Quran: Form & Arrangement

It is customary in speaking of the Quran to add some such attribute such as sharif, noble or majid (glorious), thus it is called the Quran Sharif, or the Noble Quran. There are in use among Muslims other names given to the Quran such as the Furqan or Al Kitab; these titles are found in the Quran itself,

Length of the Quran: It is slightly longer than the New Testament, but it has a certain unity which cannot be claimed, for either the Old Testament or the New Testament, inasmuch as it comes from one source and exhibits the working of a single mind.

Division of the Quran: It is divided into 114 sections, or suras of very unequal length. These are traditionally named, rather than numbered; the name of a particular sura being supplied either by the opening words of that sura or by some subject or person mentioned therein. Twenty-nine of these suras begin with mysterious letters. At the head of each sura is a note indicating whether it was “revealed” at Mecca or Medina. Then, as a kind of preface to the contents of the suras we find an invocation, the bismillah, i.e., bismillahir-rahmani’rrahim, “In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.” This appears in all but the ninth sura. Each sura is divided into ayats, ‘signs’ or, as we might say, ‘verses.’

Muslims are accustomed to divide the Quran into thirty parts to facilitate the reading of the whole book in one month, viz in Ramadan. These parts are called juz in Arabic, and sipara in Persian. Again, the siparas are subdivided into several ruku, ‘acts of bowing,’ these being sections of the text used by Muslims in prayers.

Language of the Quran: The nature of the Arabic language is such that it is comparatively easy to make use of rhyme. This was a style frequently used by Arabs and it abounds in the Quran, its verses are made to close with words having similar sounds for their last syllables. An expert reader makes the most of this kind of rhythmical prose.

Chronology of the Quran: Unfortunately there is, in the form in which it is usually available, no recognized order or arrangement in the chapters of the Quran. What is noticeable is that after the opening section, called ‘The Fatiha’, the longest chapters come first and then the shorter ones, some of them at the end have less than a dozen verses. This is clearly intentional, but it means that as they stand the chapters are neither in chronological order, nor arranged according to their subject-matter. Accordingly, we have late Medina suras placed before early Meccan ones; indeed, the short suras at the end are admittedly some of the earliest portions. Not only so, verses of undoubted Meccan origin are found embedded in Medina suras, and vice versa. All this makes it peculiarly difficult to read the Quran intelligibly.

Collection of the Quran: We must acknowledge that when Zaid ibn Thabit was originally asked to collect the Quran into one volume he was scrupulously honest and that as a result we have a book which, taken as a whole, is in a high degree authentic. Zaid’s compilation had more or less fixed the text of the Quran but not the reading of it. Uthman, the third Khalifa, had to deal drastically in his time with a widespread scandal whereby different persons claimed the right to read certain passages of the Quran in different ways. Some of these differences were due to the peculiar use made in tribal dialects of certain words. Thus arose differences of interpretation and consequent wrangling. Besides which it would appear that Muhammad, himself, on occasion, dictated the same passage to different persons with different readings – a tradition says, “the Quran was revealed according to seven modes of reading” (Mishkatu’l-Masabih, Book 8, Ch.3, Part 1).

Uthman’s recension: Alarmed at the bitter feelings roused by these disputes, Uthman was persuaded to intervene by Hudhzaifa, who is reported to have said: “Stop the people before they differ regarding their scriptures, as do the Jews and the Christians.” Accordingly he appointed a commission, consisting of Zaid with three men of the Quarraish, to decide finally upon the text and to fix the reading according to the pure Quarraish idiom. When this edition was completed Uthman sent copies to the principal cities of the empire and ordered all the previous copies to be burnt. Uthman’s recension, made about 653 A.D, has remained the authorised text down to the present time. But while it may be true that no other work has remained for twelve centuries with so pure a text, it is probably equally true that no other has suffered so drastic a purging.

Classification of the Meccan and Medinan suras

Traditionally, Muslim scholars usually have accepted the fact that the Quran was ‘revealed’ for the most part in short passages and assumed that most of the passages in a sura had been ‘revealed’ at the same time. On this basis they came to classify the suras as Meccan or Medinan and this description was included in the heading of each sura in the later copies. Exceptions to his rule were also recognised and in the official Egyptian edition, for example, sura 73 Al-Muzzammil reads ‘The sura Al-Muzzammil is Meccan except verses 11 and 20, which were Medinan …..’

Muslims, regard the Quran as the eternal Word of God, and are therefore unwilling to admit any development of thought in its pages. However, the principle has come to be accepted that the Quran is only properly explained by continual reference to the chronology of the life of Muhammad as found in the Traditions. On this basis a most natural division can be found where the contents fall into two main groups, viz. the passages which are said to have been revealed at Mecca, and those revealed at Medina.

In English, the handiest edition showing this re-arrangement of the suras is Rodwell’s translation. Such a rearrangement not only makes the Quran more readable; it enables one to trace the career of Muhammad and the development of Islam. We can see, too, how this professedly ‘piecemeal’ revelation fitted new situations as they arose. Read in this order, the following themes are the most prominent: 1) God is all-powerful and also good or well-disposed towards men; all that is best in men’s lives is due to him; 2) God will judge men on the Last Day, and assign them to Heaven or Hell according to their conduct in this life; 3) man is to recognise his dependence on God and to show gratitude to him and worship him; 4) Man’s recognition of his dependence on God must also express itself in his attitude to wealth become generous not niggardly; 5) Muhammad has a special vocation to convey knowledge of these truths to those around him.

The Meccan Surasman Yemeni old man 3

We can also see Muhammad in those early days denouncing the idolatry of his fellow-townsmen and threatening them with the tortures of hell if they will not hearken. Over against such passages we have others which are intended to reassure and encourage his persecuted followers; e. g., the graphic accounts of the Paradise that awaits them. Muhammad also rebuts charges of imposture and utters threats against those who doubt the divine inspiration of the Quran. References to former prophets now begin to appear, and are meant to show that they, too, were treated with scorn and accused of imposture. The closing portion of the Meccan period, made difficult by the boycott of the Qurraish is reflected in a passage like Al-An’am 6:106: “Follow what thou art taught by inspiration from thy Lord: there is no god but He: and turn aside from those who join gods with Allah.”

The Medina Suras

The Medina suras, constituting rather more than one-third of the whole collection, bear, as we should expect, a different character. In them there is less stress than formerly on dogma and more on the precepts and laws which are to guide the daily lives of Muslims. The dictates of the practical administrator of the affairs of the new State replace the burning eloquence of the preacher. Muhammad is obliged now to deal with questions of social life, domestic details, peace and war. This part of the book may not inaptly be termed the legal section of the Quran.

Muhammad’s conflict with the Jews is as marked in this section of the Quran as is his controversy with the Meccans in the earlier one. In Mecca his tone towards the Jews had been friendly: “And dispute ye not with the People of the Book, except with means better (than mere disputation), unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong: but say, “We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our Allah and your Allah is one; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam).” (Al-Ankabut 29:46)

In Medina, being vexed that they cannot find, or refuse to admit, references to himself in their Scriptures, he indignantly charges them with concealing the truth. And when things had reached an extreme pass he utters the most terrible predictions concerning them: “O ye People of the Book! believe in what We have revealed, confirming what was with you, before We change the face and fame of some (of you) beyond all recognition, and turn them hindwards, or curse them as We cursed the Sabbath-breakers, for the decision of Allah must be carried out.” And again “Those who reject our signs, We shall soon cast into the Fire: as often as their skins are roasted through, We shall change them for fresh skins, that they may taste the penalty.” (An-Nisa  4: 47 and 56).

Strained relations with the Meccans and doubts regarding the attitude of Arab tribes soon led to the sanction of fighting, thus: “Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it” and “Then fight in the cause of Allah”  (Al-Baqarrah 2:216, 244).

One chapter, chapter 33, is concerned for the most part with the domestic affairs of Muhammad, much of it indeed with his wives. In this same chapter we find the phrase commonly used, “God and His Apostle.” In Mecca he had stressed that he was a plain-spoken “wamer” (cp. Al-Qalam 67:26); but in Medina he demands that, special deference be shown to him; “Address not the Apostle as ye address one another” (An-Nur 24:63). Disobedience is not only an offence against God, but against “His Apostle” also (Al-Ahzab 33:36).


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