Monday, March 18, 2013

The Qur'an

At the time of his death in 632 of the Christian calendar, the revelations of Muhammad had not been codified.   It was not until the year 653 that >Uthman, the Muslim caliph, established the standard version of the Qur=an.  The actual text of the Qur=an, or Vulgate, was established by Zayd ibn Thabit.   

It was in the Qur=an that the teachings of Islam=s founder Muhammad were collected.  These teachings are believed by Muslims to be divinely revealed.  The Qur=an is thus the sacred text of Islam. 
Qur=an is an Arabic word meaning Areciting, recitation, or reading@.  The term Qur=an refers to the collected revelations received by Muhammad.  In the Qur=an -- in this Areciting@ in the Arabic language -- , Muslims hear God speaking in his own words: it is God=s speech (kalam Allah) and self-revelation in much the way that Christ, the Divine Logos, is for Christians.  The Arevealing@ -- the wahy -- of God=s word through Muhammad has been and is the unique, inimitable miracle (mu=jizah) for Muslims, providing them with a guide for all aspects of living, a scripture for constant Aremembrance@ (dhikr) of God, a shaping determinant of individual and collective thinking, and a comprehensive vision of history and destiny.
The collected revelations are normally referred to as AThe Noble Qur=an@ (al-Qur=an al-karim), or simply AThe Book@ (al-Kitab), although the terms for God=s word in the revelations themselves and in Muslim tradition are numerous.  The whole Qur=an is almost the length of the Christian New Testament and consists of 114 main divisions, or suras, which range in length in a common printed text from slightly over two lines (Sura 108) to some 710 (Sura 2).
The suras are numbered and arranged in approximate descending order of length, albeit with notable exceptions, the prime being Sura 1, AThe Opening@, (al-Fatihah), with only seven ayahs.  In Muslim usage, each sura is referred to not by number but by name -- this usually taken from one of the initial words (e.g., 92, ANight@) or some striking passage or phrase (e.g., 2, AThe Cow@) in the sura.  Although very old, the names are evidently not part of the Divine Word, since some suras have more than one name (e.g., 112, APure Devotion@ or AUnity@).

There is no unanimity about the precise chronological order in which the separate revelations came to Muhammad, but texts of the Qur=an traditionally list every sura as either AMeccan@, AMedinan@, or a combination of the two according to whether its contents  were sent down during Muhammad=s prophetic career in Mecca or Medina.  In all schemes, Muslim and non-Muslim, there is general agreement that the preponderance of early (Meccan) material is to be found in the short, dramatic suras and ayahs of the final portion of the collected Qur=an, and most of the later (Medinan) material in the longer, generally less intense passages of the first part of the text.
The contents of the Qur=an take the form of words from God addressed alternately to all mankind, to the faithful, to the unbelievers, or to Muhammad alone.  The language of the revelations is in prose, but a generally dramatic and poetic, often rhyming, prose that is anything but Aprosaic@. The power of the language, especially in some of the shorter, more lyrical passages, is overwhelming and all but impossible to capture in translation.  The content ranges widely and includes paeans of praise for the One God and his myriad Asigns@ in the natural world, sharp warnings about the final Day of Resurrection and Judgment, exhortations to piety and good works, reminders of the history of God=s dealing with mankind through the long series of previous prophets and revelations, commands concerning personal morality and social intercourse, and statements about particular events contemporary with the revelations themselves.  Any or all of these and other themes recur repeatedly, often in the same sura, giving the whole a mosaic effect in which the unity of the discrete parts lies not in narrative development so much as stylistic and thematic repetition.  The marked repetitiveness of the Qur=an is indicative of the Arecitative@ nature of the revelations, a quality underscored by the fact that in daily use the sura divisions for purposes of recitation alone: (1) into thirty roughly equal Aparts,@ each of these further halved to yield sixty Aportions@, and each Aportion@ subdivided into quarters to give 240 short recitations; (2) into thirds {see Suras 1-9, 10-30, 31-114}; and (3) into sevenths.  While the latter two kinds of division are not normally indicated in printed texts, the 30-60-240 divisions are usually marked for the reader.

The early sources recount in some detail how the process of Arevealing@ to Muhammad went on over a long period, perhaps more than twenty years if one dates the first revelation -- traditionally the first five ayahs of Sura 96 -- around 610 C.C., as most scholars do.  Muslim sources treat in detail the Aoccasions of revelation,@ i.e., the historical circumstances in which particular ayahs or suras were given the Prophet, and the Amodes of revelation,@ or different ways in which revelations were given -- e.g., through the angel Gabriel in waking or in dream, or as an auditory experience.  Muhammad seems to have distinguished clearly between what was direct divine word intended for Areciting@ (qur=an) and what was inspiration for his own words and acts.  The revelations likely received some editing and arrangement in Medina at his hands; certainly some of them were written down, and the names of several Ascribes of the Revealing@ are preserved.  Nevertheless, at Muhammad=s death there was no Qur=an as a single, codified book.  The Qur=an, at that time, was still primarily an oral reality for the Muslims, the Arabic Arecitations@ from the Divine Book in Heaven were not yet a single text Abetween two boards.@
Whether the traditions about early attempts under Abu Bakr and especially >Umar to collect the Arecitations@ and organize them are accurate or not, it is clear that under the auspices of the third caliph, >Uthman, a largely successful effort was made to compile an Aauthoritative@ text from the variant Areadings@ (qira=at) of the best reciters from among the Companions of Muhammad.  Carried out by Zayd ibn Thabit and other Companions who Ahad@ the revelation Aby heart@, the >Uthmanic recension was an attempt to eliminate divergent arrangements of the Qur=anic material, to prevent errors and interpolations, and to provide a single text for ritual and educational use in the rapidly expanding Islamic community. 
Variant readings, such as those of Ibn Mas=ud, did persist long after >Uthman, but these are of relatively minor import and have not been a crucial issue in Muslim life.  Recitative variants have even been classified according to seven accepted systems.  There has been little discord among Muslims over the integrity of the basic >Uthmanic text, although some among the Shi>a have made charges of omissions concerning Ali and his descendants. 

While a few non-Muslim scholars have questioned the antiquity of the received text, these scholars have found little acceptance for their ideas, and the Qur=an remains of all major scriptures the one with the clearest textual history.  This is largely due to the voluminous records and scholarship of the Muslims from early times.  They have always recognized (even in some measure when literalist concepts of God=s revelation and speech have prevailed) that the faultless preservation and transmission (tawatur) of God=s Word must be assured by the community and its consensus.  The Divine Speech had to be preserved in human hearts, recited on human tongues, and written by human hands.  The Muslims themselves, collectively, through every generation, are the bondsmen for the inviolate integrity of the Divine Word; to understand this is to understand in good part the close identification of the Muslim umma B the Muslim community B  with the Qur=an=s scriptural revelation.
The religious significance of the Qur=an is reflected in Muslim attitudes toward, and treatment of, the Qur=an across the centuries and around the globe.  In the Qur=an, Muslims find the quintessential expression of God=s Eternal Word, which is with God on a Apreserved tablet,@ AThe Mother of the Book@, or simply AThe Book@.  From a Muslim perspective, the Qur=an sums up, corrects, and completes the revelations given earlier prophets such as Moses and Jesus, and in it Muslims find the basic source for social order, personal ethics, devotion, liturgy, salvation history, eschatology, and the life of faith. 
Of all Muslim religious sciences, the noblest is the study of God=s Word -- its meaning, proper reading, and practical application.  Qur=anic interpretation in particular has been prolific and important in every age, normally taking the form of detailed exegesis with historical, grammatical, and theological explanation of every line.  Memorization of the entire Qur=an has been and remains the mark of learning and piety, carrying with it the honored title of Hafiz -- one who Aguards@ the Book in the heart. 
Every performance of prayer -- of salat --involves recitation from the Qur=an, and non-Arab Muslims who know no other words of Arabic know enough of it to recite segments in worship.  To touch the Qur=an, one must be ritually pure; to copy it is a sacred task; to give it is to give the finest gift. 

Mystics have chanted and sung, meditated upon, and esoterically interpreted the Qur=an; grammarians have based rules for Arabic on it; theologians have formulated guidelines for all of life in light of it; artists have embellished almost all Islamic buildings and artifacts with its words in elaborate calligraphy; conservators of the status quo have claimed it as their authority; reformers have built movements around a return to its preaching; and ordinary people have patterned their lives as well as their speech after its words.  The Qur=an stands at the core of Islamic faith as the active communication of the divine will for humankind.[1]



As an historical aside, because the Arabic language in which the Qur=an came to be written is considered sacred, and because Islamic law forbade most kinds of representational images, beginning in the 600s, great attention was paid in Islamic art to calligraphy -- to handwriting -- as an expression of faith and of beauty.


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