Chapter 13: The Sacred Literature of the Moslems

The Scriptures of Mankind: An Introduction
by Charles Samuel Braden

Chapter 13: The Sacred Literature of the Moslems

The sacred book of the Moslems or, as more commonly if less correctly known, the Mohammedans, is the Koran. It is unique among sacred books in several particulars. First of all, it is distinctly a one-man book. All the other sacred literatures include the writings or reputed sayings of many people, usually produced over a comparatively long period of time, but finally collected and regarded as sacred or authoritative. The Koran contains only the purported revelations of Allah, given through his prophet, Mohammed.

Second: Most scriptures abound in historic accounts of a people or the life of the founder of the religion and his contemporaries or successors. In the Koran there is reference to only two of the people of Mohammed’s own time, and no information at all concerning his own life experiences. There is, of course, much self-revelation as to the nature of the Prophet in what he includes, but of local setting or circumstances under which he received the revelations there is nothing. The name of Mohammed appears only five times in the entire book. The revelations are introduced simply by the word Say, more or less the Biblical equivalent of the phrase so frequently found in the prophets, "Thus saith the Lord."

Third: The Koran was practically completed as a book during the lifetime of the Prophet, although apparently not written down until after his death. Certainly it assumed definitive form more quickly after Mohammed’s death than did any other of the sacred literatures after the passing of the founder of any of the other religions. Thus while there are some textual problems in connection with the Koran, there are relatively many less than in the case of other scriptures.

The Koran is the latest of the great scriptures. Only one other of those considered in this study, save those discussed in the chapter on the Modern Sacred Book, appeared later, namely the Sikh, in India.

Mohammed, the founder of Mohammedanism, or Islam, the term used by Moslems for their faith, was born in 576 AD. in Mecca, Arabia. Of good family, he was early orphaned, and was obliged as a boy to go to work for a living, journeying with caravans of Meccan merchants sometimes to distant places. This travel gave him his first contact with people of different religions, especially Christians and Jews. These latter he was to know better as he met both Jewish and Christian residents of Mecca, and travelers of these faiths who visited Mecca. All this is thought greatly to have influenced his religious outlook as it appears later in the Koran. He was a dependable worker. He was sometimes called El Amin, the trustworthy. His success led finally to his marriage with Khadija, a wealthy woman for whom he worked. Although she was fifteen years his senior, this union was a very happy one and was to have a profound effect upon his future.

Already he had become something of a mystic. He liked to be alone. In his solitude there came to him visions which he little understood. Freed from the necessity of constant journeying and preoccupation with business, he had time and leisure to go apart in the mountains, and it was thus that he began to get what he later regarded as revelations from God, or Allah, as he came to be known among Moslems. At first he was not certain of the source of these visions and insights which came to him. It was not until he had confided some of them to his wife who encouraged him, that he felt sure whence the visions came, and so came to believe that he was called to be the prophet of God, the human voice through whom the will of Allah might be made known to men. Once this was accepted, the Koran was on the way to being born, for it purports to be nothing else than the very word of the all-wise, all-powerful God to humanity, as given through Mohammed.

At first only a few believed. The people of Mecca scoffed at his pretensions of being the mouthpiece of God. In the first place most of them believed not in one God, but in many, and their faith was affronted by the thunderings of their fellow-townsman in the name of Allah, whom he proclaimed to be the one and only God of the universe. He was resisted, ridiculed, persecuted, and finally forced to flee from Mecca to preserve his life. This flight, known as the Hegira, marks the beginning of the new age for Moslems who count 622 A.D. as their year 1, from which all other time references are calculated -- before the Hegira or after it.

The revelations did not cease, but their character changed, for Mohammed, at the invitation of the tribesmen of Medina, now became the head of its government which gradually spread during his own lifetime to include the whole of Arabia. Gone was the leisure for silent contemplation and prayer. He was now concerned, of necessity, with the everyday affairs with which a political chief must deal. The revelations now take on the form of regulations for community living -- laws of inheritance, responsibilities in marriage, care of orphans and the helpless. Less of poetry now, more of prose -- befitting the rosier aspects of life with which he must perforce deal. But this is none the less the revelation of God. God was through him setting up his rule on earth. The government under him and his successors was for many a year to be a true theocracy, the rule of God -- and the Koran was to be the basis for that rule. It still is so regarded in truly Moslem states until now -- as we shall presently see.

After ten years of active direction of this new movement, Mohammed died and the revelations ceased. All the materials for the creation of the Koran were now in existence. It only remained for them to be collected and issued in book form.

Mohammed himself probably never wrote a word. It is rather generally recognized that he neither knew how to read or write!1 Moslems believe and assert that he memorized the messages as they were given to him, then quickly thereafter dictated them to an amanuensis who put them in writing for him in the exact form in which they were given to the prophet by Gabriel. Mohammed is then supposed to have taught these to his increasing number of followers, some of whom were known as reciters, those who could recite the revelations. It was their function also to teach them to other Moslem followers. It does seem to be true that portions of the Koran, as we know it today, formed a part of the Mosque service that Mohammed established, which consisted largely of rituals and passages from the Koran.

There are interesting traditions as to how Mohammed received his revelation. One modern Moslem scholar, Maulana Muhammad Ali, distinguishes three types of inspiration: first there is simply a suggestion that comes into the mind of a man who then speaks it under the influence of the Holy Spirit. The second is described as if one were speaking from behind a veil. It comes generally in the sleeping or trance state, through dreams or visions. The third is that kind where a messenger from God is sent to the prophet with a Divine Message delivered in particular words. This is said to be the highest form of revelation. This he thinks is the form and the only form of revelation the Koran exhibits!2

Of course, there undoubtedly exist a number of ideas among Moslems as to what inspiration means. There is some beginning among them of a liberal attitude toward the Koran such as that represented by liberal modern scholarship toward the Bible. In general, however, it is a dogma of the Moslem faith that the Koran is the ipsissima verba, the very, very word of God. Muhammad Ali says, "It was not the Prophet who spoke under the influence of the Holy Spirit; it was a Divine Message brought by the Holy Spirit, or Gabriel, and delivered in words to the Holy Prophet who delivered it to mankind."3 It was revealed in the Arabic tongue, says Ali, citing Sura 26: 192-195, "That thou mayest be of the warners, in plain Arabic language." Moslems, generally, until now use the Arabic as the cult language regardless of the nationality to which they themselves belong. There is a special sacredness which attaches to Arabic. Only quite recently and chiefly by non-Moslems, has the Koran been translated into other living vernaculars. Even an English Moslem in the twentieth century, in publishing an English translation, felt obliged to call it not a translation but The Meaning of the Glorious Koran.

The impulse to bring together and put in written form the material of the Koran, came as a result of the killing off in warfare of many of those who were able to recite it from memory. About a year after the prophet’s death, his brother-in-law, Omar, later to be the second Caliph or successor of Mohammed, suggested to Abu Bekr, one of the earliest and most influential of the prophet’s converts and his immediate successor, the wisdom of making a written collection of all the prophet’s sayings. Abu Bekr agreed and at once commissioned one of those who had served as secretary to Mohammed, Zaid by name, to make the collection and put it into written book form. This was done. The testimony varies as to just how he went about the task. One modern Moslem writer seems to think it involved no more than simply having the Koran, as it was already in existence in the memories of living men, copied down in written form. More critical scholars think that a systematic collection was made of all that could be found of the words of the Prophet, both written and remembered by his followers. A tradition says that fragments were gathered together "from date leaves and tablets of white stone, and from the breasts of men.

The question arises at this point as to the order of the material as it was written down. Was it simply collected, the longest first, and so on down to the shortest at the end, a sort of mechanical process carried out by Zaid, or was the Koran essentially completed in its present order in Mohammed’s time and perhaps so arranged by him? At this point, violent differences of opinion emerge. There seems to be no sure way of settling the issue. Those who hold that Mohammed had already arranged the chapters essentially as they now exist cite passages from the Traditions to support their claims. One of the Traditions declares that when Mohammed received a message, he usually dictated it to a secretary and told him specifically at what point in any given chapter the new revelation should appear. The dependability of the traditions4 is a matter of distinct difference of opinion so that the citation of the Traditions as a source is not too convincing.

At all events, it does seem to be certain that a version was completed by Zaid, and that copies of it began to circulate among the Moslem faithful. It remained as the standard text all during the Caliphates of Abu Bekr and of Omar, a period of over ten years.

But after a time differences in the text began to be reported, one copy apparently differing from another in some respects. During the Caliphate of Othman, it is reported, an important leader came to him beseeching him to do something about the matter lest the Moslems come to "differ in the Holy Book as the Jews and Christians differ in their scriptures."5 Whereupon, Othman sent for the original copy which was in the possession of one of the wives of Mohammed (Hafsa) , and ordered Zaid once more to make perfect copies from the original. He associated with him three men of Mecca in order to insure that the language in the perfected copies be in accord with the Quraish language which was the original speech of Mohammed. Zaid was himself a native of Medina. When this was done, copies were sent to various quarters of the world and all other copies were ordered to be burned, thus insuring the correctness of all the extant copies of the sacred book.

Critical scholarship, it hardly need be said, does not accept the orthodox view as representing what actually happened. Critical scholars do not think that the material was collected by Mohammed himself, nor by any one else during his lifetime, although some of them do believe that he may have collected some portions of it. Some of the legislative portions may well have been in written form, and certain individuals may have memorized considerable amounts of the revealed material, those known as the Reciters, but that they all memorized the same identical collections is not regarded as likely.6

Arthur Jeffery -- one of those who has worked most critically in the field in recent years -- is doubtful whether Abu Bekr ever made an official recension as tradition declares. Rather he thinks that Abu Bekr was one of those who collected revelation material -- and that, by reason of his close relationship with the Prophet, he may have inherited the materials the Prophet had collected, perhaps with a view to their official publication. But, he thinks, others of the companions of the Prophet may also have made like collections. There are certainly traditions relating to such collections, but they do not always agree as to just who were the collectors. As the empire expanded, some of these collections became important sources of Moslem teaching, and acquired a degree of authority in limited areas. These would be, naturally, the more complete collections. Thus, according to Jeffery, the people of Damascus and Homs followed the Codex of Miqdad b. al-Aswad, those of Kufa that of Ibn Masud, etc.7 The recension of Othman then becomes not simply a recopying of Abu Bekr’s edition with the removal of its dialectical variants, but a strategical canonization of the collection current in Medina, and requiring that all others be destroyed. Certainly it was politically desirable to have one authoritative text accepted over the empire, when one recalls how much of the actual legislation depended upon it.

Jeffery says, "There can be little doubt that the one canonized by Othman was only one among many in existence at the time."8 Some of the centers resisted the order to destroy their own collections. In Kufa the community was divided between those who accepted the Othmanic text and those who upheld Ibn Masud, who had refused to give up his codex to be burned.

Evidence is found in various commentaries of variant readings which have been preserved from the earlier codices. Much scholarly work must yet be done before a real history of the development of the text of the Koran can be written. Moslems have given little attention to such study. But beginnings have already been made and, in the course of time, such a history will be written.

Meanwhile there is no single authoritative text of the Othmanic Koran. The most widely used, perhaps, is an Egyptian text of 1342.

The Koran as it stands today contains one hundred and fourteen chapters or Suras. These are quite unequal in length, the longest having two hundred and eighty-six verses, accounting for about a twelfth part of the entire book, the shortest having but three verses. These chapters are given not only numbers but names. A few typical chapter names are "The Cow," the longest of all, "The Spider," "The Night Journey," "Cattle," "The Sun," "He Frowned." This does not mean that the cow Sura treats of cows at all, but that the word occurs somewhere in the Sura and it has simply come to be known by that name. Actually, there is a chapter called "Women," but more material appears concerning women in the chapter called "The Cow." Every Sura save one begins with the same words "In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful." This is known as the Bismillah. In an interesting statement reflecting the ultra-conservative theory of inspiration of the book, a Mohammedan writer declares that the whole of the Koran may be found in the Bismillah, that the whole of the Bismillah can be found in the initial letter and that the whole of this can be found in the vowel point placed beneath the initial "B."

Much of the Koran is made up of poetry, especially the earlier revelations. Mohammed was a poet of genuine power and ability. Indeed, its poetic style is regarded among Moslems as the noblest of all and it becomes a norm for subsequent Mohammedan verse. Some of the quite early Suras are little more than pious ejaculations. They are the authentic expression of a deeply religious spirit. For example Sura 92, "The Unity," given in Mecca is as follows:

Say: He is God alone.

God the Eternal!

He begetteth not and he is not begotten

and there is none like unto him.10

Sura 1, also given in Mecca contains seven verses:

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Mercifui,

Praise be to God, Lord of the worlds!

The compassionate, the merciful!

King on the day of reckoning!

Thee only do we worship, and to Thee do we cry for help.

Guide Thou us on the straight path,

The path of those to whom Thou hast been gracious; -- with

whom thou art not angry, and who go not astray.11

In general, the Meccan Suras incline to be shorter since they represent for the most part merely the reported revelation of some aspects of religious truth.

The Medina Suras tend to be longer, more didactic, and concerned with the detailed regulation of the society of which he has now become the political head. Early in his career as prophet, Mohammed is commanded by Allah to make his will known to the people, and the judgment that will fall upon them should they not obey his commandment. Unbelievers stand under God’s judgment and in imminent danger of the fire of hell as for example in Sura 52, "The Mountain":

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

By the Mountain,

And by the Book written

On an outspread roll,

And by the frequented fane,

And by the lofty vault,

And by the swollen sea,

Verily, a chastisement from thy Lord is imminent,

And none shall put it back.

Reeling on that day the Heaven shall reel,

And stirring shall the mountains stir.

And woe, on that day, to those who called the apostles liars, Who plunged for pastime into vain disputes --

On that day shall they be thrust with thrusting to the

fire of Hell:--12

But God is also merciful and compassionate toward those who believe. Again and again he details the. joys that wait upon those who yield allegiance to the Prophet’s God. There is for example Sura 56, "The Inevitable":13

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful . . .

And they who were foremost on earth -- the foremost still.

These are they who shall be brought nigh to God,

In gardens of delight;

A crowd of the former

And a few of the latter generations;

On inwrought couches

Reclining on them face to face:

Aye-blooming youths go round about to them

With goblets and ewers and a cup of flowing wine;

Their brows ache not from it, nor fails the sense:

And with such fruits as shall please them best,

And with flesh of such birds, as they shall long for:

And theirs shall be the Houris, with large dark eyes,

Like pearls hidden in their shells,

In recompense of their labours past.

No vain discourse shall they hear therein, nor charge of sin,

But only the cry, "Peace! Peace!"

And the people of the right hand -- oh! how happy shall be

the people of the right hand!

Amid thornless sidrahs

And tall trees clad with fruit,

And in extended shade,

And by the flowing waters,

And with abundant fruits,

Unfailing, unforbidden,

And on lofty couches.

Of a rare creation have we created the Houris,

And we have made them ever virgins,

Dear to their spouses, of equal age with them. . . .

Or Sura 76, "Man": 14

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. . .

A stern and calamitous day dread we from our Lord.

From the evil therefore of that day hath God delivered them and east on them      brightness of face and joy:

And hath rewarded their constancy, with Paradise and silken robes:

Reclining therein on bridal couches, nought shall they know of sun or piercing cold:

Its shades shall be close over them, and low shall its fruits hang down:

And vessels and silver and goblets like flagons shall be borne round among them:

Flagons of silver whose measure themselves shall mete.

And there shall they be given to drink of the cup tempered with zendjebil (ginger)

From the fount therein whose name is Selsebil (the softly flowing) .

Aye-blooming youths go round among them. When thou lookest at them thou      wouldest deem them scattered pearls;

And when thou seest this, thou wilt see delights and a vast kingdom:

Their clothing green silk robes and rich brocade: with silver bracelets shall they be      adorned; and drink of a pure beverage shall their Lord give them.

This shall be your recompense. Your efforts shall meet with thanks.

We ourselves have sent down to thee the Koran as a missive from on high.

Await then with patience the judgments of thy Lord, and obey not the wicked among      them and the unbelieving:15

Literal-minded Moslems have, no doubt, often enough taken these as literal pictures of the future life just as Christians have taken literally the pictures of immortal existence as given in their sacred book; but many Moslems, like many Christians, believe that these words are but symbols through which the Prophet attempts to give some conception of the life hereafter, which he obviously believes may be one of bitter judgment or of supernal delight.

On the other hand, the Medina Suras tend to be less poetic, more didactic and frequently plain legal enactments for the governance of the people of the growing state which Mohammed has now come to rule. They were given to him from time to time as necessity called them forth, but faithful Moslems regard these detailed rules of living as nonetheless inspired and authoritative, the very word of God. These often reveal a somewhat different attitude toward various elements of the social whole than are held in Western lands, but the Moslem believes that they nevertheless represent Allah’s holy will. Mohammed in the name of Allah legislates concerning the matter of family inheritance, concerning the care and responsibility for orphans, reflecting herein, no doubt, a concern born of his own experience as an orphan. The regulation of the family life, the matter of marriage, the responsibilities of men to their wives and wives to husbands are set out in no little detail. The law as to the number of wives, which Mohammed placed at four, is found in Sura 4.

And if ye are apprehensive that ye shall not deal fairly with orphans, then, of other women who seem good in your eyes, marry but two, or three, or four; and if ye still fear that ye shall not act equitably, then one only; or the slaves whom ye have acquired: this will make justice on your part easier. Give women their dowry freely; but if of themselves they give up aught thereof to you, then enjoy it as convenient, and profitable.16

Mohammed’s ideas with reference to the place of women are no doubt somewhat different from those held in some other parts of the world, but they are set forth with perfect clarity. He obviously regards men as superior to women as for example in Sura 4:

Men are superior to women on account of the qualities with which God hath gifted the one above the other, and on account of the outlay they make from their substance for them. Virtuous women are obedient, careful, during the husband’s absence, because God hath of them been careful. But chide those for whose refractoriness ye have cause to fear; remove them into beds apart, and scourge them: but if they are obedient to you, then seek not occasion against them: verily, God is High, Great!7

Yet at certain other points he did definitely lift the position of women to a considerably higher level than that current in Arabia before his own time. For example, female infanticide was forbidden; the number of wives a man might have was limited; a woman s dowry could not be taken from her, and she was given the right to own property and dispose of it at will, quite independently of her husband.

The Bible in the Koran

One of the notable features of the Koran, from the standpoint of Jewish and Christian readers, is the amount of Biblical lore that appears throughout. Whole books have been written about the Bible in the Koran, but here we only deal with the relationships between the two books. One of the most obvious things to say is that Mohammed knew a great deal about the Bible. The probabilities are that he could not read, and that what he included of it had come to him at second-hand. He had many contacts with both Jews and Christians in his traveling about the country with caravans as a young man, and in his contacts with Jews and Christians in Medina and Mecca during his maturer years. It was in these contacts that he picked up what he knew about the Bible. Mohammed did not feel himself very different from the Jews and Christians. He believed definitely that the Arabian people were just as much descendents of Abraham as were the Jews -- they stemming from Ishmael, half-brother of Isaac, son of Hagar, One-time serving maid of Sarah but given by Sarah to Abraham as a secondary wife. Thus all of the pre-Abrahamic Biblical figures are a part of Islam’s background as well as of the Hebrews’, and he makes constant use of those who came after Abraham and who had a significant part in developing the Hebrew faith.

As one reads the Koran, he finds himself often enough in familiar territory. But Mohammed quotes verbatim from the Bible only once. Many of the Biblical stories are garbled and scarcely recognizable. He makes frequent references to the great prophets, and today Moslems declare their belief in all the prophets, among whom they rate Jesus very high. He occupies a very important place in the Koran. There is at least one whole book dealing largely with the subject, Christ in Islam.18 To be sure Mohammed never believed in him as divine. His belief in the oneness of God led him to scorn the idea that Jesus could be God or even Son of God. How could God, who was without parts, have a son? In general, his use of scripture is about what might be expected from one who did not have direct access to it, but got his knowledge of it at second-hand.

Some Moslem writers make a great deal of the Old Testament in the Koran, and perhaps even more of the Koran in the Old Testament. Again and again they see in Biblical passages a great foreshadowing of the coming of the Prophet of Allah.19

The Traditions

While the Koran is the one completely sacred book of the Moslems, there exists alongside it a considerable body of supplementary material which is almost as important as the Koran itself in the determination of Moslem belief and practice. It will be recalled that the Koran is regarded as a revelation, given word by word to Mohammed direct from God. In it there is almost nothing concerning Mohammed, the Prophet himself, nothing of his informal teaching outside the moments when he was definitely speaking under direct inspiration from Allah. Yet one of the very important factors in determining Moslem belief and practice has come to be not only what God has revealed directly in the Koran, but whatever it can be certainly known that Mohammed himself either said or practiced. As one modern Moslem writer expresses it, the Koran contains largely broad general principles of action and belief but gives very little in the way of detail as to how this should be worked out in daily life. If it could only be known what the Prophet himself said or did as he went about his daily labors, met people, resolved difficult situations, this indeed would be guidance to his followers.

It is precisely this which the Traditions or as they are known, the Hadith and the Sunnah provide. The Hadith means literally the saying; Sunnah, the actions or customary practices of the prophet. A single reported Hadith sometimes may relate more than one Sunnah, since they tell what the Prophet did as well as said. So the two terms are practically synonymous. During the Prophet’s own lifetime the respect in which he was held and the authority which he enjoyed among his followers made them eager to treasure everything that he said and to note and remember whatever he did.

A comparable modern case is that of Father Divine who is regarded by his followers as God. Being God, whatever he says is, of course, important and to be treasured. Therefore, there surround him constantly stenographers with pads and pencils to preserve his every word as he speaks it. There were sixteen such persons at his beck and call, I recall, when I personally visited him in 1945; and literally everything that he said was faithfully recorded by one or more of this secretarial staff. Later it was transcribed and published, so that there is now a vast body of reported utterances of Father Divine in relatively permanent written form.

During the lifetime of Mohammed probably very little was written down, but the Companions undoubtedly made it a point to remember and to retell again and again to others what they who were privileged to be near him, heard him say or saw him do. There is one Tradition at least which says that Mohammed discouraged writing such things down, lest this record be confused with the Koran itself. There is, however, another Tradition which specifically authorized a person to write down what he was saying.

The fact is, however, that very little was written down during the Prophet’s lifetime. After his death the Companions, i.e., those persons who were close to and knew the Prophet personally, probably became centers for the collection of sayings and actions attributed to him, reported by various persons; and became the transmitters to many others, who had not had the privilege of seeing the Prophet, of these sayings and acts of Mohammed. It is related that one of the Companions had as many as eight hundred disciples to whom he imparted the Traditions which he regarded as authentic. Some Moslem writers speak of these Companions as essentially schools for the transmission of the Traditions. Probably some of the material was reduced to writing during this period, but it was not until after the passing of the generation of the Companions that their writing became common. Now clearly the necessity for their recording would become more evident.

By this time the spreading Moslem empire was bringing under its domination wholly new cultures and attempting to teach them the Moslem way of life. Some authoritative source of detailed instruction beyond that furnished by the Koran became imperative so that probably larger and larger numbers of Traditions were committed to writing. Caliph Omar II, about one hundred years after the Hegira is reported to have written to an under-officer, ordering him to collect and write down the Traditions for fear many of them might be lost; but he cautioned, "Do not accept anything but Hadith of the Holy Prophet."20 Collections during this period, even those made in writing, were probably by no means general but comprised only those held in certain localities or transmitted through only certain ones of the Companions. Thus there was no general collection available.

It was not until the third century after the Hegira that anything like a systematic attempt was made to bring together a general body of Traditions, and of those that were attempted at this time there were two kinds. One was the collection of the Hadith according to the particular Companions of the Prophet to whom they could be traced back. Since a great many could be attributed to a comparatively few of the Companions and these were upon all sorts of subjects, the result, while better than no collection at all, was not too helpful. It was of little aid to one who might be seeking a saying on some particular topic. The other type of collection known as Jami, arranges the Hadith according to subject matter, and is definitely more critical in tone. Six orthodox collections of Traditions are generally recognized as authentic, though there are several others of which use is frequently made by Moslems. These six are the collections of Bukhari (d. 256 A.H.) ; Muslim (d. 261 A.H.) ; Abu Dawud (d. 275 A.H.) ; Tirmidhi (d. 279 A.H.) ; Ibn Maja (d. 283 A.H.) ; and Nasai (d. 303 A.H.) . For a more complete list of collections see Muhammad Ali, Religion of islam, pp. 72-76. Of these quite the most important are those of Bukhari and Muslim. Bukhari is recognized as perhaps the most authoritative. He undertook a systematic sifting of a great mass of Traditions, said to number 600,000, but ended up with selecting something less than 9,000 as authentic. Of these about one in three is a variant of some other saying in the collection so that the total number of different recognized sayings in his collection is under 3,000.

The elimination of such vast numbers of reputed sayings of the prophet has led Western scholars to question seriously the validity of any of them. However, Muhammad Ali, a contemporary Moslem scholar, says that among the 600,000 were included hundreds of variants of the same sayings, since it was customary to present as separate Traditions any sayings that differed by as much as one word from any other saying. He thinks that Bukhari’s screening of the Traditions was done in a manner, "in no way inferior to modern methods."21 Many tests were applied to each independent Tradition. First, each transmitter must be authenticated. In the printing of the Traditions it is customary to give the line of transmitters through whom the Tradition has been handed down, e.g., Ibn Omar reported that the Prophet said, "When your women ask to go to the Mosque at night, give them permission." Here the report is that of one of the Companions of the Prophet.22 But another may read "A" said that "B" reported to him that he heard Mohammed say, or a third or a fourth person may be mentioned as a transmitter. All these must be duly authenticated before the Hadith is accepted as valid. Ali lists ten rigorous tests which each one must pass before it is accepted.23 But most important of all, is that it must be in accordance with the Koran.

Bukhari in his collection ordinarily heads each section with a Koranic verse, showing, says Ali, that he considered the Traditions simply as an explanation of the Koran, and in no sense a substitution for it. The content of the Traditions is highly varied, some of it is of the most commonplace or seemingly trivial nature. Such, for example, as this:

‘A’isha said, I used to comb the hair of the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings of Allah be on him.24

‘A’isha was the youngest of his wives and his favorite. Or:

Abu Huraira said. The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings of Allah be on him, said: "It is the sunna that a man should accompany his guest to the door of the house."25


Ibn ‘Umar reported. The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings of Allah be on him, said: "When one of you is invited to a marriage feast, he should go to it."26

’A’isha said, She conducted the bride to a man from among the Ansar. And the Prophet of Allah, peace and blessings of Allah be on him, said, "O ’A’isha! Why had you no music with you, for the Ansar love music. . . . 27

‘Umar said. The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings of Allah be on him, said: "Eat together and do not eat separately, for the blessing is with the company."28

But if such single Traditions seem of little importance, in the aggregate they do provide a very good picture of the Prophet himself and of what he was accustomed to do. The Koran, itself, furnishes almost no information concerning the Prophet. It is only through the Traditions that the man himself emerges.

If some of the Traditions seem to be of slight importance, others contain some of the more profound ethical and religious teachings of Mohammed. For example, the following Tradition from the Mishkat collection reveals a side of Mohammed not often discovered in the Koranic teachings. It is quite reminiscent of the Sermon on the Mount.

Say not, if people do good to us, we will do good to them, and if people oppress us, we will oppress them: but resolve that if people do good to you, you will do good to them, and if they oppress you, oppress them not again.29

Another from the same collection reveals rather a different concept of God from that usually found in the Koran. At least Western interpreters of the Koran find the Moslem God to be a distant, austere, relatively unapproachable figure. Here one finds an active, seeking God not so frequently associated with Moslem teaching.

God saith: Whoso doth one good act, for him are ten rewards, and I also give more to whomsoever I will; and whoso doth ill, its retaliation is equal to it, or else I forgive him; and he who seeketh to approach me one cubit, I will seek to approach him two fathoms; and he who walketh towards me, I will run towards him; and he who cometh before me with the earth full of sins, but joineth no Partner to me, I will come before him with an equal front of forgiveness.30

Another story setting forth somewhat the same teaching, is found in three different collections of Traditions. In the Koran there is very little in the way of story material, most of it is made up of the forthright commands of Ali, or directives for the conduct of human affairs in the Theocracy, or poetic expressions of religious insight given to the prophets. But the Traditions abound in good stories, somewhat like the stories found in the gospels. Here is one:

 Abu Huraira, said. The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings of Allah be on him, said: a prostitute was forgiven --she passed by a dog, panting with its tongue out, on the top of a well containing water, almost dying with thirst; so she took off her boot and tied it to her head-covering and drew forth water for it; she was forgiven on account of this.

It was said: Is there a reward for us in (doing good to) the beasts? He said:

In every animal having a liver fresh with life there is a reward.31

One of the collections brings together a number of interesting sayings by the Prophet concerning women, which have undoubtedly had very great influence on Islamic culture in its attitude toward women.

The world and all things in it are valuable, but the most valuable thing in the world is a virtuous woman.

I have not left any calamity more hurtful to man than woman.

Verily the best of women are those who are content with little.

Admonish your wives with kindness; for women were created out of a crooked rib of Adam, therefore if ye wish to straighten it, ye will break it; and if ye let it alone, it will be always crooked.

Every woman who dieth, and her husband is pleased with her, shall enter into paradise.

A widow shall not be married until she be consulted; nor shall a virgin be married until her consent be asked, whose consent is by her silence.

Do not prevent your women from coming to the mosque; but their homes are better for them.

O assembly of women, give alms, although it be of your gold and silver ornaments; for verily ye are mostly of Hell on the Day of Resurrection.32


Slavery was a universally recognized institution in the time of Mohammed, not alone in Arabia but all over the world. It was but natural that he should have had something to say concerning slaves and their treatment. If from the standpoint of today Mohammed’s countenancing of the practice seems an evil thing, it should be remembered that Christian people held slaves in America until less than a century ago. Actually Mohammed by his teaching did a great deal to ameliorate the harsh conditions under which slaves lived.

God has ordained that your brothers should be your slaves: therefore him whom God hath ordained to be the slave of his brother, his brother must give him of the food which he eateth himself, and of the clothes wherewith he clotheth himself, and not order him to do anything beyond his power, and if he doth order such a work, he must himself assist him in doing it.

He who beateth his slave without fault, or slappeth him in the face, his atonement for this is freeing him.

A man who behaveth ill to his slave will not enter into paradise.

Forgive thy servant seventy times a day.33

Although the basis of the Theocracy was laid in the direct revelation recorded in the Koran, Mohammed spoke often of government and the obligations of ruler and subject.

Government is a trust from God, and verily government will be at the Day of Resurrection a cause of inquiry, unless he who hath taken it be worthy of it and have acted justly and done good.

Verily a king is God’s shadow upon the earth; and every one oppressed turneth to him: then when the king doeth justice, for him are rewards and gratitude from his subject: but, if the king oppresseth, on him is his sin, and for the oppressed resignation.

There is no prince who oppresseth the subject and dieth, but God

forbiddeth Paradise to him.

If a negro slave is appointed to rule over you, hear him, and obey him, though his head should be like a dried grape.

When one of you getteth angry, he must sit down, and if his anger goeth away from sitting, so much the better; if not, let him lie down.24


Also of war and fighting he speaks often, aside from that which is found in the Koran.

When the Prophet sent an army out to fight, he would say, March in the name of God and by His aid and on the religion of the Messenger of God. Kill not the old man who cannot fight, nor young children nor women; and steal not the spoils of war, but put your spoils together; and quarrel not amongst yourselves, but be good to one another, for God loveth the doer of good.35

On fighting for the Faith:

I swear to God, in whose hand is my life, that marching about morning and evening to fight for religion is better than the world and everything that is in it: and verily the standing of one of you in the line of battle is better than supererogatory prayers performed in your house for sixty years.36

Probably no sacred book has been more influential, not alone upon the religion derived from it, but upon the total culture of the people who embrace the faith, than the Koran. And Islam, it should be said, is not simply a religion, it is a culture. One can hardly speak of Christianity thus, though at certain periods, notably in medieval Europe, the term would have been more applicable than at any other time. But Islam has always been more than religion, it has also been government, indeed almost every aspect of life, both individual and social, has been colored by it. Wherever Islam has gone, among whatever people, it has carried certain patterns of thinking and acting which have molded the total culture of the people into what is distinctly recognizable as Islamic.

Quite the most important factor in effecting this result has been the Koran, and to a lesser extent the Traditions. The Koran is of course the basis of Islamic worship. Most of the rituals and prayers both in the mosque and in private are taken from the Koran. People learn to recite great portions of it. The sermons in the mosque -- for in this respect they follow Jewish and Christian custom -- are based upon the Koran mainly, though frequently upon the Traditions as well. It is in the latter that the warmer, more personal elements in Moslem teaching arc found, and its stories are told and retold as are the Gospel and Old Testament stories in the Christian churches. These form, of course, the basis for all religious education. Whatever may have happened within Christianity to remove the Bible from the center of religious education, Moslem religious education is still Koran-centered. Much of it consists In memorizing passages from the Koran. The pupils may or may not understand it, but they learn it, great quantities of it, much as in our earlier days children memorized the Bible.

The Koran is likewise the chief basis of instruction for those who are to exercise leadership in the mosque. Islam does not have priests, for like Protestant Christianity it insists upon the universal priesthood of believers, but there are Imams, mullahs, ulemas, who perform many of the functions of ministers, teachers, leaders in Islam, and these must be trained in the knowledge and understanding of the Koran.

The basis of all Moslem ethical teaching is the Koran. The good is what Allah wishes. What Allah wills is revealed in the Koran, supplemented by what Mohammed is reported in the Traditions to have said or done. Questions, then, of right or wrong must be decided on the basis of the Koran. Men, therefore, to live righteously, must know the Koran.

But it is not the basis of religious education alone. It is the chief basis of all education. To say this is of course to speak from the point of view of a secularist age, which sets religion apart from general culture, as only one aspect of it. In an integrated culture such as that existing in the wholly Moslem states, one simply does not talk about religious education as something apart from general education. In a real sense, all education is religious and definitely follows the Moslem pattern. And for this the Koran is basic. Children learn to read from the Koran, not from secular readers such as American children use, where the "I see a cat," type of text is so frequently found. In an older day in New England, it will be remembered, children learned to read from the Bible.

Of course there are few, if any, completely Moslem states now. Modern influences from the West tend to modify the educational process, but there are still parts of the world where the greater part of education, from the primary school through the university, finds its basis in the Koran. Grammar, syntax, poetry, prosody, rhetoric, literary style -- from what better source may be drawn the materials of instruction?

But it was perhaps in the realm of legislation that the Koran and the supplementary Traditions most vitally affected the everyday life of Moslem peoples. From the beginning of the Mohammedan period, in Medina, religion and the state became one and the same thing. Mohammed established a theocracy, the rule of God among men. He provided the laws, many of them in the form of direct revelation from Allah; those now found in the Koran. Tradition has it that a part of every day Mohammed set aside to receive the complaints and suggestions of the citizens of Medina, and by his often simple and homely settlement of the important or unimportant issues brought before him, he set the pattern for ages to come in Moslem jurisprudence. Sooner or later, the entire civil and criminal codes of law, known as the Sharia, were built solidly upon a Koranic background. This continues to be the case in some Moslem states until the present day. In other states which have lost their independence and have fallen under the rule of foreign powers, modifications have of necessity been made. Modern Turkey, under influence from the West, in 1924 definitely abandoned the Moslem legal system and substituted for it criminal and civil codes taken from the West. But in the greater part of the world in which the Moslems are the majority, the influence of the Sharia is still very great.

The personal rule of Mohammed was confined to a comparatively small area, more or less homogeneous as to its inhabitants -- all of them Semitic in background, and dwellers in desert or semi-arid lands. A relatively simple legal system sufficed to govern such a culture, but after the death of Mohammed, the spread of Moslem power was very rapid and soon came to include peoples very different in background and custom from the Arabians. Situations began to arise that Mohammed had never had to meet. How were they to know how to answer questions that Mohammed had never faced? The basic rule was to follow what either had been revealed through the Koran or had come down through the Traditions as having been uttered or performed by Mohammed. But by what means could the extension be made to wholly new situations as they arose?

It was almost inevitable that differences as to the interpretation of the Koran itself as well as the Traditions should arise. Influential individual interpreters created schools of interpretation, some of which came to be regarded as orthodox by the general body of Moslems, and some as heretical. The four recognized as orthodox were the Hanifite, founded in Iraq by a Persian, Abu Hanifa, who died in 767 A.D.; the Malikite, founded in Medina by Malik-ibn-Anas (about 715-795 A.D.) ; the Shafite, founded by an Arab, al-Shafi’i, born in Persia; and finally the Hanbalite, most conservative of the four, founded in Baghdad, by Ibn-Hanbal. The service they performed was not greatly different from that of the creators of the Jewish Talmud whose commentaries on the Mishnah were designed to guide the Jews in the diaspora, and help them to adjust to the foreign environment in which they found themselves, and still hold fast to their traditional faith.

It was because of the necessity of meeting such problems that two principles were evolved which have been of very great importance in the development of Moslem law. These were the principles of Ijma, or agreement, and that of Qiyas, or analogy.

The principle, Ijma, is based in part upon an important tradition to the effect that what Moslems agree upon is right -- that is, the principle of consensus, "My people shall never agree on an error." The problem, however, is to get consensus of all Moslems. This was comparatively simple in the period immediately following Mohammed’s death, but it became exceedingly difficult as Islam spread across the world, so some further definition had to be found. The earliest seems to have been that if the Companions could agree upon anything, that would become authoritative. But after the generation of the Companions disappeared from the scene, who then would represent the consensus? There was much difference of opinion on this question. And no single, everywhere accepted definition was to be found. Perhaps the nearest thing to consensus, one which did become practically effective, was the consensus of the learned doctors of Islam; and this has been still further reduced to the agreement among the learned doctors of the four accepted schools of thought in Islam.

Actually, since the very early period, consensus has played a very important role. But it is possible in almost any given legal decision to invoke as authority those who refuse to abide by the decisions of others. Therefore, there is no completely accepted body of Ijma to which one may turn.

The other principle, and a very far-reaching one, is what is known as Qiyas, or analogy. If there were no specific saying in the Koran or in the Traditions, and no Ijma or agreement existed with respect to a situation which arose in the course of Islam’s rapid spread beyond Arabia, how could it be met? For it must be remembered that Islam was not simply a way of life for individuals, but for the whole social body. Some principle had to be determined which would make such necessary decisions possible within the framework of Moslem teaching. The principle which emerged was that of analogy, a principle which has been employed informally at least if not formally all through Christian history. Not so many years ago a Christian minister, Charles M. Sheldon, wrote a book which has been one of the most widely circulated volumes in the world, next to the Bible. It was entitled In His Steps, What Would Jesus Do? It was the story of a man who undertook to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, and do just what Jesus would do. But how would he know what Jesus would do? The author once challenged a daily newspaper to let him run the paper for one week as he thought Jesus would do it -- and was given the chance. Circulation for the week zoomed to an all time high -- for that particular week -- showing the interest people had in such a venture.

Well, obviously, Jesus lived in a different age, amid different surroundings. He knew nothing about modern industrial and urban life. How could Mr. Sheldon know what he would do? Only by invoking the identical principle used by Moslems in the extension of their faith into new and radically different cultures, namely that of analogy. If Mohammed had said or done nothing precisely bearing upon the problem of the moment, what had he said or done in an analogous situation?

Naturally, people might well differ, first, as to whether the situations were really analogous, also as to just how far the analogy might be carried. It is clear that unanimity of judgment would not easily be found, and it has not been. Think for a moment of the difficulties people get into in trying to follow Jesus. Shall one go to war? To be sure Jesus said some things very closely related to it. "They that take the sword, shall perish by the sword." But is it to be taken literally or only figuratively? Moslems have had the same difficulty. Yet the principle has been extensively used in extending the teaching of Mohammed into new areas. When sufficient agreement, Ijma, can be reached as to such extensions, even if only in a limited region, they become effective in providing a basis for an extension of the Sharia.

The Koran has been translated into English and other modern vernaculars many times, though some Moslems, especially the orthodox Egyptians, frown upon it. An annotated list of these will be found at the end of the chapter. Unfortunately only a very small portion of the Traditions has as yet been made available to English readers. It is to be hoped that other selections will appear and that at least the entire collections of Bukhari and Muslim will be translated for the use of modern readers of English.

What has been said thus far has been largely true of Islam in general, but in particular of the larger of the two major Moslem divisions, the Sunnites. All the sects accept the Koran, but they differ in some degree as to their acceptance of the Traditions. The Shiahs, for example, recognize five collections which are not found in the generally accepted Sunnah list. Also it may be said that just as in Christianity and Judaism different elements emphasize some books of the Bible more than others, naturally the ones that support their own peculiar views, so it is within Islam. But all alike, the rigidly orthodox Wahabis, the Persian Shiahs, the Sufi mystics, the modern Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam, which has its own Promised Messiah whose writings have for them the value of scripture, and numerous other branches, find their bases somewhere in the Koran, the various collections of Traditions and their extension through the agreements and the analogies. And they all are to some extent still involved in adjusting their faith to the changing modern world as it increasingly impinges upon them. For Islam is a living faith.


The Sacred Literature of the Moslems

Sources for Further Reading

Translations of the Qur’an

The Qur’an translated by George Sale has appeared in several editions since its original appearance in 1734.

The Koran, translated from the Arabic by J. M. Rodwell first published in 1876. At present available in Everyman’s Library, J. M. Dent and Co., London, E. P. Dutton and Co., N. Y., first printing, 1909.

Marmaduke Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran, A. A. Knopf, N. Y., 1930, an explanatory translation by an English Moslem.

Richard Bell, The Qur’ an, translated with a critical rearrangement of the Surabs. 2 Vols., T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1937.

Muhammad Ali, Translation of the Holy Qur’an with Commentary (and text) , 1917.

The Holy Qur’an with English Translation and Commentary projected to appear in 3 Volumes published at Quadian, India, under the auspices of the Second Successor of the Promised Messiah, by the Sadr Anjuman Ahmadiyya, 1947-1949.

Translations of the Hadith or Traditions

Muhammad Ali, A Manual of Hadith, Lahore, 1945, Ahmadiyya Anjuman isha-at-i-Islam.

A brief selection of Traditions is included in Stanley Lane-Poole, The Speeches and Table-Talk of the Prophet Mohammad, Macmillan & Company Ltd., London, 1905.

In the Anthologies

Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 6, translated by E. H. Palmer.

Sacred Books and Literature of the East, Vol. 5, translated by George Sale.

The Harvard Classics, Vol. 45, pp. 885-1021. Translation of E. H. Palmer.

The Bible of the World (Ballou) , pp. 1289-1325.

The Bible of Mankind (Sobrab) , pp. 515-588.

The World’s Great Scriptures (Browne) , pp. 511-554.

The Tree of Life (Smith) , pp. 445-468.

Tongues of Fire (Turnbull) , pp. 391-406.

The Sacred Writings of the world’s Great Religions (Frost) , pp. 305-346.



1. Dr. Richard Bell, distinguished translator of the Koran, believes that Mohammed himself wrote most of it. The Koran, Vol. 1, p. vi.

2. The Religion of Islam, Lahore, 1936, pp. 20 ff.

3. Id., pp. 20-21.

4. For a discussion of the Traditions see later in this chapter.

5. Muhammad Ali, The Religion go Islam, p.30.

6. Arthur Jeffery, Materials for the History of the Text of the Qur’an, Leiden. E.J. Brill, 1937.

7. Op. cit., p. 7.

8. Id., p. 8.

9. for a good statement with reference to the Koran and its sources see: Arthur Jeffery, Materials for the History of the Text of the Qua’an, Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1937.

10. The Koran, translation from the Arabic by the Rev. J.M. Dent & Co., London, 1909, p. 63.

11. Id,. p. 28.

12.Id., p. 63.

13. Rodwell, op. cit., p. 65.

14. Id., p. 86

15, The Koran Translated from the Arabic by the Rev. J.M. Rodwell, pp.87, 88.

16. The Koran Translated from the Arabic by Rev. J. M. Rodwell, from Sura IV, pp. 410, 411.

17. Ibid., p. 415.

18. James Robson, John Murray, London, 1929.

19. See Muhammad Au, The Holy Koran With English Translation and Commentary, pp. lviii to lxxxiii. Also an article of mine on "Some Contemporary Moslem Interpretation of the Bible." Crozer Quarterly, Vol. 22, pp. 246-259. Also Sufi M. R. Bengalee, Life of Muhammad, Chicago, 1941, pp. 262-280.

20. Muhammad Ali, op. cit., pp. 71-72.

21. Muhammad Ali, op. cit., p. 86.

22. Muhammad Ali, A Manual of Hadith, B 10:162, pp. 106-107.

23. Muhammad Ali, Religion of Islam, pp. 86-87.

24. Muhammad Ali, A Manual of Hadith, p. 366 (Bukhari 6:2) .

25. Ibid., p, 358 (IM-Msh. 20:1) .

26. Ibid., p. 278 (Bukhari 67:72) .

27. Ibid., p. 276 (B. 67:72) .

28. Ibid., p. 356 IIM- Msh. 20:1) .

29. Stanley Lane-Poole, The Speeches and Table-Talk of the Prophet Mohammad, London, Macmillan and Company, 1905, p. 147.

30. Ibid.

31. Muhammad Ali, A Manual of Hadith, p. 211.

32. Stanley Lane-Poole, Speeches and Table-Talk of the Prophet Mohamnoad, pp. 161-162.

33. Stanley Lane-Poole, Speeches and Table-Talk of the Prophet Mohammed, p. 163.

34. Stanley Lane-Poole, Speeches and Table-Talk of the Prophet Mohammed, pp. 166, 167.

35. Ibid., p. 159.

36. Ibid., p. 159.