Written in the Qur’an is the sacred scripture for all Muslims. Communicated through the Prophet Mohammed, the Qur’an is the very word of God. Also known as al-Qurʾān al-karīm or al-Qurʾān al-majīd (the Noble Qur’an or the Glorious Qur’an), the sacred text was originally written in Arabic. Originally it was a sonoral, meaning it was heard and not seen as a written text

The date of the Qur’an’s revelation differs between the Islamic understanding and that of Western Scholars. According to many Western Scholars the Qur’an is considered to be based off of information heard by Mohammed from neighboring Jews and Christians. Some Scholars also believe that the Qur’an is taken from earlier text written in Aramaic, Syriac and other Semitic languages.

Traditional Muslims believe that the Qur’an exists with God in a tablet within the spiritual world. The Qur’an is God’s word revealed to the Prophet Mohammed in 610 by the archangel Gabriel. Mohammed was illiterate, therefore leaving the actual documentation to someone else. In the Sunni understanding the Qur’an was officially recorded under the caliphate of Abu Bakr sometime between 632 and 634. In the Shi’ite view, the Qur’an was compiled by Ali, the fourth caliph, after he retired from public life.

Interpretations of the Qur'an: Tafsir and Ta'wil

Since the era of the Qur’an revelation, Muslims have tirelessly sought the true meaning of the text. Over time, their interpretation evolved into two distinct categories, Tafsir and Ta’wil. While both concepts differ in principle, Tafsir and Ta’wil mean essentially the same thing- ‘explanation’ or ‘interpretation.’ Some believe that there is no difference between Tafsir and Ta’wil, but in the following sections, I will compare and contrast the two methods of interpretation.


Tafsir of the Qur’an has been described as the most important science for Muslims. The main reason behind its significance is the nature of the Qur’an. As a guide for mankind, the Qur’an must be properly understood for it to be readily followed, and tafsir facilitates this interpretation. Tafsir describes the process of explanation and clarification of the numerous principles, meanings, and legal implications of the Qur’an. More specifically, tafsir, when compared to ta’wil, is more literal in its translation, and has become known as the ‘outer’ meaning (zahir) of the Qur’an.

‘Mufassir’ is the word used to describe the person doing the tafsir and they are held to many guidelines to ensure a legitimate tafsir. The mufassir must have sound beliefs, strong knowledge of Arabic and the rules associated with its language, understanding of other sciences associated with the Qur’an, precise comprehension and must avoid use of mere opinion. The tafsir must begin with explanation of the Qur’an by the Qur’an, which is considered to be the best tafsir. The next best is the explanation by the Prophet Muhammad, followed by the reports from the sahâba(witnesses of the revelation) and the tâbicûn. The tafsir can also be divided into three groups dependent on its source: by transmission, sound opinion, or indication.


Ta’wil is considered to be an explanation of the hidden, inner meanings of the Qur’an known as allegorical or esoteric interpretation. The validity of ta’wil can be based upon the tafsir, as the meanings that are visible can assist in exploring the concealed message. Although the tafsir may be an integral player in producing a sound ta’wil, ta’wil must forgo the literal meaning of the Qur’an to uncover the metaphorical sense. While some scholars argue that true ta’wil can only be known to God, the Qur’an itself (acknowledges ta’wil seventeen times) and the Imams have both expressed the importance of ta’wil. Like tafsir, a legitimate ta’wil seeks out the meanings of the Qur’anic mutashabihat(ambiguous texts) by someone who is knowledgeable, religious, follows a “correct creed,” and understands the “subtleties of language and discourse.”


The following verse from the Qur’an show the distinction between tafsir and ta’wil:

“He it is who revealed the Book to you: in it are the clear verses-they are the mother of

he hook-and the others are the unclear verses.”

“As for those in whose hearts is swerving, they follow the ambiguous part, desiring

dissension, and desiring its interpretation; and none knows its interpretations, save only

God. And those firmly rooted in knowledge say, We believe in it; all is from our Lord';

yet none remembers, but men possessed of minds.”

Tafsir: Arberry translates the verse this way:

It is He who sent down upon thee the Book, wherein are verses clear

that are the essence of the Book, and other ambiguous.

Ta’wil: From Arberry’s Revelation and Reason in Islam, Ahmed Ali's translation of the entire verse:

He has sent down this book which contains some verses that are categorical and

basic to the Book, and others allegorical. But those who are twisted of mind look for

verses metaphorical, seeking deviations and giving to them interpretations of their own;

but none knows their meaning except God; and those who are steeped in knowledge

affirm: "We believe in them as all of them are from the Lord". But only those who have

wisdom understand.

According to Arberry, this verse has sparked a key debate between professors of ta’wil and their opponents.


external image 9780684825076.jpg
A.J. Arberry's translation of the Koran, The Koran Interpreted.

Relations to other Religious Texts

The three sacred books in today’s world are known as the Qur’an, Torah, and the Bible. The way that the Qur’an is looked at is the latest book in the common world. The Islamic faith doesn’t deny the fact that the other two books, the Torah and the bible, exist. The way that the Qur’an goes about acknowledging the existence of the Bible and the Torah is the same way Christians and Jews describe how they acquired their books. Moses received the Torah from god and then the bible is a compilation of the Old Testament (Torah) and the works of Jesus (New Testament). Muhammad received the Qur’an after the Torah was distorted by the perverse hand of the Jews and Christians. This is when Muhammad described as the reason he received his revealed book, which according to Muhammad was when God told him to call it the Recitation or in Arabic al-Quran.

The main difference between the three religious texts is that the Qur’an is supposed to be only the word of god; whereas the Bible and the Islam.JudaismChristianityIslam.PNGTorah have both have things omitted. Torah doesn’t contain the books of Maccabees and the Bible doesn’t contain the Gnostic gospels. There is nothing wrong with this being that they were probably done for theological reasons. This also goes along with the fact that the bible has not only the word of god, but also narrative stories.

The way that Christians, Jews, and Muslims all view the actual scripture and the writing of that scripture are more similar than most people believe. Even though there are similarities there are also differences. The Christian’s Old Testament is written by men but the content is the word of God, the Jewish Torah was given to Moses but the writing had to be done by man. The same goes for Muslims the Qur’an was given to Muhammad by God, but the actual writing of the Qur’an was done by Muhammad. The difference between the three books is that the Christian’s New Testament gospels were written by witnesses like John, Matthew, and Mark. This feature is not incorporated into the Qur’an and the Torah. The Qur’an and the Torah both were written by prophets Muhammad for the Qur’an and Moses for the Torah.


What is it?

“Kalam is variously referred to in Arabic as cilm al-tawhid (the science of Divine Unicity), 'Um al-nazar wal-istidlal (the science of speculative reason and proof), and in English as rational theology, dialectical theology, speculative theology, and philosophical theology” (Salah). According to Salah, even early islam was a victim of the conflict between tradition and reason. For example, he cites the following passage from the Holy Qur’an:

And when it is said to them, 'Come unto what God has revealed, and the Messenger,' they say 'Enough for us is what wherein we found our fathers,' What if their fathers are possessed of no knowledge and no guidance (5: 104) [and] ... what if their fathers are possessed of no reason and no guidance. [2: 170; emphasis added.]

Three different groups would be created from the debate between tradition and reason, the Murjfa, the Qadariyya and the Jabriyya.

  • Murjfa: “They were considered the political “Neutralists” of the three groups. While not as violent as their predecessors, the Kharijites, they opined that grave sins as such do not negate the 'confession of faith' (shahada), and that judgments on the status of a Muslim as believer (mu'miri) should be suspended and postponed (irjac) to the Day of Judgment for God to determine" (Salah). They later invoked this doctrine to reconcile themselves to the Umayyad rule, and eventually degenerated into a deterministic doctrine which was later exploited in legitimizing the Umayyad dynasty.

  • Qadariyya: They contested the Murjfa doctrine of determinism. In opposing the Umayyad regime accepted the Kharijite position, disagreed with their extremist methods, and argued the case for human responsibility and free agency. Using Qur’anic evidence, they assert that humanity is divinely vested with its own ability to determine their own acts freely. On this basis, if a grave sin is committed, then it nullifies shahada.

  • The Qadariyya would call those who opposed their position Jabriyya, those who advocated predestination/divine compulsion.

  • Those who employed rational argument to the disputes were called mutakallimun (literally eloquent [reasoning] speakers), and their theological speculation "kalam."

“‘Belief’ by blind imitation without reference to truth or falsity is not belief at all. Allah specifically condemns those who reject the message of Islam for this reason, by saying:

"When they are told: 'Come to what Allah has revealed, and to the Messenger,' they say, 'It suffices us what we found our forefathers upon' – But what if their forefathers knew nothing, and were not guided?"

(Qur'an 5:104).

In short, Islamic kalam theology exists because belief in Islam demands three things:

  1. to define the contents of faith;

  2. to show that it is possible for the mind to accept, not absurd or inconsistent;

  3. and to give reasons to be personally convinced of it.”

Complicating the issue of debate and disbelief is that many theologians have difficulty determining kufr (unbelief). Today many discredit all kalam by mistakenly attributing criticism by an author to that of all kalam, whereas in reality the criticism was directed towards those who later on began speculating.

Translation Into English

Book By God

  • The Islamic faith lays claim to having only one version of the Qur’an, one that hasn’t changed since it was first written. There is indeed only one version, but the Sunnis and Shiites have different versions, the only difference being two verses. The Shiite version contains Surat al-wilaya and surat al-nurayn, which some Sunnis believe was forged by the Shiites to justify Ali’s right to succession. Some Sunnis believe that Shiites forged hadiths to justify their own doctrines.

  • The Qur’an’s translated versions, such as the English versions, are seen as close interpretations of the original Arabic version. In the end, the most authentic and trusted version should be the Arabic version since the English versions are slightly modified under biased and political conditions. The Arabic version is the one directly written by Mohammad’s followers and has not changed since it was written in the year 623.

Early Translation

  • Originally, Christians began to translate the Qur’an into English hoping they could somehow expose the Islamic religion as false, and convert Muslims to Christianity. The Christians attempting to translate the Qur’an had very little background knowledge on Islam or the Arab world in general. They poorly translated the Qur’an using Latin versions which they better understood. Going from the Arabic version, to a Latin version, to a poorly written English version makes the text lose mostly all of its credibility.

  • Arthur Arberry, a Cambridge University graduate, was the first to translate the Qur’an into English without prejudice. His English version is the most used version of the Qur’an academically. He was able to properly translate it by studying Arabic and Islam, and by separating text from tradition while translating it.

Saudi Translation

  • Saudia Arabia favors the Abdullah Yusuf 'Ali version of the Qur’an. His version has found much critique since it openly supported anti-Semitism. This particular version spread very quickly because Saudi Arabia’s Ar-Rajhi banking company financed the translation. It also spread more quickly than other English version because it was free, and was distributed all over the world on the banks account.

Problems With Different Versions

  • All of these versions have their own problems. Some are said to be more accurate than others while some are also said to have lost their meaning due to being poorly interpreted. Only someone who truly understands Arab tradition could begin to translate the Qur’an because most of it is written around tradition. Many parts can be interpreted literally while others can be seen as metaphors for the actual meaning. It all depends on whether an orthodox or liberal Muslim is reading it. Sunnis and Shiites interpret its’ meaning differently as well. They have had many conflicts due to the different interpretations of the Qur’an.

  • Since much of the meaning of the Qur’an is lost when interpreted into a language other than traditional Arabic, there can never be a correct translated version to study. There can only be a most correct version that still does not qualify as the authentic word of God.

Word of God

  • Islamic beliefs claim that the word of God cannot be reproduced by the word of man. No matter how professionally or accurately someone translates the Arabic version of the Qur’an into another language, that translator will only have a byproduct of the original which is not as credible. The converted versions are not as accurate because they do not have all the same ideologies and thoughts that only the Arabic language can apply to them. This is like not being able to directly translate Hmong into English. The Hmong language has words that cannot be translated into English and vice versa.

  • Devout Muslims who do not speak Arabic are in a sense obligated to learn Arabic and better understand the Arab Islamic world as to better understand the Qur’an given to the faith by God Himself.


Qur'an in Muslim Society


Prior to the spread of Islam, most of the Arab world was illiterate and orally passed on knowledge. As Islam spread throughout Arabia, the literacy rates increased as a result of the need to read and translate the Quran. The Quran played a huge role in the development of the Arabian Empire and helped build the foundation for future Arab discoveries in astrology, grammar, rhetoric, navigation, and history. Influences of the Quran in early Arabian society ranged from establishing written Islamic law to education development. The Quran is still used as a fundamental source of teaching knowledge for education in modern Muslim society.

islamicquran2.jpgThe role of the Quran in modern Muslim society primarily focuses on adhering to its principles, reciting and memorizing sections during each of the five daily prayers, and using the Quran to help establish social guidelines. The use of the Quran in Muslim culture is similar to that of the Bible in that it is used during marriage, funerals, and other social gatherings. Recitation of the Quran is the preferred method of understanding the word of God. The recitation of the Quran is also used as a medium to produce literary art and has greatly influenced many aspects of life in modern Muslim societies.


Tafsir-Ta'wil References:
Arberry, A. J. (1957) Revelation and Reason in Islam, London: George Allen and Unwin.

Referenced in:

http://islamiccenter.kau.edu.sa/english/Journal/Issues/Pdf/4/04-AliKhan_09.pdf** (Scholarly)
http://www.ikim.gov.my/v5/index.php?cmd=resetall&grp=2&key=1471&lg=1&opt=com_article&sec**= (Scholarly)
http://www.biblio.com/author_biographies/3122687/AJ_Arberry.html |http://www.biblio.com/author_biographies/3122687/AJ_Arberry.html (Image)

History done by Garrett Ross.

Origins of Text
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/archive/b/b0/20080719095518!QUR%27AN_2981c.jpg (Image At Top)
"Qurʾān." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 19 Feb. 2010
Origins of Text is done by Rhianon Hall.

Relations to other Religious Texts References:

http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s7585.html (Scholarly)
http://brian.hoffert.faculty.noctrl.edu/REL100/Islam.JudaismChristianityIslam.PNG (Image)

The Relation to other Religious Texts is done by Jeramie Grondin.

Kalam References

Salah El-Sheikh. (2003). Al-Mujadalah and Al-Mujadilah Then and Now:1 Kalam, Dialectical Argument, and Practical Reason in the Qur'an. The Muslim World, 93(1), 1-50. Retrieved February 26, 2010, from Humanities Module. (Document ID: 974579961).
Al-Mujadalah and Al-Mujadilah Then and Now:1 Kalam, Dialectical Argument, and Practical Reason in the Qur'an(Scholarly)
Kalam done by Tyler Soldo.

Translation To English References

http://www.meforum.org/717/assessing-english-translations-of-the-quran?gclid=CKST3p3P_p4CFRSdnAod-wpcJw (Scholarly)
http://www.jstor.org/pss/986656 (Scholarly)
http://www.currenttrends.org/research/detail/sunnis-and-shiites-between-rapprochement-and-conflict (Scholarly)
Translation To English done by (youtube video)

Quran in Muslim Society References
http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t243/e275 (Scholarly)
http://i-epistemology.net/attachments/401_V10N2%20Summer%2093%20-%20Book%20Review%20-%20Islamic%20Values%20in%20the%20United%20States-A%20Comparative%20Study.pdf (Scholarly)
http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=zYYAWp5_28wC&oi=fnd&pg=PR11&dq=how+the+quran+is+used+throughout+the+islam&ots=yMZ9wOF2VP&sig=4EQPcTQwbzgrPocjnhoAsndbm9g#v=onepage&q=&f=false (Scholarly)
http://nuseiba.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/theologian.jpg (Image)
http://shadows15.files.wordpress.com/2008/02/199257978_8db486dee6.jpg (Image)
Quran in Muslim Society done by Jonathan Biron