Qur’an has changed the course of history

Gregory Elder

Posted Jun 7, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Quran has changed the course of history

By Gregory Elder
For the Daily Facts

If they were asked to list the names of the most important books ever written, many of my students would certainly list the Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, Homer, Dante and Plato among the greatest. Indeed, if they do not list these as the greats, I will certainly fail them.
But to this list of great books, perhaps we should also add another volume. This is the Holy Quran, or Koran, the holy book of Islam. Its role in history has been great, and for good or ill, it is the spiritual adviser to more than 1 billion members of the human race. Along with the Holy Bible, it is one of the most quoted, commented on and trusted volumes in the history of the world.

In the traditional Islamic world, the authority of the Quran is absolute in all matters of faith, morals and doctrine. It is the absolute word of God, written in heaven by Allah and revealed to the Prophet Muhammed in the Arabic language. Muslims do not believe that the prophet himself wrote the book, but rather it was revealed to him and he recited it to the faithful who wrote it down. The faithful decorate their homes and mosques with its declarations in calligraphy and carvings.

Before the prophet’s death in A.D. 632, he was very concerned about the collection of the Quran and he had several assistants who helped him organize the revelations into the Suras. We do not know the state of the recordings at the time of the prophet’s death, but we do know that he was very careful about their preservation.

One of his secretaries was a young man named Zayd ibn Thabit who preserved many of the passages and knew of other men who had also collected them. In the age of the Caliph Uthman, who presided over the community not long after the death of the prophet, a final edition was published, which abides to this day.

If we are to look at the book, what do we find? In its English prose translations it is about one inch thick in a paperback edition. It contains 114 chapters, called “suras” or “readings,” which are arranged in order of length, beginning with the longest and ending with the shortest. The Suras all begin with the same phrase, “In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful.”

By way of comparison, the Epistles of Paul were arranged in the New Testament in the same manner, of longest to shortest, for the custom was common in the ancient world. But Muslims would be quick to point out that the ordering is of divine origin, and they would also add that the true Quran cannot be translated, for all translation is imperfect and creates a need for interpretation by the translator. The true Quran is always in Arabic and it is always in the poetry of its revelation rather than prose.

The Christian Bible is arranged in the shape of a very long story, beginning with the creation of the world, followed by the history of Israel, and then the Christian message and ends with the day of judgment. The Quran makes no such chronological development, but it stands as a series of unique revelations from God to humanity on a variety of topics.

Each of the Suras carries a traditional name, often drawn from the natural world or the subject it discusses, such as “Thunder” for Sura 13 or “The Moon” for Sura 54.

A host of devout customs are associated with the holy book. Orthodox Muslims will treat the book with great respect, and often place their copy on a special stand in the home. If it is carried about, as some of my student do in their backpacks, it will be wrapped in a clean white linen.

Many of the devout will make it a personal project to copy it out in their own handwriting over the course of their lives. In some places, the faithful will memorize it, line by line, and one who has done so is called a “hafiz” and is considered a great man by the community.

There are professional Quran reciters, who are famous for their presentations and recordings and who are accorded the same respect as the greatest opera stars. On one occasion, when I was asked to speak at a Muslim funeral, the ceremonies began with a long session in which the bereaved found great comfort in listening to a long recording of chanted Quranic passages.

The Quran teaches on a variety of subjects, ranging from the unity of God, the commandment for charity to the poor, the justice of God, the reality of heaven and hell, the clothing of women, the pilgrimage to Mecca and the prohibitions against idolatry, sex outside marriage and the consumption of alcohol or pork. Many names from the Torah and Bible are given as names of older Islamic prophets, including Adam, Noah, Moses, Abraham, David and Jesus.

The Christian doctrines of the trinity and the incarnation of Christ are explicitly denied. At the same time, some tolerance is declared towards Christian and Jews, who are declared to be the “people of the Book,” and both are mentioned in the Quran.

The Jihad, or the struggle to fight against those who attack the faith, is explicit as well in Sura 2, “The Cow,” in the words “Fight for the sake of Allah those who fight against you, but do not attack them first. Allah does not love aggressors. Kill them wherever you find them. Drive them from the places from which they drove you. Idolatry is worse than carnage.”

But the Quran does not speak only words of threat or violence, for the compassion and mercy of Allah in recited in every Sura without exception.

My close friends know that I am not a Muslim, but a Catholic Christian. But I wish peace, salim, on my Muslim friends and neighbors. And I do see in the Quran, an epic book, that which is worth the attention of the wise, if only to understand our fellow citizens all the better in this tolerant republic in which we live.

Let me close with a final quotation from the Quran, taken from Sura 40, “The Forgiving One.”

Those who bear the Throne and those who stand around it give glory to their Lord and believe in Him. They implore forgiveness for the faithful, saying, “Lord, your mercy and Your knowledge embrace all things. Forgive those who repent and follow Your path. Shield them from the scourge of hell. Admit them, Lord, to the gardens of Eden which you have promised them, together with all the righteous among their fathers, the wives and their descendants. You are the Almighty, the Wise One. Deliver them from evil. He whom you deliver from evil on that day will surely earn your mercy. That is the supreme triumph.”

Gregory Elder, a Redlands resident, is a professor of history and humanities at Riverside Community College.

Originally Published in the Redlands Daily Facts at http://www.redlandsdailyfacts.com/Stories/0,1413,209~22484~2866271,00.html and reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.