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Koran / Quran

The Koran (Ko'ran) is the foundation of Islam. It is the sacred book of more than a billions men and women, some of them nations of immemorial civilization, by all whom it is regarded 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 to attention. Besides, it is the work of Mohammed, 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 so 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.

The secret of the power exercised by the book lay in the mind which produced it. It was at first not a book, but a strong living voice, a kind of wild authoritative proclamation, a series of admonitions, promises, threats, and instructions addressed to turbulent and largely hostile assemblies of untutored Arabs. In Muhammeds life-time there were only disjointed notes, speeches, and the retentive memories of those who listened to them. The method followed by Muhammed in the promulgation of the Koran also requires to be treated with discrimination. From the first flash of prophetic inspiration which is clearly discernible in the earlier portions of the book he, later on, frequently descended to deliberate invention and artful rhetoric.

As a book it was published after the prophets death. The order as it stands in all Arabic manuscripts, and in most printed editions, whether Arabic or European, is not chronological. Nor is there any authentic tradition to show that it rests upon the authority of Muhammad himself. The scattered fragments of the Koran were in the first instance collected by his immediate successor Abu Bekr, about a year after the Prophets death, at the suggestion of Omar, who foresaw that, as the Muslim warriors, whose memories were the sole depositaries of large portions of the revelations, died off or were slain, as had been the case with many in the battle of Yemma, AH 12.

In the arrangement of the separate sections, a classification according to contents was impracticable because of the variety of subjects often dealt with in one sura. A chronological arrangement was out of the question, because the chronology of the older pieces must have been imperfectly known, and because in some cases passages of different dates had been joined together. Indeed, systematic principles of this kind were altogether disregarded at that period. The pieces were accordingly arranged in indiscriminate order, the only rule observed being to place the long suras first and the shorter towards the end, and even that was far from strictly adhered to. The short opening sura is so placed on account of its superiority to the rest, and two magical formulae are kept for a sort of protection at the end; these are the only special traces of design.

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 favored by the numerous traditions which give the circumstances under which this or that short piece, now incorporated in a larger section, was revealed; and also by the fact that the connection 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 this sifting operation should not be carried too far, as Noldeke latter believed 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 runs through the whole sura.

Even in the separate narrations, the Koran readily passes from one subject to another, with little care taken to express all the transitions of thought, and frequently clauses are omitted, which are almost indispensable. Scholars are not at liberty, therefore, in every case where the connection 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 suras are identical with the originals.

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Page last modified: 08-11-2011 19:38:56 ZULU