The Qur’an, the book dictated by Mohammed to his scribes and followers in the early seventh century, is not at all what I thought it would be like. I expected a fount of anger, with calls to “kill the infidels” every other page. And while there was a fair amount of military language and statements blasting those who oppose Allah, it wasn’t the terrorism-laden free-for-all that you think about when watching the evening news.
The book includes 114 chapters, or suras, each representing a divine revelation given to Mohammed, and repeated verbatim for the benefit of his followers. They are arranged in order somewhat by size, with the longest suras appearing first; Sura #2 contains 286 verses; the last sura has just six. Each sura includes a mix of exhortations, doxologies, historical accounts, glimpses of heaven, and lists of expected behaviors, all with the goal of differentiating between those who submit to Allah’s will, and those who, in their arrogance, reject Allah. This differentiation is clear in every chapter, and helps explain the “us against them” tone that affects those outside of Islam.
The content in The Qur’an is somewhat repetitive, with the same stories appearing over and over again for emphasis. It’s possible that even if half the text was removed, not a single idea or phrase would be lost from the overall book. Some of the major themes and elements include the following.
- As mentioned earlier, the bulk of the text focuses on differences between those who submit to Allah, and those who oppose his will. Nearly every chapter identifies the traits of the believers, and the current and future sufferings of those who turn their backs on Allah and his messenger, Mohammed.
- To exemplify correct and incorrect behavior, the text draws on historical accounts, many from the Old and New Testaments. Moses, Abraham, Lot, Noah, Jonah, David, Solomon, Jesus, Mary; all of these biblical VIPs and more fill the pages of The Qur’an. Some of the accounts parallel those in the Bible, while others seem to be new stories.
- God did select the Jews as his Chosen People, and even now, the text insists that some Jews are faithful to Allah. But because of their collective sins (either those recorded in the Bible or based on conflicts during Mohammed’s day), Allah rejected them. Christians are likewise recipients of a true Gospel from heaven. But the text confirms Allah’s rejection of them as well, due to their blasphemous belief in a “trinity.”
- The text is directed clearly at a male population. Women are mentioned, but only in the context of how they are to be treated by men. Verse 33.59 is the one that instructs women to be veiled when in public.
- While there are no lists of laws like those found in the Hebrew Torah, there are rules and regulations sprinkled throughout the book. Alcohol and gambling are not allowed (2.219), but divorce is acceptable (2.230 and elsewhere). Also, information on how to conduct daily prayers (4.43ff) and the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, appears in a few chapters (such as 2.196). The Old Testament lists specific and detailed laws, but those found in The Qur’an are more general “just be righteous” pronouncements.
- In addition to angels and humans, Allah created jinns from the “fire of a scorching wind” (15.27).
As a Christian, I was surprised at the amount of content discussing Jesus, Mary, and John the Baptist. Some of it was not biblical at all, including the account in Sura 3 of Jesus creating living birds from clay, a story that comes from the second- or third-century Infancy Gospel of Thomas. And while The Qur’an rejects the idea that Jesus is God, it affirm Jesus’ virgin birth, the miracles he performed, and his resurrection from the dead.
Although there are no blatant calls in the text to wipe out unbelievers (Sura 9 comes the closest, although with Allah-imposed restraints; Sura 47 says to “smite the necks of the unbelievers who come to fight you”), the text is decidedly militant. But it is mostly from Allah’s actions. For those who reject Allah’s will, they can expect misery in this life, and an eternity of fire, iron maces, and no help from anyone else. For those who fight alongside Allah and are loved by him, Heaven is described repeatedly as a garden, one flowing with rich rivers, fruit in abundance, and “voluptuous women of equal age” (78.33).
The Qur’an is the most important book in Islam, but it’s not the only one. Other texts record the words and acts of Mohammed, and are used to define Muslim laws and cultural norms. A fuller understanding of Muslims requires involvement with these other books. But for the Western reader interested in going beyond the nightly news soundbites, a read through The Qur’an is an essential step in understanding the history and people of Islam.
The Well-Read Man Project
For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.