Muslims proclaim that the Qur'an is the spoken and recorded message of God to all peoples revealed to the Prophet Muhammad through the angel Gabriel. The word Qur'an literally means "reading or recitation." The Qur'an was revealed to Muhammad over a period of 23 years and is believed by Muslims to be the literal word-for-word message of God spoken in clear Arabic speech. Therefore translations of the Qur'an are not authoritative because they can never be precisely the same as that which was revealed in Arabic. The Qur'an serves as the guiding text in the religious and spiritual development of Muslims around the world. There are 114 surahs or chapters in the Qur'an arranged approximately from longest to shortest, and there are 6,236 ayahs or verses. The Qur'an is slightly shorter in written length than the Christian New Testament. Although the Qur'an includes some narratives, it is not a story or a series of narratives but a complex interconnected text of rhythmic prose. Its language and style are inimitable, and indeed a number of skilled Arabic poets have apparently tried in futility to imitate the rhythmic prose of the Qur'an. The Qur'an has been systematically memorized, recited, and written down from the time of its revelation. The written fragments and oral memorizations were finally standardized and recorded in their present form by a scholarly group commissioned by Othman, the third Caliph between 644 and 656 C.E. within 20 years of Muhammad's death. Muslims insist that these master copies have been painstakingly reproduced in reliable textual succession to this day.
THE QUR'AN REVEALED
In the year 611 C.E., on the 27th day of the month of Ramadan, the Prophet Muhammad had retreated to the cave of Hira just outside Mecca as he was accustomed to doing in order to pray, meditate, and reflect on questions of great importance to him such as the purpose of life and the struggle between good and evil. On this particular day however, while he was in deep thought, the Prophet Muhammad heard a powerful voice call him. When he asked who was calling him, the voice commanded "read." Muhammad replied that he could not read. Muhammad was then squeezed in the grip of a very strong hug for a moment, and the voice commanded him a second time to read, to which Muhammad replied again that he could not read. Muhammad was squeezed again and a third time was commanded "read." This time Muhammad asked what it was that he should read and the voice replied, "Read! In the name of your Lord who creates man from a clot!, Read, for your Lord is most generous, who teaches by means of pen, teaches man what he does not know." Muhammad chose to obey this command and became the Messenger of God. This event was the beginning of the revelation of the Muslim sacred scripture or writings known as the Qur'an. At first the Qur'an was revealed in short concise ayahs, and later it was revealed in longer ayahs and surahs, over a period of 23 years.
COMPILATION AND TRANSMISSION
The compilation of the Qur'an took place within 20 years of the Prophet Muhammad's death. The primary method of recording and transmitting the Qur'an was through systematic recitation. The Qur'an remains today the most memorized book in all of human history. Memorization was not an individual or haphazard occurrence, but a communal and systematic skill constantly under the correction of a community of reciters. In addition, the entire text of the Qur'an was written down by the time of the Prophet's death on any material that could be used for writing: fragments of paper, leather, papyrus, pieces of wood, thin white stones, shoulder blade bones, and palm-leaf stalks. But these pieces of writing had not been compiled into one organized and standardized text during the life of the Prophet.
The first leader or Caliph of the Muslim community elected after the death of the Prophet Muhammad was Abu Bakr. The Battle of Yamana in 633 C.E. during Abu Bakr's rule killed a large number of skilled Qur'anic reciters. Alarmed by this loss, Abu Bakr instructed a scholar by the name of Zaid to carefully collect and authenticate all existing written collections of the Qur'an together in one place. This collection was kept in safekeeping and passed down to Umar the second Caliph, then to Umar's daughter who also had been a wife of Muhammad, then to Othman the third Caliph. Othman finally instructed a scholarly group of Muslims to carefully assemble the written fragments of the Qur'an into a single standardized text of which six copies were painstakingly made. The Qur'an is not arranged chronologically in the sequence it was revealed, nor does it form a single narrative story. One of the most widely used editions of the Qur'an in print today is the so-called Egyptian edition first printed in Cairo in 1925.
THE QUR'AN IN MUSLIM LIFE
First and foremost, the Qur'an is spoken. The most direct experience of the Qur'anic revelation is through recitation in the original Arabic. Tajweed is the art of singing recitation, and one who has memorized the entire Qur'an is known as hafiz. Tartil is also a form of recitation that proceeds as a slow methodical chant.