“It (the Qur’an) is concerned with the salvation of the soul, but commensurately also with the ethical imperatives which sustain an equitable social order. The Qur’an’s is an inclusive vision of society that gives primacy to nobility of conduct. It speaks of differences of language and colour as a divine sign of mercy and a portent for people of knowledge to reflect upon.”
His Highness the Aga Khan1
Prophet Muhammad received the first revelation during the month of Ramadan, the month “in which the Holy Qur’an was sent down as a guide to humankind…” (Qur’an 2:185).
The first revelation to the Prophet was about knowledge and learning:
“Recite in the name of your Lord who created, created man from a blood clot. Recite, for your Lord is most magnanimous – who taught by the pen; taught man that which he did not know.”(Qur’an 96:1-5)
As the Prophet received the revelations, he would recite them aloud, urging others to recite them as an expression of piety. The recording of the revelations took place during the time of the Prophet; however, its codification into a text (Mushaf) occurred during the time of the third caliph Uthman b. Affan (r. 644-656).
Imam ‘Ali b. Abi Talib had an instrumental role in facilitating this codification, as he is also believed to have been the compiler of the first text. The Mushaf begins with Sura Fatiha (the Opening) with the rest of the suras (chapters) arranged according to their length in a descending order.
The Qur’an articulated responses to the challenges faced by the Prophet and the community, providing the basis for the articulation of legal principles and values, resulting in the formulation of a concept of shari‘a (the way to be followed). As Islam spread, becoming the primary faith of the Islamic empires , there was a need to establish the Shar’ia for emerging Muslim societies.
The Sunni position was that ‘the Prophet had not nominated a successor, as the revelation, the Qur’an, was sufficient guidance for the community. Nevertheless, there developed a understanding that the spiritual-moral authority was to be exercised by the ulama, a group of specialists in matters of religious law. The task of the ulama came to be understood as that of merely deducing appropriate rules of conduct on the basis of the Qur’an, the Hadith or the Prophetic tradition and several other subordinate criteria. The role of the caliph was to maintain a kingdom in which the principles and practices of Islam were safeguarded and propagated.’2
‘The codification of the legal principles began in the ninth century, and Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq (d. 765) is credited as being one of its founding scholars. His student and contemporary, Abu Hanifa (d. 767) is recognised as one of the earliest jurists, and believed to be the founder of the first school of Sunni law, the Hanafi School of law. There are four major schools of Sunni law: the Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki and Shafi‘i.’3
In the Shi’i tradition, which has its own schools of law, such as the Zaydi and Ja‘fari, it is only the designated Imam from the family of the Prophet (Ahl al-bayt) who is appointed by Divine designation and who possesses Divinely inspired knowledge, has been granted the authority to interpret the Qur’an across time. In the Shi’i tradition ‘the Divine word is understood to have layers of meanings. Whereas the apparent, exoteric (zahir) aspect consists of knowing the literal meaning of the Qur’an, the interior, esoteric (batin) comprises knowing the hidden or inner meaning of the Qur’an that leads to deeper insights of the faith.‘3
O God, ease my heart with the Qur’an, fill my being with the Qur’an; illumine my sight with the Qur’an, and guide my tongue with the Qur’an. Grant me strength for as long as You allow me to live, for there is neither strength nor power, except in You.
A prayer by Imam ‘Ali b. Abi Talib [published in Approaches to the Qur’an]
1 His Highness the Aga Khan’s speech at the Opening session of Word of God, Art of Man: The Qur’an and its Creative Expressions, October 19, 2003 (accessed 2016)
2 The Ismaili Imamat, The Instiute of Ismaili Studies (accessed June 2016)
3 Shainool Jiwa, Approaches to the Qur’an, The Institute of Ismaili Studies (accessed 2016)
Mahmoud Ayoub, The Quran in Muslim Life and Practice, The Institute of Ismaili Studies (accessed 2016)
Compiled by Nimira Dewji