The Qur’an, like other scriptures, developed over a period of time. The Qur’an itself states that it was not revealed all at once, and Muslims nearly universally believe that Muhammad experienced the revelations that became the Qur’an between about 610 CE and his death in 632. Because the organization of these revelations into the written Qur’an is not based on chronology, there have been numerous attempts by scholars, both Muslim and non-Muslim, to determine the order in which the revelations took place and sometimes exactly when each occurred.
This is a challenging task, as the form of the written Qur’an provides few clues as to its history. The revelations are compiled into suras, which are themselves organized roughly by decreasing length to form the written Qur’an. Because Muslims accept this Qur’an as linked to a perfect, heavenly Qur’an, knowledge of its history is not essential to their faith in its quality. Scholars have tried to understand the Qur’an’s origins for a number of reasons, but Qur’an chronology has historically been one of many Islamic subjects dealt with only by religious scholars, the ’ulama’. Since the 19th century, though, it has also been a subject of particular interest to Western Qur’an scholars, most of whom have been German Christians. These two groups of scholars have different methods and motivations for studying the Qur’an, but in both cases there are connections between their techniques and their goals that can be seen in their studies of Qur’an chronology.
Traditional Muslim chronologies have been motivated in part by a general yearning for knowledge of the Qur’an, but are also relevant to Islamic law because of the concept of Qur’anic abrogation, or naskh. According to this principle, which is itself based on the Qur’anic verses 2:106 and 16:101, verses contradict each other because earlier verses were appropriate when revealed, but situations changed and the later verses were revealed to fit new situations. Legal authorities interpreting the legal demands of the Qur’an need to know which verses are more recent, as these are the more authoritative and abrogate earlier verses.
Western, mostly non-Muslim scholars have other reasons for determining the chronology of the Qur’anic verses. “This enables them,” writes Montgomery Watt, “to study the changes in emphasis in the Qur’anic message as the community of Muslims grew and came to have new and different needs.” Central to the modern fields of religious studies and history of religion is the concept that religions change over time. The transitions that the early Muslim community underwent are of interest to historians and other scholars of religion, and the Qur’an can be a major source of information about this period if its chronology is understood.
While there are two communities studying the chronology of the Qur’an, there are, broadly, three ways to study it. This trinity of disciplines was described clearly by William Muir in his book The Corân:
Any attempt to arrange the Suras in true chronological order can at the best be approximate; but there are guides which, within certain limits, may be depended upon. First, the style: wild and rhapsodical in the early period, prosaic and narrative in the second, official and authoritative in the last. Then there is the development of doctrine and precept; the bearing of the argument, whether addressed to the idolater of Mecca, to the Jew or Christian, or to the disaffected citizen of Medîna; to the believer oppressed and persecuted, or to the same believer militant and triumphant. And, lastly, there are distinct references to historical landmarks, which, within certain limits, fix the period of composition.
This concept that there are three methodologies for the study of Qur’anic chronology was first expressed not by Muir but by Gustav Weil, a figure to whom I will return below, but Muir’s expression is worth keeping in mind. Each of Weil’s, and later Muir’s, ways of thinking about Qur’anic chronology—stylistically, doctrinally, and historically—has seen many variations throughout history.
One early method of Qur’an chronology focused solely on determining abrogations and fit into Muir’s second category, examining the “development of doctrine.” It became a field of systematic study with the publication of al-Nasikh wa-l-mansukh by Abu ‘Ubayd al-Qasim bin Sallam, who died in 838 CE.
These early abrogation chronologies were created to support legal positions, and were thus influenced by politics. They were not only the objects of influence, though, for they were read by later scholars and inevitably influenced later Qur’an chronologies as well. The most important component of this influence was simply the idea of chronologizing the Qur’an, as few other Muslim views on the Qur’an demand such historical structure.
Occasions of revelation
Another early field of study that has bearing on Qur’an chronology (and therefore on abrogation as well) is that of the ashab al-nuzul, or “occasions of revelation.” This historical field fits into Muir’s third category and developed when scholars decided that little chronological information could be found in the Qur’an itself, and began reading it together with other sources. Foremost among the other materials used for the study of the Qur’an were the sira, the biography of Muhammad; the ahadith, stories about and sayings attributed to Muhammad; and the maghazi, the history of early Muslim military campaigns.
Not all such sources had the scholarly integrity of these three, though. Popular traditions developed associating particular suras and verses with events in Muhammad’s life. Occasions of revelation research also relied heavily on—and sometimes became interchangeable with—these traditions. As a result, many modern scholars, Muslim and not, are skeptical about the occasions of revelation literature. A.T. Welch states that “these accounts—historical, semi-historical, and legendary—came to be accepted, often without discrimination, as the basis for the traditional Muslim dating of the Kur’an.” Similarly, Shi’ite scholar ‘Allamah Tabataba’i argues that “many of these [traditions] are without a chain of narration and are not accepted as fully trustworthy; moreover, [in the cases of] a considerable number… the narrator had not learned… through oral transmission but rather based on his own judgment… that the revelation of a certain verse was connected with certain events.”
Regardless of the veracity of such traditions, though, it is evident that the study of the occasions of revelation focused primarily on the life of Muhammad. Modern scholars, in contrast, often focus on broader social changes of which Muhammad is a part, and of course on Islam, the movement which he began. This highlights a distinction between the works of traditional and modernist scholars, as moderns often make use of the Qur’an to understand its context, while traditional scholars, especially those studying the occasions of revelation, make use of context to understand the Qur’an.
Before broadly comparing traditional and modern scholarship there is one other major traditional field I would like to examine. Both abrogation-focused analysis and the study of occasions of revelation focused on individual verses, but a third stream of Qur’anic research did not. This field, which I will term “Meccan/Medinan categorization” for reasons that will become clear, assumed that the sura is the unit of revelation, at least in most cases. The most common version of this assumption admits that a sura might not have been revealed all at once, but claims that “most of the passages in a sura had been revealed about the same time.” This theory allows scholars to treat each sura as a cohesive whole, and thus assign the entire sura a date or rough period of revelation.
These scholars emphasize the classification of the revelations into two categories: those which took place in Mecca and those which took place in Medina. As this imprecise but usually accurate style of Qur’an chronology developed, scholars ascribed certain attributes to the revelations of each city: Meccan suras are short, often use the addresses “O Mankind” and “O People,” address moral corruption, include stories about the prophets, and sometimes include words never seen in Medinan suras. Medinan suras, on the other hand, are often longer, use the addresses “O ye who believe” and “O people of the book,” address questions of the law, including those of marriage and inheritance, and sometimes deal with the subject of warfare.
These characteristics are by themselves insufficient as a basis for assigning the suras to their respective cities of revelation, though, for two reasons. First, there are exceptions to nearly all such guidelines, as well as a number of suras that strongly exhibit the traits of more than one classification. Second, these lists of characteristics were not themselves revealed by God; they had to be found by humans who analyzed the Qur’an itself using other techniques. Such classifying rules are thus merely a simplified approach to chronology and classification, and cannot themselves be established without more nuanced research.
Once the research has been done, as it was by medieval ‘ulama’, Meccan/Medinan classification has several strengths. First, because of its very imprecision it tends to be accurate, at least so far as modern scholars can tell. This is sufficiently the case that, according to one of the great European Qur’an scholars, “any modern attempt to find a basis for dating must by and large be in agreement with the traditional views.” Second, knowledge of whether a revelation was Meccan or Medinan is often all one needs for the purpose of abrogation. Third, many factors go into the decision of which city a revelation belongs to, and among these are all three methods listed by Muir. Style, the element not utilized by other traditional approaches, plays a larger role in Meccan/Medinan chronologization (though, as I’ll explain in more detail below, not nearly as large a role as in modern European chronologies). Finally, the traditional history of this approach to classification includes a number of very authoritative figures, which is questionably a strength as regards correctness but definitely serves to increase influence.
First among these figures is Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas, who is credited by other ‘ulama’ with the creation of a chronological list of suras, clearly divided into Meccan and Medinan, that was eventually used in the Egyptian standard edition of the Qur’an published in 1924. The classification system developed for several centuries and crystalized in the works of al-Baydawi and Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti. Meccan/Medinan classification became the standard for Qur’an chronologies and al-Suyuti’s Al-Itqan fi’ulum al-Qur’an “became the principle starting point for Western scholarship on qur’anic chronology.” The division of suras between Mecca and Medina thus continues to influence both Muslim and non-Muslim Qur’an scholarship.
Gustav Weil and Theodor Nöldeke
This influence is tangible in most of the several Qur’an chronologies developed by non-Muslims beginning in the mid-19th century. These began with Gustav Weil’s Historich-kritische Einleitung in der Koran of 1844, which established two major ideas in Qur’an scholarship. The first, noted above, was that there are three ways of studying Qur’anic chronology. The second was a division of what the Meccan/Medidan classification termed Meccan suras into three groups. This new four-period dating system was adopted by the better known chronology Geschichte des Qorans by Theodor Nöldeke, published in 1860. In this History, Nöldeke argued that the suras fit into three periods using almost exclusively internal textual analysis. While examining the subjects of suras—Muir’s second category of “doctrine and precept”—Nöldeke focused on the field of Muir’s first category: style.
Here, then, is a—perhaps the—central difference between all traditional chronologies and nearly all Western (which is to imply, in this context, non-Muslim) ones. Nöldeke’s approach was essentially the approach of literary criticism, applied to the Qur’an as it has been applied to many other works over the last 500 years. “This type of scholarly-critical operation is not accepted by most Muslims,” writes Frederick Denny, “because it means treating the holy text just like any other text: generated by historical circumstances and understandable by means of historical-critical methodology.” In bringing approaches originally developed by European renaissance humanists to the central text of Islam, Nöldeke simultaneously participated in founding a Western field of Qur’an analysis and created a schism between this field and traditional Muslim scholarship.
This analysis so far leaves aside Nöldeke’s judgements about Qur’an chronology, though, and they are themselves interesting. Nöldeke assumed that “Muhammad’s prophetic inspiration would have been at its most intense in the beginning of his career,” and that the most intensely emotional and poetic suras were thus the earliest Adams 167. As Muhammad became used to prophecy, he theorized, it became more routine and less exciting. Nöldeke also realized, as he organized suras in the chronological suggested by his theory, that early suras had short verses, while later suras had progressively longer ones. Weil’s theory of Qur’an chronology, bolstered by Nöldeke’s arguments, became the standard for Western chronology and is still widely used.
Others saw some flaws in Nöldeke’s system. One of these was that, like most traditional chronologies, it assumed that suras were essentially cohesive units. There was extensive evidence that this was not the case, and Richard Bell created his own chronology in his book The Qur’an, translated, with a critical rearrangement of the suras, published in two volumes in 1937 and 1939. Bell’s ideas departed even more radically than earlier works of non-Muslims from traditional methodologies. Bell “abandoned the chronological division into Meccan and Medinan periods and designed a highly subjective dating system for individual verses in the Qur’an taken as a whole.” He concluded that the suras were revised and expanded many times in written form, probably during Muhammad’s lifetime, before assuming their current canonized form. These conclusions make it extremely hard to create a clear chronology, so Bell’s chronology was much looser than others. As Welch writes,
Bell did not present a rigid dating system, but concluded “provisionally” that the composition of the Kur’an fell into three main periods: an early one from which only some sign-passages and exhortations to worship God survive; a “Kur’an period”, covering the latter part of the Meccan period and the first year or two in Medina, during which Muhammad’s task was to produce a kur’an, a collection of lessons for liturgical use; and a “Book period”, beginning about the end of the year 2 A.H., during which Muhammad began to produce a written scripture.
Bell thus embraced the uncertainty of Qur’an chronology to a greater degree than other theorists, but at the same time developed original theories about the Qur’an based on the knowledge that he did have. Both of these contributions to non-Muslim scholarship have, like those of Nöldeke, widened the divide between Muslim and Western conceptions of the Qur’an. There has been rather little research done on Qur’anic chronologies more recently, but Bell’s theories, with their intense uncertainty, remain among the most respected by Western scholars. This uncertainty is, of course, nothing new to Qur’an chronologies; no respected chronology has ever claimed to include every sura or verse in an absolutely correct order.
The Codex of ‘Ali
According to Muslim tradition, though, there was one exception to this uncertainty. “There is a persistent tradition among the Shi’as,” writes Arthur Jeffrey, “that ‘Ali b. Abi Talib was the first after the death of the Prophet to make a collection of the material of the Qur’an, and even Sunni sources know that he prepared a Codex of his own.” The most common version of this tradition further states that the suras were arranged in chronological order and that ‘Ali destroyed the text when ‘Uthman’s Qur’an became available, presumably for the sake of unity.
This tradition is relevant to the study of the Qur’an and of the Qur’an’s chronology for reasons beyond the obvious. If ‘Ali was able to organize suras truly chronologically, for instance, this would prove that suras were units of revelations and not compilations from several chronologically divergent moments of revelation. It is also possible, though, that ‘Ali’s suras were in fact different from those standardized by ‘Uthman, or that ‘Ali’s Qur’an was not in fact in chronological order, so the tradition of the codex of ‘Ali does not provide a conclusion to the question of the unity of suras.
Without the surprise appearance of such an ancient text, Qur’an chronology will remain a difficult field. It is a field in which Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, often studying for different reasons, have explored a wide variety of methods for examining one important text. It is also a field in which most research, regardless of its methods, has come to similar conclusions, but sometimes with important variations. And, finally, it is a field in which motives and methods influence each other strongly, to the degree that ‘Ali, motivated by hope for religious unity, decided on the most extreme method and destroyed what may have been the greatest Qur’an chronology of all time.
- Charles J. Adams, “Qur’an: The Text and Its History,” The Encyclopedia of Religion volume 12, edited by Mircea Eliade (New York: Macmillan, 1986).
- Richard Bell and W. Montgomery Watt, Bell’s Introduction to the Qur’an (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1970).
- Gerhard Böwering, “Chronology and the Qur’an,” Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an volume 2, edited by Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Leiden: Brill, 2001).
- Frederick Mathewson Denny, An Introduction to Islam (New York: Macmillan, 1993).
- Arthur Jeffrey, “Materials for the History of the Text of the Koran,” The Origins of the Koran: Classic Essays on Islam’s Holy Book, edited by Ibn Warraq (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1998).
- William Muir, The Corân: Its Composition and Teaching; and the Testimony it Bears to the Holy Scriptures (London: Soc. for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1920).
- ‘Allamah Sayyid M.H. Tabataba’i, The Qur’an in Islam: Its Impact and Influence on the Lives of Muslims (London: Zahra, 1987).
- Ahmad Von Denffer, ‘Ulum al-Qur’an: An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur’an (Leicestershire, U.K.: Islamic Foundation, 1994).
- W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad’s Mecca: History in the Qur’an (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1988).
- A.T. Welch, “al-Kur’an,” The Encyclopaedia of Islam volume 5, edited by C.E. Bonsworth, E. van Donzel, B. Lewis and Ch. Pellat (Leiden: Brill, 1986).