Descent of the Qurʾān

Muzaffar Iqbal and Csaba Okvath

Two augmented verbal forms of the trilateral root n-z-l are used in the Qurʾān to refer to its own descent, in both spatial and temporal senses, from the Guarded Tablet to the heaven of this world and from there to the heart of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace: Form II nazzala, and its verbal noun tanzīl; and form IV anzala, and its verbal noun inzāl. Ibn Fāris (d. 395/1004) says the root n-z-l carries the meaning of "descent of something (hubūṭ) or its falling down (wuqūʿuh), [as in the phrases] ‘he dismounted his horse’ (nazala ʿan dābbatih nuzūlan) and ‘the rain fell from the sky’ (nazala l-maṭar min al-samāʾ)” (Maqāyīs). It is also used to indicate arrival at a destination, a halt during a journey, and generally to denote a descent from a higher to a lower plane (Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān). Both verbal forms used by the Qurʾān for its own descent are transitive in the sense of sending something from above to below. This “fall” (inḥiṭāṭ) is the original meaning of “descent” (nuzūl), according to al-Rāghib al-Aṣfahānī (d. ca.502/1108), and it refers to "Allah Almighty's sending down (inzāl) of His blessings and punishments on his creation, [that is,] granting of either to them. This can be realized by sending down either the thing itself, as in the sending down of the Qurʾān, or the means and guidance to it, as in [the verses] And We sent down iron (Q 57:25); And We sent down with them the Scripture and the balance (Q 57:25); and, And He sent down for you of cattle eight pairs (Q 39:6). (Mufradāt)

Definitions and Usage

The Sevillan linguist Abū-l-Ḥasan Ibn ʿUṣfūr (597-669/1200-1297) differentiates between the usage of tanzīl and inzāl by specifying that form II (tanzīl) denotes an intensive (lil-mubālagha), extensive (lil-takthīr), or multiplicative meaning (lil-taḍʿīf), whereas form IV (al-inzāl) expresses the factitive and causative meaning (lil-taʿdiya) (Mumtiʿ, Dhikr maʿānī abniyat al-afʿāl). Likewise, ʿAlī Muḥammad al-Jurjānī (d. 816/1413) states that “[form IV] al-inzāl is used to indicate a one-time action (yustaʿmal fī-l-dafʿa), whereas [form II] tanzīl is used for gradual action (fī-l-tadrīj)” (Taʿrīfāt, no. 562) and Muḥibb al-Dīn al-Sayyid Muḥammad Murtaḍā al-Zabīdī (1145-1205/1732-1790) writes that the difference between the two verbal forms is with regard to frequency of their occurrence (ṣīghat al-takthīr) (Tāj).

This distinction has led some exegetes to postulate that in general when the Qurʾān uses form II (tanzīl) for its descent, it refers to its serial revelation to the Prophet, one verse after another (tanjīm, as in Q 17:106: And [it is] a Qurʾān, which We have divided [into parts], in order that you might recite it to people at intervals; and We have revealed it in stages), whereas when it uses form IV (inzāl) it refers to a single sending down (as in Q 97:1: Indeed, We sent it down (anzalnāhu) during the Night of Decree—which by exegetical consensus refers to the Qurʾān’s descent from the Guarded Tablet to the heaven of this world during the Blessed Night of Qadr (Q 44:3; 97:1).

Qurʾānic descriptions of the revelations of the Torah and the Injīl generally employ form IV, although the descent of the Torah is also mentioned once with form II (Q 3:93). This single exception notwithstanding, most exegetes take other verses, especially Q 3:3 (He sent down (nazzala) upon you (Muḥammad) the Book, with truth, confirming what was before it and He sent down (anzala) the Torah and the Injīl) and Q 4:136 (and the Book which He sent down (nazzala) upon His Messenger, and the Book which He sent down (anzala) before) as key indicators to differentiate the serial revelation of the Qurʾān from the single descent of the Torah and the Injīl. Jār Allāh Abū-l-Qāsim Maḥmūd b. ʿUmar al-Zamakhsharī (467-538/ca.1074-1143), for instance, specifically says that the verbal forms employed differ “because the Qurʾān was sent down in smaller parts and at intervals (munajjaman), while the two [previous Books] were sent down all at once (jumlatan)” (Kashshāf, sub Q 3:3; also see Khāzin, Lubāb and Nasafī, Tafsīr, sub Q 3:3; Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 25:32). Abū Jaʿfar Aḥmad b. Ibrāhīm Ibn al-Zubayr (d. 708/1308) explains the usage in more detail:

If one asks why the Book (i.e. the Qurʾān) is mentioned with the word nazzala and the Torah and the Injīl with the word anzala, the answer is: the verbal form nazzala (form II) entails repetition (tikrār) in an additive sense (li-ajl al-taḍʿīf) (…). In this respect the Words of Allah He sent down upon you the Book (Q 3:3) can be understood as referring to the division into sections of the thing being sent down (mushīr ilā tafṣīl al-munazzal) and to its being sent down in separate parts (tanjīmih)…and to the fact that it was not sent down all at once (lam yunzal dafʿatan wāḥidatan)…whereas the verbal form anzala (form IV) refers to a single action, as in the case of Mūsā, upon him peace, who received the Torah all at once and in a single moment (fī waqt wāḥid), as attested to by the Words of Allah And We wrote for him on the tablets all manner of admonition, clearly spelling out everything, and [We said:] ‘Hold fast unto them’… (Q 7:145). Whereas the Mighty Book (the Qurʾān) was sent down in separate parts (fa-nuzzila muqassaṭan), beginning with the first words of the revelation, Recite in the Name of your Lord (Q 96:1), until the last words, This day I have perfected your Religion for you... (Q 5:3). And if one of these Books is mentioned alone (mufradan) without the mention of any other Book, or without the definite article, then that refers to something already mentioned in the text, [and for that] the verbal form anzala (form IV) is used, as in And those who believe in that which was sent down (unzila) to you and that which was sent down (unzila) before you (Q 2:4). (Milāk, sub Q 3:3)

Of the 293 occurrences of derivatives of the root n-z-l, examples of verses describing the descent of the Qurʾān, whether directly or through one of its names (e.g., al-kitāb, al-dhikr, al-furqān), include the following (for complete list, see ʿAbd al-Bāqī, Muʿjam):

  • form II (nazzala): The Book sent down with truth (Q 2:176); to the heart of the Prophet by the will of Allah (Q 2:97); by Allah Who will preserve it (Q 15:9); confirming what had come before (Q 3:3; 4:136; 7:196); We have sent down to thee the Book explaining all things, a Guide, a Mercy, and Glad Tidings to those who submit (16:89); the Holy Spirit has brought it down from your Lord with truth (Q 16:102); sent down as the Criterion (Q 25:1) and the best discourse (Q 39:23); And those who disbelieve say, ‘Why was the Qurʾān not sent down (nuzzila) upon him all at once?’ [It is so] that We may strengthen thereby your heart; and We have rehearsed it to you in slow, well-arranged stages (Q 25:32);
  • form IV (anzala): Say: We believe in Allah and that which has been sent down (anzala) to us (Q 2:136); sent down containing clear, unambiguous verses (Q 3:7); the Book and Wisdom (Q 4:113); an Arabic recitation (qurʾān) (Q 12:2); the Light (Q 64:8), blessed (Q 6:92); sent down during a blessed night (Q 44:3); in the month of Ramadan (Q 2:185); during the Night of Decree (qadr) (Q 97:1); while some conceal what Allah sent down of the Book (Q 2:174, 213), others believe in what has been sent down (unzila) upon you (Q 2:4); recalling the Divine favors and what He sent down of the Book and the Wisdom (Q 2:231); for it is Allah Who sent down the Book (Q 3:7; 18:1; 29:47, 51; 42:15, 17, etc.);
  • verbal noun (tanzīl): And a Recitation have We divided [into parts] (faraqnāhu), for you to recite it to mankind at intervals, and We have sent it down successively (wa nazzalnāhu tanzīlan) (Q 17:106). The verbal noun tanzīl denotes the revelation itself: it is a “successive revelation” (tanzīl) from the Creator (Q 20:4; 76:23), the Lord of the Worlds (Q 26:192; 32:2; 56:80; 69:43), the Mighty and Merciful (Q 36:5), the Beneficent and Merciful (Q 41:2), the Wise and Praiseworthy (Q 41:42), the Mighty and Wise (Q 39:1; 45:2; 46:2), the Mighty and All-knowing (Q 40:2); brought down in clear Arabic by the True Spirit upon the heart of the Prophet (Q 26:193-195).

From the Preserved Tablet

The eminent Follower (tābiʿī) and early exegete Saʿīd b. Jubayr (46-95/666-ca.714) reported:

I asked Ibn ʿAbbās about Indeed, We sent it down during the Night of Decree (Q 97:1) and We sent it down during a blessed night (Q 44:3), and The month of Ramadan in which was sent down the Qurʾān (Q 2:185)—do these refer to [the descent of] the entire [Qurʾān] or a part of it? Ibn ʿAbbās replied, ‘Allah sent down the Qurʾān, all at once, from the seventh Heaven to the heaven of this world during the Night of Decree, and He set it by the setting stars—So I swear by the setting of the stars (Q 56:75, see below)—from where Jibrīl, upon him peace, brings it down…’ (Ibn Ḥātim, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:185 and 25:32)

In a variant narration, Ibn ʿAbbās says, “The Qurʾān was separated from the Reminder (fuṣila al-Qurʾān min al-dhikr); then it was placed in the House of Might (bayt al-ʿizza) in the heaven of this world; then Jibrīl, upon him peace, began to bring it down to the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace” (Ḥākim, Mustadrak, Tafsīr, bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm 2:242 §2881, hadith classed by al-Dhahabī as sound of transmission (ṣaḥīḥ al-isnād), although Bukhārī and Muslim do not include it in their collections; Ṭabarānī, Muʿjam al-kabīr 11:438 §12243; Nasāʾī, Sunan, Faḍāʾil al-Qurʾān, kam bayn nuzūl awwal al-Qurʾān wa bayn ākhirih, 7:247 §7936).

Jalāl al-Dīn ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Suyūṭī (849-911/1445-ca.1505) writes in his encyclopedia of Qurʾānic sciences, “The concealed secret in sending down the complete (jumlatan) Qurʾān to this heaven is to exalt its status (tafkhīm amrihi) and the status of him upon whom it was sent down. This occurred by informing the dwellers of the seven heavens that this [Qurʾān] is the last of the Books being sent down, [sent down] upon the Seal of the Messengers (i.e. Muḥammad), to the most ennobled community. We brought it nearer to them [to the worldly heaven] in order to send it down upon him” (Itqān, Type 16: fī kayfiyyat inzālih).

The first descent of the Qurʾān occurred in Ramadan (Q 2:185), on a blessed night (Q 44:3), the Night of Decree (qadr) (Q 97:1). A hadith narrated by the Laythī Companion Wāthila b. al-Asqaʿ (22BH-83/600-202), one of the People of the Bench (aṣḥāb al-ṣuffa), provides specific details: “The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said: ‘The scrolls of Ibrāhīm, upon him peace, were sent down on the first night of Ramadan; the Torah on the sixth of Ramadan, the Injīl on the thirteenth of Ramadan, and the Criterion (Furqān, i.e. the Qurʾān) on the twenty-fourth” (Aḥmad, Musnad, Musnad al-Shāmiyyīn, ḥadith Wāthila b. al-Asqaʿ, 28:191 §16984; Bayhaqī, Shuʿab al-īmān, 3:521 §2053; Ṭabarānī, Muʿjam al-kabīr, 22:75 §185; al-Sakhāwī, Jamāl, Kayfiyyat inzāl al-Qurʾān). Al-Ṭabarī adds: “the Psalms were sent down during the twelfth night of Ramadan” (Tafsīr). The Night of Decree, which is better than one thousand months (Q 97:3), saw the descent of the entirety of the Qurʾān, according to many glosses (cf. Ṭabarī, Tafsīr). Other traditions relate that this descent was “all at once” (jumlatan wāḥidatan) (Ḥākim, Mustadrak, Tafsīr sūrat Innā anzalnāhu), “from the highest heaven to the heaven of this world (ilā al-samāʾ) or “from the seventh heaven to Jibrīl in the lowest heaven (fī-l-samāʾ al-dunyā)” (for a detailed collection of these traditions, see Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:185 and 97:1-3). Al-Shaʿbī said, “The beginning of the descent of the Qurʾān occurred during the Night of Decree” (see Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar; Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 87:1; Suyūṭī, Itqān, Type 16: fī kayfiyyat inzālih).

The Preserved Tablet (lawḥ maḥfūẓ) from which the Qurʾān descended is mentioned once in the Qurʾān: Indeed, this is a glorious Qurʾān, upon a Preserved Tablet (Q 85:21-22) (see Preserved Tablet for more). Abū-l-Ḥasan ʿAlī b. Aḥmad al-Wāḥidī al-Naysābūrī (d. 468/1075) says, "It is [guarded] by Allah and it is the Mother of the Book (umm al-kitāb), from which the Qurʾān and [other Divine] Books are transcribed. It is known as the Preserved Tablet, as devils cannot reach it; it is protected against any increase or decrease." (Wasīṭ)

Revelation to the Prophet

From the worldly heaven, the revelation to the Prophet began on a Monday (hadith narrated by Abū Qatāda: Muslim, Ṣawm, istiḥbāb ṣiyām thalātha ayyam min kull shahr…) in 610 CE, when he was about forty years of age, and ended in 11/632, a few days before his death. It was a “descent by which light shone upon the world and the guidance of Allah Most High reached humankind” (Zarqānī, Manāhil, Tanazzulāt al-Qurʾān).

Commentaries and traditions often use the verbal form II najjama and its derivatives to refer to the Qurʾān’s descent “in separate parts” (in the sense of “installments”); Q 56:75 (Then I swear by the setting of the stars (nujūm)) is figuratively interpreted to refer to the descent of the smaller parts (nujūm) of the Qurʾān (Tustarī, Tafsīr, Khuṭbat al-kitāb, 1:18; Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar, sub Q 97:1; for lexical meanings, see Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān, sub n-j-m). Abū Shāma (d. 665/1266) cites Ibn ʿAbbās to the effect that ʿalā mawāqiʿ al-nujūm means “slowly” (rasal), “step by step” (rifq), over days and months. Thus “by the setting of the stars” means “like the rising and setting of the stars,” that is, in separated parts (mufarraqan) (Murshid, Fī-l-bayān ʿan kayfiyyat nuzūl al-Qurʾān; Suyūṭī, Itqān, Type 16: fī kayfiyyat inzālih).

The phrases faraqnāhu and ʿalā mukthin are explained by exegetes to demonstrate that the Qurʾān specifically describes its descent to the Prophet as being sequential: And [this is] a Qurʾān that We divided (faraqnāhu) [into parts] that you may recite it to people at intervals (ʿalā mukth) and We sent it down by stages (wa nazzalnāhu tanzīlan) (Q 17:106). Regarding the first of these phrases, Ibn ʿĀdil writes, “Allah divided [the revelation] so that its memorization be easier and so that its understanding (al-iḥāṭa) and grasping its proofs, realities (ḥaqāʾiq), and fine points (daqāʾiq) be achieved in a more complete form” (Lubāb). Variant readings (see Canonical Readings) of this verse (by Ibn ʿAbbās, Ubayy b. Kaʿb, and Ibn Muḥayṣin) have the form II verb farraqnāhu, which intensifies the meaning; Ibn Kathīr glosses it as “sent down verse by verse” (Tafsīr). The disbelievers—either from the Quraysh or the Jews, as per Qurṭubī (Tafsīr)—receive the Divine answer: “We sent down the Qurʾān, one part after another;” and this is consistent with the aim of reciting it to people at intervals, this being what Allah desired from its descent (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar, sub Q 17:106)

Fakhr al-Dīn Muḥammad b. ʿUmar al-Rāzī (543-606/1148-1209) also cites Qatāda (d. 117/735) as saying, “The meaning [of faraqnāhu in the verse] is, ‘We separated its parts (qaṭṭaʿnāhu), one verse after another and one sūra after another’” (Tafsīr). Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad b. Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923) had already noted that this revelation in smaller parts is “that you may recite it to people unhurriedly (ʿalā tuʾada), in such a way that you can explain its recitation and its meanings” (Tafsīr). Muḥammad al-Ṭāhir Ibn ʿĀshūr (1296-1393/1879-1972) considered this an occasioning cause (ʿilla) for the division of the Qurʾān into parts (Tafsīr). His gloss sums up the received exegetical reflection on this phrase: “We made it separate parts (jaʿalnāhu firaqan), that is, We sent it down at intervals (munajjaman), in separate parts (mufarraqan) and not as a whole composed [book] in one moment (ghayr mujtamiʿ ṣubratan wāḥidatan)” (Tafsīr).

Another reason for the serial descent of the Qurʾān is given in Q 25:32: And those who disbelieve say: Why was the Qurʾān not revealed unto him all at once (jumlatan wāḥidatan)?’ [It is] so that We strengthen your heart thereby; and We have arranged it in order (wa rattalnāhu tartīlan). Abū Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Ḥaqq b. Ghālib Ibn ʿAṭiyya (d. ca.542/1147) writes that it is reported from Ibn ʿAbbās and others that one of the objections of the Qurayshite disbelievers was that the Qurʾān should have been revealed at once (like the Torah and Injīl), were it truly from Allah. This verse likely refers to that objection, accounting for its descent at intervals and in parts (Muḥarrar). Ibn Kathīr says, “Allah Almighty answered them: He sent down the Qurʾān in separate parts (munajjaman) over twenty-three years, in accordance with the [needs arising out of] events and developments (bi-ḥasab al-waqāʾiʿ wal-ḥawādith), and [to address matters] that needed Divine regulation in order to strengthen the hearts of the believers by [the Qurʾān]” (Tafsīr). Al-Suyūṭī says when revelation is renewed for every event, it fortifies the heart, it means greater care for him to whom it is sent and it requires that the Angel frequently descends to him and renews the knowledge with him and that [part] of the Message which he has already received. (Itqān, Type 16: fī kayfiyyat inzālih)

The gradual revelation of the Qurʾān to the Prophet is historically attested through intertextual evidence from Qurʾānic verses that comment on various contemporary events as well as works from the genres of the “occasions of revelation” (asbāb al-nuzūl), Prophetic biography (sīra), Prophetic military campaigns (maghāzī), and hadith literature. By near consensus, the first revelation consisted of only five verses (Q 96:1-5) (Bukhārī, Badʾ al-waḥy; Suyūṭī, Itqān, Type 7) (see Revelation).


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See also

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