Chapter 3: The Holy Qur’an

What can We Learn from Islam: The Struggle for True Religion
by Marcus Braybrooke

Chapter 3: The Holy Qur’an

Should the chapter on the Qur’an or on Muhammad come first? I have put the Qur’an first as it is for Muslims the Word of God and Muhammad’s importance lies primarily in his role as messenger.

One day, when Muhammad was worshipping in the cave to which he was in the custom of retiring, he sensed a presence with him. It said to him, ‘Recite’ but he replied, ‘I am not able to recite.’ The presence then seized him and clasped him to his bosom and again said, ‘Recite.’ This happened three times; then the presence released Muhammad telling him:

Proclaim! (or Read!) In the name of thy Lord and Cherisher, Who created man, out of a leech-like clot: Proclaim! And thy Lord is most bountiful, He who taught (The use of) the Pen, Taught man that which he knew not. (96: 1-5).

When Muslims affirm that Muhammad is God’s Prophet, this is the same as saying that his revelations really are from God -- his message is the authentic voice of God. This is why also Muslims object to being called "Muhammad" a term which used to be in quite common use.

For Muslims, the Qur’an is ultimate truth. Even to look on the Scripture with the reverence of a true believer constitutes, for devout Muslims, an act of worship to God. The Qur’an is God’s speech, an eternal attribute existing within God’s essence and sharing God’s uncreatedness. Muslims handle the Holy Book with reverence and should perform ablutions, (wudu) so as to be in a state of ritual purity before reading the scripture. The importance of calligraphy in the Muslim world also reflects the high dignity of the Qur’an. Not only in texts but also on buildings the elaboration of the visible word became a major art form, especially as representation of the human figure was not allowed lest it lead to idolatry.

Only the Arabic text is in the proper sense the Qur’an. This is a major reason why most Muslims, wherever they live, learn Arabic, as I was reminded when I visited the remote Muslim community at the end of the old Silk Route in Xi’an in China. This also helps to maintain the unity of the umma or community of all Muslims. The Qur’an has been translated into numerous languages, and at the Hamdard University in New Delhi, I was shown some of the early translations into Indian languages. Translations are, in effect, only commentaries.

The sounds of the Arabic, it has been said, "have become like the body and the dwelling-place for the divine wisdom and divine wisdom has become like the soul and spirit of the sounds." Neal Robinson tries to illustrate this for English-speaking readers by comparing his translation of Mohammed’s initial revelation (96, 1-4) with a transliteration of the Arabic. His English version is :

Read in the name of thy Lord who created.

He created man from a blood clot.

Read; and thy Lord is the most generous,

He who has taught with the pen

Taught man what he did not know.

The transliteration is: iqra’ bismi rabbi-ka ‘l-ladhi khalaq khalaqa ‘l-insana min ‘alaq iqra’ wa-rabbu-ka ‘l-akram al-ladhi ‘allama bi-’l’qalam ‘allama ‘l-insana ma lam ya’lam.

It is at once clear that the original is characterized by rhyme and the whole Qur’an is either rhymed or assonance prose. The subdivisions of the surahs or chapters into ayahs or verses are on the basis of assonance. Although the verses are of unequal length, there is a marked rhythm.

The Qur’an is intended to be recited and during Ramadan, the month of fasting, Muslims go in large numbers to a mosque to hear extensive recitations of the Qur’an. In the course of a month, they would hear the whole Qur’an. There are usually recitations from the Qur’an also before or after the Friday congregational prayers. Muslims are encouraged to memorize the text, although some effort is required to learn to pronounce it correctly.

The Qur’an and the Bible are very different in composition. The messages of God usually revealed by the angel Gabriel to Muhammad (2, 97) were received during a period of twenty three years and recorded in writing by pious scribes (80, 11-16). Already by the time of the Prophet’s death, much of the Qur’an was written down and a large part of it was also known by heart. Just before the Prophet’s death, he received confirmation that the revelation was complete:

This day have I perfected your religion for you, completed My favor upon you, And have chosen for you Islam as your religion. (5, 3).

Muhammad needed no successor as a prophet.

After the death of the prophet, these writings were gathered into a single book, according to the order that was established during the last Ramadan before Muhammad’s death. The Qur’an consists of 114 chapters (suras), composed of a varying number of verses (aya). The chapters are not arranged chronologically, but in decreasing order of length -- except that the first sura, known as the Fatiha, has only seven verses. The second surah has 286 verses, whereas the one hundred and fourteenth surah has only five verses. In general, the surahs which Muhammad received in the first part of his career come towards the end of the Qur’an. Within thirteen years of his death, a number of complete copies were made by trusted Companions of the Prophet, working under the orders of Caliph Uthman. Copies were sent out in four directions, with a master copy retained at Madina. The occasional textual variants are explained by the Hadith or tradition that the Qur’an was revealed according to seven readings (ahruf). The variants do not significantly affect the sense of the revelation. In modern editions, some orthographical marks have been added to help those who read the text aloud.

The Bible, by contrast, is a library of books of varying character. In the Hebrew Bible, there are historical books, books of prophecy and wisdom writings. The New Testament includes gospels, letters and a history of the early church as well as the book of Revelation. The Bible tells of events over a time span of some two thousand years. Most Biblical scholars agree that some of the books were written many years after the events to which they refer, although they incorporate earlier sources. Even the gospels were probably not written until some thirty to fifty years after the death of Jesus, although the material which they include circulated in oral form in the early Christian community.

When Muslims say that the Qur’an is the Word of God, they mean this in a more immediate sense than most Christians do when they say the Bible is the Word of God. The Qur’an speaks today. For the faithful reader, it is Remembrance (dhikr), it is Guidance (huda), it is Hearing (shifa), it is Mercy (rahmah), it is Blessed (mubarak), and it is always Most Generous (karim). It is the ultimate means of discrimination between right and wrong.

Christians also believe the Bible speaks today. Often after reading a passage in church, the reader will say "This is the word of the Lord." Yet in contemporary Christian thought Christ is the Word of God in the primary sense. The New Testament points beyond itself to that Word and is only the word of God in a secondary sense. As Kenneth Cragg, an Anglican scholar who has spent a lifetime in the study of Islam, says, "The heart of the Christian revelation is the "event" of Jesus as the Christ, acknowledged as the disclosure in human form of the very nature of God. Hence the New Testament is a derivative from the prior and primary revelation of the living Word "made flesh and dwelling among us."’

Yet until the middle of the nineteenth century the majority of Christians would have regarded the Bible in much the same way as Muslims regard the Qur’an. The nineteenth century saw heated debates, in response to Darwin’s theory of evolution and the beginnings of historical criticism of the Bible, about whether the scripture was verbally inerrant. The general view now would be that the Holy Spirit inspired the human authors of Scripture, but did not dictate what they wrote.

With the development of the study of religions in the early twentieth century, many Western scholars applied the historical-critical methods used in the study of the Bible in their approach to the Qur’an. They studied and treated it not as scripture, but as any other book. "Western students of the Qur’an tended to be either Christian or Jewish on the one hand, or secularist, perhaps atheist, on the other", as Wilfred Cantwell Smith, a distinguished scholar in the study of religions, observed. Accordingly, in both cases, they held that the "Muslim view of the matter -- the transcendentalist view, one might call it -- was manifestly silly or perverse, and anyway was wrong; and therefore must be discounted." Western scholars pictured Muhammad writing the Qur’an perhaps under divine inspiration -- as an author might write any other book. Montgomery Watt, for example, suggested that the Qur’an is a collection of the messages that came to Muhammad from his unconscious (in a Jungian sense). But scholarly discussion of how much Muhammad knew about Christianity and Judaism and of other influences upon him is for Muslims wide of the mark. For them, the Qur’an is a message that comes directly from God and was recited by Muhammad. Fazlur Rahman, who is sometimes labeled a Muslim modernist, insists that ‘The Muslim modernists say exactly the same thing as the so-called Muslim fundamentalists say: that Muslims must go back to the original and definitive sources of Islam and perform ijithad (independent judgment) on that basis.’

Yet because Muslims regard the Qur’an as literally the word of God, it is a mistake to regard them as ‘fundamentalists’ in the popular pejorative sense. The term ‘Fundamentalist’ was first used of some conservative Protestants in the USA who at the Niagara Conference of 1895 affirmed that certain beliefs were fundamental to Christianity and therefore non-negotiable. These beliefs, in reaction to evolutionary theories and Biblical criticism, included the verbal inerrancy of scripture, the virgin birth, a substitutionary theory of the atonement and the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Recent studies have suggested that fundamentalism is a conscious reaction to and rejection of modern ways of thinking. It is useful to distinguish fundamentalists from traditionalists, who are those who have not had cause to question traditional beliefs. As Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes, "For traditional man, Muslim or otherwise, that is a man whose life and thought are molded by a set of principles of transcendent origin and who lives in a society in which these principles are manifested in every sphere does not have cause to question the teaching of his religion. Fundamentalists are aware of the questioning and vigorously oppose it.

Fundamentalists reject the view that all knowledge is historically conditioned and hold that certain truths are true in an absolute and timeless sense. They also take a particular myth or symbol as true in the absolute sense. But in popular parlance, the term ‘fundamentalist’ denotes a person who has a closed mind and is often used with the word extremist to describe Muslims who are strongly opposed to Western society and its values. There is a small minority of Muslims to whom this description applies, but to assume that all Muslims because they believe the Qur’an to be literally the Word of God are ‘fundamentalist’ is a serious mistake.

Many Muslims who accept the absolute authority of the Qur’an, also engage in lively debate about its meaning and application in the contemporary world. The distinguished scholar Dr Irfan Ahmad Khan begins the Preface to his Insight Into the Qur’an, with the words, ‘This book is an effort to understand the Qur’an with a modern mind.’ While a text may be unchanging, its interpretation and application are made in a world which is ever changing. Islamic doctrine, law and thinking in general is based on four sources or fundamental principles. They are the Qur’an, the Traditions or Sunna, the Consensus of the Community (ijma) and individual thought (ijtihad).

Sunna is customary practice which primarily refers to the way in which the Prophet and his Companions lived and to what they said and did -- as well as noticing those matters on which they were silent. It has been said that ‘the Sunna forms the first living commentary on what the Qur’an means and thus becomes equally the foundation for Muslim life.’ The concrete example of how the Prophet behaved sets the standard for the Muslim. His human acts and words were repeated as an example to the faithful. Many stories were told about him and a way had to be established of determining their authenticity. The Sunna of the Prophet were handed down in the form of short narratives told by one of the Companions or contemporaries. For example, Uqba ibn Amir said that "someone sent the Prophet a silk gown and he wore it during prayers, but on withdrawing he pulled it off violently with a gesture of disgust and said, ‘This is unfitting for a God-fearing man"’. Such a narrative is called a hadith or statement.

The way of checking authenticity was to establish the source of the tradition. If it was not told by one of the companions, then it was necessary to state the chain of authority going back to the original source of the narrative. By this means, hadith were classified as sound, good or weak. Various collections of hadith were made -- primarily as legal precedents -- and six collections were accepted as especially authoritative. For example, the collection (Sahih) made by al-Bukhari (810-70), who began the study of hadith at the age of 10 and who had a fine memory, contains over 7,000 narratives. al-Bukhari is said to have traveled widely and to have interviewed a thousand sheiks, or religious leaders, and to have examined more than 200,000 hadith, rejecting many of them. His collection is divided into 97 ‘books’ and sub-divided into 3,450 chapters. M. M. Khan’s English translation runs to nine volumes. The collection by Muslim (817-75), who was born in Persia, who also traveled extensively, was made from 300,000 traditions and pays special attention to the chain of authorities. These two collections are amongst Islam’s most holy books.

Ijma means the consensus of the community. It comes from a word meaning to gather or converge The word jami’a, which means the gathering of the faithful and is sometimes used of a mosque, comes from the same root. Only when the community of the faithful agrees is a principle or practice legitimated. Ijma has to be consistent with the Qur’an, the hadith and applied analogy (qiyas). According to Sunni tradition, the community of Muhammad would never agree on error. It is, therefore, the community of the faithful who are the guarantors of a true Islam. Authority rests with the community not with a ‘Pope’ or religious hierarchy. In my view, in Christianity also authority rests with the community of the faithful with whom the Living Christ is present. Too often the ordained seem to have claimed a special authority, whereas I see ordination as primarily commissioning for particular work not conferring a privileged status. Islam has been a more democratic religion than Christianity. The Shi’a tradition, unlike, the Sunni does not accept ijma.. Instead it relies on the light of the imams, whom Shi’ites believe receive special divine guidance and on the authority of ayatollahs -- a modern title for religious leaders who gain a personal following. It is not surprising that the Shi’a community, which accepts charismatic leadership, is also more fragmented.

In the Sunna community it is a matter of debate whether the fourth source of authority, ijtihad, which means independent judgement, based on study and acknowledged expertise, is still open. Rigorists claim that earlier ijtihad completed its task and a final shari’a or code of legal practice is now in force. Others believe that reinterpretation of the law in changing circumstances may be possible. In Shi’a Islam, the mujtahid, who makes and mediates such judgements, has an important role. In Sunni tradition, the emphasis is on the Ulama, or those who are learned in Islamic law and teaching whose task is to express the mind or consensus of the community. Many members of the Ulama are great scholars with a deep knowledge of Islamic scriptures and traditions.

An explanation of the sources of authority helps to explain how the Muslim world reacts to change and in part explains why there is much variety in Muslim practice and teaching. Some groups, as in every religion, of course, claim that their expression of the faith is the only true Islam. Another reason for variety is that there are several interpretations of the Shari’a or religious law, which gives a systematic description of how Muslims should live. There are four classic schools. The Hanafites recognize that the Qur’an and the hadith do not decide every issue so there is place for properly informed opinion and judgement. The Malikites are more cautious about the use of hadith. The Shafi’ites and even more so, the Hanbalites, stress the control of the Qur’an and hadith alone. Thus different schools allow more or less freedom for informed opinion. The Hanafite school, for example, attaches more attention to the principle of the law than its letter. Thus if any law deduced by analogy is seen to be inequitable, harsh or inconvenient, then the Hanafi jurist is at liberty to discard it and to adopt one that is convenient and humane. This is not an arbitrary process but a method of using the principles of Law to fit the circumstances of a given case. Different traditions may, therefore, adopt different attitudes, for example, to the use of contraceptives.

In some parts of the Muslim world the most conservative traditions have become dominant and have created in the West an unfairly rigorist view of Islam. The Wahhabiya movement, which has become dominant in Saudi Arabia, is based on the Hanbalite Sharia, which as we have seen gives hardly any lee-way for human opinion and judgement. Basing their teaching only on the Qur’an and the authentic Sunna, they reject 1,400 years of development in Islamic theology and mysticism. Punishments are rigorous and anything from non-Islamic sources is to be opposed. Hence those schooled in this tradition will be suspicious of Western cultural influence, especially when it is linked to military or economic oppression. There is therefore a profound struggle in the Muslim world for the soul of Islam. This is a subject to which we return.

Muslim and orthodox Jewish attitudes to scripture have made me look again at the assumptions of the historical-criticism of scripture in which I was trained. Essentially, the historical-critical approach tries to identify what a text meant to those for whom it was first written. This means trying to identify editorial work and the various sources which have been brought together to create the Biblical text as we now have it. This is a skilled and disciplined task and applies the methods of textual and historical scholarship to the Bible. It has greatly enriched our knowledge. Yet, as Cantwell Smith pointed out, this approach reflects the individualism of the West. "Central or basic was deemed to be the meaning of the individual person who said or wrote something: his or her intention." Linked to this is what Cantwell Smith calls the historical fallacy that the Qur’an is "fundamentally or exclusively a seventh-century document", linked to the assumption that its author was Muhammad and not God. Scripture like any great piece of writing -- and more so -- has a life of its own. It does not have one fixed meaning but addresses each individual reader. There is a hadith which has God saying, "when someone recites or reads the Qur’an, that person is, as it were, entering into conversation with Me and I into conversation with him or her."

It is a common place to suggest that the Gospels as we now have them reflect the concerns of the Christian community in the second half of the first century, the period in which the Gospels were probably written. Much effort has gone into identifying what Jesus actually said or did. Some scholars say there is little that we can know with certainty, others are more confident. But this raises the question of where does scriptural authority lie. Is it with text as we have received it or with the supposed reconstruction of the scholar? Some Christian scholars are now more interested in the text as we have it and in the history of how it has been used and understood over the centuries by the Church. Although scripture derives its authority from God, in a sense it is the community that regards a text as authoritative that bestows authority upon it. This means that past arguments amongst Christians about the rival authority of Church and Bible lose their importance. The two are inseparable. Similarly, the Muslim affirmation that Muhammad is the Prophet of God implies that the message he delivered is indeed from God.

Some understanding of the place of scripture in other faith communities can help Christians be more aware of their particular view of scripture. There is also great benefit in reading passages of scripture together with Jews and Muslims. They can bring new insights to familiar passages. Most important of all, the Qur’an, "a mercy to the worlds" can be a book of inspiration to all who are believers in God. Arthur Arberry wrote that the task of translating the Qur’an, which he undertook, "not lightly, and carried to its conclusion at a time of great personal distress, . . . comforted (him) in a manner for which he will always be grateful. He therefore acknowledges his gratitude to whatever power or Power inspired the man and the Prophet who first recited these scriptures."