During the second half of the month of Ramadan, devout Muslims commemorate the night they believe Muhammed, the Islamic prophet, received the initial portion of the Qur’an. This year the event known as Laylat al-Qadr, or the Night of Power, will be observed on the tenth of June. Since no one is certain as to which night during the month of fasting exactly parallels the historical revelation to Muhammad, Muslims spend several nights reading the Qur’an and in prayer leading up to that special night of the month.
This spiritual openness should mark a crucial time of prayer for Christians as we ask God to break through to Muslims and call them to faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. As the Night of Power approaches, let’s explore the importance of the Qur’an to the Muslim community while considering ways the Islamic view of Allah’s revelation differs from a Christian understanding of the Bible.
God’s Speech: Literal Words or Inspired Record
Muslims believe the Qur’an is literally the revealed words of Allah. The Qur’an is understood to be entirely Allah’s speech. For Muslims, the Arabic Qur’an in oral or written form is an exact reproduction of words written on a tablet that exists with Allah. They believe the words of the Qur’an are either coeternal with the Islamic god or that the inscribed words were the first acts of creation. Christians, however, believe the Bible is an accurately inspired record of God’s interactions with his people in his material creation.
Mediators with a Message
The Arabic word wahy, or Islamic revelation, refers to Allah’s message in the form of a book or part of a book that he delivered to messengers like Moses, David, Jesus, and Muhammad, as well as to hundreds of prophets through mediators or angels. The content of Islamic revelation is not Allah himself but his decrees and desires to humanity. Muslims believe the Arabic Qur’an was delivered to Muhammad by a mediator in a piecemeal fashion at times when each teaching was vital to the Islamic community.
“Islamic revelation must involve intermediaries since the Islamic god does not enter into his creation.”
The Qur’an usually identifies this mediator as “a Holy Spirit.” Muslims do not believe that this refers to the Spirit of Allah but rather an angel. On one or two occasions, the angel Gabriel is identified as the mediator. So, in Islam Allah communicates his decrees and addresses through angels rather than directly to prophets.
Islamic revelation must involve intermediaries since the Islamic god does not enter into his creation. Muslims understand that Gabriel approached Allah and received the content of the Qur’an, which he then communicated to Muhammad. The historical human events surrounding the various revelatory encounters are merely occasions during which Muhammad and the believing community would benefit from the wisdom of that portion of the Qur’an.
One Divine Language: Arabic Only
Qur’anic translations into languages other than Arabic are not considered to be authoritative. Christians believe the Bible is the Word of God even when translated from Hebrew and Greek into the heart language of readers. But for Muslims, the Qur’an only exists in Arabic, and all translations are considered aids to understanding the Qur’an or commentaries on it.
Muslims understand Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as religions of the book. But due to the dramatic differences between the Bible and the Qur’an, Muslims assume that Christians and Jews have changed their holy books.
The Purpose of Revelation
While the purpose of the Bible is to accurately report God’s interaction with humanity within history and to call people into relationship with him, the purpose of scripture in Islam is to inform humanity how to live in a worshiping community that pleases Allah. The two-part qur’anic purpose is to present the truth that Allah is an indivisible unity—a Spirit who has no peer or associate—and establish a worshiping community among humanity. In the Qur’an, Allah directs Muhammad and faithful Muslims in how to accurately worship as a community. These decrees, when implemented in community, are called shariah.
Muslims seeking to please God employ three broad tools to define a life of faith: the example of Muhammad who was the means through which Allah’s guidance in building a faithful life within a believing community was possible; the words of the Qur’an; and the external guidance of the community of Islam. Each of these “tools” is treated with extreme respect. Here, we will focus on how Muslims show respect to the Qur’an.
Respect for the Holy Book
By Muslim standards, Christians show disrespect for the Bible. This is due to the religious conventions of respect for the Qur’an. No other book may be stacked on top of the Qur’an. A room or automobile is “blessed” if a copy of the Qur’an is placed in a dignified and exalted place within it. Hands must be ceremonially clean before handling the book.
As mentioned above, the Qur’an is first an oral document. Therefore, the Qur’an in oral form is highly respected. The Muslim who memorizes the entire text and is able to recite it with the correct rate, inflection, and pronunciation is most highly respected in the Islamic community. After succeeding in a detailed Qur’anic expert examination, a person may be given an honorific title—hafiz for a man or hafiza for a woman.
Arabic calligraphy is among the most respected Islamic art forms. That artistic expression is at its highest when employed in presenting the text of the Qur’an in artistic purity.
A Call to Prayer
During the month of Ramadan, our Muslim friends are seeking to be spiritually open to a fresh word from Allah. During times of personal worship leading up to the Night of Power, they ask Allah to give them spiritual insight and guide them into paths that please him. Pray that God would lead them to Jesus—the way, the truth, and the life.
The God revealed in the Bible loves humanity so much that he sent his Son—the Word become flesh—to dwell among us. Jesus won the right to forgive, redeem, and transform all who claim him as Savior and Lord. As his disciples, we can be praying for opportunities to be Christ’s ambassadors as he seeks to save the lost.
Mike Edens is the dean of graduate studies and professor of theology and Islamic studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also the associate director of the Institute for Christian Apologetics.
The Islamic calligraphy shown in the header photograph is a detail from a larger work called “Karalama” by Dr. Fatih Ozkafa. It was shown in a “Hat Sergisi” or Calligraphy Exhibit at the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul, Turkey.