The Religion of the Koran, by Arthur N. Wollaston, , at sacred-texts.com
The Koran.—As the sacred volume of some 170 millions of the present inhabitants of the world, the Koran possesses an interest and importance which well merit, and will amply repay, attention and study. To the pious Musulman it is the very Word of God, the true rule of life, and the source of all his hopes for the future.
It is universally allowed to be written with the utmost elegance and purity of style, though, of course, as the standard of the Arabic tongue, it scarcely comes within the pale of grammatical criticism. But, apart from this, it would be difficult to surpass the eloquence and beauty of its diction, and well may Muhammad have disclaimed all power of working miracles, trusting to the sacred Book itself as evidence of his mission from on high.
That the Koran was really the work of the Prophet of Arabia is beyond dispute, though it must be left to conjecture whether, and to what extent, others participated in his design. Pious Muslims, however, would have it believed that the book was of divine origin, and revealed to Muhammad on various occasions, sometimes at Mecca, and sometimes at Madina, during a
period of twenty-three years. After the passages had been set down in writing by his scribe from the Prophet's mouth, they were published to his followers, some of whom took copies, more or less incomplete, for their private use, but the far greater number learned them by heart. The originals when returned were placed promiscuously in a chest, where they remained in a state of confusion till the time of Abu Bakr, the Khalif or successor of the Prophet (A.D. 632-634). By his direction they were collected and additions made of those portions which had not previously been committed to writing. Matters remained in this condition till A.D. 652, when Othman, who was then Khalif, ordered a great number of copies to be transcribed from the compilation of Abu Bakr; with emendations by specially selected scholars, and dispersed this new edition throughout the Empire, in place of the old collections, which were thereupon suppressed. It may interest the curious to learn that of the seven principal editions of the Koran which were subsequently prepared, two were published and used at Madina, a third at Mecca, a fourth at Kufa, a fifth at Bussorah, a sixth in Syria; while the seventh became the common or vulgar edition throughout the land. The first printed edition appeared in Arabic at Venice in A.D. 1530, under the direction of Pagninus of Brescia. The Pope of Rome, however, was alarmed, and by his orders all the copies were committed to the flames. The next complete Arabic edition was published at Hamburg (A.D. 1649) under the auspices of Hinkelmann.
[paragraph continues] A later and more celebrated edition was printed at St. Petersburg in A.D. 1787 by command of the Empress Catherine II., for the benefit of such of her Tartar subjects as were Muslims. A Latin translation made in A.D. 1143, but not published till A.D. 1543, was followed after an interval of a century and a half (A.D. 1698) by the elaborate volumes given to the world by Father Maracci, the confessor of Pope Innocent XI. The first English edition of the Koran was the translation of Alexander Ross, which appeared at intervals between the years A.D. 1649-1688.
Unity of God.—The great doctrine of the Koran is the Unity of God. It is true that at the time Muhammad remodelled the religions of Arabia the peoples of that land believed in one Supreme Deity —but they also paid adoration to the fixed stars and the planets, as well as to the angels and other intelligences which were supposed to reside in the heavenly bodies: while the worship of images, which they honoured as inferior deities, was carried to such an extent that there were no less than 360 idols—one for each day in the year—before which Arab devotees were wont to prostrate themselves.
Muhammad the Apostle of God.—Assuming as an axiom which could scarcely be called in question, that there could be but one orthodox belief, Muhammad, finding that this eternal religion was in his time corrupted, claimed to be a prophet sent by God to restore the faith to its original purity. The aim was lofty, the conception magnificent; the religion of the "Faithful" was founded in humility—it reigned
in sovereign majesty and might—and countless millions now worship the God of the Arabian teacher and ruler of men; while for thirteen centuries the vault of Heaven has resounded with the cry of Islam, "There is but one God—and Muhammad is the Apostle of God."
Resurrection.—The next article of faith laid down in the Koran is a belief in a general resurrection and a future judgment. As soon as the soul is separated from the body by the angel of death—an office, so Muslims would have it believed, performed with gentleness as regards the good, and with violence in the case of the wicked—it enters into an intermediate state, there to remain till the last trump, save as regards the Prophets, whose spirits pass immediately after death to abodes of bliss. As regards the resurrection, it is generally believed that it will be alike corporeal as spiritual, and extend to all created beings, whether angels, genii, men, or animals. The dead, however, who have risen will not be brought to immediate judgment, but kept in suspense till such time—some would have it a period of no less than 50,000 years—as God shall think fit. According to Muhammadan belief the most exact justice will be meted out at the Last Day, inasmuch as a balance will be brought wherein all the actions of mankind will be weighed. When this terrible ordeal is passed, those who are admitted to Paradise will be gathered on the right hand and those who are destined to perdition on the left. Still the trials of mankind do not terminate with the ordeals which have been undergone, for all must cross a bridge which is said to be laid over the
midst of the infernal regions, and described to be finer than a hair and sharper than the edge of a sword: it is also beset on each side with briers and thorns, so that unless directed and supported by the Prophet of Islam it is impossible to pass along in safety: hence the wicked, deprived of all guidance and help, soon miss their footing, and fall headlong into the abyss yawning beneath.
Hell.—In the opinion of true believers the abode of the wicked is divided into seven circles, one below another, designed for the reception of as many distinct classes of lost souls. The first of these is called Jahannam, a receptacle for those who acknowledged one God, that is the wicked Muhammadans; these after having there been punished according to their demerits, will at length be released. The second, named Laza, is assigned to the Jews; the third, named al Hutama, to the Christians; the fourth, named al Sair, to the Sabeans; the fifth, named Sakar, to the Magians; the sixth, named al Jahim, to the idolaters; and the seventh, which is the lowest and worst of all, and is called Hawiyat, to the hypocrites, or those who outwardly professed some religion, but in their hearts were without a God. Muhammad has, in his Koran, been very exact in describing the various torments of Hell, which, according to him, the wicked will suffer. It is considered that eternity of damnation is reserved for infidels alone, and not for Muslims, who will be delivered from torments after they have expiated their crimes by their sufferings. Animals will be allowed to wreak their vengeance upon one
another, and then be changed to dust; while unbelieving genii will be punished eternally in the regions of Hell.
Paradise.—The joys of Paradise may be briefly described as consisting of a Garden of Bliss situated in the seventh heaven just under the throne of God.
It is pictured as beautiful beyond the dreams of imagination, and all that can delight the heart or enchant the senses is there to be found—exquisite jewels and precious stones, the tree of Happiness yielding fruits of size and taste unknown to mortals, streams flowing, some with water, some with milk, some with wine (which, forbidden in this life, is permitted in the next) albeit without any intoxicating properties, and others with honey. But all these glories will be eclipsed by the resplendent houris of Paradise; created not of clay, as in the case of mortal women, but of pure musk, and clad in magnificent garments, their charms being enhanced by the enjoyment of perpetual youth. Entertained with the ravishing songs of the Angel Israfil, the inhabitants of Paradise will enjoy pleasures which surpass all human imagination. Let it not be supposed, however, that the happiness of the blessed is to consist wholly in corporeal enjoyments; far otherwise, for all the varied pleasures of Paradise will pale into insignificance compared with the exquisite delight of beholding the face of the Almighty, morning and evening. The idea that women will not be admitted into Paradise is a libel upon Islam, though admittedly differences of opinion exist as to whether or not they
will pass into a separate place of happiness. Nor is it anywhere explained whether male companions will be assigned to them. One comfort, however, remains to the fair sex in that on entering Paradise they are all to become young again—an advantage which, as before explained, places them on an equality with the houris of the Abode of Bliss.
Genii or Jinns.—The Muhammadans believe in a hierarchy of angelic beings free from all sin, who neither eat nor drink, and have no distinction of sex. Invisible—save to animals—they occasionally, under special circumstances, appear in human form.
Angels.—Muhammadans believe that there are countless millions of heavenly beings who roam at will over the Universe and fill the illimitable expanse of space. The Devil, such is the teaching of the sacred volume, was once one of the angels nearest to God's presence, but fell, according to the doctrine of the Koran, for refusing to pay homage to Adam at the command of the Lord of Heaven. The four angels who are considered to enjoy God's favour in a pre-eminent degree are (1) Gabriel, by whom the divine revelations were made to the Prophet; (2) the archangel Michael, charged with the general welfare of mankind; (3) Azrail, the angel of death; and (4) Israfil, the angel of the Resurrection. In addition to these are Seraphim, occupied exclusively in chanting the praises of God; the two secretaries, who record the actions of men; and the observers, who spy out the sayings and doings of mankind; the travellers, who wander throughout the whole earth to ascertain whether
people utter the name of God and pray to Him; the angels of the seven planets; the two guardian angels appointed to keep watch over the world; the two angels of the grave, and the nineteen in charge of the Infernal Regions.
Predestination is a point of faith among Muslims, who are taught to believe that whatever happens proceeds entirely from the Divine will, being irrevocably fixed and recorded in the tablets of Eternity. Of this doctrine Muhammad makes great use in the Koran, encouraging his followers to fight without fear, and even desperately, when the occasion might require, since caution is of no avail against the decrees of Fate, and life cannot be prolonged when the destined hour arrives.
Prayer was by Muhammad thought so necessary a duty that he was wont to call it the pillar of religion and the key of Paradise—and he obliged his followers to pray five times a day at certain stated periods. Public notice is given from the steeples of the mosques when these periods are at hand, and then all good Muslims, turning their faces to the temple of Mecca, prostrate themselves in adoration before the Supreme Ruler of the world. Two peculiarities deserve mention—one that the Faithful, though the Prophet bids them take their "ornaments to every mosque," are not generally wont to address themselves to God in sumptuous apparel, but lay aside their costly habits and pompous decorations lest they should seem proud and arrogant. The other is that they do not admit their women to worship with them in public, but leave the gentler sex for the most part to perform their devotions at home.
[paragraph continues] "Church parade" finds no place in the devotions of Islam.
Almsgiving is of a two-fold description—legal (from which there is no escape), varying from a fortieth to a fifth of the property; and voluntary, according to the liberality or otherwise of the donor.
Fasting is considered a duty of so great moment that Muhammad characterized it as the "gate of religion," and proclaimed that "the odour of the mouth of him who fasteth is more grateful to God than that of musk." Fasting in the daytime during the month Ramazan is obligatory from the hour when the new moon first rises till the appearance of the next new moon—and none are excused except travellers and sick persons. As the Arabian year is lunar, of course each month runs in time through all the different seasons of the solar year; accordingly, Ramazan at fixed periods falls in summer, and then the fast is extremely rigorous and mortifying. On the expiration of the allotted time, the reaction which sets in after so lengthened a period of restraint finds vent in every conceivable token of joy; the men lounge about happy, merry, and convivial; while the fair sex don their best jewellery and brightest attire: festive songs and loud music fill the air, friends meet, presents are distributed, and all is life, joy, cheerful mirth, and amusement.
Voluntary fasts are recommended both by the example and approbation of the Prophet, and especially in regard to certain days of the months which are considered sacred.
A pilgrimage to Mecca is considered an all-important
duty, but is not absolutely compulsory, inasmuch as though every Muslim is enjoined to visit the Holy City at least once during his lifetime, there is a saving clause, "provided able to do so." Some maintain that if a person cannot go himself he may hire another to go in his stead, but the more orthodox consider that pilgrimage cannot be performed by proxy, quoting the example of Muhammad, who, ready as he was to impose the duty upon others, was no less willing to accept the obligation himself. It is also worthy of notice that the institution had for centuries before the introduction of Islam been in vogue in Arabia, and the Prophet merely lent to the custom the all-potent weight of his sanction and approval.
The pilgrimage must be performed between the seventh and tenth days of the month known as Zu'l Hijja, a visit to Mecca at any other time not having the full merit attaching to that act of piety if undertaken at the enjoined period. After performing the pilgrimage, the pious devotee is entitled to the coveted title of Haji. Even women are not excused from the performance of the pilgrimage, and a portion of the temple at Mecca is appropriated to female devotees: but the weaker sex are forbidden to go alone, and must perforce be accompanied by a husband, relation, or person worthy of confidence. After the pilgrimage is finished the Hajis generally betake themselves to the mosque which contains the tomb of the Prophet at Madina, an act of piety which, though highly meritorious as an effectual mode of drawing near to God through his messenger Muhammad, is a voluntary undertaking, at the choice and free will of the individual. It is scarcely possible to state accurately the precise number of
pilgrims who annually repair to Mecca, but perhaps 50,000 to 60,000 may be taken as a fair average, and of these about 30,000 to 40,000 proceed by sea.
Prohibitions may be briefly classed under the following heads:—
(1) The drinking of wine, under which name all sorts of inebriating liquors are comprehended, is forbidden in the Koran. It is true that the injunctions of the Prophet are not infrequently disregarded—but the more conscientious are so strict that they hold it unlawful not only to taste wine but even to press grapes to make it, while to buy or sell intoxicating drinks would be repugnant to the instincts of a true Muslim.
(2) Gaming is prohibited in the sacred volume, and under this head are included all games which are subject to hazard and chance, such as dice, cards, etc. Chess, indeed, is almost the only exception to the general interdiction which Muslim doctors allow, deeming it lawful because it depends wholly upon skill: but lest the pieces used should be considered as "images," it is in some countries played with simple blocks of wood or ivory.
(3) A distinction of meats was so generally enforced amongst Eastern nations, that it will occasion no wonder that the Koran prohibits the eating of blood and swine's flesh, and whatever either (a) dies of itself, (b) is slain in the name or
in honour of any idol, (c) is strangled or killed by a blow or fall, or by any beast. In case of necessity, however, when starvation is imminent, it is permissible by the law of Islam to eat any kind of food.
(4) Usury is not allowable.
(5) The practice of infanticide, so long prevalent amongst pagan Arabs prior to the time of Muhammad, is condemned in the Koran, as is a custom, common amongst nations of old, of sacrificing children to idols.
(6) The ill-treatment of orphans is especially condemned in the Koran.
(7) Tobacco was not introduced into Turkey, Arabia, and other parts of Asia for many years after the time of Muhammad, and of course no direct reference to its use is contained in the Koran, which was written little less than a thousand years before the drug came into general use in the East. The Muslim world is, however, to some extent divided as regards the use of tobacco—perhaps, indeed, it may be said, in general terms, that in theory it is considered an unlawful luxury, while in practice its use is more or less general. Of course there are exceptions, notably as regards the fanatical sect of the Wahabis, who, on rising into power at the commencement of the eighteenth century, interdicted the use of a drug which they considered in the highest degree obnoxious and objectionable.
Marriage amongst Muslims is a civil rather than a religious institution; but it may be well to explain that under the teaching of the Koran a
true believer "may marry what seems good to you, by twos, or threes, or fours, and if ye fear that ye cannot be equitable, then only one, or what your right hands possess"—that is, female slaves. The purport of these injunctions is not free from doubt, as the unlimited number of concubines, to which reference is made, may be held to apply only to the case of one wife. As a matter of fact, however, the widest interpretation is generally placed upon the text by the richer part of the Muslim community, who add when so disposed to the maximum of four wives as many concubines as they think fit, while the humbler classes are mostly content with a solitary spouse, though, as worldly prosperity advances, not infrequently they increase the number of "slave girls" in the harem. Permission to put away wives at the wish and desire of their husbands is fatally easy, as the latter need not seek justification in any misconduct on the part of the women thus dismissed from the domestic hearth. Practically, however, it is open to doubt whether the wide freedom of action under both heads sanctioned by the Koran is a factor to the extent which might have been supposed as regards the everyday life of the many millions who bow the knee as co-religionists of the Prophet of Arabia; perhaps, indeed, other injunctions which necessitate a dower and a return of money when separation occurs are a bar not less to plurality of wives, than to their indiscriminate divorce.
Proselytism.—Few commands in the Koran are more clear or forcible than the direction to extend the Muslim religion at the point of the
sword, and it would be difficult to conceive a precept which would appeal more powerfully to the instincts of the race to whom it was addressed. "The Koran or the Sword" is an alternative which meets the eye on every page of the history of Islam. To press upon the warriors of Arabia the need for fighting would seem almost a work of supererogation; but to hold out the bliss of Paradise as a reward for those who should fall on the battle-field of the faith, was a potent means for securing a religious revival such as the world has scarcely, if ever, witnessed. It is also worthy of note that to this free use of the sword enjoined by the Prophet of Arabia, is due the extension of his religion, which as years rolled on spread far and wide amongst the nations of the earth. It was no longer the faith of a tribe, but one of the religions of the world—a powerful factor in the history of mankind.
Such, in briefest outline, is the religion of Islam. To examine it fairly the critic must remember the circumstances and the surroundings in which it was founded. Be it then kept in mind that the greater portion of Arabia is an arid territory with stretches of parched, inhospitable sands, affording but scanty support for man or beast; this being so, can it be wondered at that the Paradise held out to the denizens of such a spot is a land with flowing rivers and all the concomitants which follow in the wake of the greatest of all boons in a tropical clime — a pure limpid stream spreading delights alike to the eye as to the body, and enriching nature with all the
beauties of shade and the charms of fertility. Further, in a land with Eastern love of ornamentation and garments decked with superb jewels and brilliant gems, should it be a source of astonishment or occasion for marvel that the blessed in the Paradise of Islam are to be adorned with bracelets of gold, and clothed with robes of green silk and brocade? The delights of Heaven are in this respect but a reflex of the joys of Earth.
That the Religion of the Muslim Prophet is sensual can scarcely be denied; though even from this point of view it must not be overlooked that in the early ages of Islam its votaries were engaged in a constant struggle with the peoples by whom they were surrounded, and the indulgence of the permitted number of four wives practically in those days meant but little more than a spouse in each of the towns where the husband was fighting "the good fight with all his might." Truth also forces the admission that it is not easy to realise what is to happen at the re-union of husband and wife on entering Paradise, seeing that the former is allowed to be captivated with the charms of the resplendent houris, whose perpetual beauty, albeit one of the delights of the Abode of Bliss, is scarcely likely to appeal to the fair sex translated from Earth to Heaven, who might perchance have preferred that they alone should possess a blessing which they would gladly have found denied to their rivals. Can it be, that as in this terrestrial sphere a Muhammadan wife is content to be one amongst others, she would be happy and content were she to be
assigned in Heaven a role which is but a continuation in the next world of the position assigned to her in the realms on Earth? To give an answer is not possible—till the Great Hereafter solves a problem of the Muslim faith which must ever remain incapable of solution on this side of the grave.
If this much is said in a spirit of criticism, it is but fair to add that the Prophet of Arabia did superb service to the cause of religion by sweeping away the worship of idols, and proclaiming that there is but one God who alone is to be adored. That the mission of Muhammad had its imperfections is scarcely open to doubt: but no less must it be admitted that his aims were lofty, and his conceptions noble; while the Koran which embodied the faith which he proclaimed must ever remain a testimony to an inspiration which, if human, is so rare as to justify the claim that it was little less than divine.
A. N. Wollastan.
Walmer, October 1904.