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The Qur’an in Muslim Thought and Practice

Because Muslims view the Qur’an as the very word of God, it naturally occupies the central place in their religious life. It is the one means for discovering the will of God and for measuring the success of a life lived in accordance with it. The Qur’an has shaped the individual and collective lives of Muslims in many ways.

The Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad not all at once, but in large and small parts over some twenty-two years (61o-632). Furthermore, the revelations it contains are related to the situations in which they were revealed. Thus the revelations, taken together, become a record of the society of Muhammad’s time and constitute the most important source for tracing the historical development of Islam from its origins in Mecca to its full maturity in Medina. The significance of the intermittency of revelation can be appreciated if, as Malek Bennabi suggests (1977), one asks what would have happened if the Qur’an had been revealed all at once. In that case, Bennabi remarks, all those passages that console Muhammad and his followers at times of distress, encourage them at times of difficulty, or guide them at times of uncertainty would not have the immediacy and freshness they otherwise do. The first thing to note about the Qur’an, therefore, is its dual role as record and guide.

These two roles are important for understanding not only the times of the Prophet but also much of the later religious history of Muslims. Early Islamic history (even allowing for sectarian and other differences in periodizing and interpreting it) has paradigmatic value for Muslims, and the event of the Qur’an is universally admitted to be central to that history. It is not surprising that all later movements, whether of radical reform or of moderate change, whether originating at the center or at the periphery of the Islamic world, have sought to ground themselves in the Qur’an or at least to seek support from it. A typical instance is the Khariji movement during the caliphate of `All. Displeased with `All’s decision to accept arbitration (tahkim) as an alternative to a military solution of the dispute with Mu’awiyah, the Khawarij appealed to the Qur’an, saying that only its verdict was acceptable, and not the verdict of human arbitrators. For their part, the troops of Mu’awiyah, had, in order to avert imminent defeat, already impaled copies of the Qur’an on their spears and waved them on the battlefield, practically forcing `All’s camp to accept arbitration.

Arabian culture was oral; its transformation from preliterate to literate was due mainly to the Qur’an. The notions of “writing,” “reading,” “pen,” and “book” are found in some of the early revelations. For instance, the very first revelation, according to the generally accepted view, consisted of the first five verses of what is now surah 96: “Read in the name of your Lord Who created: He created man from a clinging matter. Read, and your Lord is Most Gracious, the One who taught by means of the pen: He taught man what he did not know.” According to some scholars, the second to be revealed was surah 68, al-Qalam, which takes its name “Pen” from the opening verse. The Qur’an as a whole is called a “book” in numerous verses. The Qur’an repeatedly insists on writing down the details of a loan extended (2.282-283) and enjoins that the manumission contract be made in writing (24.33). A large number of scribes were employed by Muhammad to preserve the scriptural text. Reading and writing were encouraged in general; it is interesting in this regard that the prisoners taken by the Muslims in the Battle of Badr were given the opportunity to win their freedom by teaching a certain number of Muslims how to read and write. A fundamental transformation was thus brought about in the consciousness of the Arabs, a nonliterate culture rapidly becoming a literate one.

An important element of the new consciousness was

QUR’AN: The Qur’an in Muslim Thought and Practice

the notion of book as law, for law now came to be identified with something more than custom and tradition passed down orally from earlier times; it came to mean something written down or laid down in writing. Surah 98.3 represents a coalescence of the notions of book and law; the word kutub in it means “laws, regulations.”

The idea of the Qur’an as a book of law, or indeed as a code of life, was to have further important consequences. Directly or indirectly it gave rise to the major disciplines of Islamic learning and led to the proliferation of literature in each. Hadith (prophetic tradition), or rather the sunnah (path) of Muhammad embodied in hadith, is regarded as the authoritative explication of the Qur’an. The sciences of the Arabic language, from lexicography to grammar to rhetoric, were developed with a view to arriving at a precise and accurate understanding of the Qur’anic text. The need to understand the legislative content of the Qur’an gave rise to both Islamic law and legal theory. The fundamental theological issues in Islam understandably revolve around certain verses of the Qur’an. Historiography originated with the aim of elaborating the Qur’anic view of religious history, according to which Adam was the first bearer of the divine message and Muhammad the last.

Many Muslim scholars believe that not only the growth of religious sciences but also of learning in general was due to the inspiration of the Qur’an. They point to its repeated urgings to study the universe, which is regarded as furnishing dyat (signs) that point to the creator of the universe. A connection is thus established, the argument runs, between science and religion: the study of nature becomes a sacred pursuit; acquisition and dissemination of knowledge of all kinds takes on a religious significance; and a spirit of empirical inquiry and investigation is engendered that expresses itself in various areas of scholarly activity. Surah 2]64 may be taken as typical in this regard:

Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, and what God has sent down from the sky in the form of water-reviving by means of it land after it has become barren, and spreading in it animals of all kinds -and the causing of the winds to blow in different forms, and the clouds that are held under control between the heavens and the earth, there are signs for those who would exercise reason.

The Qur’an plays a central role in the larger world of Muslim society in at least five realms. First, as the fundamental text of Islam, it is cited as the ultimate authority in all matters pertaining to religion. Thus the Qur’an furnishes the basic tenets of Islam, the principles of ethical behavior, and guidance in general or specific terms for social, political, and economic activities. Second, the Qur’an is used in liturgy. In each of the five obligatory prayers of the day, the opening surah of the Qur’an, al-Fatihah, is recited with other portions. During Ramadan, the month of fasting, the Qur’an is recited in special prayers (tardwih) offered congregationally every night after the fifth and last prayer, usually with the goal of completing a recitation of the entire Qur’an during the month.

The Qur’an is also a basic vehicle of education. A large majority of the world’s Muslim population is nonArabic-speaking, yet in most Muslim societies the first alphabetical system children learn is the Arabic alphabet, in order to be able to read the Qur’an. Beginning with a primer, young students work up to reading through the Qur’an, usually under the guidance of the local imam of the mosque. The completion of a child’s reading of the Qur’an is often celebrated publicly, with the child receiving gifts and being the center of attention. Special importance is attached to completing the first reading of the Qur’an at an early age, and even in Western countries it is not unknown for a Muslim child to complete his or her first Qur’an-reading before entering public school at the age of five. The Qur’anic education of children is not confined to mere reading of the text; it often includes inculcation of basic scriptural teachings.

The Qur’an is an element of many nonliturgical social events. It is used to invoke the blessing of God (tabarruk) on various occasions. Thus to complete a recitation of the Qur’an (khatm (al-Qur’an at the death of a loved one-survivors, relatives, and friends get together for the purpose-is a custom in several parts of the Muslim world. The Qur’an is often recited at the beginning of public political or social meetings, at conferences, and sometimes also at government or official functions, including cabinet meetings. Finally, the Qur’an has artistic uses. The art of reciting Qur’anic verses in a beautiful voice (tajwid) and the art of Qur’anic calligraphy are among the most highly developed skills in Islamic culture. Most mosques have inscriptions from the Qur’an, and tajwid competitions at different levels are popular events, with good reciters often becoming celebrities. [See Qur’anic Recitation; Calligraphy.]

As noted above, even in non-Arab Muslim societies an attempt is made to teach children the Qur’anic Arabic script, even though most people never learn the Arabic language. The concern that all Muslims be able to read at least the text of the Qur’an derives from the fact that the Qur’an is regarded as the very word of God. As such, the act of reciting the divine word is a good and pious act that brings blessings (barakah). The disjunction between recitation and understanding produces the curious result that even in parts of the Muslim world that do not have a long history of distinguished Islamic scholarship, the art of recitation may be very highly developed; Malaysia and Indonesia are perhaps the most notable examples. On another level, the doctrine of i`jaz (the inimitability or matchlessness of the Qur’an) determines standards of linguistic excellence and makes an intimate knowledge of the Qur’anic text-displayed in the ability to recognize a Qur’anic quotation or to cite verses appositely-a mark of good education.

In modern times renewed emphasis has been placed on the Qur’an as the fundamental source of guidance, though this has received more than one interpretive expression. Some distinguish between the kernel and husk of Islamic tradition, identifying the Qur’an as the kernel and denying the normative value of the other religious sciences. Others seek to reassert the primacy of the Qur’an in the hierarchy of Islamic sciences, pointing out that although theoretically the Qur’an has always been the most important source of Islam, in practice hadith and sectarian fiqh have relegated it to a secondary position, usurping its rightful position. Still others maintain that the masses need to be educated Islamically and that Qur’anic learning should form the most important part of this religious training. In the eighteenth century Shah Wali Allah of India, defying opposition, translated the Qur’an into Persian, after which it was rendered into many regional and local languages of India. His primary aim was to make the Qur’an accessible to the common man, and his legacy in this regard has been an enduring one.

In whatever terms the primacy of the Qur’an is asserted today, it remains a fact that a number of modern Muslim reformist thinkers have made the Qur’an their main reference point. This is true of Sayyid Ahmad Khan and Abu al-Kalam Azad of India, Abu al-A’la Mawdudi of Pakistan, Sayyid Qutb of Egypt, Muhammad Rashid Rida of Syria, and Ibn Badis of Algeria. All these writers chose the medium of Qur’anic commentary to present their thoughts and ideas. What sets these commentators apart from others is the fact that, besides explaining the Qur’dnic text in a general way, they make a conscious response to modernity by developing an argument based on a careful selection and systematic interpretation of key Qur’anic terms and concepts. Mawdud! and Sayyid Qutb, for example, develop the Qur’anic notion of the conflict of Islam and Jahiliyah at length, extrapolating the notion from the Arabian context and presenting it as an enduring truth of history. In doing so they aim to show the relevance of the Qur’anic message for the present and to motivate Muslims to play their role in history. [See Jahiliyah and the biographies of all the figures mentioned in this paragraph.]

The centrality of the Qur’dn in modern Muslim thought is also evident from the importance attached by scholars in law and other fields to developing a new Qur’anic hermeneutic. Fazlur Rahman has in several works stressed the need to take a fresh approach to the Qur’an, for only such an approach can take Muslims out of the intellectual morass in which they find themselves. In Islam and Modernity (1982) he proposes a process of Qur’dn interpretation that “consists of a double movement, from the present situation to Qur’anic times, then back to the present” (p. 5). The important point here is not the details of this “double movement” but Fazlur Rahman’s view of the pivotal role the Qur’an can play in reorienting Muslim life and rejuvenating Muslim thought. [See the biography of Rahman.] This is a view on which Muslim scholars, for all their conceptual and methodological differences, would be found in agreement.


Bennabi, Malek. Le phenomene coranique. Damascus, 1397/1977. Translated into English as The Qur’anic Phenomenon. Salimiah, Kuwait, 1983.

Cragg, Kenneth. The Pen and the Faith: Eight Modern Muslim Writers and the Qur’an. London, 1985.

Denny, Frederick Mathewson. Qur’an. and Hadith.” In The Holy Book in Comparative Perspective, edited by Frederick M. Denny and Rodney M. Taylor, pp. 84-108. Columbia, S.C., 1985. See especially pp. 94-97.

Denny, Frederick Mathewson. Qur’an. Recitation Training in Indonesia: A Survey of Contexts and Handbooks.” In Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qur’dn, edited by Andrew Rippin, PP. 288-3o6. Oxford, 1988.

Nelson, Kristina. The Art of Reciting the Qur’dn. Austin, 1985. Rahman, Fazlur. Major Themes of the Qur’an. Minneapolis, 1980, Rahman, Fazlur. Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition. Chicago, 1982.

Tabataba’i, Muhammad Husayn. The Qur’an. in Islam: Its Impact and Influence on the Life of Muslims. London, 1987.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/quran-muslim-thought-practice/

  • writerPosted On: July 9, 2017
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