The Koran

By Islam

Form / Literary Character

The Koran as we find it today is arranged in 114 units of greatly varying length, called suras, which are connected in no obvious fashion. There is no narrative framework. The suras themselves have little internal unity. Several distinct topics may be included within one sura, with abrupt changes of subject, parallel versions, interpolations and rhyme dislocations. In the light of this it has been concluded that some of the present suras or parts of them may once have been joined to others. The emphases of Koranic teachings vary according to the periods of revelation. The chronology of the suras is of fundamental importance to Koranic scholarship, providing the ground for following the evolution of Muhammad's thought and connecting certain verses in the Koran with events in early Islamic history. However, the highly composite nature of many of the suras makes ordering them extremely problematic. As a broad guideline, there is a general consensus between scholars, both Muslim and Western, that the shortest suras are the oldest, dating from the Meccan period (c.610-622), and the longer ones are later, and were revealed during Muhammad's time in Medina (c.622-632).

There is considerable divergence in both style and content between the two periods of revelation. The early, Meccan suras are generally concerned with ethical and spiritual teachings and constitute an emphatic call to religious obedience in the light of the approaching Day of Judgement, while the later suras are much more concerned with social legislation and politico- moral principles, in order to prepare the community to support the holy life of the Muslim brotherhood, according to the directives of God. Extended narratives (often "biblical")are also employed in the longer suras in homiletic fashion to illustrate the fate of those who ignore prophets and eschew the straight path. As regards linguistic style, in the shorter and probably earlier verses, rhymed prose is employed with short sentences and vivid expressions. In the longer verses there is less poetic force. The language is more detailed, complicated and often rather prosaic. The vast majority of the Koran is the words of God, speaking in the first person plural (we). The "you" to whom God is speaking is Muhammad. When Muhammad speaks to his compatriots, his instructions are introduced by the command "say", emphasising that he is speaking by divine injunction only. Sometimes the form is dramatic, with objections from Muhammad's opponents answered by counter-arguments.

Favourite mantric refrains such as "God is forgiving, compassionate" or "most of them know nothing" recur throughout the work, sometimes with little or no connection to the immediate context. Are they perhaps added to produce a rhyme? Brief oaths, parables and direct warnings and threats are among the other literary forms employed. The result of this diverse literary style can sometimes baffle the casual observer. However, Seyyid Hussein Nasr argues in his book "Ideals and Realities of Islam", that the dramatic shifts in person, mood, tense and style, seen in the Koran, are entirely deliberate, and intended to illustrate the power of God "One feels through the shattering effect left upon the language of the Koran, the power of the Divine whence it originated", and he is certainly not alone in this opinion. Muslims regard the language of the Koran as divinely beautiful, impossible to imitate or translate, and to attempt as much would be blasphemy.