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ISLAM Judaism | Christianity
How is the sacred text studied and used?
by John Kaltner

The 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.

This 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.

Such 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.

Scholarship 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 inquiry.

One 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 their points.

Not 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.

Scholarship 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.

Related 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.

Muslims 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.

Copyright ©2006 John Kaltner

John 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 (2003); Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers (Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999).

Excerpts 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.


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