The Koran, also called Quran or the Qur’an, is the chief religious text of Islam. Muslims believe it to be a revelation from God (Allah). God revealed the Koran to the final Prophet, Muhammad, through the archangel Gabriel.
The Koran came in increments over some 23 years. The revelations began in Ramadan when Muhammad was 40 and finished in 632, the year of his death.
What Is the Koran?
For the refurbishment of the Great Mosque of Sana’a in Yemen in 1972, some laborers worked in an attic between the building’s inner and outer roofs. These workers stumbled across an extraordinary gravesite. But, they didn’t recognize it at the time.
This site contained no human remains, no tombstones, no funereal jewelry. It had nothing more than a mush of paper documents and old parchment. Instead, they found books and single pages of Arabic script, bonded together by centuries of dampness and rain. Insects and rats had chewed into them over the years.
Some of these parchment pages seemed to date back to the seventh and eighth centuries AD. They were fragments, in other words, of one of the oldest Korans in existence. However, the oldest extant copy of the full text is from the ninth century.
But what is the Koran? What this tattered manuscript so momentous?
The Koran is the sacred scripture of Islam. It is much shorter than the Bible, shorter even than the New Testament. It has 114 chapterlike subdivisions called surahs. The Koran uses the word surah to describe revelatory passages of indefinite length.
All the surahs except one begin with the words Bismillahir rahmanir raheem. This phrase means, “In the name of Allah the most merciful and the most kind.”
Muslims recite the first surah as part of the ritual prayer. The longest surah is Al-Baqara with 286 ayat, while the shortest is Al-Kawthar, made up of only three ayat.
The surahs fall into two categories: the Meccan and the Medinan. In present-day printed copies of the Koran, one finds a heading for each surah. This heading tells the reader whether the Angel Gabriel revealed it in Mecca or Medina.
The compilers of the Koran did not assemble it according to contents or literary forms. Nor did they compile it according to the time in which the Prophet received the separate parts. Instead, the surahs follow each other according to the principle of decreasing length. There are many exceptions to that rule.
The surahs have further subdivisions: verses called ayat (singular ayah). The literal meaning of ayat is “sign.”
The Koran uses it to describe displays of God’s grace and power. For example, it contains ayat about various features of the natural world. Other ayat describe the punishments that God has imposed on wicked people in the past. The Koran also has sections called juz as a 30-day reading schedule for Ramadan.
The Koran is the most significant literary work in classical Arabic. For all Muslims, it stands as the final, eternal, unaltered Word of God. It has remained the same for fourteen centuries. It intended to correct any errors in previous holy books such as the Old and New Testaments.
Of course, this claim has its detractors. One is Dr. Gerd Puin, a renowned Islamicist at Saarland University, Germany. Puin says it is not one single work. Instead, it includes stories written before the Prophet began his ministry. However, the text does contain some basic information found in the Hebrew Bible.
– The Beginning of the Recitation
The recitation began one night in the year 610. Muhammad believed himself to be a messenger of God and Prophet from that point on. He was the last of seven (beginning with Abraham and ending with Jesus Christ). He was responsible for inscribing the final and most important of God’s direct messages to the world.
The evidence shows that Muhammad, who never learned to read or write, narrated the text to scribes, who wrote down what they heard. Some of the Prophet’s friends set out to gather all the surahs disseminated in this manner. This effort produced many versions of the scripture.
These “Companions” of the Prophet were the first to put the Koran into single volumes. Today, we call these versions “Companion codices.”
No devout Muslim should touch a Koran with his left hand since that limb is for dirty chores. Thus, the stereotypic image of the holy fighter with a sword in one hand and the Koran in the other makes no sense. It would only be believable if it depicted a left-handed warrior.
Muslims accept the Koran as the foundation of religion, law, politics, and culture. One writer remarked, “It is the holy of holies. It must never rest beneath other books but always on top of them. One must never drink or smoke when it is being read aloud, and it must be listened to in silence.”
According to Islamic tradition, the Koran explains life in the world and the hereafter. Muslims believe that it has undisputed greatness. No human being has attempted to create even a piece of verse that is comparable to it.
This text is the primary source and spring that emits the teachings of Islam. It is a source of Islamic education. Many of the verses contain the rules of Allah Almighty.
The word Qur’an is Arabic for “recitation.” It has four root words, each with a separate meaning. The first is qara’a, whose literal meaning is to compile or to collect. The second root word is qar’ana, meaning conjunction or union. The third is qira’athun, meaning to recite or read. The fourth and final root of the word Qur’an is qira’in, which is the plural of qarina. It means argument, evidence, or symbol.
– Foundation of the Faith
The Koran is one of the two foundations of the Muslim faith. The other is the hadith, from the Arabic word for “report,” which is the record of Muhammad’s life and deeds. It is guidance from the Prophet Muhammad’s life and an example for all Muslims to follow.
The compilation started in the first few decades after the Prophet’s death. Those who knew him collected and shared stories and quotations related to his life.
Scholars evaluated these stories within the first two centuries after his death. They tracked the origins of each quote. They also looked at the string of storytellers through whom it passed.
They deemed the ones that were unverifiable as “weak” or even “fabricated.” They branded others as “authentic.” These authentic stories formed the basis of the hadith.
The Angel Gabriel revealed the Koran over more than two decades in two places. At first, Muhammad and his followers committed the revelations to memory. As they grew in number and complexity, they wrote them down on whatever materials were at hand.
Islam is the Arabic word that gives the Islamic religion its name. It means “submission,” in particular, submission or obedience to God.
This submission takes the form of the arkan ad-din, or the Five Pillars of the Faith, which are:
- Shahadah or the Confession of Faith. It states, “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet.”
- Salat, or prayer: Believers must pray five times every day.
- Sawm Ramadan, or fasting during Ramadan: All believers must fast from food, drink, and sexual activity from dawn to dusk during Ramadan.
- Zakat, or almsgiving: One’s duty to God involves distributing one’s wealth to the less fortunate.
- Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca: Believers must once in their life make a pilgrimage to the Kaaba, the sacred shrine of Islam in Mecca.
Muhammad received the first installation of the Koran in Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar.
Below are three Ramadan quotes from the Holy Koran:
- O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous
- But to fast is best for you, if you only knew
- The month of Ramadhan, in which was revealed the Koran, a guidance for the people, and clear proofs of guidance and criterion. So, whoever sights [the new moon of] the month, let him fast it; and whoever is ill or on a journey – then an equal number of other days. Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship and for you to complete the period and to glorify Allah for that which he has guided you, and perhaps you will be grateful.
Surat Al-Barqarah 2:183-185
– Koran Definition
The official definition of the Koran is “the sacred book on which the religion of Islam is based” (Collins). Muslims believe it to be the infallible word of God. The origin of the word is Qur’an, which means reading, or book, related to qara’a, which means to read or recite.
The spelling of the word is a burning question. Arabic and Islamic scholars prefer the Qur’an spelling. In much of the Western, non-Arabic press, the more common spelling is “Koran.” Scholars say the problem is transliteration or spelling a word in a language from which it did not originate.
The Rev. Steven Blackburn, who teaches Arabic at Hartford Seminary, says that Muslims will recognize any spelling, but the “Q” sound is closest to the actual pronunciation.
The apostrophe is for the “glottal stop” used by Arabic speakers when they pronounce the word. Most native English speakers have trouble pronouncing words with the glottal stop. It becomes easy if they have formal training in speaking Arabic.
Some writers omit the apostrophe. For a native English speaker, its presence makes the word look foreign.
The book features Allah as the first person, speaking through Gabriel to Muhammad.
Who Wrote the Koran?
The Koran is 848 pages of rich Arabic text. It contains 77,934 words. Logically, its writer is someone familiar with Arabic since the text is in that language. But, no author’s name appears on the Koran. It begs the question, “who wouldn’t want recognition for such an impressive work?”
Since it’s in Arabic, the Koran could have only come from one of three possible sources:
- The Arabs. Yet, what the Koran teaches went against the pagan Arab religion. It rejected the gods and culture that existed before its revelation.
- Muhammad. Yet, the Prophet never went to school. So it is unlikely that he knew anything about astronomy or science. He’s also not likely to have created the poetry contained in the Koran. Few people were literate at the time.
- Allah. The answer is in the fourth surah, ayah 82: Do they not consider on the Koran? If it had been from anyone except Allah, they would surely have found in it much discrepancy.
The Koran contains pure, rich Arabic verse. Muslims believe no one but Allah could have written it.
The source and timeline of the compilations of the Koran spread across several centuries. It forms a crucial part of the early history of Islam.
The revelation of the Koran started in 610 AD. According to Islamic scholars and Muslim belief, the angel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad in the cave Hira, which is about two miles from Mecca. There, the angel narrated the first verses of Surah Al-Alaq.
The cave Hira is not considered as part of the Hajj pilgrimage route. Still, Muslims today visit the cave en-masse. It receives an estimated 5000 visitors during the Hajj season.
As he received the revelations, the Prophet had the early Muslims memorize them. Forty-two scribes recorded them in writing. The Koran was complete when he died. The early Muslims continued to remember the Koran in its entirety after his death (qari). Several of these scribes and early Muslim devotees died during the Battle of Yamama in Central Arabia in 632 AD.
During Abu Bakr’s brief caliphate, his successor, Umar ibn al-Khattab, became concerned because so many Muslims who had known the Koran by heart had died during the Battle of Yamama. Abu Bakr asked Zayd ibn Thabit, the former secretary of the Prophet, to make a compilation of the Koran.
So Zayd, with the help of 12 people, proceeded to collect the Koran. He got verses from palm leaves, flat stones, pieces of papyrus. Others were on the ribs and shoulder blades of dead animals, wooden boards, and bits of leather.
Last, he collected the surahs from people’s memories. Those who had memorized the Koranic ayat had to produce two witnesses for the verses they knew.
Saeed ibn al-Aas was a man renowned for the beauty of his handwriting. He transcribed the compilation on gazelle skin. This copy was recited to the companions at a general meeting, and there was no objection. So, a book called mushaf emerged, which means written verses.
Yet, Muslims believe that the Caliph Uthman established the text we have today. Uthman tasked Zayd with preparing this official text. It came about because there was a difference in the recitation of the Koran in the Armenian battles, which took place between Muslims from Iraq and Damascus.
Zayd made a careful revision of the text with three helpers who were members of noble Meccan families. It now followed the dialect of the Quraysh, the Prophet’s tribe. Uthman ordered the destruction of all other versions.
An English version of the Koran became a bestseller among Protestants in England. It was also popular in the American colonies in the 1700s.
One of its readers was Thomas Jefferson. The former president’s copy of the Koran drew attention in 2019 when Rashida Tlaib announced she’d use it during her swearing-in ceremony. Tlaib is one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. She later decided to use her own Koran.
History of the Koran
Muhammad, the Koran’s Prophet, was born in Mecca around the year 570 AD. Mecca is a city on the western side of the Arabian peninsula near the Red Sea. He often retreated into the nearby mountains, which was a common practice at that time.
In the cave at Hira, on one of these retreats, Muhammad received his first vision of the Angel Gabriel. The angel commanded him to recite what is now Surah 96 in the Holy Koran. The experience perturbed Mohammed, making him question his sanity. He returned to Mecca and recounted the event to his family and friends, who urged him to share his experiences.
He began to preach a monotheistic message in the streets of Mecca around the year 613. His clan, the Quraysh, derided and persecuted him. They felt he challenged their authority.
Some sects of Islam report that Muhammad tried to appease the Quraysh. He described a vision that allowed the worship of traditional Meccan deities. Muhammad later retracted this statement and blamed Satan for putting these thoughts in his head (the Satanic Verses).
The Prophet used two independent but complementary techniques for preserving the revelations. From the very beginning, he used inscription and memorization.
He employed four principal teachers whom he instructed in memorizing the revelations. Moreover, his followers started reciting them in the five daily prayers. He also employed 15 scribes to make a written record of the verses.
The Holy Koran in Modern Life
The Mushaf of Uthman is the property of the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan. It is the earliest existent written version of the Koran. It belonged to the Caliph Uthman, who was assassinated while reading it.
On September 11, 2001, the hijackers had a lot on their minds as they boarded four doomed airplanes. Their trainers had told them to meditate on two chapters of the Koran for their suicide attack. In these chapters, the Koran calls for the faithful to cast terror into the hearts of unbelievers.
Does it mean that Muslims, who are followers of the Koran, are violent people? Compared side by side, the Bible is far bloodier than the Koran, with many calls to commit genocide. See, for example, the Book of 1 Samuel, where God orders King Saul to annihilate the Amalekites.
Still, Muslims often spring into action when there is any threat to the sanctity of the Koran. In 2020, Muslims protested the desecration of the Koran in the cities of Oslo and Malmo. Protestors in Oslo tore pages out of the Koran and spat on them. In Malmo, the protestors burned a copy of the Koran.
Ali al-Qaradaghi, secretary-general of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, condemned this desecration of the Holy Koran. He called it an “incitement to terrorism and belittling of sacred values.”
In April 2021, the Indian Supreme Court rejected a writ petition requested by Syed Wasim Rizvi. Rizvi was asking for the deletion of some ayat of the Holy Koran. He asserted that these ayats preached violence against nonbelievers.
Justice Rohinton Nariman was head of the bench that dismissed the case. Nariman said, “this is an absolutely frivolous writ petition.” The Supreme Court imposed a fine of Rs. 50,000 as costs for filing the petition.
Every civilization must have rules to stop lawlessness and preserve harmony. The Koran covers every facet of human conduct and life in this world and the Hereafter. It describes the laws of medicine and nature, astronomy, and the other sciences.
Indeed the Koran is a universal book. The Muslim community has preserved it as it was centuries ago: they have made no alterations of any kind to it.
Muslims bring the Koran wherever they go. It is their handbook and map to take them through this life into victory in the Hereafter. They believe that human beings, left to themselves, will achieve excellence. They will attain as much greatness as the early empires that ended up obliterating themselves through violence, sickness, war, and oppression. The only way to prevent this outcome is by careful study of the Koran and living out the principles of Islam.
The Koran outlines the rank of man before Allah. It also shows their position before fellow human beings and before the rest of creation.
God ordered Prophet Muhammad to deliver the Koran to all humanity, and that duty weighed on him.
The Koran explains in detail what is permissible and what is forbidden. It gives rulings about worship, and it explains the basics of good manners and morals. It explains the concept of God and describes Paradise and Hell. It tells stories about the prophets and the righteous predecessors of humankind.
The Koran tells stories of prophets such as Moses, David, and Jesus. It gives biblical accounts such as the Israelites’ escape from Egypt.
Such stories are abridged accounts. They seem to presuppose that the reader or listener is already familiar with the tale. For that reason, some Muslims have to turn to the Bible for a contextual reference for these stories.
Still, each Koran story is inspiring and lesson-filled. For example, the narrations of the Prophet Adam contain within them essential takeaways. When Allah created Adam, he sent his soul and life into him. Adam sneezed and said Alhamdulillah, which means “All praise belongs to Allah.” It’s important to note that the first words of the first man created were to thank Allah.
The Koran says that the heavens and the earth were joined together as one unit before We clove them asunder (21:30). It further states that Allah created the sun, the moon, and the planets. He made each of these heavenly bodies with its course or orbit. The heavens, we have built them with power. And verily, we are expanding it (51:47). Then, the Koran describes how Allah settled himself upon the Throne (57:4)
The Koran also contains the story of Habil and Qabil (Abel and Cain). Both were sons of Adam, and both offered a sacrifice to Allah. Abel offered a fat she-goat, and Cain gave some bad plants. Fire came down from heaven and consumed Abel’s offering and left Cain’s untouched. Cain got angry and killed Abel – the first murder.
The Prophet Ibrahim became a father at a very late age, but he received a command to sacrifice his son. According to the Koran story, Ibrahim said, O my son. Indeed I have seen in a dream that I [must] sacrifice you, so see what you think. This story shows how Ibrahim valued his son’s perspective. His son showed spiritual strength by responding, O my father, do as you are commanded.
The Prophet Noah was born a thousand years after Adam’s creation. He warned the people about the terrible punishment Allah was about to deal out. He pleaded with them to stop worshipping idols. The people didn’t listen, so Allah punished them with a flood. Noah had built an ark, so he and his family remained safe.
Jesus, known to Islam as Isa, is one of 26 prophets mentioned in the Koran. Prophet Mohammed was also very respectful of Jesus and his mother, Mary. When he entered the Kaaba, the Prophet destroyed all the pagan images. Yet, he allowed a painting of the Virgin and the Infant Jesus to remain. Islam reveres Jesus as a prophet and Mary (Maryam) as a holy woman.
The Muslim Koran
The Koran served as an answer to the problems in Arab society in Prophet Muhammad’s time. It was also a response to the Prophet’s questions about the meaning of human life and the mystery of creation. Muslims say that many of the verses answer specific questions or life situations.
The Koran also directly addressed the Prophet’s family. Muslims see his family as a model for all families in all societies across the world.
So, what is the meaning of Muslim in the Koran? The word “Muslim” appears in 39 ayat spread across 24 surahs. It is an Arabic word, which means a person surrendered to God.
Muslims hold the following six significant beliefs, as laid out in the Koran and the hadith:
- Belief that Allah is one, indivisible, God. Muslims believe that Allah is all-knowing and omnipotent, and he is the creator of all things.
- Belief in Angels. These unseen beings carry out Allah’s orders and worship him for eternity.
- Faith in the Books of Allah. Believers know that God revealed the Scrolls to Abraham, the Torah to Moses, and the Psalms to David. He gave the Gospel to Jesus and the Koran to Muhammad.
- Belief in the Messengers or Prophets of Allah. Followers of Islam believe that Allah reveals his guidance to humankind via prophets or messengers. He has sent messages since the creation of the world, starting with Adam and ending with Muhammad.
- Belief in Judgment Day. Muslims believe that humans will receive judgment for their actions in this life. Those who rejected God’s guidance will go to hell. Those who followed his teachings will enter paradise.
- Believe in the Divine Decree. Muslims believe that God pre-ordains everything that happens in this life. Therefore, the faithful should respond to the good or bad that occurs with patience and gratitude.
Learning how most Muslims see their holy book means walking between two extremes: the liberal Western scholarship and radical Islam. November 2015 marked the release of a first-of-its-kind guidebook, written in English and edited by Seyyid Hossein Nasr titled The Study Quran: a New Translation and Commentary.
Scholars expect it to be beneficial for Western audiences and will help them understand the nature and teachings of Islam. It has come out when attacks by terrorist groups whose members claim to be Muslim have mushroomed.
One can condense the central message of the Koran with the word Tawhid or the oneness of God. The Koran had other benefits as well. Its compilation led to an appreciation for literacy. It also helped the development of the Islamic sciences. The need to understand its legislative content gave rise to Islamic law and legal theory.
The Koran developed the Arabic language. Scholars started paying attention to its lexicography and grammar, and rhetoric. This depth of study came about in an effort to gain a precise understanding of the Koranic text.
It’s essential to know the origin of the Koran to understand why Muslims memorize it and live out its message. The five daily prayers also incorporate messages from Islam and the Koran.
The call to prayer heard from minarets comprises Koranic lines and phrases. The Koran remains one of the modern world’s most influential books. It holds religious value for over a billion people.