The Qur’an speaks of itself as “guidance to the people,” which was sent to humankind to confirm the veracity of the Torah and the Gospel (Q 3:3-4 and 84; see also 2:87, 5:43-44, 48, and 61:6). It was revealed to Muhammad over some twenty-two years of his prophetic ministry, hence the Qur’an’s other common name: the “sending down” or “revelation.” The content of the Qur’an is not static; it reflects not only the dynamic character of the Prophet’s relationship with his Lord, but also the changing conditions and exigencies of the Muslim community under his leadership. Muhammad communicated his revelations to his followers, some of whom probably served as his secretaries. They seem to have committed the text of Muhammad’s revelations to writing already during his lifetime. 1 There is no reason to doubt, however, that initially Qur’anic revelations circulated primarily in an oral form. Verses of the Qur’an were memorized by some members of the first Muslim community and recited on such occasions as the five daily prayers, supplications, public sermons, births, funerals, and so on. It has been argued that many of them exhibit the structure of a sermon with a number of distinctive thematic clusters meant for an oral annunciation and aural reception for listeners. These clusters were identified as eschatological prophesies, references to divine signs manifested in nature and history, narratives of salvation history, debates with skeptics and rejecters, and discussions of contemporary events. 2 We should therefore bear in mind that the ways in which the Qur’an was received and appreciated by its followers during the first decades of Islam are quite distinct from its reception by the modern reader, for whom it is first and foremost a book. 3
The overwhelming majority of Muslims believe the Qur’an to be God’s literal and unmediated word. This belief constitutes part of the Muslim creed. The prophet Muhammad was a messenger whom God had selected for delivery of his message to humankind. God communicated his word to Muhammad either directly in a waking state or sleep or, more commonly, via an intermediary, the angel Gabriel (Jibril). For the first Muslims of Mecca and Medina, as for the believers ever since, the Qur’an, revealed to the Arabs via the prophet Muhammad, was a means of accessing and worshipping God. This being the case, the Qur’an is absolutely central to Muslim devotional, intellectual, and cultural life that is virtually permeated and animated by the spirit and letter of the divine word. One can safely argue that the Qur’an constitutes the very foundation of Islamic identity and the singular focus of Muslim devotional life.