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The Qur’an as a Historical Document

Apart from its liturgical dimension the Holy Qur’an is one the primary sources for the Islamic belief system and as Sharaiz Chaudhry explains it is also an important source of history to understand the developments of the first Muslim community

The Qur’an is an indispensable historical source that sheds light on the evolving dynamics of the Prophet’s life. The Qur’an provides more information than simply referring to particular events. By dividing the Qur’an into its Makkan and Medinan revelations, which constitute the first thirteen and final ten years of the Prophet’s life respectively, it is possible to see how Islam developed as a message from its inception on Jabal an-Nour (the Mountain of Light) to the Prophet’s death. A historical analysis of the Qur’an reflects the changing dynamics of this period and provides an understanding of the Prophet’s life and how he interacted with his followers and those who opposed him.

The Makkan Period

The content and language used in the Qur’an shows that the Islamic movement was in its initial phase during the Makkan period. Following the first revelation the Prophet Muhammad(s) was told to preach to the Quraish. In some senses the revelation at this preliminary stage was not new, but rather followed the message brought down by previous prophets. They focused on traditional tenets of monotheism, introducing them to a new audience – the Arabs. The most important of these ideas was the belief in God and His unity. While the Makkans had a vague understanding of God, believing that He was the ‘High God’ and Creator, they did not see this as something that affected their lives or actions. The Qur’an, in chapter al-‘Alaq, (The Clot of Blood) emphasises the blessings that God had bestowed upon man by creating and guiding him from the outset. Thus, it provided a more precise understanding of God, showing that He was, first and foremost, ar-Rahman (The Compassionate). In return for His generosity, people are ordered to worship Him. Belief in a god was no longer considered inconsequential and required purification. The above two points are condensed into the chapter Quraish, which outlines God’s blessings on the tribe and in return tells them to worship Him. Finally, the Qur’an introduced the concept of accountability on the Day of Judgement, where everyone would be tried according to his or her actions. This was completely alien to the Arabs, who had a vivid awareness of mortality in their uncompromising environment. Thus, revelations in the Makkan period primarily focused on introducing new concepts to the Arabs and explaining the theological foundations of Islam.

…the Qur’an introduced the concept of accountability on the Day of Judgement, where everyone would be tried according to his or her actions. This was completely alien to the Arabs, who had a vivid awareness of mortality in their uncompromising environment.

The language used in these chapters was passionate, aiming to shock and wake the people from their spiritual slumber. Furthermore, it often addressed the people in general, reflecting the broad audience it targeted. This suggests that the Qur’an was being used as a tool to attract people’s attention and indeed, there are many examples of where it succeeded in doing this. The Qur’an was particularly effective in attracting the downtrodden and the youth. They found it more difficult to ignore the warnings and hopes so eloquently spoken about in the revelation to Muhammad that they readily converted. The language and nature of revelation in the Makkan period therefore reflects the position of Islam at this preliminary stage, and sought to introduce the key ideas in a way that would draw people towards it.

Opposition in Makkah

One of the Qur’an’s most fascinating elements is that rather than providing a monologue of information, it establishes a dialogue with its opponents. It therefore provides some valuable historical insight into the nature of the opposition that the Prophet Muhammad(s) faced during his time in Makkah. One element of this was the personal attacks against the Prophet’s self. On several occasions, revelation reassures Muhammad(s) that these accusations are baseless. Apart from such personal insults, the Qur’an shows that the Quraish intellectually opposed the message. The Last Day in particular was a point of contention. While the idolaters would reject the possibility and mock Muhammad(s) to hasten it, the Qur’an would tell them that it was inevitable. Additionally, they would ask the Prophet to perform miracles to prove his prophecy, to which the Qur’an would respond by pointing to the already present miracles, such as Creation. Parts of chapters al-Isra and al-Kahf came in the context of such intellectual challenges, as they were revealed to answer questions that the Quraish received from the Jews to test Muhammad. The Qur’an’s willingness to engage the disbelievers provides useful historical information that offers an insight into the nature of debate during this period. The Qur’an also reflects the changing mood within Makkah and the growing oppression and hostility towards the Muslims. One aspect of this is its strong response to the disbelievers, warning them of the punishment they will face for their intransigence. As the Makkan period continued, more parallels were drawn between the contemporary situation and that of previous prophets. This acted as a warning for the oppressors, while encouraging the Muslims to practise patience. The language used, in particular by switching the verb tenses (al-iltifaat), created a direct link between these historical events and the contemporary situation. The Qur’an therefore exposes the devastating effects that the revelation had on the status quo. It reflects the changing relationship between the Muslims and idolaters in Makkah as the former began to shake the foundations on which Arab society was built.

The Medinan Period

Following the hijra, the dynamics of the Islamic movement fundamentally changed and this was reflected in the Qur’an. The Muslims were now a majority and the Prophet was the political as well as spiritual leader. Revelation took a more rational tone, focusing on the political situation and challenges facing the community. One key change in this regard was that revelation sometimes referred to specific events, unlike in Makkah. The language was far more specific, focusing on particular legislative issues and addressing the believers and People of the Book rather than humanity as a whole. Events were consequently used to establish general codes of conduct, which would form the legal foundations of Medina. For example, the Quranic verses (24:11-20) were revealed, calling on those who make accusations to bring four witnesses and outlining the punishment for falsifying. Medinan chapters would outline new religious practices, such as Friday prayers, and social reforms on topics such as inheritance, marriage and divorce.

The Qur’an was particularly effective in attracting the downtrodden and the youth. They found it more diffiult to ignore the warnings and hopes so eloquently spoken about in the revelation to Muhammad that they readily converted.

volvement in politics meant that Muhammad(s) had to provide regulations through which society could be organised. Its basis in revelation suggests that it was being ordered according to God’s plan. Therefore, while maintaining the spiritual foundations of Islam from the Makkan period, the nature of revelation adapted to new challenges that the community faced upon migrating to Medina and evolved to reflect these changes.

Opposition in Medina

As the Muslims established their own society, the dynamics of their relationship with non-Muslims naturally changed. With regards to the polytheists of Makkah, the old message of patience was superseded by the command for Muslims to fight and defend themselves against aggression. This reflects the changing environment and fortunes of the Muslim community. As they strengthened, the Qur’an adapted to the balance of power by allowing the Muslims to assert their authority against their previous oppressors. As Islam gradually spread its influence across Arabia, the Qur’an became more forceful against the idolaters, eventually even barring them from Makkah – Surah at-Tawba (The Repentance). Thus, from the Makkan to Medinan period and the subsequent victory of Islam, the relationship between the Muslims and disbelievers (primarily of Makkah) fundamentally changed, and this was reflected in the Qur’an, which evolved to cater for these shifts. The polytheists however, were not the only group that the new Muslim community had to face once in Medina. The Quranic opinion on the Jews for example, followed the fluctuating relationship between the Muslims and Jews of Yathrib. The Qur’an at first portrays the People of the Book as part of the same tradition, attempting to strengthen links with them in an attempt to win converts to Islam. However, the Jews’ continued opposition to Muhammad(s) triggered a change in their portrayal in the Qur’an. The changing of the qibla from Jerusalem to Makkah narrated in the Qur’an, for example, came in response to the Jews mocking the Prophet for not having his own direction of prayer. It was thus a symbolic turning away from the Jews, breaking association with them. The subsequent banishment of all the Jews from Medina, which was endorsed by the Qur’an, reflects the further deterioration of this relationship. Thus, like their relationship with the polytheists, the Muslims’ affiliation with the Jews also evolved and the Qur’an provides insight into the trajectory of this change. The Qur’an therefore provides valuable historical insight into the dynamics and balance of power in Medina, and Arabia as a whole.

Historical document

The Qur’an is a useful historical document that helps the reader to understand the life of the Prophet Muhammad(s) and how his message and stance towards others developed as the surrounding environment changed. The content of revelation shifted from general theological beliefs in Makkah, aimed at all people, to more specific and legislative injunctions, aimed at the believers and communities in Medina. The usefulness of the Qur’an as a historical document however, is best illustrated by inspecting the changing depiction of non-Muslim communities throughout the 23 years in which it was revealed. In this sense, the Qur’an reflects the historical evolution of the Muslim community from an oppressed minority in Makkah to the dominant force in Arabia. Therefore, in addition to being a spiritual guide, the Qur’an is a useful document that reflects the evolving historical context in which it was revealed.

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