The Qur'an and Qur'anic Interpretation (tafsir)

Table of Contents

The Qur'an: Introduction, including a glossary of terms used in the Qur'anic sciences.
The History of the Compilation of the Qur'an
Critique of the Prevailing View of the Qur'an's Compilation and Rebuttal
Searchable Translations and Indices of the Qur'an
Online Recitations of the Qur'an, including the science of Qur'anic recitation (tajwid)
Free Qur'ans in Print
Tafsir, commentary on the Qur'an
Downloadable Arabic Research Library

Qur'an: Introduction

Muslims believe that the Qur'an consists of the word of God revealed in Arabic by God to the Prophet Muhammad over a twenty-two year period. He received the first revelation in the year 610 CE while engaging in a contemplative retreat in the Cave of Hira located on the Mountain of Light (Jabal al-nur)(also known as Mt. Hira), which is in the outskirts of Mecca. The Qur'an is distinct from hadith, which are the sayings of Muhammad. It is agreed that Muhammad clearly distinguished between his own utterances (hadith) and God's words, the Qur'an. Muslims and most Western scholars of Islam believe that the Arabic Qur'an that exists today contains substantially the same Arabic that was transmitted by Muhammad. This often surprises scholars of the Bible, Judaism, and Christianity who (I have observed) assume that the Qur'an has substantially evolved over time (which is what scholars of the Bible --but not many believing Christians or Orthodox Jews-- generally agree on concerning the Bible). In other words, while scholars of the Bible in the West have largely succeeded in convincing the community of scholars that the Bible we have today was not the very same "Word of God" that was revealed through the prophets and which was spoken by Jesus, scholars of Islam have generally not come to similar conclusions about the Qur'an. This is not to say that the text of the Qur'an is written just as it was written during the time of Muhammad. On the contrary, it is a historical fact, accepted by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, that the writing of the text (but not the text itself) of the Qur'an has substantially evolved. One such major evolutionary difference is that originally the text was written without diacritical points--which distinguish some letters from others-- but early in the history of the writing of Qur'an, diacritical points were added. The upshot of this is the vast majority of Muslims rest assured that they are reading the exact words of revelation received by Muhammad (even though the manner of writing those words has indeed changed over time). Since Muslims believe that words themselves are those revealed by God, the act of reciting or reading the Qur'an is believed to be a means of receiving blessings (baraka) from God. Hence it is not uncommon that Muslims will learn how to read Arabic and the Qur'an without understanding it. Also, even those who cannot read the Arabic letters of the Qur'an believe that they can nevertheless benefit from hearing the evocative quality and blessedness of the original Arabic.

An excellent introduction to the Qur'an is the article titled The Koran, by Professors Sachiko Murata and William C. Chittick of State University of New York, Stonybrook. This is an excerpt from their book Vision of Islam (Amazon.com) which is largely based on the Qur'an itself. This article will help readers to understand and get beyond certain problems inherent in any translation of the Qur'an.

Glossary of the Terms Used in the Qur'anic Sciences in both Arabic and English. This is an excellent teaching tool for students.

The History of the Compilation of the Qur'an

Three hadith in the Sahih(certified collection) of Bukhari that address the issue of the compilation of the Qur'an are listed on the page titled Bukhari on the Collection of the Qur'an The traditional Muslim understanding of the history of the Qur'an is found at the History of Qur'an Site (offline Oct. 18, 2003) and The Preservation and Transmission of Qur'an (link fixed, Sept. 4, 2000). The major events in traditional accounts of the process that lead up to the production of the Qur'an as we know it are noted at the site A brief History of the Compilation of the Qur'an. For a detailed recounting of the traditional Muslim view of the early transmission of the Qur'an see Transmission of the Qur'anic Revelation, which is chapter two in Ahmad von Denffer's book 'Ulum al-Qur'an. See also chapter three in the same work, The Qur'an in Manuscript and Print, for a discussion of early Qur'an manuscripts. A recent online article that discusses early Qur'an manuscripts and includes numerous images of these is titled The Qur'an Manuscripts and was compiled by the Muslim scholars of Islamic-Awareness.Org, which is a website designed to educate Muslims about the issues often raised by Christian missionaries.

Critique of the Prevailing View of the Compilation of the Qur'an and the Rebuttal

A minority of Western scholars (often called orientalists) assert that Muslim accounts of the compilation of the Qur'an are pious fictions and that the Qur'an substantially evolved after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE. This viewpoint is presented in a recent article (on-line and in print) written for a popular audience in Atlantic Monthly, What is the Koran? (Link fixed February 7, 1999) Nevertheless, concerning the completeness of the Qur'an and the final arrangement of the surahs (chapters), it must be stressed --as Professor A. Jones of Oxford asserts-- that "the varying views of orientalists [on the the completeness and order of the Qur'an] are a mixture of prejudice and speculation" and consequently have not been generally accepted as being true (Cambridge History of Arabic Literature: Arabic Literature to the End of the Umayyad Period p. 240). For a rebuttal of the Atlantic Monthlyarticle's main contentions see a A Response to the article "What is the Koran?" written by a Jeffrey Lang, a Muslim professor of Mathematics at the University of Kansas. (Fixed 2 December 1999 and offline on Nov. 28, 2001) In addition, see the critique written by Azizah al-Hibri, professor of Law at the University of Richmond. (Fixed 2 December 1999 and 24 November 2001.) And note as well, the comments on the Atlantic Monthly article derived from a statement by Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr, (link fixed 24 November 2001) a highly esteemed scholar of Islam and religion in general.

A wide variety of criticisms of Muslim beliefs in the Qur'an are explained and refuted in a generally scholarly manner at the many pages of the site Issues Concerning the Qur'an. See especially the subpages Textual Integrity of the Qur'an and The Sources of the Qur'an.

  • Forgotten Witness: Evidence For The Early Codification Of The Qur'ân by the scholar Estelle Whelan in the highly regarded Journal of the American Oriental Society, 1998, Volume 118, pp. 1-14. In this article, evidence is highlighted that refutes some of John Wansbrough's assertions that the Qur'an was codified centuries after the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad

    Qur'an: Searchable Translations and Indices

    Translations--however inspired they may be--are only shadows of the original. They should always be read with a healthy dose of skepticism concerning the degree to which they reflect the original. The gulf between the original and the translation is an important reason why Muslims must recite the Qur'an only in Arabic for the required daily prayers. A translation of the Qur'an is not the Qur'an; it is simply one person's interpretation of the Qur'an. To a limited extent, however, translations can shed light on the meaning of the Qur'an.

    By comparing a few Qur'an translations verse by verse, one can often get a fuller sense of the Arabic original. The following Translations of the Qur'an site uses side by side translations of Pickthall, Yusuf Ali, and Shakir. You can search these Qur'an translations as well.

    Qur'an Translation Search Engine Developed at Brown University, this can search the Pickthall, Yusufali, Shakir, and Sher Ali translations of the Qur'an. This engine is more powerful than the previous engines, but in order to see all of the translations side by side, first search for a word, phrase, or particular verse in one of the translations (eg. Pickthall, which is the default). Then click on one of results in the "passage list" and beneath the full passage, among the various options click on "all."

    The M. H. Shakir translation can be searched by this powerful search engine at the University of Michigan. It can perform three types of searches: a simple search for a word or phrase throughout the Qur'an; a search for two or three words or phrases in close proximity to one another; a Boolean search for the occurence of two or three words in any verse. One of the virtues of this engine is that the results are displayed in the context of the aya (s) in which the word or words are found.

    The Message of the Qur'an by Muhammad Asad is an excellent translation and commentary on the Qur'an. His commentary is drawn largely from traditional and 19th century commentaries.

    Subject Index of the Qur'an (fixed October 20, 2003) This subject index is hyperlinked with the Qur'an, so that after choosing a particular subject, the reader can simply click on the various Qur'anic verse (ayah)numbers, which will then lead to the text of that verse in which the chosen subject is found.

    Introductions to Each Qur'anic Sura, by Mawdudi

    Online Qur'anic Recitations

    The Qur'an: Arabic text and recitation The recitation is by Shaykh Khalil al-Husari (one of the finest Qur'an reciters) and is considered to be ideal for learning the proper pronunciation of the Qur'an. Real Audio is needed in order to hear this. If you do not have it, you can download it for free by clicking on this Real Audio link. (Changed to free audio links Sept. 24, 2003.)

    The Qur'an: Arabic recitation by Shaykh al-Minshawi (one of the finest Qur'an reciters). (Changed to free audio link, Sept. 24, 2003.)

    Hear the entirety of the Qur'an, sura by sura (chapter by chapter), recited by different reciters. You will need Real Audio 3.0 for this. (Offline, Sept. 3, 2000.)

    Surat al-Fatiha, the opening surah of the Qur'an, is recited here by Shaykh Khalil al-Husari. (Real Audio)

    Rules for Reciting the Arabic Text of the Qur'an Qur'anic recitation (tajwid) is regarded as one the Qur'anic sciences. Some of these rules are indicated in the Arabic text of the Qur'an by means of Arabic abbreviations. The article here discusses such abbreviations as well as the other rules, providing clear examples to illustrate the rules.

    Free Qur'ans

    A Free Qur'an can be obtained from the Islamic Affairs Division of the Saudi Arabian embassy. In the box that says select the requested items, click on and hold down the arrowhead on the right and choose Qur'an -- With English translation: Yousef Ali.

    Free Qur'an either send Free Qur'an.org your address by email or simply call toll free 1-800-747-8726 (1-800-74QURAN).

    A Free Qur'an is offered as a service at this website.

    Obtain A Free Qu'ran The Online Islamic Bookstore offers free Qur'ans to any interested non-Muslim who is willing to pay the $3.00 shipping cost. (No longer offered, Oct. 26, 2002.)

    Tafsir

    Muslims regard the most reliable Qur'anic commentary as being contained in the Qur'an itself. In other words, the ways in which certain ayat clarify other ayat are regarded as being the most significant form of commentary. A second form of Qur'anic commentary is how the Prophet interpreted the Qur'an. And his comments on the Qur'an (as well as everything he ever said or did) are recorded in the hadith collections. After these two forms of commentary, knowledgeable companions and later generations of pious and learned Muslims expressed their view of the meaning of various ayat. It was on this foundation that the science of Qur'anic commentary was built.
  • Foundations of the Science of Qur'an Interpretation (tafsir) written by Shaykh Muhammad Zakariya Kandhalvi. (Link fixed, Sept. 3, 2000)

  • 'Ulum al-Qur'an: An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur'an Written by the Muslim scholar, Ahmad Von Denffer, this on-line version of the first six chapters of his book expresses a Sunni perspective on the various fields of scholarship related to the Qur'an.
  • 'Ulum al-Qur'an: An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur'an is another online version of Ahmad Von Denffer's work.

  • The Principles of Tafsir of the Qur'an is a well-formatted version of ch. 6 of Von Denffer's 'Ulum al-Qur'an. It contain's diacritical marks in transliterated Arabic terms, which are highlighted in bold.

  • Qur'anic Studies contains a variety of online scholarly articles dealing with Qur'anic grammar and rhetoric, literary style, and orthography.

  • Tafsir of Selected Surahs The Muslim woman scholar A'isha Bewley has translated and compiled from traditional sources useful commentaries on Surat al-Tawbah, selected ayahs from Surat al-Nur, and Surat al-Mulk.

  • In the Shade of the Qur'an (Fi Zilal al-Qur'an) is the well-known 20th Century tafsir written by Syed Qutb, the Egyptian Muslim activist and major figure of the Muslim Brotherhood. This online section consists of the commentary from Surah 78 until the end of the Qur'an.

  • Al-Mizan is the voluminous Qur'an commentary of the 'Alamah Taba'taba'i, the highly regarded 20th century Shi'ite scholar. Here is the translation of his commentary on the Fatihah (the opening surah of the Qur'an), part of the second surah (Baqarah), and part of the third surah, (Al 'Imran).

  • The Message of the Qur'an by Muhammad Asad is an excellent translation and commentary on the Qur'an. His commentary is drawn largely from traditional and 19th century commentaries.

  • Altafsir.com is the most comprehensive Qur'anic resource on the web. A project of the Aal al-Bayt Foundation for Islamic Thought, Altafsir.com has put online the Qur'an in Arabic recited by six of the most highly regarded Qur'anic reciters, numerous Qur'anic commentaries in Arabic, as well as translations of the Qur'an into 16 languages and many important texts in Arabic of the traditional Qur'anic sciences ('ulum). In the works are translations into English of some of the commentaries along with a new translation of the Qur'an.

    Comprehensive Downloadable Arabic Library for Research in Primary Islamic Sources

    This invaluable free service includes all the major hadith texts (and many of the minor ones) as well as works of hadith criticism, some important tafsirs, dictionaries, and works of fiqh. These can be downloaded --not read online-- from the Al-Muhaddith Islamic Library and Search Program. They are essential for university libraries as well as for scholars who wish to pursue original research in Islamic primary sources.

    In addition to the hadith collections, one can also download various Arabic tafsirs such as Tafsir Jalalayn,Suyuti's al-Durr al-manthur (which uses hadith to clarify and expand on the meaning of the Qur'an), and an abridged version of the Tafsir al-Qurtubi.

    The library includes as well a number of important general dictionaries such as Ibn Manzur's Lisan al-'Arab and Fayruzabadi's al-Qamus al-muhit; Ibn al-Athir's dictionary of rare words used in hadith, al-Nihayah fi gharib al-hadith; Asfahani's dictionary of the Qur'an, Mufradat alfaz al-Qur'an; and even an Arabic-English and English-Arabic dictionary.

    A PC running Arabic Windows95 is necessary in order to read the texts, although Arabic Windows98 is recommended.

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