Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Issues in Islam: The Centrality of the Qur'an to Islam

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Issues in Islam: The Centrality of the Qur'an to Islam

Article excerpt

The Qur'an, the sacred text of Islam, is the fundamental basis of the religion and the cornerstone of the faith. While there are often vast differences of interpretation among Muslims, no one can deny the Qur'an's authenticity as divine revelation and still remain within the Islamic community. Sometimes attributed to Muhammad by non-Muslims, for believers it is nothing less than the word of God as conveyed by the angel Jibril to the Prophet. Its centrality to Islam is similar to that of Jesus to Christianity; both are held to be the Divine Word made manifest in this world. The Qur'an, its text unchanged and its power undiminished for nearly 14 centuries, is a source of guidance, solace, inspiration and faith for almost a fifth of humanity.

Before the revelation, Muhammad had already rejected the polytheistic religion of Meccan society and often practiced solitary prayer and meditation in search of spiritual enlightenment. When he was about 40 years of age, Muhammad received his first revelation while meditating in a cave on Mount Hira, outside Mecca. Told by a voice that he was the Messenger of God and commanded to recite, Muhammad was at first frightened and dismayed. He informed his wife, Khadija, of his experience. She comforted and encouraged him and, when Muhammad was again visited by Jibril, she became the first person to accept Islam and become a Muslim. She was followed by the prophet's nephew, Ali, and Muhammad's close friend, Abu Bakr. Over time, the community of believers gradually expanded.

As the revelations continued, Muhammad's fear subsided and he grew accustomed to the presence of Jibril and the experience of the revelation, though this was often wrenching. "Never once did I receive a revelation," the Prophet is reported to have said, "without thinking that my soul had been torn away from me."

Muhammad apparently received the revelation in three different ways. The first was in the form of visions. Second was a series of auditory experiences similar to human speech. Third and most difficult was an intense ringing sound like a bell which at first was unintelligible but which, after Jibril had departed, would resolve into the words of the revelation. (In addition there is the aspect of prophetic inspiration which, although it is not textual and does not form part of the Qur'an, must nevertheless be regarded as revelation. It is this inspiration which separated Muhammad, as well as the prophets who came before him, from other men and which informed his actions and practices, which are collected in the hadith, or Traditions of the Prophet.)

The Qur'an was revealed to the Prophet over the final 23 years of his life. As new verses were revealed to and recited by Muhammad, his Companions would transcribe and memorize them. Any dispute over the text or its interpretation was referred to the Prophet for resolution. Muhammad's death marked the end of revelation and the completion of the Message.

Abu Bakr, the first khalifa ("successor") to the Prophet, became concerned because of the death in battle of many of the memorizers of the Qur'an, and thus commissioned Zayd Ibn Thabit, Muhammad's principal scribe, to compile a complete copy of the Book.

This was done in consultation with various Companions of the Prophet, and was completed within two years of Muhammad's death. As Islam spread, however, disputes arose over the proper pronunciation, intonation, and order of the suras, or chapters, of the Qur'an. Uthman, the third khalifa, had the various copies of the Qur'an collected and replaced with a standard text, which is still used today. Though the Muslim community has long been fractured, there are no differences in terms of the accepted text of the Qur'an. There is no such thing as a "Sunni Qur'an" or a "Shi'i Qur'an"; all Muslims hold the same book to be sacred.

Great importance is attached to the task of preserving the integrity of the text of the Qur'an. Muslims who have memorized the entire Book are held in great esteem. …

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