Online Encyclopedia


Online Encyclopedia
Originally appearing in Volume V15, Page 902 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
Spread the word: it!
KORAN. The Koran (Kor'an) is the sacred Book of Islam. on which the religion of more than two hundred millions of Mahommedans is founded, being regarded by them as the immediate word of God. And since the use of the Koran in public worship, in schools and otherwise, is much more extensive than, for example, the reading of the Bible in most Christian countries, it has been truly described as the most widely-read book in existence. This circumstance alone is sufficient to give it an urgent claim on our attention, whether it suit our taste and fall in with our religious and philosophical views or not. Besides, it is the work of Mahomet, and as such is fitted to afford a clue to the spiritual development of that most successful of all prophets and religious personalities. It must be owned that the first perusal leaves on a European an impression of chaotic confusion—not that the book is so very extensive, for it is not quite as large as the New Testament. This impression can in some degree be modified only by the application of a critical analysis with the assistance of Arabian tradition. To the faith of the Moslems, as has been said, the Koran is the word of God, and such also is the claim which the book itself advances. For except in sur. i.—which is a prayer for men—and some few passages where Mahomet (vi. 104, 114; xxvii. 93; xlii.8) or the angels (xix. 65; xxxvii. 164 sqq.) speak in the first person without the intervention of the usual imperative " say " (sing. or pl.), the speaker throughout is God, either in the first person singular or more commonly the plural of majesty " we." The same mode of address is familiar to us from the prophets of 'he Old Testament; the human personality disappears, in the moment of inspiration, behind the God by whom it is filled. But all the greatest of the Hebrew prophets fall back speedily upon the unassuming human " I "; while in the Koran the divine " I " is the stereotyped form of address. Mahomet, however, really felt Mahomet's himself to be the instrument of God; this con-view of sciousness was no doubt brighter at his first appear-Revelation. ance than it afterwards became, but it never entirely forsook him. Nevertheless we cannot doubt his good-faith, not even in the cases in which the moral quality of his actions leaves most to be desired. In spite of all, the dominant fact remains, that to the end he was zealous for his God and for the salvation of his people, nay, of the whole of humanity, and that he never lost the unconquerable certainty of his divine mission. The rationale of revelation is explained in the Koran itself as follows: In heaven is the original text (" the mother of the book," xliii. 3; " a concealed book," lv. 77; " a well-guarded tablet," lxxxv. 22). By the process of " sending down " (tanzil), one piece after another was communicated to the Prophet. The mediator was an angel, who is called sometimes the " Spirit " (xxvi. 193), sometimes the " holy Spirit " (xvi. 104), and at a later time " Gabriel " (only in ii. g1, 92; lxvi. 4). This angel dictates the revelation to the Prophet, who repeats it after him, and after-wards proclaims it to the world (lxxxvii. 6, &c.). It is plain that we have here a somewhat crude attempt of the Prophet to represent to himself the more or less unconscious process by whichhis ideas arose and gradually took shape in his mind. It is no wonder if in such confused imagery the details are not always self-consistent. When, for example, this heavenly archetype is said to be in the hands of " exalted scribes " (lxxx. 13 sqq.), this seems a transition to a quite different set of ideas, namely, the hooks of fate, or the record of all human actions—conceptionswhich are actually found in the Koran. It is to be observed, at all events, that Mahomet's transcendental idea of God, as a Being exalted altogether above the world, excludes the thought of direct intercourse between the Prophet and God. It is an explicit statement of the Koran that the sacred book was revealed (" sent down ") by God, not all at once, but piece-meal and gradually (xxv. 34). This is evident component from the actual composition of the book, and is Parts of the confirmed by Moslem tradition. That is to say, Koran. Mahomet issued his revelations in fly-leaves of greater or less extent. A single piece of this kind was called either, like the entire collection, kor'¢n, i.e. " recitation," " reading," or, better still, is the equivalent of Aramaic geryfina " lectionary "; or kit¢b, " writing "; or sera, which is perhaps the late-Hebrew shura, and means literally " series." The last became, in the lifetime of Mahomet, the regular designation of the individual sections as distinguished from the whole collection; and accordingly it is the name given to the separate chapters of the existing Koran. These chapters are of very unequal length. Since many of the shorter ones are undoubtedly complete in themselves, it is natural to assume that the longer, which are sometimes very comprehensive, have arisen from the amalgamation of various originally distinct revelations. This supposition is favoured by the numerous tradit ions which give us the circumstances under which this or that short piece, now incorporated in a larger section, was revealed; and also by the fact that the connexion of thought in the present suras often seems to be interrupted. And in reality many pieces of the long suras have to be severed out as originally independent; even in the short ones parts are often found which cannot have been there at first. At the same time we must beware of carrying this sifting operation too far,—as Noldeke now believes himself to have done in 'his earlier works, and as Sprenger also sometimes seems to do. That some suras were of considerable length from the first is seen, for example, from xii., which contains a short introduction, then the history of Joseph, and then a few concluding observations, and is therefore perfectly homogeneous. In like manner, xx., which is mainly occupied with the history of Moses, forms a complete whole. The same is true of xviii., which at first sight seems to fall into several pieces; the history of the seven sleepers, the grotesque narrative about Moses, and that about Alexander " the Horned," are all connected together, and the same rhyme through the whole sura. Even in the separate narrations we may observe how readily the Koran passes from one subject to another, how little care is taken to express all the transitions of thought, and how frequently clauses are omitted, which are almost indispensable. We are not at liberty, therefore, in every case where the connexion in the Koran is obscure, to say that it is really broken, and set it down as the clumsy patchwork of a later hand. Even in the old Arabic poetry such abrupt transitions are of very frequent occurrence. It is not uncommon for the Koran, after a new subject has been entered on, to return gradually or suddenly to the former theme, —a proof that there at least separation is not to be thought of. In short, however imperfectly the Koran may have been redacted, in the majority of cases the present sums are identical with the originals. How these revelations actually arose in Mahomet's mind is a question which it is almost as idle to discuss as it would be to analyse the workings of the mind of a poet. In his early career, sometimes perhaps in its later stages also, many revelations must have burst from him in uncontrollable excitement, so that he could not possibly regard them otherwise than as divine inspirations. We must bear in mind that he was no cold systematic thinker, but an Oriental visionary, brought up in crass superstition, and without intellectual discipline; a man whose nervous temperament had been powerfully worked on by ascetic austerities, and who was all the more irritated by the opposition he encountered, because he had little of the heroic in his nature. Filled with his religious ideas and visions, he might well fancy he heard the angel bidding him recite what was said to him. There may have been many a revelation of this kind which no one ever heard but himself, as he repeated it to himself in the silence of the night (Ixxiii. 4). Indeed the Koran itself admits that he forgot some revelations (lxxxvii. 7). But by far the greatest part of the book is undoubtedly the result of deliberation, touched more or less with emotion, and animated by a certain rhetorical rather than poetical glow. Many passages are based upon purely intellectual reflection. It is said that Mahomet occasionally uttered such a passage immediately after one of those epileptic fits which not only his followers, but (for a time at least) he him-self also, regarded as tokens of intercourse with the higher powers. If that is the case, it is impossible to say whether the trick was in the utterance of the revelation or in the fit itself. How the various pieces of the Koran took literary form is uncertain. Mahomet himself, so far as we can discover, never wrote down anything. The question whether he The Koran Written could read and write has been much debated . among Moslems, unfortunately more with dogmatic arguments and spurious traditions than authentic proofs. At present one is inclined to say that he was not altogether ignorant of these arts, but that from want of practice he found it convenient to employ some one else whenever he had anything to write. After the migration to Medina (A.D. 622) we are told that short pieces—chiefly legal decisions—were taken down immediately after they were revealed, by an adherent whom he summoned for the purpose; so that nothing stood in the way of their publication. Hence it is probable that in Mecca, where the art of writing was commoner than in Medina, he had already begun to have his oracles committed to writing. That even long portions of the Koran existed in written form from an early date may be pretty safely inferred from various indications; especially from the fact that in Mecca the Prophet had caused insertions to be made, and pieces to be erased in his previous revelations. For we cannot suppose that he knew the longer suras by heart so perfectly that he was able after a time to lay his finger upon any particular passage. In some instances, indeed, he may have relied too much on his memory. For example, he seems to have occasionally dictated the same sura to different persons in slightly different terms. In such cases, no doubt, he may have partly intended to introduce improvements; and so long as the difference was merely in expression, without affecting the sense, it could occasion no perplexity to his followers. None of them had literary pedantry enough to question the consistency of the divine revelation on that ground. In particular instances, however, the difference of reading was too important to be overlooked. Thus the Koran itself confesses that the unbelievers cast it up as a reproach to the Prophet that God sometimes substituted one verse for another (xvi. 103). On one occasion, when a dispute arose between two of his own followers as to the true reading of a passage which both had received from the Prophet himself, Mahomet is said to have explained that the Koran was revealed in seven forms. In this apparently genuine dictum seven stands, of course, as in many other cases, for an indefinite but limited number. But one may imagine what a world of trouble it has cost the Moslem theologians to explain the saying in accordance with their dogmatic beliefs. A great number of explanations are current, some of which claim the authority of the Prophet himself; as, indeed, fictitious utterances of Mahomet play throughout a conspicuous part in the exegesis of the Koran. One very favourite, but utterly untenable interpretation is that the " seven forms," are seven different Arabic dialects. When such discrepancies came to the cognizance of Mahomet it was doubtless his desire that only one of the conflicting texts should be considered authentic; only he never gave Abrogated himself much trouble to have his wish carried into Readings. effect. Although in theory he was an upholder of verbal inspiration, he did not push the doctrine to its extreme consequences; his practical good sense did not take these things so strictly as the theologians of later centuries. Sometimes, however, he did suppress whole sections or verses, enjoining his followers to efface or forget them, and declaring them to be " abrogated." A very remarkable case is that of the two verses in liii., when he had recognized three heathen goddesses as exalted beings, possessing influence with God. This had occurredin a moment of weakness, in order that by such a promise, which yet left Allah in his lofty position, he might gain over his fellow-countrymen. This object he achieved, but soon his conscience smote him, and he declared these words to have been an inspiration of Satan. So much for abrogated readings; the case is somewhat different when we come to the abrogation of laws and directions to the Moslems, which often occurs in the Koran. There is nothing in this at variance with Mahomet's idea Laws ated of God. God is to him an absolute despot, who declares a thing right or wrong from no inherent necessity but by his arbitrary fiat. This God varies his commands at pleasure, prescribes one law for the Christians, another for the Jews, and a third for the Moslems; nay, he even changes his instructions to the Moslems when it pleases him. Thus, for example, the Koran contains very different directions, suited to varying circumstances, as to the treatment which idolaters are to receive at the hands of believers. But Mahomet showed no anxiety to have these superseded enactments destroyed. Believers could be in no uncertainty as to which of two contradictory passages remained in force; and they might still find edification in that which had become obsolete. That later generations might not so easily distinguish the " abrogated " from the " abrogating " did not occur to Mahomet, whose vision, naturally enough, seldom extended to the future of his religious community. Current events were invariably kept in view in the revelations. In Medinait called forth the admiration of the Faithful to observe how often God gave them the answer to a question whose settlement was urgently required at the moment. The same naivete appears in a remark of the Caliph Othman about a doubtful case: " If the Apostle of God were still alive, methinks there had been a Koran passage revealed on this point." Not unfrequently the divine word was found to coincide with the advice which Mahomet had received from his most intimate disciples. " Omar was many a time of a certain opinion," says one tradition, " and the Koran was then revealed accordingly." The contents of the different parts of the Koran are extremely varied. Many passages consist of theological or moral reflections. We are reminded of the greatness, the contents goodness, the righteousness of God as manifested of the in Nature, in history, and in revelation through Koran. the prophets, especially through Mahomet. God is magnified as the One, the All-powerful. Idolatry and all deification of created beings, such as the worship of Christ as the Son of God, are unsparingly condemned. The joys of heaven and the pains of hell are depicted in vivid sensuous imagery, as is also the terror of the whole creation at the advent of the last day and the judgment of the world. Believers receive general moral instruction, as well as directions for special circumstances. The lukewarm are rebuked, the enemies threatened with terrible punishment, both temporal and eternal. To the 'sceptical the truth of Islam is held forth; and a certain, not very cogent, method of demonstration predominates. In many passages the sacred book falls into a diffuse preaching style, others seem more like proclamations or general orders. A great number contain ceremonial or civil laws, or even special commands to individuals down to such matters as the regulation of Mahomet's harem. In not a few definite questions are answered which had actually been propounded to the Prophet by believers or infidels. Mahomet himself, too, repeatedly receives direct injunctions, and does not escape an occasional rebuke. One sura (i.) is a prayer, two (cxiii. cxiv.) are magical formulas. Many suras treat of a single topic, others embrace several. From the mass of material comprised in the Koran—and the account we have given is far from exhaustive—we should select the histories of the ancient prophets and saints Narratives. as possessing a peculiar interest. The purpose of Mahomet is to show from these histories how God in formes times had rewarded the righteous and punished their enemies. For the most part the old prophets only serve to introduce a little variety in point of form, for they are almost in every case facsimiles of Mahomet himself. They preach exactly like .word with Mishna Sanhedrin iv. 5; compare also ii. 183 with Mishna Berak'lioth i. 2. That these are only cases of oral communication will be admitted by any one with the slightest know-ledge of the circumstances. Otherwise we might even conclude that Mahomet had studied the Talmud; e.g. the regulation as to ablution by rubbing with sand, where water cannot be obtained (iv. 46), corresponds to a talmudic ordinance (Berak'hoth 15 a). Of Christianity he can have been able to learn very little, even in Medina; as may be seen from the absurd travesty of the institution of the Eucharist in v. 112 sqq. For the rest, it is highly improbable that before the Koran any real literary production —anything that could be strictly called a book—existed in the Arabic language. In point of style and artistic effect, the different parts of the Koran are of very unequal value. An unprejudiced and critical reader will certainly find very few passages where style. his aesthetic susceptibilities are thoroughly satis- fied. But he will often be struck, especially in the older pieces, by a wild force of passion, and a vigorous, if not rich, imagination. Descriptions of heaven and hell, and allusions to God's working in Nature, not unfrequently show a certain amount of poetic power. In other places also the style is sometimes lively and impressive; though it is rarely indeed that we come across such strains of touching simplicity as in the middle of xciii. The greater part of the Koran is decidedly prosaic; much of it indeed is stiff in style. Of course, with such a variety of material, we cannot expect every part to be equally vivacious, or imaginative, or poetic. A decree about the right of inheritance, or a point of ritual, must necessarily be expressed in prose, if it is to be intelligible. No one complains of the civil laws in Exodus or the sacrificial ritual in Leviticus, because they want the fire of Isaiah or the tenderness of Deuteronomy. But Mahomet's mistake consists in persistent and slavish adherence to the semi-poetic form which he had at first adopted in accordance with his own taste and that of his hearers. For instance, he employs rhyme in dealing with the most prosaic subjects, and thus produces the disagreeable effect of incongruity between style and matter. It has to be considered, however, that many of those sermonizing pieces which are so tedious to us, especially when we read two or three in succession (perhaps in a very inadequate translation), must have had a quite different effect when recited under the burning sky and on the barren soil of Mecca. There, thoughts about God's greatness and man's duty, which are familiar to us from childhood, were all new to the hearers—it is hearers we have to think of in the first instance, not readers—to whom, at the same time, every allusion had a meaning which often escapes our notice. When Mahomet spoke of the goodness of the Lord in creating the clouds, and bringing them across the cheerless desert, and pouring them out on the earth to restore its rich vegetation, that must have been a picture of thrilling interest to the Arabs, who are accustomed to see from three to five years elapse before a copious shower comes to clothe the wilderness once more with luxuriant pastures. It requires an effort for us, under our clouded skies, to realize in some degree the intensity of that impression. The fact that scraps of poetical phraseology are specially numerous in the earlier suras, enables us to understand why the prosaic mercantile community of Mecca regarded Rhetorical their eccentric townsman as a " poet," or even a Form and " possessed poet." Mahomet himself had to Rhyme. disclaim such titles, because he felt himself to be a divinely inspired prophet; but we too, from our standpoint, shall fully acquit him of poetic genius. Like many other predominantly religious characters, he had no appreciation of poetic beauty; and if we may believe one anecdote related of him, at a time when every one made verses, he affected ignorance of the most elementary rules of prosody. Hence the style of the Koran is not poetical but rhetorical; and the powerful effect which some portions pro-duce on us is gained by rhetorical means. Accordingly the sacred book has not even the artistic form of poetry; which, among the Arabs, includes a stringent metre, as well as rhyme. The Koran is never metrical, and only a few exceptionally 900 him, they have to bring the very same charges against their opponents, who on their part behave exactly as the unbelieving inhabitants of Mecca. The Koran even goes so far as to make Noah contend against the worship of certain false gods, mentioned by name, who were worshipped by the Arabs of Mahomet's time. In an address which is put in the mouth of Abraham (xrvi. 75 sqq.), the reader quite forgets that it is Abraham, and not Mahomet (or God himself), who is speaking. Other narratives are intended rather for amusement, although they are always well seasoned with edifying phrases. It is no wonder that the godless Korrishites thought these stories of the Koran not nearly so entertaining as those of Rostam and Ispandiar, related by Nadr the son of Harith, who had learned in the course of his trade journeys on the Euphrates the heroic mythology of the Persians. But the Prophet was so exasperated by this rivalry that when Nadr fell into his power after the battle of Badr, he caused him to be executed; although in all other cases he readily pardoned his fellow-countrymen. These histories are chiefly about Scripture characters, especially those of the Old Testament. But the deviations from the Relation to Biblical narratives are very marked. Many of the the Old alterations are found in the legendary anecdotes and New of the Jewish Haggada and the New Testament Testaments.Apocrypha; but many more are due perhaps to misconceptions such as only a listener (not the reader of a book) could fall into. One would suppose that the most ignorant Jew could never have mistaken Haman, the minister of Ahasuerus, for the minister of Pharaoh, as happens in the Koran, or identified Miriam, the sister of Moses, with Mary (= Mariam), the mother of Christ. So long, however, as we have no closer acquaintance with Arab Judaism and Christianity, we must always reckon with the possibility that many of these mistakes were due to adherents of these religions who were his authorities, or were a naive reproduction of versions already widely accepted by his contemporaries. In addition to his misconceptions there are sundry capricious alterations, some of them very grotesque, due to Mahomet himself. For instance, in his ignorance of every-thing out of Arabia, he makes the fertility of Egypt—where rain is almost never seen and never missed—depend on rain instead of the inundations of the Nile (xii. 49). It is uncertain whether his account of Alexander was borrowed from Jews or Christians, since the romance of Alexander be-longed to the stereotyped literature of that age. The description of Alexander as " the Horned " in the Koran is, however, in accordance with the result of recent researches, to be traced to a Syrian legend dating from A.D. 514–515 (Th. Noldeke, " Beal-age zur Gesch. des Alexanderromanes "in Denkschriften Akad. Wien, vol. xxxviii. No. 5, p. 27, &c.). According to this, God caused horns to grow on Alexander's head to enable him to overthrow all things. This detail of the legend is ultimately traceable, as Hottinger long ago supposed, to the numerous coins on which Alexander is represented with the ram's horns of Ammon). Besides Jewish and Christian histories there are a few about old Arabian prophets. In these he seems to have handled his materials even more freely than in the others. The opinion has already been expressed that Mahomet did not make use of written sources. Coincidences and divergences alike can always be accounted for by oral communications from Jews who knew a little and Christians who knew next to nothing. Even in the rare passages where we can trace direct resemblances to the text of the Old Testament (cf. xxi. 105 with Ps. xxxvii. 29; i. 5 with Ps. xxvii. ii) or the New (cf. vii. 48 with Luke xvi. 24; xlvi. 19 with Luke xvi. 25), there is nothing more than might readily have been picked up in conversation with any Jew or Christian. In Medina, where he had the opportunity of be-coming acquainted with Jews of some culture, he learned some things out of the Mishna, e.g. v. 35 corresponds almost word for 1 Reproductions of such Ptolemaic and Lysimachan coins are to be found in J. J. Bernouilli, Die erhaltenen Darstellungen Alexanders d. Gr. (Munich, 1905), Tab. VIII.; also in Theodor Schreiber, " Studien fiber das Bildniss Alexanders des Gr." in the Abh. Sachs. Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, Bd. xxi. (1903), Tab. XIII. eloquent portions fall into a sort of spontaneous rhythm. On the other hand, the rhyme is regularly maintained; although, especially in the later pieces, after a very slovenly fashion. Rhymed prose was a favourite form of composition among the Arabs of that day, and Mahomet adopted it; but if it imparts a certain sprightliness to some passages, it proves on the whole a burdensome yoke. The Moslems themselves have observed that the tyranny of the rhyme often makes itself apparent in derangement of the order of words, and in the choice of verbal forms which would not otherwise have been employed; e.g. an imperfect instead of a perfect. In one place, to save the rhyme, he calls Mount Sinai Sinin (xcv. 2) instead of Sind (xxiii. 20); in another Elijah is called Ilydsin (xxxvii. 130) instead of Ilyas (vi. 85; xxxvii. 123). The substance even is modified to suit exigencies of rhyme. Thus the Prophet would scarcely have fixed on the unusual number of eight angels round the throne of God (1xix. 17) if the word thamdniyah, " eight," had not happened to fall in so well with the rhyme. And when 1v. speaks of two heavenly gardens, each with two fountains and two kinds of fruit, and again of two similar gardens, all. this is simply because the dual termination (an) corresponds to the syllable that controls the rhyme in that whole sura. In the later pieces, Mahomet often inserts edifying remarks, entirely out of keeping with the context, merely to complete his rhyme. In Arabic it is such an easy thing to accumulate masses of words with the same termination, that the gross negligence of the rhyme in the Koran is doubly remarkable. One may say that this is another mark of the Prophet's want of mental training, and incapacity for introspective criticism. On the whole, while many parts of the Koran undoubtedly have considerable rhetorical power, even over an unbelieving stylistic reader, the book, aesthetically considered, is by Weak- no means a first-rate performance. To begin with messes. what we are most competent to criticize, let us look at some of the more extended narratives. It has already been noticed how vehement and abrupt they are where they ought to be characterized by epic repose. Indispensable links, both in expression and in the sequence of events, are often omitted, so that to understand these histories is sometimes far easier for us than for those who heard them first, because we know most of them from better sources. Along with this, there is a great deal of superfluous verbiage; and nowhere do we find a steady advance in the narration. Contrast in these respects the history of Joseph (xii.) and its glaring improprieties with the admirably conceived and admirably executed story in Genesis. Similar faults are found in the non-narrative portions of the Koran. The connexion of ideas is extremely loose, and even the syntax betrays great awkwardness. Anacolutha are of frequent occurrence, and cannot be explained as conscious literary devices. Many sentences begin with a " when " or " on the day when" which seems to hover in the air, so that the commentators are driven to supply a " think of this " or some such ellipsis. Again, there is no great literary skill evinced in the frequent and needless harping on the same words and phrases; in xviii., for example, " till that " (hattd idhd) occurs no fewer than eight times. Mahomet, in short, is not in any sense a master of style. This opinion will be endorsed by any European who reads through the book with an impartial spirit and some knowledge of the language, without taking into account the tiresome effect of its endless iterations. But in the ears of every pious Moslem such a judgment will sound almost as shocking as downright atheism or polytheism. Among Dogma of the Moslems, the Koran has always been looked on the Stylistic as the most perfect model of style and language. This perfection feature of it is in their dogmatic the greatest of all of the miracles, the incontestable proof of its divine origin. Koran. Such a view on the part of men who knew Arabic infinitely better than the most accomplished European Arabist will ever do, may well startle us. In fact, the Koran boldly challenged its opponents to produce ten suras, or even a single one, like those of the sacred book, and they never did so. That, to be sure, on calm reflection, is not so very surprising. Revelations of the kind which Mahomet uttered, no unbeliever couldproduce without making himself a laughing-stock. However little real originality there is in Mahomet's doctrines, as against his own countrymen he was thoroughly original, even in the form of his oracles. To compose such revelations at will was beyond the power of the most expert literary artist; it would have required either a prophet or a shameless impostor. And if such a character appeared after Mahomet, still he could never be anything but an imitator, like the false prophets who arose about the time of his death and afterwards. 'That the adversaries should produce any sample whatsoever of poetry or rhetoric equal to the Koran is not at all what the Prophet demands. In that case he would have been put to shame, even in the eyes of many of his own followers, by the first poem that came to hand. Nevertheless, it is on a false interpretation of this challenge that the dogma of the incomparable excellence of the style and diction of the Koran is based. The rest has been accomplished by dogmatic prejudice, which is quite capable of working other miracles besides turning a defective literary production into an unrivalled masterpiece in the eyes of believers. This view once accepted, the next step was to find everywhere evidence of the perfection of the style and language. And if here and there, as one can scarcely doubt, there was among the old Moslems a lover of poetry who had his difficulties about this dogma, he had to beware of uttering an opinion which might have cost him his head. We know of at least one rationalistic theologian who de-fined the dogma in such a way that we can see he did not believe it (Shahrastani, p. 39). The truth is, it would have been a miracle indeed if the style of the Koran had been perfect. For although there was at that time a recognized poetical style, already degenerating to mannerism, a developed prose style did not exist. All beginnings are difficult; and it can never be esteemed a serious charge against Mahomet that his book, the first prose work of a high order in the language, testifies to the awkwardness of the beginner. And further, we must always remember that entertainment and aesthetic effect were at most subsidiary objects. The great aim was persuasion and conversion; and, say what we will, that aim has been realized on the most imposing scale. Mahomet repeatedly calls attention to the fact that the Koran is not written, like other sacred books, in a strange language, but in Arabic, and therefore is intelligible to all. At that time, along with foreign ideas, many foreign Porelgm Words. words had crept into the language; especially Aramaic terms for religious conceptions of Jewish or Christian origin. Some of these had already passed into general use, while others were confined to a more limited circle. Mahomet, who could not fully express his new ideas in the common language of his countrymen, but had frequently to find out new terms for himself, made free use of such Jewish and Christian words, as was done, though perhaps to a smaller extent, by certain thinkers and poets of that age who had more or less risen above the level of heathenism. In Mahomet's case this is the less wonderful because he was indebted to the instruction of Jews and Christians, whose Arabic—as the Koran pretty clearly intimates with regard to one of them—was very defective. On the other hand, it is yet more remarkable that several of such borrowed words in the Koran have a sense which they do not possess in the original language. It is not necessary that this phenomenon should in every case be due to the same cause. Just as the prophet often misunderstood traditional traits of the sacred history, he may, as an unlearned man, likewise have often employed foreign expressions wrongly. Other remarkable senses of words were possibly already acclimatized in the language of Arabian Jews or Christians. Thus, forgdn means really " redemption," but Mahomet uses it for " revelation." The widespread opinion that this sense first asserted itself in reference to the Arab root X913 (faraga), " sever," or " decide," is open to considerable doubt. There is, for instance, no difficulty in deriving the Arab meaning of " revelation " from the common Aramaic " salvation," and this transference must have taken place in a community for which salvation formed the central object of faith, i.e. either amongst those Jews who looked to the coming of a Messiah i more probably, among Christians, since Christianity is in a very peculiar sense the religion of salvation. Milla is properly " word " (= Aramaic melltha), but in the Koran " religion." It is actually used of the religion of the Jews and Christians (once), of the heathen (5 times), but mostly (8 times) of the religion of Abraham, which Mahomet in the Medina period places on the same level with Islam. Although of the Aramaic dialects none employs the term Melltha in the sense of religion, it appears that the prophet found such a use. Illiyun, which Mahomet uses of a heavenly book (Sara 83; 18, 19), is clearly the Hebrew elyon, " high " or " exalted." It is, however, doubtful in what sense this word appeared to him, either as a name of God, as in the Old Testament it often occurs and regularly without the article, or actually as the epithet of a heavenly book, although this use cannot be substantiated from Jewish literature. _So again the word mathani is, as Geiger has conjectured, the regular plural of the Aramaic mathnitlza, which is the same as the Hebrew Mishnah, and denotes in Jewish usage a legal decision of some of the ancient Rabbins. But in the Koran Mahomet appears to have understood it in the sense of " saying " or " sentence " (cf. xxxix. 24). On the other hand, it is by no means certain that by " the Seven Mathani " (xv. 87) the seven verses of Sara i. are meant. Words of undoubtedly Christian origin are less frequent in the Koran. It is an interesting fact that of these a few have come over from the Abyssinian; such as hawariyun " apostles," maida " table," munafzg " doubter, sceptic," ragun " cursed," mihrab " temple "; the first three of these make their first appearance in saras of the Medina period. The word slzaitan " Satan," which was likewise borrowed, at least in the first instance, from the Abyssinian, had probably been already introduced into the language. Sprenger has rightly observed that Mahomet makes a certain parade of these foreign terms, as of other peculiarly constructed expressions; in this he followed a favourite practice of contemporary poets. It is the tendency of the imperfectly educated to delight in out-of-the-way expressions, and on such minds they readily produce a remarkably solemn and mysterious impression. This was exactly the kind of effect that Mahomet desired, and to secure it he seems even to have invented a few odd vocables, as ghislin (lxix. 36), sijjin (lxxxiii. 7, 8), tasnim (lxxxiii. 27), and salsabil (lxxvi. 18). But, of course, the necessity of enabling his hearers to understand ideas which they must have found sufficiently novel in them-selves, imposed tolerably narrow limits on such eccentricities. The constituents of our present Koran belong partly to the Mecca period' (before A.D. 622), partly to the period commencing Date of the with the migration to Medina (from the autumn Several of 622 to 8th June 632). Mahomet's position in Parts. Medina was entirely different from that which he had occupied in his native town. In the former he was from the first the leader of a powerful party, and gradually became the autocratic ruler of Arabia; in the latter he was only the despised preacher of a small congregation. This difference, as was to be expected, appears in the Koran. The Medina pieces, whether entire saras or isolated passages interpolated in Meccan saras, are accordingly pretty broadly distinct, as to their contents, from those issued in Mecca. In the great majority of cases there can be no doubt whatever whether a piece first saw the light in Mecca or in Medina; and for the most part the internal evidence is borne out by Moslem tradition. And since the revelations given in Medina frequently take notice of events about which we have fairly accurate information, and whose dates are at least approximately known, we are often in a position to fix their date with at any rate considerable certainty; here again tradition renders valuable assistance. Even with regard to the Medina passages, however, a great deal remains uncertain, partly because the allusions to historical events and circumstances are generally rather obscure, partly because traditions about the occasion of the revelation of the various pieces are often fluctuating, and often rest on misunderstanding or arbitrary conjecture. An important criterion for judging the period during which individual ' For the schemes of Noldeke and Grimm see MAHOMMEDAN
End of Article: KORAN

Additional information and Comments

There are no comments yet for this article.
» Add information or comments to this article.
Please link directly to this article:
Highlight the code below, right click and select "copy." Paste it into a website, email, or other HTML document.