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Friday, June 29, 2012

In the Shadow of the Sword III; History, Myths and Prophecies

 Dhul-Qarnayn with the help of jinn, building  the Iron Wall to keep the barbarian Gog and Magog from civilized peoples.Courtesy: Wikimedia

Tom Holland mentions in his book the stories and legends popular among the Christians and Jews living in and around the Fertile Crescent. These are the tales of the seven sleepers, of the two-horned king and of Gog and Magog which also are mentioned in the Quran. A valid question can be raised perhaps, that why such stories of a victorious King, of mystical time-travelling Christians and of demonic hordes locked away behind a metallic wall were reproduced in the Quran? What kind of plagiarism is this! Was this an attempt by the “authors” of Quran to entice their Israelite cousins into the new-found Ishmaelite Empire? Or was it an effort to impress the Quraish with the knowledge of fantastic happenings which could only have come from God?

Let us examine the Islamic source material while ignoring the classical Muslim scholarship on this issue. I ignore it because classical Islamic scholars like Tabari, Ibn Ishaq etc. have borrowed heavily from Jewish and Christian sources to fill the gaps in their own understanding of history. Their commentaries on Quran often cite tales and fables of the Israelites. So Islamic understanding of Quran isn’t necessarily “Quranic” on many matters. For example, Book of Genesis becomes the guide for Muslim understanding of creation myths. Similarly whatever Quran mentions with references to Torah and Gospels, gets superimposed by the popular Judaeo-Christian opinion. Muslims start believing in ascension of Jesus and his return in latter days. Although they take care that rather than dying and rising up again, he is replaced on the cross with a look-alike (a story which existed in one of the lesser known gospels). Ibn Kathir went so far as to state that the earth rested on the horns of a bull. None of these stories can be verified by the Quranic text.

As the main thrust of Tom Holland’s argument is that Quran is a book manufactured, borrowed and edited to support an empire for the Arabs, I would like to compare these stories and legends with Quranic source material to see if there is any evidence of Divine knowledge in it.

A few points of clarification before I proceed further:

1. If Quran records an event or the past, regardless of its existence in Torah or folklore, the Quranic account will always be free of error. i.e., there will be no supernatural happenings, demons; time-travel etc. and it will be consistent with the scientific findings.

2. The story of Moses and “Khidr” is actually a vision of Moses which foretells of the future interactions between Israelites and the Muslims.

3. The story of Dhul-Qarnayn is significant because of its prophetic nature. i.e., Yajooj and Majooj making reappearance in the latter days.

For centuries Muslims have believed that Dhul-Qarnayn, the two horned king was Alexander the great. Some have asserted that the story has been copied from the “Romance of Alexander” which conveniently converts a pagan warrior into a soldier of God. But a closer look at the Quranic text and verified historic evidence shows that it was Cyrus the great who was the pious king. Also, Jewish records interpret Daniel’s vision about the two horned ram as Cyrus, their liberator. This understanding is consistent with other verses of Quran which also counts Sabians (Zoroastrians) as those who will be judged as monotheists along with Muslims and “people of the Book”. Quran also informs us of the geographical limits of Cyrus’s empire and location where the wall was built to keep Gog and Magog out.

The identity of this prophet-king matches the prophecy of Daniel in Torah, and not the myths prevalent among the masses. Thus Quran presents the correct history without error and also predicts the future. Exactly what a Divinely revealed scripture should do. When I say that the correct history was recorded, please note that the alleged supernatural beings helping the King build the wall and any myths regarding Gog and Magog are absent from Surah Kahf.

Now let’s see what Quran says about the future. Although it mentions Gog and Magog only twice, it does not elaborate on their origins or identity. Contemporary Jews put the title of Gog and Magog to everyone who came to harm them, including the Saracens. To them, Gog and Magog would inevitably be followed by the Messiah. Cyrus has been called a “Messiah” by Torah, so it was understandable that a future Messiah should also battle against the menace that is Yajooj and Majooj.

Quran says that in future Gog and Magog will cross all barriers and will spread on the earth causing mischief. If Biblical genealogy is to be believed, Japhethites (Gog and Magog) now inhabit Europe, Russia and North America.

This brings us finally to the story of the seven sleepers as was popular among the Syriac speaking Christians. Quran calls them Ashab-e-Kahf (Kahf=KHF=Cave) and does not give a number. Also, if we only read the text, it can be understood that these people of the cave may have belonged to various times and locations across the Roman Empire during the 3oo years of persecution. It also becomes clear that Quran does not mention a set number of the cave dwellers, which means that they were many in number who lived in the catacombs and caves around the Roman empire, virtually cut off from the daily business of life.

A test for the authenticity of Quran would be to prove that any of the historic accounts mentioned in it are erroneous in the light of the modern research. History at the time of late antiquity appears to be re-written and in many cases fabricated to validate a dynasty or religious order. Alexander or his historian sought to replace the memory of Cyrus with that of the invading conqueror. Umayyids and Abbasids were known to make use of fabricated hadith to help their popularity in the masses. Jews and Christians were also waiting for the Messiah or his second coming and their narratives were driven by this expectation. If Tom Holland’s theory is correct, Quran should be full of historic errors considering it narrates many stories from the past. In his book he does mentions such errors, but always through the agency of early Islamic commentators, who in turn were taking the best guess from many versions of history available to them.

If Quran is to be a collection of stories from syriac Christian and Jewish literature, it should also have the errors that they contain. An idea for another book for Mr. Holland perhaps?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

In the Shadow of the Sword II; Quran and Sana'a manuscripts

A segment of the "Sana'a Papyrus"

Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem: In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful; This verse appears in Quran 114 times, at the beginning of each Surah or chapter apart from one exception. Surah Tauba (Chapter 9) starts without this verse. But Bismillah, as this verse is commonly referred to, also appears in the middle of another Surah. Completing 114 appearances in Quran, equaling the total number of Chapters in it. An interesting trivia which I learnt as a child growing in a Muslim household.

While reading Tom Holland’s “In the shadow of the sword” it never occurred to me that the total number of “Bismillah’s” in Quran will have any relevance to his critique of the origins of Islam. The book itself is a very interesting read. The author has complete mastery over the era which saw the end of the glory days of both Roman and Persian empires. Be it Peroz’s last ditch attempt to regain lost prestige of the house of Sassan, or Justinian’s endeavors to bring Rome back into the Roman Empire, the book paints a picture so well defined and detailed as far as Romans and Persians are concerned. But when it comes to Mecca, Mr. Holland resorts to broad brush strokes. He laments the lack of historic evidence, ruins, engravings, coinage etc. but still assumes so much based on what little “secular” evidence exists.

So, what of the authenticity of Quran? Tom Holland observes that the paradise of Quran sounds very similar to the Greek myths. Why are there so many frequent references to agriculture, olives etc? Could it be that the author(s) of Quran had an eye on the Fertile Crescent, or even better, was it written in Mesopotamia? To a Muslim, such questions are obviously bordering the ridiculous, but a secular reader should also be taken aback by the naivety of such fantastic assumptions.

Mr. Holland’s assertion that Quran is not as infallible and unchanged as Muslims would like to believe because

a. There is no evidence that Quran ever existed as a single text during the life of the Prophet of Islam (pbuh) and

b. The Sana’a manuscripts, discovered in 1970s have evidence that Quran was revised and amended.

As for the first argument, it can be said that the author has willingly ignored the distinctly oral tradition of the Arabs. The fact that thousands of verses of classic Arab poets were preserved without much adulteration in pre-Islamic Arabia: The fact that even in this day and age, millions of Muslims have memorized the full text of the Quran, and can recite it whole without consulting a paper copy.

And when it comes to Sana’a manuscripts, Mr. Holland gets a bit overexcited due to the knee jerk Muslim reaction to the German scholar in charge of the restoration of the Sana’a scrolls. Gerd Puin stated that the scrolls were re-written where various alterations were made to the spellings and order of the verses. Also, in his opinion Quran is not a clear book, its vague and may contain texts from before the time of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Tom Holland has taken a similar stance in his book. But Sadeghi-Gourdarzi critique of Puins’ work (Gerd’s wife published more material recently) debunks the theory that Quranic text has been inconsistent and also confirms the mainstream Muslim understanding of how Quran was compiled and its recitation standardized. If anything at all, Sana’a scrolls are a testament to the early Islamic efforts to ensure Quran was preserved on paper (Papyrus) and disseminated far and wide for the new converts. Sana’a scrolls were washed and re-written with the Mushaf-e-Uthman. And residual traces of old ink show the older version of Quran where many words were spelled differently and some verses/surahs were in different order.

One thing struck me while reading the research on the manuscripts. Scholars working on a particular section of the manuscripts found that they were looking the earliest written version of the end of the 8th and beginning of the 9th Surah. There was no Bismillah written at the beginning of the 9th Surah. So in addition to finding no textual contradictions (additions or deletions) between the Sana’a scrolls and the modern day Quran, there is consistency in minutest details which takes us back to the time of the Prophet of Islam (pbuh). For those insterested I would recommend looking into the "absent" Bismillah before Surah Tauba, which links the revelation of the Surah with cetain events int he life of the Prophet (pbuh). Regardless of what Tom Holland thinks of the authenticity Hadith and Seerah literature, this evidence alone can refute the myth of the "authored Quran".
In his book, Tom Holland also poses a number of other questions which I will address in near future. InshaAllah

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

In the shadow of the sword

I recently heard a radio interview of Tom Holland speaking about his new book, In the shadow of the sword, which presents his own interpretation of the origins of Islam. From what Mr. Holland said, it appears that he was very excited to present to the world this new idea that Islam borrowed heavily from older religions. The assertion is that Makkah, a town in the middle of the desert could not produce a man who could write such elegant prose.  

For a secular/atheist writer and researcher, arriving at such a conclusion does not require in-depth research. This is how the world works. Empires rise and fall, major centres of learning produce big poets and philosophers. Major civilizations attract the scholars and scientists to their cities. Anyone unconvinced by the Divine origins of any world religion should have doubts on the authenticity of any Holy Book.

But for me, Quran is the word of God, and it proves itself to be so. It does not need interpretation of historical events and what was happening around the world to prove its authenticity. Any book claiming to be the Word of God should have the evidence of its authencity within it.

So, in an unknown town in the middle of the desert, a man proclaims to be God’s prophet, just as Moses was a prophet to Israelites. Quran not only acknowledges this link, but also tells the Muslims that they must learn from the mistakes of the Jews and Christians. Quran also claims to be the continuity and culmination of the same message which was sent from the One God to all the nations and tribes before. So any similarity and resemblance between Islam and other world faith is not coincidental at all, but very deliberate. Islam is to the world faiths what human beings are to the rest of life on this planet. We share the same roots, but we evolved into better forms over the years.

Take the Islamic ritual of daily prayers. Muslims stand still, bow down, kneel, prostate, sit in submission with heads bowed, hands folded etc. etc. All done during the same prayer. You can find a hint of all faiths in this ritual.

Just like Hindus, Muslims believe in many attributes of God. Just like Buddhism, Islamic philosophy teaches to suppress the ego to find One True God. Just like the Zoroastrianism, Islam focuses on the fight between the good self and the evil self within us. Just like Judaism, Islam teaches to fast and pray on regular times during the day. Just like Christianity, Islam tells us to forgive and be meek and humble.

My point is, Muslims already know that Islam shares many values, rituals and ideas with the older religions. It is because all faiths came from the same God, who over many millennia sent His Guidance to mankind still getting to grips with its new found evolutionary superiority.

Anything to do with documented history will not resolve this question. Let us examine the content of Quran. If it stands the test, it is real, authentic Word of God. If it doesn’t, it is a fabrication, a work of elegant prose if you like.

There are many verses which I can quote. But I will only mention a few. I will not even attempt to interpret them. But please feel free to tell me which city in the world 1500 years ago had the knowledge such as I quote below?

We created them and strengthened their make; and when We will so decide, We will change their form to something completely different. (76:29)


Woe to every backbiter, slanderer,

Who amasses wealth and counts it over and over.

He imagines that his wealth will make him immortal.

Nay! he shall surely be cast into the "hotamah". (tiniest of the particles)

And what should make thee know what the "hotamah" is?

Allah's fire as preserved fuel,

Which will leap suddenly on to the hearts.

It is locked up in outstretched pillars to be used against them.(104:2-10)

Do not the Unbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were joined together,

then We clove them asunder and We created every living thing out of the water.

Will they not then believe? (21:30)

And it is We Who have constructed the heaven with Might,

and it is We Who are steadily expanding it. (Qur'an 51:47)

 And after him We said to the Children of Israel, 'Dwell Ye in the promised land; and when the time of the promise of the Latter Days come, We shall bring you together out of various people. (17:105)


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