What you need to know

With Islam so much in the news these days, more and more questions are being asked about the sacred text of Islam: the Qur’an. It seems that pastors, politicians and even presidents suddenly have something to say about the Qur’an and Islam. But gaining an understanding of the teachings of the Qur’an takes more than a briefing or a quick news report. It requires reading the Qur’anic text of course, but it also requires an understanding of the Qur’an’s literary, social and historical contexts. This field guide gives 10 core features that will help you begin to understand the Qur’an.

About the same size as the New Testament

Apart from that similarity, it’s also divided into verses and chapters. However, the Qur’an’s chapters are not arranged according to style or author; nor are they ordered chronologically. Instead, they are organised roughly according to length, beginning with the longest and ending with the shortest. Another way of dividing up the Qur’an is by juz, or section; the work is divided into 30 sections. During Ramadan, devout Muslims read one section for each night of the fasting month. While all Muslims will have read some of the Qur’an, some specialists memorize the entire text and are able to recite it, beginning at any point of the text. Qur’anic recitation is an art form in the Muslim world, even in non-Arabic-speaking countries, where the reciter might not understand every detail of what he/she is reciting.

Chapters reflect periods in Muhammad’s life

Some chapters come from the period of his ministry in Mecca (610-22) and the remainder come from his ministry in the city of Medina (622-32). During the first period his role was mainly as a protestor against the authorities. During his years in Medina, he was the authority, with roles including prophet, political leader, legal authority, and warrior. When you read the Qur’an for the first time, it’s best to follow one of the chronologies. The different chronological systems vary in relatively minor ways. The advantage of reading the Qur’an chronologically is that it makes it easier to follow the progression in Muhammad’s life and in his thinking.

Abrogation is at the core of much debate

An important principle in interpreting the Qur’an is that, generally speaking, later verses abrogate or replace earlier verses where the core message differs. Although a complex issue–Muslim scholars debate which verses abrogate–this is an important subject for Muslims to decide how to relate the Qur’an in today’s world. The concept of abrogation is another reason why it is important to understand the chronology of the Qur’an’s chapters.

Muhammad is not regarded as author of the Qur’an

Muslims believe the message was transmitted by the Angel Gabriel through Muhammad over a period of 23 years. Muslims do not consider that Muhammad wrote–or in any way influenced–the text of the Qur’an. He simply served as a kind of keyboard, receiving the message and passing it on in words to his companions who memorised the message. Muslims believe that around 20 years after Muhammad died, Caliph Uthman ordered the writing of the Quran in book form because of the death of those who had memorized the message from Muhammad.

Qur’an is unchanging

The concept of an evolved text, that took centuries to canonize through a process of scholarly debate, is alien to orthodox Islamic belief. Nevertheless, non-Muslim revisionist scholars are increasingly challenging this standard Muslim view. They are drawing on new methods of research into manuscripts and historical evidence, as well as principles of textual criticism developed for the Bible, to offer some radically different views about the Qur’an’s text.

Be respectful of their text

You must never write on or mark up the Qur’an in the company of Muslims. This is because of the very high view of Muslims towards the physical text of the Qur’an and what it represents in being Allah’s exact word. Similarly, the Qur’an should never be left on the floor or placed under other books when Muslims are present. Developing such good practices shows respect to our Muslim friends. In interpreting the Qur’an, it is important to consider individual verses within their textual context, rather than simply plucking verses at random; this is an important principle in Biblical interpretation is well.

Understanding the Qur’an for Muslims needs additional literature

The key additional set of texts is represented by the Hadith, or prophetic traditions. Such texts record Muhammad’s statements and deeds, and make it easier for Muslims to follow the Prophet’s example in terms of the details of his life. Additionally, there are many commentaries on the Qur’an, with a number available in English translation. Also legal texts are important to consult in understanding the Qur’an. Stories also play an important role in filling out the detail of the Qur’an’s teaching for Muslims who are looking for ways to follow their faith.

Interpreting the Qur’an is a subject of great debate among Muslims

A key part of the reason is that many of the Qur’an’s verses are ambiguous. Moreover, Muslims debate whether certain teachings of the Qur’an are relevant for all time, or had a fixed time application. Methods of interpretation vary from scholarly to more personal approaches, with the latter becoming much more widespread in the digital age. This diversity among Muslims in their understanding of the Qur’an’s central teachings and principles can provide an interesting focus of dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

Interpretations can be peaceful or violent

A key area of debate among Muslims in interpreting the Qur’an occurs with verses relating to jihad. Some Muslims are literalists, seeing the verses as a call to violent confrontation with both their Muslim opponents and non-Muslims. Others take a metaphorical approach, arguing that such verses call on Muslims to be more devout in their faith; they think a literalist understanding should be relegated to the pages of history.


Qur’an affirms the teachings of Moses, David and Jesus

Muslims consider that the message of the Qur’an is consistent with the previous divine messages of the Torah, Psalms and Injeel (Gospel) received by Moses, David, and Jesus respectively. However, most Muslims also believe that the present record of these earlier messages, as contained in today’s Bible, is no longer reliable.   In other words, they believe it has been corrupted.