D. S. (David Samuel) Margoliouth.

The early development of Mohammedanism; lectures delivered in the University of London, May and June 1913 online

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tions of the same theme, not copies printed off the
same types. Some of these sermons would be more
impressive than others, and occasionally a passage
would occur which would attract special attention ;
but the general sameness of the matter would prevent
any discourse being thought to have permanent value,
unless, indeed, some passages were selected for use in
common worship.


When the Prophet went to Medinah, the Koran
assumed another form, but even this was no more
hkely to secure permanence. It dealt very largely
with current events, drawing morals from the
immediate past instead of employing for this purpose
the mythical or historical past. It explained why
the Moslems had been defeated at Uhud, why the
Prophet had taken the wife of his adopted son, why
he had evaded a promise made to his wives ; it
defended the honour of *A'ishah, it extolled various
victories, it threatened the hostile and the disaffected.
It regulated various forms of procedure, the division
of inheritances, the attestation of wills, disputes
between married couples, the etiquette of the
Prophet's court. The interest attaching to few of
these subjects would seem to be permanent ; when
the defeat at Uhud had been wiped out by a signal
victory, only antiquarian interest would attach to
it, and few would wish to remember the scandal
about 'A'ishah. On the other hand, there was no
reason why the Prophet should be bound by his
own precedents, since he expressly reserved to Allah
the right to revise the Koran. Even its legislation,
owing to the possibility of its being revised, was
scarcely felt to have permanent value ; when the
Prophet was asked to decide a case, he had to wait
until a revelation dealing with it was vouchsafed
him, and he was not even entitled to specify the
time wherein he could count on such a communica-
tion being delivered.^ Since it is rare that two actual

1 Shafi% Umm vii. 271.


cases correspond in every detail, it would be better
on some later occasion that the Prophet should be
similarly favoured than that he should have to
depend on the accuracy of his memory or of a
document. While, then, the Prophet lived, the
Koran could not acquire the importance which it
afterwards received, and it is probable that little
concern was bestowed on any parts save those
regularly used in liturgy.

To accept Islam meant simply to promise obedience
to the Prophet, according to some authorities in
matters lawful and honourable, but such a stipula-
tion has little meaning when the Prophet was
recognised as the dictator in such matters. And
where the undertaking given is of this sort, the
word '' system " is inapplicable ; since the dictator
cannot say what he may dictate, there is no reason
why he should tie his hands. The obligations were
not specified because they had not been defined.

Whether the Prophet gave much consideration to
the effects of his own death is uncertain ; this is, we
are told, a matter whereon mankind are most incon-
sistent. The possibilities of the present dispensation
coming to an end and of his own death, which indeed
he seems sometimes to think of as an alternative,
were clearly considered during the difficulties and
stress of the Meccan period ; when he became despot
of a community he appears to have been too much
occupied with other things to pay much attention to
such matters. There is a tradition that he prophesied
the complete extinction of the race within a hundred


years of his time, but its authenticity is denied/ A
theory that, Hke the Christian Messiah, he was to
return was preached not long after his death, and
based on a verse of the Koran, but the preacher
seems to have found few adherents ; ^ for some reason
or other the sects which looked forward to the
appearance of a hidden Messiah ordinarily fixed on
someone else. The common-sense which Mohammed
almost invariably displayed makes us unwilling to
suppose that he regarded himself as immune from
the common calamity, though we are told that his
followers at first declined to believe in his death
when it occurred, and that some Arab tribes made
this occurrence an excuse for rejecting Islam. There
is a story that on his deathbed he desired to dictate
a code, but that those who heard him supposed him
to be in delirium, and declined to take advantage of
this offer. If this be true, it indicates how deeply
they were impressed with the belief that the Koran
was a divine composition wherein the Prophet him-
self had no hand ; for any ostensible revelation would
have been welcomed and implicitly obeyed.

Still, like other prophets and legislators, Mohammed
died, and he had made no provision for a successor,
or at least any such provision was suppressed.
Prophets arose in Arabia, but they were not of this
fold, and their claims were rejected unheard by those
who had accepted the claims of Mohammed. Of
modern critics very few, and of ancient Moslems

1 Mukhtalif al-Hadith, p. 119.

2 Tabari i. 2942. Surah xxviii. 85.


scarcely any, put into practice the doctrine of the
Koran that one prophet is as good as another : that
" we make no distinction between any of them."
Yet it might seem that if the claim of any one man
to legislate and govern by inspiration be admitted,
we are not entitled to reject unheard that of another.
If there be any uniformity in the conduct of the
world, it is difficult to think of any one age being so
favoured as to have the living presence of a divine
ambassador, while previous and subsequent ages
must content themselves with a prospect and a
retrospect. Nevertheless, this is what the JNIoslem
system assumes ; the place of the Prophet is occupied
by a prince, a deputy, authorised to conduct the
affairs of the community, but by no means either in
direct communication with the Deity or empowered
to tamper with the rulings of the Prophet. Among
those who enjoyed power during the first century of
Islam perhaps the adventurer Mukhtar, who was for
a short time supreme in Kufah, was the only pre-
tender to mysterious powers. He claimed to be
infallible,^ and conveyed his commands in a style
closely modelled on that of the Koran. His prayers
were regarded by his lieutenants as the best of
reinforcements.'^ When called " Liar," he pointed
out that other "Prophets" had been similarly
designated. He estabHshed a cult of a Sacred Chair
which was something between a Urim and Thummim
and an Ark of the Covenant.' Nevertheless, he

1 Tabarl ii. 626. 2 /^/^.^ 644^ 13.

3 Ibid., 706.



claimed to be acting not on his own account, but on
that of the Mahdi, i.e. the divinely guided member
of the Prophet's household, who seems to have been
somewhat shy of acknowledging this agent. And,
indeed, a theory arose that the Prophet's family w^ere
the true interpreters of the Koran, possessed of
mysterious knowledge, which prevented them from
making mistakes. In the latest period of the
Umayyad dynasty, while the two branches of the
Prophet's house were still united in a common aim,
a preacher not only states this doctrine, but declares
that all the adherents of the Prophet's house were
agreed about it. An agent who came with proper
credentials from the head of the family must be a
competent agent ; the danger that Satan might have
misled the head of the family in his interpretation of
the Koran need not even be considered.^ A few
years before this we are told that the adherents of
the Prophet's family attributed to them knowledge
of futurity, and even made them objects of worship.^
And this doctrine was never abandoned by the
Prophet's descendants and their adherents, but it
was not adopted for any practical purpose by the
heirs of his uncle, who for the most important period
of Islam were supreme.

Had the claims been accepted of one of those
prophets who arose after Mohammed's death, a state
of affairs analogous to what existed when he was
at Medinah would for a time have continued ; the
nearest possible approach to a theocracy, since the

1 Tabariii. 196I. 2 /^^v/., l682.


community would always have been subject to an
accredited representative of its god : bound by no
code and attached to no precedents. The rejection
of these claims closed the avenue to the divine
communications, whereon the community could no
longer rely for guidance. To have accepted the
claim of one or other of these prophets would have
necessitated another break with the past, for this
whole theory of prophets implies that the operation
of the Divine Being in the world is spasmodic, not
continuous ; there would have been no guarantee
that the system elaborated by JNIohammed during a
decade of years might not be violently upset. More-
over, though the Creed recognised him only, the
Refugees and Helpers had played a conspicuous part
in his career ; if they would not have come into
existence without him, he would have failed egregi-
ously without them. For a time, then, in spite of
his removal, the organisation which he had created
could continue.

According to all appearances the death of the
Prophet made at first little difference in the conduct
of affairs, because his successors were his most
trusted advisers, the persons most familiar with his
ideas and plans. And the extraordinary series of
successes which occupied these years rendered the
cessation of prophecy easily tolerable ; for the most
frequent purpose of prophecy in the years at JNIedinah
had been apology and polemic, for neither of which
was there now any occasion. That the Prophet's
household should have been unable to form a


dangerous party within the state is certainly remark-
able ; that they were not able to do this must be
explained partly by the political incompetence of
Ali, which afterwards became notorious, partly by
the fact that his relations with the Prophet's daughter,
his wife, were wanting in cordiality. Hence the
Companions were able to thrust the Prophet's family
aside, and even deprive them of their inheritance,
without endangering the permanence of the state
which he had founded. And it is possible that the
maxim whereby this procedure was justified was put
into the Prophet's mouth, made one of his Acta,
by them.

These Acta, however, no one thought of collecting
and preserving, and though the Prophet's letters had
the force of law in his lifetime, there was no one who
performed the service which has been so useful to
posterity in the case of the correspondence of Cicero
or of St Paul. Probably there must be some literary
tradition current in a community before the desir-
ability of such procedure occurs ; and such literary
tradition was wanting in both Meccah and Medinah,
nor could that of the more civilised nations speedily
to be subdued be assimilated before some decades
had elapsed. The scribes who had composed the
Prophet's letters and the persons to whom they had
been delivered were not conscious of their historic
importance. And, as has already been seen, their
appreciation of the despatches from Almighty God
was not much more intense. Doubtless, some verses
of these despatches had to be recited in the daily


worship, but according to some authorities it was of
no consequence which the verses were ; provided they
formed part of the Koran, any which the worshipper
remembei'^ed might be repeated by him in his orisons.^
The importance of the sacred book grew at first
slowly, though with accelerating pace ; but the
consequences of the original neglect can be found
in the earliest and best of the commentaries. Where ^
we expect certainty, we find guesswork and fiction.
Even the two recensions of the Koran are confused
by the great Tabari.^ There are allusions to which
the key is lost, though we should have expected that
anyone who was in Medinah when the verses were
first recited would have been able to explain them.
If the commentaries on the Koran be compared with,
say, the Greek comments on Homer, which do not
claim to be more than the guesses of a later age
on the sense of an ancient text, the difference is
scarcely noticeable. The certainty which belongs
to an authoritative tradition is wanting in both y

Both indulge constantly in what might be called
cheap fictions — stories intended to account for the
verses such as anyone could invent, and which,
therefore, have nothing convincing about them.
Even where explanations which we know from some
other source to be true are given, side by side with
them false comments are recorded as of equal
authority. Nor do correct explanations give the
appearance of being handed down by persons who

1 Shrifi% Umm i. 88. 2 Comm. iii. 24.


experienced the original delivery of the messages,
but rather of being the result of conscious and
erudite combination. And this indicates that the
value assigned to the revelations by their con-
temporaries was quite different from that which is
assigned to a permanent code. The revelations were
thought of as solutions of questions that cropped
up, modes of deaUng with difficulties, or as having
reference to particular emergencies, particular states
of mind experienced by the Prophet or his followers,
or even his enemies. However great the anxiety
which these may have occasioned at the time, those
eventful years speedily brought other experiences
which obscured the former ; the crises were too
numerous for excessive importance to be attached
to any. And, in any case, the crisis was more likely
to be remembered than the revelation associated
with it. So long as the Prophet was among them
the living voice was vastly more important than
the letters which had been recited and largely
served their purpose. The persons who knew may
never have been asked about the import of particular
words and phrases, and had no occasion to com-
municate their knowledge ; no systematic teaching
had begun before the best authorities had passed
away. And we have, besides, to take account of the
fact that at times it may not have been thought
desirable to communicate the truth.

No contradiction should ever surprise us in human
conduct, and there are numerous analogies which
help us to understand the attitude of the early


Moslems towards the words of their Prophet and
their God. " This man spake as never man spake "
— that is recorded of the Founder of Christianity ;
yet, in spite of Christian dogma, we are still relegated
to the region of conjecture as to the language in
which these discourses were delivered, and the
persons who are responsible for the translations in
which we possess them. In the case of the Koran
we are at least in possession of certainty with regard
to these two points : the language and the collectors.
And though, as shall be seen, great importance was
not attached by the earliest Moslems to the wording
of the Koran, still it was known to embody an arti-
fice which secured a certain amount, though only a
limited amount, of permanence, and which distin-
guished the matter composing it from any that was
not intentionally fabricated so as to resemble it.
Texts which had formed part of the divine revelation
were known to be cast in a certain mould ; and
although that mould was somewhat elastic, the
restriction on possible revelations which resulted was
considerable. Verse compositions were excluded, for
the Prophet had not been taught versification ; prose
compositions were excluded because the genuine
verses had an artifice, though one, it is true, of
extreme simplicity. Further, we find in the Koran
itself the dogma that the style of the book is inimit-
able, and those who believed the Prophet accepted
the dogma, and in a way perhaps expected that the
Koran could take care of itself. In general, however,
we attribute the carelessness with regard to this


possession to want of familiarity with literary methods
and habits.

But a vision gains in importance by being sealed,
and more than once in the Jewish and Christian
Scriptures do we come across a command to seal the
book, meaning not to secrete its contents, but to
terminate it definitely so as to exclude the possibility
of further additions. The liability to abrogation, the
ephemeral and occasional nature of the revelations
which prevented their hearers from overestimating
their value, disappeared when once the spring of
revelation had run dry. The book may have been
closed more than once in the Prophet's time, just
as he may have received more than one command
to contract no more marriages ; but so long as a
man lives he can change his mind ; God could alter
the text. After the removal of the Prophet the
messages which he had delivered could take his place
to some extent, as being an authority which no one
dare question. The consternation of the Moslems
at the death of the Prophet was, according to the
tradition, allayed by a quotation from the Koran
wherein the Prophet's death was foretold ; that
quotation appears then to have been heard for the
first time. The lessons impressed on the mind of
the person who produced this text may well have
been two : the value of the Koran to those who pos-
sessed it, and the danger of leaving this possession un-
guarded. Short as was the reign of the first successor,
barely two years, and those occupied by campaigns,
the need for a collection of the Koran became acutely


felt, and an order was issued for its execution. The
prophecy had to be sealed. And the first successor,
having followed the Prophet from the commence-
ment of his career, and been his mseparable
companion, would be likely to know better than any-
one else what had or had not been revealed.

Although the traditions which are quoted in con-
nection with this scheme must be received with
caution, they seem rightly to represent the difficulty
as appalling. Our best authority does not appear
to countenance the supposition that any part of the
Koran was in writing ; for had it existed in that
state, the danger that it would perish with the death
of the Islamic champions would not have been serious.
In the first account of Tabari it is the collector who
first writes it on the naive materials at his disposal ;
the second successor of the Prophet has it transferred
from these to a scroll, which remained in the
possession of his daughter, but was afterwards
" washed out " by order of the third successor. In
the Koran itself there is a reference to Scripture-
Readers, persons besides the Prophet who read aloud
the texts (xxii. 71) ; it is likely that these men would
have committed them to memory from JNIS., although
they found permanent lodging in their breasts.
Indeed, the difficulty of teaching without the use
of writing is so great that we can scarcely beheve
any lengthy document would be committed to
memory any other way. When, however, the texts
had been thoroughly learned, the leaflet which had
been employed in the process of learning would have


no further value and might be allowed to perish.
And so the mockers are thought of as " hearing and
knowing," not as possessing and reading (xlv. 7, 8).

The collector is represented as consulting all the
Meccan and Medinese followers of the Prophet, and
putting down what they had "got," i.e. such texts
as they had learned ; his main difficulty must have
lain in the fact already noticed — that the Surahs
were largely repetition of the same matter, with at
times slight, at other times considerable, variations.
A preacher or lecturer may well have occasion to
repeat the same statements or their substance a
great number of times ; but such repetition has no
place in a book, wherein the same text can be
repeatedly read, least of all in a communication from
Almighty God. The theory that precepts may be
occasional, i.e. vary with different circumstances, is
admissible ; but the opinion of the Divine Being on
ancient history cannot possibly vary. Where on one
occasion the Koran quotes a number of different
opinions about a difficult matter, viz. the number of
the Sleepers in the Cave and whether their dog
counted or not, it is to condemn them all as con-
jectures, not to record them as possible solutions.
Hence the collector had to settle the difficult question
whether he should treat each separate account of the
story of Moses or Abraham as a distinct Surah, or
whether they should be regarded as different versions
of the same. There is a tradition that the Prophet,
when discrepancies in reading were called to his
attention and he had declared all readings correct,


explained that the Koran had been revealed in seven
texts ; which may mean that the same passage in the
original Koran had been reproduced by him in seven
different ways. Probably the Prophet, had the
scheme of collecting the Koran come into his mind,
would have selected one version of each story and
abrogated the others ; but to do this certainly
exceeded the power of anyone but himself.

It is usual to suppose that the last or ultimate
version in such a case is the best and most authorita-
tive ; and though ordinarily the different versions of
the same narrative make no reference to each other,
sometimes the mode of statement gives an impression
of being a corrected edition or an increased edition of
what has preceded. So in the lengthy account of
Pharaoh and Moses in Surah xxviii. we have at the
commencement the explanation that Pharaoh divided
his people into castes, of which the oppressed, i.e. the
Israelites, formed one ; in Surah xl., besides the
ascription to Pharaoh of the desire to build the tower
(probably of Babel), a wholly new personage is
introduced, viz. a member of the Pharaonic family
who believed but concealed his faith, yet never-
theless delivered a homily quite indistinguishable
from those customary in the mouths of monotheistic
prophets. In Surah xi. the story of Noah is enriched
with an account of a son of Noah who disobeyed his
father and perished in the Flood. The text observes
that this is a mystery which neither the Prophet nor
his people had previously known. We should infer
that these new details of the story of Noah were


what had been unknown before this particular revela-
tion, some account of the patriarch having previously
been communicated.

It is not possible for us to locate these Surahs
chronologically on the supposition that the accounts
gradually grow more to correspond with the Biblical
tradition, for the human mind is both receptive and
forgetful ; the introduction of Haman and Korah
into the story of Moses and Pharaoh may be due to
access of knowledge, or their omission may be due to
such access ; this is not a matter whereon we can
pronounce a priori. The collector may possibly have
been able to pursue investigations into the dates of
revelation, but where the dating of events was vague,
it would be difficult to obtain any accurate informa-
tion on this subject. Probably, then, he introduced
into his collection any copies that he could find of
revelations certified to have been actually delivered.
And although the repetition is intolerable in the
book, it is probable that accurate reporting of the
Prophet's discourses during his career of twenty-three
years would not have resulted in a much larger
volume than the collector put together.

From the fluid nature of the revelation it comes
that though the Koran constantly eulogises itself,
it rarely quotes itself; the cases in which it takes
account of earlier statements are exceptional. A quite
exceptional case of a series of references is to be
found in connection with the story of Abraham. In
Surah xix. 48, which is early in the Meccan period,
Abraham promises to ask forgiveness for his father.


In Surah xxvi. 86 he actually does this. He prays,
" Forgive my father : he is one of those that go
astray." In Surah xiv. 42 he says, "Forgive me and
my parents and the Believers on the day whereon
the reckoning shall be made," rather implying that
Abraham's father was not an Unbeliever. But in
Surah ix., nearly at the end of the Prophet's career,
verse 114 declares that neither the Prophet nor the

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Online LibraryD. S. (David Samuel) MargoliouthThe early development of Mohammedanism; lectures delivered in the University of London, May and June 1913 → online text (page 2 of 18)