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What is the Koran?

Updated on August 24, 2010

As the bible of Islam, the Koran is the scripture of some 300 million Moslems (1949). Its claim to distinction among the sacred books of mankind rests upon the nature of its doctrinal core and its relation to the Prophet Mohammed, the formation of the text and the peculiar theory of revelation involved, as well as the total impact of the book upon history and the modern world. In what follows, each of the foregoing parts of the subject will be touched upon in the order indicated.

Included in the core of the Koranic message is the affirmation of the unity and sovereignty of God. "Say, 'He is God alone. God, the Eternal. He begets not and is not begotten'" (112:1-3). God is enrobed with righteousness and power. His dominion extends over the whole creation, both now and forever. His judgments are inexorable. The death of man is followed by an intermediate state leading to the Last Day, the Resurrection, and Retribution. In the hereafter, the ungodly will be visited with damnation; the faithful received into a Garden of physical and spiritual delight.

Central to the message is the injunction to worship God. The first sura (chapter) serves as an equivalent to the Lord's Prayer. Ritual prayers and the weekly Friday Assembly are prescribed in the Holy Book. But all this is not without the admonition that true believers are those "who remember God standing and sitting or lying on their sides" (3:192). In addition to devotional regulations, there are enactments dealing with everyday living. Whether in the laws of mine and thine, the family, the marketplace. and society at large, Islamic jurisprudence relies completely upon the Koran.

Not less integral to the inner making of the Koran are precepts regarding divine election, the brotherhood of believers, and ethical practice. Divine election is implicit in the decrees of God. The Moslem community, called into being by God, is to be governed by His elect, and its territories, bequeathed by the Almighty, must be defended even with life itself. The brotherhood of believers embraces all those of every race and clan who are brought together by Allah. Ethical living and Islamic morality are likewise steeped in the consciousness of God's demands as they are enshrined in the Book.

In its relation to Mohammed, the Koran deserves notice as a record of his spiritual pilgrimage. Reared by the Meccan tribe of Koreish (Quraysh), Mohammed (c. 570-632 a.d.) launched his prophetic career with an assault upon idolatry. Having thus enraged his kinsmen, wealthy custodians of the Kaaba pantheon, he at last fled (622) to Medina. With its harrowing experiences, the earlier Meccan period is reflected in the curt, provocative, and iconoclastic sermons which form the body of the suras (chapters) occurring towards the close of the authorized text. In Medina, the prophet became a worldly-wise, militant, and princely character, and the Koranic material produced in this latter period is patterned accordingly. It flows in a legislative, didactic, narrative style.

To the orthodox Moslem, the Koran is the standard miracle of the faith, its 114 suras being regarded as a replica of an eternal, heavenly original. While not sharing this view, modern scholarship conceives of the Koran as the product of a sincere and brilliant mind. Towards its making, Mohammed contributed the commitment and exalted vision of a truly inspired seeker after the truth.

Discussion of the textual formation of the Book evokes topics such as the codification of the text, the unique function of Arabic as the language of revelation, and the question whether the Koran may be translated. As to codification, it may well be remembered that the first Koranic utterances were memorized or written perhaps on palm leaves and tablets of stone. The emergence of rival collections moved the third caliph Othman ('Uthman, 644-656) to canonize the codex of Medina. Early in the 10th century, an authorized version was established in Baghdad. Although a modern Egyptian conclave of divines condemned the rendering of the Koran into any other tongue, the consensus of learned opinion among Moslems does not support this position. Insofar as Islamic law is concerned, only the liturgical use of the Koran, in a language other than Arabic, is prohibited. The fact is that translations of the Koran into other languages have been made by several leading Moslems.

Inherent in its theory of revelation was the Koran's disclosure of religious essence. Any people without a divinely inspired "book," such as the Jews possessed in the Torah, the Christians in the Evangel, and the Moslems in the Koran, were reproached as dwellers in ignorance. To these, Islam (literally, submission to the will of Allah) offered itself as the true religion of nature, a simple monotheism. But while the biblical foundation of Islam is carefully conceded, the error of the Jews and Christians, signalized by their falsification of Scriptures, is emphatically set forth.

The impact of the Koran upon history provides a practical criterion for its evaluation. In the field of Arabic-Islamic literature and thought, the centrality of the Koran imparted a normative religious absolute, recognizable in almost every intellectual pursuit. Whether in philology, theology, history, letters, or any other branch of culture, the Koran became the clue to wisdom and understanding. The effervescence of Arab civilization in Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, India, and elsewhere was presumably bound up with the spiritual, moral, and social commandments of the Koran.

In the wider sphere of universal ideas, the Book—representing in part at least a repercussion from Judaeo-Christianity—propounded an ideology which stands alone. Its anticlassical motif made it a formidable revolt against Greek rationalism and the enthronement of man as the measure of all things. In the Islamic sphere of influence it created an ethos which, though not inhospitable to Hellenistic stimuli, yet seemed to inspire a totally different way of life. It is in the realm of political theory, however, that the Koran's contribution to global harmony is obviously disputable. Its theocracy and germinal law leave little ground for the law of nations. It may be safely said that international law is not a deduction from Koranic legislation.

In the modern world, the Koran draws vitality from the luxuriant body of tradition—oral and literary, lay and theological—that surrounds its name. Supplementing the standard commentaries and exegetical works, are vast collections of sayings and daily acts, ascribed to the Prophet and his companions. From these, and the closely related mass of historical, narrative, and wisdom lore, the Koran acquires extra elucidation, commending it to the believers.

The testimony of representative 20th century Muslims confirms the view that the Koran exercises a powerful influence. Muhammad Rashid Rida, an exponent of the Egyptian Islamic reformation, wrote in 1927 that "Islam cannot live without a sound understanding of the Koran, based upon the continuity of Arabic." Sir Mu-hammed Iqbal (d. 1938), seer of Indian Islam, defined the main purpose of the Koran as awakening "in man the high consciousness of his manifold relations with God and the universe." Since the latter 18th century, the puritanical Wahhabi revival of Saudi Arabia has sought to restore the Koran to its pristine glory

The heterodox Shiite conception of the Koran permits the religious interpreter to wring from the text far-reaching implications, on the assumption that the learned commentator is commissioned by God to discover and enunciate novel forms of religious truth. Kemalist Turkey broke virgin soil in throwing overboard many canons of Koranic interpretation, including that of the sanctity of Arabic. The Ahmadiya movement of India, centered at Qadian and Lahore, carries the Koran to the farthest ends of the earth. In Europe, Africa, and the Americas, its missionaries have produced interpretations of the Koran, designed to capture the attention of cultured people.

Two other schools are constituted by the widespread Muslim mystics of India, and the diehard theologians of Egypt whose mighty fortress is the Azhar seminary of Cairo. The moderates of Islam accept the Koran as it is, seeking to interpret the allegorical and recondite passages in the light of the general principles laid down in the decisive utterances of the Book.


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