Three Ancient Korans

Alphonse Mingana

ABOUT 611 C.E. AN ILLUSTRIOUS member of the Arabic tribe of Quraish heard, in the cave of Hira, a voice giving him the solemn message: “Cry thou in the name of thy Lord who created, created man from clots of blood.” Suratul ‘Alaq (xcvi. 1-21).

Whatever be the degree of credence that an impartial critic may bestow upon this tradition, held as an unshakable truth by more than two hundred and fifty millions of people, we must at least bear in mind that a tradition sanctioned during the long period of thirteen centuries should command a certain respect and trust.

The man who heard this secret voice was Muhammad, and the result of the recital of the message that he received is Muhammadanism, whose only foundation is the book entitled al-Qur’ān [Koran], which originally means “recital” par excellence.

It is only during the last centuries that the Koran has been studied scientifically, and the outcome of genuine researches on this subject induces us to face today the Islamic book with a mental composure somewhat in contrast to the enthusiastic and often blind fascination which characterizes the Koranic compositions of the Muhammadan world. For this reason, we earnestly wish that the spirit of a higher criticism would soon be created among modern Muslim theologians, who, attracted by so many Christian theologians, commentators, and exegetes, will then give up the puerile senility in which they have lived and still live, and the low traditionalism of doctrine which famishes all the beauty of their writings.

Originally published as the Introduction of Leaves from Three Ancient Qurâns Possibly Pre ’Othmânic with a List of their Variants, edited by Rev. Alphonse Mingana and Agnes Smith Lewis (Cambridge, UK: 1914), pp. xi-xxxii.

Let us see what Muhammad himself thinks of the inspired book by means of which he tried, if possible, to overthrow the Christian and the Jewish bulwarks, by sapping at their base, the foundations of all that the old prophets and the apostles handed down to their respective admirers:

“Say verily, were men and jinns assembled to produce the like of this Koran they would not produce its like, though the one should help the other.” (Surat Bani Isra’il, xvii. 90.)

“If they say, ‘The Koran is his own device’ say, ‘Then bring ten suras like it of your own devising; call whom ye can to your aid besides Allah.”’ (Surat Hud, xi. 16.)

“If ye be in doubt as to that which we have sent down to our servant, then produce a sura like it.” (Suratul Baqarah, ii. 21.)

“The Muhammadan writers, in acknowledging the claims of the Koran to be the direct utterance of the divinity, have made it impossible for any Muslim to criticise the work, and it became, on the contrary, the standard by which other literary compositions had to be judged. Grammarians, lexicographers, and rhetorians, started with the presumption that the Koran could not be wrong, and that all works only approached excellence in proportion as they more or less successfully imitated its style.”2

Before we examine the truth of these assertions, we would wish to direct the attention of every reader of the Koran to the following points: (1) The sources of the Koran. (2) If we strip from its text the historical events and the circumstances in which it was written, it becomes an inexplicable composition. (3) How were the verses of the Koran preserved from 612 to 632? (4) Who is the compiler of the standard text that we have today, and is this compilation authentic?

The first point is very easily treated, and since the Prophet could probably neither read nor write,3 the details which deal with the unity of God, and with the various forms of the eastern conceptions of religious obligations, viz. prayer, alms, fasting, etc. must have been inspired chiefly by oral information drawn from Christians, and specially from the strong Jewish colony of Mecca and the neighboring districts. Besides the masterly book of Nöldeke, the reader will find trustworthy information on this subject in Geiger’s Was hat Mahomet aus dem Judenthum aufgenommen? [“What Did Muhammad Borrow from Judaism?” See chapt. 11 in this volume—Ed.] (1833) for the Jewish element in the Koran, and in W St. Clair-Tisdall’s The Original Sources of the Koran (1905). Some good ideas may be found in Cl. Huart’s Une nouvelle source du Qoran [“A New Source of the Koran”] (1904). We have to draw attention to the following details:

Long before the time of the Prophet, the Quraishites were mixed with the Christians, and about 485 C.E. a well-known Syrian writer, Narsai, the founder of the University of Nisibis, mentions the terrible raids that the forefathers of Muhammad were wont to make in the district of Beith ‘Arabayé, in Western Assyria: “The raid of the sons of Hagar was more cruel even than famine, and the blow that they gave was more sore than disease; the wound of the sons of Abram is like the venom of a serpent, and perhaps there is a remedy for the poison of reptiles, but not for theirs..... Let us always blame the foul inclination of the sons of Hagar, and specially the people (the tribe) of Quraish who are like animals.”4

The distance between Arabia and the desert of Syria will not astonish our reader if he thinks of the seminomad life of every good Arab, when mounted on his swift mare. We read in Synodicon Orientale5 that about 486 C.E. the famous Barsauma of Nisibis was appointed with Kardagh Nakwergan, Roman dux and king of the Arabs, to settle the differences arising out of the rudimental delimitation of the Roman and Persian frontiers, in the East of Arabia. A letter from Barsauma to Acacius, Catholicos of Seleucia, informs us that the Arabs called Tu‘aites would not have permitted the inhabitants of the province of Beith ‘Arabayé to live in peace through their continual raids. These Arabs, who are not to be confounded with Tayayés, Tay, and who molested so strangely the western parts of the old Assyrian empire, were living in the sandy plains of the southwestern land of the Sassanids, and by their proximity to the country of the Meccan prophet they must have shaken more than once the primitive religious authorities of central Arabia. In the districts adjoining the country where Mecca is situated, several small kingdoms were almost half Christian, and a document of supreme value6 proves that Hira was already a bishopric in 410 C.E.

In consideration of the meagre scientific attainments of the Prophet, the question of the sources of the Koran has been keenly debated by the old Christian communities. The outcome of some of their thoughts brought forth the curious History of Rabban Bebira.The second part of this legend which tells of the interview of Muhammad with this monk, and the epoch of whose composition may be the middle of the eighth century, is an irrefragable proof both of the ignorance of the Christian scholars of that time about the genuine sources of the Koran, and of their conviction that it had a foreign origin. M. R. Gottheil, who printed this history in 1899,7 remarks that its first part, containing the encounter of Behira with Iso‘iahb, and its third part, exhibiting some apocalyptic visions on Islam, may date from the eleventh century, but its second part is much earlier. It would be interesting to know whether this second part has no historical value; but as this question is a digression from our subject, we content ourselves with a reference to it.

The internal criticism of the Koran will easily shew this elementary evidence of a foreign source; but what we can by no means explain, are the wonderful anachronisms about the old Israelite history. The only possible way of accounting for these would be the distance which separated the moment of the inspiration of the verses from the moment when the Prophet received the oral communication. Who then will not be astonished to learn that in the Koran, Miriam, the sister of Aaron, is confounded with the Virgin Mary? (Surat ‘Ali-‘Imran, iii. 31 et seq.) and that Haman is given as minister of Pharaoh, instead of Ahasuerus? (Suratul-Qasas, xxviii. 38. Suratul-Mu‘men, xl. 38 et passim). The ignorance, too, of the author of the Koran about everything outside of Arabia and some parts of Syria makes the fertility of Egypt, where rain is never missed, for the simple reason that it is very seldom seen, depend on rain instead of on the inundation of the Nile. (Surat Yusuf, xii. 49.) Moreover, the greatest honor that the Israelite tradition bestows upon Esdras is found in Sanhedrin, xxi. 22, where we read that “ ‘Ezra would have been fully worthy to give the law, if Moses had not been before him”;8 but to state, as in Suratut-Taubah, ix. 30, that the Jews believed that Esdras was the son of God, as the Christians thought of the Messiah, is a grave error hardly justifiable. All these historical mistakes receive another and not less topical support from the utter confusion which is made between Gideon and Saul in Suratul-Baqarah, ii. 250. Such mistakes are indelible stains on the pages of the sacred book which is the object of our study, and they are not wiped out by the following statement:

“We (Allah) relate unto thee a most excellent history, by revealing unto thee this Koran, whereas thou wast before one of the negligent.” (Surat Yusuf, xii. 3.) And again,

“I (Muhammad) had no knowledge of the exalted princes when they disputed about the creation of man; it is revealed unto me only as a proof that I am a public preacher.” (Surat Sad, xxxviii. 67-70.)

If we try to read the Koran from beginning to end in the order in which it has been circulated from the latter half of the seventh century down to this day, we shall ascertain that it is the most incoherent of books, and the flagrant contradictions that we shall meet will astonish us. So in Suratut-Taubah, we read, “Make war upon the people unto whom the book has been delivered, who ... forbid not what Allah and His Apostle have forbidden, and who profess not the profession of the truth, until they pay tribute out of hand in an humble condition.” And again in Suratul-Baqarah, ii. 189, it is said: “And fight against them till there be no more tumult, and the only worship be that of Allah.”

But in this same Suratul-Baqarah, v. 257, it is said: “Let there be no compulsion in religion”; and in Suratul-Ankabut, xxix. 45: “And dispute ye not, except in kindliest sort with the people of the book.” (The Christians and the Jews, by allusion to the Torah and the Gospel, are called in the Koran the people of the book.)

The Muhammadan commentators noticed these contradictions, and found that the best way to remove them was that of the historical method, and availing themselves of the oldest lives of the Prophet by Zuhri, Musa ibn‘Uqba, Abu Ishaq, Mada’ini, and the better-known books of Ibn Hisham, Waqidi, and Tabari, they attempted to explain every verse by the circumstances in which it has been revealed, and they distributed the suras of the Koran into two distinct groups: those which were written in Mecca from 612 C.E. to 622, and those which were revealed in Medina, from 622 to 632. The youthful and timid essay of Muhammadan theologians has been in the last few years considerably expanded by many critics; special mention must be made here of Nöldeke’s Geschichte des Qorâns [History of the Koran] (1860), and E. Sell’s The Historical Development of the Qoran (1905).

By this synchronal method, the Koran becomes a historical book, and the most trustworthy source of information about the Prophet. The touchstone of veracity for any given detail of the life of Muhammad told by the historians of the period of decadence would be to find if this detail has any sufficient ground in the Islamic book. But, at any rate, if by this criticism, the chronological order is saved, the versatility of mind of the Prophet can by no means be excused, since, under the pressure of necessity, he cruelly contradicted sometimes what he had stated before. Can then the following verse inspired in Mecca excuse some flagrant contradictions of the Koran?:

“And we have not sent an apostle or prophet before thee, among whose desires Satan injected not some wrong desire, but Allah shall bring to nought that which Satan has suggested.” (Suratul-Hajj, xxii. 51.)

We do not wish to discuss a youthful essay on the explanation of these difficulties, put forward by some pious commentators who say that: “Allah commanded several things which were, for good reasons, afterwards revoked and abrogated.” Those abrogated passages of the Koran are distinguished by many of the rigid commentators, into three kinds, “the first, where the letter and the sense are both abrogated; the second, where the letter only is abrogated, but the sense remains; and the third, where the sense is abrogated, though the letter remains.” These subtleties of the theological schools do not afford a profitable subject of study for a serious critic.

The most important question in the study of the Koran is its unchallengeable authenticity. In this theme, the first step would be the following question: How could Muhammad in all the wars by which his life was so unfortunately agitated, in all the displacements that he must have undergone, keep all the verses which had heen previously revealed to him in his memory, after an interval of several years? A plausible and final answer will probably never be given to this question, and the only tenable hypothesis is that which discards the difficulty by the assumption of the prodigious memory of his followers, who are believed to have learnt the strophes by heart, and that in a period lasting from 612 till 632. This hypothesis, which seems to be that of a dernier ressort, can be supported by the fact that the Prophet, who was more probably an unlettered man,9 had never thought of writing a book, or of gathering together, in a complete code, the scattered verses which he had recited to his friends, in some circumstances of his life; so much so, that after his death, the emissaries of Abu Bakr, his successor in the caliphate, could scarcely put together some separate bits of verses, despite the good memory, and the extreme care of Zaid ibn Thabit, the real compiler of the Koran of today.

This historical fact is suggested by the first refusal of Zaid to undertake the compilation of the Koran, on the ground that the Prophet himself had never done so. “What right have I,” said Zaid to Abu Bakr, “to gather in the form of a book what the Prophet has never intended to transmit to posterity by this channel? And since the Prophet never designed to give his message in this way, is it a lawful work that I am commanded to do?”

As to the prodigious memory of Eastern people who imperturbably and faithfully preserve verses of songs and poems, in their daily life, during a long space of time, we must say that this fact has been a little exaggerated; and nearly always the rural ditties, used in our day among the Bedawin and the Kurdish population of the plains of Syria and Mesopotamia, are recited by different tribes in a different way, and the changes are often more or less sensible according to the remoteness of the tribes one from the other. So, for instance, how many significant various readings can we find in the well-known Arabic elegy called ‘Itabah, in the divers Bedawin tribes of Albu-Hamad, Shammar, ‘Aniza, Dleim? etc. and, besides the various readings, how many new couplets of the Kurdish glee called Mamo Zine are used in the deadly sept of Mira, which are absolutely unknown in the tribes of Haja, Zewiki, Shakaki, etc.?

As to the faithfulness of a tradition among Eastern people, it has been, I think, accentuated too strongly, and the best comparison for this string of traditions would be, to anyone who has travelled in the arid deserts, a great caravan of big camels walking one after another, but all being guided by a small donkey. We cannot, indeed, understand why Eastern people should deviate in this matter from the natural law of a progressive evolution, and the tenacity with which some people cling to ancient religious creeds and habits of daily life has nothing to do with the change of words and the exaggeration of historical details; and for that matter, a serious man, who knows the domestic life of the nomads, will doubtless ascertain that the donkey, which conducts the imposing caravan of camels, is sometimes smaller in the East than in the West.

Besides the ordinary channel of the wonderful memory of the Arabs, many verses have been transmitted to Zaid by writing, a kind of writing which was in use at Mecca in the time of the prophet; but since we cannot explain why some verses should have been written and others not, and specially since we are not told which are the verses transmitted to Zaid by writing, and which are those that he knew only from memory, this fact cannot come, till fuller light dawns, into the sphere of a scientific and positive study. To believe that several verses of the Koran were written by friends of the Prophet during his lifetime is in accordance with some phrases of this sacred book which mention clearly the name of Kitab, “what is written, scriptures,” but to state that the fragmentary revelations were almost entirely written and “put promiscuously into a chest”10 is in contradiction to the kind of life that Muhammad led, and to early and authentic sources. In accepting such low and hardly disinterested traditions of Muslim authors, why should we not regard as true other and not less authoritative narratives which inform us that all the suras were completed according to the directions of the angel Gabriel, who, on the other hand, brought only to Muhammad, in parcels, a text written on a table of “vast bigness,” styled the Preserved Table and existing from an eternity near Allah’s throne? Muhammadan pious annalists know, too, that a copy made from this eternal original, has been sent to the lowest heaven, whence Gabriel was accustomed to show it once a year11 to the Prophet, bound in silk and adorned with gold and precious stones of Paradise. The Prophet himself puts into the mouth of God the following sentences: ”By the Luminous Book!—We (Allah) have made it an Arabic Koran that ye may understand; and it is a transcript of the Archetypal Book kept by us” (Suratuz-Zukhruf, xliii. 1-3), and again: “We ourselves (Allah) have sent down to thee the Koran as a missive from on high” (Suratud-Dahr, lxxvi. 23), and again:

“That this is the honorable Koran, written on the Preserved Table; let no one touch it but the purified” (Suratul-Waqi’ah, lvi. 77-78), and again: “Say, the Holy Spirit hath brought it down with truth, from thy Lord.” Suratun-Nahl (xvi., v. 104), etc., etc.

We know that the whole text of the Koran has been drawn up twice by Zaid ibn Thabit, who, it is said, was the amanuensis of the Prophet. The first recension was made under the caliphate of Abu Bakr, and at the instigation of ‘Umar, his successor, between 11 and 15 A. H. “I fear,” said this true believer, to the caliph, “that slaughter may again wax hot amongst the reciters of the Koran, on other fields of battle, and that much may be lost therefrom. Now therefore my advice is, that thou shouldst give speedy orders for the collection of the Koran.” Abu Bakr agreed, and addressing Zaid ibn Thabit, he said, “Thou art a young man, and wise; against whom no one amongst us can cast an imputation. Wherefore now search out the Koran, and bring it together.” Yielding to the joint entreaties of Abu Bakr and ‘Umar, Zaid sought out the fragments of the Koran from every quarter and gathered them together, from date-leaves, bits of parchment, tablets of white stone, and from the hearts of men.12

The Koran, so collected and drawn up by Zaid, was committed by ‘Umar to the custody of his own daughter Hafsa, the Prophet’s widow. We are not told, by any contemporary outside writer, of what kind were these tablets of white stone, or these date-leaves, and the early sources do not suggest that the Prophet had ever used such materials. It is quite possible, therefore, that the only source which Zaid had for the greater part of the text was “the hearts of men,” and some scattered scraps of parchment. This hypothesis is supported by the absolute want of any chronological order in the Koran; and this want suggests to us the idea that the book is not a result of one source of information, or of one Arab reciter, and that it has not been written in deep and laborious study, but that it is simply the outcome of many different recitals that Zaid heard day by day, and gradually wrote down in the measure and proportion that he received them. One day he received some verses “from the breast” of some inhabitants of Medina dealing with the life of the Prophet in that city, and he wrote them quickly in his book; the next day, hearing some other recitals from some inhabitants of Mecca, he embodied them with the previous verses revealed in Medina. For this reason, we can scarcely find a long sura of the Koran which is not twice or thrice at least composite, i.e., having verses dating from the time when the Prophet was still in his native town, and some others referring to the time immediately following his flight to Yathrib. It is highly probable, too, that the bits of parchment used by Zaid contained sometimes a complete narrative of a biblical incident, and that the only work of the compiler was to put such well digested material in one of the suras of the book that he edited. In this category must be counted all the verses dealing with the history of Joseph, of the birth of the Christ, and many other stories.

Finally, if we understand correctly the following verse of Suratul-Hijr (xv. 90-91): “As we sent down upon (punished) the dividers (of the Scripture?) who broke up the Koran into parts,” we are tempted to state that, even when the Prophet was alive, some changes were noticed in the recital of certain verses of his sacred book There is nothing very surprising in this fact, since Muhammad could not read nor write, and was at the mercy of friends for the writing of his revelations, or, more frequently, of some mercenary amanuenses.

The book, drawn up by this method, continued to be the authoritative and standard text till about 29-30 A. H. under the caliphate of ‘Uthman. At this time the wonderful faithfulness of Arab memory was defective, and according to a general weakness of human nature, the Believers have been heard reciting the verses of the Koran in a different way. This fact was due specially, it is said, to the hundreds of dialects used in Arabia. Zaid was again asked to put an end to these variations which had begun to scandalize the votaries of the Prophet. That indefatigable compiler, assisted by three men from the tribe of Quraish,13 started to do what he had already done more than fifteen years before. The previous copies made from the first one written under Abu Bakr were all destroyed by special order of the caliph: the revelation sent down from heaven was one, and the book containing this revelation must be one.

The critic remarks that the only guarantee of the authenticity of the Koran is the testimony of Zaid; and for this reason, a scholar who doubts whether a given word has been really used by Muhammad, or whether it has been only employed by Zaid on his own authority, or on the meagre testimony of some Arab reciters, does not transgress the strict laws of high criticism. If the memory of the followers of the Prophet has been found defective from the year 15 to 30 A. H. when Islam was proclaimed over all Arabia, why may it not have been defective from 612 to 632 C. E. when the Prophet was often obliged to defend his own life against terrible aggressors? And if the first recension of Zaid contained always the actual words of Muhammad, why was this compiler not content with re-establishing it in its entirety, and why was the want of a new recension felt by ‘Uthman? How can it be that in the short space of fifteen years, such wonderful variants could have crept into the few copies preceding the reign of the third caliph that he found himself bound to destroy all those he could find? If ‘Uthman was certainly inspired only by religious purposes, why did his enemies call him “The tearer of the Books” and why did they fasten on him the following stigma: “He found the Korans many and left one; he tore up the Book”?14 We deem, therefore, as too categorical the following verdict of Von Hammer: “We hold the Koran to be as surely Muhammad’s word, as the Muhammadans hold it to be the word of God.”

Though a convincing answer worthy of twentieth century criticism cannot be given to the preceding questions, we believe that Zaid endeavored to reproduce, faithfully, so far as he could, the very words of Muhammad. The imperfections of all kinds, and the want of historical order found in his book, are terrible witnesses against his intellectual proficiency; but, on the other hand, the fragmentary qualities of the last suras, the good control of the first caliphs, and especially the suitable time of his compilation, when many believers were able to recite several verses by heart, testify to his faithfulness. We believe too, that if the historical attainments of the first Muslims and of Zaid himself had been less restricted, they would perhaps have modified in some way the historical and topographical errors which the Koran contains.

Now, at what date has the Koran been arranged in the order that it follows in our day? Professor D. S. Margoliouth remarks very justly that “the task of arranging the sacred texts in fixed groups might very well have appalled a Muslim; we could scarcely credit a contemporary of the Prophet with having the courage to attempt it. On the other hand, the notion that the suras existed as frames, which gradually became filled as revelations descended, has little to commend it, and involves the existence of an official copy, which we have seen to be excluded by the evidence.”15We maintain, however, that this arrangement was made at the time of the first recension, and not at the second; the scandal which would have followed it at the time when the Koran was known by many a Muhammadan, and specially by believers in foreign countries, makes the contrary hypothesis very improbable.

The recension of ‘Othman has been handed down to us unaltered. So carefully, indeed, has it been preserved, that there are no variations of importance—we might almost say no variations at all—to be found in the innumerable copies scattered throughout the vast bounds of the Empire of Islam; contending and embittered factions, taking their rise in the murder of ‘Othman himself, within a quarter of a century after the death of Mahomet, have ever since rent the Moslem world; yet but one Coran has been current amongst them; and the consentaneous use by all of the same scripture, in every age, to the present day, is an irrefragable proof that we have now before us the very text prepared by command of the unfortunate Caliph. There is probably no other work in‘the world which has remained for 12 centuries with so pure a text..... It is one of the maxims of the Muslim world (supported perhaps by Sura xi. 2) that the Coran is incorruptible, and that it is preserved from error and variety of reading by the miraculous interposition of God himself.... According to the orthodox doctrine, every syllable of the Coran is of divine origin, eternal and uncreate as the Deity itself.16

From what we have said in the preceding pages, it is evident that if we find a manuscript of the Koran presenting various readings of consonants and of complete words, and more specially if this manuscript offers some interpolations and omissions, it would not be too rash to suppose that it goes back to a pre-‘Uthmanic period. The conclusion is clear and is corroborated by the constant history of the Muhammadan world, from the seventh century down to our own day.

Viewing the linguistic wording of the text of the Koran, we desire to examine a question which concerns us more than the others. Does the Koran contain the flower of the Arabic language, and is the challenge given by the Prophet himself true? Besides the sentences quoted in the preceding pages, the Prophet repeats several times with a certain emphasis: “We gave a Koran written in Arabic; it is in Arabic that this Koran has been revealed, etc.” Philologists will not be much offended, if we send our reader, for an answer to this question, to the excellent works of a man who deserves the gratitude of every Orientalist, Th. Nöldeke, and chiefly to his Geschichte des Qorâns (History of the Koran) already mentioned. We would wish only to draw attention to the following remarks:

The Arabic literature preceding the epoch of the Prophet is imperfectly known; but we may be allowed to state that it was not very flourishing, since the traces that it left for future generations are scanty in comparison with the formidable swarm of useful lucubrations of the post-Muhammadan time. This being, so, the Muslim authors are not to be blamed when they call that time the epoch of Ignorance17- though they mean specially, by this qualification, an ignorance about Allah and his immediate attributes. The works of the best writers have been collected at the beginning of the IXth century by Asma‘i and Tarafa, Amrul-Kais, ‘Antara, Zuhair, Nabigha, ‘Alkama.18

If we add to this number Ta’abbata-Sharran and Shanfara and some others found in the book of Louis Cheikho19but with some restriction about the authenticity of all their poems we may have the approximate number.

Now when we compare the style, the method of elocution, the purity of vocables, the happy adjustment of words, the choice of good rhymes in these pre-Islamic writings with the Koran, we are often tempted to give them an unchallengeable superiority; and it is only the kind of life, foreign to all learning, that can explain the great uneasiness that the author of the Koran shows when he wishes to write in rhyme, and finds himself short of common lexicographical terms. So in Suratul-Jinn the author had certainly an intention to write in rhymed prose (saj’), but his linguistic knowledge failing him, he repeats the [same] word six times at the end of twenty-eight short sentences. Besides the repetitions, being quite short of rhymes, even through this method, he changes the letter Dal to a ba’ in vv. 5, 8, 15, to a qaf in vv. 6, 13, 16. This example, chosen amongst hundreds of others which are found frequently in the final suras, is not weakened by some foreign and cacophonic terms of which the author of the Koran is enamoured (ex. sura lxxvi. 18; sura viii. 42; ii. 181; iii. 2 et passim; sura lxix. 36; lxxxiii. 7,8; lxxvi. 70; Suratun-Nisa [iv. 78 et passim]; Suratul-Maidah [v. 111-112, etc.], etc.).20 We believe, moreover, that it is by the want of good literary attainments that we can explain the vulgar disfigurement of the names John (Yohannan), Jesus (Esho‘) into lahya and ‘Isa. Muhammad seems to have taken the vulgar form of these names given in the popular language to children by some Christians of Jewish descent just as in English the name of Margaret becomes in colloquial fashion Margie (Scottice, Maggie, Meg, Peggie), that of Elizabeth, Lizzie or Bessie, and Robert, Bob, or Bertie.

Another and not less wonderful instance of spelling is used in Suratut-Tin, where the name of Mount Sinai (in Arabic Sīna’ as in Suratul-Mu’ minin, xxiii. 20), is written Sīnīna (!) to make it rhyme with the preceding verse and the following one. The disfigurement, too, of the name of Elijah (in Arabic Yäsa as in Suratul-An’am, vi. 85) into Yasīna (!) to make it rhyme with the final words of the phrase, suggests on this point a systematic habit on the part of the Prophet (cf. Suratus-Safat, xxxvii. 130).

This disfigurement of proper nouns is sometimes used in such an awkward manner that, if we wish to set aside an interminable tergiversation, we must attribute the origin of some unknown names, so strangely altered, to Muhammad’s own invention. So, who will easily be convinced that the Hud of Suratul-A‘raf (vii. 63 et pas.) is the same man as the Eber of the Bible,21 that the Saleh of Surat Hud (xi. 64, etc.) is the same man as Peleg of Genesis (xi. 16),22 and that the Shu’aib of Suratush-Shu’ara (xxvi. 177, etc.) is the same name as Hobab23 (Numb. x 29)? No tradition, however corrupted it might have been, would have altered these biblical names in such a wonderfully different mold.

Other alterations of names may perhaps be sufficiently explained by a traditional Christian or Jewish channel; so in Suratul-An‘am (vi. 74) Terah, Abraham’s father, is called “Azar,” and we know that in some Judaeo-Christian circles, Terah was called “Athar.”24The Djalut, too, of Suratul-Beqarah (ii. 250) is unmistakably Goliath; likewise, the Karun of Suratul-Qasas (xxviii. 76) seems to be the Korah of the Bible. At any rate, philology will be, for a long time, unable to explain convincingly how the name of Saul could become Talut, as in Suratul-Baqarah (ii. 248, 250), nor how the name of Enoch could become Idris, as in Surat Mariam (xix. 57, etc.), nor, finally, how the name of Obadiah (1 Kings xviii. 4) or of Ezechiel could become Dhul-Kifl, as in Suratul-Anbia’ (xxi. 85), in spite of a brilliant suggestion that Ezechiel is called by the Arabs Kefil (!).25

In any case, whatever view we may take of the claims of Muhammad, no one can deny that he was a great man, ranking with men of the highest genius, as a skillful administrator after the Eastern fashion, and wielding every kind of spiritual weapon to attract and captivate his hearers and his countrymen. His legislation, though perhaps too theocratic for the democratic spirit of our day, was perfection at the time when he lived; Exitus acta probat. A man who put an end, in less than ten years, to two formidable kingdoms, the kingdom of the old Achemenides represented by the classic Sassanids, and that of the Roman Caesars of Eastern countries, by means of some camel-drivers of Arabia, must be, at any rate, taken into consideration.26 A controller of conscience and soul to so many millions, and in the plain light of civilization, is indeed greater than Alexander and Bonaparte known only today in historical books. The proclamations of a semi-nomad Arab of the obscure town of Mecca have been recited by the wide Islamic world thirteen centuries ago, and are recited today; even the cross of the Messiah has been for many years nearly eclipsed by the Crescent, and the name of the Praised One of Arabia has been on many occasions on the point of overrunning the last refuge of Christianity. What history is unable to find, even in the twentieth century, is a name more terrible than that of Muhammad.


For a scientific comprehension of the text of the Koran, three kinds of study may be found useful: (1) The commentators of the Koran; (2) the grammarians who applied to it the Arabic vowels and diacritical points; (3) the divers forms of script formerly used in the Arabic language.

When the seminomad Arabs started to conquer the world, they did not carry with them, on their camels, any productions of a progressive and latent literature, for they were not brought up in high schools of science and philology. The most picturesque figure amongst these first Arabs is that of the caliph ‘Umar entering the holy city of Jerusalem (637), mounted on his camel, a bag of dates and a skin of water by his side; this provision being judged sufficient for his simple wants. It is worth observing how exactly the Aramaeo-Syrian population of that period of conquests called these Arabs by derision: Hagarians, Ishmaelites, with the purpose of indicating precisely the semibarbarous literary education that they had received.27 But an end was soon made to this awkward situation; and the intelligent Arabs, attracted by the example of their neighbors, began to spread everywhere the language of the Koran, and to devote themselves to the sciences which had long given to their new fellow-countrymen an unchallenged superiority. A well-known Syriac writer, Bar Hebraeus, tells us a significant fact, that the Umayyad caliph Walid ordered that the official acts of Damascus should henceforth be drawn up in Arabic, and no longer in Greek.28 The sanguinary battles of Yarmuk (636) and Kadesia (637), in imposing a new rule over the remains of the once classic empires, gave them a new sacred language.

With regard to the commentaries on the Koran, the only question in Arabic literature which concerns our subject, they are very important for the criticism of the text, since the commentators, when quoting and explaining a given verse in their books, quote it faithfully, and they often try to discuss it with all the resources of their science, literally and spiritually. The first commentator of the early epoch of Islam, was Ibn ‘Abbas, cousin of Muhammad, who seems to have been the main source of the traditional exegesis of the Koran. On theological grounds, a great number of his opinions have been considered heretical. He and his disciples deal with the sense and connection of a complete verse, and neglect the literal meaning of a separate word. His commentaries are therefore what Christian writers would call more spiritual than literal. No complete commentary either by the relatives of the Prophet or by extraneous writers has come down to us from this period.

The greatest commentator of a later generation is the well-known Tabari29 (839-923 C.E.). He is a mine for the knowledge of the wide Islamic legislation, and has sometimes excellent views about the occasion of the revelation of several verses. He is first of all a historian, availing himself of the method of isnad, and by this channel he preserves several interesting traditions of the early age of Muhammadanism.

Another good commentator is az-Zamakhshari30 (1075-1144). He is, according to the judgment of Nöldeke, too subtle a man, trying to apply his rhetorical and philosophical theories to the most practical of men: Muhammad.

In our own days, the commentary most used by Muslim theologians is that of al-Baidhawi (1286) who employed the same method as that of az-Zamakhshari in a more methodical manner.

The end of the thirteenth century, which marks the decadence and the close of the ‘Abbassid Caliphate, marks, too, the apogee of the Arabic investigations in the Koran. The numerous commentators of a later date content themselves with quoting, abridging the old authors, and writing books more popular than original.

A good commentary needs good reading, and good reading, in the Semitic languages, involves an accurate knowledge of the right position of the vowels, with all the orthoepical signs of punctuation. We ought to say at once that according to the measure of scientific investigations of today, the Arabs, apart from seven or ten marks of intonation, never used the rhetorical signs employed sometimes so fantastically and so awkwardly by the Aramaeans. The Arabic language possessing a kind of inflection like the Greek and the Latin, did not experience any great necessity for reaching even the fortieth part of the frightful number forty that the Aramaeans have invented for an intelligent reading of their Bible, and which are called by the curious and general name of Puhames, “similarities, comparisons.”31 A practical reason must have deterred the Arabs from adopting such a complicated system, and this reason is found in the script of their language which distinguishes several consonants by means of one, two or three dots placed either under or over a letter. The adoption of the Puhames of the Aramaeans would have created an insurmountable mental difficulty in distinguishing a diacritical point from an orthoepical one dealing specially with a proper accent of voice in the reading of a sentence.

While the Aramaeans and the Hebrews admitted several vowels and invented a special sign for every vowel pronounced open or closed, short or long, the prudent Arabs adopted only three vowels, but these three vowels, represented by a stroke of the pen under or over the letter, respond quite sufficiently to all philological exigencies, since each one of them, when followed by a weak letter, is considered as long, ex. gr. zārānī, “they have visited me,” and it is considered short, when followed by a letter which is not quiescent, ex. gr. qutila, “he has been killed,” and it is shortly closed when followed by a quiescent or reduplicated letter, ex. gr. ijtartum, “you have chosen.” By this method, every vowel becomes quantitatively three, and so the system is more ingenious than that of the Hebrews, and of the Aramaeans, who by a long use and borrowing very often neglected the short vowel, so important in poetry and in euphonic sounds.

The history of the vowels is somewhat obscure. It is certain that their invention cannot go back to the period preceding the Umayyad caliphate of Damascus. The period of conquest and of intestine war caused by the crucial question of the divine caliphate, which covered the Muhammadan world with blood, at the time of ‘Uthman and onwards, was not very suitable for scientific researches. The Umayyad Empire, though distinguished by some great productions of poetry and historical science, is unknown (except for some mere names such as that of Abul-Aswad Ad-Do’ali, or ‘Abdur-Rahman ibn Ormiz, a Persian scholar, etc.) as a starting point for grammatical and morphological studies. The first period of conquest lasted from the death of the Prophet, 632 to 661 C.E., when Mu’awiah entered Kufa and became the sole representative of Muhammad; the second period from 661 till January 25, 750 C.E., when the battle of Shaharzur gave the sceptre to the ‘Abbassids. Therefore, till the accession of Saffah, no center of grammatical learning has left a trace to posterity. But at this time, the two other branches of the Semitic stock, the Israelites and the Aramaeans, had alreadly passed the time of the careful elaboration of their Massorah, and their vowel-system had acquired a firm foundation, being, in fact, almost at the end of its final evolution.

From the middle of the sixth century, the Monophysite, Ahud-Emmeh, Metropolitan of Tagrit, had opened a path for the Syriac grammar. Some years before him, the famous Joseph of Ahwaz, had established, in the University of Nisibis, a solid foundation for orthoepical studies and for the right pronounciation of the vowels. In the middle of the seventh century, a school founded by Abba Sabrowy, at Beth Shehak, near Nisibis, made the Nestorian system of vowels known even among the Monophysites, their enemies. Before 700 C. E. Jacob of Edessa, by his well-known sentence Edessa, our mother, thou sbalt live in quietness, which represents all the vowels of the Aramaic language used today, marks the end of a systematic evolution of phonetic studies in the Syriac grammar. The school of Edessa, the University of Nisibis, the monasteries of Tel’eda, Kennesrin, and Karkaphta, had then made complete, in the period lasting from 450 to 700 C. E., the phonetic essays which the writers of a later period were content to abridge or to modify in some insignificant details.32

On the other hand, the strong Israelite colony which had remained behind from the old Babylonian captivity vied in a laudable zeal with the Aramaeans. By means of some prudently distributed bribes, they could always secure a satisfactory political condition under the Sassanid Sapor I and his successors. Their prestige was so widely felt that, in the fourth century, they contrived to be favored by the harem of the Queen Ephra Hormizd, to whom Christian writers of that time attribute the frightful ordeal that Sapor II, the enemy of the Roman legions, inflicted, in 341, on the Christians of the Persian Empire.33 According to the Talmud, the Jews of Babylonia are from a purer race even than those of Palestine; we read, in fact, in the Talm. Bab. under the treatise Kiddusin the following sentences: 34 ”Tous les pays sont comme de la pate relativement à la Palestine, mais ce pays l’est relativement à la Babylonie.“a By the works of Christian writers in Mesoptamia, we know how great was the influence that they exercised in that country and in the neighboring districts. Of the twenty-three homilies of Jacob Aphrahat (fourth century) nine are devoted to the anti-Judaic controversy. Narsai (502) has also some striking discourses against them.

The Torah was always the subject of a special study among the Jews of the Captivity either under the Arsacido-Parthians or under the Sassanido-Persians, but we know that from the third century and onwards the study has been considerably extended. The great Sidra of Sora, founded in this epoch, acquired a worldwide renown, and could not be eclipsed by other celebrated schools established at Nehardea, Perozsabur, Mahôzé (Seleucia), and Pumbaditha.35 The Rabbinic Massorah flourished in these centers, if not more than in the highest schools of Galilee, at least in an equal degree with them, and the scientific investigations of Babylonian Jews contributed more to the final fixing and delimitation of the complicated Massoretic system as we have it today than the researches of any other writers. In several MSS. of the Old Testament, the work of these Israelite centers of learning is designated by the gloss the East, and we know that in the sacred books of the Jews, the “Babylonian punctuation” is in many cases better even than the “Tiberian punctuation.”

When the ‘Abbassid dynasty appeared in the East, and new caliphs settled in Baghdad, the grammatical studies of their neighbors were then at their apogee. The intestine dissensions about the caliphate having been at last cut short by the two-edged sword of Abu Muslim, a new and deeper direction of studies was given to Arabic phonetics and morphology. Two celebrated centers of Arabic studies soon flourished in southern Mesopotamia: the school of Basra and that of Kufa. We do not wish our readers to understand that we positively deny that these two schools may have existed before the accession of the ‘Abbassid dynasty, but it is quite certain that to assign their foundation to the time immediately following Muhammad’s death, as some scholars state, and to believe that they exercised an influence as strong as that which they had, at a later time, under the eastern caliphate, would perhaps overstep the limits of safe criticism.

The first grammarian specially known for Arabic meter is Khalil ibn Ahmad (718-791 C.E.) of the school of Basra. Besides having the glory of being considered the first Arabic grammarian, he is believed to have been the inventor, in the latter half of the eighth century, of the hamza, a semiguttural consonant, in comparison with the weak aliph. So far as I know, no complete grammatical treatise of his is extant today. Some grammatical sketches are attributed to him by authors of a late date, but their authenticity seems to be more than doubtful.36 The earliest Arabic grammarian whose works have come down to us is Sibawaihi37 (753-793 C.E.), a disciple of Khalil.

The grammarians of the school of Kufa seem to have paid more attention to the spoken dialect of the Bedawin, and for this reason their attempts could not influence, at the beginning, the right reading of the Koran and could still less reach, in a later generation, a celebrity like that of the school of Basra, in spite of the illustrious Kisa‘i, Ibn as-Sekkit, and Farra’.... To some extent, their task was very difficult, and to Arabize all the Semitic and Aryan dialects, spoken in the old Chaldaean lands, such as the Mandaitic38 and the Katrian, was a harder task than many suppose.39

The. foundation of the Arabic vowels is based on the vowels of the Aramaeans. The names given to these vowels is an irrefragable proof of the veracity of this assertion. So the Phath corresponds in appellation and in sound to the Aramaic Phátha; the Khaphedhis exactly the Aramaic Hbasa. But though the Arabs imitated the Syrians in the verbal designation of the vowels, they recoiled, and very justly, from the absurd servility to Hellenism of the masters, who, after the time of Christological controversies and onwards, could not shrink from the Greek method; and placing their morphology and syntax on fresh bases, they laid the first foundation of a high philology which excites our admiration in the present day. Viewing the intimate formation of words, they divided them into biliteral, triliteral, and quadriliteral with essential letters, in such a steady method, that even the strongest philologists of the twentieth century are obliged to walk in their steps and to accept their impeccable terminology. Our thanks are due to the sagacity of scholars who in a short period of time perfected the delicate science of the deep constitution of their language.

The sagacity of the professors in the two schools of Basra and of Kufa was for a number for years challenged by a high seat of learning which the ‘Abbassids established in Baghdad and which flourished greatly from the beginning of the ninth century and onwards under the control of Christian physicians. This new school acquired a decided superiority over the others, because it taught several sciences derived from Greek and Syriac books translated into Arabic by the group of Nestorian doctors of the family of Bokhtisho’, Hunain and Maswai40 Physicians have always had a preponderating authority at the courts of Eastern monarchs, and going back into past history, we shall find one man, Gabriel the Drustbed, eclipsing the prestige of all the formidable Dyophysite community, in the palace of the Sassanid Chosroes II Parwez41

The first discoverer of the Arabic vowels is unknown to history. The opinions of Arab authors, on this point, are too worthless to be quoted; the critics of our day, too, have not clearly established their position on this subject. To find a way of unravelling this tangled question, and to discern the truth among so many positively expressed opinions, is by no means an easy task. If we may advance an opinion of our own, we think that a complete and systematic treatise on these vowels was not elaborated till the latter half of the eighth century, and we believe that such an attempt could have been successfully made only under the influence of the school of Baghdad, at its very beginning. On the one hand, besides the insufficiency of the grounds for assuming an earlier date, we have not a manuscript which can be shown to be before that time, adorned with vowels; on the other hand, the dependence of these vowels on those of the Aramaeans obliges us to find a center where the culture of the Aramaic language was flourishing, and this center is the school of Baghdad, which was, as we have already stated, under the direction of Nestorian scholars, and where a treatise on Syriac grammar was written by the celebrated Hunain.

As to the forms of the Arabic script (we do not speak of the script used in the pre-Koranic inscriptions), we can reduce them to three principal divisions: the Kufi, the Naskhi, and the Kufo-Naskhi. The Kufi type is characterized by more square and more compact and united letters, and generally by thicker and bigger strokes of the pen. The Naskhi has smaller, thinner and less compact strokes, and resembles more than other types the writing used, in our days, in printed books. The Kufo-Naskhi is intermediate between these two scripts.42 It is often very difficult to know, with certitude, the age of a manuscript only by its being written in one of these three types, since we find many documents written in one of them and belonging to the same period. For instance in the The Palaeographical Society,43 we meet with manuscripts written in these three scripts and dating from the eighth century. Therefore, it is very often by the specific characters used in each of these three types, and especially by a more or less use of diacritical points, that we are guided when we ascribe a manuscript to a given epoch.44

For the diacritical points which distinguish the sound of many Arabic letters one from another, it is very puzzling to find a general and infallible criterion. Since many consonants, like the 003and the 004 which are distinguished today only by the dot on the letter, were generally distinguished in the early time by a somewhat different stroke of the pen, it may be supposed that the diacritical point has been invented at a late date; but can we assert the same for the case of the 005and the 006 ? The question thus becomes quite different, especially when these letters are followed or preceded, in the middle of the word, by a 007 and a 008 which have almost the same form even in the most ancient MSS. that we possess; ex. gr. in how many different ways can the following word be read without diacritical points: 009 ?

After this elementary dissertation, it becomes clear that a manuscript, and especially a manuscript of the Koran, is sometimes to be considered more or less ancient according to the want or the existence of vowels, and according to the greater or less employment of diacritical points in its text, except perhaps in the case of letters which have exactly the same form, such as 010and 011.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!