Qur’an


Qur’an
(‘Recitation’)
   The Qur’an, or Koran as it is sometimes spelled, is the foundational text of Islam. Muslims believe it is the revealed word of God, disclosed gradually (over a period of twenty-two years) to the Prophet Muhammad via the angel Jibril. In the establishment of Islam as the final great monotheistic religion, the revelations were committed to memory by Muslims, and after Muhammad’s death they were recorded and organized into the text as we know it today. The text comprises 114 chapters (suras), which in turn are divided into verses (ayat, lit, ‘signs’). Each sura is identified as having been revealed to Muhammad either while he was in Mecca or Medina, although they are organized by length rather than by place or time of revelation. With the exception of one, they all begin with the famous invocation, ‘In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate’ (Bismillah al-rahman al-rahim). The Qur’an is believed to be stylistically perfect and inimitable – a fact that is often taken as evidence of its divine source – and has spawned countless commentaries and translations (or more accurately, ‘interpretations’).
   The revelations of the Qur’an represent the culmination of all previous revelations, beginning with Adam. In some cases, it reconfirms previous revelations, in some cases it fine-tunes them, and in some cases it supersedes them. It provides human beings with a law (shari‘a) which makes known God’s will and specifies certain beliefs and practices in the form of legal commandments and prohibitions. It is believed that on the Last Day God will judge each person based on whether he or she lived in accordance with this law and accordingly reward them in Paradise or punish them in Hell.
   There are numerous theological and philosophical debates surrounding the nature of the Qur’an and its revealed law. One regards the ontological status of the Qur’an as the speech (kalam) of God. Insofar as this is considered one of God’s multiple attributes (sifat), there is a question of how it ultimately relates to His unitary essence. By extension, kalam theologians disputed whether the Qur’an is created or not. Mu‘tazilites and Shi‘ites, who rejected the idea of a multiplicity of divine attributes over and above God’s unity, tended to conceive of such things as a function of God’s relation to the world. They thus viewed the speech of God as contingent and created. Traditionalists like Ibn Hanbal and his followers on the other hand argued that it must be uncreated and eternal, since it is a part of God. The issue was so controversial and so freighted with political signi- ficance that those who fell on the ‘wrong’ side of the issue (e.g. Ibn Hanbal) were sometimes imprisoned and punished. In the wake of such political excesses, the Ash‘arites attempted a rapprochement between these two extremes, by distinguishing between the uncreated nature of God’s speech as divine attribute and its ‘created’ expression, that is the Qur’an itself and its recitation by human beings.
   Another issue that concerned both theologians and philosophers was the question of interpretation (ta’wil). Literalists and traditionalists (ranging from gardenvariety Hashawites to Zahirites and Hanbalites to Ash‘arites) tended to adhere closely to the apparent, external sense of scripture with greater or lesser degrees of subtlety. More rationalist thinkers such as the Mu‘tazilites and falasifa felt the need to devise metaphorical interpretations of the Qur’an’s ambiguous passages (mutashabihat), in order to defuse anthropomorphic portrayals of God and other conceptual problems. Sometimes rather strained figurative readings of scripture were put forth in order to harmonize revelation with philosophical doctrines, which were taken to be the necessary conclusions of universal reason. Although such thinkers were generally concerned with reconciling the apparent tension between reason and revelation, they could not help but re-raise the question of which took primacy ultimately and trumped the other. The Isma‘ilis pushed the envelope of interpretation further than the Mu‘tazilites and falasifa; they insisted on an esoteric (batin), symbolic import to the Qur’an, which could only be excavated by means of the authoritative, infallible imam. The Sufis also offered rather speculative symbolicallegorical readings of scripture, informed by the unveilings they experienced in mystical states.
   A final philosophical question raised by the Qur’an is whether the theoretical and practical wisdom that it discloses is otherwise unavailable to human beings by their own devices, or whether it can in principle be discovered by reason and experience. Either alternative has important implications for the role and status of revelation. If it discloses otherwise unattainable insights, then revelation is necessary for all people. For without its insights, they will not be able to lead good, happy lives, perfecting their natures and ultimately achieving salvation. On the other hand, if revelation is simply a short cut to insights accessible through reason and experience, then it takes on a more modest, political function. For philosophers like al-Farabi and Ibn Rushd, it disclosed a valuable but ultimately surrogate salvific wisdom to those unequipped by nature to discover the real thing on their own.
   Further reading: Ali 1993; Arberry 1955/96; Leaman 2006a; McAuliffe 2001–6; Rahman 1980/94

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

Look at other dictionaries:

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