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Religion Library: Islam

Sacred Texts

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

Night of Power

A Copy of The Quran at Museum Of Natural History NY. Source: Etobicokesouth@FlickrThe Quran is approximately the same length as the Christian New Testament. It has 114 chapters, called surahs, which range in length from 3 to 286 verses. Each surah is named after an image or topic mentioned in it, and many of the names are memorable and appealing, such as "The Elephant," "Light," "Dawn," "Thunder," "The Cave," "The Moon," or "Smoke." The surahs are ordered from longest to shortest, except for the first one, which contains a brief invocation and is the shortest of all. The first surah, al-Fatiha, is the most recited chapter of the Quran as it is said multiple times in every ritual prayer. In contemporary printed Qurans, along with each chapter name, the heading of the surah also indicates whether it was revealed before or after the Hijra, as well as the number of verses it contains. The surahs vary in style and content, and the longer ones cover a variety of topics. Many Muslims and non-Muslims consider the Quran to be a masterwork, a work of incredibly beautiful and eloquent poetry and wisdom. Much of the beauty is lost in the Quran's translation to English, so this point may be hard to understand for those who do not understand Arabic.

Page from the Quran. Source: Crystalina@FlickrAs the literal word of God, the Quran is regarded as sacred and infallible. In the Quran, God's message is pure and uncorrupted. It is the primary source of belief and practice for Muslims, and is the source for understanding God's will for humans. It contains solutions to disagreements and practical challenges. As the territory under the Muslims expanded, and as time passed, the original context of the Quran changed. It became more urgent to understand the Quran's meaning in changed circumstances. The pursuit of historically textualized explanation and interpretation of the Quran became known as tafsir, or exegesis.

The second most important source of guidance for Muslims is the Sunna, the custom of the Prophet, which is recorded in the hadith. The hadith do not have the status of scripture, but they are deemed as canonical and are an important source for culture and guidance. Along with the Quran, they are the basis for shariah (political and religious law). In contrast to the Quran, which is the record of God's speech to Muhammad, the hadith contain sacred history, reports of the words and deeds of Muhammad and other early Muslims. After Muhammad's death, his companions compiled a record of all his teachings and actions. They passed these on so that the study of the Prophet's life and work would influence the community. Muhammad is the model Muslim, and the hadith are studied for their insight into understanding ideal Muslim behavior.

Study Questions:
1.     What is the Quran, and how is it used?
2.     How did oral tradition contribute to the creation of the Quran?
3.     How is the Quran organized?
4.     How is the Quran interpreted in contemporary society?
5.     What are the Sunna and the Hadith?


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