Lecture 6 in the Ramadaan series:
EXPLORING THE SHIA APPROACH TO THE QURAN
Tuesday 22 May 2018 (6 Ramadaan 1439) at the Ahlul Bait (a.s) Masjid, Ottery, Cape Town delivered by Mowlana Syed Aftab Haider.
After discussing “wahi” which is Divine communication itself – which is the means of contact between Almighty Allah and Prophet Muhammad (sawa) for the purpose of delivering Allah’s message to mankind, the next important issue to discuss is the issue of the “nuzul” or descent / sending down of “wahi”.
WHAT IS THE NATURE OF THIS DESCENT?
In common language we understand “coming down” or descent to generally mean moving from a higher place to a lower place – like the coming down of rain, or the descent of an aeroplane when it moves from a high altitude to a lower altitude.
In the case of the Quran we don’t refer to some “physical” descent or coming down from higher physical place to a lower physical place.
So in case of the Quran, descent refers to descent from a higher stage / state to a lower state or level.
Furthermore in Arabic we use the term “tajafi” to mean when moving from point A to point B. During such move, when moving from point A to point B, the thing that has now moved to point B is NO LONGER at point A. For example rain falls by moving from the clouds down onto the earth – once it has fallen onto the earth, it is no longer in the clouds. That is an example of “Tajafi”.
But the Quranic “nuzul” or descent IS NOT “tajafi” where it comes from a higher place and moves to a lower place without being in the original higher location any longer. Rather the nuzul or descent of the Quran is “tajalli” – that is it descends / comes down and manifests at lower place, WITHOUT losing its place in its original position!.
Ulama explain this concept by comparing it to a bucket that is lowered into a well. One can throw the bucket to the bottom of the well and thus have no contact with the bucket at the opening to the well where you dropped it from – that would be “tajafi”.
But sometimes you tie a rope around the bucket, and then lower it into the well – so while the bucket is at the bottom of the well, since you control the rope which is still at the entrance to the well, the bucket still has contact with its origin. Though this is not a perfect example, it gives you an idea of how descent in the sense of “tajalli” works.
LEVELS OF THE QURAN
In the case of the Quran, since it still remains in its original position after descent, it is said that there are 3 major levels for the Quran.
Firstly, the Reality of the Quran is in Lawhin Mahfuz – and this is the Quran at its Highest level. We read in Surah Buruj Verse 21 and 22 we read:
بَلْ هُوَ قُرْآنٌ مَجِيدٌ
فِي لَوْحٍ مَحْفُوظٍ
“Nay! it is a glorious Qur’an,”
“In a Tablet Preserved!”
That is the Highest Level in that the Quran that we are familiar with has a higher Reality called the “Preserved Tablet” – and various verses of the Quran in addition to the above mentioned verse give us this indication.
Secondly, the Quran has an intermediate level – that is when it is in the process of descent through the Angel Jibreel (a.s). In Surah Abasa Verses 11 to 16 we read:
كَلَّا إِنَّهَا تَذْكِرَةٌ
فَمَنْ شَاءَ ذَكَرَهُ
فِي صُحُفٍ مُكَرَّمَةٍ
“Nay surely it is an admonishment,
So let him who pleases mind it,
(It is) in Books held (greatly) in honor,
Exalted (in dignity) kept pure and holy,
In the hand of scribes,
Honorable and pious and just,”
These verses shows that the verses of Qur’an had been written on some tablets before they were revealed to the Prophet (sawa), and the angels of revelation possessed them.
Thirdly, there is the Quran that is at its lowest level which is in the form of words that normal human beings have access to.
However, this third level is AT ALL TIMES linked to its origin – which is the first level.
We thus read in Surah Zuhruf Verses 1 to 4:
إِنَّا جَعَلْنَاهُ قُرْآناً عَرَبِيّاً لَعَلَّكُمْ تَعْقِلُونَ
وَإِنَّهُ فِي أُمِّ الْكِتَابِ لَدَيْنَا لَعَلِيٌّ حَكِيمٌ
By the clear book
Indeed We have made it an Arabic Quran, that you might understand
And indeed it is in the Mother of the Book with Us, exalted and full of wisdom”
This reference that the Quran is “WITH US” means that it is ALWAYS connected to its origin and thus its descent is “tajalli” – on that side it is in “Ummul Kitaab” or the “Mother of the Book” while on this side it is an Arabic Quran.
Ayatullah Jawadi Amuli thus says that if you want to understand the Quran, then you must start from Arabic Quran which is on the lowest level and then climb this ladder as high as possible based on your capacity and move in the direction of “Ummul Kitaab” which is the Mother of the Book.
HOW MANY TIMES DID THE QURAN DESCEND?
There are 2 major opinions in this regard.
One opinion says that the Quran was only revealed once when it started with the first 5 verses of Surah Alaq and was gradually revealed over a period of time and this same process of revelation completed after 23 years.
However when reading certain verses of the Quran, their apparent meaning does not make such a conclusion possible.
For example, in Surah Baqarah verse 185 we read:
شَهْرُ رَمَضَانَ الَّذِيَ أُنزِلَ فِيهِ الْقُرْآنُ
“The month of Ramadaan is the month in which the Quran was sent down”
The apparent meaning of this verse is that the whole Quran was revealed – the verse is not saying that the process of revelation was initiated in this month of Ramadaan.
Or we read in Surah Qadr Verse 1:
إِنَّا أَنزَلْنَاهُ فِي لَيْلَةِ الْقَدْرِ
“Surely We sent it (Quran) down in the night of Qadr/Power”
Again, this verse is alluding to the whole Quran itself being sent down in the Night of Qadr, it does not say the process of revelation was initiated.
And similarly in Suran Dukhan Verse 3 we read:
إِنَّا أَنْزَلْنَاهُ فِي لَيْلَةٍ مُبَارَكَةٍ
“Surely We sent it down on a Blessed Night”
Again this does not refer to a few verses or ayahs being sent down on this Blessed Night but “We sent it” – “it” refers to the whole Quran itself. So the apparent meaning of these types of verse is that the whole Quran was revealed on the Night of Qadr.
Thus most Shia scholars and some Sunni Scholars believe there were 2 revelations of Quran – there was a sudden, complete revelation of Quran all at once and then there was a second revelation that occurred through a gradual process over a period of 23 years.
Now when analyzing the argument of those who say that the Quran was only revealed once (through the gradual 23 year process), they say that only the first verses of Surah Alaq were revealed on the Night of Qadr when the process of revelation commenced. However this understanding is not compatible with the verses referred to earlier.
Furthermore, in terms of the Quranic verses itself, we learn that in relation to nuzul or “descent / sending down” of the Quran, that the Quran uses the word “Inzaal” and its derivatives on the one hand in some occasions and then sometimes uses the word “Tanzil” and its derivatives on the other hand. And these 2 words definitely give us a very different understanding in relation to the “descent” itself.
“Inzaal” means sudden descent, whereas “Tanzil” means gradual or a slower form of descent.
So from this combination of verses together with the clear narrations of the Imams of the Ahlul Bait (a.s), we understand that the method of gradual descent of revelation started on 27 Rajab (not on the night of Qadr) and took 23 years to complete, while the “sudden descent” of revelation all at once onto the heart of Prophet Muhammad (sawa) was in the night of Qadr when the WHOLE REALITY / TRUTH of the Quran descended.
The above mentioned 2 types of grammatical words used for “descent” is one clear evidence for descent to have occurred twice.
VERSES OF QURAN WHICH SUPPORT THE IDEA OF NUZUL OCCURRING TWICE
In addition to the above mentioned, when examining certain verses of the Quran we also find evidence that suggests that the Quran was at least revealed more than once.
Consider Surah Taha Verse 114 which says:
وَلاَ تَعْجَلْ بِالْقُرْءَانِ مِن قَبْلِ أَن يُقْضَي إِلَيْكَ وَحْيُهُ
“and do not make haste (O Apostle) with the Qur’an before its revelation is completed unto you”
This verse is saying to the Prophet (sawa) that he should not rush in informing the people about a verse of the Quran before it’s revelation to him is completed. This means that when Prophet Muhammad (sawa) was faced with a situation and had to give guidance, he ALREADY knew the answer BEFORE Jibreel (a.s) brought him the revelation and thus waste in haste to give the answer. How is that possible? It is because Prophet Muhammad (sawa) was already familiar with Quran in its higher level / reality.
Or we read in Surah Hud Verse 1:
الر كِتَابٌ اُحْكِمَتْ ءَايَاتُهُ ثُمَّ فُصِّلَتْ مِن لَدُنْ حَكِيمٍ خَبِيرٍ
“’Alif, Lam, Ra. (This is) a Book whose verses are set firmly, then explained in detail, from One All-Wise, All-Aware.”
Verses set firmly mean the Quran in its “concentrated form” (which is its Reality) and then it is expanded upon through explanation for us to understand (which is the Arabic Quran).
Based on these and other verses, Allamah Tabatabai then concludes that on the Night of Qadr, the Reality of the Quran was revealed direct onto heart of Prophet Muhammad (sawa) WITHOUT the medium of an Angel. Thus in terms of the three levels of the Quran referred to earlier, it is the Quran somewhere between highest level and its intermediate level that was revealed onto the heart of Prophet Muhammad (sawa).
WHAT IS THE PHILOSOPHY OF 2 DESCENTS OF THE QURAN?
The philosophy here is that Prophet Muhammad (sawa) who is the leader of the nation must have the full Quran with him from the very start of his mission because he must lead people with complete vision of the full Quran and the destination that he is meant to lead his people to.
But since people were not ready to receive everything – as they evolve gradually – there was also a need for a second gradual descent as well. But Prophet Muhammad (sawa) as the leader who takes the caravan to its final destiny must know from day one where he is going – he must have a full plan of the whole journey.
Secondly, if Allah gave the Quran to people all at once, people would think Prophet Muhammad (sawa) has no more contact with Allah. This slow/gradual process ensured that throughout his whole mission he had continuous contact with the source of the Quran.
Thirdly, though the full Reality of the Quran was already with Prophet Muhammad (sawa), but the process of still receiving it a second time gradually was a means to further strengthen the Prophet as it gives a signal that His Lord is with him in this difficult mission.
Fourthly, various verses were revealed in a particular context when different incidents occurred – though the context does not limit the applicability of the Quran to that incident. But in that chaotic society and situations that arose, a Quranic verse would be revealed that gave clear guidance on what to do in such situations.
Of the many examples is the one of Ammar, his father Yasir and his mother Sumayya who were from the early Muslims. His father and mother were killed and Ammar was placed under heavy torture and in this condition publicly denied his belief purely to save his life. This incident started a serious social scandal when people started to say that Ammar was a sell-out. Under these circumstances the well-known verse 106 of Surah Nahl which permits Taqiyya was revealed which says:
مَن كَفَرَ بِاللَّهِ مِن بَعْدِ إِيمَانِهِ إِلاَّ مَنْ اُكْرِهَ وَقَلْبُهُ مُطْمَئِنٌّ بِالإِيمَانِ
“He who disbelieves in Allah after believing in Him; not he who has been compelled, while his heart is still content with the faith….”
The revelation of this verse in favour of Ammar established a principle and completely settled the unnecessary scandal in a decisive way.
To be continued……..
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