Skip to main content



The sacred scripture in Islam.

The Qurʾan (literally, recitation) consists of the ensemble of revelations recited by the prophet Muhammad and considered by the Muslims to be the word of God verbatim. The Qurʾan was revealed piecemeal during the prophetic career of Muhammad, starting in 611 c.e. with a vision he experienced during a night known as the Night of Destiny (laylat al qadr) and ending with his death in 632. The word Qur ʾan is coined by the revelation itself, which is also designated by other terms such as kitab (book), tanzil (literally, what is sent down), and dhikr (remembrance). The Qurʾan, which is shorter than the Christian New Testament, is divided into 114 chapters (sura, plural suwar) and 6,616 verses (aya, plural ayat). The word aya means literally "sign," and is used also in reference to any natural phenomenon as the expression or sign of God's will.

The Qurʾan is not arranged either chronologically or thematically, but rather on the basis of pre-Islamic aesthetic criteria, to which the Qurʾan implicitly refers when it challenges doubters to compete with it on literary grounds (2:23, 11:13), and which constitute the basis for the claim of the miraculous nature of the Qurʾan expressed as i ʿjaz, or inimitability. The chapters are arranged roughly in order of length, and they all start with the basmala (the invocation of God's name). The prophet is reported to have rearranged the text regularly with the onset of new revelations, and Muslim tradition maintains that he made also the final ordering of the text. The first chapter is called al-fatiha (the opening), and consists of a prayer addressed to God. In the other chapters, some verses deal with rituals and social and economic regulations, and many others consist of didactic parables and stories about former biblical and Arabian prophets, historical figures, and communities. The largest number of verses, however, is of a hortatory nature, dealing with God's majesty and power and with the various aspects of His creation. The Qurʾan uses indifferently the terms I, We, and He when God addresses His creatures, whether directly or indirectly, through the Prophet.

Themes and Interpretation

The themes of the Qurʾan build around the central claim of tawhid, or the absolute unity and transcendence of God. God is an omnipotent, all-powerful deity, on whom creation is completely dependent. All of creation was offered to humanity as a trust to allow the latter to carry out its task as God's vicegerent (khalifa) on earth. The Qurʾan, which is written in powerful rhymed prose with striking imagery, vividly reminds human beings that they will report to God on the Day of Judgment and that the afterlife (paradise and hell) is predicated on one's actions in this life. Parables and moral didactic stories abound, as well as warnings and general advice on how to succeed as God's vicegerent and avoid the failure to which pride and greed lead. Because the Qurʾan refers to the human endowment (fitrah) that allows people to distinguish good from evil, it calls itself dhikr (reminder or remembrance); and it is repeatedly pointed out that similar messages, based on a single divine source of revelation called umm alkitab (13:39), had been sent to all communities over time, and eventually gave rise to different interpretations in the form of different religions. The Qurʾan itself is the conclusion of this string of revelations that start with Adam as the first prophet and end with Muhammad.

The Qurʾan has given rise to a number of sciences, the most important of which is asbab al-nuzul (the study of the historical context of the verses), and to countless commentaries that range from the literalist to the mystical. Modern commentaries such as those of Muhammad Abduh, Abu al-Aʾla alMawdudi, and Sayyid Qutb have shifted from the early traditional atomist approach to a comprehensive approach that integrates the various meanings of the text.

Collection of the Qurʾan

Muslim tradition holds that the Prophet relied primarily on the memorization by his disciples of the revelations he taught them, but he did have a number of secretaries transcribe the text of the Qurʾan. There is agreement that after his death, these transcriptions were collected by Zayd ibn Thabit, one of his main secretaries, but no official canon or reference was established. By the time of Uthman's reign (644656), the spread of variant readings of the text (based on the use of synonyms, and on pronunciations found in dialects other than that of the Qurʾan), and the proliferation of manuscripts (mushaf, plural masahif) made without reference to the original recitation, caused alarm amongst the Companions of the Prophet. Consequently, Uthman ordered Zayd to establish an official canon in the Quraysh dialect based on the original collection, and to get confirmation and approval of his work from the Companions. All other existing manuscripts and personal copies (which often contained personal annotations, or omitted some passages, or followed a different order of the chapters) were ordered destroyed, and all new copies of the Qurʾan were made from the new canon. However, differences persisted. Muslim tradition identifies and accepts as part of the original text of the Qurʾan seven dialects (ahruf) in which the text is said to be revealed, though the standardization of the Uthman canon, which emphasized the Quraysh dialect, made these obsolete. In addition, different readings or styles of recitation (qira ʾa) arose based on different possible orthographic forms and pronunciations. The Qurʾan had been recited aloud from its inception; eventually, ten different readings were accepted as legitimate, based on the authenticity of the oral traditions that transmitted them and on evidence that the original reader's recitation had been tolerated by the Prophet. Further standardization came with the development of diacritical dots and marks in the written text.

Contemporary Orientalist views of the collection of the Qurʾan diverge widely, ranging from the claim that it is a late forgery to near-total endorsement of traditional Muslim claims. However, with very few exceptions, there is general agreement that the current text of the Qurʾan is in accordance with Uthman's canon (as there are no traditions referring to other canons), and that the variations that prompted codification of the Qurʾan were mostly minor divergences of pronunciation and orthography and omissions in some personal copies of some chapters or insertions of prayer formulas external to the text. More importantly, it seems that the early Muslim community accepted the Uthman canon: There were no attempts made by the early dissenting political groups (Shiʿite and Khawarij) to claim a divergent text; instead, they insisted on a divergent interpretation of it.

Place in Islam

The Qurʾan is the ultimate reference for the Muslim who reveres it as the only expression of the sacred on earth. Besides providing the central worldview from which Muslim culture and civilization springs, it directly affects a number of disciplines and arts. Thus grammar, syntax, lexicography, law, and literary criticism are all based on the Qurʾanic text. Calligraphy, the most sophisticated of Islamic art forms, was developed to celebrate the holy text, and the chanting of the Qurʾan, based on abstract modular improvisation that organizes musical motifs in complex patterns, provides the core structure of the various genres of Islamic music.

see also abduh, muhammad; islam; mawdudi, abu al-aʿla al-; muhammad; qutb, sayyid.


Faruqi, Lois L al-. Islam and Art. Islamabad, Pakistan: National Hijrah Council, 1985.

Rahman, Fazlur. The Major Themes of the Qur ʾan. Minneapolis, MN: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1980.

Said, Labib al-. The Recited Koran. Princeton, NJ: Darwin Press, 1975.

Watt, M. W. Bell's Introduction to the Qur ʾan. Edinburgh, U.K.: Edinburgh University Press, 1970

maysam j. al-faruqi

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Qurʾan." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . 29 Mar. 2017 <>.

"Qurʾan." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . (March 29, 2017).

"Qurʾan." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . Retrieved March 29, 2017 from


Qurʾān. The scripture of Islam, believed by Muslims to be the word of Allāh, revealed to Muḥammad between the years 610 and 632 CE, recited by him, and subsequently recorded in written form.

In the Qurʾān itself, the word qurʾān means primarily the action of reciting; it can also in some places indicate an actual passage of scripture, or a part of the whole revelation, or the book; it is also mentioned together with the Tawrāt and Injīl (3. 3; 9. 111). The word kitāb (book) is also used as a synonym (e.g. 4. 105). The Qurʾān is thought to ‘confirm’, but also supersede, former scriptures (10. 37). It is taken from umm al-kitāb, the pre-existent scripture preserved in heaven.

The Qurʾān in its present form consists of 114 chapters (sūras) composed of varying numbers of verses (ayāt; sing., ayā), and roughly arranged in decreasing order of length. The first sūra, of only seven verses, is the Fātiḥa. In general, the earlier sūras are the shorter ones, and thus are found towards the end of the book.

The generally accepted belief among Muslims, although there has been criticism of the details is that during Muḥammad's lifetime portions of the Qurʾān were written down, at his dictation, but that the first collection was made during the caliphate of Abū Bakr (632–4 (AH 11–13)), by Muḥammad's scribe Zayd b. Thābit. Subsequently, under ʿUthmān, a recension was made by Zayd and a few others. Any other written versions of single parts were ordered to be destroyed. Thus within some thirty years of Muḥammad's death a definitive text was established, which has remained virtually unchanged down to the present day.

The Qurʾān is divided into the sūras revealed in Mecca, and those revealed in Madīna.

Although the Qurʾān describes itself as a ‘clear book’ (2. 2), and a clear ‘Arabic Qurʾān’ (12. 2), some of its passages are acknowledged to be obscure and in need of interpretation. The science of commentary and interpretation (tafsīr and taʾwīl) has given rise to a large body of literature.

As the speech (kalām) of Allāh, the Qurʾān is considered one of His attributes (ṣifāt), and also as co-eternal with him. Muslim teaching in general has been that the Qurʾān is eternal, uncreated, and perfect. Its inimitability (iʿjāz) is an article of faith (10. 38, 11. 13) and a proof of its divine origin. The intense respect for the words of the Qurʾān has led to an eagerness to recite portions frequently, and to learn the whole book by heart, one who has so learnt being known as a ḥāfiz̳. There has also been some reluctance to translate it into other languages. Any version other than Arabic is considered as, at best, an ‘interpretation’.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Qurʾān." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . 29 Mar. 2017 <>.

"Qurʾān." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . (March 29, 2017).

"Qurʾān." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved March 29, 2017 from


Qur'an or Koran (kōrăn´, –rän´) [Arab.,=reading, recitation], the sacred book of Islam. Revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad in separate revelations over the major portion of the Prophet's life at Mecca and at Medina, the Qur'an was intended as a recited text, and was not compiled as a single volume during the life of the Prophet. The establishment of the canonical text is attributed to the 3d caliph, Uthman, who appointed a committee (651–52) to reconcile the conflicting versions then available, under the direction of Zaid ibn Thabit, one of the Prophet's scribes. The internal organization of the Qur'an is somewhat ad hoc. Revelations consisted of verses (ayat) grouped into 114 chapters (suras). The arrangement of the suras is mechanical: the first, al-Fateha or "the Opening," is a short prayer exalting God that has become an essential part of all Islamic liturgy and prayer. The rest are graded generally by length, from longest to shortest. It is thus impossible to tell from the book the chronological order of revelations; generally, however, the shorter suras, more electric and fervent than the rest, are the earlier, while many of the longer ones (and all of those revealed at Medina) are later. The Qur'an refers to religious and historical events but seldom provides comprehensive accounts. Its focus is their significance, rather than their narration. God in the Qur'an speaks in the first person. Tafsir, Qur'anic exegesis, initially emerged as a branch of the science of Hadith, in the attempt to gather Muhammad's elucidations of obscure Qur'anic passages, then developed into a separate discipline with the introduction of etymological and literary analysis tools. Being the verbatim Word of God, the text of the Qur'an is valid for religious purposes only in its original Arabic, cannot be modified, and is not translatable, although the necessity for non-Arabic interpretations is recognized. This has made the Qur'an the most read book in its original language and preserved a classical form of Arabic as an Islamic lingua franca and medium of learning.

See A. J. Arberry's translation of the Qu'ran, The Koran Interpreted (2 vol., 1955, repr. in 1 vol., 2008); I. Toshihiko, God and Man in the Koran (1964); R. Bell, Introduction to the Koran (2d ed. 1970); K. Cragg, The Event of the Koran (1971); W. H. Wagner, Opening the Qur'an: Introducing Islam's Holy Book (2008); Z. Sardar, Reading the Qur'an (2011).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Qur'an." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 29 Mar. 2017 <>.

"Qur'an." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (March 29, 2017).

"Qur'an." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved March 29, 2017 from