و كلهم آتيه يوم القيامة فردا
And each of them will come to Him alone on the Day of Resurrection1
This post is the seventh in a series of summaries of Āyatullah Hādī Ma’rifat’s book entitled, Āmūzish ‘Ulūm Qurānī (Learning the Qurānic Sciences). For an introduction to Āyatollah Hādī Ma’rifat and his works, click here. To read the previous post which covered Sheikh Yūsufī Gharavī’s critique of the suspension of revelation (fatrah), click here.
The fourth chapter of sheikh Ma’rifat’s book discusses what are commonly referred to as asbāb al-nuzūl (causes of revelation) (s. sabab al-nuzūl). He defines a sabab al-nuzūl as, that which caused the Qurān to be revealed to address it2.
The asbāb al-nuzūl are typically documented in the form of narrations. The main work that is typically mentioned in the context of this subject is that of Wāhidī Nishapūrī (d. 468 AH/1076 AD) entitled, Asbāb al-Nuzūl al-Qurān. This work largely serves as the foundation of other Sunni works concerned with narrations of asbāb al-nuzūl such as Suyūtī’s (d. 911 AH/1505 AD), Lubāb al-Nuqūl fī Asbāb al-Nuzūl, which in addition to being largely composed of narrations taken from Wāhidī is also a much later work3.
As for Shia works, narrations related to the reason/cause for the revelation of certain verses can be found in the Four Books.
There are many examples of instances in which narrations of asbāb al-nuzūl aid one in understanding a verse of the Qurān. One such example which is often quoted in books about the Qurānic sciences is that of surah al-Baqrah, Verse 158 which is as follows:
إِنَّ الصَّفَا وَ الْمَرْوَةَ مِن شَعَائرِ اللَّهِ فَمَنْ حَجَّ الْبَيْتَ أَوِ اعْتَمَرَ فَلَا جُنَاحَ عَلَيْهِ أَن يَطَّوَّفَ بِهِمَا
Indeed Safa and Marwah are among Allah’s sacraments. So whoever makes hajj to the House, or performs the ‘umrah, there is no sin upon him to circuit between them… [Baqrah 2:158]
It is well known that it is mandatory to circuit between Safa and Marwah during the ritual pilgrimage in Islam. However, this verse seems to indicate that such an act is merely permissible (i.e. It is not a sin), as opposed to being mandatory. At first this may not seem to make sense, however when taking into account the context and reason for which this verse was revealed, the meaning of the verse becomes clear. The narration related to this verse is narrated in al-Kāfī which describes what the Prophet did during ritual pilgrimage, it is as follows:
It is narrated from ‘Alī bin Ibrāhīm from his father and Mohammad bin Ismā’īl from al-Fadhl bin Shādhān who all narrated from Ibn Abī ‘Umair who narrated from Mu’āwīyah bin ‘Ammār from Abī ‘Abdallah that he said, “…Then the Prophet of Allah said, ‘Indeed Safa and Marwah are among Allah’s sacraments’ , and he began to do what Allah had initiated. However the Muslims used to think that circuiting between Safa and Marwah was something that the polytheists had fabricated, thus Allah revealed the verse, ‘Indeed Safa and Marwah are among Allah’s sacraments. So whoever makes hajj to the House, or performs the ‘umrah, there is no sin upon him to circuit between them…4 5‘”
As evident, after taking the above narration into context, the verse becomes very clear. That is, the Muslims had been worried that it may be sinful to circuit between Safa and Marwah due to previous polytheistic connotations that had been associated with the act6. As such, the verse was revealed to clarify their initial misconception, and in fact, does not mean to indicate that it is not mandatory to circuit between the mountains.
Criticism of Narrations of Asbāb al-Nuzūl
As evident, narrations of asbāb al-nuzūl are definitely useful and influential when attempting to understand the Qurān. However, at the same time, this genre of narrations are known to typically be weak or lacking in chains of narrations. This is something that many scholars have mentioned. In fact, Wāhidī himself has been heavily criticised for recording narrations that are of Jewish/Christian origins7. This point, i.e. the generally weak nature of such narrations, can be noted throughout al-Itqān and Lubāb al-Nuqūl where Suyūtī makes mention of problematic chains of narration used by Wāhidī such as the following passage,
One of the weakest (chains of narration) is the chain with Kalbī from Abī Sālih from Ibn ‘Abbās. And if the narration of Mohammad bin Marwān al-Suddā al-Saghīr is added to that then the chain of narration is one of falsehood. Tha’labī and Wāhidī used this chain of narration many times8.
‘Allāmah Tabātabāī mentions numerous reservations about the use of narrations of asbāb al-nuzūl. One particular reservation he voices is the influence of what are termed to be isrāīlīyāt, narrations with Jewish/Christian influences. In his discussion of the Companions of the Cave in surah al-Kahf, he brings forth many narrations that discuss details surrounding the Companions of the Cave. However, the narrations, which he brings forth from both Sunni and Shia sources, vary and differ greatly in the details and facts that they present. In attempting to address the vast differences between the narrations, ‘allāmah Tabātabāī writes as follows;
Largely, the cause of differences between these narrations apart from the fabrication and insertion of things that typically occurs in such narrations… is that stories were as such that the Jews and Christians would pay particular attention to them. As has been mentioned in some narrations, the people of Quraish would narrate such stories from the Jews and Christians…
Then the Muslims began to extend their efforts in collecting traditions and recording them. They expanded their efforts of taking traditions from themselves as well as recording traditions from those other than themselves such as the Jews and Christians. Also, a group of Christian and Jewish scholars soon accepted Islam such as Wahb bin Manbah9 and Ka’b al-Ahbār10 and the Companions as well as the Successors (Tābi’īn) narrated many traditions from them. Thus the new generations continued to take narrations from the older generations and treated them as if they had narrated them from the Prophet himself; and this has thus caused a lot of hardship11.
Another reservation that ‘allāmah Tabātabāī voices is that many narrations that describe the reason for the revelation of certain verses are in fact reflective of the opinions of some of the companions rather than being recounts of historical events. He uses this observation to point out that in such a case, possessing an authentic chain of narration if of no value. To explain this, he writes as follows;
There are many thousands of such narrations in the Sunni hadith corpus and some hundreds within the Shia hadith corpus. However, not all of them are authentic or possess chains of narrations, many are weak or do not possess chains of narrations.
However, analysis of these narrations and thinking about them causes one to become very pessimistic about them because of a few reasons:
It is evident from the context of many of these narrations that the narrator did not come to know about the relation between the event and the verse(s) through hearing about it, or memorising what had happened. Rather, the narrator would mention the event and then would add in some verses that seemed to be related to the event. Thus, such narrations are really just the opinions of certain narrators.
Proof of this is the amount of contradictions that occur within this group of narrations, such that these contradictions cannot be explained away in any manner whatsoever…
As such, either these narrations are really just opinions of the companions. Or in the case that contradictory narrations are attributed to the same companion; he either changed his opinion or some/all of these narrations are fake.
In such a case, the narrations of asbāb al-nuzūl lose all their value to the extent that even being authentic in terms of their chains of narrations has no value…because the narration itself might just be an opinion or fabrication. 12
To conclude briefly, as demonstrated, the historical context provided by narrations of asbāb al-nuzūl can be very effective in understanding the Qurān. However, as noted, their chains of narration are often weak or non-existent. Also, sometimes the narrations are heavily influenced by Jewish/Christian tradition, in other cases they are merely the opinions of companions and still sometimes they may be fabrications entirely. Thus, when analysing the use of such narrations by exegetes, or attempting to use such narrations; one must be attentive of the above-mentioned criticisms.
- Maryam 19:95 ↩
- Ma’rifat, al-Tamhīd fī ‘Ulūm al-Qurān v. 1 pg. 267 ↩
- There is a lack of works written specifically about narrations related to asbāb al-nuzūl; for a more comprehensive survey of works related to asbāb al-nuzūl refer to, Andrew Rippin, The Exegetical Genre “asbāb al-nuzūl”: A Bibliographical and Terminological Survey ↩
- al-Baqrah 2:158 ↩
- al-Kāfī v. 4 pg. 245 Bāb Hajj al-Nabī ↩
- There is another narration present in al-Kāfī v. 4 pg. 435 that explains the verse such that due to the presence of idols on Safa and Marwah, the Muslims were worried about circuiting between them. Thus Allah revealed the verse. However, the chain of narration contains a gap where the narrators are unknown. Also, the above narration is more consistent with what has been narrated in some Sunni works, see Abī ‘Abd al-Rahmān, al-Sahīh al-Musnad min Asbāb al-Nuzūl pg. 25 ↩
- Such narrations are typically referred to as Isrāīlīyāt ↩
- Suyūtī, al-Itqān fī ‘Ulūm al-Qurān v. 4 pg. 209 ↩
- There is mention of Wahb being knowledgeable in regards to “myths of the ancients and isrāīlīyāt”, there are also reports of him fabricating narrations; Refer to al-Zarkalī, al-A’lām v. 8 pg. 125 ↩
- It is narrated that he was a Jewish scholar and turned Muslim during either the caliphate of Abū Bakr or ‘Umar. The Companions would frequently learn about past nations from him whilst he would learn about Islam from him. Refer to, al-Zarkalī, al-A’lām v. 5 pg. 228; Ibn Sa’d, al-Tabaqāt al-Kubra v. 7 pg. 309 ↩
- Some parts paraphrased, Tabātabāī, al-Mīzān fī Tafsīr al-Qurān v. 13 pg. 291 ↩
- Some parts paraphrased, Tabātabāī, Qurān Dar Islam pg. 173- 174 (footnotes); Tabātabāī, The Quran in Islām pg. 90 ↩