Introduction to World Religions by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.
An Overview of the Qur'an (Koran)
[still under construction]
The Qur'an (usually spelled Koran in older English texts): the only "Holy Book" or "Sacred Scriptures" of Islam
Title and History:
The Arabic word "Qur'an" literally means "recitation" (see Q 96:1-5; the chronologically first or oldest surah).
The Arabic root QR ' means both "read" and "recite" and "proclaim" - since almost all "reading" in the ancient and medieval worlds was done out loud, often for groups, rather than silently and privately, as we assume today.
Muslims believe that the Qur'an contains the direct revelations of God's words, through the angel Gabriel, to the prophet Muhammad.
The first revelation Muhammad received was on Lailat al-Qadr ("Night of Power"; see Q 97:1-5), during the month of Ramadan in the year 610 CE.
After a pause of about one year, he received further revelations, which continued throughout the remaining 23 years of his life (until his death in 632 CE).
Muhammad not only learned/memorized the revelations himself, but then "recited" them to his followers, who in turn memorized, recited, and transmitted them.
The revelations were written down and collected during Muhammad's lifetime, although the present arrangement was not set until several decades after his death.
The present text of the Qur'an was compiled and arranged in order under the direction of 'Uthman ibn Arran, the third Caliph (ruled 644-656 CE).
Many Muslims believe that the Qur'an is itself a miracle, since they maintain that the original version is preserved with God in heaven, and the earthly text has never been changed since being revealed to Muhammad.
Language and Genre:
Muslims believe that since God's words were originally revealed in Arabic, it is "untranslatable" into any other language.
Thus, most Muslims try to learn enough Arabic to be able to read the Qur'an, at least the parts commonly used in their prayers.
With the spread of Islam to non-Arabic cultures, more and more translations have been made into English and other world languages.
Yet Muslims usually emphasize (even in the book titles) that these books contain "The Message of the Qur'an" or "The Meaning of the Koran" or "An Interpretation of the Qur'an" - rather than the (original Arabic) Qur'an itself.
In contrast to the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, both of which contain multiple literary genres, the Qur'an consists almost entirely of only one literary genre: prophecy (messages from God spoken through a prophet to be transmitted to people).
Thus, when the Qur'an reads "I" (or even plural "we"), the speaker is almost always God, rather than Muhammad or anyone else.
Contents and Arrangement:
There are a total of 114 surahs ("chapters"), each containing between 3 and 286 ayahs (verses; lit. "miracles").
The surahs are not arranged in chronological order of when the revelations were first received by Muhammad (some surahs, in fact, contain various revelations dating from different periods of Muhammad's life).
Nor are they arranged thematically, although some thematically or chronologically related surahs are grouped together in smaller blocks within the Qur'an.
Instead, the surahs are arranged in decreasing order of length. more or less (except for the brief introductory Surah 1).
The Arabic title of each surah is a prominent word or phrase found within the surah, often near its beginning.
All but Surah 9 begin with the identical heading: "In the name of Allah, most Gracious, most Merciful."
Many surahs also have one or more Arabic letters near the beginning, the meaning of which is mostly uncertain.
Jews and Christians:
The Qur'an mentions many characters and episodes familiar from the Bible, esp. the Hebrew Bible, but also including John the Baptist, Jesus, and Mary.
However, there are no direct quotations of texts from the Bible, and some of the stories are told in versions significantly different from the Bible.
The Qur'an frequently also refers to Jews and Christians in general as "People of the Book," since their scriptures (the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, respectively) play central roles in these religions.
Reading the Qur'an:
The Qur'an is divided in various ways for reading over a set period of days, with blocks of approximately equal size for each day.
The Qur'an is divided into seven large blocks, so the whole book could be read within one week.
It is also divided into 30 sections, called Juz; many Muslims use these divisions to read the entire text during the month of Ramadan.
Thematic Blocks in the Qur'an:
Although the 114 surahs of the Qur'an are arranged in more-or-less decreasing order of length, rather than in chronological order of when they were first revealed, there are some smaller thematic blocks of related surahs in certain sections, as the following table shows.
The longest by far is Surah 2 (with 286 ayahs); next longest are Surahs 3-7 (ranging from 120 to 206 ayahs each).
The shortest is Surah 108 (only 3 short ayahs); but most of the last 22 surahs are very brief (from 3 to 11 ayahs each).
The length of the ayahs also varies greatly; for example, each ayah is very short in Surahs 78-82, but quite long in Surahs 48, 60, 65, and 66.
The earliest/oldest revelation (from 610 CE) is generally recognized to be Surah 96 (at least its first 5 ayahs), followed by Surahs 68, 73, and 74.
The last revelation (just before Muhammad's death in 632) is generally thought to be Surah 110.
The exact dating of most of the other surahs is hard to determine, but is not important for their interpretation in most cases.
It is useful to distinguish between those surahs that were revealed during Muhammad's time in Makka (610-622), and those that were revealed later, while he was living in Madinah (622-632):
The earlier surahs (from the Makkan period) focus more on social justice, conversion, final judgment, and recognition of the one true God (monotheism).
The later surahs (from the Madinan period) focus more on relationships within the Muslim community, and their relationships with Jews and Christians.
Description of Content
"The Opening": an introduction to the entire Qur'an.
The Muslim community, its development, internal problems, and external relations.
The unity of God.
The battle of Badr, and the new Muslim community.
Historical developments leading up to the Hijra (the migration to Madinah).
Nature points to nature's God
Worship and prayer; the Hajj and fasting.
22 & 24: Madinah
23 & 25: Makka
Prophets of the past and the spirit of prophecy.
Time and history: past, present, and future.
On violence and slander; about the battle of Badr and other conflicts.
Mysteries of the spiritual world.
early to late Makka
The "Ha Min" series.
Internal & external community relations.
God's revelation through nature, history, and prophets.
[55 possibly Madinah]
Short surahs about the social life of the Muslim community.
Poetic surahs about various aspects of spiritual and mystical life;
also human responsibility and destiny; judgment and the afterlife.