The Qur’an is a continuation of the previous divine Messages that Allah sent to people via His Messengers throughout history. It is the grand finale of those divine Messages. To the polytheistic Arabs of Mecca, nevertheless, Islam was a new religion. We will look in more detail at the message of the Qur’an in the next section.
The Qur’an consists of 114 chapters, and each chapter consists of a number of verses.3 Chapter 2, which is the longest chapter, contains 286 verses, whereas chapters 103, 108, and 110 consist of only 3 verses each. The Qur’an contains 6236 verses in total.
Out of the 114 chapters, 86 were revealed in the twelve years that the Prophet lived in Mecca after the revelation. The other 28 chapters were revealed in al-Madina. These Madinite chapters include some of the longest chapters of the Qur’an. This is why although they represent about 25% of the Qur’anic chapters, the Madinite chapters make up about 40% of the Qur’an. A number of those latter chapters contain detailed information on legal issues and answer various questions that were continually rising as a distinct Muslim community was emerging.
The overwhelming majority of scholars consider the following verses the first that were revealed to the Prophet:
Read [O Muhammad!] in the name of your Lord who created (96.1). He created man from a clot (96.2). Read, and your Lord is the Most Honorable (96.3). Who taught with the pen (96.4). Taught man what he knew not (96.5).
Scholars are in far less agreement on which verses were revealed last. This is one verse that is considered likely to have been the last that was received by the Messenger:
And guard yourselves against a day in which you shall be returned to Allah; then every soul shall be paid back in full what it has earned, and they [the souls] will not be wronged (2.281).
Note that the verses that were revealed first belong to chapter number 96 rather than 1. Similarly, the last verse that the Prophet received is not from chapter number 114. The reason for this is that chapters are not compiled in the Qur’an in the chronological sequence of their revelation. Therefore, chapter 1 in the compiled Qur’an is not the chapter that was revealed first, and chapter 114 is not the one that was revealed last.
Additionally, it is not uncommon to find that the verses within a chapter are not all arranged in the chronological order of their revelation. For instance, several Meccan chapters contain a mixture of Madinite and Meccan verses.
These particular arrangements of the chapters and of the verses within each chapter in the compiled Qur’an are considered as a genuine part of the structure of the Qur’an. In other words, the verses and the chapters were arranged in this way by Prophet Muhammad as he was taught by Allah.
The verses of any one chapter, apart from shorter chapters, usually address a number of different issues. Accordingly, successive verses do not necessarily talk about the same subject.
Those who are familiar with the style of the Bible get surprised, and even baffled, when they read a translation of the Qur’an. Unlike the Bible, the Qur’an is not a book on history. Although it contains historical stories about good and evil individuals and nations that lived before the time of Prophet Muhammad, it has a unique style even in relating history. The Qur’an is not interested in pure history, but rather in the educational dimensions of historical events. Historical accounts are mentioned in order to highlight their didactic lessons. For instance, it is not uncommon for the Qur’an to talk about historical characters without naming them. One example is found in the story of Prophet Joseph, where Joseph’s brothers are referred to throughout, but never with their names.
The Qur’an’s unique style reflects the fact that it is the words of Allah to His Messenger Muhammad. Note for instance this verse:
They [the believers] ask you [O Muhammad!] as to how they should spend [for charity]. Say: “Whatever wealth you spend, it is for the parents, the near of kin, the orphans, the needy, and the wayfarer. And whatever good you do, Allah surely knows it” (2.215).
Rather than containing only instructions from Allah on how people should spend their money for charity, this verse is an exact copy of the words that Allah revealed to Muhammad in this respect. The words were not edited by the Prophet to include only the ultimate message that Allah wanted to reach people, but he delivered them in their entirety and exactly as he received them.
There are also verses which represent words that addressed personal matters of the Prophet, although of course they convey useful lessons to people in general. For example, this short chapter which was revealed to the Prophet at a difficult time reminded him of Allah’s favors to him and gave him support and patience:
I swear by the early hours of the day (93.1). And the night when it covers with darkness (93.2). That your Lord has not forsaken you, nor has He become displeased [with you] (93.3). And surely the hereafter is better for you than the first life (93.4). And your Lord will give you so that you shall be well pleased (93.5). Did He not find you an orphan and give you shelter? (93.6). And did He not find you wandering and guide you? (93.7). And did He not find you in need and make you independent? (93.8). Therefore, as for the orphan, do not oppress him (93.9). And as for the beggar, do not chide him (93.10). And as for the favor of your Lord, do speak about it (93.11).
The Qur’an was revealed in an environment that produced poets who had impressive mastery of Arabic and authored magnificent poetry. The Arabs were fond of poetry and honored it to the extent that they hung seven particularly impressive poems on the walls of the sacred Ka’ba. They also used poetry to ridicule their enemies and glorify themselves. A war between two tribes that lasts a few hours or a day may be followed by a war of words that may last for years. Winning or losing this less bloody war was seen almost equally significant.
Even those Arabs were completely overwhelmed and intrigued by the majestic power and beauty of the Qur’anic text. The Qur’an was and is still considered an unparalleled piece of Arabic text. It can only be described as a linguistic miracle. In fact, the Qur’an itself challenged the Arabs who questioned its divine origin to produce any text of similar quality:
And this Qur’an is not such that could be forged by those besides Allah [who revealed it], but it is a confirmation of the Book that was revealed before it and an exposition of It, there is no doubt about that, from the Lord of the people (10.37). Or do they [the disbelievers] say: “He [Muhammad] has forged it”? Say [O Muhammad!]: “Then come up with a chapter like it and call [for help] whom you can besides Allah, if you were truthful” (10.38).
And if you [O People!] are in doubt as to that which We have revealed to Our servant [Muhammad], then come up with a chapter like it and call [for help] your witnesses besides Allah, if you were truthful (2.23). But if you do not do it, and surely you shall never do it, then guard yourselves against the Fire whose fuel is people and stones; it is prepared for the disbelievers (2.24).
One aspect of the uniqueness of the Qur’anic text is that it did not change over time. This is the view of the overwhelming majority of scholars, both Muslim and non-Muslim. The Qur’an itself proclaims that it is protected by Allah against any attempt to tamper with it:
Verily, it is We who revealed the Remembrance [the Qur’an], and verily, We are its Guardian (15.9).
Verse 41.42 stresses that the Qur’an will remain protected against any form of falsehood at all time:
Surely those who disbelieved in the Remembrance [the Qur’an] when it came to them [were wrong]; surely it is an impregnable Book (41.41). Falsehood cannot come to it from anywhere; [it is] a revelation from One who is Wise and Praised (41.42).
Simply put, the Qur’an that we read today is the same Book that was revealed to Prophet Muhammad about 14 centuries ago. This is in contrast to the Old and New Testaments which, though slightly influenced by previous divine Books, have been written and edited by humans.5
It is important to emphasize that this unique attribute of the Qur’an doesn’t apply to any other Islamic text. Even the highly regarded compilations of sayings of Prophet Muhammad contain many entries whose authenticity has always been the subject of disagreement among scholars. Although several different doctrines have evolved within Islam, the authenticity of the Qur’an is a universally accepted fact.
1 Fay Weldon, Sacred Cows: A Portrait of Britain, Post Rushdie, Pre-Utopia (London: Chatto CounterBlasts Chatto & Windus, 1989), pp. 6, 12.
2 Pat Robertson, Hannity & Colmes, Fox News Channel, September 18 2002. Robertson described Prophet Muhammad as “an absolute wild-eyed fanatic. He was a robber and a brigand. And to say that these terrorists distort Islam, they’re carrying out Islam.” Robertson also described Islam as “a monumental scam” and said “to think that this is a peaceful religion is fraudulent.” He called Prophet Muhammad “a killer.”
3 The Qur’anic terms that I have translated as “verse” and “chapter” are “aya” (plural: “ayat”) and “sura” (plural: “suwar”), respectively.
4 The Qur’an states that Allah revealed to Moses a Book called the “Tawrat” (Torah) and to Jesus a Book called the “Injil.” Other Prophets who were given Scripture include Abraham and David.
5 The Qur’an states in several verses that people tampered with divine Books that Allah revealed to previous Prophets:
Woe, then, to those who write the book with their hands and then say “This is from Allah” to get a small price for it; therefore, woe to them for what their hands have written, and woe to them for what they earn (2.79).
This 14-century old Qur’anic testimony is shared today by the overwhelming majority of scholars of the Old and New Testaments who accept that the versions of these books that we have today are the product of editorial processes that happened over centuries and involved many people. I have given elsewhere a more detailed discussion of the Qur’anic perspective and modern scholarship on this issue: Louay Fatoohi and Shetha Al-Dargazelli, History Testifies to the Infallibility of the Qur’an: Early History of the Children of Israel (Malaysia: A. S. Noordeen, 1999).