The Qur’an itself
In this time I am going to give a brief overview of the orthodox Islamic view of the Qur’an and, in addition to this I want to concentrate on why it has such a place of devotion and awe in the hearts and minds of Muslims. It is easy for us as outsiders to treat the Qur’an academically and miss how much it fills the hearts and minds of our Muslim neighbours. I want you to understand how Muslims feel about the Qur’an as well as how they think about it.
After talking about the Qur’an, I will then go on to present two areas of the Qur’an’s teaching that have special importance to us as Christians seeking to share the gospel with Muslims: 1) how the Qur’an presents Jesus and 2) how the Qur’an views Christians. By surveying these three things, the Qur’an itself, it’s view of Jesus, and its view of us, I hope you will better understand the difficult terrain we find ourselves in when we speak to Muslims about Jesus and the Gospel.
The Qur’an is central to your Muslim friend’s heart and mind. He has probably been raised to view it as the most precious thing given to mankind. He has heard its words and rhythms prayed, chanted, spoken, and recited in his home, in the mosque, and in his community since infancy. It has always been treated as the most holy object in the family’s possession. It is never to be questioned and felt and thought to be the best, most noble, most complete, perfect revelation from God. Your Muslim friend has had this book implanted in his mind and it is always there, regardless of how much Western education may have been added. It is essential that you realise this book makes up the fabric of Muslim minds in order to be able to respond to your friend wisely and effectively.
Miscellaneous Qur’an facts:
The Qur’an is comparable in length to the New Testament. It has 114 chapters, called Surah’s. They are arranged roughly according to their length, the longest ones coming at the beginning of the Qur’an and the shorter ones coming toward the end. There is no thematic or chronological progression in the Qur’an. Portions of varying length and content are mixed together in the Surahs often without any unifying theme or progression of thought. The names of the different surahs do not usually refer to the content of the surah but are taken from a prominent word or thought in it. When referring to a certain surah, Muslims will use its name not its number. The Qur’an is also divided into 30 equal parts called “juz'” in order for the whole to be recited over the 30 days of Ramadan, the month of fasting. Individual verses are called “aya’s.” The length of verses varies like the length of surahs, some being very long and some being very short.
Modern translations of the Qur’an will also have information in the heading as to what part of Muhammad’s career the surah was supposedly revealed. Those that came to him while he lived in Mecca are called Meccan. Those that came to him in Medina are called Medinan.
The overall style of the Qur’an is that of a rhyming prose, often with an underlying rhythm of stresses of similar sounds. There is no fixed meter like in much of English poetry. Also, most of it is cast in a dramatic form of someone addressing Muhammad, rather than Muhammad addressing his fellow men. It is held to be the direct speech of God to Muhammad and it presents the Qur’an as having come to Muhammad from outside of himself either directly from God or through an angel.
II. Where the Qur’an came from: the Orthodox View
I am presenting to you the main view you will probably hear from Muslims in the West. There are many variations of Muslim belief, particularly among Shiite Muslims you may meet from Iran, but the majority view being promoted the most is as follows:
It is considered to be divine in origin. It is the earthly edition of an eternal book preserved in heaven called the ‘eternal tablet’ (Surah 85:21,22). It was revealed to Muhammad in fragments over a twenty-three year period generally through the angel Gabriel. The language it was revealed in was Arabic which is considered to be the sacred language. It is held to be the very word of Allah in both word and spirit.
Allah revealed the contents of the Qur’an through three methods of divine inspiration. ‘Wahy’ is the Arabic term for inspiration. Surah 42:51 tells of the three methods:
- by direct inspiration,
- by Allah speaking from behind a veil,
- through an angelic messenger.
The Qur’an does not record much on how Muhammad experienced these revelations though the traditions (Hadith) list many ways they occurred. Here is a partial list: through dreams while asleep, through visions while awake, an angel appearing in the form of a young man, an angel appearing as an angel, through rapture, and like the sound of a bell. These experiences also tended to be physically painful and oppressive.
The contents of the Qur’an in heaven were dictated to Muhammad through the above mentioned means. They are regarded as Allah’s words and in no way are regarded as coming through the personality or mental faculties of Muhammad himself. Muhammad was only a divinely appointed receiver of the text of Qur’an.
These revelations were then recited by Muhammad to his followers who would in turn memorize them. Some portions were written down on various media (leather, palm leaves, bones, pottery pieces, etc.). Some modern Muslim scholars allege that there was a complete written copy of the Qur’an in existence before Muhammad died but there is no written evidence from the early years of Islam to justify that assertion. Muhammad himself is reputed to have been illiterate and not able to have written down a single bit of the Qur’an. Regardless of how much of the Qur’an was written down originally, it appears that memorization was regarded as the more important method of retention over writing.
The Qur’an’s Compilation
The work of organizing the Qur’an into a complete written document was probably not accomplished in Muhammad’s lifetime because of the above mentioned situation and the additional condition that new revelation or changes could have been given to Muhammad until his death. Muhammad died in 632 AD In 633 AD several of the Muslims who had memorized the Qur’an were killed in a battle. This motivated Muhammad’s successor, Abu Bakr to authorize the formal collection of the Qur’an. He appointed one of Muhammad’s secretaries, Zaid Ibn Thabit, and one of Muhammad’s close companions, Umar, to accomplish the task.
Zaid assembled the portions of the Qur’an from the various written materials he collected as well as the memories of many Muslims. He made a wide search for portions and required each portion to be attested by two witnesses. The sheets he produced were first kept with Abu Bakr, then Umar, and then Hafsa, Umar’s daughter. Zaid was not, though, the only one to possess a written collection. Other Muslims had collected most or all of the Qur’an for themselves. the traditions relate that there were as many as fifteen of these collections. These collections differed in length, spelling, voweling, choice of words, and the number of surahs. These different collections led to differences in the recitation of the Qur’an. These differences grew to threaten the unity of Islam in the reign of the Khaliph Uthman (Khaliph after Umar and Abu Bakr).
Uthman formed a committee (c. 653 AD) to create an authorised version from the divergent versions. He is reputed to have used the copy entrusted to Hafsa as the basis for the new version. When this was completed copies of it were prepared and sent to all the important cities of the empire with the orders that all variant and/or old copies were to be burned. Though there was some resistance to this measure and many continued to recite their old versions, Uthman’s version prevailed. The orthodox Muslim view is that this version represents the Qur’an revealed to Muhammad perfectly, and has been passed down to the present without change.
This is the view most Muslims on your campus will assert and defend. For now, keep it tucked away that there are many problems with this view. Within the most authoritative Islamic traditions there are many other accounts that contradict this view. Outside of Islamic traditions there is no evidence to support this view of the history of the Qur’an’s text. The historical value of the Islamic traditions is also open to serious question because they contradict each other and were mostly written at least 150 years after the events they record. Though there is poor evidence to support the orthodox Islamic view of the Qur’an, Muslims passionately believe it to be true and find it very hard to consider the historical evidence.
III. How the Qur’an affects your Muslim neighbour’s daily life
This book affects his thinking in all areas of life:
- personal devotion to God
- public religious practice
- personal hygeine marriage
- family life
- community life
- other religions and cultures
- the afterlife
It is believed to be God’s revealed will for mankind for all areas of life. Muslims make a big point of saying the Qur’an provides a complete way of life. By this they mean that the Qur’an and the traditions give them a complete set of rules to guide every facet of daily life. It gives a Muslim his values for what is good and bad, for what are righteous deeds and sinful deeds, and gives him all the norms for his daily life. Though in reality the Qur’an is enormously supplemented by other Islamic traditions, it is viewed as the basis and final authority for all Islamic life and law.
IV. How your Muslim neighbour feels about the Qur’an
To a Muslim, when he hears the Qur’an recited it is God’s voice to him instructing him in his duty. When he recites its words he believes he is reciting the very words of God, eternal words having their origin in heaven itself. Because of this idea of its origin Muslims believe the Qur’an is above criticism. To them it is the holiest object in this world and they surround the Qur’an with an aura of mystery, power, and magic. The sound of it being chanted can be hypnotic and moving. They believe it retains its heaven-borne majesty, nobility, and incomprehensibility. They approach the Qur’an with fear, humility, and awe. They do special washings and prayers before reading it. They put it away on a high shelf so it is the highest thing in the room. They won’t put it on the floor or where anyone is apt to sit.
Also, the Qur’an spoken and written is used in treating illness, in warding off evil spirits, in getting protection in all kinds of circumstances, in gaining blessings and in making curses. It is seen to be a powerful book and its uses in granting the Muslim spiritual power are more important to the average Muslim than understanding the meaning of the text.
V. Addressing the Qur’an’s agenda: problems with the Orthodox View
The main problem with the orthodox view is its assertion that it perfectly preserves the Qur’an revealed to Muhammad. Muslims claim it to be perfect because their faith rests in its being dictated by Allah to Muhammad. Their theological doctrine of inspiration requires them to have a perfectly recorded and transmitted revelation. They think that any human contribution would necessarily introduce errors. Unfortunately for them, the evidence to support the claim of perfection is wanting.
A. Perfection of the Qur’an’s text cannot be maintained
Claims to perfect transmission of the text do not stand up to scrutiny, either from within existing Islamic traditions or from the viewpoint of Western critical studies. John Gilchrist’s books and booklets are excellent for documentation on this. Another useful book is Ahmad Von Denffer’s book, ‘Ulum Al-Qur’an, published by the Islamic Foundation which documents variations to the accepted text of the Qur’an. From these four lines of argument against the Qur’an’s perfection emerge, just from within authoritative Islamic traditions.
- The traditional accounts contradict each other on the precise manner of the gathering, preservation, editing, and transmission of the Qur’an text. There is no way to determine what really happened.
- There is no firm evidence that Uthman’s version was better than the ones that were incinerated. Rather, there is good evidence that some of the ones burned were better versions.
- The Arabic script at the time of Muhammad was imprecise and this introduced ambiguity over precise choices of wording in numerous places in the Qur’an.
- There are no Qur’an manuscripts dating back to the time of Muhammad or even Uthman that can act as an objective standard for faithfulness of the preservation of the Qur’an’s text until today.
B. Evidence from outside the Islamic tradition casts doubt on the reliability of the text of the Qur’an
There are details about this elsewhere on this site e.g. the historical topic. Instead of supporting the Muslim’s view of the Qur’an, contemporary scholarship in archaeology, textual analysis, and related disciplines is confirming a very human picture of the Qur’an’s origin, rather than a divine one.
C. Borrowing from other religions in the Qur’an
The stories and teaching in the Qur’an show much borrowing from the religions that were present in and around the Arabian peninsula in the 7th and 8th centuries AD. Jewish traditions and apocryphal books, Christian apocryphal books and heretical groups, Zoarastrianism, and Arabian tribal religion provide the sources for many of the accounts in the Qur’an. The one group conspicuously absent is orthodox Christianity, which also fits the time of the Qur’an’s origin because Arabia and the Middle East were the places heretical Christian groups looked to for escape from the control of the Byzantine Empire.
D. The Qur’an is never seriously subjected to criticism
The thought of the Qur’an being a perfectly preserved book from heaven is the basis to a Muslim that Islam is superior to all religions. This strongly asserted idea, believed to be fact, is the main support for the Muslims’ belief in the Qur’an’s supremacy and uniqueness. Key ideas tied with this are the beauty of its language and the idea that the Qur’an is too sublime to imitate. These are the bases of belief in the Qur’an’s superiority over the Bible, not that it has a better historical basis for its text, nor that its claims to confirming prior scriptures stand scrutiny. To avoid these historical questions that undermine its authority Muslims have manufactured other criteria for justifying their belief in the Qur’an like:
- problems with the Bible
- scientific facts revealed in the Qur’an
- Muhammad fulfilling Bible prophecy
- The Qur’an being inimitable
When confronted with the hard questions about the Qur’an they will often try to turn the discussion to attack the Bible or pursue a line of reasoning with the Qur’an that is subjective, unreasonable, or irrelevant.
VI. Considerations for Christian understanding and witness
Arguments for the Qur’an’s perfection are used to bolster Muslim’s faith in the superiority of their revelation over the Bible. Because Christians do not present the Bible as a perfect copy of a heavenly book Muslims feel theirs is superior. They are taught that the Qur’an supersedes the Bible and corrects the corruptions that Christians introduced. When they see discrepancies between the Bible and the Qur’an they assume the problem is with the Bible since they think their Qur’an is perfect. Yet they are wrong. The Bible accurately presents what the disciples said Jesus did and taught. The Muslim must face that the Qur’an says it confirms the prior scriptures yet presents those same scriptures in a false light. Then he must make a choice of faith: faith in a book without historical evidence to support its claims or faith in a book that has survived and overcome centuries of honest investigation.
The Christian view of the inspiration of Scripture honestly faces the issues of textual transmission and preservation and the involvement of fallible humans in the giving of divine revelation. It faces them and provides a sound basis for faith. The Islamic view does not honestly face these issues and Muslims seek to bolster its weaknesses with dogmatism, ignorance, and bravado. May we as Christians show our strength with humility, honesty, and patience as we ask God to open the eyes of our blind friends.
Burton, John, The Collection of the Qur’an. Cambridge University Press, 1977.
Gilchrist, John, Jam’ Al-Qur’an, The Codification of the Qur’an Text. Jesus To The Muslims, PO Box 1804, Benoni 1500, Republic of South Africa, 1989.
The Qur’an, The Scripture of Islam. MERCSA Muslim Evangelism Resource Centre of Southern Africa, PO Box 342, Mondeor. 2110. South Africa, 1995.
Von Denffer, Ahmad, ‘Ulum Al-Qur’an, An Introduction to the Sciences of Qur’an. The Islamic Foundation, 223 London Road, Leicester, LE2 1ZE.
Watt, W.M., Introduction to the Qur’an. Edinburgh University Press, 1970.