According to commentators, the Qur’ān was written down on the ‘Preserved Tablet’[i] before God created the world, and then this Qur’ān was revealed to Muḥammad in the seventh century AD, revealed piecemeal two or three verses together at a time. If this is the case, the Qur’ān must be perfect in all its linguistic, historical and legislative aspects.
HIS SŪRAS HAD TO BE REVEALED in the order in which they were written on the Preserved Tablet (al-Lūḥ al-Maḥfūẓ). But according to the heritage books, when Muḥammad recited his followers a new verse, he would tell them, for example, to ‘put it in the sūra in which the Cow was mentioned’. So we must conclude from this that God did not tell Muḥammad the names of the sūras, and therefore the sūras on the Preserved Tablet did not have names. It is thus not possible to know whether the number of verses making up Sūrat al-Baqara in the Qur’ān, for example, is the same as the number of its verses on the Preserved Tablet, because Sūrat al-Baqara was revealed over a period of six years, and in the meantime other verses were revealed that Muḥammad inserted into other sūras. So there is much confusion concerning the content and ordering of the sūras of the Qur’ān. This confusion is only compounded by the fact that when Zayd ibn Thābit put together the Qur’ān, he did not follow the revelation of the sūras in their historical sequence, but ordered them according to their length, thus adding to the Qur’ān’s turmoil.
If we study the Qur’ān in the order of its revelation, we find that the vast majority of the sūras were revealed in Makka, when Muḥammad was still a disciple of the priest Waraqa ibn Nawfal, the monk Baḥīra and other Christian Abyssinian slaves. The Makkan sūras are therefore short and confusing as to their meaning and historical events, with most of them being stories about earlier peoples and their messengers.
It would have been more appropriate to say: He created man from dust, but the necessity for a rhyme imposed on him the word ‘clot’
Let us start with the first sūra revealed in Makka, the Al-‘Alaq sūra. The sūra runs:
Read! in the name of your Lord Who created. He created man from a clot. Read and your Lord is Most Honorable, Who taught with the pen, taught man what he knew not. Nay! man is most surely rebellious, because he sees himself free from want, Surely to your Lord is the return. Have you seen him who forbids a slave when he prays? Have you considered if he were on the right way, or enjoined piety, Have you considered if he gives the lie to the truth and turns his back? Does he not know that Allah does see? Nay! if he desist not, We would certainly smite his forehead, a lying, sinful forehead. Then let him summon his council, We too would summon the angels of Hell. Nay! obey him not, and prostrate and draw nigh (to Allah).[ii]
Was God addressing Muḥammad or someone else? Muḥammad, as historians of Islam agree, was illiterate and could neither read nor write. How could God say to him ‘read!’, and what should he read if this is the first sūra that was revealed to him and was not written down for him to read but was recited to him by Jibrīl? The Qur’ān itself later says to him:
And thou wast not a reader of any scripture before it, nor didst thou write it with thy right hand, for then might those have doubted, who follow falsehood.[iii]
The use of the word ‘read’ here is wrong because one reads written words, and Jibrīl did not bring Muḥammad a written page for him to be told ‘read!’.
The sūra then continues and says He created man from a clot. In the three faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) Adam is the first human being to be created by the Lord of Heaven, and He created him from dust. So it would have been more appropriate to say: He created man from dust, but the necessity for a rhyme imposed on him the word ‘clot’. [iv] In fact, He did not create him from a clot because the ‘clinging clot’ is a late stage in the formation of the embryo, which is created from the sperm-drop (al-nuṭfa), then a chewed piece (al-muḍgha), and then a clot (al-‘alaqa), as the Qur’ān says in later verses. Therefore, man cannot have been created from a clot, so where did the ‘clot’ come from?
Read and your Lord is Most Honorable, Who taught with the pen.
What is the meaning of who taught with the pen? Did man learn everything with a pen? We know that man in his cultural trajectory learned to distinguish between poisonous fruits and those that can be eaten from bitter experiences, when he saw some members of the tribe die after eating certain types of fruits. Man then conveyed his children and grandchildren that information by means of speech, before he learned to write. Man then learned agriculture, the domestication of animals, hunting, singing and music before the invention of writing or the pen. The teaching of man was carried out via the pen, which only came at the final stage of human development.
The verse taught man what he knew not is a superfluous and meaningless verse
The next verse says taught man what he knew not. Logic tells us that if a person knows something, then you are not going to teach him that thing. Therefore ‘knowledge’ necessarily means that you are teaching man what he does not already know, otherwise he would not need to be taught it.
Thus the verse taught man what he knew not is a superfluous and meaningless verse. Then He says to him: Have you seen him who forbids a slave when he prays? This is the first sūra that was ‘revealed’ to Muḥammad, when he did not know about prayer, something that was not an obligation until the tenth year of the start of the Message. Ibn Ḥajar al-‘Asqalānī says:
Before the Isrā’ there was no obligatory prayer, neither on him nor on his Nation. There was only the tahajjud that the Prophet used to do during the night.[v]
The word tahajjud means recitation of the verses of the Qur’ān and supplication. So how could this person forbid Muḥammad from praying when he had not yet learned of the Islamic prayer, and prayer had not yet been imposed on him?
Then He says to him: Nay! if he desist not, We would certainly smite his forehead. From a linguistic point of view, the word nasfa‘an (smite’) is a strange word to the Arabs, and the commentators have strained to make it part of the language. Al-Qurṭubī accordingly writes: ‘The Arabs say I ‘smote’ the thing when I caught it and vigorously dragged it’. Even if this were true, why did Muḥammad’s Lord choose to use this strange language when He could have said: Let us seize him by the forehead? Muḥammad, no doubt, was influenced by what he had heard from the soothsayers, who used to employ strange words to delude their listeners into thinking that they possessed an ability to communicate with heaven and receive messages from the jinn. As for spelling and grammar, God should have used the form la-nasfa‘anna (‘We would certainly smite’) for emphasis, but He instead simply said la-nasfa‘an. It seems that Jibril, Muḥammad, or whoever copied down the verse, did not know the correct form.
God here has descended to the level of gangsters and has resorted to thugs
Then He goes on to say Then let him summon his council, We too would summon the angels of Hell.[vi] God here has descended to the level of gangsters and has resorted to thugs. He says to Muḥammad: ‘Let him summon his henchmen as reinforcements, and we will summon the angels of Hell’. Does God need the angels of Hell to combat this person? Moreover, if this was the first sūra that was ‘revealed’ to Muḥammad while Muḥammad was yet to declare his prophethood and had not yet preached monotheism to the Quraysh, who was this person who prevented him from praying so that God was obliged to resort to summoning the angels of Hell?
Did the Qur’ān precede these events and did God reveal this sūra earlier and intended to bring down another sūra before it. Or did God know that Abū Jahl ibn Hishām would be hostile to Muḥammad and declare this enmity before it actually happened? If the latter view is correct, where is the wisdom in telling Muḥammad in the first sūra that Abū Jahl will be hostile? Telling him of this enmity did not prevent it from happening. In the last verse of this sūra, He says to him: Nay! obey him not, and prostrate and draw nigh. Did Muḥammad know about prostration at the time, when prayer had not yet been imposed on them and Jibrīl had not yet taught him anything?
The first chapter of the Qur’ān revealed to Muḥammad did not tell him anything about God who chose him as a Messenger, nor did it tell him what his Message was, and to whom He was addressing it. Yet He spoke to him about prayer, prostration and the enmity of Abū Lahab. Was this the best way for God to introduce Himself to Muḥammad, who was fearful of Jibrīl and thought he had been touched by madness?
[ii] Qur’ān XCVI (al-‘Alaq), 1-19.
[iii] Qur’ān XXIX (al-‘Ankabūt), 48.
[iv] The verse before it runs: Iqra’ bismi Rabbika ’lladhī khalaq, and is followed by: khalaqa ’l-insāna min ‘alaq. (Ed).
[v] Ibn Ḥajar al-‘Asqalānī, السيرة الحلبية 1.302, citation from Jawād ‘Alī, A History of Prayer.
[vi] The term used in the Qur’ān is الزبانية al-zabāniya – which is variously translated as ‘myrmidons’ or ‘guards of Hell’ in that they are angels who thrust the damned into Hellfire (Ed).
Main image: The angel Jibrīl stands before Muḥammad and instructs him on the call to prayer, from the Siyar-i Nabī (‘Lives of the Prophet) illustrated during the reign of the Ottoman sultan Murâd III.