Thursday, March 26, 2015

Unique Features of the Qur’an

As someone who grew up going to a Christian church in America, the Bible was my main “template” for what a holy book is supposed to be like.  I think this is probably the case for a lot of western readers.  Lately, I’ve been reading the Qur’an, and while it shares some similarities with the Bible, it is a unique literary form and has its own unique features.  To supplement my reading of the Qur’an, I’ve also been reading a collection of recent academic essays called The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an.  In previous posts, I’ve written about the main themes of the Qur’an, it’s historical context, and different approaches readers have taken historically.  Today, I read an article called “Structural, Linguistic, and Literary Features” by scholar Angelika Neuwirth, who is the chair of Arabic Studies at the Freie Univeristat of Berlin.  For this post, I’d like to share a few things I learned about some unique features of the Qur’an.

Structure of the Qur’an

Unlike the Bible, which tells a more-or-less chronological narrative of sacred history, the Qur’an is not structured chronologically, a fact which tends to frustrate western readers.  It is organized into 114 suras (sort of like Bible books) which read more like poetry than narrative.  Each sura has a title (like The Cow, The Bee, The Prophets, etc), which is followed by an introductory invocation called the basmala: “in the name of God, the compassionate and merciful.”  Suras are further subdivided into verses called aya (plural: ayat), a word meaning “visible sign of a transcendental reality.”  As with the Bible, verse numbers were added later, mainly for purposes of memorizing and reciting.

Here's a page from an English translation of the Qur'an.  Notice the title, invocation, and verses.

The Oral Nature of the Qur’an

Professor Neuwirth writes: “It is essential to understand that the Qur’an is not meant to be a book to study, but a text to recite.”  Though it exists in written form, the Qur’an is meant to be literally sung aloud.  This is its primary worship function, and has been since the beginning of Islam.  The text itself has a musical, lyrical quality that makes me want to learn Arabic.  There are lots of videos on Youtube of people reciting/singing the Qur'an.  Here's a beautiful one:


Literary Patterns in the Qur’an

In a previous post, I wrote about recurring themes in the Qur’an.  It is equally important to understand the recurring literary motifs, or patterns of the text.  Some of these include: many references to the “final judgment” or “end of the world,” lists of signs from God in both nature and history, stories of prior prophets (many of which are taken from the Bible), debates between believers and unbelievers, references to specific events from the life of the prophet like the Battles of Badr and Uhud, and the farewell sermon of the prophet.

Arabic calligraphy from "The Family of Imran" (Al Imran), the sura featured above in English.

Different Kinds of Suras: Meccan and Medinan

Scholars divide the 114 suras of the Qur’an into two broad categories: Meccan suras (which originate from the early part of Muhammad’s ministry in Mecca), and Medinan suras (which come form the later part of the prophet’s life, in Medina).  The early Meccan suras, according the professor Neuwirth, “reflect a scenario situated locally in a Meccan public place, most probably close to the Ka’aba.”  Later Meccan suras reflect an increasing interest in the Biblical heritage.  Medinan suras tend to be longer and more complex, reflecting regulations and debates of the emerging Muslim community.  It is also important to note that the suras (as they appear in most Qur’ans today) are not in the order in which they were originally written.  This division between “Meccan” and “Medinan” suras is an academic one.  

Mecca and Medina today are cities in Saudi Arabia.


Scholars are still trying to reconstruct the exact process by which the suras were collected and constructed.  It is an ongoing and exciting field of scholarly inquiry.

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