Allah revealed the Quran to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in portions over a period of 23 years. The first time Muhammad ﷺ received divine revelation was in the Cave of Hira, where he would occasionally meditate, in the outskirts of Makkah. He was 40 years old then. The final verses of the Quran were revealed to him over two decades later when he lived in Madinah.
The divine revelation came to Muhammad ﷺ in various forms. It would sometimes come “like the ringing of a bell” (reported by Bukhari); at other times, Angel Jibril (Gabriel) would appear before him in the form of a man and convey the revelation to him. Once Muhammad ﷺ grasped what was revealed to him, the state of revelation would pass. He would then communicate the divine verses to his companions, some of whom would similarly memorize them, while others preserved them in writing. Shortly after the demise of Muhammad ﷺ, the divine revelations were compiled – through a meticulous process – in the form of a book that has remained unaltered till the present day.
It is sometimes questioned why the Quran was revealed gradually, and not all at once. In fact, Muhammad’s ﷺ opponents in Makkah also put forward this very question to him. Let us, therefore, analyze the reasons for the revelation of the Quran in portions.
To guide the Muslims in specific situations
Muhammad ﷺ, along with his followers, encountered various hardships and uncertainties in the cause of Islam. From being persecuted in the staunchly polytheistic Makkah to establishing a community of Muslims in the oasis of Madinah, they faced various types of religious, social, political, economic, and military issues. Divine guidance was thus needed to address the specific problems these early Muslims faced as well as to strengthen their cause. For this reason, while the Quran hardly narrates any incident from the life of Muhammad ﷺ, it frequently alludes to the various circumstances he and his followers faced for the purpose of guiding the people.
To address people’s questions and doubts
As Muhammad ﷺ preached the message of serving one God alone and proclaimed his own prophethood, people came up with various questions, arguments, and challenges that needed to be addressed. The more learned people would question him about historical events and personalities that they felt could not possibly be known to him. Hence, divine guidance was needed to answer those questions, as and when they were put to him. Allah refers to this fact in the Quran, “And they do not come to you with an argument except that We bring you the truth and the best explanation.” (Quran 25:33)
To allow gradual implementation of divine rulings
Some of the principles and laws revealed by Allah were implemented in phases in order to facilitate the people. This gradual implementation of these commandments, which may otherwise have been burdensome for the people, was made possible due to successive divine revelations over a passage of time. As an example, alcohol was very popular in the pre-Islamic Arab society; therefore, its prohibition was implemented in three phases to help the people come to terms with it:
- The first verse prohibited approaching prayer in a state of intoxication: “O you who believe, do not approach prayer while you are intoxicated until you know what you are saying…” (Quran 4:43)
- The second verse, revealed after an interval, pointed to the harm associated with intoxicants: “They ask you about wine and gambling. Say, ‘In them is great sin and [yet, some] benefit for people. But their sin is greater than their benefit.’” (Quran 2:219)
- The final verse outlawed alcohol altogether: “O you who believe, indeed, intoxicants, gambling, [sacrificing on] stone alters, and divining arrows are but defilement from the work of Satan, so avoid it that you may be successful.” (Quran 5:90)
To enable the Prophet ﷺ to cope with the message
The divine revelation could, at times, weigh Muhammad ﷺ down due to the enormity of its message and the difficulty of the task entrusted upon him. As his wife, Ayesha, states, “Verily I saw the Prophet (ﷺ) being inspired divinely on a very cold day, and I noticed the sweat dropping from his forehead.” (Reported by Bukhari) Therefore, intervals between revelations were necessary to ensure that Muhammad ﷺ was ready to receive, propagate, and act upon each subsequent set of verses. Moreover, the revelation of the Quran in portions also strengthened his resolve to counter all difficulties with determination: “And those who disbelieve say, ‘Why was the Quran not revealed to him all at once?’ Thus [it is] that We may strengthen thereby your heart. And We have spaced it distinctly.” (Quran 25:32)
To reinforce the message of the Quran
A message reinforced over the years through constant reminders is likely to have a much greater impact than a similar message communicated only once. The revelation of the Quran in portions, therefore, reinvigorated the faith of the early Muslims who faced immense pressure from society to revert to its polytheistic ways. The repeated command in the Quran to associate none with Allah enabled the Muslims to establish monotheism on a strong footing in Arabia, from where it spread to other parts of the world. The believers were also reminded by Allah, through successive revelations, to reflect on the universe and the multitude of His signs within it, in order to attain deeper faith.
To facilitate learning the Quran
The gradual revelation of the Quran enabled Muhammad ﷺ and his followers to easily retain its teachings and convey them to others. Moreover, some of the earliest Muslims were able to memorize the entire Quran which proved particularly helpful at the time of its formal compilation in the form of a book following the demise of Muhammad ﷺ. If the entire Quran had been revealed at once, people might have struggled to grasp even its basic teachings. “And [it is] a Quran which We have separated [by intervals] that you might recite it to the people over a prolonged period. And We have sent it down progressively.” (Quran 17:106)
To serve as evidence of the Quran’s divine origin
One of the proofs of the divine origin of the Quran is that despite being revealed over a period of 23 years, there is no inconsistency in it. If the Quran were a product of human handiwork, there would have been contradictions in its content. Allah states in the Quran, “Then do they not reflect upon the Quran? If it had been from [any] other than Allah, they would have found within it much contradiction.” (Quran 4:82) This miracle of the Quran would not have been manifested if it were revealed all at once.
To conclude, there is divine wisdom behind the revelation of the Quran in portions – wisdom that ensured the preservation of its message without any alterations and that enabled the earliest generation of Muslims to exemplify the conduct prescribed by the Quran.