Qur’an or Koran, the holy book of Islam. For Muslims it is the very word of Allah, the absolute God of Islamic faith, and was revealed to the prophet Muhammad. The angel Gabriel is said to have spoken Allah’s words into the Prophet’s ear. According to Muslim tradition, after this ecstatic experience Muhammad was able to recite exactly what he had been told. The term Qur’an, which means ‘recitation,” occurs several times in the text itself; the term refers either to a fragment of the revelation or to the entire collection of revelations that are known as the Qur’an.
Oral recitation of the Qur’an is believed by Muslims to be the believer’s most direct contact with the word of God. The art of recitation, known as tajwid or tartil, is consequently highly valued among Muslims. Heard day and night on the streets, in mosques (Muslim houses of worship), in homes, in taxis, and in shops, the sound of the Qur’an being recited is far more than the pervasive background music of daily life in the Islamic world. Recitation of the Qur’an is the core of religious devotion. The sound of voices reciting the holy book inspires much of Muslim religious and social life. Participation in recitation, whether as reciter or listener, is itself an act of worship, for both acts are basic to a Muslim’s religion and invoke a tradition beginning with Muhammad that transcends the particular occasion.
II THE TEACHINGS OF THE QUR’AN
The main topic of the Qur’an is God’s relationship with humanity. The Qur’an summons humans to acknowledge God’s sovereignty over their lives and invites them to submit to his will. The chief doctrines laid down in the Qur’an are that only one God and one true religion exist; that all people will undergo a final judgment, with the just being rewarded with eternal bliss and the sinners being punished; and that when humankind turned from truth, God sent prophets to lead the way back. The greatest of these prophets were Abraham, Moses, Jesus Christ, and Muhammad.
According to this sacred scripture, humankind’s fundamental role in this world is one of moral struggle. Each person will be held accountable for this struggle at the end of time. God sent the prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an to instruct humanity in how to lead a moral life. The teachings of the Qur’an are dispersed and repeated throughout the holy book rather than being organized as topics. The subjects of these teachings include God and creation, prophets and messengers from Adam to Jesus, Muhammad as a preacher and as a ruler, Islam as a faith and as a code of life, disbelief, human responsibility and judgment, and society and law. On many specific questions the Qur’an is silent, and so the life and sayings of Muhammad collected in the hadiths were necessary for the development of Islamic laws and most religious practices.
While the Qur’an itself does not instruct about the nature of humanity’s moral struggle in detail, the significance of this responsibility is emphasized by the portrayal of the Day of Judgment in some of the most powerful passages of the Qur’an. Muslims believe that on that day the world will come to an end, the dead will be resurrected, and a judgment will be pronounced on every person in accordance with his or her acts. The Qur’an vividly depicts the torment of Hell and the bliss of Paradise, the two realms to which people will be sent once judgment has been pronounced. In chapter 100, the Day of Judgment is described:
The Clatterer! What is the Clatterer?
And what shall teach thee what is the Clatterer?
The day that men shall be like scattered moths,
And the mountains shall be like plucked wool-tufts.
Then he whose deeds weigh heavy in the Balance
Shall inherit a pleasing life,
But he whose deeds weigh light in the Balance
Shall plunge in the womb of the Pit.
And what shall teach thee what is the Pit?
A blazing Fire!
Although the Qur’an accepts the miracles of earlier prophets, including the prophets of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles (Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and others), it declares their teachings outdated. The central miracle of Muhammad’s life is the receiving of the Qur’an itself, the like of which no human can produce.
III THE PLACE OF THE QUR’AN IN MUSLIM LIFE
For Muslims, the Qur’an teaches the meaning of life. Consequently, it holds a pride of place at the very center of Muslim religious life and practice. There is no more eloquent testimony to the place accorded the Qur’an in a Muslim’s life than the effort that many pious individuals make to internalize the scripture by memorizing it in its entirety. A person who has thus memorized the complete text is known as a hafiz, one who keeps the Qur’an in his or her heart.
Parts of the Qur’an are recited on many different occasions. A Muslim who observes the five daily prayers will recite several short chapters from the Qur’an each day. Passages are recited at birth to the newborn and at death to the dying. All the great events of life and the rites of passage in the Muslim world are marked by recitation of the Qur’an. Parts of the holy book are incorporated into the rites of marriages and funerals. A new venture of any kind, whether in public or private life, is inaugurated by the recitation of blessings from the Qur’an. In many Muslim countries every public meeting starts with the recitation of Qur’anic verses. It is a special mark of devotion to recite the whole of the Qur’an at least once during Ramadan, the month of fasting.
Evidence of the reverence Muslims have for the written text of the Qur’an is also apparent in the ornate design given to the text by calligraphers, illuminators, and bookbinders. The art of the calligrapher has been beautifully demonstrated in the decoration of Qur’anic text. Qur’anic verses also appear as architectural decoration on mosques, mausoleums, and other public buildings. Along with the practice of recitation, the abiding presence of the written text reflects the Muslim faith in the presence of God’s word in their lives. Muslims observe rituals for approaching and handling the sacred text. Before touching the holy book, Muslims follow rituals for purification including washing and preparing the mind, body, and spirit. Care must be taken that the Qur’an does not come into contact with any unclean substance, and it is never to be laid upon the ground.
IV THE HISTORICAL ORIGINS OF THE QUR’AN
The significance of the Qur’an and the Muslim understanding of its sacredness can first be understood within the story of the prophet Muhammad. According to Islamic belief, the experience of receiving the revelations transformed Muhammad, a human being like any other, into a prophet who became the leader of his people and a man who profoundly influenced the history of the world. See Spread of Islam.
Muhammad’s home, the Arab city of Mecca, was a major religious center and site of the revered sanctuary and shrine, the Kaaba. According to legend, the ancient religious patriarch of the Hebrew Bible, Abraham, and his son, Ishmael, built the shrine using foundations laid by the first human being and father of humankind, Adam. During Muhammad’s years there, from about ad 570 to 622, Mecca was also an environment of spiritual and intellectual unrest. The people of Mecca lived under an ancient system of tribes and clans; this system had evolved from their former nomadic lifestyle of herding and moving from place to place according to seasonal changes. But the moral values of this tribal social system were breaking down as the people struggled to adapt themselves to the lifestyle of Mecca, a thriving commercial town. As an orphan, dependent on his uncle for protection and a livelihood, Muhammad experienced the bitter competition and politics of his times.
Muhammad was probably exposed to both Christian and Jewish religious dialogues in Mecca. Prior to his prophetic call, Muhammad had developed the custom of retreating to a cave outside Mecca to meditate and pray. During one such retreat when he was 40 years old, he experienced the call to prophethood. The following verses (Qur’an 96:1-5) are said to be the first revelation.
Recite: In the Name of thy Lord, who created,
Created Man of a blood clot.
Recite: And thy Lord is the Most Generous,
Who taught by the Pen,
Taught Man that he knew not.
According to Islamic tradition, revelations such as this continued to come to Muhammad in Mecca for 13 years, and later in Medina, a city about 300 km (200 mi) to the north, where he migrated in 622 and lived until he died in 632. The revelations came in fragments as responses to the circumstances that he and his emerging Muslim community faced. The fragmentary nature of the revelations distinguishes the Qur’an from other sacred texts, including many books of the Hebrew Bible, which tell a coherent history or story.
V THE ONE TRUE VERSION
There was no definitive written text of the Qur’an while Muhammad was still alive, but the structure of the suras (chapters) and their titles may have been influenced by the Prophet. Muslims generally believe that the authorized version of the Qur’an derives its text and the number and order of the chapters from the work of a commission appointed by the third caliph (Islamic political leader), Uthman ibn Affan, during the second half of his reign, roughly 20 years after Muhammad’s death.
The most widely accepted history of this Uthmanic text is that the commission relied upon a written copy of the entire text that was collected from written and oral versions within two years of the Prophet’s death during the reign of the first caliph, Abu Bakr. Written versions had been created by those who acted as Muhammad’s secretaries and wrote down the revelations as the Prophet received them. Oral versions existed because some of Muhammad’s companions had memorized several chapters. The commission thus succeeded in establishing a complete text.
Different readings of certain words and verses, however, continued for a long time. This was due to differences among dialects of Arabic and deficiencies in the script used for writing at that time. Although Arabic script shows the characteristics of a consonantal script, there are several cases where the same form of writing was used to represent more than one consonant without any distinguishing mark. Even if there were agreement on the consonants, some words could be read in different ways because the earliest copies of the Qur’an were transcribed without symbols to represent certain vowels. Diacritical marks were added to the text a few generations after its creation, but the Uthmanic text was probably not accepted as a definitive text until the beginning of the 4th century of the Islamic calendar (10th century ad). In the 20th century an Egyptian edition printed in 1924 became the official text throughout the Islamic world.
The Uthmanic or canonical text represents a different sequence than the order in which Muhammad reportedly received the revelations. The chapters, after the short opening chapter called al-Fatihah, are arranged roughly in descending order of length. Because the first revelations are the shorter chapters, they are assigned to the end. It is not known why the chapters were arranged in this way, but this order has been preserved since the Uthmanic text was established.
The Qur’an is divided into 114 chapters, or suras, each of which is further divided into a number of ayat (verses). The chapter titles were taken from images or events included in the suras. The chapters are customarily classified as either Meccan or Medinan, in reference to the two cities in which Muhammad lived and reportedly received the revelations. However, some chapters are composite, with Meccan verses inserted in the midst of a largely Medinan chapter and vice versa. For the purpose of recitation the Qur’an is divided into various schemes, such as 30 equal ajza (parts) so that it can be read in full during Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, by reciting one part per day.
The 1924 Egyptian Qur’anic text is printed with full diacritical marks and other signs that give precise guidance for the pronunciation of each word, especially for those readers who do not know Arabic. Although Arabic can be written without vowels, the meaning of Arabic words depends upon both consonants and vowels. For centuries the Qur’an was transcribed without symbols to represent the missing vowels, so that more than one reading of the text was possible. Despite the consensus among Muslim scholars on the authority of the Uthmanic text, seven or more legitimate readings of the Qur’an prevailed during the early centuries of Islam.
The vast majority of Muslims in the world do not speak Arabic, so the Qur’an in its original language is not accessible to them. Nevertheless, Muslims have traditionally objected to its translation on the grounds that it is the word of God. Islamic doctrine teaches that the Qur’an is the miracle of Muhammad and neither its composition nor its contents can be imitated. However, those Islamic scholars who advocate translation argue that the Qur’anic message is universal. According to the Qur’an, they argue, God never sent a messenger who did not speak the language of the people. For these believers the very verse explaining why the Qur’an was revealed in Arabic implies an obligation to translate and transmit its message to non-Arabs. Translations of the Qur’an into other languages, for the express purpose of making the meaning of the text available to all, may have existed as early as the 9th century ad. For both ceremonial and nonceremonial purposes, however, the Qur’an must be recited in the original Arabic.
The unique Arab literary characteristics of the Qur’an, such as its chantlike rhythms and dramatic images, remain formidable obstacles to translation. The Qur’an was the first prose book in Arabic and it has remained the model of excellence for Arabic literature. As a sacred book the Qur’an has a value beyond that of literature, but it has also been judged by literary critics of the Arabic language to be artistically unequalled in its beauty. It was due to the position of the Qur’an in Arab Muslim society that Arabic became a world language.
VII INTERPRETATION OF THE QUR’AN
The unveiling of the meaning of the divine word and its correct interpretation became the subjects of a special branch of learning called tafsir. Very strict requirements were laid down for a person to become a Qur’an commentator and discuss theological and legal issues such as God’s attributes, free will, and predestination on the basis of the Qur’an. A person must be well versed in several disciplines and subdisciplines known as “the sciences of the Qur’an.” Tafsir comprises a vast body of knowledge representing all the major trends in Islamic theology and law since the classical period (7th century to 10th century). Given the nature of written Arabic, the sciences of the Qur’an extend even to the study of grammar, lexicography, and history.
Ismail K. Poonawala