Charles Cutler Torrey
Allah and Islam
THE LESSONS WHICH MUHAMMAD LEARNED, in one way or another, from the Israelites of Mecca gave him a new horizon. The idea of the Prophet and his mission and authority, and the picture of the chosen people holding the religious leadership of the nations of the earth, illustrated in the written records of the past from the very beginning, meant more to the Meccan tradesman than any other of his acquisitions. He not only gained a new conception of human history, but began to see that it is all religious history, directed in its successive periods by Allah and his prophets. The choice of the Arabs was one link in a continuous chain, and the revelation given to them through their Prophet was the last stage in a process which began with Adam. Moreover, the thought of “Islam” (whenever this took shape in Muhammad’s mind) must take in not only the Arabs, but also the other peoples of the earth. Allah had not simply transferred his interest from the children of Israel (i. e., the Jews and Christians) to the children of Ishmael; he was the “Lord of the Worlds,” holding all races in his hand. The preferred people has a certain responsibility for its fellows. The Hebrew scriptures took account of foreign nations, and assigned them to their places with authority; the prophets were much concerned with them; Jonah was sent to Nineveh to convert its population. The great table in the tenth chapter of Genesis (of which Muhammad certainly had some knowledge) classified the races of the earth according to their genealogy.
Originally published as the third and fourth lecture in The Jewish Foundation of lslam (New York: Jewish Institute of Religion Press, Bloch Publishing Co., 1933), pp. 62-126.
All this was food for the Arabian Prophet’s thought, but not material for his use. He had neither the knowledge of the outside world nor the interest in it which would lead him to make his Koran range abroad. The idea of a sketch of religious history, connected or disconnected, could hardly have occurred to him, nor would any such undertaking have served his purpose. His concern was with the Arabs, with the Israelites whose inheritance they had received, and especially with the Hebrew prophets as his own predecessors. The one and only place in which the Koran ventures outside Arabia, either in connection with events of its own day, or in prophecy of the future, is the remarkable passage at the beginning of the thirtieth sura, where the Prophet takes momentary notice of a contemporary event in Syria, a military incident in the Greco-Persian war about which some information had reached Mecca: “The Greeks are beaten, in a near part of the land; but after their defeat they themselves shall conquer, in a few years.” This singular prediction is probably not a vaticinium ex eventu (though the Greeks did ultimately conquer), but the expression of the Prophet’s conviction that the “people of the Book” were bound to triumph over the unbelievers.
The “history” contained in the Koran consists mainly of bits of narration taken from the Old Testament and the Jewish Midrash. This fragmentary material, usually scattered along in the most casual way, occupies a large portion of the growing volume, especially the part produced in the middle years of the Prophet’s public career. The earliest suras, prevailingly brief, consist chiefly of impassioned exhortation. Muhammad is here the preacher, proclaiming, warning, and promising. In the last years of his life, at Medina, he is so occupied with legislation and other practical matters as to leave little room for storytelling, even if that which he regarded as essential had not already been provided. It is during the latter years of his Meccan ministry, especially, that he gives a large amount of space to the “old stories” (as his skeptical countrymen impolitely termed them). He himself was highly interested in the tales of the ancients, the wonders which Allah wrought among them, the deeds and experiences of their famous men, from Adam and his family down to the seven sleepers of Ephesus and the martyrs of Nejran. The Arabs must now be told all this, and learn it as the preliminary stage of their own religious history. Moreover, the stories would help him to gain a hearing. Thus he says at the beginning of the twelfth sura, dealing with Joseph and his fortunes, “We now narrate to you a most beautiful tale.”1 And in fact, these little anecdotes of prophets and heroes undoubtedly led many to listen who otherwise would have paid no attention to the new teacher.
Muhammad was both sincere and wise in his effort to give the new religion of the Arabs its secure foundation in the past, and to claim its affiliation with the great religions which had preceded. And he had in mind, in his constant reference to biblical personages and incidents, not merely the instruction and inspiration of his countrymen, but also the effect on another audience. The ideas which had awakened him and changed his whole view of life were not his own discovery, but were the fruits of his intercourse with the Jews of Mecca, possibly (though not probably) also with Christians, either at home or abroad. These counselors should hear the revelation now given by Allah to his Arabian Prophet. In Muhammad’s thought, Islam was not at all a new religion, but merely a continuation. The Koran, he declares many times over, “confirms” the scriptures already existing. Jews and Christians (he hardly distinguished between them at first) would be glad to hear more about Moses and Solomon and Jesus. He felt that he was giving them support, and expected them to support him in return.
There was another consideration which weighed heavily. The history of the past, from beginning to end, was the story of his own predecessors. He was filled with the thought of those favored men who stood so near to the One God, and by him had been commissioned to teach their people. They were “prophets” (nebiyim, anbiya’) one and all, and the fact ever foremost in his mind was the way in which their message had been received, or rather rejected, by the most of their contemporaries. His own experience, as soon as he had fairly begun preaching to the people of Mecca, showed him very clearly what opposition a prophet is likely to encounter. The new teaching is not received with gratitude and awe; it is laughed at. Thus Noah was ridiculed by his people, until they were drowned in the flood. So the men of Sodom and Gomorrah jeered at Lot, until the fire came down from heaven. The Israelites of the exodus from Egypt would not submit to the authority of Moses but rebelled against him; and for their obduracy they perished in the desert. In general, the Hebrew prophets were very badly treated; so Muhammad’s informants told him. It is easy to see why the Koran abounds in passages dealing with the heroes and patriarchs of the Old Testament. There are lessons here “for those who have intelligence,” the Meccan Prophet keeps reiterating. The truth prevailed, in spite of opposition; the unbelievers roasted in Gehennama; and—most important of all—the religion proclaimed by these ancient mouthpieces of God is precisely the one which is now announced, in its final and most perfect form, to the people of Arabia.
There were also lessons from Arabian history. Muhammad and his fellow-countrymen had seen the ruins of vanished cities, and had heard of many others. There were traditions of the sail al-‘arim (34:15),b the bursting of the great dam at Ma’rib in Yemen, and the destruction of the city by the resulting flood. This was a judgment from heaven. Far more striking were the signs of vanished splendor, of a high civilization now utterly obliterated, in the regions north of the Hijaz. The tribes of Ad and Thamud, and the cities of Midian had perished, leaving behind only a few very impressive traces. Why were these prosperous peoples wiped out of existence? Muhammad’s imagination gave the answer. Each one of them had its prophet, who preached Islam. They would not hear, and therefore God destroyed them. But the Koranic narratives dealing with these events were, after all, of secondary importance. Islam was for the world, and the emphasis must be laid on persons and events which were known and acknowledged the world over. The three rejected prophets of the northern desert and Sinai were indeed important in Muhammad’s scheme of religious history, but they were small links in a great chain. When the merchants of Quraish traveled into Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Abyssinia, they would meet no one who had ever heard of Hud, or Salih, or Shu’aib; but in every city where they halted they would find multitudes to whom the names of Noah, Abraham, Joseph, David, Elijah, and “Jesus the son of Mary” were perfectly familiar.
A very striking feature of the Koranic scraps of Israelite history is the rabbinic element—gleanings from Talmud and Midrash—so frequently in evidence. This has always been the subject of comment and conjecture. Thus H. P. Smith, The Bible and Islam, p. 77, says of Muhammad’s story of Moses, “From Jewish tradition he asserts: that Moses refused all Egyptian nurses; that the people at Mount Sinai demanded to see God, and on seeing him fell dead, but were revived by divine power; and that they refused to accept the covenant until the mountain was lifted up bodily and held over them (28:11; 2:53, 60; 7:170). The information that the golden calf, through the magic of its maker, bellowed, is found in rabbinical sources.” Geiger, Was hat Muhammad... aufgenommen?, pp. 154—172 [see chapter 11 of this volume], had discussed these and other similar features of the story. The remark is made in Nöldeke-Schwally, p. 8, that the source of Muhammad’s knowledge of biblical characters and events was less the Bible than the extra-canonical literature. This, I think, states the matter not quite correctly, for even in the stories where Muhammad makes largest use of the Haggada there is frequent evidence that he knew also the canonical account. Wellhausen, Reste (1st ed.), p. 205, in his argument for the Christian origin of Islam, handles this Jewish Haggada in a very gingerly manner. ”Es ist wahrscheinlich, dass Muhammed denselben durch jüdische Vermittlung zugeführt bekommen hat, wenngleich man dessen eingedenk bleiben muss, dass derselbe Segenstoff auch bei den orientalischen Christen im Umlauf war, und dass die Haggada ihre Quelle grossenteils in apokryphen Schriften hatte, die wenn sie auch jüdischen Ursprungs waren doch seit dem zweiten Jahrhundert immer ausschliesslicher in christlichen Besitz übergingen.“c I confess myself unable to see light in this argument, nor do I know any sound reason for doubting that Muhammad received his Haggada directly from Jews. Wellhausen felt this to be a weak point; for he at once proceeds to draw a line between the religious material of the Koran and the stories, which he would have us believe to be merely the fruit of the prophet’s intellectual curiosity. It therefore, he declares, is a matter of very little importance, whence Muhammad obtained the legends; and the fact that some “chance” brought him into contact with a man who was acquainted with Jewish lore is not really significant. To this, an advocate of the contrary view would reply, that the legends are the Vorgeschichte of Islam; the account of Allah’s dealing with men in the past, from which may be learned something in regard to his dealing in the present; the indispensable fabric of the doctrine of “the prophet of Allah.” And if it was by mere “chance” that Muhammad was given Israelite instruction, it was a chance that lasted many years, and gave the Koran the most, and the best, of its material.
Muhammad’s heroes of the past are almost all designated by him as “prophets”; they received the truth from Allah, and taught it to their children and their contemporaries. Adam was a prophet (20:120; 3:30); so were Ishmael, and David, and Job. In all, twenty-five are named; among them are the three Arabian prophets, Hud, Sa lih, and Shu’aib, and the three from the Gospel: Zachariah, John the Baptist, and Jesus. All the rest are from the Old Testament. A list of eighteen, containing only biblical names, is given in sura 6:83-6. In 33:7 there is an instructive list of the most important of the prophets, those with whom Allah made a special covenant. The names are these: Muhammad, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. (The fact that Muhammad is named first is due merely to the literary form of the passage.) It is very noticeable that the Koran knows nothing of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, nor has knowledge of any of the minor prophets with the exception of Jonah. This certainly does not mean that the books of these prophets were wanting at Mecca, but simply, that they were utterly beyond Muhammad’s comprehension and outside his interests. His instructors knew better than to try to introduce him to these abstruse writings. Jonah, the little storybook, was in a class by itself. We might indeed have expected to find some mention of Daniel; but he also, it seems, did not enter Muhammad’s horizon.
It must always be borne in mind that we cannot tell with certainty, from the Koran, what portions of the Old Testament the Prophet had heard. He makes use only of what is important for his purpose, as we learn from an occasional allusion to persons or events not otherwise treated. As a matter of fact, he shows some acquaintance with each of the five books of the Torah, and with the “historical books” from Joshua to 2 Kings. The book of Joshua, indeed, is represented only in the person of the prophet Dhu ‘l-Kifl, who will receive notice presently; while a bit of the book of Judges, taken from the story of Gideon, has strayed into the narrative of “Saul and Goliath” (see the fourth lecture [next section]). Barely mentioned, for instance, are Azar, named in 6:74 as the father (!) of Abraham (evidently el-Azar, derived from the Eliezer of Gen. 15:2); ‘Imran (Amram), named as the father of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (identified with the Virgin Mary); Samuel, introduced without name as the prophet who anointed Saul as king; Elijah and Elisha. Also the wives of Noah, Lot, and Pharaoh, of whom the first two are assigned to everlasting fire. The influence of the Jewish Haggada constantly appears. Rabbinical sources for the Koranic narratives of Cain, Noah, Lot, and Aaron have been pointed out by Geiger, and others are soon to he mentioned. For a few interesting bits of legend which sound like Jewish lore—the incident of the breakers of the Sabbath, who were changed to apes (2:61; 4:50; 5:65; 7:166); David’s invention of coats of mail (21:80); and how Job produced a spring of cool water by stamping on the ground, and thereafter was permitted to fulfill his hasty oath by beating his wife with a bundle of leaves instead of with a rod (38:41—43)—no Haggadic source is known.
Muhammad did his best with Arabian religious history, though he had little at hand that he could use. He thought of Hud, the prophet of the people ‘Ad, Salih, the prophet of Thamud, and perhaps especially Shu’aib, the prophet of Midian, as preachers sent to peoples very closely related to the Arabs; and he introduces them frequently, sometimes in passages of considerable length, in the suras of the Meccan period. The incident of the elephant brought to the neighborhood of Mecca by the army of Abraha, the Abyssinian viceroy of Yemen, at about the middle of the sixth century, is made the subject of the very early sura 105, as an example of the might of Allah, who “brought their cunning plans to nought.” In another sura of about the same time there is mention of “the men of the ditch, of the blazing fire; when they sat above it, witnessing what they were doing to the believers” (85:4—7). I have no doubt, in spite of the arguments of Geiger (p. 189) and Horovitz (pp. 92 f.), that this refers to the persecution of the Christians of Nejran by the Yemenite Jewish ruler Dhu Nuwas, shortly before the time of the viceroy Abraha.2 It seems quite plain that the Koran is dealing here with a historical event, and persecution for religious faith is clearly stated in vs. 8. Muhammad treats the story as something well known in Mecca.
There is another feature of Arabian history, seemingly remote from Israelite influence, which occupied Muhammad’s attention. There were certain ancient practices, religious and social, which were deeply imbedded in the life of the people; the property not merely of the Hijaz, but of the Arabian peninsula. The customs and ceremonies connected with the Ka‘ba at Mecca had much to do with the commercial and friendly intercourse of the tribes, and the “house” itself was venerated far and wide. We may be sure that Muhammad intended, from the first, to preserve every time-honored element of the native “paganism” which did not involve idolatry. Neither the people of Mecca and Yathrib and Ta’if, nor the Bedouin tribesmen, would have been willing to abandon their ancestral rites and practices for no obviously compelling reason; and Muhammad would have been the last man to wish them to do so. It was imperative for his scheme of things to plant the new religion as deeply in the soil of Arabia as in that of the Hebrew and Christian revelations. This he could do by the help of the patriarch Ishmael, as will appear.
It is not necessary to review here the long list of personages of ancient history whose names and deeds play so important a part in the Koran. A considerable part of the Hebrew history and haggadic legend thus reproduced will be touched upon in the course of the next lecture, dealing with the Koranic narratives. At that time (if Allah wills) a goodly number of biblical characters (including Alexander the Great) will be introduced in their Arabian dress; so that sooner or later all the members of the “long list” shall have received mention, at least by name. Some of this Jewish-Muslim material has been well treated by Geiger, other writers have occupied themselves chiefly or wholly with the post-Muhammadan legends, as for example Weil’s Biblische Legenden der Muselmänner, 1845 (also translated into English), and the important essays by Max Grünbaum and Israel Schapiro. The proper names in the Koran have been admirably treated by Josef Horovitz in his article, “Jewish Proper Names and Derivatives in the Koran,” in the Hebrew Union College Annual, II (1925), 145—184, and again in the second part of his Korani.rche Untersuchungen (1926).
The present lecture will pay special attention to two subjects which are of prime importance for our understanding of the foundations of Islam: the source of Muhammad’s ideas regarding Jesus and the Christian religion, and the place occupied by Abraham and Ishmael in his conception of the revelation to the Arabs. Before dealing with these three “prophets,” however, I shall notice very briefly a few others, for whom the mere mention by name seems, for one reason or another, hardly sufficient.
It is perhaps needless to say, that the Hebrew chronology of the Koran is not one of its strong points. Muhammad had some idea of the long time that must have elapsed since Moses; though he certainly knew nothing of the complete line of descent which the Muslim genealogists carried back from his family, and from the Arab tribes generally, to Adam and Eve. He knew, as early (at least) as the thirty-seventh sura, something of the succession of Hebrew heroes, and was aware that the prophet-kings, Saul, David, and Solomon, were subsequent to the patriarchs; however hazy his ideas were as to the order of the other prophets and the time at which they lived. He had fantastic notions (as others have had) in regard to Ezra, and evidently had no idea where to locate him. Elijah and Elisha, Job, Jonah, and “Idris,” are left by him floating about, with no secure resting place. He had heard nothing whatever as to the genealogy of Jesus (the claimed descent from David), nor of his contemporaries (excepting the family of John the Baptist), nor of any Christian history. He associated Moses with Jesus, evidently believing that very soon after the revelation to the Hebrew law-giver there had followed the similar revelation which had produced the Christians and their sacred book. This appears in his identification of Mary the mother of Jesus with Miriam the sister of Moses and Aaron, plainly stated in more than one place. In all this there is nothing surprising, when it is remembered how the Prophet received his information.
A Few “Minor” Prophets. The incident in the life of Adam which is oftenest dwelt upon in the Koran is the refusal of the devil (Iblis, Shaitan) to obey the divine command to the angels to fall down before this newly created being. The account is best given in 38:73-77, and appears only less fully in six other passages. Geiger, p. 98, doubts whether this can have come to Muhammad through Jewish tradition, on the ground that the command to worship any other than God would have seemed to any Israelite inconceivable. Grünbaum, Neue Beiträge zur semitischen Sagenkunde, pp. 60 f., follows Geiger. The Koran does not speak of worshipping, however, but merely of approaching a personage of high rank in a truly oriental way. See, for example, the use of the verb in the last verse of ‘Amr ibn Kulthm’s mu’allaqa (Arnold’s Septem Mo’allakat, p. 144), where the action is one of purely human homage. The passages which Geiger cites, Sanhedrin 59 b (not “29”) and Midr. Rabba 8, are a sufficient parallel to the Koran. See also the “Life of Adam and Eve” (Charles, Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha), chaps. 12-17. As for Iblis and ash-Shaitan, the former name seems to have come down into Arabia from the north, while the latter is evidently a fruit of the long contact with the Abyssinians; both names were doubtless current among the Jews of the Hijaz before Muhammad’s time. The identification of the serpent with Satan would seem to be implied in the passage Ber. Rabba 17, which Geiger quotes. See also Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, V, p. 84.
The prophet Shu‘aib, who was sent to the Midianites, is generally recognized as identical with the biblical Jethro. The name was hardly invented by Muhammad; it is far more likely that it was brought into use by the Arabian Jews. Its origin is obscure, but it is natural to suppose that there was some etymological reflection behind it. These Midianites, from whom Moses took his wife (the daughter of a priest), were in their origin very closely related to the Hebrews, though their main body became a persistent and dangerous enemy. Might the name Shu’aib, “little tribe,” have been the result of thinking of Jitro Jethro] (“rest of it”) as representing the faithful “remainder” of a larger Hebrew tribe?
The prophet Dhu ‘l-Kifl presents another problem. I think that here again the solution is to be found in the long association of the Arabs with the Abyssinians, in the traffic on the Red Sea. The word kefl appears frequently in the Ethiopic version of Joshua in speaking of the “division” of the territory among the Hebrew tribes, which is the central feature of that book. I believe that Joshua is “Dhu ’l-Kifl,” that is, the one who effected the division. It is very noticeable that he does not receive mention in the Koran, unless under this name.
‘Uzair (“little Ezra”) is made by Muhammad the subject of a very singular accusation aimed at the Jews. In one of the latest suras, and in a context dealing harshly with all those who are not Muslims, occurs this passage (9:30): “The Jews say, Ezra (‘Uzair) is the son of God, and the Christians say, al-Mesiah is the son of God.” (This might make Ezra turn in his grave—if he had one.) Muhammad here seems to be trying to believe what some enemy of the Jews had told him. He is bound to claim pure monotheism for the Muslims alone in his day. The use of the unpleasant diminutive, “little Ezra,” is probably his own invention. The name occurs nowhere else; and this great figure in Jewish legend has no other mention in the Koran, unless under the name which here follows.
If I am not mistaken, Ezra has his double in the Koran, in the person of the prophet Idris (19:57 f., 21:85), of whom we are told only this, that he was given a high place of honor. The name has generally been derived from Eσδρας; and indeed, it could hardly be anything else. Various other suggestions have been made, from Nöldeke’s “Andreas” (Zeitschrift für Assyriologie, vol. 17, 83 ff.) to Toy’s “Theodore of Mopsuestia.” But any Andreas seems utterly remote from Muhammad’s horizon. On the other hand, it would be very easy for the Greek name of the famous Ezra to make its way down into Arabia, there ultimately to be picked up by the Arabian Prophet. The latter could of course not be expected to know, or to find out, that it was only another name for his ‘Uzair.
‘Isa ibn Maryam. The treatment which Jesus and his work receive in the Koran is of especial importance in the attempt to determine the principal sources of Muhammadanism. It is a patent fact that the prophet knew next to nothing about Jesus; also, that there are no distinctly and peculiarly Christian doctrines in the sacred book. All those who have studied the matter know and declare that the great bulk of the Koranic material is of Jewish origin; and we have certain knowledge that Muhammad resorted habitually to learned Jewish teachers. Have we any good reason for supposing that he also received personal instruction from a Christian? I believe that it will eventually be recognized that whatever knowledge (or pseudoknowledge) he possessed in regard to the person and life of Jesus was derived from two sources: first, the facts and fancies which were common property in the Hijaz and elsewhere in Arabia; and second, a small amount of information supplied to him by his Israelite mentors.
The form of the name is remarkable, in comparison with Yeshu’. The Christian Arabs of northern Arabia had the form Yasu’,3 which is just what would be expected; “‘Isa” makes its first appearance in the Koran. It has been explained by Nöldeke and others as a Jewish pleasantry of which Muhammad was the innocent victim, the name of Esau, the typical enemy, being in fact substituted for that of Jesus.4 There is indeed complete formal identity, and the symbolic transfer is certainly characteristic. The Meccan Israelite who might be supposed to have had this happy thought can of course have had no idea that the substituted name would go beyond Muhammad ibn ‘Abdallah and his few adherents. There is another explanation, which in recent years has frequently been adopted. The pronunciation of the name in Nestorian Syriac is Isho’. It is surmised that when this pronunciation came (in some way) to Muhammad’s ear, he altered it by transposing the guttural and changing the final vowel, in order (for some reason) to give it assonance with the name Musa (Moses).5 This theory, while neither simple nor free from difficulties, is not quite impossible, and the student may take his choice.
If the hypothesis of the Syriac origin of the name is entertained, it certainly is permissible to give it connection with that one of Muhammad’s habitual instructors (the only one concerning whom we have any definite information) who seems to have come to Mecca from the Persian or Babylonian domain. This man has been mentioned several times in the preceding lectures. His language was ‘ajami. He was certainly a learned man, probably a Jew, certainly not a Christian (see below). The passage in which he is mentioned (16:105) is late Meccan, and it is evident that Muhammad had for some time been under his instruction. A number of Koranic properties which seem to have come from Mesopotamia make their appearance at about this time. Such are the Babylonian angels Harut and Marut, the pair Yajuj and Majuj (both pairs already noticed), the mention of the Sabians, and the collection of Mesopotamian-Jewish legends utilized in the eighteenth sura; see especially the fourth lecture. It is at least very noticeable that the first mention of ‘Isa in the Koran, in the nineteenth sura, dates from this same period.
Rudolph, p. 64, remarks on the strange circumstance that the earliest occurrence of the name of Jesus in the Koran comes so late. It is indeed significant! In general, it is not safe to conclude that the Prophet’s first knowledge of a biblical personage or conception of an idea may be dated from the Koran, and chronological tables assigning such matters to successive periods are likely to be of slight value. But if, as Rudolph supposes, Muhammad had received his earliest and most important religious enlightenment from Christians, it is nothing short of amazing that his only allusion to anything specifically Christian, prior to the second Meccan period, should be an incidental rebuke of the worship of two gods. He had of course from the first some knowledge of the Christian sect (as he would have termed it), and may have heard the name of its founder. In one of his early suras (112) he attacks the worship of “Allah’s son,” but the doctrine was too remote to give him any real concern, and he exhibits no further interest in it until the later period when he began to hear more about this “prophet” and his history. And even in the suras of the Medina period it is evident that the Christians, with their founder and their beliefs, were only on the outer edge of his horizon, not at all important for the basal doctrines of Islam, and chiefly useful in the polemic against the Jews.
Wellhausen, in his too hasty contention that the Arabian Prophet received his first and chief impulse from Christianity, made the strange claim that Muhammad assigned to Jesus the supreme place in the religious history of the past. “Jüdische Gesinnung verrät es nicht, dass Jesus im Quran hoch über alle Propheten des Alten Testamentes gestellt wird”d (Reste, 1887, p. 205). This assertion evidently rests on a slip of the memory, or on forced interpretation, for there is in the Koran nothing that could substantiate it. On the contrary, in 2:130, a passage belonging to the Medina period, where the prophets, Jesus among them, are enumerated by name or collectively, the words are added: “We make no distinction among them.” That is, in rank; certain prophets, or groups of prophets, were endowed with special gifts or distinctions not shared by their fellows (2:254). Abraham was given Islam (2:126; 22:77); Moses was given The Book (2:81); David was given the Psalms (4:161); Jesus was given the wondrous signs (bayyinat) and “the Spirit” (2:81, 254). The five prophets with whom Allah made a special covenant—Jesus among them—have already been named (sura 33:7). Nowhere in the Koran is there any trace of a wish to give ‘Isa ibn Maryam especially high rank among the prophets; he simply had his very honorable place (chronologically somewhat vague!) in the long line. Later, in the early caliphate, when Muslims and Christians were closely associated, especially in Syria and Egypt, Jesus was indeed placed “high above the prophets of the Old Testament,” and the attempt was made to interpret the Koran accordingly, as anyone may learn by reading the native commentators.
Muhammad did his best to specify the particular distinctions which Jesus had been given, as a prophet; and he had cogent reason for so doing, quite aside from any polemic against the Jews. The fact of a great Christian world outside was perfectly familiar in all the cities of Arabia. The purpose of the newly arisen Arabian Prophet was, from the first, to gain the support of the Jews and the Christians, by no means to make them his enemies. His program was obviously and necessarily this, to declare that these faiths, in their beginnings and as promulgated by their founders and divinely appointed representatives, were identical with his own teaching. Only in their later development had they strayed from the right path. The time had come for a new prophet to call these peoples back to the true religion. This could only be done by exalting their teachers and claiming to build on their foundation. Many since Muhammad’s time have conceived the same plan, though lacking his energy and his unique opportunity. During the first years of his public teaching, however, as has already been said and many scholars have remarked, he seems to have known so little about the Christians that he could simply class them as Israelites who had gone their own peculiar way.
It was with Abyssinia especially that the Meccans associated the Christian faith. Arabs and Abyssinians were, and from ancient time had been, partners in the Red Sea traffic; and, as we have seen, scraps of Abyssinian speech and religious terminology had made their way all over the peninsula. It was very well known that the Christians worshiped al-Masih. This name is attested in Arabia before Muhammad’s time, all the way from Nejran in the south to Ghassan in the north (Horovitz, pp. 129 f.); and he eventually employs it frequently in the Koran. Accompanying this term was another, ar-Ruh, “the Spirit,” associated in some way with the worship of Jesus and regularly mentioned along with him. Muhammad was utterly bewildered by the term (and so, of course, were the Arabs generally, in so far as it was known to them), and he plays with it in the Koran in several very different ways. Stories of the miracles of Jesus, including the raising of the dead, we should suppose to have been what the Arabs heard first and oftenest from their Abyssinian associates, and indeed from all other Christians with whom they came in contact. The fact that the Koran has no mention of these “bayyinat” until the second Meccan period is merely another indication of the comparative remoteness of the Christians and their doctrines from the prophet’s earlier thinking. When at length they became somewhat more real to him, he picked up the few Christian terms that were lying ready to hand, and used them over and over, with only the vaguest ideas as to their meaning. (Even Rudolph, p. 65, reaches a similar conclusion: “Bei den dürftigen Kenntnissen, die er speziell von Jesus hat, bekommt man den Eindruck, dass er sich seine Anschauung aus Einzelheiten, die er da und dort erfuhr, selbst zusammengemacht hat.”)e
As to the time when the prophet began to feel more directly concerned with the claims of the Christians, it is a plausible conjecture that it coincided with the so-called “Abyssinian migration” which took place about five years after the beginning of his public activity. Ahrens, p. 150, thinks that this shows that Muhammad felt himself in closer sympathy with Christianity than with Judaism: “Hätte er sich dem Judentume näher verwandt gefühlt, so lag fur ihn der Anschluss an die Juden von Jathrib oder Khaibar näher.”f On the contrary, the reason for Muhammad’s choice is obvious; namely, that while still in Mecca he had been shown very clearly that the Jews were much more likely to be his enemies than his friends. The time had come when he and his followers needed to see what support could be had from the Christians; but it is hardly likely that the envoys—or fugitives—went with high hopes. While the Muslim accounts are utterly incredible in the most of their details, the main fact seems well established, namely, that a company of Muhammad’s adherents took temporary refuge in Abyssinia; partly in protest against the treatment which they had received in Mecca, partly also, no doubt, in the hope of receiving some support—at least moral support—from these time-honored allies. It was a most natural proceeding, and it doubtless made an impression in Mecca, though not in Abyssinia. The gain which the Koran made from it seems to have been merely what has just been described, an awakening of interest which led the Prophet to gather up such Christian scraps as he could use. One of the new catchwords was “Injil” (Evangelium), which in Muhammad’s mouth—as Rudolph, p. 80, remarks—meant simply the Christian book of revelation preserved in heaven; he seems to have known nothing about separate gospels or evangelists. He took up the shibboleth of the virgin birth (21:91; 66:12); this also he could concede to the Christians without difficulty, and he maintains it stoutly in opposition to the Jews (4:155). Nevertheless Jesus was a mere man like other men (16:45; 21:7); the Koran says this in different ways, in numerous passages. Whether “the Word” (kalima, λoγoς) as a designation of Jesus, 3:40 and elsewhere, was only another catchword which Muhammad could of himself pick up in Mecca or Medina may be strongly doubted. He had among his teachers in Mecca a man of letters who had read at least some portion of the Gospels and was familiar with the popular legends regarding Jesus which were current in Christian lands; and it was from him, in all probability, that he heard the theological term. This man was a learned Jew, as I think the evidence plainly shows.
It has sometimes been said, e.g. recently by Rudolph, pp. 65 f., and Ahrens, p. 153, that a Jewish teacher, if he could have consented to say anything to Muhammad about Jesus, must have ridiculed and vilified him. “Hätte jüdischer Einfluss auf Muhammad bestimmend eingewirkt, so hätte er entweder über Jesus schweigen oder ihn beschimpfen müssen. Palästinische Rabbinen, die in völlig christianisierten Städten wohnten, brachten es fertig, über Jesus völlig zu schweigen—das Schweigen des Hasses und der schimpflichen Nichtachtung; und der Talmud redet in den dürftigen Stellen, an den er auf Jesus zu sprechen kommt, nur mit beschimpfenden Worten von ihm.”g This, I think, hardly deals fairly with the Jews, nor sees clearly what sort of teaching was natural—one might even say necessary—under the circumstances now before us. The customary Schweigen [“silence”] in Jewish works written in Christian cities was a matter of course, and the attitude of the Talmud is also perfectly defensible. On the other hand, there was never lack of Jews, all through the Middle Ages, who spoke appreciatingly of Jesus, while rejecting the Christian dogmas. In the present case, whatever the teacher’s preference may have been, Muhammad’s own intention must have been the deciding factor. He knew the Jews to be a minority, and on the other hand was profoundly conscious of the religion of the Abyssinians and of the great Christian empire whose center was at Byzantium.6 He was bound to make Christian allies, not enemies. Any vilification of Jesus would have led him to reject his teacher as untrustworthy. The latter of course knew this, and took care to keep the teaching in his own hands. There was certainly reason to fear what a Christian would teach in regard to the Jews. Now that the time had come for Muhammad to ask, from one who evidently knew: “What does the ‘Book’ of the Christians tell about ‘Isa ibn Maryam?” the answer was given in good faith, as far as it went. That which Muhammad already knew was confirmed and supplemented, and numerous interesting details, chiefly from folklore, were added. The informant was certainly acquainted with the Gospels, but no particle of gospel information concerning the grown man Jesus, or his reported lineage, or his activities (excepting that, as Muhammad must already have heard, he performed miracles), or his teaching, or his followers, was given forth. The doctrine of the virgin birth, the most prominent of all the Christian shibboleths at that time, could be acquiesced in—it cost nothing; and it could not possibly have been combated!
What, according to the Koran, was the mission of Jesus? Numerous passages give the same vague answer: He was sent to confirm the Israelites in the true doctrine, in the teachings of the Torah (3:43 f.; 5:50; 43:63 f.; 57:27; 61:6), to insist on the worship of only one God (5:76), to warn against straying from the faith of Abraham and Moses and forming new sects (42:11)! It is very difficult to believe that any one of the verses here cited could have been written by Muhammad if he had ever talked with a Christian, orthodox or heretical; but they contain exactly what he would have acquired from the teaching which I am supposing. He knew that the followers of Jesus had ultimately chosen to form a separate sect, and that Jews and Christians were in controversy, each party declaring the other to be mistaken (2:107); but why the new sect had been formed, he did not at all know. He says in 3:44 that Jesus “made lawful” some things which had been prohibited. This may have been given him by his teacher, or it may be the reflection of his own doctrine (useful for his legislation), that some foods were forbidden the Israelites in punishment for their sins; see 4:158 and 3:87.
The passage 19:1-15 is of great importance as evidence of the source of Muhammad’s information in regard to the prophet ‘Isa. Here is an extended literary connection with the Christian scriptures, the one and only excerpt from the New Testament, namely an abridgment of Luke 1:5-25, 57-66. This was discussed in the second lecture, and the details need not be repeated here. The account of the aged and upright Hebrew priest and the birth of his son in answer to prayer, reading like a bit of Old Testament history, would appeal to any Israelite of literary tastes as interesting—and harmless. But as soon as the account of the birth of Jesus is reached, the gospel narrative is dropped as though it were redhot, and Muhammad is left to flounder on alone, knowing only the bare fact that John was the kinsman and forerunner of Jesus, and the dogma of the virgin birth; things which his people had long ago learned, especially from the Abyssinians. It seems possible to draw two conclusions with certainty: first, Muhammad was told the story of Zachariah and John by a learned man; and second, the man was by no means a Christian.
Horovitz, p. 129, declares that he can see no Jewish influence in the Koranic utterances regarding Jesus. It may, however, be possible to recognize such influence from what is withheld, as well as from what is said. The instructor, in this case, certainly knew what was told about Jesus in the four gospels; but not a word of it came to the ear of Muhammad. On the contrary, the bits of personal and family history of Jesus which appear in the Koran are all derived from fanciful tales which were in popular circulation; tales which a literary rabbi would certainly have known, and which, from his point of view, were perfectly harmless. We at the present day have some knowledge of them from surviving fragments of the “apocryphal gospel” literature. See, in the Koran, 3:32, 39, 43, and 5:110. The nature of the teaching with which Muhammad had been supplied appears most clearly in the suras (especially 3, 4, and 5) revealed at Medina, during the time when the attitude of the Prophet toward the Jews was one of bitter hostility. It is evident that he then tried to make much of Jesus and his history and his importance as a prophet, and to remember all that he could of what he had formerly been told; but what he had at his command was next to nothing. Any arguments or accusations that he could have used against the Jews he would have been certain to employ, and any Christian, lettered or unlettered, would have supplied him with plenty of material; but he had in fact no ammunition beyond what the Jews’ own tradition had given him. In one very late utterance, 5:85, he makes a valiant attempt to put the Christians high above the Jews: the latter are the chief enemies of Islam, the former are its greatest friends. But he very unwisely attempts to tell wherein the excellence of the Christians consists, and can only specify their priests and monks—of whom recently (in 57:27) he had expressed a low opinion!
Muhammad did not know that ‘Isa had met with opposition from his people other than that which his predecessors had endured, and this is most significant. If he had known the fact, he could not have failed to make use of it; but it had not been told him. It was a mere matter of course that ‘Isa’s contemporaries tried to kill him; the Hebrew people had been wont to kill their prophets (2:81, 85), as their own scriptures and popular traditions declared (see the Strack-Billerbeck comment on Matt. 23:35-37). That any special significance had been attached, by the Christians or others, to the death of ‘Isa, or to his ascension, Muhammad never had heard. For the docetic doctrine which he gives forth (4:156), asserting that it was not Jesus who was executed, but another who was miraculously substituted for him, it is quite superfluous to search for a heretical Christian or Manichaean (!) source. The heresy was old, and very widely known, though of course rarely adopted. It precisely suited the purpose of Muhammad’s Jewish instructor.‘Isa, thus escaping the fate intended for him, was taken up to heaven (3:48), as numerous others had been taken. No Christian doctrine was more universally held and built upon than the Second Coming. The Arabian Prophet could easily have fitted it into his scheme of things, if he had known of it; at least to the extent of giving the Christian prophet some such important place in the Day of Judgment as he holds in the later Muslim eschatology; but there is nothing of the sort in the Koran.
The conclusion to be drawn from all this is evident, and certain: Muhammad derived his main impression of the prophet “‘Isa” and his work from Jewish teaching, very shrewdly given.
In support of this conclusion a word may be added in regard to the various indications of Christian influence which some have claimed to find in the Koran, especially in recent years. Nöldeke’s pioneer work, his Geschichte des Qorans (1860), recognized hardly any Christian element. He declared (p. 2): “Gewiss sind die besten Theile des Islams jüdischen Ursprungs”;h and again (p. 5): “Die Hauptquelle der Offenbarungen ... bildeten für Muhammed die Juden.... Viel geringer ist dagegen der Einfluss des Christenthums auf den Qoran.”i On the contrary, in Schwally’s revision of this work we are given the impression of a strong Christian element in Islam at its very beginning. We read (p. 8) that in numerous particulars the influence of Christianity is “beyond any doubt” (ausser allem Zweifel), and the following are specified: the institution of vigils;7 some forms of the prayer-ritual; the use of the “Christian” term furqan “to mean revelation”; the central significance of the conception of the Last Day; and the superiority assigned to Jesus above all the prophets. The conclusion is (ibid.), that “Islam might be regarded as the form in which Christianity made its way into all Arabia.”
The items in the above list are all taken over from Wellhausen, Reste (1887), 205—209, and have been repeated by others, e.g. by Rudolph, p. 63. Each one of these claims is considered elsewhere in the present lectures, and it will suffice to say here that not a single one of them is valid. The conclusion expressed seventy years ago by Muir in his Life of Mahomet, II, 289, is still very near the truth if it is limited to Muhammad and the Koran: “We do not find a single ceremony or doctrine of Islam in the smallest degree moulded, or even tinged, by the peculiar tenets of Christianity.”8
Ibrahim and lsma’il The importance of these two patriarchs in the genesis of Islam has not been duly appreciated. We must first bear in mind the ethnic relationship which gave such encouragement to Muhammad in his wish to consort with the Jews and his attempt to gain their support. The Arabs were Ishmaelites, according to the Hebrew tradition. God said to Abraham (Gen. 17, 20): “As for Ishmael, I have heard thee; behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation.” The twelve princes, subsequently named (25, 13 ff.), represent Arabian tribes or districts; notice especially Kedar, Duma (Dumat al-Jandal), and Teima. The “great nation” is the people of Arabia. Ishmael was circumcised (17, 26), was with his father at the time of his death, and assisted Isaac in burying him (25, 9). The Arabs were rightful heirs of the religion of their father Abraham, though they chose paganism instead.
On this foundation Muhammad built his tales of Abraham and Ishmael at Mecca. In the fourteenth sura, which bears the title “Abraham,” he introduces, in a characteristically casual and obscure manner, his association of Ishmael with the Ka’ba. I say “his association,” but it is quite likely that he himself did not originate the idea. The Arabs cannot possibly have remained ignorant of the fact that the Hebrew scriptures declared Abraham and Ishmael to be their ancestors. It was then most natural that they should have been associated, in popular tradition, with the ancient sanctuary. In verses 38—42 we read:
Remember the time when Abraham said, Lord, make this land9 secure, and restrain me and my children from worshipping idols. Lord, they have led astray many men; whoever then follows me, is mine; and if any disobey me—thou art forgiving and merciful. [Here he refers to the children of Ishmael, the unbelieving Arabs.] O our Lord, I have caused some of my offspring to settle in an unfruitful valley, at the site of thy holy house; thus, Lord, in order that they may offer prayer. Grant therefore that the hearts of some men may be inclined toward them; and provide them with the fruits of the earth, that they perchance may be grateful.... Praise to God, who gave me, even in old age, Ishmael and Isaac; verily my Lord is one who hears prayer.
This passage, together with the majority of those which mention Ishmael, I should assign to the Prophet’s later Meccan period. (This is not, however, a generally accepted conclusion, as will presently appear.) In general, Muhammad has very little to say about Ishmael; and there was good reason for his reticence. He did not himself read the Old Testament, but merely built upon what he had been told. The episode of Hagar was of no value for his purposes; in fact, he never mentions Hagar at all.10 The early Jewish narrators seem to have felt little interest in the disinherited elder son of Abraham, and left him at one side.
After Islam had become a great power in the world, new light dawned, and the storytellers, both Jewish and Muhammadan, found that they knew more about Ishmael and his family. An early example is the picturesque tale, found in the Jerusalem Targum and apparently alluded to in the Pirqe Rabbi Eliezer, of Ishmael’s two wives, so very different in character and disposition; and of the visits of the “very old man” Abraham to the tent of his nomad son, far away in the Arabian desert. The names of the two wives (otherwise “tent-pins”), Ayesha and Fatima, make it quite certain that this legend was not known to Muhammad and his contemporaries.
The famous well, Zemzem, at Mecca is also brought into connection with the biblical history. According to Pirqe Aboth, one of the ten things created..., that is, between the sixth day of creation and the following day of rest, was “the mouth of the well.” This refers, as all interpreters agree, to the miraculously traveling well of the Israelites (“the spiritual rock that followed them,” I Corinthians 10, 4), mentioned in Ex. 17 and Num. 20 and 21, in the account of the journey from Egypt to the promised land. Here again the Jerusalem Targum and the Pirqe Rabbi Eliezer bring in the story of Ishmael, by including also the well which appeared to Hagar (Gen. 21, 19). The Muhammadan orthodox tradition (hadith) then puts the capstone on all this by making Zemzem the well which saved the lives of Hagar and her son.11 This, to be sure, would mean that the mother and child had walked some 600 miles on the occasion described. Such sages as Abu Huraira and Ibn ‘Abbas were not troubled by considerations of geography; and inasmuch as this improvement of the legend is early Muslim tradition, it might be termed a doctrine of primitive Islam. But Muhammad knew better; at least, he says not a word in the Koran about the sacred well at Mecca.
The highly significant passage in which Abraham and Ishmael are associated in the founding of the Ka‘ba at Mecca is 2, 118-123. “When his Lord tested Abraham with certain commands, which he fulfilled, he said, I make thee an example for mankind to follow. Abraham said, And those of my posterity? God answered, My compact does not include the evil-doers.” This refers to the pagan Arabs, the descendants of Ishmael; like the verse 14:39, already cited. The passage proceeds:
Remember the time when we made the house [that is, the Ka’ba] a place of resort and of security for mankind, and said, “Take the ‘station of Abraham’ [also 3:91] as a place of prayer”; and how we laid upon Abraham and Ishmael the covenant obligation, saying, “Make my house holy [cf. 80:14 and 98:2] for those who make the circuit, for those who linger in it, those who bow down, and prostrate themselves in devotion.” And when Abraham said, “Lord, make this land secure, and nourish its people with the fruits of the earth; those among them who believe in God and the last day”; he answered, “As for him who is unbelieving, I will provide him with little; and thereafter I will drive him to the punishment of hell-fire; it will be an evil journey” [a warning to the men of Mecca, and to all the Arabs, the faithless Ishmaelites].
Then comes the important statement regarding the founding of the Ka’ba; important, because it plainly contradicts the orthodox Muslim tradition.
And when Abraham with Ishmael was raising the foundations of the house, he said, “Lord, accept this from us; ... make us submissive to thee, and make of our offspring a nation submissive to thee; and declare to us our ritual.... Lord, send also among them a messenger of their own, who shall recite to them thy signs and teach them the book and divine wisdom, and purify them; verily thou art the mighty and wise.”
According to the later Muslim doctrine, the Ka’ba was first built by Adam; the station (or standing place) of Abraham is the spot inside the sanctuary where his footprint in the rock is still to be seen; the command to the two patriarchs, “Make my house clean,” meant “Cleanse it of idols.” But the meaning of the Koran is plain, that the holy station and the holy house began with Abraham and his son.
In the verses which immediately follow, it is expressly said that the true and final religion, Islam, was first revealed to the family of the patriarch. Verse 126: “Abraham and Jacob gave this command to their sons: ‘God has chosen for you the (true) religion; you must not die without becoming Muslims.’” We could wish to know how important in Muhammad’s thought this conception of the genesis of Islam was, and how early it was formed in his mind. I shall try to answer the question at the close of this lecture.
In so far as we are reduced to conjecture, there are certain known factors in the Meccan Prophet’s religious development that would lead us to suppose, if nothing should hinder the supposition, that he attached himself very early and very firmly to Abraham’s family when he sought (as he must have sought) support in the past for the faith which he set himself to proclaim. We have seen how essential to all his thinking, from the very first, was the idea of the written revelation, the scriptural guidance given by God to men. Jews and Christians alike were “people of the Book”; in each case a book of divine origin. But Jews and Christians were in sharpest disagreement. As the Koran puts it in sura 2, 107, and as Muhammad had known long before he began his public ministry, “The Jews say, ‘The Christians are all wrong’ [lit., rest on nothing]; and the Christians say, ‘The Jews are all wrong; and yet they read the scriptures!’” Now Muhammad knew that these two religions were branches from the same stock; that the Christian sect had its beginnings in Judaism; and that the Christians held to the Hebrew scriptures, and claimed for themselves the prophets and patriarchs. The Hebrew people were the children of Abraham; so also, then, were the Christians, even though they attached no importance to this origin. Did not these facts point clearly to the starting point of the final religion? Here also the Arabs, the sons of Ishmael, came in for their long-lost inheritance. Muhammad could only conclude that Jews and Christian alike had been led away from the truth. The right way was now to be shown to them, as well as to the Arabs. This belief he expresses at first confidently, at length bitterly, at last fiercely.
It is not always easy to determine, from the Koran, either the relative age or the relative importance of Muhammad’s leading ideas. We have seen the reasons for this. On this very point, the place occupied by the Hebrew patriarchs in the development of the prophet’s religious doctrine, there has been some difference of opinion.
According to early Muslim tradition, there were in Arabia, not only in Mecca and Medina but also in a few other cities, before the time of Muhammad’s public appearance as a prophet, certain seekers after truth, who revolted against the Arabian idolatry. They called themselves hanifs, and professed to seek “the religion of Abraham,” their ancestor. Now Muhammad in the Koran repeatedly applies to Abraham the term hanif as descriptive of his religion. Where and how he got possession of the term cannot be declared with certainty, but may be conjectured, as we have seen. Certainly it came originally from the Hebrew hanef; and probably its employment by him as a term of praise, rather than of reproach, indicates that in his mind it designated one who “turned away” from the surrounding paganism. Be that as it may, his use of the word seemed to give support to the tradition just mentioned, until a thorough investigation of the latter showed it to be destitute of any real foundation.
The conclusive demonstration was furnished by Snouck Hurgronje, in his brilliant and searching monograph entitled Het Mekkaansche Feest (1880). Snouck made it clear to all who study his argument that Muhammad himself had no knowledge of any Arabian hanifs, and that the tradition had its origin in a theory of later growth. The conclusion at which he arrived went still farther than this, however, for he denied that the prophet had any special interest in the Hebrew patriarchs in the earlier part of his career. This is a matter which seems to me to be in need of further investigation.
Sprenger, Das Leben und die Lehre des Muhammad, Vol. II (1862), pp. 276-285, gave at some length his reasons for believing that Muhammad himself invented the association of Abraham with the Ka’ba, that he for some time supposed Jacob to be the son of Abraham, that he learned of Ishmael’s parentage only at a comparatively late dare, etc.; all this very loosely reasoned, and arbitrary in its treatment of the Koran. Snouck, starting out from the plausible portion of Sprenger’s argument, developed thoroughly and consistently the theory that the Prophet’s especial interest in the Hebrew patriarchs arose in Medina, as a result of his failure to gain the support of the Jews. That is, in his reaction against the religion of Moses (?), he turned back to those earlier prophets to whose family he could claim to belong. Accordingly, after removing to Yathrib and suffering his great disappointment there, he began to make great use of the two patriarchs Abraham and Ishmael, to whom while in Mecca he had attached no especial importance.
The complete argument will be found in the reprint of Snouck’s Mekkaansche Feest in his Verspreide Geschriften, I, 22—29; repeated also by him in the Revue de l’histoire des religions, vol. 30 (1894), pp. 64 ff. His principal contentions are the following: (1) In the Meccan suras Abraham is merely one among many prophets, not a central figure. (2) The phrase millat Ibrahim “the religion of Abraham,” as the designation of Islam, is peculiar to the Medina suras of the Koran. (3) It was only after leaving Mecca that Muhammad conceived the idea of connecting Abraham and Ishmael with the Ka’ba. (4) In several comparatively late Meccan suras the Prophet declares that before his time “no warner” had been sent to the Arabs (32:2; 34:43; 36:5). Yet at this same time Ishmael is said by him to have “preached to his people” (19:55 f.). Does not this show that the Prophet while in Mecca had not associated Ishmael with the Arabs?
These conclusions are accepted, as proven, in the Nöldeke-Schwally Ceschichte des Qorans (see especially pp. 146f., 152), and have been widely adopted. I think, however, that the argument will not bear close examination, in the light of present-day estimates of the Arabian Prophet’s equipment. Muhammad’s knowledge of Hebrew-Jewish lore in general, and of the Pentateuchal narratives in particular, is appraised considerably higher now than it was in 1880, and this is true also of Arabian culture in the Hijaz. Whether or not the Meccan Arabs had known that the Hebrew patriarch Ishmael was their ancestor, Muhammad must have known it and have been profoundly impressed by the fact very early in his course of instruction. The Koran, as I shall endeavor to show, testifies clearly to this effect. Muhammad certainly could not cut loose from the Jews by adopting Abraham! If he had wished to “emancipate Islam from Judaism,” and had found himself free to make his own choice, he could easily and successfully have denied the Ishmaelite origin of the Arabs, falsely reported by the Jews. The founding of the Ka’ba could equally well have been ascribed to Noah, or “Idris,” or some other ancient worthy. There is not a particle of evidence to show that the Koran gave less weight in Medina to Moses and his ordinances than had been given in Mecca. The fact is just the contrary; and the Prophet not only leans heavily on Moses, but openly professes to do so (e.g., in 5:48f!). And finally, Snouck’s theory is not supported by the Koran unless the text of the latter is reconstructed by the excision and removal from Meccan contexts of certain passages which, as they stand, would be fatal to the argument.
In reply to the principal contentions listed above: (1) In one of the very early Meccan suras Abraham is emphatically a “central figure” in the history of the world. In the closing verses of sura 87 we read of “the primal books, the books of Akraham and Moses.”Whatever the Prophet’s idea may have been as to the contents of these “books,” Abraham is here made the father of the written revelation of God to mankind. He instituted “The Book,” of which Muhammad stood in such awe. In another early sura, 53, these “books” are again mentioned, and in the same connection Abraham is characterized in a significant way; vs. 38, “(the book) of Abraham, who paid in full.” This last phrase is elucidated in 2:118, where it is said: “When his Lord tested Abraham with certain commands, which he fulfilled, he said, ‘I make thee an example for mankind.’” The command to the patriarch to sacrifice his own son is of course the one especially in mind, and it is plain that Muhammad had essentially the same idea of Abraham in the two passages.
The account of the attempted sacrifice which the Koran gives, in 37:99-113, is important for our knowledge of Muhammad’s attitude toward the Jews in the early part of his career at Mecca. Abraham is given tidings of the coming birth of his “mild son”12 (vs. 99). The boy grows up, and is rescued from the sacrificial knife by divine intervention (vss. 103-107). Thereafter (vs. 112), the birth of Isaac is foretold to Abraham. This seemed to Snouck (pp. 23 f.) to show that Muhammad had become confused and uncertain in regard to the story—unless vss. 122 f. could be regarded as an interpolation. But the Prophet, far from being confused, shows here both his acquaintance with the Old Testament narrative and also his practical wisdom. Why does he not name the elder son? The answer is plain. Muhammad was perfectly aware, even before he began preaching in public, that Abraham’s first-born son, Ishmael, was the father of the Arabs. In the Hebrew narrative he is an utterly insignificant figure, an unworthy son of the great religious founder. The Arabian Prophet, instituting a religion centering in Arabia, saw his opportunity to improve this state of things. It is very significant that he employs three verses of his very brief narrative (101-103) to show that Abraham’s son was informed beforehand of the intended sacrifice and fully acquiesced in it—a most important touch which has no counterpart in the biblical story. Ishmael was a true “Muslim.” He leaves out the name, but this is not all. The mention of Isaac is introduced after the concluding formula (vss. 109-111) which runs through the chapter, and without any adverb of time (such as thumma); and thus he completely avoids unnecessary trouble either with the Jews who were his instructors or with his own few followers. The whole passage is a monument to his shrewd foresight, a quality which we are liable constantly to underestimate in studying his method of dealing with the biblical narratives.
(2) As for the millat Ibrahim, “the religion of Abraham,” the single passage 12:38, of the Meccan period, is sufficient to nullify the argument. Could anyone suppose that Muhammad meant by the milla of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph any other religion than Islam? Ishmael could not have been mentioned here, since Joseph is enumerating his own ancestors. More than this, there are two other Meccan passages (16:124 and 22:77) in which the phrase millat Ibrahim occurs. These shall receive further notice presently.
(3) I have already expressed the opinion that the association of Abraham and Ishmael with the sanctuary at Mecca is pre-lslamic (see also Schwally, 147, note 3). As for Muhammad himself, he sets forth the doctrine fully in sura 14:38—42. The whole chapter is Meccan, and has always been so classed; and there is no imaginable reason why an interpolation should have been made at this point. Yet Schwally, p. 152, cuts out these verses from the sura on the sole ground that Snouck’s theory requires their excision. The latter treats the passage, on p. 29, quite arbitrarily. It is obvious why the patriarch here names Ishmael and Isaac, not Isaac and Jacob. Verse 37 had just spoken of the countless favors of Allah, who “gives you some portion of all that you ask of him. ” This introduces the mention of Abraham, who in vs. 41 praises Allah for giving him two sons in his old age, and adds, “verily my Lord is the hearer of prayer!” Could anyone ask for a better connection? The verses are Meccan, and always occupied this place in the sura.
(4) The passages which mention the “warner” give no aid whatever to the theory. The Prophet would at all times have maintained that the Arabian peoples had never had a “messenger” sent to them. The only passage in which there is mention of admonition given by Ishmael is 19:56, where it is said that he commanded “his family” (this, unquestionably, is what ahlahu means) to pray and give alms. As “a prophet and messenger” he must have done this much. But it is made perfectly plain in the Koran—the principal passages have already been discussed—that his children paid no attention to the admonition. Long before Arabia began to be peopled with the Ishmaelite tribes, the disobedient sons had passed away, along with the instruction given to them. No Arabian tribe had ever heard a word in regard to the true religion.
The Question of Composite Meccan suras. Some brief space must be given here to a matter which really calls for a monograph. A moment ago, I claimed as Meccan utterances of the Prophet two passages (16:124 and 22:77) which by occidental scholars are now quite generally regarded as belonging to the Medina period. The sixteenth sura is Meccan, as no one doubts. Of its 128 verses, Schwally assigns 43, 44, and 111-125 to Medina; at the same time combating, on obviously sufficient grounds, the opinions of those who would assign to Medina numerous other passages. In regard to sura 22 Nöldeke had declared (p. 158), that “the greater part of it” was uttered at Mecca, but that its most significant material came from the Medina period. It accordingly is now classed as a Medina sura in the standard treatises and in Rodwell’s Koran; see also Nicholson’s Literary History of the Arabs, p. 174. In the course of the argument concerning the association of Abraham and Ishmael with the Ka’ba I discussed a supposed insertion in sura 14, with the result of showing that the theory of interpolation is at least quite unnecessary. These are merely single examples out of a multitude. The accepted working hypothesis as to the composition of the Koran recognizes a considerable revision, after the Hijra, of the later Meccan suras by the insertion of longer or shorter passages, which certain criteria enable us to detect. Of course the theory has its apparent justification ; the question is, whether it has not run wild.
The Koran is a true corpus vile; no one cares how much it is chopped up. The Arabs themselves have been the worst choppers. Their ancient theory of the sacred book led to just this treatment. It was miraculously revealed, and miraculously preserved. Muhammad, being “unable to read and write,” left no copy behind at his death; so when it became necessary to make a standard volume, its various portions were collected “from scraps of paper, parchment, and leather, from palm-leaves, tablets of wood, bones, stones, and from the breasts of men.” This is something like Ezra’s restoration, from memory, of the lost Hebrew scriptures, twenty-four canonical and seventy apocryphal books (4 Ezra, 14:44ff.), and the two accounts are of like value for historical purposes. The Muslim commentators found no difficulty in seeing—as they did see—oracles of Mecca and Medina wonderfully jumbled together in many suras. Their analysis of the chapters which they themselves pronounced Meccan was based either on fancied historical allusions or on fundamentally mistaken notions as to the activities and associations of the Prophet in the years before the Hijra. The disagreement of these early interpreters, moreover, was very wide.
Muhammad himself wrote down the successive suras; and he gave them out as complete units, a fact which is especially obvious in such a group as the Ha -Mim chapters, 40—46, but is hardly less evident throughout the book. It might also be inferred from the challenge to his critics to produce “ten suras,” in 11:16. He had his amanuenses, who made some copies for distribution. He himself supplemented a number of the completed suras, after they had been for some time in circulation, making important insertions or additions, obviously needed, and generally indicated as secondary by their form. Thus, 73:20 is an easily recognizable Medina appendage to a Meccan sura. The cautious addition in regard to Jesus in the nineteenth sura (vss. 35—41, marked off from their context by the rhyme) is another well known example. In 74:30, the Prophet’s “nineteen angels” (numbered for the sake of the rhyme) called forth some ridicule, which he thereafter rebuked in a lengthy insertion, quite distinct in form from the rest of the chapter.13 In such cases it certainly is the most plausible supposition that Muhammad made the alteration in writing, with his own hand.
It might at the outset seem a plausible hypothesis that the Prophet would make numerous alterations, in the course of time, in the suras which he had composed, as his point of view changed and new interests came into the foreground. The loose structure of the Koran in nearly all of its longer chapters rendered interpolation singularly easy. The kaleidoscope is constantly turning, and the thought leaps from one subject to another, often without any obvious connection. Since the verses are separate units, each with its rhymed ending (often a mere stock phrase), nothing could be easier than to insert new verses in order to supplement, or explain, or qualify; or even in order to correct and replace an objectionable utterance, as was done (according to an old tradition) in the middle of the fifty-third sura. It is important to note, however, that we should not be able to recognize any such insertions, unless the Prophet called attention to them in some striking way. Did Muhammad, in fact, freely revise his (i. e., Gabriel’s) revelations? There is a doctrine clearly stated by him, and well illustrated, that certain utterances are “annulled” by subsequent outgivings. The latter, however, are never put beside the former, nor given specific reference to them, but merely make their appearance wherever it may happen—that is, when and where Gabriel found the new teaching desirable. In like manner, the supposed insertions now under discussion, “Medina additions to Meccan suras,” are as a rule given no obvious motive by anything in their context, but seem purely fortuitous. If they really are insertions, and were made by the Prophet, it was not with any recognizable purpose.
For one reason in particular it is not easy to suppose any considerable amount of alteration in the divine oracles, after they had once been finished and made public. From the first they were learned by heart and constantly recited by those who had committed them to memory. As early as sura 73:1-6 the Prophet urges his followers to spend a part of the night in reciting what they have learned, and it is implied that the amount is already considerable. The acquisition was very easy, and before the Prophet’s death, the number of those who could repeat the whole book without missing a word cannot have been very small. Under these circumstances, any alteration, especially if made without apparent reason, could not fail to be very disturbing. The few which (as we have seen) the Prophet himself made were doubtless explained by him; and we may be sure that he would have permitted no other to change the divine messages! After his death, the precise form of words was jealously guarded; and when, through the unforeseen but inevitable accidents of wider transmission, variant readings crept in, so that copies in different cities showed some real disagreement, a standard text was made, probably differing only in unimportant details from the form originally given out by Muhammad. In the early subsequent history, indeed, minor variations in the text, consisting mainly of interesting differences of orthography and peculiarities of grammatical usage, amounted to a large number; see the very important chapter on the history of the text in Nöldeke’s Geschichte des Qorâns. But whoever reads the Koran through must feel that we have the Prophet before us in every verse.
The dating of the suras of the Koran, as of Mecca or Medina, is generally, though not always, an easy matter. Any chapter of considerable length is sure to contain evidence clearly indicating the one city or the other as the place of its origin. The simple classification of this nature which was made by the best of the early Muhammadan scholars is nearly everywhere confirmed by modern critics. Even in the case of the briefer suras there is not often room for doubt. The possibility of dating more exactly, however, is soon limited. The career of the Prophet in Medina, covering ten years, is well known to us in its main outlines. Since a number of important events, chronologically fixed, are plainly referred to in the Koran, about one-half of the twenty or more Medina suras can be approximately located. Not so with the twelve years of the Meccan revelations. Here, there is an almost complete lack of fixed points, and we have very inadequate information as to Muhammad’s personal history and the development of his ideas and plans. It is possible to set apart, with practical certainty on various grounds, a considerable number of suras as early; and a much smaller number can be recognized with almost equal certainty as coming from the last years of the Meccan period. Between the arbitrary limits of these two groups a certain development, partly in the literary form and partly in the relative emphasis given to certain doctrines, can be traced in the remaining suras; but with no such distinctness as to make possible a chronological arrangement. This is true of all three of the conventional “Meccan periods.”
The native interpreters, as already observed, analyzed the Meccan suras to their heart’s content; recognizing allusions to very many persons, events, and circumstances, and accordingly treating this or that sura without regard to considerations of literary or chronological unity. Modern occidental scholars saw that these hypotheses as to actors and scenes were generally either purely fanciful or else plainly mistaken; in Nöldeke’s treatise, for example, they meet with wholesale rejection. The underlying theory, that of casually composite chapters, in which oracles from widely difficult periods might stand side by side without apparent reason for their proximity, was nevertheless adopted. The criteria employed by the Muslim scholars in identifying Medina verses in Meccan suras were also, in considerable part, taken over as valid. These consist of single words and phrases, often arbitrarily interpreted, and also of allusions to conditions supposed to be characteristic of the Medina period but not of the earlier time.
Here the critic is on slippery ground. That which Muhammad gave forth from time to time was largely determined by the immediate circumstances, concerning which it is likely to be the case that we either are not informed at all, or else are wrongly informed by the guesses of the native commentators. Ideas which (in the nature of the case) must have been in the prophet’s mind from the very beginning may happen to find their chief expression only at a late date. Certain evils existed for some time before they became very serious. There were “hypocrites” in Mecca as well as in Medina. Such words as “strive,” “contend,” and “victory” gained great significance after the battle of Badr; but they ought not to be forbidden to the Prophet’s Meccan vocabulary. In sura 29, for example, which unquestionably in the main was uttered before the Hijra, many of the Muslim authorities assign the first ten verses to Medina, and Nöldeke follows them.14 Verse 45 is similarly treated—in spite of 6:153, 16:126, and 23:98! In fact, there is no valid reason for such analysis; the whole sura is certainly Meccan, and so not a few scholars, oriental and occidental, have decided. Another example of the forced interpretation of single words is to be seen in the treatment of the very brief sura 110. If Muhammad believed himself to be a prophet, and had faith in the ultimate triumph of the religion which he proclaimed, it is far easier to suppose that this little outburst came from the time when he first met with serious opposition than to imagine it delivered late in the Medina period, as is now commonly done. The word “victory” is no more remarkable here than it is in the closing verses of sura 32.
Another mistake made by the early commentators has had serious consequences. Having little or no knowledge of the presence of Jews in Mecca, and with their eyes always on the important Jewish tribes of Medina and the prophet’s dealings with them, they habitually assigned to the Medina period the allusions to Jewish affairs which they found in Meccan suras; and in this they sometimes have been followed by modern scholars. It is one principal aim of the present lectures to show that Muhammad’s personal contact with the Jews was closer (as well as much longer continued) before the Hijra than after it. By far the most of what he learned of Israelite history, literature, customs, and law was acquired in Mecca. It is also a mistaken supposition that he met with no determined opposition from the Jews, resulting in bitter resentment on his part, before the Hijra.15 On the contrary, he was perfectly aware, before leaving Mecca, that the Jews as a whole were against him, though some few gave him support. After the migration to Yathrib, when his cause seemed to triumph, he doubtless cherished the hope that now at length the Jews would acknowledge his claim; and when they failed to do so, his resentment became active hostility.
It is not difficult to see why the Muslim historians and commentators habitually assign to Medina those passages in the Koran in which Muhammad is given contact with Jewish affairs, in default of any definite allusion to Mecca as the scene. The latter city was the Muslim sanctuary par excellence, from the Prophet’s day onward, and unbelieving foreigners were not welcome. As for the Jews themselves, they of course realized, after seeing how their compatriots at Yathrib had been evicted or butchered, that Mecca was no place for them. Their exodus began during Muhammad’s lifetime, and must soon have been extensive. After this emigration, their former influence in the holy city, as far as it was kept in memory, was at first minimized, and then ignored; eventually it was lost to sight. The Prophet’s close personal association with Meccan Jews, and especially his debt to Jewish teachers (!), was of course totally unknown to the generations which later came upon the scene. On the other hand, they had very full knowledge of his continued contact with the Jews of Yathrib; and they very naturally interpreted the Koran in the light of this knowledge. Modern scholars have been far too easygoing in giving weight to these decisions of the native commentators, and the mistaken analysis of Meccan suras has too often been the result.
It would be fruitless to attempt to collect here the many “Medina” verses which have been found by Muslim scholars in the Meccan chapters merely because of the mention of Jews. Some similar criticism may be found in Nöldeke-Schwally in the comments on 6:91, 7:156, and 29:45 (already mentioned), as well as in the passages about to be considered. It must be clear, from what has thus far been said, that the only sound and safe proceeding in the “higher criticism” of the suras recognized as prevailingly Meccan is to pronounce every verse in its original place unless there is absolute and unmistakable proof to the contrary. I know of no later additions to Meccan suras, with the exception of the few which Muhammad himself plainly indicated.16
All this has led up to the consideration of the two passages previously mentioned, 16:124 and 22:77, in which Islam is termed “the religion (milla) of Abraham.” Both passages are now generally assigned to the Medina period, but for no valid reason. Both suras are “in the main” Meccan, as few would doubt. In sura 16, verses 43 f. and 111 would naturally be supposed to refer to the migration to Abyssinia. Since however the latter verse speaks of “striving,” an allusion to the holy war is postulated, and all three verses are referred to the Hijra; but the third stem of jahada was well known even in Mecca! Verse 119 is given to Medina on the ground that it probably refers to 6:147. If it does, this merely shows that 6 is earlier than 16, a conclusion which is opposed by no fact. Verse 125 is suspected of coming from Medina on the ground that “it deals with the Jewish sabbath.” It is thus rendered natural (Schwally, p. 147) to assign the whole passage 111-125 to Medina; and Abraham, in vs. 124, is accordingly counted out. But unless better evidence than the foregoing can be presented, the whole sura must be pronounced Meccan.
Sura 22 affords the best single illustration of the fact that the latest Meccan revelations closely resemble those of Medina not only in style and vocabulary but also in some of the subjects which chiefly occupied the Prophet’s attention. Considerable portions are now declared to be later than the Hijra; see Nöldeke-Schwally, pp. 214 f. These shall be considered in as brief compass as possible.
Vs. 17 is by no means “a later insertion”; it has its perfect connection in the concluding words of the preceding verse. Vss. 25-38 give directions in regard to the rites of the Hajj, at the sacred house. Does this remove them from their Meccan surroundings? Did not Muhammad (and his adherents) believe in the duty of the Pilgrimage before they migrated to Yathrib? Probably no one will doubt that they did so believe. It is very noticeable that the whole passage, as well as what precedes and follows it, is argumentative;addressed quite as plainly to the “idolaters” as to the Muslims. This is the tone of the whole sura. Notice especially vss. 15 (and in Medina would certainly have been written: “Allah will help his Prophet”); 32-36 (in the latter verse observe the words: “those who endure patiently what has befallen them”); 42—45; 48-50; 54—56; 66-71. In the last-named verse we see that the idolaters, among whom Muhammad is living and whom he is addressing, occasionally hear the Koran recited, and threaten to lay violent hands on those who recite it! The passage in regard to the Hajj is not mere prescription, for the instruction of the Muslims; it is designed to inform the Meccans that Muhammad and his followers mean to observe the rites in the time-honored way, and that they have been unjustly debarred from the privilege. The Prophet is thoroughly angry, and expresses himself in a way that shows that some sort of a hijra must soon be necessary. In vs. 40 formal permission is given to the Muslims to “fight because they have been wronged”; from which we may see what a pitch the Meccans’ persecution had reached. The description of the whole situation given in Ibn Hisham, 313 f., is generally convincing, as well as perfectly suited to this most interesting sura.
The strongest support of the theory of later insertions in the chapter seemed to be given by vs. 57. Nöldeke saw here the mention of certain true believers, who after migrating from Mecca had been killed in battle; and he therefore of necessity pronounced the passage later than the battle of Badr. The view that a general supposition was intended, rather than historical fact, seemed to him to be excluded by grammatical considerations. His footnote, repeated by Schwally, says: “If the reading were man qutila, ‘if any one is killed,’ then the verses could have been composed before the battle; but alladhina qutilu excludes the conditional interpretation, and shows merely the completed action: ‘those who were killed.’” It is evident that Noldeke completely overlooked the passage 2:155 f., which is strikingly parallel in its wording, while fortunately there can be no difference of opinion as to the interpretation. In both cases we have merely a general hypothesis. Muhammad is not always bound by the rules of classical Arabic grammar (probably it would be more correct to say that his imagination was so vivid as to make the supposition an actual occurrence), and he frequently employs alladhi and alladhina in exactly this way. The passage in our sura refers to some lesser migration (or migrations) before the Hijra, and to Muslims who may die, or be killed, after this clear proof of their devotion to the cause of Allah. (Nothing is said of being killed in battle.)
Finally, vss. 76 ff. are said to have originated in Medina, because “they enjoin the holy war,” and because of the mention of the “religion of Abraham.” The interpretation of the first words of vs. 77 as referring to the holy war is not only unnecessary, however, but also seems out of keeping with what is said in the remainder of the verse. The believers are exhorted to strive earnestly for the true faith; compare the precisely similar use of this verb in the Meccan passages 25:54 and 29:69. The saying in regard to Abraham is important for the history of the term “Islam,” as will be seen. To conclude, sura 22 is thoroughly homogeneous, containing no elements from the Medina period. And (as was said a moment ago) much stronger evidence than has thus far been offered must be produced before it can be maintained that Meccan suras were freely interpolated after the Hijra.
The Origin of the Term “Islam.” The theory propounded by Professor Snouck Hurgronje and discussed in the preceding pages has, I think, helped to hide from sight the true source of the name which Muhammad gave to the faith of which he was the founder. The one thing which we usually can feel sure of knowing as to the origin of a great religion is how it got its name. In the case of “Islam,” the only fact on which all scholars would agree is that the name was given by Muhammad. The formal title appears rather late in the Koran, but is virtually there very early, for the true believers are termed “Muslims” in the suras of the first Meccan period. There has been considerable difference of opinion as to what the word means. The great majority have always held that this verbal noun, islam, was chosen as meaning “submission”; that is, submission to the will of God; but not a few, especially in recent years, have sought another interpretation. It is not obvious why the Prophet should have selected this name, nor does ordinary Arabic usage suggest this as the most natural meaning of the fourth stem of the very common verb salima.
Hence at least one noted scholar has proposed to understand the Prophet’s use of this verb-stem as conveying the idea of coming into the condition of security (Lidzbarski, in the Zeitschift für Semitistik I, 86). The meaning of Islam would then be “safety”; and in view of the long catalogue of unspeakable tortures in Gehenna which are promised to the unbelievers, this might seem an appealing title. The interpretation is far from convincing, however, in view of several passages in the Koran. Professor Margoliouth of Oxford, one of the foremost Arabists of our time, offered the theory that the Muslims were originally the adherents of the “false prophet” Musailima, who appeared in central Arabia at about the time of Muhammad. This theory, as might be expected, was not received with favor.
It has been doubted by some whether the term is really of Arabic origin; see Horovitz, Untersuchungen, p. 55; Nöldeke-Schwally, p. 20, note 2, and the references there given. The attempt to find a real equivalent in Aramaic or Syriac has failed, however, and I, for one, can see no good reason for doubting that we have here genuine native usage. Moreover, the only meaning of the term which suits all the Koranic passages is the one which has generally been adopted.
But why submission? This was never a prominently appearing feature of the Muslim’s religion. It is not an attitude of mind characteristic of Muhammad himself. It is not a virtue especially dwelt upon in any part of the Koran. It would not in itself seem to be an attractive designation of the Arab’s faith. Why was not the new religion named “Faith,” or “Truth,” or “Safety,” or “Right-guidance,” or “Striving,” or “Victory”?—since these are ideas prominent in the Koran. Why “Submission”?
I believe that the origin of the name is to be found in a scene in the life of Abraham and Ishmael depicted in the Koran and already mentioned in this lecture, and that the choice was made by Muhammad because of his doctrine that the final religion—or rather, the final form of the true religion—had its inception in the revelation given to Abraham and his family. The Koran knows of no “Muslims” prior to these patriarchs. We have seen that one of the very early suras speaks of “the books of Moses and Abraham” (87:19). In another sura of the same period we find the earliest occurrence of the designation “Muslims” (68:35). In what probably is the very last Meccan utterance of the Prophet (22:77), Abraham and the naming of Islam are mentioned in the same breath: “God gave you the faith of your father Abraham and named you Muslims.” The collocation is certainly significant.
The Meccan Arabs knew, and probably had known before the time of Muhammad, that according to the Hebrew records they were the descendants of Ishmael. Because of their tribal organization, with all its emphasis on family history, we should suppose them to have been pleased with the gain of a remote ancestor, even if they felt little or no interest in his person. To Muhammad, the fact was profoundly significant. At the time when he first became aware of great religions outside Arabia, he heard of that ancient prophet Abraham, who through his second son, Isaac, was the founder of both the Israelite and the Christian faith, and through his elder son, Ishmael, was the father of the Arabian peoples. It may have been through meditation on this startling fact that he was first led to the conception of a new revelation, and a new prophet, for his own race. The Arabs were rightful heirs of the religion of Abraham; although, as he repeatedly declares, they had rejected the truth and fallen into idolatry.
It may be regarded as certain, however, that Muhammad did not believe his call to the prophetic office to be in any way the result of his own reflection on what ought to be. On the contrary, he was called by Allah, and the revelation for the Arabs was new, never previously given to anyone. In some true sense he himself was “the first of the Muslims” (39:14). But when at length, after the Koran was well advanced, he turns to the Hebrew patriarchs, he claims them as a matter of course and speaks of them in no uncertain terms. “Abraham said, ‘Lord, make this land [the neighborhood of Mecca] safe, and turn me and my sons away from worshipping idols.... Lord, I have made some of my seed dwell in a fruitless valley, by thy holy house [the Ka’ba].... Praise to Allah, who has given me, even in my old age, Ishmael and Isaac‘” (14:38 ff.). “When his Lord tested Abraham with certain commands, which he obeyed, he said, ‘I make thee an example for mankind to follow.”’ ... “We laid upon Abraham and Ishmael the covenant obligation” [namely, to make the Ka‘ba at Mecca a holy house, the center of the true Arabian worship, the beginning of a new stage in the religion of the world].... “And when Abraham, with Ishmael, was raising the foundations of the house, he said, ’Lord, accept this from us, ... make us submissive to thee, and make of our offspring a nation submissive to thee, and declare to us our ritual.... Lord, send also among them a messenger of their own, who shall teach them the Book and divine wisdom’ ” (2:118 ff).
In the verses which immediately follow it is clearly implied that the true and final religion, Islam, was first revealed to the family of the patriarch. Vs. 126: “Abraham and Jacob gave this command to their sons: ‘God has chosen for you the true religion; you must not die without becoming Muslims.”’ All this plainly shows that the submission was originally associated in Muhammad’s mind with Abraham; it was from his action, or attitude, that the religion received its name. “He obeyed the commands with which Allah tested him” (53:38 and 2:118).
There was one supreme test of Abraham’s submission to the divine will, and it is described in an early passage in the Koran; namely, the attempted sacrifice of Ishmael (why Ishmael, not Isaac, has already been explained). sura 37:100 ff.: “When the boy was old enough to share the zeal of his father, Abraham said, ‘My son, in a vision of the night I have been shown that I am to slaughter you as a sacrifice. Say now what you think.’ He replied, ‘Father, do what you are commanded; you will find me, if Allah wills, one of the steadfast.’ So when they both were resigned, and he led him to the mountain,17 we called to him, ‘Abraham! You have indeed fulfilled the vision; ... verily this was a clear test!’ ” The verb in vs. 103, “they both submitted” (aslama), marks the climax of the scene. Elsewhere in the Koran the verb means “embrace Islam”; here, it means simply “yield” to the will of Allah. Muhammad certainly had this supreme test in mind when he quoted the promise to the patriarch: “I make you an example for mankind to follow.”
The Prophet must have had the scene before his eyes, and the all-important verb in his mind, long before he produced the thirty-seventh sura. And when he first began speaking of the “Muslims,” it was the self-surrender of the two great ancestors of his people that led him to the use of the term. It required no more than ordinary foresight on the Prophet’s part to see, at the very outset of his public service, that a struggle was coming; and that his followers, and perhaps he himself, would be called upon to give up every precious thing, even life itself, for the sake of the cause. Submission, absolute surrender to the divine will, was a fit designation of the faith revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, and the Arabs.
THE NARRATIVES OF THE KORAN18
We have seen in the preceding lectures that the Koran brings to view a rather long procession of biblical personages, some of them mentioned several times, and a few introduced and characterized repeatedly. The experiences of the chief among them are described in stereotyped phrases, usually with bits of dramatic dialogue. The two main reasons for this parade have been indicated: first, the wish to give the new Arabian religion a clear and firm connection with the previous “religions of the Book,” and especially with the Hebrew scriptures; and second, the equally important purpose which Muhammad had of showing to his countrymen how the prophets had been received in the former time; and how the religion which they preached (namely Islam) was carried on from age to age, while the successive generations of men who rejected it were punished.
In all the earliest part of the Koran there is no sustained narrative; nothing like the stories and biographies which abound in the Old Testament. The ancient heroes are hardly more than names, which the ever-turning wheel of the Koran keeps bringing before us, each one laden with the same pious exhortations.
Muhammad certainly felt this lack. He was not so unlike his countrymen as not to know the difference between the interesting and the tiresome, even if he did not feel it very strongly. We know, not only from the tradition but also from the Koran itself, that his parade of Noah, Abraham, Jonah, and their fellows was received in Mecca with jeers. His colorless scraps of history were hooted at as “old stories”; and we happen to be told how on more than one occasion he suffered from competition with a real raconteur. The Meccans, like St. Paul’s auditors at Athens (Acts 17:21), were ready to hear “some new thing,” if only to laugh at it, but their patience was easily exhausted. One of Muhammad’s neighbors, an-Nadr ibn al-Harith, took delight in tormenting the self-styled Prophet, and when the latter was holding forth to a circle of hearers, he would call out, “Come over here to me, and I will give you something more interesting than Muhammad’s preaching!” and then he would tell them the stories of the Persian kings and heroes; while the Prophet saw his audience vanish, and was left to cherish the revenge which he took after the battle of Badr. For the too entertaining adversary, taken captive in the battle, paid for the stories with his life.
Muhammad of course knew, even without any such bitter lesson, what his countrymen would enjoy. It is quite evident, moreover, that he himself had been greatly impressed by the tales of patriarchs, prophets, and saints which had come within his knowledge; for he was in most respects a typical Arab. And while we know, especially from the introduction to his story of Joseph, that he eventually formed the purpose of adorning his Koran with some extended narratives in order to attract as well as to convince his hearers, it probably is true that an equally strong motive was his own lively interest in these famous personages and their wonderful deeds. There are certain incidents, or bits of folk-tale, which he elaborates merely because they delight him, not at all because of any religious teaching which might be squeezed out of them. This appears, for instance, in his tales of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, of Dhu ’l-Qarnain (Alexander the Great), and of Joseph in Egypt. His imagination played upon these things until his mind was filled with them. Here was entertainment to which the people of Mecca would listen. Even stronger, doubtless, was the hope that the Jews and Christians, who had loved these tales for many generations, would be moved by this new recognition of their divine authority, and would acknowledge Islam as a new stage in their own religious history.
It is significant that all these more pretentious attempts at storytelling fall within a brief period, the last years in Mecca and the beginning of the career in Medina. They had a purpose beyond mere instruction or mere entertainment, and when that purpose failed, there was no further attempt in the same line. As to the relative proportions of Jewish and Christian material of this nature which Muhammad had in store, it will presently appear that the supply obtained from Jewish sources greatly predominates. Moreover, in the case of the only one of the longer legends which is distinctly of Christian origin there is good evidence that it came to Muhammad through the medium of a Jewish document.
But at the time when Muhammad began to put forth these few longer narratives, his Koran had grown to about one-third of the size which it ultimately attained. He must have taken satisfaction in the thought that it was beginning to have the dimensions of a sacred book, the scriptures of the new revelation in the Arabic tongue. The addition of a number of entertaining portions of history, anecdote, and biography would considerably increase its bulk, as well as its resemblance to the former sacred books.
Here appears obviously one very striking difference between the narratives of the Koran and those of the Bible. The latter were the product of consummate literary art, written at various times, for religious instruction, by men who were born storytellers. They were preserved and handed down by a process of selection, gradually recognized as the best of their kind, and ultimately incorporated in a great anthology. In the Koran, on the contrary, we see a totally new thing—a most forbidding undertaking: the production of narrative as divine revelation, to rate from the first as inspired scripture; narrative, moreover, which had already been given permanent form in the existing sacred books. Here was a dilemma which evidently gave the Arabian Prophet some trouble. If he should merely reproduce the story of Joseph, or of Jonah, wholly or in part, from the Jewish tradition, he would be charged with plagiarism. If he should tell the stories with any essential difference, he would be accused of falsifying.
A skillful narrator might have escaped this difficulty by his own literary art, producing something interesting and yet in keeping with the familiar tradition. But Muhammad was very far from being a skillful narrator. His imagination is vivid, but not creative. His characters are all alike, and they utter the same platitudes. He is fond of dramatic dialogue, but has very little sense of dramatic scene or action. The logical connection between successive episodes is often loose, sometimes wanting; and points of importance, necessary for the clear understanding of the story, are likely to be left out. There is also the inveterate habit of repetition, and a very defective sense of humor. In short, anyone familiar with the style of the Koran would be likely to predict that Muhammad’s tales of ancient worthies would lack most of the qualities which the typical “short story” ought to have. And the fact would be found to justify the prediction.
In sura 11:27—57 is given a lengthy account of Noah’s experiences; the building of the ark, the flood, the arrival on Mount Ararat, and God’s promise for the future. It contains very little incident, but consists chiefly of the same religious harangues which are repeated scores of times throughout the Koran, uninspired and uniformly wearisome. We have the feeling that one of Noah’s contemporaries who was confronted with the prospect of forty days and forty nights in the ark would prefer to take his chances with the deluge.
It must in fairness be reiterated, however, that this task of refashioning by divine afterthought would have been a problem for any narrator. Muhammad does slip out of the dilemma into which he had seemed to be forced; and the manner in which he does this is highly interesting—and instructive. The story, Jewish or Christian, is told by him in fragments; often with a repeated introductory formula that would seem to imply that the Prophet had not only received his information directly from heaven, but also had been given numerous details which had not been vouchsafed to the “people of the Book.” The angel of revelation brings in rather abruptly an incident or scene in the history of this or that biblical hero with a simple introductory “And when ....” It says, in effect: “You remember the occasion when Moses said to his servant, ‘I will not halt until I reach the confluence of the two rivers’ ”; and the incident is narrated. “And then there was that time, Muhammad, when Abraham said to his people” thus and so. It is not intended, the formula implies, to tell the whole story; but more could be told, if it were necessary.
The more closely one studies the details of Muhammad’s curious, and at first sight singularly ineffectual, manner of serving up these old narratives, the more clearly is gained the impression that underlying it all is the deliberate attempt to solve a problem.
The story of Joseph and his brethren is the only one in the Koran which is carried through with some semblance of completeness. It begins with the boy in the land of Canaan, and ends with the magnate in Pharaoh’s kingdom, and the establishing of Jacob and his family in Egypt. It is the only instance in which an entire sura is given up to a single subject of this nature. The following extracts will give some idea of the mode of treatment .19
Gabriel says to Muhammad: “[Remember what occurred] when Joseph said to his father, ‘O father! I saw eleven stars and the sun and the moon prostrating themselves before me!’ He answered, ‘O my boy, tell not your vision to your brothers, for they will plot against you; verily the devil is a manifest foe to mankind.’” After a verse or two of religious instruction the story proceeds:
The brethren said, “Surely Joseph and his brother are more beloved by our father than we; indeed he is in manifest error. Kill Joseph, or cast him away in some distant place; then we shall have our father to ourselves.” One of them said, “Kill not Joseph, but throw him into the bottom of the pit; then some caravan will pluck him out.” They said, “O father! what ails you that you will not trust us with Joseph, although we are his sincere helpers? Send him with us tomorrow to sport and play, and we will take good care of him.” He said, “It would grieve me that you should take him away, and I fear that the wolf will devour him while you are neglecting him.” They said, “If the wolf should devour him, while we are such a company, we should indeed be stupid!” And when they went away with him and agreed to put him in the bottom of the well, we gave him this revelation: “Thou shalt surely tell them of this deed of theirs when they are not aware.”
They came to their father at eventide, weeping. They said, “O father! we went off to run races, and left Joseph with our things, and the wolf ate him up; and you will not believe us, though we are telling the truth.”
Their father of course takes the broad hint given him, that they are lying; though they bring a shirt with blood on it as evidence. He accuses them of falsehood, and reproaches them bitterly. Then is told in a very few words how the caravan came, drew Joseph out of the well, and sold him for a few dirhems to a man in Egypt.
Thereupon follows the attempt of the man’s wife to entice Joseph. Any episode in which women play a part is likely to be dwelt upon by Muhammad, and he gives full space to the scenes which follow. Joseph refused at first, but was at last ready to yield, when he saw a vision which deterred him. (The nature of this is not told in the Koran, but we know from the Jewish Midrash that it was the vision of his father, with Rachel and Leah.)20 The Koran proceeds:
They raced to the door, and she tore his shirt from behind; and at the door they met her husband. She cried, “What is the penalty upon him who wished to do evil to your wife, imprisonment or a dreadful punishment?” Joseph said, “She enticed me.” One of her family bore witness:21 “If his shirt is torn in front, she tells the truth; if it is torn behind, she is lying.” So when he saw that the shirt was torn from behind, he cried, “This is one of your woman-tricks; verily the tricks of you women are amazing! Joseph, turn aside from this! And do you, woman, ask forgiveness for your sin?”
Then certain women of the city said, “The wife of the prince tried to entice her young servant; she is utterly infatuated with him; verily we consider her in manifest error.” So when she heard their treachery, she sent an invitation to them, and prepared for them a banquet,22 and gave each one of them a knife, and said, “Come forth to them!” And when they saw him, they were struck with admiration and cut their hands and cried, “Good heavens! This is no human being, it is a glorious angel!” Then said she, “This is he concerning whom you blamed me. I did seek to entice him, but he held himself firm; and if he does not do what I command him, surely he shall be imprisoned, and be one of the ignominious.” He said, “Lord, the prison is my choice instead of that to which they invite me. But if thou dost not turn their wiles away from me, I shall be smitten with love for them, and shall become one of the foolish.” His Lord answered his prayer, and turned their wiles away from him; verily he is one who hears and knows.
This is characteristic of the angel Gabriel’s manner of spoiling a good story. Aside from the fact that we are left in some uncertainty as to Joseph’s firmness of character, it is not evident what the episode of the banquet had to do with the course of events; nor why the ladies were provided with knives; nor why Joseph, after all, was put in prison. These things are all made plain in the Midrash, however.23
The account of Joseph’s two companions in the prison, and of his ultimate release, is given in very summary fashion. “There entered the prison with him two young men. One of them said, ‘I see myself pressing out wine;’ and the other said, ‘I see myself carrying bread upon my head, and the birds eating from it. Tell us the interpretation of this.”’After a religious discourse of some length, Joseph gives them the interpretation; and it is implied, though not definitely said, that his prediction was completely fulfilled. The dream of Pharaoh is then introduced abruptly. “The king said, ‘Verily I see seven fat cows which seven lean ones are devouring; and seven green ears of grain and others which are dry. O you princes, explain to me my vision, if you can interpret a vision.’” The princes naturally give it up. The king’s butler remembers Joseph, though several years have elapsed, and he is summoned from the prison. He refuses to come out, however, until his question has been answered: “What was in the mind of those women who cut their hands? Verily my master knows their wiles.” The women are questioned, and both the officer’s wife and her companions attest Joseph’s innocence. He is then brought out, demands to be set over the treasuries of all Egypt, and the king complies.
Joseph’s brethren now enter the story again. Nothing is said about a famine in the land of Canaan, nor is any other reason given for their arrival; they simply appear. The remainder of the tale is in the main a straightforward, somewhat fanciful, condensation of the version given in the book of Genesis, with some lively dialogue. There are one or two touches from the Midrash. Jacob warns his sons not to enter the city by a single gate. The Midrash gives the reason; 24 the Koran leaves the Muslim commentators to guess—as of course they easily can. When the cup is found in Benjamin’s sack, and he is proclaimed a thief, his brethren say, “If he has stolen, a brother of his stole before him.” The commentators are at their wits’ end to explain how Joseph could have been accused of stealing. The explanation is furnished by the Midrash, which remarks at this point that Benjamin’s mother before him had stolen,25 referring of course to the time when Rachel carried off her father’s household gods (Gen 31 :19—35).
The occasion when Joseph makes himself known to his brethren is not an affecting scene in the Koran, as it is in the Hebrew story. The narrator’s instinct which would cause him to work up to a climax was wanting in the Meccan Prophet’s equipment. The brethren come to Egypt for the third time, appear before Joseph, and beg him to give them good measure. He replies, “‘Do you know what you did to Joseph and his brother, in the time of your ignorance?’ They said, ‘Are you then Joseph?’ He answered, ‘I am Joseph, and this is my brother. God has been gracious to us. Whoever is pious and patient,—God will not suffer the righteous to lose their reward.’” This is simple routine; no one in the party appears to be excited.
Jacob wept for Joseph until the constant flow of tears destroyed his eyesight. Joseph, therefore, when the caravan bringing his parents to Egypt set out from Canaan, sent his shirt by a messenger, saying that it would restore his father’s sight. Jacob recognizes the odor of the shirt while yet a long distance from it, and says, “Verily I perceive the smell of Joseph!” The messenger arrives, throws the shirt on Jacob’s face, and the sight is restored. The story ends with the triumphant entrance into Egypt, and the fulfillment of the dream of Joseph’s boyhood; they have all bowed down to him.
Before the impressive homily which closes the chapter, Gabriel says to Muhammad (verse 103): “This tale is one of the secrets which we reveal to you”; and he adds, referring to Joseph’s brethren: “You were not with them when they agreed upon their plan and were treacherous.”26 This might seem to be a superfluous reminder; but its probable intent is to say here with especial emphasis, not only to Muhammad but also to others, that no inspired prophet, Arabian or Hebrew, can narrate details, or record dialogues, other than those which have been revealed to him. Conversely, every prophet has a right to his own story.
The tale of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (27:16—45) gives further illustration of Muhammad’s manner of retelling in leaps and bounds. Here also is shown, even more clearly than in the story of Joseph, his tendency to be mysterious. The material of the narrative is taken from the Jewish Haggada,27 but much is omitted that is quite necessary for the understanding of the story. Change of scene is not indicated, and the progress of events is often buried under little homilies delivered by the principal characters (I omit the homilies).
Solomon was David’s heir; and he said: “O you people! We have been taught the speech of birds, and we have been given everything. Verily this is a manifest favor.”
There were assembled for Solomon his hosts of jinn, and men, and birds; and they proceeded together until they came to the Valley of the Ants.28 An ant cried out: “O you ants! Get into your dwellings, lest Solomon and his armies crush you without knowing it.” Solomon smiled, laughing at her speech, and said: “O Lord, arouse me to thankfulness for thy favor....”
Here follows a homily. We are left in some doubt as to whether the ants suffered any damage; for the tale proceeds:
He reviewed the birds, and said, “How is it that I do not see the hoopoe? Is he among the absent? I surely will torture him with severe tortures, or I will slaughter him, or else he shall bring me an authoritative excuse.” He was not long absent, however; and he said: “I have learned something which you knew not. I bring you from Sheba sure information. I found a woman ruling over them; she has been given all things, and she has a mighty throne. I found her and her people worshipping the sun.” Solomon said, “We shall see whether you have told the truth, or are one of the liars. Take this letter of mine, and throw it before them. Then return, and we will see what reply they make.”
She said: “O you chieftains! A noble letter has been thrown before me. It is from Solomon, and it says, ‘In the name of God, the merciful Rahman; Do not resist me, but come to me resigned.’ O you chieftains! Advise me in this matter.” They said, “We are mighty men of valor, but it is for you to command.” She said, “When kings enter a city, they plunder it and humble its mighty men. I will send them a present, and see what my messenger brings back.”
Solomon preaches to the messenger, threatens him and his people, and bids him return. Then he addresses his curious army: “Which of you will bring me her throne, before they come in submission?” (There was need of haste, for after the queen had once accepted Islam, Solomon would have no right to touch her property.) “A demon of the jinn said, ‘I will bring it, before you can rise from your seat.’ He who had the knowledge of the Book said, ‘I will bring it, before your glance can turn.’ So when he saw the throne set down before him, he said, ‘This is of the favor of my Lord’” (and he adds some improving reflections of a general nature). The native commentators explain that the throne was brought to Solomon underground, the demons digging away the earth in front and filling it in behind; and all in the twinkling of an eye—according to the promise. The reader must not suppose, however, that this underground transit was from South Arabia to Palestine. Muhammad left out the part of the story which tells how Solomon’s army was transported through the air to a place in the neighborhood of the queen’s capital.
“He said, ‘Disguise her throne! We shall see whether she is rightly guided, or not.’ So when she came, it was said, ‘Was your throne like this?’ She replied, ‘It might be the same.’ Then they said to her, ‘Enter the court!’ And when she saw it, she supposed it to be a pool of water, and uncovered her legs to wade through. But Solomon (who was not absent) said: ‘It is a court paved with glass!’ She said, ‘O Lord, verily I have been wrong; but I am now resigned, with Solomon, to Allah the Lord of the Worlds!’” That is, she became a Muslim. The Koran drops the story here, not concerned to tell that Solomon married her.
Of the queen’s interest in the wisdom of Solomon, which plays such a part in the biblical narrative, and still more in the Jewish Midrash, not a word is said here. This feature must have been known to Muhammad, but it did not suit his purpose. His own quaintly disjointed sketch doubtless achieved the effect which he intended. The mystery of the half-told would certainly impress the Meccans; and the Jews would say, “We know these incidents, and there is much more of the story in our books!” So Muhammad would achieve a double triumph.
The account of Jonah and his experiences given in 37:139-148 is unique in the Koran. The whole biblical narrative, without any external features, is told in a single breath, a noteworthy example of condensation. Even the hymn of prayer and praise from the belly of the whale receives mention in vs. 143. As has already been observed, Jonah is the only one of all the fifteen Nebiim Acharonim to receive mention in the Koran. The name of the Hebrew prophet is given (here as elsewhere) in a form ultimately based on the Greek, seeming to indicate—as in so many other cases—an origin outside Arabia. The nutshell summary may have been made by Muhammad himself, after hearing the story read or repeated (though he nowhere else condenses in this headlong but complete fashion); or it may have been dictated to him, and then by him decorated, clause by clause, with his rhymed verse-endings.
Verily, Jonah was one of the missionaries. When he fled to the laden ship, he cast lots, and was of those who lost. The whale swallowed him, for he was blameworthy; and had it not been that he celebrated God’s praises, he surely would have remained in its belly until the day when men rise from the dead. So we cast him upon the barren shore; and he was sick; and we made a gourd to grow over him. And we sent him to a hundred thousand, or more; and they believed, and we gave them prosperity for a time.
The narrative of “Saul and Goliath” (Talut and Jalut) gives a good illustration of the way in which the Meccan Prophet’s memory sometimes failed him.
The leaders of the children of Israel ask their prophet to give them a king (2:247). He argues with them, but eventually says:
God has appointed Talut as your king. They said, “How shall he be king over us when we are more worthy to rule than he, and he has no abundance of wealth?” He answered, “God has chosen him over you, and has made him superior in knowledge and in stature (cf. I Sam. 9:2)....” So when Talut went forth with the armies, he said: “God will test you by a river: Whoever drinks of it is not of mine; those who do not taste of it, or who only sip it from the hand, are my army.” So all but a few drank of it. When they had passed beyond it, some said, “We are powerless this day against Jalut and his forces.” But those who believed that they must meet God said, “How often has a little band conquered a numerous army, by the will of God! He is with those who are steadfast.” So they went forth against the army, ... and by the will of God they routed them; and David slew Jalut, and God gave him the kingdom.
Here, obviously, is confusion with the tale of Gideon and his three hundred picked men (Judg. 7:47). The casual way in which David finally enters the narrative is also noteworthy.
The first half of the twenty-eighth sura (vss. 2—46) gives an interesting outline of the early history of Moses, following closely the first four chapters of Exodus. It illustrates both the general trustworthiness of Muhammad’s memory, for it includes practically every item contained in these chapters, often with reproduction of the very words; and also, a certain freedom in his treatment of the Hebrew material, for he introduces, for his own convenience, some characteristic little changes and embellishments. This is the longest continuous extract from The Old Testament which the Koran contains. Muhammad does not treat the story as an episode in Hebrew history, but carries it through, in his cryptic fashion, without any specific mention of the “children of Israel.” The sura dealing with Joseph and his brethren had already been put forth (it can hardly be doubted), but he makes no allusion to it, nor to the entrance of Hebrews into Egypt.
Pharaoh exalted himself in the earth, and divided his people into parties. One portion of them he humbled, slaughtering their male children, and suffering their females to live; verily he was of those who deal wickedly. But we were purposing to show favor to those who were humbled in the land, and to make them leaders and heirs; to establish them in the earth, and to show Pharaoh and Haman and their hosts what they had to fear from them.
Haman appears consistently in the Koranic narrative (also in suras 29 and 40) as Pharaoh’s vizier. Rabbinic legends mention several advisers of Pharaoh (Geiger, 153), but Muhammad had in mind a more important officer. He had heard the story of Esther (and of course retained it in memory), and both name and character of the arch anti-Semite appealed strongly to his imagination. That he transferred the person, as well as the name, to Egypt is not at all likely. Gabriel knew that there were two Hamans.
And we gave this revelation to Moses’ mother: Give him suck; and when you fear for his life, put him into the river; and be not fearful, nor grieved; for we will restore him to you, and make him one of our apostles. So Pharaoh’s family plucked him out, to be an enemy and a misfortune to them; verily Pharaoh and Haman and their hosts were sinners. Pharaoh’s wife said, “Here is joy for me and thee! Slay him not, haply he may be of use to us, or we may adopt him as a son” (repeating the words which Potiphar uttered to his wife, in the case of Joseph). But they knew not what was impending.
Events develop as in the biblical narrative. Moses’ mother is hindered by divine intervention from letting out the secret, in her anxiety. The child’s sister follows him, keeping watch, unobserved, from a distance. The babe refuses the breast of Egyptian nurses, as the Talmud declares (Sotah, 12 b); so it comes about that he is restored to his mother. Arrived at manhood, Moses enters “the city” stealthily, and finds two men fighting: “The one, a member of his party; the other, of his enemies.” He is called upon for help, and kills the “enemy” with his fist—the blow of an expert boxer. He repents of his deed, utters a prayer, and is forgiven; but on the following day, as he enters the city cautiously and in apprehension, the same scene is set: the same man is fighting with another of the hostile party, and cries out for help. Moses reproaches his comrade (“Verily you are a manifest scoundrel!”), but again intervenes. As he approaches, to deal another knock-out blow, the intended victim cries out: “O Moses, do you mean to kill me, as you killed a man yesterday? You are only aiming to be a tyrant in the land, not to be one of the virtuous!” Just then a man came running from the other end of the city, saying, “O Moses, the nobles are taking counsel to kill you! So be off; I am giving you good advice.” Thereupon Moses starts for Midian.
The account of the happenings in Midian is given with characteristic improvement. Here again is illustrated the Prophet’s lively interest in those scenes in which women figure prominently. He doubles the romance in the story, patterning it, in a general way, upon the account of Jacob and Rachel. Seven daughters at the well are too many; he recognizes only two; and Moses serves them gallantly, thereafter accompanying them home. “One of them came to him, walking bashfully, and said: ‘My father is calling for you, to pay you for drawing water for us.’ And when he came to him, and told him his story, he said, ‘Fear not; you have escaped from an impious people.”’ Muhammad neither names the father of the girls nor shows the least interest in him; he is merely a necessary property of the story. We could wish, however, that Muhammad (or Moses) had shown a more decided preference for the one or the other of the daughters.
One of them said, “O father, hire him! The best that you hire are the strong and trusty.” He said: “I wish to marry you to one of these two daughters of mine, on the condition that you work for me eight years;29 and if you shall wish to make it a full ten years, that rests with you. I do not wish to be hard on you, and you will find me, if God wills, one of the upright.” Moses replied: “So be it between thee and me; whichever of the two terms I fulfill, there will be no grudge against me; and God is the witness of what we say.” So when Moses had completed the term [which term?], and journeyed away with his family [which daughter?], he became aware of a fire on the side of the mountain. He said to his family, “Wait here; I have discovered a fire. Perhaps I may bring you news from it, or a firebrand, so that you may warm yourselves.” So when he came up to it, a voice called to him out of the tree, on the right side of the wady in the sacred valley, “O Moses! I am God, the Lord of the Worlds. Throw down your rod.” And when he saw it move as though it were a serpent, he fled from it without turning back. “O Moses, draw nigh and fear not, for you are safe!”
The narrative then recounts the miracle of the leprous hand, the appointment of Aaron, and the first unsuccessful appearance before Pharaoh and his magicians. Instead of the story of the brickmaking task, which occupies the fifth chapter of Exodus, Muhammad introduces a feature which he adapts from the story of the Tower of Babel.
Pharaoh said: “O you nobles! I know not that you have any god except myself. So now, Haman, burn for me bricks of clay, and build me a tower, so that I may mount up to the god of Moses; verily I consider him a liar.” And he and his hosts behaved arrogantly and unjustly in the earth, nor considered that they shall be brought back to us. So we took him and his armies and cast them into the sea; behold therefore how the wicked are punished.
Gabriel concludes by saying to the Prophet (as at the end of the story of Joseph): “You were not on the west side when we decreed the matter for Moses, nor were you a witness; ... nor were you dwelling among the people of Midian.... It is only by mercy from your Lord (that these things are revealed to you).”
This narrative of the early life of Moses is particularly instructive, not only as illustrating Muhammad’s manner of retelling the biblical stories, but also as showing, better than any other part of the Koran, the freedom with which he could adorn his own account with properties deliberately taken over by him from other biblical stories with which he was familiar. That he felt himself to be quite within his rights, as a prophet, in so doing, may be considered certain.
The eighteenth sura holds a peculiar place in the Koran. The narratives of which it is mainly composed are at once seen to be different in character from the types which elsewhere are so familiar. While in every other part of the sacred book Muhammad draws either upon the biblical and rabbinic material or else upon Arabian lore, in sura 18 we are given a sheaf of legends from world literature. The stories have the characteristic Muhammadan flavor, it is true; yet the sura has distinctly an atmosphere of its own, and the Prophet makes no allusion elsewhere to any part of its narrative material.
First comes the famous legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. Certain youths fled to a cave in the mountains to escape the persecution of the Christians under Decius (c. 250 C.E.). Their pursuers found their hiding place, and walled it up. They were miraculously preserved in a Rip van Winkle sleep, and came forth some two hundred years later, in the reign of the emperor Theodosius II, when some workmen happened to take away the stones. The legend arose before the end of the fifth century, and soon made its way all over western Asia and Europe. Since it is a Christian tale, and since also there is particular mention of the Christians in the opening verses of the sura, some have drawn the conclusion that this little collection of stories was designed by the Prophet to attract the adherents of that faith especially. There is, however, nothing else in the chapter to give support to this theory, while on the other hand there is considerable evidence that even the opening legend came to Muhammad through the medium of a Jewish document. Aside from the fact that Muslim tradition represents the Jews of Mecca as interested in this tale (see Baidawi on vs. 23), and the additional fact that each of the following narratives in the sura appears to be derived from a Jewish recension, there is a bit of internal evidence here which should not be overlooked. In vs. 18 the speaker says, “Send someone... to the city, and let him find out where the cleanest food is to be had, and bring provision from it.” This emphasized care as to the legal fitness of the food at once suggests a Jewish version of the legend. A Christian narrator, if the idea occurred to him at all, would have need to specify what he meant (e.g., food offered to idols). It is to be observed that this motive does not occur in the homily of Jacob of Sarug, nor is there anything corresponding to it in any of the early Christian versions which I have seen; those for instance published by Guidi, I Sette Dormienti, and Huber, Die Wanderlegende. There is no Christian element in the story, as it lies before us in the Koran; it might well be an account of the persecution of Israelite youths.
As usual, the narrative begins without scene or setting. Gabriel says to Muhammad:
Do you not think, then, that the heroes of the story of the cave and of ar-Raqim30 were of our marvellous signs? When the youths took refuge in the cave, they said, “Lord, show us thy mercy, and guide us aright in this affair of ours.” So we sealed up their hearing in the cave for a number of years. Then at length we awakened them; and we would see which of the two parties made better calculation of the time which had elapsed.... You could see the sun, when it arose, pass to the right of their cave, and when it set, go by them on the left, while they were in a chamber within. ... You would have thought them awake, but they were asleep; and we turned them over, now to the right, now to the left; and their dog stretched out his paws at the entrance. If you had come upon them suddenly, you would have fled from them in fear. Then we awakened them, to let them question one another. One said, “How long have you tarried?” Some answered, “A day, or part of a day.” Others said, “Your Lord knows best how long; but send one, with this money, into the city; let him find where the cleaner food is to be had, and bring back provision. Let him be courteous, and not make you known to anyone. If they get knowledge of you, they will stone you, or bring you back to their religion; then you will fare ill forever.” So we made their story known; ... and the people of the city disputed about them. Some said, “Build a structure over them; their Lord knows best about them.” Those whose opinion won the day said, “We will build over them a house of worship.”
The verses which follow show that the Prophet was heckled about this tale, and felt that he had been incautious. The existing versions of the legend differed, or were noncommittal, as to the number of the sleepers. Some of Muhammad’s hearers were familiar with the story, and now asked him for exact information. It may be useless to conjecture who these hearers were, but the probability certainly inclines toward the Jews, who heckled Muhammad on other occasions, and of all the inhabitants of Mecca were those most likely to be acquainted with this literature. If, as otherwise seems probable, it came to the Prophet’s knowledge through them, and in an anthology made for their use, they would very naturally be disposed to make trouble for him when he served out the legends as a part of his divine revelation. The Koran proceeds:
They will say, “Three, and the fourth was their dog”; or they will say, “Five, and the sixth was their dog (guessing at the secret)”; others will say, “Seven, and their dog made eight.” Say: “My Lord best knows their number, and there are few others who know.” Do not dispute with them, unless as to what is certain; nor apply to any one of them for information. Say not in regard to a thing, “I will do it tomorrow”; but say, “If God wills.” Remember your Lord, when you have forgotten, and say, “Mayhap my Lord will guide me, that I may draw near to the truth in this matter.” They remained in their cave three hundred years, and nine more. Say: “God knows best how long they stayed.”
After this comes (vss. 31—42) a parable of a familiar sort: the god-fearing poor man, and his arrogant neighbor, the impious rich man, upon whom punishment soon descends. This might be Jewish, or Christian, or (much less probably) native Arabic. It is not difficult to believe that Muhammad himself could have composed it entire, but more likely it is abbreviated by him from something which formed part of the (Aramaic?) anthology which was his main source in this sura.
Farther on (verse 59) begins the story of Moses and his attendant, journeying in search of the fountain of life. This is a well known episode in the legend of Alexander the Great, whose place is here taken by Moses. Muhammad certainly was not the author of the substitution, but received it with the rest of the story. To all appearance, we have here a Jewish popular adaptation of the legend. The opening words of the Koranic version, however, take us far back of Alexander the Great. Moses says to his attendant, “I will not halt until I reach the meeting-place of the two rivers, though I go on for many years!” Now this brings in a bit of very ancient mythology. In the old Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh the hero, after many labors and trials, goes forth in search of immortality. He hears of a favorite of the gods, Utnapishtim, who has been granted eternal life. After great exertions Gilgamesh arrives at the place where this ancient hero dwells, “at the confluence of the streams.” Utnapishtim attempts to give some help, but Gilgamesh fails of his main purpose. The Koran proceeds:
Now when they reached the confluence, they forgot their fish, and it made its way into the river in quick passage. After they had proceeded farther, Moses said to his attendant, “Bring out our luncheon, for we have suffered weariness in this journey of ours.” He answered: “Do you see, when we halted at the rock I forgot the fish (and only Satan made me forget to mention the fact), and it took its way into the river marvelously.” He cried, “That is the place which we were seeking!” And they turned about straightway on their track.
They had taken with them a dried fish for food, and the magical water restored it to life. This motive occurs in other legends, but the ultimate source of the main account here is plainly the narrative in Pseudo-Callisthenes, which in the forms known to us contains also this particular incident. Gilgamesh, Alexander, and Moses all find the place of which they were in search, but Moses’ fish alone achieves immortality. It is important to observe, moreover, that Moses, like Gilgamesh, finds the ancient hero to whom God had granted eternal life. The Koran does not name him, but he is well known to Muslim legend by the name al-Khidr (“Evergreen”?).31
The story of Moses now enters a new phase. He becomes temporarily the peripatetic pupil of the immortal saint; the attendant who figured in the preceding narrative disappears from sight.
So they found a servant of ours, to whom we had granted mercy, and whom we had taught our wisdom. Moses said to him, “May I follow you, with the understanding that you will impart to me of your wisdom?” He replied, “You will not be able to bear with me. For how can you restrain yourself in regard to matters which your knowledge does not compass?” He said, “You will find me patient (if God wills), and I will not oppose you in anything.” “If then you will follow me,” he said, “you must not question me about any matter, until I give you account of it.”
The wise man who does strange things, ultimately explained by him, is well known to folklore. The amazement, or distress, of the onlooker is of course always an essential feature. The penalty of inquisitiveness, “If you question, we must part!” (as in the tale of Lohengrin), might naturally occur to any narrator—especially when the wise man is an immortal, who of necessity must soon disappear from mortal eyes. This feature, however, is not at all likely to have been Muhammad’s own invention, but on the contrary is an essential part of the story which he repeats. Whoever the inquisitive mortal may have been in the legend’s first estate, as it came to the Arabian prophet it was a Jewish tale told of Moses. More than this cannot be said at present.
The servant of God scuttles a boat which he and Moses had borrowed; kills a youth whom they happen to meet; and takes the trouble to rebuild a tottering wall in a city whose inhabitants had refused them shelter. On each of the three occasions Moses expresses his concern at the deed. Twice he is pardoned, but on his third failure to restrain himself the servant dismisses him, after giving him information which showed each of the three deeds to have been fully justified.
Last of all, in this sura, comes the narrative of the “Two-Horned” hero—again Alexander the Great. Verse 82 introduces the account with the words: “They will ask you about Dhu‘l-Qarnain (‘him of the two horns’)”. What interrogators did Gabriel have in mind? According to the Muslim tradition, the Jews were intended; and this is for every reason probable. The Koranic story, like its predecessor which told of the fountain of life, is based on Pseudo-Callisthenes; but it contains traits which point to a Jewish adaptation. Haggada and Midrash had dealt extensively with Alexander; and (as in the case of the story of the Seven Sleepers) no other of the Prophet’s hearers would have been so likely to test his knowledge of great events and personages. What Muhammad had learned about Alexander seems in fact to have been very little. He tells how the hero journeyed, first to the setting of the sun, and then to the place of its rising, appearing in either place as an emissary of the one God. The major amount of space, however, is given to the account of the protection against Gog and Magog (Yajuj and Majuj), the great wall built by Alexander. This fantasy on traits of Hebrew mythology suggests the Haggada, and increases the probability, already established, that all of the varied folklore in this eighteenth sura was derived from a Jewish collection of stories and parables (probably a single document) designed for popular instruction and entertainment.
When to the longer narratives which have been described are added the many brief bits mentioned in the preceding lecture, and the fact is borne in mind that Muhammad’s purpose is to give only a selection, or occasionally mere fragments, it is evident that he had imbibed a great amount of material of this nature. It included (1) biblical narrative more or less altered; (2) Jewish Haggada, in already fixed form; (3) a small amount of material of ultimately Christian origin; and (4) legends belonging to world literature, available at Mecca in the Aramaic language. The treatment is Muhammad’s own, with abridgment in his characteristic manner, and embellishment mainly homiletic. For the chronological and other blunders he alone is responsible. Finally, it is to be borne in mind that the Prophet knew, better than we know, what he was trying to do. In the case of some habitual traits which we find amusing, such as the grasshopperlike mode of progressing, and the omission of essential features, we may well question to what extent they show shrewd calculation rather than childlike inconsequence. Since his purpose was not to reproduce the Jewish scriptures, but to give the Arabs a share in them, his method may be judged by the result. His hearers were not troubled by the violation of literary canons, for they felt themselves in the presence of a divine message intended for them especially. If they were mystified, they were also profoundly stirred and stimulated. Around all these Koranic narratives there is, and was from the first, the atmosphere of an Arabian revelation, and they form a very characteristic and important part of the Prophet’s great achievement.