What Is the Qur'an?

What Is the Qur'an?

For Muslims, the Qur'an contains the revelation of God. What exactly is this book?

To many in the West, Islam is a strange and unfamiliar religion forever linked with terrorism and the events of September 11, 2001. Terms like “Islamist,” “sharia law,” and “jihad” elicit fear. People wonder whether Islam promotes violence or is a peaceful religion as many Muslims claim.

For some, the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, has become a symbol of hate and intolerance. People like Terry Jones of Dove World Outreach in Florida have staged public burnings of it, promoting a message of fear and hatred toward Muslims. Yet for Muslims, the Qur’an is a beautiful revelation from God.

So what do we make of this book?

The History of the Qur’an

Qur’an literally means “the recitation” in Arabic. Believed by Muslims to be “God’s book,” it is considered by followers to be a guide for all who believe in the one true God. Within Islam, the Qur’an is the ultimate authority, the foundation of faith, and the Muslim’s guide to the straight path.

Muslims believe that the Qur’an was revealed by God through the angel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad. In 610 CE, while meditating in a cave near Mecca on Mt. Hira (present-day Saudi Arabia), Muhammad is said to have received the first of many divine revelations.

Tradition states that the angel Gabriel visited Muhammad and commanded him to “read.” Trembling with fear, Muhammad responded that he could not. Twice more the angel repeated the command and twice more Muhammad replied that he could not read.1 Finally, the words were revealed to him and he spoke: “Read! In the name of the Lord who created: He created man from a clinging form. Read! Your Lord is the Most Bountiful One who taught by [means of] the pen, who taught man what he did not know.”2

This experience began a period of revelation that lasted more than twenty-two years. The messages were memorized by Muhammad and his followers and were eventually collected and written down in the Qur’an.

Consisting of 114 suras (chapters) and more than six thousand aya (verses), the Qur’an is about four-fifths the size of the New Testament.3 Its suras are arranged according to length, not chronology. To many non-Muslims, this can make the Qur’an seem confusing and disjointed.

The Language of God

Written in a highly poetic style, the Qur’an is considered by many—Muslim and non-Muslim alike—to be a perfect example of the Arabic language. Muhammad pointed to it as a miracle whose beauty and perfection could not be imitated.4 The Qur’an is believed to have been not only written but revealed to Muhammad in Arabic,  the language of God.5 As a result, all Muslims will memorize and recite the Qur’an (including during the five daily prayers) in Arabic, whether or not they understand the language.6

Unlike the Scriptures of Christianity and Judaism, which have been widely translated and disseminated in common languages, the Qur’an is believed to be untranslatable. Until modern times, it was printed only in Arabic. Even now, when the Qur’an is translated into other languages, it is considered an interpretation or commentary, not actually the Qur’an.

God’s Final Revelation

For the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, the Qur’an is believed to be the literal, perfect, eternal, and unchangeable word of God. Unlike the Bible that came before it, the Qur’an is thought to be uncreated and eternal, existing in heaven with God in the Arabic language.7 Muhammad is considered an intermediary in the revelation of the Qur’an, not its author.

Muslims see Islam as the true religion of God; its existence predates Muhammad. They regard Islam as the oldest of the monotheistic faiths reflecting the true revelation of God, which began with Adam and includes Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, among many other prophets. Therefore, the Qur’an is the final book in a line of revelation that includes the Torah, the psalms of David, and the gospel message of Jesus.

Muslims judge that these earlier revelations have been corrupted over time. After the death of the earlier prophets, heretical and strange beliefs infiltrated the Torah and the gospel, altering God’s pure revelation. Christian doctrines—such as the deity of Christ, the death of Jesus on the cross, and the Trinity—are seen as human fabrications that distort the true revelation of God. Because of this, God gave Muhammad the Qur’an as a final correction of these “before books.” Unlike its predecessors, the Qur’an is incorruptible and protected by God.

Subjects of the Qur’an

The Qur’an touches on many different subjects, including God, angels, prophets, future judgment, the holy books, and jihad. It specifies rules about modesty, marriage, divorce, inheritance, alcohol, gambling, eating, stealing, and sexual behavior. It condemns the exploitation of orphans, widows, and the poor. It gives certain rights to women and sets regulations for operating in business. It demands hospitality and social responsibility toward members of the community and outsiders alike. It gives instructions for the rituals of worship and the standards for purity. It requires the giving of alms to the poor and establishes the beliefs and practices of Islam.

However, at its core, the Qur’an is a book about the one true God. “Allah,” the Arabic word for God, is mentioned more than 2,500 times. God is the centerpiece of the book, which teaches that he is transcendent, all-powerful, and all-knowing. He is the creator, sustainer, and judge of all things. Within the pages of the Qur’an, his many attributes—commonly referred to as the 99 beautiful names of God—can be found. It staunchly defends God’s sovereignty and an absolute monotheism—two central tenets of Islam.

Spiritual Power of the Qur’an

On a popular level, many Muslims use the Qur’an for more than recitation and prayer. Some believe it to possess spiritual powers to ward off evil, protect from harm, and aid in supernatural healing.

Some Muslims will carry amulets that contain pieces of paper inscribed with Qur’anic verses in order to protect them from evil spirits. However, Muslim scholars unanimously maintain that it is haram (unlawful) to wear amulets that contain anything other than Qur’anic verses.8 On the dashboard of almost every taxi in the Middle East lies a Qur’an, because drivers believe it will protect their cabs from harm. It is also a common practice to place a piece of paper with a verse from the Qur’an written on it in a glass of water. The ink will then dissolve in the water, giving it special power so that it can be consumed for healing or protection.9

A Way of Life

For the past 1,400 years, the Qur’an has served as a basis for Islamic law and a guide for daily life. Muslims throughout history have believed that the Qur’an is the literal, eternal, unchangeable Word of God.

For Muslims around the world, the Qur’an provides the immutable principles necessary to walk the straight path in life.

  1. Muhammad Abdel Haleem, Understanding the Qur’an (New York, NY: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 1999), 1.
  2. M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an: A New Translation (Oxford World’s Classics) (Oxford: University Press, 2004), Qur’an 96:1–5.
  3. John L. Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1988), 23–24.
  4. Qur’an 10:37–38; Qur’an 17:88.
  5. Qur’an 12:2; Qur’an 26:193; Qur’an 41:44.
  6. Esposito, Islam, 21.
  7. Roland Muller, Understanding Islam (Saskatchewan, Canada: CanBooks, 2013), 127.
  8. "Wearing Amulets," Islam Awareness, http://www.islamawareness.net/BlackMagic/fatwa_amulets.html.
  9. Frederick Matthewson Denny, An Introduction to Islam (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 1994), 139.
  10. Photo Credit: ZouZou / Shutterstock.com.