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The Koran

H.A.R. Gibb

THE KORAN is the record of those formal utterances and discourses which Mohammed and his followers accepted as directly inspired. Muslim orthodoxy therefore regards them as the literal Word of God mediated through the angel Gabriel. They are quoted with the prefix 'God has said', the phrase 'The Prophet said' is applied only to the sayings of Mohammed preserved in the Traditions. Mohammed's own belief, which is still held without question by his followers, was that these discourses were portions of a 'Heavenly Book' sent down to or upon him in an Arabic version, not as a whole, but in sections of manageable length and in relation to the circumstances of the moment.

In outward form the Koran is a book of some 300 pages, divided into 114 chapters, called suras, arranged roughly in order of length, except for the short prayer which constitutes Sura i. Sura ii has 286 verses, Sura iii 200, and so on down to the final suras, which have only three to five short verses. As the Medinian suras are generally the longer ones the order is not chronological; and the difficulty of rearranging them in chronological order is increased by the fact that most of the Medinian and many of the Meccan suras are composite, containing discourses of different periods bound up together. Apart from the relatively few allusions to exactly dated historical events, the principal evidences are supplied by general criteria of style and content.

In the earliest period of his preaching Mohammed's utterances were delivered in a sinewy oracular style cast into short rhymed phrases, often obscure and sometimes preceded by one or more formal oaths. This style is admittedly that of the ancient kahins or Arabian oracle-mongers, and it is not surprising that Mohammed's opponents should have charged him with being just another such kahin. For this and other reasons his style gradually loosened out into a simpler but still rhetorical prose; and as social denunciations and eschatological visions passed into historical narrative, and that in turn at Medina into legislation and topical addresses, little was left of its original stylistic features but a loose rhyme or assonance marking the end of each verse, now anything from ten to sixty words long.

Carlyle's dictum on the Koran: ‘It is as toilsome reading as I ever undertook, a wearisome, confused jumble, crude, incondite. Nothing but a sense of duty could carry any European through the Koran’ puts succinctly what must indeed be the first impression of any reader. But years of close study confirm his further judgment that in it there is a merit quite other than the literary one. If a book come from the heart, it will contrive to reach other hearts; all art and authorcraft are of small account to that. Though, to be sure, the question of literary merit is one not to be judged on a priori grounds but in relation to the genius of the Arabic language; and no man in fifteen hundred years has ever played on that deep-toned instrument with such power, such boldness, and such range of emotional effect as Mohammed did.

In trying to trace the sources and development of the religious ideas expounded in the Koran (a question, be it remembered, not only meaningless but blasphemous in Muslim eyes), we are still confronted with many unsolved problems. Earlier scholars postulated a Jewish source with some Christian additions. More recent research has conclusively proved that the main external influences (including the Old Testament materials) can be traced back to Syriac Christianity.

It is now well known that there were organized Jewish and Christian churches amongst the settled communities in the north, the south, and the east of Arabia. The Arab town of Hira on the Euphrates was the seat of a Nestorian bishopric which almost certainly conducted some kind of missionary activity in Arabia, and there are many references in old Arabic poetry to hermits living in lonely cells in the wilderness. In the Yemen a Jewish or Judaizing movement supported by the local dynasty was overthrown by the Yemenite Christians with Abyssinian aid in A.D. 525. In view of the close commercial relations between Mecca and the Yemen it would be natural to assume that some religious ideas were carried to Mecca with the caravans of spices and woven stuffs, and there are details of vocabulary in the Koran which give colour to this assumption.

From the Koran itself it is clear that monotheistic ideas were familiar in Western Arabia. The existence of a supreme God, Allah, is assumed as an axiom common to Mohammed and his opponents. The Koran never argues the point; what it does argue is that He is the one and only God. La ilaha illa'llah, ‘there is no god but Allah.’

But it is more doubtful whether this is to be regarded as the direct deposit of Christian or Jewish teaching. In the Koran it is connected with a different tradition altogether, an obscure Arabian tradition represented by the so-called hanifs - pre-Islamic Arab monotheists whose very name shows that the Syrians regarded them as non-Christians (Syriac hanpa; ‘heathen’). Mohammed glories in the name and attaches it as a distinctive epithet to Abraham, who was neither Jew nor Christian. There is even a suggestion in an early variant reading of a Koranic verse (iii, v. 17) that at one time Hanifiyya was used to denote the doctrine preached by Mohammed and was only later replaced by Islam.

A further trace of this native North-Arabian prophetic tradition is found in the early passages of the Koran which refer to or recount the missions of former prophets. In these narratives certain obscure Arabian figures - Hud, Shu'aib and others - take a place at least as prominent as the prophets of the Old Testament. The earliest references assume that the stories of these prophets were familiar to Mohammed's hearers, and indeed one or two of them are mentioned in pre-Islamic verses.

But while granting this native monotheistic tradition as an integral element in Mohammed's background of ideas, the doctrine which most powerfully gripped him (and which, through him, was most vividly impressed upon the mind of Islam in all later ages) was the doctrine of the Last Judgement. This was certainly not derived from the Arabian tradition, but from Christian sources. The profound disbelief and scornful sarcasms with which it was received by his Meccan fellow-citizens show that it was a wholly unfamiliar idea to them. On the other hand, not only the ideas expressed by Mohammed about the resurrection of the physical body and the future life, but also many of the details about the process of the Judgement and even the pictorial presentation of the joys of Paradise and torments of Hell, as well as several of the special technical terms employed in the Koran, are closely paralleled in the writings of the Syriac Christian fathers and monks.

Whatever may have been the channels through which these ideas reached Mohammed, the fear of God's ‘wrath to come’ dominated his thought throughout his later life. It was for him not only, nor even chiefly, a weapon with which to threaten his opponents, but the incentive to piety and good works of every kind. The characteristic sign of the Believer is ever-present fear of God, and its opposite is ‘heedlessness’ or ‘frivolity.’ This antithesis was never absent from Mohammed's mind, and it forms the recurrent motive of early Muslim asceticism, which in this certainly reflected the central element in his teaching. That God is the omnipotent master and man His creature who is ever in danger of incurring His wrath - this is the basis of all Muslim theology and ethics. Forgiveness is only to be attained by the grace of God; man cannot win it for himself by merit; but to be worthy to attain it requires of man unrelenting self-control and the service of God by means of good works and especially by prayer and alms-giving.

Prophets are not theologians, and it could scarcely be demanded that Mohammed's expositions of this doctrine should have been theologically precise and rigid. The Koran sways between the conceptions of predestination and free-will, according to whether the relevant verses are addressed to the unheeding multitude or to the group of Believers. The carelessness of the worldly was a source of continued bewilderment to Mohammed, as to most religious minds, and seemed to be explicable only as the act of God; but some less deterministic formulation was needed account for the merit attached to the performance of ethical and religious duties and to encourage the Believers to persevere in them.

For Mohammed did not preach solely a doctrine of damnation by an omnipotent and jealous God. Combined with this was a gospel of hope. As the little community grew in numbers God's mercy was stressed again and again. At one time, indeed, Mohammed adopted a name for God which pre-Islamic inscriptions show to have been current in Arabia - ar-Rahman, ‘The Compassionate One’; and this term survived in the formula prefixed to every sura of the Koran (and presumably to each of Mohammed's discourses), bismi'llah ir-rahman ir-rahim, ‘In the Name of God, the Compassionate One, the Merciful.’

Meanwhile the controversy with his Meccan opponents was forcing him to develop the content of his preaching. As they remained impervious to his claims to have been sent to warn them against God's wrath on the Day of Judgement and to his appeals to repent of their errors and evil deeds, his tone became more argumentative. In ever-increasing detail he expanded his exposition of the evidences in nature for the existence and power of God and of the missions of earlier prophets. It was now not only the final retribution of the Judgement Day that he stressed, but also the prospect of some awful calamity in the present life in punishment for their rejection of his warning. He recalled again and again the catastrophes that had overtaken the Egyptians, the ‘people of Lot,’ the ‘people of Noah,’ and those Arabian tribes who had rejected his predecessors. New prophetic narratives - the stories of Joseph and John the Baptist, the first draft of the story of Jesus, stories of David and Solomon, of the ‘Two-horned,’ the Seven Sleepers­, and other figures from apocryphal tradition and the Alexander-legend - were added for homiletic purposes or to demonstrate the supernatural origin of his knowledge.

But the Meccans still demanded of him a miracle, and with remarkable boldness and self-confidence Mohammed appealed as the supreme confirmation of his mission to the Koran itself. Like all Arabs they were connoisseurs of language and rhetoric. Well then, if the Koran were his own composition other men could rival it. Let them produce ten verses like it. If they could not (and it is obvious that they could not), then let them accept the Koran as an outstanding evidential miracle.

During the later years at Mecca, years on the whole at disappointment and apparent stagnation, there was little fresh stimulus to widen the range of Mohammed's preaching. In the suras of this period old themes are repeated again and again; the general tone is sombre, and there are passages of anxious and heart-searching meditation. Yet these were years of great importance for the development of the Islamic community. In the face of growing hostility religious emotion, pent between narrow walls, ground a channel down to the very heart. Persecutions and social obstacles, while they weeded out the weaker converts, hardened that core of moral earnestness which proved to be at once the driving force and the sheet-anchor of the Islamic movement after the death of the Prophet.

It must also be assumed that during this period the ritual of prayer was being stabilized. The traditions frequently refer to the prayers, both public and private, of Mohammad and his followers. But the Meccan suras mention only morning and evening prayers and private prayer during the night; indeed, the Koran nowhere explicitly prescribes the five daily prayers nor the ritual of prostration. Nor, of course, were there as yet any precise legal or social prescriptions. Although the giving of alms, for example, is repeatedly stressed, the recommendation is formulated in terms of ethical duty as a means of self-purification, not in terms of an institution. And this is characteristic of general tone of the Meccan suras.

At Medina all this was changed. The existence of the new community called for the promulgation of many rules of law and social order as well as for the expansion of his ethical teaching. But the change was gradual. Mohammed's first ‘legislative’ enactment, the document in which he laid down the socio-political bases of the joint Medinian community, is not to be found in the Koran at all. That it was promulgated not as a revelation but on his own initiative throws some light on the distinction which he himself (and presumably his followers also) drew between revelation and personal action. An even more striking instance is shed by his address at the ‘Farewell Pilgrimage’, when he visited Mecca for the last time; for this too, in spite of its religious content and the solemnity of the occasion, is not in the Koran.

These examples should make us pause before accepting the often-expressed view that Mohammed deliberately used ‘revelation’ as a device for imposing his will upon the community or for solving the problems with which he was called upon to deal. Certainly the large number of passages in the Medinian suras which relate to trifling incidents and to political and domestic matters must of themselves suggest this to the critic. Yet amongst the most genuine traditions there are many which relate to very much the same kind of incidents and many striking homilies. Whatever the psychological explanation may be, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that the term ‘revelation’ was confined to those utterances which were not consciously produced and controlled by the Prophet and seemed to him to have been put into his mouth from without.

During the first year at Medina, Mohammed adopted several Jewish practices for the use of the Muslim community, such as the ashura fast on the tenth day of the first month (corresponding to the Day of Atonement), the institution of a midday prayer, and facing towards Jerusalem during prayer. But it was not long before he found himself involved in bitter controversy and conflict with the Jewish tribes. Fragments of the disputes preserved in the Koran indicate clearly enough their general character. The Jews obviously refused to acknowledge Mohammed's claim to prophethood and to ‘confirm the Torah’, and from contradiction passed to mockery; while he, confident of his divine mission, charged them with falsifying their scriptures and concealing their true contents. To their criticisms of his prophetic narratives he replied at first with convincing simplicity ‘Are ye more knowing than God?’ (Sura ii, v. 134). But the rift widened, and from attempts at persuasion the Koran turns to upbraiding, sarcastic reproof, and finally denunciation and threats - in all (strangely enough) reproducing many themes of the old anti-Jewish polemic of the early Christian writers.

Although one of the charges repeatedly pressed against the Jews is their rejection of ‘the Messiah Jesus son of Mary’, the Koran includes the Christians also in the scope of its polemic. ‘The Jews say the Christians have nothing to stand on, and the Christians say the Jews have nothing to stand on, and yet they both read the Book’ (Sura ii, v. 107). More especially the doctrine of the divine Sonship of Jesus is emphatically repudiated, in terms which betray the crassly anthropomorphic form in which it had been presented or presented itself to the Arabs. An early Meccan sura (cxii), probably directed originally against the conception of the three Meccan goddesses as ‘daughters of Allah’, was evidently applicable also to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity: ‘Say, He is God, One1 - God the Eternal - He hath not begotten nor was He begotten - And there is none equal to Him.’ But the Virgin Birth and the Immaculate Conception are reasserted; on the other hand the crucifixion of Jesus is declared to be a Jewish calumny and denied, another in his semblance having been crucified in his place and Jesus himself translated. It is evident, in fact, throughout the Koran that Mohammed had no direct knowledge of Christian doctrine.

The background of this polemic against Christianity is obscure, since it is apparently contemporary with severe friendly references to Christians, and it antedates the conflict with the Christianized tribes of the north-west. It was no doubt implicit in Mohammed's teaching from the outset, but may have been brought out by rivalry with the religious reform movement which was growing up simultaneously under Nestorian influence in the oases of Eastern Nejd, then called Yemama. It was not until the year a Mohammed's death, however, that the two movements were to engage in a life-or-death struggle.

However that may be, the consequence was to make clear to Mohammed what we may call the historical theory of Islam. Since Judaism was claimed as the religion of Moses and Christianity as the religion of Jesus, he went back behind both to the figure of Abraham ‘the Hanif ’, being neither Jew nor Christian, fitted into Mohammed conception of a primitive undistorted monotheism; constantly revived by a succession of Prophets, of whom he himself, the last, was the true heir of Abraham and purifier of the errors of both the Jews and the Christians. It is possible that this too was a legacy of that indigenous Arabian prophetic tradition of which only vague suggestions have survived to us.

Moreover, through Ishmael, Abraham was already associated by the scriptural religions with the Arabs, and (since the earliest Medinian sura speaks of the ‘standing-place of Abraham’ at Mecca as a well-known site) it would seem that Abraham and Ishmael were already traditionally regarded as the founders of its sanctuary, the Kaaba. Thus Islam appeared, not as a new religion, but as a revival of pure Abrahamic monotheism, purified at once of the accretions of Judaism and Christianity and superseding them as the final revelation.

But this is not to say that Islam became thereby a specifically Arabian form of monotheism. As will be seen in the next chapter, the one definitely Arabian institution retained in it is the Pilgrimage to Mecca, but by the reinterpretation of its ceremonies the Pilgrimage was given an ethical significance altogether foreign to its original Arabian character. Thus Islam, although a religion physically centred on Mecca, is not an Arabian religion, nor even an Arabian adaptation of Judaic and Christian monotheism, if by that is implied a lowering of the existing standards of Judaism and Syriac Christianity to a supposedly lower Arabian mentality. On the contrary, the whole function of Islam was to raise both Arabian and non-Arabian religious conceptions and ethical standards to the levels set by the preaching of the earlier Prophets.

Consequently, although polemic against the Jews, the luke-warm or time-serving elements in Medina (whom the Koran usually designates as ‘the slinkers’ or ‘the sick-hearted’) and the fickle Bedonin tribesmen occupies a considerable portion of the Medinian suras, it is subordinate to the inculcation of religious, ethical, and social duties. Since most of these will be considered in the next chapter, it will be enough here to try to sum up in a few words their general character.

Mohammed's system is rigid, positive, and emphatic. The rigidity, the special emphasis upon the compulsory performance of legal and religious duties, the demand for unquestioning obedience, can be explained largely as a reaction against the social and spiritual anarchy of Arabia. These Arabs, rebellious to all external control and devoid of self-discipline, must needs have [sic] the yoke fastened tightly upon their necks, or it would stand no chance of staying on at all. To ‘go Arab’, to sink back into the spiritual laxity of the tribesmen, was in Mohammed's eyes backsliding into paganism, and he tried to keep his tribal converts as far as possible under his direct observation. There is a reality in the suggestion that the ceremonial bowings and prostrations in unison of the daily prayers were a means of physical as well as of spiritual discipline.

On the other side, and in reaction from the asceticism and tendency to withdraw from the world which was so marked a feature of Eastern Christianity, Mohammed from the first set his community squarely in the midst of the world. His often-quoted phrase ‘No monkery in Islam’ implies not only no professional cenobitism, but that the scene of religious activity in Islam is the life of men in the widest sense. All social activities were to be included within its purview and to be penetrated by its spirit. But this carried with it dangerous consequences. The inescapable impact of the outer world upon the religious ideals of Islam began even in the lifetime of the Prophet and among his closest Companions. It was hastened on and intensified by the vast territorial conquests of the next few years, and came to a head in civil war and the establishment of the Umayyad Caliphate at Damascus only twenty-eight years after his death. But it was this very capitulation to the world that proved to be the means of spiritual recovery for Islam. In the abandoned and now remote ancient capital of Medina the living tradition of Mohammed survived, developed, and gained strength to resist and to overcome - to an extent which at first seemed impossible - the perils which too rapid and too sweeping a worldly success had brought in its train.

Whether the Koran was written down in full during Muhammed's lifetime is a question on which there are conflicting traditions. The generally received account describes its first compilation a few years after his death from of parchment and leather, tablets of stone, ribs of palm branches, camels' shoulder-blades and ribs, pieces of board and the ‘breasts of men’. To this, probably, is to be ascribed much of the unevenness and the rough jointing which characterize the present composition of the longer suras. It is certain that, alongside these written materials, several of the Companions of the Prophet preserved by heart and transmitted versions with numerous small variants, and that the third Caliph, Othman, had an authoritative text prepared at Medina, copies of which were sent to the chief cities.

These copies, however, were written in the very defective early Arabic script, which needed to be supplemented by the trained memories of the thousands of ‘reciters’. To meet this difficulty, improvements and refinements of orthography were gradually introduced into the old manuscripts. By the end of the first century the text as we now have it had been stabilized in all but a few details. Although in this process it was adjusted to the standard pronunciation, from which Mohammed's Meccan speech had differed in some small particulars, it seems reasonably well established that no material changes were introduced and that the original form and contents of Mohammed's discourses were preserved with scrupulous precision.

Yet so many minor variations in reading and punctuation still survived that ultimately the problem had to be met by a characteristic Muslim compromise, such as we shall meet again. First ten and then seven famous ‘reciters’ were recognized as authoritative teachers and all their ‘readings’ were accepted as orthodox. Although the learned claimed the right to accept the readings of other teachers, for all public purposes readings according to the text of one or other of the Seven only were adopted. In course of time several of these also dropped out of use, but it is only in the present century (as a result of the dissemination of printed and lithographed copies of the Koran from Constantinople and Cairo) that a single reading has acquired almost universal currency in the Muslim world.

In public recitation the Koran is intoned or chanted in slow melodic phrases, the correct art of which is taught as part of the normal academic course at Muslim religious seminaries: A specimen will be found in E. W. Lane's, Modern Egyptians. In medieval times we hear of choirs of reciters. This practice has died out, but the services of professional chanters are still in great demand for both public and private occasions.

As in the case of all sacred books, the need was soon felt for some guidance in the interpretation and exegesis of the Koran. From the earliest days the transmission of the text was accompanied by oral glosses on points of languauage or interpretation. The glosses increased very greatly in number and complexity during the first two or three centuries, in consequence of the rise of theological and legal schools, of sectarian controversy, and of a great mass of popular tradition amplifying or claiming to explain the personal allusions and eschatological descriptions in the text. About the end of the third century the first collection and critical study of these materials was made by the theologian and historian al-Tabari (d. 923). His vast work in thirty volumes, is a monument of scholarly piety unequalled in his time or of its kind. It laid the foundations upon which later scholars built their more specialized commentaries, many of them with excellences of their own, is such as that of the grammarian al-Zamakhshari (d. 1143). The philosopher al-Razi (d. 1209), using a different system of analysis and in more subjective fashion, summed up the exegetical discussions of the three centuries after al-Tabari. A century later, al-Baidawi (d. 1286) brought together the various deposits of philological, theological legal, and textual exegesis in a compendious commentary which has remained the standard work down to the present day. Modern orthodox interpretation stands on his shoulders, and so do all the European translations.

1 Or as most Muslim exegetes prefer, ‘Say, God is One.’ The word usually rendered ‘Eternal’ is also variously interpreted.

Mohammedanism, An Historical Survey H.A.R. Gibb, London: Oxford University Press, [1950] (pages 36-47).

Writings by Sir H.A.R. Gibb

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