Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Chapter One

The Composition and
Character of the Qur'an



The Qur'an is the holy scripture of the Muslim peoples of the world. It is, in their eyes, the divine authentication of the faith they boldly profess. Although Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, is revered as the greatest of all Allah's servants, he is regarded as only a human messenger who lived and died like any mortal. The cities of Mecca and Medina are likewise regarded as possessing a special sanctity but, as with all other tangible things in the Islamic world, they are nothing more than material parts of the created order. The Qur'an, however, came from above and is the kalam of Allah, the divine word or speech expressing a sifa, an actual quality of his own personality and being. Even though the text of the Qur'an in book form may well have been compiled from earthly materials, the actual text represented is nonetheless no less than a visual record of a divine communication sent down from heaven itself.

During the early centuries of Islam a debate arose in the Muslim world as to whether the Qur'an itself, though the speech of Allah, was nevertheless created at a point in time. A group of free-thinkers had arisen who became known as the Mu`tazila with their principal base in Baghdad, the city where the Abbasid rule over the Muslim world had been established. They did not doubt that the Qur'an was Allah's speech but, believing that the human intellect was the ultimate source of all knowledge, they taught that the Qur'an was only a part of the created order which, having been brought into existence at an undetermined time, therefore had a beginning and could not be said to be divine itself. The orthodox Muslims, however, argued strongly in opposition to this view. They declared that, being the Word of Allah, it could not be separated from him and must have co-existed with him, uncreated, through all eternity. It had, from this divine source, simply been sent down and revealed to Muhammad at the most appropriate point in human history. Their view prevailed and ever since the Qur'an has been held to be uncreated. The Qur'an itself teaches that its written form on earth is merely a reflection of an exact original inscribed in heaven:

Assuredly this is a Majestic Qur'an (inscribed) in a Preserved Tablet. Surah 85:21-22

Most English translations of the Qur'an carry the title "The Holy Qur'an" and Christians may be inclined to think that it is the Muslim equivalent of the Holy Bible. To the extent that each book respectively is believed to be a form of divinely inspired Scripture and is the written source of all knowledge about God's revealed truth, the books are very similar. There is a fundamental difference, however, which has to be fully recognised if Muslim reverence for the Qur'an is to be understood. The Bible is a record of the writings of numerous prophets of God and the apostles of Christ (in the Old and New Testaments respectively) who wrote under the inspiration of the Spirit of God and is therefore the preserved Word of God for mankind. God himself often speaks directly through these writings and his messages are recorded in numerous books, yet the form of each always takes that of a human author writing under the inerrant guidance of the Holy Spirit. God's actual words are included as quotations of prior direct communications to the relevant hearers.

Allah himself, however, is believed to be the actual author of the Qur'an. Here, too, one finds numerous passages where men, angels, prophets and even Satan himself speak, yet this time it is their words which are the quotations. Allah is always the speaker and what was recorded by Muhammad at any time as the Qur'an came to him was nothing less than a revelation from Allah himself. Over a period of twenty-three years it came to him through the medium of the angel Jibril, said to be the angel Gabriel (Surah 2:97), after having been sent down to the first heaven during the month of Ramadan. Allah speaks directly to the Prophet in the Qur'an in these words:

And in Truth We have sent it down, and in Truth it has descended, and We have sent you to be nothing more than a Proclaimer and Warner. And it is a Qur'an which We have (sent) piecemeal so that you may recite it to men in stages, and We have sent it down accordingly. Surah 17:105-106

The Qur'an itself often appeals to its own uniqueness, stating that it contains a "beautiful message" (Surah 39:23) and that no falsehood can come near it (Surah 41:42). It further states that it has been sent down in "pure Arabic" (Surah 16:103) and challenges its detractors to attempt to produce the like of it:

And if you are in doubt about what We have sent down upon Our servant then produce a surah like it, and call your witnesses besides Allah if you are truthful. Surah 2:23

A "surah" is a passage of writing and each chapter of the Qur'an is thus called. The book literally commands reverence and the utmost respect from its adherents and Muslims accordingly are very devoted to it. They are told to seek Allah's protection from the Evil One before reciting it (Surah 16:98) and, in words very similar to those set out in this text, they say A`uuthuu billaahi minash-shaytaanir-rajiim – "I seek refuge in Allah from Satan the stoned". They follow this by reading the bismillah, the heading of every chapter of the Qur'an excepting the ninth surah, which reads Bismillaahir-Rahmaanir-Rahiim – "In the Name of Allah, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful". Only then is the Qur'an itself recited. It is furthermore essential that it be recited properly and Muslims go to great lengths to learn by heart passages to perfection.

To impress all the more upon Muslims that the book is Allah's own Word the Qur'an constantly commands them to bring him to remembrance as they recite it so that its reading may not become an end in itself. Unlike the Bible, which Christians generally read in their own languages to discover its message, the Muslim finds merit just in reciting the Qur'an in its original Arabic even if he does not fully understand what he is reading. It is in this recitation that the Muslim is required to fix his mind on Allah:

And when the Qur'an is recited, listen attentively and be silent so that you may find mercy. And bring the Remembrance of your Lord into your soul humbly and reverently, not loud of voice, in the morning and evening. And do not be among the heedless. Surah 7:204-205

They are also commanded to recite it slowly (Surah 73:4) so that a spirit of reverent awareness of Allah himself may always prevail. The "Remembrance" of Allah is known popularly in Islam as al-Dhikr and the Sufi Muslims of the world (the mystics of Islam) have special ceremonies for this express purpose. The Qur'an itself is called al-Dhikr on eight occasions (eg. Surah 15:6, 15:9) indicating its function as a summons to the recollection of Allah and his glory.


During Muhammad's own lifetime portions of the Qur'an were committed to writing on various materials and not long after his death the whole book was codified into a single text. Over the centuries copies were transcribed and in recent times the Qur'an has been printed and sold throughout the world. As can be expected written Qur'ans are very highly respected and old handwritten manuscripts are especially prized.

Most ancient manuscripts of the Qur'an were carefully written, not only to avoid mistakes, but to reproduce the text as impressively as possible. The early script known as kufi was soon adapted into a form of art and calligraphy and transcribers meticulously preserved the text by writing it out as perfectly as they could. If just a stroke or letter was not faultlessly reproduced they would scrap the page and start again.

In later centuries such manuscripts became decorated with colourful headings and the first chapter of the Qur'an, known as Suratul-Fatihah ("The Opening Chapter"), together with the first few verses of the next chapter was beautifully outlined in oriental style. Gold-leaf margins and outlines were mixed with dark blue backgrounds and other colourful styles and motifs (often floral) to give an appearance of grandeur to the text. Such a decoration became known as an unwan and virtually all the old handwritten texts have them. Other chapter headings were also decorated in colourful style with gold-leaf always a choice addition to give class to their appearance while floral and arabesque medallions alongside the text added to the charm of the manuscript.

The script changed as well after the first few centuries and the naskhi script became the most popular and most of the surviving copies of old Qur'an manuscripts employed it. The similar thuluth script was used at times and to this day a cursive script known as maghribi ("western") is still used in countries such as Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Virtually all printed Qur'ans employ the naskhi script. The oldest surviving passages of handwritten texts dating to the second century of Islam are inscribed in a slanted text known as al-ma`il. More will be said on this subject in the last section of this book.

As a result of the conviction that the Qur'an is the uncreated kalam of Allah, certain scruples surround handwritten or printed copies of its text. It is a belief of the strictly orthodox that the Qur'an should never be touched or opened by anyone other than a true Muslim and certain ablutions should be observed before this is done. The Qur'an itself says "None shall touch it but those who are clean" (Surah 56:79) and a tradition emphasises the need for a proper ablution:

`Abd Allah b. Abu Bakr b. Hazm reported: The book written by the Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) for `Amr b. Hazm contained this also that no man should touch the Qur'an without ablution. (Muwatta Imam Malik, p.94).

It is also customary to have a small ledge as close to the roof as possible upon which the Qur'an is to be placed when it is not being read as it should obtain the highest place in the home. Muslims will also not leave a Qur'an on a chair, seat or bed as this is believed to be common property where people have sat or lain and unsuitable for such a book. For the same reason a Qur'an should never be placed on the ground where people have walked. Special wooden Qur'an stands are provided in mosques upon which the book can be placed while the reader is sitting on the ground. The book should be kissed before it is opened and, once read, it should be closed as a tradition prevails among Muslims that Satan will come and read an open Qur'an if no one else is reading it.

In closing it should be added that the grammatical form of the Qur'an has become the standard by which all good Arabic grammar is tested. It is presumed beforehand that the text is unimpeachable and its style likewise has become the norm by which all other Arabic writings can be evaluated. Any deviation from its method is regarded as a defect. Even in the realm of literary criticism this principle holds sway. Many Western scholars of Arabic history have believed that some of the Arabic literature quoted in al-Baqillani's I`jaz al-Qur'an is of a far superior quality to the monotonous tone of the Qur'an, yet these works perforce have to be regarded as subordinate to it simply because the Qur'an is presumed to be the standard by which all other poetry and literature must be evaluated (and, accordingly, deemed inferior!). If anyone was to attempt to "produce a surah like it" he could be sure by these very principles of comparison that he would have no prospect of success.




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A page from a horizontal Qur'an written in the early eighth century AD in Arabia. It is inscribed in the earliest script known to have been used for the text, the al-Ma`il or Hijazi script. The text is from Surah 57:13-23.


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A double-page from a vertical Qur'an parchment written in the same slanting script in the eighth century AD. This manuscript was stolen from the Kuwait National Museum by Iraqi soldiers in the Gulf War of 1991.




The Qur'an is almost the length of the New Testament though its structure and form is very different to it. It is comprised of one hundred and fourteen surahs which are of unequal length and are not compiled in any sort of chronological order.

The longest surahs occur first and, as one progresses through the Qur'an, the chapters become shorter and shorter so that, whereas the second surah has two hundred and eighty-six verses, the last ten are made up of only a few lines each.

Each surah has a title usually taken from a significant word or name usually at the beginning of the text. Some introduce the major theme of the surah, for example the twelfth chapter which is known as Suratu-Yusuf, "Chapter of Joseph", because he is its central theme. It is interesting to discover that, although other Biblical prophets are mentioned throughout the Qur'an at various points, Joseph is not referred to anywhere else in the book. It appears that Muhammad only heard of him and the story of his life during his later years as this surah is one of the last said to have been revealed to him. Yet it is obvious from the following verse taken from its introduction that he was very moved by it:

We relate to you a most beautiful story, in that we reveal to you this (part of the) Qur'an, though before it you were among those ignorant of it. Surah 12:3

The nineteenth chapter is titled Suratu-Maryam, the "Chapter of Mary", because the mother of Jesus is its central theme. Nonetheless the Qur'an also has another well defined division, this time into thirty sections of virtually equal length, which Muslims also describe as "chapters" or portions but which are known by a different name. Each one is called a Juz' or, in the popular Persian terminology, a Siparah (from si – "thirty" – and parah – "portions"). There is no correlation between these and the surahs of the Qur'an and their identification in a written Qur'an is not so obvious. In some they are marked by a medallion alongside the text, in many printed Qur'ans by an accentuation or decoration of the first verse of each successive passage. The purpose of this division is to enable Muslims to recite the Qur'an each night during the thirty nights of the holy month of Ramadan, the month in which all Muslims are compelled to fast from sunrise to sunset.

At the beginning of twenty-nine of the surahs of the Qur'an, just after the bismillah, are certain Arabic letters not forming a word. No one knows what they mean and a number of interesting interpretations and suggestions have been made to unravel their purpose. Some learned Muslims have claimed that they have a profound meaning known only to Muhammad himself but nothing can be said of them with any certainty. At least six surahs begin with the letters alif, lam, mim.

Nonetheless to Muslims generally the meaning of these letters is not important as the recitation of the Qur'an is regarded as just as vital as applying its teachings. The very word Al-Qur'an means "The Recitation" and the practice is so seriously regarded by Muslims that they will go to great lengths just to learn its correct pronunciation, a pursuit now developed into a science and known as `ilmut-tajwid, the "knowledge of pronunciation". The actual recitation of the Qur'an is known as tilawah and it appears from the following tradition that even Muhammad was concerned to be scrupulous in this matter:

Gabriel used to recite the Qur'an before our Prophet, may Allah bless him, once every year in Ramadan. In the year in which he breathed his last he recited it twice before him. Muhammad said: I hope our style of reading conforms to the last recitation by Gabriel. (Ibn Sa`d, Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, Vol.2, p.243).

Each surah of the Qur'an is also broken up into brief sections known as ruku`ah as Muslims deem it commendable to make a bow in reverence, a ruku`, at the end of the recitation of each of these sections. They are designated in the Qur'an by the Arabic letter `ain in the margin and are accompanied by the section number and number of verses in each case. Often these designations are also embellished with floral rosettes or other forms of medallion.

The Qur'an has a number of names for itself. It is called Qur'anul-Majid, "a Glorious Qur'an" in Surah 85:21 and is elsewhere described as Qur'anul-Karim, "a Noble Qur'an" (Surah 56:77). In Surah 36:2 its title is al-Qur'anul-Hakim, "the Wise Qur'an" and many modern printed Qur'ans employ one or more of these names in the title-page of the book. One such Qur'an is titled Qur'an Karim wa Furqan Adhim, "a Noble Qur'an and an Exalted Criterion". The title al-Furqan itself is applied to the Qur'an in Surah 25:1 and it implies that the holy book is the "criterion" by which all truth can be distinguished from falsehood and all right from wrong.


The Qur'an is very different to the Bible in that it was compiled through the mediation of only one man over a period of twenty-three years until the day of his death. It was only this event that sealed the length and content of the book. As long as Muhammad remained alive there was always a possibility that fresh material could be added.

The book itself, as stated already, has no chronological sequence. While it covers large parts of Biblical history and freely acknowledges the former prophets, it not only does not attempt to give any kind of historical sequence to the events it records but it also offers no locality or time in history when they occurred. The only place mentioned by name in the Qur'an is Mecca (Bakkah in the text of Surah 3:96) and no dating whatsoever of any event is recorded. Unless the reader of the Qur'an is familiar with these from another source – the Bible in particular – he has no hope of being able to compose a picture of prophetic history.

The story of Jonah is not dated in the Bible but the short narrative in the book of the same name leaves no doubt as to exactly what took place and where he went. The story is patchily reproduced in the Qur'an in Surah 37:139-148 and is lacking vital details. The cities of Tarshish and Nineveh are omitted and no mention is made of the storm which led to him being thrown overboard into the sea, though his condemnation by lots is recorded. The reader is, it appears, presumed to know the story in its basic details. On the positive side the Qur'an can be viewed as a Scripture intended for edification which need not concern itself with factual or chronological details long receded into history. It does not seem to be interested in the events it records from a historical perspective nor in localities or personalities as such. These are secondary and incidental to the real theme – the relevance of Allah's dealings and experiences with men in former times as examples for the present and the future. It engages with incidents and refers to them only to suit its own purposes.

Nonetheless there are times when the reader cannot help getting the impression that details may be lacking as a result of insufficient information being available to the book's author. The Qur'an records a story similar to Nathan's parable to David in 2 Samuel 12:1-6 but it states that the incident was a real one where two disputants actually came into his presence, the one complaining that the other had taken his only ewe when he already had ninety-nine of his own (Surah 38:22-23). When David angrily pronounced judgment against the second litigant, the text says he suddenly realised that he had personally been tried through it and fell down asking forgiveness. No indication is given as to what he had done wrong nor how the story related to his own offence. Surah 38:25 adds that Allah then forgave him for "this", not hinting as to what it was. Again, without recourse to the comprehensive narrative of the whole event in the Bible, the reader cannot hope to discover what the Qur'an is talking about.

A good example of the somewhat haphazard structure of the Qur'an is found in the passage which follows the story of Jonah in Surah 37. The next verses (Surah 37:149-157) contain an admonition about the pagan Arab belief that certain idols were the daughters of Allah. How could he only have daughters while they had sons (in the light of the Arab belief that sons were a blessing but daughters a misfortune)? The passage has no connection whatsoever with what went before it. Virtually the whole of the Qur'an is compiled in this way.

This last-mentioned passage, however, is symbolic of one of the unique features of the Qur'an. The book constantly employs argument and reasoning to convince its hearers of its message. As an appeal to the pagan Arabs not to persist in idolatry the Qur'an argues strongly from the evidences around them of an obvious single source of all creation (similar to Paul's reasoning in Romans 1:20):

Who has made the earth your couch, and the heavens your canopy; and sent down rain from heaven, and brought forth fruits for your provision? So do not knowingly set up rivals to Allah. Surah 2:22

Similar disputational reasoning is used in Surah 6:32 where it is argued that the amusements and frivolity of life of this world are obviously temporal and that a much wiser occupation would be the pursuit of a permanent home in the hereafter. Will they not then understand? Likewise, in a few verses further on, the pagans are asked who they would appeal to if Allah's wrath or the final Hour were suddenly to come upon them (Surah 6:40). Against the Christians the Qur'an charges "How can Allah have a son when he has no wife?" (Surah 6:101). It is ironic that Mary asks a similar question, not objectionably but by way of enquiry, in Surah 3:47 where she too asks how she could have a son when she had no husband? In the next verse the Qur'an declares that Allah can do as he wills and that he only has to speak the word kun ("Be!") and fayakun ("it comes to be"). Surah 19:21 adds that such things are easy for Allah. By the same reasoning the Qur'an should be able to answer its own question in Surah 6:101. Nonetheless these passages are typical of many where the spirit of argumentative reasoning is employed in the book.

In the earlier passages of the Qur'an which concentrate on sharp, prophetic pronouncements a catching rhythmical prose is used with poetic effect. This saj` style tends to fall away in the later passages which deal with practical issues at greater length but its use is one of the features of the Qur'an. (It is important to remember that the earliest portions of the Qur'an are generally found in the surahs at the end of the book while the later portions paradoxically appear at the beginning).

Although the Qur'an is said to be an eternal Scripture and that the Prophet of Islam was commissioned solely to communicate its contents without any involvement in its compilation, it interacts with him and addresses him personally on numerous occasions. He is commanded to "Say" (qul) that he is only a man like all others but that an inspiration has come upon him (Surah 18:110); he is bidden to invite people to his Lord's way with wisdom and beautiful preaching and to argue in gracious terms (Surah 16:125); he is to strive against unbelievers and hypocrites and to be firm with them (Surah 66:9) and is admonished for frowning and turning away from a blind man who might have profited from his teaching, especially as he came to him in earnest sincerity (Surah 80:1-10).

The Qur'an is in many ways a unique book in its outline, style and form. It can take time for a non-Muslim to become acquainted with these features but the exercise is essential if it is to be understood.





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Disciplined Kufi script on a large horizontal Qur'an leaf from a very old manuscript. It was written in Persia in the late eighth century AD and, while it was not vocalised, it does have red and green diacritical marks.



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Another manuscript surviving from the late eighth century. Written in Kufi script on vellum in Arabia or Iraq, it was later supplemented with red diacritics and colour panels, one of which has been added to this page.




Some of the chapters and passages of the Qur'an are regarded as having a special sanctity and their recital is believed to be imperative and very meritorious. The most important of these is the Suratul-Fatihah which is unusual in its placing as the opening chapter of the book. It has only seven verses, unlike the other early surahs which are the longest in its text. It is set out as a prayer to be addressed to Allah:

In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful. Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the worlds; the Compassionate, the Merciful, Master of the Day of Judgment. You alone we worship and from You alone we seek help. Lead us into the Straight Path; the path of those whom you have favoured, not those with whom you are angry, or go astray.  Surah 1:1-7

This is one of the few passages in the Qur'an where Allah is not speaking directly but where the text is put into the mouth of Muslims who worship him. Every time Muslims pray or visit the mosque this prayer is offered up to Allah in its Arabic original. It is recited at festivals and special functions and on numerous other occasions. Every Muslim child is taught it as soon as it is old enough to learn. It is usually finished with an amin, the equivalent of the Christian "amen", and some old handwritten texts of the Qur'an actually insert the word at the end of a chapter as part of the text. The importance of this chapter can be seen from the following quote where it is singled out as the Qur'an's most significant passage:

And We have bestowed on you the Seven Oft-Repeated (verses) and the Exalted Qur'an. Surah 15:87

There are numerous references to this surah in the traditional Hadith literature. Muhammad is recorded as stating that the "seven oft-repeated" (saba`ul-mathani) were the seven verses of the chapter and that "the Exalted Qur'an" (al-Qur'anal-`Adhim) was also a title for the Surah (Muwatta Imam Malik, p.37). Another popular title for it is Ummul-Qur'an, the "Mother of the Qur'an". It is unique in that it is the only part of the Qur'an where there is a human address to God. Another tradition records Muhammad as stating very emphatically that its recital is crucial to any time of prayer:

He who does not recite Fatihat al-Kitab is not credited with having observed prayer. (Sahih Muslim, Vol.1, p.214).

Two other similar traditions record the Prophet as personally defining this chapter as the most significant in the Qur'an:

Shall I not teach you the most important Surah in the Qur'an? He said it is "Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds". (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol.6, p.490).

"All praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Universe" is the epitome or basis of the Qur'an, the epitome or basis of the Book, and the seven oft-repeated verses. (Sunan Abu Dawud, Vol.1, p.382).

During the official prayers recited five times daily it is only the Imam, the leader, who recites the actual prayers including this Surah. Nonetheless another tradition states that all Muslims should deliberately recite the amin at the end of it. Muhammad himself related that the angels of heaven themselves do so and that every Muslim who coincided his amin with theirs would have all his sins forgiven (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol.1, p.416). The importance of the opening chapter to the Muslims of the world can hardly be over-emphasised.

Another short but very important chapter is known as Suratul-Ikhlas (the "Chapter of Purity") and it reads as follows:

In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful. Say: He is Allah, the One; Allah, the Eternal One; He does not beget, nor is he begotten, and like unto him there is not one. Surah 112:1-4

The unity of Allah is the central theme of the Qur'an and his sole and absolute Lordship over the Universe is constantly emphasised. This is usually done in opposition to the pagan idolatry of Muhammad's fellow countrymen but it is also levelled against the Christian belief in Jesus as the begotten Son of God. Muslims today regularly employ it in apologetic literature against Christianity and it is perhaps a defiant summary of the basic polemic of Islam against other faiths.

Muhammad is recorded as saying that "this Surah is equal to one-third of the Qur'an" (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol.6, p.494) and it is regularly recited as Muslims believe this is the same as reciting a third of the whole book. The Prophet once enquired of his companions whether any of them was capable of reciting one-third of it in one night and when they all expressed surprise he again stated that this Surah "is equivalent to a third of the Qur'an" (Sahih Muslim, Vol.2, p.387).  Another tradition records him one day hearing a man reciting this chapter and saying that he was assured of Paradise (Muwatta Imam Malik, p.99). One of his companions also heard another Muslim reciting it repeatedly one night and, taking the chapter to be a very short one and seeing no point himself in reciting it continuously, he objected to Muhammad but was likewise told that it was by Allah's direction a third of the book (Sunan Abu Dawud, Vol.1, p.383).

Only one other Surah is regarded with the same awe as these two and that is the 36th chapter of the Qur'an known as Suratu-Ya-Sin after the two letters ya and sin appearing as typically unexplained letters at its beginning. Muslim calligraphers have often selected its first few verses as a subject for intricate artistic skills as it has often been taught that this Surah is the heart of the Qur'an and that Allah writes in exchange for anyone who recites it the reward of reading the whole Qur'an ten times. It is accordingly regularly found in Muslim prayer booklets, very often being printed by itself as a separate booklet.


The Qur'an is a book full of sharp cliches which add to its rhythmic character. Perhaps the most obvious of these are the names given to Allah (usually two) after a verse concentrating on him or his actions. For example he is described as Allaaha-Tawwaabaan-Rahiimaan, "Allah the Oft-Returning, the Merciful" (Surah 4:64) at the end of a passage declaring that unbelievers would have found Allah so if they had only come to the Prophet after first disobeying him and asking forgiveness with him likewise praying for their forgiveness.

Another passage states that Allah raised Jesus up to himself when the Jews sought to kill him, concluding wa kaana Allaahu `Aziizaan Hakiimaan, "And Allah is the Mighty, the Wise" (Surah 4:158). These names of Allah were in time compiled into ninety-nine in all.

There are a few verses in the Qur'an of exceptional character and one of the most well-known is the ayatul-kursi, the "Throne verse". It is perhaps the most eloquent declaration in the book of Allah's universal sovereignty over his creation and starts and finishes with two typical names indicative of his surpassing power and glory. It stands out by itself in the longest chapter of the Qur'an and reads as follows:

Allah! There is no god but He, the Living, the Everlasting. Neither slumber nor sleep seize Him. To Him is everything that is in the heavens or on the earth. Who is there that can intercede with Him except as He permits. He knows what lies before them and what is after them and they will comprehend nothing of His knowledge save as He wills. His Throne covers the heavens and the earth and He has no tiredness in preserving them. He is the Most-High, the Exalted. Surah 2:255

Although the Suratul-Fatihah is regarded as the most important chapter in the Qur'an this particular verse was said by Muhammad to be the foremost in the book:

Ubayy b. Ka`b said: The Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) said: Abu al-Mundhir, which verse of Allah's book that you have is the greatest? I replied: Allah and his Apostle know best. He said: Abu al-Mundhir, which verse of Allah's book that you have is greatest? I said: Allah, there is no god but He, the Living, the Eternal. Thereupon he struck me on the breast and said: May knowledge be pleasant for you, Abu al-Mundhir. (Sunan Abu Dawud, Vol.1, p.383).

Another very striking verse in a passage from the Medinan period of Muhammad's prophetic mission also stands out. This time, although Allah is again its central theme, the text moves into the mystical realm in its description of his glory and it is accordingly highly esteemed by the Sufis, the mystics of Islam. It reads:

Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His Light is as if there were a Niche and within it a Lamp; the Lamp enclosed in a Glass; the Glass as it were a Brilliant Star, lit from a blessed tree, an Olive neither of the East nor the West, whose Oil is well-nigh luminous though fire has scarce touched it: Light upon Light! Allah guides whom He wills to His light and Allah sets forth parables for men, and Allah knows all things. Surah 24:35

Mention should be made of the last two surahs of the Qur'an. These are, like the opening chapter, very short and once again the Muslim worshipper is the speaker although on this occasion he does not address his praise to Allah but recites an incantation seeking protection firstly from the Lord of the dawn against the mischief of talismans, the darkness, those who practise secret spells and those who practise magical envy such as the well-known "Evil-Eye" (Surah 113:1-5). This chapter is known as Suratul-Falaq ("The Dawn") while the second is known as Suratul-Nas ("Mankind") as Allah is here described as the Lord of mankind from whom protection is sought against the mischief of the Whisperers among both devils and men (Surah 114:1-6).

Ayishah, one of Muhammad's wives, related that these two stories had a special significance and that he regularly used them. Every night he used to cup his hands together and blow over them after reciting both surahs as well as Suratul-Ikhlas. He would then rub his hands over whatever parts of his body he could reach, starting with his head, face and the front of his body. He used to do this three times. Whenever he was ill he would recite them again and blow breath over his body. Ayishah at such times also used to recite them over him and rub his hands over his body hoping for its blessings (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol.6, p.495). One of his companions recorded the following incident where Muhammad specially recommended the recitation of these two Surahs as a form of protection:

`Uqbah b. `Amir said: While I was travelling with the Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) between Al-Juhfah and al-Abwa, a wind and intense darkness enveloped us, whereupon the Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) began to seek refuge in Allah, reciting: "I seek refuge in the Lord of the dawn" and "I seek refuge in the Lord of men". He then said: `Uqbah, use them when seeking refuge in Allah, for no one can use anything to compare with them for the purpose. He said: I heard him reciting them when he led the people in prayer. (Sunan Abu Dawud, Vol.1, p.383).

There is great merit to the Muslim in reciting any part of the Qur'an but these surahs and passages have an exceptional value and the Prophet's own endorsement of each of them in turn has secured their prominence and incessant recitation whenever appropriate.





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A large vellum leaf of a Qur'an written with disciplined Kufi script. It is typically without vocalisation but does have red and green diacritical points. It dates from the late eighth century and was transcribed in Persia.



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A leaf from a Qur'an written at Kairouan in Tunisia in the tenth century AD with diacritics and vowel points. It employs the Mashq script which predated Islam but later came to look very similar to the Kufi script.




One of the problems confronting any student of the Qur'an is the fact that the book not only has no chronological sequence but that the various surahs themselves are often composed of passages from both the Meccan and Medinan periods of Muhammad's mission. Nonetheless there is a clear distinction between them which can be discerned in the nature of the two phases. While in Mecca Muhammad saw himself primarily as a warner to draw his people away from idolatry and the surahs from this time are generally prophetic and exhortative in character. In Medina, however, Muhammad was the leader of a community and the surahs from this period in contrast to the Meccan passages are often cumbersome and legalistic in content and style.

The Meccan surahs concentrate on the issues which first impressed themselves upon Muhammad, in particular the waywardness of his own people, the judgment to come, and the destiny of all men to heaven or hell. Perhaps the most striking issue here is al-Yaum, "the Day", the Great Day of Judgment to come. The Qur'an concentrates all its warnings around this awful event. Graphic language is used to describe it. For example it is described as "totally overwhelming" (Surah 88:1), hell itself will be brought face-to-face with mankind on it (Surah 89:23) and no soul shall have power to help another for the Command, that day, shall belong to Allah alone (Surah 82:19). The destiny of unbelievers shall be horrific:

Some faces on that Day will be humiliated, labouring, exhausted; roasting in a blazing fire, drinking from a boiling hot spring; no food for them but a thorny cactus, neither nourishing nor relieving hunger. Surah 88:2-7

On the other hand believers will be blessed that Day. They will laugh at the unbelievers (Surah 83:34), their surroundings will be as comfortable as they could wish with a light of beauty and joy over them (Surah 76:11), they will be lavishly adorned and will drink of a pure and holy wine (Surah 76:21). Much of the Qur'anic concept of heaven follows Biblical principles but the emphasis seems to be on the pleasure and ease of the believer's circumstances rather than the renewed knowledge of God's perfect character within them. In contrast to the terrors of hell in the passage quoted the text says of the inhabitants of paradise:

Other faces will be joyful, pleased with their efforts, in a sublime Garden, hearing no vain-talk. Therein will be a bubbling fountain, therein couches raised up and goblets set out, cushions arrayed and carpets spread out. Surah 88:8-16

In all this the Prophet is reminded that he is only a warner for those who are ready to fear the Day (Surah 79:45). Yet, once he became established in Medina, the tone began to change. In Mecca the Qur'an spoke directly to Muhammad or to his countrymen generally, but in Medina one finds the majority of passages addressing the community of believers with the introduction Yaa ayyuhallathiina aa`manuu - "O you who truly believe". What follows is often of a legislative nature and most of the laws of Islam, the shari`ah, are derived from these sections. The concern here is chiefly the social ethics of the Muslim ummah, the conduct of campaigns and battles, general customs and behaviour and religious scruples regarding such things as marriages and deaths.

The Medinan surahs deal with the abolition of usury and interest (Surah 2:278), the laws of inheritance (Surah 4:11-12), the prohibited degrees of relationship (Surah 4:23), the property of orphans (Surah 4:6-10), the prohibitions on wine and gambling (Surah 5:93-94) and the like.

One of the great themes of these surahs is the person of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad himself. While he is often addressed directly in the Meccan surahs, his own position is seen to be no more than to be a communicator of Allah's revelations. Here, however, he comes to the fore and one of the great injunctions in these later passages is to obey Allah and his Messenger (Surah 48:17) as loyalty to the one is seen to be inseparable from faithfulness to the other.

In the Medinan surahs passages dealing with the Great Day and the destiny of mankind give way to new revelations dealing with the personal concerns of the Prophet's private life. For example he is given a special licence to take to himself and marry any believing woman who is willing to devote herself to him – a permission expressly granted to him and not to believers generally "so that there should be no difficulty for you" (Surah 33:50). In the next verse of a book said to be eternal and of uncreated speech preserved on a special tablet in heaven, he is told that he can choose for himself which of his wives he would like to be with at any time and that he would be doing no wrong if he preferred one over another and showed partiality to her. Believers are also commanded to send their blessings on him and to salute him with all respect because Allah and all his angels do so (Surah 33:56). Furthermore those who annoy and irritate him (and, perforce, Allah as well) will be cursed by Allah in both this world and the next (Surah 33:57). His companions are even given strict details regarding etiquette to be observed when approaching his chambers:

O you who truly believe! Do not enter the houses of the Prophet until leave is given you for a meal and then without you watching for its hour. But when you are invited, then enter, and when you have had the meal, disperse without lingering for idle talk for this irritates the Prophet and he is ashamed before you – but Allah is not ashamed to tell you the truth! Surah 33:53

The arrangement of the chapters of the Qur'an, whereby the early Meccan surahs are placed at the end of the book and the Medinan surahs at the beginning, is confusing and the casual reader will miss the clear transition but it is there – the sharp awareness of eternal issues giving way to concerns of a more practical, immediate and earthly nature.


One of the unique features of the Qur'an is its teaching that Allah can abrogate earlier teachings in his Scriptures by substituting something else in their place. This applies not only to the Scriptures prior to Islam but to the Qur'an itself. There is a clear doctrine in the book that some of its earlier verses are cancelled by later revelations. Muhammad always saw Allah as the absolute sovereign of the universe and the idea that he could alter his commands and replace them obviously appeared to be in harmony with his supreme rule and he saw no reason to question it. The most prominent verse in the Qur'an setting forth the doctrine reads:

We do not abrogate a verse or let it be forgotten without bringing a better or similar one. Do you not know that Allah has power over all things? Surah 2:106

In the early days of Islam there was no dispute about the meaning of this text. It was universally accepted that it meant that certain verses and passages of the Qur'an could be substituted by later ones and lists were drawn up of texts abrogated by later revelations. For example in one place the Qur'an teaches that the drinking of wine can have both good and bad effects (Surah 2:219) and when Muhammad first established himself as the ruler of the Muslim community at Medina his followers were told not to come to prayers in a drunken state (Surah 4:43). Later, however, the consumption of alcohol was abolished altogether (Surah 5:93-94).

Two of the greatest of the early commentators of the Qur'an, Baidawi and Zamakhshari, attempted to interpret the purpose of this facet of Qur'anic revelation in the context of a definite substitution of one passage by another. Zamakhshari taught that Surah 2:106 was revealed to counter the objections of the pagan Arabs that Muhammad at times would command his followers to do a certain thing and would later forbid it and command the opposite. He believed, unlike other commentators who held that the abrogated verses remained in the Qur'an, that Allah expressly removes (azala) one passage to insert another. He commands the angel of communication, Jibril, to announce that one passage is cancelled either by its abolition or by its replacement with another passage.

Baidawi likewise taught that the mansukh verse, the "abrogated" text, became of no effect. It was no longer a pious act to recite it and no law based on it could be valid any longer. He argued that the naskh verses which came in the place of the cancelled texts were inserted as each occasion required. Laws are formulated by Allah for the good of mankind and as the needs and circumstances change with time and the individual it becomes necessary for the rules that regulate them to be adapted as well. What may be beneficial at one time can be harmful at another. So Allah reserves to himself the right to alter his revelations as he pleases.

It is not possible to determine which texts, if any, were taken out of the Qur'an once they were abrogated but another typical example of a new passage overruling an earlier one due to force of circumstances is found in the context of praying and reading the Qur'an at night. At Mecca the practice went on into the early hours of the morning when the early Muslims were not so pressed with communal affairs. In one of the earliest passages to be revealed they were commanded to pray for approximately half of each night and to recite the Qur'an at the same time (Surah 73:2-4). Once they were settled in Medina, however, the daily concerns of attending to the needs of the growing Muslim community made it very hard for them to maintain long hours awake at night and so the command was relaxed. The same Surah goes on in a later passage to say that, while Allah is aware that they stand up to half the night in prayer, he knows they cannot keep count of the time they are so engaged and so he only expects them to read the Qur'an and pray for as much as may be comfortable to them. He knows that some are ill and others are weary travellers and that yet others are fighting in campaigns (Surah 73:20). Thus the fixed injunctions of the earlier passage were abrogated.

There are other verses in the Qur'an clearly teaching that Allah can change his revelations and substitute one for another as he pleases:

When We exchange a verse in place of another verse, and Allah knows best what he is sending down, they say "You are but a forger!", but most of them have no understanding. Surah 16:101

Allah abolishes and establishes what he pleases for with him is the Mother of the Book. Surah 13:39

The doctrine of abrogation of actual verses of the Qur'an was clearly taught and indeed fixed by the fuqaha, the early jurists of Islam. Nonetheless modern Muslim scholars, chastened by the suggestion that the Qur'an is not a perfect scripture if some of its texts have been superseded by others, or at worse actually removed from the book, attempt to prove that the Qur'an is really teaching that what Allah does is to abrogate some of the previous scriptures (each of which is known in the Qur'an as a kitab, a "book") and not passages of the Qur'an as such.

This line of reasoning cannot be accepted as the Qur'an never says that a kitab is abrogated in its entirety but rather that Allah substitutes one ayah for another ayah (Surah 16:101). The word often means "signs" (such as the miracles of Jesus) but throughout the Qur'an it also refers to actual verses of the book itself. Allah has sent down his revelations (or verses – ayat) to Muhammad which none but the perverse reject (Surah 2:99). It was the practice of cancelling verses or overruling their contents with later texts that made the Prophet's opponents charge him with being a forger as this seemed to be a convenient way to explain changes in the actual text of the Qur'an itself.

In Surah 2:106 the text speaks not only of Allah's revelations being abrogated but also being forgotten by his power – this could hardly refer to previous scriptures which were well-known and preserved throughout the known world in thousands of manuscripts. It could only refer to actual verses of the Qur'an which had come to be neglected and forgotten by  Muhammad and his companions over a period of time.




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A leaf from a fine Qur'an written in disciplined Kufi script in Persia or Iraq in the ninth century AD. It has the usual diacritics but is without vocalisation like the earlier texts. Its Surah headings are in red panels.


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An unusual but fine Qur'an fragment in an elongated form of Kufi script. The effect is achieved by extending the letters kaf and dhal wherever they appear. The text also dates from Persia or Iraq in the ninth century AD.