Sacred Texts: Koran

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Sacred Texts: Koran

The English word Koran comes from the Arabic qur'an, most likely meaning "recitation" or "reading," although some Muslim commentators consider it simply the name of the scripture, while some others trace its etymology to a verb that means "to collect." The word qur'an is probably related to the Syriac word qaryānā, which in pre-Islamic Christian usage meant a reading or a recitation from memory in the context of worship and prayer. The Koran is accepted by Muslims as the corpus of revelations given through Muhammad in the Arabian towns of Mecca and Medina between 610 c.e. and his death in 632 c.e. It is the revelations themselves that proclaim the Prophet's authority. At the same time, the revelations are accepted on the basis of his testimony.

The traditional biography of Muhammad portrays the first encounter of this forty-year-old merchant with God's messenger Gabriel in a mountain cave as a terrifying experience. He is commanded to recite, yet does not know how or what to recite. Indeed, for Muslims the illiteracy, or at least lack of education, on the part of the Prophet is a guarantee that the revelations were not composed by him, but have a divine origin. Over the ensuing twenty-two years, Gabriel teaches him the revelations that will eventually become the text at the heart of Muslim life and faith. It came initially not as a completed text but piecemeal, as the voice of God addressing the Prophet and his hearers according to the actual situation in which they found themselves.

Although it is common to think of the Koran as an elaborately calligraphed text, and in spite of the fact that it refers to itself as scripture (kitab ), the name qur'an underlines in several senses the centrality of its oral character. It comes to the Prophet orally, dictated by the angel, who assures that it is committed to memory. It is delivered to the people orally as it is revealed piece by piece. Even after the text was transcribed on the basis of oral testimony and given standardized form probably some twenty years after the death of the Prophet, it continued to live principally in oral form, memorized and recited by the community. The oral tradition rather than ancient manuscripts formed the basis of the standard edition made in Egypt in 1924.

The Koran and Previous Scriptures

In its characteristically self-referential way, the Koran tells Muslims that they are to believe not only in what has been revealed through Muhammad, but also, and without distinction, in "what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes, and what Moses and Jesus received, and what the prophets received from their Lord" (2:136). The Koran has a very clear idea of its place in the broader pattern of divine revelation: it contains essentially the same message as has been delivered by every prophet sent by God from the beginning of creation. Those who possess the earlier scripturesthe ahl alkitab recognize in the Koran the same truth (5:83). This was the first time the Arabs had been addressed by God in their own language, and Muslims consider the Koran the definitive and most complete version of the divine message currently available.

Even though in principle the other scriptures are to be believed, it is not clear whether or not the other communities are still in possession of the original message entrusted to them through their prophets. Charges of falsification and corruption of their scriptures, or at least of misinterpreting them, are often leveled against Christians and Jews.

The Koran addresses its hearers as though they are already familiar with the stories of the great biblical figures, commenting on them without retelling the narrative. In this the Koran sees itself acting as a reminder of the perennial revelation. It has often been noted that these figures are presented in the Koran with little of the detail and few of the distinguishing characteristics found in the biblical narratives. Early commentators of the Koran drew on the Bible and on other Jewish and Christian materials (referred to as isra'iliyyat ) to explicate texts that were otherwise opaque.

History of the Koranic Text

There are several quite distinct senses in which one might speak of the history and prehistory of the text. For the believer, the Koran's prehistory is its preexistence in the heavenly realm: as God's speech, as part of the umm al-kitab, or "source of the scripture" (43:4) written on the heavenly lauh mahfuz ("Preserved Tablet") (85:22). From the Preserved Tablet it descended as a whole to the lowest heaven on the Night of Destiny (97:1), whence it was transmitted to the Prophet as need and occasion required.

Non-Muslim scholarship, on the other hand, sifts the Koran in search of textual and conceptual parallels with the Bible, the Talmud, Christian apocrypha, and ancient near-eastern religions, hoping to discover there the prehistory of the text now known. However, this search for dependence has yielded little evidence to show that the Koran has relied on those texts, except to presuppose the broad lines of their narratives as background for its own teaching. For the believer, these echoes and similarities pose no difficulty, since the Koran makes no claim to novelty in its content, but rather asserts proudly the divine origin it shares with those earlier scriptures.

Historical setting.

Another sense in which one might speak of the history of the text is in the attempt to determine the precise historical context that the text is addressing or, one might say, within which it is a player. Since the Koran itself has no narrative structure, and its chapters (suras ) and verses (ayat, sing, aa ) contain little or no indication of their historical context, various attempts have been made by Muslims and others to establish a chronological order for the revelations, and a context for each verse or group of verses. The basic division is between the revelations that took place in Mecca and those after the Emigration (hijra ) to Medina. The Meccan verses are in their turn often divided into three subperiods. All this activity is at best speculative, though there does seem to be gradual development in style and thought that could be taken to mirror the changing circumstances of the Prophet's career. As the Koran came to be used as a source for the elaboration of law, it became increasingly important to establish context and chronology.

Most non-Muslim scholarship accepts along with Muslims that the Koran, whatever prehistory it might have, dates as a textual corpus to the time of Muhammad in Mecca and Medina. However, the years since the mid-1970s have seen a revisionist movement among historians of early Islam who take a radically critical approach to the historical evidence. These scholars, following the lead of John Wansbrough, suggest a later and more gradual process of canonization, taking place once the Arab conquerors had moved out of the Hejaz region of Arabia and encountered the sectarian milieu of Jewish and Christian Syria and Mesopotamia. Such a situation seems to them a much more probable setting for the Koran's particular range of concerns and styles. There is still considerable controversy over this question.

The written text.

The history of the written text is also approached in various ways. Most Muslims would believe that the text currently available in print is precisely what was taught to the Prophet by Gabriel. Unexpectedly, perhaps, it is Muslim tradition itself rather than non-Muslim scholarship that throws most doubt on this simple approach. The tradition preserves accounts that assure the community that every word of the Koran was transcribed on whatever materials were to hand at the time of its revelation. However, it also contains accounts of disagreements about the content and pronunciation of the text even during the lifetime of the Prophet.

The official transcript of the text under the caliph 'Uthman (r. 644656) seems to have been based on oral testimony. Even so it did not succeed in putting an end to variants, and the Koran has continued to be recited within a certain range of variation that came eventually to be agreed upon as canonically legitimate. The variant oral traditions themselves for the most part represent divergent ways of voweling and so of pronouncing the original transcription, which contained only an incomplete consonantal skeleton. The script used in 'Uthman's transcription did not even distinguish all the consonants; one particular shape, for example, was used to represent five different consonants, a vowel, and a diphthong. Over the first three or four Islamic centuries a more complete script was gradually developed and came to be accepted.

No doubt the publication of the Egyptian standard edition has created the impression of uniformity and unanimity in the transmission of the text. Its wide circulation may indeed contribute to a real uniformity. However, ancient Koran manuscripts and fragments found in Yemen some years ago reveal that even the main written tradition took some centuries to achieve complete uniformity.

Themes and Styles

It comes as no surprise, either to Muslim or non-Muslim, to find that many of the central themes of the Koran are familiar from other scriptures. Prophetic denunciations of injustice and unbelief are characteristic of the revelations usually considered early. Mistreatment of the widow, the orphan, and the female child are condemned, the arrogant atheism of the rich deplored. These censures are accompanied by vivid images of the end-times, and the repeated announcement that all the living will be raised by God to judgment, reward, and punish according to their deeds. God, who created all living things, can easily resurrect them.

The power, wisdom, and providence of God should be obvious to all who consider the signs (ayat ) in nature and in human history (for example, 16:1018; 30:2025; 80:2432). Many passages rehearse this theme and repeatedly call people to reflect on their world and on the history of nations that have gone before them. Each nation received prophetic guidance from God and was punished if it did not respond. Increasingly important as time goes on is the affirmation of God's unity, the center of Koranic thought and the basis of much of its polemic, not only against the pagan polytheists, but also against Jews and Christians. These latter groups, although having received the Scripture through Moses and Jesus, are considered to have abandoned the core Abrahamic belief in one God and to have given other figures a role alongside God as intercessors and protectors. The Koran consistently calls its hearers to faith in the one God (iman, tawhid ), which consists in entrusting oneself to God alone (islam ), and following the guidance God provides through the prophets.

A recurrent theme is the question of the Koran's own origin and authority, both of which are constantly questioned or denied by its hearers. This self-consciousness is a major feature of the Koran, and no other scripture observes and comments upon the processes of its own revelation and reception in such a sustained way. No other scripture argues with its hearers in order to proclaim and defend its authority and the bona fides of its prophet. The history of prophecy is rehearsed schematically to show that Muhammad's career conforms to a centuries-old pattern of rejection.

Particularly in the revelations of the Medinan period, the Koran provides regulations for the life of the new community of believers: for example, on the religious duties of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and pilgrimage; on family matters of inheritance, marriage, and divorce; on communal obligations such as defense and propagation of the new faith and relations with other communities. Along with these, there are particular regulations for the Prophet and his family.

The Koran, like the Hebrew Bible, emerges in an environment of sometimes bloody conflict. However, unlike the Bible, it does not contain narratives of such bloodshed. Its regulation of religious conflict, even though sanctioning defensive and retaliatory violence, always carries conditions to provide for a cessation of hostilities (cf., 2:190193; 9:5, 29).

Controversy over Whether the Koran Was Created

Any religion founded on the belief that God communicates with creatures must eventually consider the relationship between God and God's word or speech. Since Muslims consider God to be the "speaker" of the Koran, the text is therefore defined as God's speech (kalaam Allah ). However, God's speech cannot be external to God or accidental, but belongs to God's essence. It is, therefore, uncreated and, according to some, eternal. Beginning in the late eighth century much attention, and for a time an inquisition, came to be focused on the questions of whether, and if so in what sense, the Koran text itself is uncreated. Although one still hears echoes of the Mu'tazilite school of thought that denied the Koran is uncreated, the question of its uncreated nature has been resolved virtually unanimously in the positive. However, the question of in what sense the Koran is the uncreated speech of God was never firmly resolved and remains important even in the early twenty-first century.

There are several reasons for wanting to maintain a distance between the words of the Koran and the eternal speech of God. The first is to safeguard the otherness and immateriality of God and avoid the risk of anthropomorphism. Another is the logical need to recognize the historical particularity of many of the Koran's revelations. A third would be to avoid the idea that in the act of recitation the reciter of the Koran becomes completely identified with God (hulul ).

At the same time, to distance the Koran too much from God risks undermining its authority and its value as "guidance for the God-fearing" (2:2). It risks reducing it to a merely human document, thus opening too much latitude for interpretation, and diminishing its value as a clear foundation for the law.

The Koran and Law

The Koran itself contains relatively little in the way of specific laws. What little there is, even the five crimes for which it fixes punishments (hudud), needs further specification. In one sense the Koran remains the foundation for all Islamic law, yet at the same time it must be read in the context of the Prophet's teaching and example (sunna ). The intimate connection between Muhammad and the revelation makes it unthinkable that the sunna could conflict with the Koran. If there seems to be a contradiction, it is the sunna that indicates the true meaning of the Koran, makes it more precise, or renews it for changed circumstances. The idea that the Koran must share the place of authority with the sunna was elaborated by al-Shafi'i (d. 820), who argued that the Koran itself commanded obedience to the Prophet along with obedience to God (3:132; 4:180), and further that God had given Muhammad not only the Koran but also another form of revelation, the Wisdom (al-hikma, 2:151, 231; 62:2).

Koranic Interpretation

It is widely believed that Muslims cannot or will not interpret the Koran but insist on simple literalism. It is true that there is a strong preference for a plain reading that does not evade the claims the text makes on believer and unbeliever alike. However, the Koran itself says (3:7) that it contains some verses that are straightforward and others that need to be interpretedeither because they are metaphorical or because they can only be fully understood in relation to other verses. That verse itself is open to several interpretations, depending on how one divides the sentences within it, and on how one understands the key words translated here as "straightforward" and "metaphorical." Thus, the Koran itself, while denouncing the kind of manipulation of the text that divides the community, recognizes the necessity of interpretation.

The tradition of commentary (tafsir ) and analysis is rich and extensive, and draws on several principles and methods familiar in biblical studies: study of textual variants (qira'at ); reconstruction of the historical context or "occasions of revelation" (asbab al-nuzul ); distinguishing different literary forms; recourse to grammatical technicalities; and lexical studies of contemporary literature in order to understand unfamiliar vocabulary.

A major factor in interpretation is the doctrine of abrogation (naskh ) based on the verses 2:106 and 16:101. It is effectively a recognition of the historicity of the text and of the developments this inevitably involves in the divine teaching and commands. As the situation of the Prophet and the community changes, so too does the guidance offered by God change or become more specific. As the faithful become more established in their religion, so too do the demands made upon them become more challenging: the prohibition of alcohol, for example, is introduced in stages.

The principle of abrogation is used by some Muslims, for example, to deny the continuing validity of verses that encourage patience under persecution, and good relations with Christians. Such counsel is considered appropriate only to the period in which the community is weak and unable to fight back. Others, however, would hold that such verses are still valid even where the community is strong.

Esoteric and mystical interpretations are often referred to as ta' wil. They rely on distinguishing between the surface meaning (zahir ) and the deeper sense (batin ) that should be developed from it on the basis of the teaching of the Shiite imam or the Sufi master.

Contemporary Controversies over Koranic Criticism

There has long been a distinction, if not a conflict, between interpretation based on traditions of the Prophet and his Companions (tafsir bi-l-ma'thur ) and interpretation based on reason (tafsir bi-l-ra'y ). Contemporary conflicts can to some extent be seen as a continuation of that classic dispute. The central question is what role the Prophet had in the process of revelation. Even without denying the divine origin of the Koran, some Muslim authors discuss the human, and therefore conditioned, aspect of the text. Though this has caused great consternation, particularly in the case of the Egyptian author Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, in many respects it has its roots in classical discussionsabout the nature of the prophetic access to the unseen realm, compared to that of poets and seers; and about the nature of the passage from the eternal divine word that has no letters, words, or sounds, to the actual Arabic words of the Koran. It is not new to suggest that what God revealed was the meaning (ma'na ) and that the Prophet, or perhaps Gabriel, was responsible for the wording (lafz ) that nonetheless faithfully conveyed that meaning.

Another approach came from the Sudanese author M. M. Taha, who suggested that, contrary to traditional approaches, the earlier rather than the later revelations are the authoritative heart of the Koran. The Meccan verses contain the eternally valid principles of faith, justice, and equality. The Medinan verses, however, represent an application of the principles to a very particular historical circumstances and cannot respond to the changed circumstances of the early twenty-first century. Taha was executed for heresy in 1985. His approach has found echoes in the work of, among others, feminist writer Fatima Mernissi.

The controversy arises from calling into question the contemporary adequacy not of the Word of God itself, but of some of its traditional interpretations. This is seen to open the way to a reduction of the Koran to the same level as the much analyzed and thus diminished Bible. It is also an attack on the power of the guardians of traditional interpretations. Nonetheless, the quest for a new approach to the Koran continues, based on the confidence that the scripture need not remain locked in the seventh or the tenth century, but that it remains the Word of God valid for and relevant to this century.

See also Islam ; Law, Islamic ; Religion .


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Al-Tabarī, Abū Ja'far Muhammad b. Jarīr. The Commentary on the Qur'ān. Vol. 1, edited by W. F. Madelung and A. Jones. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. A first volume of an abridged translation of the most famous classical commentary.

Ayoub, Mahmoud. The Qur'an and its Interpreters. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984. Brings together the material of a dozen classical and modern commentaries. Only two volumes so far.

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Ibn Warraq, ed. Origins of the Koran: Classic Essays on Islam's Holy Book. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1998. In spite of Ibn Warraq's polemical intent, these books are useful because they make available important scholarly articles on the Koran published in the last hundred years.

. What the Koran Really Says: Language, Text, and Commentary. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2002.

Madigan, Daniel A. The Qur'ān's Self-image: Writing and Authority in Islam's Scripture. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Martin, Richard C., ed. Approaches to Islam in Religious Studies. Oxford, U.K.: Oneworld, 2001.

McAuliffe, Jane Dammen, ed. Encyclopaedia of the Qur'ān. Leiden: Brill, 2001. A new project eventually to be five volumes.

Mernissi, Fatima. The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam. Translated by Mary Jo Lakeland. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1991.

Rippin, Andrew, ed. Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qur'ān. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Robinson, Neal. Discovering the Qur'ān: A Contemporary Approach to a Veiled Text. London: SCM Press, 2003.

Sells, Michael A. Approaching the Qur'ān: The Early Revelations. Ashland, Ore.: White Cloud Press, 1999.

Soroush, Abdolkarim. Reason, Freedom and Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of 'Abdolkarim Soroush. Translated and edited by Mahmoud Sadri and Ahmad Sadri. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Includes a critical introduction by the editors.

Stowasser, Barbara Freyer. Women in the Qur'an, Traditions, and Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Tāhā, Mahmūd Muhammad. The Second Message of Islam. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1987.

Wansbrough, John E. Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

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Wild, Stefan, ed. The Qur'ān as Text. Leiden: Brill, 1996.

Daniel A. Madigan