Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Koran and the Basmala

The Arabic expression Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem, in the name of God, the Compassionate and Merciful One, is one of the most famous in the entire language. It begins all but one of the Koran's 114 suras, and is commonly used among Arabic speakers when saying their prayers, before eating a meal, or giving a formal speech. It even has its own abbreviation and is known simply as "the Basmala".

Since the expression is the very first sentence of the Koran (surat Al-Fatiha, Koran 1:1) and is later repeated 113 times, Muslims believe it is an essential part of the revelation given by God to Muhammad. Is that true, or was the Basmala inserted into Islam and the Koran at a later date? That question was discussed on this Arabic TV program Daring Question, in which host Rashid presented the following evidence that this well-known expression was not a part of the original Koran.

1. The Basmala does not appear in the story of Muhammad's first revelation. According to Islam, an angel appeared to Muhammad and told him to recite. When Muhammad repeated several times he did not know what to recite, the angel squeezed him tightly and said in Surat Al-Alaq, "Recite 'In the name of your Creator who created humanity from a blood clot.' Recite 'Your Lord is generous, who with the pen taught men what they did not know." (Koran 96:1-5).

If the Basmala was part of the Koran, why did it not appear in the first revelation of Gabriel to Muhammad? Why did the angel not begin with, "In the name of God, the Compassionate and Merciful One, Recite..."?

2. Muhammad and his early successors did not pray using this expression. An authentic Hadith from Sahih Muslim recounts that Anas, a servant of Muhammad who was with him for many years, said, "I prayed with the Prophet, and with Caliph Abu-Bakr, and with Caliph Umar, and with Caliph Uthman (the first three leaders succeeding Muhammad). I never heard any of them say, "In the name of God, the Compassionate and Merciful One."

Muslims who perform the five daily prayers repeat the Basmala 17 times in one day. Why do they  repeat thousands of times throughout their lifetime an expression Muhammad and his companions never used once in their prayers?

3. Except for Surat Al-Fatiha, the Basmala always appears in the Koran as an introduction to the chapter and not as the first verse. If the Basmala was in each sura as originally revealed, why is it merely an introduction and not the first verse of the sura?

4. The 114 suras of the Koran do not represent 114 revelations given by God to Muhammad; Muslims believe their Prophet received thousands of revelations that were combined in these chapters long after Muhammad's death. If revelation ceased with Muhammad, how could each chapter begin with the Basmala as part of the original revelation?

5. Muslim claim not a single letter has been added to the Koran. The Basmala, however, contains 4 words in Arabic. If that expression was affixed to 113 suras, does that not mean a total of 452 words have been added to the Koran?

As could be expected, these arguments are not new to Muslim scholars and Rashid next played a video from a Saudi Shaykh who offered his explanation. The Shaykh said that when the Basmala came within the verse, as in the first ayah of Al-Fatiha (Koran 1:1), it was part of the inspired text. When it appeared outside the text, as in 112 other suras, it was not part of the inspired text but a Tabarruk, a blessing or working aid given to separate the suras from each other. 

Rashid noted in his response that even the Shaykh admitted that the Basmala was added to the Koran; who knows what else has been added? The problem with this explanation, continued Rashid, is the Shaykh's insistence that the Basmala in Koran 1:1 is the exception. Surat Al-Hijr (Koran 15:87) is interpreted by Muslim scholars to mean that the first chapter of the Koran, Surat Al-Fatiha, must contain seven verses. Since Al-Fatiha's first verse is the Basmala, was it not simply added to the sura to give it the required seven verses?

In another authentic Hadith, Anas continued, "I prayed behind the Prophet and his companions. They would always open their prayers with 'Praise God, the Lord of the Universe, but never mentioned the Basmala."

Why do Muslims not begin their prayers as Muhammad did? Was the Basmala added to Surat Al-Fatiha just to give it the required seven verses? When Muslims use it in their prayers today, are they repeating a phrase their Prophet never used in his prayers?

Apart from Koran 1:1, and appearing 113 times as a sura designator, the Basmala appears one other time in the Koran. This is in the chapter of the ant, Surat al-Naml (Koran 27:29, 30), in which the Queen of Sheba informs her cabinet, "Oh my ministers, I have received a letter from Solomon that begins, In the Name of God, the Compassionate and Merciful One."

Note that the Basmala in the above verse is not portrayed as revelation from God to Muhammad, but as simply the introduction of a letter from Solomon. Solomon was a Jewish king, and naturally began his  letter with a common Jewish greeting.

Surat Al-Anfal (Koran 8:31) states that the Quraysh often responded to Muhammad's alleged revelations by saying they had heard these expressions before, with Surat As-Saffat (Koran 37:36) adding they were not prepared to leave their gods to follow "a mad poet". To his own people, Muhammad simply repeated religious expressions with which they were already familiar and claimed they were inspiration from God.

Why is the chapter entitled Repentance (Surat At-Taubah, Koran 9) the only one in the Koran that does not begin with the Basmala? Mufassir (Koranic expositor) Uthman claims it is a continuation of the previous chapter, The Spoils of War (Surat Al-Anfal), and therefore does not need the Basmala to separate it from the previous sura. Al-Qurtubi, on the other hand, claims that the beginning of Surat At-Taubah with its attached Basmala has been lost to history.

Since surat At-Taubah contains the famous "Verses of the Sword", in which Muslim warriors are commanded to fight unbelievers wherever they find them, it is perhaps poetic justice that this chapter does not begin with the usual reference to the mercy and compassion of God.

Rashid then introduced an Arabic scholar to explain the linguistic origin of the four words of the Arabic Basmala. The first word bism or "in the name of" is a contraction of the preposition "b" (in) and the noun (ism) "the name of". The Arabic word for "name", however, begins with an "a" that was deleted in the contraction of the preposition and the noun. This contraction is a feature of Aramaic and Syriac, not Arabic, giving evidence that the Basmala was an Aramaic/Syriac expression. These two languages were spoken by the Christians and Jews of the era.

The second word of the Basmala, Allah, also finds its origin in the word "Elohim", which is a common word for God in the Syriac and Aramaic languages. The following word Rahman is from the Syriac active participle Rahma meaing the Lover, with the "n" added in Arabic to turn it into an adjective. The final word Rahim also comes from Syriac and is a passive participle meaning the Beloved. The Basmala, according to the linguist, was a common expression used by Jews and Christians in Arabia at the time of Muhammad and as a result found its way into the Koran.

As noted in previous postings, comparatively few Muslims will have the courage to present the Imam at their local mosque with the evidence given above that the Basmala was not revelation given by Allah to Muhammad, but simply an expression their Prophet adopted from the religious vocabulary of the Christians and Jews of his day. Some individual Muslims, however, might seriously think about it on their own, and thinking is always a good thing.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Koran and the Year of the Elephant

Scriptural literalists believe every word of their sacred texts is true historically as well as in every other way. For Christians and Jews, this means believing the sun was created four days after the earth as described in Genesis 1. And for Muslims, it includes believing in the battle of the elephant.

Surat Al-Fil, the chapter of the elephant (Koran 105), is considered to be an early Meccan sura and is one of the shortest in the Koran. Its text reads simply, "Have you seen what your Lord did to the owners of the elephant? Did not he ruin their plot when he sent flocks of birds to attack them with pellets of baked clay? He made them like the stalks of an empty corn field after its ears were devoured by the cattle."

This short video gives the version of the story first recorded by Muhammad biographer Ibn Ishaq and taught to millions of young Muslim children around the world. In 570 AD, the year of Muhammad's birth, Abraha was the governor of Yemen which was part of the Ethiopian Kingdom ruled by the Negus. With the Negus' permission Abraha built in Sana "the greatest cathedral in the world at that time" (Al-Qullays in Arabic, the word is from the Greek word for church "ekklesia"). Abraha's reason for building the church, according to Ibn Ishaq, was not to establish a house of worship but to divert Arab pilgrims from going to the Kaaba in Mecca. When an infuriated  Arab visitor from Mecca took revenge by urinating and defecating inside the church, Abraha decided to invade Mecca and destory the Kaaba. With a huge army that included elephants (although Ibn Ishaq says it was one elephant named Mahmud, other accounts give numbers varying from 13 to 1000), Abraha headed towards Mecca defeating every Arab tribe he met along the way. As he approached the city, his army was  suddenly attacked by flocks of thousands of birds who hurled pellets of hardened clay that caused their flesh to explode and destroyed the entire army. "Such was the victory bestowed by Allah, the All-Majestic, All Powerful, to the people of Mecca and such was the protection provided by him for his house the Kabaa in Mecca," concludes early expositor Ibn Kathir.

Apart from bringing back memories of Alfred Hitchcock's movie The Birds, the story poses the more basic question, Is is True? That question was recently discussed here on the Arabic program Daring Question.

In addition to Islam's default position that anything in the Koran is true simply because the Koran says so, Muslim scholars have argued the story must be accurate because we have no evidence of Meccans contradicting Muhammad when he first recited it as revelation from God. But the fact is that no contradiction of Muhammad was allowed at all, with writers and poets such as Asma bint Marwan killed simply for challenging him. There is no way of knowing, 14 centuries later, how the Meccans responded to Surat Al-Fil when they first heard it, because the voice of Islam is the only voice that remains from that time.

The description of the birds who attacked the army in the story suggests legend rather than fact. According to Ibn Ishaq and other Muslim historians, they had shoulders of dogs and each one carried three pellets with the bird's name written on each one.  Many temples in Greek and Hindu mythology have similar stories of deities magically protecting them from attacks by their enemies.

The most famous Byzantine historian of this era was a scholar who lived in Palestine named Procopius. His volumes give many details of the rule of  Abraha, but make no mention of a journey across the desert with an army containing elephants. Elephants graze most of the day and consume as much as 600 pounds of food and 60 gallons of water per day. They are not desert animals, and an elephant marching across the Arabian desert would require even more water. Although the Ethiopians used elephants for battle in areas where water and food was readily available, they never used them in the desert. The distance from Sana to Mecca is over 500 miles,  and it would have been highly unlikely for an army of elephants to cross that distance.

Apart from the issue of whether Surat Al-Fil is accurate historically, another interesting question is when it was written. Muslim scholars have always claimed it was an early Meccan sura, but this was during the time when the Negus of Ethiopia welcomed Muslim refugees sent by Muhammad from Mecca because of the hardships they were experiencing there (described here). The relationship between Muhammad and the Negus was good, with the Muslims enjoying his hospitality. It is difficult to relate this hospitality with Islam's rendition of the Negus building a temple in Sana to detract from the Kaaba and then sending an army to destroy it. Had his entire army been destroyed by Muhammad's machine-gun firing birds, why would the Negus turn around and welcome the Muslims as guests to live in his country for years?

An additional point is that the Quraysh of Mecca sent emissaries to Ethiopia in an attempt to persuade the Negus to repatriate the Muslims who were living there. If the Koranic story of the elephant had been given by Muhammad before that time, it stands to reason the emissaries would have used it to inform the Negis of what Muhammad said about them. There is no evidence, however, that this story was used in their arguments to the Negus.

What makes more sense is that this sura was written later in Medina, perhaps when Muhammad was preparing to invade the Christians of Tabuk. It was during the Medinan period that Muhammad began to demonize regional Christians in his preparations to attack them. What better way to motivate his army than to create a story of a Christian general who wanted to destroy the Kaaba but whose army was destroyed by the miraculous power of Allah!

There are additional problems with the Islamic account of the story. According to Ibn Ishaq, the Christian Abraha built his church to divert Arab pilgrims from Mecca to Sana for economic reasons. When the Arab defecated in the church, Abraha determined to attack the Kaaba both for revenge and to destroy the competition to his church. The problem is that Muslims, from ancient historians to those alive today, view history and religion from an Islamic perspective. The idea of a Haj, or pilgrimage to a holy location where one's sins will be forgiven, is a Muslim and not a Christian concept. It is true that Christians visit revered sites, but not for the reasons Muslims do. Christians also do not try to entice non-Christians to visit their sites. The idea that Abraha would build a pilgrim site to attract non-Christian pilgrims is not a Christian concept and has never happened throughout Christian history. As noted above, it is more likely the story was created to increase antagonism against Christians attacked by the Muslims at the end of Muhammad's life and in the decades following.

Although Muslim scholars claim that all the Arabs made pilgrimages to Mecca and its Kaaba, which they believe was built by Adam and restored by Abraham, non-Muslim history tells a different story. At least 21 regional cities are recorded as having temples called kaabas where people came for pilgrimages and religious practices. A Greek historian named Diodorus and other pre-Islamic historians described one such location in present day Tabuk in northern Saudi Arabia as being where "all the Arabs came for pilgrimage". The idea that Mecca was a famous religious center and that Abraha would come from Yemen to destroy its Kaaba because it provided competition to his church in Sana is nothing more than Muslim fiction.

Here is a short review of how Surat Al-Fil contradicts historical records:

1. Historians of the era including Procopius detail in history the reign of Abraha in Yemen. These details include how he came to rule, accounts of his wars, and his death in about 535 AD. They make no mention of his crossing the desert with elephants to attack Mecca, or of his death after being blitzed by Muhammad's magical birds.

2. These historians state that Abraha died about 545 AD, 25 years before Muslims claim he died during the year of Muhammad's birth, and that following his death his sons took over his kingdom. When the Persians invaded about 570 AD and defeated them, these sons had already been ruling many years.

3. The Muslim claim that Abraha built a cathedral to divert pilgrims from Mecca has no historical basis apart from the Quran-based claim of Muslim historians. Engravings found at Yemen's Dam of Marab, one of the eight wonders of the ancient world, detail various events of Abraha's kingdom, but none of them mention his cathedral or any attack against Mecca.

4. The Himyar Kingdom was at enmity with Abraha, and assisted the Persians in defeating him in 570 AD. The Himyars left extensive engravings of their battles with Abraha. Had he been killed by a magical bird attack following his raid against Mecca it is highly improbable this would not have been noted in their historical engravings. As can be expected, there is no mention of such an event.

5. The Ethiopian Kings of the time also left records of their territories and rulers. There is no mention in ancient Ethiopian history of Abraha attacking Mecca and dying as a result.

6. Ibn Ishaq is the only reference for the story as believed by Muslims. Even later Muslim historians acknowledge that Ibn Ishaq often exaggerated in some of the accounts he created surrounding Muhammad's life. These same historians, however, have no other source to authenticate the events described in Surat Al-Fil.

And here is a short list of why Muslim historians deliberately distorted the historical records concerning Abraha:

1. Their claim that he died during the year of Muhammad's birth gave added importance to the birth of Islam's Prophet.
2. The story created animosity against Christians, in preparation for the attacks carried out against them by Muslims beginning near the end of Muhammad's life.
3. The Koran says so.

For believing Muslims, "The Koran says so" is the most important reason of all. Very few have the courage to publicly question the historical accuracy of the Koran.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Koran and the Samaritans

Arabic last names often indicate where someone comes from. Yahya al-Libi is known to be from Libya, Hasan al-Masri from Egypt (Masr is Egypt in Arabic), Rashid al-Maghrabi from Morocco (al-Maghrab in Arabic), and Yunis al-Iskandarani from the city of Alexandria (al-Iskandariya).

It follows logically that for an individual to bear the laqab (last name) of a location, that location must have been there when the person was named. If Alexandria was formed by the Greek emperor Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC, it stands to reason that anyone with the name al-Iskandarani lived after that time and not before. If a folk tale claimed to be from the 10th century BC with a hero named al-Iskandarani, it would be easy to conclude the story was false.

Such self-evident fact was apparantly of no interest to the compilers of the Koran, as seen in the attention given to someone named "al-Samari" (the Samaritan) in the story of Moses and his brother Aaron. The city of Samaria, from which this person was named, was built in the 9th century BC. Moses, liberator of the Hebrews from Egypt, lived at least six centuries before. How does the Koran have a Samaritan speaking to Moses six centuries before the city was even created?

The story of Moses is found in surah Ta-Ha (Koran 20). On the trek across the Sinai desert from Egypt to what is now Palestine and Israel, Moses left his people and went to meditate for 40 days on Mount Sinai. The following conversations then took place (verses 83-97):

Allah: Why did you leave your people, Moses?
Moses: They are always bothering me, and I wanted to be close to you, Allah.
Allah: Well, we tempted them during your absense, and they failed the test.
Moses: (rushes back to his people): Why did you melt all your gold jewelry to make a golden calf?
People: It's not our fault. The Egyptians gave us all that gold just to get rid of us. The Samaritan put it in the fire, and out came this golden calf?
Moses to Aaron: Why did you allow them to do this?
Aaron: Don't blame me, it's not my fault. If I would have tried to stop them it would have started a riot. It's his fault (pointing to the Samaritan).
Moses to the Samaritan: Why did you do this, Samaritan?
The Samaritan: It's not my fault. I just threw some dust from the footprint of the angel Gabriel's horse into the fire after we threw in the gold and voila - out came this live golden calf!
Moses: Get the hell out of here - and go to hell, by the way! We're going to burn this golden calf and scatter its ashes in the sea.

Like many stories in the Koran, it's an interesting read. But is it true?

Early Koranic expositor Qatada explained that the Samaritan in this story was a Israelite from the tribe of Samaria who lost his faith in Allah during the long trek across the Sinai. The Samaritan pretended to accept the monotheism of Moses, but retained his desire to worship the cow as his people had done in Egypt.

To protect himself from accusations of wrongdoing (such as the rumors that swirled when he married his daughter-in-law as described here), Muhammad invented the concept that prophets could not commit major sins. According to the Bible, Aaron is the one who instigated the making of the golden calf. Since Aaron as a Prophet in Islam could not have done this evil deed, Muhammad created the fictitious Samaritan to be the culprit.

The book of I Kings in the Bible describes a king of northern Israel named Omri who "bought the hill of Samaria from Shemer for two talents of silver and built a city on the hill. He called it Samaria, after Shemer who was the former owner of the hill" (I Kings 16:24). This was in the 9th century BC, 600 years after Moses.

II Kings 17:1-6 describes the defeat of Samaria by the Assyrian emperor Shalmaneser V in 722 BC when he deported its residents to Assyria (present day Iraq) and brought people from Iraq to repopulate the city. This Biblical account was confirmed by an engraving discovered by French diplomat to Iraq and archeologist Paul Emil Botta in 1842 that reads, "In the first year of my reign I laid seige to the city of Samaria. I deported 27,290 of its citizens and replaced them with people from other areas."

The people Shalmaneser brought to Samaria from Iraq were not Jewish monotheists, but idol worshippers deported from areas conquered by the Assyrians. These Samaritans did not speak Hebrew, and never assimilated into the culture of their Jewish neighbors. They were hated even in the time of Jesus, and one of his most famous parables, The Good Samaritan, tells the story of a young man beaten and left to die by the side of the road. Religious rabbis passed by the young man without helping him, said Jesus, but a Samaritan outcast rescued him and nursed him back to recovery.

As early Koranic expositors such as Qatada realized that the Samaritan invented by Muhammad and described in the Koran did not even exist, they tried to cover his mistake by insisting this was the name of one of the ancient tribes of Israel. All the tribes of Israel are listed in the Bible, however, and there is no evidence that a tribe by that name ever existed.

Is there any historical figure to whom Muhammad could have referred when he described this Samaritan who pretended to be a follower of Moses but remained an idolater in his heart,  and who had the magical power to create a live calf from gold and dust thrown in a fire? The New Testament book of Acts, chapter 8, describes a first century AD Samaritan named Simon the Magician popular in Samaria. Jealous of the miracles committed by the Apostle Peter when he visited the city, Simon offered him money for the same power. When Peter refused, Simon pretended to follow him but later recanted of his Christian faith and founded a heresy known as Simonianism which contained a mixture of Christian belief and magical practice. Members of the Ebionite sect, discussed here as having a direct influence on Muhammad, describe in available writings from the 4th century AD the considerable influence of Simon. One text, entitled The Recognitions of Clement, even recounts that Simon claimed he could bring statues to life. This is exactly the same as the Koranic account of the Samaritan bringing life to the golden calf.

Could Muhammad's relative Waraqa bin Naufal, himself probably an Ebionite priest in Mecca, been the one who first told Muhammad about this Samaritan with his magical powers? And could Muhammad, never one to quibble about historical details as evidenced here when he confused tribes living soon after Noah with the Nabateans who lived milennia later, simply thrown al-Samari into his story of Moses and Aaron to prove his point that a real Prophet never commits great sins, thus distancing himself from any similar accusation?

Many Muslims who have read thus far will at this point simply grit their teeth and press their heels against the floor. There he goes again, attacking our Prophet and our Holy Book! Relatively few will seriously think the story through and try to find an answer that makes sense. It's much easier - and safer - to simply believe.

The above material was adapted from this Arabic TV show Daring Question