Sacred Texts

First surah of Quran. Source: Public DomainThe 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.

Quran. Source: Mmechtley@FlickrThe 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.

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?

Back to Religion Library