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The Qu'ran: The Scripture of Islam


1. The Style and Emphasis of the Meccan Surahs.

One of the great difficulties confronting a reader of the Qur'an is the general lack of chronology in the sequence of its chapters. Compounding this difficulty is the fact that many of the surahs are composite chapters of passages dating from both Muhammad's years of preaching in Mecca and his years as leader of the Muslim community in Medina. Nevertheless, as pointed out already, the shorter, more striking surahs generally date from the Meccan period and the longer, somewhat cumbersome passages of the later surahs date from the Medinan period.

The early Meccan surahs are all somewhat similar and concentrate on the issues which first impressed themselves upon Muhammad, namely the waywardness of his people, the judgment to come, and the destiny of all men to heaven or to hell. Here is a typical passage:

Throughout these early passages Muhammad stands forth purely as one sent to call his people to the good and to admonish them against the punishments awaiting evildoers. Innamaa anta munthir - "Verily you are but a warner" (Surah 79.45), is the address found in various forms in these passages (so also Surahs 74.2, 87.9).

The great dispute between pagan Arab idolatry and the exclusive unity of God only comes to the fore in the later Meccan surahs. In the same way Allah, the name for God, also only begins to appear with regularity in these later Meccan surahs as well, the more impersonal ar-Rabb (the Lord) being generally preferred in the very earliest surahs.

The generally prophetic character of the Meccan surahs, as opposed to the legalistic form of most of the Medinan surahs, at the same time marks the earlier surahs with far more grandeur and humility before God than those to come later. One moving early surah addressed to Muhammad commends itself assuredly to any sincere reader of the Qur'an:

Just as we found a sharp distinction in the biographical section at the beginning of this book between the sincere warner of Mecca and the somewhat opportunistic ruler of Medina, so it does not surprise us to find a similar contrast between the Meccan and Medinan surahs. One cannot help wondering what our final assessment of Muhammad would have been if he had been killed just before the migration to Medina. Certainly his years in Mecca, characterised by the fine spirit of the contemporary Qur'anic passages, leave a generally positive impression on the student of his life's course.

2. The Character of the Medinan Surahs.

One of the easiest ways of distinguishing between the two periods is the manner of address in the Medinan surahs. Whereas the Meccan passages usually speak to Muhammad himself or to men generally, the Medinan passages are often addressed to Muhammad's followers with the introduction Yaa ayyuhallathiina aa'manuu - "O ye who believe!" What follows is often of a legislative nature and it is true to say that the laws of Islam (the shari'ah) are found principally in the passages dating from Muhammad's migration to Medina. Whereas the Meccan surahs are prophetic in character and striking in style, these later surahs are generally legalistic and are more leisurely in style.

The Medinan surahs deal with the abolition of usury (Surah 2.278), the laws of inheritance (4.11-12), the prohibited degrees of relationship (4.23), the property of orphans (4.6-10), the prohibitions on wine and gambling (5.93-94), and the like. The following is but the first quarter of a long verse dealing with the need to reduce all contracts to writing and to have them witnessed:

The whole verse, one of the longest in the Qur'an, makes tedious reading and contrasts with the sharp, pithy exclamations of the earliest surahs. "The slovenliness, the trailing sentences, the mechanical rhymes of the later portions of the Qur'an, have often been remarked on" (Bell, The Origin of Islam in its Christian Environment, p. 96). Another writer makes a similar comment on the generally uninspiring character of the Medinan surahs:

One of the most significant distinctions between the two periods is the amount of attention which the Qur'an pays to Muhammad himself in the later surahs. Although the Meccan surahs are often directly addressed to him, he is very rarely the subject of the revelations, but in the Medinan surahs he comes regularly to the fore. Passages dealing with the Day of Judgment and the destiny of mankind give way to new revelations concerned much with the immediate concerns of his private life. He is given special permission to exceed the limit placed on Muslims not to take more than four wives at a time (Surah 33.50-52), believers are commanded to salute him (33.56), and are even given strict details regarding etiquette to be observed when approaching his apartments:

These passages contrast sharply with the humble tone of an earlier surah where he is rebuked for alighting a blind man who came to him to enquire about his message while he was courting wealthy pagan Arab merchants:

In the biographical section of this book we have already seen how, during the Medinan period, Muhammad began to regard himself as God's supreme apostle and final messenger to all mankind while considering himself purely a warner to the Arabs at the start of his course. The exalted image he obtains in the later passages and the attention paid to his personal affairs characterise much of the Medinan surahs:

At the same time the stories of the Biblical prophets are remoulded into a fairly regular form very similar to his own prophetic course and experience. Many of these stories consist of dialogues between a prophet and his kinsmen in which the former preaches monotheism and right-living to the latter who have strayed from the path (So Noah, Surah 21.76-77; Abraham, Surah 37.83-99; etc.). Indeed the conversations are even couched in precisely the same language used by Muhammad in debate with his own Meccan kinsmen. Hud, the prophet of the 'Ad people, is said to have discoursed with his countrymen in this manner (only relevant statements are here included for the sake of brevity):

This passage almost perfectly symbolises Muhammad's own struggle with the pagan Meccans. He too concentrated on proclaiming the unity of God, was rejected as one possessed, and likewise defended his claims. (Hud, as in all the Qur'anic stories of the prophets it records, is made to describe Allah in typically Qur'anic terms, e.g., rabbil-'alamin - "The Lord and Cherisher of the Worlds"). Again there is the emphasis on the prophet being called from his own people who, however, preferred the cult-worship of their ancestors. Muhammad likewise threatened his people with destruction and was challenged to bring it about (Surah 8.32) and, like the supposed prophet Hud, reviled their idols as asma' summaytumuu haa antum wa aabaa 'ukum - "names which you have devised - you and your fathers" (Surah 7.71, 53.23). Another writer says of Muhammad's tendency to remould the stories of the former prophets to fit his own experiences:

It has rightly been said that much of the Qur'an is a collection of stories of prophets and events culled from Jewish and other sources upon which the personality of Muhammad has indelibly been impressed. Nowhere is this truer than in the case of the very altercations recorded in the book between earlier prophets and their people, for in these cases even the personalities of those prophets have given way to that of Muhammad himself. (Hud is not a Biblical prophet but the passage quoted is perhaps the most striking example of a parallel between a Qur'anic narrative of a former prophet's experiences and Muhammad's own lot). One cannot help concluding that, far from being a book of divine origin, the Qur'an is really little more than the impress of Muhammad's thoughts and perceptions upon the material he imbibed.

3. A Summary of the Contrast between the Two Periods.

In conclusion it seems appropriate to quote a few authors who make their own comments upon the contrast between the Meccan and Medinan passages. Believing that the Qur'an is eternal and that it was mechanically dictated to Muhammad, Muslim writers are generally disinclined to admit the contrast. They fear to allow any idea of a development in the Qur'anic text as this seems to imply that it had much to do with Muhammad's growing prophetic consciousness. One writer, however, who has the courage to openly admit this development (as we have seen - p. 109), accordingly has no difficulty identifying the distinction between the two periods:

He goes on to say: "It is interesting that all these descriptions of experiences and visions belong to the Meccan period; in the Medina era we have a progressive unfolding of the religio-moral ideal, and the foundation for the social order for the newly instituted community but hardly any allusions to inner experiences" (Rahman, Islam, p. 128). Another writer also alludes to the developing character of Muhammad's prophetic consciousness in the contrast between the Meccan and Medinan surahs:

It is not our opinion, however, that the phenomenon is purely one of a logical development. The Medinan passages do not compare in style, diction or content with the elevated spirit of the Meccan passages and this retrogression, rather than true "development", is symbolic of the similar deterioration we find in the character of the persevering prophet of Mecca who became the autocratic and, at times, ruthless ruler of Medina. Other writers comment in a similar way on the less inspiring nature of the Medinan passages:

To do justice to the book, however, the passages mentioned by Muir as those manifesting the "former spirit" should be mentioned. The first is:

This is the famous ayatul-kursi, the "Verse of the Throne", named after the throne of God described in it. The other striking passage from the Medinan period is a rare verse, of obvious beauty, which tends to move into the mystical realm in its description of God's glory and has accordingly been highly esteemed by the Sufis, the mystics of Islam, of whom we will hear more later:

These two passages are rightly highly esteemed by the Muslims and are typical of the constant endeavour in the Qur'an to glorify God in suitable terms. Nevertheless they do appear to be more easily related to the earlier surahs of the Meccan period than the otherwise legislative spirit of most of the Medinan passages. It is in the Meccan surahs that we find "quite a number of verses expounding this theme of God's goodness and power. Indeed, quantitatively this is by far the most prominent aspect of the message of the early passages" (Watt, Muhammad at Mecca, p. 63).

The Muslim world, nonetheless, rarely approaches the Qur'an with a desire to analyse its teaching, sources or development in a critical way, and prefers simply to dogmatically claim that it is the true and final revelation of God. Let us, then, press on to a brief examination of some of its teachings, its collection, and its sources, to see whether this claim can truly withstand the acid test of a critical analysis.

Muhammad and The Religion of Islam: Table of Contents

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