"Speak now or forever hold your peace in pieces."
I think one of the most beautiful things about the Qur’an is the amount of time it took to reveal itself entirely to the world. It wasn’t a book of rules that was handed down completed, but rather, went through a gradual process of revelation in order to seep into the community without complications.
The Qur’an has a remarkably revolutionary spirit of reform. A lot of anti-Muslims will argue that some of the abhorred practices of 7th century Arabia were not prohibited in the Qur’an and will use these reasonings to further propagate Islamophobia. What’s even worse is that some fundamentalist Muslims will even use those same reasons as an excuse to justify their actions!
Like I have mentioned in my column “Contextualising the Qur’an”, many verses of the Book were revealed at a specific time to a specific group of people. It is important to note the historical setting in which the verses were revealed, as only then will you see the gradualist approach that the Qur’an takes to eradicate certain practices, even though not explicitly mentioning its prohibition.
Let me use slavery as a case example.
There are no exact rulings in the Qur’an that actually prohibit slavery. When the Qur’an was revealed, slavery was a common practice throughout the region, thus imposing an immediate ban on it would prove difficult. It was said that a third of the Arab world population were slaves, which would mean that if slaves were put into unemployment, this would increase poverty, creating economic instability and homelessness.
The Qur’an, however, puts great emphasis on human dignity and equality, and encouraged the freeing of slaves, praising those who do so. His call for their freedom shows His disapproval of the practice. This would eventually lead to the gradual freeing of all slaves and no further buying of any more slaves. The teaching and messages in the Qur’an showed that it called for the gradual eradication of the practice.
If the people who owned slaves were told to free their slaves, it would then be unethical for a Muslim to go out and buy a slave just because there are no clear prohibitions in the Qur’an against it. It is quite straightforward that the message of the Qur’an is the abolishment of slavery.
There are many other instances in which Qur’an has taken a gradualist approach.
The Qur’an did not forbid polygamy as unlimited polygamy was a common practice back then. However, Qur’an limited polygamy to only four wives (with specific criteria to take into consideration) and demands monogamy if there is ever a fear of injustice to the wives. The Qur’an then goes on to say that a man will never be able to be equal between his wives. From here, we can see that the Qur’an encourages monogamy.
The Qur’an was revealed during a time where women were harshly degraded. Female infants were murdered, daughters were not given inheritance and women were treated as possessions. The Qur’an abolished female infanticide and called for at least a half share of inheritance for daughters. Women were given full ownership of their money and were given the right to divorce. Not only that but the Qur’an also constantly emphasises that men and women are equal before the eyes of God. Plus, the Qur’an was the very guide that the Prophet used to liberate women and allowed them to be leaders of their own lives, both in public and personal spheres. While the Qur’an does still acknowledge the differences between the sexes, it is clear from here that the message of the Qur’an is to promote the notion that men and women are spiritual and intellectual equals. In a contemporary context, it would mean that the Qur’an calls for gender equality.
The gradual revelation of the Qur’an is strategic as it allows development of the people’s potential to adopt fundamental teachings. In a span of 23 years, people were allowed time to put into practice each verse instead of merely memorising and adhering to rules that they might get sick of (given the case in which if the Qur’an was already sent down completed).
If you want change or reform, you do not do it in one day. I honestly think God has shown His wisdom by revealing the Qur’an and its teachings gradually, thus making the essence and message of the faith applicable even when put into our modern context.
Click here to read Part 3: Was the Prophet a feminist?