During the span of 23 years, Allah revealed the entire Quran bit-by-bit through His angel Gabriel to the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) in response to circumstances at the time or to specific questions that were posed.
But why was the Quran revealed in stages? Did God make it up as He went along?
Actually the book already existed in its complete form in the Highest Heaven since the beginning of Time. This is why Allah mentions in Surah Al Qadr (97:1) that He revealed the entire Quran in the night of Decree (Qadr): “Indeed! We sent the Quran down in the Night of Decree.” Here, He is referring to the first revelation – when it descended from the Preserved Tablet (al Lawh al Mahfooz) in the highest heaven, to the House of Honor (Bayt al ‘Izzah) in the lowest heaven. Then, the second revelation – which occurred over a period of 23 years – is when it was brought from the lowest heaven to the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) through the Angel Gabriel.
Had the entire book descended all at once, Muslims would never have gained a context for the verses, nor would they have had someone to interpret for them what was meant. The Quran would have been a puzzle, open to anyone’s interpretation. Instead, the verses were explained as they were revealed. But how was this possible?
When Allah gave the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) the words of the Quran, He also inspired him with a deep understanding of what those verses meant and how to convey them to others. As Allah says in the Quran (16:44): “And I revealed to you the Reminder (Qur’aan) in order that you explain to the people what was revealed to them.” This is why the Sunnah is inseparable from Islam. The Sunnah explains, clarifies, exemplifies, and specifies the Quran.
If Allah had merely conveyed the words without explaining them, the Quran would have been little more than a riddle, a jumble of symbols, malleable as putty in the hands of anyone who wanted to manipulate it. In fact, even today, extremists and Islamophobes attempt to do just that, and they are counting on our collective ignorance in order to do it.
How can we take back the true understanding of our faith? What is the methodology for interpreting the Quran?