The Islamic Call


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  • The Islamic Call


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    Chapter V

    THE QUR'AN

    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.

     

            The
    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:

     
                "Lay
    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
    form?

     
            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
    prose.

        

    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.

            But the
    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,
    verse 164)

     
            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 ?

            How can
    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.

     

            Omar
    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,
    verse 10).

     

            The
    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:

    Go
    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
    (Surat
    Taha, verses 25-35)

     

            How
    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
    Messenger".

     
            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[1] 
     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
    knowledge"

     
            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".

            The
    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
    effect.

           
    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".

     
            24.-
    "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".

     
            25.-
    "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
    before

    "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
    9-11)

     
            Translation of shorter verses may
    happen to illustrate other features - assonance and rhyme in verse endings for
    example:-

    EX-1

    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.

     

    EX-2
     

    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:

     

            (Lo!
    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:

            "And
    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
    explanatory translation).

            Here the
    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
    its creed.

     

            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
    creed.

     
            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.

     


    [1] George Foot Moore, (The History of Religions) , p. 391.

     

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