Sources of the Sirat – Part 1

7 SOURCES OF THE SIRAT (Part J) A CRITICAL ACCOUNT OF THE SOURCES OF OUR KNOWLEDGE OF THE EARLY HISTORY 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. Therefore, beyond 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 wri ting. 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. [ Sir William Muir, Life of Mohammad (1923 edition), Introduction p.16.1 ]. Every tribe had members who carried in their heads the history not only of their own tribe, but also the history of many neighbouring tribes. Arabian genealogy (llm al-Ansab) 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. 8 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS In pre-Islamic poetry, also, we have sources of early tribal history. The art of poetry had attained 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 bedouin verse, the achievements of his tribe. These verses were regularly recited at their meetings [ Muir, op cit, Introduction p.52 ] of the pre-Islamic poets: (1) Imr al-Qais, (2) Nabigha Dhubyani, (3) Zuhair, (4) Tarafa, (5) ‘Antra, (6) ‘Alqama, (7) ‘Asha, (8) ‘Amr b. Kulthum, (9) Harith b. 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 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. [ Kitab al-Sh’ir wal-Shu’ara, by Ibn Qutaiba — 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 people 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 later were carefully preserved in years 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. Thus, it is impossible to ignore them. These pre-Islamic traditions are recorded in several books, but their most complete record is contained in the work of the famous Muslim historian Abu Ja’far Muhammad Ibn Jarir al-Tabari. [ Born 224, died 310 A.H.] Tabari collected the greater part of these traditions and gave them a systematic form. Most of the later historians turn to him 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. The message made history for Arabia. It put an unknown desert on SOURCES OF SIRRAT 9 the map of the world. It was as though something, which had long been enwrapped in darknes& 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 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 letter, revealed by God to the Holy Prophet. The revelation of it was spread over all the twenty-three years of the Prophet’s 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 out to be something less than a verse or 10 words on an average. The ministry lasted for about 7,970 days and the number of verses in the Holy Quran is only 6,236 and the number of words is 77,934. [ Kitab al-Itqan fi ‘Ulum al-Quran, by Suyuti, VoU, pp.66 and 72]. From this it appears that the Holy Quran was revealed at a very slow pace, and even admitting that breaks in revelation 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. [ Tirmidhi chapter on Tafsir-ul-Quran]. 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 Abu Bakr, ‘Omar, ‘Uthman, ‘Ali, Zubair b. al-‘Awwam, Obayi b. Ka’b, ‘Abdullah b. Rawaha, and Zaid b. Thabit 10 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS all devoted companions of the Holy Prophet, most of whom accepted Islam in the very beginning. [Fath-ul-Bari, Vol.IX, p.19: and Zurqani, Vol.III, pp.3II-326-4]. 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 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. [ Bukhari, Kitab Fadail al-Quran, ‘The Collection of the Quran. ‘]. 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. [ Bukhari, Kitab Fadail al-Quran, ‘The Collection of the Quran.’ Also Fath-ul-Bari, Vo1.9, pp.I7 and 18]. 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 learned small portions of the text was very much larger, the number of those, who had learned 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. [ Bukhari, Kitab Fadail al-Quran, Chapter, ‘The Reciters of the Quran.’]. 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. [ Kanz al-‘Ummal, Chapter on the Quran, Section: Fadail al-Quran.]. These arrangements, designed and determined by God, secured the Holy Quran against all possible interpolation and interference. Subsequen- tly,so many accurate copies became available in all countries, and so SOURCES OF SIRRAT 11 large became the number of those who knew the Holy Book by heart, that the possibility of interpolation was completely eliminated. And today, 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 guiiance, 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.” 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 [The same as Quran. While quoting I have retained the form used by the authority quoted] is the genuine and unaltered composition of Mohammad himself.” Similarly Noeldeke, the great German Orientalist, says:- “The Koran of ‘Uthman’ icontains none but genuine elements.” Again:- “All efforts of European scholars to prove the existence of later interpolations in the Koran have failed.” [ Sir William Muir op cit, Introduction, pp.22,23,27,28]. 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. I t also lies in the fact that havinvg been revealed gradually during the twenty-three years of the Holy 12 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS Prophet’s ministry, it is 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.: ”’.’erily his character is the Quran.” [1] 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 today – whose. ‘lives’ have been written and published in their lifetime 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. [2] Western writers have openly acknowledged this fact. Says Sir William Muir:- “The importance of this deduction can hardly be over-estimat- ed. The Koran becomes the ground-work and the test of all inquiries into the origin of Islam, and the character of its Founder. Here we have a storehouse of Mohamrnad’s own words recorded during his life extending over the whole course of his public career, and illustrating his religious views, his public acts and his domestic character. By this standard of his own making, we may safely judge his life and actions, for it must represent either what he actually thought or what he affected to think. And so true a mirror is the Koran of Mohammad’s character, that the saying became proverbial among the early Muslims, His character is the Koran.” Professor Nicholson, the well-known Orientalist of England, writes in his Literary History of the Arabs:- “Here we have materials of unique and incontestable authority for tracing the origin and early development of Islam – such materials as do not exist in the case of Buddhism or Christianity or any other ancient religion. ” In short, the Holy Quran, as an authentic historical record, is unsurpassed by any other record pertaining to any other person in the world. Its contemporaneous character is unquestioned, which not even its detractors dare deny.