Looking for content on a specific topic?
Islamic origins | The Qu'ran | Muslim practice | Muslim-Christian Dialogue | We humans Home

The Chronology of the Qur’an

Posted May 7, 2016 by Mark Anderson 2 comments

The Chronology of the Qur’an

Posted May 7, 2016 by Mark Anderson 2 comments

According to Muslim tradition, the recitations comprising the Qur’an were compiled in book form only after Muhammad’s death. Western scholars[1] wish the compilers had ordered the recitations chronologically, but they did not.[2] 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.[3] 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,[4] 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.”[5] 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”

Early Meccan:           

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

Middle Meccan:        

54, 37, 71, 76, 44, 50, 20, 26, 15, 19, 38, 36, 43, 72, 67, 23, 21, 25, 17, 27, 18

Late Meccan:             

32, 41, 45, 16, 30, 11, 14, 12, 40, 28, 39, 29, 31, 42, 10, 34, 35, 7, 46, 6, 13

Medinan:

2, 98, 64, 62, 8, 47, 3, 61, 57, 4, 65, 59, 33, 63, 24, 58, 22, 48, 66, 60, 110, 49, 9, 5 [6]

_______________________

*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.

[1] I use “Western” here to refer to their cultural heritage, as opposed to their geographic location.

[2] 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.

[3] Richard Bell, Qur’an. English: The Qur’ān, translated, with a critical re-arrangement of the Surahs (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1937-39).

[4] 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).

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

2 Comments

  1. In part of your article, you wrote, “For example, Western chronologies take a sura’s style and contents into consideration, something Muslim chronologies do not do.” The assertion that Islamic scholarship does not recognize or consider stylistic features is inaccurate; in fact even the earliest Muslims – the Companions of the Prophet – used matters of content and style to help determine whether a surah was Makki or Madani. A quick look into the well-known handbooks of the Qur’anic sciences (such as al-Itqan of al-Suyooti or al-Burhan of al-Zarkashi) would show this.

    I noticed that all of the sources that you used are in English so I am not sure if you are able to access the bulk of Islamic scholarship that is in the Arabic language, but I have translated an abridgement of al-Suyooti’s chapter on the Makki and Madani surahs from al-Itqan and published it here (with both Arabic and English): https://tulayhah.wordpress.com/series/makki-and-madani-series/

    I would recommend looking at part 3 of the series, as it contains a very useful section on methods and guidelines for determining whether a surah was Makki or Madani, principally composed of quotes from early Muslim scholars. This section serves to debunk the idea that Muslim scholarship did not consider the contents or style of a surah in order to determine its chronology.

    Section 1 of the series may also be of great use to you because it explains that different scholars used different terminologies or had different definitions of what constituted “Makki” and “Madani”. This helps us to understand and account for some of the differing classifications, especially when this differing occurred among the earlier Muslims before a standard terminology or definition had become common. For example, consider surah al-Mutaffifeen (83) – it has been classified as (a) Makki, (b) Madani, (c) some of both or even (d) none of the above. Is this because of some inherent confusion or lack of knowledge? On the contrary, the differences in classification are simply a result of differences in terminology, as the explanations of these four different positions are all in agreement even if the terms used differ.

    Knowing these different terminologies can help us to understand some of the differences in the listing of the earliest Muslims (see part 5 of the series). See the poem at the bottom of the article for a good summary, and note how it concludes.

    There has really been a lot of scholarship and discussion on the topic of Makki and Madani classification since even the beginnings of Islam. You mentioned the genre of Asbab al-Nuzool, which is one place to look, (an especially thorough resource on this topic is [ المحرر في أسباب نزول القرآن من خلال الكتب التسعة دراسة الأسباب رواية ودراية]), but the genre of al-Naasikh w’al-Mansookh is more focused on identifying the Makki and Madani sections of the Qur’an and would be a more suitable resource for this material. Also, as already mentioned, the famous ‘Uloom al-Qur’an handbooks cover these topics in detail. The books of Qur’anic commentary also take this as a point of discussion (the tafsir of ibn ‘Aashoor pays special attention to the chronology of each surah in its surah introductions).

    In short, Muslim scholarship has paid great attention to these issues since the very beginning of Islam, drawing both on the wealth of transmitted knowledge and analogical reasoning at their disposal. The western sources that you cited seem to have either had limited access to Islamic scholarship in earlier times or have failed to really engage with this rich and detailed scholarship in more recent times even while Islamic scholarship has responded thoroughly to the claims of Nöldeke and his successors. If one really wants to understand Islam, engagement with the traditional Islamic scholarship is a must.

    -Khalil Klopfenstein

    1. Thank you very much, Khalil, for your thoughtful response to my article. I see that I overstated my point and have revised the article. The fact that traditional Muslim and Nöldeke’s chronologies are as similar as they are is clear evidence of what you say. I plan to include the standard Muslim chronology alongside Nöldeke’s, to allow readers to compare the two.

      It’s not that the early Muslim scholars didn’t take style and content into account. But for legal reasons, they consistently allowed the “occasions of the revelation” (asbāb al-nuzūl) to outweigh stylistic and contextual considerations. That is, when a legal issue intruded, Muslim scholars decided which qur’anic sura or verse was chronologically later, based on the occasions of the revelation. Convinced of the authenticity of the occasions, this made perfect sense to them. Western scholars, by contrast, view the occasions of the revelation as having been generated largely for legal reasons (i.e., to ensure that one verse and not another determined a given law) and, hence, as an unreliable guide to chronology. Hence, Western scholars give qur’anic style and content an emphasis beyond that given to it by Muslim scholars.

Leave a Reply

To keep Understanding Islam Today a safe place for everyone, please ensure that your comments show consideration and respect for others. We understand that you may feel strongly about the topic, and we welcome disagreement. But we will edit or remove comments that don’t show respect for others of different religious beliefs. Your email address is required but will not be published.

Discover the story R
We all come to the Qur’an with some chronological story sequence in mind, however tentative—or unacknowledged. Indeed, without a basic context, the Qur’an becomes a hopeless muddle. Discover the background story of the Qur’an.

Who was Muhamed?
Discover why Muhamed's story matters for understanding Islam.

Sign up for Understanding Islam updates

Sign up to get Understanding Islam updates straight to your inbox.
Updates are sent every two months featuring the latest stories and videos.

Send this to a friend