the compilation of the Qur`an & the arrangement of its chapters
We know that the first Qur`anic verses that were revealed were the opening of Surah 96, entitled “Al-‘Alaq” (Blood Clots). Could you then please tell me why this Surah is not placed at the beginning of the Qur`an, and why it begins with Surah “Al-Fatihah” (The Opening)?
It is true that the first revelations the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) received consisted of the first five verses of the Surah you mentioned. These may be translated into English as follows:
“Read in the name of your Lord Who created man from clots of blood. Read! Your Lord is the most bounteous Who has taught the use of the pen, has taught man what he did not know.” [Al-`Alaq: 1-5]
If you examine these few verses carefully, you will find that they are an announcement made to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) of his forthcoming mission. They inform him of his Lord Who is the Creator of man, His word, and the One Who has given man the ability to read and learn. This announcement was highly significant because it introduced an era of direct contact between God and man through the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). It was an era in which the constitution that ensures man’s happiness in this life and in the life to come was to be revealed in detail. The rest of the Surah was revealed later.
This announcement was of utmost importance to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) because it informed him of what was expected of him as a messenger of God. The revelations he received in the following period also stressed his role as a messenger. They delineated the means of proceeding with his call to Islam and whom he should approach for this purpose. Later revelations dealt with events that took place in the Muslim community and provided legislation for social problems. They also showed the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) the way forward and what strategy he should use in conveying His message to mankind. We read, for example, in Surah 15 “Al-Hijr” which occurs close to the middle of the Qur`an, God’s order to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to publicly announce His message. This took place about three years after the first Qur`anic revelations were made during which time the Prophet (peace be upon him) preached his new faith in secret. In other words, twenty years of revelation followed. This suggests that a much larger portion of the Qur`an was revealed after this order was issued to the Prophet (peace be upon him). Nevertheless, it occurs about midway in the Qur`an. Certain Surahs or verses comment on events that took place during the Prophet’s lifetime. A large part of Surah “Al-Anfa’al” (Spoils of War) comments on the battle of Badr, while a long passage in Surah “Al -Imran” comments on the battle of Uhud which took place a year after the battle of Badr. In the arrangement of the Qur`an, four very long Surahs separate these two Surahs with the one commenting on the second battle occurring first. What this shows, is that there is a great difference between the chronological revelation of the Qur`an and its arrangement.
As you are probably aware, the Qur`an was revealed over a period of 23 years. Each instance of revelation comprised a long or a short passage according to what was determined suitable at the particular time of each revelation. Certain verses provided legislation which is to be implemented in certain cases. Examples include punishments for crimes or dealings with other communities. These verses were not revealed until the need arose or until God deemed it appropriate to reveal them. For instance, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) signed a peace treaty with the polytheists of Makkah which stipulated that he was to return to Makkah any individual who came to him declaring that he was a Muslim if he did not have the permission of his tribe to emigrate. Subsequent to this agreement, a verse was revealed which made it absolutely clear that the Muslim community was not allowed to return any woman believer who came to them from Makkah. This was because it was not permissible for a Muslim woman to remain married to a non-believer. In other words, the Qur`anic verse made a qualification of a condition which was included in a peace treaty concluded by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him).
This however meant that two or more longer Surahs were revealed concurrently. This gives rise to the question of how they were arranged and who gave instructions in connection to their arrangement? The answer is that these came from God. Every time Angel Gabriel came to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) with a new revelation, he told him its exact position in the Surah to which it belonged. Thus, the arrangement of any particular Surah was not left to the Prophet’s discretion or to anyone else’s for that matter but was a divine directive. Some people, especially Orientalists, may suggest otherwise, but the truth of the matter is that the Surahs were arranged by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) by divine order through Gabriel. A rigorously authenticated hadith tells us that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) recited the Qur`an in the presence of Gabriel during the nights of the months of Ramadan each year. In the last year of the Prophet’s life, they recited the Qur`an in full twice. It goes without saying that the arrangement of the Surahs was part of the purpose for which these recitations were made. Had there been any instructions with regard to the arrangements of the Surahs, those would have been given to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) through Gabriel. On the other hand the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) recited the Qur`an in its proper order when he led his followers in prayer. Some of his Companions reported that they heard the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) reciting every Surah in his prayer. It is probably well known that it is not recommended to recite a Surah in the second raka’ah (cycle of prayer) that precedes the one recited in the first raka’ah. Other reports demonstrate that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) recited a number of Surahs in the same raka’ah as they are arranged in the present day copies of the Qur`an. This could not have been coincidental.
The Qur`an was first fully compiled by Abu Bakr, the first ruler of the Islamic State to succeed the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Abu Bakr ruled for a brief period that lasted a little over two years. For this task, he formed a committee of the most competent and suitable persons among the Prophet’s Companions and he supervised the work himself. The resultant work, the compiled copy of the Qur`an was kept in the home of Hafsah, one of the Prophet’s wives. When more copies of the Qur`an were written during the reign of Osman some twelve years later, that first copy served as a reference. One copy was sent to each province in the Islamic State as a reference for any new copies. The work that was undertaken at the time of Abu Bakr and the time of Osman was highly publicized. No one among the Prophet’s Companions objected to any part of the work and this in itself is a clear indication that the Companions were aware that the Surahs in the compiled copy were arranged in the same order followed by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) in his recitation of the Qur’an.
Moreover, the present arrangement is the proper one. “Al-Fatihah” comprises in a few short verses the most essential elements of the Islamic faith. It stresses the Oneness of God, the only Lord in the universe, His compassion to all of His creation, the Day of Accountability and Judgment, and the decree that that people should offer their worship to Him alone, and pray to Him for help and guidance.
The second Surah is very long one. It begins with a discussion of the three types of people: believers, disbelievers and hypocrites. These are the three attitudes that any human being can take toward Islam. It then goes on to speak of the creation of man and his need for God’s guidance before it gives a lengthy discussion of the history of the Israelites, who were entrusted with divine guidance in the past and did not discharge their trust properly and fully. This serves as a warning to the Muslim community, which has succeeded the Israelites as trustees of the divine message. These verses are then followed by detailed legislations for the different aspects of the life of a good Muslim community.
No matter what its subject is, any Surah in the Qur`an always discusses the most essential elements of faith. This gives us a feeling that whatever we do and whatever situation we find ourselves in, we must never lose sight of our beliefs in the Oneness of God and in the Day of Judgment.