Though Muslims generally reckon their religion to be based upon a book, Islám is a profoundly oral religion. Even its theology is fundamentally oral. The God of Muhammad, it might reasonably be said, is something of a poet; a lyricist and vocalist.
The book that Muslims hold in such reverence as to be an object of worship is not so much something to be read as something to be recited. The book is even named “the Recitation,” and its very first word, according to the traditional chronology of the book, is “recite:”
Recite [اقرا] in the Name of thy Lord who created,
created Man of a clot of blood. (96:1)
The close link between the Arabic word ّاقرا (iqra) taken here to mean “recite” and the more familiar word قران (Qur’án) is implied by their shared root triad, but confirmed in the Qur’án itself by context:
And when the Recitation [قران] is recited [قری], give ear to it and be silent; haply so you will find mercy. (7:204)
Also see Qur’án 16:98 and 17:45. The word Qur’án can also mean “gathering,” which is not entirely inappropriate given its history as a collection of dispersed suras. Still, the Qur’án is essentially a “recitation,” regardless of what we call it.
The word اقرا (iqra) is commonly translated as “read,” but it seems absurd for an Angel to appear to Muhammad in a cave and command him to read. The absurdity deepens when we consider that Muhammad was illiterate. The tradition holds that this illiterate Arab merchant went up to a cave where an angel appeared and commanded him to “recite,” that is to say, “repeat after me!” This distinction is crucial when we consider the oral nature of worship in Islám, and it plays very well into Islámic mysticism about the creative Word of God.
There are a number of places in the Qur’án where the angel says something along these lines:
When He decrees a thing He does but say to it “Be,” and it is. (3:47)
Also see Qur’án 2:117, 6:73, 16:40, 19:35, 36:82, and 40:68.
From this we get the sense that God creates the world through a single word, “Be.” He does not write the word or think it; he speaks it. He breathes it. The Qur’án follows this pattern when it begins with the word, “recite.” Thus the believer is commanded to vocalize the words of God, and perhaps participate in the creative act of vocalization.
It is in the spirit of this great vocalization of God’s word that the verses of the Qur’án double as “signs of God,” for in Islám the ultimate sign of God is his word, and these verbal signs are realized in the world by their vocalization.
It might be important to point out that these “signs” are not necessarily taken to be miracles in the sense of demonstrations of supernatural power, but rather direct expressions of the Creator. What is more important than any miracle is a direct, creative communication with God which we internalize through recitation. In this way we conform to the will of God and become one with God’s purpose; but there is a deeper, more personal and mystical sense of “oneness with God” when we breathe his very words.