Waḥy (Arabic: وحي, IPA: [waħj]; also spelled wahi) is the Arabic word for revelation. In Islamic belief, revelations are God's Word delivered by his chosen individuals – known as Messengers prophets – to mankind.[1] In Islam, the Quran is considered a wahy given to the Islamic prophet, Muhammad. The word awha (أوحى awḥá) occurs in a number of shades of meaning in the Quran, each of them indicating the main underlying idea of directing or guiding someone. The word "wahy" (revelation) is derived from awha.


In Islamic tradition, the 42:51 verse of the Quran serves as the basis of understanding for wahy. It says "It is not fitting for a man that Allah should speak to him except by inspiration, or from behind a veil, or by the sending of a messenger to reveal, with Allah's permission, what Allah wills". Based on this, Islamic scholars have described three ways in which God's revelation can reach His chosen individuals, especially prophets.[2] An inspired message – not a word but an idea – can enter the heart of the chosen individuals either in the state of consciousness or in dream.[3] The second mode, it is said, is the word heard by the person spoken to, like, from behind a veil.[3] In the third mode, the revelation is sent from God through archangels like Gabriel and is delivered to the prophets. It is the highest form of revelation, and Muslims believe the whole Quran was revealed in this mode.[2][3]


Ilham is considered a lower form than wahy. Historically, there have been attempts to distinguish between the two terms; however their usage in the Quran points to an interchangeability of the terms.


According to Islamic scholar Muhammad Shafi Usmani, God has created three media through which humans receive knowledge: men’s senses, the faculty of reason, and the divine revelation; and it is the third one that addresses the liturgical and eschatological issues, answers the questions regarding God's purpose behind creating mankind, and acts as a guidance for the mankind as to choosing the correct way.[4] In Islamic belief, the sequence of divine revelation came to an end with Muhammad.[4]

Mode of descent

As regard to revelation received by Muhammad, Muslim sources mention various modes in which they believe revelation came to him. Muslim scholar Muhammad Shafi Usmani has summarized five modes of descent. The common mode was that Muhammad would hear sound like "the ringing of a bell" after which he found the message committed to his memory. Sometimes, the arch angel would come in human shape, most often of Dahya al-Kalbi. In two cases, Gabriel appeared in his real form. Once, on the night of Miraj, Muhammad is believed to have had a direct conversation with God. In the fifth mode, Gabriel would let the revelation enter into Muhammad’s heart.[4]

Scholarly views

According to Rudi Paret, "The accusation of dishonesty which has been laid down against the Prophet time and again over the centuries up to the most recent times with varying degrees of vehemence is relatively easy to refute." Annemarie Schimmel states that most recent studies of Muhammad indicate that Muhammad devoutly believed that he was God's instrument. William Montgomery Watt argues that only Muhammad's sincerity can explain his "readiness to endure hardship and persecution during the Meccan period when from a secular point of view there was no prospect of success.[5] To carry on in the face of persecution and hostility would have been impossible for him unless he was fully persuaded that God had sent him.[6] "

William Montgomery Watt presents the following possibilities for the sources of Qur'an:[7]

Sometimes he [Muhammad] may have heard the words being spoken to him, but for most part he seems simply to have "found them in his heart". Whatever the precise "manner of revelation"-and several different 'manners' were listed by Muslim scholars- the important point is that the message was not the product of Muhammad's conscious mind. He believed he could easily distinguish between his own thinking and these revelations. His sincerity in this belief must be accepted by the modern historian, for this alone makes credible the development of a great religion. The further question, however, whether the messages came from Muhammad's unconscious, or the collective unconscious functioning in him, or from some divine source, is beyond the competence of the historian.

According to historian Welch,

The really powerful factor in Muhammad's life and the essential clue to his extraordinary success was his unshakable belief from beginning to end that he had been called by God. A conviction such as this, which, once firmly established, does not admit of the slightest doubt, exercises an incalculable influence on others. The certainty with which he came forward as the executor of God's will gave his words and ordinances an authority that proved finally compelling.[8]

A number of Western historians have addressed the question of whether Muhammad was sincere when he reported receiving revelations. Around a hundred years ago, Thomas Carlyle in his lectures, "On Heroes", vigorously defended Muhammad arguing that one can only accuse him of insincerity if one fails to understand Islam and its worldwide success.[5] Carlyle's view has been increasingly influential ever since and contemporary historians tend to say that as far as can be ascertained Muhammad did believe that he was hearing the word of God.[7][9]

Watt notes, "To say that Muhammad was sincere does not imply that he was correct in his beliefs. A man maybe sincere but mistaken. The modern Westerner has not difficulty in showing how Muhammad may have been mistaken. What seems to a man to come from 'outside himself' may actually come from his unconscious."[10]


  1. Juan E. Campo, ed. (2009). Encyclopedia of Islam. Facts On File. p. 589. ISBN 978-0-8160-5454-1.
  2. 1 2 Muhammad Shafi Usmani, Maariful Quran, see commentary on 42:51
  3. 1 2 3 Ali, Muhammad (1936). The Religion of Islam. Lahore. p. 70.
  4. 1 2 3 "Introduction" (PDF). Maariful Quran.
  5. 1 2 Watt, Muhammad the prophet and the statesman, p.232
  6. Watt, Muhammad the prophet and the statesman, p.17
  7. 1 2 Cambridge History of Islam, p.31
  8. Encyclopedia of Islam, Muhammad
  9. Annemarie Schimmel, Mystische Dimensionen des Islam, München, 1995, pp.51-2.
  10. Watt, Muhammad Prophet and Statesman, p.17

Further reading

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