Sūrah al-ʿAlaq: The First Revelation

The first five verses of Sūrah al-ʿAlaq were the very first verses of the Quran to be revealed. The remainder of the Sūrah was revealed a few months or years later during the Makkan era. The scholars differ on exactly when the remaining verses were revealed but the story of its revelation makes it very clear that these are Makkan verses. As a result, this Sūrah is a Makkan Sūrah by consensus. It consists of 19 verses, the first five of which were the first revelation.

Reasons for Revelation

The reason for revelation of both sets of verses are clearly narrated in authentic hadiths. Regarding the first five verses, Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī includes a lengthy narration about its revelation. The narration is as follows.

ʿĀʾisha, the mother of the faithful believers, narrates; the commencement of the Divine Inspiration to Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) was in the form of good dreams which came true like bright daylight, and then the love of seclusion was bestowed upon him. He used to go in seclusion in the cave of Hīra where he used to worship (Allah alone) continuously for many days before his desire to see his family.

He used to take with him the journey food for the stay and then come back to (his wife) Khadīja to take his food likewise again till suddenly the Truth descended upon him while he was in the cave of Hīra. The angel came to him and asked him to read. The Prophet (peace be upon him) replied, “I do not know how to read.”

The Prophet (peace be upon him) added, “The angel caught me (forcefully) and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it anymore. He then released me and again asked me to read and I replied, ‘I do not know how to read.’ Thereupon he caught me again and pressed me a second time till I could not bear it anymore. He then released me and again asked me to read but again I replied, ‘I do not know how to read (or what shall I read)?’

Thereupon he caught me for the third time and pressed me, and then released me and said, ‘Read in the name of your Lord, Who has created (all that exists), created man from a clot. Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous.” (96:1, 96:2, 96:3)

Then Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) returned with the Inspiration and with his heart beating severely. Then he went to Khadīja bint al-Khuwaylid and said, “Cover me! Cover me!” They covered him till his fear was over and after that, he told her everything that had happened and said, “I fear that something may happen to me.”

Khadīja replied, “Never! By Allah, Allah will never disgrace you. You keep good relations with your kith and kin, help the poor and the destitute, serve your guests generously, and assist the deserving calamity-afflicted ones.”

Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 1:3

Regarding the second set of verses, the following has been narrated as its reason for revelation.

Abū Huraira reported that Abū Jahl asked (people) whether Muhammad placed his face (on the ground) in their presence. It was said to him: Yes. He said: By Lāt and ʿUzza. If I were to see him do that, I would trample his neck, or I would smear his face with dust.

He came to Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) as he was engaged in prayer and thought of trampling his neck (and the people say) that he came near him but turned upon his heels and tried to repulse something with his hands. It was said to him: What is the matter with you?

He said: There is between me and him a ditch of fire and terror and wings. Thereupon Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) said: If he were to come near me the angels would have torn him to pieces.

Then Allah, the Exalted and Glorious, revealed these verses; “In fact, man oversteps all bounds, because he looks upon himself as self-sufficient. Surely to your Lord is the return. Have you seen him who forbids a servant when he prays? Do you see if he is on the right way, or enjoins the observance of piety?

Do you see if he [Abū Jahl] disbelieves and turns away? Does he not know that Allah sees? Nay, if he desists not, We will seize him by the forelock, a lying, sinful forelock. Then let him summon his council. We will summon the guards of Hell. Nay! Obey not thou him, but kneel down, and come near.” (96:6-19).

Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 52:41

These two narrations give us a clear picture of the events surrounding the revelation of this Sūrah.

The Call to Knowledge

The first revelation to the Prophet (peace be upon him) called on him and his followers to recite in the name of the Lord. There are two commands included in this verse, the first is to recite the Quran, and the second is to begin our recitation with the Basmala.

The first revelation was a call to recite, study, ponder over and reflect on the Quran. Doing so should lead to increase in faith and practice of Islam. A major problem in our times is that the majority of people have abandoned reciting the Quran with understanding. This has created a barrier between us and piety. The way back begins going back to the Quran.

Allah then reminds us of some of His Favors. He created us in a miraculous way, and gifted us with language and the ability to learn. These two skills, complex languages and the ability to study, are unique to the human race. They are two of the qualities that make humans the best of creation, and give us an advantage over other creatures.

In reminding us of these favors, Allah is calling us to use them in ways that are beneficial. Reading, writing, talking, and learning should all lead a person closer to Allah. A believer should immerse himself in books and classes that increase his faith and piety. The foundation of our faith is knowledge, and it begins with the Quran. These verses remain a reminder to all of us to never stop reciting the Quran and reflecting over its meanings.

The Arrogance of Abū Jahl

The remainder of the Surah was revealed regarding Abū Jahl and his arrogant attitude towards Islam. Abū Jahl had seen clear signs that Islam is the truth, yet openly rejected it and opposed it all his life. He dedicated his life to fighting the truth, despite seen obvious proof that it was the truth.

In these verses, Allah condemns Abū Jahl for his arrogance and lies, for trying to prevent people from worshipping their Creator, and for thinking that he is self-sufficient. Many of the early revelations condemned self-sufficiency due to its prevalence among the elite of the Quraysh.

The leaders of the Quraysh were wealthy and powerful people. They attributed all of their success to their own intellects and skills. They denied that Allah had anything to do with it, and that He is the true provider. In their delusion, they grew arrogant and began to look down upon the poor. This mindset was one of the primary reasons why they rejected Islam. They couldn’t stomach the idea of a religion that attributed sustenance to God, and treated the wealth and the poor as equal.

Modern Capitalistic societies suffer from this same delusion. Many billionaires boast about being self-made. They attribute all their success to themselves, and remove God from the equation altogether. They look down upon the poor as lazy and unworthy of wealth. In doing so, they repeat the mistakes of Abū Jahl and risk following in his footsteps.

Islam calls on us to maintain humility in all situations. A believer works hard and does his best. But the believer also knows that all sustenance is from Allah. So he is grateful to Allah, content and generous. He does not look down upon people due to their poverty or circumstances. He knows that the only criterion for superiority is piety and only Allah knows who is truly pious.

This Sūrah offers us a duel message of the right and wrong way. The way of reciting the Quran, studying, and seeking authentic knowledge leads to Paradise. The qualities of Abū Jahl lead to the Hellfire. It is the duty of every person to choose their path in life, “So prostrate and come close (to your Lord).” (96:19)

To learn more Tafsir of the Quran, check out my ebook Themes of the Quran, available here.

Posted by Ismail Kamdar

Ismail Kamdar is the Founder of Islamic Self Help, author of over a dozen books, faculty manager of IOU, and a freelance writer.

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