Taken as a whole, the Koran is certainly not a work of literary art. Muhammad (Peace be upon him), in a literary sense, was neither a poet nor a writer. He was, as he says of himself, only an illiterate apostle. This, from an artistic point of view, is of course regrettable. In his mother tongue he had a rich and splendid medium. A language of high philosophical and poetical character that “follows the mind,” as Burton says, and gives birth to its offspring: that is free from the “luggage of particles” which clogs our modern tongues—leaves a mysterious vagueness between the relations of word to word, which materially assists the sentiment, not the sense of the poet.
A language too that luxuriates in “rich and varied synonyms, illustrating the finest shades of meaning,” that are artfully used—“now scattered to startle us by distinctness, now to form as it were a star about which dimly seen satellites revolve.” Finally which revels in a wealth of rhyme that leaves the poet almost unfettered to choose the desired or exact expression. Undoubtedly in a literary sense, here at hand, was a mighty and magnificent weapon. A quiverful of musical arrows, quivering as they waited for the poetic muse—the fine frenzy, the seething imagination, the running ready fire—to launch them forth into the humming haunts and hearts of men. But in no sense was this Merchant-Prophet a knight-errant. Kindly and tender as he was towards women and children, he was not addicted (as his countrymen were) to chivalry in any form. The race of heroines of Al Islam had no attraction for him. The “Hawa (or ‘Ishk’) uzri,” “pardonable love,” of the Bedawin, a certain species of platonic affection, did not exist for him. He had no room for such trivialities in his life. It was too serious and pre-occupied. Too much occupied with the affairs of his Master, and worldly business matters that had to be attended to.
So that he had no time to waste on such pleasantries. Trifles that were as light as air in contrast to the stern and deadly realities of existence. Yet without doubt he must have attended the annual fairs that were held at various places, at “Zul Mejaz,” at Majna, and at Okadh. The latter, Syed Ameer Ali tells us, was a place famous in Arab tradition. It was the Olympia of Yemen. The fair held here in the sacred month of “Zu’lkada,” was a great national gathering.
A sort of “God’s truce” was then proclaimed. War and the shedding of human blood was forbidden. To it came merchants with their wares from all parts of Arabia and other distant lands; also the poets and heroes of the desert. These (many of whom were disguised from the avengers of blood feuds in masks or veils) recited their poems, displayed their literary talents, and sang of their glory and their prowess. But Muhammad’s (Peace be upon him) aims and inclinations did not lie in this direction. He was too much of a working philosopher to be a mere poetic dreamer or play actor. His genius lay in his profound earnestness, his great moral strength, his capacity for work, his political foresight and acumen, his iron will and his inexhaustible patience. It is certain that he believed (in the philosophic principle) that “everything comes to him who waits.” For he himself says: “Wait therefore the event, for I also will wait it with you.” Obviously he was imbued with the same tenacity, and many of the imperturbable characteristics of the camel of his own Arabian deserts.
Unquestionably he knew how “to wait,” recognized that the essence of all human wisdom lies in this single feature, and that the greatest, the strongest and the most successful is he who waits and watches.
It was thus that he waited with the unvarying purpose and pertinacity of a man who knew and appreciated his own value at its proper worth. For he felt in every nerve and fibre of his consciousness, that as God makes no man or nothing in vain, the future must have some (great) thing, some great prize, in reserve for him. We know what that prize was. We know also that it only came to him after a life of unwearied toil, and assiduous devotion to his great and noble purpose, and then only in reality through the moral and spiritual victory which death gave him.
Yet, in spite of its artistic defects, Muhammad’s (Peace be upon him) work turned out, as we know, into a success that even he himself could never have anticipated. But in a spiritual sense, judging merely by results, the Koran has lost nothing because of its lack of literary art and beauty. Had it gushed all over with the eastern music of the Songs of Solomon, had it arrested the attention by the same aphoristic wisdom of the Proverbs, thrilled its readers by the recital of a tragedy so intensely powerful, so realistic and majestic as the drama of Job, and appealed to them through the joys, the sorrows and the grand poetry of the Psalms! Had it, in fact, sparkled all over with those beauties of language and metaphor that distinguish the Bible, the result that it might have attained could scarcely have been greater than that which it has accomplished without these trappings. It is, in fact, probable that it might have lost. It is just possible that what it would have gained as an ornate work, it would have lost in sincerity. The Koran, in fact, was essentially the offspring of Muhammad’s (Peace be upon him) own unique personality. This, as I have tried to show, was the peculiar outcome of his dual environment—the frowning, rugged and arid aspect of stony mountains and sandy wastes, plus the commercial and political instincts that were inherent as well as developed on his trade journeys and at the various towns and marts which he visited. Nevertheless there was in this Semitic Puritan, as there is in almost every Arab, a certain rugged vein of poetry—the wild song of freedom—that bursts out here and there. But only now and then like the thunderstorm that is so great a rarity in the desert. For the gravity and over-concentration of his thoughts on the one definite object, oppressed him so weightily, that it left no time for others. Just as fast as rain is swallowed up by the parched and thirsty sand after a long spell of drought, so his soul, thirsting as it did after God, gulped and kept down the poetry and sentiment at bottom of him. All the same, if a book is to be gauged by its net results—by the effect it has produced on all that is deepest and best in human nature—then the Koran must necessarily take high rank as one of the world’s greatest works. In much the same way, only in another and more material direction, the Wealth of Nations has also left its impress on the shaping of human destinies.
Muhammad’s (Peace be upon him) sincerity and fixity of purpose is a fact we cannot get away from. It is this which has chained his followers as with the sure cord of God to the Faith. Islam, in a word, is a creed of practice not theory. By practice it was formed. On practice it has lived. It was because Muhammad (Peace be upon him) practised what he preached, that the small seed of his original idea blossomed at last into the mighty “Igdrasil” of the East—the great banyan tree of existence. Verily this sun-burnt son of Arabia Petræa was a tangible reality and no desert simulacrum. A reality that lives in the soul of Islam. A reality that will endure until the end of all things human. It is not manners that maketh the man. It is man that makes the manners. It is the nature that is around him, the nature that is in him, and that comes out of him as mental and moral energies, that makes the man. Town bred as he was, it was the desert in all its naked and silent grandeur that made Muhammad (Peace be upon him), that inspired him with all the might and majesty of God, and turned him into a prophet. Yet it was his career as a trader and the inherent tribal instinct that developed the political element in him. As Longfellow says: “Glorious indeed is the world of God around us; but more glorious is the world of God within us. There lies the land of song, there lies the poet’s native land.” But in Muhammad’s (Peace be upon him) case, as in the case of all great workers and thinkers, the world that is around us, is the world of our inner consciousness. The two are synonymous if not one. Only with him the native earth was religion, and he was the Prophet, not the Poet of it. “It is Nature’s highest reward to a true, simple, great soul, that he gets thus to be a part of herself.” It was thus with Muhammad (Peace be upon him). Thought, though changeable, is eternal. It never dies. So the one idea that possessed Muhammad (Peace be upon him) now possesses (differing only in merely superficial degrees) some two hundred and fifty millions.
Carlyle is mistaken, certainly much too premature, when he says: “Even in Arabia, as I compute, Mahommet will have exhausted himself and become obsolete, while this Shakespeare, this Dante may still be young; while this Shakespeare may still pretend to be a priest of mankind, of Arabia as of other places, for unlimited periods to come.” Religion is entirely an universal matter, Thought a question of environment. Roughly speaking, the world of Thought is divided into two camps of east and west. To the former belongs Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam; to the latter Christianity and the growing cult of Rationalism. It is impossible to predict or in any way to foreshadow any fusion of these hostile elements. The day when humanism—i.e. the religion of humanity, as the natural product of her highest intellectual effort—shall have fused and humanized all the nations of the Earth into one great civilized family, is too far distant and beyond the present scope of human speculation.
If men are to be regarded especially as to the weight and power with which they operate on the minds of their fellow-men, then this camel-driving trader must without question be estimated as a great man—a man a long way above his fellows. Assuredly too it is chiefly through the Koran that his great and God-like thoughts, crystallized into greater motives and actions, have filtered down through the events and developments of thirteen centuries, as a purifying, fertilizing, and elevating factor.
Looking at him and his work from every aspect, Muhammad (Peace be upon him) was not merely a heroic prophet. He was much more. A king and a leader of men. A ruler and a judge over them. If we are to judge of him, to take him for what he is worth, by his work—the rich ripe fruit of his rare and strenuous effort—the Koran on the one hand, and, on the other, the mighty spiritual force he has left behind him in the Church of Islam, we must pronounce him to have been a great and remarkable man. A man who, when his true value is understood and appreciated, will stand out in history as a political and religious reformer of a virile and heroic type. A man who will be regarded in even a greater light than he now is, when humanity shall have become less denominational and more rationally humanitarian. In reality Muhammad (Peace be upon him) was an ultra-great man. The difference (as it appears to me) between other great men and himself was wide. The ordinary type of great man—a John Knox for example—is a patriot essentially. He is for his country first, then for God and humanity. As I have shown, with Muhammad (Peace be upon him) it was just the reverse. An Arab by accident of birth, he put God and nature before everything. It was this that made him a humanist; this that placed him before his age. For Muhammad (Peace be upon him), without a shadow of a doubt, was centuries before his age. In his God concept, in his rejection of the ancient myth of Immaculate Conception, in his refusing to acknowledge Christ’s divinity, he was essentially a modern—a modern of the twentieth century. It was this catholicity therefore that made Islam blossom into a spiritual energy that embraces so many national units.
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