With respect to the recitation of Qur’ân, the question of sequence can relate to a two different concerns.
The first meaning of “sequence” is the sequence of verses being recited on a given occasion from within a single chapter, or selected from various places in the Qur’ân. A reversal of sequence in this case would mean reading verses of the Qur’ân one after another in a sequence other than the sequence which they appear in the Qur’ân.
For example, we can consider the first three verses of Sûrah al-Fâtihah. The proper sequence of these verses is as follows: “Praise be to Allah, Lord of All the worlds, the beneficent, the merciful, Master of the Day of Judgment.”
A reversal of this sequence would be: “Master of the Day of Judgment, the Beneficent, the Merciful, praise be to Allah, Lord of all the worlds.”
There can be no question that this manner of reciting the Qur’ân is forbidden. It is a corruption of the text and alters the meaning of what is being said, sometimes far more drastically than in the example above.
Ibn Mas`ûd, the eminent Companion, when asked about someone who reads the Qur’ân out of order, said: “His heart is out of order.” [Musannaf `Abd al-Razzâq (7947) and Musannaf Ibn Abî Shaybah (30298) with a sound chain of transmission]
The second meaning of “sequence” is the sequence of chapters as they appear in the written Qur’ân. Reversing the sequence in this case means reading different chapters of the Qur’ân right after each other, in their entirety, but in a different order than the order in which they appear in the Qur’ân.
For example, the last three short chapters of the Qur’ân appear in the following order: al-Ikhlâs , al-Falaq, and al-Nâs. Therefore, a person who reads al-Nâs, followed by al-Falaq, followed by al-Ikhlâs, is reading these chapters in a different order.
There have been a few scholars who have objected to this practice. They construed Ibn Mas`ûd’s censure “His heart is out of order.” To refer to reading the chapters of the Qur’ân out of sequence. However, most scholars regard Ibn Mas`ûd’s statement to refer to re-arranging the verses of the Qur’ân, not to the recitation of full chapters.
The idea that there is no objection to reading full chapters of the Qur’ân in a different order is supported by considerable evidence. For one thing, in Ibn Mas`ûd’s personal manuscript of the Qur’ân, the chapters were arranged in a different order than the order of chapters we find established in the Uthmani manuscript. This supports the idea that Ibn Mas`ûd meant the order of the verses of the Qur’ân when he made his statement, not the sequence of chapters.
Moreover, it is authentically established that the Prophet (peace be upon him) recited al-Baqarah (chapter 2), followed by al-Nisâ’ (chapter 4), followed by Âl `Imrân (chapter 3).
Hudhayfah b. al-Yamân relates in Sahîh Muslim (772):
One night, I observed prayer along with the Prophet (peace be upon him). He first read al-Baqarah. I thought he would bow after the 100th verse, but he continued standing until he had read it in full. I thought that he would bow at this time, but he started reading al-Nisâ’ and read it in full. Then he began Âl `Imrân and read it in full.
He read at a leisurely pace. Whenever he arrived at a verse glorifying Allah, he would glorify Allah. When he arrived at a verse beseeching Allah, he would beseech. When he arrived at a verse regarding taking refuge with Allah, he would seek Allah’s refuge.
This is strong evidence in favor of reading the chapters of the Qur’ân in any order. Indeed, the practice of the Prophet (peace be upon him) would seem more than sufficient evidence that it is permissible to do so. However, those scholars who regard it as impermissible have a counter-argument. They suggest that the event narrated by Hudhayfah took place before the end of Prophet’s life when he received the revelation showing him the final sequence that the Qur’ân’s chapters would take.
This objection is very weak. Had this been the case, we should have some clear textual evidence that some re-ordering of the Qur’ân’s chapters occurred. There is no evidence that the Prophet (peace be upon him) ever commanded his Companions to rearrange the chapters in a certain way. Likewise, there is no evidence that he ever commanded them to read the chapters in a certain order and not vary their sequence.
Therefore, the matter remains one of permissibility, especially when we have evidence that the Prophet (peace be upon him) recited the chapters of the Qur’ân in a different order.
Moreover, we have the following account in Sunan al-Tirmidhî (2901) narrated by Anas b. Mâlik:
A native of Madinah was leading the prayers in the Quba Mosque. Whenever he commenced reading the Qur’ân, he would precede his chapter of choice by reading “Say, He is Allah, the One…” (al-Ikhlâs). Then he would go and read some other chapter.
When the Prophet (peace be upon him) visited that mosque, they informed him of this man’s practice. So the Prophet (peace be upon him) went and asked the man: “What is it that makes you recite this chapter in each and every unit of prayer?”
The man said: “I love it.” The Prophet (peace be upon him) then said: “Your love for it will bring you admittance into Paradise.
Al-Ikhlâs is at the very end of the Qur’ân. There are only two short chapters – al-Falaq and al-Nâs – that come after it. The fact that this man read al-Ikhlâs in each unit of prayer and followed it by another chapter means that he must have often read a chapter that preceded al-Ikhlâs in sequential order. We can see that the Prophet (peace be upon him) upheld and approved of the man’s practice. This is evidence that it is perfectly alright reading the chapters of the Qur’ân in a different sequence.
It has been the practice of the Muslims from the very beginning has been to teach their children the chapters of the Qur’ân in reverse order, starting with the short, easily-memorized chapters at the end of the Qur’ân before going on to the much longer chapters at the beginning. If there had been something wrong with this practice, it would not have been so universally adopted by the Muslims.
There is a final problem with the opinion that it is obligatory to read the chapters of the Qur’ân in a particular sequence. It necessitates that the order of chapters be known to all the Muslims. This might not seem like much of a problem today. However, the majority of the early Muslims did not have knowledge of the order of chapters until after `Uthmân had the text of the Qur’ân copied and distributed.
Before then, the Companions read the Qur’ân from memory and from their own written copies of the various chapters which were not always organized according to the sequence of chapters as set forth in the `Uthmânî manuscripts. They simply read the Qur’ân as they had heard it from the Prophet (peace be upon him). Only after `Uthmân had the Qur’ân widely circulated in written form according to the manuscript held by Hafsah, the order of the chapters become known to, and accepted by, everyone.
And Allah knows best.