Sometime around 610 C.E. an event occurred near the city of Mecca in modern day Saudi Arabia that changed the course of human history. A man named Muhammad, then about 40 years old, was meditating when he heard a voice that ordered him, “Recite!” (in Arabic, Iqra).

The voice, according to Islamic belief, belonged to the angel Gabriel, who had been sent from Allah (the Arabic word for God) to reveal a divine message that Muhammad was to deliver to his people. (Gabriel blows his horn in the manuscript illumination below, dated to about 1400. The image appears in a once-popular Arabic encyclopedia titled The Wonders of Creation and the Oddities of Existence, which was compiled in Iraq in 1270. Although religious images were never included in Muslim holy books like the Qur’an, they do occasionally appear in epic stories and histories produced for the ruling classes.) During the next 22 years, until his death in the city of Medina in 632 C.E., Muhammad continued to receive similar messages. The Qur’an is the record of these revelations.

The Qur’an (sometimes spelled Koran) is about the same length as the New Testament and comprises 114 chapters of varying length that contain approximately 6,200 verses. Each chapter, or suµra in Arabic, has a title that is taken from some word or name that appears in that chapter. It is also common to designate the chapters by number. So, for example, the citation 19:30 refers to the 30th verse of suµra 19, which also goes by the name “Mary,” due to the important role Jesus’ mother plays in the chapter.

The earliest revelations Muhammad received in Mecca took the form of warnings directed to his people. They are usually very brief, impassioned pleas that call for the rejection of polytheism and a return to the worship of Allah, the only God. Those who refused to comply, these revelations warned, would suffer severe consequences. The fate awaiting those who reject the message is contrasted with that of those who accept it in 85:10–11: “Truly, those who deceive believing men and women but do not repent will receive the punishment of Hell, the punishment of burning. Those who believe and do what is right will receive gardens flowing with rivers. That is the great victory!”a

The message was not well received by many of the people of Mecca, which enjoyed a reputation as a prominent religious center that contained the Ka‘ba, a shrine identified with a large number of gods and goddesses. Few Meccans wished to dismantle a religious system that enhanced their city’s status and contributed a great deal to its coffers.

The fortunes of the nascent Muslim community began to change, however, when Muhammad was invited in 622 to serve as leader and judge in the city of Yathrib, about 200 miles north of Mecca. The hijra—Muhammad’s migration to Yathrib with about 100 followers—is considered the founding event of Islam. Yathrib soon came to be called “the City of the Prophet” and, for short, “the City,” in Arabic Medina, the name by which it has been known ever since.

In Medina, Muhammad continued to receive revelations, but their tone and content changed. The brief passionate warnings about the need to convert were replaced with lengthier messages that addressed the concerns of the growing community: Worship, ethics and relations between Muslims and non-Muslims are among the topics treated in the Medinan texts. It is primarily among these later revelations that we find extended narratives about characters from the Hebrew Bible.

The revelations to Muhammad are not presented in strict chronological order in the Qur’an. Rather, the chapters are arranged by length, with the longest, generally from the later Medinan period, coming first and the shortest, generally from the earlier Meccan period, found at the end.b Thus, Muhammad’s first revelation, “Recite…” appears toward the end, in suµra 96.

Jewish, Christian and Islamic scholars have all attempted to explain the intriguing parallels between the Bible and the Qur’an, with little agreement. Traditionally, each scholar’s personal theological perspective has been the key to how the issue is addressed. Muslims believe the Qur’an to be the final definitive word of Allah that was sent to Muhammad to correct the errors that were introduced into the previous scriptures by the followers of earlier prophets. Among these earlier scriptures are the Torah and the Gospel, which Allah originally revealed to Moses and Jesus but which, Islam says, were recorded in a distorted form in the Bible.

Some Jewish and Christian scholars have interpreted the shared textual traditions as evidence of the influence of their religions on Islam. This is a complicated issue that has sparked much scholarly debate. There was a Jewish presence in Medina during Muhammad’s time. Christianity was present in the neighboring regions of Yemen, in southern Arabia, and Abyssinia, an African kingdom across the Red Sea that was visited by Muslims during Muhammad’s lifetime. Furthermore, as Islam spread, Jews and Christians were among those who converted, and they brought with them knowledge and experience of their previous religions.

No doubt the early Muslim community had contact with Judaism and Christianity. But questions still remain regarding the precise nature of this exposure and the influence it may have exerted on the Qur’an.

The Qur’an, like the Bible, is the product of a complicated process of development that began with a period of oral transmission and culminated in its canonization as the official, definitive text of its community. According to Muslim tradition, Muhammad was illiterate and therefore could not write down the revelations he received. Nonetheless, the Islamic sources make it clear that during his lifetime Muhammad’s followers had already begun the process of preserving his message in written form.

Today we have Qur’an manuscripts from as early as the first centuries of Islam. Study of this evidence, as with biblical manuscripts, can be difficult. One of the greatest challenges is that the earliest manuscripts are written in what is called scriptio defectiva, a style of writing that does not include the dots and other marks that help differentiate Arabic letters that otherwise look identical. There is also the problem of textual variations and competing traditions. Different versions of the Qur’an were in circulation soon after Muhammad’s death. From the earliest days of Islam, scholars and other Muslim leaders have had to study these variants carefully and make decisions about which ones are authentic and which ones are not.