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Communities of the Qur’an: Dialogue, Debate and Diversity in the 21st Century

  • Book Title:
 Communities Of The Quran
  • Book Author:
Emran El-Badawi, Paula Sanders
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book investigates the dialectical relationship between a single scripture and its multiple communities of interpretation. Our examination begins with the Qur’an itself.


The Qur’an is the first Arabic book in history. It appeared in seventh- century Arabia, at once and with unprecedented eloquence and power.1 Its sound, text and message captivated its audience through the new ‘clear

Arabic tongue,’ deliberately surpassing the prestige of older religious texts

in Aramaic, Greek and Persian. The text’s audience of believers – its first community of the Qur’an – was for the most part literate, at least reading and writing business contracts (Q 2:282). At the same time, this audience was likely bilingual at a time when Arabic was evolving into a language of religious writing (Q 16:103; 68:1). Finally, this audience was able to access the doctrines and laws of the Christian patriarchs and Jewish rabbis (e.g. Q 3:79; 5:48; 6:91; 20:133; 87:19).

The text appeared among quarreling religious sects and competing empires. The Middle East in the seventh century was divided by perpetual warfare between the Persians and Byzantines. The cities and oases of Arabia lay at the frontier between these two empires. Arabia served as a safe haven for prophets, missionaries and pious men and women fleeing imperial conflict and worldly temptation.

The Qur’an emerged in a world where sectarianism and conflict were the norm, and where divine salvation was to be found in both new revelations as well as ancient customs.

The Qur’an – both its content as well as reception – was not always a source of unity, but rather served as a source of significant dispute and divergence.

The text explicitly differentiates between ‘believers’ and ‘Muslims’ (cf. Q 49:14). It also mentions ‘assemblies who have splintered and disputed’ (Q 3:105); different Jewish groups; Nazarene-Christians; people of the Gospels (Q 5:47); people of the scripture; Gentiles (Q 62:2); Sabians (Q 5:69; 22:17); Zoroastrians (Q 22:17); puritans/ Hanifs (cf. Q 22:31); polytheists/associators; hypocrites; and rebels. We learn that the rebels live in ‘complacence and factionalism’ (Q 38:2). Among them are ‘those who say that God is Christ the son of Mary’ (Q 5:17, 72) or ‘the Third of Three’ (Q 5:73). Splinter groups existed even among the believers as reference is made to: sects (firaq; esp. Q 2:75; 146; 100–1; 3:23, 78, 100; 5:70; 19:73; 23:109; 34:20); groups (tawa’if,

e.g. Q 33:13; 49:9; cf. Q 61:14); units (fi’at; Q 3:13, 69–72; 4:81;

7:87); parties (ahzab; Q 5:56; 58:18–22); and protectors (awliya’; e.g. Q 8:34). To these may be added the ‘brethren in religion’ (Q 9:11) and allied subjects (Q 33:5). Similarly, Q 5:48 teaches that different religious groups possessed different laws and customs. The enmity of the Jews and the friendliness of Christians found in Q 5:82 is also worthy of note in this regard. Q 60:7–8 cautions the believers that ‘God may cause friendliness between them and those whom they antagonize,’ and that they should deal honestly and equitably with ‘those who have not fought them in religion nor expelled them from their homes.’ The point is that the Qur’an makes ample reference to the sectarian landscape from which it emerged.2

Salvation, therefore, does not depend on one’s religious group or sect, but rather on one’s personal beliefs and actions. The text declares that its believing audience – the very first community of the Qur’an – was not Muslim, nor Arab, nor one religion. It states, rather:

Those who believe, the Jews, the Christians and the Sabians – whoever believes in God and the last day and does good works – they will have their reward, so no fear is upon them, nor will they be saddened. (Q 2:62)

Moreover, in cases where one’s personal salvation is in question, the Qur’an does not call for their punishment, nor excommunication, nor any worldly consequence. It states, rather:

Those who believe, the Jews, the Christians and the Zoroastrians, and those who associate [gods with God], God will surely decide between them on the day of resurrection. God is indeed witness over all things. (Q 22:17)

The very first ‘community’ (umma) of the Qur’an was not the majority of society, nor did they agree on matters of religion. The community was a microcosm of humanity – divided. So on the one hand it addresses them directly: ‘this is indeed your community – a single community – and I am your Lord so serve me’ (Q 21:92; 23:52), adding:

You are the best of communities brought forth for humanity: you command virtue, forbid the contemptible, and you believe in God.

And if the people of the scripture believed it would be better for

them. Among them are believers, but most of them are corrupted. (Q 3:110)

On the other hand, the text acknowledges the diverse and divided nature of humanity:

For humanity was but one community then they disputed, and if it were not for a word decreed by your Lord, then a settlement would be found between them concerning what they disputed. (Q 10:19; cf. 2:213; 43:33)

The text adds elsewhere:

And if God so willed He would have made you one community. However, He guides whoever He wills and leads astray whoever He wills. And you will surely be asked about what you used to do. (Q 16:93; cf. 11:118; 42:8)

Numerous passages demonstrate the inherent diversity and inevitable divergence of humanity along religious lines. According to the text, what is the fundamental cause of humanity’s religious dispute and divergence? The Qur’an itself!

The text states unequivocally that divine revelation, the final manifesta- tion of which is believed to be these Arabic ‘recitations’ (qur’an), is the root cause of dispute among its audiences:

For even if a recitation (qur’an) made the mountains crumble, the earth split asunder, or the dead speak, the matter belongs all to God. Have not those who believe given up? For if God so wills, he would guide all humanity. And those who reject remain afflicted by disor- der because of their actions or desecration near their homes until the promise of God arrives. Surely God does not renege on his promise.

(Q 13:31)


The text adds elsewhere that their dispute came only after its call to ‘submit’ to God:

Surely the religion near to God is submission (islam). And the people of the scripture did not dispute until after [its] knowledge came to them, [causing] animosity between them. And whoever rejects the signs of God, surely God is swift in taking account. (Q 3:19; cf. 42:24)

It adds further that God deliberately created multiple communities, laws and customs, to test humanity:

And We revealed the scripture [i.e. the Qur’an] in truth, affirming what is before it from the scripture [i.e. the Hebrew and Christian Bibles], overruling it. So judge between them according to what God revealed, and do not follow their whims over the truth that has come to you. To each of you We have prepared a law and custom. And if God so willed He would have made you one community. However, he tests you with that which has come to each of you. So hasten towards good works. To God is your return – all of you – where he will inform you concerning what you used to dispute. (Q 5:48)

All this is to say that the Qur’an itself did not lead to greater unity and religious conformity, but rather contributed to further sectarian dispute and divergence. Humanity does not know which of its communities is the ‘best,’ nor can people settle religious disputes or judge individuals in this life. According to the text, only God has this authority.

What humanity learns is that religious dispute is a predetermined ‘word decreed’ by God. In response to this inevitability the very first community of the Qur’an had recourse to a ‘common word’ (Q 3:63) – a process of negotiation and compromise – and calling others to the faith ‘through wisdom and good advice’ (Q 16:125). Spreading the faith exclusively through a campaign of violence – which is a fact of certain episodes in medieval and modern history – is nevertheless unfounded in the text. That being said, violence plays an integral role in the exodus, retaliation and overall shaping of the

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