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Birth of Islam

Birth of Islam (Hazrat Mirza Bashir Ahmad) The birth and rise of Islam took place at a time, when the greater part of the world still lived under primitive conditions. Communication between one country and another was slow and difficult, the printing press had yet to be invented, and even the art of writing was in its infancy. A few countries did possess these elementary arts, but Arabia was not one of them. Arabia was on the whole illiterate. Its condition was indeed very peculiar. Externally, it was cut off from the rest of the world. Internally it was without any social, political, or intellectual movement which might have raised it in the scale of culture and national consciousness. Learning, where it did exist, amounted only to literacy. Beyond, therefore, a few relics and inscriptions belonging to those times, we have no records of Arabia before the rise of Islam, and it is obvious that such records cannot provide the basis of a history. Records of the empires and kingdoms which flourished on the borders of Arabia — the empires of Rome and Persia •— refer occasionally to Arabia. But, as one would expect, these references are very slender, and yield only very trifling details, from which no idea can be had of the conditions of the country as a whole. The same may be said of the Biblical records and the books of the Old Testament which contain occasional references to Arabia. Pre-Islamic Traditions and Poetry Our main source of pre-Islamic Arabian history is to be found in Arabia’s own historical traditions. As already stated the Arabs were not used to writing. Still, they were able to conserve the floating traditions of their country, and these passed intact from one generation to another, thanks to the wonderful memory possessed by the Arabs.l Every tribe had its members who carried in their heads the history not only of their own tribe, but the history also of many neighbouring tribes. Arabian genealogy has had many votaries distinguished in pre-Islamic Arabia, and to them we owe whatever knowledge we have of the tribal history of the country before the advent of Islam. 1. Sir WWamMuir, Life of Mohammad (1923 edition), Introduction p. 16. BIRTH OF ISLAM 7 In pre-Islamic poetry also, we have sources of early tribal history. The art of poetry had attained to a high level of development before Islam, in some respects even higher than that of Islamic poetry. Every tribe had its poet who depicted in powerful bedawin verse, the achievements of his tribe. These verses were regularly recited at their meetings.2 Of pre-Islamic poets: (1) Imra al-Qais, (2) Nabigha Dhubyani, (3) Zuhair, (4) Tarafa, (5) ‘Antra, (6) ‘Alqama, (7) ‘Asha, (8) ‘Amr b. Kulthum, (9) Harithb”. Hilliza, (10) Omayya b. Abi Salt, (11) K’ab b. Zuhair, (12) Labid, (13) Hassan b. Thabit, and (14) Khansa are particularly well-known. Much of their poetry has been preserved, and the powerful reading which it makes is, in a sense, without a parallel in the poetry of any other people or country. The last four of these poets — of whom the very last was a poetess of good repute —• entered Islam in the time of the Holy Prophet himself.3 Many would perhaps wonder and ask, how centuries of history of a great country can at all be preserved in its oral traditions? But we should remember that at that time the historical culture of most-peoples was confined only to oral traditions of this kind. The difference between these and Arabian traditions was that while the former^were carried in their heads by all and sundry, and were eventually collected as they were found, the latter were carefully preserved in verse and oral tradition, in the wonderful memory of the Arabs. In any case, the oral traditions .of the Arabs, which were later committed to writing, constitute our great source of pre-Islamic Arabian history. But for them, we should know nearly nothing of this history. It is impossible to ignore them. These pre-Islamic traditions are recorded in several books, but their completest record is contained in the work of the famous Muslim historian Abu Ja’far Muhammad Ibn Jarir al-Tabari.4 Tabari collected the greater part of these traditions and gave them a systematic form. To him most of the later historians turn for material. I will have more to say about him later on. With the advent of Islam there opened up a new chapter of\Arabian history. The Holy Prophet (born 570 A.D., died 632 A.D.) made his advent to the dreamy people of Arabia, and then, as a man dead asleep wakes up to a loud and sudden sound, Arabia woke up to his message. That message made history for Arabia. It put an unknown desert on the map of the world. Itwas as though something, which had long been enwrapped in the dark, was suddenly turned to the fullest light of the sun. For the life of the Holy Prophet and for the early history of Islam we have material which is as extensive as it is reliable. No religious founder ever left behind him such material as did the – 2. Muir, op. tit., Introduction p. 52. 3. Kitab al-Sh’ir wal-Shu’ara, by Ibn Qutaiba. 4. Born 224, died 310 A.H. 8 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS Holy Prophet, to enable coming generations to reconstruct his life-history. This material is to be found in several forms, and to an account of these forms I now turn. The Holy Quran First and foremost is the Holy Quran. According to Muslim belief, the Holy Quran was, to a letter, revealed by God to the Holy Prophet. The revelation of it was spread over all the twenty-three years of the Prophetic ministry which began with a revelation, and closed with a revelation. If the verses of the Holy Quran are distributed over the whole of the Prophet’s ministry, the mean quantum of revelation per day turns outto be somethingless than averse or 10 words on an average. The ministry lasted for about 7970 days and the number of verses in the Holy Quran is only 6236 and the number of words is 77,934.5 From this it appears that the Holy Quran was revealed at a very slow pace, and even admitting that breaks in relevation on some days were made up by longer revelations on other days, the quantity of Quranic revelation, on any single day, was never so long as to make its commission to writing or to memory at all a difficult task. The Holy Prophet used to dictate the verses as they were revealed and, under divine guidance, he used also to prescribe the places in which they were to be recorded. There are a number of reliable traditions supporting this view. According to one, attributed to ‘Abdullah b. ‘Abbas, the Holy Prophet’s cousin, ‘Uthman, the third Khalifa (and one of the scribes who wrote down the Quranic revelation in the Prophet’s lifetime) used to say that.when a number of verses were revealed together, the Holy Prophet would summon one of the scribes and dictate to him the verses revealed, assigning to each its Sura (chapter) and its place in the Sura. If only one verse was revealed, even then a scribe was sent for, the verse dictated and its place assigned.6 The scribes of the Holy Prophet are well-known in Islamic history, their names and their lives being on definite record. The best known among them were AbuBakr, ‘Omar, ‘Uthman, ‘Ali, Zubairb. al-‘Awwam, Obayib. Ka’b, ‘Abdullah b. Rawaha, and Zaid b. Thabit — all devoted companions of the Holy Prophet most of whom accepted Islam in the very beginning.7 It is evident from this list that from the very beginning of divine revelation the Holy Prophet had a reliable and trustworthy company of scribes to take revelation down as it came. The Holy Quran was thus committed to writing as it was revealed, and with the writing down of it naturally grew the present order of its verses, which order divine design had conceived differently from their chronological order. The death of the Holy Prophet marked the 5. Kitab al-ltqanfi ‘Ulum al-Quran, by Suyuti, Vol., 1, pp. 66 and 72. 6. Tirmidhi chapter on Tafsir al-Quran. 7. Fat!} al-Bari, Vol. IX, p. 19; and Zurqanl, Vol. III. pp. 311-326. BIRTH OF ISLAM 9 completion of the revelation of the Holy Quran. Accordingly, Abu Bakr, the first Khalifa, in consultation with ‘Omar, ordered Zaid b. Thabit, one of the scribes, to collect together the different portions of the text, and secure it in the form of a book. Zaid b. Thabit, who was a hard-working and a very intelligent young man, applied himself with great industry, and guided by the strictest oral and documentary evidence, for every single verse, prepared a complete copy of the Holy Quran in the form of a book. This authoritative copy was later placed in the safe custody of one of the wives of the Holy Prophet — Hafsa daughter of ‘Omar.8 When Islam spread to different countries, ‘Uthman, the third Khalifa, ordered the preparation of accurate copies of the text collected by Zaid, and then had them issued to all parts of the Muslim Empire.9 The Holy Quran was also committed to memory as it was revealed, and wonderful arrangements existed to this end. A number among the Companions of the Holy Prophet memorised the text in the order in which the Holy-Prophet dictated it and which the Holy Quran was ultimately to have, and while the number of those, who had learnt up small portions-of the text, was very much larger, the number of those, who had learnt up the whole of the Quran during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet, was also pretty large. Four of them were certified by the Holy Prophet himself and, having been found satisfactory in every way, they were appointed by him to teach the Holy Quran to other companions.10 At the death of the Holy Prophet when the Holy Quran was gathered as a book, the number of those who knew the whole of it by heart, mounted very rapidly. During the reign of ‘Omar, the second Khalifa, a Muslim army in a single cantonment included no less than 300 Huffaz i.e., men who could recite the whole of the Holy Quran from memory.11 These arrangements, designed and determined by God, secured the Holy Quran against all possible interpolation and interference. Subsequently so many accurate copies became available in all countries, and so large became the number of those who knew the Holy Book by heart, that the possibility of interpolation was completely eliminated. And to-day, as admitted by friend and foe alike, there is not the least doubt that the Quran which we possess is the very Quran which was revealed to the Holy Prophet. It is the same text, and has the same order which the Holy Prophet, under divine guidance, prescribed for it. I quote some European Christian writers in support. Says Sir William Muir: “There is probably in the world no other work which has remained twelve centuries with so pure a text.” 8. Bukhari, Kitab Fadail al-Quran, Chapter, “The Collection of the Quran.” 9. Bukhari, Kitab Fadail al-Quran, Chapter, “The Collection of the Quran”; Also Path al-Bari, Vol. 9, pp. 17 and 18. 10. Bukhari, Kitab Fadail al-Quran, Chapter, “The Reciters of the Quran.” 11. Kanz al-‘Ummal, Chapter on the Quran, Section: Fadail al-Quran. 10 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS Again: “To compare their pure text with the various readings of our Scriptures is to compare things between which there is no analogy.” Again: “There is every security, internal and external, that we possess the text which Mohammad himself gave forth and used.” Yet again: “We may upon the strongest assumption affirm that every verse in the Koran,12 is the genuine and unaltered composition of Mohammad himself.”13 Similarly Noeldeke, the great German Orientalist, says: “The Koran of ‘Uthman contains none but genuine elements.” Again: “All efforts of European scholars to prove the existence of later interpolations in the Koran have failed.”14 The value of the Holy Quran as an historical document does not merely lie in the fact that it has been protected since the time of its revelation. It also lies in the fact that having been revealed gradually during the twenty-three years of the Holy Prophet’s ministry, it is a contemporary record of his life. There is not a period of his life which is not illumined by some part or another of the text of the Holy Book. This is the deeper significance of what Hazrat ‘Aisha (the Holy Prophet’s consort) said of him, viz.: “Verily his character is the Quran.”15 The Holy Quran in a way is a record of the daily round of activities, the moral qualities and all the little ways of the Prophet. No other historical person possesses such an authentic, and such a powerful contemporary record of his life. There have indeed been those •— and there are some even to-day — whose “lives” have been written and published in their life-time or soon after. But the distinction which the Holy Prophet possesses in the Quran, as a day-to-day record of his life, is possessed by no one else.16 Western writers have openly acknowledged this fact. 12. The same as Quran. While quoting I have retained the form used by the authority quoted. 13. Sir William Muir, op cit. Introduction, pp. 22, 23, 27, 28. 14. Encyclopaedia Britannica, llth edition, Article on Koran. 15. Musnadlmam Ahmad b..Hanbal, Vol. 6, p. 91. 16. The fact that the Holy Quran is not recorded or read in its chronological order does not destroy its value as an historical document. For, we know the order in which the different parts of it were revealed and can study it in its chronological as well as in its present order.

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