Islam and Islamic History in Arabia
and The Middle East

The Holy Quran

The Message | The Hijrah | The Rightly Guided Caliphs | The Umayyads | Islam In Spain | The 'Abbasids | The Golden Age | The Fatimids | The Seljuk Turks | The Crusaders | The Mongol and The Mamluks | The Legacy | The Ottomans | The Coming of The West | Revival in The Arab East |
Related Topics
The Faith of Islam | Arabic Writing | Science and Scholarship in Al-Andalus | Arabic Literature | Arabic Numerals |


Islam appeared in the form of a book: the Quran. Muslims, consider the Quran (sometimes spelled "Koran") to be the Word of God as transmitted by the Angel Gabriel, in the Arabic language, through the Prophet Muhammad. The Muslim view, moreover, is that the Quran supersedes earlier revelations; it is regarded as their summation and completion. It is the final revelation, as Muhammad is regarded as the final prophet - 'the Seal of the Prophets."

In a very real sense the Quran is the mentor of millions of Muslims, Arab and non-Arab alike; it shapes their everyday life, anchors them to a unique system of law, and inspires them by its guiding principles. Written in noble language, this Holy Text has done more than move multitudes to tears and ecstasy; it has also, for almost fourteen hundred years, illuminated the lives of Muslims with its eloquent message of uncompromising monotheism, human dignity, righteous living, individual responsibility, and social justice. For countless millions, consequently, it has been the single most important force in guiding their religious, social, and cultural lives. Indeed, the Quran is the cornerstone on which the edifice of Islamic civilization has been built.

The text of the Quran was delivered orally by the Prophet Muhammad to his followers as it was revealed to him. The first verses were revealed to him in or about 610, and the last revelation dates from the last year of his life, 632. His followers at first committed the Quran to memory and then, as instructed by him, to writing. Although the entire contents of the Quran, the placement of its verses, and the arrangement of its chapters date back to the Prophet, as long as he lived he continued to receive revelations. Consequently, the Holy Text could only be collected as a single corpus - "between the two covers" - after the death of Muhammad. This is exactly what happened. After the battle of al-Yamamah in 633, 'Umar ibn al-Khattab, later to become the second caliph, suggested to Abu Bakr, the first caliph, that because of the grievous loss of life in that battle, there was a very real danger of losing the Quran, enshrined as it was in the memories of the faithful and in uncollated fragments. Abu Bakr recognized the danger and entrusted the task of gathering the revelations to Zayd ibn Thabit, who as the chief scribe of the Prophet was the person to whom Muhammad frequently dictated the revelations in his lifetime. With great difficulty, the task was carried out and the first complete manuscript compiled from "bits of parchment, thin white stones - ostracae - leafless palm branches, and the memories of men." Later, during the time of 'Uthman, the third caliph, a final, authorized text was prepared and completed in 651, and this has remained the text in use ever since.

The contents of the Quran differ in substance and arrangement from the Old and New Testaments. Instead of presenting a straight historical narrative, as do the Gospels and the historical books of the Old Testament, the Quran treats, in allusive style, spiritual and practical as well as historical matters.

The Quran is divided into 114 surahs, or chapters, and the surahs are conventionally assigned to two broad categories: those revealed at Mecca and those revealed at Medina. The surahs revealed at Mecca - at the beginning of Muhammad's mission - tend to be short and to stress, in highly moving language, the eternal themes of the unity of God, the necessity of faith, the punishment of those who stray from the right path, and the Last Judgment, when all man's actions and beliefs will be judged. The surahs revealed at Medina are longer, often deal in detail with specific legal, social, or political situations, and sometimes can only be properly understood with a full knowledge of the circumstances in which they were revealed All the surahs are divided into ayahs or verses and, for purposes of pedagogy and recitation, the Quran as a whole is divided into thirty parts, which in turn are divided into short divisions of nearly equal length, to facilitate study and memorization.

The surahs themselves are of varying length, ranging from the longest, Surah 2, with 282 verses, to the shortest, Surahs 103, 108, and 110, each of which has only three. With some exceptions the surahs are arranged in the Quran in descending order of length, with the longest at the beginning and the shortest at the end. The major exception to this arrangement is the opening surah, "al-Fatihah," which contains seven verses and which serves as an introduction to the entire revelation:

In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.
Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds;
The Merciful, the Compassionate;
Master of the Day of Judgment;
Thee only do we worship, and Thee alone we ask for help.
Guide us in the straight path,
The path of those whom Thou hast favored; not the path of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray.

Non-Muslims are often struck by the range of styles found in the Quran. Passages of impassioned beauty are no less common than vigorous narratives. The sublime "Verse of the Throne" is perhaps one of the most famous: God - There is no god but He,
The Living. the Everlasting;
Slumber seizes Him not, neither sleep;
To Him belongs all that is
In the heavens and the earth;
Who is there that can intercede with Him
Save by His leave?
He knows what lies before them
And what is after them,
Nor do they encompass anything of His knowledge
Except such as He wills;
His Throne extends over the heavens and earth;
The preserving of them wearies Him not;
He is the Most High, the All-Glorious.

Muslims regard the Quran as untranslatable; the language in which it was revealed - Arabic - is inseparable from its message and Muslims everywhere, no matter what their native tongue, must learn Arabic to read the Sacred Book and to perform their worship. The Quran of course is available in many languages, but these versions are regarded as interpretations rather than translations - partly because the Arabic language, extraordinarily concise and allusive, is impossible to translate in a mechanical, word-for-word way. The inimitability of the Quran has crystallized in the Muslim view of i'jaz or "impossibility," which holds that the style of the Quran, being divine, cannot be imitated: any attempt to do so is doomed to failure.

It must also be remembered that the Quran was originally transmitted orally to the faithful and that the Holy Text is not meant to be read only in silence. From the earliest days it has always been recited aloud or, more accurately, chanted. As a result, several traditional means of chanting, or intoning, the Quran were found side by side. These methods carefully preserved the elaborate science of reciting the Quran - with all its intonations and its cadence and punctuation. As the exact pronunciation was important - and learning it took years - special schools were founded to be sure that no error would creep in as the traditional chanting methods were handed down. It is largely owing to the existence of these traditional methods of recitation that the text of the Quran was preserved without error. As the script in which the Quran was first written down indicated only the consonantal skeleton of the words, oral recitation was an essential element in the transmission of the text.

Because the circumstances of each revelation were thought necessary to correct interpretation, the community, early in the history of Islam, concluded that it was imperative to gather as many traditions as possible about the life and actions of the Prophet so that the Quran might be more fully understood. These traditions not only provided the historical context for many of the surahs - thus contributing to their more exact explication - but also contained a wide variety of subsidiary information on the practice, life, and legal rulings of the Prophet and his companions.

This material became the basis for what is called the sunnah, or "practice" of the Prophet - the deeds, utterances, and taqrir (unspoken approval) of Muhammad. Together with the Quran, the sunnah, as embodied in the canonical collections of traditions, the hadith, became the basis for the shari'ah, the sacred law of Islam.

Unlike Western legal systems, the shari'ah makes no distinction between religious and civil matters; it is the codification of God's Law, and it concerns itself with every aspect of social, political, economic, and religious life. Islamic law is thus different from any other legal system; it differs from canon law in that it is not administered by a church hierarchy; in Islam there is nothing that corresponds to a "church" in the Christian sense. Instead, there is the ummah - the community of the believers - whose cohesion is guaranteed by the sacred law. Every action of the pious Muslim, therefore, is determined by the Quran, by precedents set by the Prophet, and by the practice of the early community of Islam as enshrined in the shari'ah.

No description, however, can fully capture the overwhelming importance of the Quran to Muslims. Objectively, it is the central fact of the Islamic faith, the Word of God, the final and complete revelation, the foundation and framework of Islamic law, and the source of Islamic thought, language, and action. It is the essence of Islam. Yet it is, in the deeply personal terms of a Muslim, something more as well. In innumerable, almost indescribable ways, it is also the central fact of Muslim life. To a degree almost incomprehensible in the West it shapes and colors broadly, specifically, and totally the thoughts, emotions, and values of the devout Muslim's life from birth to death.