The Holy Qur'an
Muslims believe the Qur’an is literally the word of Allah, revealed through the angel Gabriel to Muhammad, over 23 years. It is the earthly record of an uncreated and eternal “tablet,” preserved in heaven (Qur’an 85:21-22). God is the speaker so many passages begin with “Say,” and “We” which is the plural of majesty used for him. The Qur’an offers little context because the revelations came as situations necessitated. However, the context for a particular revelation is not always evident or agreed upon. It is 4/5 the size of the NT with 114 surahs (chapters), ordered longest to shortest. Themes include prophets, God’s sovereignty, laws, judgment, and above all absolute monotheism. Muslims tend to think a complete written collection of the Qur’an was produced soon after Muhammad’s death, but this is debatable. Jesus’ prominent role (mentioned in 93 verses!) piques the interest of some Muslims to learn more about him from the Bible. For more on the Qur’an see “Qur’an, Ten Things You Need To Know” by Dr. Peter Riddell.
These are traditions concerning what Muhammad said and did, transmitted by a chain of authorities, but they are defined differently: Hadith are written narratives of Muhammad, whereas Sunnah is the “path,” or practices passed on by the community long after his death. Sunni Muslims draw their name from Sunnah, whereas Shi’ites rely on their Imams which are considered infallible. Hadith assumes God-fearing men will not lie on sacred matters, but Muslims have seldom agreed on what stories are true. Yet the topic is of interest to most Muslims because they want to emulate the Prophet in everything (Qur’an 3:32; 24:54; 33:21). Hadith also gives meaning to the Qur’an and is used in exegesis. Sunnis have canonized 6 sets Sahih (authentic) Hadith–Al-Bukhari and Al-Muslim being the most popular. Shi’ites have their own Hadith, but often they overlap.
Biographies (Sira) on Muhammad
Sira constitutes a body of literature devoted to the life of Muhammad. As such, they differ from Hadith in that they are organized chronologically rather than topically. The first known work was by Ibn Ishaq (d. 767), Sirat Rasul Allah (Biography of Allah’s Apostle) is considered unvarnished and the most reliable. All later biographies relied heavily on this first work, but due to discrepancies, a consistent image of Muhammad is not agreed upon. For example, Ibn Hashim (d.833), greatly differed from Ibn Ishaq because he altered stories he considered to be offensive to Muslims. Another reason modern scholars question the reliability of Sira is that they were written so long after the Prophet died (the earliest being written 135 years after Muhammad’s death).
Tafsir (commentary of the Quran)
Tafsir-al-Qur’an is the science of explaining the most sacred scripture of Islam. Although the emphasis in Islam is often on memorizing the book, this is a systematic exegesis—verse by verse, and often word by word as one reads through the Qur’an. Exegetes expound, analyze, and provide theological reflection and context for the revelation. When Muhammad was alive no other authority was recognized, but after his death, an in-depth study was needed, especially since the Qur’an lacks a historical sequence (surahs are not arranged chronologically) and Shi’ites often find “hidden” meanings in the text. For Sunnis, al-Tabari (d. 923) is often hailed as the king of the commentators. Other notable exegetes include al-Zamakhshari (d. 1144), al-Baydawi (d. 1286), and Fakhar al-Din al-Razi (d. 1209) who wrote a 32-volume set. Twentieth-century expositors include Sayyid Qutb and Maulana Maududi, whom many Muslims consider extremist. Shi’ites have their own commentaries. Many of these works can be found online, including English translations.
Shariah and Islamic Law
Shari’ah and Islamic Law are not synonymous. Shari’ah is broader and has more to do with ethics, legal norms, principles, and values on which the Islamic Law is based. It is the judicial interpretation (Fiqh) of Shari’ah. Sunnis recognize 4 different schools of interpretation (Hanbali, Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanafi). Shi’ites have only one (Ja’fari). There is much confusion and fear in the West about “creeping shari’ah,” but to be fair, honor killings and female genital mutilation are tribal practices, not based on Shari’ah. That said, women in Islam can be adversely affected because the Qur’an allows wife beating, easy divorce, and child marriage (Qur’an 2:236-37; 4:34; 65:4). They may suffer more in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, where interpretations are harsh. Also, all 4 schools demand the death penalty for apostates who sow dissension among the community. Finally, surveys indicate Muslims do not at all agree on how much the Qur’an should affect national laws. For more on Shari’ah Law see “Shari’ah Law and the U.S. Constitution” by Dr. Matthew Stone.