Ulum al Qur'an
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Wahidi (d. 468/1075), one of the best classical scholars in this field wrote: 'The knowledge about Tafsir of the ayat is not possible without occupying oneself with their stories and explanation of (the reasons) for their revelation.' [Asbab al-nuzul, by al-Wahidi al-Nisaburi. Cairo, 1968, p 4]
Knowledge about the asbab al-nuzul helps one to understand the circumstances in which a particular revelation occurred, which sheds light on its implications and gives guidance to the explanation (tafsir) and application of the aya in question for other situations.
In particular, knowledge about the asbab al-nuzul helps one to understand:
The direct and immediate meaning and implication of an aya, as it can be seen within its original context.
The imminent reason underlying a legal ruling.
The original intent of the aya.
Whether the meaning of an aya is specific or of general application, and if so, under which circumstances it is to be applied.
The historical situation at the time of the Prophet and the development of the early Muslim community.
'To God belong the East and the West: whithersoever ye turn, there is the presence of God, for God is all-pervading, all-knowing' (2:115).
Without knowing the sabab (reason), one might easily conclude that this revelation permits the Muslim to face any direction when performing prayer, while it is well known that to face qibla is one of the conditions without which prayer becomes invalid. The circumstances in which this revelation occurred explains its implications:
According to Wahidi [op. cit. pp.
20-21] a group of Muslims travelled on a dark night and
they did not know where the qibla was, so they later realised that they had prayed in the
wrong direction. They asked the Prophet about it and he kept silent until the above verse
was revealed. ' [Based on a report from
Jabir b. 'Abdullah. Wahidi also informs us about some other situations when the aya
- That one may pray voluntary prayer on one's riding camel, in whichever direction it may turn (based on Ibn 'Umar).
- That the Companions of the Prophet asked why they were ordered to pray for the dead Negus of Abyssinia, who had prayed towards a different qibla than their own (based on Ibn 'Abbas and 'Ata').
- That the Jews asked, why the qibla of the Muslims had been changed from bait al-maqdis (based on Ibn Abi Talha).
See Wahidi, op.cit., p.21. All this supports the view (to which in particular K. Murad drew my attention) of Suyuti based on Zarkashi (Suyuti, Lubab an nuzul, Tunis, 1981, p.7.) that when the suhaba of the Prophet spoke about an aya of the Qur'an, saying 'It was revealed concerning ...'(nazalat fi kadha) they do not restrict themselves to narrating a single 'cause' for the revelation of an aya but rather refer to the 'situations' to which particular verses where found applicable during the lifetime of the Prophet while the occasion of the first revelation of the aya may have been much earlier. In this lie great avenues for understanding and tafsir of the Qur'anic message.] Taking into account this reason for the revelation one cannot come to the wrong conclusion that it is unimportant where to turn in prayer. The scholars say however that this verse excuses the mistake of those who un-willingly and under adverse circumstances fail to observe the correct qibla.