The holy book of Islam, considered to contain the literal words of God Himself.
The Qur'an, also spelled Koran or Quran (but pronounced "Qoor-ann") forms the basis of Islamic teachings. It translates to "The Recitation" or more literally as the thing excessively recited, as it is the most read book.
In the year 610CE, sometime during the month which is now Ramadan
, a forty-year-old man named Muhammad bin Abdullah
) went up to a cave on Mount Hira
, outside of Mecca
in what is now Saudi Arabia
. He went up to meditate on the meaning of things, as he would sometimes do for several days, when a brilliant flash of light overwhelmed him. A hidden voice commanded him "Read.
" It was both frightening and compelling, but Muhammad
. He meekly answered "I can't read."
Suddenly, he felt himself being squeezed so tight that he could not breathe. Before he could bear it no longer, the voice repeated, "Read." Confused, he protested, "But I can't read!" The same crushing feeling overwhelmed him, and he could hardly stand it anymore when the pressure was released and the voice gave the command for a third time, "Read." Muhammad, not wanting to endure the pain again, asked, "What should I read?"
The voice began to recite melodious-sounding words:
"Read in the name of your Lord who created humans from a clinging [Zygote]. Read for your Lord is the Most Generous. He taught people by the pen what they didn't know before."(Qur'an 96:1-5)
Muhammad ran home trembling in fear and begged his wife, Khadijah
), to comfort him. He told her what had happened, and how he was afraid for his life. The revelation was not an evil omen, as he had thought. She told him that God would never let him come to harm on account of his honesty and generosity. She said, "You treat the kindred well, you speak the truth, (one hadith
adds: you restore what is entrusted to you), you bear the burden of the helpless, you help the poor, you entertain the guests, and you cooperate in good works." She didn't know how right she was. She took him to see her cousin, Waraqah bin Naufal
, who had become a Christian some years before. Upon hearing of his story, he announced "This [was a sign by] the same angel that God
sent down to Moses
For the next 23 years, Muhammad (pbuh) would receive revelations from God, delivered by the archangel Gabriel (as). The Qur'an was given orally to Muhammad, who would then ask people to write down and preserve the verses as he dictated them. Therefore, the Qur'an was not revealed all at once. It grew larger over time, until the last month of Muhammad's life when the revelation was complete and all the chapters and verses were complete.
The Qur'an was, and still is, divided into 114 chapters called Surahs, each of different length. The Surahs constitute over 6,600 verses called ayahs that cover an extremely wide variety of subjects. Sometimes entire surahs were revealed at once, on other occasions groups of ayahs would come, and Muhammad (pbuh) would tell people in which Surah to include them. Muslims believe all of this went on, arrangement and all, under the direction of the archangel Gabriel.
The revelations usually concerned issues at hand when the verse was provided to Muhammad. When Muhammad and his followers were in Mecca and struggling to lay a foundation for their faith, the surahs that were revealed revolved around themes like monotheism, living righteously and virtuously, and the eventual triumph and victory of Islam (even though it was persecuted at the time). Those are known as the Meccan Surahs. After that, when he and his followers went to Medina and Islam settled into the life of the city, the core of the message focused on laws and social principles.
Sometimes non-Muslims would challenge Muhammad to talk about subjects they knew he wouldn't know anything about, and suddenly a revelation would appear that explained the matter. For example, a group of people in Medina asked Muhammad (pbuh) about the prophet Joseph (pbuh) and his adventures in Egypt, thinking that he would be stumped as he had never read the Torah. Surah Yusuf (Joseph), an entire chapter of over 100 verses, was revealed on the spot in answer. People were amazed, because they knew Muhammad was illiterate and never read a bible or Torah, and was suddenly able to recite a revelation immediately on the topic, in a style better than any Arabic poetry, when he was not known for being a poet or anything similiar.
Muhammad(pbuh) described four ways in which he received revelations from God. The first was through dreams at night, when the verses of the Qur'an were implanted in his mind. The second was through instantaneous revelations in his heart during the day. The third way, which he said was the hardest to bear, was foreshadowed by a loud ringing sound in his ears and then the verses would flow. The last way involved the archangel Gabriel (pbuh) appearing as a man, sometimes visible to other people and sometimes not, who would then instruct Muhammad(pbuh) on what to say. God never appeared to Muhammad, for Islam teaches that God is too exalted to show Himself all the time, as well as revealing Himself would have killed Moses (pbuh), when instead he only fainted when God's power manifested itself on earth and caused an entire mountain to crumble.
"You, [Muhammad], never read a book before this nor have you ever written one with your own hand. Had you done either of these then the quibblers would have had legitimate reasons to suspect it." (Qur'an 29:48)
Style and Content
One of the many features that Muslims consider miraculous about the Qur'an is its style. Muhammad
(pbuh) was not known to be a man of poetry before he began delivering the message of the Qur'an. He never participated in any of the oral poetry
contests that were commonplace throughout Arabia, but this same man suddenly began to recite at age 40 what is still considered today to be the greatest book in the Arabic language. Arabic lexigraphers
hold the Qur'an up as the highest standard due to its clear and well-placed metaphors, the flow of the text, and the engaging ideas. No other book is so highly acclaimed and esteemed from a grammarian's viewpoint.
"The Qur'an's style is expressed in two areas; presentation and content. The Qur'an utilizes a variety of literary mechanisms, from straight line-by-line or metered rhyming to flowing prose and passionate essays. Through a skilled mixture of the differing techniques, the listener is taken on a rapturous ride through feelings, thoughts, emotions, and dreams," as Yahiya Emerick likes to put it.
The Qur'an has this structure to it that's impossible to copy or mimic. Many times in history, someone has tried to forge a chapter and failed miserably. The Quran itself contains a challenge to people written within; nobody can write their own Surah (chapter) and pass it off as the real thing. As such, it is considered one of the many miracles the Quran has. The shortest Surah is only 10 words, and even today nobody has managed to put together something in its style. Even English "translations" can't convey the flow of the verses. It flows like lyrics or a poetic meter. Here's a small sample of the Arabic (transliterated into Roman letters) to show the repetition of sounds (underlined):
Ya Seen. Wal Qur'anil Hakeem Innaka lamin al-Mursaleen. 'Alaa siratim Mustaqeem Tanzilul 'azeezil Raheem. Le tunzera qawman ma unthera aba-uhum fa hum ghawfiloon La qad haqqal qawlu 'alaa ak tharihim fahum la yu-minoon
Do you see how it transitions from one rhyme to another? This style allows the Qur'an to continually keep the listener paying attention with something new. This is one of the reasons that Muslims don't consider a translation of the Qur'an as equal to the original Arabic text. Even if the meaning was conveyed accurately, which is extremely difficult given that the text is full of words that have multiple meanings, the sound and rhythm doesn't carry over to other languages. It's hard to describe without showing someone the Arabic; I would compare the complexity of it to having the laws of the Constitution or stories of the Bible rhyming and flowing, but leaving no details out. The Qur'an itself declares that this is a text that is easy to remember. In longer passages you can see that the style transitions from one topic to the next. Some western scholars have criticized the Qur'an for that, but it is instead one of the strengths of the Qur'an, with no other Holy Book like it. When a skilled reader recites it, people can be moved to tears. In fact, Qur'an reciting contests are held annually all over the Muslim world, with the major ones being in Saudi Arabia
The other miraculous aspect of the Qur'an is its content. The Qur'an is an amazingly sophisticated document, and covers a very wide variety of subjects; religious doctrine, law, social values, morality, history, prophets and their struggles, philosophy, and even science. Instead of being broken up into separate subjects, each component is woven into self-contained chapters that make reference to one idea and then the other. This provides independent chapters that can be read to a variety of listeners who will each glean something from the lesson taught.
Muhammad (pbuh) never went to school. During his life, he never read a book, nor was he tutored or engaged in any learning. He was an orphan, a shepherd, and a caravan tradesman. Then suddenly, when he turns 40, the best in eloquent Arabic words start flowing from his mouth? This is quite inexplicable. If you look in some older Orientalist books (the ones that still call Muslims "Mohammedians"), you will see claims that Muhammad had epilepsy (which is false) and that the Qur'an came during seizures. Epileptics can't compose verses when in the throes of a seizure. Plenty of detractors have charged that Muhammad(pbuh) made up the Qur'an, but can't explain how. Dr. Maurice Bucaille, who has written books on how Islam matches scientific evidence, put it best: "How can a man, from being illiterate, become the most important author, in terms of literary merits, in the whole of Arabic literature?" Muslims, of course, say that the Qur'an is no less than a direct revelation from God.
The verses of the Qur'an are based into two main categories based on the period of Muhammad's(pbuh) mission when they were revealed. The first 13 years of Muhammad(pbuh) spreading his message took place in Mecca
, which was a hostile environment for the Muslims because the city was economically dependant on the polytheism and religious pilgrimmages to the Kaaba
and the 360+ idols within.
The Surahs (chapters) revealed in Mecca center on two main themes: The first theme was confronting backward, ignorant tribal customs that the Arabs of Mecca had, such as burying unwanted baby girls alive (infanticide), superstition, witchcraft, men marrying their widowed mothers, and the blind following of family tradition for its own sake. The other theme focused on pointing out the foolishness and futility of idolatry. The Qur'an specifically named three goddesses that the Arabs worshipped and called it idiocy, saying why not pray to the One True God instead of taking other gods as "intercessors."
Obviously, the Meccans were quite angry by these teachings, which undermined their power, wealth, and control. They immediately began to harrass Muhammad and his followers. Muhammad (pbuh) was often beaten in the streets, and his followers were tortured, and a few were murdered. (The first martyr of Islam was actually a woman who refused to go back to idol worship.) To provide reflection for the Muslims, the Surahs from the time in Mecca contain stories of past prophets who also suffered hardships. The moral was that people endured rough times doing what is right, but God's help saved them.
After the Muslims escaped Mecca
in an exodus called the hegira
, they were invited into the city of Medina
(pbuh) was chosen by the people of the city to be their leader, and whole families converted (reverted) to Islam
. The Surahs revealed while in Medina
, called "Medina revelations," were concerned with how to build an Islamic society. The values and manners of Islam
and the particulars of Islamic law grew in importance and application. Verses that regulate inheritance, marriage and divorce, statecraft and diplomacy, civil laws, and criminal punishments are all mentioned in these Surahs. An extensive collection of verses on relationships with the Jews
was given as well. During this period, alcohol
was declared illegal, but by this time the Muslims were so strong in their faith that they smashed their wine containers and spilled them down the streets.
The Compilation and Preservation
As I mentioned above, the Qur'an was an oral message that was given to Muhammad
(pbuh) through the archangel Gabriel
(as), who was delivering it from God
. Muhammad himself couldn't write, so he asked his literate followers to copy down what he said. Even in the earliest days of Mecca, the Qur'an was being recorded. The discovery of paper
hadn't yet reached the Arab world yet, so the people used Egyptian parchment
, leather scrolls, and even the shoulder blades of camel
s (which I'm told were like large slates with a big area to write on). In Medina
(pbuh) used to keep the entire collection of written Surahs in a leather bag in his possession. At one point he had over 20 scribe
s copying down his words.
Initially there was no need to get it all together into a book form because the tradition that Muhammad (pbuh) established was for people to memorize as much of the Qur'an by heart as possible. By the time of his death, hundreds of people had memorized the entire Qur'an in its properly arranged order, and nearly everyone else knew a good portion by heart. Also, Muhammad (pbuh) put a great emphasis on literacy, scores of people learned to read and write, more than ever before. Written pages of the Qur'an's verses began to circulate to far-off regions.
During the rule of Abu Bakr, the first caliph and successor to Muhammad(pbuh), there was a battle in the Arabian peninsula in which over 70 memorizers of the Qur'an were killed. Umar ibn al-khattab, one of the top companions of Muhammad (pbuh), urged Abu Bakr to compile the Qur'an into one form so that the proper order of the verses and their reading would be preserved. Coincidentally, the new Chinese invention, paper, was just starting to make its way into the Arabian peninsula. Zaid bin Thabit, who was the chief secretary of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in his lifetime, supervised the compilation of the Qur'an, using the newly discovered paper.
Later on, during the rule of the third Muslim caliph, Uthman ibn Affan (ra), as Islam and the Qur'an rapidly spread to lands far and wide, non-Arab converts (reverts) began arguing over the proper way to pronounce the verses of the Qur'an. They even began writing their personal copies incorporating their own variant spellings and pronounciations of the words. The sahabas became quite worried that the Qur'an would become lost in a sea of competing versions unless action was taken. Uthman acted immediately and ordered that the official copy, produced under his predecessor Abu Bakr, be duplicated and one copy sent to each Muslim city. From there, scribes in each city could make further copies, in order to lay to rest all controversies and disagreements. All the faulty copies with misspellings were burned so that only the authentic edition would circulate. If ever a dispute arose over who had correctly copied it, the people could refer to the offical copy within the city for verification.
Two copies of those Uthmani (or Usmani) Qur'ans, as they are called, still exist today. One is in a museum in Turkey, and one in Tashkent. They have exactly the same Arabic text as any Arabic Qur'an today. If anyone suggests or accuses that the Qur'an we see today is not completely identical to the one that Muhammad(pbuh) recited, the answer is simple: All of the people who were involved in recording the Qur'an both during and after Muhammad's time were memorizers of the Book. In addition, there were hundreds of other people who would have noticed any alterations in the text. Among Muhammad's thousands of surviving companions, there was never any controversy on this issue. The Sunnis, Shias, and even the minority kharajites believe the Qur'an is 100% intact. The fact that even the kharijites use the same Qur'an is a powerful arguement for the preservation of the Qur'an. Although they accused Uthman of terrible crimes, and Ali as well, they never accused them of changing the Qur'an. They have always recited the same Qur'an as the rest of the Ummah.
Major Themes of the Qur'an
The Qur'an has three major themes:
The Absolute Authority of God
The accountability of humans for their actions
The impermanence or transience of this life
Each theme is expressed in a forceful way using parables, examples, references to past people or prophets, and logic.
A full one-third of the verses in the Qur'an deal with issues concerning the next life (the hearafter) and what people will find after death. Another third of the verses deal with prophets, interfaith issues, and the human experience, while the final third covers subjects ranging from law to personal and social obligations. All of these different themes appear at different places throughout the whole scripture.
Only 3% of the verses in the Quran are commands and prohibitions. The rest (97%) teach ethics, the relationship between God and man, the puropse of life, morality and other truths, the history of nations in the past, how to be self-critical, how to use reason in faith and its importance, and many other major themes.
The Qur'an makes itself clear that it is a revelation from God like the Torah, Psalms, and Gospels. It contains much of the same history, of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses, John the Baptist, and Jesus, peace be upon them all. (See Islam and Prophets). Muslims look upon it as a revelation that corrects the errors in the previous revelations, a sort of a "Final Testament," if you will.
Before touching a Qur'an, a Muslim must be in a ritually pure state of ablution
, called wudu
. This basically entails washing the hands, face, arms and feet with water. A Muslim typically stores the Qur'an on a high shelf and never lets it touch the ground, as a show of respect.
The Qur'an has been reproduced in various ways. The entire Qur'an recited can fit on a set of about 26 CDs, or one mp3 CD. In book form, it can be entirely in Arabic, or in columns with Arabic on one side and vernacular (English for you and me) on the other, typically with commentary. Muslims carry around small copies of the Qur'an to give them a sense of protection or comfort. Often you will see a chapter written in Calligraphic Arabic adorning the walls of a home, or hanging from the rear-view mirror of a car, or usually in a mosque. Many people feel it blesses their home or room, or keeps out trouble and Jinns.
The Qur'an actually holds the World's record for being the most memorized book, with estimates over 9 million people. Every Muslim generally needs to know at least two or three Surahs to pray on their own. Typically a prayer involves reciting the first Surah, The Opening, followed by another Surah or verse or verses of their choice. There are tens of thousands, and possibly millions, of people who have memorized all 114 chapters, they have the title of Hafiz of Quran.
People spend years in study of the Qur'an. Madrassas offer Hifz courses where one studies to become a Hafiz, and Alim courses where people train to become scholars and become knowledgable enough to interpret the Qur'an on their own and base their own fatwas and rulings based on the Qur'an.
"Alif Laam Raa. A book which we have revealed to you (Muhammad) so that you may lead the people from out of the darknesses into the light by their Lord's leave to the path of the All-Mighty, the Praiseworthy." (Qur'an 14:1)
If you haven't read the Qur'an
, it is difficult to explain its true worth to Muslims. However I feel the best way to describe exactly what the Qur'an is, is by using the names which Allah
(God) uses to describe the Qur'an within verses of The Holy Qur'an itself:
Al-Qur'an - The Recital
Al-Furqaan - The Criterion between Truth and falsehood
At-Tanzeel - The Revelation
Al-Kitaab - The Book
Noor - Light
Huda - Guidance
Mau'idhah - Admonition
Shifaa' - Healing or a Cure
Rahmah - Mercy
Mubaarak - Blessing
Mubeen - Clear, Manifest
Bushraa - Good Tidings
Azeez - Mighty
Majeed - Glorious
Basheer - Bringer of Glad Tidings
Nadheer - Warner
Kareem - Noble
Ahsanul-Hadeeth - The Best of Speech
There is a particular verse in the Qur'an that reads as follows:
Allah has sent down the most beautiful of speech, a Book, (parts of it) resembling (others) oft-repeated. The skins of those who fear their Lord shiver from it. Then their skins and their hearts soften to the remembrance of Allah (Zumar 39:23)
I'd strongly recommend reading the Qur'an with an open mind. Regardless of your personal beliefs, it is quite insightful and challenges you to think about things in a different perspective.
There are various english "interpretations" (I mentioned above that Muslims don't regard the translations as equal to the real thing.) The Meanings of the Holy Quran by Abdullah Yusuf Ali is probably the best recommended with verse notation (like a Bible), especially with commentary.
The entire Yusuf Ali book with complementing English and Arabic is available for browsing with his commentary online at www.sureguidance.org.
For shia-oriented commentary on the Qur'an, I'd recommend http://al-islam.org/Quran
Syed Abu-Ala' Maududi, considered an excellent scholar, has a chapter-by-chapter commentary, "The Meaning of the Qur'an," at http://www.usc.edu/dept/MSA/quran/maududi/
The "authoritative" commentary is said to be by Ibn Kathir, which delves verse by verse into meanings, quoting hadith and other verses and biography of the Prophet(saw). It is, however, 10 volumes in its abridged form, but is universally accepted as undisputable amongst the Muslims upon the Sunnah.
Special thanks to rk2001 and robwicks for the help.
Maududi's commentary: http://www.usc.edu/dept/MSA/quran/maududi/mau96.html
Dr. Maurice Bucaille: http://www.islamfortoday.com/bucaille01.htm
Yahiya Emerick, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Islam
Jeffrey Lang, a muslim convert(revert) who gives excellent speeches and lectures