Understanding the Quran — Diana Steigerwald, California State University (Long Beach)
‘I believe in one God, and Muhammad, an Apostle of God’ is the simple and invariable profession of Islām. The intellectual image of the Deity has never been degraded by any visible idol; the honor of the Prophet has never transgressed the measure of human virtues; and his living precepts have restrained the gratitude of his disciples within the bounds of reason and religion. (Gibbon and al., 54)
There will come a time when nothing will remain of the Qur’ān but a set of rituals. And nothing will be more common than attributing falsities to God and the Prophet. — ‛Alī Ibn Abī Tālib
The Qur’ān contains a powerful message which generates a material and spiritual response. From its original source, the Mother of the Book (Umm al-Kitāb) came down to convey all humans to its universal message. It was revealed in fragments of varying lengths over twenty-three years, and every sūra was not only related to the overall Divine plan but also to emerging situations. Madinian sūras are generally the longer ones; the difficulty of rearranging them in chronological order was increased by the fact that most Madinian and many Makkan sūras were composite, containing discourses of different periods bound up together. Apart from the relatively few allusions to exactly date historical events, the principal evidences were supplied by general criteria of style and content. (Gibb, 36)
The collation of the Qur’ān began at the death of the Prophet in 632, but even during his life some verses were written down. Partial compilations were made on rather unsatisfactory materials (bones, leather sheets, stones etc.). The dying off of the companions of the Prophet, and the sharpening of a debate among surviving Muslims pushed the third caliph, ‛Uthmān (d. 35/656), to gather the Qur’ānic revelation into a single compilation called mushaf. The collection was declared complete and closed; the text was established by the Caliph ‛Uthmān and his entourage; and the other compilations were destroyed to avoid feeding dissent about the authenticity of the official Qur’ān.
For Muslims, Allāh speaks directly to humankind in the first person in the Qur’ān. Its literary style and diction are altogether different from the sayings (ahādīth) of the Prophet Muhammad. To those who doubt its Divine origin, the Qur’ān throws a challenge asking them to imitate its full text, or even to produce one sūra similar to it. Most Muslims believe that the ‛Uthmānic Codex contain integrally the truly Word of God.
The nature and the content of the Qur’ān
It is equally important to understand how Muslim believers view the Bible through the lens of the Qur’ān, and in their estimation their Holy Book is the only Scripture preserved in its authenticity. Muslims believe in previous revelations at least those mentioned in the Qur’ān. The oral traditions (ahādīth) played an important role in preserving the proper interpretation of the Qur’ānic text. It is generally believed that Muhammad acquired his biblical knowledge mainly through oral tradition in his mother tongue. This oral wisdom came from Syriac, Aramaic, Ethiopian, and Hebrew materials, since there are many foreign words in the Arabic Qur’ān. In Christianity, the role of the Bible is secondary to that of Christ; it witnesses to Him and His actions. The Christians develop a personal relationship with Jesus living a Christocentric experience. Islam, by contrast, centres on the Qur’ān which is its “raison d’être.” The Qur’ān is the Divine revelation which instructs men how to live according to the will of God. The understanding of the Qur’ān as a perfect and inimitable in message, language, style, and form — referring to the preserved Tablet (Lawh-i mahfūz) or celestial Qur’ān — is strikingly similar to the Christian notion of the Bible’s “inerrancy” and “verbal inspiration” that is still common in many places today.
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