The Qur'an

If Muhammad bin Abdullah was illiterate, then the Qur'an (means recitation) must surely be a work of miracle. The miracle isn't that he suddenly acquired the ability to write, but that he could remember it so perfectly to give it to others who, in many cases, remembered it themselves perfectly, or wrote it perfectly, to be assembled perfectly after Muhammad's death. The tradition is that he surrounded himself with scribes, so these revelations were recorded as well as remembered, as was his life.

If, though, he worked on the Suras to make them good for reciting, then he is far more able and cultured than Muslims will claim! There are identifiable sources (Jewish people, Christian people, local myths) which would require working on to produce the style of this (perhaps) one person.

This view is that the Qur'an has a history, consistent with any other writing, even one that was produced far more rapidly than the books of the New Testament. People who take this view within Islam are in danger of being branded apostates and taking the consequences.
Muhammad is also the last prophet. Of course there are faiths that have produced their own since, notably Sikh and Bahai. If culture and language change further, and there is still a belief in progressive revelation of a strong and direct kind, then it is arguable that there are other prophetic figures. Of course these can be handled as Christians handle the notion that there is yet more truth to emerge from God (as Christians understand Muhammad).
Another critical view in the West is that language is a barrier to knowing the purity of God. All religions end up being human constructs, even if they point to a reality beyond, because of the inadequacy of language. For Islam the perfect revelations were actually in Arabic, a language therefore deemed to be sufficient to carry the purity of revelation. Arabic is therefore a unique language, a divine language, and is the opposite of being a barrier to the knowledge of God and the role of his prophet. The language allows perfection, and so the Qur'an is learnt verbatim and recited in Arabic.
So when people speak of fundamentalist Islam, is it a misnomer. All Muslims are fundamentalists in a way that even Christian fundamentalists are not (because they pick and choose their literalism and are themselves inconsistent). What is meant is forms of fanaticism where the simplicity of the view of God, its God centred nature and striving for justice are turned into theocracy and a quest for power. This is a postmodern response to Western power now. It happens in the context of a background when imperial powers ran states in Islamic areas because the West reinvested and reinvented itself and Islam had become second best. Islamic fanaticism also attempts to replace the failure of nationalisms, socialism, and autocracy (sometimes supported by Western powers, the states themselves sometimes restricting religious freedom). Yet before the Western renaissance, and the slow stagnation of Muslim culture, Islam was confident, cultured and successful. There were three main Empire blocs, and one nearest the West in the Ottoman Empire was quite tolerant and multi-cultural, as had been its development. This is to be contrasted with Ataturk's Turkey which had imposed secularism and produced strains in a democratic Turkey that are unresolved and make it such a difficult candidate to join the European Union (and could seriously undermine its stability should it be inside).
One argument is that Islam will only return to confidence when it can accept the kind of scriptural criticism that is given to Christianity and Judaism, along with a revision of its history, or to accept the mythical nature of scriptures as in Hinduism and Buddhism, and other Eastern faiths (as well as the near Eastern which shaped the West). It also would involve a more relativist view of language including its own. It would still leave a highly intriguing and unified document. However, this seems impossible, and for Islam, at present, would be to accept change on another's terms. Thus Abu Zaid was branded an apostate in 1995, upheld by Egypt's highest court in 1996. That had consequences in being ordered to divorce and being prevented from marrying a Muslim. So he left with his (still) wife to the Netherlands.

The standard official story of producing the Qur'an follows on from the person of Muhammad bin Abdullah. Muslims will follow the mention of the name of prophet Muhammad with the words, "Peace be upon him" every time.

Allah is beautiful and loves beauty. Click for PGCE Qur'an presentation.

On a revelatory account Muhammad simply received God's pure message of beauty, and unity and applied it with inevitable success as, of course, the revelation of the Qur'an matches the human condition. On a more critical sociological and humanist reading, Muhammad desired to unify the Arabian tribes with the simple faith of the unity of God and human justice, to remove their differences, and with his expansionary success received justification as a unique messenger, and did so despite and through opposition and persecution.

He would seem to have been someone susceptible to hallucinations (whether these are regarded as real or illusory) and religious visions. He had to have a personality that intense enough to pursue his vision to the extent that he did in an all consuming manner with a highly practical and real outcome affecting increasing thousands.

This is an (officially compatible) brief account of his life:

The Qur'an if examined supports this chronology of Muhammad:

Muslims themselves do explain a process by which the memories and fragments became one identical book, and this is an explanation:

The question of how this history is given comes from the Qur'an and the life of Muhammad being explained and supported by other texts developed from the 750s to 950s:

These provide the understanding of the Qur'an itself and Muhammad's life.

The Qur'an itself has these characteristics:

All this has the strange consequence of binding the Qur'an into one!

It is possible, if not completely or perfectly, to identify the earlier, middle and later suras:

But these also suggest a human history:

Another suggestion to a human history is to question the view that the Qur'an was collected from its remembered and written pieces, but rather was developed:

The views above are those of John Wansbrough, once of University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies. He wrote Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation (1977) and The Sectarian Milieu: Content and Composition of Islamic Salvation History (1978).

These are minority views but fragments found in 1972, going back to the 600s and 700s, during the restoration of the Great Mosque of Sanaa in Yemen, suggest a variable text:

There are:

There was once a debate among Muslims as to whether the Qur'an was uncreated and eternal or created in time:

Christians and others looked at the Qur'an and from its confusing literary condition concluded that it was human in construction, not divine.

However, Muslims have themselves catalogued the variations and inconsistencies:

Therefore the nature of the writing as it stands allows two forms of recital:

Children learn the text off by heart and those who know this are called hafiz.

What is beyond argument is that the Qur'an is very strong in drawing on the same content as in the Bible:

The Qur'an adds some prophets of its own:

On a critical view ideas are from:

These seem to be Muhammad's sources (on a critical view):

This is what the Qur'an states:

Umm al-kitab, Mother of the Book: opening surah, Surah al-Fatiha, of seven verses summarised below. Click for PGCE Qur'an presentation.

The faith follows on from the Qur'an.

The new Muslim declares the Shahaadah:

There is no god except God
And Muhammad is His Messenger

This means that:

It follows from Tawheed that there are five Pillars of Islam:

As Salam alaykum (peace be upon you)


Sardar, Z., Malik, Z. A. (1999), Introducing Muhammad, Cambridge: Icon Books, previously Muhammad for Beginners (1994). This is a very well summarised standard orthodox view worth keeping but at some strain (thankfully) with the usual cartoonish appearance of the Introducing series, because, of course, Muhammad cannot be pictured by believers.

Lester, T. (1999), What is the Koran? The Atlantic Monthly; January 1999; Volume 283, No. 1; pages 43-56, The Atlantic Monthly Company, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: [Accessed again August 31, 2002, 02:00]This shows developments after the fragments were found in Yemen and studied in Germany.

Rodwell, J. M. (1909), The Koran: Translated from the Arabic, Everyman Library, London: J. M. Dent and Sons, especially the Preface, 1-18, and Introduction, by G. Margoliouth, vii-xi. This was very progressive for its day but very much a Christian imperial viewpoint and rearranges the Suras (but identifies all) for chronology (an impossible task as admitted)! It is also very English. It aims to be correct with something of the flavour of the original. I find this book increasingly useful even with a more "normal" Qur'an; I actually quite like the Introduction by G. Margoliouth, though not the use of "Muhammadan", which jars.

My own view is that Islam today has become misrepresented, though not simply by the West. It is a civilisation that in history has become corrupted (a kind of inferiority complex after the rise of Europe, imperialism, modernism and postmodernism/ the secular, and decline into non-democratic states) and its orthodoxy is rigid against critical approaches. My own view remains that God is a human creation, and so is the Qur'an, but it is still a book of impact both in its relatively rapid creation and in its effect. I think this is a slightly different approach from the Christian Rodwell, being more to do with education as critical enquiry, but also because it would be good to see a real revival in an open and confident Islam open to change. Reading the Qur'an by translation, I regard it and Muhammad as more interesting in a social and cultural context (from visionary faith in Makkah to regulatory faith in Madinah).I don't like its early basis in war, yet this is a faith which produced true civilisation and from which much can be learnt. In fact the West needs to learn a lot from aspects of Islamic social justice, and unless it does the West will be in trouble. I cannot accept the context which addresses men and does treat women as less equal, which is made worse by Islamic culture, a context which might be progressive for the time but which does not translate (and cannot because of the absolutism given to the text). Whilst Islam, as represented, is under a number of contemporary shadows, it is the West that is heading towards materialistic stupidity against which Islam has much to teach. Islam seems to me a clearer, less fussy faith than Christianity which has so many doctrinal qualifications that are under huge strain today and where there is so much revisionist and qualifying theology. Whilst I don't understand the view against art, Islamic caligraphy is artistic and beautiful (thus why I reproduced two). To me, the caligraphy suggests what the faith is about more than many of the texts.

Adrian Worsfold