The Quran (Koran)

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The Quran (Koran)


The sacred book of the Islamic religion; said to have been revealed orally to the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca and Medina during c. 610–32; compiled in Arabic by 656; first translated into English in 1649.


According to Islamic tradition, the Quran is a verbatim record of all the revelations from God received by Muhammad during “his lifetime. Its 114 chapters (or surahs) not only delineate the nature of God and the role of the Prophet Muhammad; they also address individual spiritual questions as well as social and legal matters.

Events in History at the Time of the Quran

The Quran in Focus

For More Information

From traditional accounts, we hear that Muhammad (c. 570–632 c.e.) was born under the shadow of an uncertain future in the city of Mecca in today’s Saudi Arabia. His father died before he was born; his mother, when he was only six; and his first guardian, his grandfather, shortly thereafter. As detailed in our earliest major source, the biography The Life of Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq (d. 767 C.E.), the young orphan was finally taken in by a kindly paternal uncle, Abu Talib. He grew into an adult who, explains the biography, had a reputation for honesty and fairness. His early life was uneventful. A young Muhammad began to work as a merchant in northward-bound trading caravans headed for ports of the eastern Mediterranean coast in his teens and twenties. When he was 25, he married Khadijah, a wealthy widow about 40 years of age, who had previously been his employer and who would, during her lifetime, be his only wife. The couple had three daughters and as many as three sons. While the boys all died in infancy, the daughters lived to maturity. But only one of the daughters, Fatimah (who married Muhammad’s cousin Ali, the son of Abu Talib), had children of her own. About 610 c.e., when Muhammad was around 40 years old, reports the biography, he received his initial summons from God to be a prophet and began to experience the revelations that would eventually be compiled into the Islamics scripture known as the Quran. Despite the universal applicability of its message, valid for all times and audiences, the Quran remains in many ways an intensely personal document, a moving record of Muhammad’s individual encounter with the divine, marked especially in the early chapters, or surahs, by intensely spiritual language. These surahs document Muhammad’s divine summons to preach to his fellow townsmen a message of both uncompromising monotheism and their need to accept individual personal responsibility for their actions before God. When in 622 C.E. he led his followers to the more northerly Arabian city of Medina to found an Islamic fellowship that could for the first time worship freely, God’s revelations to Muhammad, as recorded in the Quran, changed markedly in nature. Their focus shifted to the needs of a growing community trying to live according to the ideals of their new religious beliefs, addressing questions such as marriage regulations, inheritance laws, and the Muslim’s duty to help the poor and unfortunate.

Events in History at the Time of the Quran

The Bedouins: beyond the desert

Like other biblical prophets before him, Muhammad grew up in obscurity in a corner of the Mediterranean world that was regarded as marginal by such imperial capitals of the day as Constantinople or Ctesiphon. His distant ancestors came from a background of nomadic camel herders, called Bedouins, who lived in small tribal groupings deep in the desert for about 2,500 years, their subsistence lifestyle differing greatly from that of their neighbors in the great empires to the north. Many of these Bedouins retained their ancient pagan religions, worshipping multiple gods long after the majority of inhabitants in the Mediterranean empires had converted to monotheistic religions.

But over the centuries some Bedouin tribes moved away from nomadic desert life. By the time Muhammad was born, in the sixth century C.E., his tribe, the Quraysh, had been settled for several generations in the city of Mecca, about midway up the western (Red Sea) coast of the Arabian Peninsula, where they worked as merchants and pursued some modest agricultural activities, such as the cultivation of date palms. They also acted informally as custodians for the idols, many of which belonged to the surrounding tribes and were placed in the city’s religious shrine for safekeeping.

Recent research indicates that the Bedouins were better integrated into the larger Mediterranean world than previously thought. Relatively few passed their entire lives as lone Bedouins grazing camels in the high deserts. Many, like Muhammad himself, frequently visited surrounding territories in the course of their work in merchant caravans. Others became mercenary soldiers in the royal armies of neighboring empires. Even those who remained on the Peninsula hosted Christians who came to proselytize and minister to tribes that they had already converted. Muhammad and his neighbors were, in view of this interaction, most likely familiar with Christianity and Judaism, the two earlier monotheistic traditions. Indeed, a preoccupation with them marks many passages in the Quran.

Muhammad, like many earlier prophets, including Moses, was not an eloquent orator. So when the revelations from the Quran began to roll off his tongue in measured, highly polished, and moving language, the development struck many as miraculous. Indeed they referred to the Quran as Muhammad’s chief (and even only) miracle. His listeners were likewise struck by the fact that the words of the Quranic revelations were in their own Arabic language, unlike the biblical texts of the Christians and Jews, which were available only in Hebrew, Greek, or Syriac, all foreign tongues that were at best only vaguely familiar to them.

Despite these advantages to the Quranic expressions, Muhammad’s message of an uncompromising belief in one God (implicitly rejecting the Christian belief in the Trinity), in angels, and in the essential truth of revelations from previous prophets in the monotheistic traditions of Judaism and Christianity, was not welcomed immediately or wholeheartedly by his fellow Meccans. Many members of the most prominent families in his own tribe bitterly opposed Muhammad, and continued to do so for many years. They felt particularly threatened because, along with all its other tenets, the new faith emphasized social responsibility, that is, care and concern for those less fortunate members of the community, backed up with vivid images of a final judgment day when all would be called to account for the consequences of their deeds in this world. The wealthy Meccans seem to have been very much aware that adopting such a religion would require them to embrace new ethical principles and radically reorder their society.

Later, when Muhammad encountered groups of Arab Bedouins who had converted to Christianity and Judaism, he found them equally un receptive to the Quran’s message. The biography implies that this was because they had distorted the teachings of the founders in their own two traditions and so balked at Muhammad’s attempt to bring monotheism back to its origin; also, they felt threatened by the new religion (Ibn Ishaq, pp. 260–77). How much these nearby versions of Christianity and Judaism had actually distorted their traditions in Muhammad’s day is unclear; but a distinctive feature in early Islamic teachings, including the Quran, is an emphasis on the need to reform the preceding monotheistic traditions, at least as they existed at the time.

Impact of the Byzantines

Muhammad is thought to have been born just five years after the end of the reign of Justinian (d. 565), the greatest of the Byzantine emperors in late antiquity. In those days the Arabian Peninsula was a contested area, a border zone over which the Byzantine (Greek-speaking) and Sasanian (Pahlavi/Old Persian-speaking) empires frequently did battle. Justinian’s rule and that of his immediate predecessors was marked by a series of protracted, inconclusive wars with the Sasanians that disrupted normal life, especially trade, on the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The hostilities forced merchants to take alternate routes, including one across the Arabian Peninsula (Simon, pp. 32–39; Bell and Watt, pp. 2–4). These merchants, increasingly recruited from the local Arabs, brought new prosperity to the tribes who controlled the routes and small cities along the way, such as Muhammad’s hometown of Mecca, where the caravans stopped to refresh themselves. Emerging from this environment are central messages of the Quran—one condemns the hoarding of wealth; another warns against exploiting the weak for economic gain (Quran 4:2–10; 63:9–10). The scripture requires adherents to abide by the principles of egalitarianism and to treat one another with equal respect no matter what their status, prescriptions that would have direct relevance to a society exposed to new opportunities for material gain (Quran 3:110–117; 49:9–12). Later generations would in fact see these injunctions as evidence that Meccan society in Muhammad’s day had become badly split by inequalities in class and wealth that threatened to tear it apart.

In October 610 (about the time the Quranic revelations began), General Heraclius was crowned emperor of the Byzantine Empire. Heraclius had just deposed Phocas, a junior army officer who ruled the empire for eight years after murdering his predecessor, Maurice. Maurice had ordered the Byzantine army to wage war throughout the bitterly cold winter months, whereupon the army revolted, bringing about the downfall of a rule that had in some ways been advantageous (Whittow, p. 69). While emperor, Maurice had extended timely aid to a young Sasanian ruler, Khosrow II, who reclaimed the Persian throne and then contracted peace with the Byzantines. It was a peace that would end, however, with Maurice’s life. When Khosrow heard that his benefactor had been killed, he invaded Byzantine territory to topple first Phocas and then his replacement, Heraclius. Khosrow attacked the cities of Byzantine Mesopotamia and western Syria with success. By 614 he had occupied Damascus, Jerusalem, and the surrounding territories after destroying the most sacred church in Christendom, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, the Christian church was experiencing bitter internal dissension, largely because of Byzantine state policy toward those who did not conform to the doctrines of Chalcedonian Christianity (named for a church council of 451 in the Anatolian town of Chalcedon). By the middle of the sixth century, the majority of Christians had accepted the tenets adopted at the Council of Chalcedon, which decreed that Christ was a single being in whom two natures, human and divine, were inextricably mingled and thus inseparable. A minority group in the East, the Monophysites, argued that Christ had a single, not a double nature. Some of them believed this single nature entirely divine while others held that it combined the divine and human, somehow without mingling the two together (Frend, pp. 118–19, 365, 367–68). A third group, the Nestorians, emphasized Jesus’s human nature. Declared heretics by the council, this last group fled into the Sasanian territories and farther East, where the group flourished under moderately tolerant non-Christian rulers (Herrin, pp. 107–09).

In the fifth and sixth centuries, the Monophysites gained strength in Egypt, Syria, and the other non-Anatolian provinces of the Byzantine Empire. The Monophysites, though not labeled outright heretics, had suffered persecution under emperors after Justinian. This was brought home to the Arabs during the reign of Maurice, who had banished from his realm a ruler by the name of Mundhir, who was a Monophysite and the head of an Arab dynasty. The Byzantines, unhappy about his religious divergence, tried to break his dynasty’s power over its local area (Frend, pp. 329–30; Shahid, pp. 453–64). In short, the Arabs of Muhammad’s day were very much aware of the dangerous consequences of Christian doctrinal disputes. They were also aware of how intolerant one Byzantine emperor, Heraclius, was of the Jews. In 634 Heraclius ordered all Jews within the empire to either convert or be executed (Lamoreaux, p. 12). There is speculation that all this Byzantine persecution contributed to disaffection on the part of the local populations on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. The thinking is that these populations therefore lent support to the Arab invaders, helping them defeat the Byzantines. How much religious persecution contributed to disloyalty in Byzantium is debatable. But a rejection of Christian sectarianism is clearly implied in the Quran’s emphasis on tolerance for all those who accept a belief in one God, both within and without Islam.

The Quran stresses the continuity of its message with prior revelations ascribed to the Jews and Christians (Quran 46:12; 57:25–27; 87:18–19) and implies in some passages that the adherents of these other monotheistic creeds, called in the Quran “People of the Book,” will have a heavenly reward (Quran 2:62; 5:69) and should be treated with kindness and respect (Quran 60:79) as long as they do not fight against Muslims. These statements must be read in conjunction with others that register disappointment, even irritation, with the obstinacy of Jews and Christians who refuse to recognize the validity of the message of Islam and who seek to ridicule or actively oppose it (Quran 5:72–81). Clearly the Quran does not convey a consistent message in this regard. It is, however, important to recognize that on the basis of the Quran and Muhammad’s pronouncements (called the hadith, or “traditions”), the early Muslims articulated a policy of tolerance toward People of the Book. Christians and Jews, especially, are singled out as monotheists who should be free “to practice their faith—to worship and be governed by their own religious leaders and laws in such areas as marriage, divorce, and inheritance” (Esposito, p. 36). In return they had to pay a poll tax (jizya) that bought them Muslim protection from invaders and exemption from serving in the military. This liberal policy contrasted sharply with that of the Byzantine Empire toward many of its subjects in the years just prior to the Muslim conquests.

Wars—holy and unholy

The strife prevalent during Muhammad’s lifetime may have also influenced the Quran with respect to its focus on jihad, or “struggle.” The concept of jihad pertains to both an external struggle against hostility and injustice, and an internal struggle, within one’s self, against the soul’s tendency to evil. In modern times a great many Muslim intellectuals emphasize the inner struggle in their writings on jihad. But against the backdrop of constant warfare between the Christian Byzantines and the Persians, and among various Bedouin tribes of Muhammad’s day, the Quran’s pronouncements would have originally been understood to refer to actual fighting, not to an individual internal contest between good and evil.

Probably most influential on the Quran’s policy with respect to jihad was a series of confrontations between the Muslims and the Quraysh, the leading tribe of Mecca, after the Muslims relocated to the city of Medina. Although some branches of the tribe opposed Muhammad’s preaching from the beginning, his own clan generally protected him and championed his right to speak freely. But with the death of the clan leader, his uncle Abu Talib, in 619 C.E., Muhammad’s personal safety became increasingly uncertain. From this time on, his opponents formally shunned Muhammad and his followers, refusing to buy and sell from them or to deal with them in any way, and subjecting them to increasingly severe persecution, harassing and tormenting the more vulnerable Muslims but stopping short of actually killing anyone. Over a period of about a year, parties of Muslims made their way north to Medina, until only Muhammad and a few followers were left in Mecca. When Muhammad finally left the city, the situation had so deteriorated that he felt compelled to depart secretly, taking along only one companion (the faithful Abu Bakr). Even so, a group of Quraysh set out after him, intending but failing to kill him when he was alone and far from help.

Tensions further escalated following Muhammad’s establishment of his new community in Medina. He and his followers fought three battles with the Quraysh over the next five years. In the first battle, at the wells of Badr in March 624 c.e., a small party of Muslims scored an unexpected victory over a much larger force of Meccans, killing over 70 of them in the fray, some of whom had been important opponents of Muhammad. All of Surat Anfal (The Spoils), the eighth chapter of the Quran, describes this event.

By contrast, the second engagement, almost exactly a year later at a small mountain outside Medina called Uhud, resulted in an unexpected disaster. Muhammad barely escaped with his life. The last 60 verses of the third surah of the Quran, Al Imran (The Family of Imran), are said to have been revealed to Muhammad after this battle. In them, God comforts Muhammad, explaining that the Muslims’ inability to prevail was designed to test them in adversity and expose followers who had committed themselves to the new religion not because of true belief, but rather because of its worldly successes in previously defeating the Meccans, interfering with their caravan trade, and making many new converts among the Medinans. God promises in these verses that those who died in the battle did not die in vain but will be received immediately into heaven.

The third battle, called “The Battle of the Trench” Qihandaq), was much closer to a pitched engagement. Employing the strategy of digging a trench that would impede the mounted Meccans’ entry into Medina, the Muslims triumphed. Most of the early part of Surah 33, al-Ahzab (The Confederates), concerns the battle and its aftermath. This final encounter broke the power of the Meccans to wage armed battle against Muhammad. Eventually they concluded a peace treaty with him. Relations became such that at the end of his life he was able to return to Mecca in triumph for a farewell pilgrimage. Some tribal groups outside the cities, however, remained restless and were not entirely reconciled to Islamic rule. They intermittently rebelled, and refused to continue their allegiance to Islam after Muhammad’s death. Abu Bakr, for instance, who became Muhammad’s successor (the Arabic term for “successor” in this context is khalifah, usually Anglicized to “caliph”) spent most of his short rule (632–34) subduing these rebellious Bedouin and persuading or compelling them to return to the Islamic fold.

Notable in the Quranic pronouncements on the legitimacy of fighting are two verses related to the final period of Muhammad’s relationship with the Meccans and allied tribes. These so-called “Sword Verses” (Quran 2:216; 9:5) deal with instances when various tribal groups reneged on alliances they had made with the Muslims. At first glance, the verses seem quite bloodthirsty: “But when these months when fighting may not take place are completed, then kill the polytheists wherever you may find them, surround them and take them prisoner, sit in wait for them at every place they might congregate” (Quran 9:5; trans. T. DeYoung). But there are two key points to remember. First, the term translated as “polytheist” (sometimes as “idolater” or “infidel”) does not refer to non-Muslims in general. It refers only to those who—like the pagan Meccans that opposed Muhammad most fiercely—worship many gods and put them on the same level as the one God of all the monotheistic People of the Book. So the command is not a general one to make war upon non-Muslims, for it excludes other monotheists—the Jews and Christians. Second, the command in the context of the rest of the verse is not to make war on all polytheists no matter who they are but only on those polytheists who have broken non-aggression pacts with the Muslims. In fact, line 7 of the text specifically states: “If they act honorably to you, then do the same to them, for God loves those who act mercifully” (Quran 9:7; trans. T. DeYoung). If this is the behavior prescribed toward non-Muslim Arabs who have fulfilled their treaty obligations, then Muhammad is obviously ordering his followers to hunt those who are still fighting in violation of such pacts.

Ethical themes of the Quran

Probably the most frequently repeated obligation prescribed for every Muslim is “to command the good and forbid the evil” (Quran 3:104; trans. T. DeYoung). This injunction imposes on individuals the responsibility to combat evil in the society around them. They may do so through verbal rather than physical means, through persuasion rather than compulsion—as the instruction “to command” implies—but they cannot permit evil to pass unremarked. This emphasis in Islam on the believer’s activist social involvement takes on greater salience when one considers there was an increasing stress in Christian writings and practice in late antiquity on the necessity of distancing oneself from society to live the godly life. As Peter Brown, a foremost authority on life in the late Roman and Byzantine Empire, has said,

The central problem of late Roman religious history is to explain why men came to act out their inner life through suddenly coagulating into new groups, and why they needed to find a new focus in the solidarities and sharp boundaries of the sect, the monastery, the orthodox Empire. The sudden flooding of the inner life into social forms: this is what distinguishes the Late Antique period, of the third century onwards, from the classical world.

(Brown, p. 13)

While this trend invigorated the minority who peopled monastic establishments and nurtured spiritual commitment among individual Christians, some contemporaries saw it as having an adverse effect on the community. At one point the Quran condemns this Christian practice, singling out monasticism as the aspect of the religion most seriously distorted: “But [the Christians] created monasticism, which had not been prescribed for them by Us [refers to God], except for seeking the pleasure of God; yet they did not observe it [that is, monasticism] as it should have been rightly observed” (Quran 57:27; trans. T. DeYoung). The suggestion here is that Muhammad’s audience would have responded positively to the idea that Islam had been revealed to reform and sweep away this and other practices in Christianity at the time. Certainly it anticipates by many centuries the historian Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, who saw in “the success of monasticism … the signal emblem of the superstition that sapped the civic spirit of the Roman Empire” (Leyser, p. 583).

For early Muslims, the individual had a personal responsibility to ensure that religious precepts were followed by society at large as well as in private observance. This notion was reinforced by a strong emphasis on a Judgment Day, when everyone is called to account for his or her deeds, including those in relation to others, in this world. To counter any tendency toward fanaticism based on this injunction toward social activism, the Quran also advocates the search for a balanced life, “an hour for your heart, an hour for your Lord” as the Arabic proverb puts it. The Quran consistently condemns extremes of behavior such as miserliness or, on the other hand, excessive generosity, which in the pre-Islamic period often resulted in one’s dependents being reduced to


The uniqueness of the Quran’s rhythmic style should not be underestimated, since for most, if not all, Muslims, a large part of the scripture’s power is its sound Appreciation of the distinctive “Quranic voice” is developed early in life, by young children through recitation and memorization in schools called kuttabs. Part of Islamic education for centuries, kuttabs, though never incorporated into modern publicly financed educational systems, remain popular throughout the Islamic world. Part of the reason, suggests one scholar, may be that when the students in these schools begin to memorize the ayahs from the Quran, “they are not simply learning something by rote, but rather interiorizing the inner rhythms, sound patterns, and textual dynamics—taking it to heart in the deepest manner” (Sells, p. 11).

beggars. At the end of Surah 25, the surah that describes the ideal Muslim, the Quran articulates the sanctioned alternatives to these extremes.

64 Those who spend their nights either in prostration or standing before their Lord;

65 Who say: “O our Lord, turn away from us the torment of Hell; its punishment would be a grave penalty.

66 It would indeed be an evil place to halt and an evil abode;”

67 Who are neither prodigal nor miserly in their spending but follow a middle path;

68 Who do not invoke any god apart from God; who do not take a life which God has forbidden except for a cause which is just, and do not fornicate—and anyone who does so will be punished for the crime. (Quran 25:64–68; trans. T. DeYoung)

Few places in the Quran so neatly encapsulate the essence of the new Islamic message to Muhammad’s followers. Inherent in the lines are a practical simplicity, social commitment, and an openness to spiritual searching that would ensure a flood of converts to the new religion in the years after Muhammad’s death from a sudden and unexpected illness in 632 c.e.

The Quran in Focus

The contents of the Quran

Like the Bible, the Quran is divided into sections. Each is called a surah, an otherwise uncommon word in Arabic, translated variously as “step or gradation of a structure,” “chapter,” or perhaps most aptly “book,” since each surah is a self-contained unit. Often the surah includes an assortment of subsections with revelations from different occasions in Muhammad’s prophetic career.

Each surah is formally divided into ayahs, a feature that corresponds to the verses found in the Bible. (Ayah also means “miracle,” a sense reinforced by the belief that Muhammad’s key miracle was his revelation of the surahs of the Quran to his followers.) Within an ayah and between ayahs, there are incidents of parallelism and a kind of rhyme based mostly on assonance. But the ayahs in a group are of unequal lengths, and they do not have a regular rhythm like verses of poetry. It would thus be incorrect to consider them either poetry or unadorned prose.

Altogether the Quran consists of 114 surahs. They are ordered by length, the longest first and the shortest last. Because the shortest surahs also contain the earliest portions of the revelations to Muhammad, the effect on the reader moving from the beginning of the Quran to the end is to assimilate the impact of the divine message to his prophet roughly in reverse chronological order. In other words, the material revealed after the Muslims left Mecca for Medina, dealing with outward adherence to the practice of the religion (how Islam regulates communal and devotional behavior) as well as the Muslims’ polemical encounters with people opposed to their beliefs, is introduced first. Then, as the reader develops a greater psychological receptivity to the inner spiritual demands Islam makes upon its adherents, he or she enters more deeply into the highly sacral world Muhammad encountered at the beginning of his own prophetic experience.

The major exception to the rule of “longest (latest) first, shortest (earliest) last” is the first surah, “The Opener” (al-Fatihah), which was probably given its special place because it is used constantly by Muslims in a number of liturgical contexts. It also expresses some basic Muslim beliefs in compact form, such as the power and omnipotence of the one God, his beneficence and mercy to human beings, the human need for divine guidance and for awareness that a judgment day will come. Surat al Fatihah (the normally silent final “h” in surah is pronounced “t” when followed by a possessive phrase, such as “0/the Opener”) is succeeded by a group of 11 very long surahs (each is over 100 verses) that mix together a number of heterogeneous topics. Surat al-Baqarah, the second surah, is a good model for how they are structured. It begins with a section dealing primarily with the rejection or hypocritical acceptance of Muhammad’s message by his fellow Arabs and the inhospitable reception to it from the other two monotheistic groups as well. Included are admonitions and exhortations addressed first and foremost to the Jews, since the Jewish tribes of Medina were the first large concentration of People of the Book encountered by Muhammad after his migration to that city in 622. In its second half, this surah incorporates a wealth of regulations for the new Muslim community, from rules about fasting and the direction of prayer and pilgrimage, to rules concerning marriage, debts, and the regulation of the Islamic calendar. Throughout, it interpolates some stories about earlier prophets, only briefly alluding to particular events from the narrative of their lives. These earlier prophets would have been familiar to anyone raised in the other monotheistic traditions. Extensive passages, for example, deal with the story of Adam and his fall from Paradise (Quran 2:30–39), the experiences of Moses and his people in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt (Quran 2:53–61, 2:67–71, 2:92–93), and Abraham’s witness to the omnipotence of God (Quran 2:258–260). The stories serve as proof texts, or evidence, of God’s mercy to those who believe in him and are grateful for his bounties; also the stories illustrate how the faithful must always contend with opposition and disbelief.

It is very characteristic of all the surahs in the Quran to include incidents from the stories of familiar Jewish and Christian prophets (often with details different from the models) to illustrate the main theme in the passage of the relevant surah. The exception to this pattern of using illustrative examples from the stories of the prophets, rather than narrating the tale of a particular prophet in its entirety, occurs in Surah 12 (“Joseph”). This surah relates the entire story of the biblical patriarch Joseph. In some respects, it differs from the tale of Joseph in the Hebrew Bible; in other respects the two versions complement each other.

Because of its comprehensiveness, Surat al Baqarah is sometimes referred to as “a Quran in miniature.” Its structural similarities to the surahs that come after it can be seen below:

Surah 2 al-Baqarah (The Cow)

286 verses, revealed in Medina:

vv. 1–29: The Quran as a guide to those who believe; characteristics of believers and hypocrites defined.

vv. 30–39: The fall of Adam from Paradise.

vv. 40–152: Exhortation to the Jews, calling upon them to cease hostility to Islam—includes references to exodus of Moses and Israelites from Egypt, change in the direction of prayer, Abraham’s commitment to one God.

vv. 153–57: How believers should deal with misfortune.

vv. 158–79: How believers should deal with non-believers.

vv. 180–286: Regulations for the community, including pronouncements on inheritance and wills, fasting, jihad, and pilgrimage.

Surah 3 Al Imran (Family of Imran)

200 verses, revealed in Medina:

vv. 1–32: The omnipotence of God and the guidance He gives believers through scripture, defining the difference between those who believe and those who do not.

vv. 33–63: Incidents from the story of Mary and Jesus.

vv. 64–101: Appeal to the People of the Book not to spread lies about the relationship between their religions and Islam.

vv. 102–200: Material related to the Battle of Uhud, including sermons delivered before and after the battle, explanations of the defeat, and reassurance of the Muslims.

Surah 4 al-Nisa (The Women)

176 verses, revealed in Medina:

vv. 1–39: Regulations regarding the treatment of those who are dependent on others: orphans, women, the poor and needy.

vv. 40–148: The justice of God; the dangers of people who are hypocritical.

vv. 149–177: The dangers of causing dissension, which is illustrated by the behavior of the People of the Book toward the Muslims.

Surah 5 al-Ma’idah (The Table)

120 verses, revealed in Medina:

vv. 1–7: The obligations incumbent on Muslims in their behavior toward others and regulations about food and cleanliness.

vv. 8–32: A promise that justice will prevail and there will be rewards for doing good, contrasted with behavior of People of the Book who distort the truth, behave hypocritically, and break agreements; example of Cain and Abel.

vv. 33–50: Punishments decreed for crimes like murder and theft.

vv. 51–120: Relations of Muslims to their opponents and to those who are sympathetic to them among the People of the Book.

Surah 6 al-Anam (The Cattle)

165 verses, revealed in Mecca:

vv. 1–3: God is the Creator.

vv. 4–73: Despite the evidence of God’s power, many people will not worship Him.

vv. 74–82: Abraham’s message of God’s omnipotence rejected by his people.

vv. 83–94: Description of some prophets sent to mankind before Muhammad and how they were rejected.

vv. 95–165: The signs that God exists, including the order of the natural world, angels sent as messengers, miracles granted to prophets, and the Quran.

Surah 7 al-Araf (The Battlements)

206 verses, revealed in Mecca:

vv. 1–10: The Quran is a warning to mankind, showing how earlier peoples have been punished by God for disobedience.

vv. 11–53: The fall of Adam from Paradise; the lesson his punishment should teach to mankind.

vv. 54–58: The blessings God bestows upon those who revere him.

vv. 59–64: The punishment of Noah’s people for their disobedience.

vv. 65–72: The punishment of the ancient Arabian people of Ad for disbelieving their prophet Hud.

vv. 73–84: The punishment of the ancient Arabian people of Thamud for disbelieving their prophet Salih.

vv. 85–93: The punishment of the people of Midian for disbelieving Shuayb.

vv. 94–102: Many peoples have been disobedient to God and have been punished.

vv. 103–41: The punishment of Pharaoh and the people of Egypt for persecuting Moses and the Israelites.

vv. 142–47: Moses receives the Tablets of the Law on Mt. Sinai.

vv. 148–57: The punishment of the Israelites for worshipping the golden calf.

vv. 158–206: Instructions to Muhammad on how to convey his message to his people, prediction that some of them will be disobedient.

Surah 8 al-Anfal (The Spoils of War) 75 verses, revealed in Medina: w. 1–4: The distribution of spoils of war; definition of who is a true believer.

vv. 5–75: Description of the preparations for the Battle of Badr and the aftermath.

Surah 9 al-Tawbah (Repentance)

129 verses, revealed in Medina:

vv. 1–23: A declaration of the abrogation of any treaties between Muslims and polytheists.

vv. 24–89: Condemnation of hypocrites and hostile People of the Book.

vv. 90–99: The Bedouin Arabs described.

vv. 100–129: Distinguishing between hypocrites and upright individuals.

Like “The Cow,” all these surahs contain very diverse material arranged in sections that are freestanding, juxtaposed like the parts of a mosaic. Nevertheless some general observations about these surahs can be made. Almost all the surahs are labeled as being revealed, either wholly or for the most part, in Medina. This means they are associated with the late phase of Muhammad’s prophetic career and are thus associated with him in his role as guide and lawgiver for the community and not as individual seeker after religious truth. The exceptions to this are the sixth and seventh surahs, “Cattle” and “The Battlements.” “Cattle” conveys a relatively unified depiction of Islamic doctrine concerning death, judgment, and resurrection. “The Battlements” expands upon this subject by depicting a series of incidents drawn from the lives of the monotheistic prophets before Muhammad; known in modern religious studies as “punishment stories,” these depictions illustrate the ingratitude of men in the face of God’s bounty and favors. These were all issues of great relevance to the formative phase of doctrinal development in Islam.

Also there are several extensive passages in these surahs that deal with events surrounding the major battles and political developments of the Medinan period. “The Spoils,” for example, concerns events associated with the Battle of Badr; “The Family of Imran” includes a long section about the Battle of Uhud; and “Repentance” constitutes a response to the growing tensions between the Islamic community and its opponents in the last years of Muhammad’s life, when he was under pressure to reconsider his practice of making non-aggression pacts with non-Muslim tribes.

At the other end of the Quran, we encounter a very different kind of surah. These are much shorter and tend to be much more unified in their presentation, with a given surah incorporating at most two or three separate brief sections. Some have only a single, dramatic focus, like the 112th Surah, al-lkhlas (“The Sincere Religion”):

  1. Say: He is God, One
  2. God the everlasting
  3. He was not born of anyone, nor will He beget children.
  4. There has never been anyone equal to Him.

(Quran, 112:1–4; trans. T. DeYoung)

Here, the reader’s attention is directed unwaveringly to one of the central tenets of Islam, the indivisible unity of God.

Of particular interest in the last two-thirds of the Quran are the surahs believed to contain the earliest material to have been revealed. In the era they were first collected, the surahs were known by their titles and soon after were assigned numbers according to their order in the Quran. The table below lists them not in this order, but rather in the most commonly accepted order in which they were revealed to Muhammad. For each surah, the early material is in dark (boldface) print.

Surah 96 al-Alaq (The Blood Clot)

19 verses, revealed in Mecca:

vv. 1–5: First verses to be revealed, emphasizing God’s role as a creator and his beneficence to mankind .

vv. 6–19: Criticism of Muhammad’s opponent Abu Jahl.

Surah 74 al-Muddaththir (The Shrouded)

56 verses, revealed in Mecca:

vv. 1–10: Muhammad is commanded to warn his people of the imminent Day of Judgment .

vv. 11–26: One of Muhammad’s Meccan opponents is threatened with Divine retribution for rejecting Muhammad’s teaching.

vv.27–48: Description of Hell.

vv. 49–56: The opposition to Muhammad is described as wanting to become prophets themselves.

Surah 73 al-Muzzammil (The Enwrapped)

20 verses, revealed in Mecca:

vv. 1–9: Muhammad is commanded to prepare himself for his coming mission .

vv. 10–19: Muhammad is comforted and his opponents are promised punishment on the Judgment Day.

v. 20: Abrogation of night-vigils.

Surah 81 al-Takwir (The Coiling)

28 verses, revealed in Mecca:

vv. 1–14: A description, in detail, of the Day of Judgment .

vv. 15–28: The truth of Muhammad’s prophetic powers is supported.

Surah 93 al-Duha (The Forenoon)

11 verses, revealed in Mecca:

vv. 1–11: Muhammad is comforted and warned not to forget the needy and orphans .

Surah 94 al-Inshirah (The Easing)

8 verses, revealed in Mecca:

vv. 1–8: God reminds Muhammad that He has given him comfort and hope .

Of these surahs, 96, “The Blood Clot,” is the most noteworthy. It is the first revelation, and unlike the other surahs referenced above, it can be connected to a first-person narrative purported to come directly from Muhammad himself. Included in several sources, this narrative contains all the background details about this first occasion of revelation.

The rest of Surat al-Alaq comes from much later in Muhammad’s prophetic career. A prominent citizen of Mecca, about the same age as Muhammad and nicknamed Abu Jahl, or “Father of Ignorance,” became an unrelenting enemy of the new religion. He harassed Muhammad and tormented his followers at every opportunity; one of his favorite devices was to interfere with Muhammad while he prayed. Once when Abu Jahl tried to do this, lines 6–19 of this surah were revealed as a rebuke to him and a warning of the punishment awaiting him in the afterlife. Though addressed to him, not Muhammad, the dramatic immediacy of these lines ties them rhetorically to the earlier lines, which may have dictated their placement in the same surah with the earlier address to Muhammad himself.

Strategic writing, strategic reading

The beginning of Surat al-Alaq is very unlike the beginning of Genesis from the Hebrew Bible.

From the Quran:

  1. Read! In the name of your Lord who created,
  2. Created a human being from a [mere] blood clot,
  3. Read! And your Lord is most generous
  4. Who taught by the pen
  5. Taught a human being what he knew not.
    (Quran, 96:1–5; trans. T. DeYoung)

From the Hebrew Bible:

  1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth
  2. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
  3. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

(Genesis 1:3)

In the Hebrew Bible, all the material necessary for making connections between the various actions is supplied, including a time (“the beginning”), a place (“the earth”), and a main character (“the spirit of God”), who sets the whole tableau in motion by speaking (“Let there be light”). Everything is rendered from an external third-person perspective. Surat al-Alaq, in contrast, uses an almost diametrically opposed strategy. The reader must, even before approaching the Quranic surah, take the initiative to discover the details of the story from another source, either from the biography by Ibn Ishaq or one of the commentaries on the Quran. According to the biography, the Prophet’s first revelation came about during one of his retreats into the mountains around Mecca to withdraw from the world and meditate on religious matters for one month a year (Ibn Ishaq, p. 106).

One year (probably 610 C.E.), while on his retreat, Muhammad enters a cave deep within the mountains and has a pivotal experience. While in this cave—called Hira—Muhammad receives a visit from a strange figure (later identified as the angel Gabriel), carrying “a coverlet of brocade” inscribed with “some writing.” The figure commands Muhammad to “Read!” (the verb can also be translated as “Recite!”), whereupon Muhammad asks in surprise—either because he cannot see the writing in the angel’s hand or is unable to read—” What should I read?” The angel, dissatisfied with Muhammad’s words, grabs him by the throat and presses down upon his chest, ordering him again to read. Muhammad, frightened, hurt, and confused, repeats his initial response. The sequence is repeated twice more, whereupon Muhammad says emphatically and unambiguously, “What should I read?” At this point the angel utters out loud the words upon the brocade, which are the first five lines of Surat al-Alaq: “Read! In the name of your Lord who created,/created a human being from a [mere] blood clot ….” Afterwards the angel leaves as suddenly as he appeared. Except for the angel’s final words, all the foregoing and following information is left out of the Quran and must be retrieved from other sources.

When Muhammad returns to his senses, his reaction is not relief or excitement. Rather, like so many of the earlier prophets of the Bible, he rejects the summons, believing it indicates that he has gone mad. He even resolves upon suicide. As he says in his own words: “I thought, Woe is me [I am a] poet or possessed—Never shall Quraysh say this of me! I will go to the top of the mountain and throw myself down that I may kill myself and gain rest” (Muhammad in Ibn Ishaq, p. 106). But when he tries to carry out his resolution, the angel Gabriel reappears, announces to Muhammad that he is a prophet, and places him back upon the path. He finally returns down the mountain to the waiting arms of his wife, Khadijah, who comforts him and tries to persuade him that he has not lost his reason.

The repeated commands to “Read!” seem to throw into contrast God’s omnipotence and the individual’s inadequacy before that overwhelming power, yet they also emphasize God’s willingness to teach and help, concepts that become manifest through the narrative we have about the first revelation from Muhammad’s own lips. This willingness is infused into the Quran by the very style it employs, its strategy of addressing the reader directly and drawing him or her into the learning experience in the process of relating Muhammad’s revelation.

The reply to Muhammad’s question “What should I read?” which initiates the dialogue with Gabriel, is “Read in the name of your Lord who created / Created a person from a [mere] blood clot.” The repetition—and verse division—between the first mention of the verb “created” and the second allows for a pause where one could plausibly insert the question “What did the Lord create?” Then the second verse (“a human being”) becomes the smoothly flowing response to that question. A parallel gap for question-response occurs after “and your Lord is most generous,” allowing for the thought “How is He so generous?” which is then answered with “[because] He taught a human being what he knew not.” While the Quran incorporates into its lexicon many rhetorical strategies from diverse religious texts—including the conventional linear narrative of the Bible, dialogue between characters, the sermon, the prayer, and other kinds of exhortation—it repeatedly invokes direct address. In fact, this kind of direct address to the reader—insistently inviting a response that encourages the reader to enter into an almost dialogic relationship with the text—is probably the Quran’s most characteristic feature.

Sources and literary context

The Quran speaks of itself in a number of places (for example, Quran 4:105 and 6:92) as a “book” (Jntdb), by which it is understood to mean a “scripture,” like the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, which document divine messages to other prophets, principally Moses and Jesus (2:87, 3:48). Thus, the Quran is placed securely in the monotheistic tradition, which gives great reverence to the written record of God’s words as evidence for the presence of the Divine in the world. Also regarded as proof for a Supreme Being in articulations of biblical thought are the seemingly divine principles of order that animate the natural world, the so-called “Book of Nature”; in a number of places the Quran too appeals to this evidence for God’s existence, most notably at the beginning of Surah 55 (“The Merciful”)

5 The sun and moon move to an arithmetical equation,

6 The stars and the trees prostrate themselves in adoration,

7 The heavens He raised and placed there a scale.

8 Beware not to overbalance that scale!

9 Measure out with equity and do not short the scale.

10 The earth He put in place for all creatures

11 Containing fruits and date palms with clusters sheathed,

12 Grain in the husk, and aromatic herbs.

13 So which of your Lord’s favors will you deny?

(Quran 55:5–13; trans. T. DeYoung)

Here, God is depicted as pointing with pride to the beauty and bounty of the world He has created, and calling upon His creatures to bear witness to His existence by acknowledging their debt to Him for these natural riches.

Though the Quran falls into line with the scriptural tradition begun by the Bible, it has clear differences from its model, most notably in its lack of adherence to a strict chronological, and thus historical, progression in its presentation. Unlike the original bible (written in Hebrew) and the New Testament (written mostly in Greek), the Quran was revealed in Arabic, a language whose status was marginal before the seventh century C.E. The only proof of its use as a subtle vehicle for complex ideas comes from pre Islamic poetry such as “Stop and We Will Weep” by Imru al-Qays (also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times). Such pre-Islamic poems were passed on orally and only written down about 100 years after the codification of the Quran in written form. Since they may have undergone substantial alterations in the interim, they do not provide incontrovertible evidence for the ideas and customs circulating among the Bedouin Arabs prior to the rise of Islam. If the poems do represent, however, the pre-Islamic ethos, it was a worldview almost diametrically opposed to the “balanced life” upheld in the Quran itself. That pre-Islamic poetry continued to command high esteem after the rise of Islam suggests that the two worldviews must have coexisted in a kind of dynamic tension similar to the complementary roles played by the Greco Latin classics and the Bible in Western culture. This dialectic helped give rise to, for example, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which employs the conventions of the Greek classical epic to tell the biblical story of Adam and Eve’s fall from the Garden of Eden. A similarly productive engagement would eventually take place in the relationship between pre-Islamic poetry and the Quran.

Compilation and composition

Muhammad’s revelations are generally held to have been passed on to new converts in oral form until they were collected and written down in a definitive version about a quarter century after his death under the supervision of the third caliph, Uthman.

From the time he began to receive revelations in 610 C.E. until his death in 632, Muhammad had been communicating the contents of the Quran orally to his followers. Some traditional accounts tell us that he had begun to supervise the transcription of the Quran as a written text before his death. Most accounts from Muslim sources, however, place the beginning of this process of collection shortly after he died, during the rule of his close friend and first successor, Abu Bakr. According to this story, Abu Bakr, at the urging of Umar, a fellow disciple of Muhammad and the man who would shortly follow Abu Bakr as the second caliph, was persuaded to gather together and commit to writing all the memorized text of the Quran, so that it would not be “lost and forgotten” (Tabari, p. 25). Abu Bakr entrusted the task to Zayd ibn Thabit, who had been Muhammad’s chief scribe during his lifetime. Zayd wrote the revelations on “page-size pieces of hide, small pieces of scapula [bones] and palm leaves” (Tabari, p. 25). During Umar’s rule these were all transferred to a single scroll, which, upon Umar’s death, was placed in the


Muslim attitudes toward the Quran as a text eventually crystallized around the notion that its rhetorical structure could not be imitated. In the early centuries of Islam, although many tried, no one was able to compose an imitation that was accepted by contemporaries as equal to the Quran in persuasive power—believers saw this failure as proof of the text’s peerlessness, or inimitabiltty (Bouflata, p, 141) The belief gave great impetus to the study of rhetoric in Arabic literature, as many scholars sought to categorize and describe the means that the Quran used to construct its inimitable language and to compare these to the stylistic devices/strategies used in the secular literary tradition This reverence for the Quran as a literary model has persisted into modern times as indicated by the words of such prominent writers as Najib Mahfuz (see Miramar , also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times), Egypt’s foremost contemporary novelist and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Mahfuz was attacked for having devoted himself to a literary genre (the novel) imported from the West without roots in indigenous Arabic literature, whereupon he objected: “The Quran contains some of the most beautiful stories imaginable and the narrative techniques employed by Quranic stories are some of the sweetest and freshest possible” employing “features of modern style in the art of narrative from the standpoint of images, style and language (Mahfuz in Naqqash, p. 144), His words testify to the fact that the Quran has, among its other vital functions, remained a potent force in the development of the Arabic literary heritage.

keeping of his daughter Hafsah, who had been one of Muhammad’s wives.

There may be some reason to doubt elements of this story, since the different versions of it do not agree on their details (Bell and Watt, pp. 40–42). But the account of what subsequently happened has much greater authority. Some time during the caliphate of Uthman (644–56 C.E.), between 18 and 24 years after the death of Muhammad, it became clear that divergences were appearing in the way different groups of Muslims in the now far-flung empire were reciting the texts of the revelations from the Quran. So Uthman appointed Zayd and several other highly regarded early Muslims to form a commission to write down the entire text and come to an agreement about disputed passages. This they did, and after three revisions, they compared and collated it with the original text in Hafsah’s safekeeping (Tabari, p. 26). Uthman then sent copies of this final version to the three Muslim provincial capitals of Kufah, Basrah, and Damascus. One copy was kept in Medina, and all other versions were ordered burned.


Although the Islamic worldview and ideas drawn from the pre-Islamic heritage would become intertwined strands in Arabic literature, the initial effect of the revelation of the Quran was to suppress secular poetic activity for around a half century after Muhammad’s death. This resulted in part from the fact that the Quran specifically condemns poets (at the end of Surah 26): “And the poets—[only] those who are misled follow them/Haven’t you seen them in every valley, wandering distracted?/And indeed they say what they do not do” (Quran 26:224–26; trans. T. DeYoung). These verses were welcomed by Muhammad’s followers as a conclusive refutation to his opponents who accused him of being a poet. Such an accusation could not be left unanswered in pre-Islamic Arabia, since it was believed poets were madmen. The poet, as pre-Islamic Arabs saw him, was possessed by evil spirits that gave him a power over words and this power made him dangerous to the harmonious workings of society, since the seductive beauty of his verses could persuade people to believe lies. (Here the Quran espouses ideas very similar to the Greek philosopher Plato’s reasons for banishing poets from his ideal republic [The Republic, Book X]). But despite the danger ascribed to poets, the Quran relents somewhat in the next lines of the surah. Having condemned some poets in the previous line, it now says there may be others who to a degree behave more acceptably: “Except those who believe and do good and mention God frequently and seek to defend themselves only when they have been wronged” (Quran 26:227; trans. T. DeYoung). The reference at the end of the line is to the practice of using poetic satires to defame the reputation of someone the poet considers an enemy. The Quran stipulates that such a path can be followed only in self-defense, not, as some poets did, to incite violence against the Muslim community. Thus the Quran leaves the door open to a reconciliation between secular literature and its own sacred vision, which occurs especially in the writings of the later Islamic mystics (like al-Hallaj and al-Niffari), who express the paradoxes of their religious experience in language borrowed extensively from metaphors and images first made popular in non-religious verse.

—Terri DeYoung

For More Information

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Boullata, IssaJ. “The Rhetorical Interpretation of the Quran: i jaz and Related Topics.” In Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Quran. Ed. Andrew Rippin. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

Brown, Peter. Religion and Society in the Age of Saint Augustine. London: Faber and Faber, 1972.

Esposito, John. Islam: The Straight Path: Expanded Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Frend, W. H. C. The Rise of the Monophysite Movement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972.

Herrin, Judith. The Formation of Christendom. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad. Trans. Alfred Guillaum. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955.

Lamoreaux, John. “Early Christian Responses to Islam.” In Medieval Christian Perceptions of Islam. Ed. John Victor Tolan. New York: Garland, 1996.

Leyser, Conrad. “Monasticism.” In Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World. Ed. G. W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Naqqash, Raja. Najib Mahfuz: safahat min mudhakkiratih. Cairo: Markaz al-Ahram, 1998.

Sells, Michael. Approaching the Quran: The Early Revelations. Ashland, Ore.: White Cloud, 1999.

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Whittow, Mark. The Making of Byzantium: 600–1025. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.