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Volume 21, Number 6November/December 1970

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The First Book

"The beauty of a man is the eloquence of his tongue."

Written by Philip K. Hitti
Illustrated by Penny Williams-Yaqub

Few people in history seem to have been as susceptible to the influence of the word, spoken or written, as the "sons of Arabic," the Arabs' favorite designation of themselves. It was only in the field of verbal expression that pre-Islamic Arabians distinguished themselves. The extent to which they developed their language is surprising; it was out of proportion to the development of their political, social, and economic institutions. How illiterate camel breeders living in scattered tribes, with no political cohesion to unite them, could develop a refined, richly worded means of expression remains a mystery.

Linguistic development culminated in rhythmical, usually metrical, composition known as rhymed prose, or poetry. The ability to create such composition was the Bedouin's only cultural asset. Typical Semites, those early Arabians neither created nor promoted any art other than the linguistic. If the Indo-European Greek gloried in his sculpture and architecture and the Hebrew in his Psalm, the Arabian gloried in his ode (qasidah)...

Islam made full use of this linguistic phenomenon and psychological peculiarity. If Christianity's focus centered on a personality, Islam's was on a book. The book is entitled Qur'an (Koran). Etymologically the term simply means "reading"; theologically it means the word of God incarnate. It is eternal and uncreated. The Arabic copy that a Muslim uses today is an exact replica of a heavenly prototype, dictated word by word to the Prophet Muhammad. "And lo, it is in the Mother of the Book in Our presence, exalted, wise" (43:3); "Nay, but it is a glorious Koran on a guarded tablet" (85:21-2; cf. 56:76-7).

This metaphysical concept of heavenly prototypes did not originate in Islam. It belongs to a cycle of thought that can be traced back to the dawn of history. The Sumerians, originators of the Eu-phratean civilization, believed that their temples on earth had counterparts in the sky. Their Semitic successors in the area picked up the idea. The Hebrews personified Wisdom, made her a goddess, and viewed her as existing by Yahweh's side from the beginning (Prov. 8:22 et seq.). Plato correlated the concept of "idea" with "being" as the permanent, self-existing, transcendent entity. It became the perfect model for the imperfect copies we see around us. Hence such expressions as "the ideal teacher," as if somewhere there existed or exists a perfect teacher of which this one is a replica. In his Revelation (21:10 et seq.) John the Divine saw a heavenly Jerusalem, which he described in detail. We still sing of this heavenly Jerusalem in our Sunday services.

In Christianity the word of God (Logos) becomes Christ (John 1:1); in Islam it becomes the Koran. This makes the Koran more than a Bible of its religion. It makes it a participant in a way similar to the host in the Roman Catholic Church. "None but the purified shall touch it" (56:78). An old-fashioned Muslim goes through the legal ablution before he opens the book. He never puts it beneath another book, never reads it except in a reverential tone and posture. If he is a book dealer, he won't sell the book. He bestows a copy on the would-be-purchaser, who in turn bestows a specified sum of money—an act of mutual bestowal, but not a business transaction.

The Bible, as the word indicates, is a library of books written in different languages, by different men, in different places, at different times. The period covers about eight hundred and fifty years. The Koran was produced in a few years by one man who was living in one area. The Bible is inspired; the Koran is dictated. Any quotation from the Koran can be introduced with "saith Allah." Biblical text has been subjected to editorial and emend-atory treatment, but not the Koranic. The Koran itself sets forth the few permissible variant readings. In its phonetic and graphic reproduction, as well as in its linguistic form, the Koranic text is identical with its celestial original. No Muslim, whatever his native tongue may be, should use the Koran except in its Arabic original. No followers of Muhammad, other than the Kemalist Turks, are known to have violated that rule. A paraphrase of the text is permissible for the benefit of a non-Arab, but that is not the Koran.

Without the benefit of a computer every word in this book has been counted (77,934), every letter (323,621), and every verse (6,236). In length the Koran is no more than four-fifths that of the New Testament, but in use it far exceeds it. Not only is it the basis of the religion, the canon of ethical and moral life, but also the textbook in which the Muslim begins his study of language ... Its literary influence has been incalculable and enduring. The first prose book in Arabic, it set the style for future products. It kept the language uniform. So whereas today a Moroccan uses a dialect different from that used by an Arabian or an Iraqi, all write in the same style.

The style of the Koran is God's style. It is different—incomparable and inimitable.This is basically what constitutes the "miraculous character" (ijaz) of the Koran. Of all miracles it is the greatest: if all men and jinn were to collaborate, they could not produce its like (17:90). The Prophet was authorized to challenge his critics to produce something comparable (10:39). The challenge was taken up by more than one stylist in Arabic literature—with a predictable conclusion. The relevance of Muhammad's "illiteracy" to this argument becomes obvious.

In a formal reading the Koran is chanted—reflecting the influence of the liturgical reading of the Syrian Christian Scripture. But Islamic chanting (tajwid) has been developed into a science and an art. With chanting, the beauty of the Koranic style, the charm of its cadence, the music of its rhyme, and the sequence of its rhythm are heightened. Most if not all of that artistic merit and emotional appeal is lost by translation.

The first translation into a foreign language was into Latin (ca. 1141); it was sponsored by Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny (France), and intended to refute the beliefs of Islam. Another work of the abbot was entitled The Execrable Sect of the Saracens. For five centuries the only translation was in Latin. In 1649 the first English rendition appeared in London—The Alcoran of Mahomet, "translated out of Arabique into French ... and newly Englished, for the satisfaction of all that desire to look into the Turkish vanities." Other early versions in European languages were introduced by equally condemnatory statements. The first English translation from the original (by George Sale) did not appear until 1734. Writing in 1840, Thomas Carlyle, whose choice of Muhammad as the hero-prophet indicates special
respect, described his holy book as "a wearisome confused jumble, crude, incondite." In truth the Koran is a literary monument of a culture and should be studied in the light of the religious, political, social, and economic aspects of that culture.

Philip K. Hitti, who retired in 1954 from Princeton University, where he was Professor of Semitic Literature and Chairman of the Department of Oriental Languages, is the author of many books, including the classic History of the Arabs.

This article appeared on pages 2-3 of the November/December 1970 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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