Christianity and Islam: Lecture II

The Theology of the Bible and that of the Koran [Qur'an] contrasted.

"Thou hast created us for Thyself, and our heart is not quiet until it rests in Thee." - Augustine, Confessions I,i.

W. R. W. Stephens: Before attempting to draw out the contrasts between the teaching of the Bible and that of the Koran, it may be instructive to notice the differences between the two in their outward form; in construction and style.

The Bible: many styles, but one purpose.

What we call `the Bible,' is in fact a collection of many books [written by numerous people between about 1000 B.C.c and 100 A.D.]. The common use of the word Bible to designate the sacred volume dates, I believe, from the thirteenth century; and we still very often speak of the `Sacred writings,' the `Holy Scriptures,' terms which in the earliest ages of the Church were almost exclusively employed. But the name Bible, `the Book,' has become the most familiar, and is perhaps the most precious to us, not only as implying the sovereign supremacy of that book over all other books, but also because it expresses the great truth that although 'the Book' be made up of many parts uttered at `sundry times and in divers manners' (Heb. 1:1), yet is it after all essentially one: inasmuch as the thread of one divine purpose and design runs through the whole.

The writings range over a vast space of time, and are cast into a variety of forms - the plain prose of narrative, the poetry of prophecy or praise, the direct teaching of precepts, of exhortation, of reproof, or the more indirect of parable, allegory, or vision. But the ultimate aim of each and all is the same - to conduct men along the stream of God's truth winding its way to the Gospel, as the last and fullest revelation of His love, and to lead them to fall down before Jesus Christ and Him crucified, as the central figure in that final dispensation.

One consequence of the writings which compose the Bible being cast into such manifold shapes is that the Book becomes in a manner `all things to all men' (1 Cor. 9:22). It fits into every fold, so to say, of the human mind and the human heart. It can speak to `all nations, kindreds, and tongues' (Rev. 7:9), and win converts from all.

The Koran: one author, but lacks plot development

In the Bible, then, there is singleness of aim, but variety of expression. In the Koran, on the contrary, there is no continuity of design, but great uniformity in expression. On the one hand it is fragmentary and incoherent; on the other monotonous and level.

The Koran consists of 114 chapters or Suras, each of which pretends to be a verbatim copy of a distinct revelation made to Muhammad. The revelations were written on palm leaves or mutton blade-bones, as Muhammad recited them to his disciples [starting in 610 A.D. until he died in 632 A.D.], and were after his death collected into one volume, but without the least regard to chronological order [they are ordered chiefly by length], first by his great friend and immediate successor, Abu Bakr, and afterwards by the Caliph Othman.

There is not much more connection between them than between the several grains in a heap of sand, or the several beads on a necklace. There is in the Koran no movement onwards, as in the Bible, from a definite starting point to a definite goal in the history of God's dealings with man. There is no sequence, no coherence between the parts. The perusal, therefore, may be compared, not to the unrolling of a scroll, but to the picking up of scattered leaves, on each of which some distinct oracle is inscribed.

But while there is no continuity, there is, on the other hand, very little variety. Approximate chronological arrangements of the several Suras have been made by Sir W. Muir and others, based on a careful comparison of their contents and style; and from this some variations in their character may be discovered, corresponding with the tone of the prophet's mind, and the circumstances of his life, when they were delivered. But still there is nothing which approaches the many-colored texture of our sacred volume.

Having been all produced within the compass of little more than twenty years [610?-633], and delivered through one medium, the Koran presents the exact reverse of the sundry times and diverse manners' of the Bible. It is all of one time and one manner, and the monotonous reiterations with which the book abounds are exceedingly tedious and dull. Poetry, which sometimes rises to grandeur, alternates with exceedingly dull didactic prose or puerile legend. Of parables there are but few specimens; and these are for the most part borrowed from Biblical sources, and spoiled in transplantation.

In the characteristic words of Gibbon, `the European infidel will peruse with impatience the endless incoherent rhapsody of fable, and precept, and declamation, which seldom excites a sentiment or an idea, which sometimes crawls in the dust, and is sometimes lost in the clouds.' This language is perhaps rather overstrained, and seems to betray the irritation of one who had but recently risen from the irksome task; but it is substantially true nevertheless, and the only other (so-called) sacred book that I have attempted to read which exceeds the Koran in tediousness is the Book of Mormon. That book is much more nearly the audacious travesty of the Bible, which the Koran is not uncommonly called, than the Koran itself. The term `travesty' indeed is not fairly applicable to the Koran, since it does not appear that Muhammad was well acquainted, if at all, with the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments.

There is no evidence in the Koran of deliberate invention; it is rather a badly digested compilation of materials, derived from a variety of sources, true and false, historical and mythical. The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, is a direct, though very tame and feeble, travesty of the Bible in style; and though much of the didactic matter is borrowed from the sacred volume, that which affects to be historical is pure and simple fabrication.

A book, however, which has so long remained an object of veneration to so many millions of the human race as the Koran has remained, must possess some intrinsic merits, some singular power of fascination. These are to be found partly in the great truths which it inculcates (of which more presently), and in the tone of high authority in which they are inculcated, but also partly in the style in which they are expressed.

Here, again, the contrast with the Bible is striking and instructive. In the Bible, the matter exceeds in value by a hundredfold the manner in which that matter is expressed. But in the Koran it is to a great extent the other way. Although the exact meaning of a writer must always suffer some detriment by the translation of his thoughts into a language different from that in which they were first conceived and expressed, yet probably there is no book in the world which has lost less by translation than the Bible. This is more especially true of our English translation. The more delicate shades of meaning sometimes disappear, no doubt, in the English translation of the Bible, as they must in the translation of any book; but the beauty of the original is rivalled, is often indeed surpassed, by the beauty of the translation. And this is not surprising, when we consider that the Greek of the New Testament, and, though only in some portions and in a less degree, the Hebrew of the Old Testament, belong to periods when those languages were in a state of decadence; whereas the English of the translation represents the golden era of our national tongue, the era of its greatest fertility, and vigor, and grandeur - the era of Spenser, of Shakespeare, and of Hooker.

The Koran, on the other hand, was originally written in the purest Arabic. Muhammad continually appeals to its extraordinary superhuman beauty and purity, as an evidence of the divine source from which he declared it to flow. He challenged unbelievers to produce, even with the aid of genii, any passage worthy to be compared with a single chapter in the Koran. Those who are acquainted with Arabic inform us that in its purest type it is in the highest degree copious, musical, and elegant; and that these qualities all meet in the Koran.

Consequently there is scarcely any book in the world which loses so much by translation. The charm of its graceful, harmonious, rhythmical, sonorous sentences utterly evaporates, and the matter, stripped of its gaudy attire, appears to the ordinary reader insufferably dull and commonplace.

Nothing, however, more forcibly illustrates the poverty of the Koran, viewed as what it claims to be, a complete revelation of theological and moral truths, than its inability to stand the test of translation. If it was really a complete treasury of divine truth, the shape of the treasure-house would be of little importance compared with the jewels it enshrined. But such is not the case; and it is to the consideration of these contents that we now turn: from the form of the book to the book itself.

The Koran may fairly be judged by the definition of its purport as laid down in its own pages. At the close of the twelfth Sura we read:

`The Koran is not a newly invented fiction; but a confirmation of those Scriptures which have been revealed before it, and a distinct unfolding of everything necessary in respect either of faith or practice, and a direction and mercy unto them that believe.'

In other words, the Koran claims to be a complete supplement to all preceding revelation, to be the final statement of God's will, both concerning dogmatic belief and practical conduct.

In the remainder of this lecture it is proposed to examine the theological teaching of the Koran by the light of this claim. Does it only confirm the teaching of the Bible respecting the nature of the Divine Being, or does it tell us anything which, supposing it to be true seems an important addition to the knowledge of Mankind concerning the relation of God to man, and of man to God?

The Omniscience and Omnipotence of the One God

The Koran, then, to begin with, teaches a pure, rigid, austere monotheism; a belief in one absolute God, not as a philosophic abstraction, but a living Being, exercising a vital energy upon the world which He has made. The finest passages in the Koran are, undoubtedly, those in which the majesty, and power, and wisdom, of this infinite Being are set forth. Even through the veil of translation some of the grandeur of the original is discernible! For example:

'God! there is no God but He: the living, the self-subsisting: neither slumber nor sleep layeth hold of Him. To Him belongeth whatever is in Heaven or on earth. Who is he that can intercede with Him but through His good pleasure. He knoweth that which is past and that which is to come unto men, and they shall not comprehend anything that He knoweth but so far as He pleaseth. His throne is extended over Heaven and Earth, and the preservation of both is no burden unto Him.' (2:255)

Or again:

'It is He who hath created the Heavens and the Earth in truth, and whensoever He saith unto a thing "Be," it is. With Him are the keys of the secret things, none knoweth them besides Himself: He knoweth that which is on the dry land and in the sea: there falleth no leaf but He knoweth it; neither is there a grain in the dark parts of the earth, nor a green thing, nor a dry thing, but it is noted in His clear book. It is He who causeth you to sleep by night, and knoweth what ye merit by day: He also awaketh you therein, that the preordained term of your lives may be fulfilled: then unto Him shall ye return, and He shall declare unto you that which ye have wrought.' ()

The wonders of the natural world as evidences of the existence and power of a Creator are frequently dwelt upon in language of considerable fervor and force, and at times, doubtless in the original language, of high poetical beauty, e. g.,:

'Now in the creation of Heaven and Earth, and in the vicissitudes of day and night; in the ship which saileth in the sea laden with things profitable for mankind; in the rain which God sendeth from Heaven, quickening thereby the dead earth; and replenishing the same with all sorts of cattle; in the changes of the winds, and in the clouds that are compelled to do service between Heaven and Earth, there are signs to men of understanding.' ()

The omnipresence and omniscience of God, and the unerring justice of His future judgment upon men, are declared with earnestness and eloquence.

`There is no private discourse among three persons, but He is the fourth of them; nor among five, but He is the sixth of them; neither among a smaller nor a larger, but He is with them wheresoever they be; and He will declare unto them that which they have done on the day of resurrection; for God knoweth all things.' ()

`The Lord knoweth the secrets of men's hearts, and there is nothing in Heaven or on earth but it is written in a clear book.'

And again, in one of the earliest Suras:

`When the earth shall tremble with her quaking, and the earth shall cast forth her burthens, and man shall say, "What aileth her?" in that day shall she unfold her tidings, because the Lord shall have inspired her; in that day shall mankind advance in ranks, that they may behold their works, and whoever shall have wrought good of the weight of a grain shall behold it; and whoever shall have wrought evil of the weight of a grain shall behold it.' ()

We may freely acknowledge the beauty and the truth [abcog disagrees: "preordained term of life"] of these and similar passages, and yet heartily concur in the judgment of Gibbon that the loftiest of such strains in the Koran `must yield to the sublime simplicity of the Book of Job,' and we may well add the Book of Psalms.

The mercy and beneficence of God, especially as manifested in His bountiful provision for the physical wants of man, and, on the other hand, the too frequent pride and ingratitude of man in demanding, or expecting as a right, advantages which are conceded only as free and unmerited favors, are topics frequently and powerfully handled, but, again we must say, at a distance vastly below the treatment of such subjects in the Psalms and Prophets of Holy Writ.

Predestination of Mankind

On the other hand, the absolute predestination of men to happiness or misery is repeatedly affirmed with a degree of harshness which it is difficult to reconcile with the attribute of perfect mercy assigned in other passages, and which finds no parallel in the pages of the Bible, where God is represented as a Being, Who, in the beautiful words of our Collect, `declares His almighty power most chiefly in showing mercy and pity.'

Take, for instance, such a passage as this:

`This is a revelation of the most mighty, the merciful God, that thou mayest warn a people whose fathers were not warned, and who live in negligence; our sentence hath justly been pronounced against the greater part of them, wherefore they shall not believe. We have set a bar before them and a bar behind them; and we have covered them with darkness, wherefore they shall not see. It shall be equal unto them whether thou preach unto them, or do not preach unto them; they shall not believe.' ()

Or again, yet more boldly:

'Whomsoever God shall please to direct, He will open his breast to receive the faith of Islam; but whomsoever God shall please to lead into error, He will render his breast straight and narrow as though he were climbing up to Heaven:' ()

i.e., attempting an impossible thing.

Place side by side with such passages as these the strongest language to be found in the Bible concerning the impossibility of opening the ears or eyes of some men to the reception of divine truth, and the difference will be at once apparent. In the Koran this impenetrable hardness is represented as the inevitable consequence of an everlasting, immutable decree of God: in the Bible as the inevitable consequence of perverseness and obduracy on the part of man's free will: the working of a natural law whereby powers which are long disused become at last incapable of acting. He who persistently refuses to see or hear God's truth becomes at last unable to see or hear it, just as he who should refuse to move his arm would in time lose all power to move it.

This is the import of such passages as `from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath;' (Matt. 25:29) or, `as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind' (Rom. 1:28). Or `because they received not the love of the truth that they might be saved, for this cause God shall send them strong delusions that they should believe a lie' (2 Thess. 2:10-11).

The same meaning underlies those passages also where it is more boldly said that God `hardened the heart of Pharaoh;' (Exod. 9:12) or, `He hath blinded their eyes and hardened their heart;' (John 12:40) or, 'whom He will He hardeneth' (Rom. 9:18). A study of the connection in which those passages occur will always show that such hardening or binding is not arbitrary or initiatory on the part of God. On the contrary it is the judicial penalty of long-continued resistance to God's long-suffering efforts to soften the heart and to open the eyes.

The design, the desire of God is that `all men should be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth:' (1 Tim. 2:4) but man is free: he is not coerced into goodness. God does not reverse His moral law to save a man in spite of himself, any more than He reverses his physical laws. If a man wilfully puts his hand into the fire, it will be burned; if he sins, he will ultimately suffer for it; if he shuts his mental eyes to the light of God's truth, he will not see it.

The power of God, especially in regard to predestination, being brought out into such strong prominence in the Koran, it is not surprising that fear and passive resignation, rather than love and active devotion, appear to be the prevailing attitude of the Muslim mind towards Him. This is indicated by the very name of their religion, `Islam' or `resignation to the will of God;' [`Submission' (to the will of God) Webster's] and by the designation of the faithful as `Mussulman' [Turkish] or `Muslim,' [Arabic] `the resigned' [`surrendered' (to the will of God) Webster's].

It was the aim of the founder [Abdul-Wahhab, 1691-1787] of the sect of the Wahabees in the last century to restore the faith of Muhammad in its purity and integrity, as taught in the Koran. The absolute power of the Deity is expressed by the Wahabees in the simple formula `La Ilah illa Allah.' The words themselves seem harmless and true: literally rendered, they merely signify `There is no God but one God;' but their full import, we are assured, amounts to a great deal more. It amounts to a declaration that this one Supreme Being is `the only force in the world, and that all things else, matter or spirit, instinct or intelligence, physical or moral, are nothing but pure, unconditional passiveness, alike in movement or in quiescence, in action or in capacity.' (W. G. Palgrave, `Central Arabia,' vol i., p. 365, cc. viii.) Such is the God of the sect which prides itself on having revived the teaching of the Koran in its utmost purity.

Such, then, is the God of the Koran, the God whom we are there taught to believe was the God whom Abraham worshipped in spirit and in truth, of whom the true knowledge had been lost, which it was the mission of Muhammad to restore. Whether the God of Abraham is more fully and faithfully presented to us in the pages of the Koran or in the pages of the Bible, I leave the readers of these passages which I have contrasted, and others like them, to decide.

Had Muhammad really known the Bible, it seems almost incredible that he should have imagined himself the depositary of a new and special revelation concerning the attributes of the Divine Being; for all, and more than all, which he affects to disclose was to be found already revealed in the Books of Genesis, of Job, and of the Psalms alone. The intervention of the Angel Gabriel would have been a superfluous waste of divine power. But it appears to be very doubtful whether Muhammad could read (7:157); and, if he could, yet more doubtful whether he ever perused the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments.

He may have read, or heard read, portions of the Prophets or the Psalms, which may have suggested some of the grander passages in the Koran about the attributes of the Deity; but, on the other hand, all his knowledge of Biblical incidents and characters seems not derived from the sacred history itself, but culled from a variety of sources, the Talmud, the Targum, and the Midrash of the Jews, the spurious [pseudigraphical] Gospels of the Christians, and Arabian and Syrian tradition, ranging from the beautiful and probable down to the puerile and grotesque.

The history of the most prominent characters of the Old Testament is either totally disfigured in the Koran, or supplemented with long circumstantial stories, which for the most part destroy the consistency and personality of the character. Some of the tales, for instance, related about Abraham are beautiful and instructive, and in harmony with what we read elsewhere about the patriarch, though they may not be actually true; but others are so silly that no sound critic could possibly admit the incidents of both as real occurrences in the life of the same person.

As a specimen of the higher kind, take the following account, borrowed from the Talmud, of the conversion of Abraham from the idolatry of his countrymen:

`When the night overshadowed him, he saw a star, and he said, "This is my Lord;" but when it set he said, "I like not gods which set." And when he saw the moon rising he said, "This is my Lord;" but when he saw it set he said, "Verily, if my Lord direct me not, I shall become one of those who go astray." And when he saw the sun rising he said, "This is my Lord, this is the greatest;" but when it set he said, "O, my people, verily I am clean of that which ye associate with God: I direct my face unto Him Who has created the Heavens and the earth. I am of the right faith, and am not one of the idolaters."' ()

We may fairly believe that we have here, though cast into that vivid dramatic form which legend commonly assumes, the record of a true fact: the gradual elevation of the patriarch's mind from the superstitious worship of the heavenly bodies prevalent among his countrymen, to a purer and more spiritual faith.

The accounts, on the other hand, of his destruction of the images of ancestral deities, and of the attempt of Nimrod to put him to death by burning, are too foolish to be looked upon as anything but purely mythical.

The life of Moses is not so much distorted as the lives of some other characters, Solomon, for instance, who is turned into a kind of wonder-working magician; but the narrative of the Exodus, and of the settlement in Canaan, is overlaid with such a mass of tedious legendary rubbish, that the mind of the reader becomes fatigued and bewildered, and thankfully escapes from the fantastic shadows of Fairyland into the serene daylight of real history.

Viewing the Koran, therefore, as a compilation, the critical, artistic power of the compiler cannot be ranked high.

Christianity and Judaism in the Koran

It is needless to say that the idea of a plurality of persons in one Godhead was utterly repugnant to the rigid monotheism taught by Muhammad. His vague acquaintance with Christianity seems to have led him into supposing that Christians acknowledged, and even in some degree worshipped, what he calls `companions' of God, and taught that sons and daughters were born to him. [abcog: But central to Christianity is "I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty." (2 Cor. 6:17-18)] This strange misconception seems to have arisen partly from confused information about the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, which he seems actually to have thought involved the worship of God the Father, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary as co-ordinate deities [abcog: according to some, it does!]; partly perhaps from the tendency to saint-worship, which was beginning to grow up in the Church.

The foundation, therefore, of the Christian creed, the divine Sonship and incarnation of our blessed Lord, was emphatically denied and denounced by the apostle of Islam. It is doubtful indeed if the Christian doctrine was ever fairly and reasonably put before him, the Christianity with which he came in contact being probably tainted with Manicheism [pure soul in an evil body], Nestorianism [Jesus a dual person], and other common forms of Oriental error; but at any rate he conceived it to be a part of his mission as a preacher of pure monotheism to declare that Jesus was not God and that divine honors ought not to be paid to Him.

Muhammad's aim was to show that the life and character of Jesus had been totally misunderstood and misrepresented: that He had really come only as a prophet, only to begin the work which Muhammad himself was destined to complete: namely, the restoration to its original purity of the monotheistic faith of Abraham; a design which the believers in Jesus had frustrated by unduly exalting Him to the level of the Deity.

Against the Jews he maintained that Jesus was, like himself, an inspired prophet and reformer; against the Christians that He was not more than this. Hence the peculiar aversion of Jew and Christian alike from the religion of Islam. Each was irritated by the assumption of superiority on the part of this rival to both, which required the Jew to believe more, and the Christian to believe less, than was contained in the creed of his forefathers. According to the teaching of the Koran, the Jews would be condemned because they rejected Christ as a prophet, the Christians because they adored Him as the Son of God.

The intolerant tone, however, of the Koran towards Judaism and Christianity increases very much with the gradual growth of Muhammad's power, and the extension of his views of conquest. At first the language is mild, almost conciliatory, and, as concerning the ultimate condition of the Christian, hopeful: take the following as a specimen;

`Surely those who believe and those who Judaise, and Christians and Sabaeans, whoever believeth in God and the last day, and doeth that which is right, shall have their reward with their Lord: there shall come no fear on them, neither shall they be grieved.' ()

And yet more strongly:

`Unto every one of you were given a law and an open path, and if God had pleased, He had surely made you one people; but He hath thought fit to give you different laws that He might try you in that which He hath given you respectively. Therefore strive to equal each other in good works. Unto God shall ye all return, and then will He declare unto you that concerning which ye have disagreed.'

But as time goes on, this mild language is exchanged for stern, uncompromising denunciation alike of Christian and Jew; and as the rule laid down in the Koran itself is that where passages are discordant, the later revelation abrogates the earlier, the moderate passages just cited must go for nothing.

Jesus in the Koran

The references in the Koran to the life of our Lord exhibit a wider and wilder departure from sober history than the references to characters of the Old Testament. In the ages of the Koran the life of Jesus is dressed up with those fantastic and puerile stories of unnecessary and unseemly wonders with which the Apocryphal Gospels abound, and which rob the character of that divine dignity and simplicity which in the genuine Gospels excite our admiration and our love. The events connected with the birth of John the Baptist are related in tolerable harmony with the Gospel narrative. Not so those which concern the birth and infancy of our blessed Lord.

In the Koran the Angel Gabriel not only announces the future birth of Christ to the Virgin Mary, but the conception of the Divine Son is represented as due to his influence (19:16-35). The birth of Jesus is described as having taken place under a palm-tree in the desert, whither his mother had wandered. Being nearly exhausted from want of food and drink, she is directed by Gabriel to shake the branches of the tree, whereupon ripe dates immediately fall from them, and a spring of pure water gushes forth from its roots. She takes the child home, who speaks in his cradle, and announces himself as a prophet of God. When older he animates a bird made of clay (5:110-118), to convince his companions of his prophetical destiny; but it is expressly said that this and other miracles were wrought by the permission of God, not by his own power.

Some hazy account of the Holy Eucharist which had been brought to Muhammad may perhaps have given birth to the curious statement in the Koran, that, at the request of Jesus, God caused a table laden with provisions to descend from heaven, that the day of its descent might become a festival day to his disciples (5:110-118).

The reality of the crucifixion is explained away by the adoption of the common Gnostic theory that God frustrated the design of the Jews by taking up the real Jesus into heaven (4:157-9), while His enemies wasted their rage upon a phantom substituted for Him.

As a consequence of this view, the resurrection disappears altogether as part of the history of our Lord and faith in the resurrection of all men, although an integral part of the Muslim creed, is not based in the Koran on the fact of a risen Christ, but on the power of an Almighty Creator to renew and revive that which He originally made. The miracle of re-creation, it is remarked, is not greater than the miracle of creation.

[In the Koran, a "spirit" is a created being like an angel.] Of any notion of the Holy Spirit, not merely as a Person [i.e., as a member of the post-Biblical Trinity], but even as a direct influence or energy from the Deity operating on man [the Biblical understanding], I cannot find any trace in the Koran. The cold, rigid monotheism which Muhammad taught, did not tolerate the idea of such close personal communion between man and his Maker.

The interpretation put upon the promise of the Paraclete in St. John xvi. is the most curious instance either of astounding ignorance or of audacious imposture, to be found in the whole of the Koran. First, `parakleetos' (Gk., `advocate') is confounded with `periklutos' (Gk.), which signifies 'renowned,' or `praised;' and then this being also the meaning of Ahmed, of which the name Muhammad is compounded, the passage is wrested into a prophecy of the coming of Muhammad.

`Jesus, the son of Mary, said, O children of Israel, verily I am the Apostle of God sent unto you confirming the law which was given before me, and bringing good tidings of an Apostle who shall come after me, whose name shall be Ahmed.'

There are some other passages more dimly alluded to which Muhammad or his disciples conceived to be prophetic of himself, and he asserted that the Bible had contained more, but had been mutilated by Jews and Christians.

Angels and Genii

While, however, the Koran jealously guards the unity of the Godhead, it inculcates a belief in intermediate beings, angels and genii, who are allowed to exercise a very powerful influence upon human beings. The angels are represented in the Koran as incorporeal beings created of fire, the guardians of the throne of God, the messengers of His will between heaven and earth. At the creation of man, they were bidden to worship Adam as the son of God. All obeyed excepting the devil Eblis, who was too proud and envious to fall down before a creature of clay, and became thenceforth the enemy of man. Further, the good angels are described as impeccable and immortal, of various orders and ranks, which are distinguished by the number of their wings.

To each man is assigned his guardian angel; and two who attend him, one on either side, take an account of his actions good and bad which will be produced on the day of judgment. Angels take the souls of men from their bodies; angels will summon men to judgment by the sound of the trumpet; angels intercede with God for the penitent; angels will convey the faithful to heaven, the lost to hell, where they keep guard over the fallen spirits.

The genii of the Koran are almost identical with the daemons of the Talmud. They have more in common with angels than men, yet are inferior in several respects. Like angels, they are made of fire, they have wings, they roam up and down the world, they know future events; but they have some human qualities, they eat and drink, they are liable to human passions, and to death.

Islam - "Austere, Comfortless and Cold"

Such is Islam, viewed as a theological system - a vast advance upon polytheism, fetichism, gross and grovelling superstition of any kind; but how immeasurably below even the Jewish revelation of the nature of God, and of the relation between God and man! It is austere, comfortless, and cold. The Deity is represented not indeed as a mere philosophical abstraction, but yet as a Being, remote, unapproachable in majesty and might, wielding at His arbitrary will the destinies and movements of men, yet far aloof from them; a ruler of overwhelming power, rather than a loving and merciful, though almighty Father. There is nothing to fill up or bridge over the chasm which divides this tremendous Being from man; no divine Mediator, no quickening illuminating Spirit; for the action of angels is too precarious and vague to fulfil these offices.

Islam - resignation to the irresistible will and decrees of God - expresses very well the relation between man and his Maker as set forth in the Koran; the submission of obedient fear to a power, not the devotion of love to a person.

The theology, therefore, of the Koran fails to meet the profoundest religious needs of man; it removes the Creator to an immeasurable distance from the creatures whom He has made, and in the renunciation of all idea of mediation it falls infinitely below not Judaism only, but Magianism and Brahmanism, which in other respects it excels.

All that is good and true in the Koran concerning the nature of God, and worthy of the subject, is to be found in the Bible, if it be not borrowed from the Bible; all that is original is good for nothing, if indeed there be anything purely original, for probably most of the wilder statements could be traced to traditional sources.

The genius, indeed, of Muhammad as the founder of a theological system consisted, not so much in inventing or devising anything actually new, as in piecing together fragments of other creeds, and by his commanding personal influence, tact, enthusiasm, and self-confidence, imposing this patchwork system successfully on so large a number of his fellow-countrymen.

The Koran

In itself, the Koran is a clumsy production. To suppose that an angel [Gabriel, 2:97], was sent from heaven to reveal the truths which it contains, would be unnecessary, for those truths are to be found more amply, more beautifully expressed elsewhere [but not in classical Arabic]; to suppose that Gabriel was sent from heaven to reveal the childish absurdities which it contains, would be an insult to the character and work of angels.

The Doctrine of the Future State

It remains to consider briefly the teaching of the Koran concerning a future state. It may truly be said that if the lofty, though cold, conception of the Deity be the highest point in the teaching of Islam, its doctrine of a future state stands on the lowest level. It is, indeed, not raised much above the belief which has prevailed among many heathen nations.

As the wild [Native American] Indian imagines that the joy of the future life will consist in ranging over well stocked hunting grounds with the bow and the dog, which have been his companions in the chase on earth; as our Teutonic forefathers, ere [before] their conversion to Christianity, looked forward to banquets in the drinking halls [Valhalla] of Odin, as the height of celestial bliss; so did the Arab, instructed by the Koran, anticipate that the joys of Paradise would be of that sensuous and voluptuous nature which to his temperament were most alluring.

`Verdant gardens watered by clear and unfailing streams, rivers of milk the taste whereof changed not, rivers of wine pleasant to them that drink, rivers of clarified honey, perpetual shade from trees ever laden with the most delicious fruits;' (47:15, etc.)

These are the things which make up the scenery of the Muslim Paradise. Here the faithful, arrayed in costly raiment of silk, and adorned with bracelets of gold and pearls, should repose on soft couches, attended by dark eyed damsels of immortal youthfulness and superhuman beauty.

Life in Paradise, in short, is made up of the most earthly sensual enjoyments, only magnified and intensified to a degree never experienced on earth, and which if they ever could be experienced, must soon cloy the appetite of the most insatiable Arab that ever lived.

Of God there is no mention in these descriptions, nor, indeed, is it easy to see how the Divine Being could with decency be introduced into them. There are indeed, occasional hints of a beatific vision of the Deity to be enjoyed by the holiest of the faithful, but they are rare and dim compared with the frequent and glowing pictures of more material and corporeal delights.

The pains of hell are, in their grossness, a fitting counterpart to the pleasures of Paradise. One quotation will suffice:

`They who believe not shall have garments of fire fitted to them; boiling water shall be poured upon their heads; their bowels and also their skins shall be dissolved thereby, and they shall be beaten with maces of iron. So often as they shall endeavor to get out of hell because of the anguish of their torments, they shall be dragged back into the same, and their tormentors shall say unto them, taste ye the pain of burning.' (22:19-22)

In the description of the resurrection, and of the day of judgment, some of the Scriptural doctrine is reproduced; the archangel's trumpet, the darkening of the sun, the shaking of the earth, the reeling of the mountains, the shrivelling together of the heavens like a parched scroll; but all these are strangely jumbled with the wildest and most fantastical imaginations.

In all these descriptions of the resurrection, the judgment, and the future life, in addition to their intrinsic materiality and coarseness, we see the culminating example of a weakness which pervades the whole of the Koran, and perhaps more than anything else betrays its human origin. I mean the attempt to bring down the most inscrutable mysteries to the level of the human understanding.

The minute circumstantial descriptions of holy places where angels would fear to tread, and of holy places before whom they would veil their faces, savors of a thoroughly human curiosity which imagines or invents where it cannot discover. They are in direct contradiction to the teaching of Holy Scripture, 'eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath entered into the heart of man to conceive the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him' (1 Cor. 2:9). The reticence and reserve of the Bible concerning many subjects, which most excite human curiosity, is surely of some value in evidence that the origin of the sacred volume is not human, but divine.

With that partial knowledge of the future state which the Gospel vouchsafes to us, the wise Christian is content. To know that 'God hath prepared for them that love Him such good things as pass man's understanding;' (1 Cor. 2:9) to know that though there be a veil between us and the other world, and `that it doth not yet appear what we shall be,' (1 John 3:2) yet if `we purify ourselves even as Christ is pure, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is;' to know that the body of our humiliation, the body of this present fallen nature, liable to sin, to disease, to death, shall be changed so as to be fashioned according to the body of Christ's glorified state (Phil. 3:21); such knowledge, surely, is enough to be thankful for, enough to live by.

Such knowledge is a revelation of truths which we could not have certainly discovered for ourselves, a revelation which discloses light sufficient to guide and cheer us as we plod along the dark and slippery ways of this world's night, while the greater light, which would now only dazzle and bewilder, is held back until the day comes, when the shadows shall flee away and we shall 'know even as we are known.' (1 Cor. 13:12)

From "Christianity and Islam" by W. R. W. Stephens, Chichester, England. New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co. 1877

  1. Preface: Summary and sources.
  2. Lecture 1: The The Life of Muhammad.
  3. Lecture 2: The Bible and the Qur'an.
  4. Lecture 3: Moral Values of the Bible and the Qur'an.
  5. Lecture 4: Practical Effects of the Qur'an.


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