It is commonly held that the shan-i nuzul (occasion of revelation) is narration of a particular incident or incidents, which spurred the revelation of a verse or a set of verses. I am afraid this is not correct.
The shan-i nuzul of a revelation, in fact, refers to the circumstances encompassing the addressees of the Holy Qur’an at the moment. The Holy Qur’an, in fact, deals with certain matter or a set of matters as the central theme of the surahs.
The whole address revolves round that matter or a set of matters. Therefore, the best way to ascertain the shan-i nuzul is to deliberate upon the contents of the surah because the surahs are always addressed while keeping such circumstances in view.
Just as an expert doctor identifies the ailment a patient is suffering from by simply analyzing the medicines mentioned in the prescription by another doctor, in precisely the same manner, one can identify the shan-i nuzul of the Qur’anic verses by examining the central theme of the surah.
In a meaningful discourse, the discourse and its theme possess mutual affinity and relationship, just as a well-fitted dress corresponds to the body.
It goes without saying that components of a meaningful discourse are closely knit. When a Hadith narrative says that a certain verse was revealed regarding a particular incident it indicates the circumstances in which the audience were at the time of that particular revelation. Thus we come to know of the immediate reasons for the revelation of the surah. Suyuti writes:
Zarkashi writes in Al-Burhan: When the Companions (may Allah be pleased with them) and the Successors say that such and such verse was revealed about such and such incident they mean that the verse embodies a ruling about that issue. They do not mean that the verse was primarily prompted by that issue. This phenomenon, in fact, involves deducing a decree from the verse regarding the issue (referred to in the relevant shan-i nuzul narrative). It does not always involve merely reporting the historical fact about the revelation of the verse. It is very important to appreciate that the revelation of the relevant verse and the referred to incident might not have co-occurred.
The above quoted saying of Zarkashi solves the problem faced by Razi while interpreting the following verse of the Holy Qur’an:
“When those who believe in our revelations come to you.” (Surah Al- An’am: 54)
Imam Razi writes:
I am quite mystified here. The scholars unanimously hold that the whole surah was revealed at one time. Then how could one say that every verse of the surah individually was prompted by a specific incident.
Therefore, in my opinion, as is obvious from the above discussion, all the surahs were revealed to deal with matters, which called for an explanation, while caring that text of the surahs remained coherent and free of ambiguities. We experience that an expert orator delivers a speech regarding conditions and requirements before him, in such a way that he does not mention a particular issue yet his speech covers all the pertinent issues. Likewise, sometimes he mentions a particular person or incident but his address is all embracing and universal in nature.
Same is the case with the revelation of the Holy Qur’an as can be discerned from the following verse:
“If you ask about them during the time the Qur’an is being revealed these will be shown to you.” (Surah Al-Ma’idah:101)
This verse testifies to the fact that the Holy Qur’an, during the course of its revelation, would answer queries that arose in the minds of its addressees without disturbing the flow of the discourse.
So when a surah would be completed while meeting the objectives of the discourse it did not lack any aspect of the clarification of the matter. Nor did it bear anything in excess.
Sometimes this need would not be fully met and another surah would be revealed to clarify the issue. The ‘occasion of revelation’ would still be the same but the surah would be couched in a new style to avoid monotony and tiresomeness in the discourse. That is why the surahs revealed in the beginning commonly dealt with subjects like resurrection, monotheism, belief in the Messengers of Allah among others. In all the surahs which deal with similar topics different style was adopted. Sometimes it was felt that a particular thing in a surah required further explanation and an explanatory verse would be revealed and placed beside the verses to be clarified. This was in accordance with the promise Allah made in Surah Al-Qiyamah:
“We shall Ourself explain it.” (Surah Al-Qiyamah: 19)
In such cases, the entire discourse would follow the context of the surah rather than its period of revelation. Usually such verses would be followed by an assertion that the part under question was a later insertion revealed in order to make something clear.
Verses like the following one would be placed at the end of the clarifying directive:
“In this manner Allah explains His verses to make people understand so that they may be fearful.” (Surah Al-Baqarah: 187)
If we want to have a clear understanding of a certain part of the Holy Qur’an, we should not let go of the context of the verses lest we become like a wanderer in a desert who gets to a crossway in the dark of night not knowing where to proceed. Thus the occasion of revelation of a surah should be determined from the text of the surah.
Only those narratives should be considered in this regard as are in harmony with the context of the surah rather than those which disrupt its coherence.
Therefore, the most well-grounded view is that the occasion of revelation is determined with the help of the context. One should cling to it fast. When a general decree is revealed on a certain occasion this (occasion and condition) alludes to the reason and wisdom behind that decree. For instance, the Holy Qur’an mentions both monogamy and polygamy [as allowable]. If we consider the shan-i nuzul of the relevant verses in the light of the context, it becomes clear that polygamy can be adopted when just dealing of the orphans requires of it whereas the practice of keeping one wife is followed for it protects just dealing of the wife. Justice with the weak underlies both directives.
Circumstances of a person determine which of the two allowable practices is applicable in a particular situation. Similar is the case of pledging some item while taking collateral loan.
To take some precious item from a brother in this way reflects obvious meanness on the part of the lender. Still however, the Almighty allowed us to resort to this practice when left with no other alternative.
The Holy Qur’an however clearly commands us to return the pledged items immediately after the need is fulfilled.
 Suyuti, al-Itqan fi ‘Ulum al-Qur’an, vol. 1, 127.
 Razi, Tafsir al-Kabir, vol. 13, 2-3.
 Sometimes a man feels that he needs to marry more than one woman considering welfare of the orphans or to fulfill any other pressing social or moral responsibility. (Isahi)
 This has been briefly discussed in our commentary on Qur’an Surah Al-Baqarah: 283. (Farahi)
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