The Glorious Quran, the Muslims’ religious Scripture, was
revealed in Arabic to the Prophet Muhammad, may the mercy and blessings of God
be upon him, through the angel Gabriel. The revelation occurred piecemeal,
over a period of twenty-three years, sometimes in brief verses and sometimes in
The Quran (lit. a “reading” or “recitation”) is distinct
from the recorded sayings and deeds (Sunnah) of the Prophet Muhammad, which are
instead preserved in a separate set of literature collectively called the “Ahadeeth”
(lit. “news”; “report”; or “narration”).
Upon receiving revelation, the Prophet engaged himself
in the duty of conveying the message to his Companions through reciting the
exact words he heard in their exact order. This is evident in his inclusion of
even the words of God which were directed specifically to him, for example: “Qul”
(“Say [to the people, O Muhammad]”). The Quran’s rhythmic style and eloquent
expression make it easy to memorize. Indeed, God describes this as one of its
essential qualities for preservation and remembrance (Q. 44:58; 54:17, 22, 32, 40),
particularly in an Arab society which prided itself on orations of lengthy
pieces of poetry. Michael Zwettler notes that:
“in ancient times, when writing was scarcely used,
memory and oral transmission was exercised and strengthened to a degree now
Large portions of the revelation were thus easily memorized
by a large number of people in the community of the Prophet.
The Prophet encouraged his Companions to learn each
verse that was revealed and transmit it to others.
The Quran was also required to be recited regularly as an act of worship,
especially during the daily meditative prayers (salah). Through these means,
many repeatedly heard passages from the revelation recited to them, memorized
them and used them in prayer. The entire Quran was memorized verbatim (word
for word) by some of the Prophet’s Companions. Among them were Zaid ibn
Thabit, Ubayy ibn Ka’b, Muadh ibn Jabal, and Abu Zaid.
Not only were the words of the Quran memorized, but also
their pronunciation, later which formed into a science in itself called Tajweed.
This science meticulously elucidates how each letter is to be pronounced, as
well as the word as a whole, both in context of other letters and words. Today,
we can find people of all different languages able to recite the Quran as if
they are Arabs themselves, living during the time of the Prophet.
Furthermore, the sequence or order of the Quran was
arranged by the Prophet himself and was also well-known to the Companions.
Each Ramadan, the Prophet would repeat after the angel Gabriel (reciting) the
entire Quran in its exact order as far as it had been revealed, while in the
presence of a number of his Companions. In the year
of his death, he recited it twice. Thereby,
the order of verses in each chapter and the order of the chapters became
reinforced in the memories of each of the Companions present.
As the Companions spread out to various provinces with
different populations, they took their recitations with them in order to
instruct others. In this
way, the same Quran became widely retained in the memories of many people
across vast and diverse areas of land.
Indeed, memorization of the Quran emerged into a
continuous tradition across the centuries, with centers/schools for
memorization being established across the Muslim world.
In these schools, students learn and memorize the Quran along with its
Tajweed, at the feet of a master who in turn acquired the knowledge from his
teacher, an ‘un-broken chain’ going all the way back to the Prophet of God.
The process usually takes 3-6 years. After mastery is achieved and the
recitation checked for lack of errors, a person is granted a formal license
(ijaza) certifying she has mastered the rules of recitation and can now recite
the Quran the way it was recited by Muhammad, the Prophet of God.
The image is a typical license (ijaza) issued at the
end of perfecting Quran recitation certifying a reciter’s unbroken chain of
instructors going back to the Prophet of Islam. The above image is the ijaza
certificate of Qari Mishari bin Rashid al-Afasy, well known reciter from Kuwait, issued by Sheikh Ahmad al-Ziyyat. Image courtesy of (http://www.alafasy.com.)
A.T. Welch, a non-Muslim orientalist, writes:
“For Muslims the Quran is much more than scripture or
sacred literature in the usual Western sense. Its primary significance for the
vast majority through the centuries has been in its oral form, the form in
which it first appeared, as the “recitation” chanted by Muhammad to his
followers over a period of about twenty years… The revelations were memorized
by some of Muhammad’s followers during his lifetime, and the oral tradition
that was thus established has had a continuous history ever since, in some ways
independent of, and superior to, the written Quran… Through the centuries the
oral tradition of the entire Quran has been maintained by the professional
reciters (qurraa). Until recently, the significance of the recited Quran has
seldom been fully appreciated in the West.”
The Quran is perhaps the only book, religious or
secular, that has been memorized completely by millions of people.
Leading orientalist Kenneth Cragg reflects that:
“…this phenomenon of Quranic recital means that the text
has traversed the centuries in an unbroken living sequence of devotion. It
cannot, therefore, be handled as an antiquarian thing, nor as a historical
document out of a distant past. The fact of hifdh (Quranic memorization) has
made the Quran a present possession through all the lapse of Muslim time and
given it a human currency in every generation, never allowing its relegation to
a bare authority for reference alone.”