By Samuel Gonzalez
Throughout the entire history of the preservation, recitation, and reception of the Noble Qur’an, Muslims have always held that it could never be translated or conveyed in simpler, more plain language. The Qur’an bears witness to particular idioms and a peculiar understanding of poetic language. There are countless stories of listeners being enraptured by its recitation, thus repenting from their sins and converting to Islam on the spot; there are innumerable instances of Westerners being shook to their core upon hearing its melodious sounds in Arabic; in fact, even paying attention to its translated words has touched hearts and minds all over the globe, independently of culture, ethnicity, or religion. Within its pages, constellations of signs, meanings, and divine injunctions have established the Qur’an as a literary monument and an acoustic work. But, other than being the divine scriptures for the Muslims and an important source of sacred history, what is ‘Qur’an’? What does the actual word mean? And can it be translated?
Origin and Etymology
The Qur’an itself testifies that the revelation given to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is called Al-Quran. Other epithets that it gives to itself are:
- Al-Kitab (The Book, 2:2)
- Al-Ayat (The Signs, 45:6)
- Al-Hikmah (Wisdom, 2:231)
- Al-Furqan (The Criterion, or The Discernment, 25:1)
All of which denote the nature of the recitation given to Muhammad to be a guide, wisdom, and a truthful way of discerning between right and wrong. There are three popular theories that aim to make sense of the origin of the Arabic word Al-Quran:
- Qarana: Meaning, ‘to collect,’ ‘to assemble,’ or ‘to put something together. This opinion seems to be driven by the way in which the Qur’an was revealed to the Messenger of Allah – in small chunks, given piecemeal to the Muslim community over a period of 23 years.
- Qara’a: Meaning, ‘to read, or ‘to recite.’ This opinion appears to be the most popular, given the oral-acoustic nature of the Qur’an as well as the first words which were revealed to Muhammad on Mount Hira.
- Qarina: Referring to linguistic consonance or a connection between concepts. Some modern Arabic dialects utilize this word to speak of spouses or partners, but its older meaning has more to do with coherence, congruency, and logical sequencing.
“Read! In the Name of Your Lord who created – created man from a clinging clot. Read! For Your Lord is Most-Generous, who taught by the pen, teaching humanity what it knew not.” [The Noble Qur’an 96:1-5]
The above citation establishes the first revelation that was given to the Prophet (pbuh) on Mount Hira. The word translated as ‘read’ is the Arabic word iqra, which has also been interpreted as ‘recite,’ or ‘proclaim.’ It is from the three letter root Q-R-A which we get the word ‘Qur’an,’ and it is from this root that we also get the three possible theories cited at the beginning of this section.
The word Qur’an appears 68 times in the Qur’an and has been assigned various attributes. These attributes possess, of course, their own distinct meanings, but conflate and crossover with each other throughout the course of the revelation. For instance, Al-Quran was originally meant to be experienced, not read – most of the Companions of Muhammad never held a codified copy of the scriptures in their hands and had no recourse but to memorize the Revelation upon hearing and experiencing it dozens of times – and as such it was recited (iqra), strung together by the first Muslim community (qarana), and connected with either the stories it cites, with their current situation, or both (qarina). Hence the origin of the word might actually derive from a combination of all three theories mentioned above.
Divisions, Arrangement, and Form
“It is He Who sends down manifest ayat (i.e. proofs, evidences, verses, lessons, signs, or revelations) to His slave-servant that He may bring you out from darkness into light.” [The Noble Qur’an 57:9]
To sum it up, the Qur’an may simply be translated as “The Recitation,” or “The Reading,” but other nuances, connotations, and attributes ought to be taken into consideration when talking about what exactly the Qur’an means. So if the Qur’an is The Recitation, what, then, does it recite? In short, the Qur’an consists of 114 surahs, or chapters, which vary in length. The longest chapter is composed of 286 verses, whereas the shortest chapter is composed of 3 verses.
In contrast to other religious texts, such as the Bible, the Qur’an has only one literary genre: prophecy, since it is entirely a message from God, revealed to a prophet, for the good of a community. Nevertheless, the Qur’an contains elements from other literary genres, but never restricts or constrains itself to embodying a singular genre at any given time. It contains elements of poetry but it not itself a work of poetry; it contains legal prescriptions but is not a lawbook; it mentions sacred history but does not limit itself to being a historical document – in all parts of the Qur’an, the actual speaker is Allah, and His speech was revealed in order to be reflected upon.
Primary Contents and Major Themes
“And this Qur’an is not such as could ever be produced by other than Allah, and it is a confirmation of the Revelation which was before it (i.e. the Torah, the Psalms, and the Gospel), and a full clarification of the book wherein there is no doubt – from the Lord of All Worlds.” [The Noble Qur’an 10:109]
The Qur’an, as a formalized codex for the modern world, is a peculiar book. The Qur’an, when compared to other books, is in flagrant defiance of linearity and chronological prose. It can be picked up and entered at any point, instantly connecting the reader to any of its other points. It contains stories; it contains glimpses and flashes of Abrahamic references; it sprinkles wisdom, correction, and advice here and there. Further, it clarifies and confirms many ideas found in the Scriptures that came before it. The Qur’an simplifies rather than makes theology complex; the Qur’an’s audience is all of humanity and the righteous, not just Jews, Christians, or Hindus; the Qur’an’s plain speech strikes the heart and stirs the soul with its eloquent rhymes and verses, but nevertheless refuses to fit the template of poetry.
The Qur’an is elliptical and repeats its themes over and over, sometimes in a different order and sometimes emphasizing a certain topic within a theme – it contains no evident center (although some have identified its heart as surah Ya-Sin, al-Ikhlas, and al-Mulk), but invites the reader to enter into a divine maze with infinite entrances, hidden passageways, and teleportation zones. The first surah speaks of a straight path, but the Qur’an remains a sacred text for wanderers and spiritual seekers. With this in mind, the major themes emphasized in the Qur’an are as follows:
- Islamic Monotheism: The Oneness of Allah remains supreme over and against polytheism, which means the association of other deities and idols with Allah.
- Prophetology: The confirmation of the existence of prophets, the prophethood of Muhammad (pbuh), and the divine revelations which accompanied them throughout time.
- Reward, Punishment, and Divine Justice: Believers are rewarded with bliss and the Garden, whereas Unbelievers are punished with suffering and the Blaze – at the end of time all wrongs will be made right.
- Love and Charity: Good works, simplicity of belief, and good thoughts are presented throughout the Qur’an as the evidence of a true believer. In fact, whoever believes in the Oneness of Allah and does good works is considered to be a Muslim, one who submits to God.
- Eschatology: Refers to the Day of Resurrection and the Day of Judgement.
Facts About the Qur’an
- Twenty-five prophets are mentioned by name in the Holy Qur’an – among these are figures such as Noah, Jesus, Jonah, and Abraham (pbut).
- There are some prophets in the Qur’an whose identities remain obscure – many correlations with biblical figures have been suggested and some scholars have even proposed extra-biblical figures as potential candidates. Some of these mysterious characters include al-Khidr, Shu’aib, Dhul Kifl, and Luqman.
- Muhammad (pbuh) was born in the Holy Month of Ramadan; the Qur’an was first revealed to Muhammad (pbuh) during the Holy Month of Ramadan; the Battle of the Trench took place during the Holy Month of Ramadan; the peaceful conquest of Mecca occurred in the Holy Month of Ramadan.
- During the Prophet’s (pbuh) life, the so-called Sahaba (Companions of the Messenger who memorized the Qur’an) memorized the verses of Qur’an by heart or scribed the revealed passages on slits of bone, fibers of palm leaves, or animal skins.
- According to the Prophet (pbuh) himself, there are ten good deeds assigned to the one who recites a single letter of the Qur’an.
- Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem occurs 114 times in the Qur’an. 114 is a multiple of 19. The first revelation (surah 96) contains 19 verses and 76 letters. 76 is a multiple of 19. A total of 30 numbers are mentioned in the Qur’an, and when we add these all up, the sum is 162,146, which is, again, a multiple of 19. Surah al-Muddaththir mentions that 19 angels are placed as guardians over the Hellfire.
- The biggest animal mentioned in the Qur’an is the elephant, and the smallest animal mentioned is the mosquito.
- According to Surah An-Nahl verse 66, the best drink is milk.
What do you think? Share your reflections below!
Kermani, Navid. God is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Qur’an. Polity Press. 2018. Medford, MA.
Raof-Abdul, Hussein. The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia. Qur’an, The. Routledge. 2006. New York.
Sinai, Nicolai. Qur’an. Encyclopedia Brittanica. 2022.