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The Qur'an

The holy text of Islam is called the Qur'an (also spelled Koran).

The Qur'an by Christine Huda Dodge

The holy text of Islam is called the Qur'an (also spelled Koran). The word Qur'an comes from the Arabic word iqra (to read), and is a noun that literally means “the Reading.” Revealed verse by verse to Muhammad over a period of twenty-three years, the Qur'an is the center of Muslim life. The Qur'an was revealed in the Arabic language and is preserved in its original form, although translations of the meaning have been done into other languages. Through stories and parables, direct instructions and warnings, the Qur'an gives a universal message of belief in One God and in the guidance He has sent through time.

Revelation and Preservation

The first verses of the Qur'an were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the cave of Hira', near Mecca, in 610 C.E. Muhammad was forty years old at the time. The angel Gabriel appeared to the Prophet Muhammad and ordered him to “Read, in the Name of your Lord” (Qur'an 96:1). Thus began his mission as a Prophet.

Over a period of twenty-three years, the remainder of the Qur'an was revealed to Muhammad. In the book itself, God is quoted as proclaiming, “It is We Who have sent down the Qur'an to you in stages” (Qur'an 76:23). In this way, the text of the Qur'an was revealed step by step, addressing the immediate needs of the people and allowing them time to grow and develop their faith.

In verses and sections, the revelations would come to Muhammad, at various times of day and night. Muhammad would recite each section immediately to his companions, and they would then commit the revelations to memory, reciting and reviewing the growing text. The oral tradition of the Qur'an was thus preserved among those who were with the Prophet Muhammad and has been passed along from generation to generation thereafter.

As Muhammad could neither read nor write, he also depended on scribes who wrote down the words on whatever material they could find: animal skins, pieces of tree bark, and palm branches. He would have the scribes read back to him what they wrote to ensure they had accurately transcribed the words. Scribes such as Zaid bin Thabit kept copies of the growing text in their own homes to add to as the revelations continued. Thus, the written text itself was compiled during the lifetime of Muhammad.

The last verse of the Qur'an to be revealed was: “This day I have perfected your religion for you, completed My favor upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion” (Qur'an 5:3). The Prophet Muhammad died within months after the revelation of this final verse.

Upon Muhammad's death, his scribes and companions compared and compiled these personal copies, reviewed them with those who had committed the Qur'an to memory, and wrote down this verified text all in one volume. This original and certified copy of the Qur'an was kept in the home of Muhammad's wife, Hafsah.

As the Islamic empire grew, two threats to the Qur'an became apparent. First, large numbers of believers who had memorized the Qur'an were dying in battle. Second, the growing empire began to include non-native speakers of Arabic, so there was a possibility that the text could be mispronounced or misunderstood. Early Arabic writing did not include vowel markings, so it was difficult for a non-native speaker to correctly read the words.

During his period of leadership, the caliph Abu Bakr took up the project of preparing a codified text of the Qur'an for protection and dispersal throughout the growing Muslim nation. This version, based on the original copy kept with Hafsah and certified by those who had memorized the revelation, was entirely consistent with what had been revealed to Muhammad. During the caliphate of Uthman, copies were made and sent to each state capital to replace other materials that were in circulation. From these codified, original texts, multiple copies were made for distribution all over the growing Muslim world. Museum manuscripts of the Qur'an from these earliest centuries match those in print today.

Structure of the Text

As a holy scripture, the Qur'an is believed to be a collection of writings with divine, rather than human, origins. Islam teaches that the words of the Qur'an were revealed to Muhammad, not written by him. Their source is from God, and the verses were transmitted through Muhammad.

As the revelations came, Muhammad would recite the words and instruct the scribes as to where to put the new verses in the body of the text. All of this was done according to instructions given to him by the angel Gabriel. The verses of the Qur'an thus do not read from beginning to end in chronological order.

When first reading the Qur'an, some people are initially confused by the seemingly random order. They may have expected to read a history book in chronological order, with chapters organized around certain themes or time periods. The Qur'an sometimes repeats particular points and recounts particular scenes in different ways throughout the different chapters. Historical accounts are interspersed with the lessons that can be learned from them. Exhortations to be kind and just are intertwined with reminders of the rewards of Paradise for those who are righteous.

Major Themes of the Qur'an

Muslims believe the Qur'an contains all the knowledge and wisdom God gave us to live good lives on earth and to worship Him in the proper way: “And We have sent down to you the Book explaining all things — a guide, a mercy, and glad tidings” (Qur'an 16:89). Muslims claim that the Qur'an is the final revelation to human beings, and as such contains a universal message.

Meccan and Madinian Chapters

During the first ten years of his mission, Muhammad and his small group of followers faced the opposition of the powerful, polytheistic Meccan tribes. The verses of revelation that came to Muhammad during this time mainly focus on matters of faith: they stress the unity of God, denounce idol worship, remind us of the messages of previous prophets, and encourage the believers to persevere in patience and constancy. These chapters of the Qur'an are called the Meccan Chapters.

After the Muslim community migrated to Madinah, the needs of the community changed. For the first time, the Muslims were able to organize a social system based in Islam. Thus, the focus of the revelation also began to shift. The chapters are longer, and they go into more detail about moral and ethical codes, criminal law, economic and state policy, and guidelines for relations with other communities. These chapters of the Qur'an are called the Madinian Chapters.

Overall Message

Throughout the text, the Qur'an tells stories and parables about previous prophets and peoples and the lessons that can be learned from them. It provides clear instructions about what is permitted and forbidden in our daily lives. It gives encouragement, calling upon believers to put their faith and trust in Allah and to be patient. It describes the character of righteous people as opposed to evildoers. It warns of the punishment to come for those who reject faith and wreak havoc on earth and sends messages of glad tidings for “believers, who do deeds of righteousness.” It calls upon people to ponder on the natural world and to wonder about the signs of Allah's creation. Above all, the Qur'an heralds Allah's mercy and perfect justice.

The Qur'an contains stories of past prophets, including many that have been mentioned in the Bible. Rather than focus on genealogies or long narratives, the Qur'an cites examples of righteousness and elaborates on the people's reactions to God's message. The fate of past nations is given as a warning to the believers not to make the same mistakes.


There are various techniques used in the Qur'an to spark interest in the reader and drive points home. One common method is the use of parables. For example, when describing the great reward for people who spend money in charity, the Qur'an uses the corn seed as an example. Each seed of corn grows a plant with several ears, each of which has a hundred more grains (Qur'an 2:261).

More than 200 passages of the Qur'an begin with the Arabic word Qul (Say!), a direct command to the Prophet Muhammad. What follows is usually a legal ruling, a reply to a question, or an explanation of some matter of faith. The word is used to grab attention and highlight the importance of what is to follow.

Finally, the Qur'an uses repetition, one of the most powerful rhetorical techniques of the Arabic language. Repetition also allows the various themes of the Qur'an to wrap back to the common thread: that God is One and that in order for us to succeed in this life and the hereafter, we must follow His guidance. No topic is mentioned without relating it back to this central message.

Respecting the Holy Book

Since Muslims believe the Arabic text of the Qur'an to be the exact words of God as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, the book itself is treated with respect and care. One only touches the text when in a ritual state of purity, as for prayer. Before and after reading from the text, one remembers God and seeks protection from evil.

The words of the Qur'an are to be recited with a slow, melodious voice. The Qur'an itself gives the instruction: “Recite the Qur'an in slow, measured, rhythmic tones” (Qur'an 73:4). In this way, one can ponder on the meaning of the words instead of rushing through.

The text is often kept on a high shelf of the home. It is never taken into a bathroom or other unclean environment. If one needs to dispose of any written page on which Allah's name or any verses of the Qur'an are written, it must be done so with respect. Most Muslims agree that such papers should be buried or burned.

Translations of the Qur'an into other languages are considered human interpretations of the meaning and are thus not subject to the same rules. However, most Muslims would treat the translations with appropriate reverence.

Exegesis of the Qur'an

As a person reads the Qur'an, there may be areas where a verse needs to be explained, put into historical context, or framed in reference to other verses on the same subject. Also, the Prophet Muhammad may have given more insight into certain verses in his oral traditions, his personal conversations with members of the community. Muslim scholars throughout history have gathered and written commentaries on the Qur'an, called tafsir (“explanation” or “interpretation” in Arabic).

Explanation and commentary is especially important with the Qur'an, as it was revealed in parts over a twenty-three-year span. Many passages were revealed in response to specific events or problems that were faced in the community. In order to fully understand what was meant by a certain verse, one must also be familiar with the circumstances surrounding its revelation. In some cases, a ruling or verse of guidance only applies to the specific situation it was addressing; in other cases a decree is more universal.

One must also consider verses of the Qur'an in context with other verses on the same topic. The structure of the Qur'an is such that discussion of a given topic may be dispersed throughout the text. Without reading the other verses, one would have an incomplete understanding. For example, the legal rulings about divorce are described in five different chapters. An exegesis of the Qur'an would refer the reader to each citation and clarify the topic based on the scriptural, historical, and social context.

Can the Qur'an Be Translated?

Over the centuries, much debate has been raised about whether the Qur'an can or should be translated into other languages.

Arguments Against Translation

Muslims may argue that the Qur'an was revealed in Arabic, and thus that language preserves God's exact words. At the time of its revelation, and even now, the Qur'an is considered to be the perfection of the Arabic language. It would be impossible to render the depth of meaning, allegory, and poetry into any other language. Those who hold this opinion argue that translation causes something to be missed; therefore it is the responsibility of each Muslim to try to learn Arabic in order to fully grasp the meaning of the Qur'an.

Arguments for Translation

From the earliest days of Islam, there were non-Arabic speakers among the Muslim community. The Qur'an brings a universal message to all of mankind, not only to those who can read its text in Arabic. Therefore, there have always been some who promote the translation of the meaning of the Qur'an into languages understood by a wider audience.

Even those who advocate for Qur'an translation admit that no translation can fully do justice to the richness of the original. Most Qur'an translations published today call themselves “interpretations of the meaning” of the Qur'an rather than pure translations. They are recognized as human attempts to capture the essence of the meaning, but they are not considered equal to the Arabic original. Muslims who do not speak Arabic often try to learn at least the basics of the Arabic alphabet in order to become more familiar with the original text. Expressions and phrases from the Qur'an, in Arabic, are used by both Arabic and non-Arabic-speaking Muslims around the world.

Taken from: The Everything Understanding Islam Book by Christine Huda Dodge



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