THE word qur’ân means a reading or discourse, and is applied by Moslems to the whole, or to any section, of their sacred scriptures. Like the Jewish-Christian Bible, the Koran is an accumulation, and orthodoxy claims it to be in every syllable inspired by God. Unlike the Bible, it is proximately the work of one man, and is therefore without question the most influential book ever produced by a single hand. At various times in the last twenty-three years of his life Mohammed dictated some fragment of this revelation; each was written upon parchment, leather, palm-leaves, or bones, was read to an assembly, and was deposited in various receptacles with preceding revelations, with no special care to keep them in logical or chronological order. No collection of these fragments was made in the Prophet’s lifetime; but several Moslems knew them all by heart, and served as living texts. In the year 633, when many of these qurra had died and were not being replaced, the Caliph Abu Bekr ordered Mohammed’s chief amanuensis, Zaid ibn Thabit, to “search out the Koran and bring it together.” He gathered the fragments, says tradition, “from date leaves and tablets of white stone, and the breasts of men.” From Zaid’s completed manuscript several copies were made; but as these had no vowels, public readers interpreted some words variously, and diverse texts appeared in different cities of the spreading Moslem realm. To stop this confusion the Caliph Othman commissioned Zaid and three Quraish scholars to revise Zaid’s manuscript (651); copies of this official revision were sent to Damascus, Kufa, and Basra; and since then the text has been preserved with unparalleled purity and reverential care.
The nature of the book doomed it to repetition and disorder. Each passage taken separately fulfills an intelligible purpose—states a doctrine, dictates a prayer, announces a law, denounces an enemy, directs a procedure, tells a story, calls to arms, proclaims a victory, formulates a treaty, appeals for funds, regulates ritual, morals, industry, trade, or finance. But we are not sure that Mohammed wanted all these fragments gathered into one book. Many of them were arguments to the man or the moment; they can hardly be understood without the commentary of history and tradition; and none but the Faithful need expect to enjoy them all. The 114 chapters (“suras”) are arranged not in the order of their composition, which is unknown, but in the order of their decreasing length. Since the earlier revelations were generally shorter than the later ones, the Koran is history in reverse. The Medina suras, prosaic and practical, appear first; the Mecca suras, poetic and spiritual, appear last. The Koran puts its worst foot forward, and should be begun at the end.
All the suras except the first take the form of discourses by Allah or Gabriel to Mohammed, his followers, or his enemies; this was the plan adopted by the Hebrew prophets, and in many passages of the Pentateuch. Mohammed felt that no moral code would win obedience adequate to the order and vigor of a society unless men believed the code to have come from God. The method lent itself well to a style of impassioned grandeur and eloquence, at times rivaling Isaiah.1 Mohammed used a mode of utterance half poetry, half prose; rhythm and rhyme are pervasive in it, but irregular; and in the early Meccan suras there is a sonorous cadence and bold sweep of style that are completely felt only by those familiar with the language and sympathetic with the creed. The book is in the purest Arabic, rich in vivid similes, and too florid for Occidental taste. By general consent it is the best, as well as the first, work in the prose literature of Arabia.