Introduction to the Qur'an

Course No. 6019
Professor Martyn Oliver, PhD
American University
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Course No. 6019
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Study the earliest history of Islam, beginning in 7th-century Mecca and spreading across the globe as the followers of Muhammad recited his revelation.
  • numbers Discover what we know about Muhammad and his earliest followers, as well as the beliefs that have come to shape the Islamic community today.
  • numbers Hear Qur'anic surah in recitation and experience the poetic beauty that is the Arabic Qur'an.
  • numbers Learn about the Five Pillars of Islam and how contemporary Muslims attend to the demands of an ancient faith.
  • numbers Explore connections between the Biblical prophets and characters in Christian and Jewish theology and how those same stories are retold to emphasize Islamic values in the Qur'an.

Course Overview

For people of the Muslim faith—nearly 25 percent of the world’s population—the Qur’an represents the most intimate and direct experience of the divine. For the Islamic faithful, the Qur’an is the eternal and perfect word of God, and it lies at the very heart of their understanding of themselves and the world. And yet, many non-Muslims have little familiarity with or understanding of this influential text. As a result, myths and misconceptions about the Qur’an and how it functions in the Islamic faith abound. In an increasingly global society, it has never been more important to understand the complicated history and message of the Qur’an, and its significance to millions of believers around the world.

Dr. Martyn Oliver, a Senior Professorial Lecturer at American University, presents the 12 in-depth lectures of Introduction to the Qur’an to provide you with a multifaceted approach to the Qur’an and its 1,400-year history, from its origins as a revelation to Muhammad in 7th-century Mecca to its role in the establishment and evolution of Islam as a world religion. Along the way, you will encounter characters familiar to those well-versed in the Judeo-Christian tradition—Adam and Eve, Moses and Abraham, Jesus and Mary—as well as concepts common across many world religions, like creation, sin, judgment, and the afterlife. You will also explore terms and ideas unique to the Islamic faith such as sharia and jihad, whose interpretations both beyond and within the Muslim world have led to questions and confusion.

Understanding any religious text from outside of its spiritual tradition is challenging and demands multiple perspectives. By combining literary, theological, and historical approaches to the Qur’an, Dr. Oliver provides a rich introduction to this influential text that both clarifies and adds important nuance our understanding of it. This course is also a rare opportunity to hear the Qur’an recited aloud by an award-winning reciter who brings the beautiful language of the ancient text to life for believers and the curious alike.

Text and Context

The year is around 571 C.E. and the small city of Mecca is thriving on the Arabian Peninsula, primarily as a result of the intersection of a broad range of religious and economic interests. Into this diverse and vibrant city is born a man, who by 610 C.E. has developed the habit of going outside the city walls on personal retreat. It is here, on one of these retreats, that Muhammad first hears a voice commanding him to “read aloud that which is written on your heart.” You will learn about Muhammad’s divine inspiration as well as his very human struggles in a society that was not always ready for the message he carried.

Specifically, you will:

  • Hear about the first moment of revelation, and Muhammad’s understandable fear that he may have been delusional;
  • Learn the words that Muhammad felt had been permanently inscribed upon his heart at that first revelation;
  • Discover who it was that Muslims believe spoke to Muhammad, and explore the key elements of this lengthy revelation, spanning some 22 years and two cities;
  • Explore the population to whom this message was meant to be delivered, and consider the rhetorical strategies used to best address the needs of that audience; and
  • Reflect on the role that Mecca—an economically and theologically diverse city—might have had on Muhammad, his followers, and ultimately his message.

Dr. Oliver’s course returns, again and again, to the man behind the message, and what we know and do not know about who he was and when and where he lived. Because Dr. Oliver approaches his study of the Qur’an as an influential piece of literature as well as an important religious text, he is able to help you understand that even the “perfected word of God” does not appear into a social vacuum. There is much-needed context if we want a truly thorough understanding of the text, its teachings, and its followers.

Although Muhammad was the messenger, and as such is much revered in the Islamic faith, he was never considered divine. It is the Qur’an, the revealed and perfect word of God that reaches believers via revelation through Muhammad that is considered most holy in the Islamic traditions. By giving his viewers insights into the parallels and significant differences between the Qur’an and the texts employed by other “People of the Book,” such as the Torah in Jewish tradition and the Bible for Christians, Professor Oliver helps us to see what connects all of these traditions—monotheism, devotion to God, a belief in the Last Judgment, stories of characters ranging from Moses and Abraham to Jesus and Mary—and what makes Islam particularly unique, most specifically, the belief that the Qur’an is God’s word made manifest in the world. As Dr. Oliver so succinctly states it, “For Christians, the Bible is the human vehicle through which is revealed the perfection that is Jesus; for Muslims, Muhammad is the human vehicle through which is revealed the perfection of God’s word, the Qur’an.”

Who Are the Believers?

Although the Word of God as manifested in the Qur’an is considered infallible by believers, the human capacity to understand and interpret that message most certainly is not. This course explores a number of different interpretive texts and traditions that have informed religious practice and thought within Islam across the 1,400 years since Muhammad received his revelation. Out of these many texts and developing theologies have come several schools, the names of which are often familiar—Sufi, Sunni, Shia, among others—but are less frequently understood well. Dr. Oliver takes you inside the philosophical and interpretive differences that inform these divides, explaining the multitude of ways in which the Qur’an, as a living text, is read and interpreted around the world. Most important, he helps us understand how specific differences in interpretation have led to differences in practice.

Not only was the message of the Qur’an brought into a complex and diverse social and economic environment in 7th-century Mecca, the message is arguably in the midst of an even more complicated world today. How does the voice of God continue to speak to millions of believers around the world right now? With the inclusion of a number of beautifully voiced recitations of the text in Arabic, Dr. Oliver affords his audience not only the opportunity to learn the content of important verses through his in-depth lectures, but also to hear the resonance of the words and the poetry of the phrases that can only be fully captured in the original Arabic.

Endings and Interpretations

Islam has three preeminent tenets—the singularity of God, the Final Day on which God will sit in judgment on the lives of every human being, and the importance of good works in winning God’s favor. With these in mind, explore with Dr. Oliver the Islamic conception of judgment and the afterlife, including the ideas of heaven and hell, both of which are literal and detailed in the Qur’an. You will:

Learn what other religious groups at the time believed about an afterlife;

  • Discover how the words of the Qur’an aligned with some aspects of Christian, Zoroastrian, and Jewish traditions about these ideas; and
  • Consider the ways in which specific aspects of the afterlife promised in the Qur’an reflect the values of Muhammad’s audience on the Arabian Peninsula.

It has been suggested that Dante’s famous vision of the afterlife, as presented in his three-part Commedia, might reflect descriptions originally recorded in the Qur’an. Certainly, there is evidence to suggest that the great Italian author was familiar with the words of Muhammad. The literal, sensual nature of both heaven and hell within the Qur’an brings to vivid life an understanding of the different potential outcomes—peace and pleasure, rewards unending in the company of God for those who believe, do good, and submit to God’s will, or a bottomless pit of pain and suffering for those who do wrong in the world.

Although many of the themes and characters in the Qur’an have much in common with the traditions of other “People of the Book”—Jews and Christians—the practice of Islam itself is unique. Much of that practice is guided by the Five Pillars of Islam: the statement of faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca. And yet, these foundational practices are not fully explained in the Qur’an. By exploring how these practices came to be, Dr. Oliver guides you through the complicated world of Qur’anic interpretation. You’ll discover how Islamic scholars and theologians over the centuries have combined careful reading of the Qur’an with considerations of hadith (accounts of the practices of Muhammad) and sunnah (the customs of early Muslim communities) to inform the legal and spiritual practice of Islam in an ever-evolving world. In the closing lectures, you’ll learn how these interpretations have given birth to a variety of philosophical, theological, and mystical traditions that make Islam the rich, varied, and complex religion it is today.

Only by examining the historical, cultural, and religious framework of the Qur’an can we begin to understand the faith of one of the world’s largest religions. For those who practice Islam, this course may help believers better understand the history and evolution of the Qur’an and its role in Muslim practice, while those who come from the outside can have a better understanding of an often-misunderstood text. Introduction to the Qur’an will show you the beauty and the challenge of Muhammad’s revelation, and how it has moved its adherents for centuries.

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12 lectures
 |  Average 29 minutes each
  • 1
    Finding a Path into the Qur'an
    Why study the Qur'an? Dr. Martyn Oliver explores the myth and mystery of the Qur'an, including the origins of this most central of Islamic texts, God's perfect word as revealed by Muhammad. For believers, the Qur'an and its divinity are certain, but for the scholar, the text is not so neatly defined. x
  • 2
    7th-Century Mecca: Religion and Oral Tradition
    Ancient Mecca and its surroundings, into which the Qur'an was born, was a place founded economically and socially upon a diverse range of customs, traditions, and peoples. Examine the religious history of the region and the ways in which this cosmopolitan city undoubtedly influenced the messages of the Qur'an. x
  • 3
    The Qur'an Becomes a "Book"
    Muhammad, like most of the people in 7th-century Mecca, was illiterate. What challenges of interpretation for modern scholars are presented by translation from oral tradition to written text, and again from that text into other languages? Was anything lost (or added) in translation between the death of Muhammad and the first canonized text of the Qur'an two hundred years later? Perhaps. x
  • 4
    From Mecca to Medina: The Revelation Transforms
    Learn how the Meccan verses are both radical and evangelical—an economic and cultural threat to Mecca, but also statements of a powerful ideology defining Allah as sole creator and ultimate judge. Later verses of Medina focus, as did Muhammad, on the development of an enduring and cohesive community of diverse peoples, eventually uniting much of the Arabian Peninsula. In these origins of the revelation is where the history of Islam is born. x
  • 5
    God and Tawhid: Divine Nature in the Qur'an
    What does the Qur'an tell us about God? Cultures throughout human history have speculated about the essence of the divine. As we move into the content of the Qur'an itself, we explore the nature of an experiential God, who is both the narrator and central focus of this revelation to Muhammad. x
  • 6
    The Qur'anic Creation Story
    Origin myths provide insight into the values of a people. While the Qur’an lacks a traditional “in the beginning” narrative, it reveals a number of stories about the first humans and divine creation. Learn here about Satan’s fall from grace, his arrogant disobedience of God’s command, and his promise to lure humans into the selfsame fall. x
  • 7
    Judgment Day and the End Times: Yawm ad-Din
    Did Dante Alighieri model his Divine Comedy after the Qur'anic descriptions of heaven and hell? In this lecture, we will delve into the regional history; the co-existing theologies; and finally, the actual Qur'anic depictions of both a beautiful garden of endless, sensual bliss and, for the less deserving, a fiery pit of eternal torment. x
  • 8
    Abraham, Moses, and Qur'anic Faith
    In both Christian and Jewish traditions, Moses and Abraham are held as prophets and ideal examples of faith. In this lecture, discover how these Biblical characters appear in the Qur'an in ways that cement Muhammad's role as prophet, and Mecca's place as the geographic center of Islam. x
  • 9
    Prophethood in the Qur'an: Jesus and Others
    We will learn that numerous other Biblical figures also appear in the Qur'an, including Jesus, Mary, Noah, and Joseph (of Genesis). Each account has parallels to the stories presented in the Christian and Jewish traditions, but the Qur'anic versions emphasize the oneness and exclusive divinity of God. x
  • 10
    From the Qur'an to Islam: Creating a Practice
    How did the Five Pillars of Islam grow from deep roots in the Qur'an? How might the words and deeds of the Prophet provide insight for believers? Finally, what role does this struggle to understand, from the Arabic word ijtihad, play in the ritual practices that define Islam? Delve into each pillar and its Qur'anic origins, as well as the substantial interpretive history of Islam. x
  • 11
    Sharia and Jihad: The Qur'an as Legal Text
    The untranslated words sharia and jihad might best be understood as “searching for God’s will” and the “universal struggle for justice,” rather than the simplistic, and thus fundamentally inaccurate, concepts of judicial law and holy war. Consider the complex meaning of each term, and how it is further explicated through a rich history of fatwa, or legal opinion. x
  • 12
    Qur'anic Philosophy, Theology, and Mysticism
    The final lecture in this outstanding series reflects on the extensive philosophical, theological, and mystical underpinnings of Qur’anic study. Dr. Oliver speaks powerfully about the role of personal struggle to live according to God’s will—a struggle that shapes the religious life of individual Muslims and Islamic communities alike around the world. x

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  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
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  • 12 lectures on 2 DVDs
  • 128-page printed course guidebook
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  • Closed captioning available

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  • 128-page printed course guidebook
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Your professor

Martyn Oliver

About Your Professor

Martyn Oliver, PhD
American University
Martyn Oliver is a Senior Professorial Lecturer at American University, where he also serves as the director of the Undergraduate Religious Studies and Arab World Studies programs. He received his B.A. in Religion from the University of Puget Sound and his Ph.D. in Religion and Literature from Boston University. In 2015, he was the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. As a scholar of...
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Introduction to the Qur'an is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 37.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good basic introduction. This is a great course for people like me who know little about the Qur'an. Now I know more. However, the course is too short. How can you cover this important topic in 12 lectures?
Date published: 2020-07-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting and thought provoking I knew nothing about the Qur'an, and now have at least a basic understanding of this important work. The teacher was respectful, insightful and well spoken.
Date published: 2020-07-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Well-Done Introduction, Far Too Brief! This is an excellent course to take if you know little or nothing about Islam and the Qur'an. It assumes no background and provides a well-done overview of the key points of the book, as well as of the historical context and the religion itself. But - obviously - six hours is an absurdly short time to discuss all of this. Even as an introduction it should have been at least two or three times as long. I hope (TGC people please pass this along to your powers-that-be!) that the Qur'an will be added to the "Books That Matter" series in order to provide more depth. Professor Oliver is outstanding. He is organized, avoids irrelevant digressions, and speaks in an eloquent, conversational, and well-modulated voice which is a pleasure to listen to. I had no problem maintaining focus. The material is presented in an objective rather than religious perspective; that is, we are learning about the religion in a non-judgmental manner, not being indoctrinated into it. Islam and the Qur'an are fascinating subjects (as, I think, are all religious views). Given our current world situation, I especially feel that non-Muslims should all make an effort to understand Islam in itself, rather than simply being battered by the high-profile incidents that make the evening news. While this course is far from enough, it is a very good place to start.
Date published: 2020-07-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good presentation for difficult subject Prior to this course I knew the Quan existed but that’s about it. The presentation was easy to follow.
Date published: 2020-07-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good introduction to subject The presenter was passionate about the subject and provided a solid introduction to the Qur'an.
Date published: 2020-06-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A very useful course This is a very helpful introductory course to the Koran itself and to the religion of Islam. The course traces the history of the Koran and provides a great deal of information about the relationship between Islam and the other Abrahamic religions. It details both the similarities and the differences among the three religions. It also usefully clarifies the concepts of jihad and shariya and points out several things associated with Islam that don’t appear in the Koran at all.
Date published: 2020-05-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Difficult & Sensitive Review Presenter is well versed in the Qur'an. Covers a lot of material in a careful sensitive way. Leaves one with a greater appreciation of the complexity & diversity and evolution of Muslim thought and beliefs
Date published: 2020-05-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A very helpful introduction. I had great difficulty simply reading an English translation of the Qur'an on my own. His lectures clarified and illustrated themes and concepts in a fashion to make the Qur'an much more understandable. Very useful.
Date published: 2020-05-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Information / Culturally sensitive / Factual The course met my goal (as a novice) of wanting to develop an understanding of Islam. I was particularly pleased that professor's love for his subject came through. In my opinion, he was able to communicate it without taking any sides in the current middle eastern challenges. I particularly appreciated his use of "quotes" from the Qur'an to express his points. I expect that these quotes are reflective of Muslim values (both past and present)
Date published: 2020-05-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An excellent presentation I have taken several courses on comparative religion and this class was an excellent insight into the Qur'an, it's place in history, Islamic history, and religious practices. Valuable in understanding one of the world's great religious heritages.
Date published: 2020-05-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thoughtful, Informative and Absorbing Lectures Professor Oliver offers a thoroughly absorbing presentation of the Qur’an that should serve as an excellent introduction to this holy text for anyone interested. He raises and addresses many important issues, issues that should prompt those who complete his course to do further reading, especially of the Qur’an itself. Professor Oliver and The Teaching Company should offer additional courses on the Qur’an, the Hadith, and Muslims so that those wanting a better understanding of Islam and its followers can have one. Thank you, Professor Oliver!
Date published: 2020-03-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Informative I purchased this about 3 weeks ago and I am glad I did. Anyone who is interested in learning more about Islam will find this course is a great starting place. Professor Oliver is very knowledgeable and he dispels many myths about Islam and Muslims.
Date published: 2020-03-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent Overview Dr, Oliver did an excellent job of condensing a complex course into well designed short presentations, each covering a very important aspect of the Qur'an. History, background, salient points an three approaches to modern interpretation were all covered. It has wheted my appetite to pursue this more. It is too bad it was such a summary course.
Date published: 2020-02-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The professor pronounces the Arabic very well. I have read the Qur'an and have received some insights from the course on the Islamic Golden Age lecture, so this a a good review and provides some further insights into the book. I enjoy the actual reciting of the test in the original Arabic.
Date published: 2020-01-31
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Loyal : Angry that everything is video only I have bought over 70 courses. I love this product. I hate that now it is only DVD/video only now. I used to be able to listen to a lecture on my way to work. I now have to download the lecture to my phone and listen to it. In January, I bought 9 lectures at a great price. I only unwrap the package when I am ready to listen. The first 3 cds were broken. The GGC broke their promise about replacing defective disks. I had to accept dvds not cds; They were not happy about giving me dvds.
Date published: 2019-12-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent explanation of concepts. Dr. Oliver's overview of the socio-political and historical background to the Qur'an helped me to better understand both the cultural context and the universal truths that can be found in this much maligned and misunderstood text. It has inspired me to learn more in a non-judgmental approach to the world's fastest growing religion.
Date published: 2019-11-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Cleared up questions This shed light on the mysterious side of the subject. Very matter of fact as to absolutes vs. interpretation. Very worthwhile.
Date published: 2019-11-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent overview... Very good coverage for the length of time over twelve lectures.
Date published: 2019-11-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Focus on the Qur’an as a Book This course is a worthy addition to The Great Courses collection on Islam. It focuses specifically on the most sacred literature in Islam, the Qur’an. It is not a survey of the religion in general. It mentions but does not dive deeply into what might be called the oral tradition, the Hadith. This is a short course (12 lectures) and it is beneficial as a follow-on to other TGC courses on Islam. This course is *about* the Qur’an. It does not judge its injunctions. It does not advocate for or against it. It treats the book respectfully but it neither assumes it is mere literature nor that it is divine. The course starts by providing the historical context including the life of Mohammad. (This is an overview; more details are provided in other TGC courses.) The course then discusses certain important themes in Qur’an including the unity of Allah (although note that Dr. Oliver always refers to this deity as “God” and never as “Allah”), creation, the judgment day, and certain persons familiar to Jews and Christians such as Abraham and Moses. Dr. Oliver did not address some themes that I thought might be pertinent such as how Qur’an is organized, what might be a good approach for a newcomer to read the book, the extent to which translations might be trusted, and the various schools of interpretation. Dr. Oliver is a thoughtful and respectful teacher. I appreciated how he respected Islam and Muslims, neither getting too critical nor becoming an apologist. Dr. Oliver is easy to follow. I used the video version. I believe that the Audiobook would have been just fine.
Date published: 2019-11-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Five Stars Plus! This course is indispensable for the correct understanding of a maligned religion that should not be equated with its warped interpretation by terrorist movements, just as the teachings of Jesus should not be equated with the maniacal fanaticism of the Inquisition in medieval Europe. Professor Martyn Oliver has created a course of the highest order, one that serves to induce a positive perception of Islam as a monotheistic faith that has so much in common with the sources of Judaism and Christianity.
Date published: 2019-11-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Commendable effort I liked and enjoyed this course. I wasn’t expecting a serious scholarly work for one who himself is not a scholar. But it met my expectations and indeed added a new perspective to my understanding.
Date published: 2019-10-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good (and objective) introductory course I have very little knowledge of the Qur'an, either his Islam "came to be" and how the Qur'an was actually written. I have lots of "heresay" but I wanted to get beyond what I have incidentally picked up over the years (obviously, mostly bad). This course is a true eye-opener! The most surprising part (I'm about half way through) is the number of Christian Biblical figures who form parts of the Qur'an! I really look forward to finishing this class and maybe taking others which could get more into Islamic theology. This class is historical knowledge of the Qur'an and Islam.
Date published: 2019-10-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Only 12 lectures? A good introduction, but would 24 (or 36) lectures have made it less appealing to Great Courses customers? Maybe so, but I, for one would like more. When I purchased the course I suspected that its brevity would be a negative. And indeed it is, but it is the only negative that I am aware of. I am curious how an "insider" of the Islamic faith would evaluate this as an introduction. I do appreciate the effort to dispel at least some of the erroneous ideas about Islam. Also the inclusion of Arabic recitation provided another element of interest when they were more than an interlude between topics. Content: tantilizing is the word that comes to mind. The specific topics covered were insightful. But several times the professor seemed to be apologizing for the limited time available. At one point he mentioned pre-Islamic Arab "prophets" but never had time to get back to or name any of them. This course opens up many possible avenues for becoming more aware of the Islamic tradition and the various currents within it. Hopefully some of those avenues will be explored by those viewing this course. Presentation: Even in this short course it was obvious that the professor grew more comfortable with the process. Halfway through I was wondering if he ever changed with facial expression. Toward the end he did. Made him much more human. He seems to be a good addition to the list of professors the Teaching Company employs.
Date published: 2019-10-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well designed, challenging course This is one of the best Great Courses I have purchased. Dr. Oliver is a polished speaker, whose every word conveys meaning. He has organized an introductory course to the Qur’an which educates and challenges the student. While he covers an amazingly broad content, my only objection is limiting the course to twelve lectures. I look forward to future courses by the professor. Regardless of your religious background or interest, you will benefit from this course.
Date published: 2019-10-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very worthwhile $29.95? Am I that interested? Looks a bit different from the usual GC fare. If it's no good can always return it... Well, this has turned out to be a real find. Professor Oliver adopts a basically historical-critical approach supplemented by generous quotations from contemporary translations in order to enter into the world of the Qur'an. It is one highly qualified academic's attempt to engage sympathetically into the thought-world of the society that produced the most important text of one of the world's most important religions. As the name of the course indicates, the course focuses primarily on the Quran; it touches on actual Islamic practice briefly and there is only a cursory glance at the spread of Islam. When quoting, Professor Oliver ditches references to "Allah" and refers throughout to "God". The effect is quite dramatic, and for me helped remove a barrier to engaging with the text. He does not shy away from addressing the key differences between Christian conceptions of God as a Trinity and the uncompromising monotheism of Islam. At the same time he points up the large divergences that Islamic scholars have taken in the past, and still do, to the possible human approaches and understanding of the divine nature. Professor Oliver also describes the many intriguing appearance in the Qur'an of familiar figures from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures such as Moses, Abraham, and Jesus. The overriding impression having finished the course, is that Islam never has been, nor is it now, a monolithic block of practice and belief. Professor Oliver even notes the eyebrow-raising contention (admittedly very much a minority view) that the Devil (in Arabic; Iblis) did the right thing by refusing to follow God's command to bow down and worship the human he had created; only God is worthy of worship even if God commands otherwise... For Muslims who may be thinking of buying the course be aware that Professor Oliver is respectful of the Qur'an but that he uses the Prophet's name frequently and treats him as any other historical figure. The Arabic recitations of the Qur'an are by a highly qualified Muslim, Professor Oliver himself quotes in English.
Date published: 2019-10-15
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