Muslims consider the Quran to be the literal word of Allah. According to Muslim belief, at a certain point in his life Muhammad began to have visions. In these visions the Angel Gabriel appeared and dictated the Quran in parts. Muhammad memorized every word of these revelations and passed them on to others, who memorized them and/or wrote them down. Gabriel recited the whole Quran every year during the sacred month of Ramadan.
A few years after the death of Muhammad the Quran was collected in its entirety and written down in book form. Muslims believe that nothing was lost or altered in this process. This is also confirmed by the Quran itself:
56.77. Most surely it is an honored Quran,
56.78. In a book that is protected
The Quran is divided into chapters, called Suras, and each chapter contains a number of verses, called ayahs.
It is important to know that the Quran was not arranged in chronological order, i.e. in the order in which the verses were revealed to Muhammad. The Suras are (with the exception of the first one) arranged in order of length, the longest first and the shortest last. The chronological order of the revelations is important, however, since certain ayahs, at first sight, seem to contradict others. Since Muslims believe there can be no contradictions in the Quran, the later ayahs are said to abrogate (annul) the earlier ones. See also our webpage on abrogation.
It is also important to distinguish between the Meccan verses (revealed when Muhammad lived in Mecca) and the Medinan verses (revealed when he was living at Medina). The tone and contents of the two are very different. During his Meccan period Muhammad was a spiritual leader, and the verses revealed during this time were of a rather spiritual nature. Muhammad saw himself as a “Warner”: he called on people to believe in Allah as the only God, and in himself as the Prophet; if they did not believe, they would go to hell. Muhammad’s message was not widely accepted, and his few followers were mostly outcasts. Eventually he migrated to Medina.
Once in Medina Muhammad turned from a peaceful “Warner” into a political and military leader. The verses revealed during this period are legislative and call on the believers to fight for their belief, offensively as well as defensively. The unbelievers, meanwhile, are repeatedly cursed and condemned to hell.
The Quran is written in Arabic, and it is part of Islamic belief that no foreign translation can ever accurately reflect the Word of Allah. Indeed, the text of the Quran is difficult even for native Arabic speakers to understand. This is certainly a drawback for a religion which claims to be universal. Less than 15% of Muslims actually know the Arabic language, and of those who do, only a small minority has sufficient knowledge of classical Arabic to be able to make sense of their holy scripture.
Another problem with the Quran is that individual revelations are linked with historical events. These events were still fresh in the memory of the first Muslims, but 1400 years later they are little known. Without knowledge of these events it is impossible to understand the Quran, not even if you are a fluent Arabic speaker. Most Muslims don’t know the events behind the Quran, so they all have different ideas about what certain verses mean. Only Islamic scholars know the contexts of the revelations and can say definitively what the Quran prescribes.
This is why we advise you to read not just the Quran, but also the oldest available biography of Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq (see also the chapter SIRA, biograpfies of Muhammad). This biography shows the context and refers to various events mentioned in the Quran. It is best to read this biography with the Quran to hand, so that every time it refers to the Quran one can read the relevant versesas well as the ones immediately before and after, or better still the entire chapter, so that you can see how an event is handled in the Quran.
The Quran is available in every bookstore.
The website of the Centre for Muslim-Jewish Engagement of the University of Southern California has 3 different translations at the following link:
You can download A MICROSOFT WORD version of the translation by Yusuf Ali here. This version is useful for looking up things the Quran talks about, e.g. unbelievers, Jesus, heaven, hell, Allah, etc., using the “Edit/Find” function to quickly locate those passages where the concept is mentioned and see in what contexts they occur.
For example: according to the oldest Islamic sources, the first revelations Muhammad received from the Angel Gabriel were so traumatic he thought he had gone insane. He even wanted to commit suicide. When Muhammad started to talk about it in public, the people of Mecca also thought he was possessed. It is not surprising, then, that the Quran refers to this. If we look up the word “possessed” in the Quran, we find 10 verses answering the people who claimed Muhammad was possessed: 15:6, 23:70, 34:46, 37:36, 44:14, 51:52, 52:29, 68:2, 68:51, and 81:22. (The first figure shows the Sura (chapter) and the second to the Ayah (verse), so 15:6 is Sura 15, verse 6).