Introduction to Islam (Part 2 of 5: Revelation)
In yesterday’s blog post I began a brief introduction to Islam. I focussed primarily on the founding of Islam and Muhammad.
Today I would like to look at the divine revelation which Islam claims to have received, which is found principally in the Qur’an/Koran.
As I said yesterday, I have done my best to ensure factual accuracy in all these posts and have used Islamic sources as much as possible to ensure that I’m not propagating Christian misconceptions of Islam. I did send this to some Muslim friends for comment, but I have yet to hear back. If you are a follower of Islam and believe that I have misrepresented your religion, please drop me an email and I will remedy the situation.
As mentioned in my previous post, the Qur’an (literally, “the recitation”) is a compilation of the messages given to Muhammad.
Christians and Muslims understand the concept of scripture differently. Christians describe the Bible, in the words of St. Paul, as being “God breathed” (theopneustos). As Dei Verbum explains:
“In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted” – Dei Verbum, Chapter 3
Muslims, on the other hand, view the Qur’an as the word of God in the most literal sense, believing that the text bears no imprint of the writer’s character whatsoever. Rather, they believe that the Qur’an is the literal word of God, dictated to Muhammad, written down verbatim.
The Qur’an is roughly the same length as the Christian New Testament, divided into 114 surahs (chapters), each chapter being composed of many ayat (verses). Each surah is arranged roughly in order of length. The chronologically early surahs deal primarily with spiritual topics and later ones generally consider the social issues within a Muslim community.
Whereas the Christian Bible contains many literary forms (history, wisdom, poetry, epistle etc.), there is no such diversity in the Qur’an, which basically has its own unique literary form, somewhere between prose and poetry. With the exception of surah 1, each surah is written as though it is God Himself who is speaking.
The entire Qur’an is written in Arabic and it is only considered to be perfect when it is left in this original language, as translations will inevitably be imperfect representations of the original.
Infinite respect is given to the Qur’an and it is treated as reverently as any Jew or Christian would treat his own scriptures, sometimes more so. No pious Muslim would ever consume food, smoke, or make noise while the Qur’an is being read aloud.
There was no complete set of collated and arranged documents at the time of Muhammad’s death. They were later compiled in the time of Abu Bakr, the first caliph (head of state), assembled from memory and from written records, some of which included text recorded on leaves and even camel shoulder-blades!
The oldest surviving fragments of Quranic manuscripts date from no earlier than the 8th Century, written in a Kufic script showing consonants only:
Thnk hw chllngng tht wld b t rd!
The third caliph, Uthman helped create an official standard by 656 AD and all other versions were ordered to be destroyed.
Where there is conflict between the different parts of the Qur’an, a simple rule is applied to determine which text to obey: the later verse abrogates the earlier one. The logic is that the earlier revelation dealt with an earlier stage of Muhammad’s mission but changing conditions demanded alteration. It is of great importance, therefore, to accurately determine which text is chronologically later.
When considering the teaching of the Qur’an, great respect is given to the Hadith (“narrative”). This is the record of Muhammad’s life and is somewhat similar to the concept of “Tradition” in Catholicism. Interestingly, Islam has its own version of Sola Scriptura believers, known as Quranists, who reject the Hadith.
Gospel of Barnabas
Another writing I’ve heard cited is the “Gospel of Barnabas”. Some Muslims suggest this to be the original gospel before the alleged corruption of the Christian scriptures. The gospel is effectively an Islamic version of a Christian New Testament gospel where Jesus’ divinity and crucifixion are denied, as they are in the Qur’an.
There is an immense body of Islamic law known as Shariah (“the path leading to the watering place”), detailing every aspect of both an individual Muslim’s life and the running of an Islamic state. This is drawn primarily from the Qur’an and the Sunnah (the living habits of Muhammad).
Under Shariah, punishments for crime are severe: limb amputation for theft, stoning for adultery and death for conversion to another faith. Women have many restrictions placed on them. Jews and Christians are treated as second-class citizens and have to pay jizyah, a special tax.
No country today really rules according to full Shariah law. However, many do contain sizable elements of it within their legislation. For example the death penalty for conversion is still allowed in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan.
Tomorrow, in Part 3, I would like to look at the specific beliefs of Islam.