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 sequence, 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.
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 famous 27:91, in which the word “say” is not in the original Arabic).
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 the Bible 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 of instruction.
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 that 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 religious tradition.
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 not convert.
Every 12th verse of the Quran speaks of either earthly or divine punishment against unbelievers. 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 something better, 2:106 16:101).
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 it 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 often “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.
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 avoided by serious inquirers. It is a 20th century Westernized translation that is designed to manipulate the naive reader into preferred conclusions 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 readable non-Muslim translation from CSPI (or the abridged version) or the Noble Quran. 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.