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Debating Islam ( 16 Jun 2021, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Importance of Classification for Gaining a Correct Understanding of the Quran

By Naseer Ahmed, New Age Islam

17 June 2021

The Prophetic Mission Of Muhammad (Pbuh) Went Through Several Phases And Each Phase Has Its Own Distinct Context Which Needs To Be Kept In Mind While Reading The Quran

Main Points:

1.    Traditionally, the classification is based only on whether the verse was revealed in Mecca or Medina.

2.    During the pre-hijra period Muslims are enjoined patience and forbearance.

3.    The Medinian had been inviting the Prophet to lead them and arbitrate among the warring tribes there.

4.    The only justifiable cause for making war is to fight against the oppressors to end oppression.

5.    The extremists who quote 9:5 to justify their actions are misguided.


The prophetic mission of Muhammad (pbuh) went through several phases and each phase has its own distinct context which needs to be kept in mind while reading the Quran so that its verses are correctly understood. Traditionally, the classification is based only on whether the verse was revealed in Mecca or Medina. More correctly, whether it is pre-Hijra or post-Hijra with all the post Hijra verses being treated as Medinian even though these may have been revealed after the Prophet returned to Mecca. This division is found to be helpful in gaining a better understanding of the Quran. A finer and more detailed classification will therefore serve the purpose even better. I can identify five distinct phases of the prophetic mission as follows:

Phase 1 Pre-Hijra

Phase 1 is the pre-Hijra period during which the Prophet commenced preaching the new religion and faced intense hostility from the leaders of the Meccans. It was a period when the Muslims were a tiny minority and persecuted in several ways until it became unsafe even for the Prophet and he was forced to migrate to Medina.

During this period, the Muslims are enjoined patience and forbearance. As the prophet was not a ruler, no legislative verses were revealed during this period except those covering moral or righteous behaviour in one’s personal life. Laws can be decreed and implemented only by the State or by one with political authority and the Prophet was without political authority during this stage. There was also no command to fight in this phase. Waging war is also a state subject and the prophet was without the political authority over a state.

During this phase, revelations cover the nature of prophetic missions which is to warn those who reject the Message and give glad tidings to those who repose faith and do good deeds. The stories of the prophets Noah, Hud, Saleh, Shuaib, Lut and Moses are oft repeated in this phase. What is common to each of these oft-repeated stories is that those who actively opposed the Prophets and tried to harm them and their followers and were intransigent rejecters of the Message were utterly destroyed by an act of God. Their destruction came about after the rejecters themselves invited the destruction by taunting the Prophet to bring about the destruction they were warned about. There are 86 Surahs of the Meccan period and the stories of one or more or all of the prophets are found in 26 of these Surahs in varying detail and brief references in 6 other Surahs. These are the only stories that are repeated in the Quran in varying detail in the 32 Surahs. These stories are not repeated in subsequent phases as the warning phase ended with the migration to Medina.

The Stories of Prophets like Jesus, Isaac, Ismail, Yaqoub, David, Solomon, Yusuf, Yunus, Elias (pbut) etc. whose prophetic missions did not end in the destruction of the rejecters are not repeated and these stories are found in the Medinian Surahs with the exception of the stories of the Prophets Yusuf, Yunus and Elias.  Surah Yusuf and Surah Yunus are both Meccan Surahs and the story of Elias is found in Surah 37 As-Saaffaat which is also Meccan. These are interesting exceptions.

Prophet Yusuf preached in Egypt before Moses but there were no believers among the Egyptians when Moses preached. We are told about Prophet Elias that many of his people also rejected his message. Unlike the stories of the people of the Prophets Noah, Lut, Hud, Salih and Shuaib, we do not find the rejecters becoming a threat to their Prophet or taunting him to bring about the punishment they were warned about. They were therefore peaceful rejecters and therefore no destructive calamity was inflicted on them. In the case of Moses, only those who followed Moses into the sea with the intention of killing him and his men were drowned but not the remaining Egyptians who had remained disbelievers. In the case of Prophet Yunus all his people accepted the Message.

The clear Message to the people of Mecca from these stories was:

1.       Be like the people of Yunus and accept the Message and receive the blessings

2.       If you behave like the people of Yusuf or Elias and reject peacefully, then, “Unto me be my religion and unto you yours”

3.       But if you behave like the people of Noah, Hud, Salih, Shuiab or Lut, then you will be destroyed utterly.

4.       If you behave like the people of Egypt behaved with Moses, then only those who try to kill the Muslims and are hostile to them will meet their death while the others will be spared.

These stories strengthened the morale of the Prophet and his followers and assured them that Allah’s plan was strong and that they would eventually prevail.

Phase 2 Legislative phase

When the persecution of the Muslims by the Meccans became unbearable requiring sending the weak among them to take refuge in neighbouring Abyssinia, and finally, after the death of the Prophet’s wife Hazrat Khadija and his Uncle Abu Talib, the Prophet was himself in considerable danger without the protection of these two powerful persons, the command was given to migrate to Medina where he was received joyously. The Medinian had been inviting the Prophet to lead them and arbitrate among the warring tribes there. The prophet became the political leader by consensus of all the tribes and communities in Medina and ruled as an administrator with a charter to which every leader was a signatory. The charter also covered joined defence of the city in case it was attacked.

Now that he had political authority to decree-laws and ensure compliance, the legislative phase began with the revelation of the legislative verses.

Phase 3 The War Phase

This phase runs concurrently with the legislative phase. Now that the Prophet had become a ruler with a city under his control and able to protect his people, permission was given to fight those who had expelled the Muslims from their homes for no other reason except their faith. All the verses that command fighting are religion/faith neutral and are universally applicable to all people irrespective of their faith. These can be used by non-Muslims against Muslims if the Muslims become oppressors.

The Principles of war that are derived by considering all the verses on fighting in this phase are clear and free from ambiguity. None of the verses make an exception based on the times and circumstances of the Prophetic mission of Muhammad (pbuh). The principles are therefore eternal and based as these are on Divine guidance and inspiration, are common to all the scriptures and may be taken as guidance by all the people whether they follow the religion of Islam or not. The clear, unambiguous principles are:

1. There is no compulsion in religion. Any form of coercion in religion or prevention from following one’s religion peacefully, constitutes persecution.

2. War is mandated to end any kind of oppression against any people. The oppression may be religious persecution or any other form of oppression. The faith of the oppressor and the oppressed is immaterial.

3. Only a ruler with a territory and people under his political authority can wage war. Civil war is not permissible. And only people in the territory ruled by such a ruler can participate in the war effort. People residing in territory under the control of the oppressor, must migrate from that territory first, if they wish to join the war effort against the oppressor.

4. The only justifiable cause for making war is to fight against the oppressors to end oppression. There is no other justifiable cause.

 Apart from the verses that are eternally valid, there are also a few transactional verses or verses that were applicable only in the given circumstances such as:

(5:51) O ye who believe! take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends and protectors: They are but friends and protectors to each other. And he amongst you that turns to them (for friendship) is of them. Verily Allah guideth not a people unjust.

Although the Jews and the Christians of Medina were signatories to the charter of Medina, they feared the rise of Islam and even colluded with the enemies of the Muslims. It was during the war phase, when treachery was feared based on actual incidents of treachery, that the Muslims are warned against befriending them. The verse quoted above is governed by the context of war when certain people although not openly with the enemy were colluding with them. It is with such people that a distance must be maintained.

Phase 4 The Judgment Phase

The first 29 verses of this Surah are among the last verses of the Surah to be revealed after the battles of Hunain and Tabuk and exactly a year before the Prophet (pbuh) performed his last hajj. He died a few months after performing hajj. These verses were revealed approximately 18 months after Mecca fell to the Muslims in a bloodless take-over with the Prophet’s army marching in unopposed. There was an expectation of a blood bath after Mecca fell, but this did not happen. The ranks of the Muslims swelled immediately after Mecca fell to the Muslims, which made them overconfident, and they suffered severe reverses in the battle of Hunain, but recovered to win eventually. Although many of the Meccans had accepted Islam during this period, there were a few, who remained polytheists. The judgment on the polytheists of Mecca was announced in these verses. Some were among those who had fought the Muslims, in violation of their treaties and indulged in various forms of religious persecution and there were others who had not violated their treaty in any manner.

The former category is referred to as the Kafaru or the Kafirin and the latter as merely “disbelievers” or la Yuminun. The punishment for the Kafirin is in verse 9:5 and their Kufr is described in 9:12, 13. The punishment for those who chose to remain disbelievers but were not among the Kafirin, was being debarred from entering Kabah (9:28) and required to pay Jizya 9:29. All the polytheists had the option to migrate to a neighbouring country during the four-month period of amnesty and save themselves from the consequences of the punishment in 9:5 or 9:29. The outcome was that not a single person was punished by either verse 9:5 or 9:29. They either chose to migrate or accepted Islam.

The only verse in the entire Quran that specifies the faith of the people (Mushrikin) to be fought against and killed is verse 9:5. This is because this is a judgment on a specific people who happened to be the Mushrikin. A judgment has to be specific about the identity of the people on whom the judgment has to be carried out. It cannot be generic.

The verses 9:1 to 9:29 are a judgment on a specific people for their specific crimes and have no general applicability. These verses can be used as case law for deciding a similar case but not in any other manner.

The extremists who quote 9:5 to justify their actions are misguided.

Phase 5 Return to Peace

The verses revealed during this phase are:

(5:5) This day are (all) things good and pure made lawful unto you. The food of the People of the Book is lawful unto you and yours is lawful unto them. (Lawful unto you in marriage) are (not only) chaste women who are believers, but chaste women among the People of the Book, revealed before your time,- when ye give them their due dowers, and desire chastity, not lewdness, nor secret intrigues if any one rejects faith, fruitless is his work, and in the Hereafter he will be in the ranks of those who have lost (all spiritual good).

You can now not only befriend the Jews and Christians but also break bread with them partaking in each other’s food and also marry among their women without converting them and by giving them full freedom to practise their religion. A similar permission for the Muslim women can be inferred if those religions grant a similar permission to their men to marry Muslim women without converting them and allowing them to practice their faith without hindrance.

(5:8) O ye who believe! stand out firmly for Allah, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety: and fear Allah. For Allah is well-acquainted with all that ye do.

All previous hatred and enmity is to be forgotten and perfect secular justice is to be rendered.

(49:13) O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).

(48) To thee We sent the Scripture in truth, confirming the scripture that came before it, and guarding it in safety: so judge between them by what Allah hath revealed, and follow not their vain desires, diverging from the Truth that hath come to thee. To each among you have we prescribed a law and an open way. If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to Allah; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which ye dispute;

Pluralism and diversity is by Divine design to make the people race against each other in all virtues. Without diversity and pluralism, there is no competition or motivation to excel.

The purpose of diversity is to “know each other,” or to learn from the other as opposed to despising the other for the difference. This Quranic verse gives a very profound insight about the nature of human societies and what makes them excel. Only those societies which appreciate and celebrate diversity excel. It is therefore not surprising that in the past Spain under Muslim rule where Christians, Jews and Muslim worked together collaboratively took the arts, sciences, architecture, music, astronomy and medicine to new heights.

And today, it is the US which has become great for the very same reasons. It welcomes people of all nationalities to come, work and settle there. It is a country of immigrants who have made the US a great nation.

Characteristics of a Society That Is Isolated.

The western society displays the typical characteristics of a mercantile society. There was a time when Europe was cut off from the rest of the world, had little external trade, and had become a 'self-sufficient' society (meaning zero external trade). This had the effect of plunging Europe into the dark ages with little individual freedoms, exploitation of child labour, miserable conditions for the working class, religious persecutions, witch hunting and inquisitions. During the same period, the Islamic empire was a mercantile society with trade with the rest of the world and showed all the virtues of such a society.


Prior to Charles Darwin, biology was a mass of unrelated facts about nature. Darwin tied them together in three principles of evolution: 1. Random genetic variation, 2. Struggle for existence and 3. Natural selection.  We do not need to know every detail today, and a mere sample is necessary to understand the universal principles and make sense of the world of biology. The bane of Islamic scholarship is that it still struggles as the biologists did prior to Darwin. For them, the Quran continues to be a huge collection of random verses without an understanding of the underlying structure and framework. For every question they deal with overload of information much of which is irrelevant to the question and therefore end up tying themselves in knots.

The Phase 1 verses teach appropriate behaviour when living as a dispersed, politically weak, minority. Since living as a minority is, and will remain the condition of Muslims in several countries, these verses are eternally valid. Phase 1, phase 2 and phase 5 verses are all eternally valid. Phase 3 or the war verses become operative only when a State is engaged in a just war to bring any form of oppression to an end. Phase 4 or the judgment phase verses serve only as case law for dealing with a similar situation after the enemy has been vanquished. It is not guidance on waging war at all. It should be clear now why verse 5:5 which permits marriage alliances with the Jews and Christians does not contradict verse 5:51 of the war phase which prohibits even befriending them.


A frequent contributor to, Naseer Ahmed is an Engineering graduate from IIT Kanpur and is an independent IT consultant after having served in both the Public and Private sector in responsible positions for over three decades. He has spent years studying Quran in-depth and made seminal contributions to its interpretation.


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