« Prev The Koran, and the Bible Next »

§ 44. The Koran, and the Bible.

“Mohammed’s truth lay in a sacred Book,

Christ’s in a holy Life.”—Milnes (Palm-Leaves).

The Koran164164    Arabic qurân, i.e. the reading or that which should be read, the book. It is read over and over again in all the mosques and schools. is the sacred book, the Bible of the Mohammedans. It is their creed, their code of laws, their liturgy. It claims to be the product of divine inspiration by the arch-angel Gabriel, who performed the function assigned to the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures.165165    Sura 53 (Rodwell, p. 64):
   “The Koran is no other than a revelation revealed to him:

   One terrible in power [Gabriel, i.e. the Strong one of God] taught it him.
Endued with wisdom, with even balance stood he

   In the highest part of the horizon.

   He came nearer and approached,

   And was at the distance of two bows, or even closer,—

   And he revealed to his servant what he revealed.”

   I add the view of a learned modern Mohammedan, Syed Ahmed Khan Babador, who says (l.c., Essay on the Holy Koran): “The Holy Koran was delivered to Mohammed neither in the form of graven tablets of stone, nor in that of cloven tongues of fire; nor was it necessary that the followers of Mohammed, like those of Moses, should be furnished with a copy or counterpart, in case the original should be lost. No mystery attended the delivery of it, for it was on Mohammed’s heart that it was engraven, and it was with his tongue that it was communicated to all Arabia. The heart of Mohammed was the Sinai where he received the revelation, and his tablets of stone were the hearts of true believers.”
The Mohammedans distinguish two kinds of revelations: those which were literally delivered as spoken by the angel (called Wahee Matloo, or the word of God), and those which give the sense of the inspired instruction in the prophet’s own words (called Wahee Ghair Matloo, or Hadees). The prophet is named only five times, but is addressed by Gabriel all through the book with the word Say, as the recipient and sacred penman of the revelations. It consists of 114 Suras166166    Sura means either revelation, or chapter, or part of a chapter. The Mohammedan commentators refer it primarily to the succession of subjects or parts, like the rows of bricks in a wall. The titles of the Suras are generally taken from some leading topic or word in each, as “The Sun,” “The Star,” “The Charges,” “The Scattering,” “The Adoration,” “The Spider,” “Women,” “Hypocrites,” “Light,” “Jonas,” “The Cave,” “The Night Journey,” “The Cow,” “The Battle,” “The Victory.” and 6,225 verses. Each Sura (except the ninth) begins with the formula (of Jewish origin): “In the name of Allah, the God of Mercy, the Merciful.”167167   7Bismillahi ’rrahonani ’rrahim.” According to the Ulama (the professors of religion and law), “God of mercy” means merciful in great things; “the Merciful” means merciful in small things. But, according to E. W. Lane, “the first expresses an occasional sensation, the second a constant quality!” In other words, the one refers to acts, the other to a permanent attribute.

The Koran is composed in imperfect metre and rhyme (which is as natural and easy in the Arabic as in the Italian language). Its language is considered the purest Arabic. Its poetry somewhat resembles Hebrew poetry in Oriental imagery and a sort of parallelism or correspondence of clauses, but it loses its charm in a translation; while the Psalms and Prophets can be reproduced in any language without losing their original force and beauty. The Koran is held in superstitious veneration, and was regarded till recently as too sacred to be translated and to be sold like a common book.168168    These scruples are gradually giving way, at least in India, where “printed copies, with inter-lineal versions in Persian and Urdoo—too literal to be intelligible—are commonly used.” Muir, The Corân, p. 48. The manuscript copies in the mosques, in the library of the Khedive in Cairo, and in many European libraries, are equal in caligraphic beauty to the finest mediaeval manuscripts of the Bible.

Mohammed prepared and dictated the Koran from time to time as he received the revelations and progressed in his career, not for readers, but for hearers, leaving much to the suggestive action of the public recital, either from memory or from copies taken down by his friends. Hence its occasional, fragmentary character. About a year after his death, at the direction of Abu-Bakr, his father-in-law and immediate successor, Zayd, the chief ansar or amanuensis of the Prophet, collected the scattered fragments of the Koran “from palm-leaves, and tablets of white stone, and from the breasts of men,” but without any regard to chronological order or continuity of subjects. Abu-Bakr committed this copy to the custody of Haphsa, one of Mohammed’s widows. It remained the standard during the ten years of Omar’s califate. As the different readings of copies occasioned serious disputes, Zayd, with several Koreish, was commissioned to secure the purity of the text in the Meccan dialect, and all previous copies were called in and burned. The recension of Zayd has been handed down with scrupulous care unaltered to this day, and various readings are almost unknown; the differences being confined to the vowel-points, which were invented at a later period. The Koran contains many inconsistencies and contradictions; but the expositors hold that the later command supersedes the earlier.

The restoration of the chronological order of the Suras is necessary for a proper understanding of the gradual development of Islâm in the mind and character of its author.169169    The present order, Says Muir (Corân, p. 41), is almost a direct inversion of the natural chronological order; the longest which mostly belong to the later period of Mohammed, being placed first and the shortest last. Weil, Sprenger, and Muir have paid much attention to the chronological arrangement. Nöldeke also, in his Geschichte des Qôrans, has fixed the order of the Suras, with a reasonable degree of certainty on the basis of Mohammedan traditions and a searching analysis of the text; and he has been mainly followed by Rodwell in his English version. There is a considerable difference between the Suras of the earlier, middle, and later periods. In the earlier, the poetic, wild, and rhapsodical element predominates; in the middle, the prosaic, narrative, and missionary; in the later, the official and legislative. Mohammed began with descriptions of natural objects, of judgment, of heaven and hell, impassioned, fragmentary utterances, mostly in brief sentences; he went on to dogmatic assertions, historical statements from Jewish and Christian sources, missionary appeals and persuasions; and he ended with the dictatorial commands of a legislator and warrior. “He who at Mecca is the admonisher and persuader, at Medina is the legislator and the warrior, who dictates obedience and uses other weapons than the pen of the poet and the scribe. When business pressed, as at Medina, poetry makes way for prose,170170    The ornament of metre and rhyme, however, is preserved throughout. and although touches of the poetical element occasionally break forth, and he has to defend himself up to a very late period against the charge of being merely a poet, yet this is rarely the case in the Medina Suras; and we are startled by finding obedience to God and the Apostle, God’s gifts and the Apostle’s, God’s pleasure and the Apostle’s, spoken of in the same breath, and epithets, and attributes, applied to Allah, openly applied to Mohammed, as in Sura IX.”171171    Rodwell, p. X. Comp. Deutsch, l.c., p. 121.

The materials of the Koran, as far as they are not productions of the author’s own imagination, were derived from the floating traditions of Arabia and Syria, from rabbinical Judaism, and a corrupt Christianity, and adjusted to his purposes.

Mohammed had, in his travels, come in contact with professors of different religions, and on his first journey with camel-drivers he fell in with a Nestorian monk of Bostra, who goes by different names (Bohari, Bahyra, Sergius, George), and welcomed the youthful prophet with a presage of his future greatness.172172    Muir, Life of Moh., I. 35; Stanley, p. 366. His wife Chadijah and her cousin Waraka (a reputed convert to Christianity, or more probably a Jew) are said to have been well acquainted with the sacred books of the Jews and the Christians.

The Koran, especially in the earlier Suras, speaks often and highly of the Scriptures; calls them “the Book of God,” “the Word of God,” “the Tourât” (Thora, the Pentateuch), “the Gospel” (Ynyil), and describes the Jews and Christians as “the people of the Book,” or “of the Scripture,” or “of the Gospel.” It finds in the Scriptures prophecies of Mohammed and his success, and contains narratives of the fall of Adam and Eve, Noah and the Deluge, Abraham and Lot, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Moses and Joseph, John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary and Jesus, sometimes in the words of the Bible, but mostly distorted and interspersed with rabbinical and apocryphal fables.173173    See a collection of these correspondences in the original Arabic and in English in Sir William Muir’s Coran, pp. 66 sqq. Muir concludes that Mohammed knew the Bible, and believed in its divine origin and authority.

It is quite probable that portions of the Bible were read to Mohammed; but it is very improbable that he read it himself; for according to the prevailing Moslem tradition he could not read at all, and there were no Arabic translations before the Mohammedan conquests, which spread the Arabic language in the conquered countries. Besides, if he had read the Bible with any degree of care, he could not have made such egregious blunders. The few allusions to Scripture phraseology—as “giving alms to be seen of men,” “none forgiveth sins but God only”—may be derived from personal intercourse and popular traditions. Jesus (Isa) is spoken of as “the Son of Mary, strengthened by the Holy Spirit.” Noah (Nûh), Abraham (Ibrahym), Moses (Mûsa), Aaron (Harun), are often honorably mentioned, but apparently always from imperfect traditional or apocryphal sources of information.174174    Muir (Life, II. 313, 278) and Stanley (p. 366) adduce, as traces of a faint knowledge of the Canonical Gospels, the account of the birth of John the Baptist in the Koran, and the assumption by Mohammed of the name of Paracletus under the distorted form of Periclytus, the Illustrious. But the former does not strike me as being taken from St. Luke, else he could not have made such a glaring chronological mistake as to identify Mary with Miriam, the sister of Moses. And as to the promise of the Paraclete, which only occurs in St. John, it certainly must have passed into popular tradition, for the word occurs also in the Talmud. If Mohammed had read St. John, he must have seen that the Paraclete is the Holy Spirit, and would have identified him with Gabriel, rather than with himself. Palmer’s opinion is that Mohammed could neither read nor write, but acquired his knowledge from the traditions which were then current in Arabia among Jewish and Christian tribes. The Qur’ân, I., p. xlvii.

The Koran is unquestionably one of the great books of the world. It is not only a book, but an institution, a code of civil and religious laws, claiming divine origin and authority. It has left its impress upon ages. It feeds to this day the devotions, and regulates the private and public life, of more than a hundred millions of human beings. It has many passages of poetic beauty, religious fervor, and wise counsel, but mixed with absurdities, bombast, unmeaning images, low sensuality. It abounds in repetitions and contradictions, which are not removed by the convenient theory of abrogation. It alternately attracts and repels, and is a most wearisome book to read. Gibbon calls the Koran “a glorious testimony to the unity of God,” but also, very properly, an “endless, incoherent rhapsody of fable and precept and declamation, which seldom excites a sentiment or idea, which sometimes crawls in the dust, and is sometimes lost in the clouds.”175175    Decline and Fall of the R. E., Ch. 50. Reiske176176    As quoted in Tholuck. denounces it as the most absurd book and a scourge to a reader of sound common sense. Goethe, one of the best judges of literary and poetic merit, characterizes the style as severe, great, terrible, and at times truly sublime. “Detailed injunctions,” he says, “of things allowed and forbidden, legendary stories of Jewish and Christian religion, amplifications of all kinds, boundless tautologies and repetitions, form the body of this sacred volume, which to us, as often as we approach it, is repellent anew, next attracts us ever anew, and fills us with admiration, and finally forces us into veneration.” He finds the kernel of Islâm in the second Sura, where belief and unbelief with heaven and hell, as their sure reward, are contrasted. Carlyle calls the Koran “the confused ferment of a great rude human soul; rude, untutored, that cannot even read, but fervent, earnest, struggling vehemently to utter itself In words;” and says of Mohammedanism: “Call it not false, look not at the falsehood of it; look at the truth of it. For these twelve centuries it has been the religion and life-guidance of the fifth part of the whole kindred of mankind. Above all, it has been a religion heartily believed.” But with all his admiration, Carlyle confesses that the reading of the Koran in English is “as toilsome a task” as he ever undertook. “A wearisome, confused jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long-windedness, entanglement; insupportable stupidity, in short, nothing but a sense of duty could carry any European through the Koran. We read it, as we might in the State-Paper Office, unreadable masses of lumber, that we may get some glimpses of a remarkable man.” And yet there are Mohammedan doctors who are reported to have read the Koran seventy thousand times! What a difference of national and religious taste! Emanuel Deutsch finds the grandeur of the Koran chiefly in its Arabic diction, “the peculiarly dignified, impressive, sonorous nature of Semitic sound and parlance; its sesquipedalia verba, with their crowd of prefixes and affixes, each of them affirming its own position, while consciously bearing upon and influencing the central root, which they envelop like a garment of many folds, or as chosen courtiers move round the anointed person of the king.” E. H. Palmer says that the claim of the Koran to miraculous eloquence, however absurd it may sound to Western ears, was and is to the Arab incontrovertible, and he accounts for the immense influence which it has always exercised upon the Arab mind, by the fact, “that it consists not merely of the enthusiastic utterances of an individual, but of the popular sayings, choice pieces of eloquence, and favorite legends current among the desert tribes for ages before this time. Arabic authors speak frequently of the celebrity attained by the ancient Arabic orators, such as Shâibân Wâil; but unfortunately no specimens of their works have come down to us. The Qur’ân, however, enables us to judge of the speeches which took so strong a hold upon their countrymen.”177177    The Qur’ân, Introd. I., p. 1.

Of all books, not excluding the Vedas, the Koran is the most powerful rival of the Bible, but falls infinitely below it in contents and form.

Both contain the moral and religious code of the nations which own it; the Koran, like the Old Testament, is also a civil and political code. Both are oriental in style and imagery. Both have the fresh character of occasional composition growing out of a definite historical situation and specific wants. But the Bible is the genuine revelation of the only true God in Christ, reconciling the world to himself; the Koran is a mock-revelation without Christ and without atonement. Whatever is true in the Koran is borrowed from the Bible; what is original, is false or frivolous. The Bible is historical and embodies the noblest aspirations of the human race in all ages to the final consummation; the Koran begins and stops with Mohammed. The Bible combines endless variety with unity, universal applicability with local adaptation; the Koran is uniform and monotonous, confined to one country, one state of society, and one class of minds. The Bible is the book of the world, and is constantly travelling to the ends of the earth, carrying spiritual food to all races and to all classes of society; the Koran stays in the Orient, and is insipid to all who have once tasted the true word of the living God.178178    On this difference Ewald makes some good remarks in the first volume of his Biblical Theology (1871), p. 418. Even the poetry of the Koran never rises to the grandeur and sublimity of Job or Isaiah, the lyric beauty of the Psalms, the sweetness and loveliness of the Song of Solomon, the sententious wisdom of the Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes.

A few instances must suffice for illustration.

The first Sura, called “the Sura of Praise and Prayer,” which is recited by the Mussulmans several times in each of the five daily devotions, fills for them the place of the Lord’s Prayer, and contains the same number of petitions. We give it in a rhymed, and in a more literal translation:

“In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate!

Praise be to Allah, who the three worlds made,

The Merciful, the Compassionate,

The King of the day of Fate,

Thee alone do we worship, and of Thee alone do we ask aid.

Guide us to the path that is straight —

The path of those to whom Thy love is great,

Not those on whom is hate,

Nor they that deviate! Amen.179179    Translated by Lieut. Burton.

“In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.

Praise be to God, Lord of the worlds!

The Compassionate, the Merciful!

King on the day of judgment!

Thee only do we worship, and to Thee do we cry for help.

Guide Thou us on the right path,

The path of those to whom Thou art gracious;

Not of those with whom Thou art angered,

Nor of those who go astray.”180180    Rodwell, The Korân (2nd ed., 1876), p. 10.

We add the most recent version in prose:

“In the name of the merciful and compassionate God.

Praise belongs to God, the Lord of the worlds, the merciful, the compassionate, the ruler of the day of judgment! Thee we serve and Thee we ask for aid. Guide us in the right path, the path of those Thou art gracious to; not of those Thou art wroth with; nor of those who err.”181181    E. H. Palmer, The Qur’ân, Oxford, 1880, Part I., p. 1.

As this Sura invites a comparison with the Lord’s Prayer infinitely to the advantage of the latter, so do the Koran’s descriptions of Paradise when contrasted with St. John’s vision of the heavenly Jerusalem:

“Joyous on that day shall be the inmates of Paradise in their employ;

In shades, on bridal couches reclining, they and their spouses:

Therein shall they have fruits, and whatever they require —

’Peace!’ shall be the word on the part of a merciful Lord.

But be ye separated this day, O ye sinners!”182182    · Sura 36 (in Rodwell, p. 128).

“The sincere servants of God

A stated banquet shall they have

Of fruits; and honored shall they be

In the gardens of delight,

Upon couches face to face.

A cup shall be borne round among them from a fountain,

Limpid, delicious to those who drink;

It shall not oppress the sense, nor shall they therewith be drunken,

And with them are the large-eyed ones with modest refraining glances,
fair like the sheltered egg.”183183    · The ostrich egg carefully protected from dust. Sura 37 (in Rodwell, p 69). Brides and wives always figure in the Mohammedan Paradise.

« Prev The Koran, and the Bible Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection