By DR. SAFI KASKAS
Excerpted from- WISE Up- Knowledge ends Extremism 2017
In 610 CE on the seventh day of Ramadan in the ninth month of the lunar calendar, when Muhammad was forty years old, his life changed forever. While Muhammad was meditating in a cave, he was suddenly enveloped in a terrifying embrace that felt as though his very breath was being squeezed from his body. The angel Gabriel spoke to him and gave him one command: “Iqra!” (“Read!”). Muhammad protested that he could not read; like most at that time, he was unlettered. But the command was issued twice more, and each time he would feel he was reaching the end of his endurance, and he uttered the same response. Finally, Muhammad found divinely inspired words flowing from his lips—he began to read words acquired not from the writings of men but revealed directly by God:
Read in the name of your Lord who created; created the human being from a clinging substance. Read! Your Lord is the Most Generous, who taught by the pen, taught the human being that which he knew not (96:1–5).
Thus began the magnificent story of God’s last testament to humanity.
For 23 years of his Prophetic mission, the Angel Gabriel would continue to utter the Word of God to the Prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an is the final of a series of Divine Messages that were first revealed to Adam and culminated with the Prophet Muhammad. And as each of God’s messengers had done before him, Muhammad was tasked with spreading the Divine Message to all of humanity: “Nothing has been said to you [Prophet] that was not said to the messengers before you. Your Lord is a Lord of Forgiveness, but also of painful punishment” (41:43).
In the purest sense, the Qur’an is a book of wisdom. It was revealed to serve as guidance for all of humankind as it provides knowledge of God’s divine plan and the principles required for achieving a successful life. These fundamental teachings of the Qur’an can broadly be defined as the protection of life, family, property/wealth, intellect, religion, and dignity (collectively known as the six universal maqasid or ultimate goals)—all of which were missing in pre-Islamic Arabia. Additionally, the Qur’an focuses on ethical and legal subjects, including topics such as charity, prayer, and piety. Its verses also discuss historical events and contain general exhortations regarding right and wrong as a means to outline its general moral lessons and teachings so that they may be applied to our daily lives.
It is within this sociohistorical context that we may come to understand the reasons for each particular Qur’anic revelation and thus, the meaning of its 6,236 verses.
Many of the Qur’an’s verses were actually deemed to be quite progressive for the time, as they both reformed and directly responded to the pre-Islamic cultural practices so that they would reflect God’s will for mankind. For instance, to respond to the ongoing oppression and injustice toward women, God made gender egalitarianism an intrinsic teaching of the Qur’an. It even goes so far as to neither depict nor describe God as a masculine figure. The Qur’an also explicitly teaches that women are of absolute equal status to men, as God says, “Never shall I lose sight of the good deeds of any one of you, male or female. Each of you is equal to the other” (3:195). Consequently, the Qur’an rejected the norms of its time and guaranteed women their right to inheritance, property, and marriage. This is outlined in Qur’anic verse 4:7, which states: “Men will have a share in what their parents and close relatives leave behind, and women will have a share in what their parents and close relatives leave behind, whether it is a little or a lot: this is ordained by God.” Arguably the most important right God has provided humankind through His revelations is the freedom to choose and practice one’s religion freely, as the truth cannot be obtained by compulsion. This is seen in the Qur’anic verse stating: “There shall be no compulsion in religion” (2:256). The Qur’an emphasized that it is up to an individual to pursue spiritual guidance. “Insights have come to you from your Lord. Whoever chooses to see does so for his own good, and whoever chooses to remain blind, does so to his own loss. ‘I am not your keeper’” (6:104). Such verses came as a direct response to the idolatry, polytheism, and backwardness that were plaguing Arabian society at that time and causing warfare between tribes.
Although many of its teachings differ from earlier revelations, the Qur’an contains stories of God’s earlier Prophets and Messengers, including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Moses, and many others. In fact, many would be surprised to learn that both Moses and Jesus are mentioned more often in the Qur’an than Muhammad. Even Mary, the mother of Jesus, is mentioned more times in the Qur’an than in the New Testament. But also, it explicitly recognizes and speaks of the commonality between the Abrahamic religions and their texts: “Say, ‘We believe in God and what He revealed to us and to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, the tribes, and in what was given to Moses, Jesus and the prophets from their Lord. We do not distinguish between any of them, and we have submitted to Him” (3:84).
However, unlike the Torah or the New Testament, the Qur’an is seen as the direct verbatim speech of God revealed to humanity, without any contribution from human authors. This is reflected in the Qur’anic verses, stating:
This Qur’an could have never been created by anyone but God as a confirmation of what is available to him from earlier revelations and a detailed explanation of the Book that—let there be no doubt—is from the Lord of all the worlds. Or do they say, “He [the Prophet] has invented it?” Say, “Then produce a chapter of similar merit, and call on anyone you can other than God if what you say is true”(10:37–38).
It is for this very reason that Muslims view the Qur’an as a sacred object, as the physical manifestation of the Word of God as it was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. The Prophet has instructed all Muslims to “Beautify the Qur’an with your voice”—a lesson that still resonates in the hearts of all Muslims. To this day Muslims regard this act as one of the most important sacred rituals. Many Muslims also strive to achieve the coveted position of a Hafiz (or one who has memorized the entire Qur’an by heart) considered an honor for a person in this life and the next life.
Societies in the seventh century (when the Qur’an was revealed) primarily passed on traditions orally. As with many oral societies at the time, poetry was an integral part of Arabia’s culture, and the Arabs of Mecca prided themselves on being the master poets of their time. Many of the earliest converts embraced the message of the Qur’an when they found its eloquence and beauty far surpassed their poetry.
The Qur’an is composed of 114 chapters with 6,236 verses and each chapter (surah) comprises individual verses (ayah). The Qur’an was preserved both orally and textually—the Prophet and his closest companions would memorize and recite its verses on a daily basis throughout the 23 years of revelation, and a number of companions known as “Kuttab al-Wahy” (Scribes of the revelation) would write down the verses separately, then recite them to the Prophet in order for him to make sure that what they wrote is exactly what he recited. Many of the companions had memorized the entire Qur’an directly from the Prophet Muhammad. It was not until after the Prophet’s death in the late seventh century that the Qur’an was organized into a single document. Then, under the leadership of the first caliph, Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s closest companions came together and recorded the Qur’an into a single document.
As Islam began to spread during the mid-700s, written copies of the Qur’an became necessary to address the growing diversity in the Muslim world. The third caliph Uthman (r. 644–656), commissioned a group to organize the Qur’an according to the Arabic dialect of the Prophet’s tribe, the Quraysh. This group, including one of the original scribes of the Prophet, compiled a complete written codex of the Qur’an on sheets of vellum (mus’haf) and began to spread it throughout the Muslim world as the authorized copy of the Qur’an. To this day, the Qur’an must be written in Arabic to be regarded as an authentic, pure form of the Scripture. The Qur’an is written in beautiful calligraphy, an exquisite art that flourished in Islamic civilization. The beauty of the calligraphic script is seen throughout Muslims societies as it is engraved in extensive, breathtaking patterns on buildings and mosques, giving Muslims the feeling of being in the presence the Divine for all of time.
“These are the verses of the Qur’an, a book that makes everything clear, a guidance and good news for the believers” (27:1–2). God has willed it so that we may be able to understand His guidance and discover the Straight Path. Through the Qur’an we may come to find our freedom to choose whether to accept God’s guidance. He does not wish for us to be misguided or compelled by others. He has gifted us with the knowledge and tools to interpret His revelations in such a way that reason and scripture do not clash, and so that we may be able to apply his teachings to our modern-day context. The primary objective of the Qur’an is to understand, reflect, and ponder God’s message to humanity, the Qur’an can be a liberating tool to free young Muslims from abuse and manipulation by others, especially extremist groups who are using the Qur’an to manipulate individuals for their politically nefarious goals.