Grove Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press

The Qur’an

A Biography

by Bruce Lawrence

“Timely and provocative. . . . Laurence’s history of the Qur’an [is] highly instructive. . . . The history of the book is a map of the world we live in today.” —David Walton, Tribune-Review

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 256
  • Publication Date March 18, 2008
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4344-0
  • Dimensions 5" x 7.75"
  • US List Price $13.00
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 256
  • Publication Date February 20, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8711-3951-1
  • Dimensions 5" x 7.75"
  • US List Price $20.95

About The Book

Few books in history have been as poorly understood as the Qur’an. Sent down in a series of revelations to the Prophet Muhammad, the Qur’an is the unmediated word of Allah: a ritual, political, and legal authority; an ethical and spiritual guide; and a literary masterpiece that inspires devotion, passion, fear, and sometimes incomprehension.

In The Qur’an, distinguished historian of religion Bruce Lawrence shows precisely how the Qur’an is the embodiment of Islam. He describes the origins of the faith in seventh-century Arabia and explains why the Qur’an is both memorized and recited by devout Muslims. Lawrence also discusses the Qur’an’s commentators and doubters and assesses its tremendous influence on today’s societies and politics. Above all, Lawrence emphasizes that the Qur’an is a sacred book of signs that cannot be reduced to a single, obvious message. It is a book that demands interpretation and one that can be properly understood only through its long and storied history.


“This book, like the book it studies, is meditative and unique, a lovely read for any spiritual person, Muslim or not.” —Publisher’s Weekly

“An important work for those seeking to understand—and defend—Islam.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Few books have been as important or as misunderstood. Bruce Lawrence, a history of religion scholar at Duke University, has contributed an easily read but important study guide to the Quran.” —Dennis Lythgoe, Deseret News

“Timely and provocative. . . . Laurence’s history of the Qur’an [is] highly instructive. . . . The history of the book is a map of the world we live in today.” —David Walton, Tribune-Review

“[A] spending series.” —Bill Ward, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“A timely book for these intricate times, this will undoubtedly illuminate and enlighten readers. Most important it will clear up misconceptions about one of the world’s fastest-growing faiths and refute stereotypes of its teachings and followers. Recommended without reservation.” —C. Brian Smith, Library Journal

“Stand-out. . . . [Lawrence] presents in the most readable manner what for some will be a new topic. For Muslims who seek to deepen their faith and for non-Muslims who seek to understand that faith, The Qur’an is a valuable resource.” —Houston Chronicle

“The best and most substantial book in the [Books that Changed the World] series.” —Ziauddin Sardar, Independent (UK)

“Bruce Lawrence . . . [is] the perfect man for this appraisal of the text, and he does a splendid job.” —Good Book Guide (UK)

“I almost wished it were longer.” —Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday (UK)

Praise for Shattering the Myth:

“In this thought-provoking and informative work, the author . . . seeks to dispel the misconceptions and fears about Islam, which are too often held by those with an incomplete understanding of what Islam is and what its followers believe and seek. . . . Anyone wishing to develop an accurate understanding of the subject should read this book.” —Virginia Quarterly Review

“An extremely well-argued, well-developed and well-documented book.” —Middle East Journal

“Lawrence takes us beyond the veil of a uniform, violent, male Islam to a variegated and nuanced world that deserves more than the emblazoned headlines that define it now.” —Brian Bruya, Amazon.com

“Lawrence offers readers a well-rounded, multidimensional, critically informed introduction to the Qur’an. … Among modern books on the Qur’an in English, this book is unique. . . . High recommended.” —Choice

Praise for Defenders of God:

“[A] mature work of comparative religion that few scholars have either the breadth or the theoretical skills to accomplish . . . [A] tour de force.” —Religious Studies Review


Chapter One
The Prophet Muhammad: Merchant and Messenger
619 CE

Muhammad was a merchant with a message. The message was not his own nor did he seek it. The message sought him, filled him and transformed him, making his life a journey that none, including he, could have imagined.

His humble circumstances did not suggest the lofty destiny that he claimed. Muhammad was born in Mecca into the clan of Banu Hashim about 570. It was a clan of declining importance, eclipsed by the rival Banu Umayya. He was also disinherited by virtue of his birth: a posthumous child, he had not reached maturity when his grandfather also died, and so he was excluded by Arab custom from any paternal inheritance. Because most of his closest relatives were merchants, Muhammad accompanied his uncle Abu Talib, his closest surviving male relative, on trading journeys to Syria. He learned the ways of a caravan leader well enough to be employed by a woman merchant, who was also a widow, named Khadijah.

Khadijah asked Muhammad to marry her. He consented when he was about twenty-five and she about forty years of age. After marriage he continued to trade with her capital and in partnership with one of her relatives. He became acutely aware of the disjunctures in Meccan society. He pondered his own good fortune to have survived the perils of the orphanage thanks to a protective uncle and then a supportive wife. At regular intervals he would leave his wife to go with his young cousin Ali to the caves on Mount Hira near Mecca. There he fasted and meditated.

While grateful for the gifts of family and wealth, he still lacked something. It was that lack which drove him to the mountain retreat, to find a space within himself and apart from others, to ponder the mystery of human success and the lessons of human failure.

Like many of his tribe, he had acknowledged the power of the rock that marked his hometown of Mecca. The Ka’bah (a cube-shaped sanctuary for idols) contained that rock, which was also linked to an early seeker of truth, a prophet in his time, named Abraham. It was to this place that Abraham sent his concubine Hagar and, with divine guidance, made provision for a branch of his family:

Our Lord, I have settled
a part of my progeny
in a barren valley
near Your Holy House,
our Lord,
that they may be constant in prayer,
making the hearts of some folk incline to them
and providing them with fruit,
that they may give thanks. (14:37)

But the Ka’bah had become a crowded Holy House. It had become a place that Abraham shared with others, with idols that represented local gods and tribal deities. These idols were said to possess a power that rivaled the God of Abraham. Some folk who came to Mecca cast doubt on the power of the idols, saying that after Abraham came other seekers of truth, other prophets, each proclaiming a god not found in idols. Some opponents of the idols were the Jews, whose prophet was Moses. Other opponents were the Christians, whose prophet was Jesus, though some of them went further, claiming that Jesus was more than a prophet.

Muhammad also met some Arab opponents of idol worship. They claimed that there was an ancient Arab prophet, Salih by name, and that he too followed the way of Moses and Jesus, looking for the source of all life and all created forms, beyond idols of any shape or any place. It was Salih who said to his people what was later revealed to Muhammad:

O my people, serve God,
you have no god but Him.
He brought you forth from the earth
and made you dwell in it.
So ask forgiveness of Him,
then turn to Him.
Surely My Lord is Near and Responsive. (11:61)

Muhammad meditated on these matters when he used to sit in the cave of Hira during the holy month of Ramadan. Ramadan was the time each year when blood feuds were suspended, and when Meccans who had wealth and free time could retreat to the outskirts of their town, to the hills that enclosed them, and to the caves that offered shelter and repose.

Muhammad had been following this practice for over a decade. Then one night in Ramadan in 610 CE, when he was about forty years old, he felt a strange stirring inside him. He loved the night-time in this special month; it drew him deep into himself and allowed him to resist those impulses that pulled him back to the world, to concerns with family or with business or with travel. He was alert to repel those impulses: they clouded his vision, they denied him peace of mind, but above all, they blocked his search for the truth. But this was a different stirring. It was deep, it was arresting. It overpowered him, and then it produced words, words that were not his. ‘recite!” And he was shown a piece of silk with words embroidered on it. “What shall I recite?” he asked. “Recite!” came the command, and again the brocade was thrust before him. He stammered: “But what shall I recite?” Muhammad could speak but he could not read. All those who accompanied him on caravan trips, whether to Egypt or Syria, to Yemen or Abyssinia, knew that he could read symbols but not words. It was they who handled the few documents of exchange that required reading or signing. When Muhammad had to sign, he would ask others to read aloud what was written, then he would sign by pressing the palm of his hand to the paper. Why then did this voice ask him to recite?

Even as he was thinking these thoughts, for the third time, the voice commanded him: “Recite!” “But what, what shall I recite?” No sooner had he spoken than the words appeared:

Recite in the name of your Lord who created,
Created man from blood coagulated!
Recite for your Lord is Most Generous,
Who taught by the pen,
Taught what they did not know unto men! (96:1-5)

These words became part of him. He recited them without reading them. But why did they invoke the Lord as his Lord? And why did they rhyme? “Created” rhymed with “coagulated” in the first two lines, and then “pen” with “men” in the fourth and fifth lines. Since Muhammad could not read the words, he was puzzled, dismayed. Had it been his secret impulses that had produced these verses? Had he become a man possessed, an ecstatic poet such as his clansmen distrusted, even despised? Was his pursuit of the truth forfeited by a single moment of self-deceit?

Scarcely had he absorbed the experience when his whole body began to tremble. Then the voice spoke again. It addressed him by name: “O Muhammad!” “O Muhammad,” it continued, “you cannot protect yourself from the Evil One. Only the One who hears all and knows all can protect you. Invoke God but before you mention God by His loftiest name, say ‘I seek refuge from Satan, the Accursed, in the name of the One who hears all and knows all.’” Before you repeat the words I have just given you from Your Lord, say: “In the name of God, Full of Compassion, Ever Compassionate!” and the silence descended.

He waited for more counsel. He needed advice. What was he to do? Where should he go? How was he to make sense of this? But nothing more came. He got up and bolted down the mountain, running towards Mecca, towards home, towards Khadijah, his beloved wife. Halfway down the voice returned. Now it was a booming voice with a face, a man’s face. The face appeared to come from beyond the horizon. The celestial form announced: “O Muhammad, you are the apostle of God, and I am Gabriel.” He tried to look away, but wherever he looked, there was the face; there was the man, staring at him.

He could not move. He was frozen on that spot. For a long time he stood there, until finally his wife Khadijah sent scouts to look for him. They found him and brought him home. As soon as they left he collapsed into his wife’s lap. He told her what had happened on this strangest of days atop Mount Hira. “O son of my uncle,” she exclaimed, addressing him with the same name that she had when she had proposed marriage to him some fifteen years earlier, “O son of my uncle, be at ease and rejoice. In the name of the One who enfolds the soul of Khadijah, I can dare to hope that you have been chosen to be the prophet for this people.”

A prophet for his people?! How could a mere merchant attuned to meditative silence become a messenger who must proclaim the message, often against his own deep wishes and even more, against the preferences and practices of his people? Every prophet, after all, is also a rebel. Muhammad had never seen himself in this role. Nothing in his life had prepared him for the period of trial that now beset him. His wife and also his young cousin came to view him in a different light. He was still their close companion, but now they saw him as one separate, apart, more respected than loved, though always cared for, his words and wishes heeded. Yet others were less kind, even rude, often taunting him for his “poetic” outbursts, his “pretended” inspiration.

But the greatest obstacle for Muhammad was silence; long, seemingly endless periods of silence. If he were worthy of this high calling, why did the voice that came to him not come more often and more insistently? He had to endure long periods when there was no inner voice. Whenever he did hear the voice, he would repeat what he heard so that others could remember the exact words. Above all, he depended on his beloved and trusting wife, Khadijah. She became the first Muslim, a woman to honour all women and to make them companion believers with men. And after her came his young cousin, that boy Ali, who was so quick and constant in his affection for Muhammad.

By 619 he had had many communications from beyond. Though the fear of being a possessed seer or ecstatic poet had passed, he lived every hour in the shadow of that protective phrase known as the basmalah: In the Name of God, Full of Compassion, Ever Compassionate. Each time that the voice spoke, he repeated these words to make sure that it was indeed the Lord of Life who was speaking to him, not the accursed one, Satan, slinking into his mind, whispering in the garb of God.

Yet even the basmalah could not overcome the hostility of some in his town. Many of his clansmen and fellow Arabs had come to accept his new status as an apostle among them. Yet the more popular he became, the louder were his detractors. One day in 619 he had suffered more abuse than even he could bear. That night, in despair he had called out to the voice, and to the Lord of Life. He had begged for some sign that he might endure and, if God willed, that he might prevail against his adversaries. What happened next was both vivid and unspeakable. In the words of an anonymous poet:

He came to me, wrapped in the cloak of night,
Approaching with steps of caution and fright.
Then what happened, happened; to say more fails.
Imagine the best; ask not for details.

It was a night that reminded Muhammad of that first night, the Ramadan night when Gabriel had come to him as a voice, as a face, as a presence that could not be denied. Later it had been revealed to him that that first night was to be the Great Sign containing even as it unfolded all that followed. It was the Night of Power, heralded in the Noble Qur’an:

We have revealed it in the Night of Power.
How can you know what is the Night of Power?
Better is the Night of Power
Than a thousand months, hour for hour.
In it angels and the spirit alight,
On every errand by God made right
Peace pervades till dawn’s early light. (97)

The second revelation, the Night Journey, followed that Night of Power. Both nights were shrouded in mystery yet they contained and defined the life of Muhammad more vividly than any daytime event. It seemed as though a mere instant separated one from the other, or perhaps time itself had been transformed by the Unseen. While the Night of Power had brought the majesty of heaven to earth to an unsuspecting messenger, the Night Journey propelled him to another place and finally to a celestial destination. The Night Journey took Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem and then to the highest throne of heaven. The familiar voice of Gabriel announced what was to happen. It beckoned Muhammad to ascend to the Source of all Truth and Life, the Touchstone of Peace and Justice:

By the star when it sets,
Your companion neither worries nor frets
Nor does he ever speak with regrets.
It is only revelation that he begets,
It is One mighty in power who projects,
And propels him upward to what perfects,
Far beyond the horizon where the sun sets,
Nearer and nearer to the source he trajects,
So close that a mere bowline between them intersects.(53:1-9)

Muhammad was first transported on a winged steed to the rock where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Ishmael in the ancient city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the abode of prophets, from Abraham to David to Jesus. Now it hosted the Arab prophet, the Prophet Muhammad. Dazzled, he was transported by Gabriel himself from that rock up to heaven. At the first level of heaven many angels and the Prophet Adam greeted him. At the second level it was other prophets, Jesus and John the Baptist, who hailed him. At the third level he met still other prophets, Joseph and Solomon, and at the fourth level he encountered Moses along with his sister, Miriam. Onward and upward he continued to progress. “It is One mighty in power who projects.” Arriving at the fifth level, he met the prophets Ishmael and Isaac, then the prophets Elijah and Noah at the sixth, until finally at the seventh level he was dazzled by yet another chorus of angels. In their midst was the greatest of prophets, the Prophet Abraham. Abraham greeted Muhammad warmly before sending him on to the Lote Tree of the Limit (53:14).

Here “near the Garden of Return, when the tree was covered in nameless splendour” (53:16), Gabriel spoke on behalf of the Glorious and Exalted One. He offered Muhammad and his community Divine Beneficence if they would but pray fifty times per day. Muhammad nodded and retreated. But as he began to return to earth Moses reminded him that fifty prayers were too many for his Arab followers. Muhammad returned. He requested a reduced protocol of piety. Gabriel became his arbiter. Twenty-five prayers? Ten prayers? Finally Muhammad was granted a divine reprieve: from that day till the Day of Resurrection, incumbent on him and all his followers was the daily recital of five prayers, a mere five times of prayerful remembrance to punctuate each day with thoughts and desires directed solely to the Lofty One.

And then the vision was over. Muhammad descended by the same celestial route that he had ascended. He returned to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from where he had begun his ascent, and then on the same winged steed back to Mecca. The next morning Muhammad awoke still stunned by the Night Journey yet comforted, his confidence restored.

He needed confidence to face the many trials that were to beset him in Mecca. One trial was perhaps the most tiresome and occurred soon after the Night Journey. It was as though the Compassionate One had wanted to test whether he would become prideful in his own role as messenger. Even though he was the one chosen to repeat God’s message to all Arabs, and to all humankind, he was still a mortal, a mere man like other men.

Muhammad was reminded of those gods of the Ka’bah that his tribe had worshipped before the Lord of the Ka’bah had called them to look beyond such idols, and to reject their intercessory power.

Have you then considered Lat and Uzza,
And another, the third, Manat?
Are the males for you and the females for Him? (53:19-21)

Were these rhetorical questions, or was this an invitation to reconsider the intercessory power of the three idols? Muhammad may have hesitated but the Divine answer came in the next sweep of revelation:

This is indeed an unfair division!
They are only names that you yourself have named,
You and your father; God has not granted them a position.
They follow but fancy and what their lower selves requisition.
It is only from their Lord that they find guidance and decision.
Does man get whatever he hankers for?
No, all that has gone before and all that comes after
Belongs only to the Lord of Life, to God! (53:22-5)

Since that first revelation on Mount Hira some seven years before, Muhammad had never felt so close to the line of distinction between what came to him from above and from below. Once there were revealed to him words that sounded like a talisman, an amulet to ease his troubled soul. They were words that he repeated often when he felt the need for divine protection from other words, other whisperings that were not from above but from below:

In the name of God, Full of Compassion, Ever Compassionate
Repeat: I seek protection with the Lord of Creation the King of Creation the God of Creation
From the malicious incantations
Of the Accursed, whispering insinuations
In the hearts of jinn and humankind both,
fabrications. (114)

What were these staccato-like phrases if not a divine incantation? Muhammad felt their power, and their comfort, especially when he was confronted with disbelievers, and especially with rival messengers. One such was Musaylima, who claimed the power to counter ambivalent spirits (jinn) and, above all, the least ambivalent and most lethal of spirits, Satan. Musaylima identified himself as an apostle of the One beyond all comparison, even sometimes calling him the One Full of Compassion (Rahman). And what was the “proof” of his prophecy? Rhymed prose utterances similar to those Gabriel revealed to Muhammad.

Yet, neither Musaylima nor any other so-called apostle could produce a book like this Qur’an in Arabic. Muhammad’s people, like Jonah’s people, were warned, not just about the Day of Judgement but also about false prophets. It is in the Chapter revealed as the sign of Jonah that the Lofty One declares to Muhammad:

And this Qur’an is not something
that could be manufactured without God;
rather, it is a confirmation of what came before
and a clear explanation of the (eternal) Book—
there is no doubt in it—from the Lord of all creation.
Do they say that He has forged it?
Say: let them bring a chapter like it,
and call on anyone whom you can besides God,
if you are truthful. (10:37-8)

Because the Lord of all Creation had revealed His Word to Muhammad, he felt sustained against both doubters and imitators. He had been given not just the five daily prayers, but also the creed, the alms for the poor, the fast of Ramadan and the pilgrimage to the Lord of Ka’bah, all through the Qur’an. The Qur’an was an invitation. It was also an outpouring of Divine Favour into the human domain, into the human heart. The Qur’an announces God’s Mercy in the opening chapter. Its seven verses offer the gist, the fine gold dust, of all revelations. It channels Divine Abundance through seven portals of hope, each verse conferring Divine solace on those who remember and those who recite these words. Collectively, the seven verses of the opening chapter became the gateway to spiritual health, for all believers, be they Jews, Christians or Muslims:

In the Name of God, Full of Compassion, Ever Compassionate
Praise to the Lord of all Creation
Full of Compassion, Ever Compassionate
Master of the Day of Determination.
You alone do we worship
And from You alone do we seek alleviation.
Guide us to the path of True Direction,
The path of those whom You favour,
Not of those who cause You anger,
Nor of those who took to the path of deviation.

Vouchsafed by these words, by the intermittent announcements of Gabriel, by the salutary Signs from the Unseen, Muhammad had begun his journey as a messenger of God. He had become a vehicle for the Divine Word. At the same time, for his enemies he remained a rebel against his own people. He had reviled their rites at the Ka’bah; he had defiled the gods of their ancestors. By 619 his journey had just begun. The orphan merchant had become an inspired messenger. Yet even he could not have imagined where this journey would take him during the next decade, for the rest of his life, and beyond.