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Encyclopaedia of Ismailism by Mumtaz Ali Tajddin

The word sabab (pl. asbab) means reason or cause, and nuzul means revealed. The term marifah asbab al-nuzul is the knowledge about the reason of the revelation, i.e., knowledge about the particular event and circumstances that are related to the revelation of particular passage from the Koran. The Koran revealed piece by piece in the period of 22 years, 5 months and 24 days. The Muslim exegetes maintained that pieces of it were revealed in response to, or as reflections of, certain situations in the life of the Prophet. The Koran says, "And no question do they bring to you, but We reveal to you truth and the best explanation thereof" (25:33).

It must be known that the Koranic revelation are divided into two categories: (1) Revelation which came without any causes or reasons with which God wanted to guide the mankind through His Prophet. This category of revelations encompasses the major part of the Koran. (2) Revelation to highlight or more reasons, causes or circumstances. It is on this aspect that the science of asbab al-nuzul evolves. The scholars searched through the hadiths for the asbab and this search became necessary for the tafhim (understanding) and tafsir (commentary).

Historically, it is not certain how the compilation of the asbab al-nuzul occurred. Bukhari, Wahidi, Suyuti and Ibn Hajar have tried and developed a methodology for the categorization of the asbab al-nuzul. Its knowledge is very important to those who attempt to write the commentary of the Koran. Sabuni writes that, "It provides knowledge concerning the name of a person in respect of whom the reference is made in the verse." Wahidi holds, "The commentary of a verse is not possible without knowing the story behind it, and the description about its revelation." Ibn Daqiq says, "The discussion of sabab al-nuzul is the authentic way of understanding the meaning of the Koran."

Few illustrations in this context will enable to understand the asbab al-nuzul: Once Ali bin Abu Talib had only four dhirams. He gave away one of the dhirams at night, one at day, one secretly and one publicly. The Prophet said to him, "What has made you do this?" He said, "I did it so that I would be worthy of God, Who has made a promise to me." The Prophet said to him, "Now that is yours." So God revealed the verse: "Those who gave their possessions at night and at day, secretly and in public, they will have their reward with their Lord" (2:274), vide Wahidi, Asbab, p. 86. Lexical glosses are easily incorporated in a story such that the wording of a Koranic verse is restated: They said, "Oh Prophet of God, is charity given secretly better or charity given openly?" So God revealed the verse: "If you expose (tubdu) charity, it is still good. If you hide (tukhfu) them and give them to the poor, that is better for you and will act as an atonement for you from your bad deed" (2:271) (Ibid. p. 82). Once Mu'adh bin Jabl and a group from the Ansar came to the Prophet and said, "Give us a ruling about wine and gambling for the two of them are destroyers of the intellect and plunderers of property." So God revealed the verse: "They ask you about intoxicating liquors and games of chance. Say, in both of them is great sin and some utility for men, and their sin is greater than their usefulness" (2:219) (Ibid. pp. 64-5).

Some events however mentioned in the Koran, which do not belong to the field of asbab al-nuzul. It does not show immediate reason for or the occasion of the revelation, such as "Have you not seen how your Lord has dealt with the People of the Elephant (ashab al-fil)?" (105:1). The companions of the elephant had come from Yamen to destroy the Kaba from Abyssinia and their leader was Abraha al-Ashram.

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