InsightSeptember October 2004

Unfencing the Fences around the Quran

Rashid Shaz

The Qur’an is the undistorted, immutable and perfect manifestation of Divine Revelation that still stands in its entirety, purity, and pristine glory among Muslims. Despite this, if the chosen community is undergoing the pangs of decline, then the cause for this can be traced back to their attitude towards Divine Revelation, the attitude that was formed, to a great extent, by the massive tomes of interpretive literature that took centuries to evolve. The deviation from the principle laid down in the Qur’an, however, had already begun in the second and third centuries of Islam. Though the Divine Text still exists amongst us in its entirety in undiluted form, it has really become a captive to thick volumes of commentaries on it. It is not easy to surmount the barrier of interpretation put up by hordes of commentators. This, by itself, is such a great challenge that our success in this sphere will create a veritable tempest in the world of thoughts and ideas.  It will bring glad tidings to the people about a bright future just as the emergence of a Prophet dispels the darkness of a realm, plagued by evil. If the Qur’an suffices prophet hood in absentia الرسلحجة من بعد , then one cannot dismiss such a possibility.

Divine Revelation is not a common occurrence. We have stressed it in the earlier chapters that Divine Revelation and Apostleship are instances of direct divine intervention in human history. Its presence with the Israelites ensured that they remain in the seat of leadership. However, when they began to regard the tablets of Moses as holy relics, they lost sight of the actual functional value of Divine Revelation. Wishful longings made inroads into their hearts and minds and they could not even defend the holy relics from their victorious enemy. This is evidenced by the spoilage of Jerusalem for the second time, as recorded in the Jewish history and as alluded in the Qur’an: أن يا تيكم التابوت فيه سكينة من ربكم وبقية من آل  موسي وآل هارؤن (Al Baqara:248). That is to say, Bakht Nasr was in the know that the greatness of the Israelites was inextricably linked to the tablets of Moses that were given to them. If they fell from the exalted position despite the presence of these tablets, the reason should be traced back to their changing attitude towards them. Rather than actualising the Divine Revelation in their day-to-day life, they relegated them to the magic potion of barakah, that is to say, for earning material prosperity. The decline of Muslims, despite the presence of the Divine Text among them, should also be considered from this perspective.

The Qur’an is the foundational document for Muslims. If people begin to entertain any sort of doubts about this document or have misgivings about its functional role, it will have the effect of undercutting the mission statement itself, throwing its followers in complete disarray. Unfortunately, the large number of volumes of Qur’anic literature that have piled up, are not only an impediment in understanding the Book but also can be instrumental in creating doubts and misgivings in our minds.

The Divine Revelation has been embodied in the form of the Qur’an that is with us in all its glory. Regarding its essence or real import, if we give credence to reliable and verified transmissions, it will amount to interrogating the authenticity of Divine Revelation. Stating the principle of Divine Revelation Allah says in the Qur’an that no human being can hold direct dialogue with him. It has taken place only through the means of Divine Revelation, from behind a veil or through angels[1]. Divine Revelation is a felt act, certain and definitive, in which the recipient has firm faith in its occurrence and the infallibility of the message transmitted to him. This is something beyond the stages of illumination (ilham), inspiration (ilqa) or vision (royay-e sadeqa). In case of ilham and ilqa, the recipient cannot be sure about their source from Allah. He can characterize even the most obvious and transparent words communicated to him as a message from the Unseen. As opposed to this, Divine Revelation is palpably felt and experienced and the recipient is fully aware of his position in the Divine Scheme of things. The Qur’an has specified three distinct modes of Divine Revelation. There is no reason to surmise that any other mode, apart from these three, was adopted in case of Muhammad[2]. But those who were inclined to discount the prophetic mediation and see Divine Revelation on the ordinary human plane, either fabricated such accounts regarding Divine Revelation or naively believed in them, whereby Divine Revelation transmitted to the last Prophet took on the aspect of ordinary illuminations, inspiration or visions. Someone said that Divine Revelation began with visions, his dream appeared to him as clear as the morning light.[3] Others said that some invisible angel planted some message in his mind.[4] Still others said that at the time of Divine Revelation he could hear a voice ringing in his ear[5], and this voice had no direction. Some opined that this voice was an unintelligible sound that the Prophet heard but could not properly appreciate at the first hearing. The message sunk in his mind by and by[6]. This was reported with reference to Omar that whenever the Divine Word was revealed to him, one could hear a sound like the humming of bees around his illumined face.[7] Such traditions not only caused harm to the real import of Divine Revelation but the very act of revelation and its reception were linked to a state of delirium that overcomes a patient suffering from epileptic fits. In the books of history and traditions one finds description of such states at the time of Divine Revelation.[8] Such fanciful accounts not only took away from the exalted status of Divine Revelation and created misgivings in people’s minds, but also opened the floodgates of visions for apprehending Divine Revelation. It is stated in Bukhari that now onwards, for all succeeding generations the only legacy of Apostleship would remain in the form of mubashshirat (good tidings) and mubashshirat means visions.[9] In another hadith of Bukhari it is said that any vision by a believer was 46th part of Apostleship.[10] A similar tradition from this group reports that among the Israelites there were such people who were not Prophets but God spoke to them. “If there is any such person among my followers, it is Omar.”[11] These traditions led some religious scholars to believe that though the Apostleship had come to an end, the tradition of divine communication in the form of ilham was still there and would continue to be there. On this premise, some Sufis have endowed the seers (Auliya) with extraordinary powers to ‘hear’ and ‘see’ (‘basheer o nazeer’[12]). According to them, there is just one difference between the Prophets and the seers and that is – while the former bring a system of law (sharia) with them the latter do not. As for the relationship with the heavens, the Prophetic revelations are as relevant for the Prophet as illuminations, inspiration and visions for the seers.

When Allah’s angel came to the Prophet with the message, “Read”, it was a felt experience and an actual occurrence through which Muhammad was given the tidings of his Apostleship. But the traditions have cast a shadow of doubts and misgivings on the Apostleship of Muhammad. The books of history and biography are replete with accounts that describe how the Prophet was overwhelmed by a sense of awe and fear after the first revelation. He returned home with all kinds of apprehensions in his mind. Some reliable biographers of the Prophet went so far as to record that the Prophet had his suspicions about whether the angel instructing him to “read” was, in fact, an angel or a spirit or a follower of the satan.[13] It is Khadija’s belief that whatever occurred in the cave of Hera would lead to good consequences that reassured the Prophet and gradually put his mind at rest. Soon, this belief of Khadija was corroborated by a close relative of hers, Wirqa bin Nafl, who was a Jewish scholar. It seems surprising that the Prophet himself lacked knowledge about this momentous event, and he needed Khadija and Wirqa to confirm that it was indeed a Divine occurrence actualised through an angel. In some books of traditions one finds references to a long period of gap between the first revelation and the second; it is also said therein that the Prophet had strong misgivings about this disconnect with the Divine world. These misgivings reached to such an extreme extent that he even thought of giving up his life by jumping down from a mountain cliff. Right at that moment Gabriel was sighted, sitting in a chair suspended in the air, and the cycle of Divine Revelation resumed. Numerous traditions contain references to the Prophet’s misgivings after he received the first message. There are traditions that record the Prophet’s apprehension. This apprehension was not limited to the heavenly angel whom he suspected to be a spirit or ghost, but extended so far as to make the Prophet feel that the shaft of light, mediated through Gabriel, that illumined his mind and heart and dazzled his eyes might well have been the shadow of a spirit! That is why, in many traditions, one finds mention to the fact that when the Prophet returned home in a panic-stricken state, he appealed to Khadija by uttering “cover me, cover me” (زمّلوني زمِّلوني ). Although the Prophet’s reaction is understandable in the context of his sudden awareness of the grave responsibility of Apostleship bestowed upon him by Allah, the transmitters have ignored this vital aspect of the Prophet’s reaction and showed their penchant for spinning fanciful yarns that have certainly taken away from the momentousness of this event and made it appear trivial and less credible. If the Prophet himself was not sure whether the mediator was an angel or an evil spirit, what impression can the common people form about it? It is surprising that the Qur’an should strongly contradict the allegations[14] that the Prophet was frenzied[15] or fanciful like a poet[16], and the Prophet himself should imagine himself as such. These allegations against Islam hurled by our enemies that have crept into the definitive texts of Islam in the form of traditions have cast a shadow of doubt over such an absolute and incontrovertible fact as Divine Revelation. In spite of the Qur’anic assertionما ضلّ صاحبكم  وما غوى وما ينطق عن الهوي اِن هوالاّ وحيّ يوحي:(Al-Najm:2-4) if such traditions are there in our books that claim that the Prophet was not sure of his Apostleship in the beginning, that he could believe in the authority of the angel from heaven and in his own Apostleship only slowly and over a period of time, what other possible objectives can such traditions have except creating doubts in the mind of the people about Divine Revelation.

Some traditions in the Books of Commentaries have not only reduced a definitive and decisive occurrence to a vague heavenly signal but also engendered doubts about the real source of the words and meaning of the Qur’an. Ibn Abi Hatim has reported it through Aqeel who drew it from Zahiri that Divine Revelation is the text that God sends to a Prophet and gets it imprinted in his mind. The Prophet then utters the text with his own tongue and gets it recorded. This is called the Word of God.[17] Some said that Gabriel only revealed the meaning, which the Prophet, having thoroughly internalised it, would then convey through the Arabic language.[18] The advocate of this view adduced the verse sopport نزل به الروح الا مين علي قلبك    his view. Such statements created a climate of opinion whereby doubts were expressed as to whether the text of the Qur’an is the Prophet’s own construction of meaning of the Divine message in Arabic, or whether both the meaning and the text should be considered as emanating from Allah. Instead of critically looking at these hypotheses and striving to remove the ambiguity created by words such as نزل به الروح الا مين علي قلبك in the light of other verses on the theme from the Qur’an itself, the scholars of Islam expended all their energies in tatbeeq and interpretation. This is the starting point of the philosophical debates regarding the Qur’an being immutable or created. For the sake of establishing harmony between word and meaning, some divided the Divine Revelation in two groups[19]: the meaning-oriented Divine Revelations were classified as wahi ghair matlu and the Divine Revelation encompassing both words and meaning constituted the Qur’an. This kind of discrimination (tatbeeq) gave rise to complex questions regarding the meaning of Divine Revelation. If the Qur’an embodied both the text and the meaning of Divine Revelation, the Prophet did not leave any reliable collection of meaning-oriented Divine Revelation behind him for his followers. When both the sets of Divine Revelation emanated from Allah, how can one set be appreciated in isolation from the other? The real problem was – though the Qur’an, embodying both text and meaning, was there, the meaning-oriented Divine Revelations were scattered here and there in the form of stray accounts. The large number of false narrators and fabricators made the matter worse. In the debates regarding Qur’anic knowledge, first, questions were raised regarding words and meaning that created the doubt whether the words of the Qur’an were really from Allah. Then the Divine Revelations were divided into two to facilitate the process of ‘discrimination’ (tatbeeq). One part is preserved in the form of the Qur’an; about the other part it was told that it was scattered in the vast array of narrative accounts. This hypothesis, later, delimited the scope of human intellect and wisdom in the area of compiling and editing of Divine Revelation by the succeeding generations.

[1] The original ayah is as follows:  وماكان لبشر أن يكلمه الله الا وحيا أو من وراء حجاب أو يرسل رسولا فيوحى باذنه مايشاء انه على حكيم…. (Shura: 42)

[2] Hafiz Ibn Hujjar has written in Fathul Bari, with reference to Allama Hulaimi that verses were revealed to the Prophet in forty-six different ways. (as quoted in Fathul Bari, vol. 1,p.26, op.cit)

[3] Bukhari says, with refrence to Aisha: احيانا ياتينى مثل صلصلة الجرس وهو أشده على فيفصم عنى وقد وعيت عنه ما قال واحيانا يتمثل لى الملك رجلا فيكلمني فاعى مايقول….(“Bad’al Wahi”, Fathul Bari, vol. 1, p. 26). Aisha says in a different hadith, ولقد رأيته ينزل عليه الوحي في اليوم الشديد البرد فيفصم عنه وان جبينه ليتفصد عرقا….  (Fathul Bari, vol. 1, p. 26, hadith no. 3). Translation : “I have witnessed Allah’s message being revealed on him (the Prophet) in severe winter. (Even in such weather), when the process of revelation would be over, his forehead would be bathed in sweat.”

[4] As it is recorded in hadith that the Prophet said – “This fact has been imprinted on my mind when I was in rooh-al quds that no one would die till the day he finishes the food allocated to him by Allah. So, stay in awe of Allah and adopt some good means to earn your livelihood.” (Urdu Encyclopedia, the entry on “wahi”, p.615)

[5] As it has been recorded in Sahih Bukhari. Apart from this, in Masnad-e Ahmad, it was reported by Abdullah bin Umar: “I asked the Prophet whether he had any special feeling at the time when Divine message was revealed to him. He replied – I hear the tinkling of footsteps and become silent. More over, whenever Divine message is revealed on me I feel as though I would die.”  

[6]Khattabi has interpreted this tinkling sound as an unintelligible voice. (Jalaluddin Sayuti, Al Itqan fi Uloom Al-Qura’n, Urdu translation, Part I, Delhi, 1999, p. 117)

[7] This has been attributed to Omar that when Divine message was revealed to the Prophet, he would hear a humming sound like that of bees around his face. [Abdullah bin Umar, Al-Fath Al-Rabbani (Masnad Ahmad), Cairo, 1375 hijra, vol. 20, p. 211)

[8] It has been reported by Ibada bin Samit that when divine message was revealed on Allah’s Prophet, he used to feel an extraordinary burden on him and as a consequence his face became pale. (Sahih Muslim, vol. 4, p. 1248.)

[9] “Baab al- Mubashshirat, 5: 91”, Kitab Al-Ra’uba, Bukhari  أن اباهريرة قال سمعت رسول الله يقول: لم يبق من النبوة الا المبشرات قالوا: وما المبشرات؟ قال: الرؤيا الصالحة) …  ) Fathul Bari, vol. 12, p. 391.

[10] Ibid. “ايضا  رؤيا المؤمن جزء من ستة وأربعين جزء امن النبوة…) Fathul Bari, vol. 12, p. 389)

[11] Bukhari-Fazail Al-Sahabah 6: 62 (Fathul Bari, vol. 7, p. 52, Hadith number 3689)

    “لقد كان فيما قبلكم من الأمم ناس محدثون فان يك فى امتى احد فانه عمر …”

[12] For example, Mahiuddin Ibn Arabi, see Fatoohat-e Makkeyah, op. cit, Part II.

[13] For details, see Muhammad Husayn Haykal, The Life of Muhammad, (tr.) Isma’il Raji Al Faruqi, US, 1976, pp. 73-75

[14] Surah Ibrahim, Surah Al Dakhan, Surah Saba, Surah Anfaal

[15] Surah Ya Sin, Surah Al Saaffat

[16] Qur’an 2, 62, also Qur’an 22: 81

[17] Al Itqaan (Urdu), vol. 1, p. 117, op.cit

[18] Ibid. p. 114

[19] see Jawini’s statement and the details regarding it – ibid., p. 115


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