Sources of the Quran

Revised by Montgomery Watt




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Sources of the Quran


Chapter 1
The Historical Context

Chapter 2

Mohammed's Prophetic Experience

Chapter 3

The History of the Text

Chapter 4

The external form of the Quran

Chapter 5

The features of Quranic style

Chapter 6

The Shaping of the Quran

Chapter 7
The Chronology of the Quran

Chapter 8
The names of the revealed message

Chapter 9
The Doctrines of the Quran

Chapter 10
Muslim Scholarship and the Quran

Chapter 11
The Quran and Occidental Scholariship



Bell's Introduction to the Quran
Revised by Montgomery Watt

Chapter 4: The External Form of the Quran


1. Its name and liturgical divisions

The book as a whole is usually called (in strict transliteration) quran al-qurn. This was represented in Latin by Alquran coranus, and in English formerly by 'Alquran coran' and still popularly (as also in German) by 'quran quran Koran', while French prefers 'quran Coran'. Muslims often out of reverence speak of quran al-qurn karim al-karm, 'the noble or glorious quran Qurn'. In English the title 'The Holy quran Qurn' is sometimes used. This name for the book as a whole is not itself part of the revealed text, and so is often omitted in written or printed copies. The word quran qurn occurs in the text of the book in various senses, and these will be discussed later, as will be the other words found in the text which are sometimes used of the book as a whole (chapter 8, sections 3, 5).

For purposes of recitation Muslims divide the quran Qurn, which is of comparable length to the New Testament, into thirty approximately equal portions or 'parts' (ajza ajz, sing. juz juz). This corresponds to the number of days in ramadan Ramadn, the month of fasting, when one 'part' is recited each day. The 'parts' are usually marked on the margin of copies. A smaller division is the hizb izb (plural ahzab azb) of which there are two to each 'part'. A yet smaller division is the 'quarter' of the hizb izb (rub rub al hizb al-izb). Even this may be marked on the margins. To facilitate recitation in the course of a week, there is also a division into seven manazil manzil. All these are external divisions which take little or no account of the natural sections of the quran Qurn, the suras and groups of suras. 1

2. The suras and verses

The suras are real divisions in the body of the quran Qurn. The translation 'chapter' is sometimes used, but this is not an exact equivalent. The word sura surah sra (plural suwar) also occurs in the text, but its derivation is doubtful. The most accepted view is that it comes from the Hebrew shurah shrh, 'a row', used of bricks in a wall and of vines. 2 From this the sense of a series of passages, or chapter, may perhaps be deduced, but it is rather forced. Besides, it hardly gives the sense in which the word is used in the quran Qurn itself. In 10.38/9 the challenge is issued: 'Do they say: "He has devised it"?; let them come then with a sura like it'. In 11.13/16 it is a challenge to bring ten suras like those which have been produced. In 28.49, however, where a similar challenge is given, it is to produce a book, or writing, from God. Evidently the sense required is something like 'revelation' or 'Scripture'. The most likely suggestion is that the word is derived from the Syriac surta r, which has the sense of 'writing', 'text of Scripture', and even 'the Scriptures'. The laws which govern the interchange of consonants in Arabic and Syriac are against that derivation, but in Syriac itself the spelling of the word varies to surtha rth, and even surtha srth; and in any case, in words directly borrowed, these philological laws do not necessarily hold. 3

The suras number 114. The first, known as the fatiha Ftia, 'the Opening', is a short prayer, very much used in Islam. The two last are short charms which, as already noted, masud Ibn-Masd seems not to have included in his collection of the quran Qurn. The rest are arranged roughly in order of length, which varies from many pages to a line or two. Thus in  Redslobs edition of Flgel's text sura 2, the longest, occupies 715 lines, or over 37 pages, while several suras near the end, such as 108 and 112, occupy two lines or less. How far this arrangement goes back to muhammad Muammad himself, and how far it is due to the compilers, scholars will probably never be able to elucidate completely; but, as will be seen later, there is reason for holding that he had more to do with it than the traditional account allows.

Each sura has a name or title, and this-and not the number-is normally used by Muslim scholars in referring to the sura. As a rule, the name has no reference to the subject-matter of the sura, but is taken from some prominent or unusual word in it. Usually this word occurs near the beginning, but this is not always so. Thus sura 16 is entitled 'The Bee', but the bee is not mentioned in it until v. 68/70, more than half-way through; this is the only passage in the quran Qurn, however, which speaks of the bee. Similarly, sura 26 is entitled 'The Poets'; but the only mention of the poets is in v. 224 at the very end of the sura. Here again, however, this is the only reference to poets in the quran Qurn, apart from those passages which reject the suggestion that the Prophet is himself a poet. This passage, too, is a striking one; no Arab who heard that brief, but trenchant, description of his much-belauded poets would forget it. For the choice of a name there seems to be no general rule; men apparently used any word in the sura sufficiently striking to serve as a means of identification. (One may compare the reference in the Gospels to Exodus 3 as 'The Bush') 4. Sometimes a sura has two such titles, both still in use; for example, suras 9, 40, 41; and in early Islamic literature there are references to other titles in use at one time, but later dropped. All this supports the assumption that these titles do not belong to the quran Qurn proper, but have been introduced by later scholars and editors for convenience of reference.

In copies of the quran Qurn, both written and printed, the commencement of each sura is marked by a heading. First comes the name or title of the sura, then a statement about its date, and finally a note of the number of verses. The dating does not go beyond the bare description of the sura as Meccan, or Medinan; and these descriptions do not necessarily apply to the sura as a whole. Muslim scholars have always been ready to admit that suras are composite, and that one marked as Meccan may contain one or more Medinan passages, and vice versa. These descriptions, then, are to be regarded merely as the judgements of the compilers, or of early scholars, about the period at which the main content of each sura was revealed. The modern Egyptian printed edition specifies the verses which are exceptions to the general description, and also indicates the position of the sura in order of delivery. The heading as a whole is thus a piece of scholarly apparatus; and the recent Egyptian additions are no more than the considered views of the most authoritative contemporary Muslim scholars.

After the heading comes the bismillah bismillh. At the beginning of all the suras, except one, stands the phrase, bi-smi llahi llhi rahmani r-ramni r rahim r-ram, 'In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate'. The exception is sura 9. Muslim commentators say that the omission is due to this sura having been revealed shortly before muhammad Muammad's death, so that he left no instructions on the matter. That cannot be correct, but it implies that in the view of Muslim scholars it was muhammad Muammad himself who was responsible for the placing of the bismillah bismillh at the head of the suras. That it belongs to the original form rather than to the later editing of the suras is confirmed by the fact that in sura 27, where Solomon is represented as sending a letter to the Queen of Sheba, the letter begins with the bismillah bismillh (v. 30), as if that were the appropriate heading for a document coming from a prophet (as Solomon is considered in the quran Qurn). So also in sura 96, muhammad Muammad is commanded to recite in the name of his Lord. It has been suggested that the omission of the phrase at the head of 9 may be due to 8 and 9 having originally formed one sura. Sura 8 is short for its position; on the other hand 8 and 9 together would make a sura too long for the position. The real reason for the omission is that sura 9 begins with a proclamation which is already sufficiently attested as being issued in the name of God; the bismillah bismillh was therefore superfluous. The exception thus confirms the conclusion that the bismillah bismillh is not a mere editorial formula but belongs to the time of muhammad Muammad. That need not, of course, be taken so strictly as to exclude the possibility of its having in some cases been added by the compilers or editors.

The suras are divided into verses, which are termed ayat yt, singular aya ya. This word is also used in the text. It is only in passages of later date, however, if at all, that it has the sense of 'verses'. More commonly it has the sense of 'sign', 'wonder'. It is related to the Hebrew oth oth and Syriac atha th, and 'sign' is evidently its basic meaning. The verse-division is not artificially imposed, as the verse-divisions of the Christian Bible frequently are. It belongs to the original form of the quran Qurn, and the verses are distinctly marked by the occurrence of rhyme or assonance. Differences in the division into verses, and the consequent differences in the numbering of the verses, occur in the various sets of readings of the quran Qurn; and unfortunately the verse-numbering of Flgel's edition, which is the one generally used in the West until recently does not exactly correspond to that most generally adopted by Muslims, or in fact to that of any of the Oriental recensions. The differences are due to the occurrence of cases in which it can be doubted whether the rhyme marks the end of a verse or comes in accidentally; and this results from the fact that the rhymes or assonances are largely produced by the use of the same grammatical forms or terminations.

The length of the verses, like the length of the suras, varies much. In some suras, and these generally the longer ones, the verses are long and trailing; in others, especially the shorter ones near the end of the book, the verses are short and crisp. This, however, is not an invariable rule. Sura 98, which is comparatively short, consists of 8 long verses; sura 26, which is long, has over 200 short verses. It may be noted, however, that as a rule the verses in the same sura, or at least in the same part of a sura, are of approximately the same length. There are exceptions even to this generalization, but on the whole it remains valid, particularly where the verses are short.

The verses are in prose, without metre, though in some passages there is a kind of rhythm or metre of stresses [for example 74.1-7; 91.1-10]. This feature is due to the shortness of the rhyming verses and the repetition of the same form of phrase rather than to any effort to carry through a strict metrical form. Where the verses are of any length, and the form of phrase varies, no fixed metre, either of syllables or of stresses, can be traced. The quran Qurn is thus written in rhymed prose, in verses without metre or definitely fixed length, whose ends are marked by the occurrence of a rhyme or assonance. (The rhymes are discussed more fully in chapter 5, section 1.)

3. The mysterious letters

At the beginning of 29 suras following the bismillah bismillh stands a letter, or a group of letters, which are simply read as separate letters of the alphabet. These letters are a mystery. No satisfactory explanation of their meaning, if they have one, has ever been given, nor has any convincing reason been found for their occurrence in this position. If reference is made to pp. 206-13, it will be seen that some occur once only, singly or in combination, and before isolated suras, but that there are other combinations which occur before several suras, and that the suras having the same combination of letters stand in groups. Thus the suras in front of which the letters ha , mim mm stand, including the one where these letters are combined with others, form a solid block (40-46) and are known in Arabic as the hawamim awmm. The suras with alif, lam lm, ra r, including 13 which has mini in addition, form a block from 10 to 15. The ta , sin sn, and ta , sin sn, mim mm suras form another little group, 26-28. The alif, lam lm, mim mm suras are separated; 2 and 3 stand together, sura 7, which has sad d in addition, stands by itself, sura 13 is included in the ahif, lam lm, ra r group, and then there is the block 29-32. Altogether the impression is given that groups of suras, similarly marked, have been kept together when the quran Qurn was put in its present order.

Consideration of the lengths of the suras tends to confirm this. A glance at the table will show that on the whole the suras stand in order of decreasing length, and this almost looks like the principle on which the suras have been arranged. It is equally evident that there are many deviations from the strict sequence, and it is necessary to guard against laying too much stress on a mechanical rule of this kind, which is not likely to have been carefully carried through. Some of the deviations from the rule of decreasing length, however, seem to be connected with these groups of suras. Thus, if we take the group 40-46, we find that the first is a little longer than 39, while 45, and especially 44, are short for their position. It looks as if the order of decreasing length had been departed from in order to keep the hawamim awmm group as it stood before the final arrangement was undertaken. Again, taking the alif, lam lm, ra r group, we find that 10, 11, 12 stand approximately in their proper position according to the length, but 13, 14, 15 are short, and with 16 we return again to something like the length of 10. It looks as if this group had been inserted as a solid block. On the other hand, the alif, lam lm, mim mm suras are placed in different positions, suras 2 and 3, the longest, at the very beginning, 29-32 in a group much farther on, as if the deviation from the rule would have been too great, and the group had therefore been broken up. These facts give some support to the supposition that, when the present order of the suras was fixed, the groups marked by these mysterious letters were already in existence.

That, of course, throws no light on the meaning of these symbols. But founding on this assumption and on the tradition that Zayd thabit ibn-Thbit collected the quran Qurn after muhammad Muammad's death, some European scholars have regarded these letters as abbreviations of the names of persons who had previously for their own use collected, memorized, or written down certain suras, and from whom Zayd had obtained them. Thus the hawamim awmm would have been obtained from somebody whose name was abbreviated to ha mim mm; and so on. This is a plausible theory; but the difficulty is to suggest names of possible persons who might be so indicated. No one has satisfactorily solved the problem. Hirschfeld, for instance, who tried to work it out, takes sad d as standing for hafsa afa, kaf kf for abu bakr Ab-Bakr, nun nn for uthman Uthmn. 5 Again it is difficult to see why, for important suras like 2 and 3, the collectors should have been dependent upon one person, denoted by alif, lam lm, mim mm, whom Hirschfeld takes to be mughira al-Mughra, while other less important suras had no letters at their head, and were thus presumably general property.

Even greater difficulty attaches to the suggestion of Eduard Goossens that these letters are contractions for disused titles of the suras. 6 It may well be that a title which had acquired wide usage, but was not finally adopted, was retained in an abbreviated form. If so, however, it is necessary to find some word or phrase in the sura for which the letters at the head of it may be accepted as a contraction. Goossens succeeded in a number of cases, but in others his solutions were impossible or based on some drastic rearrangement of contents and change of the division of suras. Further, he did not succeed very well in explaining why several suras should have had the same title, as the groups with the same letters at their head would imply.

These suggestions go on the assumption that the letters belong to the collection and redaction of the quran Qurn, and are therefore later than the texts before which they stand. It makes no real difference if we suppose them to have been marks used by muhammad Muammad or his scribes to identify or classify the suras. These letters always follow the bismillah bismillh, and reasons have been given for thinking that the bismillah bismillh belongs to the text and not to the editing. It seems almost certain, therefore, that these letters also belong to the original text, and were not external marks added either in muhammad Muammad's lifetime or by later compilers. That is the view of all Muslim interpreters. Most try to explain the letters as contractions for words or phrases, but their suggestions are just as arbitrary as those of European scholars, and there is no agreement among them on details. Others again reject the idea that the letters are contractions but take them as indicating numbers with special significance or in various other ways. The divergence of views shows the intractability of the problem.

Nldeke, to whom the suggestion that these letters were indications of names of collectors was originally due, 7 in his later articles departed from it, and adopted the view that they were meaningless symbols, perhaps magic signs, or imitations of the writing of the heavenly Book which was being conveyed to muhammad Muammad. 8 A somewhat similar view has recently been put forward by Alan Jones. 9 On the basis of statements by hisham Ibn-Hishm and in Tradition to the effect that on certain occasions the Muslims used the watchword or battle-cry ha ' mim mm, they shall not be aided', he argues that the letters are mystical symbols, suggesting that the Muslims have God's help. While there may be something in this view, its very nature prevents it being worked out in detail and argued for in a convincing fashion.

Some further points may be made. That the letters belong to the revealed text receives further confirmation from the fact that the majority of the suras at the head of which they stand begin with some reference to the Book, the quran Qurn or the revelation, of the 29 suras to which they are prefixed only three have no such reference immediately following [19, 29, 30]. Considering how often the Book is referred to later in it, sura 19 can hardly be counted an exception. Analysis also shows that suras marked by such letters are of either late Meccan or Medinan composition, or at least have traces of late revision; they belong to the time when muhammad Muammad was consciously 'collecting' a revelation similar to the revelation in the hands of previous monotheists. It is possible that the letters are imitations of some of the writing in which these scriptures existed. In fact, in some of these combinations of letters it is possible to see words written in Syriac or Hebrew, which have been afterwards read as Arabic. This suggestion, however, like others is impossible to carry through. We end where we began; the letters are mysterious, and have so far baffled interpretation.

4. The dramatic form

It has been seen that muhammad Muammad believed that his message came to him by prompting from without, and drew a clear distinction between what came to him in this way and his own thoughts and sayings. The quran Qurn, therefore, is cast mainly in the form of someone addressing muhammad Muammad, and not of muhammad Muammad addressing his fellow-men directly, though he is frequently ordered to convey a message to them. This question of who speaks and who is addressed, that is, of the dramatic form, is worthy of consideration.

It is usually assumed, in accordance with Islamic doctrine, that throughout the quran Qurn the speaker is God, and that the Prophet is addressed as the recipient of the revelation. This corresponds to the setting in many passages. God speaks sometimes in the first person singular. A clear example of this is 51.56f., 'I have not created jinn and men but that they should serve me; I desire not any provision from them, nor do I desire that they should feed me'. Others are 67.18, 74.11-15, and even distinctly Medinan passages such as 2.40/38, 47/4 (where God makes, as it were, a personal appeal to the Children of Israel) and 2.186/2. Much more frequently, however, we find the first person plural used where God is without doubt the speaker. As creation is, in the doctrine of the quran Qurn, the prerogative of God, passages in which the speaker claims to have created may be taken as certainly spoken by God; e.g. 15.26f., 17.70/2, 21.16-18, 23.12-14, and many other passages. If one takes passages in which the creation is not mentioned but which are in the same form, it will be found that much of the quran Qurn is thus placed in the mouth of God speaking in the plural of majesty.

It is also clear in many passages that the Prophet is being addressed. The well-known verses, usually considered the two earliest revelations 'O thou clothed in the dithar dithr, arise and warn, thy Lord magnify . . . ' [74.1-7] and 'Recite in the name of thy Lord . . . ' [96.1-5] are evidently addressed to the Prophet. The use of the second person singular is very common in the quran Qurn, and the individual addressed must be muhammad Muammad himself. Many passages are indeed personal to the Prophet: encouragements, exhortations, assurances of the reality of his inspiration, rebukes, pieces of advice on how to act. On the other hand, many passages thus addressed to the Prophet have no special reference to him, but contain matter of interest to others as well. That is, in fact, frequently stated, in such phrases as: 'Surely in that is a lesson for those who fear'. Even when not stated, it is the evident intention that the communication should be made public; the Prophet is exhorted to 'recite', and that was no doubt the method by which these revelations were made known to the people. Sometimes the Prophet is addressed as the representative of the people, and after a direct address to him the passage may continue with the second person plural, as in 65.i: 'O prophet, when you (pl.) divorce women, . . .'

The assumption that God is himself the speaker in every passage, however, leads to difficulties. Frequently God is referred to in the third person. It is no doubt allowable for a speaker to refer to himself in the third person occasionally, but the extent to which we find the Prophet apparently being addressed and told about God as a third person, is unusual. It has, in fact, been made a matter of ridicule that in the quran Qurn God is made to swear by himself. 10 That he uses oaths in some of the passages beginning, 'I swear (not) . . . can hardly be denied [e.g., 75.1, 2; 90.1]. This was probably a traditional formula. 11 by 'By thy Lord, however, is difficult in the mouth of God. 'The Lord' is, in fact, a common designation of God in the quran Qurn, as in the two early passages quoted above. Now there is one passage which everyone acknowledges to be spoken by angels, namely 19.64/5f.: 'We come not down but by command of thy Lord; to him belongs what is before us and what is behind us and what is between that; nor is thy Lord forgetful, Lord of the heavens and the earth and what is between them; so serve him, and endure patiently in his service; knowest thou to him a namesake?' In 37.161-6 it is almost equally clear that angels are the speakers. This once admitted, may be extended to passages in which it is not so clear. In fact, difficulties in many passages are removed by interpreting the 'we' of angels rather than of God himself speaking in the plural of majesty. It is not always easy to distinguish between the two, and nice questions sometimes arise in places where there is a sudden change from God being spoken of in the third person to 'we' claiming to do things usually ascribed to God, e.g. 6.99b, 25.45/7.

In the later portions of the quran Qurn, it seems to be an almost invariable rule that the words are addressed by the angels, or by Gabriel using the plural 'we', to the Prophet. God is spoken of in the third person, but it is always his will and commands which are thus communicated to men. This is the case even where the people or the believers are directly addressed. In some of these passages it might at first sight appear that muhammad Muammad was addressing his followers in his own words; but in many of them the indications that the angel speaks are so clear that we must assume that this is the form in them all. muhammad Muammad is the mouthpiece of the divine will, which is communicated to him by Gabriel, and thus, like a confidential official, he stands on the border-line between the king's court and the subjects. Subject he is always. Sometimes he receives messages to convey to the people, or he receives commands and exhortations intended for them; sometimes he is directly addressed as the representative of the people; at other times special exhortations and directions for his own conduct are addressed to him; at times he steps, as it were, across the line, and facing round upon the people conveys the divine commands and exhortations directly to them. Thus in these late passages the dramatic setting remains fairly constant:  God is a third person in the background, the 'we' of the speaker is the angel (or angels); and the messages are addressed to the Prophet; even where the people are directly addressed and the words come through him, he is mouthpiece only.

The dramatic setting of some earlier passages must be considered in the light of this result. There are a few passages where it might be thought that muhammad Muammad was speaking in his own person. Thus in 27.91/3f., there is a declaration of his position: 'I have been commanded to serve the Lord of this region . . .'. In 26.221, 'Shall I tell you on whom the demons come down?' the pronoun would naturally be taken as referring to muhammad Muammad, but it could also be interpreted of God. Other dubious instances are: 81.15-29; 84.16-19; 92.14-21. Some of the lists of 'signs' adduced as instances of God's power might be regarded as spoken by the messenger, and also descriptions of the Last Day like 91.1-10. With regard to all these passages it may be noted that declarations similar to 27.91/3f., are often preceded by the command (presumably addressed to muhammad Muammad himself), 'Say'. Yet, even where this word does not occur, the passages must have been regarded as part of what muhammad Muammad was commanded to proclaim to the people, following on the 'Recite!' of 96.1. Thus the principle that the messages came to muhammad Muammad from beyond himself is not infringed. 12