The role of the Qur’an

 in the development of Islam


The word Qur’an comes from a verb Qara which means to recite. Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the word of God as revealed in Arabic through Gabraiel at intervals. It was recited by Muhammad, written down by his scribes and after his death collected in a book. This has been preserved throughout ages. Its nature and contents has played a decisive role in the development of a faith known today as Islam and its adherents as Muslims.

The Qur’an compares in length with the New Testament and comprises 114 chapters, Suras, which vary in length from a few verses to over two hundred verses, aya. Muslims believe that the Qur’an was revealed in Arabic, piecemeal over the last two decades of Muhammad’s life, from about 610 until his demise in 632 CE The Qur’an contains instruction on theology, legislation, eschatology and retribution. Its content further includes admonition, polemics, ethics and narratives of previous prophets and patriarchs.

The role of the Qur’an at Makkah (610-621)

The beginning of the Qur’an is not the beginning of the role that Qur’an played in the development of Islam, because the Patriarchs Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac and Jacob have been there before. The Qur’an in fact started with these people to establish Islam. For all the prophets belong with a Book eternally pre existent in heaven on a preserved tablet (Sura 85:21-22). Muhammad came only to complete the task.

The first words revealed to Muhammad were the opening five verses of Sura 96.[1] The revelations that followed emphasized the fear of the last judgment, piety and good works, and warning against neglect of duties and heedlessness of the final day of reckoning. The revelations bore some important similarities to Christianity and Judaism: the vision of the last judgment that the world would be destroyed and the dead resurrected to stand before God (Sura 101:1-8; 89:1-26).

The silent da’wa, invitation

For three years after the first revelations, Muhammad remained a private person, coming to terms with God’s message. He related his experiences to his family and friends. A small group of people accepted him and gathered around him to hear and recite the Qur’an. This first group of people who were converted to a belief in his preaching were his wife Khadijah, his ten year old cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib, the ex-slave but now adopted son Zayd ibn Haritha, and his friend Abu Bakr. [2]

At the heart of Makkah was the sacred haram, or enclosure, to which all Arab pagans came during the months of truce. The control of commerce and the pagan pilgrims belonged to the rulers of Makkah, the Quraysh. Muhammad was quite aware that the nobility of Makkah would not approve of his new religion only because it would jeopardise their vested economic interests as well as undermine their political privileges. So, calmly and with deliberate discretion, he invited his most intimate friends and kin to follow him.

The open invitation

After three years of discreet propagation of Islam in Makkah, a revelation came in 613 CE ordering Muhammad to speak publicly, inviting everybody in Makkah to embrace Islam, “Arise and warn!”, (Sura 74:2-3; 73-2). So he began to urge his hearers to worship God alone, to repudiate their idols and to ready themselves for the day of Judgement. At first he was not taken seriously and was even ridiculed. Gradually, however, he converted a few nobles of the Quraysh, some middle class people, and a number of slaves and poor people. They were people who were most dissatisfied with the changing morals and social climate of Makkah. For them the Prophet’s message proved a vital alternative. Here was a message in their own language; a prophet from among them. [3] Muslims claim that the Qur’an’s message was so impressive for them that they were willing to give up the home town and migrate to Abyssinia. These people were willing to leave their families and clans to take up life together in a foreign land. For them the bonds of common belief were stronger than the bonds of blood.

The reaction of the people of Makkah

The hierarchy was quite concerned. Here was someone breaking a society and bringing forth a pioneer company of Muhammad who would believe in the God of Abraham known as Allah, Qul huwa Allahu Ahad, Say! He is Allah, the One and Only (Sura 112:1ff). But that was not all; they could see that their power structure was also challenged (Sura 106:1-4).

The majority of the Quraysh in their obduracy stood for the status quo. They belittled the revelations calling it asatirul awallin, stories of old, and denounced him as a Kahin, a soothsayer, a magician, majnun, mad man and a poet (Sura 52:29; 68:6; 69:42).

Then came the insults, harassment of Muhammad and his followers and an economic boycott that extended to keeping the Muslims from purchasing food in the markets. Several of the followers, who did not have tribal or family protection as Muhammad himself did, were martyred in the course of time by men like Abu Sufyan and his allies. As a result, some eighty Makkan Muslims emigrated to Abyssinia. [4]

The Qur’an's role as a comforter

The Qur’an played a major role to comfort Muhammad and his companions to take heart that the opposition was not something new. It continued to warn of the coming judgement over them as happened to the people at the time of the prophets Noah, Hud, Salih and, above all, Moses (Sura 54). The Qur’an was assuring the believer that God had not forsaken them (Sura 93:3) and that the eventual outcome was to be their victory. [5]

The Hijra

For his mission to succeed, Muhammad would have to be in a more prominent, even powerful, position. By 619 Muhammad understood that to protect himself and his followers and to overcome the resistance of the Quraysh, migration was the only choice left to him. With the guarantee of protection provided by the pledge from Khazraj and Aws to obey Muhammad, he and his followers immigrated to Yathrib, 250 miles in the north of Makkah, later to be known as Madinatun Nabi, the city of the Prophet. The Qur’an makes little actual reference to the event of the Hijrah in narrative terms. Sura 9:40 tells of how divine protecting peace, Al-sakinah, hovered over Muhammad and his closest associate Abu Bakr, en route to Yathrib. There seems to be an oblique reference in Sura 36:9.

The role of the Qur’an at Madina (622 - 632 CE)

In Madina the Qur’anic revelation played a greater role in binding together the Muhajiroon, immigrants from Makkah with the Ansar, helpers from Madina to form one political and religious group to be called the Umma, still the word for the Muslim community. The revelation kept reminding them, “Be not infirm and be not grieved, you shall have the upper hand” (Sura 3:139). It was a kind of the slogan, “We shall overcome”. Their duty was to listen to Allah and his apostle and obey, Atiullah wa atiur rasul, obey Allah and obey the Prophet (Sura 3:132).

There were several Jewish tribes living in and around Madina. Muhammad went to the extent including the Jews and Christians in his nascent community. There were some Christian communities in Arabia in places like Najran. To attract them to Islam the Qur’an presented its point of view of Jesus. These communities were mainly of Ebonite and Maryamaite sects.

The majority of both, the Jews and Christians opposed Muhammad but it were the Jews of Madina and around who were a concern to Muhammad.  They rejected his claim to be a Prophet in the Hebrew traditions and the expected one mentioned in the Torah (Deuteronomy 18:18). Muslims claim that many of the Jews in Madina conspired with the Makkans against Muhammad and the Muslim community. In this they were joined by the hypocrites, munafiqun, Madinan Arabs, who had not sincerely accepted Islam (Sura 31:7; 63:1-4; 2:8-16).

During Muhammad’s wars with the Makkans, most of the Jews were banished from Madina, and some were killed. In the course of this struggle with the Jews, the Qur’an denounced the Jews of having broken their covenant (Sura 5:13; 17:4) and revealed more about Abraham as the Prophet par excellence (Sura 2:124), who fought the pure religion of God (Sura 6:75; 2:135), the first Muslim, the builder of the temple in Makkah (Sura 2:135), and the father of the Arabs. The Qur’an revealed that Muhammad was sent to restore pure monotheism of Abraham (Sura 2:129).

The creation of an Umma

Muhammad in the light of the Qur’an worked to create a community, Umma, based on shared religious beliefs, ceremonies, ethics and laws - a community which would transcend the traditional social structure based on families, clans, and tribes and would unite disparate groups into a new Arabian society. Numerous rituals and social laws were set. These included the five pillars of faith, Shahadah, Salat, Saum, Zakat, and Hajj. [6] The Qur’an defined the social norms of the new community. Indeed its teaching on family laws were the crux of a social and metaphysical revolution. The Qur’anic rules against incest were crucial for the viability of group life. The family ideal was protected by a clear definition of its collective duties. The Qur’an urged respect for women’s modesty and privacy that they be treated as feeling persons. Women were now able to hold property in their own names. Daughters were no more to be killed or buried alive (Sura 2:221; 4:7;11,24 etc.). Apart from family laws and morals, the Qur’an dealt with many other kinds of communal problems. Norms for business transactions were set down, injunctions to deal justly, honour contracts, give true witness and not take usurious interest.

The role of the Qur’an in Jihad

It was in Madina that permission to fight against the wrong doers was granted. Thus Muhammad and his companions began a policy of unrelenting hostility towards Makkah (Sura 2:216-217). At the battle of Badr (624 CE), Muhammad defeated a larger Makkan force, decimated Makkah’s leadership and won tremendous prestige everywhere in Arabia (Sura 3:13;123; 8:7-13). To take revenge the Makkans attacked Madina at the battle of Uhud (625 CE) and then the battle of Khandaq, the Trench (627 CE) but with no success (Sura 3:121-128, 152-155; Sura 33:9-27).

The Arab tribes by now realised that the Makkans they had trusted were not going to last long. Most of them withdrew their support from Makkah. The situation and the zeal of the believers were at a climax. In the end, Muhammad brought his native city of Makkah over to his side. Just two years after the battle of the Trench Muhammad completed his triumph over Makkah. He returned to the city whose leaders had driven him away only eight years earlier. Makkan leaders surrendered the city (Sura 48:1-2). Ka’ba was cleansed of idols and became the centre of the Islamic world.

The role of the Qur’an after Muhammad

In the following two years deputation from all parts of Arabia came and accepted Islam (Sura 110:1-3). The time came for Muhammad to depart and the revelation ceased at his death in 632. The final deliverance of the Qur’an is thought to be the words: “This day I perfected your religion for you, completed my favour upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion” (Sura 5:3).

Although Muslims divided themselves on the question of successor ship after Muhammad, the Qur’an along with the Sunna of Muhammad has been playing a major role in the development of the Muslims community through the Sharia (and al-fiqh, jurisprudence), established several centuries later after Muhammad.



[1] A few believe that it was Sura al-Fatiha, the first chapter of the Qur’an.

[2] Rahman, A Chronology of Islamic History, p. 14.

[3] While the Qur’an firmly declares itself a scripture for all people (Sura 21:107; 34:28) it equally stresses the Arabic language (Sura 12:2; 13:37;20:113; 41:3; 42:7; 43:3) in the setting of an Arabic audience. “We sent not a messenger except (to teach) in the language of his own people ...” (Sura 14:4). Muhammad is “a Warner from among themselves” (Sura 50:2).

[4] ‘According to some records, the emigration took place in two groups, one after the other, with an interval of about two months. The first group consisted of fifteen people and the second one hundred’ (Rahman, A Chronology of Islamic History, p. 15).

[5] There must have been believers who cried like Noah to God according to the Qur’an, ‘Lord! I am one overcome:- Do thou then help (me)’ (Sura 54:10).

[6] Two pillars, the Tawhid and Salat were prescribed in Makkah.


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