Convenient Revelations

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According to Islamic tradition, the Quran was revealed gradually to the prophet Muhammad over the 23 years of his prophethood, generally in the form of divine guidance for the circumstances Muhammad found himself in at any given time. Thus, in addition to containing commandments and laws aimed at the entire Muslim population, the Quran also contains content intended only for Muhammad's employment. Often revelation of the latter sort was related to the extremely personal circumstances of the prophet, including exclusive exemptions for Muhammad from Islamic law, admonitions of his wives and guests, and intimate family affairs. In addition to revelations passed to Muhammad in the form of the Quran, according to the hadith literature, Muhammad would sometimes assert he had received a message from God which was not intended as part of the Quran but which was nonetheless binding in all the same ways. These non-Quranic revelations form a genre of the hadith known as the hadith qudsi. Traditional Islamic scholars do not consider these hadith qudsi to be any more important than regular hadiths, although the reasoning behind this absence of distinction has not been clarified by them or agreed upon in common.

Historical interpretations of convenient revelations

There are three different historical interpretations of this highly-intimate variety of revelational circumstance (Asbab al-Nuzul), particular where it occurs in the Quran.


According to traditional Islamic scholars and perhaps the Quran itself, while these "convenient revelations" may appear superficially to be of no use to individuals other than Muhammad, they are in fact spiritually, legally, or theologically instructive in some manner and are thus God is entirely justified to include them in the Quran.


According to critics, this variety of revelation scarcely merits inclusion in a eternal document of divine importance that conceives of itself as "guidance for all of mankind". In this vein, critics often cite the hadith in Sahih Bukhari according to which Aisha, Muhammad's favorite wife, once said to him after such revelation, "I feel that your Lord hastens in fulfilling your wishes and desires."[1] To critics, these highly-personal and suspiciously convenient revelations are evidence that Muhammad simply employed God's voice to get what he wanted, such as, for instance, an exemption from the four-wife limit imposed by Islamic law as well as a last-minute clarification that marrying the ex-wife of one's adopted son was permissible.


According to most historians, the highly convenient revelational circumstance attributed to certain Quranic verses are no more, or even far less reliable as historical documentation than the typical variety of revelational circumstance used to explain the meaning of any other verse in the Quran. To these historians, the vast majority of the hadith corpus was generated many decades after Muhammad's death in order to justify competing legal preferences and in order to explain otherwise context-bereft and incomprehensible passages in the Quran, of which there are many (this end being not entirely distinct from the former). Some other historians, however, prefer to view the the convenient revelational circumstances reported in the hadith as being exceptionally reliable due to their apparently condemnatory nature. The reasoning with these historians is that anecdotes which appear to cast Muhammad in an often negative light could not have been made up by devout Muslims, and thus may actually have historical basis. These two interpretations advanced by historians are not mutually exclusive and are often considered in tandem, with the explanations of some passaged being later inventions and some being historically plausible.

Convenient revelations

Exemption from limit on wives

Allah revealed to Muhammad that Muslim men are permitted to marry up to four women.

"And if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphan-girls, then marry (other) women of your choice, two or three, or four but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one or (the captives and the slaves) that your right hands possess."

Muhammad was granted an exception in this respect to be allowed to marry an unlimited number of wives:

"O Prophet (Muhammad)! Verily, We have made lawful to you your wives, to whom you have paid their Mahr (bridal money given by the husband to his wife at the time of marriage), and those (captives or slaves) whom your right hand possesses -- whom God has given to you, and the daughters of your 'Amm (paternal uncles) and the daughters of your 'Ammah (paternal aunts) and the daughters of your Khâl (maternal uncles) and the daughters of your Khâlah (maternal aunts) who migrated (from Makkah) with you, and a believing woman if she offers herself to the Prophet, and the Prophet wishes to marry her; a privilege for you only, not for the (rest of) the believers."

One-wife limit for son-in-law

Although Allah allowed men to marry up to four wives, Muhammad allowed only one wife for his son-in-law Ali who was married to Muhammad's daughter Fatima. When Ali desired to take a second wife, Muhammad insisted he first divorce Fatima before taking a new wife.

Narrated Al-Miswar bin Makhrama:
I heard Allah's Apostle who was on the pulpit, saying, "Banu Hisham bin Al-Mughira have requested me to allow them to marry their daughter to Ali bin Abu Talib, but I don't give permission, and will not give permission unless 'Ali bin Abi Talib divorces my daughter in order to marry their daughter, because Fatima is a part of my body, and I hate what she hates to see, and what hurts her, hurts me."

Exemption from equal treatment of wives

In Quran 4:3 is an injunction to treat all wives equally, with the requirement that: "if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one...".

Muhammad initially gave each of his multiple wives equal attention and time with him, visiting a different wife each night. With time, however, he developed favorite wives who garnered more attention and affection than others. This created a great deal of tension among the ladies, and jealousy, and often rage, ensued. Muhammad then received a revelation absolving him from the earlier admonition to treat all wives as equals and deal with them justly, and allowed him to select his favorite wives according to his desires:

"You (O Muhammad) can postpone (the turn of) whom you will of them (your wives), and you may receive whom you will. And whomsoever you desire of those whom you have set aside (her turn temporarily), it is no sin on you (to receive her again), that is better; that they may be comforted and not grieved, and may all be pleased with what you give them. God knows what is in your hearts. And God is Ever All-Knowing, Most Forbearing."

Aisha, the favorite wife of Muhammad, was expressly suspicious about this sort of revelation. After Muhammad received the verse above, Aisha commented, "I feel that your Lord hastens in fulfilling your wishes and desires."[2]

Permission to wed adopted son's ex-wife

Zaynab was initially married to Zaid ibn Haritha, Muhammad's adopted son. One day Muhammad paid a visit to Zaid's house to consult with him about a matter, but he was not home. Not expecting Muhammad to be at the door, Zaynab answered the door instead, dressed in a revealing garment. At this moment, Muhammad developed a desire for her. When Zaid learned of his father's infatuation, he divorced Zaynab so Muhammad could marry her. This turned into a scandal among the Arabs, who equated Muhammad's actions with incest. Soon thereafter, Muhammad received the following revelation:

And (remember) when you said to him (Zaid bin Hârithah; the freed-slave of the Prophet ) on whom God has bestowed Grace (by guiding him to Islâm) and you (O Muhammad too) have done favour (by manumitting him) "Keep your wife to yourself, and fear God." But you did hide in yourself (i.e. what God has already made known to you that He will give her to you in marriage) that which God will make manifest, you did fear the people (i.e., Muhammad married the divorced wife of his manumitted slave) whereas God had a better right that you should fear Him. So when Zaid had accomplished his desire from her (i.e. divorced her), We gave her to you in marriage, so that (in future) there may be no difficulty to the believers in respect of (the marriage of) the wives of their adopted sons when the latter have no desire to keep them (i.e. they have divorced them). And God's Command must be fulfilled.

Permission to have relations with concubine despite promising otherwise

Muhammad used to take turns among his wives, visiting a different one each night. One night during the time allotted for Hafsa, she had to take care of an urgent need involving another family member and so was not at home. Muhammad instead had intimate relations with Mary, a Coptic slave that had been given to him. Muhammad was not married to Mary the Copt.

It was narrated from Anas, that the Messenger of Allah had a female slave with whom he had intercourse, but 'Aishah and Hafsah would not leave him alone until he said that she was forbidden for him. Then Allah, the Mighty and Sublime, revealed: "O Prophet! Why do you forbid (for yourself) that which Allah has allowed to you." until the end of the Verse.
Grade: Sahih (Darussalam)

When Hafsah found this out and questioned him, Muhammad promised (on oath) not to touch Mary again if Hafsah would keep the occurrence a secret, and promised that Umar (Umar's dad) and Abu Bakr (Aisha's dad) would be his successors. Hafsah, however, did not keep quiet and told Aysha about this event. As a result Muhammad had no interactions with any of his wives for a full month during which he lived with Mary alone.[3] In response, Aisha and Hafsa conspired with the rest of the prophet's wives against Muhammad and isolated him from physical relations.

Regarding his actions with Mary, Muhammad received the following revelation:

"O Prophet! Why do you ban (for yourself) that which God has made lawful to you.."

Allah then proceeded to chastise Aisha and Hafsa for getting upset with Muhammad for having sex with Mary:

And (remember) when the Prophet disclosed a matter in confidence to one of his wives (Hafsah), so when she told it (to another i.e. 'Aishah), and God made it known to him, he informed part thereof and left a part. Then when he told her (Hafsah) thereof, she said: "Who told you this?" He said: "The All-Knower, the All-Aware (God) has told me". If you two (wives of the Prophet , namely 'Aishah and Hafsah) turn in repentance to God, (it will be better for you), your hearts are indeed so inclined (to oppose what the Prophet likes), but if you help one another against him (Muhammad), then verily, God is his Maula (Lord, or Master, or Protector, etc.), and Jibrael (Gabriel), and the righteous among the believers, and furthermore, the angels are his helpers. It may be if he divorced you (all) that his Lord will give him instead of you, wives better than you, Muslims (who submit to God), believers, obedient to God, turning to God in repentance, worshipping God sincerely, fasting or emigrants (for God's sake), previously married and virgins."

Excusing the Satanic Verses

Pre-Islamic Mecca was a center of paganism and polytheism. It is said 360 idols surrounded the Ka'aba, with additional idols stored inside, and that these were worshipped as gods. Thus, it is storied in the hadith that when Muhammad first began preaching monotheism and denouncing other gods, he met resistance and hostility.

In an what was apparently an attempt to appease the Meccans, buy some time and bring relief to his followers from hostility, Muhammad one night had a revelation found in Surah 53:19-22 which originally read, "Have you thought of al-Lat and al-Uzza and Manat the third, the other?; these are the exalted Gharaniq whose intercession is approved." [4] Al-Lat, al-Uzza and Manat were three female deities, known as daughters of Allah, who were considered especially important by Arabs in the region. By this revelation Muhammad acknowledged these deities as extant, worthy of worship, and as entities whose intercession in heaven was to be sought. Acknowledging these deities had the effect of rendering the Arabs accommodating towards Muhammad, who reportedly fell into prostration in approval upon hearing the acceptance of these deities. Later, the angel Gabriel chastised Muhammad for uttering these verses and informed him that Satan, not Allah, had put these words in Muhammad's mouth. Thus, these verses became known as the Satanic Verses (al-Ayaat al-Shaytaniyyah). Later, Islamic theologians would have tremendous difficulty reconciling this grievous error, which amounted to shirk (polytheism), with Muhammad's status as the infallible and perfect man (uswa hasana).

Muhammad then received another revelation absolving him of responsibility for the verse:

"Never did We send an apostle or a prophet before thee, but, when he framed a desire, Satan threw some (vanity) into his desire: but God will cancel anything (vain) that Satan throws in, and God will confirm (and establish) His Signs: for God is full of Knowledge and Wisdom."

Christian and Jewish polemicists would later mount criticism of Islam on the basis of these story, citing the fact that no such instance of prophets succumbing to Satan's trickery and pronouncing false revelations was found in either the Bible or in Jewish literature. Indeed, Christian and Jewish scripture (scriptures recognized by the Qur'an as containing the words of other prophets) were quoted by these polemicists to the contrary:

'But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.

Permission to violate sacred months with military activity

Four months of the year were considered sacred to early Arabs. During these months no warfare was allowed and bloodshed was completely forbidden. The months which the Arabs held sacred were al Mu'harram, Rajab, Dhu'l Qaada, and Dhu'l Hajja; the first, the seventh, the eleventh, and the twelfth in the year. Muhammad adopted this custom of the Arabs and codified it in the Quran: Quran 2:194 and Quran 5:97.

In one of the earliest raids on a trade caravan by warriors dispatched by Muhammad, a convenient revelation is received regarding the sacred months. Muhammad's men spotted the caravan passing by on the last day of a sacred month. According to ibn Ishaq:

"The raiders took council among themselves, for this was the last day of Rajab, and they said, 'If you leave them alone tonight they will get into the sacred area and will be safe from you and if you kill them, you will kill them in the sacred month' so they were hesitant and feared to attack them." [5]

In the end they decided to attack the caravan and capture its goods, thereby violating the prohibitions against warfare in the sacred month. When Muhammad learned of it, he at first admonished them for violating the sacred month, but then received a new revelation:

"They ask you concerning fighting in the Sacred Months (i.e. 1st, 7th, 11th and 12th months of the Islâmic calendar). Say, "Fighting therein is a great (transgression) but a greater (transgression) with God is to prevent mankind from following the Way of God, to disbelieve in Him, to prevent access to Al-Masjid-al-Harâm (at Makkah), and to drive out its inhabitants, and Al-Fitnah is worse than killing. And they will never cease fighting you until they turn you back from your religion (Islâmic Monotheism) if they can. And whosoever of you turns back from his religion and dies as a disbeliever, then his deeds will be lost in this life and in the Hereafter, and they will be the dwellers of the Fire. They will abide therein forever."

Condemnation of those avoiding war preparations

When preparing for the Battle of the Trench, Muhammad ordered his followers to dig a large trench around the perimeter of Medina, to hold off the expected army of Meccans intent on killing Muhammad and ending his religious movement. A number of Muhammad's men put less than full effort into the task, and some even left without Muhammad's permission. At the same time, another Muslim needed temporary leave to attend to an urgent matter. He asked Muhammad's permission, was granted permission, and returned to trench digging as soon as he could.

Muhammad became upset and angry at those who left the task without asking his permission. Here, Muhammad received the following revelation:

"Only those are believers, who believe in God and His Messenger. when they are with him on a matter requiring collective action, they do not depart until they have asked for his leave; those who ask for thy leave are those who believe in God and His Messenger. so when they ask for thy leave, for some business of theirs, give leave to those of them whom thou wilt, and ask God for their forgiveness: for God is Oft- Forgiving, Most Merciful."

Further emphasizing the point, ibn Ishaq (one of the earliest biographers of Muhammad) records the following words from Allah:

"Do not treat the call of the apostle among you as if it were one of you calling upon another. God knows those of you who steal away to hide themselves. Let those who conspire to disobey his order beware lest trouble or a painful punishment befall them."[6]

Gabriel assists with prophethood quiz

A man by the name of Abdullah bin Salam wanted to determine if Muhammad was a legitimate prophet and so posed three questions that he assumed only a prophet would be able to answer correctly: Firstly, what is the first portent of the Hour? Secondly, what is the first meal of the people of Paradise? and thirdly, why does a child look like its father or mother?

Muhammad responded that he had immediately been informed by Gabriel as to the answers of these questions. Muhammad proceeds to share the following revealed answers. Responding to the first question: the first portent of the hour is an all-consuming fire from east to west. To the second: the first meal in paradise is extra fish liver. And third: a child looks like whichever parent achieves orgasm first during sexual intercourse (a response which, critics point out, is plainly at odds with modern science and which aligns perfectly with an ancient Greek explanation of gender determination).

Historians have noted that this exchange is historically suspect because it would not have been possible to confirm whether Muhammad had in fact given the correct responses to these questions regarding the hereafter and the science of reproduction if only a prophet could know them. Abdullah bin Salman wanted to confirm whether Muhammad was a prophet. To do this, he supposedly asked Muhammad questions only a prophet could answer. But Abdullah bin Salman should then have been unable to verify the correctness of these responses, rendering the questions pointless. To historians, this hadith is thus likely later fabrication.

Narrated Anas:
'Abdullah bin Salam heard the news of the arrival of Allah's Apostle (at Medina) while he was on a farm collecting its fruits. So he came to the Prophet and said, "I will ask you about three things which nobody knows unless he be a prophet. Firstly, what is the first portent of the Hour? What is the first meal of the people of Paradise? And what makes a baby look like its father or mother?. The Prophet said, "Just now Gabriel has informed me about that." ... "As for the first portent of the Hour, it will be a fire that will collect the people from the East to West. And as for the first meal of the people of Paradise, it will be the caudite (i.e. extra) lobe of the fish liver. And if a man's discharge proceeded that of the woman, then the child resembles the father, and if the woman's discharge proceeded that of the man, then the child resembles the mother." On hearing that, 'Abdullah said, "I testify that None has the right to be worshipped but Allah, and that you are the Apostle of Allah...

Appending a Quranic passage for a blind bystander

Muhammad, having received the version of Quran 4:95 contained in the Quran today, called on Zaid to write down the revelation. Muhammad began to recite the verse about the superiority of those who participate in jihad to Zaid. A blind man, overhearing the verse, asked if the verse applied to him, considering that he was blind and could not participate in jihad. Muhammad then immediately received revelation exempting disabled persons from partaking in Jihad.

Narrated Al-Bara:

There was revealed: 'Not equal are those believers who sit (at home) and those who strive and fight in the Cause of Allah.' (4.95)

The Prophet said, "Call Zaid for me and let him bring the board, the inkpot and the scapula bone (or the scapula bone and the ink pot)."' Then he said, "Write: 'Not equal are those Believers who sit..", and at that time 'Amr bin Um Maktum, the blind man was sitting behind the Prophet . He said, "O Allah's Apostle! What is your order For me (as regards the above Verse) as I am a blind man?" So, instead of the above Verse, the following Verse was revealed:

'Not equal are those believers who sit (at home) except those who are disabled (by injury or are blind or lame etc.) and those who strive and fight in the cause of Allah.' (4.95)

Acknowledgement of a social indiscretion

Once, major Meccan chiefs were sitting in the assembly of Mohammad, and he was earnestly engaged in trying to persuade them to accept Islam. At that point, a blind man, named Abdallah ibn Umm Makhtum, approached seeking explanation of some point concerning Islam. Muhammad disliked this interruption and ignored the blind man. Later, remorseful, Muhammad received a revelation acknowledging the blind man's plight. The blind man was thus made to feel better about his unpleasant encounter with Muhammad.

The Prophet frowned and turned away. Because there came to him the blind man, [interrupting]. But what would make you perceive, [O Muhammad], that perhaps he might be purified. Or be reminded and the remembrance would benefit him? As for he who thinks himself without need, To him you give attention. And not upon you [is any blame] if he will not be purified. But as for he who came to you striving [for knowledge]. While he fears [ Allah ], From him you are distracted. No! Indeed, these verses are a reminder;

Condemnation of house guests

Muhammad's followers were at one point staying too long in and around his house and talking to his wives, to Muhammad's chagrin. Muhammad thus received a verse condemning this behavior on the part of his companions.

O you who believe! Enter not the Prophet's houses, except when leave is given to you for a meal, (and then) not (so early as) to wait for its preparation. But when you are invited, enter, and when you have taken your meal, disperse, without sitting for a talk. Verily, such (behaviour) annoys the Prophet, and he is shy of (asking) you (to go), but Allah is not shy of (telling you) the truth. And when you ask (his wives) for anything you want, ask them from behind a screen, that is purer for your hearts and for their hearts. And it is not (right) for you that you should annoy Allah's Messenger, nor that you should ever marry his wives after him (his death). Verily! With Allah that shall be an enormity.

See also


  1. Sahih Bukhari 6:60:311
  2. Sahih Bukhari 6:60:311
  3. Gerhard Nehls & Walter Eric - The Challenge of Islam/ Chapter II - English Press Limited Nairobi, New Revised Edition 1996, ISBN 9966 895 16 7
  4. ibn Ishaq, p. 165-166; see also History of al-Tabari , vol VI: Muhammad at Mecca, p. 108-109
  5. ibn Ishaq, p. 287
  6. ibn Ishaq, p. 451