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Party Like It's 632
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Turning towards Mecca
The Koran! well, come put me to the test—

Lovely old book in hideous error drest—
 Believe me, I can quote the Koran too,
The unbeliever knows his Koran best.

And do you think that unto such as you,
A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew,
 God gave the secret, and denied it me?—

Well, well, what matters it! believe that too.
Omar KhayyámWikipedia[1]

The Qur'an (Arabic: القرآن‎ or al-qur’ān; lit. "the recitation",[note 1]) also romanized Koran, is an ancient holy book filled with draconian laws about how humanity should live,[note 2] endless threats on the eternal punishment for not believing, insults towards the stupidity of those who don't believe, an obsession over sex and controlling the "lesser gender" peppered with a few historical notes and some reworking of biblical stories and even less liberally peppered with commands to be kind and charitable. It is highly repetitive in nature, endlessly encouraging belief, threatening non-believers, and glorifying a loving forgiving God that seems incapable of forgiving or loving anyone who breaks his rules. Muslims regard the book as the final revealed word of God to mankind. In all seriousness, believers swallow the story that their illiterate hero Muhammed heard God's voice while meditating in a cave and that he transmitted this extremely long book orally. We are supposed to take it on fact that years later it was properly recorded after he died because... why would anybody change a set of rules and laws, or not fully remember the enormous litany without errors?

Islamic theology views the Jewish prophets from Adam to Jesus as a series of people who have received God's message via revelation and passed it on to God's people. The Prophet Muhammad is held to be the last prophet to receive God's word as a consequence of "miraculous" revelations over a span of many years. Muslims treat the Qur'an as a restatement and completion of the story and teachings of the Judeo-Christian Bible.

Much of the Qur'anic text takes the form of dialog or commands from God to Muhammad, instructing him on what to say. The Qur'an resembles the Q gospel in that it consists almost entirely of Muhammad's sayings, rather than additional stories. Several of the main messages are repeated at an obsessive level not seen even in the Bible. Recurring themes throughout the Qur'an include bribing people to believe with rewards, scaring people into believing through eternal torture (this threat is mentioned hundreds of times), Allah is the ultimate spymaster knowing all, fear God, be charitable and good to orphans, submission, non-believers are stupid, and evil is explained by the boogeyman.


Number of verses by sura number.

Like most people who founded a religion, Muhammad never wrote anything himself; his teachings were written down by his followers and then consolidated in the form of one "holy book". The study of the compilation and composition of the Qur'an as a work of literature is not as advanced as similar efforts in the case of the Bible, partly because (mostly Western) literary scholars have historically been more interested in the Bible and partly because Muslims themselves have strongly discouraged any study of the Qur'an as a text made by humans. Even so, it is nonetheless clear that the Qur'an is an amalgamated literary product of its time(s) and culture, containing traces of earlier works (cf. the documentary hypothesis). For example, the text seems to draw on pre-existing non-canonical stories about the life and crucifixion of Jesus, perhaps passed on by heterodox Christian sects in the Arabian peninsula.

The Qur'an as it is today is not ordered according to when each individual sura (chapter) was written, but essentially arbitrarily (with a bias towards longer suras in the beginning and shorter ones in the end). When arranged chronologically (see the RationalWiki Annotated Qur'an), it is easy to see that longer suras tend to have been written later — perhaps it took longer writings for Muhammad to successfully govern his growing religion, when a few platitudes would have done before.


Quran owned by Thomas Jefferson, now held in the Library of Congress.
None of the original documents, such as they are, can be contrasted with any Hebrew or Greek or Latin texts. Almost all of the tradition is oral, and all of it is in Arabic. Indeed, many authorities agree that the Koran is only intelligible in that tongue, which is itself subject to innumerable idiomatic and regional inflections. This would leave us, on the face of it, with the absurd and potentially dangerous conclusion that God was a monoglot.
Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything[2]

The Arabic text of the Qur'an is the basis for the modern standard Arabic language.[3] Therefore, most educated Arabs have little difficulty reading the Qur'an as it was originally compiled, albeit assisted by centuries of exegesis that deals with the many disputed meanings and obscure phrasings in the text. However, the text itself, 1300 years old, frequently uses archaic or obscure vocabulary. Diametrically opposed interpretations of certain suras are not uncommon. Qur'anic Arabic is widely taught in non-Arabic speaking portions (i.e. the majority) of the Muslim world.

The Qur'an is fairly widely available in translation; however, unlike the Christian Bible,[note 3] Muslims consider it a point of faith that the Qur'an is valid only in the original Arabic. To the extent that the text consists of richly poetic work,[4] it resists effective translation and definitive interpretation.

According to Islamic tradition, Muhammad's companions jotted down passages of the Qur'an in an ad hoc fashion on whatever writing materials were close to hand, but mainly kept the text in their memory, and only put it to paper as a cohesive work after the prophet's death. The earliest complete copies we have date from more than a century after Muhammad's death;[note 4] and while the early manuscripts do have interesting differences, there isn't the same amount of textual variation that one finds in New Testament manuscripts.

Christopher Hitchens summarizes the longstanding problem of the insistence on a divine advantage to renditions of the Qur'an which are exclusively in Arabic, commenting;[5]

Before me is a book, Introducing Muhammad, written by two extremely unctuous British Muslims who are hoping to present a friendly version of Islam to the West. Ingratiating and selective as their text may be, they insist that "as the literal Word of God, the Koran is the Koran only in the original revealed text. A translation can never be the Koran, that inimitable symphony, 'the very sound of which moves men and women to tears.'

A translation can only be an attempt to give the barest suggestion of the meaning of words contained in the Koran. This is why all Muslims, whatever their mother tongue, always recite the Koran in its original Arabic." The authors go on to make some highly disobliging observations about the Penguin translation by N. J. Dawood, which makes me glad that I have always employed the Pickthall version but no likelier to be convinced that if I wish to become a convert I must master another language.

He continues:[6]

Even if God is or was an Arab (an unsafe assumption), how could he expect to "reveal" himself by way of an illiterate person who in turn could not possibly hope to pass on the unaltered (let alone unalterable) words? The point may seem minor but it is not. To Muslims, the annunciation of the divine to a person of extreme unlettered simplicity has something of the same value as the humble vessel of the Virgin Mary has to Christians. It also possesses the same useful merit of being entirely unverifiable, and unfalsifiable.

Since Mary must be presumed to have spoken Aramaic and Muhammad Arabic, it can I suppose be granted that God is in fact multilingual and can speak any language he chooses. (He opted in both cases to use the Archangel Gabriel as the intermediate deliverer of his message.) However, the impressive fact remains that all religions have staunchly resisted any attempt to translate their sacred texts into languages "understanded of the people," as the Cranmer prayer book phrases it.

There would have been no Protestant Reformation if it were not for the long struggle to have the Bible rendered into "the Vulgate" and the priestly monopoly therefore broken. Devout men like Wycliffe, Coverdale, and Tyndale were burned alive for even attempting early translations. The Catholic Church has never recovered from its abandonment of the mystifying Latin ritual, and the Protestant mainstream has suffered hugely from rendering its own Bibles into more everyday speech.

Some mystical Jewish sects still insist on Hebrew and play Kabbalistic word games even with the spaces between letters, but among most Jews, too, the supposedly unchangeable rituals of antiquity have been abandoned. The spell of the clerical class has been broken. Only in Islam has there been no reformation, and to this day any vernacular version of the Koran must still be printed with an Arabic parallel text. This ought to arouse suspicion even in the slowest mind.


The Qur'an has 114 suras, or chapters,[7] and 6,236 verses.[8]

Because of the Qur'an's lack of a "storyline", the work itself has only a loose structure. Each sura is independent of the others, rarely if ever making reference to any other sura. Topics in any given sura may be repeated in some other sura and the suras are not grouped into some kind of "logical" structure like "Sura on Family", "Sura on Business", etc.

Conveniently, the ordering system of the suras is instead based on their length, from long to short, with the first being a notable exception for being quite brief. The 2nd one is the longest one though and from there on they get shorter.[9] Of course this makes total sense; if we do not understand this it is only because we can never fully understand the mind and will of Allah (however, it must be noted that the present arrangement of the Qur'an is not identical to the order it was allegedly revealed in).

Each sura is named for either an important figure or topic in the sura. For example, Sura 16 is "the Bee", because Qur'an 16:68-69 talks about Allah telling the bees what to do.[10] Each sura was written in either Medina or Mecca, and the Qur'an tells which sura was written where.

Individual verses are usually cited either (1) by name then by verse number or (2) by traditional sura order number then by verse number. For example, "We will not believe in thee till we see Allah plainly" could be cited as The Cow, 53 or as Qur'an 2:53.

Islamic views on the Qur'an[edit]

As with Christianity and Judaism, there are many views about the Holy Book that supposedly represents Islam's foundation, which depend on the particular sects or the individuals themselves.


The Qur'an itself asserts that it is a divine work, incomparably better than any human composition, and Muslims generally uphold this proposition. While particular sects and individual Muslims vary on most aspects of the Qur'an, one thing virtually all Muslims share is the idea that the Qur'an represents the most perfect book ever written, largely because it claims itself to be such, QED. It is the miracle of Muhammad, proof of his prophethood, and is considered a final proof of God's existence. The prophecies are considered accurate, and the poetry is considered the most beautiful words ever written.[11][12][13]

However, early Islamic sources questioned the narrative that the Qur'an is the original message of God, uncorrupted and unedited since the time of Muhammad's death.[14]

Scientifically accurate[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Qur'anic scientific errors

Some Muslims, such as Harun Yahya and Zakir Naik, claim that the Qur'an described modern scientific discoveries in the seventh century and that this proves the Qur'an's is from Allah. As with Biblical scientific foreknowledge, this idea is very interesting and relies entirely on reinterpreting Qur'anic verses in light of recent scientific advances.

Criticism of the Qur'an[edit]

The doings and "sayings" of Moses and Abraham and Jesus being so ill-founded and so inconsistent, as well as so often immoral, one must proceed in the same spirit of inquiry to what many believe is the last revelation: that of the Prophet Muhammad and his Koran or "recitation." Here again, the Angel (or Archangel) Gabriel is found at work, dictating suras, or verses, to a person of little or no learning. Here again are stories of a Noah-like flood, and injunctions against idol worship. Here again the Jews are the first recipients of the message and the first both to hear it and to discard it. And here again there is a vast commentary of doubtful anecdote about the actual doings and sayings of the Prophet, this time known as the hadith. Islam is at once the most and the least interesting of the world's monotheisms. It builds upon its primitive Jewish and Christian predecessors, selecting a chunk here and a shard there, and thus if these fall, it partly falls also. Its founding narrative likewise takes place within an astonishingly small compass, and relates facts about extremely tedious local quarrels.
Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything[15]

In the West, criticism of the Qur'an falls into two major categories: people who are critical of Islam (and therefore the Qur'an) because it's the intellectual successor of all the hatred and fear once reserved for commies, and people who really find little to no value in religion in general. Unsurprisingly, many of the same criticisms are found in both groups.

Opponents of Islam point to verses where disbelievers should eternally burn in Hell and verses that say that "people who make war against Allah and his prophet" have to be killed. They will find fault with historical recitations of the Qur'an's view on medicine and health and they will generally take up the cry of how unjustly women are treated in the Bible Qur'an, how generally violent it is, and how much time is spent telling others how to live.

To the rational, these are in no way dissimilar from similar consequences for disbelieving in other faiths.

Given the structure of the Qur'an, focused mainly on exhortations and instructions (not unlike the Book of Leviticus), it is easy to find attitudes or endorsement of cultural practices that the modern world would find repellent - certainly as easy as it is with even a cursory study of the Bible.

There is plenty of argument within the modern western world on whether the Qur'an is an "inherently violent" or "bloodthirsty" book, or whether it actually is full of charity and compassion. Such arguments perhaps miss the point - that we should not be particularly surprised that for better or worse it essentially functions to give divine sanction to the point of view and cultural practices of 7th-century desert dwellers.

Really, despite vehement protests otherwise, the Torah, Bible, and the Qur'an are largely the same in tone, style and message. At best, it boils down to something akin to a sports rivalry - "My god is the best!" "No, mine!" Except in this case, the God is the exact same guy.

Sexual intercourse with children[edit]

Critics often focus on the Quran's apparent approval of marriage (and/or concubinage) and sexual intercourse with pre-pubescent girls in Sura 65 verse 4. Muslim tafasir (scholarly commentaries) throughout the centuries had no issue with this practice.[16][17] It is a widely-proclaimed case of the Qur'an being more backward and horrific than equivalent Biblical rules, which were mostly written around 1000 years before it (The Bible, for instance, is simply silent on the issue of pedophilia). Another unrelated example of this is the punishment for theft in Islam vis-à-vis the Hebrew Bible (Qur'an 5:38 and Exodus 21:2 respectively).

Violence in the Qur'an[edit]

What happens in all religions as they grow and mature and expand, they go through a process of forgetting of the original violence, and I call this a process of holy amnesia.
—Philip Jenkins, Historian of Religion[18]

The Qur'an contains at least 500 verses involving cruelty, either as commandments for Muslims or as punishments from Allah.[19] Some are quite graphic, with commands to chop off heads and fingers[20] and kill infidels wherever they may be hiding. Muslims who do not join the fight are called 'hypocrites' and warned that Allah will send them to Hell if they do not join the slaughter.

In absolute numbers, the Bible is more violent than the Qur'an; in percentages the Qur'an is more so (it's a shorter sacred text).[21] On the other hand, the God of the Bible endorses and commands genocide[22]while the Qur'an's violence is predominantly defensive. That said, Allah also has his mild temper tantrums, ranging from throwing lightning bolts at the Children of Israel for complaining or even magically turning them into apes (Qur'an 2:55 and Qur'an 7:166), and reminds everyone that he is preparing a fire for the unbelievers on a regular basis. At the end of the day, however, the religious texts of all three Abraham religions are suffused with violence and are virtually impossible to differentiate.[23]

When Allah tells Noah he is going to send a great flood, Noah asks Allah to kill all the disbelievers with it, rather than tell him to knock it off and not kill anybody, and to live and let live (Quran 71:26). There is a verse in the Qur'an that commands Muslims to beat their wives if they are "arrogant" (Quran 4:34). It does not, however, say anything to women who have arrogant husbands. The Quran tells the stories of how pre-Islamic Arabia's pagan tribes went to war with the Muslims, glorifying cutting off people's fingertips in the battle of Badr. In the same verse, Allah claims to "strike terror in the hearts of those who disbelieve" (Quran 8:12). While many Muslim scholars today try to justify the battle of Badr as a defensive one in historical context, the Quran doesn't emphasize any of these modern talking points, instead repeating the claim that the "polytheists" must be killed (Quran 9:5). This shows clearly that Allah's bias against the pagans was that they were non monotheistic. While the verse that follows says to "grant protection" to polytheists who seek it, it condescendingly says it is because "they [the polytheists] are a people who do not know" (Quran 9:6).

Spelling errors and contradictions[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Qur'anic contradictions

While Muslims believe the book is perfect, critics point to the numerous spelling errors[24][25][26][13] and contradictions between chapters.[12] This is a contradiction to the claim that the Qur'an is absolutely perfect,[11][12][13] but does call to mind some of the poor writing in another holy book, the Book of Mormon.[27]

Linguistic importance[edit]

The Qur’an’s influence on the Arabic language has been singular. In fact, the Qur’an is probably why there is even said to be a single “Arabic language” today, given how disparate modern Arabic vernaculars are. Knowledge of Qur’anic, or “Classical,” Arabic carried immense prestige in the early Muslim world, and this has continued today thanks to the growth of literacy, and to the Arab World’s uniform adoption of Modern Standard ArabicWikipedia (MSA)[note 5] as its lingua franca. Today, most Arabic speakers consider Qur’anic Arabic, MSA, and their mother dialects to be different registers of the same language.[28] Strictly speaking, this is debatable: a hypothetical monolingual speaker of MSA would have as much trouble understanding a modern Egyptian as Socrates would if he found himself in 21st-century Athens. But practically speaking, every Arab has had heavy passive exposure to MSA and Qur’anic Arabic through media and religious services, and everyone in the Arab World who can read at all can read in MSA.

How did this happen? The Muslim conquests in the Early Middle Ages spread Arabic across an immense area, from Morocco to Iraq. Over this time, the language repeatedly diverged, absorbed elements of indigenous languages, and then underwent KoinisationWikipedia through trade and military organization, resulting in a dialect continuumWikipedia whose members are related to Classical Arabic in a way comparable to the Romance languages' relationship to Latin. However, thanks to Qur’anic Arabic’s prestige, it survived almost unaltered as the written language, and even non-Muslims often adopted it: modern Arabic translations of the Bible, for instance, use grammatical features[note 6] that are almost never found today outside of the Qur’an itself. MaimonidesWikipedia, the Middle Ages’ preeminent Jewish philosopher, bucked the trend a bit by writing in Judeo-ArabicWikipedia, but he certainly was able to read and understand the Qur’anic variety. It is telling that attempts to establish Arabic vernaculars as written languages have usually happened in countries with large Christian populations (such as Lebanon), and have almost never enjoyed conservative Muslims' support. Indeed, Arabic's only offshoot to be considered a language in its own right, MalteseWikipedia, is spoken on an entirely Catholic island, where few people would have cared about learning “the language of the Qur’an.”

Linguistic snags[edit]

The Qur’an didn’t just shape the Arabic language that came after it: it standardized and reformed the language that existed before it, and this is where things get tricky. Literacy in Muhammad's Arabia was very rare; even most Muslims agree that Muhammad himself was illiterate, and dictated the Qur'an.[29] Furthermore, during Muhammad’s lifetime (and for generations afterwards), Arabic's orthography was a mess that would make English appear straightforward. It was not until decades after Islam had established itself that efforts were made to straighten things out.

The first problem with the Qur'an's original writing system was that Arabic, like many Semitic languages, was originally written as an abjad, i.e. a writing system in which long vowels (ā, ī, ū) were either inconsistently written or not neatly differentiated from consonants, and short vowels (a, i, u) were never written at all. (Hebrew had a similar system until the Early Middle Ages, which gave us YHWH). This might not have been a huge problem if it one simply needed to memorize a word’s pronunciation. But unfortunately, Arabic's short vowels often carry important grammatical information that can utterly change a sentence’s meaning. For instance, Arabic forms the passive voice for verbs by changing their internal vowels, and the Qur’an uses the passive voice a lot: حَرَّمَ ("ħarrama") means "he forbade," but حُرِّمَ (ħurrima) means "it is forbidden".[30] In an unvoweled text, these would have been indistinguishable.

Secondly, when pre-Islamic Arabia adopted a cursive script, once-distinct letters took identical shapes. ٮ, for instance could be read word-finally as “b,” “θ,” or “t.” Its forms at the beginning or in the middle of a word, ٮـ and ـٮـ, were even vaguer, being also readable as “n,” “y," or “ī.” Consequently, “ٮٮٮ” might be read as بِنْتٌ (bintun, “girl”), بَيْتٌ (baytun, “house”), or تَبَّتْ (tabbat, “may they perish!”), all of which do, in fact, appear in the Qur’an. The glyphs ٮ and ٮـ also would have carried important, ambiguous information about a verb's person and its subject's gender. A few scribes tried to create clarifying systems, but these efforts were never widely adopted, and most texts' readings had to be memorized.[31]

Tradition states that the fourth Caliph, AliWikipedia, ordered the first attempt at standardization, but that the system used today was devised a century later by Al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-FarahidiWikipedia of Basra. One explanation for the push for reform is that the growing Caliphate needed a larger professional bureaucracy, and its many non-Arab subjects struggled to learn the Arabic writing system.[32] Muslims maintain that a strong oral tradition was enough to preserve the Quran during Islam's first decades, and oral tradition indeed has an impressive record of preserving long literary works.[note 7] But the effects of this ambiguity can still be seen today in the Qur’an’s different Qira'atWikipedia (literally “readings”): points in the Qur’an at which a handful of different readings are regarded as equally valid, because nobody agrees on what the original text said. Most of these differences are merely grammatical, such as changing a verb's conjugation from the second person to the third, but it does raise questions about how flawless people’s oral recollection of the Qur’an really could have been.

An important caveat[edit]

MSA’s similarity to Qur’anic Arabic is still somewhat exaggerated. While the two forms do have near-identical morphologies,[note 8] MSA’s syntax is very different from that of the Qur’an, and the Qur’an’s orthography is not exactly like what you’d see in an Arabic newspaper. Professional Qur’an-reciters will also use a set of pronunciation rules called Tajwid, which includes word-final consonant mutation, something that appears in neither MSA nor any other Semitic language.

That being said, Qur’anic Arabic really is remarkably similar to MSA, given how much time has passed since Muhammad’s death. For reference’s sake, Beowulf was probably composed a century after the Qur’an, and a native English speaker cannot read its original text without college-level instruction in Anglo-Saxon.

See also[edit]


External links[edit]


  1. Traditionally the Qur'an is a recited text, in preference to a written one. It is a mark of scholarship in Islam to commit the entirety of the book to memory. A person who has done this is known as a HafizWikipedia.
  2. This statement can be applied to any sufficiently old religious text. Ex: Bible
  3. See Bible translation and Guide to Bible translations.
  4. Although modern secular scholars disagree on how accurate the traditional accounts of the process are, and how old the actual written text itself is, the idea that the whole thing was kept in memory for decades isn't as far-fetched as it sounds; people of the period were well accustomed to memorising long texts, often since they were illiterate to begin with.
  5. Essentially a standardization of Classical Arabic.
  6. Like full vowel-marking and the long and short energetic moods for verbs.
  7. The pre-Columbian Mesoamerican king Nezahualcoyotl, for example, orally composed a code of law (illustrated with pictographs, but no true writing) and even a large number of poems, which most historians regard as having been accurately preserved by oral transmission.
  8. With a slight simplification of verbal conjugations in MSA.


  1. Islam on Wikiquote
  2. Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, page 124.
  3. Compare the role of Luther's edition of the Bible in the development of Modern Standard German.
  4. Hoffmann, Thomas (2007). The Poetic Qurʼān: Studies on Qurʼānic Poeticity. Diskurse der Arabistik, ISSN 0949-6807. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. ISBN 9783447055154. Retrieved 6 March 2022. 
  5. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens, page 124.
  6. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens, page 125.
  7. A List of 114 Quran Surahs – QuranMualim, QuranMualim, June 20, 2019
  8. 6,666 VS. 6,236 VERSES OF AL-QUR’AN, ApinaPon, Sepember 17, 2014
  9. Salwa M. S. El - Awa, Introduction to Textual Relations in Qur'an, pg. 1. Part of the Routledge Studies in the Qur'an series. London: Routledge, 2005.
  10. The Meaning of Surah 016: An-Nahl The Bees (Las Abejas). From Holy Quran Bilingual Edition English Spanish, StoryTel December 13, 2019
  11. 11.0 11.1
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2
  14. Quran preservation
  15. Page 123.
  17. Maududi, Abul A'la al- (1972). "Tafhimu'l-Qur'an". Idara Tarjuman ul Qur'an, Lahore, Pakistan. [Note: scroll down the linked page for the content.]. 
  19. Skeptic's Annotated Quran
  20. Skeptic's Annotated Quran
  28. Alaa Elgibali and El-Said M. Badawi. Understanding Arabic: Essays in Contemporary Arabic Linguistics in Honor of El-Said M. Badawi, 1996. Page 105.
  31. Dutton, Yasin (2000). "Red Dots, Green Dots, Yellow Dots and Blue: Some Reflections on the Vocalisation of Early Qur'anic Manuscripts (Part II)". Journal of Qur'anic Studies 2 (1): 1–24. doiWikipedia:10.3366/jqs.2000.2.1.1. JSTOR 25727969.