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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical Introduction by Henry Preserved Smith (1847–1927)

By The Koran

KORAN, the well-known sacred book of the Mohammedans. The word is variously written Coran, Kur’an, Qur’ân, or with the article, Alcoran, Al-Koran, El-Qurân. It is derived from a word meaning to chant, to recite, or to read aloud, especially as an act of Divine service. Mohammed borrowed the word and the idea from the preceding revealed religions, both of which made the liturgical reading of their Scriptures a prominent part of public worship. A single composition or chapter is called a Koran (x. 16), and the whole body of revelations is the Koran. In one instance (xv. 91) the word Koran is made to cover the whole body of revealed books, including the Old and New Testaments as well as the book of Mohammed.

The Koran is perhaps the most widely read book in the world. It is the textbook in all Mohammedan schools. All Moslems know large parts of it by heart. Devout Moslems read it through once a month. Portions of it are recited in the five daily prayers, and the recitation of the whole book is a meritorious work frequently performed at solemn or festival anniversaries. What Arabic science there is, has the Koran as its object; and the ambition of every devout Moslem student is to apprehend the divine philosophy which it is supposed to contain.

There is no reasonable doubt that the Koran is the work of Mohammed. Its parts were published by him at intervals during the more than twenty years of his activity as prophet. It is not clear that all were immediately put on record, but the Prophet encouraged his followers to commit them to heart. Some, however, were written down on whatever material came to hand; for we are told that when a collection of the whole was made, the parts were found “on leaves of the palm, on white stones and the shoulder-blades of sheep and camels, and in the breasts of men.” This essential work of collection was done soon after the Prophet’s death, by his amanuensis, Zaid Ibn Thabit, at the command of the Caliph Abu Bekr. A few years later, as divergent copies were circulated, the Caliph Othman ordered a standard text to be made by three learned men; and when this was completed, other copies were made to conform to it. This received text has been transmitted without substantial variation to our own time, and probably represents correctly the work of Mohammed. No insinuation against its accuracy was ever uttered by the surviving comrades of the Prophet.

The Koran consists of chapters, each of which is called a Sura. They vary in length from a single line to many pages. There is reason to think that the longer ones are made by putting together compositions originally published at different times. In these chapters, unity of thought or plan is difficult to discover. The only principle of arrangement for the book as a whole was to put the longest Suras first and the shortest last: this from the second Sura on,—the first place was given to the brief prayer called the Fatiha.

Mohammed disclaimed the title of poet. His earliest compositions, however, have a certain rhythmic form; the verses being short, with three or four accented syllables. All the verses of a single revelation rhyme, and a change in the rhyme indicates a transition to a new composition. The later chapters are also in rhyme; but as the verses are much longer, the poetic effect is lost.

The fragmentary character of the Suras, and the lack of plan in the arrangement of the book as a whole, throw great obstacles in the way of the reader. Moreover, as is the case in many early books, much is only obscurely expressed because the author expected to supply something by his own action in delivery. It is of the first importance, therefore, to bring the various revelations into connection with the life of Mohammed. Some help is given us here by the Traditions; but for the most part we are dependent on internal evidence. It is evident at the first glance that the shorter Suras are rhapsodic in character; gushes of emotion, coming from a man under religious excitement. The longer compositions, on the other hand, are prosaic, the result of reflection, frequently commonplace or trivial. With this general criterion, and with the help of tradition, we can separate roughly three periods of composition.

1. Those Suras which constitute the earliest group come last in the arrangement of the received text. In them Mohammed appears as a preacher of new truth. Himself much impressed by the doctrine of the unity of God, he professes it fervently while protesting against the idolatry of his countrymen. In the intensity of his emotion, he strengthens his asseverations by oaths of strange import; as in the following (Sura 100):—

  • “By the galloping panting troops,
  • That strike fire from the rocks,
  • That make their attack at the dawn,
  • Whose feet raise a cloud of dust!
  • Verily, man is ungrateful to his Lord!
  • Himself must testify this.
  • Strong only in the love of earthly good!
  • Doth he not know that when what is in the tombs is brought forth,
  • And what is in the breasts is brought to light,
  • On that day their Lord will know concerning them?”
  • As is indicated at the close of this Sura, the coming Judgment is a prominent thought of the Prophet at this period. It is in fact alluded to in nearly every chapter, and is described in language closely approaching the Biblical pictures of the Day of Jehovah. The earth will shake violently and deliver up its dead; the mountains will be reduced to dust, or become like wool; the moon will be rent in twain; men and demons will be summoned to an account. After this, the good will be welcomed to gardens in which flow perennial streams, while the wicked will be consigned to the flame. These predictions form the staple of the revelations of this period, as any one will readily convince himself by reading from the seventy-third Sura onward through the book. The repetitions show no great fertility of imagination on the part of the author.

    2. As Mohammed continued to preach, he discovered that his mere announcement was not taken seriously by his hearers. They refused to give up their false gods, and they scoffed at the idea of a Judgment. He found it necessary to argue with them and to instruct them. His argument was simply a more extended description of the character of God, with an appeal to his power as shown in nature. An example is the following (xiii. 10, ff.):—

  • “God is the Knower of the secret and of the manifest, the Great, the Exalted. It is the same to him whether one speak in secret or speak openly; whether one conceal himself in the night or go abroad in the day. Each man has companions before and behind, who watch him by the command of God…. He it is who shows you the lightning, an object of fear and yet of desire, and who brings up the heavy-laden clouds. The thunder chants his praise; the angels also, moved by fear of him. He sends the thunderbolts and strikes whom he will. Yet men dispute concerning God, though he is mighty in power. To him sincere prayer is to be made, and those who pray to another than to him shall receive no answer, more than one who stretches out his hand to the water to bring it to his mouth, when he is not within reach of it. The prayer of the unbelievers is only a going astray. Yet to God whatever is in heaven or on earth bows down willingly or unwillingly—even the shadows morning and evening.”
  • In this same connection we find the argument from nature—where God is described as sending down the rain which fills the streams; and in general we may say that the power and goodness of God in creation and providence are a favorite theme.

    For the historical material which he uses in this period, Mohammed depends mainly on the Bible. He does not refuse stories from other sources, as Arabic tradition. Whatever he uses he molds to his own purpose so palpably that we do not need to read between the lines. He has a scheme of history, according to which every epoch has had a prophet to preach the unity of God. The prophet has made a few converts, but the mass of his people have been unbelieving. The result has been a judgment of God upon the people, in which all perish except the prophet and his followers. Noah and Moses are favorite characters, because they can be fitted so easily into this scheme. They are therefore brought into prominence a number of times. So is Abraham, because he was the first of the true believers. The destruction of Sodom and of the Arab tribes (of which tradition tells) readily enforces the same lesson. Whatever the narrative may be, we hear the voice of Mohammed warning and rebuking—whether the ostensible person be Noah or Abraham or Moses. There is nowhere any interest in history for its own sake. The only exception is the story of Joseph, where it almost seems as if the beauty of the Biblical narrative had made the Prophet forget his main purpose.

    It is impossible to quote here from this material. From the literary point of view it has little interest, both because of the prominence of the purpose and because of its repetitions. Not only are the same stories repeated,—they are interlarded with stereotyped phrases which cover the author’s barrenness of thought, or relieve his embarrassment in the matter of rhyme.

    3. With the emigration to Medina, Mohammed’s circumstances were entirely changed. He had been the proscribed preacher of a persecuted sect. He now became the civil ruler as well as the religious leader of a devoted band of followers. The state of the community was such that this soon made him an autocrat over a growing State. His thought was necessarily turned to matters of public policy. He knew no distinction between State and church. The Koran embodied the decrees of the civil ruler as well as the oracles of the revealer of truth. Hence the third period shows a predominance of legislative matter. The division of the booty, the treatment of captives and renegades, the penalties for wrongs inflicted by the believers on each other, measures to be taken for the common defense—all these receive attention. The lesson of the victory at Bedr is set forth for the encouragement of believers, and the mortification of the defeat at Ohod is made to teach the danger of disobedience. Even the personal affairs of the Prophet are treated in the Koran, and God is made to rebuke the Bedawin for rude conduct, to scold Mohammed’s wives for their quarrels, to exculpate Ayesha when assailed by slander, and to give the Prophet a dispensation from the law imposed on other Moslems. All this is of great interest for the historian and for the student of comparative law; but it has no place in literature.

    The Arabs affirm that the style of the Koran is perfection itself. Mohammed himself challenged men and demons to produce anything like it. As an article of faith, this cannot be shaken by criticism. And it must be admitted that from its position as the Book of God, the Koran has been a model for Arabic authors. In this respect its importance is parallel to that of Luther’s Bible, or to that of the Authorized English Version. It fixed a standard, and is therefore a classic.

    The foreigner may hesitate to contradict the consensus of Arabic opinion; but he can hardly fail to see that, judged by the best models of the world’s literature, the Koran has many shortcomings. The compositions are without plan. There is rarely an ordered sequence of thought. The author often labors to express what he has to say. Stock phrases are used to relieve the lack of fluency. Monotonous repetitions of the same story testify to lack of invention. There are passages of great beauty and force, but they make up only a small part of the whole. Mohammed was not a master of style.

    The translation of Sale, which has been published in numerous editions, gives the English reader a fair idea of the book. Rodwell arranges the Suras in chronological order. The version of Palmer, used here, is on the whole the best we have in English, though it occasionally shows marks of haste. The reader may be referred also to the articles in the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ (‘Mahomet’ and ‘Mahommedan Religion’), and the titles ‘Muhammed’ and ‘Qur’an’ in Hughes’s ‘Dictionary of Islam.’