How is the sacred text studied and used?
by John Kaltner
majority of Muslims hold a very traditional view of the Qur’an’s
genesis that is not unlike what many conservative Jews and Christians
think about the Bible. They believe that God spoke directly to Muhammad
via the angel Gabriel, and that the Prophet was no more than a passive
recipient who then communicated the message to his people. The Qur’an
is considered to be the verbatim word of God that literally and
accurately preserves the content of God’s revelations to Muhammad.
The words are God’s alone, and there was no human involvement
or creativity in their origin or arrangement.
being the prevailing mindset, critical
study of the Qur’an along the lines of what has developed
in biblical scholarship does not exist in Islam. The
historical-critical study of the Bible that began in the nineteenth
century has sought to understand the process by which the text reached
its present form. Consequently, it has examined issues related to
the possible sources behind the various books and the role that
social/cultural contexts have played in influencing the shape and
growth of the biblical tradition. One of the results of such study
has been the recognition that a wide array of human activity and
thought has contributed to the formation of the Bible.
a conclusion runs counter to the Muslim understanding of how the
Qur’an came to be. The possibility of contextual or human
involvement in its origin is repudiated to such a degree that there
is a tradition in Islam that the Prophet Muhammad was illiterate
and therefore incapable of either reading or copying anything that
could have found its way into God’s revelation.
Most Qur’an scholars work within the parameters of these widely
held beliefs about the text. There are some Muslims who employ critical
methodologies in their work, but they are relatively rare.
on the Qur’an has therefore focused more on the text as we
have it rather than its history of transmission. It was the first
work written in Arabic, and it played a central role in the faith
lives of Muslims from the very beginning of the ummah,
so careful study of the book commenced soon after Muhammad’s
death. Several aspects of the text have been the subject of scholarly
area is Arabic lexicography, the study of the meanings of words.
The Arabs were among the
first people in history to compile dictionaries, and they often
turned to the Qur’an in their efforts to get at the precise
meanings of terms. Related to this is the study
of Arabic grammar. The early grammarians frequently analyzed the
Qur’an to determine how words function together to create
meaningful sentences, and many of their discussions about grammatical
matters cite specific passages from the sacred text to illustrate
surprisingly, a third area of study concerns the meaning of the
Qur’an, with particular emphasis on the theological messages
it seeks to communicate. A vast number of commentaries on the text—often
a verse-by-verse consideration of the entire book—have been
written throughout history, and many continue to be consulted. It
is not uncommon for these theological works to also include discussions
of Arabic lexicography and grammar.
on the Qur’an has sometimes sought to identify what are referred
to as the “occasions of revelation,” in Arabic asbab
al-nuzul. Such study is ultimately concerned with context,
and seeks to determine what was going on within the community or
Muhammad’s personal life when he received a particular revelation
from God. This pursuit attempts to link specific texts to specific
contexts in an attempt to better understand the circumstances and
meaning behind a given passage.
to this is the division between Meccan and Medinan chapters of the
Qur’an. Each chapter is categorized as one or the other depending
on whether scholars believe it was revealed before or after Muhammad’s
journey to Medina. There are 90 Meccan chapters and only 24 Medinan
ones, but those from Medina tend to be lengthier than those from
the earlier period.
use the Qur’an in ways similar to how Jews and Christians
use the Bible. It is recited aloud in communal settings like prayer
services and funerals, and it also plays an important role in private
devotion. Virtually every Muslim home contains at least one copy
of the Qur’an, and it is often prominently displayed where
family members and guests can easily see it. It is also common throughout
the Muslim world to see a small copy of the text on the dashboards
of automobiles or in stores and other places of business. The important
role of oral recitation of the Qur’an means that it is frequently
present in that form as well. Televised performances of Qur’an
reading are a regular part of programming, particularly during religious
feasts, and some radio stations play recorded recitation around
the clock. These media-based presentations are a constant reminder
of the central place Islam’s sacred text has in Muslim society.
©2006 John Kaltner
Kaltner is a member of the Department of Religious Studies
at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee where he teaches courses
in Bible, Islam, and Arabic. Among his books are Islam:
What Non-Muslims Should Know (2003); Inquiring
of Joseph: Getting to Know a Biblical Character through the Qu’ran
Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers
(Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999).
from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on
Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra
Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John
Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for
purchase in December 2006.