Organization, Content, Translations and Reverence of the Qur'an

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20120509-Gold Leaf from Quran.jpg
Gold Leaf from Quran
The Qur’an is approximately four-fifths the size of the New Testament. It is comprised of 114 chapters (“suras” ) made up of 77,934 words, 6,346 verses (“ayat” ) and 6,666 sentences. The chapters vary greatly in length and form. “The Opening” has seven ayat. The longest sura, “The Cow,” has 286 ayat. The shortest sura, 103, 108 and 110, have three ayat each. The Qur’an is relatively short for a religious book. The Bible has almost 800,000 words and thus is more than ten times longer than the Qur’an. Some Buddhist scriptures have dozens of volumes.

With exception of the first sura, the chapters are organized from longest to shortest. The first chapter is a famous short prayer the called the “Fatihah” ; the second is entitled “Sura II — the Cow” . The Qur’an is organized the way it is said because Muhammad's revelations were collected in a haphazard way and thus difficult to arranged in chronological logical order like the Bible. Thus it was decided to place the long chapters at the beginning and short ones at the end. The result is that many of the chronologically early chapters appear towards the end; and the later ones towards the beginning.

Many manuscripts are divided into thirty sections, or juz', of equal length (37.142). In this format, the entire Qur'an can be read over the course of a thirty-day month (usually during the month of Ramadan), with one volume being undertaken each day. Other less common units of division, the manzil and the hizb, divide the text into seven or sixty parts, respectively. The Qur’an is written in Arabic. Arabic has twenty-eight letters of only eighteen distinct forms; dotting above and below these primary forms distinguish between otherwise identical letters. Early Qur'ans often left out these markings (i'jam) as well as short vowels that appear as symbols above and below letters, assuming that the text would be used as a memory aide for recitation by readers who were already familiar with its content. [Source: Maryam Ekhtiar, Julia Cohen, Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art]

With the exception of the ninth sura which is believed to have once been part of the eighth sura, every chapter begins with “ Bismillah” , an Arabic expression meaning "In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate." The format of having chapters ordered from the longest to the shortest, rather than thematically is frustrating to some non-Muslims, who find the text disjointed. The organization of the Qur’an, however, enables believer simply to open the text at random and to start reciting at the beginning of any paragraph, since each represents a lesson to be learned and reflected upon. [Source: John L. Esposito “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s,]

Websites and Resources: Islam IslamOnline ; Institute for Social Policy and Understanding; ; Islamic City ; BBC article ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam ; Islam at Project Gutenberg ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary frontline

Qur’an (Quran, Koran) and Hadith: Quran translation in English ; Quran in Easy English, Urdu, Arabic and 70 other languages ; ;; Quranic Arabic Corpus, shows syntax and morphology for each word ; Word for Word English Translation – ; Digitised Qurans in the Cambridge University Digital Library ; ; Hadith – search by keyword and by narrator

Content of the Qur’an

The Qur’an is not a book of theology. According to religious scholar Geoffrey Parrinder it is a "kind of religious rhetoric to warn, admonish and instruct...The Qur’an consists, not of coherent histories, but of pronouncements addressed to Muhammad or the community at large that respond to problems faced at various times. It lacks unified, exhaustive discussions of laws, beliefs, and so forth: rather it takes u various topic as they arise."

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: As the source of Muslim faith and practice, the Qur’an describes the relationship between an almighty and all-knowing God and his creations. The Qur’an also maintains that all individuals are responsible for their actions, for which they will be judged by God, and so it provides guidelines for proper behavior within the framework of a just and equitable society. Because it is through writing that the Qur'an is transmitted, the Arabic script was first transformed and beautified in order that it might be worthy of divine revelation. [Source: Suzan Yalman Department of Education, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Based on original work by Linda Komaroff]

The shorter Meccan suras chapters are towards the end of the Qur’an. They begin with short, staccato oracles in rhymed prose and focus primarily on religious and metaphysical matters like the relationship between man and God, the life of the Prophets, the joys and paradise, the terrors of Hell, God, God’s role in history, Muhammad’s role as Prophet, the Last Judgement and the importance of helping one another.

The longer Medina passages towards the beginning deal are oriented towards the Muslim community and consists of instructions, advise and laws and matters such as marriage, family, legal matters, morality and ethics. There are instructions on how Muslims should conduct their prayers, business affairs, wars and even hygiene, often in great detail. The information is limited and is elaborated in texts like the hadiths that were gathered long after Muhammad’s death.

Language and Order of the Qur’an

folio from a 7th century Qur'an manuscript

The Qur’an is written in a literary form known as “sadj” , or rhymed, unmetered prose. Muslims believe it’s a perfect but partial copy of a book that exists complete in heaven. Passages from Mecca are distinguished from those from Medina in terms of style and contents.

According to the BBC: “There are 114 chapters in the Qur'an, which is written in the old Arabic dialect. All the chapters except one begin with the sentence Bismillahir rahmanir raheem, 'In the name of Allah the most merciful and the most kind'. This is the thought with which Muslims should start every action.The longest chapter of the Qur'an is Surah Baqarah (The Cow) with 286 verses and the shortest is Surah Al-Kawther (abundance) which has 3 verses. [Source: BBC, July 14, 2011 |::|]

“The arrangement of surahs does not correspond to the chronological order in which they were revealed. The Qur'an is sometimes divided into 30 roughly equal parts, known as juz'. These divisions make it easier for Muslims to read the Qur'an during the course of a month and many will read one juz' each day, particularly during the month of Ramadan. |::|

Paul Halsall of Fordham University wrote: “ Although scholars have some idea of the order of the speeches, the standard text is organized in a remarkable way. Divided into chapters, or surahs, after the first - short - surah, each surah is arranged according to length, the longest coming first. Muslims' early education often consists in learning large parts of the Qur'an and so this arrangement presents little difficulty. For new readers it can make the text somwhat confusing. [Source: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook,]

The Qur’an, Torah and Bible

Muslims believe The Old Testament (the Torah to Jews), the Psalms, and the Gospels are perverted fragments of perfect complete book in heaven while the Qur’an is regarded as a segment of the perfect complete book in heaven, with corrections of errors found in the Torah and Bible. According to Sura 3:3: Allah “has reveled the Scripture with truth, confirming what was before it, just as he revealed the Torah and the Gospel.” The Bible, Torah, Psalms, and the Gospel are also sacred to Muslims but not given the same weight and esteem as the Qur’an.

Muhammad reportedly knew of but had not read the Bible or the Torah. Many figures found in the Bible appear in the Qur’an in different form. The Qur’an features the story of Noah and the Ark, Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt and reciting a message from God at Mount Sinai. Jesus is referred to a messiah.

The stories of the Bible and the Qur’an though are often very different. Jesus doesn't die on the cross. He is taken directly to heaven and a phantom takes his place on the cross at Cavalry. The Qur’an, Bible and the Torah all tell the story of the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve but in Qur’an and the Torah their “original sin” is not passed onto mankind and therefore did not need the kind of salvation provided by Jesus’s crucifixion.

The Qur’an describes Abraham building the Kaaba, something not found in the Bible, and almost sacrificed his son Ishmael to God. The Bible says that it was Isaac who was almost sacrificed. In the Qur’an, Mary, Jesus's mother, is identified with Miriam, the sister of Moses, and appears as a goddess who constitutes one person of the Trinity. According to Islam, the whale that swallowed Jonah is one of 10 animals that will go to heaven

Passages from the Qur’an

The Qur’an begins with the “Fatihah:”
“Praise be to God, Lord of the worlds!
The compassionate, the merciful!
King on the Day of reckoning!
Thee only do we worship, and
to thee we cry for help.
Guide Thou us in the straight path.
The path of those to whom Thou
hast been gracious; with
whom thou art not angry,
and who go not astray.”

A quote from sura IV, ayat 135:
“ Oh believers, believe in Allah and His Messenger
and the Book He hath sent down to His Messenger
and the Book He sent down before.
Whose disbelieveth in Allah and His angels and His
Books and His messengers and he day hath
surely gone astray into far error.”

Reverence Shown the Qur’an

The Qur'an is Islam's holiest book. It is considered by Muslims to be the written record of the word of God. Qur'anic revelations are regarded by Muslims as the sacred word of God, intended to correct any errors in previous holy books such as the Old and New Testaments. According to the BBC: "The Qur'an is treated with immense respect by Muslims because it is the sacred word of God. While the Qur'an is recited aloud, Muslims should behave with reverence and refrain from speaking, eating or drinking, or making distracting noise.

Muslims are often called "People of the Book." This is a reference to importance of the Qur’an in Islam and the link that Muslims have with other “People of the Book” — Christians and Jew. “The Book” refers to a heavenly texts from which the Bible and Torah are derived but the Qur’an is the most perfect representation. Muslims believe “The Book” in heaven has existed since the beginning of time on a tablet in the presence of God.

The Qur’an is treated with great reverence and affection by Muslims. Special care is taken never to lay the sacred book on the ground and to make sure it never comes in contact with an impure substance. Muslims often keep it carefully wrapped in a cloth. When they unwrap it they press it to their foreheads before opening it.

Many Muslims carry a tattered copy of the Qur’an with them wherever they go. Some Muslims consider he Qur’an to be too sacred to buy or sell.

Qur’an and Calligraphy

Shahadah: There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God
Calligraphy has traditionally been regarded as the noblest and most revered form of artistic expression because most of the Arabic words and expressions that are written come from the Qur’an which is regarded as the word of God and thus should be expressed as beautifully and with as much care as possible. The act of making calligraphy is regarded as an act of worship. Newsweek once reported that what the “human body has been to Western art, the word has been to Islamic art.”

With the use of figures and animals and plant motifs limited by Islamic restrictions, the written word of the Qur’an became an important source and element of Islamic art. Some Arabic calligraphy looks like abstract designs. The Arabic script which can be twisted and shaped into all sorts of elaborate geometric and curvilinear designs. The single word Allah has been transformed into labyrinthine designs with hundreds of lines. One of the most common expressions is the “shahada” , the basic statement of Muslim belief: "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of God." Another common statement: "God is the light of the heavens and the earth. The likeness of His light is a niche wherein is a lamp."

Islamic calligraphy can be found in all kinds of art forms and objects: manuscripts, vases, plates, silver plates, silk robes, pottery, coins and variety of object de art. Some of the most beautiful calligraphy is on glass and metal vessels. Mosques often fill with huge room-size medallions with calligraphy on them. Some of the most gifted calligraphers made imperial Qur’ans and “tugras” (sultan signatures) for the sultans and architectural inscriptions for great mosques. Their work is sometimes executed with gold on a background of lapis lazuli.

Qur’an, Poetry and Printing

In his book “Introduction to Islam” , Dr. M. Hamidullah writes: "Another art peculiar to Muslims is the recitation of the Qur’an. Not accompanied by instruments of music , and not being even in verse, the Qur’an has been an object for recitation purposes, since the time of the Prophet. The Arabic language lands to its prose a sweetness and melody hardly to be surpassed by rhythm verses of other languages. Those who have listened to the master singer, or “Qari” , reciting the Qur’an [or calling the faithful to prayer] know that these specialties of the Muslims have unequaled charms of their own."

Ottoman Empire Qur’an copied circa 1536
The Qur’an was the first book ever written in Arabic. Because it was considered sacrilegious to use machines to make the Qur’an, the first printed copies of the sacred book we not made until almost 300 years after Gutenberg printed his first Bible. In the 18th century the Turkish sultans allowed books other than the Qur’an to be printed on presses, but even then calligraphers in Istanbul protested this action by parading with their reed pens and ink wells in a coffin. It wasn't until 1874 that sultans allowed the Qur’an to be printing on printing presses, and even then, only in Arabic.μ

The first version of the Qur’an to be printed in Arabic was made in Europe in 1530, but was destroyed by the Christian church. The printed version in current use is derived from one printed in Cairo in 1919 under the patronage of the Egyptian crown.

Qur’an and Arabic

The Qurʾan is written in a combination of different literary styles, including prose and rhymed poetry. The language, classical Arabic, continues to be used as a literary language, a standard of poetic expression for writers in Arabic.

Arabic is believed to be "uncreated" like the Qur’an. Adam is said to have inscribed the language on tablets of clay, and today it is the written and spoken language of Islam, whether the faithful are in Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey, Senegal or Yemen. Many non-Arabs who recite Muslim prayers in Arabic have no idea what the prayers mean.

Muslims believe that the Qur’an is Arabic composition in its most perfect form. The Arabic spoken in Yemen mostly closely resembles the Arabic in the Qur’an. Qur’an passages often have red marks that indicate how people should breath when they recite it. Each “aya” , or verse is indicated by a gilded rosette at the end.

Translations of the Qur’an

Muslims consider translations of the Qurʾan as not being the true or actual Qurʾan. Allah's word was revealed in Arabic, so Muslims believe that translations are more in the nature of commentaries or interpretations. For this reason most translations are given a title such as The Holy Qurʾan or some other variant to distinguish them from the true Qurʾan.

Because the Qur’an is regarded as the as the word of God, all translations are regarded as profanation. The Qur’an states quite unequivocally: “We have sent messenger save with the tongue of his people.” The Qur’an is supposed to paraphrased or interpreted. The divines nature of Qur’an scripture is also why calligraphy is so important.

According to the BBC: “Translations of the Qur'an exist in over 40 languages but Muslims are still taught to learn and recite it in Arabic, even if this is not their native language and they cannot converse in it. Translations are regarded by Muslims as new versions of the holy book, rather than as translations in the conventional sense. [Source: BBC]

Translations are viewed not as embodiment of the true Qur’an but rather as guides to study. The first copies of the Qur’an translated into English were called The Meaning of the Glorius Qur'an” . But despite these reservations the Qur’an has been translated: more than 20 English-language translations are available, most of which are a literal as possible. “The Book and the Qur’an” by Muhammad Shahrur, which tried to interpret the Qur’an for readers was widely banned in the Muslim world, despite it pious tone and popularity.

According to the BBC: “It was not until 1734 that a translation was made into English, but was littered with mistakes. Copies of the holy text were issued to British Indian soldiers fighting in the First World War. On 6 October 1930, words from the Qur’an were broadcast on British radio for the first time, in a BBC programme called The Sphinx.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art; National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, , AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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