Koran (Qur'an)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Koran (Qur'an)

Koran (Qur'an) (A.D. 633)

The holy book of Islam, the Koran (Recitation) attests in emotive Arabic to the goodness and majesty of Allah, the monotheistic creator and governor of the universe. The mythic revelation of scripture over a 22-year period by the angel Jibreel (Gabriel) to the prophet Muhammad (ca. 570-632) of Mecca (present-day Makkah, Saudi Arabia) introduced disciples to a moral and legal guide. The narrative bases its theology on the Abrahamic tradition founded in 1950 B.c. at Ur, a Mesopotamian city north of the Persian Gulf between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers (present- day south-central Iraq). WISDOM LITERATURE intersperses hagiography, HERO stories, PROPHECY, BIOGRAPHY (including stories of the patriarchs Moses and Joseph), and CREATION LORE that pictures God shaping humankind “from clots of blood” (Koran, ix). Setting the tone and style of Islamic worship, Jibreel declared to the prophet: “Recite! Your Lord is the Most Bountiful One, who by the pen taught man what he did not know” (ix).

Like the Hebrew EXODUS (ca. 450 B.c.) and the Hindu BHAGAVAD GITA (ca. 200 B.c.), the Koran was born out of conflict. To escape assassins, at age 52, Muhammad crossed the desert northwest toward Medina, the cradle of Islam, and raised a Bedouin force of 30,000 that eventually overwhelmed the Arabian peninsula and crushed idolatry. Justifying Muslim militancy, a verse from the second sura (chapter), “The Cow,” warns: “Guard yourselves against the fire whose fuel is men and stones, prepared for the unbelievers” (2:24). In 628, Muhammad sent evangelistic messages to the Christian emperor Heraclius at Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, Turkey), to the Aksumite king Amah of Ethiopia and Sudan, and to the Zoroastrian warrior king Khosrow II of Persia and Yemen. The letters encouraged each to convert to Islam (submission) to secure safety and peace. Heraclius declined the offer; Khosrow raged and destroyed the letter.

A Standard Text

A year after the prophet's death, Caliph Abu Bakr of Mecca, an early companion and disciple of Muhammad, arranged the divine communications in 114 chapters ordered by length, from longest to shortest. In the complete 6,236 ayat (verses), readers find explanations of natural phenomena and international events in terms of God's will. Like the Egyptian and Ethiopian versions of the BOOK OF THE DEAD, Koranic narrative lists honorifics for Allah, whom the faithful extol as the Peace, Forgiver, Creator, Compassionate, Provider, and Holy One as well as “Sovereign of the day of judgment” (1:2). The last term bears a subtextual alert to a required atonement of the sinful before they can attain forgiveness and after-life rewards.

The scripture states unequivocally that earthly power is a human illusion. According to the prophet, dominion resides only in heaven: “Did you not know that God has power over all things? … and that there is none besides God to protect and help you?” (2:7-8). In compliance with religious tradition, the penitent listens to oral recitation performed by trained readers, who elicit serenity, submission, and sanctity. Each service opens with the standard affirmation “Allahu Akbar! La ilaha illa Allah!” (God is great! There is no god but Allah). Used as the central textbook in the maktab (primary school), the collected verses use the royal “we” to exhort the young to respect law, justice, truth, and mercy.

Muhammad included a network of stories indigenous to the Middle East. In sura 18, “Al Kahf” (The Cave) unfolds into a complex, exemplary FABLE on surviving difficult times. The action depicts the endangerment of seven youths and their dog; the youths are known to Christian hagiographers as the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (today a ruin on the west-central coast of Turkey). During the persecutions launched by the Roman emperor Decius in A.D. 245, the boys retreated to a cavern and allegedly slept for 300 years, a symbolic entombment of minorities in the Roman Empire suggestive of a living fetus awaiting birth. In a supernatural return from the dead, their resurrected spirits solace Muslims with a promise that Allah enfolds his believers in welcome and beneficence. Those who die in God's care awaken in Eden wearing gold bracelets and brocade and silk robes. The blessed lie on couches, a heavenly retreat out of range of profane tyrants and emperors.

Comfort to the Nations

As the Islamic kingdom expanded along trade routes over land and sea and challenged the hegemony of the Byzantine and Sassanid empires, the Koran became a source of inspiration and monotheism, especially for the laboring class and slaves. Worshippers sought safety in concealment and studied and prayed in private. Persecution of the devout by Christians, Jews, and pagans resulted in confinement of Muslims in dungeons. They incurred protracted torments, yet Muslims clung to their sacred book. In groups or alone, they read and recited slowly and respectfully in the original Arabic as a source of comfort and reassurance. A familiar verse asserts of Allah: “There is not a living creature on the earth whose destiny He does not govern. Straight is the path of my Lord” (11:53).

According to Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Wind, Sand, and Stars (1939), the Arabic scripture became the handbook that transformed desert dunes into an empire. Like the Hebrew warrior king David and the Chinese emperor Wu Di, Muhammad built an Arabic confederacy from disparate tribes and clans of nomads unused to the concept of citizenship in an empire. Of them, the prophet remarked, “Desert Arabs surpass others in unbelief and hypocrisy, and have more cause to be ignorant of the laws which God has revealed to His apostle” (9:97). The Koran unified them with the promise of an almighty deliverer from infighting: “He has power to let loose His scourge upon you from above your heads and from beneath your feet, and to divide you into discordant factions, causing the one to suffer at the hands of the other” (6:65). In an era of power struggles, the exhortations heartened followers of the new faith. They spread Muslim domination across Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Numidia, Persia, Phoenicia, and Syria and replaced paganism in Central Asia, North and Central Africa, and across Turkey into southern Europe as far north as the Danube River and as far west as the Iberian peninsula.


Cook, Michael. The Koran: A Very Short Introduction.

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

The Koran. Translated by Nessim Joseph Dawood. London: Penguin Classics, 2004.