THE ORIGINS OF THE QUR’AN
THE word “Qur’an” is derived from the Arabic verb (قَرَأ) to read. It means “the reading,” or rather “that which is to be read.” It is taken from Surah al-Alaq 96:1 1 which is said to have been the first Surah revealed to Muhammad. This word, first used to designate a portion only of the Qur’an, was subsequently, and is now, used to describe the whole collection of the “revelations” made to Muhammad. The Traditions relate many wonderful stories regarding the descent of inspiration upon Muhammad, of which ‘Ayesha, the favourite wife of the Prophet, has preserved the following: “The first revelations which the Prophet received were in true dreams, and he never dreamt but it came like the dawn of day. After this the Prophet became fond of retirement, and used to seclude himself in a cave in Mount Hira and worship there day and night .... till one day the angel came to him and said, ‘Read,’ but the Prophet said, ‘I am not a reader.’ ‘Then,’ said Muhammad, ‘he took hold of me and squeezed me as much as I could bear, and he then let me go and again he said, ‘Read,’ and I said, ‘I am not a reader.’ Then he took hold of me a second time and squeezed me as much as I could bear, and then let me go and said, ‘Read,’ and I said, ‘I am not a reader.’ Then he took hold of me a third time and squeezed me as much as I could bear and said:—
اقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ خَلَقَ الْإِنسَانَ مِنْ عَلَقٍ اقْرَأْ وَرَبُّكَ الْأَكْرَمُ الَّذِي عَلَّمَ بِالْقَلَمِ عَلَّمَ الْإِنسَانَ مَا لَمْ يَعْلَمْ 2
RECITE thou, in the name of thy Lord who created;– Created man from CLOTS OF BLOOD:– Recite thou! For thy Lord is the most Beneficent, Who hath taught the use of the pen;– Hath taught Man that which he knoweth not. 3
Then the Prophet repeated the words himself, and with his heart trembling returned to Khadija and said, ‘Wrap me up! Wrap me up!’ and they wrapped him up in a garment until his fear was dispelled.” 4
Such Traditions as the one related above, together with the oft-repeated statements of the Qur’an itself, form the basis of the Muhammadan belief that the Qur’an is the uncreated word of God which was communicated to Muhammad in a miraculous manner, chiefly by the mediation of the angel Gabriel. The Qur’an, it is said, was extant in the highest heaven from all eternity, written on the Lauhu’l-Mahfuz, or the “preserved table,” near the throne of God, and then sent down to the lowest heaven in the month of Ramadan, whence it was revealed to Muhammad piecemeal during a period of some twenty-three years. The Qur’an abounds in passages asserting its divine origin, and many are the anathemas hurled at those who refuse to acknowledge its claims. Bukhari and others have preserved numerous Traditions, for which we have no space here, relating the manner and occasion of these “revelations;” whilst later writers, such as Jalalu’d-Din as-Syuti, have classified and arranged the different modes of this divine inspiration such as, by the mediation of an angel, by suggestion in the heart of the Prophet, by dreams, by direct communication from God to the Prophet and so forth. We are not concerned here, however, with these details, 5 and for the purposes of this enquiry it must suffice to state the bare fact that the Qur’an is held in the highest esteem by 200,000,000 of people, taking the average estimate, who look upon it as the very word of God, existent in heaven from all eternity, and finally given to the world through the agency of his chosen messenger Muhammad.
The purpose of this small book is to examine this stupendous claim, and to enquire whether the contents of the Qur’an may not be accounted for apart from this theory of divine inspiration. To the Muhammadan reader, whose mind revolts from the suggestion to subject the holy Qur’an to such a critical study, we commend the following words of Sir Syed Ahmad in his commentary on the Holy Bible. 6 This Muhammadan scholar says, “I can by no means rest content with the superstitious notion that Scripture, and all Scriptures in general, even the Holy Qur’an, must not be subjected to critical examination. Would any one imagine for a moment that the most exalted of blessings bestowed upon man, namely, the faculty of reason, is given to us to remain idle? Can we conscientiously and faithfully profess to be Christians or Muhammadans without being able to give a reason for our belief, or without exercising our intellect to the utmost of our ability in the thoughtful and reverent consideration and examination of the precious volume which is given us as a guide of our faith? ... On the contrary I would earnestly desire that those sacred writings be examined with fairness, and discussed with respectful but not impertinent freedom.”
May the Muslim reader of this book, remembering the solemn and eternal nature of the issues involved, seek, in the spirit of Sir Syed Ahmad’s statement, to investigate with candid freedom the book upon which his faith is based. For ourselves we believe, and will try to prove that the Qur’an is nothing more than a heterogeneous collection of doctrines and stories already current in Arabia in the time of Muhammad, which were adopted and altered by him, and afterwards given out from time to time as a direct revelation from God. To these stories were added a number of practical precepts, both positive and negative, which were called forth by the exigences of the time. In accordance with this plan we purpose to discuss in order (1) those portions of the Qur’an which Muhammad adopted from the heathen religions of his day; (2) those portions which have a Jewish origin, both Biblical and Talmudic; (3) those portions which Muhammad learned from his Christian contemporaries; and finally (4) those portions of the Qur’an which were called forth by the special circumstances of the moment, and which were suited to support and sanction the varied actions of the Prophet.
1. اقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ
4. Mishkatu’l-Masabih 24:5. See also, Al-Hadis, An English Translation and Commentary of Mishkat-Ul-Masabih With Arabic Text, Al-Haj Maulana Fazul Karim, Vol 4, Chapter 44, Sec 4, No 77, His Prophethook and Revelation, page 357.
5. For a full account of the Collectors of Traditions and of the value of the various Traditions, see “Faith of Islam” (3rd ed Madras, 1907) pp. 93-101.
6. Syed Ahmed Khan , The Mohomedan Commentary on the Holy Bible (Tabyin-ul-Kalam fi Tafsir-al-turat-wa’l Injil ala Mullat-al-Islam), Part ii, p.335.