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What is Islam?

According to World Religions and Cultures articles at the University of Fu Jen University in Taiwan:

Islam is a religion founded in the sixth century CE by the prophet Mohammed. It is widely practiced in the Middle East, Pakistan, Indonesia, and southern central Europe. It practiced all over the world, though, and is the fastest-growing religion in the United States. Practioners are called Moslems/Muslims.

In Islam, there is only one God, the creator and sustainer of the universe. Among all his creations, man is supreme, with everything else subservient to God.

The prophets are God's messengers, to whom He revealed the truths of the unseen realities and the truth of the coming life. The series of prophets began with Adam and concluded with Mohammed.

Islam is a complete guide, defining God's relation to man and man's relations to each other. Islamic law, known as shari'ah, covers family, commercial and criminal law.

The Qur'an (Koran) is the sacred book revealed through Mohammed.

Hadith is the body of words and practices traced to the Prophet which supplements the Koran as a source of Islamic guidance.

According to Aherents.Com the four major branches of Islam are:

Sunni, Shiite, Ahmadiyya, and Druze
Though there are many other branches these four appear to have the most active practicing members.

A common question I have been asked:

I have read in many places that the Qur'an (Koran) is the same word for word now as when Mohammed wrote it. Is this true?

My response:

I am sure that others can give you more information about the Qu'ran and have additional comments.

However I found this description written at: Listed under Islam FAQ. Muslim Scriptures.
This seems to be a fairly detailed description and history of the Qu'ran.

What is the Qur'an?
By Austin Cline

Sometimes scholars use the term "historical" to describe religions in which God is perceived to have acted in and through the history of the people (as opposed to myths which simply take place in some unspecified distant past). In Islamic studies, however, the use of the term "historical" is slightly different, in that its events are supposed to have occurred during recorded history, and are thus confirmable by independent historical sources - unlike, for example, Christianity and Judaism. Unfortunately, quite the opposite is true - Islam is, in fact, a very un-historical religion.

Why? Because so many of the circumstances surrounding the origins of Islam are not confirmable. More than that, even the existence of the city of Mecca at the time cannot be confirmed by independent, non-Muslim sources. If the place where the revelations did not exist, and if the circumstances surrounding them did not happen, then the Qur'an itself is, as Ibn Al-Rawandi puts it, "detached from any fixed place in space and time" - in other words, outside of history.

The Qur'an is the collection of holy scriptures of Islam. It is divided into 114 Suras (chapters) of unequal length. The earliest Meccan suras are shorter, and they grow longer as time goes on. The earliest are also more similar to the Jewish style of admonishing people to reform and warning them of coming judgment. All suras are supposed to represent material dictated to Muhammad from God through the angel Gabriel. The Qur'an is thus believed to be the direct Word of God and must be obeyed without question.

The word Qur'an means "recitation," representing the fact that it is a verbally revealed set of scriptures. Indeed, some of the suras include the command "Recite!" as Muhammad was ordered to repeat what was being delivered to him. Although there may not have been a lot of conscious interpretation of the Qur'an in the earliest days, that quickly changed, and certain orthodox standards for interpretation were created. One is that the Qur'an must be read and interpreted only in classical Arabic - technically, interpretations based on translations simply aren't valid.

A number of things are emphasized in the Qur'an, including strict monotheism, the duty of all believers to take care of those less fortunate, daily prayer, purification through fasting, and making a pilgrimage to Mecca. These five items make up the "Five Pillars" of Muslim faith.

But while the Qur'an is regarded as the Word of God, it is strangely evolutionary. Evidently, God wasn't interested in handing down a single instruction and leaving it at that - instead, God changed his instructions over time. A good example of this can be seen in the case of alcohol consumption.

Early on, the consumption of alcohol is evidently permitted and no restrictions are made on it. Later on, however, it was prohibited to be under the influence of alcohol when saying one's daily prayers (but not necessarily at other times). Still later, a more general principle was delivered: "They ask you about alcohol and gambling. Say: in these there is great harm and also profits for people but their harm far outweighs their profits." (II, 219) This isn't a prohibition, but more a negative recommendation. Finally, both are condemned as "works of the devil" and prohibited outright: "Intoxicants and gambling ...are an abomination, - of Satan's handwork: eschew such (abomination), that ye may prosper." (V, 90).

This shows that the Qur'an is concerned a great deal with how people live their lives. It is not just a matter of moral law, but a person's daily routine, too. Thus, we see both general principles and statements about specific issues of life. The above example also demonstrates that the Qur'an emerged as part of a slow, almost experimental legal method of tackling problems as they arose.

While Muhammad was alive, people supposedly wrote down what he said on all sorts of things, but at no point did he ever collect it all together and create an authoritative document. According to tradition, the only records were "on palm leaves and flat stones and in the hearts of men."

The job of creating a more comprehensive collection was left to Muhammad's successor, the first Caliph Abu Bakr, who ruled from 632 to 634. According to some traditions, he gave his consent to have the collection created because so many Muslims who had known the Koran by heart were killed during the Battle of Yamama that he feared the contents might end up being lost.

Yet it is worth noting that, even if such a collection was made, there is no evidence that it was treated as an authoritative edition. Copies were not made and passed around so that everyone would know what the "proper" words were. Instead, it was a single document that was treated as private property, passed along from one owner to the next as part of an inheritance.

Whatever we have today comes not from Bakr, but instead from the efforts of people during the time of the third Caliph, 'Uthman, who ruled from 644 to 656. It is also due to their work that the current order is based upon the length of the suras, rather than on chronology.

Apparently, disputes were breaking out at the time among Muslims as to what the "correct" readings of the Qur'an were supposed to be, and 'Uthman was asked to create a definitive edition in order to relieve tensions. Once it was completed, all other versions were ordered destroyed. Although there are problems with this story and valid criticisms, most scholars accept that the Qur'an currently in use was probably collected around this time.

Curiously, however, this conclusion depends upon taking certain early sources at face value and rejecting other, equally credible sources. There is evidently no good reason to accept the 'Uthman story and to reject the Bakr story, rather than vice-versa. It is also dependent upon assuming that both Muhammad and his immediate followers possessed amazing memories which never failed.

Even though Muslims today are committed to the very conservative position that we have the entire, uncorrupted Qur'an, earlier Muslims had a different view. For example, As-Suyuti (d. 1505), a famous and revered commentator, quotes Ibn 'Umar al Khattab as stating: "Let no one of you say that he has acquired the entire Quran, for how does he know that it is all? Much of the Quran has been lost, thus let him say, 'I have acquired of it what is available'" (As-Suyuti, Itqan, part 3, page 72).

Tradition also has it that A'isha, favorite wife of the Prophet, said that "During the time of the Prophet, the chapter of the Parties used to be two hundred verses when read. When 'Uthman edited the copies of the Quran, only the current (verses) were recorded." Even if this tradition is in error and it never happened, it is significant that people felt comfortable attributing such an opinion to her.

Despite the fact that 'Uthman ordered all variant texts to be destroyed, it is clear that others did survive and that many Muslims preferred some of these alternative texts. The first problem in establishing any single text as being authoritative is that these early works were "unpointed," which means for example that the dots which tell a reader which letter is a "b" rather than a "t" were missing. Another problem is that Arabic is a consonantal language - only the consonants are written, not the short vowels. And at this time, there were no extra marks added in to tell people which vowels to use.

The result was a variety of traditions which differed over just what the text said, even if they happened to use the exact same written letters. As late as the tenth century, scholars accepted a minimum of seven different systems of consonants and vowels. Today, that number has been cut down to two. But because of the long history of variation, it is impossible to be sure that we have the original text in either of them, even if we dismiss the possibility of anything be added or lost.

In part because there is no identifiably authoritative edition of a book so important as the Qur'an even as late as the ninth century, some scholars even go so far as to reject the idea that Islam had an Arabian origin. To support this, they argue that the Qur'an (and the Hadith) could only have grown out of a long period of sectarian controversy, and that references in the Qur'an to Christian and Jewish traditions presuppose an audience's familiarity with those stories. Considering the fact that for a long time a small Muslim minority ruled over large numbers of Christians, Jews and others, this idea isn't very far-fetched.

John Wansbrough is one of the original scholars to offer such arguments. He observers, for example, that no one ever attempted to derive law from the Qu'ran or compose legal or textual commentaries based on it until the ninth century - quite late, if the Qur'an already existed. If it were available and were regarded as the Word of God, why wasn't anyone basing their laws on it?

The earliest known Islamic creed, the Fiqh Akbar I from around 750, does not even mention the Qu'ran. Although these facts cannot prove that the Qur'an did not exist, they are very suggestive.

Muslims normally claim that the style and poetry of the Qur'an is such that it has no equal. Indeed, the fact that no one can immitate it is supposed to be part of the proof of its divine origin. Not everyone agrees, however. Gerd-R. Puin, a specialist in Arabic calligraphy and Koranic paleography based at Saarland University, has said:
The Koran claims for itself that it is 'mubeen,' or 'clear'. But if you look at it, you will notice that every fifth sentence or so simply doesn't make sense. Many Muslims - and Orientalists - will tell you otherwise, of course, but the fact is that a fifth of the Koranic text is just incomprehensible. This is what has caused the traditional anxiety regarding translation. If the Koran is not comprehensible - if it can't even be understood in Arabic - then it's not translatable. People fear that. And since the Koran claims repeatedly to be clear but obviously is not - as even speakers of Arabic will tell you - there is a contradiction. Something else must be going on.
Muslim tradition holds the nature and source of the Qur'an to be well established and well understood. But for something that is supposed to establish the center of Islamic belief and practice, it is remarkable just how little can be reasonably claimed about either its nature or its origin. Scholarship over the last few decades has undermined many of the traditional beliefs regarding the Qur'an, but unfortunately Muslims themselves have done little to confront this scholarship in order to either rebut it or incorporate it into their own, evolving religious beliefs.