In the Name of Allah, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful

What is the Koran? A view from within

by Professor Mohamed Elmasry

[Professor Elmasry is a faculty member of Middle East Studies at the University of Waterloo, Canada]


1. The Koran is believed by Muslims to be The Word of God revealed to Prophet Muhammad in Arabic over 1400 years ago. The language is unique and the style is exceptional. Although the Arabs at the time of its revelation were experiencing a peak in literary excellence, the Koran proved to be a challenge to them. None were able to produce anything similar: not even a short chapter. In the Koran it is categorically stated that they would never be able to do it. Had they succeeded, Islam as a religion may not have survived.
But why the challenge and why the failure? This stems from the fact that the Koran uses the same unique elegant language to explain a variety of topics: faith, theology, acts of worship, spirituality as well as complex legal issues as family laws and the civil and criminal penal code. The Koran addresses such topics with varying degrees of simplicity and sophistication. But the language is always the same: a beautiful classical Arabic styled in poetry-prose, which made it possible for the entire book to be memorized by millions, including those whose mother tongue is not Arabic. Many scholars, Muslims and non-Muslim, who are fluent in Arabic maintain that the Koran is a literary miracle (Mo'jeza).
Even today, the more the person (Muslim and non-Muslim) becomes fluent in Arabic the more he/she can appreciate the beautiful rhythm, which often brings joy to the hearts. A skilled reciter of the Koran often reduces an Arabic-speaking audience to surrendering tears. As Professor H. A.R. Gibb puts it, "No man in fifteen hundred years has ever played on that deep toned instrument with such power, such boldness, and such range of emotional effect."
The literary miracle of the Koran is one of several, which include the mention of future events and scientific principles, which were later confirmed.
2. The non-believers at the time of the Prophet charged that the Koran was not The Word of God. Their claims ranged from: Muhammad wrote it himself, he copied it from Christian and Jewish writings, other people or alien beings helped him, it is a type of magic, he was possessed,he was just a clever poet. These non-substantiated claims are recorded in the Koran along with their rebuttals. Both are integral parts of the Koran and both are recited by Muslims in their daily prayers. Such claims do not offend Muslims as the Koran states that the free choice of faith is a God- given human quality which must be respected.
3. The Koran states that it contains God's Divine timeless guidance. However, the Koran commands the believers to use their God given intellect to interpret that guidance.
The interpretation of the Koran is at two levels. One is at the personal level1 as the Koran states that God made it easy for everyone to understand it. In Arabic, or in a good translation, a vast majority of the Koranic verses lead to direct and simple interpretation, readily available to be applied in one's life. Thus the difficulty is in practising the Koran not in understanding it. The other level of interpretation is at the scholarly level. More popular versions of such scholarly interpretations are available as aides to one's personal interpretation. In Islam there is no church. Hence every Muslim is responsible for his/her own interpretation and practice of the Koran.
4. The Koran was very successful in educating the early Muslims into becoming fully developed humans, spiritually, mentally and physically, at both the individual and community levels. It did that in a quantum step; achieving a huge positive differential quality in the shortest time for the benefit of the maximum number of people at the least social cost.
The Koran taught the early Muslims the true meaning of (and how to exercise) tolerance, love, mercy, justice, peace, worshipping, happiness, success, pleasure, knowledge, trust, piety, equality, sincerity, hope, gratitude, patience, truthfulness and humility. And the true meaning of (and how to avoid) suffering, arrogance, envy, miserliness, greed, jealousy, hypocrisy and heedlessness.
The Koran was also very effective in virtually eliminating social ills such as drinking, gambling, the gap between rich and poor, bigotry, monopoly, over consumption, adultery, violent crimes.
Professor Arnold J. Toynbee suggested that Islam has the answer to "two sources of danger facing our modern Western society: race consciousness and alcohol; and in the struggle with each of these evils the Islamic spirit has a service to render which might prove, if it were accepted, to be of high moral and social value."
He goes on to explain, "The extinction of race consciousness as between Muslims is one of the outstanding moral achievements of Islam, and in the contemporary world there is, as it happens, a crying need for the propagation of this Islamic virtue; for, although the record of history would seem on the whole to show that race consciousness has been the exception and not the rule in the constant inter-breeding of the human species, it is a fatality of the present situation that this consciousness is felt-and felt strongly-by the very peoples which, in the competition of the last four centuries between several Western powers, have won-at least for the moment- the lion's share of the inheritance of the Earth."
And he further explains, "This (Islamic) spirit may be expected to manifest itself in many practical ways; and one of these manifestation might be a liberation from alcohol which was inspired by religious conviction and which was therefore able to accomplish what could never be enforced by the external sanction of an alien law."
The Koran also gives guidelines regarding a variety of topics affecting human development such as personal hygiene, family values importance of seeking knowledge, behaviour in time of peace and war, one's relation to others. The holistic approach to life is an important feature of the Koran. For example, no other religion makes it a duty for its adherents to tolerate and respect the faith of everyone else, whatever their belief.
The Koran also provides answers to many of life's outstanding questions in a concise and clear manner. Questions like what is the meaning of life and death, why we are here, why it is necessary to have One Absolute God, who is God, why and how can we worship Him, life after death, natural laws regarding rewards and punishments in this life and in the Hereafter.
The Koran states that it is merely re- affirming God's eternal invitation to His religion of a Universal and Pure Monotheistic faith and that God will protect the Koran from politically motivated human editing.
5. Historically, whenever Muslims were connected to the real teachings of the Koran and practised its guidance, they and the rest of the world prospered at all levels including spiritually and economically. And whenever Muslims were disconnected from the Koran, they and the rest of the world suffered. For example it is because of Koranic teachings that Muslims built a civilization and contributed to its advancement of medicine, mathematics, sciences, engineering and all social sciences. This is diametrically converse to our current civilization which had its roots in a largely anti-religion movement.
6. Early Muslim scholars were careful to separate the Koran from the recording of the actions and sayings of the Prophet and his companions. This was done into a textual material called Hadith. In the process they introduced to the religious sciences of Islam: "the isnad"; how each Hadith is backed by a chain of narrators and "the rejaII": the biographies of these narrators. This was the first time in the history of world religions that these two sciences were introduced and the first time in which the sayings and the actions of a founder of a world religion and that of his companions were carefully separated from the revealed Divine Word of God given by that founder. In addition, any saying, interpretation and action of later- day teachers and preachers, other than the companions are further separated from the Koran and the Hadith into separate volumes; "tu-rath". There is no parallel to this in other world religions. The Old and New Testaments both contain the Islamic equivalents of the Koran, the Hadith and the tur-rath.
7. The Koran was not revealed in one piece, but at intervals during a span of 23 years. There is agreement among scholars that the Prophet himself did not write down the revelation, but it was written by several companions. AI-Suyuti (1445-1505) in his classic AI-ltqan, a text on Koranic sciences, reports that when a revelation came, the Prophet used to call one of his Koranic writers and dictate to him. Upon the Prophet's instruction, the Koranic chapters were also arranged and verses were put into a given order.
Recitation of the Koran from memory was practised by the Prophet and his companions, both men and women. AI-Suyuti mentions more than twenty well known people. The tradition of memorizing the Koran has continued after the Prophet's death until today.
Thus the Koran was available in both oral memorized and written forms during the Prophet's life. The year before his death he recited the entire book several times with his companions. Because the available written text of the Koran was not bounded and in some cases did not include the whole book, the name given was "Suhuf", a collection of pages. Whenever the collection was complete, a related noun was given, "Musshaf". There were several Musshaf, each was given the name of the person who possessed it. For example there were the Musshaf of lbn Mas'ud, that of lbn Abbas and that of Hafsa.
8. Less than twenty years after the Prophet's death (632) and during Uthman's caliphate (644- 56), the Koran was compiled, upon the instruction of the Prophet companion and Caliph Uthman, into one bounded standard book (Musshaf), hence the name Uthman's Musshaf. Uthman's Musshaf was reproduced into master copies and distributed to major Islamic centers of learning. An early version of Uthman's Musshaf is believed to be the one at the Islamic Museum of Tushkent, Uzbekistan.
Uthman ordered that all other versions of the Koran in part or in full, to be burnt. Burning was the common method used to dispose of holy writings. However it is possible that some of these early versions of the Koran survive till the present.
9. The collection methodology used to compile Uthman's Musshafs was to confirm the words of each verse by at least two people who were trustworthy, of great knowledge of the religion, and were ear and eye witnesses to the Prophet himself. When variants appeared for some verses, in wording, spelling and/or pronunciation, the different versions were reported. These variants are still available today, and are called different readings: "Kera'at". No other existing religious book, which is still available in the mother tongue of its founder, went through such scrutiny during its collection and preservation.
10. The discovery of the seventh century manuscript of Yemen in 1972 (The Atlantic Monthly, January 1999) do not add a new dimension, and reveal nothing new, as it has already been identified by Muslim scholars as falling within the well-known standard variants of the Koranic readings, "kera'at". The significance of the discovery is more historical than religious.
11. There is no Muslim researcher, who is a recognized scholar in both Arabic and Islamic studies, has questioned that the Koran is the Word of God, at least in public. However, some challenged the traditional interpretation of some verses, but failed to gain the support of their peers. Whenever such failures became politicized, as in the case of Abu Zaid of Egypt, the challengers paid a heavy price. But others fought the battle and won. The late Sheikh Sha'rawy of Egypt was strongly criticized by his peers for explaining the Koran in colloquial Egyptian dialect rather than classical Arabic, but today his more than 600 hours of lectures are available in CD-ROM, audio and video tapes.
12. Non-Muslim Western researchers, who are recognized scholars in both Arabic and Islamic studies are few and the number are dwindling because of the lack of funds. The history of such scholarship shows that the church at first was violently opposed to it, even to the translation of the Koran into modern European languages.
Later the imperial powers of Europe encouraged research by Orientalists, with the political motivation and sole aim of being able to control their colonies. A large volume of writings of this period is mostly irrelevant today; Muslims in North America and Europe are Westernized contributors to a Western civilization.
13. The translation of the Koran into English is relatively new and difficult. Many factors contribute further to the difficulty of its translation. These include the fact that the Koran is not a textbook, divided into chapters by topics. It uses Arabic and Islamic terminology throughout, the rhythm of the Koranic language, the varieties of topics in one chapter, even one verse.
Early Koranic translations by Orientalists were politically motivated and contain introductions where the authors assure the readers that there is nothing to fear, reading the Koran does not contaminate their pure Christian belief.
An early translation of the Koran into English directly from Arabic (rather than Latin) was by George Sale. Sale started his translation with a piece entitled " TO THE READER":
"I imagine it almost needless either to make an apology for publishing the following translation, or to go about to prove it a work of use as well as curiosity. They must have a mean opinion of the Christian religion, or be but ill grounded therein, who can apprehend any danger from so manifest a forgery: and if the religious and civil institutions of foreign nations are worth our knowledge, those of Mohammed, the lawgiver of the Arabians, and founder of an empire which in less than a century spread itself over a great part of the world than the Romans were ever masters of, must needs be so; whether we consider their extensive obtaining, or our frequent intercourse with those who are governed thereby. I shall not here inquire into the reasons why the law of Mohammed has met with so unexampled reception in the world (for they are greatly deceived who imagine it to have been propagated by the sword alone), or by what means it came to be embraced by nations which never felt the force of Mohammedan arms, and even by those which stripped the Arabians of their conquests, and put an end to the sovereignty and very being of their Khalifs: yet it seems as if there was something more than what is vulgarly imagined in a religion which has made so surprising a progress."
Whenever Orientalists praised the Koran, which was not often, they had to qualify such praise. Sale remarks; "The Koran gives necessary laws and directions, in frequent admonitions to moral and divine virtues, and above all to the worshipping and reverencing of the only true God and resignation to his will; among which are many excellent things intermixed not unworthy even a Christian's perusal.'
No wonder, with the spirit of such Orientalist as Sale it was difficult for English speaking Muslims and non-Muslims, to understand the Koran. Today this is changing. New translations of the Koran in American English are emerging to promote understanding of the book. A notable one is that by Professor T. Irving, a Canadian-born American.