What is the Qur’an ?

For Muslims, the Qur’an is the eternal and indisputable word of God. The oldest and most sacred text of Islam, it is the cornerstone of every believer’s faith and morality. But the Qur’an is also an earthly book, and its history is intimately connected to the life and history of an earthly community. The Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad over a period of about 22 years. It serves as a record of the society of his time and constitutes the most important source for tracing the historical development of Islam from its origins in Mecca to its maturity in Medina. Many of its passages reflect the conditions of the early Islamic community. Even so, for Muslims its divine message transcends time and space.

According to Islamic tradition, Muhammad received his first divine revelation during the month of Ramadan in 610 . Seeking a solitary place to pray and meditate, Muhammad regularly withdrew to a cave on Mount Hira, a few miles north of his home in Mecca. During one such retreat, a heavenly being, later identified as the angel Gabriel, appeared to him. The angel commanded him to recite and later gave him a divine revelation. Muhammad returned home frightened and confused. He feared that he was possessed by a demon. After a period of uncertainty lasting between six months and two years, during which Muhammad received no new revelations, his wife Khadija and her cousin helped convince him that the revelation was from God. Thereafter, revelations continued to come until Muhammad’s death in 632 . Muhammad received the divine messages verse by verse, often in response to a crisis or concern that emerged among his followers. Most members of the early Islamic community, including Muhammad, were illiterate. The new scripture was known as the qur’an (recitation) because believers learned it by listening to public readings and recitations. Many of Muhammad’s followers committed the passages to memory. But the Prophet also commissioned many scribes to preserve the messages in writing. They recorded the words on a variety of available materials, including paper, stones, palm leaves, and pieces of leather. By the time of Muhammad’s death, several of his followers had memorized the entire Qur’an. Many of them, however, were killed in battle. Fearing that knowledge of the Qur’an might be lost, the leaders of the Islamic community decided to collect all the revelations, from both written and oral sources, and to compile an official version of the sacred text. Many partial collections existed. They were among the possessions of Muhammad’s wives, his companions, and scribes. These collections contained variations, further demonstrating the need for a single authoritative source. The process of gathering material was time consuming. Uthman, the third caliph, commissioned a team of Muslim scholars to oversee it. Led by Zayd ibn Thabit , one of Muhammad’s companions, they completed their work around 650 . To resolve conflicts in pronunciation among the earlier sources, the team used the dialect of the Quraysh, the tribe of the Prophet. Although Uthman’s version of the Arabic text became the official standard for the Islamic community, a large number of variations emerged, reflecting regional differences in language. Islam recognizes seven readings of the Qur’an as equally valid.

The Qur’an consists of 114 chapters, or surahs, varying in length from 3 to 286 verses (ayat). The longest chapters, which reflect the later period of Muhammad’s revelations, appear at the beginning of the book. The shortest and earliest surahs appear at the end, with the exception of the short first surah. The complete Qur’an is about the same length as the New Testament of the Bible. The heading of each surah contains certain elements, including a title, an indication of whether the verses were revealed before or after the Hijrah (the emigration from Mecca to Medina), and the number of verses. In most cases, the name of a surah refers to a specific word in the passage, and therefore, does not reflect its contents. Examples of chapter titles include “The Dinner Table,” “Jonah,” “The Ant,” “She Who Pleaded,” and “The Disbelievers.” Some titles vary by region, and in some cases, the names of chapters have been changed at different times in Islamic history. Many of the surahs vary in style or content, and the longer ones cover a range of topics. Most Muslims consider the Qur’an to be a masterpiece of rhymed prose. It is regarded as Muhammad’s only miracle, a text of such astounding beauty and wisdom that no one will ever be able to match its eloquence. Source: “Qur’an.” In The Islamic World: Past and Present. Ed. John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. 09-Nov-2014. .

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