By Asif M. Basit
The Literary Aspect
Now that we have shown that Islam emerged in the early seventh century CE, in the towns of Makkah and Madinah by a man from the Quraysh called Muhammadsa, it will be easier to understand how this change could have come about. The new faith of the Bedouins of Arabia was transmitted to them through commandments that were revealed to the Prophet from time to time. Their faith was synonymous with the book called the Qur’an—the collection of revealed verses. That there was a collection of verses called the Qur’an is obvious from the fact that a number of verses refer to ‘the Book’ as Al-Qur’an.
The historical fact that the Qur’anic verses were collated physically into book form first in the Prophet’s lifetime, preserved in Abu Bakr’sra time and then spread to the entire Muslim world is sufficient evidence that the verses collated were in fact the ones revealed to the Prophet. The fact that many of the companions of the Prophet were alive at the time further suggests that there was no chance of perversion or alteration in the Qur’an, as they would have raised questions about any verse that they were not familiar with. Had there been disagreement, it would never have left the unanimously agreed text of the Qur’an without dispute. The companions would have objected to any verse that they were not familiar with from the lifetime of the Prophet. The even more credible way of keeping the Qur’anic text intact was by memorising it. The Hufaz, who would memorise any verse that was revealed to the Prophet, would have disputed any forgery—intentional or not—in the text of the Qur’an. Given Arabian culture before the dawn of Islam, it is obvious why the Hufaz were considered an authentic source. Memorising any text of importance was very common, as it served as the safest medium of transmitting it to others and passing it on to future generations. We have examples of poetry, genealogies (ansab) and proverbs (amthal) being passed on generation after generation in Arabian people.1 When ordinary poetry was commonly memorised, then we can imagine that a text, which was so inspirational that it was bringing under its fold tribes who had never known how to live together as a nation and transforming their centuries’ old way of life, would have been memorised. It is not surprising that its adherents would have felt the need to memorise it.
Qur’an from the 9th century in the Reza Abbasi Museum, Tehran
We also should not forget that this work of collation was being done during the era of Hazrat Uthmanra, when political turmoil was at its peak during the Khilafat-e-Rashida 2 (the period of the first four Caliphs of the Prophet). While the Caliph was held answerable for even the smallest of issues, it is obvious that the collation of the Qur’an—which was the main source of guidance in all religious, social, political and economic affairs—must have been carried out under the greatest scrutiny. Only one disagreement has been recorded in the collation of the Qur’an by Hazrat Uthmanra—not about the text, but rather about the style of recitation.3 It is not the case that between the death of the Prophetsa and Uthman’sra caliphate that there was no Qur’an. It had already been compiled during Hazrat Abu Bakr’sra time, when a great number of Hufaz (s.Hafiz) were martyred in the Battle of Yamama and Umarra had raised the concern lest the Qur’an may never be compiled. Upon Umar’sra suggestion, Abu Bakrra arranged for the copy of the Qur’an which was in the custody of Hafsahra, one of the Prophet’s widows, to be arranged in its current order. When Sir Willim Muir and other Western critics of the Qur’an call the order ‘haphazard’ and ‘dovetailed,’ 4 they actually admit that the Qur’an is in its original form, i.e., as it was revealed to Prophet Muhammadsa. This also shows the paradoxical position of those questioning Islam: they are not ready to accept that Islam has authentic historical grounds, yet criticise every aspect of it. Even stern critics such as George Sale, who identifies seven different versions of the Qur’an, agree that the difference is mainly in the number of verses—not on the words or even the ‘number of words, namely, 77,639 and the same number of letters, viz., 323,015’ 5. In other words, the ‘differences’ that the most critics have been able to point out are not in the least substantive.
With the consensus of the Companions, Uthmanra produced this one single volume of the Qur’an and other volumes were destroyed to maximise transparency in the collation of the Qur’an. Historians agree that the majority of social reforms in the Islamic state were introduced in the time of Umarra.6 Yet, although the Qur’an was finally preserved in its present form during Uthman’sra reign—after Umar’sra caliphate—there is no mention of those socio-political reforms in the Qur’an. Indeed, during Umar’sra caliphate, he was held answerable by his followers on various reforms which he justified on the basis of either the Qur’an or the Traditions of the Prophetsa. So if the Qur’an had been altered, the most probable point at which could have been changed is in the time of Umarra or immediately after his reign. But since this is not the case, there is no reason to doubt that the Qur’an compiled by Uthmanra, which is as we find it today, might not be the Qur’an revealed to the Prophet Muhammadsa and the one learned by his companions. Monophysite chroniclers of the seventh century CE, despite being critical of Uthman’sra political strategies, have mentioned him as the collector of the Qur’an.7 This is not only evidence of Uthman’sraservice in ensuring that the Ummah (Muslim community at large) had the one and only Qur’an that was revealed to the Prophet, but also of the fact that early Syriac chroniclers specifically mentioned the Muslims as an organised nation with one leader. Since these leaders had no other identity except as successors of the Prophetsa himself, it is hard to believe that a whole nation followed a leader who claimed succession to a person who either had never existed or, existed and had not been very significant in the eyes of his contemporaries.
Since we are discussing the literary impact of the Qur’an on society, it is important to look at how literature was written and preserved when the Qur’an was revealed. It is an established fact that there was a tradition of writing down things that were important, as shown by various examples. Starting from the Pre-Islamic period, we have the Mu’alaqat, or the poetic masterpieces of outstanding excellence hung in the Ka’aba in the early days of Islam. The tradition of these Mu’alaqat being hung in the Ka’aba was prevalent at the time when Muslim history was being recorded and to challenge its authenticity would be pointless for the fact that had there been no such poets and poetical works referred to as Mu’alaqat, it would never have been accepted as part of history with no tradition and no mention in the contemporary society to support its basis.
Qur’an from the 12th Century in the Reza Abbasi Museum
Every poetic work was memorised by the tribesmen of the respective poet, who would pass it on as a riwayah (tradition), leaving no doubt as to the existence of the work and its creator. This, subsequently, leaves no room for the hypothesis that the Mu’alaqat were merely a fictitious addition to the history of Arabia. Men of letters, ruwat (transmitters of traditions; s. rawi) or the respective tribes would have questioned any piece of poetry that they thought did not belong to their tribe. It would be impossible—especially if he belonged to the time in which the Mu’alaqat are supposed to originate—for any individual or poet of such high status to exist without an association to a tribe or clan.8 Historians of Arabic classical literature have no reason to doubt whether the poets of the Mu’alaqat existed, especially the poet Labid bin Rabiah, who accepted Islam in the lifetime of Prophet Muhammadsa, since both phases of his life—pre- and post-Islam—are known to historians,9 as is his iconic appreciation of the Holy Qur’an. To quote a passage of George Sale, where he too appreciates the beauty and the eloquence of the Qur’an:
“I will mention but one instance out of several, to show that this book was really admired for the beauty of its composure by those who must be allowed to have been competent judges. A poem of Labid Ibn Rabia, one of the greatest wits in Arabia in Mohammed’s time, being fixed up on the gate of the temple of Mecca, an honour allowed to none but the most esteemed performances, none of the other poets durst offer anything of their own in competition with it. But the second chapter of the Koran being fixed up by it soon after, Labid himself (then an idolator) on reading the first verses only, was struck with admiration, and immediately professed the religion taught thereby, declaring that such words could proceed from an inspired person only. This Labid was afterwards of great service to Mohammed, in writing answers to the satires and invectives that were made on him and his religion by the infidels, and particularly by Amri al Kais, prince of the tribe of Asad, and author of one of those seven famous poems called al Mollakat”.10
Similarly, Hassan bin Thabit, who was a renowned poet of Arabia Prophet Muhammad’ssa time, converted to Islam. Literary historians of Arabia acknowledge his existence and that wonderful poetry was attributed to him. After his conversion, he wrote polemic poetry in response to Bedouin poetry that mocked Islam and its teachings.11 Ka’ab, son of the renowned poet Zuhayr, is also accepted by Arab literary tradition to have written similar polemic poetry.12 Now, let us review: we have the evidence of the famous poets of the Mu’alaqat and the Mu’alaqat themselves. We have the poet Imraul Qais, and his poetic attacks on Islam, and we have the poet Labid, who converted to Islam at the hands of the Holy Prophetsa, and his poetic replies to Qais’ attacks, and the hanging of a chapter of the Qur’an in the Ka’abah. Given all this evidence, would it not be biased to doubt whether Islam existed in the early seventh century or whether the Qur’an existed then or that a man called Muhammadsa—who spread the teachings of Islam and the Qur’an—ever existed?
It is also evident that the Qur’an was written and preserved in the time of the Prophetsahimself from the fact that the Qur’an itself emphasises the importance of writing down contracts or other mutual dealings, especially those of a commercial nature.13 Moreover, we find written evidence of the famous “Constitution of Madinah,” which to this day serves as the basis of an Islamic society, along with the Treaty of Hudaibiyah, which was also recorded and written down. As was the custom during and after the Prophet’ssa time, the name of the scribe who wrote the treaties and contracts was recorded in the document itself. This is seen in the Treaty of Hudaibiyah where the name of Ali ibn Abi Talib is recorded as the scribe.14 If treaties and constitutions were being recorded in writing, it is hard to imagine that the most important text—the one that was changing the lives of many and being disseminated far and wide to bring people to the fold of Islam—would not have been written down. Western critics of Islam agree that the Qur’an was first collated in the time of Abu Bakrra (that is, within two years of Prophet Muhammad’ssa death), using as a source a Qur’an that was almost in book form that had been collated in the time of the Prophet Muhammadsa himself. This should leave no doubt as to the authenticity of the Qur’an.
The Religious Aspect
As Islam spread in and then out of Arabia, the religions that had prevailed in the region for centuries could not have let it go unnoticed. The eve of Islam had witnessed the weakening of Christianity and Judaism, the two major monotheistic religions of the world. George Sale, acknowledging the success of Islam amidst the weakened state of other religions and neighbouring empires, states:
“…that it is impossible a person should make himself a prince and found a state without opportunities. If the distracted state of religion favoured the designs of Mohammed on that side, the weakness of the Roman and Persian monarchies might flatter him with no less hopes in any attempt on those once formidable empires, either of which, had they been in their full vigour, must have crushed Mohammedism in its birth; whereas nothing nourished it more than the success the Arabians met with in their enterprises against those powers, which success they failed not to attribute to their new religion and the divine assistance thereof.”15
Critics of Islam, even extremists such as Sale, are compelled to admit that the state of Christianity was dire in the period in which Islam emerged. The passage below shows the influence Islam had on the perverted forms of Christianity:
“…the divinity of the Virgin Mary was also believed by some at the council of Nice, who said there were two gods besides the Father, viz., Christ and the Virgin Mary, and were thence named Mariamites. Others imagined her to be exempt from humanity, and deified; which goes but little beyond the Popish superstition in calling her the complement of the Trinity, as if it were imperfect without her. This foolish imagination is justly condemned in the Korân as idolatrous, and gave a handle to Mohammed to attack the Trinity itself.”16
Similarly, in an attempt to portray Islam as an offshoot of Judaism, Western scholars have ended up giving a detailed account of the frail state of Judaism before the advent of Islam. German historian Adolf Harnack declared that, “Islam is a recasting on Arab soil of the Jewish religion after the Jewish religion had undergone an analogous operation through contact with a Judaising, gnostic Christianity.”17 In short, the prevalent monotheistic faiths recorded the advent of Islam as it swept through the lands that these faiths had occupied for centuries. Early Syriac sources,18 dating back to as early as 633 CE (a year after the death of the Prophet) mention the emergent faith called Islam. It is from Syriac manuscripts that we know that a sumptuous Gospel manuscript was completed on 24thDecember 633 CE, with little hint of the storm clouds over the horizon.19 Another source is the sermon of the Patriarch Sophonios, given in Jerusalem on Christmas Day in 634 (two years after the death of the Prophetsa, which declared the occupation of Bethlehem a punishment for their sins: “We have only to repent, and we shall blunten the Ishmaelite sword…and break the Hagarene bow, and see Bethlehem again.”20
Similarly, a letter by Maximus the Confessor, written between the years 634-640 CE, speaks of a ‘barbaric nation from the desert’ as having overrun a land not their own, and hints that the appearance of the Anti-Christ appears to be at hand.21 In addition, an important historical Syriac chronicle named Doctrina Jacobi nuper baptizati, which also dates back to 634 CE, mentions that a prophet had appeared amongst the Arabs:
“I, Abraham, went off to Sykamina and referred the matter to an old man very well-versed in the Scriptures. I asked him: ’What is your view, master and teacher, of the prophet who has appeared among the Saracens?’”22
A mid-seventh century account mentioning Islam is to be found in the chronicles of Sebeos, a bishop of the House of Bagratunis. This chronicle suggests that he lived through many of the events related therein. The following passage is of particular importance:
“At that time a certain man from along those same sons of Ishmael, whose name was Mahmet [i.e., Muhammadsa], a merchant, as if by God’s command appeared to them as a preacher [and] the path of truth. He taught them to recognise the God of Abraham, especially because he was learned and informed in the history of Moses. Now because the command was from on high, at a single order they all came together in unity of religion. Abandoning their vain cults, they turned to the living God who had appeared to their father, Abraham. So, Mahmet legislated for them: not to eat carrion, not to drink wine, not to speak falsely, and not to engage in fornication. He said: with an oath God promised this land to Abraham and his seed after him forever. And he brought about as he promised during that time while he loved Ishmael. But now you are the sons of Abraham and God is accomplishing his promise to Abraham and his seed for you. Love sincerely only the God of Abraham, and go and seize the land which God gave to your father Abraham. No one will be able to resist you in battle, because God is with you.”
This account of Sebeos is also helpful in interpreting another passage of the Doctrina Jacobi, where we find contemporary events being fitted into the apocalyptic scheme of the four beasts of Daniel chapter 7, 23 but where Rome is still the fourth beast, simply humiliated by the succession of horns.24 Sebeos helps in understanding the interpretation of the beasts, with the Ishmaelites replacing Rome as the fourth beast.25
With all this to hand, this author seeks to conclude on a very simple, yet very powerful note. The fact that a faith has millions of followers—and has had millions of followers from its very inception—is a great testimony to the historical evidence of a religion. As the late historian Van Grunebaum, Professor of Arabic and later Near Eastern History at the University of California, notes:
“The essential significance of the appearance of Muhammad is the crystallization of a new experience of the divine, which welded all those who shared it into a new kind of community. The effect of this experience on contemporary relationships is evident and unmistakable in both language and art. Most important, if Muhammad’s understanding of the Divine had been inaccessible to his contemporaries, he would have found no following, and both prophet and message would have fallen into oblivion, like the majority of the bringers of new tidings from God. But Muhammad and his work survived because he spoke, if one may be permitted to express it, not only for God but for Arabs, or to put it more as he saw it, because he came as an Arab prophet to his people”.26
There is enough evidence to prove that Muhammadsa was a prophet who gave the world the religion called Islam. It is miraculous to see how this faith transformed fragmented peoples into a nation and then an empire and then one of the biggest civilisations of the world. The cradle of the religion and its followers was not rocked by the intelligentsia of already established empires; rather, it was the hand of an unlettered man who introduced them to a code of life, spiritual and social, called the Qur’an. There is no doubt that the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammadsa himself and remains unaltered to this day. There can be differences of opinion in terms of interpretation of the text, but the text itself has been preserved and we find it today as it was in the day of the Prophet Muhammadsa. This article has solely focused on Western historians of Islam as Muslim historians may not seem acceptable to Tom Holland, or Patricia Crone and Michael Cook. However, to put Muslim historians aside for the reason that they are not credible is not justified in any way as they have done their utmost to fulfil the challenges of historical enquiry. The way they tested any traditions for the sake of historiography must have been a painstaking exercise and deserves due attention. However, this will be addressed separately.
Asif M. Basit is a writer, producer and researcher. He has written several peer-reviewed articles on Islamic history and is the producer of numerous progammes on Muslim Television Ahmadiyya International (MTA) including ‘Historical Facts’ (Tareekhee-Haqaaiq).
1. Shoeler G, ‘The Oral and the Written in Early Islam’, Trans.Vagelpohl U, Routledge, Oxon 2006, p 65
2. Muir W, ‘Annals of the Early Caliphate’, Elder & Co London 1883, p 296
3. Abdullah bin Masud is said to have disagreed on tajweed(style of recitation of the Qur’anic text)
4. Muir W, ‘Annals of the Early Caliphate’, Elder & Co London 1883, p 231
5. Sale G, ‘The Preliminary Discourse’ in ‘The AlCoran of Mohammed’, Charles Mason, London 1836, p 45 (will now be cited as ‘Sale’)
6. Muir and Kennedy
7. Lapidus,p 20
8. Schoeler G, ‘The Oral and the Written in Early Islam’, Trans. UweVagelophl, Ed. Montgomery J E, Routledge 2006, p 65 (will now be cited as ‘Schoeler’)
9. Allen R., ‘The Arabic Literary Heritage’, CUP 1998, p 12
10. Sale G, p 48
11. Brockleman C, ‘History of Islamic Peoples’, Routledge&Kegan Paul, London 1948, p 33
13. Qur’an 2:283; Schoeler, p 62
14. Schoeler, p 62
15. Sale, p 54,55
16. Sale, p 54
17. Sourdel D, ‘Medieval Islam’ Trans. J. Montgomery Watt, Rougledge&Kegan Paul 1983
18. Lapidus, p 199, a detailed account of these sources can be found in the endnotes of
19. Ibid, p 10
22. Doctrina Jacobi, Readings in Late Antiquity: A Sourcebook, Routledge, 2005, p. 354.
23. Daniel 7, King James’ Version
24. Lapidus, p 9
25. Ibid, p 10
26. Grunbaum V., Classical Islam: A History 600-1258, Trans. Katherine Watson, George Allen &Unwin, London 1970, p 28