Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka
The word "Quran" means "recitation," because the Quran was first heard in sermons and public readings. Muslims believe it is still best communicated by being recited. The Quran has been translated into many languages, but only the Arabic version is considered authoritative. The sounds of the Quran recited aloud in Arabic are considered part of its nature, inseparable from its meaning. It is also believed to be divine, the eternal and literal word of God. It is filled with God's direct speech, revealed through the use of the first person plural ("we"). The original, divine version of the earthly book is considered coeternal with God, either in heaven or in the mind of God. Translations into other languages, removed from sacred Arabic words and sounds, are not the literal word of God, and are classified as interpretations.
The Quran is available in translation in every language of the world; non-Arabic-speaking Muslims read translations of the Quran as a form of extra devotion and look to the Quran as a source of divine guidance. All Muslims memorize verses from the Arabic Quran because verses from the Quran are required to be recited in the daily ritual prayer that all Muslims perform. The ritual prayer has remained in Arabic despite the fact that most Muslims in the world live outside of the Middle East. This provides Muslims a tremendous sense of unity and shared brotherhood and sisterhood throughout the world because the liturgy of worship has never changed. The most devout male and female Muslims—even those who are not religious authorities on Islam—will memorize the entire Quran in Arabic; those that do so are referred to as hafiz or hafiza.
The Quran contains a record of the revelations recited by the prophet Muhammad over a period of approximately twenty-two years in piecemeal, from 610 to 632. Muhammad commissioned scribes to record the revelations in writing, and at the time of his death, a number of his followers had memorized the entire text. As Muhammad's followers began to die, the community became concerned that variations on the revelations would proliferate, and the original, authentic revelation would become obscured. Work began on producing an authoritative version, starting with the time-consuming task of gathering all the revelations from both written and oral sources. Muhammad's wives, companions, and scribes all owned partial versions. The challenge was to correlate all the partial versions, decide between variations, and produce an authoritative version. Under Uthman, the third caliph, a team of scholars led by one of Muhammad's companions completed the task by around 650.