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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Qur'an

(Qur'ān) The sacred scripture of Islam, sometimes written “Koran.” It consists of 114 chapters called suras, each composed of a number of verses called ayats. They are written in a rhymed prose style known as saj. The book is arranged, generally, according to the length of the chapters, with the longer chapters put first and shorter chapters put last, except that sura 1, called “Al-Fatiha,” (“The Opening”) which contains the introductory prayer called bismallah, is only five ayats long. Sura two, for example, has 286 ayats arranged in 40 sections, sura three has 200 ayats also arranged in 40 sections, etc. These suras were revealed to Muhammad over a period of 23 years, first when he lived in Mecca and later when he fled to Medina. The first revelation, later numbered as sura 96, came to him at the age of 40 in 611 CE on the lunar month of Ramadan when he had retired to a cave in the mountains of Jebal-ul-nur near Mecca to pray and meditate. He identified the revelation as coming from the Archangel Jibrail (or “Gabriel” in English) who instructed him to “read” or “recite” (iqra’). It is from that instruction that the scripture takes its name, Al-Qur’an, i.e., “The Recitation.”

The Qur’an was not compiled and arranged until after the death of Muhammad. The first effort to arrange the Qur’an is said to have been done by Zayd ibn Thabit upon instructions of the first Caliph Abu Bakr on account of the death in battle of many of the those who knew the Qur’an by heart. The final form was done when ‘Uthm€n was the Caliph, and all other versions were burned. It is this version, called the “Uthman rescension,” that is universally recognized by Muslims today.

The verses of the Qur’an are generally in the form of statements or exhortations from Allah. They contain expositions on such themes as the nature of Allah, creation, the last judgment, and heaven and hell. The Qur’an also acknowledges or accepts earlier prophets (nabi) of Judaism and Christianity. In fact, many suras are named after them, such as Jonah, Joseph, Abraham, Mary, and Noah. The Qur’an mentions 25 prophets: Adam, Idris (Enoch), Nuh (Noah), Hud (Heber), Salleh (Methuselah), Ibrahim (Abraham), Lut (Lot), Isma’il (Ishmael), Ishaq (Isaac), Ya’kob (Jacob), Yusuf (Joseph), Ayub (Job), Shu‘iab (Jethro), Musa (Moses), Harun (Aaron), Dhul Kifli (Ezekiel), Daud (David), Sulaiman (Solomon), Ilias (Elijah), Alyasa (Elisha), Yunus (Juoah), Zakariya (Zakarias), Yahya (John the Baptist), and Isa (Jesus) as well as Muhammad. It re-narrates many famous accounts in the Old and New Testaments, although with significant differences. Among these are the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Job, David, Solomon, John the Baptist, Jesus and Mary. However, the Qur’an differs from the Old and New Testament on certain important points. For example, verse 4:157 states that Jesus did not die on the cross, but that what they witnessed was merely an appearance, i.e., the Arabic words ma salabu-hu do not deny that Jesus was crucified, only that he did not die as a result of the crucifixion. In fact, verse 5:117 indicates he died a natural death some time later. While Jesus is revered as a great prophet, he was not considered as a Son of God.

The Qur’an identifies Jews and Christians, as well as Muslims, as “People of the Book,” and exhorts them to come to unity, as indicated by the following verses:

Say: “O People of the Book! come to terms as between us and you: that we worship none but Allah; that we associate no partners with Him; that we erect not, from among ourselves, Lords and patrons other than Allah. (3:64, Abdullah Yusuf Ali trans.)

Say: “O People of the Book! ye have no ground to stand upon unless ye stand fast by the Law [Torah], the Gospel, and all the revelation that has come to you from your Lord.” (5:68; loc. cit.)

The Qur’an explicitly permits a Muslim man to marry a Christian or Jewish woman without the need for her to be converted to Islam (5:5), although it is generally felt that she would be expected to convert to Islam eventually. The Qur’an also advocates tolerance of other beliefs:

If it had been thy Lord’s Will, they would all have believed, — all who are on earth! wilt thou then compel mankind, against their will, to believe! (10:99; loc. cit.

Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects Evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things. (2:256; loc. cit.)

Say: “The Truth is from your Lord”: let him who will believe and let him who will reject [it]. (18.29; loc. cit.)

In other words, Allāh granted man free will so faith is a moral choice and should not be imposed on others by force, since, as Abdullah Yusuf Ali puts it, “Forced faith is no faith” (The Qur’an: text, translation and commentary, 1987).

A significant part of the Qur’an is concerned with social rules about such things as inheritance, marriage, fasting, food, competence of witnesses, alms giving, treatment of women, etc. This has been the primary basis of the Shari’ah law. For example, there are specific rules on the share of inheritance of widows, male and female, and children; polygamy; the manner of fasting and marital relationships during the Ramadan period; the number of witnesses needed for specific situations; the mode and extent of punishments for types of wrongdoings (adultery, fornication, theft, slander, etc.); the manner by which divorce can be declared; disposal of dowry; type of food that can be eaten; the defense of one’s faith (jihad); manner of dressing; charity and its distribution; settling of disputes; apostasy or turning back on one’s faith; method of sacrifice and offering; manner of prayer; etc.

Interpretations. The interpretation of the Qur’an has given rise to tafs…r or Qur’€nic exegesis. One who does tafsir is called a mufassir or exegete. These studies began even in the early centuries of Islam and have grown to become a complex system. As early as the second century after the death of Mohammad, the literature on Qur’anic commentaries has grown so large that one work alone, the Tafsir al-Tabari, fills 30 printed volumes. Rules on interpretation have been evolved through the centuries. One such principle is that the foremost basis of Qur’anic interpretation should be the Qur’an itself, followed by statements of Muhammad, and then by other sources and methods. An understanding of Arabic is an absolute essential, since words and statements must be understood in their linguistic and social contexts.

Abrogated Verses. Scholars have noted inconsistencies in the Qur’an. Due to this, there arose the doctrine that there have been “abrogated” verses (mansukh) which have been superseded by later verses (nasikh). One example is the following abrogated verses on provisions for widows:

Those of you who die and leave widows should bequeath for their widows a year’s maintenance and residence; but if they leave [the residence], there is no blame on you for what they do with themselves, provided it is reasonable. (2:240; loc. cit.)

If any of you die and leave widows behind, they shall wait concerning themselves four months and ten days: When they have fulfilled their term, there is no blame on you if they dispose of themselves in a just and reasonable manner. (2:234; loc. cit.)

Translations. The Qur’an has been translated to all the major languages of the world. There are several versions in English, the best being those of ethnic Muslims such as Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Maulana Muhammad Ali, and those done by British converts, such as Muhammad William Pickthall and A. J. Arberry. For further information, see ISLAM.

R.W.B.

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