Short Introduction to the Quran
The Quran (Quran, Koran) is
the Holy Book of Islam and the religion's most sacred writing.
The word itself means "recitation." It is a series of
"revelations" that Muhammad claimed to have received from Allah
at various - often highly convenient - times in his life and then
dictated to scribes.
The book is divided into 114
Suras (chapters) that contain ayat (verses). Despite the
internal claim that it is "perfectly arranged", the Suras are
not in chronological or thematic
but sorted simply by general size, with the larger appearing first.
As such, there is no logical continuity or transition between
chapters - and precious little within.
The Quran was compiled in the
years and decades following Muhammad's death from snatches of
writings on papyrus leaves, wood carvings, animal bones and
especially the memory of his companions, who were beginning to
die off. There is generous redundancy within the text as
well as contradictions - which are said to be resolved through
"abrogation," whereby later verses have authority over earlier
ones when there is an apparent dispute between them. (It
isn't made clear how Muslims are supposed to know which verses
are "later" from the text).
Although the words in the
Quran are believed by Muslims to be those of Allah, and not
Muhammad, there are several places in the narration where this
simply doesn't make sense. In some cases, Muslim scribes
mended the problem by inserting the word "say" in front of
certain text to make it appear as if Allah is commanding
Muhammad to speak in the first person. In other cases,
their clean-up work was not quite as thorough (such as the
27:91, in which the word "say" is not in the original
The words of the Quran are
said to be the literal, eternal words of Allah himself, relevant
to all people at all times (it is unclear why personal
directives to Muhammad such as
33:53 were included). It is not a book of history, although there is some badly garbled fragments of stories from
scattered throughout. The verses that issue rules and
edicts are generally open-ended. Very few are bound by
historical context within the actual text, including calls to
violence against unbelievers.
The Quran is almost
incomprehensible in and of itself due to the piecemeal way in
which it was compiled. Directives, topics,
diatribes, incomplete accounts of Old Testament stories and
mythological characters appear randomly with very little
stream-of-thought consistency. Themes are disjointed and
shifting, something that would not be expected of a perfect book
External sources, such as the
Hadith (narrations of Muhammad's words and deeds) are essential
for understanding not just the context of what is being said,
but often the very meaning of critical passages. Even so,
interpretations are often arbitrary and, since there is no
longer a central authority in Islam, various Muslim factions
often claim confidence in remarkably different applications of
the religion and its "true meaning."
Older versions of the Quran
would be helpful in the study of certain words (since vowels are
often left out of transcriptions) but unfortunately ancient
texts are usually either destroyed or hidden from public view by
authorities, since they differ somewhat from modern versions -
and thus throw into question the Quran's internal claim to be
the immutable word of God (although the Hadith plainly indicates
multiple versions existed following Muhammad's death).
The suras of the Quran can be
grouped into two distinct periods in Muhammad's life.
There is the earlier "Meccan" period, when Muhammad had little
to say about violence or "fighting in Allah's way." Not
only did he not have the power to force Islam on others at the
time, but he was borrowing heavily from Judeo-Christian
Then there are the "Medinan"
suras and later, in which the commands to violent Jihad and
intolerance increase corresponding to Muhammad's military
strength. The bloody 9th Sura (the Verse of the Sword) is
one of the very last to be handed down by the prophet of Islam,
and it came at a time when the Muslims had already achieved
power over their neighbors, forcing into exile those who would
Most of the Quran is about
unbelievers and much of this is devoted to their earthly or divine punishment. People of other religions are said to be "cursed by
Allah." The more tolerant verses (though popular with
contemporary apologists) are less numerous than the later, more
violent ones. According to the Quran itself, the later
verses abrogate those that precede
them (Allah doesn't change his word,
6:115, but he does "substitute" it when he comes up with
It is important to note that
the Quran does not contain a single original moral
value. However, it is the only major religion to do away
with the rule of general benevolence found in all others -
including Christianity's "Golden Rule." Instead of
advocating universal love and charity, the Quran distinguishes
between believers and unbelievers, drawing a sharp distinction
in the value of each group and laying the foundation for
discrimination and dehumanization (see
Is the Quran Hate Propaganda?).
Those who abandon themselves to
what the Quran literally says generally become a danger to those
around them who are not like-minded. Other Muslims often
maintain a discreet loyalty to a predetermined moral framework
around which they may choose to mold the Quran by filtering out
inconvenient sections - usually on the basis of context - while
placing disproportionate emphasis on limited fragments of
earlier verses which may appear to be in agreement.
The Quran repeatedly stresses
Muhammad's claim to being a prophet. Those who accept it
are morally superior to those who don't. Muslims will
receive the highest reward in paradise while the non-believers
will suffer egregious torment in hell - as well as a "painful
punishment" in this life.
The proclamation that Muhammad
is God's prophet happens to be the only original idea in the
Quran. It is supported through circular reasoning:
Muhammad is Allah's prophet because Allah says so - and we know
that Allah says so because that is what Muhammad says. (It
isn't hard to see why the early Muslims had to kill a lot of
people to get their point across).
Grammatical, theological and
scientific errors abound within the Quran, but they are
"explained away" through elaborate and complicated theories that
may seem absurd to more objective students - even if such sophistry reinforces
the faith of those who will believe that the book is perfect in
every way regardless of what it contains (to say otherwise is to
risk a death sentence). Also, for a book that claims to be
"clearly written" it is suspicious that most copies are
accompanied by voluminous commentary that often exceeds the
actual body of verses.
The exaggerative praise that
accompanies the Quran (a book that literally tells Muslim men
that they may keep women as sex slaves) makes Christian fundamentalist
claims about the Bible "containing God's word" seem rather tame
by comparison. Syllables of the Quran continue to be
committed to memory with a level of fanaticism that has not
diminished over the generations.
Allah apparently spoke in the
obscure Quraish dialect, which few Arabs at the time understood
all that well (and even fewer still today). This is
significant because Muslim apologists often use this point
advantageously, particularly with regard to the passages of the
Quran that are contrary to modern sensibilities. Often
the apologist will cynically insist that such verses have a
different meaning in the "original Arabic" (even if this
alternate meaning seems to have eluded fourteen centuries worth
of Arabic-Islamic scholars).
The most honest
English-language versions of the Quran are probably the earlier
ones (Yusuf Ali, Pickthal and Shakir). More recent
translations are usually tainted by the personal preferences of
the interpreter, which is very often dictated by the
palatability of contemporary Western tastes - although one
exception to this is the Noble Quran.
A quick test for determining
whether a version of the Quran is true or "politically correct" is to turn to
verse 4:34 and check whether the word "beat" or "scourge" is
used in the instruction to discipline belligerent wives.
If it is there, then the copy is probably closer to the original
Arabic than the more recent "whitewashed" versions.
If you are serious about
acquiring a Quran, however, then also confirm that
verses 4:24, 23:6, 33:50 and 70:30 all stay faithful to the
Arabic by using the word 'captive,' 'slave,' or 'those whom thy
right hand possesses' in reference to the women authorized by
Allah for a man's sexual use. Contemporary translators are
notorious for ignoring the original Arabic and pretending that
Muhammad is speaking only of wives, when, in fact, it is evident
from the text that he distinguishes between wives and non-wives.
The Quran distributed by CAIR,
Muhammad Asad's "The Message of the Quran," should be
by serious inquirers. It is a 20th century Westernized
translation that is designed to manipulate the naive reader by changing the wording of unflattering
verse and offering mitigating commentary to convince readers
that they are not seeing what they are really seeing.
We recommend the highly
translation from CSPI (or the
abridged version) or the
which is less readable but far more objective. The Noble
Quran is a recent translation, but it is also the most faithful
to the original Arabic.
It is best to balance out one translation with occasional
references to others, including to the
MSA website, which contains the Pickthall, Shakir and Yusuf
Ali Muslim translations.
Estimated Chronology of the Quran
Suras from Mecca
96, 68, 73, 74, 111, 81, 87,
92, 89, 93, 94, 103, 100, 108, 102, 107, 109,
104,77,50,90,86,54,38,7,72,36,25,35, 19,20, 56,26,27, 28, 17,
10, 11, 12, 15, 6, 37, 31, 34, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46,
51, 88, 18, 16, 71, 14, 21, 23, 32, 52, 67, 69, 70, 78, 79, 82,
84, 83, 29
Suras from Medina
2, 8, 3, 33, 60, 4, 99, 57, 47,
13, 55, 76, 65, 98, 59, 110, 24, 22, 63, 58, 49, 66, 61, 62, 64,
48, 9, 5