the ‘seven readings’ contain is also found in the seven ahruf, there are some differences, which will be explained when discussing the seven readings.
Only a few examples for ‘ahruf have been transmitted to us. They are of importance for Tafsir, rather than qira’a.
Seven Modes in the Qur’an
While some scholars [e.g. Tabari, Jami’ al-bayan ‘an ta’wil ayat al-Qur’an, Cairo, 1968. See introduction to this tafsir. Zarkashi, Vol. 1, p.213 says most scholars are of the first view, and that the last double-reading of the Qur’an by Muhammad in the presence of the Angel Gabriel served, among others, the purpose of eliminating the other six modes.] hold that the written Qur’an now includes only one of the ‘seven modes’, and the others are transmitted orally to us, there is some evidence also for the view that the text of the Qur’an, as we have it in front of us, may include all these ‘seven modes’ because:
- No one would change the Qur’an.
- The present text was written upon the basis of the sahaba testimonies, both orally and written, going back directly to the Prophet.
- The Qur’an is protected by Allah.
THE VARIOUS READINGS
Al-qira’a (pl. qiraa’at) is derived from the word qara’a, ‘reading, reciting’; from which also the word Qur’an is derived. It is a verbal noun, meaning recitation. In technical language it describes the oral recitation of the Qur’an as well as the punctuation of the written text, which corresponds to the oral recitation.
Mawdudi [Introduction to the Study of the Qur’an, Delhi, 1971, p.21.] has very convincingly explained the proper understanding of some accepted difference in reading. He wrote that in al-fatiha (1: 3):
||}||both describe one of the attributes of Allah, and there is absolutely no contradiction between ‘sovereign’ and ‘master’ of the day of judgement, but ‘these two readings make the meaning of the verse all the more clear’.|
Similarly 5:8 arjulakum [Reading of Nafi, Hafs ‘an Asim, Kisa’i.] and arjulikum [Reading of Ibn Kathir, Abu Amr, Abu Bakra ‘an ‘Asim, Hamza.] carry two meanings:
Both are indeed correct, for under normal circumstances a man will wash his feet, while some other person e.g. a traveller may wipe them. Here the text of the Qur’an carries both meanings at the same time. This is indeed a unique feature of the revelation from Allah.
Readers among the Sababa
Reading and reciting of the Qur’an has been done since revelation began, and the Prophet was the first to recite. This has already been discussed in the section on transmission of the text. After his death, the recitation continued through his Companions. Among the famous readers from whom many of the tabi’un learned, were Ubay bin Ka’b, ‘Ali, Zaid bin Tbabit, Ibn Mas’ud, Abu Musa al-Ash’ari and many others.
Later on, with Muslims settling in many parts of the world, the Qur’an was recited in a variety of ways, some of which were not in accordance with the accepted text and the transmitted readings from the Prophet and the Companions. This necessitated a thorough screening and distinction between what is sahih (sound) and what is shadh (exceptional).
The Seven Readings
The ‘seven readings’ were standardised in the second/eighth century. Ibn Mujahid, a ninth-century Muslim scholar, wrote a book entitled The Seven Readings, in which he selected seven of the prevailing modes of recitation as the best transmitted and most reliable. Others were subsequently disfavoured and even opposed, among them the readings of Ibn Mas’ud and ‘Ubay bin Ka’b. However, this is not to say that one must restrict oneself to one of these seven readings, or to all of them. Below are listed the local origin of the seven readings and the names of readers [For their short biographies see Fihrist ,I, p. 63ff.] and some transmitters (rawis) connected with them:
||Nafi’ (169/785)||Warsh (197/812)|
||Ibn Kathir (120/737)|
||Ibn ‘Amir (118/736)|
||Abu ‘Amr (148/770)|
||‘Asim (127/744)||Hafs (180/796)|
||Al-Kisa’i (189/804)||Duri (246/860)|
Readings No. 1 and 5 are of particular importance: the reading transmitted by Warsh is widespread in Africa, except Egypt, where, as now in almost all other parts of the Muslim world, the reading transmitted by Hafs is observed.
Later on other views emerged, making ten or fourteen well-known readings. In addition to the seven above, the following make up the ten and the fourteen readers:
||Abu Ja’far (130/747)|
||Hasan al Basri (110/728)|
||Ibn Muhaisin (123/740)|
||Yahya al-Yazidi (202/817)|
The readings are also divided as follows: [Suyuti, Itqan, I, p 77]
- The mutawatir (transmitted by many; they include the seven well-known readings).
- The ahad (transmitted by one; they number three, going back to the sahaba and together with the seven make up the ten).
- The shadh (exceptional; they go back to the tabi’un only).
Muslim scholars have laid down three criteria for the acceptance of any qira’a and three criteria for preferring some over others. The best transmission was of course mutawatir. The three criteria for acceptance of other readings are:
- Correctness according to Arabic grammar.
- Agreement with the written text of ‘Uthman.
- Traced back reliably to the Prophet.
The three criteria for preference are:
- Correctness according to Arabic grammar.
- Agreement with the written text of ‘Uthman.
- Reported/preferred by many (majority).
The best summary on this topic is perhaps contained in the words of the scholar Abu-l-Khair bin al-Jazari (d.833/1429), who wrote:
‘Every reading in accordance with Arabic (grammar) even if (only) in some way, and in accordance with one of the masahif of ‘Uthman, even if (only) probable, and with sound chain of transmission, is a correct (sahih) reading, which must not be rejected, and may not be denied, but it belongs to the seven modes (ahruf) according to which the Qur’an was revealed, and the people are obliged to accept it, no matter whether it is from the seven Imams, or the ten or from other accepted Imams, but when one of these three conditions is not fulfilled, it must be rejected as weak (daif) or exceptional (shadh) or void (batil), no matter whether it is from the seven or from one who is older than them.’ [Suyuti, Itqan, I, p.75 ]