The revelation of the Qur’an began in the laila al-qadr of Ramadan (one of the odd nights after the 21st till end Ramadan) after the Prophet Muhammad had passed the fortieth year of his life (that is around the year 610), during his seclusion in the cave of Hira’ on a mountain near Makka.
Bukharis Account [English translations of ahadith are, unless otherwise indicated, from Khan, Muhammad Muhsin: The Translation of the Meanings of Sahih al-Bukhari, 9 vols., Istanbul, 1978 (abbr. as Bukhari) and Siddiqui, Abdul Hamid: Sahih Muslim, 4 vols., Lahore, 1978 (abbr. as Muslim).]
This is the account, as reported in the Sahih of Bukhari:
Narrated Aisha the mother of the faithful believers: The commencement of the divine inspiration to Allah’s apostle was in the form of good dreams which came like bright daylight (i.e. true) and then the love of seclusion was bestowed upon him.
He used to go in seclusion in the Cave of Hira’, where he used to worship (Allah alone) continuously for many days before his desire to see his family. He used to take with him food for the stay and then come back to (his wife) Khadija to take his food likewise again, till suddenly the truth descended upon him while he was in the Cave of Hira’.
The angel came to him and asked him to read. The Prophet replied ‘I do not know how to read’. The Prophet added, ‘The angel caught me (forcibly) and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read and I replied, “I do not know how to read”. Thereupon he caught me again and pressed me a second time till I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read, but again I replied, “I do not know how to read” (or what shall I read?). Thereupon he caught me for the third time and pressed me, and then released me and said: “Read, in the name of Your Lord, who created, created man from a clot. Read! And Your Lord is the most bountiful” … [Bukhari, I, No. 3; VI, No. 478; Muslim I, No. 301.]
The narration goes on to tell us that the Prophet went back to his wife Khadija and recounted to her his dreadful experience. She comforted him and both of them consulted Waraqa, Khadlja’s relative and a learned Christian, about it. Waraqa told Muhammad that he had encountered the one ‘whom Allah had sent to Moses’ and that he would be driven out by his people
How Revelation came
Narrated Aisha, the mother of the faithful believers: Al-Harith bin Hisham asked Allah’s apostle: ‘O Allah’s apostle. How is the divine inspiration revealed to you?’ Allah’s apostle replied, ‘Sometimes it is “revealed” like the ringing of a bell, this form of inspiration is the hardest of all and then this state passes off after I have grasped what is inspired. Sometimes the Angel comes in the form of a man and talks to me and I grasp whatever he says’. [Bukhari, I, No. 2.]
The First Revelation’ [See Suyuti, Itqan, I, pp.23-4.]
‘Read in the name of your Lord, who created, created man from a clot. Read! And your Lord is most bountiful. (He who taught) the use of the pen taught man which he knew not.’
The remainder of Sura 96, which now has 19 ayat, was revealed on some later occasion.
The Pause (fatra)
After the first message thus received, revelation ceased for a certain period (called fatra) and then resumed:
Narrated Jabir bin ‘Abdullah Al-Ansari while talking about the period of pause in revelation reporting the speech of the Prophet, ‘While I was walking, all of a sudden I heard a voice from the heaven. I looked up and saw the same angel who had visited me at the Cave of Hira’ sitting on a chair between the sky and the earth. I got afraid of him and came back home and said “Wrap me (in blankets)” and then Allah revealed the following holy verses (of the Qur’an): O you covered in your cloak, arise and warn (the people against Allah’s punishment) … up to “and all pollution shun”.’
After this revelation came strongly and regularly. [Bukhari, I, end of No. 3.]
The Second Revelation
The second portion of the Qur’an revealed to the Prophet Muhammad was the beginning of Sura al-muddaththir (74: 15). It now consists of 56 verses, the rest revealed later, and begins as follows: ‘O you, covered in your cloak, arise and warn, thy Lord magnify, thy raiment purify, pollution shun …’
Other Early Revelations
Many hold that Sura al-muzzammil (73) was the next revelation.
According to others, Sura al-fatiha (1) was the third sura to be revealed. [Suyuti, Itqan, I, p.24.]
Among other early revelations, which the Prophet declared in Makka, are, according to some reports, Sura 111, Sura 81, Sura 87, Sura 92, Sura 89, etc. Then revelation continued, ‘mentioning Paradise and Hell, and until mankind turned to Islam, then came revelation about halal and haram … ‘ [Suyuti, Itqan, I, p.24.]
Revelation came to the Prophet throughout his lifetime, both in Makka and Madina, i.e. over a period of approximately 23 years, until shortly before his death in the year 10 after Hijra (632)
The Last Revelation
Many Muslim scholars agree that the last revelation was Sura 2, verse 281:
‘And fear the day when ye shall be brought back to God. Then shall every soul be paid what it earned and none shall be dealt with unjustly.’
Some also say that it was 2:282 or 2:278. [Kamal, Ahmad ‘Adil: ‘ulum al-Qur’an, Cairo, 1974, p.18.]
It has also been suggested that all three verses were revealed on one occasion. The Prophet died nine nights after the last revelation.
Others hold that Sura 5:4 was the last to be revealed:
‘This day I have perfected your religion for you, completed My favour upon you and have chosen for you Islam as your religion.’
The opinion that this verse was the last revelation is not sound according to many scholars, since it was revealed during the last pilgrimage of the Prophet. This information is based upon a hadith from ‘Umar. Suyuti explains concerning the verse in Sura 5 that after it nothing concerning ahkam and hal’al and haram was revealed, and in this sense it is the ‘completion’ of religion. However, revelation reminding man of the coming day of judgement continued and the last such revelation is the above verse. [Sabuni, tibyan pp. 18-9]
Reasons why the Qur’an was sent down in Stages
The Qur’an was revealed in stages over a period of 23 years, and not as a complete book in one single act of revelation. There are a number of reasons for this; most important are the following:
To strengthen the heart of the Prophet (saws) by addressing him continuously and whenever the need for guidance arose.
Out of consideration for the Prophet since revelation was a very difficult experience for him.
To gradually implement the laws of God.
To make understanding, application and memorisation of the revelation easier for the believers.