The Qur’an, Islam’s holy book, stands at the heart of Muslim faith and practice. The word Qur’an means “recitation.” It was a word used in churches for the reading of the Bible in the time of Mohammed. They are verses that Mohammed recited while exhibiting behavior-resembling seizures. His followers wrote the verses on any material that was at hand. The respect for the Qur’an grew rapidly after Mohammed’s escape to Medina. His followers believed that Mohammed was building on the credibility of the Bible. They revered him as a Biblical prophet equal to Abraham, Moses and David. They believed the content of the Qur’an to be lofty in its laws and so beautiful in its poetry that it surpassed the many poets among the idol worshipers.
History of Mohammed and the Qur’an
Mohammed’s early life in the Arabian Peninsula is a story of tragedy and struggle. He was born around AD 570. His father, Abd-Allah, died before he was born. Allah was a part of his father’s name because that was the name of the primary deity of his clan. Amina, Mohammed’s mother, followed an old Arab custom of giving the infant to a Bedouin woman to be nursed for a significant period of time. When he was six years old, his mother died. To be an orphan in sixth century Mecca was a sad situation. Abu-Talib, the head of the impoverished Hashim clan of the Quraysh tribe and Mohammed’s uncle, was given charge of the boy. He grew up in the midst of violent conflicts between individuals and tribes.
One of the ways a person in Mohammed’s position could gain wealth and power would be to marry well. A forty-year-old businesswoman named Khadijah decided to marry the twenty-five-year-old Mohammed if he proved himself responsible by acting as her agent on a caravan to Syria. She had been married twice before. Until her death, Khadijah was Mohammed’s only wife. They raised four daughters but their two sons died in infancy. In spite of his influential wife, Mohammed struggled to gain respect from the merchants in Mecca who excluded him from their inner circle. It is possible that this is one factor that led him to seek spiritual help.
Mohammed found the Arabian religious life more troubling than helpful. The Christians of the Roman and Byzantine empires dominated much of the world and had gained converts in Arabia. Even Khadijah’s cousin, Waraqah, had become a Christian. There were also wealthy Jewish tribes in the Arabian Peninsula, yet the main religion of the country and the faith of Mohammed’s tribe was idol worship.
Mecca was the center of this polytheistic religion of which Mohammed belonged. These pagans prayed by facing Mecca. They traveled to Mecca for annual pilgrimages. There they would enter an arena (Masjid) where they circled around an ancient stone building 45 feet high, 33 feet wide, and 50 feet long, called the Kaaba, which was filled with idols. A black stone could be seen from the outside of the Kaaba like a cornerstone. The stone or meteorite was kissed in veneration. About one mile away from the Kaaba, at the Wadi Mina, the pilgrims threw rocks at a pillar that represented the devil. They believed in a lunar month of fasting and giving alms to the poor.
When Mohammed seized control of Mecca, he destroyed all the idols inside the Kaaba, except the revered black stone. However, he preserved each of these pagan practices and today they remain a significant part of the Islamic monotheistic rituals. This certainly made conversion to Islam easier for the people of Mohammed’s day.
Mohammed’s distressing situation culminated in reported spiritual experiences. For reasons of his own, Mohammed began to meditate in wilderness caves. He claimed that it was during one of these times that he was visited by a spiritual being, which commanded him to recite a few sentences. Later, Mohammed believed he was being demon possessed and tried to kill himself but then again claimed to be rescued by another spiritual appearance, which assured him of his prophet hood.
According to Muslim history, Mohammed continued to receive messages. He recited them to his followers who wrote them on any objects available such as rocks or bones. These messages came as Mohammed had episodes in which he would seem to have seizures. In the midst of these spells, Mohammed spoke as if Allah were speaking instead of him. He claimed that his spiritual guide, whom he later identified as the angel Gabriel, funneled messages through his poetic revelations. The Qur’an makes it clear that most Christians and Jews of that time believed this behavior to be either insanity or demonic. At first the sayings were short, but later in his life they became quite lengthy.
The Qur’an has a certain poetic quality, which Muslims believe is miraculously beautiful. Even so, the vast majority of Mohammed’s contemporaries did not believe Mohammed’s verses to be extraordinary since the Arabian Peninsula was famous for its many poets and mystic seers. This fact is attested to in the Qur’an itself.
Aside from the writing style, the content of the message was offensive to the idol worshipers of Mecca. Mohammed was reciting verses that announced that Allah was the one and only deity. His message condemned idol worship, upon which the Meccan economy relied.
As a result, Mohammed gained a very small following in the first ten years of his self-proclaimed prophet hood. Even his tribe turned against him, which was unheard of in an age when clan loyalty was the foundation of the culture.
When Mohammed sought to transfer his movement to a town called At-Taif the leaders ended the negotiations with such strong opposition that they encouraged the residents of the community to throw stones at Mohammed as he retreated.
The Meccans were plotting to take Mohammed’s life so relocation to a different place was essential. Negotiations with the town of Medina went much better than those at At-Taif. Medina was a prosperous agricultural center that struggled with tribal friction. Some in Medina hoped that the presence of the Muslims would bring a spiritual sense of peace and Mohammed was invited to come as an arbitrator of disputes. Just before the Meccans tried to execute their plan to kill Mohammed, he and his small group of believers fled to Medina where his community of followers began to grow in influence and power. The first day of this move was July 1, AD 622. Muslims cite this date as the first day of the Islamic calendar.
Shortly after the migration, the Islamic religion turned to violence as a means of dealing with their enemies. Mohammed proclaimed verses that allowed Muslims to fight for Islam. They began by targeting the Meccans. The Muslims raided caravans in the name of Allah, which eventually led to formal battles between them and the armed forces of Mecca. The fighting expanded to include those who supported Mecca. The Muslims began to acquire riches in the way of spoils of war.
The Muslims were experiencing success. The fact that they were now a military force unified their ranks and increased their membership. The Muslim’s influence over the tribes of Medina grew as their enemies began to fear them.
Following Mohammed’s death, the Islamic military victories in northern Africa, Europe and the Middle East certainly added to the spread of the religion as did international trade with Asian countries. The Muslim’s use of violence against their enemies, as a part of their religious duty called “jihad” or “holy war,” is still widely practiced around the world into the new millennium for self-defense and to enhance Islamic power and influence. The question Muslims face is how and when jihad should be practiced.
Mohammed had tremendous wealth and power at the age of sixty. His rise to prominence in Medina and the Muslim’s eventual victory over Mecca brought Mohammed into complete control over an expanding domain. He was revered as the voice of Allah. He controlled the fate and property of those who opposed Islam.
The respect given to him was so great that even to this day his opinions on rules for conduct, dress, daily habits and even beard style are held as examples to follow around the world. Mohammed’s opinions and the history of his rise to power are recorded in writings called the “hadith”. The Hadith is not one volume but rather a large number of texts compiled several hundred years after the time of Mohammed. The most respected of these is the collection called “Sahih Al-Bukhari.” It details the rules Mohammed gave for daily life, boasts of Mohammed’s exploits and offers the faithful Muslim a guide for daily life.
Criticisms of Mohammed’s behavior were often countered by Mohammed’s proclamations of Qur’an verses. In this way, it was as if Allah defended Mohammed’s conduct. Verses were also spoken by Mohammed to instruct his wives and the general public on how they must behave towards him. Muslims believe these commands and all of the verses spoken by Mohammed were collected in the text of the Qur’an.
The Qur’an Becomes a Book
Shortly after Mohammed’s death, his verses remained written on stones, bones, leather, and hidden in the memories of his followers. Years passed and most of those, who claimed to remember all of the Qur’an by heart, were killed in battle. Some of the items on which verses were written were damaged or lost. So with great urgency experts shared what they remembered and gathered the verses recorded by others to produce the first Qur’ans. They were copied and distributed throughout the Islamic communities.
Muslims today are committed to the idea that there was one original Qur’an which was compiled without any mistakes, omissions or additions. Yet, Islamic history shows that perhaps four to seven different versions of the Qur’an emerged. One of Mohammed’s successors, Caliph Uthman, was shocked by this fact. He assigned a committee of three people to construct a standardized version of the Qur’an. Then Muslim leaders tried to burn all other versions of the Qur’an.
The most respected Hadith records that even Uthman’s standardized copy had to be corrected. The vast majority of Muslims are strongly offended by scholars who suggest that the Qur’an was edited, changed or was in any way different from the original pronouncements of Allah through Mohammed. They believe that the burned Qur’ans had only minor differences and that the standard copy, blessed by Caliph Uthman, was made by devout followers of Mohammed who had memorized the verses with unerring perfection. They would reject the traditions that imply any deficiencies in the Qur’an as unreliable Islamic history. They revere the Qur’an as the perfect word of Allah and resist critical scholarly inquiry into imperfections in the text.
The physical characteristics of the Qur’an are interesting. It is a book that is somewhat shorter than the Christian New Testament. Its chapters were not arranged in the sequence that they were spoken, but by size with most of the largest chapters first and the shortest last. For this reason, it has no chronology of events or ideas.
When Mohammed spoke the verses, he did not use the first person singular as in “I say that you must believe.” He spoke as if he were relaying a message from Allah, transmitted by an angel, who was supposed to have spoken in the first person plural: “We created the world and we command the people to believe in you (Mohammed) as a prophet,” for example. Muslims do not believe that the use of “we” for Allah is a contradiction of the oneness of Allah.
Mohammed spoke Arabic which is the language of the Qur’an. Even Muslims who do not understand the language are instructed to memorize the Qur’an in Arabic. They do this because they believe that the Qur’an stops being the true Qur’an when it is translated into another language losing the true meaning in the process.
Teachings of the Qur’an
A few themes repeat themselves often in the Qur’an. The foremost are the commands to believe in Allah’s oneness as opposed to idolatry and Mohammed’s validity as a prophet equal to Biblical prophets. In support of these beliefs, the Qur’an repeats the wonders of creation, the foolishness of idol worship, the terrors of Judgment Day and the alleged confirmation from the Bible.
The word “alleged” is used in reference to the Qur’an’s link with the Bible for a good reason. When the Jews and Christians of the time heard the Qur’an’s references to the Bible, they recognized two problems. They found many strange tales being portrayed as Biblical stories. One example is King Solomon communicating with ants and birds. This was one reason Mohammed lacked the support he expected from the other monotheistic faiths. The second was that the theology of the Qur’an contradicted the Bible. The Qur’an claimed to agree with the Gospel of Jesus Christ while denying the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and salvation through the cross and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.
To persuade readers to believe and obey the teachings of the Qur’an, several incentives are reiterated in the text. Earthly rewards are extended such as victory in battle and the spoils of war, which come from fighting for the cause of Islam. After death, there are promises of sensual pleasures in the Gardens of Paradise contrasted with the many horrors of hell.
There are five basic pillars of Islam, which Muslims highlight as being taught by the Qur’an, and their sacred history books called the Hadith. They include the confession that Allah is one and Mohammed is a prophet (Kalima), prayer facing Mecca five times each day (Salat), alms giving (Zakat), a month of fasting during the daylight hours practiced annually (Ramadan), and a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a Muslim’s life (Hajj).