views updated May 08 2018


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


views updated May 14 2018


The Qur'an is the scripture of Islam, consisting of revelations received by the Prophet Muhammad in Arabia during a period of about twenty-three years (610–632 c.e.). About the size of the New Testament and in Arabic, the Qur'an is the fundamental text of Islam. It is also regarded as the greatest masterpiece of the Arabic language.

Textual History

The word qur'an means both "reading" and "recitation"—it is both read from a written text and recited from memory. The name also stresses the importance of the contents of the Qur'an—it is scripture worth reading and reciting. Muhammad belonged to one of the clans of Quraysh, the ruling tribe of the coastal town of Mecca. Having rejected the idolatrous religion of Quraysh and other Arabs, he became accustomed to retiring for meditation to a cave outside Mecca. Here, at age forty, he received his first revelation, a short passage of a few verses, through the angel Gabriel. Thereafter the revelations came in small and large portions. The revelations were memorized by many of his followers. After the emigration of Muslims to Medina in 622 c.e., a systematic attempt was made, under Muhammad's supervision, to record the revelations in writing. The rudimentary writing materials available could not lead to the production of complete or finished copies—in the modern sense—of the Qur'an, and so a number of codices, prepared by different hands and differing in arrangement and sometimes in the amount of content recorded, came into existence. During the rule of the third caliph, 'Uthman, authoritative copies of the Qur'an were prepared and sent as "masters" to several major cities. It should be emphasized, though, that in Muslim understanding the primary method of transmission of the scripture is not written but oral. The extraordinary fact that millions of Muslims have memorized the Qur'an underscores another important point—that Muslims have consciously and methodically relied on memory to preserve the text of their scripture, which has been remarkably homogeneous through the centuries. The so-called "variant" readings, while important from historical and academic viewpoints, are not regarded as equivalent to the standard 'Uthmanic recension, which is in use throughout the Muslim world. Most modern Muslim authorities agree that Muhammad himself was responsible for the present arrangement of the Qur'an.

Structure and Themes

The Qur'an is made up of 114 chapters—called suras —which vary greatly in length. Shorter suras have one theme or specific themes and usually present no difficulty of understanding. Longer suras deal with multiple themes, sometimes with a large number of them, and it is often difficult to follow the train of thought. Part of the difficulty, however, arises from the nature of classical Arabic, the language of the Qur'an, which emphasizes brevity and conciseness. A number of modern Muslim scholars have concluded that there is a definite order to the verses in the individual suras and also to the suras taken as a whole, and that there are significant patterns of arrangement in many parts of the Qur'an. There is general agreement that the Qur'an has a firm thematic focus. The major themes of the Qur'an include: (1) monotheism: there is only one God, the possessor of perfect attributes—"the most beautiful names"—and he alone deserves to be worshipped and obeyed; (2) prophecy and revelation: in order to guide humankind, God placed prophets among all nations and gave them revelation, Adam being the first prophet and Muhammad being the last; (3) the afterlife: on an appointed day God will resurrect the dead and pronounce judgment on them, rewarding the virtuous with heaven and punishing the evil in hell; (4) belief and action: right belief must be accompanied by right action, and both must be grounded in and imbued with taqwa — God-consciousness—the only true criterion of human excellence in the eyes of God, the distinctions of race, language, or color being meaningless; (5) social justice: a just society is one where gross social and economic disparities do not exist and whose affluent members take care of the less fortunate. In order to bring into existence a God-oriented, moral, and just society, the Qur'an institutes a comprehensive program of action that includes, on the one hand, ritual (daily prayers, a monthlong annual fast, pilgrimage to Mecca) and virtuous practice (truthfulness in speech and conduct, kindness and generosity to strangers as well as to relatives, fulfillment of obligations toward others), and, on the other hand, a set of guidelines in several spheres—legal (marriage, divorce, inheritance), economic (approved and proscribed ways of earning and spending money, banning of usury or interest, zakat or mandatory charity), and political (electing qualified people to office and observing the principle of shura or consultation in important matters).


Classical sources lay down several principles of interpretation. The foremost is the principle of inner-Qur'an exegesis: the Qur'an often treats the same subjects in different places in different ways, one part of it thus throwing light on another. Muhammad is regarded as the most authoritative exponent of the Qur'an, and so his statements and observations (Hadith), which pertain explicitly or implicitly to the Qur'an, constitute the definitive interpretation of scripture. The views and opinions of early authorities are also highly valued. Many classical commentaries deal with almost every aspect of the text—explaining the background of verses, discussing the meanings of words and grammatical constructions, and expounding the doctrinal and practical aspects of the Qur'anic message—though literary, theological, or juridical emphases are noticeable in individual works. Modern exegesis (critical interpretation), aiming to reach a broad audience, generally avoids discussion of grammatical and other technical matters, focusing on issues that have a direct theoretical or practical relevance in modern contexts. While all tafsir, or exegesis, seeks to remain faithful to the Qur'anic text, a broad distinction between exoteric and esoteric interpretation can be made. Exoteric interpretation, which is the dominant strain, is based on a more literal and more readily accessible—though not necessarily superficial—understanding of the text, whereas in esoteric interpretation an attempt is made to see, usually on subjective bases, meanings hidden behind the words. Sectarian tafsir also exists.


Owing probably to the view that the Arabic Qur'an is the only true Qur'an, Muslims for a very long time were opposed to translating the Qur'an into other languages. The imperative need to make the scripture accessible to the non-Arab believers in the United States and elsewhere eventually outweighed theological objections or reservations. Today translations of the Qur'an exist in many languages, including English, and new ones keep appearing. Typically, however, they are made by individuals rather than by sponsored committees, and little theoretical work exists to guide the translators or to evaluate their work in light of sound critical principles. Consequently, most translations fall short of the mark, and the beauty and grandeur of the original Arabic greatly suffers in them. Among the translations in common use are those by Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, A. J. Arberry, and Muhammad Asad.

Role in Muslim Life

The Qur'an has made a truly revolutionary impact on the lives of Muslims. From the very beginning it has served as the religious charter and constitution of Muslims, who have tried to engage with it on several levels and in different sets of circumstances. Besides being the basic text for liturgy and serving as a source of inspiration and solace, the Qur'an has provided a strong impetus to cultural and intellectual activity. The rise of all the major Islamic disciplines of knowledge, for example, is directly or indirectly attributable to the Qur'an. Sound knowledge of the Qur'an is a basic qualification for all religious scholarship in Islam, and scholars of the Qur'an earn respect in society. The highly developed Islamic art of calligraphy revolves around the Qur'an: the arches, domes, and walls of mosques are often decorated with beautifully written Qur'anic verses. The equally refined art of Qur'an recitation is exhibited at the highly popular competitions where renowned reciters—both male and female—display skills mastered over the years. Muslims in the West try to maintain contact with the Qur'an. Children are encouraged to complete their first reading of the Qur'an at an early age, and such readings, when completed, are usually celebrated with fanfare. In several states in the United States where there are large Muslim populations—for example, New York, New Jersey, and California—there are boarding schools where, by arrangement with public schools, children memorize the Qur'an under expert guidance while continuing their other education.

Qur'an and Bible

The Qur'an is similar to the Bible in some respects and different in others. The essential theme of the right relationship between God and human beings is central to both, as are the attendant themes of prophecy, salvation, and the moral life. The Qur'an generally accepts the Biblical historical tradition. The Qur'an is different from the Bible in scope and structure: its focus is on the struggle of one man—the Prophet Muhammad—and his followers during a certain, much shorter period to establish Islam in the Arabian Peninsula. In addition, theme rather than chronology is its main organizing principle. Comparative study of the two scriptures—from an objective viewpoint—is a promising but still undeveloped area.

See alsoAllah; Bible; Islam; Mecca.


Bell, Richard. Introduction to the Qur'an. Revised and expanded by W. Montgomery Watt. 1990.

Denny, Frederick M. "Qur'an and Hadith." In TheHoly Book in Comparative Perspective, edited by Frederick M. Denny and Rodney L. Taylor. 1985.

Jeffery, Arthur. The Qur'an as Scripture. 1952.

Quasem, Muhammad Abul, trans. The Recitation andInterpretation of the Qur'an: al-Ghazali's Theory. 1982.

Rahman, Fazlur. Major Themes of the Qur'an. 1980.

Welch, A. T. "al-Kur'an." Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd ed., 1954–, Vol. VI, pp. 400–429.

Mustansir Mir


views updated May 14 2018

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’.