The Koran, or Qur 'an, forms the basis of the Muslim faith, the religion of Islam. The prophet Muhammad, or Mohammed, is considered by Muslims to be not the author of the Koran, but the messenger of God, the one to whom God's Word was revealed. Following Muhammad's death in 632 A.D., an effort was made by the Prophet's successor, the caliph Abu Bakr, to compile a standard text from what had been written by Muhammad's secretary (Zaid ibn Thabit), jotted down by followers on scraps of leather or leaves or bones, or simply retained in the memory of the faithful. The task was completed approximately twenty years later, under the authority of the caliph Uthman. The Koran is composed of 114 suras, or chapters, each of which is further divided into rhymed prose verses. As the Koran was revealed to Muhammad and later written down in Arabic, translations of the book are considered to be interpretations of it. The Koran's theology is monotheistic, and it is considered by believers to be the basis of the one true religion which counts among its prophets Moses, Jesus, and of course, Muhammad. The verses of the Koran, recited daily by millions of Muslims, are said to be stylistically perfect and inimitable.
Muhammad was born circa 570 A.D. in Mecca, an Arabian city. The society in which he lived was a polytheistic one, but a monotheistic current had emerged to which Muhammad subscribed. Followers of this monotheistic strain were known as hanifs. During his adult life, Muhammad had made it a habit to retreat to a cave to meditate. According to Muslim believers, during one such session when Muhammad was approximately 40 years old, an angel appeared to Muhammad and revealed that God had selected Muhammad to be his messenger. The angel then revealed to Muhammad the first words of the Koran. The angel was later identified as the archangel Gabriel. After telling his wife about what he had seen, Muhammad received no further revelations for some time, but the angel finally returned, restoring Muhammad's faith. His early messages focussed on the nature of God, on the final judgement, and stressed social and economic equality. He slowly established a following, as people grew convinced by the eloquence and power of Muhammad's teachings. But the ruling elite in Mecca were threatened by Muhammad's message, and in 622, when Muhammad was approached by a delegation from another town with the offer to come to their city and be their leader, he agreed, thereby escaping the dangers in Mecca. This emigration is known in Arabic as the hijra, and marks the beginning of the Islamic calender. In his new city, which became known as "the city of the Prophet," or simply, "the city" (Medina), Muhammad's teachings became widespread, and focused now on practical instructions and rules for daily living, rather than on salvation and judgement. After a series of battles with Meccans, the city surrendered to Muhammad and Medina in 630. Muhammad was now a powerful leader, and the integration of Muslim beliefs into a political and legal system was well underway. Muhammad died in 632.
There is some debate about how much of Muhammad's divine teachings were written down during his lifetime. Many scholars agree that while some transcription of his words may have been accomplished in a haphazard manner by Muhammad's followers and by his secretary at the time of the Prophet's death, the Koran had primarily been transmitted orally, and little was actually written down. When the source of God's revelation had died, Muslims had no one to turn to when disputes occurred over what Muhammad had preached. The first caliph, or political successor to Muhammad was Abu Bakr (died 634), and he began to undertake the task of collecting and ordering the words of the Koran. The work was not completed until the reign of the third caliph, Uthman (644-656). Uthman organized a committee headed by Muhammad's secretary, Zaid ibn Thabit (died circa 655). The committee's purpose was to gather from extant fragments and memories the material necessary to establish a standard text of the Koran. Some critics believe that Zaid had already collected a version which was then edited by this committee. Others have maintained that the later caliph Umar (died 644), who was Abu Bakr's successor, commissioned Zaid to compile Muhammad's teachings during the lifetime of Abu Bakr. At any rate, during the caliphate of Uthman, a standard version of the Koran, the Uthmanic edition, was established, largely due to the work of Zaid. This edition was copied and distributed among Muslims, and all other divergent versions were ordered to be burned. The Uthmanic version was arranged not chronologically, since dates and the order of the revelations were uncertain, but according to the length of the suras, with the longer suras appearing first. Yet even after this intensive effort to produce a standard, orthodox text, variations still arose during the copying of the text due to ambiguities in the written Arabic language of the time. For example, many consonantal symbols were quite similar, and vowels could only be expressed inadequately, if at all. It wasn't until 1924 that the Egyptian Royal Committee published the authoritative text of the Koran.
A number of themes are dealt with within the Koran's verses. While the message of the Koran shifted with Muhammad's journey to Medina from one of salvation and judgement to practical rules for daily living concerning such topics as marriage and taxes for example, certain themes appear repeatedly throughout the entire text. One such theme is the nature or the idea of the one true God, or Allah. God is repeatedly referred to as the creator, as merciful and just. Some ideas about God as presented in the Koran have been interpreted differently over time by Muslims. For example, while many Muslims believe that human nature is derived from God's nature, some modern Muslims question this, wondering how human failings are accounted for within this belief. Another theme of the text which has received a variety of interpretations is the concept of free will. The Koran has been interpreted as conveying that God intended to give humans free will. Other critics and followers cite passages where predestination is inferred, and some argue that the concepts of free will and predestination are complementary and that the Koran supports this. Another major theme in the Koran concerns the relationship between reason and revelation. It is often maintained that these two forces complement one another, and that the exploration of nature and its laws is encouraged by the Koran. The role of prophets is also discussed in the Koran, and many exegetes believe that the prophet serves as a link between revelation and reason, between God and humanity. Another theme is that of the universalism of Islam. Islam is seen as the universal religion for all people and for all times, and it has been argued that the outward distinctions between the major religions are not fundamental but rather serve to address the needs of those religious communities. Several religious duties are discussed in the Koran as well. These include: ritual washing of the body (ablutions); prayer; almsgiving, or alms tax; fasting; and pilgrimage to Mecca. That such themes are presented in the Koran is generally accepted by Muslims; how the Koran's teachings about such concepts are to be interpreted is another matter entirely. Disagreements over interpretation have arisen since the death of Muhammad, when the Prophet was no longer able to provide his interpretation of God's revelation.
The critical reception of the Koran can be divided roughly into two categories: Muslim exegesis, and Western interpretation and analysis. Within the first category, a further distinction may be drawn between traditional or conservative interpretation, and the approach of modernists to the Koran. Western examination of the text has included histories of the text and its "author;" analysis of its form and style; and comparison with Jewish and Christian scripture. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century Muslim exegesis of the Koran has been approached primarily from three different viewpoints: natural history, also referred to as scientific exegesis, in which attempts are made to prove that modern sciences are not in contradiction with the Koran; philology, in which attempts are made to uncover the literal meaning of the Koran, the meaning it would have had in Muhammad's time; and from the viewpoint of the day-to-day life of Muslims (this approach is often referred to as practical exegesis), in which an effort is made to determine which aspects of modern daily life should be influenced by the Koran. The nineteenth-century modernist Muhammad Abduh adopted a highly controversial approach to Koran interpretation in that he questioned the validity of many traditional interpretations of the text and the traditions of Islamic society which grew out of those interpretations. Western analysis of the Koran has focused less on the theological meaning and impact of the text. Rather, it has been studied, as early as 1734, as a work of literature. George Sale translated the text from a Latin version in 1734, and this translation became, for years to follow, the standard English version. Sale comments on the beauty of the rhymed prose, but also criticizes the text for its "unnecessary repetitions." Twentieth-century critics have made similar observations, although many have pointed out that Sale's translation, and the Latin version which he used, distinctly set out to discredit Islam through biased interpretations of the text. (For this reason, some Muslims began translating the text themselves, even though it is only studied in Islam in its true, Arabic form.) Modern criticism has also examined the relationship between the Koran and Jewish and Christian scriptures (the Torah and the Bible). Some critics, reflecting Sale's work, argue that Muhammad borrowed heavily from these other works. Others, such as Richard Bell, have maintained that while Muhammad may have been aware of Judaism and Christianity, there is no evidence to prove that the scriptures of these religions influenced the Koran. Much of the later-twentieth century English writings about the Koran are aimed at introducing the text and Islam to Western readers. Yet some modern critics focus on Muhammad himself, and attempt to explain his experience as a prophet, or mystic, from the standpoint of modern psychology. Maxime Rodinson for example, while pointing out that earlier critics such as the nineteenth-century German scholar Herbert Grimme attempted to prove Muhammad a fraud, argues that perhaps he suffered from mental illness and really believed that he was receiving messages from "Beyond." Despite all such religious and secular avenues from which the Koran is approached, Muslim and Western analyses agree that the Koran is a beautiful, lyrical, and powerful work.
Principal English Translations
The Koran with Notes and a Preliminary Discourse (translated by George Sale) 1734
The Koran (translated by J. M. Rodwell) 1861; revised edition, 1909
The Meaning of the Glorious Koran. An Explanatory Translation (translated by M. M. Pickthall) 1930
The Qur'an: Translated, with a Critical Rearrangement of the Surahs. 2 vols. (translated by Richard Bell) 1937-39
The Holy Quran: Text, Translation, and Commentary (translated by Yusuf Abdullah Ali) 1983
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SOURCE: George Sale, "The Preliminary Discourse," in Myth and Romanticism: A Collection of the Major Mythographic Sources Used by the English Romantic Poets, edited by Burton Feldman and Robert D. Richardson, Fr., 1734, pp. 56-69.
[Sale's translation of the late seventeenth-century Latin translation of the Koran by Luigi Marracci became the standard English version of the holy book at the time and retained that status until about the mid-nineteenth century. The translation is prefaced by a lengthy "Preliminary Discourse," treating the history of Arabia before the time of Muhammad as well as the history of the text's compilation, among other matters. The section of the "Preliminary Discourse" reprinted here discusses the format, language, and style of the Koran.]
The word Korân, derived from the verb karaa, to read, signifies properly in Arabic, the reading, or rather, that which ought to be read; by which name the Mohammedans denote not only the entire book or volume of the Koran, but also any particular chapter or section of it; just as the Jews call either the whole scripture, or any part of it, by the name of Karâh, or Mikra1, words of the same origin and import. Which observation seems to overthrow the opinion of some learned Arabians, who would have the Koran so named, because it is a collection of the...
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SOURCE: Richard Bell, "The Beginnings of Muhammad's Religious Activity," in The Origin of Islam In Its Christian Environment, Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1926, pp. 64-99.
[In the following lecture, given in 1925 and published in 1926, Richard Bell traces the development of Muhammad's religious messages. Bell maintains that while Jewish and Christian influences were a part of Arabian life and thought during Muhammad's life, there is little evidence to show that the Prophet borrowed from Biblical writings.]
We turn now to Muhammad and the origin of Islam. It will not be necessary to go into any detail here with regard to the outward facts of the life of Muhammad. There are good biographies in English to which reference may be made.1 It will be sufficient for our present purpose to recall that he was born about A.D. 570. About the year A.D. 612, when he was therefore a little over forty years of age, he began to work as a prophet in his native town of Mecca. After some ten years of comparatively unsuccessful effort there, during which time he and the few followers he had succeeded in gathering were subjected to continual annoyance and even persecution, he removed to Medina in the year A.D. 622. (This is the Hijra, the beginning of the Moslem era.) From that town he soon began to send out raiding parties to attack the Meccan caravans. This led in the month of Ramadan of the second year of the...
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SOURCE: Arthur Jeffery, "Introduction," in Materials for the History of the Text of The Qur'an: The Old Codices, E. J. Brill, 1937, pp. 1-11.
[In the following excerpt, Jeffery outlines the "orthodox Muslim theory" regarding the compilation of the text of the Koran and argues that, contrary to some accounts, there was no extant collection or arranged version of the text at the time of Muhammad's death. Jeffery further explains the suppression of various codices of the text following the compilation of the Uthmanic edition.]
Critical investigation of the text of the Qur'an is a study which is still in its infancy. Within the fold of Islam it seems never to have attracted much attention. The growth of the Qurra' is evidence that there was some interest in the question in the early days of Islam1 but with the fixing of the text ne varietur by the Wazirs Ibn Muqla and Ibn 'Isa in 322 A.H. at the insistence and with the help of the savant Ibn Mujahid († 324)2, and the examples made of Ibn Miqsam († 362) and the unfortunate Ibn Shanabudh († 328) who persisted in making use of the old readings after this fixing of the text3, such interest as there was seems to have come to an end. Variant readings within the limits of the Seven systems4 that were admitted as canonical by the decision of Ibn Mujahid naturally continued to be studied by...
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SOURCE: Carl Brockelmann, "The Arab and the Arab Empire," in History of the Islamic Peoples, translated by Joel Carmichael and Moshe Perlmann, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1947, pp. 1-35.
[In the following excerpt, Brockelmann outlines some of Muhammad's teachings as presented in the Koran, focusing primarily on the religious duties of Islamablutions, prayer, fasting, pilgrimage to Mecca, and almsgiving—which he maintains "have no inherent connection with the faith of the believer" but are rather characterized by "external legalism."]
Muhammad and His Teachings
The religious enthusiast Muhammad, who felt he was a prophet and "warner" sent to his people in Mecca, developed, in Medina, into a leader of a political body, into a gifted statesman not to be deflected from his final goal, rule over Arabia, and not deterred by temporary rebuffs, such as the treaty of Hudaybiyah. His political decrees in Medina were also made public as Qur'an and laid claim to divine inspiration. But the form had to be adjusted for the sake of content, and only the rhyme, often poorly treated, remained as a sign of the revelation style.
Muhammad's religion must not, of course, be judged only by the Qur'an. There is really no question of his having system; acuteness and intellectual consistency were never his strong points. His intellectual world was his own...
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SOURCE: H. A. R. Gibb, "Law and Society," in Modern Trends in Islam, The University of Chicago Press, 1947, pp. 85-105.
[In the following excerpt, Gibb discusses Islamic law and society as they exist based on the teachings of the Koran, focusing on the inequality of women in Islamic society.]
Since social ethics, social institutions, and law are, in principle, functions of the religious system in Islam, all these questions are tied up with religious orthodoxy to a much greater extent than they are in our Western civilization. The newer currents of thought on these subjects consequently flow in two different channels, which can be distinguished, theoretically at least, as the channel of reform and the channel of apologetic. But in practice it is sometimes difficult to say whether what appears to be apologetic is not really a disguised effort toward reform, by the device of defending what the writer asserts to be the genuine teaching of Islam on specific social questions.
Islam has often been described as a "totalitarian" religion. But all religious ideas that shape the imaginative outlook and content of the human mind and that determine the action of the human will are potentially or in principle totalitarian. They must seek to impose their own standards and rules on all social activities and institutions from elementary schools to law and government. Judaism is in this sense...
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SOURCE: Richard Bell, "The Structure and Style of the Qur'an," in Introduction to the Qur'an, Edinburgh University Press, 1953, pp. 67-81.
[In the following excerpt, Bell offers a detailed analysis of the structure and stylistic elements of the Koran, including discussion of the text's use of rhyme, strophes, similes, metaphors, and homiletic dramatic scenes, narratives, and parables.]
—The Qur'an, … presents itself in the form of surahs divided into verses. The questions arise whether the surahs are unities, and, if so, whether they show any organic structure; or, if they are not unities, whether we can discern how they have been built up. In approaching these questions, if we follow the method of starting from externals, it will be well to be clear as to the nature of the rhyme which marks the close of verses.
There is no attempt in the Qur'an to produce the strict rhyme of poetry. In an Arabic poem each verse had to end in the same rhyme-consonant surrounded by the same vowels—an interchange of i and u was allowed, though considered a weakness. Short inflectional vowels following the rhyme-consonant were usually retained, and, if retained, were pronounced long at the end of the line. Only in very exceptional cases is it possible to find this type of rhyme in the Qur'an. What we find is, rather,...
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SOURCE: J. M. S. Baljon, "Theological Issues," in Modern Muslim Koran Interpretation (1880-1960), E. J. Brill, 1961, pp. 55-87.
[In the following essay, Baljon surveys the theological issues dealt with in the Koran from the standpoint of mid-nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Koran interpreters and commentators.]
The Idea of God
When [Abu'l-Kalam] Azad in the letters, written during his imprisonment in fort Ahmadnagar, reveals his innermost thought on life, he confesses at a given moment to be not very pleased with the notion of a Personal God. Owing to this conception, "at every turn a hood of one or another expression has to be put on the face (of the Godhead). Now it is a gloomy one, then an affable one, here it frightens, there it attracts, but never can the hood be taken off the face. Hence in the end one becomes tired of seeing only the outside"1. Apart from the manifestly mystic trend emerging from this feeling of discomfort in regard to a personalistic conception of God, it is an utterance symptomatic for modernist leanings to a depersonalized Deity, a 'Natura naturans'. Such writers do not shrink from defining All h as 'The Real'2, 'Absolute Reality'3, 'The Ideal' (nasb al-'ain)4 or 'Ultimate Reality', qualified as "pure duration in which thought, life and purpose interpenetrate to form...
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SOURCE: J. J. G. Jansen, "Introduction: The Koran and Its Interpretation" and "Mohammad Abduh's Koran Interpretation," in The Interpretation of the Koran in Modern Egypt, E. J. Brill, 1974, pp. 1-34.
[In the following excerpt, Jansen discusses the history of the Koran's composition, the different viewpoints from which it has been interpreted, and issues surrounding its translation.]
The Koran and its Interpretation
Many sayings have been attributed to Mohammed, the Prophet of Islam. After his death these sayings have been included in the famous collections of Traditions on the life of Mohammed and his contemporaries. One of the most important of these collections, the so-called Al-Gâmi' as-Sahîh of Al-Bukhârî, contains several thousands.1 Already in the days of Mohammed these ordinary sayings were apparently discernible from certain other utterances of Mohammed, utterances that were thought to be divine: not originating from Mohammed himself, but given to him by God, in dreams, in visions, by means of the Angel Gabriel, in states of religious extasy and otherwise. These supposedly divine utterances were later on to be collected in the Koran.2
The Koran is the very word of God, as all Moslems have believed throughout the ages. Taken literally, this proposition has implications that become...
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SOURCE: Thomas Cleary, in an introduction to The Essential Koran: The Heart of Islam, Harper, San Francisco, 1993, pp. vii-xvii.
[In this introduction to selected, translated readings from the Koran, Cleary discusses the beliefs of Muslims about their holy book. He focuses particularly on the relationship between faith and reason and surveys Muhammad's role in the compilation of the book.]
The Qur'an is universally known as the sacred book of Islam, the religion of submission to the will of God.…
The Qur'an is undeniably a book of great importance even to the non-Muslim, perhaps more today than ever, if that is possible. One aspect of Islam that is unexpected and yet appealing to the post-Christian secular mind is the harmonious interplay of faith and reason. Islam does not demand unreasoned belief. Rather, it invites intelligent faith, growing from observation, reflection, and contemplation, beginning with nature and what is all around us. Accordingly, antagonism between religion and science such as that familiar to Westerners is foreign to Islam.
This connection between faith and reason enabled Islamic civilization to absorb and vivify useful knowledge, including that of ancient peoples, whereby it eventually nursed Europe out of the Dark Ages, laying the foundation for the Renaissance. When Europe got on its cultural feet and expelled...
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SOURCE: Sachiko Murata and William C. Chittick, "Introduction," in The Vision of Islam, Paragon House, 1994, pp. xiv-xxiv.
[In the following excerpt, Murata and Chittick examine issues relating to the divine nature of the Koran and the language in which it is written. They also provide a detailed summary of Muhammad's life as it relates to the revelation of the Koran.]
To talk about Islam we need to define some terms. Islam is an Arabic word that means "submission to God's will." More specifically, it designates the religion established by the Koran and the Prophet Mohammed. A Muslim is one who has submitted to God's will, or one who follows the religion of Islam. The Koran is a book that God revealed to Mohammed by means of the angel Gabriel. This is the basic story in its most simplified outline. Now we need to fill in some details.
Islam today is the religion of about one billion people. It is far from correct to think that all Muslims are familiar with the story of how their religion became established. History as such has never held much interest for most Muslims. What is important about historical events is simply that God works through them. The significant events of the past are those that have a direct impact on people's present situation and their situation in the next world. From this point of view,...
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Adams, Charles C. Islam and Modernism in Egypt: A Study of the Modern Reform Movement Inaugurated by Muhammad 'Abduh. New York: Russell & Russell, 1933, 283 p.
Several sections of this book offer a detailed analysis of the modernist Abudh's beliefs and the Koranic basis for his reform efforts.
Gatje, Helmut. The Qur'an and its Exegesis: Selected Texts with Classical and Modern Muslim Interpretations, edited by Alfred T. Welch, University of California Press, 1976.
Traces the history of the compilation and Muslim interpretation of the Koran through a selection of essays.
Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age: 1798-1939. London: Oxford University Press, 1962, 403 p.
This volume offers several chapters focusing on Islam and such modernists as Muhammad 'Abduh and Rashîd Ridâ.
Lippman, Thomas W. "The Koran." In Understanding Islam: An Introduction to the Muslim World. Meridian, 1982, pp. 56-69.
Explains the nature of the Koran as God's divine revelation to Muhammad and emphasizes its difference from the Bible.
Pickthall, Marmaduke. An Introduction to The Meaning of the Glorious Koran: An Explanatory Translation, pp. 1-19. London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1930.
The introduction to this translation discusses Muhammad's life in...
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