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Sacred Texts

KoranThe Koran And Previous Scriptures, History Of The Koranic Text, Themes And Styles, Controversy Over Whether The Koran Was Created

The English word Koran comes from the Arabic qur'an, most likely meaning "recitation" or "reading," although some Muslim commentators consider it simply the name of the scripture, while some others trace its etymology to a verb that means "to collect." The word qur'an is probably related to the Syriac word qaryānā, which in pre-Islamic Christian usage meant a reading or a recitation from memory in the context of worship and prayer. The Koran is accepted by Muslims as the corpus of revelations given through Muhammad in the Arabian towns of Mecca and Medina between 610 C.E. and his death in 632 C.E. It is the revelations themselves that proclaim the Prophet's authority. At the same time, the revelations are accepted on the basis of his testimony.

The traditional biography of Muhammad portrays the first encounter of this forty-year-old merchant with God's messenger Gabriel in a mountain cave as a terrifying experience. He is commanded to recite, yet does not know how or what to recite. Indeed, for Muslims the illiteracy, or at least lack of education, on the part of the Prophet is a guarantee that the revelations were not composed by him, but have a divine origin. Over the ensuing twenty-two years, Gabriel teaches him the revelations that will eventually become the text at the heart of Muslim life and faith. It came initially not as a completed text but piecemeal, as the voice of God addressing the Prophet and his hearers according to the actual situation in which they found themselves.

Although it is common to think of the Koran as an elaborately calligraphed text, and in spite of the fact that it refers to itself as scripture (kitab), the name qur'an underlines in several senses the centrality of its oral character. It comes to the Prophet orally, dictated by the angel, who assures that it is committed to memory. It is delivered to the people orally as it is revealed piece by piece. Even after the text was transcribed on the basis of oral testimony and given standardized form probably some twenty years after the death of the Prophet, it continued to live principally in oral form, memorized and recited by the community. The oral tradition rather than ancient manuscripts formed the basis of the standard edition made in Egypt in 1924.

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