Islam 101- What Is The Qur'an?
Islam is a misunderstood and often vilified religion here in the west. One of the most common ways of attacking the religion is by taking quotes from the Qur'an, the primary source of religious knowledge for Muslims, and trying to prove from a single verse that the entire religion is violent or hateful. Unfortunately, when a person who wants to attack Islam pulls a random verse from the Qur'an as "proof," they do not take into account the context that the verse was given in, or the verses that come before and after it. Thus, they are often successful in making a benign verse seem barbaric and terrifying.
So what exactly is the Qur'an? Who wrote it? What does it teach? These are very common questions and I will attempt to give a brief overview of the Qur'an with the hope of being able to delve into further details at a later date...watch for those articles.
The word Qur'an is an Arabic word that means "recitation" or "something to be recited." It is only in its pure form if it is in the Arabic language, any other language is only a translation of the meaning of the Qur'an, but not Qur'an itself. There is only one version of the Qur'an in the world, every single Qur'an from Indonesia to Saudi Arabia to the United States is exactly the same in the Arabic text, however, different word choices may have been used in the translation of that text. This is very different than the Bible which has the King James version, the Catholic version which include the Apocrypha, the Revised Standard Version which deletes such important verses as John 3:16 because it is an interpolation that was added hundreds of years after the Bible was written, and so on. The Qur'an has never had a single letter of the original Arabic changed, so it is still in its pure form, the only religious text in the world that can honestly make that claim.
The prophet Muhammad (PBUH) began to receive the revelations of the Qur'an when he was 40 years old. Muslims believe that the Qur'an is the literal word of God, as taught to the prophet Muhammad (PBUH) by the angel Gabriel, the angel of revelation. Muslims do not believe that it was written by a man, it is the actual word of God spoken directly to the prophet via Gabriel. Muhammad (PBUH) was an illiterate man who was not known for poetry or for having read any other religious scriptures. He was, however, well known for his honesty and truthfulness even before the first revelation was ever received, and was nicknamed "al-Amin" or "The Trustworthy." He was always very religious and concerned about the Paganism that ruled Arabia in his time.
During the month of Ramadan in the year 610 CE, Muhammad (PBUH) had retreated to a cave outside of Mecca for meditation and prayer. It was here that the angel Gabriel first descended from Heaven and delivered the first Qur'anic verses, "Recite! In the name of your Lord who has created (all that exists)." The prophet later said that it felt as though he were being squeezed very hard so that he could hardly breathe. The word "Iqra" in Arabic can mean either "read" or "recite." Muhammad (PBUH) replied to the angel that he could not read. The angel squeezed him harder and told him "Iqra!" and the first lines of Qur'an issued forth from the mouth of Muhammad (PBUH).
The Qur'an was revealed over a period of 23 years before it was completed. To fully understand the Qur'an it is important to know Islamic history since many of the verses were given in respect to various situations that the Muslims were faced with at a particular time. For instance, one of the most often maliciously misquoted verses in the west is from Surat at-Tauba, Ch. 9:10 which says, "Then when the sacred months have passed, then kill the non-Muslims wherever you find them, and capture them and besiege them, and lie in wait for them in each and every ambush. But if they repent and perform the prayer and pay charity, then leave their way free. Verily, Allah is Oft Forgiving, Most Merciful."
If you only read this one verse without taking the context of it, you will think Islam is a barbaric religion which commands Muslims to fight non-Muslims at all times. But, if you go back to the beginning of the chapter to verse 1, you will see that Allah is talking about fighting the Meccans who unilaterally broke the peace treaty that was in place with the Muslims. Therefore, because they broke the peace treaty, they will be given four months to travel the land freely and then they should expect that there will be a war with the Muslims. The next verse is amazing, it continues to say, "And if any of the non-Muslims seek your protection, then grant him protection so that he may hear the Word of Allah, and then escort him to where he can be secure."
The verse is speaking about war, and a specific war at that. I believe that the most generous military general in the world today might say that if an enemy soldier in the battle field wants to surrender then let him go, but can you imagine any general today that would actually escort the enemy to safety? That is very noble indeed. So, I think you can see by this example how easy it is for someone, who is looking for something to support their negative assumptions, to misquote or quote out of context to prove their point. And surely this is true for any religious text, and possibly any text at all.
The Qur'an is different than the Bible or Torah when you read it. Rather than being written in the third person narrative, it is all the literal word of God being revealed directly to the reader. When you read the Qur'an it feels as though God is speaking directly to you, it is extremely powerful. It is broken up into "Suras" which is roughly "chapter," and "Ayas" which is roughly verse. The word Aya in Arabic actually means "sign", so the Qur'an is a book of signs for mankind.
Another major difference between the Qur'an and any other book is that it is not arranged in chronological order. Rather, it is basically arranged with the longer verses in the beginning and the shorter verses in the end, and this is not the order that they were revealed. Each year in Ramadan the angel Gabriel would have the prophet recite what had been revealed of the Qur'an so far. The year the prophet died Gabriel had the prophet recite the entire Qur'an twice and in the order that we find it today.
The society of Pre-Islamic Arabia was an oral one, poetry was to those people what television and movies are to the west today. A kingdom could be toppled by a verse, a leader overthrown. We see our media today is capable of the same things, we have in very recent times seen war proclaimed due to false statements made by influential (presidential) people to the media. Poetry had the same effect for the Arabs that the media has for us today. Thus, the Arabs were trained from early childhood to have great memorization skills, memorizing the tribal histories, poetry and folklore. It was easy for the early Muslims to memorize the entire Qur'an as it was revealed. To this day there are millions of Muslims around the world that have memorized the entire book, most of whom completed memorizing it by about age 10.
The Qur'an was written down as it was revealed by several of the companions of the prophet. They would write on whatever they could find, sometimes it was on stones and other times on pieces of leather. It was not collaborated into a book form until immediately after the prophet passed away. Then the first caliph, Abu Bakr, ordered all of the parchments to be collected and had a committee, headed by Zaid ibn Thatbit, read through all of the parchments with those who had memorized the Qur'an until they were satisfied that they had not missed any verses or written them down wrong. Then, the committee wrote down the Qur'an in one book.
The Arabs of that time were experts in poetry; they knew every type of prose and rhythm. The Qur'an was unlike any poem they had ever heard before, that is because it is not poetry, it is the word of God. The way that Ayas were put together and the vocabulary and rhythms used were something shocking to those Arabs; they were professionals in language and yet this book was far superior to anything a human had ever written. And, it was rhythmical and rhyming. To this day the Qur'an is used as the standard for grammar and linguistics; it is far above anything that has ever been written before or since. In fact, the Qur'an challenges any of those professional poets to create even one verse similar to the Qur'an, and in that they will be able to prove that it is not from God. But, though many tried, all were extremely unsuccessful. The Qur'an stands alone as an example of literary perfection.
The Qur'an is very explicit when it comes to describing Heaven and Hell. It often reminds the reader to remember God, do righteous good deeds and forbid evil, so that they may be recompensed in the next life. It calls for people to lead lives of high morality, to not steal, drink alcohol, have sex outside of marriage, murder, cheat, lie, oppress others or worship anything besides God. It calls for man to love for his brother the same that he loves for himself. It calls man to worship God and to think of God in each and every act, from eating to sleeping and from travel to work, you should always be thinking of God. It tells mankind, over and over, to enjoin what is good and forbid what is evil.
The Qur'an is a book of guidance for all of mankind. It is a complete manual for the life of a human being. It covers everything including politics, society, family life, warfare, welfare, commerce, worship, hygiene and much more. It also has many scientific miracles in it that are just being realized today, such as detailed embryology, the water cycle, geology, anthropology and much more. I will be doing a series of articles in the future on science and the Qur'an, God willing, please watch for those articles.
So, the Qur'an is often misunderstood and misquoted. I recommend that if you are seeking the truth of the life of this world and the hereafter, that you read the Qur'an. You can receive a free copy of the Qur'an from AMANA and many other organizations. You are always welcome in any mosque, so please visit and ask questions. You owe it to yourself and your family to read this book; it will change your life.
Peace be on you and yours.