Basics of the Quran

The Quran—God’s word

As the foundation document of God’s final revelation, the Quran has deeply stamped all areas of Islam. What the Torah means for Jews and Christ for Christians, the Quran means for Muslims: ‘the way, the truth and the life’. Indeed for all Muslims the Quran is:

  • the truth: an original Book send by God and the criterion of right faith
  • the way: the true guide of coping with the world and the eternally valid standard for correct action (ethic)
  • the life: the abiding foundation of Islamic law and the soul of Islamic prayer, the material for the instruction of Muslim children, the inspiration of Islamic art and the all-permeating spirit of Islamic culture

For Muslims the Quran is not a relic of the past. It is a living, holy book in Arabic. Every word in this description is important.

It is One Book

The Quran in Arabic is about as long as the New Testament. It is about 600 pages in length in most printings. The Quran was not meant to tell a chronological story, and thus, the Quran should not be viewed as a sequential narrative like the book of Genesis.

In contrast to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the Quran issued from the mouth of a single person, who recited what he heard from the angel Gabriel. On the other hand, both the Jewish and the Christian scriptures are collections of many books that were written down by a large number of human beings, and opinions differ as to their status as revelation.

Unlike the Hebrew Bible, the Quran is not a collection of very different writings which seem to have no common denominator. Nor is it like the New Testament, which offers its message in four very different Gospels that contradict one another in many details and are therefore the occasion for confusion. The Quran is a single book, handed down by one and the same prophet in some twenty odd years, and therefore is a coherent unity, despite differences in style.

The Quran consists of 114 chapters, and each chapter consists of a number of verses. Chapter 2, which is the longest chapter, contains 286 verses, whereas chapters 103, 108, and 110 consist of only 3 verses each. The Quran contains 6236 verses in total.

Out of the 114 chapters, 86 were revealed in the twelve years that the Prophet lived in Mecca after the revelation. The other 28 chapters were revealed in Madina. These chapters include some of the longest chapters of the Quran. This is why although they represent about 25% of the Quranic chapters, the Madina chapters make up about 40% of the Quran. A number of those latter chapters contain detailed information on legal issues and answer various questions that were continually rising as a distinct Muslim community was emerging.

Chapters are not compiled in the Quran in the chronological sequence of their revelation. Therefore, chapter 1 in the compiled Quran is not the chapter that was revealed first, and chapter 114 is not the one that was revealed last.

Additionally, it is not uncommon to find that the verses within a chapter are not all arranged in the chronological order of their revelation. For instance, several Meccan chapters contain a mixture of verses revealed in Mecca and Madina.

These particular arrangements of the chapters and of the verses within each chapter in the compiled Quran are considered as a genuine part of the structure of the Quran. In other words, the verses and the chapters were arranged in this way by Prophet Muhammad as he was taught by God.

The verses of any one chapter, apart from shorter chapters, usually address a number of different issues. Accordingly, successive verses do not necessarily talk about the same subject.

From the second surah onward, the surahs gradually decrease in length, although this is not a hard and fast rule. The last sixty surahs take up about as much space as the second. Some of the longer aayahs are much longer than the shortest surahs.

Every sura of the Quran except one (sura 9) begins with a phrase that invokes the name and merciful characteristics of God: “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate” (bismillah al-rahman al-rahim). This phrase of mercy, referred to as the basmala, is not normally counted as a verse except in sura 1, “The Opening,” where it is the first verse. It is clear that this phrase invoking divine qualities took on the character of a respectful salutation and prayer in the early Muslim community; in practice, it is the most frequently recited Muslim religious formula, commonly repeated to initiate any new important affair. A similar ritual importance attaches to the whole of sura 1, “The Opening,” which evidently was used as a communal prayer before it was formally included as a sura of the Quran.

The names of the suras typically are prominent words or phrases that occur early on in the sura, although occasionally the title comes from a later passage. Thus the names of the suras do not imitate the naming of the books of the Bible by describing the contents or transmitters of revelation. A sura’s title may in fact be an oath formula or a brief reference that is not repeated or expanded upon. English translations of the suras, but since there is no uniformity among different translations, there is no standard English nomenclature for the suras. While some authors use the Arabic names of the suras (for example, al-Baqara), others will cite it by an English translation (“The Cow”) or simply use the number (sura 2). English translations of the suras.

For example, the longest surah, Surah al-Baqara, or “The Cow”, is named after the story of Moses commanding the Jews to offer a sacrifice of a cow, which begins by God saying:

“And remember when Moses said to his people: ‘God commands that you sacrifice a cow...’”

(Quran 2:67)

Since the various chapters are of various lengths, the Quran was divided by scholars of the first century after the death of the Prophet into thirty roughly equal parts, each part is called a juz’ in Arabic. This division of the Quran was done in order for people to memorize or read it in a more organized fashion, and it has no influence on the original structure, as they are mere marks on the sides of the pages denoting the part. In the Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan, one juz’ is usually recited every night, and the entire Quran is completed in the thirty days of the month.

It is an Arabic book

Its 6236 verses form the oldest work of Arabic prose: more than anything else it promoted the dissemination of the Arabic language and script. To the present day it has a normative standard of syntax and morphology. The Quran is ‘the Book’ (al–kitab), ‘the book of God’ (kitab Allah) — which through the impressive melody and passionate rhythm of language can charm even non-Muslim Arabs. For them, too, Arabic is the language of worship, and for them, too, Arabic script is their own. ‘In the history of the Arabic language there is no event which has had a more persistent influence on its fate than the rise of Islam.’

Apart from Turkish (in which Arabic script was replaced by Latin script in 1928 under Ataturk) and the central and south-east Asian languages (following reforms of scripts since around 1920), Arabic remains the script for Berber, Persian and Kurdish, and also for Urdu and Sindhi. Numerous Arabic loan words in all these languages attest to the dominance of Arabic Islamic culture. To the present day Arabic literature is strongly stamped by the Quran in its metaphors, quotations, motifs and forms.

Through the Quran, Arabic became the sacred language of the whole Muslim world.

It is a Living Book

The Quran is not a book which sits on the bookshelf like a rarely used household Bible or is mainly read silently.

The Arabic word, ‘Quran,’ literally means both ‘recitation’ and ‘reading’. Similarly, the Quran was both recited orally and written down in book form. It is a book which is recited aloud in public time and again. The true power of the Quran remains in the oral recitation, as it is meant to be read aloud and melodiously, but still the verses were written down on available materials as an aid to memorizing and guarding it, and these were collected and ordered in book form both privately and, at a later stage, institutionally.

To recite the Quran is the most sublime and edifying occupation for the Muslim, even when he or she does not intellectually understand its words, as is the case with most non-Arab believers. The Muslims’ desire to recite the Quran as beautifully as possible, and the art of tilawa, the proper recitation, has developed into a science. Even when reciting the Book without embellishment, one has to observe certain rules of recitation. The hafiz, who “preserves” the Quran, i.e., knows it by heart, is highly respected, and boys and girls are sent at an early age to the mosque to memorize the ‘Book.’

By hearing, memorizing and reciting, Muslims both confess God’s revelation and make it their own. Some Muslims, who began learning as children, know the whole Quran by heart. They have the honorary title of a ‘guardian, preserver’ (hafiz). Famous professional reciters are highly regarded as artists. When the Quran is presented beautifully with dedication it can fascinate Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

It is the Word of God

We sometimes read that the Quran is the holy scripture of Islam which contains the revelations of the Prophet Muhammad. That is correct, but is ambiguous for non-Muslims. Does ‘revelations of the Prophet Muhammad’ mean that the Prophet is the subject and the author of this revelation? The Prophet is an object, the one to whom this revelation is addressed, and the subject and ‘author’ (more accurately, the ‘Speaker’) is God alone. The Quran comes directly from God. It is not only ‘inspired’ by God but ‘revealed’ by God and therefore directly ‘the word of God.’

Honoring the Quran

In order not to violate the sacred character of the Quran, care should be taken that it is not left in a place where someone may accidentally stand, sit on or otherwise disrespect it. It is extremely disliked to use any book, let alone the Quran, as a prop for holding anything up. When not being read, the Muslim will replace it in the shelf of the bookcase, or on the lectern.

Some people wrap it carefully in cloth in order to preserve it and also to be able handle it when not in a state of purity if needed. They also like to ensure that it is placed above other books, and they avoid just letting the Quran lie around.

The Quran is not a book like any other, that one can also touch with dirty hands and read in an unclean spirit. It is absolutely forbidden to take it into the place one urinates or defecates. Even reciting it in such places is not done.

It is not a profane book, but sacred through and through and therefore omnipresent: artistically chiseled in stone, embroidered or painted on tiles, its verses adorn Islamic buildings and works of metal and wood, ceramics, miniature paintings and tapestry. Impressively aesthetic, written in different scripts, the copies of the Quran tower above all else. They are often housed in precious bindings and usually decorated with colored patterns.

The Muslim house of God, the mosque, has no pictures—the calligraphy of the Quran is enough.

Muslim worship has neither instruments nor choral singing—the recitation of the Quran is melody enough.

First & Last Verses Revealed

The revelation of the Quran to Prophet Muhammad began when he was 40 years old. He used to retreat into the mountains outside of Mecca for contemplation. During one of these stays, angel Gabriel came to him and told him, ‘Recite.’ He responded by saying that he could not. He was then squeezed very hard and let go and the exchange repeated three times. At the end of the third time some verses of the Quran were revealed:

“Recite (O Muhammad!) in the name of your Lord who created. He created man from a clot. Recite, and your Lord is the Most Honorable, Who taught with the pen, taught man what he knew not.”

(Quran 96 1-5)

His initial reaction was to rush home and seek comfort and support from his wife, Khadija. She reassured him and sought the advice of one of her relatives who had knowledge of previous heavenly books and the Gospel in particular.

Such was the story of the beginning of the Quran. The revelation continued form that moment until the death of the Prophet Muhammad 23 years later. Verses were revealed at different times, in different places and circumstances. Every time a new set of verses were revealed the Prophet was instructed where to put it in the order of revelation. He would then teach them to his companions and some of them were specifically tasked with the job of writing it down. As paper was not available in Arabia ta the time, the Quran was written on different materials like animal bones and hides. The compilation of revelation continued as revelation came down. The book was memorized in its entirety by a large number of his followers and memorization and recitation is the primary mode of its transmission today. Within two years of his death, the entire book was compiled into one text that was unanimously agreed by his followers to be reliable. This text was eventually copied and distributed to all parts of the Muslim world of the time.

The last verse that received by the Messenger was:

“And guard yourselves against a day in which you shall be returned to God; then every soul shall be paid back in full what it has earned, and they (the souls) will not be wronged.”

(Quran 2:281)

Why the Quran Was Revealed Over 23 Years?

The Quran did not come to change one or two habits; it came to change everything — ways of living and dying, marrying, buying and selling, settling disputes, and how to perceive one's relation with the Creator, and more. Given the scope of the change envisioned, we can begin to grasp why it was revealed in stages.

The gradual revelation of the Quran prepared the people to accept and then live the virtues, excellent manners, and lofty aspirations it demanded.

The Quran was revealed in stages so that its audience could understand, internalize, and apply its prohibitions, commands, and reforms. Revelation came when the need for guidance arose, without discouraging or grinding down morale, warning and condemnation preceded prohibition and appeal and exhortation preceded command. For instance, alcohol and other intoxicating drinks were prohibited in three or four stages; female infanticide in two stages; uniting warring tribes and building up a close-knit society based on brotherhood, thus raising the collective consciousness, in several stages. These difficult reforms were not gestured at or expressed in slogans, they were actually achieved.

Just like a young tree, the early Muslims grew slowly, adapting gradually to new conditions and thus developing naturally.

Translations of Quran

A beginner should know a few points about Quran translations.

First, there is a distinction between the Quran and its translation. In Christian view, the Bible is the Bible, no matter what language it may be in. But a translation of the Quran is not the word of God, for the Quran is the exact Arabic words spoken by God, revealed to Prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. Muslims regard the Quran, as it was delivered in Arabic as the literal and divine word of God. Any variation from that text is no longer divine, and no longer Quran. The word of God is only the Arabic Quran. The reason is simple. God says:

“Indeed, I revealed it as an Arabic Quran.”

(Quran 12:2)

A translation is simply an explanation of the meanings of the Quran. That is why one modern English translation has been titled “The Meaning of the Glorious Quran”: it strives only to give the meaning, but falls short, as any translation must, of reproducing the form of the Holy Book. The translated text loses the inimitable quality of the original, so be aware of the degree to which a translation reflects the original message at every level of meaning, and that it will probably not match it. For this reason, all which is regarded as ‘recitation’ of the Quran is to be done in Arabic, such as the recitation of the Quran in the five daily prayers of the Muslims.

Second, there is no perfect translation of the Quran, and, being human works, each almost always has errors. Some translations are better in their linguistic quality, while others are noted for portraying the meaning. Some translations in print and online are considered inaccurate, and sometimes even misleading.

Third, some translations are recommended over others. The most widely read English translation is by Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali, followed by that of Muhammad Pickthall, the first translation by an English Muslim. Yusuf ‘Ali’s translation is generally acceptable, but his footnote commentary, useful at times, can be odd and unacceptable. A more flowing translation has been published by Saheeh International combines both exactness in translation and readability. “The Qur'an, A New Translation,” by M.A.S. Abdel-Haleem is the result of a seven-year effort by a University of London professor. The preciseness of English is commendable, and footnotes and commentary are kept to an absolute minimum, supplied only when there is absolute need.

Does the Quran Need Explanation?

The revelation of the Quran happened within the broad political, social, intellectual and religious context of Arabia in the seventh century CE, and in particular the context of the Hijaz region, where Mecca and Medina are situated. Understanding the key aspects of this context helps us to make connections between the Quranic text and the environment in which the text emerged.

When and on what occasion the revelation took place and how the occasion sheds light on it. What could give more information about the personality of the Prophet and the development of the message of the Quran than a reasonably certain chronology of the Quranic texts?

It is important to observe the presence of certain Quranic references to contemporary events of significance to the early Muslim community. Notable events of the Medinan period noticed in the Quran include the battles of Badr (624 CE) and Uhud (625 CE), the struggle against the Banu Nadir tribe (625 CE), the events leading up to the treaty with the Meccans at Hudaybiyya (628 CE), the military expedition to Tabuk (630 CE), and the farewell sermon of the Prophet at the time of the pilgrimage of 631 CE. Although these historical references are brief, they require elaboration.

These are some reasons why although certain meanings of the Quran are easy and clear to understand, one must be careful to make assertions about the religion without relying on an reliable commentary. In the words of Carl Ernst,

"To imagine that one can pick up a complicated text like this, read a few lines, and know what it 'says' on any given topic is unrealistic, to say the least. As one early Muslim leader observed, the Quran does not speak, but it does require an interpreter."

Furthermore, not only did Prophet Muhammad bring the Quran, he also explained it to his companions, and these sayings have been collected and preserved till this day. God says:

“And We have sent down to you (O Muhammad) the message that you may explain clearly to men what is sent for them...”

(Quran 16:44)

In summary, in order to understand some of the deeper meanings of the Quran, one has to rely on commentaries which mention these statements of the Prophet as well as his companions. A specific methodology exists for exegesis of the Quran in order to extract the proper meaning. The Quranic sciences, as they are called, are an extremely specialized field of Islamic scholarship which requires mastery in multiple disciplines, like exegesis, recitations, script, inimitability, circumstances behind revelation, abrogation, Quranic grammar, unusual terms, religious rulings, and Arabic language and literature.

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