Sources of the Quran

Revised by Montgomery Watt




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Sources of the Quran


Chapter 1
The Historical Context

Chapter 2

Mohammed's Prophetic Experience

Chapter 3

The History of the Text

Chapter 4

The external form of the Quran

Chapter 5

The features of Quranic style

Chapter 6

The Shaping of the Quran

Chapter 7
The Chronology of the Quran

Chapter 8
The names of the revealed message

Chapter 9
The Doctrines of the Quran

Chapter 10
Muslim Scholarship and the Quran

Chapter 11
The Quran and Occidental Scholariship



Bell's Introduction to the Quran
Revised by Montgomery Watt
Chapter 7: Seven
The Chronology of the Qur'ån


1. Traditional Islamic views of dating

Muslim scholars usually accepted the fact that the quran QurŸån had originally been revealed for the most part in short passages. They tended to assume that most of the passages in a sura had been revealed about the same time. On this basis they came to classify the suras as 'Meccan' or 'Medinan', and this description was included in the heading of each sura in the later copies. They were also aware, however, of instances where a few verses had to be classified differently from the rest of the sura. This has now come to be noted in the heading. Thus in the official Egyptian edition the heading of sura 73 reads: 'The sura of Al-muzzammil, Meccan except verses 10, 11 and 20, which are Medinan; its verses are 20; it was revealed after Al-qalam.' The last statement is part of the attempt to arrange all the suras according to the order in which the main part of each was revealed.

The chief basis for the dating of passages and verses in the eyes of Muslim scholars consists of Traditions about muhammad Muøammad and statements by later students of the quran QurŸån. The older Muslim scholars, though presumably they sometimes paid attention to internal evidence, seldom used it explicitly in their arguments. The Traditions in question here are usually to the effect that such and such a passage was revealed in connection with such and such an event. Thus sura 80.1-10 is said to have been revealed when a blind man called abd allah ˙Abd-Allåh umm maktum ibn-Umm-Maktõm came up to him as he was talking to some leading men of Quraysh and hoping to win them over. Stories of this type are said to deal with 'the occasions of revelation' (asbab asbåb nuzul an-nuzõl). There is a well-known book on this subject by wahidi al-Wåøidæ (d. 1075). Unfortunately this traditional material suffers from several defects. For one thing it is incomplete, and specifies the 'occasion' for only a relatively small part of the quran QurŸån. Again, many of the 'occasions' are incidents, unimportant in themselves, whose precise date is unknown. Such is the anecdote just mentioned about the blind man. Finally, there are inconsistencies. Thus it is usually said that the first passage to be revealed was the beginning of sura 96 (Al-qalam); but there is another story according to which the first revelation was the beginning of sura 74. There are also stories trying to harmonize the two accounts, e.g. by saying that 74 was the first after a gap. In fact neither of these may be the first extant revelation, and the stories may be only the guesses of later Muslim scholars, since there are grounds for selecting each as first. Sura 96 begins with 'recite', and this is appropriate for a book which is called 'the recitation' or quran QurŸån; and sura 74 after addressing muhammad Muøammad has the words 'rise and warn'-an appropriate beginning to the work of a messenger or warner.

Despite these deficiencies the traditional dating of passages by Muslim scholars is by no means valueless, and indeed forms the basis of all future work. In so far as it is consistent it gives a rough idea of the chronology of the quran QurŸån; and any modern attempt to find a basis for dating must by and large be in agreement with the traditional views, even if in one or two points it contradicts them.

2. European theories of dating

European attempts to work out the chronological order of the suras have usually taken internal evidence into account as well, that is, apparent references to known public events, especially during the Medinan period of muhammad Muøammad's career. Attention has also been paid to considerations of style, vocabulary and the like. In short, the quran QurŸån has been subjected to severe scrutiny according to the methods of modern literary and historical criticism.

Several nineteenth-century scholars made useful contributions to the study of quranic QurŸånic chronology; but the most important book by far was Theodor Nöldeke's Geschichte des quran qorans Qoråns, first published in 1860. 1 A second edition, revised and enlarged by Friedrich Schwally and others, appeared in three volumes in 1909, 1919 and 1938, and was reprinted by a photocopying process in 1961. In respect of chronology Nöldeke assumed a progressive change of style from exalted poetical passages in the early years to long prosaic deliverances later. He followed the Islamic tradition in recognizing a division into suras mainly revealed at Mecca and those mainly revealed at Medina, but further divided the Meccan suras into three periods.

The suras of the First Meccan Period are mostly short. The verses also are short, and the language rhythmic and full of imagery. Groups of oaths often occur at the beginning of passages. The suras of this period, in the order assigned to them by Nöldeke are: 96, 74, 111, 106, 108, 104, 107, 102, 105, 92, 90, 94, 93, 97, 86, 91, 80, 68, 87, 95, 103, 85, 73, 101, 99, 82, 81, 53, 84, 100, 79, 77, 78, 88, 89, 75, 83, 69, 51, 52, 56, 70, 55, 112, 109, 113, 114, 1.

In the Second Meccan Period there is a transition from the sublime enthusiasm of the first period to the greater calmness of the third. The fundamental teaching is supported and explained by numerous illustrations from nature and history. There are also discussions of some doctrinal points. In particular emphasis is placed on the signs of God's power both in nature and in the events which befell former prophets. The latter are described in a way which brings out their relevance to what was happening to muhammad Muøammad and his followers. Stylistically, the period is distinguished by new modes of speech. Oaths are seldom used. The suras grow longer and frequently have formal introductions, such as: 'This is the revelation of God...'. Passages are often preceded by qul, 'say', as a command to muhammad Muøammad. God is frequently referred to as ar rahman ar-Raømån, 'the Merciful'. The suras of the period are: 54, 37, 71, 76, 44, 50, 20, 26, 15, 19, 38, 36, 43, 72, 67, 23, 21, 25, 17, 27, 18.

In the Third Meccan Period the use of ar rahman ar-Raømån as a proper name ceases, but other characteristics of the second period are intensified. The prophetic stories are frequently repeated with slight variations of emphasis. The suras of this period are: 32, 41, 45, 16, 30, 11, 14, 12, 40, 28, 39, 29, 31, 42, 10, 34, 35, 7, 46, 6, 13.

The sums of the Medinan Period show not so much a change of style as a change of subject. Since the Prophet is now recognized as such by a whole community, the revelations contain laws and regulations for the community. Often the people are directly addressed. Some contemporary events are mentioned and their significance made clear. The suras of the period are: 2, 98, 64, 62, 8, 47, 3, 61, 57, 4, 65, 59, 33, 63, 24, 58, 22, 48, 66, 60, 110, 49, 9, 5. 2

As a first approximation to the historical order of the quran QurŸån Nöldeke's arrangement is useful. The criterion of style plays too large a part in it, however. The style of the quran QurŸån undoubtedly changes through the years, but it should not be assumed that the change was a steady progression in one direction, for example, towards longer verses. It may well be that the style of different passages of about the same date varied according to their purposes, as indeed is suggested in the quran QurŸån (e.g. 47.20/2; cf. 62.2). It is doubtful, too, whether the use of ar rahman ar-Raømån as a proper name can be restricted to a few years. It may have been introduced in the Second Meccan Period, but there is no record of it having been explicitly dropped. It continued to be used in the bismillah bismillåh, and the Meccans who objected to this as a heading for the protocol of the treaty of hudaybiya al-Øudaybiya seem to have regarded ar rahman ar-Raømån rahim ar-Raøæm as proper names.

The chief weakness of Nöldeke's scheme, however, is that he mostly treats suras as unities. Occasionally he admits that passages of different dates have found their way into the same sura, but this is exceptional. Subsequent scholars, while retaining the sura itself as the ultimate unit and showing reluctance to admit breaks in its composition, have allowed more intrusion of later passages into earlier suras. If, as has been argued above, however, the original unit of revelation was the short passage, and such passages were afterwards 'collected' to form suras, then the date of the separate passages becomes a prior question. There may be a slight presumption that passages of about the same date would be 'collected' into the same sura, but it is at least possible that some suras contain passages originally revealed at different dates. If both the unit passages and the suras have been subject to revision during muhammad Muøammad's lifetime, the problem becomes even more complicated. Thus it may well be doubted whether it will ever be possible for scholars to produce a complete arrangement of the quran QurŸån in chronological order.

Other proposed solutions of the problem by European scholars may be mentioned briefly. In his biography of muhammad Muøammad Sir William Muir, working independently of Nöldeke, suggested an arrangement of the suras that was broadly similar; but a number of passages dealing with the wonders of nature were placed before muhammad Muøammad's call to be a prophet and before the suras traditionally accepted as the first revelations [96 and 74]. 3 An order different from Nöldeke's resulted from Hubert Grimme's attempt to arrange the suras on the basis of doctrinal characteristics. 4 He distinguished two main groups of Meccan suras. The first proclaims monotheism, resurrection, the Last Judgement and a future life of bliss or torment; man is free to believe or not; muhammad Muøammad is spoken of as a preacher only, not a prophet. The second group introduces God's rahma raøma, 'mercy' or 'grace', and with this the name of ar rahman ar-Raømån is associated; the revelation of 'the Book' becomes prominent, and stories of former recipients of revelation are recounted. Between these two groups are some intermediate suras in which the Judgement is represented as near, and stories are told of punishments falling on unbelieving peoples. While Grimme is right in looking to the sequence of ideas, this criterion by itself is insufficient and must be combined with others.

A radical departure from Nöldeke's scheme came at the beginning of the twentieth century with Hartwig Hirschfeld's New Researches into the Composition and Exegesis of the quran Qoran. 5 He based his dating on the character of separate passages as original revelation, confirmatory, declamatory, narrative, descriptive or legislative. His position is interesting in that he recognizes that it is passages rather than suras with which we have to deal; but his detailed arrangement has not found much acceptance. A recent treatment of the subject is that of Régis Blachčre in his French translation. 6 The suras are printed in a chronological order which deviates from Nöldeke's only at a very few points, and fully accepts his idea of three Meccan periods, In the actual arrangement two suras have been divided into two; the opening verses of suras 96 and 74 come first of all (in accordance with Islamic tradition), while the remainder of each sura is put considerably later. Even where a sura is all printed consecutively, however, it may be divided into separate sections and different dates assigned to these. When blachere Blachčre's dating and structural analysis is compared with Bell's, it appears that, while he is prepared to accept many of the latter's presuppositions, he is less radical in working them out. Though he refers to Bell, the impression is given that he became familiar with the Translation only after his own work was virtually complete-something for which the Second World War may be chiefly responsible.

The most elaborate attempt so far to discover the original units of revelation in the quran QurŸån and to date these is that incorporated by Richard Bell in his Translation, published in 1937 and 1939. He set out from the position, accepted in a general way by Muslim scholars, that the original unit of revelation was the short passage. He further held that much of the work of 'collecting' these into suras had been done by muhammad Muøammad himself under divine inspiration, and that both in the process of 'collecting' and at other times-always under divine inspiration-he had revised passages. The arguments Bell used are roughly those given in the first two sections of the previous chapter. These points seem to be accepted by Blachčre, though he is much more hesitant in claiming that he is able to detect revisions. Beyond that Bell put forward the hypothesis explained and criticized in the last section of the previous chapter. Though the hypothesis has greatly influenced the physical appearance of the printed translation, its rejection does not invalidate to any appreciable extent his dating of particular passages. This dating was based on a careful analysis of each sura, which was in effect a dissection of the sura into its component parts. This analysis, though making the work of dating more complex, in itself yielded certain results, for example, through the recognition of alternative continuations of a verse or phrase. Bell also made a resolute attempt not to read into any passage more than it actually says. This meant setting aside the views of later Muslim commentators in so far as these appeared to have been influenced by theological developments which came about long after the death of the Prophet, and endeavouring to understand each passage in the sense it had for its first hearers.

Like all those who have attempted to date the quran QurŸån Bell accepted the general chronological framework of muhammad Muøammad's life as this is found in the sira Særa or biography by hisham Ibn-Hishåm (d. 833) and other works. This is chiefly a chronology of the Medinan period from the Hijra or emigration to Medina in 622 to muhammad Muøammad's death in 632. For the previous period the dates are few and uncertain. Where passages of the quran QurŸån can be linked up with events like the battles of Badr or uhud Uøud or the conquest of Mecca, they can be dated fairly exactly. This chronological framework may be supplemented by the sequence of ideas in the quran QurŸån. About this, of course, there is some disagreement. On this point Bell had definite views, some already worked out in his book on The Origin of Islam in its Christian Environment. These views were similar to those about to be given in the next section, but not identical with them. Bell also regarded style as being to some extent a criterion of relative date, and agreed with Nöldeke in holding that the short crisp verse and studied rhyme usually belong to an earlier stage than the loose trailing verse and rhyme mechanically formed by grammatical terminations. Now some thirty years after the appearance of Bell's Translation it is clear that he did not solve all the problems, but he nevertheless made a contribution of supreme importance by calling the attention of scholars to the complexity of the phenomena.

3. The sequence of ideas as a guide to chronology

Islamic scholarship, regarding the quran QurŸån as the eternal Word of God, is unwilling to admit any development of thought in it. Clearly, in so far as God is eternal and unchanging, his thought cannot change. Yet in so far as the quran QurŸån is God's Word addressed to men, there is nothing inconsistent in supposing a change of emphasis according to the needs of the original hearers at any given time and according to what they were able to accept and understand. Some such idea is indeed implicit in the doctrine of abrogation. It is no easy matter, of course, to establish a sequence of ideas or of emphases, and in details there are bound to be divergences between scholars. Yet by noting the ideas emphasized in the suras or passages about whose date there is some agreement, an approximation may be made to the sequence of ideas. The study of phraseology sometimes helps, since certain words and turns of phrase are associated with the introduction of a new emphasis in doctrine. The use of a word or phrase tends to continue indefinitely, however, and in its later instances it does not necessarily indicate a special emphasis.

During the last century there has been considerable discussion among European scholars about which points were given prominence in the earliest revelations. For long it had simply been assumed that, in so far as muhammad Muøammad's mission had had a genuinely religious aim, it was to proclaim the unity of God and to attack idolatry. In 1892 in a biography of muhammad Muøammad 7 the German scholar Hubert Grimme tried to show that he was primarily a socialistic reformer who made use of religion in order to carry out his reforms. This hypothesis was vigorously criticized and demolished by a Dutchman, C. Snouck Hurgronje, 8 who argued not only that muhammad Muøammad was primarily a religious leader but also that the motive which drove him on had been the thought of the Day of Judgement and its terrors. This view was accepted favourably in certain circles, especially where eschatology was in fashion. It is prominent, for example, in the life of muhammad Muøammad by Tor Andrae, a Swede. 9 There were also opponents, however, and among these was Richard Bell who suggested rather that the earliest revelations were appealing to men to recognize 'God's bounties in creation' and to show gratitude to him. Bell admitted that the idea of Judgement was in some sense present from the first, but maintained that the descriptions of the terrors of Hell came only later, and indeed after accounts of special punishments on those who disbelieved in prophets. 10

The question is best answered by a careful examination of the passages generally agreed to be early. It may also be assumed that before opposition appeared to muhammad Muøammad, he had proclaimed some positive message which had annoyed some men; and from this it follows that among the early passages those in which the existence of opposition is mentioned or implied are likely to be later than those where it is not. If one then considers the passages which are regarded as early by both Nöldeke and Bell, and where there is no mention of opposition, one finds that the following points are most prominent:

(1) God is all-powerful and also good or well-disposed towards men; all that is best in men's lives is due to him and also life itself.

(2) God will judge men on the Last Day, and assign them to Heaven or Hell according to their conduct in this life.

(3) Man is to recognize his dependence on God and to show gratitude to him and worship him.

(4) Man's recognition of his dependence on God must also express itself in his attitude to wealth-no niggardly hoarding, but generosity to those in need.

(5) muhammad Muøammad has a special vocation to convey knowledge of these truths to those round him. 11

In the early passages these points are of course elaborated in various ways; but it is perhaps worth remarking that on the practical side (point 4) there is virtually nothing apart from the different aspects of the attitude to wealth.

There seems to be some connection, though its precise nature is not clear, between the appearance of opposition to muhammad Muøammad and the revelation of passages criticizing and attacking idol-worship. At a very early date in Surat Quraysh (106) there is an appeal to the people of Mecca to worship 'the Lord of this house', that is, the kaba kaaba Ka˙ba at Mecca. This phrase has puzzled some European scholars, since they assumed that at this period the Lord of the kaba kaaba Ka˙ba was an idol. The explanation of the verse is simple, and rests on two points. 12 One is that the Arabic word allah allåh, like the Greek ho theos, may be understood either as 'the god' worshipped at a particular sanctuary (and so one god among many) or as 'God' in the sense of the purest monotheism. Thus while some Arabs may have thought of allah allåh as 'the god' of the kaba kaaba Ka˙ba in a polytheistic sense, Muslims could believe that it was God, the source of the revelations to muhammad Muøammad, who was worshipped there. The transition from one interpretation to the other was made easier by the second point for which there are several pieces of evidence in the quran QurŸån. This is that among the Arabs of muhammad Muøammad's time there were many who believed that above the deities represented by the idols there was a 'high god' or supreme deity, allah Allåh. One passage apparently describing such a view is 29.61, 63, 65:

If you ask them who created the heavens and the earth and made the sun and moon subservient, they will certainly say, 'God' . . . And if you ask them who sent down water from the heaven and thereby revived the earth after its death, they will certainly say, 'God' . . . And when they sail on the ship, they pray to God as sole object of worship, but when he has brought them safe to land they 'associate' (sc. other beings with God).

Sometimes the lesser deities were apparently regarded as interceding with the supreme God. 13 The temptation in the 'satanic verses' intruded after 53.19,20 was probably to regard God as a supreme deity of this type besides whom there were lesser deities-perhaps to be identified with angels-who might intercede with him on behalf of those who showed honour to them.

Whatever the precise form of the pagan beliefs of those who opposed muhammad Muøammad, and whatever non-religious motives they may have had, it is clear that at some point the quran QurŸån began to attack all forms of polytheism with the utmost vigour. In some passages the pagan deities are not denied all reality, but are spoken of as a species of inferior beings, possibly angels or jinn, who have no power to thwart or even influence God's will though popularly supposed to be able to intercede with him. In other passages all reality is denied to them, and they are said to be mere names invented by the ancients. In yet other passages belonging to the Medinan period and perhaps with Christians in view, it is stated that messengers sent by God have wrongly had worship rendered to them, but that they will deny their worshippers at the Judgement. Chronologically the emphases probably came in the order in which they are described here.

After the appearances of opposition a change is also found in the statements about God's punishment of unbelievers and wrongdoers. On the one hand, it is frequently asserted that God will destroy or otherwise punish unbelieving peoples in this world. This theme is illustrated from a number of actual stories, the 'punishment stories' to be considered in chapter 8, section 2. On the other hand, the doctrine of the Last Day is further developed, and the torments of Hell and joys of Paradise are described in greater detail. In connection with this, however, several other matters seem to make their first appearance or to receive greater emphasis. It may be that the angels were first mentioned in connection with the Judgement. Certainly it is towards the end of the Meccan period that they are often spoken of as agents, either alone or with 'the spirit' (ar ruh ar-rõø), of God's providence and revelation. About the same time the name of ar rahman ar-Raømån, 'the Merciful', is introduced, and is perhaps accompanied by a deeper sense of rahma raøma or 'mercy'. It is presumably because of the deepening spiritual understanding of the believers that the quran QurŸån begins to employ such terms expressive of their relation to God as tawba, 'repentance', maghfira, 'forgiveness', kaffara kaffåra, 'absolution', and ridwan riđwån, 'approval'. Some of these may first have come after the Hijra.

The Hijra brought the Muslims into close contact with Jews. muhammad Muøammad seems at first to have expected that the Jews would recognize the identity of the revelation given to him with what they had in the Hebrew Bible, and was prepared to be friendly with them. It soon became evident, however, that the Jews were not prepared to accept the quran QurŸån as revelation, and relations between them and the Muslims deteriorated. The Muslims learnt too of the differences between Judaism and Christianity and were greatly puzzled, since they regarded both as based on genuine revelations from God. Gradually an understanding of the solution of this problem was provided by the quran QurŸån. It was linked with fresh emphasis on the figure of Abraham, especially on the fact that he was neither a Jew nor a Christian. 14 Though Jews and Christians believe that they worship 'the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob' and there is some continuity with the religion of these men, it is also a fact that the Jewish religion can be said at earliest to begin with Jacob (Abraham's grandson), though the main revelation only came with Moses. In the quran QurŸån Abraham is connected with Mecca, but the contemporaries of muhammad Muøammad do not seem to have thought of Ishmael (Abraham's son) as their ancestor, though the descent of many Arabs from Ishmael (as alleged in the Old Testament) was accepted by later Muslim scholars.

The religion of Abraham, then, according to the quran QurŸån, was a pure monotheism identical with the revelation given to muhammad Muøammad. Similar, too, was the revelation given to Moses and Jesus, the prophets from whose work came the Jewish and Christian religions respectively. These religions were now different because their followers had perverted them through presumption, disobedience and jealousy. (Once again a more elaborate theory was developed by later Muslim scholars.) The adherent of this pure religion was called at first a hanif øanæf a new word apparently in Arabic, whose plural unfortunately resembled the word for 'pagans' in Syriac. Later he was also called a muslim, 'one surrendered (to God)', and the religion of Abraham and of muhammad Muøammad became correspondingly islam islåm 'surrender (to God)'. One effect of this conception was to give muhammad Muøammad a position as an independent prophet and his followers as an independent community, and thereby to remove the sting from Jewish criticisms of the quran QurŸån.

The process of ideological and political adjustment to the hostility of the Jews of Medina culminated about March 624, just before the battle of Badr, in what is called 'the break with the Jews'; and this led to the appearance in the quran QurŸån of new words and phrases which may be useful as an indication of date. Passages which appeal to the testimony of earlier monotheists, or which speak of the confirmation of previous revelations, are either Meccan or-perhaps more frequently-early Medinan. Those which speak of more than one messenger to the same people imply a growing awareness of the Jewish religion among Muslims, and are thus late Meccan or Medinan. The word nabi nabæ, 'prophet', and most words derived from Hebrew, are Medinan. Abraham is spoken of as a prophet only in Medina, and his close association with Ishmael probably belongs to the same time. The word hanif øanæf and the phrase millat ibrahim Ibråhæm, 'the religion of Abraham', first come just before 'the break with the Jews'. The use of islam islåm, muslim and the verb aslama (in a religious sense) do not occur earlier than that, and may well be later. It was probably about the same time that the quran QurŸån began to speak of muhammad Muøammad receiving 'the Book', but since the word 'book' has other meanings, it is not always helpful in dating. After 'the break with the Jews' there seem to have been few changes of emphasis in quranic QurŸånic teaching on doctrinal matters.

Some miscellaneous words and ideas which give an indication of date may be briefly mentioned. All passages which recommend fighting or speak of the Prophet's followers being engaged in fighting are necessarily Medinan. It was at Medina too that the maintenance of the morale of the community became of concern to muhammad Muøammad and the Muslims, so that condemnation of fasad fasåd, 'corruption', 'treason', must be Medinan. The word fitna which may have a similar meaning is too ambiguous to be a safe guide, but most of its occurrences are probably Medinan; the same is true of shiqaq shiqåq, 'schism'. Medinan too are the demand to obey the Messenger, the use of the phrase 'God and the Messenger', and the threat of 'humiliation in this world' directed against Jews and other opponents.

The designations applied to opponents vary from time to time. kafir Kåfir, 'unbeliever', with the plural kafirun kåfirõn, is often used throughout the quran QurŸån, though it perhaps refers specially to the early emphasis on God's bounty, since in its non-technical use the verb kafara means 'to be ungrateful'. The alternative plural form kuffar kuffår is Medinan only. al mushrikun Al-mushrikõn, 'those who ascribe partners (to God)', is a general name for idolaters at all periods. alladhina Alladhæna kafaru kafarõ, 'those who have been ungrateful' or 'who have disbelieved', is a frequent designation of the Meccans (though not restricted to them) and continues into Medinan times. al mushrikun Al-mushrikõn ... al mujrimun Al-mujrimõn, 'the sinners', seems to be late Meccan and early Medinan. alladhina Alladhæna zalamu zalamõ, 'those who have done wrong', is Medinan and seems to be often applied to the Jews. muhajirun Muhåjirõn, 'Emigrants', and ansar anãår, 'Helpers', are of course Medinan. Uncertain supporters in Medina were at first referred to as alladhina alladhæna fi qulubi-him marad marađ, 'those in whose hearts is disease'; their conduct at the battle of uhud Uøud earned them the nickname of munafiqun munåfiqõn, usually rendered 'Hypocrites'. Towards the close of muhammad Muøammad's life this word is applied to a different group of opponents.