Its language - Arabic
Every religious Call has its book
or written text defining its objectives, interpreting its tenets, indicating
its progress, and recording its achievements. The Islamic Call had its revealed
Book "The Qur'an", expressed in the tongue of the people first
addressed. If the Jews had their Torah, and the Christians their Gospel, it is
no wonder that the Arabs had their Qur'an, since they were a people moved by
rhetoric and enchanted by eloquence. Such a nation could not live on the cultural
heritage of others through translations from Syriac and Hebrew. However able
the translator, translations can never convey the spirit or the particular
stamp of the original which defies imitation. This may be evidenced by the
failure of many who attempted a translation of the Qur'an which should preserve
the characteristics of the Arabic original, projecting its striking beauty and
elegance which constitute the main secret of its inimitability. Precise
translation when possible conveys only the idea but fails as regards style and
form. From this point of view, the Arabs of old were scarcely influenced by the
Torah and the Gospel, foreign as these were to the Arab spirit and expression,
but listened on to the Islamic Call, being charmed by its Book, the Qur'an.
The Qur'an, then, was an
important factor in propagating the Call of Islam and bringing the bulk of the
Arabs under its standard. This is borne out by ample historical evidence
relating both to the life-time of the master?Prophet himself and to the era
following his death.
incident between the Prophet and Otabah, son of Rabiah, constitutes a first
example of such evidence. When the latter made clear to the Prophet what
Quraish offered in return for the Prophet's desisting from his calling, the
Prophet's reply came when Otabah ceased talking: "Have you finished O
Father of Al-Waleed ?" "Yes I have", answered Otabah. "Hear
me then"; and the Prophet began reciting the Surah entitled "Fussilat"
until he came to thirteenth verse:
"But if they turn away, then say: I warn you of a thunderbolt like the
thunderbolt (which fell
of old upon the tribes of 'Aad and Thamud) Otbah then, putting his hand to the
Prophet's mouth, besought him to forbear. Returning to his people he was asked
how he fared. He answered: "By God, I never heard such speech before. It
is neither poetry, nor oracular rhyme, nor magic. O ! people of Quraish! Obey
me and make me responsible. Let the man be, he and his mission. By �����
God, what I have heard from him shall
have an issue. Should the Arabs get him, then somebody else would have done the
work for you. Should, however, the upper hand be his, then his glory will be
your glory". "Oh ! you have been bewitched by Muhammad", they
said. "Please yourselves. I have spoken", answered Otbah.
Some Quraishisite accused the Prophet,
Peace be upon him of getting his Islamic teachings from a certain Greek slave,
like Shoal who himself was a convert, implying that these teachings were
derived from Judaism and Christianity. The Prophet hit the mark by an answer
very convincing especially to the Arab, knowing the Qur'an inimitable as they
did. He recited God's words:
"And we know well that they say :Only a man teacheth him. The tongue of
him at whom they falsely hint is foreign, and this is illuminating Arabic
speech" . (Surah: Al Nahl, verse 103).
The primary reason why the Arabs
did not take to either Judaism or Christianity was the fact that neither had a
book which recommended itself to their taste, or touched their inner religious
feelings. That this is so will appear from a comparison of two texts dealing
with the same idea, namely that of amassing wealth without giving to the poor.
This point is dealt with in the Gospel of St. Mathews in the following manner:
not up for yourselves treasures upon earth where moth and rust dot corrupt, and
where thieves break through and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in
Heaven where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break
through and steal".
Now, let us consider a Qur'anic
verse dealing with the same point:-
"They who hoard up gold and silver and spend it not in the way of Allah,
unto them give tidings(O Muhammad) of a painful doom. On the day when it will (all) be heated in the
fire of hell, and their foreheads and their flanks and their backs will be
branded therewith (and it will be said unto
them): Here is that which ye hoarded for
yourselves Now taste of what ye used to hoard". (Surah: Al Tobata, verses
34 and 35).
I am not comparing the two texts
from the stand-point of sense or idea, but of style and diction when the Arabic
translation of the Gospel text is compared with the Qur'anic original, my court
of appeal being the classical Arabic literary standard of taste, style and
Judged by this standard, the gulf
between the two texts, in construction, If not in sense and effect, is wide.
How wide, how to the ancient Arab appallingly wide, may be judged from the fact
that the Arab legacy of pre Islamic times consists solely in their poetry and
For a further example, compare the text
:"and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over
thee" (Genesis 3, 16) with the Qur'anic verse which runs:
"Men are in charge of Women, because God hath made the one of them to
excel the other"(Surah Al Nisa, 34, after Pickthall's Explanatory Translation).
The Arab could not but
sense the queerness, the great queerness, of the Torah of Gospel in translation
and so could not assimilate either. This would be the more so when on style and
diction depended the medium of expression in worship.
question does not stop at form and style, but goes on to character and spirit.
The Torah and the Gospel contain what runs more or less against Arab spirit and
ethical code. To give only one example, the Torah mentions the story of Lot and
what his two daughters did to him when he dwelt in a cave after the destruction
of his people. There it is said that the elder, then the younger, daughter
mixed with her father, one night each, after making him so drunk as to be
unaware of what he did. Consequently each gave birth to an illegitimate child
who in time became the father of a tribe. (Genesis 19, 30 - 38)
Now such a narrative is utterly
repugnant to an Arab, especially when related of a prophet. A similar criticism
applies to Abraham (Ibrahim) and Sarah when he presented her to the King of
Gerar as his sister and not his wife. This, it is alleged, preserved her
against usurpation, and kept her entirely for Abraham, who practiced this deceit
because his wife Sarah was exceedingly infatuating, justifying himself still
more by confessing to the King later that he was his sister from his father
only. The Arabs condemn behaviour of this sort, and consider it a sacrilege for
one, not to mention a great prophet, to marry his half sister. An Arab gu?rds
his matrimonial honor with his life, and does not resort to duplicity or
evasive methods, being very frank and conscious of his personal power which, to
him at least, was akin to that of the heroes of Romance.
These psychological traits of the
Ancient Arabs are sufficiently recognized by the Qur'an, revealed to them in
their own language. Some Bible narratives figure in the Qur'an, it is true, but
these are intended for their moral implication, and are quite consonant with
the spirit, tradition, and psychology of the Arabs. Some of that the Qur'an
narrates throws some light on the pre historic life of the Arabs, e.g. the
story of Aad and of Thamoud of which no mention is made in the Torah or the
Gospel. The stories point to certain Arab ancestry of old, and how they fared
when they rejected their prophets.
The Old Testament enlarge on the
heroism of the Hebrew prophets, stressing the claim that the Jews are God's
only chosen people. In this matter it borders on fanaticism. This is not a
blemish so far as it was intended to stir the enthusiasm of the Jews of old
against their idolatrous foes. But such a narrow attitude, how agreeable to the
Jews, is necessarily repugnant to other races, especially when by (other) is
meant some such race as the Arabs who pride themselves on their heroic past and
their holy possessions. The Old Testament, moreover, abounds with much detail
and names of places and of persons, which for the Arab, scarcely agrees with
the nature of a holy book, but rather with ordinary tribal history.
As a last example may be
mentioned the chapter (The Song of Solomon) or song of songs in the Old
Testament. Remarkable as it is for beauty and rhythm it runs contrary to Arab
spirit, because this sort of love song contains much which must have struck the
Arabs of old as almost obscene. How can such material be contained in a
religious book designed for worship?
To every people attaches a
certain distinctive spirit and tradition. Such Arab spirit and tradition the
Qur'an never violates unless they violate God's laws and then it weans them
gradually. That is why the Qur'an, the Book of the Islamic Call, exercised so
enormous an influence over Arabs.
Who amongst the Arabs
could have listened with antagonism or reserve to Qur'anic verse:
"Allah verily hath shown grace to the believers by sending unto them a
messenger of their own who reciteth unto them the S?riptures and wisdom,
although before (he came to them) they were in flagrant error". (Surah Al `Imran,
Their past error and ignorance is
accounted for by the absence of the Call which touches their hearts, and the
Book which would inspire wisdom and effect their re-orientation. Now that it
has been revealed to them by God in an Arabic expressive tongue through the
truest and noblest man amongst them, how can they help responding in the end ?
they refuse such Guidance ?
2. - Its Eloquence
Another characteristic of
the Book, in addition to its being in Arabic, is its grand eloquence which
enormously contributed to the propagation of Islam and the conversion of many
previous believers. Omar Ibn El Khattab, when suffering from commotion and
conflict within, was soon appeased when his sister Fatimah gave him the chapter
entitled (Taha) to read. He was subdued by the grandeur, and his heart opened
by the quickening eloquence, of the revealed text. He at once became a convert
to Islam, despite his previous implacable hostility to Muslims. His conversion
added so much to their strength that they now dared to practise Islam openly
after having conducted it three years in secret.
heard the Meccan Surah and listened to what it relates of Moses. He saw the
vividly depicted picture of Moses and his miracles when God first called him
and charged him with the divine message :-
"Hath there come unto thee the story of Moses ? When he saw a fire and
said unto his folk : Wait! Lo ! I sense a fire afar off. Peradventure I may
bring you a brand therefrom or may find guidance at the fire. And when he
reached it, he was called (by name) O Moses! Lo ! I, even I, am thy Lord. So take off thy shoes,
for Lo ! thou art in the holy valley
of Tuwa. And I have
chosen thee, so harken unto that which inspired". (Surah: Taha,
style in the original is inimitable. It contains subtle expressions and
suggestive terms : ( I sense fire ) instead of ( I see a fire ), which falls
short of the shades of meaning intended, to be made plain later. The original
expression reflects a refined intuitive faculty in Moses on the eve of
receiving his great mission.
Another subtlety of the style is
the metonymy in: ( Take off thy shoes, for, lo ! thou art in the holy valley of
Tuwa ), pointing to submissiveness in the presence of the Divine, and to the
sanctity and awe to be felt by Moses when listening to God�s words. As to the
harmony and melody of diction and construction, it can only be felt and
appreciated in the original.
Now we come to Moses�
prayer at the critical moment when he received the divine order:
thou to Pharaoh! He bath burst all bounds!
He said : My Lord! Relieve my mind,
And ease my task for me;
And loosen a knot from my tongue,
That they may understand my say
Appoint for me a counsellor from my skin
Aaron, my brother
Confirm my strength with him
And let him share my task,
That we may glorify Thee much
And much remember Thee,..
Thou Knowest us best
Taha, verses 25-35)
pregnant these verses are will further appear on examination. As to the music
and pathos, even the translation may give a foretaste. At any rate it may now
be imagined how Omar was so charmed by such I eloquence that he was transformed
from the raging� brother who struck and wounded his sister, to the repentant
convert asking to be conducted to the Prophet�s presence that he might profess
: "There is no God but Allah, and of certainty Muhammad is Allah�s
In the light of Omar�s
experience, we may now further consider the case of Otbah, son of Rabiah,
already referred to, when he listened to the first part of the Surah entitled (
Fussilalt ) (or " Plain") from the lips of the Prophet himself.
The Surah opens with the deeply
mysterious term �� Haa Meem). In the Qur�an many Surahs (about one fourth of
the total number) start with such letters, single or combined, mysterious in
meaning and melodious in sound when the letters are read by their names
consecutively, as they should be :e.g. (� :Saad ) ; (( � Qaaf))
: Alif, Laam, Meem ) . They strike the listener or reader with awe and
reverence. Different interpretations have been given to these terms by
commentators. It may be, however that they refer to a metaphysical existence,
beyond this material universe, of which man is yet ignorant.
"A revelation from the
Beneficent, the Merciful", so runs the verse in as near a translation as
possible. One orientalist suggests that the two Arabic words Al-Rahman (the
Beneficent) Al-Raheem (the Merciful) are words of mystery occurring in the Old
Testament. This is a fantastic suggestion, since in Arabic they are perfect
derivatives from the verb ������ ( rahima ) (to take mercy on), the one to
indicate the active, and the other to indicate the abstract, attribute of
Mercy, in a superlative degree. There is no mystery about the two words then as
far as the Arabic language is concerned, but as attributes, as exalted names,
of God, the Almighty, the One, they necessarily, like all God�s names, become
to man imbued with mystery. The finite man cannot hope to comprehend the
infinite. But however mysterious in this sense the words may be, they will
always be to man a beacon of tranquillity, hope, and peace.
Then come the happy tidings which
should stir satisfaction in every Arabian, the tidings relating to the honour
conferred upon him by God in revealing in the Arabic tongue a divine Book to be
a Divine guidance for all who know.
"A book whose verses are made plain, an Arabic Qur�an for men of
Next comes the picture depicting
the polytheists who turned their back to the heavenly message of true
monotheism, admitting equals to God, the One. Here their state is lamented,
their attitude ridiculed and their doom predicted, in a style breathing
warning, and threat in work�s that shooed strike the obdurate with awe and
fear, such as "thunderbolt ", "a frosty destructive wind" ,
" torment of disgrace" "humiliating torture", and "hell
fire their abode".
Surah contains a vivid plan for the Prophet to follow in dealing with the
mischievous, the obstinate, and the misguided:
"A benevolent act and a mischievous one can never be equal. For a mischief
done to you, return an act of benevolence. This would transform your enemy into
a faithful friend". (a free translation of verse 34)
It is no wonder, then, that Otbah
should have been struck dumb after having listened to this Surah, nor that,
having returned to his people, he should have told of the wonderful impression
he had of the Qur�anic verses he had heard from Muhammad the Prophet.
Again, what connoisseur can read
the Surah of (Josep) and fail to feel the striking beauty of portraiture in
general, and nobility of behaviour on the part of Joseph in particular ? Here
both the narrative and depiction are perfect, expressively alive, and teeming
with spirit and action. Take for example the divine verses running to the
Verse 23. - "And she, in whose house he was, asked of him an evil act. She
bolted the doors and said: Come! He said I seek refuge in God ! Lo ! he is my
Lord who hath treated me honorably. Wrong-doers never prosper".
"She verily desired him, and he would have desired her if it had not been
that he saw the argument of his Lord. Thus it was, that We might ward off from
him evil and lewdness. Lo ! he was of Our chosen slaves".
"And they raced with one another to the door, and she tore his shirt from
behind, and they met her lord and master at the door. She said : What shall be
his reward, who wished evil to thy folk, save prison or a painful doom?. And
the verses continue with the psychological study, delineating a picture beyond
the reach of art, whether that of drawing, portraiture, or poetry. It is
meanwhile the picture of an ideal character challenging and resisting
temptation in its most seductive form; of the noble soul fighting the good
fight and overcoming base desire; of the believing self invoking Faith, and
through it the powers abiding deep in the spirit, thus shaming the devil, trampling
him down, and coming out of the struggle not only unscathed but nobler than
ever. That is ideal art in the service of Ideal morality".
Now compare the above vivid
animated scene, teeming with life and movement as depicted by the Qur�an, with
the corresponding scene in the Old Testament.
"And it came to pass about
this time that Joseph went into the house to do his business; and there was
none of the men of the house there within And she caught him by his garment,
saying, Lie with me and he left his garment in her hand, and fled and got him
out ". (Genesis 39).
Not much of life or of the
sublime in this; not even after you go through the next five verses intervening
"his lord came home"
To this must be added the contrast in
diction, in the superb diction, which renders both the recital and the hearing
of the Qur�an a perpetual source of joy and comfort which repetition cannot
wear off. All natural aids to rhyme and melody are there - rhyme and resonance,
antithesis and balance, even such aids to euphony as alliteration, all so
subtly and naturally interwoven that never a redundant word. Of these happy
features the most obvious perhaps are rhyme and assonance, especially in the
endings of most verses.
It cannot be hoped to give
adequate illustrations through a translation, such features being exactly those
which a translation cannot convey. Balance and euphony may be faintly
reflected, majesty and nobility cannot be missed! even in a translation:
"And if we
cause man to taste some mercy from Us thankless. And if we cause him to taste
grace after some misfortune that had befallen him, he saith: The ills have gone
from me! Lo! he is exultant, boastful. Save those who persevere and do good
work. Theirs will be forgiveness and great reward". (Surah : Hud, verse
Translation of shorter verses may
happen to illustrate other features - assonance and rhyme in verse endings for
5) And verily thy Lord will give unto thee so that thou
wilt be content.
6)Did he not find thee an orphan and protect (thee) ?
7)Did he not find thee wandering and direct (thee) ?
8)Did he not find thee destitute and enrich (thee) ?
9)Therefor the orphan oppress not.
10) Therefor the beggar drive pot away.
11) Therefor of the bounty of thy Lord be thy discourse.
1) O thou enveloped (in thy cloak),
2) Arise and warn !
3) Thy Lord magnify,
4)Thy raiment purify,
5) Pollution shun
6) And show not favour, seeking worldly gain
7) For the sake of thy Lord, be patient
8) For when the trumpet shall sound,
9) Surely that day will be a day of anguish,
10) Not of ease, for disbelievers.
(After M. Pickles Explanatory Translation).
Then comes the eloquence of the
Qur�an as regards treatment and exposition. Noticeable in this connection is
the fact that abstruse recondite thought is presented lucid and plain, free
from even a trace of dry philosophy. Such is the treatment accorded to (the
inmates of the cave) (the companionship of Moses and Khadr), and to (Yagog and
Magog). Such subject matter, ramifying back into the remote past and made
obscure by time, is presented to us by the Qur�an bright and glowing, consonant
with reason and right emotion.
Neither is there any dry logic in
the argumentation adopted by the Qur�an with the foes of the Islamic Call.
Delicate but sure is the manner of attack, of clarification, and bringing the
argument home. The miracle of the creation of Jesus Christ without a father,
for example, is compared with the creation of Adam, in refutation of the claim
that Jesus is God�s Son:
the likeness of Jesus with Allah is as the likeness of Adam He created him of
dust, then He said unto him: Be and he is. From Surah : Al-Imran; verse 59).
Again God, exalted be He ! tells
in the Qur�an of what Jesus will answer on Judgement Day, concerning the
godship attributed to him and his mother:
when Allah saith : O Jesus, son of Mary! Midst thou say to people: Take me and
my mother for two gods beside Allah ? He saith : Be glorified ! It was not mine
to utter that to which I had no right. If I used to say it, then Thou Knewset
it. Thou Knowest what is in my mind, and I know not what is in Thy Mind. Lo
Thou, only Thou, art the Knower of Things Hidden.
I spake unto
them only that which Thou commandest me (saying) Worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord. I was a witness of them
while I dwelt among them, and when Thou tookests me Thou wast the Watcher over
them. Thou art Witness over all things". (Surah : Al Maid; verse. 116 and
117). (After M. Pickthall�s
historical message of Jesus to his people, is given in the sensational answer
which he shall certainly make on Resurrection Day in the face of his and his
mother�s worshippers, that they may take warning in time and return to the
truth that he was only a human Prophet, worshipping God, the One, only.
Other fields for the eloquence of
the Qur�an are the great varieties of knowledge with which it abounds, the high
morality it recommends to humanity, and the beautiful wholesome narratives
which abound in it. That is the reason why it constitutes the Prophet�s great
miracle, living and eternal, which challenged the eloquent Arabs, and still
challenges all who doubt it, to imitate even a simple Surah of it. It is the
voice of God; God�s perfect words revealed to the Prophet, peace be upon him,
for the guidance of humanity. It contributed greatly to the propagation of the
Faith, of the Islamic Call, among peoples who, though ignorant of Arabic, were
impressed and attracted both by its melody on recital, and the simple truth of
That is the Divine Book of the
Divine Call destined to remain intact as long as Time.
"Lo ! We, even we, reveal the Qur�an, and Lo ! We verily are its
Guardian" Surah: Al Hagar, verse. 9).
Amongst the various ways by which
God guarded the Qur�an, and which materially helped the propagation of its
Call, is the continuous recital of one or other of its Surahs throughout the
Muslim world by night and day. It is recited by the devout at night, especially
in the small hours before dawn. Verses of it, in addition to the opening Surah,
are recited by every Muslim in every one of the five prayers incumbent on all
Muslims day and night, from dawn to dawn. It is recited in ceremonies and
obsequies, in schools and mosques. It is read or heard by one Muslim or another
almost every where anytime of the day. This keeps it always in the Muslim�s
ear, though it required more than hearing to make a Muslim act up on it, and
still more to make on him live up to it. At any rate, its continuous recital is
a continuous reminder to all.
It is in the nature of every
serious call to maintain itself by all means. It seeks all ways to the hearts
of men that it may take root there. That is why it over takes them at home, at
school, at clubs and at entertain meanest, that it may become to them a fixed
The role of art in attaining this
difficult aim is now universally admitted. It plays an important part in almost
every movement. Judaism, It will be remembered established itself through art,
for example through the psalms, from which may be quoted.
"Make a joyful noise unto
the Lord, all the earth make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise. Sing
unto the Lord with the harp: with the harp and the voice of a psalm. With
trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the Lord, the King.
" (Psalm 98).
So did the Call of Islam, by making of the
literary art a most capable medium and very effective means to establish and
fortify itself, making its tenets reach the utmost recesses of the human heart.
This it did through the Holy
Qur�an, the highest linguistic achievement in this and in future ages.
 George Foot Moore, (The History of Religions) , p. 391.