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August 13, 2019

The Qur'an: A personal book review

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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Many people examine their lives and faith when they reach old age, such as 75 which happens to be mine; I am no different.

After having spent some 60 of those years, ever since my teens, in the company of science, it has shaped my adult thinking and now also my elder reflections.

Over my half-century in Canadian academia, I authored 12 books – half of them on engineering and the others covering spirituality, politics, travel, poetry and historical fiction. I also edited four best-selling engineering books.

I’ve found that editing books is quite different from creating original writing. Whenever I’ve felt a need in my field for expertise in a given subject area to be shared with others, I have been enriched by opportunities to request contributions from my specialist peers on related topics.

Before publication of any book, I seek reviews from my peers to check the accuracy of its content. I then go through the editing process. Following publication, I receive feedback from colleagues in the field and, if warranted, the book may go through one or more subsequent editions. And sometimes, I am among those who evaluate and review the writings of my colleagues.

You might ask how all this applies to the Qur’an, the book universally upheld as the divine revelation of Islamic Holy Scripture. I have long thought that even divine scripture deserves a believer’s response, so here I want to share my personal review of the Qur’an.

I have given many book reviews previously and know that one is expected to answer certain questions, starting with the basics such as:

Who is the author/editor/publisher? Who is the intended audience? And then come more subjective questions, such as: Did the writer(s) do a good job in reaching that audience? What is the content and how accurate is it? Do the book’s style, structure, and language convey its message effectively? Also, I address whether each subject and sub-section was covered adequately, not too much or too little detail. All of these criteria can be applied very suitably to the Qur’an.

The Qur'an was first published in Arabia during the sixth century CE. It was dictated in classical Arabic by a single man, Muhammad.

He claimed to receive it through divine guidance in many brief episodes over a span of more than two decades; these he dictated to trusted scribes.

He claimed to have received such divine revelations from God, similar to those given to earlier prophets such as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.

On examining the Qur’an’s teachings and range of topics, however, you might well assume that Muhammad functioned more like an editor, assisted by a panel of experts.

This is because its subject matter is indeed vast, covering ethics, the origins of life, the origin of our universe, the history of religion, teachings from the holy books of Christianity and Judaism, comparative theology, human psychology, the life sciences, sociology, good governance, criminal and civil law, war and peace, and how to manage human relations at all levels – from marital, to family, to nation – regardless of differences in gender, ethnicity, or culture.

You can also read in the Qur’an about the dual importance of good and evil, deeds and faith, diet and hygiene, prayers and diligent effort, earning a living and being charitable, meditation and fasting and achieving the ideal balance of physical, mental and spiritual fitness.

Throughout the Qur’an we are offered two roads by which to know the Divine – one based on logic and reflecting on the grand design of everything in the universe, including ourselves; the other through reaching deeply into our own hearts to love the best friend we can ever have, The Ever Loving Almighty.

But what, or who, was Muhammad’s “panel of experts” that knew so much more than 1400 years ago?

How could coming events, whether in few years or in billions of years, be predicted with such amazing accuracy that today’s science has never contradicted them?

For example, we read that the universe will come to an end and be recreated – this will happen once, according to the Qur’an, while modern science says it could be more than once.

The Qur’an is also a pillar of classical Arabic literature. Yet its unique style and embedded music are free of poetry’s traditional metric restrictions without quite becoming freestyle prose. This distinctive texture runs throughout its 600 original pages, which generated numerous printings over the centuries.

Amazingly, millions the world over still dedicate themselves to memorizing the Qur’an in its entirety, often beginning at a very young age.

As Muhammad dictated the Qur’anic revelations to be written down and memorized by his trusted Companions, the immediate audience was the people of Arabia, but the book was ultimately addressed to humanity at large.

Muhammad was a well-known historical figure, even in his own time. As a result, his life of 63 years is well documented.

He belonged to a noble Arabian tribe of traders, but while growing up, he received no formal education and was not considered a poet or thinker.

It was only when he reached age 40 that he began dictating passages claiming they were divine.

At the time Arabians worshiped God, or Allah, in Arabic. Muhammad’s father was called Abdullah, or “servant of God.”

Other tribes included Jewish, Christian, and the Hanfi (followers of Abraham's old religion). Each group believed that they alone possessed the truth and were assured of their reward in heaven, but moral corruption was widespread.

The Qur’an’s most important teaching was: One must combine faith with good deeds, for God will judge us equally, based on both. Divine rewards or punishments in this life and the hereafter will be given according to these two criteria – regardless of religion, tribe, gender, or ethnicity.

But the majority of Arabians, especially leaders of all three groups, totally rejected Muhammad's call for equality before God, dismissing the need for humanity to work toward a common good.

Since they all believed theirs alone was the one and only path to salvation, they reasoned; Why should we change?

Instead they chose to kill both the messenger and his message before it spread too widely.

They challenged Muhammad, arguing that his teachings were wrong, so different from those of their forefathers.

They called him a raving poet, magician, mad man and liar, accusing him of being a mouthpiece for subversive, secret teachers. But all their smear tactics were also recorded and refuted in the Qur’an.

Then tribal leaders of the three groups attempted to bribe Muhammad, offering to make him king and his new faith the state religion, alternating with their own. Muhammad refused.

Next, they mounted a terror campaign against him and his followers, murdering them, boycotting their trade, and seizing their property.

Muhammad and his followers endured this ill treatment passively for 13 years, a struggle also recorded in the Qur’an; yet the passages describing that period retain the same powerful language and internal music.

During the last decade of his mission, Muhammad finally organized an armed defense against the oppressors, all the while maintaining that every passage of the Qur’an is a Divine revelation, not a product of human imagination or intellect.

He would not allow a single word or phrase to be changed. He challenged his adversaries to produce just one chapter of scripture similar to that of the Qur’an and they failed. That challenge stands unmet to this day.

Another principal teaching of the Qur’an, reiterated many times in its verses and chapters, is this:

God, the Creator is One, Humanity is One, and every human was chosen by God to have a Divine soul; and every one of us will return home to God.

That is my very personal “review” of the Qur’an.

For English speaking readers I highly recommend Muhammad Asad’s translation The Message of the Qur’an: For People Who Think (1980).

* * * *

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry is professor of Computer Engineering at the University of Waterloo and the founder of the Canadian Islamic Congress and The Canadian Charger. He is the author of the best-selling book Spiritual Fitness for Life. He can be reached at

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