The Quran contains 114 chapters, but they are arranged neither chronologically nor thematically. Instead, they go from longest to shortest.
A few years ago I attended a conference in the United States. The structure of that conference made a lot of sense to me: it began with the big long meaty keynotes, two hours long or more. Then it spun off into one-hour research sessions, followed by half-hour professional practice sessions. Then there were the fast and brief PechaKucha-style sessions, less than ten minutes apiece. Finally, at the end of the day, you could wander around and look at the research posters while you drank and mingled.
This structure responded to the risk that people’s attention span waned throughout the day as their enthusiasm and energy levels dropped. It was very clever and very successful. And for some reason it reminds me of how the Quran is organised.
So, the Quran – the holy book of Islam – is arranged into 114 chapters (“surahs”), and each of those chapters is divided up into verses (“ayahs”). Naturally, the number of verses in a chapter varies: the longest surah has 286 ayahs, comprising roughly six thousand words; the smallest is just three verses long, ten words in all:
We have given thee abundanceAl-Kawthar
Pray to your Lord and sacrifice [to Him alone].
Indeed, your enemy is the one cut off.
The longest surah is the second chapter in the standard ordering of the Quran. That shortest surah is the 108th, very near the end of the whole book. And that’s the key to how the Quran is ordered. It’s not arranged in a timeline, nor according to particular themes; the Quran reads from longest to shortest.
This is not a perfect match, of course, but very roughly the longer a chapter is the closer it is to the beginning. The surahs appearing after shortest – Al-Kawthar – never get above six verses. Every surah above two hundred verses appears in the first quarter of the Quran.
Attempts have been made to identify the actual chronological order of the surahs (specifically, according to the order of revelation to Muhammad) according to what we know about history and stylistic markings of the text, but it appears that there’s no firm agreement so far. Given the very real challenges imposed by the fog of time, I expect that we never will.