The Qur’an, the sacred text of Islam, is believed to be the Word of God as revealed to the Prophet. Here Dr. Mustafa Shah describes the historical context of its revelation, its transmission and codification and its shared spiritual heritage with the other main Abrahamic faiths.
Preserved in the language of Arabic, the Qur’an is Islam’s sacred text. It is believed that the Qur’an enshrines the literal word of God and that it was revealed to Muhammad by the Archangel Gabriel. With its unique composition and style, the Qur’an is also considered the pre-eminent literary masterpiece of the Arabic language and one of the earliest extant Arabic literary sources. Its contents, which are constellated around the axial theme of God’s unity of being and his transcendence, provide the foundations of the doctrinal tenets and beliefs of Islam. Emphasising the theme of continuation, the Qur’an does not present its teachings as representing a new religion, but rather the revivification of an ancient monotheistic tradition of faith which shares the same spiritual legacy with Judaism and Christianity.
When and where did Islam begin?
The historical context of the emergence of Islam was 7th-century C.E. Arabia. Muhammad was a merchant who was born in the oasis city of Mecca, in the western regions of the Arabian Peninsula. Mecca is also home to a revered shrine, the Ka‘bah, a cube-shaped edifice at the heart of the Meccan sanctuary, which the Qur’an indicates was built by Abraham and his son Ismael for the worship of one true God (Q. 2. 127). According to traditional accounts, Muhammad was born into a Meccan noble tribe known as the Quraysh. They were accomplished traders and custodians of the city’s coveted shrine. The pre-Islamic era is portrayed in the traditional Islamic sources as an ‘age of ignorance’ (jahiliyyah). Religion at that time was dominated by the cult of polytheism, and among the key religious festivals celebrated in pre-Islamic Arabia was the annual pilgrimage (hajj) to the Ka‘bah. Although the Arabs believed in the existence of a supreme being who sustained the universe, they also worshipped lesser deities and idols and sought their intercession. Referring to the Arabs’ recognition of a supreme being and multiple idols, the Qur’an states: ‘We worship them only, because they draw us closer to God’ (Q. 39. 1).
The Islamic literary sources intimate that at the age of forty, while secluded in a cave on the outskirts of Mecca, the very first verses of the Qur’an were revealed to Muhammad by the Archangel Gabriel, thus marking the beginning of his call to prophethood.
Recite in the Name of your Lord who created;
Created man from a congealed clot of blood;
Recite and indeed your Lord is most merciful;
He who taught by the pen;
Taught man what he knew not
The essence of the Qur’an’s message was simple: it affirmed the existence of one Supreme Being and declared that Muhammad was his appointed messenger. The earliest adherents were close members of the Prophet’s family and friends. In the face of opposition and persecution in Mecca, in July 622 they migrated to Medina, an agricultural settlement north of Mecca. This event, referred to as the Hijrah, proved to be a turning point for the faith as it then became possible to propagate the religion openly and gain new converts. Having consolidated his base at Medina, and within less than eight years of the Hijrah, Muhammad and his followers were able to wrestle control of Mecca in 630, subsequently extending their authority over key parts of the Arabian Peninsula. Within thirty years of Muhammad’s death in 632, vast swathes of the Near and Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia had come under Muslim rule and influence. In this context Arabic became not only the language of the faith of Islam, but also the language of its civilisation.
When was the Qur’an written down?
According to Muslim literary sources, when the Prophet passed away in 632 the Qur’an did not formally exist as a fixed text but was “written down on palm-leaf stalks, scattered parchments, shoulder blades, limestone and memorised in the hearts of men.” During the rule of one of Muhammad’s later successors, the caliph Uthman (r. 644–656), a standardised copy of the Qur’an was compiled and distributed to the main centres of the Islamic Empire. Although the caliph’s original codices have not survived, his introduction of a fixed text is recognised as one of his enduring achievements. One of the oldest copies of the Qur’an, which is dated to the 8th century, is held in the British Library; it includes over two-thirds of the complete text.
Due to the fact that written Arabic was not fully developed, the earliest Qur’an manuscripts were transcribed in what is termed a scriptio defectiva. The script lacked a system for the annotation of long and short vowels, and diacritics were used only occasionally to identify individual letters. In later manuscripts scholars developed notations to represent short vowels in the form of carefully placed red dots. These were eventually replaced by small vowel markings in the shape of diminutive characters and strokes.
Despite these improvements to help readers, the oral transmission of the Qur’an retained its primacy. The fact that formal daily prayers, in which the recitation of the Qur’an is central, are performed in Arabic underlines the devotional value of the recitation of the text; even the word Qur’an is actually derived from the Arabic verb “to recite.” The requisite practice of committing the whole text to memory has an extended history, and still forms an integral part of the curriculum followed in seminaries throughout the Islamic world. The preservation and study of the Qur’an led to the flourishing of literary traditions of learning, including grammar, philology and even poetry, as scholars used insights from such scholarship to interpret the Qur’an.
What is important about the language of the Qur’an?
The Qur’an intimates that it represents the literal speech of God, which was revealed in a flawless form of Arabic. It is traditionally believed that the authorial voice of God is directly behind its narratives and statements, whether God is cited as speaking directly, or whether the text is enjoining laws or depicting events, including quoting from the Prophet’s adversaries or retelling the feats of the great biblical prophets. In the pre-Islamic period poetry served as the primary vehicle of literary expression, and the Arabs prided themselves on being accomplished poets. In the Qur’an Muhammad’s opponents are frequently quoted as describing his revelation as “the utterances of a poet” (Q. 69. 41) and “the words of a mortal” (Q. 74. 25). Keen to counter such allegations, the Qur’an resolutely defends its compositional distinctiveness and even issues a challenge to the Prophet’s antagonists, insisting that “Had humans and Jinns (spirits) come together to replicate this Qur’an, they would not have been able to do so, even if they were to work together to that end” (Q. 17. 88). The theme of the Qur’an’s linguistic inimitability was used to promote its divine status and cited as proof of the prophethood of Muhammad.
Themes and contents of the Qur’an
The Qur’an comprises 6,236 verses (ayahs) which are divided into 114 chapters or surahs, each of which takes its name from a prominent event, theme or topic relevant to the chapter. Hence, the first chapter of the Qur’an is referred to as “The Opening” (al-Fatihah), while chapter twenty-six, “The Poets” (al-Shuʿaraʾ), derives its name from a reference to the conduct of ancient poets with which the chapter concludes.
Each chapter (with the exception of chapter nine) is preceded by an introductory formula, ‘In the Name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful’, referred to as the basmalah.
The traditional view is that the Qur’an’s contents were revealed piecemeal. Revelation identified with the early Meccan years focussed primarily on the accentuation of God’s unity and transcendence, a theme encapsulated in the following chapter:
Say God is One; He is Eternal;
He was not begotten nor does he beget;
and he has no peer or equal (Q. 112.1–4)
The language of the Meccan verses is composed in a form of eloquent prose which is concise and rhythmic, employing an intricate range of figurative expressions and rhetorical devices. In terms of content, theological and ethical themes are intertwined. Early Qur’anic revelation includes declarations about the omnipotence and omniscience of God, the resurrection of the dead, the impending Day of Judgement and rewards and punishment in the hereafter. The theme of personal morality and piety is also promoted, while polytheism and idolatry are condemned. Also connected with revelation of this period are the so-called “disjointed letters” of the Qur’an. This designation is due to the fact that twenty-nine of the Qur’an’s chapters open with either a single letter of the Arabic alphabet or a combination of these letters, which are recognised as individual verses; indeed, a number of chapters are actually named after these letters. The precise meaning of these individual letters remains a mystery as the commentary tradition that developed around the study of the Qur’an seemingly offers no decisive clues as to their actual import.
The imposition of a detailed system of ritual practices and laws occurs in the post-Hijrah period. Set times for prayer, fasting, the giving of alms, and the performance of pilgrimage were made obligatory by the Qur’an at Medina. A range of legal measures was introduced, including rules for inheritance and dietary guidelines, the proscription of usury, laws on marriage and divorce and a penal code. Religious polemics with Jews and Christians are also a feature of Qur’anic revelation of this later period.
What does the Qur’an say about Christianity and Judaism?
In the Qur’an, Muhammad is designated as being the final prophet sent to mankind and is hailed as being one of a distinguished line of divinely appointed messengers who were sent to proclaim the message of God’s unity. It states:
Indeed, those who believe, the Jews, the Christians, and the
Sabians – all those who acknowledge God and the Last Day and
perform good works – will be granted their rewards with their Lord.
Fear shall not affect them, nor shall they grieve (Q. 2.62)
Confirming the shared spiritual heritage with Judaism and Christianity, the tribulations and triumphs of biblical personalities are also portrayed in the narratives of the Qur’an. Teachings on Jesus emphasise his human nature, although the Qur’an upholds the notion of his immaculate conception and the miracles he performed. However, it rejects the claim that Jesus was the Son of God and also the concept of the divine Trinity; the Qur’an also denies the Crucifixion. Jesus is lauded as a prophet to the Children of Israel, and his mother Mary is held in great esteem, even having a chapter of the Qur’an named after her. It is significant to note that in deference to the sacred status of their revealed scripture, the Qur’an describes Jews and Christians as being “the People of the Book.”
This essay originally appeared in Discovering Sacred Texts at the British Library (CC BY-NC 4.0)
Read about a folio from a Qur’an at Smarthistory