The Qur’an—often spelled as Quran or Koran—is the primary holy text of the Islamic faith.
According to Muslim beliefs, the words of the Qur’an were dictated to Muhammad, who relayed them orally to his followers. The term Qur’an literally means “the recitation.” This message was delivered by Muhammad approximately 600 years after the earthly ministry of Jesus.
Islam considers the Qur’an to be the perfect, eternal, beautiful message of Allah and the only necessary proof of Muhammad’s status as a prophet.
The words of the Qur’an were kept in purely oral form until after Muhammad’s death. At that time, the text was assembled into writing through the efforts of several early Islamic leaders. The Qur’an is shorter than the New Testament of the Bible, but, according to Islamic theology, it can only be truly understood when read in its original Arabic dialect. Islamic theology is based on both the Qur’an and various oral traditions collected over the centuries.
Islam teaches that Muhammad was accosted by the angel Gabriel during a dream and told to memorize a certain message. For several years, Muhammad kept this to himself, thinking he was being attacked by a demon. Once his wife convinced him otherwise, he began to preach according to these received words. Over the next twenty-plus years, Muhammad gradually delivered more and more of the message. His followers memorized his words, maintaining an entirely oral record of the Qur’an. Only minor portions were inscribed on leaves, rocks, and bones.
The central message of the Qur’an is that mankind has drifted from the truths that Allah presented to men like Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Per Muhammad, man has corrupted the words and message of Allah. This particular “recitation” is meant to be the final, authoritative statement from Allah to mankind. Man is called on to submit to Allah: the word Islam literally means “submission.” Muslims are also commanded by the Qur’an to follow Allah’s instructions and to employ various methods of “struggle” (jihad) to spread this submission worldwide.
While the Judeo-Christian Scriptures include a large amount of history as well as theology, the Qur’an is overwhelmingly theological. Most of the text is devoted to statements about the nature of Allah, creation, mankind’s obligations, and the afterlife.
Recording the Qur’an: Abu Bakr and Uthman
After Muhammad died, survival of his message was entirely reliant on the hafiz—men who had memorized the entire Qur’an—andqurra—men who had memorized large portions of the text and were adept at reciting it. These sources rapidly dwindled. The Islamic Empire’s rapid military expansion resulted in manyhafizandqurrabeing killed in battle. In response, Islamic leaders began the process of recording the Qur’an in written form. This involved the memory of the remaininghafiz, as well as collecting various written fragments. The result was a single manuscript, kept by the leader of Islam, Caliph Abu Bakr.
However, as Islam continued to spread, variations within the Qur’an began to arise. This was due to continued oral memorization, alternate writings on leaves and bones, and differences of opinion between Muslims on what Muhammad had actually said. These disagreements were serious enough to spark violence. A succeeding caliph, Uthman, ordered all written copies of the Qur’an, including scraps, to be collected. These were given to a panel of scholars who were tasked with determining the “correct” words and pronunciations. Afterwards, Uthman sent a single copy of the written Qur’an to each of the major regions of the Empire, and ordered all prior copies—in all forms—to be destroyed.
This entire process was completed within thirty years of Muhammad’s death.
This stands in stark contrast to the history of the New Testament. The Qur’an was purposefully compiled—at least twice—after Muhammad’s death. Neither process produced a large number of physical copies. This process was entirely under the direction of the leaders of the Islamic Empire. After the second collection, all prior records were purposefully destroyed. In short, this means that the Qur’an we see today is the result of a tightly-controlled process, under the direction of a very few people, very soon after it was first written down. There is no way to know if or to what extent this might have changed from the original.