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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

The Qur'an: A Biography - Bruce B. Lawrence, Michael Prichard I read this book to give myself some background in the history of the Koran (Qur’an) before reading it. I would never read the Koran (Qur’an) on my own, but a book discussion group I belong to selected it for reading. This book, (The Qur'an: A Biography) kept using terms and expressions that were unfamiliar to me. I was expecting a biography to explain things better and not create needless additional questions.

To start off: - Who came up with the spelling of Qur’an? I thought the correct spelling was Koran, which is phonetically correct for the way it is pronounced on the audio recordings of the book. I suspect that maybe Qur’an is closer to the way it may be pronounced in Arabic. It seems to me that the English Language has enough unphonetic spellings. Why add one more?

Another thing: – The book kept using the term, “A Book of Signs.” Is that a term translated from Arabic? It is not a term I’m familiar with. I thought for a while that it was an alternative way of referring to the Koran (Qur’an). But it may be an expression that can be applied to other books such as the books of Moses and the Christian Gospels. This book offers no explanation. Below are two quotations from the books showing how the expression is used.

First Excerpt:
Whether one hears or reads it, in Arabic or some other language, it is A Book of Signs because each of its many verses, like delicate filigree, is more than words: the Arabic word for the smallest unit of Qur'anic text means "verse", but "verse" also means "sign" or "miracle". As tangible signs, Qur'anic verses are expressive of an inexhaustible truth. They signify meaning layered within meaning, light upon light, miracle after miracle.
Second Excerpt:
However, not all Christians or Jews accepted the Qur'an as true or Muhammad as God's Prophet. Among the doubters was Robert of Ketton, a Christian monk, who first translated the Qur'an into Latin. His role as a hostile but engaged student of A Book of Signs deserves mention along with the parallel role of major Muslim interpreters who elaborated Qur'anic themes in new and imaginative directions. (end of quotations)

Another Question I have: -- The book says that in 934 CE the seven different ways of reciting were fixed. Does this mean different text versions? Or does it mean different styles? Different languages? How are they different? This deserves further explanation. If this is referring to seven different texts, that’s a big deal for a canonical scripture. When I pick up an English translation, which of these seven versions am I getting?

One thing I found interesting was that the Prophet’s sayings were not immediately recorded in written form. I had previously thought that he had dictated directly to a scribe. The timeline is as follows. The sayings came to the Prophet Muhammad via a divine mediary (the Archangel Gabriel) between 610 and 632 CE. Different people close to the Prophet Muhammad heard these revelations as he uttered them. They remembered the words and repeated them orally. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, 'Ali, his close relative and supporter, worked with others to compile them into a written text. Then 20 years later all extant versions were arranged into one "standard" version. This version persists substantially unchanged to the present day. As mentioned earlier, in 934 CE there is an indication of “seven different ways of reciting.” So there must have been some remaining variation in the texts.

The author’s words sound very respectful of the Koran (Qur’an). The following are some excerpts that show this respect:

…. it is an oral book that sounds better spoken than read silently …..

To hear the Qur'an recited is for Muslims unlike anything else. It is to experience the power of divine revelation as a shattering voice from the Unseen. It moves, it glides, it soars, it sings. It is in this world, yet not of it.

The Qur'an is a multilayered Arabic text. Even those who hear it understand it in numerous, sometimes divergent ways, and those who cannot hear it in Arabic grasp no more than a fraction of its intended message.