Professor Barth (Der Islam VI, p. 130) pointed out that in Surah XXIII, v. 101 does not connect with what precedes. Looking back through the Surah, we find a passage, vv. 66ff., which is difficult to interpret on the assumption that it is Meccan, as the greater part of the Surah undoubtedly is. It becomes much more intelligible if we suppose it to have been composed in Medina, when its wealthy men (mutrafihim) were becoming disturbed at the prospect of ruin, which the Prophet's activities in attacking their caravans were opening up to them. This passage begins with the same words (hatta idha) as vv. 101ff. The main idea of the two passages is the same. Both describe the effect upon the unbelievers of the actual coming of "punishment" upon them. In 101ff. it is death, resurrection, judgment and the punishment of Hell, which are dramatically described. In 66ff. it is some punishment not particularly specified, which has thrown the wealthy unbelievers into perturbation. There are other similarities between the two passages, compare v. 107 with v. 68. If now we connect vv. 101ff. with v. 65 we find that the phrase fima taraktu, which is unintelligible where it at present stands, at once finds its explanation. The unbeliever, threatened with death, asks that he may be restored in order that he may have a chance of acting uprightly in regard to that which he has left undone. V. 65 says that "they have works short of that, which they will continue to do, until ..."

It seems clear that Mohammed substituted the one passage for the other, in the early stages of his career in Medina. In the meantime he has found a more effective threat against the Meccans, than the preaching of resurrection and judgment had proved itself to be. This confirms the view which I expressed in my book "The Origin of Islam in the Christian Environment" in connection with his use of the term furqan, that Mohammed regarded the warlike activities of the Moslems against the Meccans as the execution of the divine punishment which was due to fall upon the unbelieving city.

How far the substitution of one passage for another in the Surah extended is difficult to determine with certainty. But vv. 80ff. do not connect very well with v. 79, and would come better after v. 117. Perhaps then we may take these as limits of the duplicative passages.

The Surah as a whole shows traces of Medinan revision. Vv. 1-11 are early in style, but the passage is an adaptation of LXX, vv. 22ff., and need not therefore be early. It contains a couple of verses, 6 and 7, which are almost palpably Medinan, though they occur also in LXX. The Medinan origin of 66ff. being assumed, I incline to think that this passage also belongs to the Medinan revision, and that the verses 6 and 7 were transferred from here to the similar passage in LXX.

Vv. 12ff. is also early in style, but treats of a common theme, and has perhaps been adapted. The mention of "clay" in connection with the origin of man is at the earliest late Meccan.

Vv. 17ff. is also an adaptation of an early theme, but the mention of the seven cycles or heavens does no belong to the early treatments of it. The list of the blessings which Allah has created for man ends (v. 22) with the mention of the ship (al-fulk) upon which men ride as they do upon animals. This leads to the apparently irrelevant story of Noah vv. 23ff. Hirschfeld regards this as an intrusion into the Surah, as also the prophetic tales which follow. This, however, is not so certain. Mohammed regarded the ship, like the animals, etc. as a proof of God's benign creative power, and one at least of the main points of this version of the story of Noah is that the Ark, the prototype of all ships, was made under the eye of Allah and at his suggestion (wahyun), v. 27; cf. also v. 29 with XLIII, v. 11f. Whether or not the story belonged to the original form of the Surah it at least contains an indication of its own date; for the prayer for a good settlement, v. 30, shows that the idea of a migration from Mecca was in Mohammed's mind. The passage is therefore late Meccan.

The story of Noah leads to other tales of Judgment vv. 32ff. These, however, are told in formal fashion without names or details. Perhaps as-saiha (v. 43) may indicate that Thamud was in mind, but on the whole as Horovitz (Koranische Untersuchungen, p. 20) says "the scheme of the tales of judgment has been completely given up". The passage ends with a short account of Moses and Aaron vv. 47-50. In all these rather formal stories, the main point is the rejection of a prophet who is only a man like themselves.

The reference to Moses in vv. 51ff is in a different strain, and the knowledge that the distinction between Jews and Christians is a matter of Scriptures is either very late Meccan or early Medinan. V. 56 seems almost to indicate that the break with the Jews is already in Mohammed's mind. But probably the insertion ends with v. 55, and v. 56 would then have originally followed v. 50, and have referred not to those who had cut up the Scriptures (v. 55) but to the Meccans. Only if we could be sure that Mohammed considered what v. 56 would imply coming immediately after vv. 51-55 would we have an indication of the time when these verses were inserted.

Vv. 56-65 describe, in contrast to those who think that the wealth and children with which they are endowed are good things, those who in the Prophet's doctrine are hastening towards the real good things and will come first to them. The unbelieving Meccans, however, fall short of that standard (v. 65). Upon this followed originally the passage 101ff. for which as has been shown above the present 66ff. has been substituted, picturing the Meccans "lowing like cattle" at the punishment which is now falling upon them. They are reminded that their "lowing" is now of no use. They had had ample opportunity, but had been to high and migthly to listen to the message. V. 69. was declared by Barth to be "unconstruierbar." The difficulty lies in samiran, for which he proposed to read summaran. The suggestion is worth considering, but perhaps if we keep the text as it is, and translate "avoiding one who held night discourse", we may see in it a reminiscence of the Meccan taunt that Mohammed had been helped to his revelations by outsiders, and had the stories which he retailed, recited to him morning and evening. For am in the next verse Barth proposed to read idh, evidently feeling that there was something wrong with the statement which is implied that the message had come to their fathers of old. But the text is correct as it stands. Mohammed has simply changed his point of view. Whereas in earlier days he had described himself as a warner sent to those who had never been warned before, he has now familiarized himself with the idea of a succession of prophets sent to the same people or to the world, (cf. v. 32 and v. 46). Perhaps he has by this time associated Abraham with Mecca, but even in v. 85, which is Meccan, the unbelievers are represented as saying that "their fathers had been threatened in the same way." V. 74 belongs to the Meccan controversy, and the tense in vv. 72-76 would seem to indicate that some part of the discarded passage had been retained or at least that the prophet has fallen into Meccan language. With v. 77 we return to the Medinan situation. V. 78 would seem to imply that some other form of "punishment" had already fallen upon the Meccans, but the nature of it is not indicated. Perhaps the famine which is spoken of in Tradition was a historical fact. It would fall mainly upon the poor, and would not affect the heads of the opposition to Mohammed. The present punishment hit directly at them.

If now for this passage we substitute vv. 101ff. there is plain sailing, as far as v. 113. The unbeliever is pictured at the point of death, praying that he may be restored to life, that he may act uprightly in what he had formerly left undone. The prayer is useless, "There is a barrier behind them until the day they were raised up." When that day comes and deeds are weighed, they find themselves condemned and taunted with unbelief of the signs which had been recited to them. With the fire already scorching their faces they plead for another chance, but they are hounded to Hell and not allowed to speak, and as they slink away are further taunted with the ridicule they had heaped upon those who professed belief, and informed that the latter are now to be rewarded for what they suffered. Here (v. 113), the passage might well end, and perhaps was intended so to do. In the following verse those who had been forbidden to speak are now invited to answer a question: "How many years had they remained on earth?" The reply that they had only remained a day or part of a day, and they are assured that they had really only remained a little while. This seems inconsistent and irrelevant. But perhaps it is not too much so, to be allowed to stand as part of the passage by one accustomed to Mohammed's style. For it is his answer, thus projected upon the background of the Judgment Day, to the "dust and bones" argument of the Meccan scoffers. The dead may have become dust and bones, but in God's eyes, and in their own eyes when they are resurrected, the time is not long.

Finally comes the scornful question: "Did they think that God had created them for fun, and that they would not be raised again?" The Judgment scene closes, and the passage ends with an ascription of praise to Allah, and a challenge to those who call upon other gods to produce a proof (burhan) of their existence.

This might have brought the Surah to a close. But what then of what follows the inserted passage which has displaced this in the Surah as it stands, vv. 80ff.? It certainly does not connect with v. 79. It returns to the theme of v. 12ff. which was interrupted by the story of Noah. But that passage is spoken by Allah in the first person plural, while this passage speaks of him in the third person. The hypothesis that the mention of the ship had led to the intrusion of the story of Noah into the middle of a continuous passage the conclusion of which is here given, must therefore be rejected. But if we suppose v. 80 to have originally followed v. 117 we have at least a possible connection. Allah has already been spoken of in the third person in the ascription of praise. Further Mohammed has just challenged the unbelievers to produce a burhan for any god besides Allah, and we may suppose him to be led on by this to produce a burhan for Allah. If not here a new word, it is at least one which he has comparatively recently got hold of, and according to his manner he would be disposed to linger on it. As a matter of fact the passage does contain an argument for the uniqueness of Allah of a more formal kind than is exactly frequent in the Koran. He is stated to be the originator of man and of his faculties, of life and death, night and day. Then come a digression which represents the unbelievers in the face of all this bringing up the old "dust and bone" argument. This may indicate how much that argument was at the time in the Prophet's mind, and help to explain the somewhat inconsistent intrusion of the answer to it into the Judgment scene above. Advantage is then taken in a series of verses (86-91) of what the unbelievers do admit with regard to Allah. Finally comes the argument that if there were anything of the nature of god besides Allah, then each god would take what he had created, and set themselves up one against the other. We may note that what sounds like an echo of this appears in the inserted passages (v. 73), which helps to confirm the impression that this passage originally formed part of the Surah. The passage then closes with a short ascription of praise to Allah (93c-94). There then follow a series of short prayers introduced by "Say". One is always suspicious of such passages, especially at the ends of Surahs where a collection of disconnected tags frequently appears. The most suspicious verses here are 95-97 in which the Prophet prays that whether he sees the execution of what is threatened or not he may not be placed among the wrong-doing people. This, implying the possibility of a Judgment upon Mecca in the Prophet's lifetime, seems to come from a different atmosphere than that of individual death followed by a general resurrection and Judgment, which is the implication of the discarded Meccan passage. But the previous part of the Surah with its tales of Judgment had implied the falling of Judgment upon Mecca for its rejection of the message, and probably at this stage Mohammed had not clearly distinguished between the two things. At any rate he had not yet conceived the idea of himself executing the "punishment" upon the unbelieving city, but was concerned with dissociating himself from it (cf. above in regard to v. 30).

Further v. 118, which will, now after the restoration of the discarded passage to its place, follow v. 100 (cf. Barth's remark in the article above cited), arises clearly out of v. 111. So we may, though with some hesitation allow that these verses 95-100, 118; formed the original conclusion of the Surah. The transference of 118 to its present position, while 95-100 were left where they stood, is probably due to its similarity to v. 111. The transference of the discarded passage to the end carried this verse along with it.

University of Edinburgh


Muslim World, July 1928, pp. 227-233.

Essays by Richard Bell
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