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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Believers have any business to ask forgiveness for
the pagans, even though they w^ere their relatives,
when it has become clear that they are to be damned ;
they are thus forbidden to do what Abraham clearly
did in Surah xxvi. Hence Surah ix. proceeds : " Now
Abraham's praying that his father should be forgiven
was only due to a promise which he had made him " ;
i.e. the promise recorded in Surah xix. is the explana-
tion of Abraham's conduct as recorded in Surah xxvi.
And in Surah Ix. Abraham's conduct is held up as
exemplary, when he and his companions said to their
people " We are quit of you and what ye worship
other than God ; eternal enmity and hatred show
themselves between us until ye believe in God only :
except the saying of Abraham to his father, ' I will
ask forgiveness for thee.'" That, it is allowed, is not
to be imitated: it can only be excused. Surah ix.
proceeds, in verse 115, *' Now when it became clear to
Abraham that his father was an enemy to Allah, he
declared himself quit of him."

What is clear is that Surahs ix. and Ix. recognise
the existence of Surahs xix. and xxvi., and it is fairly
clear that Surah ix. recognises and appeals to Surah Ix.


Equally exceptional are the cases in which we have
the contents of two editions side by side. The
clearest is perhaps in Surah viii., where verse 66
asserts that one Moslem in war is equal to ten
Unbelievers, and this is followed by verse 67, *' Now
God has lightened the burden upon you, knowing
that there is weakness in you/' and reduced the
proportion by eighty per cent. ; one Believer is to be
equal to two Unbelievers. Here we are, so to speak,
taken into the Prophet's study ; the Surah is re-edited
with a necessary modification.

At times where such references are given, they
only produce fresh enigmas. So in a matter with
which we shall presently deal, we find Surah xvi. 119
quote a list of foods forbidden to the Jews which is
to be found in Surah vi. 147 ; whereas Surah vi. 146
equally clearly quotes a list of foods forbidden to
Moslems which is given in Surah xvi. 116. The
explanation of such a case can only be found in the
repetition of the same matter differently arranged,
which we have seen to be characteristic of the lecture
as opposed to the book.

The stories furnished by later writers of the mode
wherein the Koran was edited are all clearly affected
by the practice of the traditionalists, and little credit
attaches to them. All that we can gather of the
editor's method is that he intended to be as objective
as possible ; i.e. to leave the employment of the
sacred volume as free as possible to the Moslem
community. For since the doctrine that parts of the
work abrogated other parts was openly acknowledged.


any suspicion of chronological arrangement would
settle the important question, which texts were
abrogated. And possibly this accounts for the
mixture in the same Surahs of matter belonging to
different years : as in Surah iii. there are verses which
must have been delivered in the third year of the
Hijrah, commenting on the battle of Uhud, to which
are prefixed a series of verses clearly dealing with
Christian controversy, and doubtless rightly assigned
to a much later period. The text which claims to be
the last in the Koran, " This day I have completed
your religion," is not put at the end but in the
middle of the volume. The verse which has every
appearance of being the first text revealed is stowed
away not far from the end, and evidently, short as is
the Surah wherein it is inserted, mixed with matter
belonging to a different period. We cannot say
either why in certain cases several texts are put
together to form a chapter, whereas towards the end
of the volume we have a series of Surahs limited to
a very few verses apiece.

Since the collector of the Koran left no memoirs
and composed no preface, we do not otherwise know
precisely how he worked, or on what principle he
admitted, arranged, and generally dealt with his
matter. We know that some portions of the Koran
must have been taught for ritual purposes, but can-
not say exactly which. From a story to the effect
that 'A'ishah, when quoting the Koran at her trial, had
forgotten the name of Joseph's father, we should
gather that the Surah of Joseph, perhaps the most


continuous of the whole series, was famiharly known
at the time, yet not so famiharly but that a member
of the Prophet's household might be only moderately
well acquainted with its contents. But though we
are unable to pronounce on the skill displayed by the
editor of the Koran, there is a strong probability that
most of the matter which he collected had been
actually delivered by the Prophet. The case which
has been quoted, where the utterance of one Surah
is confirmed by another, and apologised for in a third
and a fourth, gives the very strongest presumption of
genuineness. Moreover, the controversies wherewith
it largely, or rather mainly, deals were stale at the time
when the collection was made. Much of it deals with
Jewish controversy ; the Judaism of Arabia had been
effectively silenced by the Prophet before the taking
of Meccah. The prophecy in Surah iii. that the
Jews would be humiliated was fulfilled before the
Prophet's time in Medinah had half expired ; the
flourishing Jewish comrhunities had been extermi-
nated or impoverished. Both the admiration and the
denunciation of the Banu Israil, with which so many
of the Surahs deal, had sunk from the region of
practice to that of reminiscence or of theory, ever
since the battle of the Trench. Scarcely less out of
date was the polemic against idolatry ; for by the
t^rophet's death the idols had been destroyed, and
though we hear of false prophets arising in Arabia,
and of rebellion against the Medinese yoke, there
appears to have been no recrudescence of paganism.
Only in one case do we find that the collector of


the Koran embodied what looks like a state paper,

viz. the manifesto to the Arabs which forms at any

rate the commencement of Surah ix., which, for

some reason, lacks the invocation that is prefixed

to all the other Surahs. It calls itself " Licence

issued by Allah and His Apostle to the Pagans with

whom you have made a covenant," and is evidently

a copy of an actual document sent to Meccah. The

co-ordination of Allah and the Apostle as authors of

the document is unique, and makes it appear that in

the period when it was issued the Koran had come

to be considered as the Prophet's official utterances ;

and that the theory of double personality, according

to Avhich the Prophet at times represented the Deity

and at other times himself, yet was to be obeyed in

the latter capacity no less than in the former, was

making its appearance. So far as this manifesto is

in the name of the Prophet it should perhaps have

found no place in the Koran. Elsewhere it is hard

to say to what extent manuscript materials were

employed. ,

Our belief, then, in the general genuineness of the

Koran rests on the agreement of its contents with

what would be expected if the account of its genesis

and collection were true. The greater part of the

collection is likely to have been delivered orally, and

indeed the matter is declared to have been sent down

to the Prophet's heart to deliver with his tongue.

The material was, as perhaps is the case with most

preachers, meagre ; he was acquainted with only a

few stories, and the doctrines which he had to com-



municate were during a long period exceedingly simple.
Whether improvised or prepared, and probably both
methods were employed, these discourses impressed
many hearers, and were recollected in different forms.
In accounts of dialogues and public discourses, both
real and fictitious, we find authors who lived before
the invention of printing speak of the report as put
together from the accounts of hearers, and we not
unfrequently meet the assumption that a hearer of
an oration will remember it, and be able to repeat it.
Such reports of the Prophet's sermons must have
been found in the minds or hands of various Believers,
and in the later Medinese period a reading public
may have begun to exist.

The Koran, then, was what remained to take the
place of the Prophet, and the dead letter is a poor
substitute in any case for the living voice. In the
Prophet's time the divine ordinances could be changed
from day to day ; after his death they became stereo-
typed for ever. ** Do you doubt," asks a catechist
rather more than a hundred years after that event,
" that the Koran was brought down to the Prophet
by Gabriel the faithful spirit : that therein God had
declared what is lawful and unlawful, prescribed His
rules and established His practices, and told the history
of the past and of the future to the end of time ? " ^
The catechumen replies, " I doubt not." This parti-
cular sect held, indeed, that there was somewhere an
esoteric tradition whereby it could be supplemented,
some person or persons who might deal with it some-

1 Tabari ii. 1961.


what as the Prophet had dealt with its divine original ;
but the greater part of Islam rejected this doctrine,
and so closed the avenue, little used, it must be
admitted, to possible improvements. Yet in some
way the community had to be supplied with some-
thing more than was contained in the fragments
put together by the first Caliph's order : with law,
ritual, morals, theology, and even history. The task
before us is to trace these several supplements to
their source.



Some twelve years are said to have elapsed between
the collecting of the Koran, which is supposed to have
been executed by order and for the use of the first
successor of the Prophet, and the issuing of an official
edition. In the meantime it would appear that un-
official texts must have been promulgated, of which,
however, little more than the rumour reaches us ;
different families were supposed to possess their own
recensions, and this was likely to lead to serious mis-
chief. The third successor of the Prophet had all
these texts collected and either burned or washed out
— a more economical process, permitting the use of
the material for some other purpose ; in their place
authorised copies were sent to the chief Islamic cities.
It is asserted that even the fair copy which had been
made by the second successor, and after his death had
got into the possession of his daughter, was obtained
from her heir and destroyed. So valuable a relic
would not have been so treated had not its preserva-
tion been dangerous to someone. Little is said by
the Islamic historians of this act, which, however, must
have been in the highest degree sensational ; for the



Koran-readers were developing into a profession, and
doubtless possessed in their Korans a lucrative asset.
Yet since the destruction of the earlier copies was
eiFectively carried out, the Moslems are compelled to
assume that the text which remains is authoritative ;
for otherwise they would be casting doubts on the
basis of their system. The act of Othman is there-
fore commended by the historians who mention it,
and the use of non-Othmanic readings was afterwards
punishable with death ; ^ though whether his contem-
poraries regarded it in the same light may well
be doubted. Among the charges brought against
Othman by those who afterwards besieged him in
Medinah and murdered him, one is that he found the
Korans many and left one;'^ and that he had "torn
up the Book " ; ^ and for a long time his enemies
called him "the tearer of the Books." ^ The party
who are associated with his assassination are some-
times called "the Readers."^ The reason alleged for
this drastic measure is the fear that different readings
would lead to the development of sectarianism, this
having happened in the Christian Church ; although
it might not be easy to demonstrate that the various
readings of the Bible had effected much in this direc-
tion ; and Othman 's expedient by no means proved
itself effective, since sects developed in Islam with
great rapidity. The story of the destruction of

1 Yakut, Dictionary of Learned Men, vi. 300, 499-

2 Tabarl i. 2952, 10. ^ /^^v/.^ n. 516, 5.
4 Ibid., ii. 74.7, anno 67.

^ i. 3323, 15. The cliarc^e that he was the first who altered the
Prophet's sunnali seems an echo of this. Aghani xx. 101, 14.


Omar's copy suggests that the official edition con-
tained matter which current copies did not contain ;
and, indeed, we may easily believe that the text did
not escape interpolation during the period which
separated the ultimate edition from the original col-
lection/ The first successor is said to have composed
a text wherein the Prophet's death is foretold, and a
little tampering with the sacred volume is likely to
have been executed from time to time. Some verses
which give the appearance of being post-Mohammedan
are a set which recognise a distinction between two
classes of texts in the Koran : those which have been
revised and those which are equivocal. This division
seems unnecessary when the doctrine of abrogation
has been adopted ; nor while the Prophet lived can
we well believe that any portion of the Koran was
equivocal, for he was there to interpret it. Further,
the word " clear " or *' perspicuous," used as the
contrary of " equivocal," is so frequently employed of
the Koran that he would probably have disapproved
the use of the latter term except in the sense of
" uniform," in which signification it is indeed applied
to the Koran as a whole.

Besides this, the Koran is treated as a unit, which
it can never have been while the Prophet lived : the
well of revelation had not then run dry. Further, the
revised texts are here said to be the " Mother of the
Book " ; but that phrase as used by the Prophet means

^ One sect of Khawarij declared Surah xii. (Joseph) spurious.
Ghunyah i. 76. The Ibadites charge Othraan with having ^' altered
God's word.'' Sachau, Anschauungen der Ibaditen, p. 53.


something very different, viz. the divine original, the
copy in the possession of the Celestial Author, who is
at liberty to revise as He will. Hence this passage
seems intended to deal with difficulties which can
scarcely have cropped up while the Prophet lived, but
necessarily arose when the letter had to take the place
of the living intermediary between God and man. \

A controversy on which we never seem to hear the
last word is whether or not the Alexandrian library
was burned by the Moslem conquerors ; and even as
late as 1912 some severe language has been heard
abovit it. The real difficulty about the story is —
What is meant by the Alexandrian library ? but the
important question from some points of view is
whether the belief that the Koran rendered all other
literature dangerous or superfluous was or was not
current at the time when this disaster is supposed to
have taken place. Now, that the Moslems wilfully
destroyed books belonging to other communities,
composed in foreign languages, is not credible ; they
would not have regarded the preservation of such
literature as a matter affiscting themselves. But the
rise of the Islamic state was an occasion which would
naturally have produced a mass of literature, each
person recording what he knew of the remarkable
man who had founded the Arabian empire, or of the
campaigns which had brought such brilliant results ;
yet those who in later times endeavoured to discover
what was the first book written after the Koran give
us a selection of authors whose death-dates come
between the years 149-160 of the Migration; and


though a work by an author who died m 110 is some-
times mentioned, it would seem that its genuineness
is ordinarily denied. Of those prose works which have
come down to us, little is earlier than 150, and
literature begins to accumulate in masses only after
another decade or two. Thus the first actual treatises
on jurisprudence as a science were those of Shafi'i,
who flourished in the second half of the second
century ; previously the science had been locked up
with its possessors.^

Considerable vagueness, in consequence, attaches
to the history of the first century and a half, and even
in the case of events of primary importance we are
confronted with puzzles. We cannot, however, credit
the whole Moslem population with inability to express
themselves otherwise than in lyric verse. The long
silence of the Arabs under Islam is to be accounted
for by the importance attached to the Koran, which,
it was thought, no more tolerated other books beside
itself than Allah tolerated other deities. The claim
which, according to the story of the Alexandrian
library, was made by Omar for the Koran does not
exceed what it claims for itself. It is "a detailed
account of everything."^ It was delivered in a night
wherein every difficult matter was distinguished.^
"We have neglected nothing in the Book."* Now,
a " detailed account of everything," " a Book wherein
nothing is neglected," clearly renders all other litera-

1 Yakat vi. 388. In the Ihya al-^Ulum i. 65 this matter is dis-
cussed ; see also Ithaf i. 434.

2 Surah xii. 111. ^ xHv. 3. ^ yi. 38.


ture superfluous or dangerous ; and, indeed, when
Bonaparte asked some sheikhs whether the Koran in
its complete account of everything included formula?
for the casting of cannon and making of gunpowder,
they had to reply that it did, though they admitted
that not every reader would know how to find them.
Hence, it would seem, Moslems were precluded from
composing books, and references to others than the
Koran in the early generations of Islam are rare.
Such references are usually to such as contained
oracles ; thus a son of the conqueror of Egypt, when
in that country, read the works of Daniel, and made
prophetic calculations on its data ; ^ but even these
books appear to be ordinarily in the hands of Jews and
Christians," or in those of converted Israelites, who
may have retained them from their earlier days.^
Even letters were ordinarily brief or rather laconic ;
the first author of prolix epistles comes into history
in the year 60, only, however, to have his despatch
rejected for one which was conciser.* Attempts at
preserving history seem to have taken the form of
tribal narratives, to which reference is sometimes
made ; ^ these were recited in the home,^ or more
often in the mosques, and at times some particular
mosque was a favourite resort of such narrators.^

These narrators are not easily distinguished from
preachers, who (sometimes after the afternoon prayer^)

1 Tabarl ii. 399, anno 6l. 2 jfjid^^ [^ 1138, 1464.

3 Ihid., ii. 786, anno 68. * [bid., ii. 270 (^Amr b. Nafi^.

^ Ibid., ii. 856, 1180. ^ Ibid., ii. 1919.

7 Ibid., ii. 455, Q5Q. » Ibid., ii. 1968.


were employed by commanders to inspirit the troops
by recounting to them the wars of the Lord and the
merits of the Holy Family.^ Probably it was in the
recitations of these " narrators," as they were called,
that the bulk of the Prophet's biography was preserved,
whence the ordinary Moslem obtained a general ac-
quaintance with it and would understand allusions
to its details.^ The profession of " narrator " does
not appear to have been originally distinct from that
of Koran-reader and jurist.^ A jurist was the author
of one of the earliest attempts at written history of
which we hear, viz. a list of the Caliphs with their
ages; though its author died as early as 124 a.h.,
many of his figures were uncertain ; ^ and contra-
dictory accounts have been handed down to us with
respect to the dates of highly important events. In
general, if anything was taken down, the copy would
appear to have been retained only until its contents
had been committed to memory ; and the author of
this chronological table is said to have been ex-
ceptional in taking down matter that was not strictly
juristic.^ He became, indeed, thereby the greatest
scholar of his time ; but it was not in his power to
compensate for the want of contemporary histories,
or to discriminate between the basis of fact and
the accumulations brought about by the process of

The notion that the sacred book is the whole of

1 Tabarl ii. 949, 950, 1055. ^ Uji^i,, ii. 231, 1226, 1242, 1338.

3 ibid., ii. 1086. ^ /^^^^ jj 493.

^ Jahiz, Bayan ii. 26.


the national literature has been too often current for
us to be surprised at the Moslems adopting it. A
Koranic theory is that every nation has its book —
naturally one only.^ With whatever sanctity a text
may be surrounded, probably the only way to
effectually guard it against rivals is to prevent the
possibility of rivalry. The Jews interpreted a verse
near the end of Ecclesiastes as definitely forbidding
the addition of anything to their national literature ;
and for three parts of a millennium they observed
this precept faithfully. Hence the national history
of that race between the fall of Jerusalem and the
foundation of Baghdad is a blank. The Apocalypse
ends with a terrible threat against those who venture
to make any addition to the prophecy of this book,
which may indeed refer to that particular collection
of oracles, but is quite likely to be interpreted of
putting anything at all that is to be permanent on
writing material. Possibly there were fewer scruples
among Moslems about the writing of poetry, to which
there are occasional allusions,^ since such compositions
were by their form clearly distinguished from the
Koran. We have seen that some scruples were felt
about collecting the Koran itself; it need not then
surprise us that there were yet greater scruples about
collecting anything else. And if, as was the case,
even those Scriptures which the Koran professed to
confirm and corroborate might not be put into the
hands of Moslems, still less, we can imagine, might
any other form of literature ; though it seems clear

1 Surah xlv. 27. 2 Tabari ii. 1732.


that the Prophet had no idea that any other form of
literature existed. But even had he known of it, it
is improbable that his attitude would have been
altered thereby ; for his system, as might be expected
of a man who was by instinct a military commander,
was decidedly one of short cuts. This appears clearly
in his calendar. The brains of mathematicians and
astronomers had been wearied with endeavours to
find a formula which would harmonise the supposed
motions of the sun and the moon ; Mohammed settles
the whole difficulty in a moment by declaring that
the year in God's estimation is one of twelve lunar
months. Christianity had been rent to pieces with
the difficulty of formulating the nature of Christ,
whose mother, it was agreed, was a virgin ; Moham-
med settles the matter straight off: the nature of
Christ is like that of Adam. Now, when difficulties
can be settled with this directness, clearly research is
useless ; for the students of these matters had arrived
at nothing so simple. And the Koran makes state-
ments on so many subjects that its claim to settle
everything is at least plausible. We can learn from
it where the sun sinks, and where it rises ; that the
period from birth to weaning is two years, and from
conception to weaning thirty months ; besides a precis
of Old Testament and New Testament history, it is
generally encyclopaedic in its range of information.

But whether the collection of Surahs was intended
as a manual of either ritual or law, civil and criminal,
or of ethics, its utility was decidedly limited. In the
first place, there is no principle of arrangement, whence


the whole book must be perused in order to find the
enactment on any subject. In the second place, the \
enactments on the same subject are apt to be numerous \
and contradictory. We may take the case of lawful '
foods. In Surah xxii. certain beasts are declared lawful, /
" except what shall be read unto you " — where there
is thus a promise of further information. In Surah
xvi. 116 such information is given: here the excep-

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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 3 of 18)