What is the religion's sacred text?
by John Kaltner
The sacred text of Islam is the Qur'an, an Arabic word that means “recitation.” This name is derived from what Muslims believe was the very first message Muhammad received from God, which was in the form of a command: “Recite!” (in Arabic, iqra' ). The name of the book is also commonly written in English as “Koran,” although “Qur'an” is a more accurate transliteration of the Arabic original.
It has already been noted that the Qur'an is considered to be a perfectly preserved record of the revelations Muhammad received from God through the angel Gabriel over the course of the last twenty-two years of his life beginning in 610. The revelations came to the Prophet intermittently throughout those years and, while attempts were made to write down some of them while he was still alive, they were collected together and put in book form only after his death. The Qur'an is the oldest literary text that has come down to us in the Arabic language.
The Qur'an contains 114 chapters of varying lengths with a total of just over six thousand verses, which makes it approximately the same length as the New Testament. Each chapter has a title, which is always some word or name that appears within it. Sometimes these titles refer to an important figure or central theme in the chapter, and at other times it is a very obscure or minor term that appears only once.
Examples of chapter titles include the following: “The Cow,” “Women,” “The Table,” “Abraham,” “Mary,” “The Spider,” “Divorce,” and “The Disaster.” Muslims refer to the chapters by their titles, but there is a tendency among scholars and non-Muslims to identify them by number. Therefore, the chapters listed above can also be identified as 2, 4, 5, 14, 19, 29, 65, and 101. Every chapter but the ninth one begins with the same words, “In the name of God, the merciful one, the compassionate one.”
The organizing principle of the chapter ordering appears to be one of length rather than chronology. For example, the command “Recite!” to Muhammad that was mentioned above is believed to be the first revelation he received, but it is the opening word in chapter 96. Similarly, some of the chapters that scholars consider to be the earliest are found toward the end of the book, a clear indication that the Qur'an is not arranged in chronological sequence.
But the relative length of chapters does appear to be a factor. After an initial chapter that is fairly brief and serves as an introduction to the book as a whole, the general pattern is one in which the longer chapters come first and the shortest ones are found at the end. The longest chapter in the Qur'an is the second, which runs to 286 verses. At the other end of the spectrum is chapter 108, which contains only 3 verses.
According to Islamic belief, the original Arabic text of the Qur'an is the only authentic form of the book because this was the language God used to communicate with Muhammad. Any translation into another language is therefore only an interpretation and not truly the Qur'an. For this reason, there are many editions of the text that are bilingual, with the Arabic original on one page and the translated text on the facing page.
Because only about fifteen percent of the world's Muslims speak Arabic as a first language, the rest have to rely on translations to read their sacred text. All are encouraged to learn the language of the Qur'an, but most lack the opportunity or time to do so. Still, the Arabic form is held in such high regard that it is always read first in mosques throughout the world and then translated into the vernacular.
An aspect of the original text that is easily lost in translation is its poetry. The meter and rhyme that are essential to the Arabic form of the Qur'an cannot be fully duplicated in another language. Even those who do not know Arabic are struck by the beauty and elegance of the text when they listen to it being chanted by someone who is trained in the art of Qur'an recitation. This highlights an important difference between the Qur'an and the Bible. Whereas the Bible is a work that is primarily meant to be read, the Qur'an is one that must be recited and heard to be fully appreciated.
People familiar with the Bible who open up the Qur'an often find it to be a strange and unsettling experience because it does not read like their own text. The Qur'an does not tell a story or follow a sequential order as much of the Bible does. It is a blend of narratives, teachings, warnings, and guidelines whose arrangement can strike the uninitiated as random or haphazard. In addition, the presence of biblical figures and stories in the Islamic scripture that are similar yet different from their counterparts in the Bible is something Jews and Christians can find confusing.
©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.