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THE KORAN

(INTRODUCTION)

FAMOUS Oriental critic once said that the best way to

understand the Koran was to take the hint given by the Arabic writing, which reads from right to left, and so read the Koran backward, beginning with the last chapter. This suggestion is really worth following; for the Koran is not at all a book in our modern sense. It is not a complete discussion arranged in logical order. Each one of its Suras, or chapters, was proclaimed by Mohammed separately, as a chant or a prayer, a story or a warning, complete in itself, a single divine revelation.

These Suras were never combined by Mohammed into a book or even into a series. He recited them to his friends as occasion demanded. Sometimes the chants were not even written down, and were preserved just as Arab songs had been preserved for centuries before, by being treasured in the memories of wondering admirers. Only after the prophet's death, when his faith was spreading over half the world, did its leaders realize that trouble threatened from the variations appearing in the loosely memorized and repeated Suras. Some devotees treasured them in one phrasing, some in another. Fierce quarrels sprang up; a division into sects seemed probable. Then the leaders resolved that one authorized wording of the many Suras was needed; and they entrusted the task of gathering them to Zaid, one of Mohammed's comrades in Medina. This Zaid was therefore the editor and perhaps, to some extent of clarifying and reducing, the author of the Koran as we know it, and as every Mohammedan accepts it absolutely.

The gathering of the Suras was in itself no easy task. Zaid had often acted as Mohammed's scribe, and had preserved in a chest copies of most of the longer revelations. Some of

these he had written on scraps of sheepskin, some on palmleaves; one at least Mohammed himself had traced on a flat bone. For other Suras, Zaid trusted his memory, others he collected from the lips of friends. There are in the Koran to-day several Suras which begin with two or three initial letters, apparently meaningless, which the Mohammedans themselves do not understand. These letters are regarded as a holy mystery; but there is at least a probability that they mark the initials of the men from whom Zaid received those Suras which he himself had not heard or known.

In grouping the Suras in order, Zaid performed one of the quaintest and most childlike pieces of mechanical book-making ever achieved by an editor. He did put first of all that celebrated Sura which had become the common prayer of the Mohammedans. But after that he merely arranged the Suras in the order of their length, putting the longest first. This leads us to the reason why the Koran may be best read backward. Zaid's arrangement is very confusing to one who would follow the chronology or development of Mohammed's life and doctrine. Moreover, each Sura can only be fully understood when regarded in its relation to the prophet's very adventurous life, his position of danger or of triumph at the moment of its revelation. Not only the tone of the speaker but even his doctrines changed much with his fortunes. A revelation proclaimed at one time was sometimes contradicted later. As a rule, the very short Suras at the end of the Koran were those first announced. They represent the early impassioned vehemence of the man, fighting for his faith, shouting out the eager, burning flame within him. the chapters become longer they become calmer; they are the sympathetic addresses of a teacher instructing the followers who trust him. And the longest chapters of all are an almost mechanical welding together and smoothing off of the disjointed, passionate preachings of the earlier days. One would like to shift upon Zaid the responsibility for much of these longest chapters with their mixing of many themes. The editor may have thrown together much that the prophet proclaimed separately.

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To the good Mohammedan, it must be remembered, the contradictions of doctrine in the Koran are not contradictions. Long before the Mohammedan scholar reads the sacred book itself he has been taught which of any two conflicting commands came first and was afterward replaced by the other. The first revelation he accepts as having been divinely ordered for the moment's use to aid in the spreading of the faith. At first, for example, the Suras commanded the weak and persecuted Mohammed to deal peaceably with his enemies. Later, when he had power, he received the famed command to slay all who opposed his teachings. So again, if you would understand the growth of the prophet's doctrines, you had best read the Koran backward.

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With these points in mind it is but natural that both Arabic and European scholars have made efforts to revise the Koran, to rearrange its Suras in chronological order. We have even had an English translation of this nature by Rodwell, in which the editor has placed the Suras as he thinks they were proclaimed. Unhappily, however, we have no positive guide as to their chronological order. Tradition tells us somewhat; the evidence of individual words and incidents and doctrines helps much. Yet no two editors, either Arabic or European, have ever wholly or even closely agreed as to the complete reordering of the Suras, or of the individual verses within them. Some of these verses have obviously lost their original context.

Moreover, even if scholars could agree, their reordered book would not be the Koran, the holy book of the Mohammedans. To the faithful, the book is so completely inspired of God, that even its confusion is accepted as an essential part of the whole, as having been ordained for some wise purpose. They believe that the Koran has existed since

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1 Roughly speaking, the chronological arrangement of the Suras is somewhat as follows. The honor of being the earliest has been variously ascribed to the 74th, the 1st, and even the 68th. Generally, however, the 96th Sura, or at least its opening down through verse five, is regarded as the earliest revelation. After that, during the first four years of the prophet's preaching, followed Suras 74, 111, 106, 108, 104, 107, 102, 105, 92, 90, 94, 93, 97, 86, 91, 80, 68, and many others

the beginning of things, the perfect expression of God's law; and that in Mohammed's day the angel Gabriel brought the complete book forth from its eternal resting-place, and began revealing it to the prophet as each section fitted.

In literary style the Koran scarcely upholds this idea of its perfection. Its verses are arranged in a sort of chant, half way between poetry and prose. The lines do not at all follow the rather exact metrical rules which the Arab poets before Mohammed had established. Hence the Arabs of his day did not call it poetry. Yet the sentences have a vague rhythm of their own and they jingle with a constant rhyming, the combination bringing them much nearer in form to our idea of poetry than of prose. This haunting music is, of course, wholly lost in translation. Here is the Arabic of the first brief Sura, given, as nearly as Arabic words can be, in the English alphabet, so that the reader may catch the chanting hum of sound:

Bismillá-hi'rah mání'rrahím.
Al-hamdúlilláhi Rabbi' lálumín.

Arrahmáni'rrahim;

Maliki yomi-d-dín.

Iyáka-Nábúdú, waiyáka nastáín.
Ihdina'ssirát al mústakîm,

Sirát alazina an niámta alaihim,

Ghairi-'l-mághdhúbi alaihim waladhálína.

Before reading the Koran, since it is so obviously and completely interwoven with Mohammed's personal career, one should study quite fully not only his life but also the general conditions of life in the Arabia that he knew. Very briefly summarized these are as follows: The Arabs were then a race much like what they are to-day, proud and pasnumbered above fifty. This period closes with the famous Sura num. ber one; and the next years, leading up to the Hejira, open with 54, 37, 71, and others numbered above 10, and close with 7, 46, 6, and 13. To the final or Medina period belong Suras 2, 98, 64, 62, 8, 47, 3, 61, 57, 4, 65, 59, 33, 63, 24, 58, 22, 48, 66, 60, 110, 49, and 9. Sura 5 is usually regarded as the last of all, since it contains the solemn passage "This day have I perfected your religion for you," etc.

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