The Koran Essay - Critical Essays

The Koran


The Koran

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.

Textual History

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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

(The entire section is 63 words.)


George Sale (essay date 1734)

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...

(The entire section is 6456 words.)

Richard Bell (lecture date 1925)

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...

(The entire section is 9292 words.)

Arthur Jeffery (essay date 1937)

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...

(The entire section is 4430 words.)

Carl Brockelmann (essay date 1939)

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 almsgivingwhich 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...

(The entire section is 3869 words.)

H. A. R. Gibb (essay date 1945)

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...

(The entire section is 7776 words.)

Richard Bell (essay date 1953)

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...

(The entire section is 5663 words.)

J. M. S. Baljon (essay date 1961)

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...

(The entire section is 10925 words.)

J. J. G. Jansen (essay date 1974)

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....

(The entire section is 13714 words.)

Thomas Cleary (essay date 1993)

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....

(The entire section is 3864 words.)

Sachiko Murata and William C. Chittick (essay date 1994)

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 entire section is 5676 words.)

Further Reading

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...

(The entire section is 299 words.)