pages from the Qur'an
Early Quranic manuscript dated between 568 and 645 CE, contains parts of Surahs 18–20.

Muhammad had developed a refined integrated understanding, an intuitive capacity to connect to what has been referred to throughout our religious history as God/Truth/Knowledge/Love. As a result of this, far from what we think of as a vocation or choice, Muhammad understood the duty and function of his life. Jesus, Muhammad and other prophets – many of whom are referred to in the Qur’an – along with Islamic Sufi teachers who would come after Muhammad, are examples of human beings who reached a permanent stage where they were able to maintain existence in two worlds. They were “in the world but not of the world” (The Prophet).

Mount Hira’

Tradition states that one day, when he was about forty years old, Muhammad was alone and asleep in the cave on Mount Hira’ when he saw before him like “like the brightness of the dawn” an angel who commanded that he recite … Muhammad said that he could not do so.

“Then he took me and squeezed me vehemently and then let me go and repeated the order ‘Recite.’ ‘I cannot recite’ said I, and once again he squeezed me and let me go till I was exhausted. Then he said, ‘Recite.’ I said, ‘I cannot recite.’ He squeezed me for a third time and then let me go and said:

‘Recite in the name of your lord who created –
From an embryo created the human.

Recite your lord is all-giving
Who taught by the pen
Taught the human what he did not know before

The human being is a tyrant
He thinks his possessions make him secure
To your lord is the return of everything’” (Qur’an: 96:1-8)

Muhammad was terrified and unable to understand what had happened to him. Had he gone mad or become one of the Kahins, the ecstatic poets whom he despised? What had happened?  He staggered down the mountain and sought Khadija, crying “Wrap me up! Wrap me up!” Khadija covered him in a cloak and held him and when he was calmer, questioned him. He told her what he had experienced and that he feared he had gone mad, but Khadija had no doubt that his revelation was authentic, “This cannot be my dear, God would not treat you thus. You are known to be truthful and a bearer of the burdens of others. You give to the poor, you feed guests, you work against injustice,” writes I. Ishaq in The Life of Muhammad (translated by A. Guillaume pg.106).

But Muhammad was inconsolable, so Khadija took him to the only person she could think might be able to verify the nature of what had happened, her cousin Waraqa. Waraqa, an Ebionite Christian, had been one of the founding four Hanifs. He recognized Muhammad’s experience for what it was: “If this be true, Khadija, there has come to him the great divinity who came to Moses aforetime, and lo, he is the Prophet of this people,”  says Karen Armstrong in Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time.

Some scholars doubt that Muhammad would have been the successful businessman he was, had he been unable to read and write the correspondence and documentation relating to his own business. He may have been able to read both Arabic and the Aramaic in common use by the Jewish community at the time. They suggest that the epithet the Qur’an uses for Muhammad: “an-nabi al-ummi” traditionally meaning “the unlettered Prophet,” might instead mean “The Prophet for the unlettered,” in other words, for the people without a holy book.  “We did not give [the Arabs] any previous books to study, nor sent them any previous Warners before you.” (The Qur’an 34:44).

The revelations that Muhammad received were conveyed to others in words remote from his world: he was not known to have composed any poetry and had no special rhetorical gifts. From the first revelation, the Suras (chapters) of the Qur’an would deal with matters of belief, law, politics, ritual, spirituality and personal conduct, cosmology, and economics in what Karen Armstrong describes as an “entirely new literary form.” The Qur’an itself states, “If you are in doubt of what We have revealed to Our messenger, then produce one chapter like it. Call upon all your helpers, besides God, if you are truthful.(The Qur’an 2.23) No one was able to do this.

The Revelations and the Qur’an

Barnaby Rogerson writes in The Prophet Muhammad: A BiographyMedieval Islam considered the Qur’an to be a document that had existed throughout all eternity, graven like the tablets of Moses by the hand of God. They saw Muhammad as little more than God’s scribe and even considered the classical Arabic of the Qur’an to be created by God and the eternal language of heaven. This concept, although it might have been relevant in its own time, is no longer so useful. It is more enlightening to see the illiterate Prophet grappling in an attempt to place the sacred revelations within a human language, with all its limitations. It was a task into which he poured all his energy and abilities. It will be remembered that Muhammad testified, ‘Never once did I receive a revelation without thinking my soul had been torn away from me.’ It is also clear that he constantly strove towards ultimate perfection in this task of recitation. Perhaps he knew he had succeeded when the recitations no longer sounded within him as clear as a bell, but he could hear them as if they were dictated by an angel standing ‘at a distance of two bows – or even closer.’”

Idries Shah in The Sufis says, “For the Sufis of the classical period, the Koran is the encoded document which contains Sufi teachings. Theologians tend to assume that it is capable of interpretation only in a conventionally religious way; historians are inclined to look for earlier literary or religious sources; others for evidence of contemporary events reflected in its pages. For the Sufi, the Koran is a document with numerous levels of transmission, each one of which has a meaning in accordance with the capacity for understanding of the reader. It is this attitude toward the book which made possible the understanding between people who were of nominally Christian, pagan or Jewish backgrounds—a feeling which the orthodox could not understand. The Koran in one sense is therefore a document of psychological importance. Chapter 112 of the Koran is an excellent example of this synthesizing capacity of the book. This is one of the shortest chapters, and it may be translated thus: Say, O messenger, to the people: ‘He, Allah, is Unity! Allah the Eternal. Fathering nobody, and not himself engendered—And absolutely nothing is like him!’”

“For the Sufi, the Koran is a document with numerous levels of transmission, each one of which has a meaning in accordance with the capacity for understanding of the reader.”

A more modern understanding of a revelation might be that at such times Muhammad and other prophets experienced a higher state of consciousness that enabled them to intuitively understand aspects of an alternate Reality. This Reality is “beyond words.” “I cannot recite” might actually mean that the experience is impossible to put into words.

Thus in himself Muhammad developed a refined integrated understanding, an intuitive capacity to connect to what has been referred to throughout our religious history as God/Truth/Knowledge/Love. As a result of this, far from what we think of as a vocation or choice, Muhammad understood the duty and function of his life. Jesus, Muhammad and other prophets – many of whom are referred to in the Qur’an – along with Islamic Sufi teachers who would come after Muhammad, are examples of human beings who reached a permanent stage where they were able to maintain existence in two worlds. In the words of Mohammad, they were “in the world but not of the world.” 

“Speak to everyone in accordance with his degree of understanding” is a dictum of Muhammad. Traditionally it is understood that there are seven levels of understanding possible in the passages of the Qu’ran. Its major goal then was to provide contemporary guidance to those who wished to live an exemplary life, not only on a societal level but, more importantly, on an interior level. Everything – thought, action, and word – needed to be in harmony if one were to follow in Muhammad’s footsteps. As Fred Donner writes in his book Narratives of Islamic Origins: The Beginnings of Islamic Historical Writing, The Qur’an omits any talk of politics then or in the future: “The Qur’an certainly offers no clear guidance on who should exercise political power among the Believers after Muhammad – or even if anyone should; this simply does not seem to be of interest or concern to the Qur’an. Nor does it provide any indication of how power should be exercised; the only exceptions are moral injunctions so general and vague that they apply to all Believers alike, and so do not address the particular problems of political leadership and its rights or responsibilities in relation to its subjects in any meaningful way.” It does, however, provide detailed rules of conduct for the individual in a multitude of quotidian activities.

For example, in Sura 4 An-Nisa’ (The Women), even read in translation, one gets the sense that this is God’s guide to life and in intimate detail because an awareness and connection with the Absolute is the only reason for the Believer’s life. God reckons all things. He is fully conscious of everything we do. He is forgiving and merciful – you don’t have to worry about anyone else’s behavior, worry about your own in the sight of God. God watches every action, every thought, behavior and intention. The text establishes the requisite mental and emotional attitude, the continuous exercise of self-observation and awareness, that will take the Believer further into the consciousness of God. “You shall remember god while standing, sitting or lying down.” (Quran 4:103.) Through haunting repetition one is constantly reminded that:

God is omniscient. Most wise.
God is forgiver. Most merciful.
God is fully aware of everything you do.
God is Pardoner. Omnipotent.
God is Almighty – most wise.
God is in full control of all things.
He has taught you what you never knew.

As a Believer progressed in understanding so his responsibilities increase: Sura 3:7 “And none receive admonition except men of understanding.” (Tafsir At-Tabari).

From the traditional point of view, “God’s words” were “spoken” directly to Muhammad as they had been to the Old Testament Prophets before him. Because it is the language of sacred texts, Hebrew was often considered sacred. In post-biblical times, it was referred to as lashon ha-kodesh, the holy language. And like biblical Hebrew, the Arabic of the Qur’an (the Recitation) is also considered sacred because it is the language through which Muhammad received God’s revelations.

Both texts were addressed to a predominately oral society. They were to be repeatedly read aloud, recited, and their sounds are an essential part of the experience. Both Hebrew and Arabic have multiple resonances of words that have the same trilateral root which affect the listener on multiple levels. Although English has metaphor, allegory etc., as do all Arabic languages, English can only provide a sense of this trilateral root resonance on a far, far simpler level, in certain phrases such as: “looking through the pane” where the pane of glass also can bring up the idea of physical or emotional pain.

The tension between the levels of meaning within a text such as the Qu’ran produces insights in the reader according to his/her capacity to understand. When absorbed simultaneously the reader can see further ranges of significance until the stage could be reached when he/she also finds understanding beyond verbalization. Socratic dialogue, Zen stories and the tales of Nasrudin are examples of other instrumental texts.

The Qu’ran refers to Old Testament narratives and prophets such as Joseph, Jacob, Abraham, and Moses and New Testament figures such as Mary, Zachariah and Jesus. But, as Donner points out, “They are told by the Qur’an not because they relate particular, unique episodes in the history of mankind or of a chosen people, but because they offer diverse examples illustrating the basic Qur’anic truths … The lesson of every prophet is that there is an eternal moral choice – the choice between good and evil, Belief and unbelief – faced by all people from Adam on in more or less the same form, and hence simply repeated generation after generation …The apostles and prophets are not, in the Quranic presentation, successive links in a chain of historical evolution, each with a unique role in the story of the community’s development, but merely repeated examples of an eternal truth, idealized models to be emulated.”

Illuminated manuscript

The seven verses of Al-Fatiha, the first sura of the Qur’an.

The first audiences of the Qur’an were not unsophisticated linguists; these people were passionate about composing both poetry and prose; they excelled in oratory, diction and eloquence. The Arabic language was their pride and joy and they vied with each other in their ability to be fluent and eloquent speakers at competitive events for poetry and oration. Their stories told of their adventures and their valor in warfare, of their amorous exploits and extolled the virtues of their women. Like the ancient Greeks and other oral societies of old, they committed thousands of tales and poems to memory which were passed down by oral tradition from generation to generation. Their pride in their mastery of the Arabic language knew no bounds: they referred to all non-Arabs as “Ajums” (people suffering from a speech impediment.)

After the first revelation there was a gap of two years in which Muhammad received no revelations, and he quite naturally would have doubted the veracity of the first one. After all, he was not from a distinguished clan, not a miracle worker, and not an impressive figure in the eyes of the Quraysh; what was he doing receiving the word of God? Was his arrogance even worse than their own?

Then a second vision occurred, this time revealing that those who experience the care of God have a duty to others “… one who asks for help – do not turn him away;” (The Qur’an 93.10) and Muhammad was clearly instructed to proclaim God’s message to the Quraysh: “And the grace of your lord – proclaim!” (The Qur’an 93.11) Thus Muhammad became a Messenger whose duty it was to remind his people of what they had forgotten in both religious and social terms.

The prophet received revelations for 23 years until his death in 632.

Muhammad never thought nor claimed to be inventing a new religion. He never sought power nor took advantage of his situation or status:

“I am nothing but a warner and a herald of glad tidings unto people who will believe.” (The Qur’an 7:188)
 “There shall be no coercion in matters of faith.” (The Qur’an 2.256),
and again,
“But if they turn away from thee, O Prophet, remember that thy only duty is a clear delivery of the message entrusted to thee.”
(The Qur’an 16.82)

From the second revelation until his death he maintained a singleness of purpose as a Messenger of God to convey and carry out His wishes. He was tasked to restore the original monotheistic faith of Adam, Abraham and other prophets whose messages had become misinterpreted or corrupted over time. His revelations confirmed that the God of the “People of the Book” was the one and only Allah, God of all humanity, and that people should honor Him and only Him in life and deed. The Qur’an (42.13) says :  “[God] has established for you the same religion enjoined on Noah, on Abraham, on Moses, and on Jesus.”

From the second revelation until his death he maintained a singleness of purpose as a Messenger of God to convey and carry out His wishes.

As Reza Aslan notes in No god but God, The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, it is not surprising that: “There are striking similarities between the Christian and Qur’anic description of the Apocalypse, the Last Judgment, and the paradise awaiting those who have been saved.” But he points out that “These similarities do not contradict the Muslim belief that the Qur’an was divinely revealed, but they do indicate that the Quaranic vision of the Last Days may have been revealed to the pagan Arabs through a set of symbols and metaphors with which they were already familiar, thanks in some part to the wide spread of Christianity in the region.

an ancient page from the Qur’an

Qur’an manuscript from the 7th century CE, written on vellum in the Hijazi script.

Just as the first followers of Jesus did not consider themselves members of a new religion, neither did the initial “believers” close to Muhammad.  The group included former pagans, Jews and Christians: monotheists who saw themselves as people trying to live in accordance with God’s rules and law. According to Fred Donner in Muhammad and the Believers: “Mohammed built a movement of devout spiritualists from many faiths who shared a few core beliefs: God was one, the end of the world was near, and the truly religious had to live exemplary lives rather than merely pay lip service to God’s laws. It was almost a century after Mohammed founded his ‘community of believers’ and launched the great Islamic conquest that his followers started to define their beliefs as a distinct religious faith.”

Muhammad was a gentle and contemplative man, he had no real status within the Quraysh and was not of the stature that the Arab world would expect for a Prophet. As Karen Armstrong and others have noted, he was not a violent man but faced a violent, barbaric, corrupt, greedy and contemptuous world that he understood would destroy itself unless it changed. “Muhammad literally sweated with the effort to bring peace to war-torn Arabia. He realized that Arabia was at a turning point and that the old way of thinking would no longer suffice, so he wore himself out in the creative effort to evolve an entirely new solution.”

“Mohammed built a movement of devout spiritualists from many faiths who shared a few core beliefs…”

Those close to Muhammad were the first to believe in his revelations. Ali, who was taken in by Muhammad when his father, Abu Talib, was in financial distress, was the first; then Zayd, who remained at his side, although he had been a Syrian slave until he was given his freedom by Muhammad; the merchant Abu Bakr was the third to join the believers. He had a reputation for kindness and honesty and once he joined Muhammad others who knew him did the same.

The Messenger’s immediate goal was to bring the message of Allah to his own tribe, and many of the revelations were extremely difficult for the Quraysh to adopt. Not only had they to reject all their idols but their conduct had to change entirely – they had to submit their own will to the will of Allah.

Quran Fragments Found in Britain Are Dated to the Birth of Islam

Dan Bilefsky, New York Times

The fragments appeared to be part of what could be the world’s oldest copy of the Quran, and researchers say it may have been transcribed by a contemporary of the Prophet Muhammad.


The Pre-Islamic World
The Life of Muhammad
Muhammad the Unifier
Judaism and Christianity in the Qur’an
The Community of Believers

Further Reading

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