the word qur'an means a proclamation - something read out. the role of muhammad (pbuh)*1 in this was that of the messenger. he was commanded to read in the first verse revealed of the qur'an.
proclaim! (or read!) in the name of thy lord and cherisher who created
created man out of a (mere) clot of congealed blood*2
proclaim! and thy lord is most bountiful
he who taught (the use of) the pen
taught man that which he knew not.
a crucial part of understanding the qur'an is considering the role of muhammad (pbuh). who was he? what did he do during his life? why should muhammad (pbuh) have been chosen? what was his level of education? what environment did he grow up in? once these questions are tackled we can keep the answers in mind when reading the pages ahead and consider whether any of these details can offer some credible alternative explanation of the origins of the qur'an than that it was divinely revealed.
muhammad (pbuh) was born 570 years after the birth of christ (pbuh) a few weeks after his father had died. as was the customary practice in makkah at the time muhammad was given to a bedouin wet-nurse to take care of him for a number of years. his mother died when muhammad (pbuh) was 6 years old. he was raised by his paternal grandfather 'abd al muttalib (shaybah) until the age of eight and, after his grandfather’s death, by abu talib, his paternal uncle. under the guardianship of abu talib, muhammad (pbuh) began to earn a living as a shepherd, then as a trader. at the age of twelve, he accompanied abu talib with a merchant caravan as far as bosra in syria. he worked as a trader for several years, gained an excellent reputation for honesty and became known as "al-amin" which means "the trustworthy one". at the age of 25 a rich merchant widow called khadijah heard of his credentials and proposed marriage to muhammad through a relative. he accepted despite her being 15 years older than him. khadijah and muhammad (pbuh) were the parents of six children - four daughters and two sons, although both the sons died in infancy. importantly muhammad was known to be illiterate - he couldn't read nor could he write. he was however, known to be very eloquent in his speech.
muhammad was descended from ishmael who was the first born son of abraham. originally built by abraham and ishmael, the ka'bah had become largely corrupted. when it was first built, it was for the worship god alone but now this was known only as a sort of holy centre, for all kinds of pagan beliefs and idolatry. the ka'bah had at that time 360 idols which the pagans would worship. these were statues of various sorts and even included statues of jesus (pbuh) and images of mary. there was still a group of makkans who tried to follow the true teachings of abraham. they were known as the hanafi. the main cultural pursuit of the arabs was poetry. competitions would be held and the language blossomed into a deeply expressive form. it became, at that time, a language with a highly sophisticated grammar and great subtlety of expression.
muhammad (pbuh) was born into the leading clan of mecca who were the "quraish". his position in society was very well respected. at around the age of 40 he began to take to meditation and prayer in a cave on a mountain overlooking makkah. he would fast and spend long hours in contemplation and prayer. it was during one of these visits to the cave that he received the first words of revelation from the archangel jibril (gabriel). on this first appearance, gabriel (as) said to muhammad: "iqraa," meaning read or recite. muhammad replied, "i cannot read,". the angel gabriel then embraced him until he reached the limit of his endurance and after releasing said: "iqraa." muhammad’s answer was the same as before. gabriel repeated the embrace for the third time, asked him to repeat after him and said the verses that are mentioned above.
muhammad (pbuh) was terrified by the whole experience of the revelation and rushed home to his wife. he told his wife to cover him with a blanket. after his shock had calmed down, his wife khadijah asked him about the reason his distressed state. after hearing his account she reassured him by saying: "allah will not let you down because you are kind to relatives, you speak only the truth, you help the poor, the orphan and the needy, and you are an honest man." khadijah then became the first person to accept islam.
initially the qur'an won converts to islam through the message being given to friends and family of the prophet. after some time in this phase the message began to be proclaimed publicly. soon enough the people in power started to oppose this message since it clearly threatened their authority to make law based on the authority of 'the gods' (the idols). the small band of muslims was severely oppressed and several killed. but they persisted in teaching this new revelation to others. finally after an economic boycott and the theft of their possessions which reduced the muslims to near starvation, muhammad was given the position of a judge in the city of yathrib partly as a way that the tribes could in that city could find a way out of their feuding, but also largely a result of many people accepting islam, taught by companions of muhammad (pbuh). following the establishment of the islamic state a number of battles took place between the muslims and the makkans who were attempting to eliminate the muslims and their "dangerous ideas". eventually the muslims were able to march into makkah without any resistance because of their overwhelming forces and announced a general amnesty. within 100 years the islamic state had spread into spain and india defeating both the persian empire and the romans and was the largest 'empire' yet to have been seen on earth.
muhammad's life and example span a whole range of circumstances and therefore the study of his example and his judgements provides a rich and comprehensive precedent which is used in deriving islamic law.
those who wish to reject muhammad as a prophet have two basic positions. they either assert that he was a liar or that he was mad. the first is flatly contradicted by all the reports of his life and that he was deeply convinced of the message he had to deliver. if he were a liar, would he have risked his life and the life of his dearest companions many times? would he have been so confident in what he said and did? the next alternative that he was mad is thrown into doubt by the careful planning that he went through in all that he did. madness shows a lack of grip on reality yet muhammad was known to be highly realistic in all that he did. we know this, for example, from the councils of war he conducted. islam made perfect sense to muhammad as it makes perfect sense today.
this only captures a few of the alternative, and in the majority wholly unreasonable, perspectives of who muhammad was. the evidence that the qur'an is an accurate record of the words he proclaimed as direct revelation from god is however largely beyond dispute. this is the subject of the next chapter.. nevertheless, some will always come up with the most ludicrous alternative explanations. as they see no need for the moral of good thinking they see nothing wrong in making such suggestions. it is fairly pointless discussing them.
the crucial question to consider in the following sections is whether it is reasonable to say that muhammad could have written (or thought up) the qur'an.
the writing of the qur'an
*1 - muslims usually refer to muhammad, as to all prophets, with a phrase like ‘peace be upon him’ following the mention of his name. this is abbreviated to (pbuh).
*2 - the word in arabic is 'alaq and shall be explained fully in a later section.