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The Qur’an Revelation
There has been a lot of public focus and debate on Islam in various media in recent years. This article aims to clarify some elements towards the understanding of the primary source of Islamic belief, the Qur’an.
Muslims accept that the Qur’an was not revealed to The Prophet Muhammed in a single sitting but in parts over twenty-three years and it was not revealed in the continuous form that is the same as is found in the written Qur’an. It was revealed in verses and sections of varying lengths. The chronology of the revealed verses given to Muhammed is not at all the same as the order given in the Qur’an. Verses in the Qur’an are seemingly arranged into more thematic frameworks of chapters and, with the exception of the very first one, the chapters, are ordered generally from the longer to the shorter as the Qur’an progresses. It is the view of many Muslims that the ordering of the verses and chapters was decided upon and approved in the Prophet’s lifetime, but that aside, no written record of a complete Qur’an is known to exist from Muhammed’s time.
According to some sources it was Abu Bakr, one of the Prophet’s closest companions and the first Caliph following the Prophet’s death (Caliphate 632-634), who collated the full text during his Caliphate. There is general agreement that the third Caliph, Uthman ibn Affan (Caliphate 644-656), also one of the Prophet’s closest companions, compiled and standardized a written version in 650, around eighteen years after the Prophet’s death. It seems that Uthman chose to do this to guard against the possibilities of any corruption through dialect and pronunciation as the Qur'an spread further and further geographically. Though there may have been small differences of this nature between copies of the Qur’an in existence at the time of Uthman's standardization, “the variations were quite inconsequential.” (Reza Aslan, ‘No God but God’ 2006, p.126.) So Uthman’s standardized written text is not considered to contain any points of contention. The version compiled by Uthman has remained intact and unchanged for nearly fourteen centuries and there is no dispute academic or otherwise that it has gone through any changes in this time.
Though the eighteen year gap exists between the death of the Prophet and the compilation of the Qur’an as a written text, the vast majority of Muslims do not doubt the authenticity of its words, the validity of their order within the text (as established by the Prophet) or the completeness of the text itself.
When Muhammed received revelations he would repeat them to his companions and followers, and they would set about both memorising them and recording them. "As each individual recitation poured out of the Prophet’s mouth, it was diligently memorized by a new class of scholars, personally instructed by Muhammed, called the Qurra, or Quran readers." (Reza Aslan, ‘No God but God’ 2006, p.126-127.) Additionally, some but not it seems all, verses were written down, "on bits of bone, scraps of leather, and the ribs of palm leaves." (ibid, p.127.) As to which verses were written down and which were not, a detailed list cannot be supplied. Reza Aslan suggests it was mainly the longer legalistic verses. According to the respected author Karen Armstrong, "As each new message was revealed to Muhammed … he recited aloud, the Muslims learnt it by heart and those who could wrote it down." (‘Muhammed’, 2001, p.48-49.)
The point of memorisation must be emphasised. The memorisation of Qur'anic verses was of particular and primary importance for the proper later recitation of verses. The accuracy of the memorisation would be insisted upon at the times revealed verses came to the Muslims. When the verses were correctly memorised it was then that they became set as it were in tablets of stone. Therefore, the eighteen year gap between the Prophet’s death and the standardized written Qur’an, a gap that would not exceed the living memories of the multiple Qur’an reciters who still lived from the Prophet’s time, is not so great as to break the connection between the revelations received by Muhammed and the final text of the Qur’an, and not so great as to cause any other form of degradation in itself in the given circumstances.
This memorisation process is a key element that sets the Qur’an aside from Hadiths, a secondary source of Islamic belief. ‘Hadiths’ are the ‘narrations’ of recollections of what Muhammed may or may not have said and done, ascertained from chains of human 'transmitters' passed over generations as oral histories and accepted to be of varying authenticity. Of crucial difference, the words or actions of the Prophet that would form Hadiths were not composed and memorised immediately by his companions and followers into fixed narrations as they occurred. There is some Hadith based evidence that a small number of the Prophet’s companions and followers did attempt to preserve some of his day to day actions and spoken words by memory and by written record, but, even if the hadiths are accepted at face value, it seems these attempts were largely a solitary individual process instigated at their own volition and not at all like formal, multiply verifiable and insisted upon method of Qur’an memorisation described above. "During the Prophet’s lifetime and into the time of the Companions and older Followers, the narrations of the Prophet were not transcribed in a systematic manner … " - ibn Hajar ‘Hadi al-Sari’, 1:6. (ibn Hajar,1372 – 1448, renowned Sunni scholar of Islam.)
So, if we read in some sources that Abu Bakr is reported as saying that his collection of verses of the Qur’an included some he had written based on the memories of others, Muslims do not consider that this negates the validity of the verses gathered from these memories because, as I have said, this was one of the ways The Qur'an was actually held intact in the early years of Islam. And, as one of the Prophet’s closest companions, Abu Bakr would have been well aware of the formal processes of Qur’an memorisation. This is further demonstrated by the vast numbers, reaching into hundreds of thousands, who can actually recite the entire Qur'an from memory. They are known as Qur'an Hafiz. The method of becoming Hafiz relies to a significant degree on the rhythm and the poetry of the text. And, it is worth remembering that 'Al-Qur'an' translates to 'The Recitation', an oral form.
Words of Allah or the words of Muhammed?
But still, a legitimate question arises as to how did the Prophet, or others, know which of his words were Qur’anic and from Allah and which were words from his ordinary conversations and statements and his own mind? Muslims would say there are at least two answers to this.
First, the words of the Qur’an were delivered when the Prophet was in some form of meditative, prophetic communion with the divine that gave the revelations as described earlier and he would have been able to distinguish this from his normal everyday state and words that simply came from him as replies and pronouncements to matters that arose. There are descriptions of various kinds regarding this state of being. Though there are differences among them and they cannot all be right, all the descriptions show it to be something not of the everyday. The Qur’an itself speaks of this communication as Allah’s words being delivered to the Prophet by the archangel Gabriel, and as being revealed to the heart of the Prophet.
Second, and more outwardly telling, the nature of the words received as revelation is wholly different from the normal speech of the Arabs of the times. As I have said, the language of the Qur’an is highly poetic, and it is of an order of high literature that was never previously known to any Arab. It was too far from the normal speech patterns of even educated Arabs to be confusable as anything other than revelation. "The Arabs found the Qu’ran quite astonishing: it was unlike any other literature they had encountered before. Some … converted immediately, believing that divine inspiration alone could account for this extraordinary language." (Karen Armstrong, ‘Muhammed’, 2005, p.49.) It was nothing like the manner in which Muhammed himself normally spoke or was capable of speaking, nor anyone else. Even the poets and ecstatics of the time were challenged to try and produce a single surah like that of the Qur’an if they thought it was a human invention of Muhammed, "And if ye are in doubt concerning that which We reveal unto Our slave (Muhammad), then produce a surah of the like thereof, and call your witness beside Allah if ye are truthful." (Surah 2, Al-Baqarah/The Cow, Ayah 23.) In fact there is no significant debate as to why some of the Prophet’s words were Qur’anic and others were destined for Hadiths.
… a text that is not questioned …
The Qur’an was held intact and recorded in a unique way. What I have presented here tries to show some understanding of why Muslims regard the Qur’an in the way that they do in terms of its unchanging authenticity and divine nature.
Reza Aslan is an Iranian-American Islamic scholar and author considered to be a Muslim reformer, www.rezaalan.com.
Karen Armstrong has authored more than twenty highly received books. As well as 'Muhammad' she has written "books on religious affairs-including A History of God, The Battle for God, Holy War, Islam, Buddha ... Her work has been translated into forty-five languages. She has addressed members of the U.S. Congress on three occasions ... addressed the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington and New York ... In February 2008 she was awarded the TED Prize", Karen Armstrong's Amazon page.