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The Qu'ran: The Scripture of Islam


1. The Nature and Form of the Qur'an.

The Qur'an is almost the length of the New Testament but its structure and form is very different to it. It consists of the revelations allegedly made to Muhammad in which God is himself at all times the speaker. We can only briefly introduce the book in these pages but will give some insight into its character and form.

The Qur'an has 114 surahs, or chapters, of varying length and there is no chronological sequence of these chapters in the book. The order of the surahs, excepting the Suratul-Fatihah which we will shortly outline in some detail, is generally from longest to shortest. Paradoxically most of the earlier surahs are at the end of the book and the later surahs at the beginning. Each has a title, usually taken from a word or name either at the beginning of the surah or somewhere in its text. Some introduce the major themes of the surah, e.g. Suratu-Yusuf (Surah 12) which deals solely with the story of Joseph, and Suratu-Maryam (Surah 19) which devotes much of its content to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Every surah but one (Surah 9) begins with the heading Bismillahir-Rahmanir-Rahim, meaning "In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful". These words are not only found repeatedly in the Qur'an but are a form of grace, are found as titles on letterheads, are engraved on buildings, and are commonly recited by Muslims in various situations. The expression is generally referred to in Muslim parlance as "The Bismillah".

The Shahadah is the other famous testimony and creed of Islam which we will consider in a later chapter. Each surah is broken up into brief sections known as ruku'ah as Muslims deem it commendable to make a bow in reverence, a ruku, at the end of the recitation of each of these sections. They are designated in the Qur'an by the Arabic letter 'ain in the margin and are accompanied by the section number and number of verses in each case.

A non-Muslim who ventures to quote, for example, "the fortieth chapter of the Qur'an" might be surprised to be told that there are only thirty chapters in the Qur'an. This is because the book is also broken up into thirty sections of roughly equal length, each of which is known as a juz (or, in Persian, a siparah). There is a specific reason for this.

The division of each juz is not as obvious as that of each surah where the title of the surah is inserted in the text, often in distinctive script or decoration. In older, hand-written manuscripts of the Qur'an each juz is often identified by a special medallion alongside the text.

At the head of some of the surahs, just after the Bismillah, are a few Arabic letters not forming a word. The purpose and significance of these letters, notwithstanding a host of suggestions, is unknown. At least six surahs begin with the letters alif, lam, mim.

The very word al-Qur'an means "the Recitation", and Muslims believe that the actual ritual of regularly reciting its text in the original Arabic merits much favour with Allah. There is no merit in reciting a translation. Muslims prize their book in its original Arabic tongue and no true Muslim will refer to anything other than the Arabic text as the Qur'an itself. The Qur'an openly calls its adherents to recite its verses: wa ratiliil qur'aana tartiilaa - "and recite the Qur'an in slow, measured rhythmic tones" (Surah 73.4).

The recitation of the Qur'an, known as tilawah, is so seriously regarded that many Muslims go to great lengths to learn the correct pronunciation of the words, a pursuit now developed into a science known as 'ilmul-tajwid, the "knowledge of pronunciation" It seems even Muhammad himself was concerned to be scrupulous in this matter:

Before a recitation of the Qur'an a Muslim will recite the words a'uuthu billaahi minash-shaytaanir rajiim which mean "I take refuge in Allah from Satan the stoned". These words are taken almost directly from a verse in the Qur'an which encourages such action:

The word ar-rajim properly means "the stoned" as it is the description the Qur'an gives to the devil as a result of Abraham's supposed act of throwing atones at him when he sought to prevent Abraham sacrificing his son. The event is commemorated in a ceremony in the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca of which more will be said in a later chapter.

A Muslim who learns the Qur'an by heart is called a hafiz (a "guardian" of the text) and professional reciters of the book are known simply as qurra ("reciters"). There are numerous hadith commending the recitation of the Qur'an, too many to be recorded here, but they serve to show how important this practice is in Islam.

2. The Qur'an's Description of Itself.

The Qur'an has much to say about itself and a brief study of some of the verses relating to it will assist us to understand the conception Muhammad had of the book he believed was being revealed to him. Firstly it is taught that the original Qur'an is preserved on a tablet in heaven and that the text in use today is a copy of it:

Secondly it is believed by Muslims that the text was brought down by Gabriel one night (during the month of Ramadan just before Muhammad's call) to the first heaven from which the angel revealed its contents piecemeal to Muhammad, as occasion required, over the remaining twenty-three years of his life. This belief arises from Qur'anic verses alluding to the revelation:

The Qur'an also emphasises its claim that God is its author and preserver. In one place it is said Ar-Rahmaanu-allamal-qur'aan - "The Compassionate has taught the Qur'an" (Surah 55. 1-2), and elsewhere the Qur'an vindicates itself again in these words:

These regular occasions in the Qur'an, where the book seeks to defend its divine origin, stand in striking contrast to the text of the Bible where God's Word is simply set forth as "Thus says the Lord" without any justification of the book or its declarations being deemed necessary. Other texts of this nature in the Qur'an are these:

In two of the verses already quoted we find the Qur'an described with an adjective, something so common in the book, that it has led to the compilation of the "Names of the Qur'an", which also include other titles given to it. In Surah 85.21 the title is Qur'aanum-Majiid, "a Glorious Qur'an", and in Surah 56.77 it is Qur'aanun-Kariim, "a Qur'an most honourable". In Surah 36.2 it is al-Qur'aanil-Hakiim, "the Qur'an full of wisdom". One finds today in most printed Qur'ans a title page with the words al-Qur'anul-Majid, "the Exalted Qur'an", or al-Qur'anul-Hakim, "the Wise Qur'an", etc. One such Qur'an is entitled "Qur'an Karim ws Furqan Adhim" (the Glorious Qur'an, the Exalted Criterion). In a glossary Kenneth Cragg explains the Qur'anic title al-Furqan (Surah 25.1):

Furqan. One of the names of the Qur'an, as the criterion or that by which truth is distinguished from falsehood and right vindicated against wrong. (Cragg", The Event of the Qur'an, p. 189).

A striking anomaly is the absence of the title "The Holy Qur'an" not only from the book itself, but from compilations of its names, especially as this is the most common title used for the Qur'an in English by Muslims today. One writer seeks to explain away the anomaly in these words:

As the Qur'an clearly delights in describing itself with whatever titles it considers appropriate, this is a strange line of reasoning to justify the omission of the title "Holy Qur'an". Or are the wisdom, exaltation and glory of the book not so obviously "deeply implied" that they need to be pointed out to the reader? A Western writer is certainly far more to the point in this matter when he says:

One cannot help feeling that there is much significance in the omission of this title in the Qur'an. The book has many virtues indeed, but one of its obvious deficiencies, in comparison with the Bible, is its attitude to holiness. The book nowhere approaches the realms of holiness and righteousness which are the foundation of the doctrine of God in the Bible, the "holy God who shows himself holy in righteousness" (Isaiah 5.16), and the corresponding denial of any potential for true holiness in man as he is by nature until made regenerate by the Holy Spirit.

3. Important Surahs of the Qur'an.

The most important Surah of the Qur'an is the first one, the Suratul-Fatihah, the "Opening Chapter". It is quite unique because it is the only place in the book where the words are solely those of worshippers addressing God, or, as it has been put, it is "the only place where the Qur'an 'prays "' (Cragg", The Mind of the Qur'an, p. 83). A Muslim scholar, Abdul Jabir, comments in a very similar vein on the character of the Surah: "God has enunciated this chapter in the language of his servants, in order that they might thus address him" (quoted in Wherry, A Comprehensive Commentary on the Qur'an, Vol. 1, p. 288). The Surah reads:

Muhammad himself regarded this Surah as the foremost of all the revelations he claimed to have received, saying "There has been revealed to me tonight a surah which is dearer to me than all the things of the world" (Muwatta Imam Malik, p. 97). He thereafter recited "the Fatihah" as it is now commonly called. On a later occasion he said to a companion:

This surah is recited during every one of the prescribed times of prayer and is regarded as the most important part of the worship ritual: "The principal part of the service is the recitation of the opening chapter of the Quran, called the Fatiha" (Zafrulla Khan, Islam: Its Meaning for Modern Man, p. 104). Muhammad is reported to have said:

On another occasion he declared that, at the end of the recitation of this surah by the Imam, the worshipper should conclude by saying Amin, the Arabic equivalent of our "Amen". Muhammad claimed that all the angels say the amin at the end of the surah and that every Muslim who also recites the amin and duly coincides with them will have his sins forgiven (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 1, p. 416). Much the same was taught in the Christian Church in those times as well in respect of the Lord's Prayer. So attached has the amin become to the surah that a number of even the best Qur'anic manuscripts of earlier centuries include it as part of the actual text.

The surah contains the first three of the ninety-nine names of Allah, the "Most Excellent Names" (al-asma'ul-husna) being ar-Rahman, "the Compassionate", ar-Rahim, "the Merciful", and al-Malik, "the Sovereign". It also contains a common title for the whole religion of Islam, as-Siratal- Mustaqim, "the straight path". Another verse from the Qur'an that has relevance here is:

Muhammad stated that this verse referred to the Fatihah and that the "seven oft-repeated" (saba'ul-mathani) were the seven verses of the surah and that "the Grand Qur'an" here (al-Qur'anal-Adhim) was also a title for the surah (Muwatta Imam Malik, p. 37). Another title for the surah is Ummul-Qur'an, the "Mother of the Qur'an". Its importance to Islam can hardly be over-emphasised.

The next most important surah is found just before the end of the Qur'an and is entitled the Suratul-Ikhlas, the "Chapter of Purity", which has a heavy monotheistic emphasis and contains two further titles of Allah, as-Samad, "the Eternal", and al-Ahad, "the One". It reads:

It is reported that Muhammad said "By Him in Whose hand my life is, this Surah is equal to one-third of the Qur'an" (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, p. 494). Not only is this chapter also held in great esteem but it has important implications for Christian contact with Muslims:

Abu Hurayrah once reported "I went with the Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) and he heard a man reciting Surah Ikhlas and said: He is assured. I asked, Of what, Apostle of Allah? He answered: Of Paradise" (Muwatta Imam Malik. p. 99). Little more need be said to show how important this surah too is to the Muslims.

The only surah of length that holds an almost equal importance for the Muslims is the 36th Surah named Suratu-Ya-Sin after the two letters ya and sin, appearing as typical unexplained letters heading the surah. This surah is found in Muslim prayer-books, very often as a separate booklet, and its recitation is highly esteemed. Tirmithi, one of the great collectors of Hadith, records that Muhammad said: "There is certainly a heart for everything and the heart of the Qur'an is Ya Sin. Whoso reads Ya Sin, Allah writes for him in exchange of its reading the rewards of the reading of the whole Qur'an ten times" (Karim's Mishkat-al-Masabih, Vol. 4, p. 684).

Finally the last two verses of the second surah, the Suratul-Baqarah ("Chapter of the Heifer"), are also held in great esteem. It was narrated by Abu Masud that Muhammad said "If somebody recited the last two verses of Suratul Baqarah at night, that will be sufficient for him" (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, p. 491). These verses contain a declaration of the Islamic faith together with an exhortation to pray for forgiveness and relief from the burden of sin, promising that "on no soul cloth God place a burden greater than it can bear" (Surah 2.286), reminiscent of the words of Jesus in Revelation 2.24.

4. Muslim Reverence for the Qur'an.

One cannot but admire the wonderful reverence shown by the Muslims towards their holy book. It is quite true to say that they hold it in awe. Old hand-written Qur'ans are masterpieces of calligraphy and decoration. The Fatihah and, usually, the first few verses of the Suratul-Baqarah, are enclosed within a finely decorated frontispiece in each Qur'an while surah headings are usually also finely decorated.

No Muslim will place or read a Qur'an on the ground. Neat hand-wrought Qur'an stands are kept in mosques and often at homes for this purpose. In each home the Qur'an should obtain the highest place and it is therefore placed on a stand above all the other features in the home, carefully wrapped in a covering. Every Muslim should perform an ablution before touching it and should kiss it once it is opened. In Surah 56.79 quoted earlier in this section the Qur'an is described as that "which none shall touch but those who are clean" and a hadith says:

A word should be said about the diction of the Qur'an in closing. Its uneven rhyme, striking character, and forceful language almost mesmerise its readers when a qira'ah takes place (a cantation of the Qur'an, in a chant, as opposed to the normal tajwid, that is, correct recitation).

A Muslim writer says: "The fact is that the harmonious intermingling of sound, sense and force of the language of the Qur'an is beyond human prowess" (Sarwar, Muhammad: the Holy Prophet, p. 390). Even Christian writers have been constrained to comment on its style and one writer says:

Nonetheless the argument that the Qur'an is inimitable in its style, content and rhyme, is purely subjective in that it depends largely on the preconceived attitudes of its readers, just as it is said "beauty is in the eye of the beholder", and is limited to the Arabic language alone. Another Christian writer brings the fancies of the Muslims to the ground with a sound observation:

The challenge to "bring ten surahs like it" is, in our view, principally fictitious because the languages of the world are so diversified and varied and because no one can act as absolute judge of the relative merits of different poetical or literary works. Certainly those who are hardly educated in the great classics of literature throughout the ages can hardly make dogmatic assumptions about their holy book with any degree of sincere conviction. In the same way we can just as easily say that any ten chapters of the Biblical writings or Psalms are the equal of the Qur'an, if not superior to it - and who is to judge between us?

Muhammad and The Religion of Islam: Table of Contents

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