The Qur’an (in Anglicized form: Koran) is certainly the greatest literary work in classical Arabic and for all Muslims stands as the definitive word of God (in Arabic: Allah) spoken to the prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. When reading the Qur’an, you should realize that, for all Muslims, the text you are reading is quite literally the voice of God; because the Qur’an is the direct speech of God in Arabic, translation of the work is seen as blasphemy, as an unforgivable tampering with God’s own speech. Nevertheless, the Qur’an has been translated into Turkish and Farsi (the language of Iran) in this century and is recited in these languages in religious services in Turkey and Iran. The Muslim community tolerates this but just barely. For all practical purposes, to be Muslim, then, means almost universally to be able to read and understand classical Arabic, despite what one’s native language is [Ed. a Muslim reader noted that many Muslims do not understand the language, but they must only read or say the words correctly].
The recitation began one night in the year 610 A.D. Muhammad was sitting alone in the wilderness near Mecca when the Angel Gabriel appeared to him. The Angel called out to him with the command, “Recite! Recite! Recite!” Muhammad responded, “I am not a reader.” The angel recited three verses to him and when he awoke, he had these verses, as he said, inscribed in his heart. These revelations continued for 10 days. Islamic scholars believe that the first revelation occurred on the night of the 27th day of Ramadan. This night is called the Laylat-al-Qadr (Night of Power). And according to the Quran, this is when God determines the course of the world for the following year.1
From that point on, Muhammad believed himself to be a prophet and messenger of God, the last in a line of seven prophets (beginning with Abraham and ending with Jesus Christ, who was prophet number six) and responsible for inscribing the last and most important of God’s direct messages to the world, the Arabic Recitation, which is the full name of the work. The people of God, that is, the Jews and the Christians, were going astray; the purpose of the Arabic Recitation was to restore God’s faithful to the proper path. At different times in Muhammed’s life the recitations would come to him; he would then repeat what he had heard, and these would be memorized by certain people trained in remembering verses; some of these verses were written down on whatever was at hand. All these writings were collected in the caliphate of ‘Uthman and the canonical text was established around 650 A.D. The writings were collected into a group of surah’s and ordered according to length (each surah is meant to be a single recitation), though all Muslims also know the chronological order of the recitations.
The Qur’an is organized into separate chapters called surahs. The order of the surahs, however, does not reflect the chronological order of the Quranic verses, nor does the surah structure reflect the nature of the original Quranic revelation. During his lifetime, Muhammad would have individual verses revealed to him; these revelations occurred unexpectedly and in surprising places. Typically, revelation would put Muhammad in a trance-like state. He, and others, would memorize the revealed verses and, under the guidance of Gabriel, Muhammad organized these verses into the existing surahs. The intervention of Gabriel in ordering the various verses in Islamic history is meant to guarantee not only the sanctity of the individual verses, but the religious validity of the organization of these verses in the Qur’an.
The Qur’an was an oral text throughout the lifetime of Muhammad; it was also a fluid text. The complete text resided only in the memories of Muhammad and his followers. As he added verses and reorganized the text, his followers would rememorize the text in the light of the additions or edits. This means that the Qur’an was a living text during the lifetime of Muhammad.
The “Satanic Verses”
According to a narrative by Muhammad ibn Ka’b, certain verses revealed to Muhammad were later repudiated by him as “satanic” verses revealed not by Gabriel but by Satan. These verses were expunged from the text that so many had memorized. Some secular academics accept the account; however, devout Muslims and modern Muslim scholars do not believe these “Satanic Verses” ever existed.
From Oral to Written Tradition
After the death of Muhammad, the text of the Qur’an was written down in the caliphate of Abu Bakr. Until ‘Uthman, one and only one written text existed. For more than a decade after the death of Muhammad, the Qur’an remained primarily an oral text in the memories of the faithful. In Islamic accounts of the history of the Qur’an, this oral text was entirely faithful to the original verses — this is entirely possible, but Western historians generally agree that some corruptions must have produced slight variations throughout the Islamic world. Nevertheless, the military expansion of Islam led to two direct consequences concerning the integrity of the Quranic text. First, large numbers of the faithful were dying out in the various military expeditions. Each time someone died who had the Quranic text memorized, that meant that one copy of the Qur’an disappeared forever. Second, the expansion of Islam swelled the ranks of the faithful. Many of these new converts spoke other languages and the original Arabic of the Qur’an began to corrupt. Faced with these two threats to the integrity of the Qur’an, ‘Uthman ordered a recension of the text to be made and to serve as the definitive written version of the text. A recension is a version of a text that is assembled from all the variant versions of that text. ‘Uthman, however, relied on two sources: the written text that had been ordered by Abu Bakr and that still existed, and the various oral texts of Muslims who memorized it during the lifetime of Muhammad. In Islamic history, there is no variation between these two sources, so the Uthmanic “recension” is largely a codifying of a single version of a text. This version, the ‘Uthmanic recension, is the version of the Qur’an that has remained, unchanged, the central holy text of Islam.
The Qur’an has one overriding theme, endlessly repeated and elaborated throughout the text: complete submission (in Arabic: Islam; Muslim means “one who submits”) to the word and the will of God, who is one God and the only God. The God of Islam is both a stern judge and endlessly forgiving; obedience to God wipes away all transgression. This submission, however, must be fully and rationally given; faith (iman) is a rational consent to the truth of the word of God. Therefore, much of the Qur’an concerns the word of God and how it is received and believed, or not received and believed.
Sources: Washington State University, ©Richard Hooker, reprinted by permission.
“Satanic Verses,” Wikipedia.”
“The Satanic Verses Controversy,” Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, Georgetown University.