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The Qur'an, Islam Religion Overview

An example of Allah written in simple calligraphic Arabic

The Qur'an, Islam Religion Overview

The Qur'an (also transliterated as Quran, Koran, and less commonly Alcoran) is the holy book of Islam.

Muslims believe that the Qur'an is the literal word of God and culmination of God's revelation to mankind, revealed to the Prophet Muhammad over a period of 23 years by the Angel Jibreel (Gabriel). The Qur'an consists of 114 suras (chapters) with a total of 6,236 ayat (verses; the exact number of ayat is disputed). The Qur'an retells stories of many of the people and events recounted in Jewish and Christian sacred books (Torah, Bible) and devotional literature (Apocrypha, Midrash), although it differs in many details. Well-known Biblical characters such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mary, and John the Baptist are mentioned in the Qur'an as Prophets of Islam.

12th century Andalusian Qur'an

Origin and development of the Qur'an

Muslims believe that the wording of the Qur'anic text that we have today is identical to that revealed to Muhammad himself; words of God delivered to Muhammad through Jibreel (Gabriel).

Muhammad is supposed to have only delivered the Qur'an in spoken form during his lifetime (although his companions are said to have written it down piecemeal); the word Qur'an (repertoire) is suitably translated as "recital", indicating that it cannot exist as a mere text. To be able to perform salat (prayer), a religious obligation in Islam five times daily, a person is required to learn at least some suras of the Qur'an (typically starting with the shorter ones at the end); and the more of the Qur'an learned, the better. A person whose recital repertoire encompasses the whole Qur'an is called a Qari' or Hafiz (which translates as "protector" or "memorizer".)

Muhammad's companions began recording all the suras in writing before Muhammad died in 632; written copies of various suras during his lifetime are frequently alluded to in the traditions. For instance, in the story of the conversion of Umar ibn al-Khattab (when Muhammad was still at Mecca), his sister is said to have been reading a text of surat Ta-Ha, and at Medina, about 65 Companions are said to have acted as scribes for him at one time or another, and he would regularly call upon them to write down revelations immediately after they came

According to Islamic tradition, the first complete compilation of the Qur'an in one volume was made in the first Caliph Abu Bakr's time by Zayd ibn Thabit, who "gathered the Qur'an from various parchments and pieces of bone, and from the chests (ie memories) of men." This copy was kept in Hafsa bint Umar house. However, during the caliphate of Uthman ibn Affan, a dispute developed about the use of various dialects (ahruf) that the Qur'an was being recited. Some were also alarmed by the reported divergences in the recitation of the revelation, especially among new Muslims. In response, Uthman made the decision of codifying and standardizing the text. According to conflicting Islamic traditions, he had a committee, that included Zayd and several prominent members of Quraysh, to produce a standard copy of the text, based on the compilation in the keeping of Hafsah.

When finished, Uthman sent out copies of it to the various corners of the Islamic empire, and ordered the destruction of all copies that differed from it. Several manuscripts, including the Samarkand manuscript, are claimed to be one of the original copies Uthman sent out; however, many scholars dispute that Samarkand is Uthmanic copy. Among the recently discovered Sanaa Qur'an manuscripts, at least three are dated to before 50 AH. Inscriptional evidence begins somewhat later; the earliest dated inscriptions containing portions of the Qur'an other than the basmala are dated to around 70 AH.

Beside the known earlier versions from Abdallah Ibn Masud and Ubay Ibn Ka'b, there exist also some reports about a Shiite version which was allegedly compiled by Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law, which he gave up in favor of Uthman's collection. Muslim scholars assume that the differences between the versions consisted mostly of orthographical and lexical variants and differing count of verses. All three of the mentioned people (Ibn Masud, Ubay Ibn Ka'b & Ali) were in positions of authority that would allow them to oppose any variations that existed between their collection and that of Uthman's. But to the contrary they all supported the Uthmanic version and continued to serve under the Caliph's rule.

Since Uthman's version contained no diacritical marks, and could thus be read in various ways by those who had not memorised it, around the year 700 the development of a vocalized version started.The oldest existing copy of the full text is from the ninth century. Today the Qur'an is published in fully vocalized versions.

Today seven canonical readings of the Qur'an and several uncanonical exist. This sevener-system was laid down by Ibn Mujahid who tried to find the special characteristics of each reading and thus derived common rules by analogical reasoning (qiyas). They are:

  • Nafi' of Madina (169/785), transmitted by Warsh (197/812)
  • Ibn Kathir of Makka (120/737)
  • Ibn 'Amir of Damascus (118/736)
  • Abu 'Amr of Basra (148/770)
  • 'Asim of Kufa (127/744), transmitted by Hafs (180/796)
  • Hamza of Kufa (156/772)
  • Al-Kisa'i of Kufa (189/804), transmitted by Duri (246/860)
These readings differ in the vocalization (tashkil ?????) of a few words. By far the two best-known readings of the Qur'an are the Warsh and Hafs readings; the others are almost never used.

Textual Criticism and the Qur'an

Higher biblical criticism revolutionized Judaism and Christianity by calling into question long-held assumptions about the origins of the Bible; some ambitious textual critics are attempting to do the same for the Qur'an. They claim that parts of the Qur'an are based on stories of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), the New Testament of the Christian Bible, and other non-canonical Christian works; differences of the biblical to the Qur'anic versions indicate that these stories were not taken directly from written texts but seem rather to have been part of the oral traditions of the Arab peninsula at Muhammad's time. To Muslims, however, this explanation is topsy-turvy: the "non-canonical" Jewish and Christian stories are simply further textual corruptions of an otherwise nearly lost divine original reflected in the Qur'an. These critics also seek to find evidence of text evolution and transcription disputes in early Islam; the results have been meager, but some have expressed hopes that recent discoveries of "Qur'an Graveyards" in Yemen will throw more light on the subject.

Interpretation of the Qur'an

According to the earliest accounts, the Qur'an was revealed piecemeal over a long period; thus each sura, and sometimes even individual verse, has its own specific circumstances. In some cases, these are mentioned in the well-known tafsirs (for instance, surat Iqra, or many parts, including ayat 190-194, of surat al-Baqarah); in other cases (eg surat al-Asr), the most that can be said is which city the Prophet was living in at the time (dividing between Makkan and Madinan suras.) In some cases, such as surat al-Kawthar, the details of the circumstances are disputed, with different traditions giving different accounts. Where known, however, the circumstances are considered an important aid in understanding the intended meaning of each verse. The more general background of the Qur'an, especially historical, is also of value in its interpretation. For example, it would scarcely be possible to make sense of surat al-Fil without the background knowledge given by early Arab historians' account of the Year of the Elephant.

The most important external aid used in interpreting the meanings of the Qur'an is the Hadith — the collection of Islamic traditions from which the details of early Islamic history are derived. An extensive science of isnad emerged in the early centuries of Islam, attempting to classify alleged sayings according to their reliability. The interpretation of the Qur'an soon developed into its own science, the ilm at-tafsir. Famous commentators include at-Tabari, az-Zamakhshari, at-Tirmidhi, Ibn Kathir. While these commentaries mention all common and accepted interpretations, modern fundamentalist commentaries like the one of Sayyed Qutb show tendencies to stick to only one possible interpretation.

Belief in the Qur'an's direct, uncorrupted divine origin is fundamental to Islam; this of course entails believing that the Qur'an has neither errors nor inconsistencies. ("This is the book in which there is no doubt, a guide to the believers": Surat al-Baqarah, verse 2.) However, it is well-known that certain chronologically later verses supersede earlier ones — the banning of wine, for instance, was accomplished gradually rather than immediately — and certain scholars have argued that some verses which discourage certain practices (for instance, polygamy) without banning them altogether should be understood as part of a similar process, though others argue that this contradicts "This day have I perfected your religion for you, completed My favor upon you, and chosen for you Islam as your religion" (5.3).

Note that, while certain Hadith — the Hadith Qudsi — are claimed to record noncanonical words spoken by God to Muhammad, or the gist of them, these are not considered to form any part of the Qur'an.

As to the basic message of the Qur'an, there are three fundamental points, repeated and restated throughout the work. They are as follows: this present physical life is a test; the afterlife is certain; our actions in this present life have consequences in the next.

'Created' vs. 'uncreated' Qur'an

The most widespread varieties of Muslim theology consider the Qur'an to be eternal and 'uncreated'. In this it was influenced by Greek philosophy, especially Plato's theories that all ultimate realities and truths had to be eternal and unchanging. Given that Muslims believe that Biblical figures such as Moses and Jesus all preached Islam, the doctrine of an unchanging, uncreated revelation implies that contradictions between their statements according to the Qur'an and the Bible must be the result of human corruption of the earlier divine revelations.

However, some, notably including the Mu'tazili and Ismaili sects, dispute this doctrine of the uncreated Qur'an. Various liberal movements within Islam implicitly or explicitly question the doctrine of the uncreated Qur'an when they question the continuing applicability and validity of Islamic law, as their justifications for doing so are often based on a belief that such laws were created by God to meet the particular needs and circumstances of Muhammad's community.

The Qur'an and Islamic culture

Before touching a copy of the Qur'an, or mushaf, a Muslim performs wudu (washing for prayer.) This is based on a literal interpretation of sura 56:77-79: "Most surely it is an honored Qur'an, in a book that is protected; none shall touch it save the purified ones."

Cantillation of the Qur'an is a fine art in the Muslim world, and allows for several variations of pronunciation of, for instance, pausal vowels and ta marbutah.

The traditions governing the translation and publication of the Qur'an state that when the book is published, it must never simply be entitled "The Qur'an." The title must always include a defining adjective (avoiding conceivable confusion with other "recitations", in the Arabic meaning), which is why all available editions of the Qur'an are titled The Glorious Qur'an, The Noble Qur'an, and other similar titles.

Translation of the Qur'an

The Qur'an has been translated into many languages, but translations of the Qur'an from Arabic to other languages are not considered by Muslims to be actual copies of the Qur'an, but rather are considered to be interpretive translations of the Qur'an; they are thus not given much weight in debates upon the Qur'an's meaning. In addition, as mere interpretive translations of the Qur'an, they are treated as ordinary books instead of being accorded the privileged status of Holy Books requiring special care. Robert of Ketton was the first to translate the Qur'an into Latin, in 1143.

External Qur'an Links


The Noble Qur'an — three translations (Yusuf Ali, Shakir, and Picthal). Also, Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi's chapter introductions to the Qur'an

The Noble Qur'an — Translated by Dr.Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al Hilali, and Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan. A well-known English translation endorsed by the Saudi government. Includes Arabic commentary by Ibn Katheer, Tabari, and Qurtubi.

The Final Testament — Translation by Rashad Khalifa, considered heretic and an apostate by the main corpus of Muslims. See Rashad Khalifa.

Qur'anic Recitation with English Translation by Qari Muhammad Ayub, Spoken in English by J.D. Hall Search

Qur'an Search Search English, Turkish, French, Spanish, Malay, German

The Qur'an Browser

Qur'an Database

Qur-an Commentaries/Studies

Tafsir by Ibn Kathir

Exposition of Quran by G. A. Parwez

The Message of the Qur'an Translated and Explained by Muhammad Asad

Ulm (Quranic studies) Ulum al Qur'an (http://www.ymofmd.com/books/uaq/index.htm) by Ahmad von Denffer

Ilm ul Qur'an — by Hasanuddin Ahmad

The Easy Dictionary of the Qur'aan Compiled By Shaikh AbdulKarim Parekh

Islamic Views

Textual Variants of the Qur'an

The Skeptic's Annotated Qur'an — a version of the Qur'an annotated from a skeptical point of view.

Western academic discussion of the origins of the Qur'an ) Review of Christoph Luxenberg's book

Die syro-aramäische Lesart des Koran: Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Koransprache Another Review by François de Blois, Journal of Qur'anic Studies, 2003, Volume V, Issue 1

What is the Koran? The Atlantic Online

Quranic manuscripts and calligraphy, Qur'an Manuscripts

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