The First Revelation

Surah 96 (Al-Alaq/The Blood Clot): 1-5

1. Read in the name of thy Lord who created,
2. Who created man of blood coagulated,
3. Read! Thy Lord is most beneficent,
4. Who taught by the pen,
5. Taught that which they knew not unto men.

[Alfred Guillaume, from The Life of Muhammad,
A translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat rasul Allah.]


{96.1-5}, above, is usually cited in Islamic tradition as being the first verses of the Qur’an to have been announced. The coming down of the revelation upon Muhammad is described by Ibn Ishaq, as they appear in Ibn Hashim’s earliest rendition of them:

Every year during (Ramadan) the apostle would pray in seclusion and give food to the poor that came to him. And when he completed the month and returned from his seclusion, first of all before entering his house he would go to the Ka’aba and walk around it seven times or as often as it pleased God; then he would go back to his house, until in the year when God sent him concerning what he willed of His grace. The apostle sent forth to Hira (a mountain close to Mecca) as was his wont and his family with him.

When it was the night on which God honoured him with His mission, and showed mercy on his servants thereby, Gabriel brought him the command of God.

‘He came to me’, said the apostle of God, ‘while I was asleep with a coverlet of brocade whereon was some writing. He said: ‘Read’. I said: ‘What shall I read?’ He pressed me with it so tightly that I thought it was death. Then he let me go and said ‘Read’. I said: ‘What shall I read?’ He pressed me with it again so I thought it was death. Then he let me go and said ‘Read’. I said: ‘What shall I read?’ He pressed me with it the third time so that I thought it was death and said ‘Read’. I said: ‘What then shall I read?’ and this I said only to deliver myself from him, lest he should do the same to me again. He said:

Read in the name of thy Lord who created…’ [{96.1}, see above].


So I read it, and he departed from me. And I awoke from my sleep, and it was as though these words were written on my heart.


At this point the later version of the story given by al-Tabari inserts:

Now none of God’s creatures was more hateful to me than an ecstatic poet or a man possessed: I could not even look at them. I thought: ‘Woe is me, poet or possessed – never shall a Quraysh say this of me! I will go to the top of the mountain and throw myself down that I may kill myself and find rest. So I went forth to do so.


Returning to Ibn Hisham’s narrative:

When I was midway on the mountain, I heard a voice from heaven saying: ‘O Muhammad! Thou art the apostle of God and I am Gabriel.’

I raised my head towards heaven to see (who was speaking) and lo, Gabriel in the form of a man with feet astride the horizon saying: ‘O Muhammad! Thou art the apostle of God and I am Gabriel.’ I stood gazing at him moving neither forward nor backward. Then I began to turn my face away from him but towards whatever region of the sky I looked, I saw him as before.’


This description of Muhammad’s first encounter with Gabriel combines two quite distinct narratives. The first account is of a mysterious person squeezing Muhammad and requiring him to ‘Read’, possibly having been conjured from a dream by Muhammad having slept under a blanket ‘whereon was some writing’. The impossible command to read seems to have been adapted from Isaiah, chapter 29 :

11. For you the revelation of all this has become like the words of a sealed scroll. When it is handed to one who can read with the request ‘Read it!’ he replies: ‘I cannot. It is sealed’.

12. When it is handed to one who cannot read with the request ‘Read it!’, he replies: ‘I cannot read’,

and chapter 40 :

6. A voice says: ‘Cry out!’ I answer: ‘What shall I cry out?’…


Isaiah’s image of an unreadable scroll (unreadable, if for no other reason, because it is sealed) is replicated in chapter 5 of the Book of Revelation in which St John is granted a vision of heaven :

1. In the right hand of the One who sat on the throne I saw a scroll. It had writing on both sides and was sealed with seven seals.

2. Then I saw a mighty angel who proclaimed in a loud voice ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’

3. But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could be found to open the scroll or examine its contents.


The account of the bearhugging stranger seems to be a separate story to that of a gigantic Angel Gabriel standing upon the horizon and filling the sky. The latter refers back to the early Quranic account of its announcer receiving a revelation, given in {81.22-24}, ‘he surely saw him upon the clear horizon’ produced at 〈6.〉 It seems likely that Ibn Ishaq had heard two separate accounts – one depicting Muhammad as a mystic wrapped in a special blanket (note {73.1} and {74.1}), the other based upon the celestial ‘figure on the horizon’, and combined the two. Two centuries later al-Tabari valiantly sought to connect the two accounts more securely by inserting a story that Gabriel’s first apparition had been so enigmatic and troubling, that Muhammad had thought himself possessed and prepared to kill himself, forcing Gabriel to quickly materialise in his majestic form and clarify that he was from God.