The New International Encyclopædia/Koran

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KORAN, kō′ran or kō̇-rän′ (Ar. ḳur'ān, lection, from ḳara'a, to read; cf. the later Heb. Miḳra, the written Book, i.e. the Bible). The sacred book of the Mohammedans. The name was given by Mohammed himself to a single revelation, or a collection of revelations, and was afterwards applied to the body of his utterances as gathered together in one book, forming the basis for the religious, social, civil, commercial, military, and legal regulation of Islam. The Koran is also known under various other names, such as: Furḳ-ān (salvation); Al-Muṣḥaf (the volume); Al-Kitāb (the Book, in the sense of ‘Bible’); Al-Dhikr (the reminder, or the admonition).

According to the orthodox views the Koran is coeval with God, uncreated, eternal. Its first transcript was written from the beginning in rays of light upon a gigantic tablet resting by the throne of the Almighty, and upon this tablet are also found the divine decrees relating to things past and future. A copy of it, in a book bound in white silk, jewels, and gold, was brought down to the lowest heaven by the angel Gabriel, in the blissful and mysterious night of Al-Kadr, in the month of Ramadan. Portions of it were, during a space of twenty-three years, communicated to Mohammed, at both Mecca and Medina, either by Gabriel in human shape, “with the sound of bells,” or through inspiration from the Holy Ghost, “in the Prophet's breast,” or by God Himself, “veiled and unveiled, in waking or in the dreams of night.” Traditions vary with respect to the length of the individual portions revealed at a time, between single letters, verses, and entire chapters (or suras). Setting aside the fanciful and semi-mystical speculations, there is general agreement among Mohammedans that the earliest revelation is represented by verses 1 to 5 of sura xcvi., which begins with the words, “Proclaim the name of thy Lord, who has created all things.”

At the beginning of his career Mohammed did not make any efforts to have his utterances preserved. While it is possible that he was able to read and write, he certainly did not write any of the suras himself. It was only as his movement spread that the importance attached to the Prophet's ‘revelations’ suggested the necessity of giving them a more permanent form, and in the second part of his career, after the flight to Medina (622), he appears systematically to have dictated his revelations to a scribe; and it would appear that he also revised the form of earlier utterances which had been either orally preserved or written down promiscuously by some of his zealous followers. Within a year of Mohammed's death (632) the first attempt at a collection of the Prophet's utterances was made by Abu-bekr. He intrusted the task to Zaid ibn Thabit, the last secretary of Mohannned. Copies of these utterances already existed, and it was from these that Zaid prepared an authoritative compilation to be known henceforth as the Koran. This volume passed, after the death of Abu-hekr, into the hands of Omar, and by Omar was intrusted to the keeping of Hafsa, one of the Prophet's wives, the daughter of Omar. Differences of opinion in regard to the text of the Koran still prevailed after Zaid's edition was completed, and accordingly a second redaction was instituted in the thirtieth year of the Hejira by Caliph Othman, not for the sake of arranging and correcting the text, but in order to insure unity. This work was intrusted to four editors of recognized authority, of whom Zaid was one. With respect to the succession of the single chapters, 114 in number, no attempt was made at establishing continuity, but they were placed side by side according to their respective lengths; so that immediately after the introductory exordium follows the longest chapter, and the others are ranged after it in decreasing size, though this principle is not strictly adhered to. They are not numbered in the manuscripts, but bear distinctive, often strange-sounding, headings; as: the Cow, Congealed Blood, the Fig, the Star, the Towers, Saba, the Poets, etc., taken from a particular matter or person treated of in the respective chapters. Every chapter or sura begins with the introductory formula, “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.” It is further stated at the beginning whether the sura was revealed at Mecca or at Medina. Every chapter is subdivided into smaller portions (Ayah, Heb. Oth, sign, letter), varying in the ancient copies (of Medina, Cufa, Basra, and Damascus, and the ‘vulgar edition’) between 6000 and 6036. The number of words in the whole book is 77,639, and an enumeration of the letters shows an amount of 323,015 of these. Other (encyclical) divisions of the book are into 30 ajzā and into 60 ahzāb, for the use of devotional readings in and out of the mosque. Twenty-nine suras commence with certain letters of the alphabet, which are supposed by Mohammedans to be of mystic import, but which are probably monograms of private collectors or authorities.

The contents of the Koran as the basis of Mohammedanism will be considered under that head, while for questions more closely connected with authorship and chronology, consult Mohammed. Briefly it may be stated here that the chief doctrine laid down in it is the unity of God, and the existence of but one true religion, with changeable ceremonies. As teachers and warners of mankind, God, at different times, sent prophets to lead back to truth, Moses, Christ, and Mohammed being the most distinguished. Both punishments for the sinner and rewards for the pious are depicted with great diffuseness, and exemplified chiefly by stories taken from the Bible, the apocryphal writings, the Midrash, and pre-Islamic history. Special laws and directions, admonitions to moral and divine virtues, more particularly to a complete and unconditional resignation to God's will (see Islam), legends, principally relating to the patriarchs, and, almost without exception, borrowed from the Jewish writings (known to Mohammed by oral communication only, a circumstance which accounts for their frequent odd confusion), form the bulk of the book, which throughout bears the most palpable traces of Jewish influence. Thus, of ideas and words taken bodily, with their Arabicized designations, from Judaism, may be mentioned: Ḳur'ān = miḳra (reading); furḳān (salvation); the introductory formula, bismillah (in the name of God); taurāt = tōrah (book of law); jinnah = gan ēden (paradise); jahinnam (hell); darasa = darash (to search the scriptures); subāt, sabt = shabbāth (day of rest); sakinah (majesty of God). It is especially in the later suras that Mohammed, for the edification of his hearers, introduced (in imitation of Jewish and Christian preachers) stories and legends of biblical personages.

The suras may be divided into three general classes: those delivered during the first years of Mohammed's preaching in Mecca, those delivered during the latter part of his stay in that city, and those delivered in Medina. In the oldest suras Mohammed is concerned mainly with depicting the power and unity of God, with the resurrection and the judgment day, with depicting the blessedness of paradise and the tortures of hell. These subjects are elaborated in the suras of the middle and last period. While in the earlier ones Mohammed claims to be only a preacher sent to warn people, in the later ones he steps forward boldly with the claim of being a divinely sent prophet, whose utterances represent revelations made to him by the angel Gabriel. The duties obligatory upon Moslems are all discussed in the later suras, though the formation into codes was reserved for the Mohammedan theologians. Incidentally his polemics against his personal enemies, and especially against Judaism and Christianity, are introduced into the Koran, the Jews being accused of falsifying the Scriptures, the Christians of running counter to the doctrine of the unity of God by the assumption that Jesus was a son of God. The discourses themselves are of a rambling nature, and numerous social customs are touched upon. In this way the Koran becomes a mirror in which Mohammed's personality is reflected with a clearness which leaves little to be desired. It properly was taken as the basis for the elaboration of a Mohammedan system of theology, for there is scarcely any topic connected with the law upon which it does not touch, though never exhaustively. Its lack of system, and its discursiveness, make the Koran hard reading, but its interest and value to the student are all the greater because of the assurance these very defects give us that we have in the Koran a work that is in all essential particulars authentic.

The general tendency and aim of the Koran is found clearly indicated in the beginning of the second chapter: “This is the book in which there is no doubt; a guidance for the pious, who believe in the mysteries of faith, who perform their prayers, give alms from what we have bestowed upon them, who believe in the revelation which we made unto thee, which was sent down to the prophets before thee, and who believe in the future life,” etc. To unite the three principal religious forms which he found in his time and country—viz. Judaism, Christianity, and heathenism—into one, was Mohammed's ideal; and the Koran, properly read, discloses constantly the alternate flatteries and threats aimed at each of the three parties. No less are certain abrogations of special passages in the Koran, made by the Prophet himself due to the vacillating relation in which he at first stood to the different creeds.

The language of the Koran has become the ideal of classical Arabic, and no human pen is supposed to be capable of producing anything similar; a circumstance adduced by Mohammed himself, as a clear proof of his mission. The style varies considerably; in the earlier suras concise and bold, sublime and majestic, impassioned, fluent, and harmonious; in the later ones verbose, sententious, obscure, tame, and prosy. There are passages of great beauty and power suggesting the Hebrew prophets. By means of the difference in style between the earlier and later suras modern investigators have endeavored to form a chronological arrangement. A general consensus has now been arrived at; though questions of detail must always remain in dispute, as many of the suras are composite in character. A great deal depends also upon internal evidence, which fortunately is found in considerable abundance. Mohammed, especially in the later years of his career, was in the habit of introducing allusions to events of the day, to disputations with Jews and Christians, to his ambitions and aims, into his discourses; and since, in addition to the Koran, we have the copious collections known as Hadith (q.v.) containing utterances, sayings and doings, and decisions of Mohammed at the various periods of his career, it is in many cases possible to attach utterances in the Koran to specific occasions, and thus fix the age of the sura in which a certain expression or opinion occurs. The Koran is written in prose, yet the two or more links of which a sentence is generally composed sometimes rhyme with each other, a peculiarity of speech (called saj') used by the ancient soothsayers (kuhhān-kōhēn) of Arabia; only that Mohammed used his own discretion in remodeling its form and freeing it from conventional fetters; and thus the rhyme of the Koran became an entirely distinctive rhyme. Refrains are introduced in some suras, and plays upon words are not disdained.

The outward reverence in which the Koran is held throughout Mohammedanism is exceedingly great. It is never held below the girdle, never touched without previous purification; and an injunction to that effect is generally found on the cover which overlaps the boards, according to Eastern binding. It is consulted on weighty matters; sentences from it are inscribed on banners, doors, etc. Great lavishness is also displayed upon the material and the binding of the sacred volume. The copies for the wealthy are sometimes written in gold, and the covers blaze with gold and precious stones.

The Koran has been commented upon so often that the names of the commentators alone would fill pages. The most renowned are those of Zamakhshari (died A.H. 539), Beidhawī (died A.H. (685 or 716), Mahalli (died A.H. 870), and Suyuti (died A.H. 911). The principal editions are those of Hinkelmann (Hamburg, 1694); Maracci (Padua, 1698); Flügel (Leipzig, 1883); besides many editions (of small critical value) printed in Saint Petersburg, Kazan, Teheran, Calcutta, Cawnpore, and Serampore, and by the many newly erected Indian presses. There is a chrestomathy with notes and vocabulary by Nallino (Leipzig, 1893). The first, but very imperfect, Latin version of the Koran was made by Robertus Retensis, an Englishman, in 1143 (ed. Basel, 1543). The principal translations are those of Maracci, into Latin (1698); Sale (1st ed. 1734, one of the best translations in any language, edited by Wherry with additional matter, 1881-80), Rodwell (2d ed., 1870), and Palmer (1880), into English; Savary (1783), Garcin de Tassy (1829), Kazimirski (1840), into French; Megerlin (1772), Wahl (1828), Ullmann (1840), Grigull (1901), and Henning in the Reclam Universal-Bibliothek, into German; Reckendorf into Hebrew (1857); besides a great number of Persian, Turkish, Malay, Hindustani, and other translations made for the benefit of the various Eastern Mohammedans. The attempt to reproduce the style and rhyme of the original was first made by J. von Hammer (1811); this was improved upon by A. Sprenger (1861-65), Fr. Rückert (1888), and by M. Klamroth (1890). All of these are in German. The Speeches and Table-Talk of the Prophet Mohammed, chosen and translated by Stanley Lane-Poole (London, 1882), is a selection from the best that is in the Koran. Of concordances to the Koran may be mentioned that of Flügel (Leipzig, 1842), and the Nojon-ol-Forkan (Calcutta, 1811); La Beaume, Le Koran analysé (Paris, 1878), is a topical index to the French translations of Kazimirski and others. There are Koran lexicons by Dieterici (2d ed., Berlin, 1894) and Penrice (London, 1873). The introduction and notes to Sale's translation contain material that is still of value, though in large measure superseded now by Nöldeke, Geschichte des Korans (Göttingen, 1860); Weil, Historisch-kritische Einleitung in den Koran (Bielefeld, 1844); Grimme, Mohammed, 2ter Theil; Einleitung in den Koran; System der koranischen Theologie (1895); Hirschfeld, New Researches into the Composition and Exegesis of the Koran (Eng. trans. London, 1902). Consult also the lives of Mohammed and other works mentioned in the articles Mohammed and Mohammedanism.