The Opinions of European Writers 
on the Qur’an 

Excerpted from "Dictionary of Islam" by Thomas Patrick Hughes © 1886

See also:
The Division of the Qur'an
The Inspiration of the Qur'an
The Interpretation of the Qur'an
The Collation of the Qur'an

The late Professor Palmer, in his Introduction to the Qur'an, remarks: "The Arabs made use of a rhymed and rhythmical prose, the origin of which it is not difficult to imagine. The Arabic language consists for the most part of triliteral roots, i.e. the single words expressing individual ideas consist generally of three consonants each, and the derivative forms expressing modifications of the original idea are not made by affixes and terminations alone, but also by the insertion of letters in the root. Thus zaraba means' he struck,' and qatala, 'he killed,' while mazrub and maqtul signify 'one struck' and' one killed.' 

A sentence, therefore, consists of a series of words which would each require to be expressed in clauses of several words in other languages, and it is easy to see how a next following sentence, explanatory of or completing the first, would be much more clear and forcible if it consisted of words of a similar shape and implying similar modifications of other ideas. It follows then that the two sentences would be necessarily symmetrical, and the presence of rhythm would not only please the ear but contribute to the better understanding of the sense, while the rhyme would mark the pause in the sense and emphasize the proposition. 

"The Qur’an is written in this rhetorical style, in which the clauses are rhythmical though not symmetrically so, and for the most part, end in the same rhyme throughout the chapter. 
"The Arabic language lends itself very readily to this species of composition, and the Arabs of the desert in the present day employ it to a great extent in their more formal orations, while the literary men of the towns adopt it as the recognised correct style, deliberately imitating the Quran. 

"That the best of Arab writers has never succeeded in producing anything equal in merit to the Qur’an itself is not surprising. 

"In the first place, they have agreed beforehand that it is unapproachable, and they have adopted its style as the perfect standard; any deviation from it therefore must of necessity be a defect. Again, with them, this style is not spontaneous as with Mohammed and his contemporaries, but is as artificial as though Englishmen should still continue to follow Chaucer as their model, in spite of the changes which their language has undergone. 

With the Prophet, the style was natural and the words were those used in everyday ordinary life, while with the later Arabic authors, the style is imitative and true ancient words are introduced as a literary embellishment. The natural consequence is that their attempts look laboured and unreal by the side of his impromptu and forcible eloquence. 

"That Mohammed, though, should have been able to challenge even his contemporaries to produce anything like the Qur'an, "And if ye are in doubt of what we have revealed unto our servant, then bring a chapter like it. But if ye do it not, and ye surely shall do it not, . . ." is at first sight surprising, but, as Noldeke has pointed out, this challenge really refers much more to the subject than to the mere style, to the originality of the conception of the unity of God and of a revelation supposed to be couched in God's own words. 

Any attempt at such a work must of necessity have had all the weakness and want of prestige which attaches to an imitation. This idea is by no means foreign to the genius of the old Arabs. 

"Amongst a people who believed firmly in witchcraft and soothsaying, and who, though passionately fond of poetry, believed that every poet had his familiar spirit who inspired his utterances, it was no wonder that the prophet should be taken for a soothsayer, for  'one possessed with an evil spirit,' or for 'an infatuated poet.'" 

Mr. Stanley Lane Poole, in his Introduction to Lane's Selections from the Qur'an remarks: 

"It is confused in its progression and strangely mixed in its contents; but the development of Mohammad's faith can be traced in it, and we can see dimly into the workings of his mind, as it struggles with the deep things of God, wrestles with the doubts which echoed the cavils of the unbelievers, soars upwards on the wings of ecstatic faith, till at last it gains the repose of fruition. Studied thus, the Qur'an is no longer dull reading to one who cares to look upon the working of a passionate troubled human soul, and who can enter into its trials and share in the joy of its triumphs."
"In the soorahs revealed at Mekka, Mohammad has but one theme - God; and one object - to draw his people away from their idols and bring them to the feet of that God. He tells them of Him in glowing language, that comes from the heart's white heat. He points to the glories of nature, and tells them these are God's works. With all the brilliant imagery of the Arab, he tries to show them what God is, to convince them of His power and His wisdom and His justice. The soorahs of this period are short, for they are pitched in too high a key to be long sustained. 

The language has the ring of poetry, though no part of the Qur'an complies with the demands of Arab metre. The sentences are short and full of half-restrained energy, yet with a musical cadence. The thought is often only half expressed; one feels the speaker has essayed a thing beyond words, and has suddenly discovered the impotence of language, and broken off with the sentence unfinished. There is the fascination of true poetry about these earliest soorahs; as we read them we understand the enthusiasm of the Prophet's followers, though we cannot fully realise the beauty and the power, inasmuch as we cannot hear them hurIed forth with Mohammad's fiery eloquence. From first to last the Qur'an is essentially a book to be heard, not read, but this is especially the case with the earliest chapters. 

"In the soorahs of the second period of Mekka, we begin to trace the decline of the Prophet's eloquence. There are still the same earnest appeals to the people, the same gorgeous pictures of the Last Day and the world to come; but the language begins to approach the quiet of prose, the sentences become longer, the same words and phrases are frequently repeated, and the wearisome stories of the Jewish prophets and patriarchs, which fill so large a space in the later portion of the Qur'an, now make their appearance. The fierce passion of the earliest soorahs, that could not out save in short burning verses, gives place to a calmer more argumentative style. 

Mohammad appeals less to the works of God as proofs of his teaching,and more to the history of former teachers, and the punishments of the people who would not hear them. And the characteristic oaths of the first period, when Mohammad swears by all the varied sights of nature as they mirrored themselves in his imagination, have gone, and in their place we find only the weaker oath 'by the Qur'an.' And this declension is carried still further in the last group of the soorahs revealed at Mekka. The style becomes more involved and the sentences longer, and though the old enthusiasm bursts forth ever and anon, it is rather an echo of former things than a new and present intoxication of faith. 

The fables and repetitions become more and more dreary, and but for the rich eloquence of the old Arabic tongue, which gives some charm even to inextricable sentences and dull stories, the Qur'an at this period would be unreadable. As it is, we feel we have fallen the whole depth from poetry to prose, and the matter of the prose is not so superlative as to give us amends for the loss of the poetic thought of the earlier time and the musical fall of the sentences. 

" In the soorahs of the Medina period these faults reach their climax. We read a singularly varied collection of criminal laws, social regulations, orders for battle, harangues to the Jews, first conciliatory, then denunciatory, and exhortations to spread the faith, and such-like heterogeneous matters. Happily the Jewish stories disappear in the latest soorahs, but their place is filled by scarcely more palatable materials. The chapters of this period are interesting chiefly as containing the laws which have guided every Muslim state, regulated every Muslim society, and directed in their smallest acts every Mohammadan man and woman in all parts of the world from the Prophet's time till now. The Medina part of the Qur'an is the most important part for Islam, considered as a scheme of ritual and a system of manners; the earliest Mekka revelations are those which contain what is highest in a great religion and what was purest in a great man." 

Mr. Rowell, in his Introduction to his Qur'an, says:- " The contrast between the earlier, middle, and later Suras is very striking and interesting, and will be at once apparent from the arrangement here adopted. In the Suras as far as the 54th, we cannot but notice the entire predominance of the poetical element, a deep appreciation (as in Sura xci.) of the beauty of natural objects, brief fragmentary and impassioned utterances, denunciations of woe and punishment, expressed for the most part in lines of extreme brevity. With a change, however, in the position of Muhammad when he openly assumes the office of ‘public warner,' the Suras begin to assume a more prosaic and didactic tone, though the poetical ornament of rhyme is preserved throughout. We gradually lose the Poet in the missionary aiming to convert, the warm asserter of dogmatic truths; the descriptions of natural objects, of the judgment, of heaven and hell, make way for gradually increasing historical statements, first from Jewish, and subsequently from Christian histories; while, in the 29 Suras revealed at Medina, we no longer listen to vague words, often as it would seem without positive aim, but to the earnest disputant with the enemies of his faith, the Apostle pleading the cause of what he believes to be the Truth of God. He who at Mecca is the admonisher and persuader, at Medina is the legislator and warrior, who dictates obedience, and uses other weapons than the pen of the Poet and the Scribe. When business pressed, as at Medina, Poetry makes way for prose, and although touches of the Poetical element occasionally break forth, and he has to defend himself up to a very late period against the charge of being merely a Poet, yet this is rarely the case in the Medina Suras; and we are startled by finding obedience to God and the Apostle, God's gifts and the Apostle's, God's pleasure and the Apostle's, spoken of in the same breath, and epithets and attributes elsewhere applied to Allah openly applied to himself, as in Sura ix. 118, 129. 

"The Suras, viewed as a whole, strike me as being the work of one who began his career as a thoughtful enquirer after truth, and an earnest asserter of it in such rhetorical and poetical forms as he deemed most likely to win and attract his countrymen, and who gradually proceeded from the dogmatic teacher to the political founder of a system for which laws and regulations had to be provided as occasions arose. And of all the Suras it must be remarked that they were intended not for readers but for hearers - that they were all promulgated by public recital - and that much was left, as the imperfect sentences show, to the manner and suggestive action of the reciter. 

It would be impossible, and indeed it is unnecessary, to attempt a detailed life of Muhammad within the narrow limits of a Preface. The main events thereof with which the Suras of the Qur'an stand in connection, are" The visions of Gabriel, seen at the outset of his career in his 40th year, during one of his seasons of annual monthly retirement, for devotion and meditation to Mount Hira, near Mecca, the period of mental depression and re-assurance previous to the assumption of the office of public teacher -the Fatrah or pause during which he probably waited for a repetition of the angelic vision - his labours in comparative privacy for three years, issuing in about 40 converts, of whom his wife Khadijah was the first, and Abu Bakr the most important; (for it is to him and to Abu Jahl the Sura xcii. refers) struggles with Meccan unbelief and idolatry followed by a period during which probably he had the second vision, Sura liii. and was listened to and respected as a person 'possessed' (Sura lxix. 42, lii. 29) the first emigration to Abyssinia in A.D 616, in consequence of the Meccan persecutions brought on by his now open attacks upon idolatry (Taghout) increasing reference to Jewish and Christian histories, shewing that much time had been devoted to their study - the conversion of Omar in 617 - the journey to the Thaquifites at Taief in A.D. 620 - the intercourse with pilgrims from Medina, who believed in Islam, and spread the knowledge thereof in their native town, in the same year - the vision of the midnight journey to Jerusalem and the Heavens - the meetings by night at Acaba, a mountain near Mecca, in the 11th year of his mission, and the pledges of fealty there given to him - the command given to the believers to emigrate to Yathrib, henceforth Medinat- en-nabi (the city of the Prophet), or El-Medina (the city), in April of A.D. 622-the escape of Muhammad and Abu Bekr from Mecca to the cave of Thaur-the FLIGHT to Medina in June 20, A.D 622-treaties made with Christian tribes-increasing, but still very imperfect acquaintance with Christian doctrines - the Battle of Badr in Hej. 2, and of Ohod- the coalition formed against Muhammad by the Jews and idolatrous Arabians, issuing in the siege of Medina, Hej. 5 (A.D. 627) - the convention, with reference to the liberty of making the pilgrimage, of Hudaibiya, Hej. 6 - the embassy to Chosroes King of Persia in the same year, to the Governor of Egypt and to the King of Abyssinia, desiring them to embrace Islam-the conquest of several Jewish tribes, the most important of which was that of Chaibar in Hej. 7, a year marked by the embassy sent to Heraclius, then in Syria, on his return from the Persian campaign, and by a solemn and peaceful pilgrimage to Mecca-the triumphant entry into Mecca in Hej. 8 (A.D. 630), and the demolition of the idols of the Caaba-the submission of the Christians of Nedjran, of Aila on the Red Sea, and of Taief, etc., in Hej. 9, called' the year of embassies or deputations,' from the numerous deputations which flocked to Mecca proffering submission-and lastly in Hej. 10, the submission of Hadramont, Yemen, the greater part of the southern and eastern provinces of Arabia- and the final solemn pilgrimage to Mecca. 

"While, however, there is no great difficulty in ascertaining the Suras which stand in connection with the more salient features of Muhammad's life, it is a much more arduous, and often impracticable, task, to point out the precise events to which individual verses refer, and out of which they sprung. 

It is quite possible that Muhammad himself, in a later period of his career, designedly mixed up later with earlier revelations in the same Suras - not for the sake of producing that mysterious style which seems so pleasing to the mind of those who value truth least when it is most clear and obvious - but for the purpose of softening down some of the earlier statements which represent the last hour and awful judgment as imminent; and thus leading his followers to continue still in the attitude of expectation, and to see in his later successes the truth of his earlier predictions. If after-thoughts of this kind are to be traced, and they will often strike the attentive reader, it then follows that the perplexed state of the text in individual Suras is to be considered as due to Muhammad himself, and we are furnished with a series of constant hints for attaining to chronological accuracy. 

And it may be remarked in passing, that a belief that the end of all things was at hand, may have tended to promote the earlier successes of Islam at Mecca, as it unquestionably was an argument with the Apostles, to flee from ‘the wrath to come.' It must be borne in mind that the allusions to contemporary minor events, and to the local efforts made by the new religion to gain the ascendant are very few, and often couched in terms so vague and general, that we are forced to interpret the Qur'an solely by the Qur'an itself. And for this, the frequent repetitions of the same histories and the same sentiments, afford much facility: and the peculiar manner in which the details of each history are increased by fresh traits at each recurrence, enables us to trace their growth in the author's mind, and to ascertain the manner in which a part of the Qur'an was composed. 

The absence of the historical element from the Qur'an as regards the details of Muhammad's daily life, may be judged of by the fact, that only two of his contemporaries are mentioned in the entire volume, and that Muhammad's name occurs but five times, although he is all the way through addressed by the Angel Gabriel as the recipient of the divine revelations, with the word SAY. Perhaps such passages as Sura ii. 15 and v. 246, and the constant mention of guidance, direction, wandering, may have been suggested by reminiscences of his mercantile journeys in his earlier years."