For Muslims, the Qur'an is the eternal and indisputable word of God. The oldest and most sacred text of Islam, it is the cornerstone of every believer's faith and morality. But the Qur'an is also an earthly book, and its history is intimately connected to the life and history of an earthly community.
The Qur'an was revealed to Muhammad over a period of about 22 years. It serves as a record of the society of his time and constitutes the most important source for tracing the historical development of Islam from its origins in Mecca to its maturity in Medina. Many of its passages reflect the conditions of the early Islamic community. Even so, for Muslims its divine message transcends time and space.
According to Islamic tradition, Muhammad received his first divine revelation during the month of Ramadan in 610 . Seeking a solitary place to pray and meditate, Muhammad regularly withdrew to a cave on Mount Hira, a few miles north of his home in Mecca. During one such retreat, a heavenly being, later identified as the angel Gabriel, appeared to him. The angel commanded him to recite and later gave him a divine revelation. Muhammad returned home frightened and confused. He feared that he was possessed by a demon. After a period of uncertainty lasting between six months and two years, during which Muhammad received no new revelations, his wife Khadija and her cousin helped convince him that the revelation was from God. Thereafter, revelations continued to come until Muhammad's death in 632 . Muhammad received the divine messages verse by verse, often in response to a crisis or concern that emerged among his followers.
Most members of the early Islamic community, including Muhammad, were illiterate. The new scripture was known as the qur'an (recitation) because believers learned it by listening to public readings and recitations. Many of Muhammad's followers committed the passages to memory. But the Prophet also commissioned many scribes to preserve the messages in writing. They recorded the words on a variety of available materials, including paper, stones, palm leaves, and pieces of leather.
Setting the Standard.
By the time of Muhammad's death, several of his followers had memorized the entire Qur'an. Many of them, however, were killed in battle. Fearing that knowledge of the Qur'an might be lost, the leaders of the Islamic community decided to collect all the revelations, from both written and oral sources, and to compile an official version of the sacred text. Many partial collections existed. They were among the possessions of Muhammad's wives, his companions, and scribes. These collections contained variations, further demonstrating the need for a single authoritative source.
The process of gathering material was time consuming. Uthman, the third caliph, commissioned a team of Muslim scholars to oversee it. Led by Zayd ibn Thabit , one of Muhammad's companions, they completed their work around 650 . To resolve conflicts in pronunciation among the earlier sources, the team used the dialect of the Quraysh, the tribe of the Prophet.
Although Uthman's version of the Arabic text became the official standard for the Islamic community, a large number of variations emerged, reflecting regional differences in language. Islam recognizes seven readings of the Qur'an as equally valid.
The Qur'an consists of 114 chapters, or surahs, varying in length from 3 to 286 verses (ayat). The longest chapters, which reflect the later period of Muhammad's revelations, appear at the beginning of the book. The shortest and earliest surahs appear at the end, with the exception of the short first surah. The complete Qur'an is about the same length as the New Testament of the Bible.
The heading of each surah contains certain elements, including a title, an indication of whether the verses were revealed before or after the Hijrah (the emigration from Mecca to Medina), and the number of verses. In most cases, the name of a surah refers to a specific word in the passage, and therefore, does not reflect its contents. Examples of chapter titles include “The Dinner Table,” “Jonah,” “The Ant,” “She Who Pleaded,” and “The Disbelievers.” Some titles vary by region, and in some cases, the names of chapters have been changed at different times in Islamic history. Many of the surahs vary in style or content, and the longer ones cover a range of topics.
Most Muslims consider the Qur'an to be a masterpiece of rhymed prose. It is regarded as Muhammad's only miracle, a text of such astounding beauty and wisdom that no one will ever be able to match its eloquence.
Muslims do not consider Muhammad to be the author or editor of the Qur'an. Instead, they regard him as a prophet, chosen by God to receive and transmit a divine message. The Qur'an itself denies any earthly origins. As the word of God, the Qur'an is regarded as sacred and infallible.
Word of God.
Muslims believe that the Qur'an is the eternal, literal word of God. The original version of the book is described as preserved in heaven or in the mind of God. God's direct speech, indicated by the use of the first person plural (we), appears in much of the Qur'an. In some sections of the text, Muhammad speaks to his followers. These sections are preceded by the word “say,” to imply that God is relaying a message through Muhammad. Overall, the Qur'an emphasizes teaching over narrative.
Islam teaches that God revealed his will to humankind through a series of messengers, known as prophets. In particular, God spoke through Moses (in the Hebrew scriptures, the Torah) and through Jesus (in the Gospels). The Qur'an contains many references to the Torah and Gospels. Muslims believe that Jews and Christians corrupted parts of God's original message, omitting references to the coming of Muhammad, for example. Muslims believe these earlier sources contain flaws and that the Qur'an—as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad—is the only complete and unquestionable word of God.
Characteristics of Allah.
The Qur'an is the primary source of Islamic belief and practice. The book stresses the existence of the one true God. The Qur'an states that God is the source of all life: “He is the First and the Last, the Outward and the Inward; And He is the Knower of every thing.” Moreover, God is transcendent—humans are unable to fully comprehend his glory and essence. Muslims refer to the basic principle of the Qur'an as tawhid, meaning divine unity.
The Qur'an also sets forth the duties of humans. A Muslim must submit to the will of God, as revealed in the sacred text. The book describes a covenant between God and people, in which humans assume responsibility for the earth. Those who trust in God and honor this commitment in thought, word, and deed act as God's representatives or stewards. The society made up of such faithful individuals is a witness to the truth.
Following the death of the Prophet, the Islamic community grew rapidly, and theological conflicts emerged among the believers. A significant doctrinal dispute occurred during the 700s. At that time, a group of thinkers called Mu'tazili departed from the mainstream Islamic belief that the Qur'an is eternal and uncreated. In their view, God's uniqueness and unity is absolute, and therefore, nothing else besides God could exist for eternity. Consequently, the Mu'tazili taught that while the Qur'an expresses God's eternal will, he created the Qur'an itself at some point in time.
In these and other disagreements about conceptual and practical matters, Muslims looked to the Qur'an for solutions. The correct explanation and interpretation of the sacred text became the focus of a special branch of learning called tafsir. For centuries, Islamic scholars have devoted their careers to interpreting the book's passages. During the medieval period, several Muslim thinkers produced noteworthy commentaries on the Qur'an.
The rise of modernism during the late 1800s brought new influences to Qur'anic studies. By that time, colonial rule had severely undermined the political and cultural authority of the Islamic state and society. Modernists noted that the early followers of Islam were willing to accommodate new ideas in their understanding of the Qur'an and its guidelines for society. As a result, during the Middle Ages, the Islamic societies had thriving centers of learning. The modern reformers advocated a revival of this earlier flexibility as a way to restore dignity and greatness to the Muslim world. They believed that a flexible and continuous reinterpretation of the Qur'an would enable Muslims to reform various aspects of their societies, making them more suited to modern life.
Beyond the Arab World.
The issue of translating the Qur'an posed a dilemma for Muslims. Although they sought to spread their faith to other lands, Islamic religious scholars insisted that rendering the words of God into another language implied a departure from the original text. The Qur'an was God's word only in Arabic. Nonetheless, non-Arab Muslims eventually created translations in their own languages. By the 1000s, a Persian edition of the Qur'an was available. The first Latin translation of the text appeared in the 1100s. Italian, German, and Dutch versions existed by the 1600s and were soon followed by the first English translation. By the 1900s, the Qur'an had been translated into nearly every major language of Europe and Asia. Muslim scholars classify these works as commentaries or interpretations to distinguish them from the Arabic original. Therefore, they cannot be used for ritual purposes.
The Qur'an is the means for discovering the will of God and for measuring the success of a life lived in accordance with it. As such, it shapes the individual and collective lives of Muslims in many ways.
Transforming Thought and Practice.
In pre-Islamic Arabia, few people could read or write. They passed cultural practices and traditions from one generation to another orally. The introduction of the Qur'an transformed Arabia into a literate society. The Qur'an contains numerous references to writing and reading, and it repeatedly encourages people to record the details of a loan or contract. Undoubtedly, the presence of divine communication in book form encouraged people to learn to read.
The Qur'an promoted the development of many disciplines in the Islamic world. The sciences of the Arabic language evolved as Muslims studied grammar, rhetoric, and word meanings to gain an accurate understanding of the text. The Qur'an, which serves as the primary source of Islamic law, advanced the field of law beyond custom and oral tradition. References to past events inspired Arab scholars to study history, and its theological content led to the growth of religious sciences as an academic pursuit.
The Qur'an also functions as a basic source of Muslim education. Although a large majority of the world's Muslim population does not speak Arabic, in most Muslim societies young children learn the Arabic alphabet to read the Qur'an in its original language. The book also provides the first reading lessons for these young students.
Religion and Beyond.
The Qur'an plays a central role in Muslim life. As the foundation of Islam, it is the final authority on all religious matters. It outlines the basic tenets of the religion and the principles of ethical behavior. Muslims also use the text in daily rituals and special observances. Each of the five daily prayers includes a recital of the opening surah and several other parts of the Qur'an. Over the course of the month of Ramadan, some Muslims recite the entire Qur'an, which is divided into 30 equal sections for this purpose.
The scripture provides guidelines for social, political, and economic activities. Its teachings on family law guide behavior in marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Muslims use the Qur'an to invoke God's blessing at a variety of social occasions. Weddings, funerals, business dinners, political meetings, and lectures often begin with a recitation from the Qur'an. In addition, the Qur'an has artistic uses. The art of Qur'anic calligraphy is among the most highly developed skills in Islamic culture. Inscriptions from the holy book appear in most mosques.
Muslims highly value Qur'anic recitation. They believe that the act of reciting the divine word brings blessings (barakah). Muslims consider recitation the best way to experience the Qur'an because it captures the rhythm, sounds, and pronunciation of the original revelation. Moreover, the angel Gabriel transmitted the Qur'an to Muhammad orally.
Hearing the word of God spoken is a strong source of inspiration. Throughout the world, Muslims learn to memorize and recite the book in Arabic, its original language. Although many do not speak or understand Arabic, the practice promotes solidarity among believers worldwide.
Certain rules apply to Qur'anic recitations. The reciter should sit, facing the direction of Mecca. Using a written text is preferable to reciting from memory. The individual must proceed at an acceptable tempo. A reading of the entire Qur'an should take about three days and should not be completed in less that. Some portions of the Qur'an are read in a certain way. For example, the reciter should use a tearful voice for verses describing judgment or suffering. The reciter should stop if his or her concentration wanes. Listeners should maintain a worshipful silence. Listening practices vary, however. In some regions, audience members commonly rock back and forth, expressing intense emotions.
Islam recognizes seven principle readings of the Qur'an. (The variations in the readings are minor.) Those who complete the difficult process of mastering all of these versions earn a certificate and are held in high esteem.
The public reading of the Qur'an is a major form of performance art in the Islamic world. Crowds fill stadiums to hear musical and poetic recitations. Listeners derive great pleasure from the rich rhyming prose of the Qur'an. Muslims hire reciters for weddings, funerals, conferences, and a variety of other events. The most famous reciters can earn a comfortable living from their performances and commercial recordings.
Many countries hold Qur'an recitation contests, which attract large audiences. Both children and adults compete at local, regional, and national events. Winners receive trophies and other rewards as well as invitations to meet with high-ranking government officials. See also Allah; Islam: Overview; Law; Modernism; Muhammad ; Prophets; Revelation; Theology.