Monday, April 02, 2007

How the Quranic revelation began.


By: Muhammad Asad.

Yahya ibn Bukair related to us, saying: ... on the authority of Aishah, Mother of the faith, said:
The first [kind] of revelation to which the Apostle of God was initiated was the true dream during sleep 1, and he never saw a dream but it came like the dawn of the morn. 2 Thereafter the solitude became dear unto him, and he withdrew into seclusion in the cave of Hira' 3 and there applied himself to ardent devotions 4 - that is worship 5 - during many nights ere he went home and provided himself with food therefore; then he would return unto Khadijah and provide himself with food for a similar [number of days] - until the truth 6 came unto him whilst he was in the cave of Hira: the angel came unto him and said: "Read! - He said: "I am not of those who read." 7
He said [in his narrative]: Then he took me and pressed me until all the strength went out of me; thereupon he released me and said: "Read!" And I said: "I am not of those who read." Then he took me and pressed me a third time; thereupon he released me and said: "Read in the name of thy Sustainer Who hath created - created man from a clot! Read! And thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful!" 8
And thus the Apostle of God returned, his heart trembling, and came unto Khadijah bint Khuwailid and said: "Wrap me up! Wrap me up!" 9 And they wrapped him up until the awe left him. Then he told Khadijah what happened and said unto her: "Verily, I fear for myself." 10 - Thereupon Khadijah said: "Nay, by God! Never will God humiliate thee! Behold, thou fulfillest the duties of kinship, and supportest the weak, and bringest gain to the destitute, and art bounteous toward a guest, and helpest those in genuine distress."
Then Khadijah went with him unto Waraqah ibn Naufal ibn Asad ibn 'Abd al-'Uzza, a son of Khadijah's uncle. He had embraced Christianity in the Time of Ignorance 11 and wrote the Hebrew script, and did write in Hebrew out of the Gospel whatever God willed him to write; and he was an old man and had become blind. And Khadijah said unto him: "O uncle's son, hearken unto thy brother's son. 12" - And Waraqah said unto him: " O my brother's son, what dost thou see? " Thereupon the Apostle of God told him what he had seen. And Waraqah said unto him: "That [was] the Angel of Revelation whom God sent down upon Moses. O, would that I were a youth! Would I were alive when thy people drive thee away!" - Then the Apostle of God said: "Why ! Are they to drive me away?" - He said: "Yea. Never came a man with the like thou hast come with but was persecuted. And if thy day [of need] witnesseth me [alive], I shell help thee with a powerful help." - Thereafter Waraqah took no part [in these matters] until he died. 13 And the revelation broke off. 14
1. The first of these prophetic dreams occurred in the month of Rabi' al-awwal in the year 13 B.H. (February, 610 C), when the Prophet had just completed his fortieth year (Al-Baihaqi, apud FB i,21).
2. i.e., with the clearness of light after darkness.
3. A hill about three miles north-east of Mecca, to-day known as Jabal Nur ("Mount of Light"), because there the first verses of the Holy Qur'an were revealed.
Many conjectures have been made as to length of the Prophet's retirement at Hira', and whether it took place only once or on several occasions. IH (i,150) states that there were several such times of seclusion, namely, "one month in every year." But this is contradicted by the Tradition (SM, Kitab at-tafsir) in which the Prophet distinctly declares that he remained one month (in all) at Hira'. Moreover, it is evident from Tr.3 of our work that Muhammad's love of solitude dated from the beginning of the prophetic dreams, the first of which, according to Al-Baihaqi (cf. I, 9) took place about 6 months before Gabriel's appearance at Hira'; so there can have been no question of his withdrawing into solitude" one month in every year." We must, therefore assume that he withdrew into the cave only once, and spent there about one month; this seclusion was interrupted by his short visits home for the sake of taking provisions.
4. It is somewhat difficult exactly to translate the term tahannuth used in the Arabic text. It is available in two readings, the order being tahannuf.. Tahannuth is derived from hanth, and means "avoidance of sin." But as this does not at all comply with the subsequent remark "that is, worship," we must accept the second reading tahannuf as correct: and it is, in fact, as well-known linguistic peculiarity of the Arabs that in their speech they often transform the consonant f into th. Now, the word tahannuf is not of Arabic origin, but probably derived from the Canaanite-Aramaic hanpa which literaly means "one who turns away." In Syriac it was prominently used to describe one who turns away from his religion, a renegade; so the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate who gave up Christianity and reverted to the old Roman faith is called, in Syrian-Christian manuscripts, Yulyana hanpa ; the same term often was applied to the Manichaeans and Sabaeans, presumably owing to the fact that their religions contained Christian elements without fully subscribing to the doctrines of the Christian Church. When the Arabs, in pre-Islamic times, adopted this word to their language they used it in its original sense of "turning away", namely, from idolatry and, subsequently, from every kind of worldliness. Thence tahanuff came to denote the ardent devotions (mainly consisting of long vigils and prayers) of the unitarian God-seekers who, consequently, were called hunafa' (sing., hanif ) - a designation which was to become familiar to Muslims owing to its association, in the Qur'an, with the name of Abraham. There it is almost synonymous with "Unitarian."
5. This comment originates from the famous tab'i (i.e., "successor" of the Companion) Ibn Shihab, one of the narrators of the above Tradition.
6. "Truth" means revelation in wakeful state, as contrasted with that in dream. Some Traditions (e.g., IH i, 151) report that the appearance of Gabriel at Hira was a dream-experience, like the Prophet's former visions; but Al-Bukhari's version, which admittedly is more reliable (and, moreover, supported by SM, Kitab at-tafsir ), does not allow of such an interpretation.
The appearance of Gabriel at Hira and consequently, the first revelation of the Qur'an , took place, according to all authorities, during the month of Ramadan, 13 B.H (July or August, 610 C.), but there is no agreement as to the exact date. If, as some commentators assume, the first revelation coincided with the lailat al-qadr ("Nigh of Destiny"), then it would have been one of the last ten nights of Ramadan, because the Prophet mentioned in other Traditions these ten nights as those among which the lailat al-qadr is to be sought.
7. These words of the Prophet are sometimes translated as "What shall I read." From the linguistical point of view this interpretation is by no means impossible: the particle ma can be used in an interrogative sense ("what") as well as in a negative ("not"). But almost all philological authorities (with the single exception of Al-Akhfash, apud 'UQ i,67) are, for grammatical reasons, against this interpretation. The translation "I am not a reader" or "I am not of those who read" appears, therefore, to be the correct one.
8. Q.xcvi, 1/3 - This beautiful story of the Prophet's first encounter with the Angel of Revelation reminds us, in certain points, of Jacob's wrestling with the angel as described in Genesis, Ch. 32. But whereas Jacob resisted, Muhammad surrendered himself entirely to the angel's embrace: and here the highest quality of Prophethood is manifested. The perfect Prophet is he who, at the time of revelation, eliminates his own dynamic personality to such a degree that almost nothing remains in him but the faculty of reception. This probably is the most difficult task ever set before man. In the average human being the impetuosity of feelings, desires and nervous sensations overpowers and dims his purely receptive qualities, his ability to listen to the voice within him or from above him. To be a Prophet means no more and no less than to be full and empty at one and the same time: a human being filled with the consciousness of his life and the natural impulses of action and self-assertion- and, at the same time, a passive, purely receptive instrument endowed with noting but the highest sensitiveness and power of exact registration. The primary duty of a Prophet, in contrast with that of any other spiritual leader, is not to produce images and ideas born in his own mind: it consists only in the reading out of the unseen book of Divine Truth and the reproducing of its meaning to mankind without additions or subtractions. In the word "Read!" which opened the first revelation to Muhammad this call to Perfect Prophethood is already fully expressed. The Law of God, the Eternal Truth behind the perceptible things, was laid bare before him, waiting to be understood by him in its innermost meaning. Thus it would be wrong to translate here iqra' by "recite"- though the Arabic language certainly permits it - because recitation implies the delivery before an audience of something committed to memory - and at the moment of the angel's first appearance there was nothing as yet in the Prophet's memory, and there was no audience. On the other hand, "reading" implies the conscious following and mental assimilation of words or ideas from an outside source: and this, without doubt, was the thing required from the Prophet. At first he was under the illusion of having been ordered to read actual scrip, and this, he knew, he could not do because he was illiterate. But when the angel concluded this Revelation, the Prophet understood, in sudden illumination, that he was ordered to receive the spiritual message of the Supreme Being; and the magnitude of this task with all its implications of responsibility and self-sacrifice overwhelmed him and filled him with awe.
9. Because he shivered from the excitement caused by the vision. The calming influence of a cover drawn over the whole body was known to the Arab kahanah (sing., kahin), or soothsayers, of pre-Islamic times, and it is very probable that its use by the Prophet led the heathen Quriash to the erroneous assumption that he belonged to the same class of visionaries.
10. The fear expressed by the Prophet had its origin in the noble humility of his soul: he thought himself unworthy of the exalted position of Prophethood. The explanation given by some of the commentators , that he was afraid death or of having become insane, is purely hypothetical and, moreover, not corresponding with Khadijah's answer to the Prophet: "...never will God humiliate thee," - which means: "...never will God confer a task upon thee which thou art unable to perform." The suggestion of other commentators, that he was afraid of persecution by his countryman, is entirely without foundation. As is evident from the subsequent talk between the Prophet and Waraqah ibn Naufal, the Prophet had no notion of danger from that direction until Waraqah told him so.
11. "Time of Ignorance" (jahiliyah) is the period before the announcement of Muhammad's prophetic mission.
12. Waraqah was not in reality an uncle of the Prophet, though they belonged to the same branch of Quraish: but it is an Arab custom, prevalent even in these days, to address an old and respected an as "uncle"; hence Khadijah's expression "thy brother's son."
13. Most commentators agree that Waraqah died before the Prophet began preaching Islam in public, i.e., before the persecution by the Quraish started. Only Ibn Ishaq (apud FB i, 21) mentions that Waraqah was present when Bilal was maltreated on account of his adherence to the Prophet: but as this account is contradicted by the evidence of Traditions in the compilation of both Al-Bukhari and Muslim, it must be regarded as a historical mistake.
14. Between the first revelation mentioned in the above Tradition and the next one a period of about three years elapsed during which the Prophet recieved no revelation. This period is called "the break in the revelation" (fatrat al-wahi). It was a time of deepest distress for the Prophet. The absence of revelation almost led him to believe that his first experience at Hira was an illusion; and it was only due to Khadijah's undaunted faith in his prophetic mission that he did not entirely lose his courage.

Excerpted from "Sahih Al-Bukhari. The Early Years of Islam". Translated and Explained by Muhammad Asad.

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