The Qur’an

Surah 25 (Al-Furqan/The Criterion): 4-8

4. They say: ‘This is but a forgery which he (Muhammad) himself has concocted and certain other people have helped him in this.’
These people speak unjustly and lie.

5. They say: ‘These are legends of the earlier communities which he has got written down for himself and they are being dictated to him morning and evening.’

6. Say (O Muhammad): ‘Rather He has sent it down Who knows the secrets of the heavens and the earth.
He is the Pardoning One, the Merciful One.’

7. And they say: ‘What a (queer) prophet! He eats food and goes about in the market place! Why has not an angel been sent down upon him so that he might be a co-warner with him?

8. Or why has a treasure not been sent down upon him or (why has he not been given) a garden whose fruits he can eat?’
And the unjust ones say: ‘You (Muslims) are only following a victim of sorcery.’

[Fazlur Rahman, 1988 from ‘Major Themes of the Qu’ran’]

The divine voice

The Qur’an declares that it is ‘naught but a revelation revealed’, {53.4}, and employs a number of devices to put beyond doubt that it purports to be the words of God Himself.

 

Most surahs speak from the perspective of God using the first person, although this is not always the case, see Surahs 98 to 107. Its message is often delivered either to its original audience in Arabia with the words ‘O you who believe’ or broadcast to humanity at large, but a substantial number of verses are addressed towards God’s supposed human locutus directly, typically calling him ‘O Prophet’ (‘nabi’) or ‘O Messenger’ (‘rasūl’). Often the substance of a revelation is preceded by a command that the announcer repeat what is about to be told, and over three hundred verses begin with the word ‘Qul…’ (‘Say…‘) for this purpose. The incorporation of such introductions to divine speech is illogical, making sense neither as part of the message to be delivered, nor as an off-script direction that the time to begin reciting has arrived. In the final three surahs of the Qur’an the word ‘Qul’ has clearly been inserted in front of a pre-existing text for the purpose of converting it from a prayer to God into a supposed revelation from God.

 

Throughout the Qur’an, God’s message is frequently placed into the reported or anticipated speech of prophets or others, or on one occasion a party of jinn 〈15.〉, frequently using the exact same words, leading to tiers of quotations within quotations for the listener to navigate.

 

On occasion, the Qur’an introduces a verse by rehearsing a question that had presumably been posed to its announcer with the words: ‘They ask you concerning…’ This literary form allows him to answer the query whilst continuing to present himself as a mere conduit of sacred wisdom in the style of an ancient soothsayer or oracle. Other verses respond to the scepticism of its audience, whom it tells us accused the Qur’an’s announcer of ‘sorcery〈18.〉, being possessed by a jinn or being a mere poet, recounting dreams, {21.5}, receiving or repackaging foreign material and ‘fables of old〈3.〉 – which latter claim is rebutted by reference to the fact that the revelation is sent down in Arabic, see 〈3.〉 above.

 

The Qur’an is addressed primarily, if not exclusively, to a male audience  〈76.〉, save for just a handful of later verses that are addressed specifically to the wives and household of the Prophet, 〈79.〉 A few verses are directed towards the ‘Banu (Children of) Israel’, i.e. Jews, {2.40, 47, 83-84 & 122}, {5.19 & 59-63}, {17.6-8} and {20.80}, and some even to jinn, 〈15.〉 Two verses, {19.64-65}, appear to be spoken not by God at all but in the independent voices of angels reassuring Muhammad on God’s behalf – apparently following a prolonged period in which he had received no revelations – that God had not forgotten him and that the revelations would soon resume.

 

The Qur’an as a clear book

In the later surahs, very many verses of the Qur’an anticipate that they will, after having been announced, form part of a larger whole. The overall revelation is referred to by a variety of terms including: ‘qur’an’ (literally the ‘recitation’), ‘kitāb’ (‘writing’ or ‘book’), ‘dhikr’ (‘remembrance, recollection’), ‘furqān’ (‘the criterion’), ‘naba’’ (‘news’), ‘bushrā’ (‘glad tidings’), ‘indhār‘ (‘warning’), ‘tanzīl’ (‘that which has been sent down’), ‘wahy’ (‘revelation’), ‘maw’iza’ (‘admonition’), ‘mathal’ (‘parable’), ‘ḥukm’ (‘judgment’) ‘bayyina’ (‘clear message’), ‘qaṣaṣ’ (‘narration’), ‘barā’a’ (‘annulment of a contract’), ‘adhan’ (‘permission’), ‘ḥikma’ (‘wisdom’) and ’ḥuda’ (‘guidance’). The most common name (employed on more than seventy occasions) and the one that has stuck is The Qur’an. Quite possibly this word was a variation on the Aramaic word ‘qeryana’, the word used for a lectionary, in Syriac Christianity, making the phrase ‘an Arabic qur’an’ ({12.2}, {20.113}, {39.28}, {41.3}, {42.7} and {43.30}) translatable as ‘an Arabic lectionary’.

 

There is a strong tradition in Islam of memorising the Qur’an and it is unclear whether the early surahs anticipated that they would be reduced to writing at all. Assertions that the text is ‘easy upon thy tongue{19.97}, {44.58}, and ‘easy to remember’, {Surah 54: 17, 22, 32 & 40}, suggest that these surahs may have been envisaged as a text to be recited orally rather than read, and the frequent repetition of the refrains ‘So which of your Lord’s boons do you two deny?’ throughout Surah 55, or ‘Woe that day to the deniers’ in Surah 77,  that these verses were composed to be recited in congregational liturgy. In {7.57}, the announcer is described as ‘ummi’, often understood as ‘unlettered’, whilst {29.48}, refutes a suggestion of human concoction by stating (formally in God’s voice to the announcer but clearly for the audience’s benefit): ‘And thou didst not recite before this any book, nor did thy write it with thy right hand…’, relying upon the apparently spontaneous nature of the recitation as evidence of its divine origin. See also {6.7}.

 

On the other hand, the use of book imagery is a common motif within the Qur’an. Introductory oaths include:

By a book when it is inscribed upon a parchment outspread’, {52.2-3}, and

By the pen and that which they inscribe’, {68.1}.

The Qur’an twice denies that the entirety of the Word of God could ever be written down, even:

if all the trees on earth were pens, and the sea and seven more added to it (were ink?)…’, {31.27},

or

If the sea were ink…and another the like thereof to replenish it’, {18.109} ,

strongly suggesting that the Qur’an is referring to itself as having taken the form of a written work, the product of pen and ink.

 

Oral or written, the Qur’an frequently proclaims its literary excellence as evidence of its divine authorship. ‘Challenge verses’ repeatedly defy doubters, {2.23}, {10.38} and {52.34}, even with the assistance of jinn, {17.88}, to produce a verse – or in {11.13} ten verses – of a similar quality. The Qur’an describes itself as being delivered in an Arabic that is ‘clear’ to understand, {5.15}, {12.1}, {36.69}, and which contains no discrepancies, {4.82}. The somewhat ambitious claim to clarity, is detracted from by numerous passages, especially in the earlier surahs 〈10.〉 that are quite deliberately worded to appear mysterious. Verse {3.7} which accepts, probably in response to questions about the meaning of some other verse, that in the interpretation of the Qur’an it is only some verses that are ‘determined’ (‘muḥkam’: alternatively ’clear’, per Pickthall and Arberry, ‘definite in meaning’, Abdul Haleem). These are described as the ‘foundations’ (per Yusuf Ali) or ‘essence’ (Arberry) of the Book. Other verses, though, carry a meaning that is ‘mutashābih’, literally ‘resembling another’, i.e. ‘symbolic’, ‘allegorical’ or ‘ambiguous’. Delving into the meaning of the latter is not encouraged, since this is liable to mislead those ‘whose hearts are given to swerving’ since ‘none know its interpretation save God and those firmly rooted in knowledge.’ The search for hidden meanings within the Qur’an by those who consider themselves to have great piety is a trait of Sufism – but strongly disapproved of by many orthodox Muslims. The means of dealing with contradictions is considered at 〈8.〉

The Preserved Tablet

On occasion, the Qur’an presents itself as comprising much more than the series of announcements delivered by Muhammad and recorded by his followers into a fixed text. It will be seen 〈18.〉 that the Qur’an maintains that God is said to have inscribed all that will ever happen in a ‘Book’/’clear Book’ before the creation of the heavens and earth. This claim may be the basis of:

{85.21}  Nay, it is a glorious Qur’an,

{85.22}  Upon a Preserved Tablet.

The ‘Preserved Tablet’ (‘lawh al-mahfuz’) is understood within Islam as a text existing outside of space and time, which acts as a prototype for the Qur’an – and possibly all previously revealed scripture. Because the Qur’an uses the same terminology, referring to itself too as the ‘qur’ān’ and repeatedly as ‘a clear Book’, (in {5.15} and in either the first or second verse of each of Surahs 12, 26, 27, 28 and 44) it seems that the Qur’an is asserting some sort of shared essence with that primordial book of destiny. The notion of such a book may draw upon the concept of a heavenly ‘Book of Life’ that is alluded to in both the Old and New Testaments, and which, in turn, may contain the echoes of even older, Mesopotamian, beliefs. The linkage of this ultimate book with the revelations of Muhammad would appear to be a variation of the Christian concept of the Logos, the Word of God, manifested in all creation and specifically present in holy scripture.

 

In {3.7}, {13.39} and {43.4} the Qur’an also refers uses the phrase ‘the Mother of the Book’. This term seems to indicate that the canonical Qur’an has emerged from, whilst at the same time having a separate identity to, a source that has not yet been revealed in its entirety. The Mother of the Book may or may not be the same text as the Preserved Tablet, which in turn may or may not be the ‘clear Book’ of destiny already referred to. Speculative theories concerning the organisation of this ‘celestial library‘ abound, but the Qur’an’s shifting and undefined terminology appears to prevent (probably deliberately) the drawing of firm conclusions as to what exactly is being proposed.

 

It will also be seen 〈10.〉, that in Surah 97 some sort of decree is described having been sent down from God with ‘the angels and the Spirit‘ on the ‘Night of Power’. Surah 97, itself, is ambiguous about what it is that God has sent down but in the much later revealed verses of {44.2-3}, the Qur’an seems to refer back to Surah 97 and specify that what had been sent down on that night was the Qur’an itself, ‘sent down’ on a particular ‘blessed night’. {2.185} also refers to the sending down of the Qur’an as having occurred upon one particular occasion, within the month of Ramadan, in which month believers are required to fast as a memorial 〈55.〉

 

However, the traditional Islamic narrative describes the Qur’an’s announcement by Muhammad, far from occurring upon one night, as proceeding in instalments over a period of twenty-three years. This gradual revelation is also referred to within the Qur’an itself in {17.106} which confirms that the Qur’an was sent down ‘divided in parts, that thou mayest recite it unto men in intervals and in successive revelations’. In {25.32} a reason for this gradual revelation is given:

{25.32}  And the disbelievers say: ‘Why was the Qur’an not sent down upon him as a single whole?’

It is so that We may make firm thy heart thereby. And We have recited it unto thee in a measured pace.

 

In order to resolve the contradiction between the propositions that the Qur’an was sent down on one particular night and the undeniable fact of its gradual revelation by Muhammad, Islamic theology has had to infer an intermediate stage. The Qur’an, it has been concluded, must have been ‘sent down’ from the Preserved Tablet existing somewhere above the seven heavens, to some lower place – often identified as the first (i.e. lowest) heaven 〈13.〉 on the blessed Night of Power; and it is from this midway location that it must have been disclosed to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel, verse by verse. It may be that it was during this period of partial revelation that the book that had been sent down, containing the answers to questions yet unasked and addressing situations that had not yet arisen, was the ‘Mother of the Book’, and/or ‘the Book concealed’ referred to in {56.78}:

{56.77}  Truly it is a Noble Qur’an,

{56.78}  In a Book Concealed.

{56.79}  None may touch it save those made pure,

{56.80}  A revelation from the Lord of the worlds.

This interpretation does not prevent {56.79} being cited by many as authority for a rule that Muslims in a state of ritual uncleanliness and all non-Muslims are prohibited from handling physical materials upon which the Qur’an is printed.