“Qur’an” means “recitation”. The central text of Islam and a crowning literary achievement of the Arabic language, adherents recite its verses. The Qur’an as it exists today was compiled over a twenty year period after the prophet Muhammad’s death. Uthman, the third of the fourth “right-guided” Caliphs who succeeded Muhammad, compiled written records of the Prophet’s recitations. Over a twenty-three year period Muhammad preached statements he argued were revealed to him from God through the Angel Gabriel. The Qur’an assumes familiarity with the major narratives of Christianity and Judaism. According to tradition, Muhammad was the last of a line of prophets extending back to Abraham and Moses and up through Jesus. Muslims consider the Qur’an the last and definitive statement of the monotheistic tradition.
The Qur’an challenged Arabic literary conventions. Pre-Islamic Arabs cultivated a highly refined literary tradition. Arabic verse proceeded through distinctive rhymes and rhythms, arranged in a narrative order. The Qur’an, in contrast, has no beginning, middle, or end. It repeats language and themes. Many of its Arabic words possess a range of meanings, the correct one discernable only in context. Written in classical Arabic, the text is notoriously difficult to translate—impossible, according to some. Each Sura begins with the Basmala, an Arabic phrase meaning “in the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.” The Qur’an divides into 114 chapters, or Suras, which are classed as either Meccan or Medinan, depending whether they were revealed before or after the Hijra (flight to Medina). Longer Suras appear earlier in the text, shorter ones later—a contrast to the order in which they were revealed, as Muhammad’s utterances became longer as his life progressed.
The faithful consider copies of the Qur’an to be sacred objects. The text’s calligraphy is an art in itself. Veneration of the text is supported by a rich material culture. Detailed rules govern its handling. Woven covers, books stands, and boxes survive through the centuries, examples of the ways millions of people from as far east as Indonesia to as west as California continue to study the Qur’an centuries after Muhammad’s death.
Written by Megan K. Doherty, Department of History, Columbia University
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