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Glossary: Surah


Definition: Surah is the Arabic, Quranic word for "chapter." When citing the Quran, for example, the first number always refers to the surah; the second set of numbers refers to the verses within the cited surah. For example, the verse, "Can any of you idols give guidance to the truth?" would be cited as surah 10:35. The citation style isn't remarkably different from standard biblical citations, except that the Bible is a collection of 66 books (39 in the Old, 27 in the New Testament), with the name of each book preceding the chapter-and-verse citation. In that sense, the Book of Exodus is made up of 40 surahs, the Gospel According to Matthew, of 28 surahs, and so on.

There are 114 surahs in the Quran. Each surah is devoted to an overarching theme. Although the Quran was "revealed" to the Prophet Muhammad, beginning in 610, over a period of 23 years. In that chronology the Quran is reflective of specific historical incidents, anxieties, conflicts and epiphanies surrounding Muhammad's circumstances and early Muslim community. However, the Quran's surahs as they were written, arranged and essentially codified in their present order several decades after Muhammad's death aren't arranged in the same chronology as their order of revelation. Rather, they're arranged in descending order of length.

The last surahs--on daybreak, on onenes, on men, on help--are just a few verses long. The first surahs, far more devoted to signs than pragmatics ("The Exordium," "The Cow," "Women," "The Table," Cattle," "The Heights," and so on), are many pages long.

The surahs' division between the longer, more metaphorical section and the shorter, more pragmatic section is also reflective of Muhammad's early period in Mecca as opposed to his later period in medina, after the Hijra, or exodus, from Mecca in 622.

Also Known As: chapter
Alternate Spellings: sura
Common Misspellings: Surah should not be confused with "shura," the Arabic word for "consultation," or deliberative dialogue.
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