Islamic History, Part 11: The Qurʾan

Islamic History Series

There’s a strong argument to be made that a series on Islamic history should begin with a look at the Qurʾan. European travelers and commentators, from the first reports of a new Arabian movement in the seventh century until the mid-20th century at least, often used some variation of the term Muhammadanism to describe the faith, and Muhammadan to describe its adherents, analogizing these terms from “Christianity” and “Christian.” But equating Christianity’s Christ to Islam’s Muhammad gets Islam fundamentally wrong in a way that might have been explainable as ignorance a few centuries ago but that is willfully designed to offend today. Muhammad is a messenger, a bringer of new revelation and new law to his people and to the world at large, but he is entirely human. Muhammad’s death, and there’s no question for Muslims that he is dead, did not challenge his validity or role in the way that Jesus’ crucifixion must have challenged the belief that he was the chosen Jewish Messiah. No one is waiting for Muhammad to return to herald the End of Days (Shi’a are waiting for the Hidden Imam, and Sunnis are actually waiting for Jesus, technically). What makes Muhammad the exemplar of the holy life is that there’s nothing inherently divine about him, nothing inherent about him that separates him from other people.

The appropriate analogy, if we have to make one, between Christianity and Islam is not Christ:Muhammad, it’s Christ:Qurʾan. The Qurʾan is the divine made earthly for the salvation of mankind. The Qurʾan is the uncreated, eternal Word of God, akin to the Logos of the first chapter of the Gospel of John, the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, only for Muslims the Word didn’t become flesh, it came to dwell among us through one man’s preaching and the recording of that preaching by his followers. The New Testament has Jesus performing many miracles to demonstrate his divine provenance, but for Muslims the Qurʾan is the miracle. It defines Islam the way that Christ’s death and resurrection defines Christianity. It is the centerpiece of the religion.

So in many respects the Qurʾan should come first, or at most right after discussing the pre-Islamic world and Muhammad’s life. Yet here we are basically just getting to the Qurʾan in part 11 of our story. Why? Well, because there’s another, less compelling but still valid from an evidentiary standpoint, argument to be made that everything we think we know about the Qurʾan is wrong, fabricated, the product of legend and myth. This argument holds that what we know to be the Qurʾan didn’t emerge until decades after Muhammad’s death, perhaps partly from his preaching but also heavily influenced or downright cribbed from any number of religious texts circulating around the Near East during this period–Biblical texts for sure, but also apocrypha, Biblical exegesis (commentary), and, according to one theory, a Syriac Christian liturgy. The various alternative theories of the Qurʾan’s origins differ on the details, but they all hang on one thing: absence of evidence, specifically the fact that nobody has yet found a complete Qurʾan manuscript that can be dated prior to the middle of the 8th century (give or take). Arguing for an earlier origin is the fact that there do exist fragmentary manuscripts that have earlier radiocarbon dates (one to at least 671 if not earlier) and the fact that the inscriptions in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, which were made in 691-692 when the structure was built, include clear Qurʾanic phrases (although they are not full passages from the Qurʾan).

“Wait,” you’re thinking, “that still doesn’t explain why we’re talking about the Qurʾan now. If we assume a later origin for the book then it would have been written decades after Uthman’s death in 656 (even 671 is 15 years and two caliphs later), so why talk about it now?” The reason is that Uthman, as you’ll recall, is credited in the Islamic tradition with having ordered and overseen the compilation of the scattered transcriptions of Muhammad’s preaching into the Qurʾan as we know it today. Legend has it that Abu Bakr had his own written copy of the Qurʾan compiled after Muhammad’s death, which he then passed on to his successor, Umar, who in turn passed it to Uthman, and that this text was, with some supplementary research/collection/analysis, the basis for the final, official version. A similar Shiʿi legend says that Ali compiled his own written Qurʾan (which was actually in chronological order, an interesting idea as we’ll see) after Muhammad’s death but did not try to propagate his version in place of this official one. As it is the written text that we are able to study, and since the reign of Uthman falls conveniently between the life of Muhammad and the dates postulated for a late origin of the Qurʾan, I chose to place our discussion of the text here.

Miniature of Muhammad receiving the revelation from Gabriel, taken from a manuscript of a 14th century world history
Miniature of Muhammad receiving the revelation from Gabriel, taken from a manuscript of a 14th century world history

The receipt of the Qurʾan placed Muhammad in rare company, as a Messenger (rasul, could also mean “Apostle”) of God and not simply a prophet (nabi). A prophet, according to Islam, is anyone who receives revelation from God; these include, for example, all the Israelite prophets and major figures from the Hebrew Scriptures (figures like Elijah, Elisha, Jacob, Joseph, also John the Baptist from the Christian Scriptures, etc.). A messenger, however, is a prophet who brings with him a new law (or alternatively a new text) in addition to divine revelation, and these are limited: Abraham (Ibrahim, believed to have revealed the lost “Scrolls of Abraham”), Moses (Musa, wrote the Torah), David (Dawud, wrote the Zabur or Psalms), Jesus (‘Isa, preached the Gospel, lost, that inspired the written gospels), and Muhammad are the five universally accepted Messengers, but others are suggested (Noah and Jonah are two possibilities). Basically, all Messengers are Prophets, but a Prophet is not necessarily a Messenger. The Qurʾan (33:40) refers to Muhammad as the “Seal of the Prophets” (khatam al-nabiyin; the full verse translated is “Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but he is the Messenger of God and Seal of the Prophets, and God knows everything”); it’s not totally clear what this epithet means, but the most widely accepted interpretation is that Muhammad is the last of the line of prophets (most Biblical, a few Arabian) and is the “seal” that closes the period of history in which prophets were active.

The idea of Muhammad as the final prophet brings us into the theological implications of the text. The Qurʾan is considered the final revelation of God and the perfect recitation of the Divine Word (also “Qurʾan”); where the Torah, say, or the Gospel was written/preached as an interpretation of the eternal Divine Qurʾan (and had to be, since the divine Qurʾan naturally exists only in the divine language, which naturally is Arabic), Muhammad revealed The Real Thing. That’s why there is no substitute for the Arabic Qurʾan, because no other language can stand in for the true language of the Divine Word; translations are allowed but only as interpretations of the text, OK for study but not for use in religious matters and never to be considered on par with the “real” (Arabic) Word. Even written Arabic copies of the text are have a tricky theological status; technically “The Qurʾan” refers to the eternal Word that dwells with God in paradise, meant in its purest form to be recited rather than written or read, even though everybody uses the word “Qurʾan” to refer to the written copies of the divine Word. The copies are more properly referred to as mushaf (“mus-haf”), which means “codex.” Interestingly, the Qurʾanic text refers to itself as kitab, which means “book” today, but if the Qurʾan is calling itself a “book” supposedly before it’s being written down, then either kitab means something else (admittedly, it could mean “The Book,” as in the Divine text that is somehow “written”), or the Qurʾan is suggesting that its origins aren’t what most people think they are (see below).

The issue of the Qurʾan’s divinity was at the center of one of the very first doctrinal disputes in Islamic history. As we’ll see in the next section, on Ali’s caliphate, a pair of upcoming civil wars are going to cause factional rifts in the Islamic community over a number of issues, one of which being the status of Muslims who had sinned. Could a sinful Muslim still be a Believer? Some in the community insisted that sinners were still Believers, others, more puritanical, insisted that they became unbelievers, but another faction, the Muʿtazilah, followed a moderate path–sinners couldn’t be Believers exactly, but they didn’t become unbelievers either, and they could redeem themselves. From them on the Muʿtazilah developed its own concept of Islam, one that tried to incorporate reason and common sense while still keeping the tenets of the faith. For the Muʿtazilah, the unity or oneness of God, easily the most important element of Islamic teaching, made the idea of a co-eternal Qurʾan akin to blasphemy; they held that the divine Qurʾan must have been created by God at some point, because God’s oneness demanded that He alone was the only eternal thing in the universe and everything else was created. Traditionalists held that the Qurʾan was eternal and that the Muʿtazliah were introducing their own ideas of rationality in contradiction to what the Qurʾan itself says about its own origins. The origins of the Qurʾan became a bitterly contested point of dogma for centuries, even inspiring what could be called an Islamic version of the Inquisition in the 9th century, but that’s for a later time.

The Qurʾan can be said to consist of four kinds of pronouncements. Above all else its emphasis is on unity–the unity of God and the unity of the community it seeks to establish. God is one, indivisible, the omnipotent and omnipresent Creator of all things, and all of mankind is equally dependent upon His favor. Almost as heavily, the Qurʾan emphasizes the coming/imminent Day of Judgment, the final judgment when it is supposed that God will take the righteous to paradise and condemn the unworthy to hell. The emphasis is on the responsibility of the individual, incorporated into human nature from Adam on, to make the moral choice to accept and obey God’s law or to turn away from God and toward a life of wickedness. Taken together, these have the effect, in principle, of creating a flat, egalitarian idea of society: if man’s relationship to God is the most important thing, and each person is judged by his or her devotion to God alone, then the material imbalance between one person and another in this world is irrelevant, and social hierarchies built around anything other than degree of piety are empty, meaningless. These two sorts of pronouncements are sometimes grouped together under the heading “exhortations,” because the passages related to these ideas are full of exhortations to the listener/reader to believe in God’s unity and the Day of Judgment, and to live life according to that belief.

Another kind of passage is narrative material, whereby the life stories of the Prophets are told, not unlike the narratives of the Hebrew Scriptures. In the case of Biblical Prophets, like Joseph (Yusuf) and Moses (Musa), the Qurʾan seems at times to be commenting on their stories rather than exactly recounting them. The story of the burning bush, for example, is told in Surah 20, but instead of just relating the story the text says “Have you heard the story of Moses? When he saw the fire he told his family, ‘Wait! I see a fire. Maybe I can bring back a firebrand from it or find some guidance there.'” This reads to me like the text almost anticipates that the reader/listener will be familiar with the story already, so the Qurʾan can just sort of riff on it without having to strictly narrate the story. Missing are stories of the later prophets, the nevi’im, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, though all three are accepted as prophets in Islamic tradition. The final type of passage is the ethical and legal content. The Qurʾan devotes a considerable portion of itself to legislative matters, setting out rules for proper conduct, and religious practice, as well as regulations for the community, particularly in the area of family law.

The categorization of the kinds of revelations contained in the Qurʾan is useful in that it gives scholars a rough estimate of the chronology of each revelation. Given that the absolute earliest date for the compilation of a written Qurʾan is after Muhammad’s death, which occurred over 20 years after he started preaching, there was little hope that the compilers, working from assorted scraps of transcription, would have been able to figure out the order in which the revelations were uttered by Muhammad. The story of Ali’s chronological text is intriguing but unverifiable; no such text has survived as far as we know. So, indeed, the compilers didn’t even try to figure out a chronology and, instead, arranged the chapters from longest to shortest. The one exception is the first chapter, Surah al-Fatihah (“The Opening”), which is first despite being quite short, and serves as a sort of introductory prayer for the rest of the text:

بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ
(bi-ismi Allahi al-Rahman al-Rahim)
الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ
(al-hamdu li-lahi Rabb al-ʿAlamin)
الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ
(al-Rahman al-Rahim)
مَالِكِ يَوْمِ الدِّينِ
(Maliki Yawm al-Din)
إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ وَإِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِينُ
(iyaka naʿbudu wa iyaka nastaʿin)
اهْدِنَا الصِّرَاطَ الْمُسْتَقِيمَ
(ihdina al-sirat al-mustaqim)
صِرَاطَ الَّذِينَ أَنْعَمْتَ عَلَيْهِمْ غَيْرِ الْمَغْضُوبِ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا الضَّالِّينَ
(sirata alladhina anʿamta ʿalayhim ghayri al-maghdubi ʿalayhim wa-la al-dalin)

“In the Name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful
Praise God, the Lord of the Two Worlds
The Beneficent, the Merciful
Master of the Day of Judgment
You we worship, and You we ask for help
Guide us to the straight path
The path of those upon whom you have bestowed your grace, not those with whom you are angry or who have gone astray.”

Since the order of the chapters doesn’t help us determine a chronology, content is used instead. The exhortations on God’s oneness and Judgment Day are believed to have been the first material revealed by Muhammad; these seem like the kind of purely spiritual revelations that would have begun Muhammad’s mission. The narrative material probably came next, intended to flesh out the exhortations and provide more theological meat to the text. These would have been revealed in Mecca, and are often referred to as “Early Meccan” and “Late Meccan” revelations. The legal and ethical material was revealed later, at Medina, when Muhammad’s mission had shifted from trying to preach a theological message and form a community to trying to govern the community he had created.

The final consideration when dealing with the Qurʾan is to remember that this is a text that is meant to be memorized and recited, not read. Proper recitation is its own discipline, called tajwid, which pores over every verse to determine precise pronunciation, where to pause, where to elide, and how to vocalize the text. This may sound very melodious when it’s done well, but don’t refer to it as though it were “music” or “singing,” because that risks offending Muslims who regard singing as frivolous (they may think you’re mocking the Qurʾan). The advent of writing and of general literacy has both reduced the importance of Qurʾan recitation (which used to be the only way most people could access the Qurʾan) and made learning to properly recite the text easier, as the guidelines for proper tajwid can be written right into the text. Unlike most other historical Arabic texts, manuscripts of the Qurʾan will usually mark all the short vowels, which are indicated by vocalization marks placed above or below the letter rather than by their own letter, to aid in recitation. The interesting thing about these vocalization marks is that they weren’t introduced into the text until the 10th century, meaning that there was the potential for variant readings (Qiraʾat) of the Qurʾan until then (this is not a minor consideration; short vowels in Arabic can, for example, mean the difference between active and passive voice). Today there are 10 traditionally acceptable Qiraʾat, though there aren’t any huge differences between the various Qiraʾat as far as I know.

An early (~7th century) manuscript of the Qurʾan; note the absence of vowel markers, which weren't used until centuries later.
An early (~7th century) manuscript of the Qurʾan; note the absence of vowel markers, which weren’t used until centuries later.
By contrast, this 11th century Qurʾan does contain vowel markers (in red ink)
By contrast, this 11th century Qurʾan does contain vowel markers (in red ink)

As there are many alternative theories of the early history of Islam, there are correspondingly several alternative theories as to the origins of the Qurʾan. I’ve sketched out the traditional history here and in my earlier entries in this series, but you should be aware of some of the alternatives. These tend to revolve around the relatively late provenance of the earliest known written copies of the text (though, as I said above, there is at least one fragmentary manuscript whose early dating makes these alternatives less plausible); the bottom line is that if there’s no proof of a written Qurʾan within the first generation or two after Muhammad, then we can’t simply take the traditional narrative at face value and have to explore other possibilities. The most famous of these was put forward by historian John Wansbrough in the 1970s, and contended that the Qurʾan evolved over a period of centuries after the Arab conquests, as the emerging faith absorbed Judeo-Christian scripture and began to revise it according to its own tenets and in response to the inter-faith dialogue going on between early Muslims and the Christian and Jewish communities they had conquered. A more recent (published in 2000) theory was put forward by a scholar writing under the pseudonym Christoph Luxenberg, who argues that the Qurʾan is actually better understood as Syriac (Aramaic) rather than Arabic (the language of the Qurʾan is often called “Qurʾanic Arabic,” reflecting its incongruities with standard Classical Arabic), and that the Qurʾan itself evolved from a Syriac lectionary (a collection of sermons appropriate for particular Bible readings, something a priest might use to prepare a Sunday homily).

Next time: the Caliphate of ‘Ali and the first Islamic civil war

Further Reading:

English interpretations of the Qurʾan:

  • Pickthall (translator), The Meaning of the Glorious Koran
  • Dawood (translator), The Koran
  • Abdullah Yusuf Ali (translator), The Quran: Text, Translation and Commentary (includes Arabic text)
  • Fakhry (translator), An Interpretation of the Quran (includes Arabic text)

Quran scholarship:

  • Sells, Approaching the Quran (essential for anybody who wants to understand the text)
  • McAuliffe, The Cambridge Companion to the Quran
  • Reynolds, The Quran in Its Historical Context
  • Rippin, The Blackwell Companion to the Quran
  • Esack, The Quran: A User’s Guide
  • Wansbrough, Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation
  • Luxenberg, The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran
  • Whelan, Forgotten Witness: Evidence For The Early Codification Of The Quran

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