The Narratives of the Koran1
Charles Cutler Torrey
We have seen in the preceding lectures that the Koran brings to view a rather long procession of Biblical personages, some of them mentioned several times, and a few introduced and characterized repeatedly. The experiences of the chief among them are described in stereotyped phrases usually with bits of dramatic dialogue. The two main reasons for the parade have been indicated: first, the wish to give the new Arabian religion a clear and firm connection with the previous "religions of the Book," and especially with the Hebrew scriptures; and second, the equally important purpose which Mohammed had of showing to his country men how the prophets had been received in the former time; and how the religion which they preached (namely Islam) was carried on from age to age, while the successive generations of men who rejected it were punished.
In all the earliest part of the Koran there is no sustained narrative, nothing like the stories and biographies which abound in the Old Testament. The ancient heroes are hardly more than names, which the ever turning wheel of the Koran keeps bringing before us, each one laden with the same pious exhortations. Mohammed certainly felt this lack. He was not so unlike his country men as not to know the difference between the interesting and the tiresome, even if he did not feel it very strongly. We know, not only from the Tradition but also from the Koran itself, that his parade of Noah, Abraham, Jonah, and their fellows was received in Mekka with jeers. His colorless scraps of history were hooted at as "old stories"; and we happen to be told how on more than one occasion he suffered from competition with a real raconteur. The Mekkans, like St. Paul's auditors at Athens (Acts 17:21), were ready to hear "some new thing," if only to laugh at it, but their patience was easily exhausted. One of Mohammed's neighbors, an-Nadr ibn al-Harith, took delight in tormenting the self-styled prophet, and when the latter was holding forth to a circle of hearers, he would call out, "Come over here to me, and I will give you something more interesting than Mohammed's preaching!" and then he would tell them the stories of the Persian kings and heroes; while the prophet saw his audience vanish, and was left to cherish the revenge which he took after the battle of Bedr. For the too entertaining adversary, taken captive in the battle, paid for the stories with his life.
Mohammed of course knew, even without any such bitter lesson, what his countrymen would enjoy. It is quite evident, moreover, that he himself had been greatly impressed by the tales of patriarchs, prophets, and saints which had come within his knowledge; for he was in most respects a typical Arab. And while we know, especially from the introduction to his story of Joseph, that he eventually formed the purpose of adorning his Koran with some extended narratives in order to attract as well as to convince his hearers, it probably is true that an equally strong motive was his own lively interest in these famous personages and their wonderful deeds. There are certain incidents, or bits of folk-tale, which he elaborates merely because they delight him, not at all because of any religious teaching which might be squeezed out of them. This appears, for instance, in his tales of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, of Dhu 'l-Qarnain (Alexander the Great), and of Joseph in Egypt. His imagination played upon these things until his mind was filled with them. Here was entertainment to which the people of Mekka would listen. Even stronger, doubtless, was the hope that the Jews and Christians, who had loved these tales for many generations, would be moved by this new recognition of their divine authority, and would acknowledge Islam as a new stage in their own religious history.
It is significant that all these more pretentious attempts at story-telling fall within a brief period, the last years in Mekka and the beginning of the career in Medina. They had a purpose beyond mere instruction or mere entertainment, and when that purpose failed, there was no further attempt in the same line. As to the relative proportions of Jewish an Christian material of this nature which Mohammed had in store, it will presently appear that the supply obtained from Jewish sources greatly predominates. Moreover, in the case of the only one of the longer legends which is distinctly of Christian origin there is good evidence that it came to Mohammed through the medium of a Jewish document.
But the time when Mohammed began to put forth these few longer narratives, his Koran had grown to about one-third of the size which it ultimately attained. He must have taken satisfaction in the thought that he was beginning to have the dimensions of a sacred book, the scriptures of the new revelation in the Arabic tongue. The addition of a number of entertaining portions of history, anecdote, and biography would considerably increase its bulk, as well as its resemblance to the former sacred books.
Here appears obviously one very striking difference between the narratives of the Koran and those of the Bible. The latter were the product of consummate literary art, written at various times, for religious instruction, by men who were born story-tellers. They were preserved and handed down by a process of selection, gradually recognized as the best of their kind, and ultimately incorporated in a great anthology. In the Koran, on the contrary, we see a totally new thing - a most forbidding undertaking: the production of narrative as divine revelation, to rate from the first as inspired scripture; narrative, moreover, which had already been given permanent form in the existing sacred books. Here was a dilemma which evidently gave the Arabian prophet some trouble. If he should merely reproduce the story of Joseph, or of Jonah, wholly or in part, from the Jewish tradition, he would be charged with plagiarism. If he should tell the stories with any essential difference, he would be accused of falsifying.
A skillful narrator might have escaped this difficulty by his own literary art, producing something interesting and yet in keeping with the familiar tradition. But Mohammed was very far from being a skillful narrator. His imagination is vivid, but not creative. His characters are all alike, and they utter the same platitudes. He is fond of dramatic dialogue, but has very little sense of dramatic scene or action. The logical connection between successive episodes is often loose, sometimes wanting; and points of importance, necessary for the clear understanding of the story, are likely to be left out. There is also the inveterate habit of repetition, and a very defective sense of humor. In short, any one familiar with the style of the Koran would be likely to predict that Mohammed's tales of ancient worthies would lack most of the qualities which the typical "short story" ought to have. And the fact would be found to justify the prediction.
In Sura 11:27-51 is given a lengthy account of Noah's experiences; the building of the ark, the flood, the arrival on Mount Ararat, and God's promise for the future. It contains very little incident, but consists chiefly of the same religious harangues which are repeated scores of times throughout the Koran, uninspired and uniformly wearisome. We have the feeling that one of Noah's contemporaries who was confronted with the prospect of forty days and forty nights in the ark would prefer to take his chances with the deluge.
It must in fairness be reiterated, however, that this task of refashioning by divine afterthought would have been a problem for any narrator. Mohammed does slip out of the dilemma into which he had seemed to be forced; and the manner in which he does this is highly interesting - and instructive. The story, Jewish or Christian, is told by him in fragments; often with a repeated introductory formula that would seem to imply that the prophet had not only received his information directly from heaven, but also had been given numerous details which had not been vouchsafed to the "people of the Book." The angel of revelation brings in rather abruptly an incident or scene in the history of this or that Biblical hero with a simple introductory "And when ..." It says, in effect: "You remember the occasion when Moses said to his servant, I will not halt until I reach the confluence of the two rivers"; and the incident is narrated. "And then there was that time, Mohammed, when Abraham said to his people" thus and so. It is not intended, the formula implies, to tell the whole story; but more could be told, if it were necessary.
The more closely one studies the details of Mohammed's curious, and at first sight singularly ineffectual, manner of serving up these old narratives, the more clearly is gained the impression that underlying it all is the deliberate attempt to solve a problem.
The story of Joseph and his brethren is the only one in the Koran which is carried through with some semblance of completeness. It begins with the boy in the land of Canaan, and ends with the magnate in Pharaoh's kingdom, and the establishing of Jacob and his family in Egypt. It is the only instance in which an entire Sura is given up to a single subject of this nature. The following extracts will give some idea of the mode treatment.2
Gabriel says to Mohammed: Remember what occurred When Joseph said to his father, O father! I saw eleven stars and the sun and the moon prostrating themselves before me! He answered, O my boy, tell not your vision to your brothers, for they will plot against you; verily the devil is a manifest foe to mankind. After a verse or two of religious instruction the story proceeds: The brethren said, Surely Joseph and his brother are more beloved by our father than we; indeed he is in manifest error. Kill Joseph or cast him away in some distant place; then we shall have our father ourselves. One of them said, Kill not Joseph, but throw him into the bottom of the pit; then some caravan will pluck him out. They said O father! what ails you that you will not trust us with Joseph, although we are his sincere helpers? Send him with us tomorrow to sport and play, and we will take good care of him. He said, It would grieve me that you should take him away, and I fear that the wolf will devour him while you are neglecting him. They said, If the wolf should devour him, while we are such a company, we should indeed be stupid! And when they went away with him and agreed to put him in the bottom of the well, we gave him this revelation: Thou shalt surely tell them of this deed of theirs when they are not aware.
They came to their father at eventide, weeping. They said, O father! we went off to run races, and left Joseph with our things, and the wolf ate him up; and you will not be believe us, though we are telling the truth. Their father of course takes the broad hint given him, that they are lying; though they bring a shirt with blood on it as evidence. He accuses them of falsehood, and reproaches them bitterly. Then is told in a very few words how the caravan came, drew Joseph out of the well, and sold him for a few dirhems to a man in Egypt.
Thereupon follows the attempt of the man's wife to entice Joseph. Any episode in which women play a part is likely to be dwelt upon by Mohammed, and he gives full space to the scenes which follow. Joseph refused at first, but was at last ready to yield, when he saw a vision which deterred him. (The nature of this is not told in the Koran, but we know from the Jewish Midrash that it was the vision of his father, with Rachel and Leah.)3 The Koran proceeds: They raced to the door, and she tore his shirt from behind; and at the door they met her husband. She cried, What is the penalty upon him who wished to do evil to your wife, but imprisonment or a dreadful punishment? Joseph said, She enticed me. One of her family bore witness:4 If his shirt is torn in front, she tells the truth; if it is torn behind, she is lying. So when he saw that the shirt was torn from behind, he cried, This is one of your woman-tricks; verily the tricks of you women are amazing! Joseph, turn aside from this! and do you, woman, ask forgiveness for your sin.
Then certain women of the city said, The wife of the prince tried to entice her young servant; she is utterly infatuated with him; verily we consider her in manifest error. So when she heard their treachery, she sent an invitation to them, and prepared for them a banquet,5 and gave each one of them a knife, and said, Come forth to them! And when they saw him, they were struck with admiration and cut their hands and cried good heavens! This is no human being, it is a glorious angel! Then said she, This is he concerning whom you blamed me. I did seek to entice him but he held himself firm; and if he does not do what I command him surely he shall be imprisoned, and be one of the ignominious. He said Lord, the prison is my choice instead of that to which they invite me. But if thou dost not turn their wiles away from me, I shall be smitten with love for them, and shall become one of the foolish. His Lord answered his prayer, and turned their wiles away from him; verily he is one who hears and knows.
This is characteristic of the angel Gabriel's manner of spoiling a good story. Aside from the fact that we are left in some uncertainty as Joseph's firmness of character, it is not evident what the episode of the banquet had to do with the course of events; nor why the ladies were provided with knives; nor why Joseph, after all, was put in prison. The things are all made plain in the Midrash, however.6
The account of Joseph's two companions in the prison, and of his ultimate release, is given in very summary fashion. There entered the prison with him two young men. One of them said, I see myself pressing out wine; and the other said, I see myself carrying bread upon my head and the birds eating from it. Tell us the interpretation of this. After religious discourse of some length, Joseph gives them the interpretation and it is implied, though not definitely said, that his prediction was completely fulfilled. The dream of Pharaoh is then introduced abruptly. The King said, Verily I see seven fat cows which seven lean ones are devoring; and seven green ears of grain and others which are dry. O ye princes, explain to me my vision, if you can interpret a vision. The princes naturally give it up. The king's butler remembers Joseph, though several years have elapsed, and he is summoned from the prison. He refuses to come out, however, until his question has been answered: "What was the mind of those women who cut their hands? Verily my master knows their wiles." The women are questioned, and both the officer's Wife and her companions attest Joseph's innocence. He is then brought out, demands to be set over the treasuries of all Egypt, and the king complies.
Joseph's brethren now enter the story again. Nothing is said about a famine in the land of Canaan, nor is any other reason given for their arrival, they simply appear. The remainder of the tale is in the main a straightforward, somewhat fanciful, condensation of the version given in the book of Genesis, with some lively dialogue. There are one or two touches from the Midrash. Jacob warns his sons not to enter the city by a single gate. The Midrash gives the reason;7 the Koran leaves the Muslim commentators to guess - as of course they easily can. When the cup is found in Benjamin's sack, and he is proclaimed a thief, his brethren say, "If he has stolen, a brother of his stole before him." The commentators are at their wits' end to explain how Joseph could have been accused of stealing. The explanation is furnished by the Midrash, which remarks at this point that Benjamin's mother before him had stolen;8 referring of course to the time when Rachel carried off her father's household gods (Gen. 31:19-35).
The occasion when Joseph makes himself known to his brethren is not an affecting scene in the Koran, as it is in the Hebrew story. The narrator's instinct which would cause him to work up to a climax was wanting in the Mekkan prophet's equipment. The brethren come to Egypt for the third time, appear before Joseph, and beg him to give them good measure. He replies, Do you know what you did to Joseph and his brother, in the time of your ignorance? They said, Are you then Joseph? He answered, I am Joseph, and this is my brother. God has been gracious to us. Whoever is pious and patient, - God will not suffer the righteous to lose their reward. This is simple routine; no one in the party appears to be excited.
Jacob wept for Joseph until the constant flow of tears destroyed his eye sight. Joseph therefore, when the caravan bringing his parents to Egypt set out from Canaan, sent his shirt by a messenger, saying that it would restore his father's sight. Jacob recognizes the odor of the shirt while yet a long distance from it, and says, "Verily I perceive the smell of Joseph!" The messenger arrives, throws the shirt on Jacob's face, and the sight is restored. The story ends with the triumphant entrance into Egypt, and the fulfilment of the dream of Joseph's boyhood; they have all bowed down to him.
Before the impressive homily which closes the chapter, Gabriel says to Mohammed (verse 103): "This tale is one of the secrets which we reveal to you"; and he adds, referring to Joseph's brethren: "You were not with them when they agreed upon their plan and were treacherous."9 This might seem to be a superfluous reminder; but its probable intent is to say here with especial emphasis, not only to Mohammed but also to others that no inspired prophet, Arabian or Hebrew, can narrate details, or record dialogues, other than those which have been revealed to him. Conversely, every prophet has a right to his own story.
The tale of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (27:l6-45) gives further illustration of Mohammed's manner of retelling in leaps and bounds. Here also is shown, even more clearly than in the story of Joseph, his tendency to be mysterious. The material of the narrative is taken from the Jewish haggada,10 but much is omitted that is quite necessary for the understanding of the story. Change of scene is not indicated, and the progress of events is often buried under little homilies delivered by the principal characters (I omit the homilies).
Solomon was David's heir; and he said: O you people! We have been taught the speech of birds, and we have been given everything. Verily this is a manifest favor.
There were assembled for Solomon his hosts of jinn, and men, and birds; and they proceeded together until they came to the Valley of the Ants.11 An ant cried out: O you ants! Get into your dwellings, lest Solomon and his armies crush you without knowing it. Solomon smiled, laughing at her speech, and said: O Lord, arouse me to thankfulness for thy favor ... Here follows a homily. We are left in some doubt as to whether the ants suffered any damage; for the tale proceeds:
He reviewed the birds, and said, How is it that I do not see the hoopoe? Is he among the absent? I surely will torture him with severe tortures, or I will slaughter him, or else he shall bring me an authoritative excuse. He was not long absent, however; and he said: I have learned something which you knew not. I bring you from Sheba sure information. I found a woman ruling over them; she has been given all things, and she has a mighty throne. I found her and her people worshipping the sun. Solomon said, We shall see whether you have told the truth, or are one of the liars. Take this letter of mine, and throw it before them. Then return, and we will see what reply they make.
She said: O you chieftains! A noble letter has been thrown before me. It is from Solomon, and it says, "In the name of God, the merciful Rahman; Do not resist me, but come to me resigned." O you chieftains! Advise me in this matter. They said, We are mighty men of valor, but it is for you to command. She said, When kings enter a city, they plunder it, and humble its mighty men. I will send them a present, and see what my messenger brings back.
Solomon preaches to the messenger, threatens him and his people, and bids him return. Then he addresses his curious army: Which of you will bring me her throne, before they come in submission? (There was need of haste, for after the queen had once accepted Islam, Solomon would have no right to touch her property.) A demon of the jinn said, I will bring it, before you can rise from your seat. He who had the knowledge of the Book said, I will bring it before your glance can turn. So when he saw the throne set down before him, he said, This is of the favor of my Lord (and he adds some improving reflections of a general nature). The native commentators explain that the throne was brought to Solomon under ground, the demons digging away the earth in front and filling it in behind; and all in the twinkling of an eye - according to the promise. The reader must not suppose, however, that this underground transit was from South Arabia to Palestine. Mohammed left out the part of the story which tells how Solomon's army was transported through the air to a place in the neighborhood of the queen's capital.
He said, Disguise her throne! We shall see whether she is rightly guided, or not. So when she came, it was said, Was your throne like this? She replied, it might be the same. Then they said to her, Enter the court. And when she saw it, she supposed it to be a pool of water, and uncovered her legs to wade through. But Solomon (who was not absent) said: It is a court paved with glass! She said, O Lord, verily I have been wrong but I am now resigned, with Solomon, to Allah the Lord of the Worlds. That is, she became a Muslim. The Koran drops the story here, not concerned to tell that Solomon married her.
Of the queen's interest in the wisdom of Solomon, which plays such part in the Biblical narrative, and still more in the Jewish midrash, not a word is said here. This feature must have been known to Mohammed but it did not suit his purpose. His own quaintly disjointed sketch doubtless achieved the effect which he intended. The mystery of the half-told would certainly impress the Mekkans; and the Jews would say, We know these incidents, and there is much more of the story in our books! So Mohammed would achieve a double triumph.
The account of Jonah and his experiences given in 37:139-148 is unique in the Koran. The whole Biblical narrative, without any external features is told in a single breath, a noteworthy example of condensation. Even the hymn of prayer and praise from the belly of the whale receives mention in vs. 143. As has already been observed, Jonah is the only one of all the fifteen Nebiim Acharonim to receive mention in the Koran. The name of the Hebrew prophet is given (here as elsewhere) in a form ultimately based on the Greek; seeming to indicate - as in so many other cases - origin outside Arabia. The nutshell summary may have been made by Mohammed himself, after hearing the story read or repeated (though he nowhere else condenses in this headlong but complete fashion); or it may have been dictated to him, and then by him decorated, clause by clause, with his rhymed verse-endings.
Verily, Jonah was one of the missionaries. When he fled to the laden ship, he cast lots, and was of those who lost. The whale swallowed him, for he was blameworthy; and had it not been that he celebrated God's praises, he surely would have remained in its belly until the day when men rise from the dead. So we cast him upon the barren shore; and he was sick; and we made a gourd to grow over him. And we sent him to a hundred thousand, or more; and they believed, and we gave them prosperity for a time.
The narrative of "Saul and Goliath" (Talut and Jalut) gives a good illustration of the way in which the Mekkan prophet's memory sometimes failed him.
The leaders of the children of Israel ask their prophet to give them a king (2:247). He argues with them, but eventually says: God has appointed Talut as your king. They said, How shall he be king over us, when we are more worthy to rule than he, and he has no abundance of wealth? He answered, God has chosen him over you, and has made him superior in knowledge and in stature (cf. I Sam. 9:2) ... So when Talut went forth with the armies, he said: God will test you by a river: Whoever drinks of it is not of mine; those who do not taste of it, or who only sip it from the hand, are my army. So all but a few drank of it. When they had passed beyond it, some said, We are powerless this day against Jalut and his forces. But those who believed that they must meet God said, How often has a little band conquered a numerous army, by the will of God! He is with those who are steadfast. So they went forth against the army ... and by the will of God they routed them; and David slew Jalut, and God gave him the kingdom.
Here, obviously, is confusion with the tale of Gideon and his three hundred picked men (Judg. 7:4-7). The casual way in which David finally enters the narrative is also noteworthy.
The first half of the 28th Sura (vss. 2-46) gives an interesting outline of the early history of Moses, following closely the first four chapters of Exodus. It illustrates both the general trustworthiness of Mohammed's memory, for it includes practically every item contained in these chapters often with reproduction of the very words; and also a certain freedom his treatment of the Hebrew material, for he introduces, for his own convenience, some characteristic little changes and embellishments. This is the longest continuous extract from the Old Testament which the Koran contains. Mohammed does not treat the story as an episode of Hebrew history, but carries it through, in his cryptic fashion, without specific mention of the "children of Israel." The Sura dealing with Joseph and his brethren had already been put forth (it can hardly doubted), but he makes no allusion to it, nor to the entrance of Hebrew into Egypt.
Pharaoh exalted himself in the earth, and divided his people into parties. One portion of them he humbled, slaughtering their male children, a suffering their females to live; verily he was of those who deal wicked. But we were purposing to show favor to those who were humbled in the land, and to make them leaders and heirs; to establish them in the earth, and to show Pharaoh and Haman and their hosts what they had to fear from them.
Haman appears consistently in the Koranic narrative (also in Suras 29 and 40) as Pharaoh's vizier. Rabbinic legends mention several advisors of Pharaoh (Geiger, 153), but Mohammed had in mind a more important officer. He had heard the story of Esther (and of course retained it in memory), and both name and character of the arch anti-Semite appealed strongly to his imagination. That he transferred the person as well as the name, to Egypt is not at all likely. Gabriel knew that there were two Hamans.
And we gave this revelation to Moses' mother: Give him suck; and when you fear for his life, put him into the river; and be not in fear, nor grieved; for we will restore him to you, and make him one of apostles. So Pharaoh's family plucked him out, to be an enemy and misfortune to them; verily Pharaoh and Haman and their hosts were sinners. Pharaoh's wife said, Here is joy for me and thee! Slay him not; haply he may be of use to us, or we may adopt him as a son (repeating the words which Potiphar uttered to his wife, in the case of Joseph). But they knew not what was impending.
Events develop as in the Biblical narrative. Moses' mother is hindered by divine intervention from letting out the secret, in her anxiety. The child's sister follows him, keeping watch, unobserved, from a distance. The babe refuses the breast of Egyptian nurses, as the Talmud declares (Sotah, 12 b); so it comes about that he is restored to his mother. Arrived at manhood, Moses enters "the city" stealthily, and finds two men fighting: "The one, a member of his party; the other, of his enemies." He is called upon for help, and kills the "enemy" with his fist - the blow of an expert boxer. He repents of his deed, utters a prayer, and is forgiven; but on the following day, as he enters the city cautiously and in apprehension, the same scene is set: the same man is fighting with another of the hostile party, and cries out for help. Moses reproaches his comrade ("Verily you are a manifest scoundrel!"), but again intervenes. As he approaches, to deal another knock-out blow, the intended victim cries out: "O Moses, do you mean to kill me, as you killed a man yesterday? You are only aiming to be a tyrant in the land, not to be one of the virtuous!" Just then a man came running from the other end of the city, saying, "O Moses, the nobles are taking counsel to kill you! So be off; I am giving you good advice." Thereupon Moses starts for Midian.
fThe account of the happenings in Midian is given with characteristic improvement. Here again is illustrated the prophet's lively interest in those scenes in which women figure prominently. He doubles the romance in the story, patterning it, in a general way, upon the account of Jacob and Rachel. Seven daughters at the well are too many, he recognizes only two; and Moses serves them gallantly, thereafter accompanying them home. One of them came to him, walking bashfully, and said: My father is calling for you, to pay you for drawing water for us. And when he came to him, and told him his story, he said, Fear not; you have escaped from an impious people. Mohammed neither names the father of the girls nor shows the least interest in him; he is merely a necessary property of the story. We could wish, however, that Mohammed (or Moses) had shown a more decided preference for the one or the other of the daughters. One of them said, O father, hire him! The best that you hire are the strong and trusty. He said: I wish to marry you to one of these two daughters of mine, on the condition that you work for me eight years;12 and if you shall wish to make it a full ten years, that rests with you. I do not wish to be hard on you, and you will find me, if God wills, one of the upright. Moses replied: So be it between thee and me; whichever of the two terms I fulfil, there will be no grudge against me; and God is the witness of what we say. So when Moses had completed the term [which term?], and journeyed away with his family [which daughter?], he became aware of a fire on the side of the mountain. He said to his family, Wait here; I have discovered a fire. Perhaps I may bring you news from it, or a firebrand, so that you may warm yourselves. So when he came up to it, a voice called to him, out of the tree, on the right side of the wady in the sacred valley, Moses! I am God, the Lord of the Worlds. Throw down your rod. And when he saw it move as though it were a serpent, he fled from it without turning back. O Moses, draw nigh and fear not, for you are safe!
The narrative then recounts the miracle of the leprous hand, the appointment of Aaron, and the first unsuccessful appearance before Pharaoh and his magicians. Instead of the story of the brickmaking task, which occupies the fifth chapter of Exodus, Mohammed introduces a feature which he adapts from the story of the Tower of Babel. Pharaoh said, O you nobles! I know not that you have any god except myself. So now Haman, burn for me bricks of clay, and build me a tower, so that I may mount up to the god of Moses; verily I consider him a liar. And he and his hosts behaved arrogantly and unjustly in the earth, nor considered that they shall be brought back to us. So we took him and his army and cast them into the sea; behold therefore how the wicked are punished.
Gabriel concludes by saying to the prophet (as at the end of the story of Joseph): You were not on the west side when we decreed the matter for Moses, nor were you a witness; ... nor were you dwelling among the people of Midian ... It is only by mercy from your Lord (that these things are revealed to you).
This narrative of the early life of Moses is particularly instructive, not only as illustrating Mohammed's manner of retelling the Biblical stories, but also as showing, better than any other part of the Koran, the freedom with which he could adorn his own account with properties deliberately taken over by him from other Biblical stories with which he was familiar. That he felt himself to be quite within his rights, as a prophet, in so doing, may be considered certain.
The 18th Sura holds a peculiar place in the Koran. The narratives of which it is mainly composed are at once seen to be different in character from the types which elsewhere are so familiar. While in every other part of the sacred book Mohammed draws either upon the Biblical and rabbinic material or else upon Arabian lore, in Sura 18 we are given a sheaf of legends from the world literature. The stories have the characteristic Mohammedan flavor, it is true; yet the Sura has distinctly an atmosphere of its own, and the prophet makes no allusion elsewhere to any part of its narrative material.
First comes the famous legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. Certain youths fled to a cave in the mountains to escape the persecution of the Christians under Decius (c. 250 A.D.). Their pursuers found their hiding place, and walled it up. They were miraculously preserved in a Rip van Winkle sleep, and came forth some two hundred years later, in the reign of the emperor Theodosius II, when some workmen happened to take away the stones. The legend arose before the end of the fifth century, and soon made its way all over western Asia and Europe. Since it is a Christian tale, and since also there is particular mention of the Christians in the opening verses of the Sura, some have drawn the conclusion that this little collection of stories was designed by the prophet to attract the adherents of that faith especially. There is, however, nothing else in the chapter to give support to this theory, while on the other hand there is considerable evidence that even the opening legend came to Mohammed through the medium of a Jewish document. Aside from the fact that Muslim tradition represents the Jews of Mekka as interested in the tale (see Beidawi on vs. 23), and the additional fact that each of the following narratives in the Sura appears to be derived from a Jewish recension, there is a bit of internal evidence here which should not I overlooked. In vs. 18 the speaker says, "Send some one ... to the city and let him find out where the cleanest food is to be had, and bring provision from it." This emphasized care as to the legal fitness of the food at once suggests a Jewish version of the legend. A Christian narrator, if the idea occurred to him at all, would have needed to specify what he meant (e.g. food not offered to idols). It is to be observed that this motive does not occur in the homily of Jacob of Sarug, nor is the anything corresponding to it in any of the early Christian versions which I have seen; those for instance published by Guidi, I Sette Dormiene and Huber, Die Wanderlegende. There is no Christian element in this story, as it lies before us in the Koran; it might well be an account of the persecution of Israelite youths.
As usual, the narrative begins without scene or setting. Gabriel says to Mohammed, Do you not think, then, that the heroes of the story the Cave and of ar-Raqim13 were of our marvellous signs? When the youths took refuge in the cave, they said, Lord, show us thy mercy, at guide us aright in this affair of ours. So we sealed up their hearing in the cave for a number of years. Then at length we awakened them; an we would see which of the two parties made better calculation of the time which had elapsed.... You could see the sun, when it arose, pan to the right of their cave, and when it set, go by them on the left; which they were in a chamber within ... You would have thought them awake, but they were asleep; and we turned them over, now to the right now to the left; and their dog stretched out his paws at the entrance. If you had come upon them suddenly, you would have fled from them in fear. Then we awakened them, to let them question one another. One said, How long have you tarried? Some answered, A day, or part of a day. Others said, Your Lord knows best how long; but send one, with this money, into the city; let him find where the cleanest food is to be had, and bring back provision; let him be courteous, and not make you known to any one. If they get knowledge of you, they will stone you, or bring you back to their religion; then you will fare ill forever. So we made their story known; ... and the people of the city disputed about them. Some said, Build a structure over them; their Lord knows best about them. Those whose opinion won the day said, We will build over them a house of worship.
The verses which follow show that the prophet was heckled about this tale, and felt that he had been incautious. The existing versions of the legend differed, or were non-committal, as to the number of the Sleepers. Some of Mohammed's hearers were familiar with the story, and now asked him for exact information. It may be useless to conjecture who these hearers were, but the probability certainly inclines toward the Jews, who heckled Mohammed on other occasions, and of all the inhabitants of Mekka were those most likely to be acquainted with this literature. If, as otherwise seems probable, it came to the prophet's knowledge through them, and in an anthology made for their use, they would very naturally be disposed to make trouble for him when he served out the legends as a part of his divine revelation. The Koran proceeds:
They will say, three, and the fourth was their dog; or they will say, five, and the sixth was their dog (guessing at the secret); others will say, seven, and their dog made eight. Say: My Lord best knows their number, and there are few others who know. Do not dispute with them, unless as to what is certain; nor apply to any one of them for information. Say not in regard to a thing, I will do it tomorrow; but say, If God wills. Remember your Lord, when you have forgotten, and say, Mayhap my Lord will guide me, that! may draw near to the truth in this matter. They remained in their cave three hundred years, and nine more. Say: God knows best how long they stayed.
After this comes (vss. 31-42) a parable of a familiar sort: the god fearing poor man, and his arrogant neighbor the impious rich man, upon whom punishment soon descends. This might be Jewish, or Christian or (much less probably) native Arabic. It is not difficult to believe that Mohammed himself could have composed it entirely, but more likely it was abbreviated by him from something which formed part of the (Aramaic?) anthology which was his main source in this Sura.
Farther on (verse 59) begins the story of Moses and his attendant journeying in search of the fountain of life. This is a well known episode in the legend of Alexander the Great, whose place is here taken by Moses. Mohammed certainly was not the author of the substitution, but received it with the rest of the story. To all appearance, we have here a Jewish popular adaptation of the legend. The opening words of the Koranic version, however, takes us as far back as Alexander the Great. Moses says to his attendant, "I will not halt until I reach the meeting-place of the two rivers, though I go on for many years!" Now this brings in a bit of very ancient mythology. In the old Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh the hero, after many labors and trials, goes forth in search of immortality. He hears of a favorite of the gods, Utnapishtim, who has been granted eternal life. After great exertions Gilgamesh arrives at the place where the ancient hero dwells, "at the confluence of the streams." Utnapishtim attempts to give some help, but Gilgamesh fails of his main purpose. The Koran proceeds:
Now when they reached the confluence, they forgot their fish, and made its way into the river in quick passage. After they had proceeded farther, Moses said to his attendant, Bring out our luncheon, for we have suffered weariness in this journey of ours. He answered: Do you see, when we halted at the rock I forgot the fish (and only Satan made me forget to mention the fact), and it took its way into the river marvelously. He cried, That is the place which we were seeking! And then turned about straightway on their track. They had taken with then dried fish for food, and the magical water restored it to life. This motif occurs in other legends; but the ultimate source of the main account is plainly the narrative in Pseudo-Callisthenes, which in the forms known to us contains also this particular incident. Gilgamesh, Alexander, and Moses all find the place of which they were in search, but Moses' fish alone achieves immortality. It is important to observe, moreover, that Moses, like Gilgamesh, finds the ancient hero to whom God had granted eternal life. The Koran does not name him, but he is well known to Muslim legend by the name al-Khidr ("Evergreen"?).14
The story of Moses now enters a new phase. He becomes temporarily the peripatetic pupil of the immortal saint; the attendant who figured in the preceding narrative disappears from sight. So they found a Servant of ours, to whom we had granted mercy, and whom we had taught our wisdom. Moses said to him, May I follow you, with the understanding that you will impart to me of your wisdom? He replied, You will not be able to bear with me. For how can you restrain yourself in regard to matters which your knowledge does not compass? He said, You will find me patient (if God wills), and I will not oppose you in anything. If then you will follow me, he said, you must not question me about any matter, until I give you account of it.
The wise man who does strange things, ultimately explained by him, is well known to folk-lore. The amazement, or distress, of the onlooker is of course always an essential feature. The penalty of inquisitiveness, "If you question, we must part!" (as in the tale of Lohengrin), might naturally occur to any narrator - especially when the wise man is an immortal, who of necessity must soon disappear from mortal eyes. This feature, however, is not at all likely to have been Mohammed's own invention, but on the contrary is an essential part of the story which he repeats. Whoever the inquisitive mortal may have been in the legend's first estate, as it came to the Arabian prophet it was a Jewish tale told of Moses. More than this cannot be said at present.
The Servant of God scuttles a boat which he and Moses had borrowed; kills a youth whom they happen to meet; and takes the trouble to rebuild a tottering wall in a city whose inhabitants had refused them shelter. On each of the three occasions Moses expresses his concern at the deed. Twice he is pardoned, but on his third failure to restrain himself the Servant dismisses him, after giving him information which showed each of the three deeds to have been fully justified.
Last of all, in this Sura, comes the narrative of the "Two-Horned" hero - again Alexander the Great. Verse 82 introduces the account with the words: "They will ask you about Dhu l'-Qarnain ('him of the two horns')". What interrogators did Gabriel have in mind? According the Muslim tradition, the Jews were intended; and this is for every reason probable. The Koranic story, like its predecessor which told of the fountain of life, is based on Pseudo-Callisthenes; but it contains traits which point to a Jewish adaptation. Haggada and midrash had dealt extensively with Alexander; and (as in the case of the story of the Seven Sleepers) no other of the prophet's hearers would have been so like to test his knowledge of great events and personages. What Mohammed had learned about Alexander seems in fact to have been very little. He tells how the hero journeyed, first to the setting of the sun, and then the place of its rising; appearing in either place as an emissary of the One God. The major amount of space, however, is given to the account of the protection against Gog and Magog (Yajuj and Majuj), the great wall built by Alexander. This fantasy on traits of Hebrew mythology suggests the haggada, and increases the probability, already established that all of the varied folk-lore in this 18th Sura was derived from Jewish collection of stories and parables (probably a single document designed for popular instruction and entertainment).
When to the longer narratives which have been described are added the many brief bits mentioned in the preceding lecture, and the fact is borne in mind that Mohammed's purpose is to give only a selection, occasionally mere fragments, it is evident that he had imbibed a great amount of material of this nature. It included (1) Biblical narrative more or less altered; (2) Jewish haggada, in already fixed form; (3) a small amount of material of ultimately Christian origin; and (4) legends belonging to the world-literature, available at Mekka in the Aramaic language. The treatment is Mohammed's own, with abridgment in his characteristic manner, and embellishment mainly homiletic. For the chronological and other blunders he alone is responsible. Finally, it is to be borne in mind that the prophet knew, better than we know, what he was trying to do. In the case of some habitual traits which we find amusing, such as the grasshopper-like mode of progressing, and the omission of essential features, we may well question to what extent they show shrewd calculation rather than childlike inconsequence. Since his purpose was not to reproduce the Jewish scriptures, but to give the Arabs a share in them, his method may be judged by the result. His hearers were not troubled by the violation of literary canons, for they felt themselves in the presence of a divine message intended for them especially. If they were mystified, they were also profoundly stirred and stimulated. Around all these Koranic narratives there is, and was from the first, the atmosphere of an Arabian revelation, and they form a very characteristic and important part of the prophet's great achievement.
1 [Weil's Biblische Legenden der Muselmänner (1845) contains both Koranic legends and those of later origin. Dr. Alexander Kohut gave an English translation of a number of them with notes, in the N. Y. Independent, Jan. 8, 15, 22, and 29, 1891, under the title "Haggada Elements in Arabic Legends"].
2 [On the Jewish and Mohammedan embellishment of the story of Joseph, see Israel Schapiro, Die haggadischen Elemente im erzählenden Teil des Korans (1907)].
3 [Sotah 36 b; Jer. Horayoth 2, 46d; Tanhuma wayyesheb, 9].
4 [According to the Jewish midrash this was a baby in the cradle; Yashar, wayyesheb 86a-89a; see Ginzberg's note in his Legends of the Jews].
5 [Yashar, l.c. 87a-87b; Tanhuma wayyesheb. 5. The former may have used the Koran (Ginzberg)]
6 [Yalkut I, 146; Midrash Hag-Gadol (ed. Schechter), I, 590].
7 [Ber. Rab. 91,6; Tan. B, I, 193f., 195; Midrash Hag-Gadol I, 635].
8 [Ber. Rab. 102, 8; Tan. B, 1,198; MHG I, 653].
9 [Observe also the use of this formula in 3:39 and 28:44, 461.]
10 [I omit the references, which are given by Geiger, pp. 181-186].
11 [This episode is probably Mohammed's own creation, based on his hearing of Prov 6:6-8].
12 [Mohammed of course avoids the number given in the Biblical story of Jacob].
13 [This curious name, as has already been said (see p. 46), is the result of an easy misreading of the name Decius written in the Aramaic script].
14 [For the literature dealing with these ancient folk-tales and their use in the Koran, see the notes in Nöldeke-Schwally, 140 ff., and Horovitz, Koranische Untersuchungen, 141 a. See also what was said, in regard to the probable form in which these legends were available at Mekka, in the Second Lecture, p. 36].
Lectures by Charles Cutler Torrey
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