What is the Quran?

The Quran is the scripture of Islam, or God’s (Allah) direct and unalterable word according to Muslims.  In Arabic, the word Quran means “to recite” or “recitation.”  In this context, the Quran was not merely meant to be read, but to be read out loud or recited as an act of worship.  It is Muhammad’s revelations, given to him by Allah, that have been compiled and put together  over a period of twenty-two years to form the Quran.  The revelations were recorded by scribes so that they could create a written text that shows the words of Allah.  In the religious studies, it is often a common analogy to think that the Quran is to Islam as the Bible is to Christianity.  However, a better analogy is the Quran is to Islam similarly to what Christ is to Christianity.  The Quran is the basis for Islamic religion and morality.

The Quran’s Structure

The Quran, originally written in Arabic (which is read from right to left), is divided into 114 chapters called suras.  Each sura is made up of different verses called ayats, meaning “signs” or “evidence.”  Unlike many books, the Quran is not ordered chronologically or in a sequence of revelation but rather in a decreasing order by size.  This means that the longest Sura is at the beginning and the shortest is at the end.  The one exception to this is the Sura al-Fatiha, which is the first sura in the Quran and is shorter.  Every sura starts with Bismillahir, meaning “In the name of God.”  This is because one must recognize Allah in every recitation.

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Page from the Quran

Photo Source: flickr: crystalina 

Types of Suras

There are two types of suras in the Quran: Meccan and Medinan.  A difference between the two is the time period in which the verse was revealed to Muhammad.  Meccan suras are the preachings of Muhammad in the city of Mecca.  Meccan suras are usually short and succinct.  They often address either the Prophet himself or the lives of the people.  Meccan suras usually advocate for the people of Mecca to leave false idols and follow the one true God (Allah).  They are also meant to guide personal relationship and heighten the importance of the piety of Jihad.

Medinan suras were created after the Prophet’s journey to the city of Medina, or the Hijra.  This marked the shift from Meccan suras to Medinan suras.  Medinan suras are the verses revealed to Muhammad when he was in the city of Medina.  The city was where tribes came to settle disputes; this theme can be seen in the Medinan suras.  These suras usually have prolonged ayats.  They are near the middle or beginning of the Quran, and they contain moral or ethical principles, legislation, and principles for constituting and ordering a community.  Medinan suras are therefore used to address public reception and dar-al Islam.

Interpretation of the Quran

In the Islamic faith, the people who interpret the Quran are called the ulama or “learned ones.”  They are religious scholars whose task is to produce a complex code of regulations called the Sharia, which forms the basis of Islamic Law. Islamic law in action is considered fiqh,  “jurisprudence” or the “formal study of Sharia.”  It is through this that the Quran can become a living document.  Many believe that the Quran was not meant to be a timeless document but rather be used by those during the time period of its creation and compilation.



Mahmoud M. Ayoub, Islam: Faith and History. (Oxford, England: Oneworld-Oxford, 2004).

Matthew S. Gordon, Understanding Islam: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Places (London: Watkins Publishing, 2010).

Michael Sells, Approaching the Qur’án: The Early Revelations, Second Edition, Ashland, Oregon: White Cloud Press, 2007).