Islam is a fast growing religion in the West. For the last few decades, there has been growing curiosity about the Qur’an, the holy book of Muslims, among non-Muslims. Yet, there is significant confusion and misinterpretation surrounding it. Specifically, some radical groups and critics of Islam interpret Qur’anic verses by taking them out of context to justify their political agendas. Furthermore, many people interested in Islam start their inquiries by reading a translation of the Qur’an. However, this may only increase their confusion, since they can find it hard to follow the text and understand the meaning correctly. There is a large body of literature on the explanations of core Islamic concepts, but lay readers have to struggle with many pages of explanations before they can find the answer to most basic questions. This article, despite its limited scope, aims at providing concise answers to questions frequently asked about the Qur’an.
The word “Qur’an,” which comes from the Arabic root q-r-a, means “something that is read or recited repeatedly or diligently.” As a book, the Qur’an has about six hundred pages in Arabic and consists of 114 chapters of 6,239 verses altogether.1 The longest chapter is about forty-eight pages, and shortest is one line.
The Qur’an is the religious text of around 1.4 billion Muslims worldwide.2 Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the verbatim word of God, revealed through Archangel Gabriel to Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, who is the final messenger in a long chain of prophets. The verses were revealed at different times and places over twenty-three years, sometimes as answers to specific questions, or in reference to certain events happening at the time. The Qur’an has been recited and practiced daily by Muslims since its revelation, and it is the first and primary source of Islamic jurisprudence. The Qur’an has to be interpreted in the light of the practices of the Prophet, the second source of Islamic teachings and practices. The record of everything Prophet Muhammad said, did, or approved of is termed hadith in Islamic terminology.3
In 610 AD, the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was sitting alone in a cave nearby Mecca. He was forty years old, and he was on a spiritual retreat. According to his own account, Archangel Gabriel appeared to him and commanded him to read. He was illiterate, and he replied that he could not read. The angel embraced him in a devastating grip until the Prophet thought he would faint. Then, the angel commanded again, “Read!” The same chain of events occurred, until he was commanded to read for the third time, when he asked, “What should I read?” Upon his submission, Gabriel brought the first revelation:
Read: in and with the name of your Lord Who has created,
Created human from a clot clinging (to the wall of the womb),
Read: and your Lord is the All-Munificent,
Who has taught by the pen,
Taught human what he did not know. (Alaq 96:1–5)
After an initial period of confusion and fright, he eventually came to accept the Prophetic mission given to him by God. He was to announce that there is no God but He, and call humankind back to the service of God, a path they had deviated from long before. From then on, the revelation continued, with some occasional gaps, for twenty-three years.
Although there were Christian and Jewish people living in Mecca and nearby cities, idolatry was the predominant religion in seventh-century Mecca. They conceived the Prophet’s monotheistic message as an insult to the religion they had inherited from their ancestors. Also, Mecca was at the center of trade routes, and the Ka‘ba, a holy shrine inside Mecca, was a centre of pilgrimage. The Ka‘ba was filled with idols, and removing them would pose a threat to the economic welfare of the Meccan chiefs. Therefore, most Meccans, especially the rich and powerful, opposed the message right away. They attempted to prevent the message from spreading by verbally assaulting early Muslims. When the Muslim community kept growing slowly but surely, the opponents proceeded to persecute and torture the Muslims. Since the early Muslim community consisted of weak and poor people, they were an easy target. Some Muslims concealed their identities for a while and practiced their religion in secret. When persecution became unbearable, in 610 AD they migrated to Yathrib, a nearby oasis city, in order to be able to practice their religion freely. That city is now known as Medina.
While few people believed the message in the early stages, there are many historical accounts reporting the impact of the Qur’an, even on those who did not convert. They confessed that the Qur’an has a mesmerizing beauty, beyond the most exquisite poems written of that time. Due to the prevalence of oral arts (as opposed to written media), eloquence and oratory was valued and appreciated by the common people at the time. Consequently, the beauty and power of expression of the Qur’an was widely acknowledged. Some famous poets believed the message simply because they perceived the eloquence of the Qur’an to be beyond human capability.4
Archangel Gabriel brought the revelations to the Prophet on different occasions, in various forms. When the revelations came, people could detect that it was happening by changes in the Prophet’s condition. He would lose attention to everything else, sweat profusely, and his weight would increase. Once, a companion was sitting together with the Prophet when the revelation came, and the Prophet’s thigh was resting upon his. He thought his thigh was going to break due to Prophet’s increased weight. When the experience was over, the Prophet would recite the verses.5
When the Qur’an was revealed, it was recorded by the scribes of revelation, and subsequently announced to the public. After the verses had been announced, many people memorized them, and recited them daily in their prayers. Since the Qur’anic order of verses is not chronological, the Prophet himself, under divine guidance, would indicate the location and sequence of different verses when the revelations were recorded. The entire Qur’an was compiled based on the records of multiple scribes shortly after the Prophet passed away. The Qur’an compiled from written records was subjected to confirmation by the most prominent memorizers of the Qur’an at that time.6 During the time of Uthman, the third caliph7 after the Prophet, several copies of the Qur’an were produced and sent to the largest cities under Muslim rule. In time, many copies of the Qur’an were written. Today, Muslims take pride in the fact that all the copies of the Qur’an around the world are the same. The text has remained intact for over fourteen hundred years.
Muslims are required to believe in the earlier prophets and their scriptures, in their originally revealed form. The authenticity of the current Gospels and the Old Testament is widely disputed, even by Christian and Jewish scholars. Muslims believe that the original texts were tampered with as they were passed from generation to generation. As such, Muslims regard it as normal that other religious texts contain passages not compatible with Islamic teachings and only believe in the sections supported by the Qur’an or Prophet Muhammad’s sayings.
The Qur’an gives a special status to Jews and Christians and calls them the “People of the Book,” that is, people who received scripture. People of other religions are welcome to choose Islam out of their own free will, but forceful conversion to Islam is explicitly prohibited (Baqara 2:256). People who choose to keep their religion are to be treated respectfully, and if they are living in a Muslim country, their rights are under the protection of the Muslim ruler. Because of this protection, many minorities have preserved their religious identity and have been free to practice their religions under Muslim rule for centuries. Muslims, in daily life, are also required to treat people of other religions kindly and respectfully.8
With respect to the question of salvation in the hereafter, the answer is more complex. First of all, even Muslims are not guaranteed to be saved from hellfire, if they do not practice their religion. Faith alone is not sufficient for salvation, and practicing the faith is essential.
Second, the Qur’an is very clear on the fact that every person will be rewarded for all good deeds and will be held accountable for bad deeds, regardless of his or her religion. In this context, the Qur’an states that no action is in vain:
Surely be they of those who declare faith (the Community of Muhammad) and be they of those who are the Jews or the Sabaeans, or the Christians (or of another faith) – whoever truly and sincerely believes in God and the Last Day and does good, righteous deeds – they will have no fear, nor will they grieve. (Maeda 5:69)
On the other hand, unjustified erroneous beliefs, such as ascribing partners to God, are harshly criticized by the Qur’an:
As it is, some say: "The All-Merciful has taken to Himself a child.” Assuredly you have (in such an assertion) brought forth something monstrous – The heavens are all but rent, and the earth split asunder, and the mountains fall down in ruins – That they ascribe to the All-Merciful a child! It is not for the All-Merciful to take to Himself a child. (Maryam 19:88–93)
This, and similar verses (e.g. Maeda 5:72, 73, Tawba 9:30) have led others to believe that people that hold such beliefs are doomed to hellfire. Since salvation in the hereafter is a matter of dispute among scholars, the safe way for Muslims is to avoid making judgments in this matter, since God alone is the ultimate judge. Muslims are neither expected nor encouraged to ascribe people to Heaven or Hell. Let us conclude this section with an authentic saying of the Prophet, narrated by Abu Hurayrah, one of the Prophet’s companions:
I heard the Apostle of God (peace be upon him) say: “There were two men among Children of Israel, who were striving for the same goal. One of them would commit sin and the other would strive to do his best in the world. The man who exerted himself in worship continued to see the other in sin. He would say: ‘Refrain from it.’ One day he found him in sin and said to him: ‘Refrain from it.’ He said: ‘Leave me alone with my Lord. Have you been sent as a watchman over me?’ He said: ‘I swear by God, God will not forgive you, nor will he admit you to Paradise.’ Then their souls were taken back (by God), and they met together with the Lord of the worlds. He (God) said to this man who had striven hard in worship: ‘Had you knowledge about Me or had you power over that which I had in My hand?’ He said to the man who sinned:’ Go and enter Paradise by My mercy.’ He said about the other: ‘Take him to Hell.’”
Abu Hurayrah said: “By Him in Whose hand my soul is, he spoke a word by which this world and the next world of his were destroyed.”9
Muslims regard the Qur’an as a miracle, beyond the capacity of any human to produce. Scholars point out several miraculous aspects of the Qur’an. One of these aspects relates to Qur’anic predictions that came true about events that took place shortly after verses were revealed, as well as events that took place centuries later. Some examples of predictions are: Mecca’s conquest (Fath 48:27), the Roman victory over the Persians (Rum 30:2–6), that all male children of the Prophet would die before the age of puberty (Ahzab 33:40), and that the body of the Pharaoh (who drowned chasing Prophet Moses through the Red Sea) would be recovered many centuries later (Yunus 10:90–92).
Another aspect relates to scientific facts that were unknown at the time of the Prophet. Among many examples, it suffices to quote the following:
i. The universe started from a single piece (Anbiya 21:30), and it is constantly expanding (Dhariyat 51:47).
ii. Mountains are like masts, that is, the bulk of a mountain lies underneath the earth’s crust (Naba 78:6–7).
iii. The earth is a globe (Naziat 79:30).
iv. Heavenly bodies follow orbits (Anbiya 21:33).
v. The atmosphere is a protective roof for the inhabitants of the earth (Anbiya 21:32).
vi. Plants have genders (Ta Ha 20:53).
Finally, the Qur’an is regarded as a linguistic miracle by Arabic-speakers.
The Qur’an talks about a variety of subjects, but according to the classification of Said Nursi, a notable scholar,10 it has four main themes:
i. The unity of God and His attributes
ii. The notion of Prophethood, and stories of Prophets
iii. The afterlife: descriptions of Heaven, Hell, and Judgment Day
iv. Social regulations and justice: rituals of worship, manners, and regulations governing social and economic life.
Contrary to common misconception, the last category constitutes less than one tenth of the Qur’an. The bulk of the Qur’an details the essentials of belief and places them in the broader framework of God’s attributes and the mission of human beings on earth.
Among the many messages the Qur’an delivers, if one has to be picked as the main message, it is that human beings are created to know and serve the one true God, and are tested during their life on earth. They will be sent to their destinations of Heaven or Hell, depending on their actions in this life.
The Qur’an mentions many of the Biblical prophets by name, and there are commonalities among stories told in the Qur’an and the Bible. However, there are differences as well. Some specific examples are:
i. The Qur’an mentions that the news of the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) coming was delivered by the earlier prophets.
ii. When relating the story of Prophet Joseph (peace be upon him), the Qur’an does not use the term Pharaoh to refer to king of Egypt, but the Bible does. Scholars argue that the title Pharaoh did not start to be used until much after Joseph. The preservation of Pharaoh’s body as a sign for later centuries is mentioned in the Qur’an but not in the Bible.
iii. When relating past Prophets’ stories, the Qur’an uses very respectful language, and never ascribes intentional wrongdoing to any of the Prophets. This is in stark contrast with, for example, the stories of Prophet David and Prophet Lot (peace be upon them) in the Bible.
iv. The Qur’an rejects the concept of Trinity, and proclaims that Jesus (peace be upon him) never claimed to be the son of God.
Furthermore, one needs to keep in mind that religion is not a collection of Prophet stories. It is a way of life. In this regard, the Qur’an reiterates the essentials of belief (which, by and large, overlap with those of Christianity and Judaism); reinforces, adds or omits some of the social regulations of earlier religions; and introduces rituals for worship. However, the style of the Qur’an is very different from the style of the Bible; it refers less to historical events and puts more emphasis on God’s attributes and the afterlife. Overall, it would be wrong to claim that the Qur’an is merely an extension of the Bible.
The topic of peace and war in the Qur’an is very broad; so, it cannot be successfully addressed in the limited space here. The short answer is that violence is never approved in the Qur’an. Peace is the norm in Muslim life, but the need for war on certain occasions is acknowledged. War is only allowed to reestablish peace in and among societies. Legitimate reasons for the declaration of war are:
i. For self-defense
ii. For the protection of weak people against oppression
iii. On account of the violation of peace treaties between Muslims and others, or against those allying with the attackers of the Muslim community, or those attacking members of the Muslim community without just cause.
Difference of religion, that is, simply being a person or nation of a different religion is not considered a legitimate reason for war.12 Also, a person or a group cannot declare war. Just as justice cannot be executed by individuals but only by government-appointed officials or representatives, so it is only within the government’s authority to declare a war. Moreover, when engaged in warfare, Muslims are bound by wartime regulations. For example:
i. They cannot harm innocents, such as women, children, elderly, people who dedicate themselves to religion in monasteries, and in general, non-combatants.
ii. Torture and rape are prohibited.
iii. Damaging the physical infrastructure, such as the water supply, trees, tilled land, animals, is also prohibited, unless unavoidable.
iv. When the enemy inclines to peace, Muslims are not authorized to continue warfare.
The Qur’an also states that killing an innocent soul is as evil as killing the whole of humankind (Maeda 5:32). Hence, violence perpetrated by terrorist groups and any other form of warfare which breaks these regulations cannot be attributed to Islamic teachings.
There are many Qur’an translations available in a variety of languages. The scholars are in unanimous agreement that no translation can do justice to the Qur’an. Hence, the reader should not fall into the error of assuming that the message communicated in the Qur’an is limited to that found in its translation. The translations have well-known shortcomings. No language is a perfect substitute for another and the concepts that exist in one language may not exist in others. The style and beauty of expression is almost always lost, and the translator has to choose a specific meaning out of many meanings of a certain word. This is very much true for the Qur’an, in which:
i. Words are used with multi-layered meanings.
ii. Some words map onto specific religious concepts, which should be explained in detail before their meaning can be given.
iii. Many verses refer to other verses or historical events; hence, a contextual explanation is usually necessary.
iv. Some verses are abrogated by others, and the user needs to know the chronological order of revelation before each verse can be interpreted.
Therefore, reading a translation provides a basic understanding, but also raises many questions in the reader’s mind. Those questions can only be answered by referring to a properly qualified teacher or through reading books or articles dedicated to the explanation of certain concepts. Such an explanation necessitates looking at the Qur’an in its entirety, considering the interpretations of leading Muslim scholars, and looking at the practices and explanations of the Prophet of Islam.
Among the most widespread translations are those by Abdullah Yusuf Ali,12 Marmaduke Pickthall,13 and Muhammad Asad.14 A recent translation by Ali Ãœnal combines the best of the previous translations. It provides detailed annotations, and it is written in modern English.
Muslims strive to recite the Qur’an in its original language, since only the Arabic version is considered the word of God. It is recited in Arabic in the daily prayers and as a form of worship. But translations and commentaries are available in every language, and readers are encouraged to consult those. The memorization needed for the daily prayers is minimal, and can be done by an uneducated person in a single day. Most people memorize much longer portions of the Qur’an, and people who have memorized the entire Qur’an are not uncommon. Reciting the Qur’an in a beautiful and sad voice is a highly valued Islamic art. “Embellish the Qur’an with your voices, for indeed a beautiful voice enhances the beauty of the Qur’an,” declared the Prophet.15 Many Muslims also try to learn at least some Arabic to be able to understand portions of the Qur’an. However, knowing Arabic is not essential to be a good Muslim. Being a good Muslim is measured by God-consciousness and by how much one practices the religion.
The Qur’an is considered the word of God by over a billion Muslims. Western readers unfamiliar with the Qur’anic message should familiarize themselves with the Qur’an before making any judgment about it. However, reading a translation only provides a basic understanding, and supplemental reading is necessary. This brief article serves as an introduction to the Qur’an, by providing answers to frequently asked questions. The reader is encouraged to consult the reference list below. Further detailed information is widely available through the Internet and printed media.
1. Pagination differs across different prints, but the text does not. The 604-page version refers to Arabic text only, written according to a particular script, which takes longest verse as the measure of a single page, and shortest chapter as a measure of a single line. With roman text and explanations, the translations usually exceed thousand pages.
2. Teece, Geoff (2005)
3. Gulen (2000)
4. Nursi (1958), 25th Word on the Holy Quran
5. Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 52, hadith 85.
6. Canan (2005)
7. Caliph is a historical title given to leaders of Muslim community. It is no longer used.
8. Kurucan (2007)
9. Abu Dawud, Adab, Book 41, Number 4883. Compilation of Sunan was completed on 241 A.H.
10. Nursi (2000).
11. Kurucan (2006)
12. Yusuf Ali (2004). Originally publishes in 1938.
13. Pickthall (2001). Originally published in 1930.
14. Asad (2003). Originally published in 1980.
15. Al-Haakim, al-Mustadrak, 1/236