Introduction to the Qur’an

Explore the myth and mystery of the Qur'an and consider how the reality of this extraordinary religious and cultural tradition has shaped the lives of its followers for more than 1400 years.
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Combining literary, theological, and historical approaches, these 12 episodes are a rich introduction to the Qur'an that clarifies and adds nuance to our understanding of it, and that offer a rare opportunity to hear this influential text recited aloud by an award-winning reciter who brings the ancient book's beautiful language to life for believers and the curious alike.


Martyn Oliver
Martyn Oliver

The Qur'an is an endlessly fascinating, complicated, often misunderstood text. It is also a beautiful, moving text full of moments of tenderness, authority and mystery.


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 religion and Islam, Dr. Oliver has published widely in both academic and popular publications. He is recognized for his expertise on Islam in American culture, and he has had speaking engagements with the U.S. Department of State and the Defense Intelligence Agency. Dr. Oliver has also made media appearance on CBS and NPR. From 2009 to 2013, he served as the president of the American Religion and Literature Society.

By This Professor

Introduction to the Qur’an
Introduction to the Qur’an


Finding a Path into the Qur’an

01: 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.

30 min
7th-Century Mecca: Religion and Oral Tradition

02: 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.

23 min
The Qur’an Becomes a “Book”

03: 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.

36 min
From Mecca to Medina: The Revelation Transforms

04: 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.

25 min
God and Tawhid: Divine Nature in the Qur’an

05: 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.

36 min
The Qur’anic Creation Story

06: 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.

27 min
Judgment Day and the End Times: Yawm ad-Din

07: 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.

25 min
Abraham, Moses, and Qur’anic Faith

08: 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.

28 min
Prophethood in the Qur’an: Jesus and Others

09: 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.

27 min
From the Qur’an to Islam: Creating a Practice

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.

29 min
Sharia and Jihad: The Qur’an as Legal Text

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.

26 min
Qur’anic Philosophy, Theology, and Mysticism

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.

40 min