The following is from a work-in-progress called The Qur'an: a Book Report, in which I read each surah of the Qur'an and write about what I learn.
Unlike the Bible, the Qur’an does not tell a linear narrative. Though it is said to reveal divine revelations Muhammad received gradually between the years 609 and 632 C.E., these revelations are not presented in order. Hence, early revelations may appear late in the text, and late revelations may appear earlier. This is the case with the 74th surah, whose first seven verses are thought to be some of the earliest revelations the prophet received.
It will be helpful here to give some context surrounding these verses, and the very beginning of Muhammad’s calling as a prophet of God. Before he was the prophet, Muhammad was a moderately successful caravan trader from Mecca. He was married to a woman 15 years his senior named Khadija, who was a very successful business woman. Contrary to custom, Khadija had proposed to Muhammad, and they lived monogamously.
As he grew older, Muhammad became increasingly disillusioned with the socio-economic system of his society, which exploited the poor for the benefit of the rich (sound familiar?). He began taking long spiritual retreats into the hills and mountains around Mecca, and it was here, alone on Mt. Hira, that Muhammad received his first revelation.
Instead of being filled with joy and bliss, however, he was terrified. He thought he was going insane, and wanted to commit suicide. This was some heavy, heavy shit. Oppressed by his revelation, he rushed home to his wife Khadija and said, “Wrap me up! Wrap me up!” She covered him with a cloak and gently soothed the suffering man. It was in these moments, many Muslim scholars believe, that he received the revelation included in surah 74, when he was suffering and overwhelmed:
“You, wrapped in your cloak, arise and give warning! Proclaim the greatness of your Lord; cleanse yourself; keep away from idolatry; do not weaken, feeling overwhelmed; be steadfast in your Lord’s cause.”
Thus, not only was the experience of revelation intensely overwhelming, it was only the beginning. For the next several years, Muhammad would continue to receive these things, plus he would be burdened with leading a new community of believers, which would place him in direct confrontation with the wealthiest and most powerful tribes of the region. Being a prophet is not an easy task.
This story of Muhammad’s early life, while not narrated much in the Qur’an itself, is part of a large collection of supplementary materials to the Qur’an known as Hadith Literature, which basically means “Stories of the Prophet.” I like this story of Muhammad’s early revelations because it presents divine revelation/inspiration not as bliss, but as suffering. Most of the great artists and writers I love (from Vincent Van Gogh to Fyodor Dostoyevsky to David Foster Wallace) took their inspiration from deep personal pain and trauma. So it was with Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.