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Offline Joseph Islam

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Fluid Beginnings of Asbab-ul-nuzul
« on: November 09, 2011, 06:22:36 AM »
[Please contact Joseph Islam for further details of the original thread]

Much is made of Quranic revelations with respect to what time and for what purpose they were revealed (Occasions / reasons - Asbab (plural of sabab) of revelation (nazul)).

In my discussions, nothing demonstrates more the fluid nature of 'Asbab-ul-Nazul' than the controversy that surrounded what the very first surah revealed to the Prophet was.

A typical response given is - 'The very first verse of the Quran? - Surely its 96:1. Everyone knows that!'

Maybe - But what is often disconcerting as first realisation, especially those uninitiated with early Muslim sources is that, quite interestingly, the earliest historians didn't seem to be quite sure.

If this is the case with the very first surah of the Quran, then what about all these elaborate narratives that capture and necessitate the study of 'Asbab-ul-Nazul'? - Exactly! - It is a question worth asking and pondering.


There is much scholarship work on this and I don't wish to unnecessary lengthen the post. I refer those with an appetite to dig deeper to an interesting piece by G.H.A Juynboll and the 'Studies on the Origins and Uses of Islamic Hadith' (Published by Variorium Pages 167-171 - XI Early Islamic Society as reflected in its use of Isnads). Quite a detailed survey is also done by Noldeke/Schwally, Geschichte des Qorans, I, pages 78-84

In a nutshell, verse 96:1 'iqra bismi rabbika allladhi khalaq' was not the only contender amongst the earliest historians as the first revelation to the Prophet. There was another - "ya-ayyuha -l-muddaththir qum fa-andhir..." (74-1...). Muslim scholars seem to have stated rather than demonstrated that 96:1 was the first. Many have accepted narratives which support this on the authority of early historians such as Ibn Ishaq (d. circa 760s CE) that flesh out the stories. Later historians such as Tabari (d.923 CE) simply relied on earlier historians and as such questionable fluidity of information became cemented as fact as names of these great giants became more important than a critical analysis of their works.

At best, this was salvation history that the earliest historians were attempting to recover marred with serious political, social and personal influences.

Also, it appears that the main focus for the earliest scholars seemed to be based on scripture and an understanding of the 'living tradition' that coexisted with it, rather than 'al-qassas' (stories).

Abu Hanifa, a well respected jurist amongst Muslims who was born in Kufa (699 CE and d.767 CE) is well known not to have left much in the way of Hadith both in terms of traditions or 'Qassas' (Stories). However, even in his time a parallel desire to capture 'stories' seemed to be garnering popular support.

Ignaz Goldziher, 1850-1921 CE, highly recognised in Western scholarship as somewhat as the father of Hadith criticism (and Matn analysis) in the West captures a very telling narrative in his Muslims Studies Volume II (Muhammedanische Studien) on page 193

'Abu Yusuf, pupil of Abu Hanifa, was greatly interested in the Maghaz, tafsir and ayyam al Arab [1], so much so that he missed some of his master's lectures. One day after he had been absent for several days his teacher asked him: 'Now tell me, who was Goliath's standard bearer?' Abu Yusuf was ready with his answer. 'You are the imam,' he said, 'and if you do not stop teasing me, I shall ask you in front of all the people which battle was fought earlier, the Battle of Badr or that of Uhud?. You will be unable to answer; yet this is the most elementary question in history.' [2]'

[1] - Abu l-Mahasin, I, p:508,7
[2] - Al Damiri, I, p.176 from Tarikh Baghdad

Ask a well read Muslim child the same question today and the answer will roll off the tongue with ease as 'accepted historical fact'. However, this narrative clearly shows the detachment that religious theologians had with historical questions. Even at the time of Abu Hanifa, popular stories (hearsay) were not commonly known. This is not surprising if you look at the following timeline:

Time of Prophet's death d.632 CE
Ibn Ishaq writing his 'Sira' for CALIPH Mansur (Abbassid Caliphate Ruler who died around c.775) on his order. The Sira put together around 760-763 CE
Abu Hanifa - Baghdad (d.c.767 CE)
Abu Yusuf (d.798)

Therefore, it appears that even religious theologians such as Abu Hanifa increasingly turned away from 'popular stories' and literature dealing with such and seem to have relegated them as useless entertainment.

Today, what is even more disconcerting are some of the incredulous popular examples found in the 'Sahih' with regards Asbab-ul-Nuzul.

As an example, verse 11:5 beautifully relates God's immense power of knowledge by capturing a condition of a people.

"See how they fold up their chests that they may hide their thoughts from Him! Even when they cover themselves with their garments, He knows what they conceal and what they reveal. He is Knower of the innermost thoughts of the hearts" [QXP]

The verse remains self explanatory and even more so if read in context with its surrounding verse. No explanation or purpose for its revelation is really necessary

However, the reason for the revelation as recorded in canonised Hadith literature is as follows. (Reader discretion advised).

Volume 6, Book 60, Number 203:
Narrated Muhammad bin 'Abbas bin Ja'far:

That he heard Ibn 'Abbas reciting: "No doubt! They fold up their breasts." (11.5) and asked him about its explanation. He said, "Some people used to hide themselves while answering the call of nature in an open space lest they be exposed to the sky, and also when they had sexual relation with their wives in an open space lest they be exposed to the sky, so the above revelation was sent down regarding them."

Volume 6, Book 60, Number 204:
Narrated Muhammad bin Abbas bin Ja'far:

Ibn Abbas recited. "No doubt! They fold up their breasts." I said, "O Abu Abbas! What is meant by "They fold up their breasts?" He said, "A man used to feel shy on having sexual relation with his wife or on answering the call of nature (in an open space) so this Verse was revealed:-- "No doubt! They fold up their breasts."

So much for the sabab-ul-nazul for this particular Ayat. Even without critical enquiry, what level of confidence can one truly place on other narratives of similar ilk?
'During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act' 
George Orwell