This is the first part of a very brief survey of the Qur’an. In this series, I intend to provide a framework within which the Christian can study the Islamic scriptures and begin formulating his or her apologetic. In this first part, I will quickly outline the basic structure of the book. Subsequent parts will deal with how the Qur’an handles material familiar to Christians from the Old and New Testaments.
   The Qur’an is not so much a systematic book of history, doctrine, and exhortation, but rather a collection of sayings, speeches, and law compiled over a period of time. It consists of one hundred and fourteen suras, which can be regarded like chapters, each of which is subdivided into ayat, comparable to verses in modern editions of the Bible. The suras vary in length from three or four ayat (e.g., suras 91, 108, and 110) to the longest sura, 2, which has two hundred and eighty-six ayat.
   The suras are not in chronological order, and their proper order is a matter of scholarly dispute, though there is little argument that some fall within the Meccan period of Muhammad’s life, and others fall within the Medinan period. The standard presentation of the suras is, generally, from the longest to the shortest; however this does not represent the chronological order, and no Muslim would deny this fact. Given that the Qur’an was revealed (as Muslims believe) in stages over a period of time, it is natural that the thematic content of each sura would depict the time in which it was written. On this principle, one can presume that the earlier suras would be more emphatic concerning the nature of Allah, asserting His unity and uniqueness over and above the pagan gods, and the later suras would have a greater emphasis on the Muslim community, with much more legal and disciplinary content.
   Each sura has a title, usually drawn from the text or the theme of the sura. The purpose behind these titles seems to have been largely mnemonic, since each pertains to a distinguishing aspect of the sura that would, perhaps, make it memorable. For example, sura 19 is called Maryam, or “Mary.” The mother of Jesus is not the only subject of this sura, which goes on to relate, among other things, stories pertaining to Abraham and Moses; it is the story of Mary, though, that makes this sura unique. Stories of Abraham and Moses abound in the Qur’an, but Mary’s story is seldom, if ever, repeated elsewhere. Sura 16, on the other hand, is called Nahl, or “The Bee,” and it has a general theme of Allah’s supreme authority over all nature, and his giving of signs to demonstrate his control over all things and provision for his creation. In the course of the discussion, the bee is set forth as an example of a creature that Allah has created that provides a source of nourishment and healing for men in the form of honey (ayat 68-69). The reference to the bee was probably considered unusual and memorable, and hence the sura took its name from these few ayat.
   Many editions of the Qur’an have a title bar at the top of each sura indicating its numerical order, its name, an indication of its chronology in terms of Meccan or Medinan, and a count of the ayat in that particular sura.
   All suras, except for sura 9, begin with what is known as the bismillah: bi-smi llahi r-rahmani r-rahim, which can be translated, “In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful.” This phrase may well date back to the time of Mohammad, and its omission from the ninth sura might simply be explained by the fact that the first aya of that sura indicates the words following are from Allah, thus making the declaration of the bismillah unnecessary.
   If you have been following the videos and discussions pertaining to Islam on this site, you will know that for Muslims, the Qur’an is the word of Allah, given directly to Mohammad through the agency of the angel Gabriel. For the Muslim, therefore, anything the Qur’an teaches is the final authority on that subject. This is important to bear in mind as we consider how the Qur’an presents stories familiar to us from the Old Testament, which is the subject of the next installment.

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