According to Muslim tradition, the recitations comprising the Qur’an were compiled in book form only after Muhammad’s death. Western scholars wish the compilers had ordered the recitations chronologically, but they did not. We also wish the Qur’an were rich in details identifying the situations its recitations addressed, so we might more accurately determine the chronological order of its suras, or chapters, to better understand them. But they very rarely do more than allude to those situations.
Muslim traditionists assigned some passages to events in Muhammad’s prophetic career—the “occasions of the revelation” (asbab al-nazul). But they disagreed over the occasions of certain passages, and many of the events cited are minor and have no certain date. Muslim scholars also listed the suras in chronological order, divided into two periods, Meccan (610-22 CE) and Medinan (622-32). But four points are noteworthy in this respect.
First, the scholars’ primary motivation in doing this appears to have been legal, to determine which command on a given topic came given last, since they gave the final command the power to abrogate earlier ones. Thus, legal concerns played a major role in determining the suras’ order. Second, the scholars disagreed over the placement of 23 out of the Qur’an’s 114 suras, as well as on which verses in the Meccan and the Medinan suras were out-of-period insertions. Third, there are also discrepancies between duplicate lists from the same scholar, as recorded by other scholars.
Last, while most Muslims today accept a slightly modified version of the order given by Ibn cAbbas (d. 688), that has more to do with the power of the printing press, than the power of any arguments for his order’s reliability. For the editors of the world’s most widely sold Qur’an, the Egyptian standard edition of 1924, put Ibn cAbbas’s chronological placement (slightly modified) in each sura’s heading.
Hence, though most Western scholars began with the traditional Muslim chronology, they questioned its accuracy and modified it in various ways.
For example, Western scholars established chronology based on a sura’s style and contents. But while Muslim scholars allowed legal considerations to trump a sura’s style and contents wherever legal issues were involved, Western scholars did not. Like the early Muslim scholars and Gustav Weil (d. 1889), Theodore Nöldeke (d. 1930) took the law-oriented suras to be Medinan. Nöldeke took the short suras characterized by exalted poetry to be early, and the longer, more prosaic ones to be late. Nöldeke also counted the suras that included oaths and those referring to al-Rahman, the Merciful, as Meccan. Nöldeke’s chronology further divided the Meccan suras into three periods, showing a progression in the recitations from sublime enthusiasm to calm. Nöldeke’s chronology was eventually revised by Friedrich Schwally (d. 1919). Although the Nöldeke-Schwally chronology allows for some out-of-period passages, it generally takes the sura to be a unit.
By contrast, some Western chronologies—Richard Bell’s, for example, view the Qur’an’s longer suras as composites of unrelated shorter passages, given at different times. As a result, Bell’s chronology jumps from one passage to another, across the various suras. Recent studies, however, have argued on the basis of stylistic features for each sura’s unity, suggesting that it is from one period of time, whether or not it was originally delivered in one sitting.
While most Western scholars rely on the Nöldeke-Schwally chronology, others argue that there are too many gaps in our knowledge for us to have a precise chronology. Both are right.
No chronology is more than an educated guess, especially with respect to the order of either the Meccan or the Medinan suras. Two things, however, tell us not to dismiss questions concerning chronology:
- We all come to the Qur’an with some chronological sequence in mind, however tentative—or unacknowledged. Indeed, without a rudimentary chronology, the Qur’an becomes a hopeless muddle.
- Given the gaps in our knowledge, we all work with an approximate Qur’an sequence. Nevertheless, not all approximations are equal: a well thought out approximation is far better than a poorly thought out one.
The Nöldeke-Schwally chronology can doubtless be improved upon. Nevertheless, it has established itself among Western scholars as “a rule of thumb for the approximate order of the sūras in their chronological sequence.” And interpreting the Qur’an in accord with this chronology is far more productive than simply decrying the many lamentable gaps in our knowledge. Because, again, we all inevitably bring some chronological sequence to the Qur’an.
Nöldeke-Schwally “Chronology of the Revelations”
96, 74, 111, 106, 108, 104, 107, 102, 105, 92, 90, 94, 93, 97, 86, 91, 80, 68, 87, 95, 103, 85, 73, 101, 99, 82, 81, 53, 84, 100, 79, 77, 78, 88, 89, 75, 83, 69, 51, 52, 56, 70, 55, 112, 109, 113, 114, 1
54, 37, 71, 76, 44, 50, 20, 26, 15, 19, 38, 36, 43, 72, 67, 23, 21, 25, 17, 27, 18
32, 41, 45, 16, 30, 11, 14, 12, 40, 28, 39, 29, 31, 42, 10, 34, 35, 7, 46, 6, 13
2, 98, 64, 62, 8, 47, 3, 61, 57, 4, 65, 59, 33, 63, 24, 58, 22, 48, 66, 60, 110, 49, 9, 5 
*Peace Be Upon His Descendants. Out of regard for my Muslim readers, I follow each mention of their prophet’s name with this prayer for peace.
 I use “Western” here to refer to their cultural heritage, as opposed to their geographic location.
 They most likely ordered it as they did for the maximum effect of its liturgical recitation. Neal Robinson, Discovering the Qur’an: A Contemporary Approach to a Veiled Text (London: SCM Press, 1996), 11-13.
 Richard Bell, Qur’an. English: The Qur’ān, translated, with a critical re-arrangement of the Surahs (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1937-39).
 For example, Michel Cuypers, The Banquet: A Reading of the Fifth Sura of the Qur’an (Miami: Convivium Press, 2009); and Raymond Farrin, Structure and Qur’anic Interpretation: A Study of Symmetry and Coherence in Islam’s Holy Text (Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 2014).
 Gerhard Bowering, “Chronology and the Qur’ān,” s.v. Encyclopaedia of the Qur’ān, Jane Dammen McAuliffe et al ed. (Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2001-06). For more on the chronology of the Qur’an, see Bowering’s article, plus Neal Robinson, Discovering the Qurʼan: A contemporary approach to a veiled text (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2003), 60-96; and W. Mongomery Watt, Bell’s Introduction to the Qur’ān (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1970), 108-20.
 According to the Nöldeke-Schwally chronology, the following suras have out-of-period verses: 2, 5, 6, 7, 9, 16, 22, 29, 31, 51, 53, 55, 56, 73, 74, 75, 84, 103. For the specific verses involved, see Robinson, Discovering the Qur’an, 78.