The Koran

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That widely different estimates have been formed of Muhammed is well-known. To Moslems he is, of course, the prophet par excellence, and the Koran is regarded by the orthodox as nothing less than the eternal utterance of Allah. The eulogy pronounced by Carlyle on Muhammed in Heroes and Hero Worship will probably be endorsed by not a few at the present day. The extreme contrary opinion, which in a fresh form has recently been revived1 by an able writer, is hardly likely to find much lasting support. The correct view very probably lies between the two extremes. The relative value of any given system of religious thought must depend on the amount of truth which it embodies as well as on the ethical standard which its adherents are bidden to follow. Another important test is the degree of originality that is to be assigned to it, for it can manifestly only claim credit for that which is new in it, not for that which it borrowed from other systems.

With regard to the first-named criterion, there is a growing opinion among students of religious history that Muhammed may in a real sense be regarded as a prophet of certain truths, though by no means of truth in the absolute meaning of the term. The shortcomings of the moral teaching contained in the Koran are striking enough if judged from the highest ethical standpoint with which we are acquainted; but a much more favourable view is arrived at if a comparison is made between the ethics of the Koran and the moral tenets of Arabian and other forms of heathenism which it supplanted.

The method followed by Muhammed in the promulgation of the Koran also requires to be treated with discrimination. From the first flash of prophetic inspiration which is clearly discernible in the earlier portions of the book he, later on, frequently descended to deliberate invention and artful rhetoric. He, in fact, accommodated his moral sense to the circumstances in which the r\oc\le he had to play involved him.

On the question of originality there can hardly be two opinions now that the Koran has been thoroughly compared with the Christian and Jewish traditions of the time; and it is, besides some original Arabian legends, to those only that the book stands in any close relationship. The matter is for the most part borrowed, but the manner is all the prophet's own. This is emphatically a case in which originality consists not so much in the creation of new materials of thought as in the manner in which existing traditions of various kinds are utilised and freshly blended to suit the special exigencies of the occasion. Biblical reminiscences, Rabbinic legends, Christian traditions mostly drawn from distorted apocryphal sources, and native heathen stories, all first pass through the prophet's fervid mind, and thence issue in strange new forms, tinged with poetry and enthusiasm, and well adapted to enforce his own view of life and duty, to serve as an encouragement to his faithful adherents, and to strike terror into the hearts of his opponents.

There is, however, apart from its religious value, a more general view from which the book should be considered. The Koran enjoys the distinction of having been the starting-point of a new literary and philosophical movement which has powerfully affected the finest and most cultivated minds among both Jews and Christians in the Middle Ages. This general progress of the Muhammedan world has somehow been arrested, but research has shown that what European scholars knew of Greek philosophy, of mathematics, astronomy, and like sciences, for several centuries before the Renaissance, was, roughly speaking, all derived from Latin treatises ultimately based on Arabic originals; and it was the Koran which, though indirectly, gave the first impetus to these studies among the Arabs and their allies. Linguistic investigations, poetry, and other branches of literature, also made their appearance soon after or simultaneously with the publication of the Koran; and the literary movement thus initiated has resulted in some of the finest products of genius and learning.

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