In the Koran, Words for Living a Righteous Life

The holy book

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The Koran is the ultimate authority in Islam. For centuries, the holy book has guided Muslims on weighty issues like faith and ethics and such practical matters as marriage and inheritance. Like the Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity, the Koran is considered a revelation from the same God who revealed himself to Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Many of the prophets revered by Christians and Jews are also honored in the Koran. And first-time readers of the Koran may be surprised to find Noah and his ark, Joseph's brothers, and Mary's Immaculate Conception.

And yet, despite the similarities, the Koran is not the Muslim Bible. And it is the differences in the ways that the Koran and Jewish and Christian Scriptures developed that illuminate the most critical distinctions in Islam.

Unlike the Bible, the Koran was not written by men; it was revealed by God through the angel Gabriel to Muhammad over little more than two decades. The Bible, for its part, was written by many men, in multiple languages, and compiled over several centuries. Says Jane Dam-men McAuliffe, dean of the College of Georgetown University and general editor of the Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an: "There's a whole process of collection and redaction."

According to Islamic tradition, the Prophet Muhammad received divine revelations, starting around the year 610, and recited them in the public square. But since he was illiterate, he wrote nothing down. (Koran itself means "recitation.") At the time of Muhammad's death in 632, therefore, the Koran existed not as a written book but only as a memorized document, alive in the hearts of those who had heard the Prophet speak and as random notes they had jotted on bones or parchment. Compiling the text became the job of Muhammad's secretary, Zaid ibn Thabit, who completed the task between 644 and 656. The reigning caliph at the time, Uthman, declared Zaid's work the official version of the Koran and ordered all other copies destroyed. Since then, Zaid's text has been off limits to additions or subtractions of any kind. "There could be no Koranic equivalent of the elevation to scriptural status of the letters of St. Paul," writes Thomas Lippman in his book Understanding Islam.

The timing of the revelations is also crucial to understanding the Koran. Muslims believe that Muhammad is the "seal of the prophets," the last prophet God has sent to humankind. The Koran, consequently, serves to complete—or, in some views, to correct—the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. Islamic tradition, which derives from both the Koran and the Sunna, the narratives of Muhammad's life, holds that in their original form, God's revelations to Moses and to Jesus were completely compatible with the Koran but that they were later corrupted—either inadvertently or deliberately.

"Historically, the idea is that at some undefined time, Jews and Christians collaborated to delete references to the coming of Muhammad," says David Cook, assistant professor of religious studies at Rice University. "The idea came from the fact that certain verses and ideas in the Koran are incompatible with those in the Bible, which is chronologically earlier, and therefore the answer to this incompatibility must be a malevolent process of deletion or suppression." Omid Safi, an associate professor of religion at Colgate University, sees it differently. "My reading of early Islamic history is that Jews were criticized for coming up with a legal tradition that was more strict than that which God had required of them originally, whereas Christians are criticized for the doctrine of the Trinity."

While there is overlap with the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, the Koran often differs significantly. Islamic tradition holds that Jesus was neither God nor the Son of God but "no more than God's apostle...God is but one God. God forbid that he should have a son!" the Koran reads. Muhammad is on an equal footing with Jesus—and indeed Muslims are instructed to respect all of God's prophets equally. Christians "expect some Christ figure to stand at the center of the [Koranic] text," Safi says, but for Muslims, "there is no God incarnate, no salvific figure, nor a need for one."