Understanding the Quran: Some Lecture Notes
In previous lectures, we explored the life of Muhammad and the early Muslim community after his death. We saw how the ideas and ideals of the early Muslim community were shaped by their belief in Muhammad as the Messenger of God. As the bearer of divine revelation, Muhammad’s example quickly became normative for the fledgling community, to the extent that his recorded sayings ultimately became one of the most significant sources of Islamic thought and law.
It is perhaps axiomatic that a messenger should have a message. Or, to put it another way, what message did Muhammad deliver to his contemporaries? In other words, what was the nature of the revelation which Muhammad sought to share?
As is perhaps widely known, the central scripture of Islam is the Quran. The purpose of this lecture is to explore the Quran. In particular, we will explore its nature, role and significance, before looking briefly at the historical development of the text. We will conclude today’s lecture by looking at some of the key Quranic themes. In other words, because the Quran is quite correctly seen as the centre of Islamic religious life, it is important to understand some of its principal concepts.
As you have no doubt come to expect by now, this lecture will also explore the module’s three key themes. That is, we will look at identity, authority and law. In the context of today’s lecture, we will touch upon the following issues:
The Quran has a lot to say on issues surrounding identity, such as community organisation and social conduct. Thus, in the final section of the lecture, we will look more closely at this question.
As will become clear, the Quran holds an unrivalled authority within the Islamic tradition. Moreover, as we hinted at last week, the issue of who has the authority to interpret the Quran is a question of fundamental importance. Scriptural and exegetical authority will therefore be an important theme
The Quran’s authority extends into law. That is, the Quran is the basis of Islamic Law (Shariah). Although we will explore this in detail in Lecture Seven, we will look briefly at some of the bases of this authority today.
Lecture Plan & Scope
Given the importance of the Quran, and its very size (containing some 6,000 odd verses), it is important to realise that there is a limit to what we can and hence cannot, realistically hope to achieve in one lecture session. This lecture will therefore attempt to look at a number of distinct topics, which, it is hoped, will offer a representative introduction to the study of the Quran. These can be summarised in the following manner:
Definitions: What is the Quran?
What significance does the Quran have and what role does it play?
How has the Quran reached its present form?
Key Features of the Quran
What are the key religious concepts of the Quran?
What is the Quran? Definitions
In beginning our exploration, it is important that we clearly understand what we are trying to study. Thus, it is worth pausing for a moment to define clearly what we mean by the Quran.
Although there are many definitions, from both inside and outside the Islamic tradition, for our purposes here, that provided by John Esposito forms a useful starting point. He defines the Quran in the following manner:
In looking more closely at this definition, several points become clear. Firstly, Muslims consider the Quran to have had a divine origin: that is, it is universally held by Muslims to be a direct revelation from God (Allah in Arabic). Secondly, the Quran is seen as the actual Word of God in a very literal sense. The Quran thus describes itself in Arabic as Kalam Allah, or ‘the Speech of God’. Therefore, when quoting from the Quran, a Muslim will say that ‘God says’ thus and so. The Quran as God’s speech is thus a key concept and one which underpins the entire Islamic tradition.
‘For Muslims, the Quran is the Book of God. It is the
eternal, uncreated, literal word of God sent down from heaven, revealed one
final time to the Prophet Muhammad as a guide for humankind’.
As God’s supposed Speech, the Quran is intimately and inextricably linked to the Arabic language. Although there are many translations of the Quran into other languages, they are not held to be the Quran itself. This is for two distinct reasons. Firstly, according to the Islamic tradition, God chose to reveal His last message in Arabic; hence, it is untranslatable. Secondly, translations do not capture the fine shades of meaning and nuance conveyed by the Arabic original. The Quran itself refers to its revelation in Arabic: ‘Indeed, We have sent it down as an Arabic Quran that you might understand’.
Meanings & Descriptions
The lexical meaning of the word qur’an is ‘reading’. It thus came to signify ‘the text which is read’. In other words, Quran comes fairly close to the meaning ‘Scripture’. However, the root word can also mean ‘recitation’, or ‘reading aloud’ you might say. Furthermore, the verb from which qur’an is derived (qara’a) also carries connotations of public proclamation. As such, the qur’an also means ‘the text which is recited’, with the implicit assumption that it be announced. It is interesting, in this light, to realise that the word Iqra (the imperative form of the verb), or Read, is held by Muslims to be the first word of the Quran to be revealed. This dual written and recited character is important. Indeed, it lies behind the recitation of the Quran during ritual prayer and so on.
As a document, however, the Quran is made up of 114 surahs (or chapters), which consist of some 6,000 odd verses. The verses are known as ayat (ayah sing.), which literally means ‘sign’. The Islamic tradition holds that these verses were revealed to Muhammad in piecemeal fashion over a period of some 23 years (from his 40th year to shortly before his death).
Despite its revelation over time, the Quranic text is not arranged chronologically. In other words, the first passages are not found at the beginning and the Quran is not concluded with the last passages to emerge. This can appear quite awkward at first. However, it is important that we understand the Quran (and indeed any religious scripture) on its own terms.
Generally speaking, the Quran is arranged in terms of chapter size. Thus, the longer chapters are generally found at the beginning and the shorter passages are generally found at the end. Moreover, the longer chapters tend to be later and the shorter passages tend to be earlier (according to the traditional Muslim understanding). The second chapter, Surat al-Baqarah, is the longest in the entire Quran (containing some 286 verses) and was one of the last to be revealed. However, this is not always the case and should not be seen as a hard and fast rule.
The Significance of the Quran
Having discussed briefly what the Quran is, the next question we need to ask is: what significance does it have? We will attempt to answer that question briefly here.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the Quran within the Islamic tradition. As divine revelation, representing God’s speech, its every word is considered both infallible and miraculous. The linguistic and literary style of the Quran is believed to be without compare and is held to miraculous in its own right. These beliefs mean that the Quran occupies a unique position. It forms the basis of the entire religious system of Islam. In order to be accepted as authentic, religious concepts and values must be seen as firmly rooted in the Quran, whilst Quranic ethical, moral and spiritual concepts form the bedrock of the Muslim outlook on life.
As we will see in more detail in Lecture Seven, the Quran holds unprecedented authority within the sphere of Islamic Law. Although the interpretation of legal verses (ayat al-ahkam) is an important area of debate, the Quran’s theoretical primacy in the field of law is unchallenged.
What role does the Quran play?
How do Muslims manifest the significance of the Quran? In other words, what role does the Quran play within Muslim religious life generally? Or, put it another way, what do Muslims do with the Quran?
Although Muslims use the Quran in a wide variety of ways, and more than we can easily summarise here, there are a number of key uses which we will explore briefly:
· The Ritual Prayer
The Quran has a fundamental role in the five daily prayers (Salat). The Opening Chapter and another passage are recited during each prayer.
· Dhikr ‘Remembrance of God’
Although we have not really touched on this theme during the course of this module, spirituality is an important theme in Islam. Dhikr, which literally means ‘to remember’ (and is related to the Hebrew term Zakhor), refers to a range of devotional prayers and practices, often at certain times of the day. Quranic passages are heavily used in Dhikr.
The recitation of the Quran is another important Islamic practice. It is common to hear Muslims reciting the Quran in mosques and there are worldwide recitation competitions. It might be worth spending a few moments to listen to some recitation now.
We looked very briefly at calligraphy in Lecture One. Calligraphy is most often used to beautify and decorate passages of the Quran. It is thus common to see Quranic calligraphy in mosques and Muslim homes.
Certain passages of the Quran are widely believed to offer protection from evil. These can be recited at times of need. You will also see such passages displayed in Muslim homes. Verse 255 of Surat al-Baqarah (known as the ‘Verse of the Throne’) is perhaps the most famous of these. We will look at this verse later on in today’s lecture.
The Historical Development of the Quranic Text
Traditional Muslim View
• Quran revealed to Muhammad over 23 years
• Companions memorise and record revelations under his guidance
• Yearly revision of entire text in Ramadan under angelic supervision
• Passages collected after Muhammad’s death
• A single authorised version produced under ‘Uthman (3rd Caliph), 20 years later
• Text unchanged since then
• Textual modification prohibited
A Critical Account
• ‘Revisionist’ School (including Crone and Cook)
• John Wansbrough
• The Quran, as we have it today, product of sectarian debate
• Finalised 200 years after Muhammad
• Physical remains thus represent partisan use of proto-Quranic passages
• Controversial argument, and not without weaknesses
• F. M. Donner (1998), Narratives of Islamic Origins (in the library)
• Criticises Wansbrough’s argument
• If ‘sectarian’ theory correct, why no trace of shift
• Or, why is this not recorded by Muslim sources?
• Quranic themes and polemic better suited to earlier period
• Deals with ‘early’ issues
• Rather than known later ones
• See also, N. Robinson Discovering the Quran
It is interesting to look briefly at the physical remains of early Qurans. Many early manuscripts are known, some claiming to be copies of the Uthmanic codex itself. Let’s look at some of them briefly now.
Quranic Discourse & Style: Key Features
Having examined some of the key meanings of the Quran, we need to understand what could be called ‘the Quranic mindset’. That is, in trying to understand the Quran as religious scripture we need to understand its peculiar worldview. In this section, we will explore some of the main themes and stylistic concerns of the Quranic text.
Narrative in the Quran
The Quran contains many narratives on a wide range of topics (Qissa or Qisas, plural). These stories, which serve a number of purposes, are often introduced by the Narrator (or God, according to Islam). We thus find the following example: ‘Has the story of Musa [Moses] reached you?’ Or, again: ‘Have you not considered [O Muhammad], how your Lord dealt with the Companions of the Elephant?’ Perhaps the most famous example introduces the story of Yusuf (Joseph):
'We do relate to you [O Muhammad] the most beautiful of stories, in that We reveal to you this [portion of the] Quran'.
Broadly speaking, we can divide these narratives into three main kinds:
There are many references to the stories of past prophets in the Quran. Such narratives serve a number of purposes, the most important being (according to the tradition) to give Muhammad and his followers a sense of continuity. That is, the struggles of former prophets help remind the early community that such persecution has been inflicted and overcome in the past. For examples, see: Surah 26 (Nuh/Noah); Surah 28 (Musa/Moses); Surah 19 (`Isa/Jesus)
Past People & Events
A number of narratives deal with significant events and personages. Thus, for example, Surah 18 refers to the ‘Sleepers in the Cave’, as well as to the mysterious Dhu’l-Qarnain (widely believed to be Alexander the Great). As before, these narratives, aim to set the Muslim community within the context of Divine history.
Events in Muhammad’s Life
References to events in Muhammad’s own life occur. Thus the battle of Badr is said to be the reference in 3:13, as 3:121-128 is said to refer to Uhud. The first verse of Surah 17 is said to refer to Muhammad’s Night Journey to Jerusalem. Such narratives often attempt to explain the significance of the event, within the Quran’s wider conceptual framework.
Simile in the Quran
Simile is also a stylistic feature of the Quran. Simile (amthal in Arabic) is used in a variety of ways, though one of the main purposes seems to be to explain particular truths, or to otherwise drive home important points. Many examples of this device are available, such as 16:75-76. However, the following example if particularly illustrative:
‘He sends down from the sky, rain, and valleys low according to their
capacity, and the torrent carries a rising foam. And from that [ore] which they heat
in the fire, desiring adornments and utensils, is a foam like it. Thus Allah presents [the example of] truth and falsehood. As for the foam, it vanishes, [being] cast off; but as
for that which benefits the people, it remains on the earth. Thus does Allah present examples’
However, it is interesting to note that the Quran perceives a limit on the use of allegory when describing God: ‘So do not assert similarities to Allah. Indeed, Allah knows and you do not know’.
Divine Instruction: Passages with ‘Say’
There are more than 200 passages in the Quran which use the opening word ‘say’ (qul). This is an important stylistic feature of the Quran. As discussed, the Quran considers itself to be the word of God revealed directly to Muhammad over a period of time. As such, many passages take the form of commands to the Prophet to communicate certain religious teachings to the wider world:
‘Say, ‘He is Allah, [who is] One, Allah, the Eternal Refuge, He neither begets nor is born and nor is there to Him any equivalent’ (104:1-4).
Also, because the Quran was revealed in a gradual fashion, it attempts to answer questions put to Muhammad. These questions range from the great topics of revelation and eschatology to the more mundane issues of daily life. Thus, for example, the Quran answers questions regarding the timing of the Last Day in the following manner:
‘They ask you [O Muhammad], about the Hour: when is its arrival? Say, ‘Its knowledge is only with my Lord. None will reveal its time except Him. It lays heavily upon the heavens and the earth. It will not come upon you except unexpectedly’. They ask you as if you are familiar with it. Say, ‘Its knowledge is only with Allah, but most of the people do not know’ (7:187).
Reliance on God is another important theme: 'Say: Nothing will happen to us except what God has decreed for us: He is our Protector'. Elsewhere, the Quran deals with questions regarding alcohol:
‘They ask you about wine and gambling. Say, ‘In them is great sin and [yet, some] benefit for people. But their sin is greater than their benefit’ (2:219).
Oaths and oath-like expressions are used in a number of places (Aqsam and Qasam). Their basic function is to support an argument, thereby aiming to dispel doubts in the minds of the listener. The Arabic text often begins such statements with wa (and or by) and la uqsimu (‘Indeed, I swear’). Thus, in one passage, the Quran swears by God (or, from the Muslim point of view, God swears by Himself):
'But no, by thy Lord, they can have no real faith until they make you judge in all disputes between them and find in their souls no resistance against your decisions but accept them with fullest conviction'.
Creation is also used in a number of oath passages:
‘By the sun and its brightness; And the moon when it follows it; And the day when it displays it; And the night when it covers it; And [by] the sky and He who constructed it; And by the earth and He who spread it; And [by] the soul and He who proportioned it’.
‘By the fig and the olive, And [by] Mount Sinai, And [by] this secure city [Mecca], We have certainly created humanity in the best of stature’.
Oaths by creation are a particular feature of the early revelations and are probably best viewed as Quranic attempts at debate regarding the Oneness of God.
The Principal Religious Concepts of the Quran
Now that we have explored the nature, significance, role and historical development of the Quran, we can now look at some of its key concepts. Or, to put it another way, having understood the absolutely crucial importance of the Quran within Islamic thought, we now need to examine some of the Quran’s major themes and ideas. Again, to re-emphasise its importance, understanding something of the Quran’s key religious concepts is vitally important.
God in the Quran
As we explored in Lecture One, Islam is a radically monotheist religion. That is, it believes that the world and everything in it was created by a single divine power. Moreover, this belief is combined with a refusal to acknowledge ‘deity’ in anything else. The Muslim testimony of faith can be translated in English as meaning ‘Nothing is worthy of worship except God’. The idea of God’s Oneness is known as tawhid in Arabic and is an ever-present theme of the Quran and, as such, we will look at a few examples now:
‘He is Allah other than Whom there is no Deity, Knower of the unseen and the visible’.
‘Allah witnesses that there is no Deity except Him, and [so do] the angels and those of knowledge – [that He is] maintaining [creation] in justice. There is no Deity except Him, the Exalted in Might, the Wise’.
‘God! There is no God but He, the Living, the Everlasting. Neither slumber nor sleep overtakes Him. His is what is in the heavens and on the earth. Who shall intercede with Him except by His leave? He knows what is before them and what is behind them. And they do not comprehend of His knowledge except what He wills. His throne encompasses the heavens and the earth and their preservation does not burden Him. He is the Exalted, the Great’
‘Say, ‘He is Allah, [who is] One, Allah, the Eternal Refuge, He neither begets nor is born and nor is there to Him any equivalent’.
The last two passages are particularly important. The first of these is known as Ayat al-Kursi (the ‘Verse of the Throne’) and it gives a good overview of the Islamic understanding of God. That is, God is described as Ever-Living, Mighty and Exalted, whilst His knowledge and power are extolled.
We encountered passage two during the first Lecture. It is known as Surat al-Ikhlas (‘the Chapter of Sincerity or Purity’) and is a key passage for understanding the Islamic concept of God. This chapter has also been one of the most important passages in debates with Christian theology. As is obvious, the Quran emerged during the seventh century CE, some six hundred years after Jesus; it is, therefore, perhaps only natural that the Quran enters the debate regarding the nature of Jesus:
‘Jesus in God’s sight is like Adam; He created him from dust, then He said to him: “Be”, and he was’
The following passage is of particular importance in this regard:
‘O People of the Scripture, do not commit excess in your religion or say about Allah anything but the truth. The Messiah, the son of Mary, was a Messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul [created at a command] from Him. So believe in Allah and His Messengers. And do not say, “Three”; desist – it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but One God. Exalted is He above having a son. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. And sufficient is Allah as Disposer of Affairs’
Prophets and Prophecy
Human prophets are recurrent figures in the Quran. In essence, their role is to act as a guide to humankind. Prophets are described as ‘givers of glad tidings’ and ‘warners’, which highlights two features of their role: ‘”Do not worship except Allah. Indeed, I am to you from Him a warner and a bringer of good tidings”’.
The Quran argues that prophets have been sent to every human nation: ‘And how many a prophet We sent amongst the former peoples’. Some of these prophets are known by name:
‘Indeed, We have revealed to you [O Muhammad], as We revealed to Noah and the prophets after him. And We revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, the Descendents [of Israel], Jesus, Job, Jonah, Aaron, and Solomon, and to David We gave the book [of Psalms]’.
The Hebrew prophets are particularly important in the Quran:
‘And We did certainly give the Children of Israel the Scripture and judgement and prophethood, and We provided them with good things and preferred them over the world’.
Prophets are believed to communicate God’s will to their respective communities:
‘Say: ‘We believe in God and in what has been revealed to us and has been revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes [of Israel]; and in what Moses, Jesus and the prophets have received from their Lord. We do not discriminate between any of them, and to Him do we submit’.
Non-biblical prophets are also referred to: ‘And to the `Aad [We sent] their brother Hud…’. And again: ‘And to the Thamud [We sent] their brother Salih’. Muhammad is seen by the Quran as the Last Prophet:
By virtue of this divine inspiration, they should therefore be obeyed:
‘We have not sent forth an Apostle, but that he may be obeyed by God’s leave’.
Muhammad particularly important:
‘Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but is the Messenger of God and the seal of the Prophets (Khatam al-Nabiyyin)’.
The Day of Judgement
Another key concept of the Quran is that of the Day of Judgement. This event, which will conclude the affairs of this world, is described in a number of ways. Each description adds to the centrality of this event.
• The Hour (al-Sa’a): 6:31
• The Day of Judgement (Yaum al-Din): 1:4
• The Day of Resurrection (Yaum al-Qiyamah): 2:113
• The Day (al-Yaum): e.g.69:13-37, esp. 15
• The Day of Decision (Yaum al-Fasl): 77:7-15, esp. 77:13
• The Day of Distress (Yaum al-Asir): 74:9
• The Overwhelming Event (al-Ghashiyah): 88:1
‘Commanding Good and Forbidding Evil’
This is another crucial religious concept and directly underpins Islamic ideas regarding society and its proper functioning. It is based on a number of Quranic passages, such as:
‘And let there be among you a nation calling to goodness, bidding the right and forbidding the wrong. Those are the prosperous’.
This concept also lies behind ideas of Jihad. In other words, jihad (which literally means ‘struggle’) can be interpreted as an ongoing struggle against evil.
Understanding the ‘Opening of the Book’ (Surat al-Fatihah)
A good way of understanding the Quranic worldview, is to look a little more closely at the opening chapter of the Quran. This chapter, known as the ‘Opening of the Book’ (Surah al-Fatihah), is a very important passage, precisely because it explains many of Islam’s key concepts: it is recited in each of the five daily prayers; it is the first portion of the Quran taught to Muslim children; and, at the other end of the scale, it is often read at funerals. It is also known as the Seven Oft-repeated Verses:
‘In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.
Praise be to God, the Lord of the Worlds, the Compassionate, the Merciful,
Master of the Day of Judgement, Only you do we worship, and only You do we
implore for help, Lead us to the straight path, the path of those You have
favoured, not those who incurred Your wrath, or have gone astray’
 Esposito (1998), 17
 12:1; cf. Abdel
Haleem (1999), 8-10
 Abdel Haleem (1999),
 Robinson (1996), 9
 Murata &
Chittick (1994), 175-176