Time Meets Timelessness: How the Quran Was Sent Down

(Page from the Blue Quran)

One could say the Quran is a book from the timeless perspective sent down in time. Indeed, it was sent down on a specific night, Laylat Al-Qadr, the “Night of Decree/ Meting Out,” a single night in Ramadan described as being “better than a thousand months” (Surat Al-Qadr 97:3) in which “descended the angels and the Spirit …with the permission of their Lord to carry out every matter.” (Surat Al-Qadr 97:4) The sheer power of that night indicates the weight and importance, from the Divine perspective, of the event of a timeless message being “sent down” (one envisions here a physical event, not merely “inspiration”) in time.

That night is also described as being in a state of peace (Al-Qadr 97:5)—salam—but the word salam also means “security”. In fact, this passage shows how the Quran was, even in the powerful event of being “sent down” to the world of time, preserved in its eternal state, secured by a host of angels and the “spirit” (Ruh – a category in itself) Jibreel (often referred to in English as the archangel Gabriel), of extraordinary and trustworthy powers.

Note that in our time-based world on earth, night is when we can see the larger universe in its vastness and majesty, showing us a glimpse of timelessness in which is evident Allah’s greatness as Creator of the heavens and the earth. So the Quran had to be sent down through that celestial realm only visible to us at night, the only time in which we can see a dark sky filled with stars and “heavenly” objects. For comparison, the Day of Resurrection is when all is illuminated in Allah’s eternal light, and thus is never referred to as night. However, the “sign” of “day” occurs on earth, and its alternation with night highlights the existence of an entirely different realm/ reality. (“And we have made the night and day two signs…” Surat Al-Isra’ 17:12.) Hence the entire Quran came down to Prophet Mohammad (peace upon him) in one single night.

The Quran thereafter took twenty-three years to actually be revealed through Prophet Mohammad, often in response to events and people’s questions.

So one may wonder, how is it that the Quran came down in one night in the month of Ramadan, and yet took 23 years to actually be given to Prophet Mohammad to deliver to his community? The Night of Qadr was the time of actual descent from the eternal, timeless realm of Allah into the “lower” world of time. Once the Quran entered the world of time, it participated in time, responding interactively with people in real time, being revealed gradually within a time frame. After the revelation/ dissemination of the entire Quran was complete in time (23 years), the timeless arrangement of Surahs was revealed, thus completing the message, and within its architectural “shell,” preserved and protected from adulteration or change, i.e., the vicissitudes of time. It is also preserved in the hearts (memory or thikr) of Muslims who memorized and can recite the whole Quran in Arabic, a surprisingly large constituency, especially through generations. This ensures preservation of its pronunciation, critical to distinguish between certain words, as well as its meaning, both elements being often lost in ancient texts, even those written in stone. This has also preserved Quranic Arabic as a classic language still in contemporary usage.

The Quran itself addresses the issue of being revealed (and recited) over time:

Surat Al-Isra’ 17:106
وَقُرْآنًا فَرَقْنَاهُ لِتَقْرَأَهُ عَلَى النَّاسِ عَلَىٰ مُكْثٍ وَنَزَّلْنَاهُ تَنزِيلًا
And [it is] a Qur’an which We have separated [by intervals] that you might recite it to the people over a prolonged period. And We have sent it down progressively.

“Separated” or faraqnahu is similar to “unpacked” or “broken apart” which is a kind of “opening” by which the Quran was revealed and disseminated in time, hence possible to be received, assimilated, and understood by humans, who cannot grasp a message of this magnitude by swallowing it whole, as it were, but rather part by part, over time, and interactively, that is, interacting with human lives. The word translated “progressively” above actually doesn’t exist in Arabic as a separate word; rather, the infinitive tanzeel (sent down) is used twice in a grammatical expression of emphasis by repetition, a method used frequently in the Quran in which the word is repeated (in different grammatical forms), usually a verb followed by the same word used in the sense of an adverb or noun, adding emphasis. Here tanziluhu/ tanzeela, literally means “We sent it down/ a sending down,” which implies “We sent it down/ a definite sending down.” It could also mean the Quran was sent down (as a whole) a sending down (in stages over time).

Prophet Mohammad too lived “in time” and this spaced/ opened-up revelation over time was also in consideration for him as prophet, and in the necessity for perfect recitation.

Surat Al-Furqan 25:32

‎وَقَالَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا لَوْلَا نُزِّلَ عَلَيْهِ الْقُرْآنُ جُمْلَةً وَاحِدَةً ۚ كَذَٰلِكَ لِنُثَبِّتَ بِهِ فُؤَادَكَ ۖ وَرَتَّلْنَاهُ تَرْتِيلًا
And those who disbelieve say, “Why was the Qur’an not revealed to him all at once?” Thus [it is] that We may strengthen thereby your heart. And We have spaced it distinctly.

Note the phrase “strengthen thereby your heart.” The first task of the Prophet, to recite the words given to him through the Spirit Jibreel and to do so flawlessly, requires unimaginable spiritual fortitude and clarity. The task of dissemination to his people was even greater; of course it could only be taught and revealed in increments to give time for understanding, thus his task was tied up also with his community. The phrase that follows, “We have spaced it distinctly” uses the format described above, literally, “We have spaced it/ a definite spacing,” thus emphasizing the precision of that spacing, a purpose in it.

Only after the entire Quran was finally revealed was it possible to gather it as a whole to be given to all humankind in its final arrangement — as a complete, preserved and unchangeable timeless message — still with us in time, and therefore still interactive, as any scholar or careful student of the Quran can attest.

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