If all the trees of the earth were pens, and the seas, replenished by seven more seas, were ink, the words of God could not be finished still. Quran, 31:27
Muslims believe that Islam’s principal holy book, the Quran (“Recitation,” sometimes spelled Koran in English) is an Arabic transcription of a heavenly form or archetype. Referring to it as the “eternal book,” “imperishable tablet,” or “Mother of the Book,” they believe that God unveiled this great book through the Angel Gabriel to various prophets on earth whenever needed to guide humanity. The books sent earlier are considered to be superseded by the Quran, whose purpose is to correct the human imperfections that crept into previous books, such as the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament. Muslims respect those other revealed books as legitimate, but believe that the Quran is the final, perfect transmission of the one heavenly book.
Unlike Jewish and Christian Scriptures, which are largely narrative or doctrinal with only occasional quotations from Yahweh or Jesus, the Quran presents itself entirely as the direct words of God, sometimes speaking in the first person (both singular and plural), sometimes in the third, occasionally changing from one to the other in sequential phrases or sentences.
Relatively short (around 400 pages in English translation, a little less than the New Testament), the Quran consists of 114 suras, or chapters, arranged in order of their length rather than in chronological order of transmission. Following the short introductory prayer called al-Fatihah (“the Opening”) comes the longest sura, with 285 verses; the shortest suras, with three to six verses, come at the end. Suras are composed of verses called ayats. The Quran contains two of the key prayers of Islam, the al-Fatihah and the Surat al-Ikhlas (“Chapter of Sincerity”), the short 113th sura: “Say: God is One, the Eternal God. He begets none, nor is begotten, and none is like Him.” Many of the accounts contained in this scripture should be familiar to anyone conversant with the Bible, e.g., the annunciation of the angel to Mary, informing her that she will bear a child without “knowing” a man (19:16-21). The Arabic Quran also contains the 99 principal names of Allah, most of them describing compassionate qualities, such as the Patient (Sabur), the Loving (Wadud), the Wise (Hakim), the Truth (Haqq), the Light (Nur), the Forgiver (Ghaffar), and most frequently, the Compassionate (Rahman) and the Merciful (Rahim).
Over a period of about 22 years, beginning around 610, the Quran was revealed to Muhammad. The earlier revelations were received in trance states that caused the Prophet to groan, cry out, and shiver so intensely that he often covered himself with a cloak, and they were frequently accompanied by headaches and severe muscular tension. Later he became more accustomed to these states of deep absorption. His companions committed all of the revelations to memory, and they were eventually written down on whatever was available, including leaves, shards of pottery, and, according to tradition, the shoulder-blades of camels. By the time the Prophet had moved from Mecca to Medina, he was dictating to secretaries, the most prominent of whom was Zayd ibn Tabit.
After Muhammad’s death, Abu Bakr put Zayd in charge of collating the written suras with versions that had been memorized by several of his followers, but his compilation often ignored the order in which they were received. The Caliph Uthman (644-55), a direct companion of the Prophet and his third successor, had a definitive text compiled from copies left with one of Muhammad’s widows, Hafsah, and destroyed all the rest. The span of decades and centuries between the revelations of many previous religious founders and their committal to writing was thereby largely avoided in Islam, although some scholars think that certain suras were deleted or altered to serve the purposes of the early caliphs. For example, the Quran’s most critical attacks on the Umayyad clans may have been expunged on orders from Uthman, himself an Umayyad. By ordering the destruction of all variant copies of the text, Uthman insured that only his version remains today, although we have no reason to believe that anything essenti l was left out.
The other major source of Islamic teaching, hadith (“narrative” or “report”), consists of the sayings of Muhammad and his Companions passed down and collected in the centuries immediately following his death. It began as an oral tradition that the Prophet during his lifetime was careful to distinguish from the revealed teachings of the Quran. (A parallel exists in Hinduism between shruti, “that which is revealed,” and smriti, “that which is heard.”) Six major collections of hadith were eventually compiled by a number of hands during the first 300 years after Muhammad’s death, and not all of the sayings are considered to be of equal authenticity. Since so much time elapsed before they were written down, there was room for invention and distortion, a problem recognized by early Muslim scholars. And so no absolutely canonical edition exists, although there is significant agreement about the major collections of hadith. The most important is by Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari (810-70), which is divided by topic into 97 volumes containing 7,300 individual items. Later collections also exist, especially those created by Shi’ite Muslims tracing hadith derived from the Prophet’s son-in-law and third caliph, Ali, and his supporters.
The hadith are based on isnads, or chains of authorities; each hadith generally begins with an attestation such as, “Abdallah ibn Jafar records that he heard Ali ibn Abu Talib say that he heard the Prophet remark, ‘The best of women [in the world] was Mary. The best of women [of this people] was Khadija.'” Some isnads are considerably longer, linking eight or ten names. Hadiths not only fill in many details of the Prophet’s life, but further interpretations were also made of the law stated in the Quran. Their application to the problems of everyday life gives hadith the same practical orientation that the Talmud bears in relation to the Hebrew Bible. For instance, one hadith has Muhammad telling the story of a woman who was cruel to a cat, shutting it in so that it died of hunger, and who was subsequently sent to hell. In another, he tells of a man who saw a dog panting with thirst near a well from which he himself had just drunk. The man climbed down the well and filled his shoe with water, “and taking it in his teeth, he climbed out of the well and gave the water to the dog. God was pleased with this act and granted him pardon (for his sins).” These hadiths are used to support kindness to animals, although there are no specific revelations in the Quran concerning it.
Hadith is not necessarily binding; despite the fact that one hadith has the Prophet saying, “the virgin cannot be given in marriage until her consent has been asked,” the right of jabr, or the arranged marriage of minors without their consent, has long been practiced among certain Muslims. Taken as a group, however, hadith along with the Quran form the basis of the sunna — the way of life of the Prophet which Muslims take as their model or code of Muslim orthodoxy.
The third source of spiritual guidance for Muslims is sira, biography of Muhammad in chronological form. Siras are only somewhat reliable because of a large gap between the death of Muhammad and their composition. The earliest extant and the best is the Sirat-ar-Rasul (“Life of the Prophet”) by Ibn Hisham (d. 834), which summarizes an earlier lost work by Ibn Ishaq.