October 21, 2011

The Revelations

The Revelations

God’s words were spoken directly to Mohammad just as they had been to the Old Testament Prophets before him. Because it is the language of sacred texts, Hebrew was often considered sacred. In post-biblical times, it was referred to as lashon ha-kodesh, the holy language. And like biblical Hebrew, the Arabic of the Qur’an (Recitation) is also considered sacred because it is the language through which Mohammad received God’s revelations. Both were addressed to a predominately oral society. They were meant to be read aloud, recited, and their sounds are an essential part of their sense.

Both Hebrew and Arabic have multiple resonances of words that have the same trilateral root which affect the listener on multiple levels. The English language can only provide a sense of this on a far, far simpler level, in certain phrases such as: “looking through the pane” where the pane of glass also can bring up the idea of physical or emotional pain.

The seven verses of Al-Fatiha, the first surah
of the Qur'an.

One day, when he was about forty years old, Mohammad was alone in the cave when suddenly a man in a white dress appeared to him. Mohammad himself described what happened:

“Then he took me and squeezed me vehemently and then let me go and repeated the order ‘Recite.’ ‘I cannot recite' said I, and once again he squeezed me and let me go till I was exhausted. Then he said, ‘Recite.' I said, ‘I cannot recite.’ He squeezed me for a third time and then let me go and said:

‘Recite in the name of your lord who created –
From an embryo created the human.

Recite your lord is all-giving
Who taught by the pen
Taught the human what he did not know before

The human being is a tyrant
He thinks his possessions make him secure
To your lord is the return of everything’ Qur’an: 96:1-8

Mohammad was terrified and unable to understand what had happened to him. Had he gone mad or become one of the Kahins, the ecstatic poets whom he despised? What had happened? He staggered down the mountain and sought Khadija, crying “Wrap me up! Wrap me up!” Khadija covered him in a cloak and held him and when he was calmer, questioned him. He told her what he had experienced and that he feared he had gone mad, but Khadija had no doubt that his revelation was authentic, “This cannot be my dear, God would not treat you thus. You are known to be truthful and a bearer of the burdens of others. You give to the poor, you feed guests, you work against injustice.”
(The Life of Muhammad, I. Ishaq, translated by A. Guillaume pg.106)

But Mohammad was inconsolable, so Khadija went to the only person she could think might be able to verify the nature of what had happened, her cousin Waraqa. Waraqa had been one of the founding four Hanifs but was currently a practicing Christian. He was familiar with the Scriptures and recognized Mohammad’s experience for what it was. “If this be true, Khadija, there has come to him the great divinity who came to Moses aforetime, and lo, he is the Prophet of this people.” (Mohammad: A Prophet of our Time, Karen Armstrong)

Some scholars doubt that Mohammad would have been the successful businessman he was, had he been unable to read and write the correspondence and documentation relating to his own business. He may have been able to read both Arabic and the Aramaic in common use by the Jewish community at the time. They suggest that the epithet the Qur’an uses for Mohammad: “an-nabi al-ummi” traditionally meaning “the unlettered Prophet,” might instead mean “The Prophet for the unlettered,” in other words, for the people without a holy book. “We did not give [the Arabs] any previous books to study, nor sent them any previous Warners before you.” (The Qur’an 34:44).

Nevertheless, the revelations that Mohammad received were in words remote from his world: he was not known to have composed any poetry and had no special rhetorical gifts. From the first revelation, the Surahs (chapters) of the Qur’an would deal with matters of belief, law, politics, ritual, spirituality and personal conduct, cosmology, and economics in what Karen Armstrong describes as an “entirely new literary form.” The Qur’an itself states, “If you are in doubt of what We have revealed to Our messenger, then produce one chapter like it. Call upon all your helpers, besides God, if you are truthful.” (The Qur’an 2.23) No one was able to do this.

The seven verses of Al-Fatiha, the first surah
of the Qur'an.

The first audiences of the Qur’an were not unsophisticated linguists; these people were passionate about composing both poetry and prose; they excelled in oratory, diction and eloquence. The Arabic language was their pride and joy and they vied with each other in their ability to be fluent and eloquent speakers at competitive events for poetry and oration. Their stories told of their adventures and their valor in warfare, of their amorous exploits and extolled the virtues of their women. Like the ancient Greeks and other oral societies of old, they committed thousands of tales and poems to memory which were passed down by oral tradition from generation to generation. Their pride in their mastery of the Arabic language knew no bounds: they referred to all non-Arabs as “Ajums” (people suffering from a speech impediment.)

After the first revelation there was a gap of two years in which Mohammad received no revelations, and he quite naturally would have doubted the veracity of the first one. After all, he was not from a distinguished clan, not a miracle worker, and not an impressive figure in the eyes of the Quraysh; what was he doing receiving the word of God? Was his arrogance even worse than their own?

Then a second vision occurred, this time revealing that those who experience the care of God have a duty to others “… one who asks for help – do not turn him away;” (The Qur’an 93.10) and Mohammad was clearly instructed to proclaim God’s message to the Quraysh: “And the grace of your lord – proclaim!” (The Qur’an 93.11) Thus Mohammad became a Messenger whose duty it was to remind his people of what they had forgotten in both religious and social terms.

The prophet received revelations for 23 years until his death in 632.

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