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inspired; and as most of the poems were epigrams, brief, biting, and sarcastic, the inspiration was attributed to the evil spirits, the djinns or genii who were supposed to possess the earth equally with man.
Zuhair in his verses was less satiric than most of his brother poets. He strove to express deep thoughts in simple words, to be clear and by his clear phrases to teach his people high and noble ideas. He was a man of rank and wealth, the foremost of a family noted for their poetic skill and religious earnestness. In brief, Zuhair is the gentleman philosopher among Arab poets.
THE EARLY RELIGION OF THE ARABS
Since Arabic written literature begins only with the "hanged poems and since none of these is of strictly religious type, we can only resort to tradition and to later writers for our knowledge of the religious ideas of the Arabians before the days of Mohammed. They themselves refer to those early times as constituting their "state of ignorance.' Yet some among them had accepted the Jewish faith, some were Christians, and some believers in other foreign religions. From their own fathers, the Arabs inherited the very definite idea of a single, universal God, whom they called "Allah Taala," meaning The Most High God. A formula or prayer of those days which has come down to us says: "I dedicate myself, O Allah Taala, to thy service. Thou hast no companion, except such companions as thou art absolutely master of, and of all that is theirs."
Around this supreme god they assumed that there were many lesser deities, whom they referred to in a group as the Ilahat, or goddesses. To these Ilahat they showed more outward care and consideration than to the chief god. For, as they often said, lesser creatures needed the help of Allah Taala, but He needed nothing. Best known, or at least most worshiped, among the Ilahat were three goddesses, Allat, al Uzza, and Manah. These seem to have been specific stone idols, though Manah was probably an uncarved, natural boulder, and al Uzza may have been a tree. The shrines of
these gods were many, chief among them being the Kaaba at Mecca, a celebrated and ancient stone building which contained 360 idols. These furnished subjects for worship on each day of the year, though some of them were more honored than the rest. Chief of the Kaaba deities were a black stone, probably a meteor, and an agate statue of a rain-god, Hobal, brought from some foreign land and trusted for divination.
Divination, however, was chiefly practised by means of the stars. So far did this go that many Arabs looked upon the stars as being gods themselves. Special stars had special worshipers. Indeed, Abu Cabsha, a worshiper of the star Sirius, set himself up as a prophet and tried to convert all the Arabs to a belief in his star. This fanatical preacher may have been an ancestor of Mohammed, or at least the Arabs found a similarity between the two; for when the latter began his fiery preaching he was promptly nicknamed by his calmly satiric countrymen, "the son of Abu Cabsha."
It was to this world of thinkers, dreamers, fighters, a nation of orators rather than writers, that Mohammed came, to contribute to its literature his remarkable Koran. The first Sura or chapter of this was given to the world in the year 598 A.D., when the great religious reformer was forty years of age.
The religious aspect of the Koran may best be kept for discussion in the immediate introduction to the Koran in the present volume; but as a piece of Arabic literature the work is declared by all Arabs to be the chief triumph and culmination of their language. Repeatedly during Mohammed's lifetime, when skeptics doubted his divine power, both he and his followers responded by pointing to the Koran and challenging the language-loving Arabs to produce anything equaling or even approaching it in literary value.
To call the Koran a book is in a way misleading. It was composed as was the earlier Arab literature; each chant, or Sura, was announced separately, inspired by a particular occasion and recited to the prophet's followers. Often a Sura consisted of only a single stanza, brought forth by the
necessity of the moment. Some of these Suras were not written down at all, but were preserved, according to Arab custom, in the memories of their hearers. Not until after the prophet's death were his many Suras gathered from every source and combined into the written volume which we call the Koran.
Mohammed always declared that these sayings were not his own but were revealed to him by an outside power. In taking this stand, however, he was making no new claim; he was but following the custom of his people with all their poets. Only instead of attributing his inspiration, as he himself had attributed the verses of Zuhair, to an evil genius, Mohammed claimed for his words a holier source. He declared they came from the Archangel Gabriel, who brought each Sura straight from God himself, as the divine source of all creation.
Readers who reject the idea of Mohammed's divine perfection will naturally reject also the Arab idea of the divine perfection of the Koran. Viewing it from a merely human standpoint they will find it an interesting collection of fiery human speeches, bold and impassioned appeals to a passionate people. Its music and literary grace are of course lost to us in translation; but its precepts are often high in thought and striking in expression, and its Arabic versions of old Hebraic tales of Noah and Abraham and Moses give it a permanent interest for both Jews and Christians. The Holy Book of the Arabs indicates that their nation stood at least as high as other Asiatic races of their day in both intellectual and moral development. The Arabs of Mohammed's era could think logically, live bravely, and meditate with pure nobility.
In the generations that followed immediately after Mohammed's death the Arabs were too busy fighting to give much time to literature. Under the stimulus of Mohammed's fiery teaching, their natural fierceness of temper was strengthened by an utterly reckless confidence in themselves and their cause. Sure of their armies' victory, and sure that each individual who fell would awaken instantly in Paradise, they defeated all their neighbors. Then, summoning each vanquished nation to their standards, inspiring each in turn with
their own mad confidence, they carried their arms and their faith over all southwestern Asia and northern Africa. This was the work of the Koran. Within a single century after Mohammed's death, the broad belt of earth extending from India to Spain, including both Babylonia and Egypt, the lands of the most ancient civilization - all this was firmly Mohammedan. And through much of this region the peoples were speaking Arabic. It became almost a world-language. For a time, the Koran was taught more widely, and won more converts, than the Christian Gospels.