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What year was the verse revealed "Proclaim what you are commanded and turn away from the unbelievers" (Qur'an 15:94)?

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Islamic researcher, graduated from Al-Azhar University, Islamic Studies in the English language. I also studied at Temple University in the US.
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In a Nutshell:
The year of revelation of this verse is understood in light of Umar's (ra) year of conversion as it initiated a new stage of dawa this verse proclaims. Umar (ra) converted around the sixth year of ba'thah and the verse must have been revealed shortly after or before his conversion.


Background

The Prophet's (saw) activities in his dawa differed in terms of whom he was targetting and when. The early years saw a focus on elites, later years on their followers.

This verse asks he focuses on the followers of Quraysh, their support base, mistakenly known as the first public dawa as presented in the quotes below.

The Prophet's (saw) mission to establish Islam as a way of life was public from the outset. He however kept secret the education, preparation and building of his group of companions, primarily for their protection following Quraysh aggression and rejection.

Scholars' Views

Scholars disagree on the date of revelation of this verse; some argue it was revealed after three years, others state in the fourth year and others claimed it was after five years. The first and second view are relatively similar because if it was revealed after the third year, it means it was revealed in the fourth year.

The main evidence for this view is the second century ibn Ishaq's quote by ibn Hisham narrating the verse was narrated after the third year of ba'thah. Ibn Ishaq said:

وَكَانَ بَيْنَ مَا أَخْفَى رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ أَمْرَهُ وَاسْتَتَرَ بِهِ إلَى أَنْ أَمَرَهُ اللَّهُ تَعَالَى بِإِظْهَارِ دِينِهِ ثَلَاثَ سِنِينَ- فِيمَا بَلَغَنِي- مِنْ مَبْعَثِهِ.
"This happened between the period in which the Prophet hid his matter (revelation) and presented it secretly until Allah ordered him to publicly show his deen after three years - as we have been told - of his ba'thah" (Ibn Hisham as-Serra an-Nabawiyah, Vol. 1, p. 262, al-Ya'muri, Uyun al-Athar, Vol. 1, p. 117)

The same date was repeated by the ninth-century historian Qastalani who said:

وكَانَ ذَلِكَ بَعْدَ ثَلَاثِ سِنيِنَ منَ النُبُوَة
"This took place after three years of Prophethood." (Qastalani, al-Mawahib al-Ludaniyah, Vol. 1, p. 134)

This view was reiterated through the centuries by many historians, see:

  • Al-Hamiri (d. 900 A.H.), Haqa'iq al-Anwar, p. 61, 178;
  • Hiseen Bakri (10th century), Tarikh al-Khamis, Vol. 1, p. 287;
  • Ahmed Ghalush, as-Seera an-Nabawiyah wa ad-Da'wah fi al-Ahd al-Makki, p. 442;
  • Muneer al-Ghadban, al-Manhaj al-Haraki, Vol. 1, p. 17.

There are other historians and commentators who argued it may have been revealed in the fifth year of ba'thah.

For example, the eleventh-century historian al-Halabi summarised the issue and said there are two possibilities; either the fourth-year or the fifth year.

Halabi noted:

وإِعْلَانُه صلى الله عليه وسلم كَانَ فِي الرَابِعَةَ أو الخَامِسَةَ بقَوْلِهِ تَعَالَى: فَاصْدَعْ بِما تُؤْمَرُ وَأَعْرِضْ عَنِ الْمُشْرِكِينَ
"He (saw) announced (his dawa) in the fourth or the fifth year when Allah said: 'Proclaim what you are commanded and turn away from the unbelievers' (Qur'an 15:94-95)." (Halabi, as-Seera al-Halabiyah, Vol. 1, p. 403)

The contemporary commentator ibn Ashur argued it was revealed at the end of the fourth year and at the beginning of the fifth year as a way to reconcile between the two views.

He stated:

وَقَدْ نَزَلَتْ عِنْدَ خُرُوجِ النَّبِيءِ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ مِنْ دَارِ الْأَرْقَمِ فِي آخِرِ السَّنَةِ الرَّابِعَةِ مِنْ بَعْثَتِهِ. ... نَزَلَتْ هَذِهِ الْآيَةُ فِي السَّنَةِ الرَّابِعَةِ أَوِ الْخَامِسَةِ مِنَ الْبَعْثَةِ.
"This verse was revealed when the Prophet (saw) went out of the house of al-Arqam at the end of the fourth years of ba'thah … It was revealed in the fourth year or the fifth year of ba'thah." (Ibn Ashur, at-Tahreer wa at-Tanweer, Vol. 6, p. 14)

The reason for this disagreement is that the narrative of the seerah chronologically orders the early events of the Prophet's biography however there is little information available in the primary sources regarding this period. The order of seerah events mostly depends on the analysis of a given event and its details that allows us to figure out when it took place.

Critical Evaluation

Given the Prophet (saw) was doing public dawa from the first day of revelation (contrary to the notion of secret stage), Allah asked him to start a new stage that involved his companions (as most of the narrations say 'he went out with his companions').

Most scholars identify this second stage of dawa as initiated after the revelation of this verse, which in turn is identified with the conversion of Umar (ra). Because before the conversion of Umar (ra) no public dawa was done collectively and so they have not yet applied the verse. Given the historical and religious context, the Prophet (saw) and his companions used to implement the verse immediately, so this verse was not revealed earlier than the conversion of Umar (ra) after which they started to give public dawa collectively.

The most important evidence for this assumption is a narration of ibn Abbas (ra) who stated the first one who initiated this stage of collective public dawa is Umar (ra). Ibn Abbas (ra) narrated:

ِأَوَلُ مَنْ جَهَرَ بِالإسْلَامِ عُمَرُ بن الخَطَاب
"The first one to publicly call to Islam (at this stage) is Umar ibn al-Khattab." (Haythami, Majma' az-Zawa'id 14412)

So, if Umar (ra) was the first one to initiate the collective public dawa, so the verse was revealed shortly after his conversion. What also supports this view is a narration of ibn Mas'ud (ra) who stated:

لَقَدْ رَأَيْتُنَا وَمَا نَسْتَطِيعُ أَنَّ نُصَلِّيَ بِالْبَيْتِ حَتَّى أَسْلَمَ عُمَرُ
"I have seen us could not pray in the house (ka'bah) until Umar embraced Islam." (Ibn Saad, at-Tabaqat, Vol. 3, p. 204)

Suhayb (ra) also narrated when Umar converted to Islam, they started dawa publicly. He noted:

لمَّا أَسْلَمَ عُمَرُ ظَهَرَ الإِسْلَامَ، ودُعِيَّ إِلَيّهِ عَلَانِيّةُ، وجَلَسْنَا حَوْلَ البَيْتِ حِلَقًا
"When Umar converted, Islam was showed up and was called to it publicly. We were able to stay around the ka'bah in circles." (Ibn Saad, at-Tabaqat, Vol. 3, p. 269)

All these narrations suggest this stage, that was initiated with the verse, was conducted after the conversion of Umar.

In addition, after a while of the conversion of Umar (ra), he suggested to stop hiding and do public dawa, they then went out in two rows and made tawaf.

Umar (ra) narrated:

فَقُلْتُ: يا رَسُولَ اللهِ! ألَسْنَا عَلَى الحَقِ إِنْ مِتْنَا وإِن حَيِينَا؟
قالَ: بَلَى! والذي نَفْسِي بِيَدِهِ إنَكُمْ على الحَقِ إِنْ مِتُمْ وإنْ حَيِيتُمْ!
َقلت: فَفِيمَ الإختِفَاءُ؟ والّذي بَعَثَكَ بِالحَقِ لتَخْرُجَنَّ، فأَخْرَجْنَاهُ فِي صَفْيّن: حَمْزَةَ فِي أَحَدِهِمَا وأَنَا فِي الآخَر.
"I said, 'O Messenger of Allah, are not we the right (party) in either state of death and life?'
The Prophet (saw) replied, 'Yes, by Him in Whose Hand my soul is, we are the right party in either state, i.e. life and death.'
Umar replied, 'So, why do we hide? Who sent you with Truth, we will go out.'
We went out in two rows; Hamza led one and I led the other. " (Ibn al-Jawzi, Safwat as-Safwah, Vol. 1, p. 103, Muhib ad-Deen at-Tabari, ar-Riyad an-Nadirah, Vol. 2. P. 272, al-Halabi, as-Seera al-Halabiyah, Vol. 1, p. 472, Ibn Hajar, al-Isabah fi Ma'rifat as-Sahabah, Vol. 4, p. 280, al-Asfahani, Dala'il an-Nubuwah, Vol. 1, p. 316)

Thus, the verse asks the Prophet (saw) to do public dawa must have been revealed around the conversion of Umar (ra), probably after it because they waited for a while after his conversion before the initiation of public dawa in two rows.

For example, when Umar (ra) converted he wanted to inform the people of Mecca, so he first went to Abu Jahl in his home, then told to a man who used to spread the news.

Umar narrated what he did immediately after the conversion; i.e. he went to Abu Jahl's house:

فَأَقْبَلْتُ حِينَ أَصْبَحْتُ حَتَّى ضَرَبْتُ عَلَيْهِ بَابَهُ. قَالَ: فَخَرَجَ إليَّ أَبُو جَهْلٍ، فَقَالَ: مَرْحَبًا وَأَهْلًا بِابْنِ أُخْتِي، مَا جاء بك؟ قلت جِئْتُ لِأُخْبِرَكَ أَنِّي قَدْ آمَنْتُ بِاَللَّهِ وَبِرَسُولِهِ محمد، وصدَّقت بِمَا جَاءَ بِهِ. قَالَ: فَضَرَبَ الْبَابَ فِي وَجْهِي وَقَالَ: قَبَّحَكَ اللَّهُ، وَقَبَّحَ مَا جئتَ به.
"In the morning (of the next day), I knocked on the door and Abu Jahl opened and said, 'Welcome, my nephew. What is the matter?'
I said, I came to tell you I believed in Allah and His Messenger Muhammad, and believed in what he is sent with.
Abu Jahl shut the door in front of me and said, 'May Allah revile you and revile news you came with.'" (Ibn Hisham, as-Seera an-Nabawiyah, Vol. 1, p. 299)

Ibn Umar (ra) narrated when Umar (ra) converted, he wanted to spread the news of his conversion. So, he asked about a man who could spread the news quickly. He was guided to Jameel al-Jumahi who immediately went to the centre of Mecca and announced the conversion of Umar (ra). Umar (ra) stood beside him and confirmed what he was saying. (Ibn Hisham, As-Seera an-Nabawiyah, Vol. 1, p. 298)

The narration of informing Abu Jahl probably preceded informing all the Meccans because the latter would include Abu Jahl as well and so it does not make sense Umar (ra) went to him again; especially when he approached Abu Jahl, Abu Jahl had no idea of his conversion.

Some narrations place the event of going out in two rows immediately after the conversion of Umar (ra), but this could not be the case as it makes no sense informing Abu Jahl and the people of Mecca of his conversion after fighting for praying and making tawaf in the centre of Mecca.

Going out in two rows would have done the job, especially people of Meccan and Abu Jahl did not know about Umar's (ra) conversion before his announcement. This places the event of going out in two rows after the other two events.

Thus, the identification of the date of revelation of this verse depends can be more understood considering the date of Umar's (ra) conversion.

Many contemporary scholars argued the stage before this verse lasted until the conversion of Umar (ra). For example, the contemporary intellectual Sa'id Hawa said:

والظَاهِرُ أنَّ هَذِهِ المَرْحَلة اسْتَمَرَتْ حتَى إِسْلَامِ عُمَرَ فعِنْدَئِذٍ وُجِدَت جَهْرِيّة الدَعْوَة عَلى كَمَالِهَا
"What is obvious is this stage (the so-called 'secret stage' before the verse was revealed) lasted until the conversion of Umar. At that time the real public dawa was approached completely." (Hawa, al-Asas fi as-Sunah wa Fiqhuha, Vol. 1, p. 235)


Date of Umar's Conversion

Scholars disagree on the exact year of his conversion. They suggest he was converted in the fifth and the ninth year of ba'thah and everything in between. It is more probable, he was converted in the sixth-year of ba'thah.

What could precisely identify the year of his conversion is the age of his son Abdullah. Ibn Umar (ra) narrated:

لَمَّا أَسْلَمَ عُمَرُ اجْتَمَعَ النَّاسُ عِنْدَ دَارِهِ وَقَالُوا صَبَا عُمَرُ‏.‏ وَأَنَا غُلاَمٌ فَوْقَ ظَهْرِ بَيْتِي
"When Umar embraced Islam, all the (disbelieving) people gathered around his home and said, "Umar has embraced Islam." At that time, I was still a boy and was on the roof of my house." (Bukhari 3865)

So, if the son of Umar (Abdullah ibn Umar) narrated he was about five years old when his father converted – as ibn Hajar added another stated. Given he was 14 years old at the battle of Uhud (16th year of ba'thah). So, ibn Umar (ra) was born in the second year of ba'thah + 5 years of his age at conversion = 7 for Umar's conversion. (Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari, Vol. 7, p. 178)

Given the Arabs used to count the year seven, for example, at its beginning, as well as the other narrations of the companions of his conversion at the sixth year, so it may be more probable that Umar (ra) converted around the sixth-year of ba'thah and the verse was revealed shortly after or before his conversion.

Others, such as Ahmed Ghalush and Muneer al-Ghadban, tried to solve the contradiction between the traditional view and the other evidence by suggesting the Prophet (saw) did public dawa after the verse was revealed in the third year then the companions accompanied Umar after the sixth year. (Ahmed Ghalush, as-Seera an-Nabawiyah wa al-'Ahd al-Makki, p. 469)

But this is improbable because the Prophet clearly performed public dawa from the beginning of revelation, so the verse is calling for something else which is the collective dawa of companions and such action was initiated by the verse which was revealed after the conversion of Umar (ra).

Conclusion

The year of revelation of this verse is understood in light of Umar's (ra) year of conversion as it initiated a new. Umar (ra) converted around the sixth year of ba'thah and the verse must have been revealed shortly after or before his conversion.

References

Ibn Hisham as-Serra an-Nabawiyah;
Al-Ya'muri, 'Uyun al-Athar;
Qastalani, al-Mawahib al-Ludaniyah;
Al-Hamiri, Haqa'iq al-Anwar;
Halabi, as-Seera al-Halabiyah;
Al-Amiri, Bahjat al-Mahafil;
Ibn Saad, at-Tabaqat;
Ibn al-Jawzi, Safwat as-Safwah;
Muhib ad-Deen at-Tabari, ar-Riyad an-Nadirah;
Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari;
Ibn Hajar, al-Isabah fi Ma'rifat as-Sahabah;
Ibn al-Athir, Asad al-Ghabah;
Tabarani, al-Mu'jam al-Kabir;
Ibn Kathir, as-Seera an-Nabawiyah;
Al-Asfahani, Dala'il an-Nubuwah;
Haythami, Majma' az-Zawa'id ;
Hiseen Bakri, Tarikh al-Khamis;
Suhili, ar-Rawd al-Aneef;
Ibn Ashur, at-Tahreer wa at-Tanweer;
Ahmed Ghalush, as-Seera an-Nabawiyah wa ad-Da'wah fi al-'Ahd al-Makki;
Muneer al-Ghadban, al-Manhaj al-Haraki;
Hawa, al-Asas fi sa-Sunah wa Fiqhuha.


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