Part 1—The Quran—A Literary Miracle?
“The Watchtower” herewith begins a series of articles dealing with the Quran (Koran), under the following headings: “The Quran—A Literary Miracle?” “The Quran—Confirmatory of Previous Scriptures?” “The Quran—Harmonious with itself?” and “The Quran—of God or of Man?” Throughout this series comparison will be made with the Bible. While these articles deal with the Muslim viewpoint, they will prove of real value to others by reason of the comparison of the Bible with what has been termed its closest rival, the Quran.
SUPPOSE you started out on a long journey, and at a crossroad chanced to meet a friend whose destination was the same as yours. This friend, upon hearing of the route you are taking, at once tries to convince you that you are going in the wrong direction. Would you become angry with him because he implied that you, as well as those with you, had made a mistake, and so strike him a blow, and then continue on in your course? Of course not!
Rather, each of you would calmly state his reasons why he thought his way was the right way and then the two of you would doubtless make a comparison of the sources of your information. For, after all, both of you want to get to your destination, do you not?
The foregoing well illustrates the way we should view this series of articles which will discuss the Quran and compare it with the Bible. Muslims and Christians alike are traveling on life’s road, and both are confident that they are going in the direction that leads to eternal life in happiness. Yet they are heading in opposite directions because they are consulting differing sources of information; the one following the guidance of the Quran, the other that of the Bible. Which is right?
Before going any farther let us note that no one should judge the Bible by any of the popular religions of so-called Christendom, for they do not properly represent it. In fact, Christendom has absolutely no right to the name “Christian”, as her doctrines, her crusades, her wars, her politics, her commercial exploitation, her racial discrimination and oppression of the peoples are as far removed from what Christ Jesus taught and practiced “as the east is from the west”. So let Muslims not reject true Christianity and ignore the Bible simply because of the abominable record that an apostate Christendom has made upon the pages of history.
The Quran, as all Muslims well know, was given to them by Muhammad, an Arabian who was born in the latter part of the sixth century, in Mecca, and died at Medina, June 8, A.D. 632. At about the age of forty he was convinced that he had received a message from the angel Gabriel together with a call to make known that there is ‘no god but Allah [that is, The GOD] and that Muhammad is his prophet’. For the remaining twenty-three years of his life he professed to receive many more such messages or revelations, which he dictated for others to write down, as he himself, it is held, was illiterate. Shortly after his death these were compiled from white stones, skins of animals, ribs of palm leaves and the breasts (memories) of men, and became known as the Holy Quran.
As copies multiplied various readings sprang up, causing serious disputes. So some twenty years later another official copy was made and all previously existing copies were committed to the flames. For about twelve centuries the Quran has had very little change in text.
The Quran (Arabic for “the recitation” or “the reading”) is not quite as large as the “New Testament” and so is about one-fourth as large as the Bible. It consists of 114 chapters, revelations or suras, which vary in length from three to 286 verses, the verses themselves varying from one to twenty and more lines.
With few exceptions the Quran is written in the first person, with Allah as the speaker. According to its own testimony the “Mother of the Book” exists in God’s presence and was revealed to Muhammad “in slow, well-arranged stages, gradually” by “The Holy Spirit [Angel Gabriel, who] brought the revelation from thy Lord in Truth, in order to strengthen those who believe, and as a Guide and Glad Tidings to Muslims”. (Muslim, meaning one who has surrendered himself to God) Its being a divine revelation is stressed throughout the Quran. See Sura 2:89, 97; 6:19; 16:102; 17:105, 106; 25:32; 43:2-4, Ali.*
THE QUESTION OF AUTHENTICITY
What proof did Muhammad have to offer that these suras did indeed come from the one true God? Two thousand years before, when Moses was asked to go to his people with a message from God, he immediately saw the question of authenticity: “But, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice; for they will say, Jehovah hath not appeared unto thee.” Jehovah solved that problem by empowering Moses to perform three signs. Seeing these proofs of authenticity, “the people believed.”—Ex. 4:1-31, AS.
And for the next forty years the Israelites witnessed many, many more miracles. Particularly was divine power manifested at the time of the giving of the law: thunder, lightning, fire, smoke, trumpet sound and earthquake; all combined to testify that Moses was not an impostor but was indeed a divinely commissioned prophet.—Exodus, chapters 7 through 15; Ex 19:16-18; Deut. 8:14-16.
When Christ Jesus came, the same question of authenticity arose, and again it was answered unequivocally. So much so that he was able to send to John the assuring report: “The blind are seeing again, and the lame are walking about, the lepers are being cleansed and the deaf are hearing, and the dead are being raised.” And so to the religious leaders of his day Jesus could say: “If I am not doing the works of my Father, do not believe me. But if I am doing them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works.”—Matt. 11:5; John 10:37, 38, NW.
Why, even the scoffing, hypocritical and malicious religious leaders received a sign, that of Jonah, or of Jesus’ resurrection after he had lain in the grave for three days. And his followers did even greater signs in that they performed them over a wider area and for a much longer period of time.—Matt. 16:1-4; 28:12-15; John 14:12; Acts 1:3-11; 19:11, 12; 1 Cor. 14:22; 15:1-20.
Both Moses and Christ Jesus were used to introduce new systems of things and each established himself as God’s prophet by the performance of many signs. But where were the signs establishing Muhammad as God’s prophet and proving that God had introduced a new system of things in Arabia in the first part of the seventh century A.D.? Could Muhammad say, as did Jesus: ‘If you do not believe my message, believe my works, signs, miracles?’ No, he could not, for he had none; none to establish the authenticity of his message.
Time and again this fact is admitted as his listeners accuse Muhammad of imposture and forgery. See Sura 2:118; 10:38; 11:13; 17:89-93; 21:5, 6, Ali. In view of the many signs the previous prophets had performed, did his listeners not have a right to ask: “Why is not a sign sent down to him from his Lord”? (Sura 6:37; 13:7, Ali) But they were told: ‘Certainly signs are in the power of God: but what will make you realize that if Signs came, they will not believe?’ “We refrain from sending the Signs, only because the men of former generations treated them as false.”—Sura 6:109; 17:59, Ali.
Repeatedly his listeners were told that Muhammad was merely a warner; but that was only begging the question; they wanted proof that Muhammad was indeed God’s warner by the performance of signs. True, some in former times did not believe in spite of signs, but that did not keep God from sending signs by his prophets. And neither was that fact used by Christ Jesus as an excuse for not giving proof of his divine commission by the performance of signs.—Sura 3:180, 181; 5:36; 9:71, Rodwell.*
‘THE MIRACLE OF THE QURAN’
In striking contrast with the former prophets who thus “came [to their people] with clear proofs of their mission”, the only sign to which the Quran points (Muslim tradition to the contrary not withstanding) is that of the literary merit of the message itself. “Do they say, ‘He forged it’? Say: ‘Bring then a Sura like unto it.’” And again: “Say, ‘If the whole of mankind and Jinns [Spirits] were to gather together to produce the like of this Qur-an, they could not produce the like thereof.’” (Sura 2:23, 24; 10:37, 38; 17:88, Ali) Say Muslim commentators: “It challenges comparison by its beauty.” “None but God could inspire spiritual truths in such noble language.”
There are many beautiful passages in the Quran, especially those dealing with God’s attributes, such as the earlier and shorter suras. And no doubt its exalted message in rhymed prose had the greatest attraction for the Arabs at a time when anything that could be strictly called a book may not even have existed in their own language.
Yet it cannot be denied that its various parts are of very unequal value. Great literature is not repetitious, but in the Quran time and again the stories of Adam, Moses, Christ Jesus and others are rehearsed, and ever to the same purpose. In Sura 55 the expression (verse) “Then which of the favours of your Lord will ye deny?” occurs no less than 31 times in a total of 78 verses. (Ali) Three out of every four suras warn of hell-fire and punishment after death, and two out of three bring up the subject of its authenticity.
Even more serious is the lack of coherence in the Quran. There is little coherence between the suras, they being placed in order of length, beginning with the longest ones, although these were written last and compare unfavorably with the first ones. The suras themselves often seem to be a conglomeration of verses, a factor which makes the Quran extremely difficult to understand correctly, for as one authority, A.-Q. H.T. Muhammad, expresses it: “Whoever will give his opinion respecting the [Quran] must be able to discover which Meccan verses are mixed up with Medina Suras and which Medina verses are confounded with Meccan Suras.” Is great literature “mixed up” or “confounded”?
Coherence is also frequently lacking between the titles and the suras themselves. Sura 29 is entitled “The Spider” although only passing mention is made of this insect in the middle of the sura. The same is true of Sura 16, “The Bee,” and of Sura 27, “The Ant.” In the longest sura, No. 2, “The Heifer” or “The Cow”, we find only some half a dozen verses of 286 dealing with that animal.
The Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 16, 1907 edition, devotes two pages to a discussion of the literary weaknesses of the Quran (Koran), such as violation of spelling and interruption of thought to gain rhyme, the rhyming of such indelicate subjects as that relating to woman’s menstrual periods, omission of indispensable links, superfluous verbiage, etc. Compare Arabic text of Sura 95:2 and 37:130 with 23:20; 6:85 and 37:123, Ali. Nor is the Quran free from grammatical errors.
For the historian Carlyle, who had the greatest admiration for his hero-prophet Muhammad, and therefore could not be accused of prejudice, it was incredible and inconceivable that anyone should consider the Quran a literary miracle. Said he, among other things: “It is as toilsome reading as I ever undertook. A wearisome, confused jumble, crude, incondite, . . . written, so far as writing goes, as badly as almost any book ever was.”
And Gibbon, the author of the monumental work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, who incidentally was a very harsh critic of so-called Christendom, in his description of the Quran, while admitting that it has some beauty, goes on to say that he was wearied by its “endless incoherent rhapsody of fable, and precept, and declamation”, adding that “the divine attributes exalt the fancy of the Arabian missionary; but his loftiest strains must yield to the sublime simplicity of the book of Job, composed in a remote age, in the same country”. And to which may be added the sermon on the mount, the book of Isaiah, 1 Corinthians chapter 13, and any number of the Psalms and the parables of Jesus.
But, objects our Muslim friend, you over look the fact that Muhammad was illiterate, and no illiterate person could have produced such a work. True, Muhammad may have been unable to read and write, but the fact remains that he was a very successful businessman who procured in marriage the hand of his employer, a wealthy and cultured widow. His illiteracy would account for the literary weaknesses we have noted in the Quran.
Nor can it be argued that the translation is at fault. Truly great literature will show through a translation, as is the case with the Bible, which is great literature in any language. Besides, the defects we have noted of repetitiousness, lack of coherence, faulty rhyme, etc., are all inherent in the original Arabic text.
Finally, note the testimony of Islam’s history on this matter. In the compilation of the Quran under the direction of Zaid Ibn Thabit, a contemporary of Muhammad, was the question of authenticity of the various suras and verses decided on literary merit? Not at all, but upon the oaths of those presenting the suras. Nor was opinion always unanimous. Some of the “Companions”, associates of Muhammad who survived him, expressed the strongest doubts that suras 1,113 and 114 belonged in the Quran. Clearly, literary merit was not the determining factor with them.
Truly, in view of the facts presented it cannot be claimed that the Quran is divinely inspired because of its being a literary miracle. For an examination of other claims for the Quran we refer the reader to succeeding articles in this series.
A. Yusuf Ali Version, 1946 Edition.
Note: Verse division varies according to version.