What Is the Quran? A book of promises?
June 10, 2020
Updated June 11, 2020
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For both Muslims and Christians, the contents of their sacred text, either the Qur'an or the Bible, is a matter of life or death in the present and for the life to come. In this article, I explore the way that Muslims view the Qur'an and compare this with the promises of the Bible.
What is the Qur’an in Islam? Promises made…?
“By Allah, though I am The Apostle of Allah, yet I do not know what Allah will do to me”
(the words of Muhammad as related by al-Bukhari, vol 5, no 266; see Q 46:9)
“For all the promises of God find their Yes in him [Jesus Christ]…” (2 Corinthians 1:20)
Someone once described the difference between Islam and Christianity as the first being “the word made book” and the second “the Word made flesh.” Although some say it is not wise to compare the Qur’an and the Bible as such, the fact that they are both sacred texts on which people place their hopes for the present and eternal life, it is vital to examine them. In this article, I will explore how Islam sees their sacred text, the Qur’an, and how it is similar to and different than, the Bible.
What does the word Qur’an mean?
If you have ever taken a taxi ride in Cairo or another city in a Muslim-majority country, you might have heard the answer, without even knowing it. As you rode along, you heard someone reciting the Qur’an in a singsong voice. The word Qur’an is derived from an Arabic word meaning ‘recitation.’ This is seen in Surah 96:1, where Muhammad is instructed, “Recite! In the name of your lord who created, created humanity from a clot.”
This surah, which along with Surah al-Fatiah (1) is said to be one of the first surahs to be revealed in Arabic to Muhammad. Muslims are promised, if they recite this chapter known as Surah'Alaq (the clot) and they pass away that same day, that “at the time of the Day of Judgment, he will be considered as a martyr and Allah will raise him to life again as a martyr and He will resurrect him as one who has fought the holy war, on the way of
Allah, in the presence of the Messenger of Allah” (from Imam Sadiq, Tafsir-i-Borhan, Vol. 4, p. 478).
What we observe, then, is that the Muslim is promised rewards for reciting the Qur’an. A search through Islamic devotional literature shows that each chapter has its own rewards for reciting it, e.g. Surah Iklas (112).
This focus on recitation is important in two other areas. A former Muslim related to me that the rhyming nature of the Qur’an when it is chanted has almost a hypnotic effect on Muslims. Somehow, it invades the subconscious. Additionally, it is important to know that for Muslims, the Qur’an’s primary utility is to be a reminder to keep Allah and what he has decreed in the front of their consciousness. At times when Christians approach the Qur’an and attempt to exegete it like they would do the Bible, they are met with some degree of pause, and this is natural, as the book is designed more for remembrance via recitation, as well as having similar properties to a talisman, rather than critical analysis.
The place of the Qur’an among revealed books
According to Islamic sources, there is a book in heaven called the “well-preserved tablet” (Q. 85:22) or the “Mother of the books.” Whether or not this was a created text, has been a subject of considerable debate in the history of Islam, but suffice it to say, Muslims believe that it contains the very words of Allah. It is from this master-text—if we might call it—a number of sacred texts including the Tawrat (roughly equal to the Torah or the first five books of the Bible), the Zabur (roughly equal to the Psalms), the Injil (roughly equal to the Gospels) and the Qur’an were derived.
Each of these books was said to have been ‘sent down’ or ‘given’ to a prophet who spoke a word to the people
of his time. Thus, we have the so-called prophets, Moses, David, Jesus and Muhammad each bringing a message to bring people back to the foundational religion called Islam.
As much as the Tawrat, Zabur and Injil are called the ‘former books’ and Muslims are advised to read them (Q 5:46-48), this must be taken with caution by Christians who might assume that the Qur’an is giving a wholesale affirmation to them. Rather, in the larger picture, the Qur’an is said to “confirm” or validate what is in these books. The qur’anic text plainly states that it “has final authority over them” [i.e. the former books].
Another way to say it is that because Islam sees the Qur’an as the pinnacle and final revelation, only what agrees with it can be considered valid. Practically speaking, if the Qur’an denies the deity of Christ, then the only explanation for this idea in the Injil is that along the way someone tampered with its contents.
How did the Qur’an come into existence?
According to Islamic traditions, the man Muhammad went to a cave near Mecca around 610 AD, and there he received a revelation from the angel Gabriel which, according to Surah 96 above, he was told to recite. Over the course of 20 or 22 years, he said that he received revelations from Allah as Allah’s messenger or apostle. Muslims say that the contents of the Qur’an from the “well-preserved tablet” in the heavens were brought down by the angel Gabriel through a process of inspiration; they entered into Muhammad’s heart and mind.
It is also said that he did not tamper with the contents, but delivered them exactly as he had received them; thereby being the perfect conduit of the
message of guidance from Allah. Eventually, these revelations which were recalled orally, or written on pieces of leather or other materials were collated after Muhammad’s death and assembled by the third caliph, Uthman (r. 644-656), who then ordered that all other copies in circulation were to be burned. Shia’s, however, declare that the first caliph ‘Ali had a complete written copy of the Qur’an. Muslims insist that the Qur’ans that are in existence today are said to be perfect copies of what was originally in heaven.
What does the Qur’an do for Muslims?
Since we know that Muslims ascribe to the adage, What Did Muhammad Do?, one would expect that they would try to emulate his utilization of the Qur’an. For example, it was reported by Aisha, that,
Whenever the Prophet went to bed every night, he used to cup his hands together and blow over them after reciting Sūrat al-Ikhlās [and a few others] and then rub his hands over whatever parts of his body he was able to rub, starting with his head, face and front of his body. He used to do that three times. (Sahih Bukhari, book 7, 110, 4372).
Abu Hurayra, in another tradition, related,
Surely, the house in which the Qur’an is recited provides easy circumstances for its people, its good increases, angels come to it [in order to listen to the Qur’an] and satans leave it. The house in which the Book of God is not recited provides difficult circumstances for its people, its good decreases, angels leave it, and satans come to it.
The Qur’an is often referred to as the noble or praiseworthy Qur’an and one of its key terms is huda or guidance. It is said to guide Muslims on the straight path, guide them on keeping the Shariah laws, guide them on avoiding the bad and doing the good, and on how to build up a sufficient quantity of good deeds to merit the Islamic Paradise in the hereafter. There are many hadiths that mention the way that accumulated merits for reciting the Qur’an will be extremely advantageous at the day of judgment. The Muslim scholar and collector of hadiths, al-Tirmidhī related, “For every letter [of the Qur’an]
that you read you will get tenfold reward,” and al-Ghazali reported on one which states, “Those who are concerned with the Qur’an are friends of Allah and are special to him.”
The Qur’an is the text that helps Muslims live out their life of obedience to the will of Allah. Additionally, in the Qur’an obedience to Allah and obedience to Muhammad are often co-mingled, i.e. if you obey Allah, then you obey Muhammad, and vice-versa. The Yusuf Ali rendition of Q 3:32, 132 reads, “Obey Allah and His Messenger,” and Q 4:80 reads, “He who obeys the Messenger, obeys Allah.” Thus, the Qur’an is a vehicle to become closer to the person and example of Muhammad.
For Muslims then, the Qur’an is the sacred text of Islam which gives guidance in this life towards the life to come and reinforces the fact that Muslims are “the best of people for mankind” (Q 3:110) and Muhammad is the “Best of Creation” (Khayru-l-Khalq), the “model for life” (Q 33:21 cf 68:4) and the “person who has reached perfection” (Ar. al-insān al-kāmil).
The Qur’an and promises
Any Muslim will agree with a Christian that sacred texts are important, that they contain the revealed words of a deity, that they provide instruction for this life and the life to come, that the Day of Judgment is inevitable, and that eternity is long.
As we have observed, promises are made to Muslims for the actions of reading, reciting, remembering, and obeying the contents of the Qur’an. A critical question that must be asked, however, who is the guarantor of these promises?
In the Qur’an, there is an Arabic convention for swearing an oath. It is found 27x and is found in some English translations. For example, in Q 92:1, Shakir renders it “I swear by the night when it draws a veil.” This oath formula applies to swearing by a pen, the heavenly constellations, the sun, the stars, the dawn and the setting of the stars, a fig, (see Q 36:1, “I swear by the Qur’an”; Q 37:1, “I swear by [the angels] who stand in ranks”; Q. 53:1 “I swear by the star when it falls/ By the star!”
Except in a few cases where Muhammad swears an oath on the name of Allah (e.g. Q. 16:63) or is told to do so, all of these oath formulae originate with the divine author if the Qur’an, whom we call Allah. Something very telling is that all of the objects on
which the oath formulate are sworn on created things. What is missing is the Allah never appears to swear on his own name. Yet, all kinds of promises are made to Muslims for obeying, reciting and memorizing the very words of Allah who, in contrast to God in the Bible, does not swear on his own name.
Additionally, one of the sciences of the Qur’an or the interpretation of the Qur’an is the belief in abrogation or the idea that Allah can change or cancel one of his former revelations as he wills. Known by the word naskh this concept shows up in Surah 2:106 which reads, “None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar: Knowest thou not that Allah Hath power over all things? (Yusuf Ali rendition).
Practically speaking, this means that some verses of the Qur’an which were said to be revealed earlier, have been replaced with supposedly better ones. This concept, declared as vital in qur’anic interpretation, leaves one with an open question as to whether Allah might change his mind about any of his promises at any time. This is illustrated by a hadith in which Abu Bakr, called “one of the rightly guided caliphs” and father of Aisha, the favourite wife of Muhammad, that he would not believe that he had actually entered Paradise until his two feet were in it, since there was a possibility that Allah could change his mind at the last minute, with regards to his suitability entry.
In his words:
I swear to God that I do not feel safe from Allah’s cunning (deceitfulness) [Ar. la amanu limakr Allah]even if one of my feet is already inside paradise. (1)
The Qur’an in the light of the Bible
The Bible is the Word of God written, and it leads a person to the Word of God, Incarnate, Jesus Christ. It is living and active (Hebrews 4:12) and it is capable of making a person “wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 3:16). The Bible is breathed (2 Tim 3:15) out by the Living God and discloses his will, his actions, and his nature. His nature as a covenant-keeping God is manifested by the fact that he swears
oaths on his own name (Hebrews 6:13) and he is absolutely trustworthy in the unchangeableness of his nature. What he says he will do, and what he does he says.
The Bible says that the word of God goes out to accomplish what it sets out to do (Isaiah 55:10). If the Bible says that he is not a man that he should lie, (Numbers 23:19) then that is how it is. This gives the reader and believer in the Bible great confidence in the fact that biblical promises will come true, as it says, “all his promises [through Christ] are yes and amen” (2 Corinthians 1:20).
The veracity of the Bible is attested to, not by any human author, but through the confirmation by the Holy Spirit who also takes a role in making the Scriptures alive and real to a person. As a person reads the Scriptures, they come to realize that they need the merits of Christ and that all of their own efforts at merit-making via their own righteousness are futile.
The Bible then is a promise-making book by a promise-keeping God who gives his people deep assurance of their faith, because of his trustworthy nature. In comparison, we saw the quote that introduced this article with Muhammad stating that he had no idea what Allah might do, and the person said to be the best Muslim, Abu Bakr, having great anxiety due to the deceitfulness of Allah. It is this Allah, whose words are said to be “made book” in the Qur’an, on which Muslims place their trust.
Both the Bible and the Qur’an are sacred texts that are said to be of divine origin, and for which their readers and followers are assured of multiple promises. They are vastly different in the guarantee of these promises, as in the first it is the Living God who is willing to swear on his own name that what he promises will come true.
In the case of the Qur’an the promises are underwritten by the man Muhammad, who speaks as a messenger of Allah. Allah will not swear on his own name as to the veracity of something, but only on created things. The question with eternal consequences is, on whose word will you place all of your hopes for this world and the life to come? It is a question of life and death.
(1) This rendition follows the original Arabic of Khalid Muhammad Khalid’s Successors of the Messenger, p.70. In the English translation by Muhammad Mahdi al-Sharif (Beirut Lebanon: Dar al-Kotob al-Ilmiyah, 2005), Book One: Abu Bakr Has Come, p. 99 he eliminates the word ‘cunning’ and substitutes the word ‘punishment.’
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