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Sacred Texts

Sacred Texts

Sacred Texts in Islam

The Quran, meaning "the recitation," is Islam's sacred scripture. According to Islamic tradition, the Quran was revealed by God to the prophet Muhammad, through the angel Gabriel, over the course of more than twenty years beginning in 610 CE. Muhammad was forty when he received his first revelation in a cave near the holy city of Mecca. According to the traditional accounts, Muhammad encountered Gabriel, who commanded him to read. When Muhammad replied that he was illiterate, the angel revealed the first lines of chapter 96: Read: In the name of your Lord Who created, (1) Created man from a clot. (2) Read: And your Lord is the Most Generous, (3) Who taught by the pen, (4) Taught man that which he knew not

The Quran is made up of 114 chapters (surah in Arabic) arranged from longest to shortest. Since Muhammad received his revelation over such a long period of time, different parts of the Quran belong to different periods of his life and the early years of the Muslim community. Later scholars identified various chapters as Meccan or Medinan, the latter referring to the period when the Muslim community fled Mecca for the city (medina, in Arabic) of Yathrib, Muhammad's first base of power. After having been passed down orally for a generation, the caliph Othman codified the standard text and order of the Quran as it exists today.

The Quran is considered by Muslim believers to be Muhammad's most important miracle and proof of the truth of Islam; this is not primarily becuase the prophet himself could not read, a detail that only appears in later sources, but because of it's sublime poetic beauty. This aspect was particularly important in pre-Islamic Arabian society, where poetry enjoyed pride of place; ancient Arabian poets continued to be cited as literary exemplars up until modernity. The Quran includes law, myth, history, and theology, all of which reflect its completion of the earlier revelations to Moses and Jesus. However, in contrast to the Bible, the Quran does not follow a single plot line from creation to redemption, but is all composed in the inspired and associative poetic style of the prophets.

This aspect of the Quran makes it especially open to and in need of interpretation. From the founding of the Muslim community, the saying and deeds of the Prophet filled that role. The Hadith, meaning tradition, was compiled from the oral accounts of those who knew Muhammad during his life. In the ninth century, the classical Hadith collections--those by Bukhari and Muslim being the most famous--were composed. These collections include Hadith on numerous subjects as well as the chains of transmitters reaching back to the companions of the prophet who first heard or saw that particular word or deed. The science of Hadith, especially determining which traditions are reliable and which spurious, has been crucial in the development of law and ritual practice.

In the National Library collections you can see hundreds of Qurans from around the world, from leaves of early ninth Qurans in Kufic script to gorgeously illuminated Safavid and Ottoman copies. The Library is also home to numerous  classical Sunni and Shia hadith collections, as well as modern scholarship on the Quran, hadith, and their central place in Islamic civilization.