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A Guide to Reading the Qur’an

Anyone wishing to interpret the Noble Book “must seek its explanation first of all in the Quran itself,” wrote Jalāl al-Dīn as-Suyūtī, the fifteenth-century Egyptian scholar. In particular, knowing the circumstances of the prophetic revelation is “an art that offers several benefits,” and is essential to its full understanding.

Texts by Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūtī



A) The Circumstances of the Revelation



The revelation (literally, the “sending down”) of the Qur’an is divided into two parts: one part which was sent down without any preceding element; and another part which was sent down after an event or in response to a question. […] Some might think that the art [of knowing the circumstances of revelation] is of no use, as it conflates with history. But they would be wrong, because it is an interpretative art that offers several benefits, enabling the scholar:



- To know what form of wisdom underpins the pronouncement of a legal ruling;


- to specify the rule, for those who believe that the teaching [contained in a given verse] is specifically related to the cause [for which the verse was sent down];


- to recognize that while sometimes a verbal expression is used generically, concrete reference specifies it. So, if one knows the cause [of the revelation], one can restrict the expression to its proper context, and exclude other cases that are similar in form […].



This art also enables people to discover the true meaning of the verse and eliminate the difficulties. Al-Wāhidī said: “One cannot explain a Qur’anic verse without knowing its history (qissa) and explaining how it came down.” According to Ibn Daqīq al-ʿĪd, “Illustrating the cause of the revelation is a powerful way of understanding the meanings of the Quran.” And for Ibn Taymiyya, “Explaining the cause of revelation helps understand the verse, because knowledge of the cause leads to knowledge of the caused.”



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