Muslims believe that the Qur`an consists of words that were miraculously formulated by God in the heart of the Prophet Muhammad, his will playing no part in it. This is also expressed by saying that the Spirit (or the angel Gabriel) revealed the verses of the Qur`an to him. This belief did not develop as a result of gradual reflection or as a result of a decision taken by the community after the Prophet. Rather, this belief was a part of being Muslim from the very beginning for the simple reason that the Qur`an itself clearly states it (2:23,97, 4:82, 6:19, 10:38, 14:1, 17:86-88, 26:192-194, 27:6, 42:24, 56:77-80, 80:11-16, 81:19-29, 85:21-22). To be a Muslim has always meant to accept Muhammad as the Messenger of God which in turn has always meant accepting the Qur`an as the word of God.
What is the Qur`an?
The Prophet Muhammad started his mission in the early 7th century moved by a conviction that he had been entrusted with an extremely important and urgent message for humankind. This conviction came upon him in a forceful way without any anticipation on his part. Traditions suggest that he felt compelled to take up this mission in the face of initial reluctance and apprehensions.
The performance of this mission required making some statements, taking some actions, and dealing with reactions to those statements and actions, which required making still more statements and taking still more actions. The Qur`an played a central part in this process. It consists of statements that moved the mission along. These statements, along with the actions taking place in the background, were extremely effective as may be judged from the fact that within a period of about 23 years the Prophet was able to win the hearts and minds of his people, despite sustained and fierce opposition, and launch a world wide religious movement.
The Qur`an performs two functions in the mission of the Prophet. On the one hand, it prepares a community transformed in the light of its message and helps deal with the unceasing opposition from its first hearers, and on the other hand, it enshrines that message for all future generations. The Qur`anic words are therefore at one and the same time tied to the immediate circumstances of the Prophet’s activity and transcend those circumstances.
The message of the Qur`an
What is the message according to which the Qur`an transforms those who accept it and that it wants to convey to the rest of humanity? This message calls humanity to faith in, and relationship with, the one true transcendent God. Muhammad himself had a particularly strong and close relationship with God and enjoyed its tremendous benefits. His being Messenger of God primarily means that he is chosen by God to help others build a similar relationship with him and thus share God’s grace. That is why the Qur`an calls him rahmah li al-‘alamin (grace to all the worlds) (21:107).
Most of humanity has always believed in some kind of supreme God and this was certainly the case during the time of the Qur`anic revelation. Consequently, the Qur`an does not concern itself with the question of God’s existence. Its primary focus is on the problem that after recognizing his existence in some way most people ignore him because they do not believe in his revelations, as if he has nothing to say to them and they have nothing to do with him. Or, they recognize his relevance to one aspect of their lives (such as their personal life) and ignore him in other aspects (such as the political). Or they create his image in their own minds rather than submit to him as he is. Or they simply turn away from him as too unknown and too remote and start worshipping some other beings either as his incarnations or as mediators or as completely separate deities (6:91, 39:3,38,67, 43:87, 29:63).
In the Qur`an belief in God is a far reaching belief with tremendous implications. It requires nothing short of a wholehearted commitment and complete surrender to God (islam). It also requires taking responsibility in life. Human beings are not created to aimlessly wander in life (75:36). They are created as God’s slaves (‘ibad) to serve his purpose (51:56), although as they can also be his friends (4:135).
Responsibility requires accountability. Some accountability of our actions takes place in this life but at the same time people are often rewarded here for some of the wrongs they do and are punished for some of the good deeds they do. In the face of this reality we may either deny the existence or relevance of God or conclude that complete accountability of our actions will take place in a future life. In the Qur`an it is one of the momentous consequences of the belief in God that one day in the hereafter human beings will answer for their actions before God (17:13-15 etc).
Believers and non-Believers
Believers are, of course, those who freely (2:256, 4:79-80, 6:107, 16:82, 17:53-54, 21:107-109, 39:41) respond to the call of the Prophet and accept him as the Messenger of the one true God. They are often addressed in the Qur`an and given various types of instructions for their spiritual and moral development and for organizing their collective life. The Qur`an also talks a great deal about other religions and their adherents. Its attitude towards them flows from a universal outlook on revelation and salvation.
In the Qur`anic view revelation is an expression of man’s own true nature (fitrah) as God meant it to be (30:30). This is why good can be described as ma‘ruf, meaning “recognized (as good by humanity generally)” and bad is munkar, meaning “rejected (as bad by humanity generally)”. The knowledge of good and bad and of the need to have a relationship with God is found in the depth of every human soul (91:7-10, 7:172), although in most human beings it is suppressed by various factors such as negative influences of the society, demands of worldly needs, and of some human weaknesses such as impatience, slavery to one’s desires, arrogance, and unawareness of one’s ignorance (10:12, 14:21, 17:11, 25:28-29, 40:47-48, 51:11, 70:19-21, 76:27 etc). The purpose of revelation is to bring this knowledge out of suppression, to resurrect it from its grave in the human soul. This is something that human beings cannot achieve by their own will (2:23, 17:88 etc), since the very tendencies that suppress the knowledge also hinder or corrupt its expression. Humanity needs messengers of God speaking with divine inspiration (98:1-3).
Consistent with the above view, revelation is not considered as channeled exclusively through one person or one nation. Rather messengers of God have arisen among every nation (16:36). And all these messengers essentially taught the same message (42:13), although in details of outward rites (manasik) and regulations for organizing community life (shir‘ah and minhaj) they differed (22:67, 4:48). Since revelation played a part in the formation of many, if not all the existing traditions, salvation is achievable through them if a person commits wholeheartedly to the one true God and as a consequence leads a life of goodness (2:112). In particular, Sabians (probably the followers of John the Baptist), Jews and Christians “shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve” if they have faith in the one true God, believe in the hereafter, and do good (2:62, 5:69). Christians who worship Jesus as God will not enter paradise unless they turn to the forgiving and merciful God in repentance (2:72-74), but the Qur`anic judgment will be exactly the same if some Muslims deified Muhammad and started to worship him. Such worship of human figures is contrary to the universal religion which according to the Qur`an is the essence of the teachings of all the true messengers of God raised among all nations.
Since there is light of revelation outside Islam and non-believers have the possibility of salvation, the world of Islam and the non-believing world are not distinguished absolutely in terms of good and evil, light and darkness. Other religions are viewed as a mixture of divine light brought by the true messengers of God and errors introduced by some of their followers. Therefore the functions of the Qur`an include being a confirmer (musaddiq) (2:97, 3:3) and guard (muhaymin) (5:48) of the divine light in earlier religions, identifying serious errors introduced by some of their adherents (5:116, 57:27) and resolving some of their differences (27:76-79). Thus the Qur`an maintains an attitude of constructive criticism towards other religious traditions. The same is true of the followers of those traditions. They are not painted with the same brush (3:69 etc); rather the Qur`an expressly states that “they are not all alike” (3:113). It praises some of their good qualities while criticizes some of their weaknesses (57:27, 5:13-14, 9:31, 34). In this regard it is important to note that such a critical attitude is not reserved for only non-believers. Believers and even the Prophet himself can be criticized for some of their failings (62:11, 66:1, 80:1-12). The Qur`an, as the word of the Lord of all humanity, shows no partiality except towards righteousness (6:115, 49:13), just as it teaches its followers to rise above all partiality other than partiality towards truth and justice (4:135, 5:8 etc).
Sometimes the Qur`an calls non-believers to faith in Muhammad and the revelation he has been given (3:179, 4:170, 5:15-16, 7:158). But it is perfectly willing to accept that some of them will choose to continue to follow the religion of their fathers. Because of this acceptance, the Qur`an often addresses non-believersas non-believers, encourages them to follow faithfully the revelations that they were given (5:44, 46-47), and establishes rules for dealings with them (5:5).
All this provides an excellent basis for dialogue between believers and non-believers, through which believers can listen with sensitivity to non-believers and learn about their traditions, exploring where there is agreement but without ignoring important differences, especially those that relate to God’s unity and transcendence (3:64). As a result of such dialogue there can be cooperation on what is just and virtuous, but not on sinful causes (5:2).
The Qur`an also deals with relationships of the Muslims with the non-believers at the individual and collective levels. Unfortunately, many non-believers showed much hatred and enmity towards Islam and Muslims, throwing Muslims out of their homes (3:195), or making fun of their prayer and religion generally (5:57-58), and either waging war or kindling the flames of war between Muslims and some other non-believers (5:64) or by other subversive devices (3:72). Although at an individual level Muslims can have even such intimate relationship as that of marriage with those non-believers who are truly monotheists (5:5, 2:221, 5:72), Muslims are advised not to take hostile non-believers as allies against the purposes of Islam and the collective interests of the Muslim community (5:51, 57). Those non-believers who are not hostile are explicitly exempted from this advice (60:8) and even in case of hostile non-believers the Qur`an holds forth the hope that hostility will some day change to love: “It may be that God will generate love between you and those of them with whom you are now at enmity. God is capable (of all things); God is forgiving and merciful” (60:7).