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J. Kashi

History of the Quran

The Quran (often transliterated in English as ‘the Koran’) is the sacred book of Islam. For Muslims it is the word of God, revealed in Arabic by the archangel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad and from him to mankind. Muhammad lived in the Hijaz region in western Arabia from about 570 to 632 AD.


Muhammad was born about 570 AD, a member of the Quraysh tribe that had taken control of Mecca and settled there several generations previously. His father, Abdallah, died before he was born and his mother, Amina, when he was six; and that after her death he was looked after by his grandfather Abd al-Muttalib and then by his uncle Abu Talib, father of Imam Ali. Muhammad later engaged in trade and travelling to Syria both before and after his marriage. Tradition has it that about 595 AD he married Khadija, a rich woman some years older than himself and that they had several children. Only one of these, his daughter Fatima, was to survive him. Later his cousin Imam Ali and Fatima would marry and he would have two grandsons by the name Hasan and Husayn.

Around 610 AD, Muhammad had been visited by the archangel Gabriel (Jibril in Arabic) and had been ordered to preach God’s message to mankind. After a brief, when there was no further visitation, he had another revelation. From that time onwards Muhammad knew he was the Messenger of God. For a couple of years or so he preached in private to family and friends, converting the majority of them to the new religion. Then in 613 AD he began to preach in public. The response of the majority of Meccans, including his own tribe Quraysh, was hostile and was to remain so.

Muhammad was struggeling in the community but continued to win over converts, even while they were few in number, on average no more than a small handful a month; and only occasionally did they include a prominent member of Quraysh. In 618 AD the situation became even more difficult. First his wife Khadija died, shortly to be followed by Abu Talib, his uncle, former guardian and head of the family. Abu Talib’s successor as head of the family was another of Muhammad’s uncles, Abd al-Uzza (Abu Lahab), who happened to be one of his most implacable opponents.

Muhammad began to consider relocating the new community formed by the believers. After lengthy negotiations with different tribes, the whole Muslim community - something over two hundred followed - migration to the city of Yathrib (later known as Medina), with Muhammad himself finally arriving there in September 622 AD. The emigration to Medina was the decisive step in the struggle to establish the new religion, and as such it was chosen to mark the beginning of the Muslim era.

Over the next years Muslims and the Meccans were to clash on multiple occasions, both directly and indirectly. Both sides tried to consolidate, with the Muslims apparently being more successful despite some initial setbacks. The Muslim community was by now growing much faster in numbers. Towards the end of 629 AD an incident took place that led to the Meccans breaking the truce. Thereupon Muhammad assembled a large expedition and set out to deal with the Meccans once and for all. In the end, there was a negotiated surrender of the city in early January 630 AD.

After his return to Medina, Muhammad left the city only once more. That was in March 632 AD, when he journeyed to Mecca to perform the Pilgrimage. In June of that year, after a short illness he died.


For Muslims the Quran was originally delivered orally. The sources shows that Muhammad recited his message, he himself never made use of written sheets. There is evidence that he dictated the whole of the Quran to chosen scribes that wrote the whole Quran on written material. Though the Quran was originally delivered orally, in some quite early passages it refers to itself as ‘the Scripture’. In the terms of the Quran itself, the recitation par excellence, Muhammad delivered sermons, exhortations, guidance, warnings and news of encouragement for the believers.

Muslim sources relate that in the lifetime of the Prophet, the whole of the Quran was collected together in a single document but was also partly preserved on sheets of parchment, the ribs and shoulder blades of animals, the stalks of palms, and above all memorized in the hearts of men.

Following the Wars of Apostasy in 11/633 a standard collection of the Quran was sanctioned by the second historical caliph Abū Bakr, but it was the third historical caliph, ‘Uthmān ibn ‘Affān (r. 23–35/644–656) who is formally credited with having commissioned an official collection of the Quran. This version was imposed as the standard codex (muṣḥaf) throughout the territories of the state. It was in these regions that traditions of reciting and preserving the sacred text had been established by the Companions who settled there.

Some tradition states that differences and disagreements regarding the recitation of the Quran led to ‘Uthmān’s intervention. He appointed an editorial committee that was led by a scribe of the Prophet, Zayd ibn Ṭābit (d. 32/652–653). An official codex comprising the skeletal text of the Quran was produced, and four recensions of this master copy were sent to major cities and garrison towns, including Mecca, Kufa, Basra, and Damascus; a further copy was retained in Medina. None of these original codices has survived, although genres of writing devoted to collating the orthographical features of indigenous codices do refer to instances of their being used as prototypes for the transcription of further copies.

In the form in which the Quran as a scripture has come down to us today, the Quran is divided into 114 chapters of very unequal length, called surahs. The term surah comes from the Quran itself. The surahs are the working units of the revelation. They are largely composite. All but one begin with the formula ‘In the name of God, the Merciful and Compassionate;’ and in 29 surahs this formula is followed by a group of letters of the Arabic alphabet, whose function is unknown but which seem to be of mystical importance.

The Quran is originally intended to be recited aloud and is highly rhetorical in nature. Recitation frequently gives the text a dimension that does not come across in silent reading, showing up lines of thought that do not stand out clearly when one is perusing the text. This is the biggest problem for any translation of the Quran. Translators usually tackle this problem by adding to their translations bridging phrases that they normally draw from the numerous, and lengthy, commentaries on the Quran that have been written over the centuries in Arabic.