What is the Holy Quran?
The Holy Qurán is the most widely read book in the history of mankind, a source of immense inspiration, guidance and wisdom for millions of Muslims all over the world. It is the pivotal point of imaan (faith) and integral to the foundations of an Islamic society being the basis of its shariah (Islamic legal injunctions and law.) As such one of the aims of every Muslim is to ensure a continuous link remains between the individual & the Holy Qurán. It is a book not just to be read, but to be studied, understood and ultimately revered.
The Holy Qur’an is the literal word of Allah (SWT), divinely revealed to Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) through the Angel Gibraeel (AS). Before any attempt is made to describe the meanings of the word “Qur’an” the etymological base of the Arabic language needs a brief explanation first. The Arabic language is one of the richest languages in the world word containing many meanings and hidden depths, which has no comparison in the English language.
The word Qur’an can be derived from four root words, each with their own individual meanings. The first root word is “qara’a” whose literal meaning is to collect or to compile. In this respect the Qur’an is a book which was collected and codified under the divine protection of Allah (SWT). When Angel Gibraeel (AS) used to bring the divine revelation of Allah (SWT) to the Holy Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) he had already been instructed by God to reveal the exact placement of each ayah (in the relevant Surah) as well as the arrangement of the Surah’s and their names. Since this was the case it was impossible for others to interfere in the Qur’an in any manner or form. It will remain in its actual and original state until the Day of Judgment the Qur’an itself testifies to its divine protection:
“It is for us to collect and recite it” (75:17)
In the context of the Qur’an, the word qara’a is also taken as being the book which contains all knowledge of the universe. Every as aspect of life as we know has been codified and collected within it. An answer to any question man wishes to have answered can be found in the verses of the Holy Qur’an:
“And we have sent down to thee the Book explaining all things, a guide, a mercy and glad tidings to Muslims”. (16:89)
“A detailed exposition of every thing”. (12:11)
The second root word is “qar’ana” meaning a union or conjunction. The root word does not specify what the union consists of, merely that a process of combination is indicated. In reference to the Qur’an this refers to the literal physical existence of the Qur’an and its properties. Imaam Fakr-al-Deen Razi quotes Imaam Sufyan Sorri as stating that the Holy Qur’an was given its own special name because letters are joined to make words, words are joined to make ayahs, ayahs are joined to make surahs and surahs are joined to make the Qur’an. This beautiful combination of literature has produced the most magnificent book in the world.
Another academic implication of the word “qar’ana” is that the Qur’an is combined with guidance, the two being inseparable. The Holy Qur’an refers to this combination:
“This is the book: it is guidance sure, without doubt”. (2:2)
“Here is a plain statement. To one, a guidance and instruction to those who fear Allah”. (3:138)
“For one who had certainly sent unto them a book, based on knowledge, which we explained in detail; a guidance and mercy to all those who believe”. (7:52)
“There are clear evidences to me, and a guidance and mercy to those of assured faith”. (45:20)
The third root word is “qira’athun” meaning to read or recite. In reference to the Qur’an this is one of its most important features. Although other books that claim to be divinely revealed are also read and recited, the Holy Qur’an has a specific characteristic, superiority and individuality compared to them. This is because it is the most widely read book in the world. Millions of Muslims all over the world recite it in their daily prayers 5 times a day. The Qur’an is read and recited daily in what is called ‘tilawat’ where Muslims read the Qur’an whenever they have some spare time to get the Blessings of Almighty Allah. During the month of Ramadhan the entire Qur’an is recited over a period of 30 days in the special ‘tharawih prayers ’, as well as being individually read by Muslims in their homes. Often, during this month of fasting, each member of the household will have completely read and finished the Qur’an at least once if not twice.
As well as being read and recited, the Qur’an acts as a practical guide in all affairs of Muslims, be they social, cultural, legal, economic or political. Unlike its biblical counterpart, the Qur’an does not merely contain stories of Prophets or an analogue of Islamic history. Rather it contains an array of topics to be of use in ones daily life. Codes of behavior and their limits are explained, mutual rights and responsibilities of men, women, children are laid down as well as international principles to be used to govern communities, countries and nations. The Qur’an acts as a practical guide of life to Muslims in the personal and official spheres of life. To make it more accessible to different nations and peoples of various countries, it has been translated in almost every language of the world.
Furthermore, from the period of the Holy Prophet (SAWS) up until the present day some 1400 hundred years later, millions of Muslims have learnt the Qur’an off by heart. It is unimaginable how many people must have learnt the Qur’an over the last 14 centuries, suffice to say no other book can claim to have these particular traits attached to it. And this trend and inclination will continue till the Day of Judgment.
The fourth and final root word of the word Qur’an is “qira’in” which is the plural of “qarina” which meaning evidence, argument or symbol. In the context of the Qur’an this is taken to mean how one verse interprets, elaborates and gives arguments and evidences for previous verses. In ayah 5 of surah Al-Fatiha for example, man is told to ask Allah for the right path:
“Guide us Thou on the right path”.
The following verse then answers this request and explains what the right path is:
“The path of those whom You have favored. Not those who have earned your anger or gone astray”. (1:6-7)
So the Qur’an is self-evident and self-explanatory. If one verse gives a general meaning than the other gives a more specific definition. Similarly if one verse gives an absolute commandment then the other verse will gives its exceptions and qualifications. The Holy Qur’an testifies to this fact:
“Oh mankind! Verily there has come to you a convincing proof from your Lord for we have sent into you a light (that is manifest)”. (4:174)
Moreover the Qur’an contains 100’s of evidences of its own truthfulness being the best evidence of the truth of its claim. That is why a challenge was given to the non-believers that if all of mankind and jinn kind were to come together to create a similar or equal book to that of the Qur’an they would fail, this being an impossibility:
“Say. If the whole of mankind and Jinns were to gather together to produce the like of this Qur’an, they could not produce the like thereof, even if they backed up each other with help and support.” (17:88)
Fourteen hundred centuries have passed and no change or alteration has taken place in the Holy Qur’an. The text that is present today is exactly the same text that was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (SAWS). This is so despite hundreds of attempts by non-Muslims to try and insert alterations and changes into the Qur’an. That is why Allah (SWT) himself gives it divine protection:
“We have, without doubt, sent down the message; And We will assuredly guard it (from corruption”. (15:9)
Just as there have been no alterations made to the Qur’an, similarly there are no conflicts or contradictions in the text of the Holy Qur’an. If one reads the beautiful verses each one compliments the next. The surahs and ayah’s of the Qur’an work in consistent harmony with each other. The Holy Qur’an is truly a uniform piece of work.
Names of the Holy Quran
The Qur’an has been referred to by many different names in the holy text. The word Qur’an itself can be found in the scriptures:
“We do relate unto you the most beautiful stories, in that We reveal to thee this (portion of the) Qur’an: Before this thou too was among those who knew it not.” (Yusuf, 12:3)
“Nay this is a glorious Qur’an (inscribed) in a tablet preserved”. (Al-Buruj, 85:21-22)
However Allah Almighty refers to the Holy Qur’an using several other names:
al-nur the light (7:157)
al-hukm the judgment (13:37)
al-dhikr the reminder (15:9)
al-kitab the scripture (21:10)
al-furqan the criterion (25:1)
al-tanzil the revelation (26:192)
The Arabic word wahi comes from the root word waha and is used to describe divine revelation. It has a variety of different meanings in the Arabic language, being interpreted as “a quick or divine indication”, “to give or convey a message” or “gentle speech”. In Islamic terminology, wahi can be precisely defined as God’s divine message conveyed to Allah’s chosen persons (Prophets). This message can be conveyed openly or in a hidden and concealed manner, imparting wisdom and knowledge that is beyond the material and physical realities of man.
The renowned scholar, Hafiz ibn Hajr as-Qalani defines wahi as that knowledge regarding the Shariah that Allah conveys to His Prophets. Imaam Qastalani states that wahi is information given to the Prophets by Allah Almighty, in the form of a book, through Angels or through dreams. Descriptions of wahi are also given in the Holy Qur’an:
“So we sent this inspiration to the mother of Musa” (28:7)
“Remember thy Lord inspired the Angels (with the message): I am with you” (8:12)
“Nor does He say (ought) of his own desire. It is no less than inspiration sent to him”. (53:3-4)
“This is part of the tidings of the unseen which we reveal unto thee (oh Prophet) by inspiration”. (3:44)
Literacy of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (SAWS)
The very first revelation of the Holy Qur’an took place on the 15th night of Ramadhan in the year 610 AD. At this time the Holy Prophet (SAWS) had reached the age of 40. For many years it had become his practice to visit a small cave in mount Hira, situated around 3 miles from the city of Makkah. The Holy Prophet (SAWS) would retreat to this cave in solitude and meditate there for many days. He would take supplies of food and water and engage in long prayers. As the years progressed these periods of solitude became more pronounced extending his stay from days into weeks. During the month of Ramadhan Holy Prophet (SAWS) would keep fasts and spend the entire month in this spiritual state of solitude.
It was during one of these periods, in the year A.D 610 that the first revelation of the Qur’an began. In a Hadith related by Ayesha (RA) the Angel Gibraeel (a.s) came to the Holy Prophet (saw) and said ikra,“Read!” He replied: “I am not a reader.” The Angel then held him, pressed him hard and released him and again said ikra, “Read!” The Prophet replied: “I am not a reader.” The angel held and pressed him hard for a third time and said:
“Read, in the name of your Lord who created. It is He who created man from clots of blood. Read! Your Lord is the most bounteous, Who has taught the use of the pen. He has taught man what he did not know”. (Al-Alaq, 96:5 )
These were the very first verses of the Qur’an recited to Prophet Muhammad (SAWS). In recent times, in interpreting this Hadith many scholars have called the Prophet (SAWS) illiterate. In translating the above Hadith they quote the Prophet (SAWS) as saying “I cannot read” or “I do not know how to read”. However this translation does not support what took place at that time. It does not make sense to interpret the Holy Prophet’s (SAWS) words of “Ma ana bi qarain” as ‘I cannot read’ since the angel did not give him a book to read or a parchment of paper to read from. If the Holy Prophet (SAWS) had been given something to read then it would make sense to translate the words as Ï cannot read”.
However in this instance Angel Gibraeel (AS) was only asking the Holy Prophet (SAWS) to repeat the word ‘Read’ after him. In order to fulfill this request the question of literacy is irrelevant since even a child can say the word ‘read’ if asked. Thus the more accurate translation of the Holy Prophet’s (saw) words is “I am not a reader” which is still a literal translation of “ma an bi qarain”. So why did he refuse to follow the Angel immediately? What is clear is that Allah Almighty had already imbued the Holy Prophet (SAWS) with the concept of Tauheed, the oneness of God. He never worshipped idols but believed in the God of Prophet Ibrahim (AS.) As this was the case the Prophet (saw) refused to read until he knew what he was being asked to say. This was a new era in his Prophethood, and the Holy Prophet (SAWS) knew this. Since he already believed in Allah (SWT) he wanted to ensure that whatever he was asked to recite, being divine revelation, it must come from Allah the Almighty and none else. As soon as Angel Gibraeel (AS) recited the entire verse, asking him to read in the name of his Lord, only then did the Holy Prophet (saw) recite the same.
Other commentators also wrongly interrupt the adjective of “Ummi” that was ascribed to the Holy Prophet (SAWS) in the Qur’an, as meaning un-lettered. This is a wrong and misguided view. The exact meaning of “Ummi” means someone who has had no formal education, or been instructed or taught by a tutor or teacher. The word “Ummi” comes from the root word of “Umm” meaning mother, root or origin. The Arabs of that time used the word ummi to describe themselves since no formal system of education was available meaning most Arabs had no recourse to learn how to read and write. So a person who has not been educated through the traditional means of the time was labeled Ummi i.e. someone who remains in their original form, original purity and originality as at birth. However in the case of the Holy Prophet (SAWS), it is true that he did not have any formal education or tuition. Nevertheless he was not confined to the normal modes of learning. God had decided to make him the last and final Prophet to be sent to mankind. As such Allah (SWT) became responsible for his education teaching him all things necessary. The Holy Qur’an states:
“It is He who has taught the Qur’an. He has created man. He has taught him the intelligent speech”. (55:2-4)
All ‘Mufasareen’, commentators on the Holy Qur’an, unanimously agree that this verse refers to the Holy Prophet (SAWS,) in that Allah taught His Prophet the Qur’an and intelligent speech. As we have seen earlier, one of the many meanings of the Qur’an is that it is the book encompassing all knowledge of the universe. So the Holy Prophet (SAWS) was not an ignorant or illiterate man but had been divinely educated by God Himself. Allah (SWT) had bestowed him with intuitional guidance which is apparent from his personality.
The Holy Prophet (SAWS) never worshipped idols nor did he indulge in gambling or drinking. He had a famous reputation for being truthful and honest and had no hint of any immoral practice in his daily life. All these traits were present in his personality before he received the call to Prophethood. This is even more amazing when one studies his life in the background of the pagan Arab society. The majority of the individuals did not distinguish between virtue and vice but were left to their own devices. Traits such as honesty, truthfulness and spirituality are created through the prevailing conditions of the time and were virtually non-existent in pre-Islamic Arabia. Since there was no recourse to alternative education or training the pagan Arabs had so indulged in many uncivil practices. However the Holy Prophet (saw) had already been guided by Allah (SWT) Himself and so was not left to be conditioned by the Arab culture and society.
Manner and Forms of Revelation
Without delving into too much detail, The Holy Qur’an was revealed to the Holy Prophet (SAWS) in a variety of different ways. Some of which are listed below,
1. In the form of dreams
2. Revelation revealed directly into the heart
3. Revelation disclosed upon the sound of a bell
4. Revelation Brought by an Angel in the Form of a Man
5. Revelation through an Angel in his True Form
6. Revelation Directly from Allah
Process of Divine Revelation
According to its own testimony, the Holy Qur’an was revealed in the month of Ramadhan on the night of power. “Ramadhan is the (month) in which we sent down the Qur’an,..”(Al Baqara 2:185)
“We have indeed revealed this (message)in the night of Power” (Al-Qadr 97:1)
The Qur’an was not revealed in one instance but through a piecemeal process with small numbers of ayahs revealed at any one time. As revelation started the pagan Arabs witnessed the piecemeal process and used this as a tool to attack the new Muslims. They taunted them asking them why the Qur’an was not revealed in one go if it was a Divine book:
“Those who reject faith say: Why is the Qur’an not revealed to him all at once”? (Al-Furqan, 25:32)
The Qur’an then eloquently answers its critiques: “Thus (it is revealed), that We may strengthen thy heart thereby, and we have rehearsed it to thee in slow, well-arranged stages, gradually.” (Al-Furqan, 25:32) “(It is) a Qur’an which We have divided (into parts from time to time), in order that thou mightiest recite it to men at intervals: We have revealed it by stages.” (Al-Isra’il, 17:106)
As the Muslims began to grow in number they became faced with many different problems. So often in response to specific situations that arose Qur’anic ayahs were revealed to the new Muslim community. The Holy Prophet (SAWS) brought a revolutionary message to the pagan Arabs. The aim of Islam was to change the entire society and culture of that time. The Arabs had been worshipping idols for hundreds of years and Makkah had become the focal point of all worshippers throughout the Arab peninsula. An annual pilgrimage took place where hundreds of Arabs would gather together and celebrate their idols and pagan traditions. These ancient religious traditions which engulfed every aspect of Arab life now had to be challenged and redressed by a new moral, social, political and religious order.
The message of Islam intended to change the prevailing system, giving rights to the poor, needy, orphans and women. It preached morals and virtuous acts putting constraints on evil and vice. A new political system was advocated based on meritocracy rather than patriarchy. So the divine message of Allah (SWT) was revealed slowly to allow the new Muslim Arabs to change and accept the new faith. The very first verses revealed were intended to strengthen the faith of the new Muslims. Having worshipped idols all their life it was important to lay the foundations of the unity of God and spread the message of His oneness.
One must remember that the Qur’an is not just a book of prayers but a practical guide to life. It instructs man in every sphere, be it on the modes of marriage, the penal system, business codes and ethics as well as the personal sphere of human relationships. As such the holy Qur’an is often termed the “living Qur’an’ due to its continual usage in daily life. Every passage that was revealed to the Holy Prophet (SAWS) was continually quoted and read, either in the daily prayers or in the daily affairs of life. In this way it was impossible for any mistakes or errors to occur in any of the words or passages as the words of the Qur’an were always in use. It was indeed a living book. Allah (SWT) is also the ultimate guarantor and protector of the Qur’an ensuring it to be free from any error and interference:
“We have without doubt sent down the message and We will assuredly guard it (from corruption)”. (Al-Hijr, 15:9)