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Muslim housewives commence cooking by reciting a verse from the Qur˒an in order to ensure that more people are able to enjoy the meal. On spotting an approaching dog, Muslims will hastily read any memorized verse to deflect its possible ill-intentions. The die-hard Marxists of the Baluchistan Communist Party in Pakistan commenced their annual conference with a recitation from the Qur˒an. In Cape Town, the local rugby club will organize a cover-to-cover recitation of it to celebrate its fiftieth jubilee. In California, the international Muslim homosexual organization takes its name, Al-Fatiha, from the name of the Qur˒an's first chapter.

The Qur˒an is memorized in small parts by virtually all Muslims, recited in the daily prayers, or rehearsed at funerals and memorial rituals, chanted at the side of the newly born, the sick, or the dying. After death it is recited to ease the passage of the departed soul into the next and to provide comfort for those left behind; as if to say "Whatever, be assured God is here; just listen to His speech!" Any inmate of a Dubai prison who memorizes it entirely can get complete remission from his or her sentence, and a memorization of each thirtieth part is rewarded by an equivalent amount off one's sentence.

An immediate end can be brought to many an argument by resorting to: "But God says . . .!" Virtually every Muslim home is adorned with some verse from it in various forms of calligraphy, as a means of both beautifying one's home and protecting it (with the inhabitants seldom knowing the meaning of the framed piece of calligraphy). Passages from it are used as amulets to protect from illness or the evil eye. A few verses containing the prayer that the Qur˒an suggests Noah offered when he entered the ark are stuck on the windscreens of vehicles from Chicago to Jakarta to provide protection for the driver and passengers. Palatial mansions in many Muslim countries have the verse "This is [an outcome] of my Sustainer's bounty" (27:40) stuck on the gates or walls to ward off any evil intention. As for its inhabitants, they believe that protection is offered by pasting a few verses, known as the Verses of the Throne (Ayat al-Kursi), behind the front door. Written texts conform to or deviate from a language and its rules; in the case of this text, the development of the language is based on it and its rules are rooted primarily in the text.

This is the Qur˒an. It fulfills many of the same functions in the lives of Muslims as the Bible does for Christians, but most importantly, it represents to Muslims what Jesus Christ represents for devout Christians or the Torah, the eternal law of God, for Jews. Similarly, the history of theological controversy about the nature of the Qur˒an, which flourished from the early days of Islam until orthodoxy finally settled the issue of the "true dogma," is not unlike the early controversies about the nature of Jesus Christ and his relationship to the Father, which was finally settled for the Christian world by the Council of Nicaea in 325. In the same manner that small remnants of the dissident opinions on the nature of Christ have survived and reawakened under the impact of critical modern and postmodern thinking in Christianity, so have such opinions about the nature of the Qur˒an survived in Islam.

For Muslims the Qur˒an is alive and has a quasi-human personality. Muslims believe that it watches over them and will intercede with God on the Day of Judgment. The Qur˒an is possessed of enormous power; "Had We bestowed this Qur˒an from on high upon a mountain, you would indeed see it [the mountain] humbling itself, breaking asunder for awe of God" (59:21).

The Qur˒an as Oral Discourse

The oral dimensions of the Qur˒an were important in a society where poetry and the spoken or recited word were highly valued. It is also evident that the activity of committing the Qur˒an or sections thereof to memory and reciting it were important parts of the religious life of the earliest Muslims, and regarded as acts of great spiritual merit. The Prophet himself would often recite from the Qur˒an and at times ask others to read for him. ˓Abdallah b. Mas˓ud (d. 652) reported that the Prophet told him: "'Read [from] the Qur˒an for me.' I [b. Mas˓ud] said: 'Shall I read it for you when it was revealed unto you?' He said: 'I love listening to it from someone else.'" The overwhelming importance of the Qur˒an as recited speech in contrast with it as written or read text is found in the meaning of the word Qur˒an itself, in the way the earliest Muslims viewed the text, and in several verses of the Qur˒an. The proper-noun sense of the term qur˒an, as used in reference to the scripture, is that of a fundamentally oral and certainly an active ongoing reality, rather than that of a written and closed codex such as it later came to be, represented by the masahif (written copies, sing. mushaf).

From the Arabic root qara˒a (to read), or qarana (to gather or collect), the word qur˒an is used in the Qur˒an in the sense of reading (17:93), recital (75:18) and a collection (75:17). The Qur˒an also describes itself as "a guide for humankind" and "a clear exposition of guidance," "a distinguisher" (25:1), "a reminder" (15:9), "ordinance in the Arabic tongue" (13:37), "a healer" (10:57), "the admonition" (10:57), "the light" (7:157), and "the truth" (17:81). From this literal meaning, it refers to a revealed oral discourse that unfolded over a period of twenty-three years as seemingly a part of God's response to the requirements of society. Only toward the end of this process is the Qur˒an presented as scripture rather than a recitation or discourse. The word qur˒an is thus used in two distinct senses: first, as the designation of a portion or portions of revelation; and, second, as the name of the entire collection of revelations to Muhammad. This twin meaning of qur˒an, as both a collection and as a book, makes for fascinating questions about the nature of revelation. Is it a collection of divine responses to earthly events or is it a preexisting canon according to which events must play out in order that its narratives, injunctions, and exhortations can acquire flesh and blood?

The Qur˒an as Written Word

For outsiders, the Qur˒an exists primarily as a literary text (alkitab); for Muslims, however, it continues to function as both a written text (mushaf) and an oral one (al-qur˒an), with an organic relationship existing between these two modes. Most of critical scholarship has focused on the written dimensions of the text without reflecting too carefully on its message, and has failed to appreciate that its centrality to Muslims transcends this textual form. Thus, questions are raised by critical scholars about, for example, the identity of Mary, whom the Qur˒an describes as the sister of Aaron, and the seeming discrepancy between this description and one in which Mary is credited with being the mother of Jesus.

Such questions generally fail to appreciate that the Qur˒an is essentially evocative to Muslims and that it is often informative through its being evocative. While exegetes would go to great lengths to resolve the difficulties presented by the portrayal of Mary as both the mother of Jesus and the sister of Aaron, the "fact" of God having stated this remains unshaken. Thus while it may not make any cognitive sense, the response of the believer downplays cognition, and comprehension, and ignores the question of which Mary is being referred to. This understanding as devotion rather than as cognition is how the believer approaches the Qur˒an. In other words, comprehension can follow from the emotive and intuitive response that is evoked in the hearer and reciter rather than a study of its contents.

The Structure of the Qur˒an

Modern editions of the Qur˒an include a heading that provides some basic information at the beginning of each sura (chapter) such as its name, the number of ayat (verses) it contains, and whether it is regarded as having been revealed in Mecca or Medina. The Egyptian print version, the one most widely used in the Muslim world today, also suggests which verses are exceptions; that is, which verses occurring in a Medinan text were actually revealed in Mecca and vice versa. There are two major divisions in the Qur˒an, suras (chapters) and ajza˒ (parts), and each sura contains a number of verses (ayat).

From the singular aya (lit. signs, indications, or wonders), ayat are the shortest divisions of the Qur˒an and the term is usually rendered as "verses," although it may also be understood as phrases or passages. A collection of ayat, usually distinguishable from one another by the occurrence of rhythm, rhyme, or assonance, comprise a sura. However, this technical meaning of the word aya (or ayat) is not the only, or even the primary, meaning with which it is used in the Qur˒an. It frequently occurs in the sense of the signs of God's presence in the universe. Muslims, however, believe that, given its miraculous and inimitable nature, the Qur˒an and all of its constituent parts are signs of the presence of God in the world.

The Qur˒an comprises 114 suras, each of which is divided into ayat. The word sura literally means row or fence, and seems to denote both a section or chapter and revelation itself. Muslims believe that the contents of the Qur˒an were arranged by the Prophet in his lifetime, and that this was done annually under the guidance of the angel Gabriel. After al-Fatiha ("The Opening") the chapters are arranged roughly in order of descending size, beginning with al-Baqarah ("The Cow") and concluding with al-Nas ("Humankind"). These suras are of unequal length, the shortest, "The Fountain," consisting of three ayat, the longest, "The Cow," containing 286. With one exception, al-Tawba ("The Repentance"), all suras commence with "In the name of God, the Gracious, the Dispenser of Grace." This formula is known as the basmala and was initially used to denote the boundaries between two suras. Muslims suggest that the omission of the basmala at the head of the surat al-Tawba was intentional because this sura commences with God's disavowal of the rejecters and a declaration of war on them. Others, however, suggest that because this sura was revealed toward the end of the Prophet's earthly life, he simply did not have the time to insert the basmala.

All suras have names, and some are known by more than one. These names are based on diverse criteria with no obvious pattern to their naming. A number of hadith refer to specific suras by name, thus indicating that they were named by the Prophet. Given that this is a matter directly relating to the Qur˒an, Muslims believe that it was a case where "He does not speak of his own whim," (53:3) that is, Muhammad was guided by God in this. Some have, however, suggested that these names do not belong to the Qur˒an proper, but rather have been introduced by later scholars and editors for convenience of reference. Twenty-nine of the suras have a sequence of Arabic letters that follow immediately after the basmala. Known as the disjointed letters, these are meaningless in the literal sense, and their presence has intrigued both confessional and traditional scholarship. With the exception of the second and third suras, they occur exclusively in suras belonging to the later Meccan period. There are fourteen of these disjointed letters in all, and the suras that contain them may have anywhere from a single letter to a cluster of five.

Another fascinating element of the Qur˒an is its division into thirty equal parts, each called a juz˒ (pl. ajza˒). These divisions are intended to facilitate the recitation of the Qur˒an in a month, particularly the month of Ramadan. The ajza˒ are further divided into four neatly divided sections that are marked along the edges of the text. For reading on a daily basis, each juz˒ is divided into seven parts, called manazil (sing. manzil, lit. stage). It is significant that none of these divisions, pivotal to Muslim usage of the Qur˒an, bears any relation to the meaning of the text.

The current arrangement of the Qur˒an is neither chronological nor thematic. To those accustomed to reading in a linear or sequential fashion, this can prove tedious and frustrating. With the exception of story of Joseph, the Qur˒an also does not have a clear narrative pattern within which its stories neatly unfold. While there is unanimity around the placement of the ayat within a sura, traditional scholars have differed as to whether the sequence of all, or only some, of the suras were divinely ordained. Most Muslims have accepted this arrangement although there have been a number of attempts to offer structural explanations for the way that the suras are laid out.


Both Muslim and critical scholarship hold that the Qur˒an first appeared in the Arabic language. Traditional Muslim scholarship holds that the Qur˒an was written in the dialect of the Quraysh, the tribe of the Prophet, for it was also the classical language known to and understood by all the Arabs. Some Western scholars have argued that the Arabic of the Qur˒an was not peculiar to any tribe, but was a kind of hochsprache (high speech) that was understood by all the peoples of Hijaz. Christoph Luxenberg, in his Die Syro-Aramaische Lesart des Koran—Ein Beitrag zur Entschlusselung der Koransprache (2000), argues that a Syraic rendition of numerous words that would normally be rendered in Arabic can provide linguistic insights on texts that scholars have had difficulty trying to understand. Through a careful process of alternately replacing obscure Qur˒anic Arabic words or phrases with Syraic homonyms, changing the diacritical marks (on the assumption that they were possibly misplaced by the editors), or retranslating portions of text into Syriac, Luxenberg discovers radically different meanings for a number of texts. This method differs greatly from the established reading of the Qur˒an, which is premised on the idea that it is essentially an Arabic text.


The Qur˒an describes its contents as an "exposition of everything, a guidance, a blessing and glad tidings for those who submit" (16:89) and declares that "no single thing have We neglected in the Book" (6:38). The Qur˒an places an extraordinary emphasis on the binding relationship between faith and practice.

God. Belief in the existence of one transcendent creator and the struggle to live alongside all the implications of that belief may be said to be at the core of the Qur˒an's message, and that Creator is arguably the single most important subject of the Qur˒an. The Qur˒an uses the word Allah approximately 2,500 to refer to the Transcendent. God remains free from not only the confines of biology and paternity, but also from the confines of human language. "No vision can encompass Him, whereas He encompasses all vision, for He alone is unfathomable, all-aware" (6:103). The Qur˒an portrays God as a deity who stands above the religious community that serves Him and who is greater than the law. God exists in and by Himself, and any association with Him is rejected by the Qur˒an. Ascribing paternity to God is abominable, as is any notion of a shared divinity. Much of the Qur˒an is devoted to the praise of God; the Qur˒an holds that the entire universe is engaged in extolling the praises of God.

Prophethood. The second fundamental doctrine of the Qur˒an is that of the historical continuity of revelation, whereby God sent a series of messengers to every nation in order to guide them to the path of righteousness. All of these messengers came with an identical message (41:43)—that of submission to the will of God—and all of humankind is required to believe in the veracity of each one of them. The Qur˒an uses two terms to denote prophethood: rasul (pl. rusul) and nabiyy (pl. anbiya˒). Rasul seems to denote a messenger who received revelations and who actually headed his community, whereas nabiyy seems to denote an apostle who did not necessarily come with a new revelation or law: ". . .God elects whomsoever He will from among his Apostles. . ." (3:179). Anbiya˒ derive their authority solely from God; they cannot "bring forth a miracle other than by God's leave." Prophets are always chosen from among their own communities (7:35, 10:74 and 39:17) and are responsible only for conveying God's messages (16:35).

The Qur˒an contains a number of narratives involving prophets, often told with the intention of consoling Muhammad in the face of rejection by the Quraysh and recipients of earlier revelation. The Qur˒an presents these narratives as moral lessons for humankind on the consequences of disobeying God. All of the prophets referred to in the Qur˒an are men. While Mary was the recipient of revelation, nowhere is there any indication that she was expected to play the socio-religious role of warner or the bearer of good tidings, or that she ever did so.

The resurrection and ultimate accountability. The Qur˒an speaks repeatedly about the ultimate accountability of all human beings to God. It insists that all of life and its affairs, having originated with God are in a continuous state of purposeful reversion to a just and merciful Creator, Sustainer, and Judge. Physical death is thus not the end of life but merely evolution into another form. Human beings are placed on the earth for a predetermined period before they enter the akhira (hereafter).

The terms dunya ("the world") and akhira (lit. next, or last) are related both to time and space and to two moral alternatives. Dunya is the geographical space and the present where humankind is meant to prepare for akhira, yet this abode of preparation can also be good and fulfilling by itself. From the Qur˒an, it would appear that there is a particular moment in time when the resurrection and judgment will begin, and that hour will commence with the sounding of the heavenly trumpet. When the resurrection begins, bodies will be reunited with their spirits and brought into the presence of God for the ultimate reckoning.

The Qur˒an suggests that this resurrection is a bodily one, yet it is also a day when the earth shall be changed into non-earth (14:48). The Qur˒an is explicit about two alternatives for each person in the hereafter—janna (paradise), or jahannam (hell)—and spells out the deeds that will earn one a place in the one or the other. In Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection (1981), Yvonne Haddad and Jane Smith point out that "Many of the details of the Fire, as of the Garden, are reminiscent of the New Testament; others reflect on occasions the tone of early Arabic poetry. On the whole, however, the picture afforded by the Qur˒an is uniquely its own, articulated in a generally consistent and always awe-inspiring fashion."

The Qur˒an, at various junctures, indicates the sins that will earn a person consignment to hell. These include lying, dishonesty, corruption, ignoring God or God's revelations, denying the resurrection, refusing to feed the poor, indulgence in opulence and ostentation, the economic exploitation of others, and social oppression. The fires of hell, however, are not the only consequence that wrongdoers will face on the Day of Judgment: "And those who earned evil, the punishment of evil is the like thereof, and abasement will cover them—they will have none to protect them from God—as if their faces had been covered with slices of dense darkness of night" (10:27). Denial of water (7:50) and of light (57:13) are also spoken of as forms of punishment for the inhabitants of hell.

Righteous conduct. The bulk of the Qur˒anic message contains exhortations dealing with righteous conduct, and the consequences of following or ignoring them. These are framed within the backdrop of the all-pervading presence of God and humankind's ultimate accountability to Him. The Qur˒an regards the human being as a carrier of the spirit of God and a sacred trust from Him, and that all humans are in a continuous state of journeying toward Him. This sanctity comes from humankind being the recipients of God's own spirit from the moments of humankind's creation. Returning to God entails a ceaseless struggle to prepare for the ultimate encounter. The Qur˒an, while demanding that Muslims strive to fulfil all the requirements of virtuous behavior, nevertheless acknowledges that living up to such a commitment is exceptionally difficult.

The most important obligation that the Qur˒an places on the believer is probably that of pursuing the pleasure of God and of desiring the ultimate encounter with Him. This is attained by cultivating a direct relationship of love with and adoration of God, as well as by leading one's life in such a way as to fulfil His commandments. In addition to setting forth the appropriate rituals, the Qur˒an often speaks of the adoration of God as an important part of a Muslim's ideal life and persona. The emphasis that the Qur˒an places on God as the focus and objective of a believer's life has led many a contemplative Muslim to regard the law as merely a means of facilitating closeness to God in the same way that railings may help one to climb up a flight of stairs.

Although the Qur˒an cautions against excess and wasteful consumption, it nevertheless encourages a sense of joyful living. It asks believers not to impose unwarranted burdens upon themselves (5:87). The Qur˒an also refers to physical cleanliness and sexual pleasure as two other dimensions of personal well-being (2:222, 30:21).

The Qur˒an places great emphasis on knowledge, and the pursuit thereof, as valuable (49:9), but links the intellectual well-being of people to a profound awareness of God and justice, and emphasizes the compatibility of knowledge with faith (35:28, 58:11). The Qur˒an often gives the impression that there is a certain essential body of truth, "the knowledge" (al-˓ilm), that is to be acquired. In numerous other verses, though, humankind is challenged to reflect, ponder, and meditate—all qualities more closely associated to heurism and tentativeness than to certainty. Nonetheless, these qualities are usually regarded as the basis of wisdom (2:269). The Qur˒anic assumption seems to be that knowledge and reflection will invariably and inevitably lead to God (39:9).

Truth. Postmodernist notions of tentativeness as a value have little place in the Qur˒an, which moves from the premise that there is an absolute, single, and knowable Truth. The Qur˒an speaks about the light in the singular and darknesses in the plural, making it convenient for traditional or fundamentalist scholars to claim that there is only one truth. Believers are called upon to uphold the spirit of truthfulness by staying in the company of other truthful people (9:19), and to speak the truth in the face of falsehood. Concealing the truth is prohibited (2:42) as is distorting it with falsehood (2:42). Hypocrisy is condemned in the strongest terms, and believers are enjoined to ensure that their deeds correspond to their words (61:2–3).

Social and economic relations. Notwithstanding the scriptural requirement that believers must disturb the peace whenever their silence would conceal the demons of injustice and oppression, the Qur˒an also asks believers to lead lives free of pointless argumentation and quarreling (25:63). In the face of the all-pervading grace of God, the Qur˒an requires believers to remain hopeful and never to despair. In fact, it describes deep pessimism as a sign of kufr (rejection) (12:87). A good Muslim upholds the truth and justice "and is not afraid of the reproaches of those who find fault" (5:54). The Qur˒an encourages and even commands believers to lead an austere life. It is contemptuous of those who are attached to wealth beyond the requirements of one's daily subsistence. Such attachment distracts one from following the path that leads to God and provides one with an illusionary sense of eternity. The notion of sustenance being properly earned is key to the Qur˒an's approach to wealth. It singles out for denunciation a number of unlawful means of acquiring money or property, including priests and monks devouring the property of people (9:34), gambling (5:90), and theft (60:12).

The Qur˒an rejects all forms of sexual immodesty and speaks approvingly of only two kinds of relationship for sexual fulfillment: heterosexual marriage, or concubinage. The Qur˒an also praises "... those [believers] who shun all vain activity" (23:3), and applauds those who, "when they pass by some vain activity, they pass it by with dignified [avoidance]" (25:72).

All of human life is sacred, for "verily We [God] have honored the Children of Adam" (17:70), and no one is allowed to take anyone else's life "except in truth" (6:151). This is usually interpreted to mean that killing is permissible only during a just war, in self-defense, or in retribution after due legal process within a just social system. The Qur˒an holds that all of humankind is diminished by the murder of a single person (5:32). While infanticide (more specifically, female infanticide) is condemned, the Qur˒an is silent on the rights of the fetus. In accordance with the social practices of pre-Islamic Arabia, the Qur˒an sanctions retaliation in the case of murder and physical injury. However, it emphasizes that this must be done justly, and that the remission of the death sentence is a source of "mercy from God" (2:178).

Overt theft is condemned (60:12), as are other, more covert forms of depriving others of their property, such as depriving someone of his or her inheritance, failing to return something entrusted to one for safekeeping (4:58), and cheating when weighing goods for sale (17:35). The Qur˒an is particularly vehement in its denunciation of usury. The Qur˒an sanctions notions of personal property with individuals being the rightful owners thereof, but condemns individuals who seek to keep secret the extent of their wealth and to be sole arbiters of how to dispense with it.

All wealth is regarded as a trust from God. Greed is condemned and those who live their lives free from greed are regarded as "the successful ones." In contrast to those who hoard, Muslims who "spend of their wealth by night and by day, in secret and in public" are promised that they "shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve" (2:274). The Qur˒an takes the position that "in the possessions of the wealthy there is a right due to the poor" (51:19, 70:24–15) and places great merit on giving beyond the mandatory, institutionalized wealth tax known as zakat. Such giving will purify one's soul, particularly if one gives away those things that are particularly dear (3:92), and does one's giving quietly (2:71). Giving to the poor can be done "day and night, in secret or in public," but it must not be followed by words of injury that make the recipient feel a sense of obligation to the benefactor.

Justice and human rights. The Qur˒an takes the position that everyone is equal in the eyes of God and of the law. No human being has any inherent claim to superiority over another on the basis of lineage or race. It does, however, recognize and condone distinction, differentiation, or discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, knowledge, and piety. It is questionable whether one can really use the Qur˒an as the standard to justify contemporary Islamic understandings of social equality or universal human rights. However, in the context of seventh-century Arabia, it can be viewed as having encouraged a sense of gender justice, as well as compassion toward victims of all kinds of oppression. There is a strong egalitarian trend in the Qur˒an's handling of ethico-religious responsibilities, but there is an undeniable discriminatory treatment of the social and legal obligations that have to do with women. Still, on this subject the Qur˒an is somewhat contradictory. Gender statements can be found that affirm gender equality, and others can be found that deny it. However, when specific injunctions are mentioned, these are generally discriminatory to women.

Justice assumes such prominence in the Qur˒an that it is regarded as one of the reasons why God created the earth. The demands that the Qur˒an makes upon individuals to uphold justice is extraordinary, transcending all social bonds. While justice is something that one demands for oneself, more importantly, it is something to be fulfilled for others, regardless of the cost to oneself and one's own community.

The Qur˒an provides two notions that are said to govern social relations. The first is huquq (rights), which are defined as the obligations one owes to society, and which must be defended. The other is ihsan, understood to mean "generosity beyond obligation." The basic principle of rights and duties is contained in the verse "Do not wrong and be not wronged" (2:279). In social conduct this covers the need for one to be reliable and trustworthy in one's undertakings or promises (4:105, 8:27, 16:91) and economic dealings (93:1–3); to present truthful evidence in any matter or dispute (25:72); to refrain from concealing evidence (2:283), defaming others (49:6), backbiting, and slander (49:12), hypocrisy (2:8–19), and exploiting the vulnerability of others (2:275–276).

The Qur˒an also condemns more subtle forms of injury to others, for they also detract from the humanity of the perpetrator. These injuries include suspicion (49:12), mocking others or the objects of their worship (49:11), and using derogatory nicknames (49:11). These injunctions apply to everyone who participates in a society founded upon Qur˒anic principles, but the Qur˒an recognizes that such a society may contain religiously diverse communities within it. The Qur˒an is explicit about the importance of maintaining harmonious relationships with all those who are not engaged in warfare against the Muslims (60:8), the permissibility of the food slaughtered by the people of the book, and of marriage by Muslim males to their women (5:5).

The Qur˒an encourages such generally recognized virtues as expressing gratitude (22:38), showing compassion (90:17), and speaking gently (2:83). It is also explicit about the means by which Muslims can "go the extra mile," recommending that they share their wealth, care for orphans, and free their slaves. The Qur˒an treats orphans, in particular, with an enormous amount of compassion. Muslims are instructed honor them (99:17–18), to treat them gently (93:9 and 4:36), to set aside wealth for the care of orphans (4:8), and to deal justly with their property (4:3). The Qur˒an regards those who reject orphans as people who have rejected the faith itself (107:1–3).

There is no direct reference in the Qur˒an to any notion of an Islamic state, but there are a few injunctions regarding obedience to authority. The Qur˒an contains several references to the sovereignty of God, and this has been interpreted by Islamist ideologues to refer to an Islamic theocracy. The duties of the Muslim leadership include waging jihad in defense of the faith or in response to aggression, collecting and distributing zakat, and enacting punishment for a very limited array of sins or crimes, of which the following are mentioned: slander (24:4–9), adultery (24:2–3, 15:16), theft (5:41), robbery, treason, and armed insurrection (5:36–37), and murder and bodily mutilation (2:178–179).

Religious practices. Only three formal religious rituals or institutionalized practices receive any significant attention in the Qur˒an: the formal prayers (salat), fasting in the month of Ramadan, and the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj).

There are, on the other hand, numerous references in the Qur˒an to prayers and its importance. Its significance can be gauged from the fact that the Qur˒an outlines ways of deviating from the normal pattern of the ritual during a state of fear (2:238) or in the midst of actual physical combat during jihad (4:101). Other than in the case of illness, menstruation, or frailty, prayer is an obligation that can never be shirked. The Qur˒an leaves the exact times of the prayers somewhat unclear; their times are rather fixed by interpretation of some ambiguous verses. As for the manner in which the prayer is to be conducted, the Qur˒an refers only to bowing (ruku˓) and prostration (sujud), and says that one should quietly recite "whatever of the Qur˒an has been made easy for one" (73:20). A commitment of the mind and the heart is, of course, indispensable for prayer, and those who pray in a slothful and lazy fashion are regarded as being among the hypocrites (4:142, 9:54).

The Qur˒an refers to fasting in two distinct contexts. One is the month of Ramadan, when fasting is performed as an act of worship. The other context, which is not linked to any special time or place, is when a believer feels the need to expiate a sin of or a lapse in a specific religious duty. The only objective of fasting stipulated in the Qur˒an is that of acquiring taqwa—self-restraint arising from the awareness that one is always in the presence of God and ultimately accountable to Him. Fasting requires abstention from all food, drink, and sexual intercourse from the first sign that night is ending until just after sunset.

The hajj is obligatory for all of those of the Muslim faith who are capable of finding their way to Mecca (3:96). It occurs in the first ten days of the month of Dhu-l-Hijjah (the month of Hajj, which is twelfth month of the Hijri calendar). The time is specified in the Qur˒an (2:189). As for the rites associated with the hajj, the Qur˒an goes into somewhat greater detail for these than it does for any of the other formal acts of devotions.

Two samples of Qur˒anic calligraphy appear in the volume two color insert.

See alsoAllah ; Calligraphy ; Devotional Life ; Ethics and Social Issues ; Human Rights ; ˓Ibadat ; Jahannam ; Janna ; Law ; Mihna ; Muhammad ; Pilgrimage: Hajj ; Prophets ; Ritual .


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Farid Esack