What is the purpose of the division of the Qur'an into Meccan and Medinan suras? Is this a matter of geography, of the place where the verse was revealed, when the Prophet was in Mecca or Medina? This is hard to credit. The probability is that it is a time issue with the hijra of the Prophet being the yardstick. After he had been in Mecca for 13 years, all of the subsequent 10 years are considered 'Medinan', even if the actual location of the verses' revelation was Mecca. The spatial sense, on the other hand, often cannot apply to verses revealed either in Mecca or Medina, such as the verses of al-Isra' and the Mi'raj.


THE SCHOLARS OF LAW say that the Qur’ān was revealed over a period of 23 years. This can be divided into two parts: 13 years in Mecca followed by 10 years in Medina. That is, that the verses were revealed over these periods and were not revealed at one go. This, however, presents many difficulties. Noticeable in these verses of the Qur’ān is a large disparity between them, as if they constituted two different, opposing and mutually contradicting persons.

Some of them are short verses speaking of mankind and the values of dignity, equality, justice and non-oppression,

O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Lo! the noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct [Qur’ān XLIX, 13]

We sent thee not save as a mercy for the peoples [Qur’ān XXI, 107]

The good deed and the evil deed are not alike. Repel the evil deed with one which is better, then lo! he, between whom and thee there was enmity (will become) as though he was a bosom friend [Qur’ān XLI,34].

or of freedom in the profession of faith:

There is no compulsion in religion [Qur’ān II,256]

Then whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve [Qur’ān XVIII,29]

Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion [Qur’ān CIX,6].

They also call for monotheism and faith in a general sense, in the Final Day, in Revelation, the world of the Unseen, in Heaven, Hell. They also exhibit harmoniousness in language, voice and musicality. Other verses are addressed to the faithful: “O Ye who believe”, chapters such as al-Baqara, al-Nisā’, al-Mā’ida and Āl ‘Imrān are noted for their length, along with long verses and disputations with the People of the Book, or talk of ‘Muslim hypocrites’ and the minutiae of legal rulings, hadd punishments, obligations and statutes such as the rules of war. There is also the use of severe language:

And if ye do it not – and ye can never do it – then guard yourselves against the Fire prepared for disbelievers, whose fuel is of men and stones [Qur’ān II,24].

There are verses on usury:

Those who swallow usury cannot rise up save as he ariseth whom the devil hath prostrated by (his) touch [Qur’ān II,275]

O ye who believe! Observe your duty to Allah, and give up what remaineth (due to you) from usury, if ye are (in truth) believers. And if ye do not, then be warned of war (against you) from Allah and His messenger. [Qur’ān II,278-9].

They also speak of others as ‘infidel’ and ‘polytheists’, those who are hostile to Muslims, and call for their killing: “And slay them wherever ye find them.”[1] This is verse 191 of the chapter al-Baqara, the longest chapter in the entire Qur’ān. There are also texts on the taking of jizya tax in an unseemly fashion “while they are brought low”, as in the following verse:

Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture as believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, and forbid not that which Allah hath forbidden by His messenger, and follow not the Religion of Truth, until they pay the tribute readily, being brought low [Qur’ān IX,29].

There is a verse dedicated to killing:

Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush [Qur’ān IX,5]

and he who apostatises from the faith shall be punished for evermore in Gehenna:

And whoso becometh a renegade and dieth in his disbelief: such are they whose works have fallen both in the world and the Hereafter. Such are rightful owners of the Fire: they will abide therein [Qur’ān II,217].

As for the ‘filthy’ polytheists:

The idolaters only are unclean. So let them not come near the Inviolable Place of Worship after this their year [Qur’ān IX,28].

The Qur’ān also speaks of humiliation, wretchedness and cursing:

And humiliation and wretchedness were stamped upon them and they were visited with wrath from Allah. That was because they disbelieved in Allah’s revelations and slew the prophets wrongfully. That was for their disobedience and transgression [Qur’ān II,61]

and so on and so forth.

The Qur’ān claims that the Jews consider Ezra the son of God:

And the Jews say: Ezra is the son of Allah, and the Christians say: The Messiah is the son of Allah. That is their saying with their mouths. They imitate the saying of those who disbelieved of old. Allah (Himself) fighteth against them. How perverse are they! [Qur’ān IX,30]

even though at no point in their tradition did the Jews ever claim that Ezra was a son of God at all. The Qur’ān speaks, nevertheless, of how they are to be punished in Gehenna:

On the day when it will (all) be heated in the fire of hell, and their foreheads and their flanks and their backs will be branded therewith (and it will be said unto them): Here is that which ye hoarded for yourselves. Now taste of what ye used to hoard [Qur’ān IX,35]

and considers the People of the Book to be infidel:

Those who disbelieve among the People of the Scripture and the idolaters could not have left off (erring) till the clear proof came unto them [Qur’ān XCVIII,1].

They indeed have disbelieved who say: Lo! Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary [Qur’ān V,17]

They surely disbelieve who say: Lo! Allah is the third of three [Qur’ān V,73].

The Qur’ān considers their scripture to be distorted, written by their own hands and ascribed subsequently to God:

Therefore woe be unto those who write the Scripture with their hands and then say, “This is from Allah,” that they may purchase a small gain therewith. Woe unto them for that their hands have written, and woe unto them for that they earn thereby [Qur’ān II,79]

and maintains that they have distorted the text: Some of those who are Jews change words from their context”[1]. For which reason the Qur’ān speaks frequently of how they are cursed:

But Allah hath cursed them for their disbelief, so they believe not, save a few [Qur’ān IV,46]

Such are accursed of Allah and accursed of those who have the power to curse [Qur’ān II,159].

Indeed, one of God’s prophets called for all the infidel to be killed and wiped from the face of the earth:

And Noah said: My Lord! Leave not one of the disbelievers in the land [Qur’ān LXXI,26]

or indeed for them to be transformed into monkeys and pigs:

And ye know of those of you who broke the Sabbath, how We said unto them: Be ye apes, despised and hated. And We made it an example to their own and to succeeding generations, and an admonition to the Allah-fearing [Qur’ān II,66-7]

Shall I tell thee of a worse (case) than theirs for retribution with Allah? (Worse is the case of him) whom Allah hath cursed, him on whom His wrath hath fallen and of whose sort Allah hath turned some to apes and swine, and who serveth idols. Such are in worse plight and further astray from the plain road [Qur’ān V,60]

and there are many others verses of this ilk.

On the other hand, however, there are verses which praise Christ, Mary, the Christians, Christianity, the Gospel, Moses, and the Jews:

(And remember) when the angels said: O Mary! Lo! Allah giveth thee glad tidings of a word from him, whose name is the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, illustrious in the world and the Hereafter, and one of those brought near (unto Allah). He will speak unto mankind in his cradle and in his manhood, and he is of the righteous. She said: My Lord! How can I have a child when no mortal hath touched me? He said: So (it will be). Allah createth what He will. If He decreeth a thing, He saith unto it only: Be! and it is. And He will teach him the Scripture and wisdom, and the Torah and the Gospel [Qur’ān III,45-7]

and the Qur’ān opens up Heaven to them:

Lo! Those who believe (in that which is revealed unto thee, Muhammad), and those who are Jews, and Christians, and Sabaeans – whoever believeth in Allah and the Last Day and doeth right – surely their reward is with their Lord, and there shall no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve [Qur’ān II,62]

When Allah saith: O Jesus, son of Mary! Remember My favour unto thee and unto thy mother; how I strengthened thee with the holy Spirit, so that thou spakest unto mankind in the cradle as in maturity; and how I taught thee the Scripture and Wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel; and how thou didst shape of clay as it were the likeness of a bird by My permission, and didst blow upon it and it was a bird by My permission, and thou didst heal him who was born blind and the leper by My permission; and how thou didst raise the dead by My permission [Qur’ān V,110].

The Qur’ān also exalts the sons of Israel over all other peoples:

And verily we gave the Children of Israel the Scripture and the Command and the Prophethood, and provided them with good things and favoured them above (all) peoples [Qur’ān XLV,16]

and refers to the Torah and the Gospel as ‘light’ and ‘guidance’ in which there may be found the judgement of God:

He revealed the Torah and the Gospel. Aforetime, for a guidance to mankind [Qur’ān III,3-4]

Lo! We did reveal the Torah, wherein is guidance and a light, by which the prophets who surrendered (unto Allah) judged the Jews [Qur’ān V,44]

How come they unto thee for judgment when they have the Torah, wherein Allah hath delivered judgment (for them)? [Qur’ān V,43]

The Qur’ān similarly calls them the People of the Book:

Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to an agreement between us and you: that we shall worship none but Allah, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside Allah [Qur’ān III,64]

and has even called upon us to consult them on things of which we may be ignorant:

And We sent not (as Our messengers) before thee other than men whom We inspired – Ask the followers of the Remembrance if ye know not! [Qur’ān XVI,43].

It honours the Jews and their Scripture the Torah, it honours Moses and Christ, the Christians and the Gospel. These verses contradict the earlier verses; it is as if they were two entirely different, contradictory personalities.

The same goes for the verses of hadd punishments, retribution in kind and apostasy, such as the following:

The only reward of those who make war upon Allah and His messenger and strive after corruption in the land will be that they will be killed or crucified, or have their hands and feet on alternate sides cut off, or will be expelled out of the land. Such will be their degradation in the world, and in the Hereafter theirs will be an awful doom [Qur’ān V,33].

All of this flatly contradicts the verses of peace, love, freedom of religion, human dignity and ethics.

It is as if they consulted two different, opposing and mutually contradicting persons

Some scholars have attempted to explain this phenomenon on the basis of the circumstances and contexts of the Meccan and Medinan periods, whereby in the early stages of the call to Islam at Mecca the Prophet was in a weak position, a poor solitary orphan without a protector or an ally, confined among the people of Abū Tālib, prohibited from marrying or contracting relations with others for many years, until the time came that his closest allies – his  wife Khadīja, his uncle and father-in-law Abū Tālib, passed away. Whereupon he was forced to depart for Medina where he received support and became influential, wealthy and placed in authority over the community. While at Medina charters and agreements were concluded with the Jews and the Hudaybiyya peace compact was agreed with the Quraysh.

But Muhammad also conducted several wars and raids, such as the battles of Badr and the Trench, a total of 29 of them within the space of eight years, dating from the second to the ninth year of the hijra. Of these battles, for example, were the raid of the Banū Qaynuqāʽ in AH 2, the raid on the Banū Nadīr in AH 4, the raid on the Banū Qurayza in AH 5, the Khaybar raid in AH 7, and the Hunayn raid in AH 8. There was also the siege of Tā’if in AH 8, the Tābūk raid in AH 9. It was during this period of warfare that verses were revealed speaking of severity, of condemnations of the infidel and of polytheism, of killing and of eternal punishments in Hell. In truth, longer study and more broad-ranging research is required to resolve the difficulties that these things present.

Does this mean that the Qur’ān was subject to human conditions that influenced the person of the Prophet, or does it mean that the verses of the Qur’ān were the result of the influence that these conditions worked upon him, and his reaction to them? Does this make the Qur’anic text something that was brought down to the human level and subjected to personal and social influences? Is the Qur’ān, then, the organic product of these influences, as some researchers have concluded? Or is the Qur’ān simply taking into account the surrounding conditions of the time and the place, and of those experiencing them, something which is referred to as Asbāb al-Nuzūl (‘the Reasons for the Revelations’)?

Others respond by recourse to the claim of ‘abrogation’, so as to resolve these contradictions. Under this interpretation the Medinan verses have in all probability ‘abrogated’ the Meccan verses because they came at a later time, at a period when the Muslims were in a position of strength in Medina, as opposed to their period of weakness in Mecca. Some have even said that the verses and the rulings on jihad, hadd punishments and retribution have abrogated all the verses on peace, peacefulness and the like, and that this therefore resolves the contradictions that appear to exist between the two classes of Meccan and Madinan verses.

But establishing this ‘abrogation’ is very difficult. For it makes every verse found there liable to this abrogation, something which weakens the case for it and any inferences that can be drawn thereby. But in any case taking the ‘Meccan and Madinan chapters’ as an issue of time indicates the gradualness of the revelation of the verses and rulings, an indeed many of the rulings were revealed piecemeal at different periods.

What, then, is the purpose of this Meccan and Medinan division? Is this a matter of geography, of the place where the verse was revealed, when the Prophet was in Mecca or Medina? This is hard to credit. Particularly so given that the Prophet conquered Mecca on the 20th Ramadan AH 8. The probability is that it is a time issue with the hijra of the Prophet being the yardstick. After he had been in Mecca for 13 years all of the subsequent 10 years are considered ‘Medinan’, even if the actual location of the verses’ revelation was Mecca – such those verses revealed in Mecca at the time of his conquest of the town. This is the predominant sense, one that covers all of the verses in the Qur’ān. The spatial sense, on the other hand, often cannot apply to verses revealed either in Mecca or Medina, such as the verses of al-Is’rā’ and the Miʽrāj:

Glorified be He Who carried His servant by night from the Inviolable Place of Worship to the Far distant place of worship the neighbourhood whereof We have blessed [Qur’ān XVII,1]

since the Masjid al-Aqsā (‘the Far distant place of worship’) is neither in Mecca nor Medina. The same goes for the verses of the Miʽrāj:

Then he drew nigh and came down Till he was (distant) two bows’ length or even nearer, And He revealed unto His slave that which He revealed [Qur’ān LIII,8-10]

and others like this.

The scholars hold that the first verse that was revealed was in the cave of Hirā’ and which begins “Read: In the name of thy Lord Who created”[1]. Stories relate of the Prophet’s weakness and his hesitancy until he came fearfully to his wife Khadīja, who sought recourse to her uncle Waraqa ibn Nawfal, the Christian priest who reassured the Prophet that this was a sign of the divine revelation. Even so, it was not recorded that Waraqa ever became a Muslim.

Similarly, it is recorded that the last verse that was revealed was:

This day have I perfected your religion for you and completed My favour unto you, and have chosen for you as religion al-Islam [Qur’ān V,3].

And this too presents many problems.

One of them being that fact that Muslims celebrate the Prophetic mission as commencing on the 27th of Rajab, that is, the date of the revelation of the Qur’ān. But at the same time they hold that the Qur’ān was revealed in Ramadan – on the ‘Night of Destiny’ to be specific – in which was revealed the verse:

Lo! We revealed it on the Night of Predestination. Ah, what will convey unto thee what the Night of Power is! The Night of Power is better than a thousand months. The angels and the Spirit descend therein, by the permission of their Lord, with all decrees. (The night is) Peace until the rising of the dawn. [Qur’ān XCVII,1-5]

And this despite the fact that they are unable to specify which of the odd numbers of the last ten days in Ramadan this Night of Destiny was. The Sunnis prefer the 27th, while the Shīʽa prefer the 19th, 21st or 23rd, particularly through association with the death of ‘Alī ibn Abī Tālib, who was attacked on the 19th and died on the 21st Ramadan.

Some scholars have attempted to explain this phenomenon on the basis of circumstances and contexts

 Some others are of the opinion that the Qur’ān was revealed in two ways: the first being on the Night of Destiny when all the Qur’ān was revealed in one go. Some say that it was revealed from Heaven to Earth, or to the Prophet’s heart for him to embrace whole and in detail:

The month of Ramadan in which was revealed the Qur’an, a guidance for mankind, and clear proofs of the guidance, and the Criterion (furqān) [Qur’ān II,185].

In that sense all of it was delivered to the Prophet, as explained by the verses:

Stir not thy tongue herewith to hasten it. [Qur’ān LXXV,16]

And hasten not (O Muhammad) with the Qur’an ere its revelation hath been perfected unto thee [Qur’ān XX,114]

For the Qur’ān demanded that the Prophet avoid hastening to proclaim it before the completion of its gradual revelation to him. Perhaps the following verse points to two types of revelation:

(This is) a Scripture the revelations whereof are perfected and then expounded. (It cometh) from One Wise, Informed [Qur’ān XI,1]

Even if the writing down of this was made, some have objected to this, on the grounds that the infidel had demanded this revelation at one single occasion, at a time when it was being revealed over phases and years, as the Almighty said:

And those who disbelieve say: Why is the Qur’an not revealed unto him all at once? (It is revealed) thus that We may strengthen thy heart therewith; and We have arranged it in right order [Qur’ān XXV,32]

This second, gradual revelation dates from the first mission of the Prophet when aged 40 years, when the verse “Read” was revealed. To this command he replied “I cannot read”, on the basis that the Prophet was ummī (‘illiterate’), and did not know how to read or write. Some, however, have interpreted the term ummiyya as meaning ‘From Mecca’ the umm al-qurā (‘mother of towns’) as found in the phrase:

He it is Who hath sent among the ummiyyīn a messenger of their own, to recite unto them His revelations and to make them grow [Qur’ān LXII,2]

The revelation of the verses continued for a period of 23 years, 13 of them in Mecca followed by 10 in Medina, where the Prophet died in the 10th year of the hijra, at the age of 63. On this the Qur’ān states:

And (it is) a Qur’an that We have divided, that thou mayst recite it unto mankind at intervals, and We have revealed it by (successive) revelation [Qur’ān XVII,106]

Here, with the word ‘divided’, it speaks of the furqān, as a term applied to the Qur’ān. Yet it is also applied to the Torah and to the Gospel, as a ‘dividing line’ between Truth and Falsehood. At the same time it is also applied to a juz’ and a verse of the Qur’ān, even though the Qur’ān says that it is a collection of verses:

Lo! upon Us (resteth) the putting together thereof and the reading thereof. And when We read it, follow thou the reading; [Qur’ān LXXV,17-18]

The ‘collection’ here has two meanings: the ‘collection’ of the Qur’ān and the ‘collating’ of the textual fabric of the Qur’ān. For the word ‘Qur’ān’ is applied to the whole collected text, and given the term ‘Qur’ān’ to denote that it contains everything that Mankind needs “as an exposition of all things “[2], for “We have neglected nothing in the Book (of Our decrees)”[3].

So, it is a Qur’ān in its entirety, a furqān over parts, and a textual fabric of the revelation ‘at one go’, while the revelation is “a revelation we have revealed” over many stages. So there are two ways this revelation took place: once in toto “the month of Ramadan in which was revealed the Qur’an,”[4] and a second revelation of the furqān over a period of 23 years: “Blessed is He Who hath revealed unto His slave the Criterion (furqān)”[5], partly in Mecca, and then partly in Medina, according to the various conditions and circumstances.

The Qur’ān is not compiled at all according to the order in which it was revealed

The second problem is that the Qur’ān is not compiled at all according to the order in which it was revealed. The first verse was not “Read”, nor was the first chapter that of al-ʽAlaq in which it appears. Similarly the verse: “This day have I perfected your religion for you[6] is not the final verse in the order given in the Qur’ān, nor is its chapter al-Mā’ida, which is actually placed fifth in the present ordering of chapters. Indeed the first chapter al-Fātiha is one of the shortest chapters in the Qur’ān, but is followed directly after by al-Baqara, the longest chapter, with its 286 lengthy verses. On the other hand, the final chapter in the Qur’ān is al-Nās, with its just six short verses.

More than that, there are Medinan verses contained in Meccan chapters, such as Say: O My slaves who have been prodigal to their own hurt!”[7] a Madinan verse revealed  in the 39th – Meccan – chapter al-Zumar. The converse is also true, with the Meccan “But Allah would not punish them while thou wast with them[8] appearing in the 9th – Medinan – chapter al-Tawba.

It is clear that many of the verses have been inserted in places, but which refer to separate themes, such as here:

Allah’s wish is but to remove uncleanness far from you, O Folk of the Household, and cleanse you with a thorough cleansing [Qur’ān XXXIII,33]

which more properly fits the 76th chapter al-Insān. This is not the subject of the verse’s current position, for it is a part of the verse that speaks of the Prophet’s women, in which there is the female nūn ending in the passages that precede it and follow it:

And stay in your houses. Bedizen not yourselves with the bedizenment of the Time of Ignorance. Be regular in prayer, and pay the poor-due, and obey Allah and His messenger […] And bear in mind that which is recited in your houses of the revelations of Allah and wisdom [Qur’ān XXXIII,33-34]

In the Hadith reported from Jaʽfar al-Sādiq the verse appears in the 76th chapter al-Insān not the 33rd chapter al-Ahzab, and that ʽAlī ibn Abī Tālib collected the Qur’ān as it was revealed, and not in the order it is found today.

The truth of the matter is that the community at Medina was more diverse, cultured and civilised that the community at Mecca, which was known to be to a great extent illiterate and tribal. In Medina there were Christians and Jews with all their knowledge, their laws and culture.

Was then the Qur’ān susceptible to influence from this environment? Or did it appear already harmonised to, and integrating with, its atmosphere and its conditions?

[1] [Qur’ān II,191]

[2] [Qur’ān IV,46]

[3] [Qur’ān XCVI,1]

[4] [Qur’ān XVI,89]

[5] [Qur’ān VI,38]

[6] [Qur’ān II,185]

[7] [Qur’ān XXV,1]

[8] [Qur’ān V,3]

[9] [Qur’ān XXXIX,53]

[10] [Qur’ān VIII,33]

The cave of Hirā’: arena of the first Revelation

Furqān, is a term applied to the Qur’ān. Yet it is also applied to the Torah and to the Gospel