The belief that God speaks through scripture he has inspired is shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. In spite of the considerable differences among them, these three monotheistic communities lay claim to a common distinction that links them as “People of the Book.” Each community deems itself to be in possession of a written record of God's will, revealed at moments of crisis in history, recorded for the instruction of future generations, and constantly reinterpreted in acts of individual and corporate remembrance. Each community is founded upon a faithful response to the word it has received, using as its model of obedience to the divine call the example of Abraham.
The Qurʾān (Koran) is the holy book of Islam. Muslims believe that it was revealed by God to the prophet Muhammad, through the agency of the angel Gabriel. These revelations came to Muhammad between 610 CE (the year of his call to be the messenger of God) and 632, the year of his death. The Qurʾān consists of 114 sūrahs, or chapters. The length of the complete book is about two‐thirds that of the New Testament. The Arabic word qurʾān most probably means “that which is to be read aloud.” The first sūrah to be revealed to Muhammad starts with the command “Read! [aloud in the name of your Lord who creates.” In the Arabic the opening imperative iqraʾ (“Read!”) contains the same consonantal elements that form the word Qurʾān.
The sūrahs are named. Some of the names are familiar to readers of the Bible: “Jonah” (10), “Joseph” (12), “Abraham” (14), “Mary” (19), “The Prophets” (21), “The Resurrection” (75). Others are unfamiliar: “The Cow” (2), “The Pilgrimage” (22), “The Pen” (68), “The Dawn” (89). Others are introduced by combinations of letters, the precise significance of which is unknown. In addition to its name, each sūrah is prefaced by an indication of the place where it was revealed, either Mecca or Medina. The language of the Meccan sūrahs is appropriate for summoning an unbelieving people to accept Islam as a matter of immediate and urgent decision. At the last day, unbelievers will be given the reward merited by their unbelief, and cast into jahannam (Gehenna), which is graphically described. On the other hand, the reward for believers on the day of reckoning will be the afterlife in paradise, a place described with comparable vividness. The Medinan sūrahs are longer, and chiefly concerned with the organization of life in the developing Islamic community.
In 622 CE, Muhammad and his small group of Muslim converts were obliged to leave Mecca because of persecution; this event is called the hijrah (hegira). They moved to Yathrib, about 465 km (290 mi) to the northeast. In honor of Muhammad, the place was renamed madīnat (al‐nabī), “City (of the Prophet).” Medina, the name by which it is still known, is the city in which Muhammad lies buried. The year 622 CE divides the Meccan from the Medinan period in the life of the prophet Muhammad, and is the year from which the Islamic community dates the beginning of a new era, whose dates are sometimes given the designation a.h. (Latin Anno Hejirae).
Unlike the Bible, which emerged over a period of centuries as the work of many different (and often unnamed) witnesses to God's redemptive activity, the Qurʾān passed from the oral tradition to its written form in just over a decade after the death of Muhammad. The revelations were passed on by Muhammad orally, and those who listened to him wrote them down on whatever materials were to hand, including dried leaves, sun‐bleached animal bones, and stones. This written material was finally brought together during the caliphate of ʿUthmān (644–656 CE), the third “Rightly Guided Caliph” (Arabic khalīfah, “successor” of the prophet Muhammad), to form the authoritative written text of the Qurʾān. No additions or deletions have ever been permitted by Muslim authorities, though many textual variations in the manuscripts have been collected by western scholars. After the first short sūrah, which is a brief exordium of praise to God, who is both creator and guide, and which is sometimes compared to the Lord's Prayer, the other sūrahs follow each other in an order of decreasing length. The first sūrah to be revealed is numbered 96 in the final sequence.
Both Jews and Christians were present in parts of Arabia prior to the time of Muhammad. In Mecca and in Medina (as well as in his travels north and south over the ancient caravan routes), Muhammad would have come in contact with some of them. But the internal evidence of the Qurʾān provides little evidence to support the view that Muhammad had any direct knowledge of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. According to Islamic tradition he was, in any case, unable to read or write. That such an unlettered man was able to “read” the revelations has always been accepted by Muslims as a special sign of God's favor.
The similarities between the biblical and the Qurʾānic material suggest that, even had there been any direct borrowing from the former to the latter, it was highly selective. Major prophets like Amos and Jeremiah, for example, do not appear in the Qurʾān. And the Qurʾānic interpretation of trinitarian orthodoxy as belief in the Father, the Son, and the Virgin Mary, may owe less to a misunderstanding of the New Testament itself than to a recognition of the role accorded by local Christians to Mary as mother in a special sense.
The use of historical criticism in studying the Qurʾān has been resisted by Muslims. For them, the Qurʾān is the sure guide to right belief, thinking, and action. The guidance it furnishes is complemented by guidance about what constitutes knowledge, and about the way knowledge is to be attained. Knowledge consists of that which God has revealed. The path to knowledge is that of submission (islām) to the revealed will of God. There are limits to human speculation, precisely because of what God has revealed. Intellect, will, and reason are all to be schooled by the revelation. To study the Qurʾān according to methods developed in a non‐Muslim society is not encouraged in Islam. Discussion about whether or not the Qurʾān is “the Word of God” belongs to a different intellectual tradition.
According to Islamic belief, each sacred “Book” was revealed at the appropriate time and place by God, through the agency of human messengers. The message of all scriptural revelation is essentially the same; it could not be otherwise, since God himself is the author. Thus, any differences between the scriptures of the “People of the Book” are to be attributed to human distortion, and not to divine caprice. To Moses and his people was given the Tawrah (the Torah); to David and his people was given the Zabūr (the book of Psalms); to Jesus and his people God gave the Injīl (the gospel); and finally, to Muhammad was revealed the Qurʾān, the restatement of the eternal and unchanging purposes of God, to which all the messengers originally bore witness. Muslims believe that the Qurʾān is God's authoritative final word, with a particular significance for Muhammad's own people, but also a universal message for humankind.
The designation “People of the Book,” viewed from outside the Islamic community, is as much a reminder of the differences as of the similarities that exist between Jews, Christians, and Muslims in their understanding of what constitutes scripture. Yet despite this there are still points of contact between the Bible and the Qurʾān, as the references to monotheism and to Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus indicate. In the Bible and in the Qurʾān, the themes of God's creative and re‐creative activity are taken up. The reader is confronted by the one true God, besides whom there is no other. In these different scriptures are revealed the divine will and plan for humankind, the service required by God of those whom he has created, the nature of sin, the way of salvation, and the penalty for self‐imposed separation from God.
Other names and incidents are recorded in both the Bible and the Qurʾān. Two examples can be mentioned to provide a start for further reading. The first is the story of Joseph in Genesis 37–50 compared with the story of Yūsuf (“the fairest of stories” in the Qurʾān, sūrah 12). Common to both accounts is Joseph's rise to power and authority in Egypt after being brutally treated by his brothers, his faithfulness to God through periods of suffering, his careful use of the gifts given to him by God, and his reconciliation with his family following their appeal for food in time of famine. In the Qurʾānic account, Joseph finds favor because of his exemplary acceptance of everything that God willed for him, both in times of adversity and in times of success. His submission to the will of God is held up to succeeding generations of Muslims as an example worthy of imitation.
The second example is that of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Sūrah 19, called Maryam (Mary), may be compared with Matthew 1.8–2.23 and Luke 1.5–2.51. To anyone familiar with the New Testament passages in which Mary appears, this holds a twofold interest. The first point of interest is that the Qurʾānic account acknowledges the virgin birth of the child Jesus (ʾīsā). The second is in the Qurʾānic denial of the implications of trinitarian theology. In the Qurʾān, Jesus is a human being, a messenger of God, but still a creature; he is not God incarnate. In associating the creature with the Creator, Christians are, therefore, guilty of the gravest impropriety. The belief of Muslims is expressed in sūrah 4.171: “O People of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion: nor say of God (Allāh) aught but truth. Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, was (no more than) an Apostle of Allāh, and his (Allāh's) Word, which he bestowed on Mary. And (Jesus was) a spirit proceeding from him (Allāh). So believe in Allāh and his apostles. Say not ‘Trinity.’ Desist, it will be better for you. For Allāh is one (Allāh). Glory be to him. He is far exalted above having a son. To him belong all things in the heavens and on earth.”