The Reading Room
The Holy Qur'an
In the twentieth century, a few communist or socialist governments banned or restricted access to the Qur’an. After the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union restricted access to the Qur’an along with the Christian Gospels and Jewish Talmud. During the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s-70s, the government prohibited public reading and study of the Qur’an. In recent decades in the United States and Europe, private organizations have promoted burning copies of the Qur’an.
These efforts have not received official support in large part because they would run afoul of legal protections for freedom of religion. Malaysia has banned certain translations of the Qur’an considered deviant, but not the original text in Arabic. Many Muslim countries do not recognize a Western-style “separation of church and state,” and on occasion have banned works they considered blasphemous to Islam or counter to the teachings of the Qur’an. The best-known example of this is Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, banned in at least fourteen countries. In 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, issued fatwa calling for the execution of Rushdie and those involved in publishing this novel. More recently, in 2021 the historical-theological study by Muslim writer Mustafa Akyol, Islam without Extremes, was banned by Malaysia.
Muslim philosopher Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) offers a classic Muslim view of the nature of the Qur'an in comparison with the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament in his introduction to history, The Muqaddimah: “The Qur'an is alone among the divine books, in that our Prophet received it directly in the words and phrases in which it appears. In this respect it differs from the Torah, the Gospel, and other heavenly books. The prophets received them in the form of ideas during the state of revelation. After their return to the human state, they expressed those ideas in their very own words.” While other scriptures translate divine revelations into human words, Muhammad “received the Qur'an directly, in its literal form.”
From this perspective, when one reads the Book of Genesis or the Gospel of Luke, they are reading human words that reflect the experience of individuals encountering God, but when one reads the Qur'an, they are reading the very words of God. Muhammad (571-632) did not receive the revelations contained in the Qur'an all at once and God did not speak directly to him. Rather, the angel Gabriel delivered revelations in small units over two decades as conditions and events warranted. Even so, Muhammad understood the words to be directly from God. When one reads the Qur’an, or hears it recited, the reader is in the same relationship to the words of revelation that Muhammad was. The words seem to be aimed directly to the reader or hearer, and since the Qur’an rarely provides the historical context for God’s instructions, every pronouncement sounds like a timeless and universal command requiring attention and action.
One of the important interpretive approaches developed for the study of the Qur’an is identification of “the occasions of revelation,” which purport to identify the events that led to particular revelations. Understanding the context of a revelation may influence or limit our understanding of the universal significance of a particular revelation. Primary sources for determining these occasions are the hadith, or sayings of the Prophet, which have been collected and published, or the reminiscences of those of Muhammad’s inner circle who often spoke with him about events surrounding revelations. Muslim scholar David Dakake explains the importance of understanding “the occasions of revelation,” arguing that “Without reference to these ‘occasions’ of revelation most of the verses of the Qur'an would be susceptible to any and all forms of interpretation.”
Muhammad was a forty-year-old merchant living in Mecca when the revelations began, and a few years later, he entered a ministry of preaching to a largely uninterested and resistant population. In 622, Muhammad and his followers migrated to Medina, where he served as both spiritual teacher and political leader. Muhammad’s preaching consisted of repeating the revelations he had received, and he and many of his followers memorized the growing collection of God’s words. Believers wrote down many of these revelations, but they were never presented in a systematic fashion during Muhammad’s lifetime. Beginning with Abu Bakr, the first caliph after Muhammad’s death, and concluding with Uthman, the third caliph, the disparate revelations of the Qur’an were collected, collated, standardized and transmitted throughout the Muslim world.
While the compilation was complete, it was not systematic in arrangement. Consisting of 114 suras, or chapters, the Qur’an follows neither chronological nor subject matter order. Rather, after the brief opening prayer, suras appear according to length, from longest to shortest, and may touch on a variety of topics. Sura 2, Sura al-Baqarah (“The Cow”) runs to thirty pages in the Haleem translation published by Oxford, while sura 114, Sura al-Nas (“People”) consists of 46 words. The longest sustained narrative in the Qur’an is Sura 12, Sura Yusuf (“Joseph”), which tells the story of Joseph and his brothers (compare Genesis 37, 39-50).
The “five pillars of Islam” are Faith, Prayer, Charity, Fasting, and Pilgrimage. All are discussed in the Qur’an, and most are listed together in Q 2: 277: “Those who believe, do good deeds, keep up the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms will have their reward with their Lord: no fear for them, nor will they grieve.” However, the Qur’an does not provide detailed guidance on any of these, but the Hadith of Muhammad does.
There are passages in the Qur’an that may support religious liberty. Q 2: 236 says, in part, “There is no compulsion in religion . . .” The Qur’an recognizes the Torah and the Gospel as true revelations from God, even as it maintains that many contemporary followers of those revelations have lost sight of their true meaning. God continually reminds Muhammad of his role, which is to deliver God’s message, not to force people to accept that message. Q 88: 21-22 reads, “So [Prophet] warn them: your only task is to give warning, you are not there to control them.” These passages may support religious liberty, or they may not, for the correct understanding of them is contentious even within the Muslim community.