The Koran Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.