ORIGINS OF THE QUR’AN
HEATHEN BELIEFS AND PRACTICES
INCORPORATED INTO THE QUR’AN
ISLAM may be said to be the most eclectic Faith existent in the world. Certainly its author, Muhammad, made wide use of the varied materials which lay within his reach.
It is generally supposed that Muhammad first brought to his fellow-countrymen the great truth of the unity of God. He himself seems to claim that it was revealed to him by direct revelation. Thus in Surah al-An’am (6:106) we read:—
ٱتَّبِعۡ مَآ أُوحِىَ إِلَيۡكَ مِنْ رَّبِّكَ لَا إِلَـٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ
“Follow thou, (O, Muhammad) that which hath been revealed to thee by thy Lord. There is no God but He.” But apart from the fact that there were communities of both Jews and Christians in Arabia at the time of Muhammad from whom he could learn the doctrine of the unity of God, the slightest acquaintance with Arabian history reveals the fact that the Supreme God was known and worshipped by the Arabs long before the time of Muhammad. In pre-Islamic literature “Ila’h” was used for any god, but “Al-Ilah,” contracted to “Allah,” was the name of the Supreme. The pagan poets Nabiga and Labid both repeatedly use the word “Allah” in the sense of the Supreme Deity, and the word is also used in that sense in the famous Mu’allaqat; whilst Ibn Hisham tells us that the Quraish, when performing the ceremony of Ihla’l, used the following words, “We are present in Thy service O God; Thou hast no partner except the partner of Thy dread; Thou ownest him and whatsoever he owneth.” It should, moreover, be remembered that for centuries before Muhammad the Ka’ba was known as “Bait-Allah,” the house of God; whilst the very name of Muhammad’s father ‘Abdu’llah shows the wide use of the word “Allah.” 7 Sir Syed Ahmad in his work on the pre-Islamic Arabs freely acknowledges the existence of theistic sects amongst the Arabs before the time of Muhammad. He says: “There were two classes of theistic Arabs in the times of ignorance. The members of the second worshipped the true God, and acknowledged the judgment and the resurrection of the body at the last day, the immortality of the soul and its punishment and reward according to the actions done in the body. But they believed in neither prophets nor revelation.” Again, he says: “There were four theistic sects in existence in Arabia before Islam which acknowledged a revelation, and which were prevalent at various times, namely, the Sabians, the Hanifs, the Jews and the Christians.” 8 The reader is now in a position to see that the conception of a Supreme Being known as Allah, was well known to the contemporaries of Muhammad, and without doubt to Muhammad himself also, who adopted it as the foundation of his system, and gave it out as a truth revealed from heaven. Little wonder that the Arabs should retort that he was simply rehearsing “Tales of the Ancients,” 9 or that when Muhammad bade them believe in his revelations they should say, “He hath forged it himself.” 10
The period immediately preceding the time of Muhammad witnessed the rise of a theistic sect known as the Hanifs, a band of earnest reformers who rejected in toto the idolatry of their fellows, and stood for the worship of the one true God alone. The principal of these seekers after truth were Waraqa ibn Naufal, ‘Ubaid Ullah, Ibn Jash, ‘Uthman ibn al-Huwairith and Zaid ibn ‘Amr. A Tradition records that “Zaid adopted this term Hanif at the instance of a Christian and of a Jew who both exhorted him to become a Hanif. Zaid having at the time renounced idolatry, and being unable to receive either Judaism or Christianity said, ‘What is a Hanif?’ They both told him it was the religion of Abraham who worshipped nothing but God. Upon this Zaid exclaimed, ‘O God, I bear witness that I follow the religion of Abraham.’“ Ibn Hisham, one of the earliest and most reliable of all the biographers of Muhammad has left in his book “Siratu’r-Rasul” 11 an interesting account of the Hanifs in the course of which he tells us that:—
فأما ورقة بن نوفل فاستحكم في النصرانية واتبع الكتب من أهلها حتى علم علماً من أهل الكتاب
“Waraqa ibn Naufal entered the Christian faith, and took up the study of the Scriptures of the Christians until, at last, he became well versed in the learning of the people of the book.” 12 The Traditionist Muslim further tells us that this Waraqa was the cousin of Khadija the wife of Muhammad, and that he translated the Injil into Arabic. From these interesting facts one or two conclusions may easily be drawn. The first is that Muhammad must often have had intercourse with Waraqa, and the second is that the great truth of the unity of God could easily have been learnt in intercourse with these Hanifs. 13 One thing may be taken for certain, namely, that Muhammad was largely indebted to them for his theistic ideas; so much so that when he began to preach, he adopted the very term as the keynote of his discourses, and again and again asserted that he was simply sent to preach the religion of Abraham, whom he represented as a Hanif. From a wealth of references we quote two passages, 14 one from Surah al-An’am 6:161, where the Prophet says:—
قُلْ إِنَّنِي هَدَانِي رَبِّي إِلَى صِرَاطٍ مُّسْتَقِيمٍ دِيناً قِيَماً مِّلَّةَ إِبْرَاهِيمَ حَنِيفاً
“Say, As for me, my Lord hath guided me into a straight path, a true religion, the religion of Abraham the Hanif.” Again in Surah al-i’Imran 3:95, we read:—
فَٱتَّبِعُواْ مِلَّةَ إِبْرَاهِيمَ حَنِيفْاً
“Follow the religion of Abraham the Hanif.”
Not only was the idea of one Supreme God known to the contemporaries of Muhammad, but it is an indisputable fact that most of the ceremonies connected with the Muhammadan pilgrimage also, which Muhammad pretended had been taught him by revelation, were already in existence long before his time, and were regularly performed by the idolatrous Arabs. The famous Muslim historian Abu’l-Fida candidly admits these facts. In his great history 15 we read that, “They (the pre-Islamic Arabs) used to perform the pilgrimage to the Ka’ba, where they put on the ‘umra and ihra’m, and they also performed the tawaf (circumambulation of the Ka’ba), and the running at Mounts Safa and Marwa, and the casting of stones, and at the end of every three years spent a month in solitary contemplation ... and they performed circumcision, and cut off the right hand of thieves.” This testimony of Abu’l-Fida leaves no room for doubt that all these practices, together with various ceremonial ablutions mentioned by him, were observed long before the time of Muhammad, and were simply borrowed by the latter and incorporated into his system as though revealed from heaven. Even his own immediate followers found it difficult to harmonize the retention of these idolatrous practices with a purely theistic system; and there is a Tradition recorded by Muslim which relates that,
قَبَّلَ عُمَرُ بْنُ الْخَطَّابِ رضي الله تعالى عنه الْحَجَرَ ثُمَّ قَالَ «أَمَ وَاللَّهِ لَقَدْ عَلِمْتُ أَنَّكَ حَجَرٌ وَلَوْلاَ أَنِّي رَأَيْتُ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم يُقَبِّلُكَ مَا قَبَّلْتُكَ».
“‘Umar bin al-Khattab kissed the black stone and said, ‘My God, I well know that thou art simply a piece of stone, and if I had not seen the Apostle of God kiss thee, then I had not kissed thee.’” 16
But Muhammad did not restrict his plagiarism to the Arabs. His journeys into Syria and elsewhere brought him into contact with many Persians and others, from whom he adopted many ideas relating to heaven and hell, judgment and reward, which afterwards appeared, adapted and altered, in the pure Arabic of the Quraish as a part of the revelations communicated to him by the angel Gabriel. Ibn Hisham, the biographer of Muhammad, mentions one, Salman by name, who afterwards became famous as a Companion of the Prophet. In Arabia, Muhammad had many opportunities of learning the tales and legends of the Persians, for Persian influence had long been felt in that land. Indeed for some time previous to the time of Muhammad a succession of Persian governors had ruled over Hira, ‘Iraq and Yamen. The Muslim historian Abu’l-Fida mentions eight Persian princes who had thus ruled over Yamen. The influence which was exercised upon the Arabs by their more cultured conquerors could not have been small; on the contrary, there is ample evidence in Arabian history to show that the legends and poetry of the Persians were well known amongst the Arabs. A striking example of this is found in the work of Ibn Hisham. This writer tells us that in the early days of Islam not only were Persian stories current in Madina, but the Quraish were in the habit of comparing their tales with those of the Qur’an. He then tells us that one day Nazir ibn Harith stood up before the Quraish and recited to them certain stories of the Persian kings; and then continued,
وَاللَّهِ مَا مُحَمَّدٌ بِأَحْسَنَ حَدِيثًا مِنِّي، وَمَا حَدِيثُهُ إِلَّا أَسَاطِيرُ الْأَوَّلِينَ، اكْتَتَبَهَا كَمَا اكْتَتَبْتُهَا
“By God, the stories of Muhammad are no better than my own; they are simply tales of the ancients which he hath written out as I have written mine.” The author of the Randatu’l-Ahbab is even more candid, for he tells us that, “It was the Prophet’s practice to converse in their own tongue with people of every nation who visited him; and hence the introduction of some Persian words into the Arabic language.”
This damaging admission furnishes a key to the understanding of much of the Qur’an which would otherwise be difficult of apprehension, for it clearly indicates the source of the many Persian words and conceptions to be found therein. Any comparison of the Zoroastrian cosmogony with the stories of heaven and hell, death and judgment, which now adorn the pages of the Qur’an, will make it undeniably clear that Muhammad learned them from the many Persians with whom he had intercourse, and then gave them out to the ignorant Arabs in his own eloquent language as a revelation from heaven. The conceptions thus borrowed from Zoroastrianism may generally be traced by the presence of Persian words in the narratives which contain them, for it is certainly a legitimate inference to draw that, if the word used to describe a hitherto unknown religious conception be Persian in its origin, then the conception itself is also derived from that source. Now, it is a striking fact that in the book which Muhammad is never tired of describing as the “perspicuous Arabic Qur’an” we find quite a large number of foreign words embodying conceptions which are found in the very systems from whence those words come. The inference is clear that the conceptions themselves were borrowed also.
We now proceed to give two or three examples by way of proof.
Every Muslim is familiar with the story of Muhammad’s celebrated night journey known as the Mi’raj. Yet the Qur’an, strange to say, has only the briefest reference to this wondrous event, which we here quote from Surah Bani Isra’il 17:1.
سُبْحَانَ الَّذِي أَسْرَىٰ بِعَبْدِهِ لَيْلًا مِّنَ الْمَسْجِدِ الْحَرَامِ إِلَى الْمَسْجِدِ الْأَقْصَى الَّذِي بَارَكْنَا حَوْلَهُ لِنُرِيَهُ مِنْ آيَاتِنَا
“Praise be to Him who transported His servant by nigh from the sacred temple to the farther temple, the circuit of which we have blessed, that We might show him of Our signs.”
There is another reference in the 62nd verse of the same Sura to this same event, where we read:—
وَمَا جَعَلْنَا الرُّؤْيَا الَّتِي أَرَيْنَاكَ إِلَّا فِتْنَةً لِّلنَّاسِ
“We have not appointed the vision which We showed thee, except as a test for men.” This latter statement notwithstanding, Muhammadan commentators and Traditionists delight to paint in detail a literal bodily journey by night upon the back of a fabulous steed, not merely to the further temple (the temple of Jerusalem), but to heaven itself, where the Prophet ascended from story to story, until he reached the very presence of God and learned many of the secrets of heaven.
This story Muhammad must have learned from the Persians, for in the “Arta’ Viraf Namak” which was written some four hundred years before his time, we find a similar story –agreeing in many of its details – in which the here a young magian priest of saintly life, ascended to heaven under the guidance of an angel, and after passing into the very presence of God and beholding the felicities of heaven returned to the earth to tell Zoroastrians what he had seen. 17
The Qur’anic stories of the Houris of Paradise are likewise borrowed from the Persians. Every reader of the Qur’an is familiar with the pictures of the sensual paradise found here, and of the Houris with large black eyes who recline upon luxurious couches waiting the embraces of the faithful. Out of a large number of passages we quote one from Surah ar-Rahman 55:46-76).
“But for him who dreadeth the tribunal of his Lord, there are two gardens, planted with shady trees. In each of them are two fountains flowing. In each of them are of every fruit two kinds. They shall repose on couches, the linings whereof are of thick silk interwoven with gold; and the fruit of the two gardens are near at hand. Therein are (maidens) refraining their eyes, whom neither man nor demon hath approached before. They are like rubies and pearls. Shall the reward of good works be any other than good? And besides these there are two other gardens of a dark green. In each of them are two fountains pouring forth plenty of water. In each of them are fruits and palm-trees and pomegranates. Therein are agreeable and beautiful maidens, Houris kept in pavilions, whom neither man nor demon hath approached before. They shall recline on green cushions and beautiful carpets.”
These tales of the Houris, many writers have shown, are derived from ancient Persian legends about beautiful female spirits who inhabit Paradise and captivate the hearts of men. These ‘Pairakas,’ as they are called, must often have been described to Muhammad in song and story; and the very word ‘hur,’ by which he described them in the Qur’an, and which is itself of Persian origin, and derived from the Pahlavi ‘hur’ meaning ‘light,’ sufficiently indicates the source of the whole story. 18
The same might be said of the fables of the Qur’an concerning the ‘Jinn ‘ or evil spirits, for the Persian origin of the term – it being derived from the Avestic ‘Jaina’ – makes it clear that this conception also was derived from the Persians, whose books contain similar stories.
Many other resemblances might be pointed out between the Zoroastrian Mythology and the stories of the Qur’an; but enough has been written to show that one of the sources of the latter was undoubtedly the stories which Muhammad learned from time to time from the Persians with whom he came into contact. The very word for Paradise “firdaus,” used so frequently in the Qur’an, is itself of Persian origin, as are not a few other words which have been used by Muhammad to describe conceptions which he borrowed from the Persians. The Muslim historian Abu’l-Fida gives us some interesting particulars of a sect, mentioned more than once in the Qur’an, known as the Sabians. 19 Amongst other things, he tells us, they observed prayer seven times a day. Now the times for five of these prayers correspond exactly with the five Muslim prayers; and as it is clear from Muhammad’s references to the Sabians that he had close intercourse with them, it is probable that it was from them the Prophet obtained the practice which now prevails throughout the Muhammadan world.
The facts related above are so well known, that Muhammadan scholars are fain to admit the influence of contemporaneous thought in the formation of the Qur’an. Syed ‘Amir ‘Ali acknowledges that, “There is no doubt that in the Suras of the intermediate period, before the mind of the teacher had attained the full development of religious consciousness, and when it was necessary to formulate in language intelligible to the common folk of the desert, the realistic descriptions of heaven and hell, borrowed from the floating fancies of Zoroastrianism, Sabianism and the Talmudic Jew, attract the attention as a side picture, and then comes the real essence — the adoration of God in humility and love. The houris are creatures of Zoroastrian origin, so is paradise, (in Persian ‘firdous’), whilst hell, in the severity of its punishment, is Talmudic.” 20
But if the facts be as described above, how, we ask, can the Qur’an be accepted as the word of God, given in its entirety to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel? It is proved, on the contrary, that the Prophet adopted ideas and doctrines from the Hanifs, Sabians, Zoroastrians and others. The presumption is that the rest of the Qur’an is borrowed also. This we now proceed to show.
7. See also Samuel Zwemer, Moslem Doctrine of God, American Tract Society, New York, NY, 1905.
8. Syed Ahmad, “Maroam al-Arab qabl al-Islam,” pp.222, 223.
9. Surah al-Furqan (25:5)
10. Surah at-Tur (52:33)
11. Part 1, pp.76, 77 quoted in William St. Clair Tisdall’s “Religion of the Crescent p.144.
12. See also,The Life of Muhammad, A translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, by Alfred Guillaume, Oxford University Press, 1955, p. 69.
13. For a critical study of the relation of Muhammad to the Hanifs, see Edward Sell, Essays on Islam, S.P.C.K. Depot, Madras,1901, pp. 242-250 also Kuenen’s “Hibbert Lectures,” for 1882, p. 21.
14. See also Surah al-Hajj 22:78, Surah an-Nahl 16:123, Surah al-Baqarah 2:130, Surah an-Nisa’ 4:125.
15. “Historia Ante-Islamica” (ed. Fleischer, p.180.
16. Chapter on Pilgrimage, see 4, Part 3. See also, Sahih Muslim, The Book of Pilgrimage (Kitab Al-Hajj) Book 15, Hadith 273
17. Chapter vii. §§ 1-4, quoted in William St. Clair Tisdall’s “Sources of the Qur’an,” p. 227 et seq.
18. For a discussion on the derivation of this word, see William St. Clair Tisdall’s “Religion of the Crescent,” p. 171.
19. “Hist. Ante-Islamica” (ed. Fleisher), p. 148, quoted in Tisdall’s “Religion of the Crescent,” p. 143.
20. Ameer Ali Syed, The Spirit of Islam or The Life and Teachings of Mohammed, S.K. Lahiri, 54 College Street, Calcutta, India, 1902, pp. 235-6.