Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Muslim at Prayer

The following verses, known as The Opening, the first Chapter from the Holy Quran, is recited every time a Muslim stands in prayer. The actual prayer is done in Arabic, but here only the translation is given.


In the name of Allah (God), The Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful.
All praise belongs to Allah, the Lord (Who is the Creator, Sustainer and Guide) of all the worlds.
The Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful; Sovereign of the Day of Judgment.
Thee (alone) do we worship, And from thee (alone) we seek help.
Show us the straight Path, The Path of those (who fear Allah) and on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy blessings.
Not of those (committing wrongs deliberately) On whom Thou art angry, nor of those who (Having wrong opinions) go astray. Ameen

This brochure  is a Comparative Study of Muslims Prayer. It is intended to show in it, among other things, the relationship of the various aspects of Islamic prayer with the teachings of the People of the Book (i.e. the Jews and the Christians). Today, amongst some of our non-Muslims Brethren there is a strong misconception of Islam which they believe to be a mystical cult abounding in dogmas, superstitions and ritual dances.

   The fact is that Islam is a simple, reasonable and practical religion and free from priestcraft and the above charges. It is a way of life for the social, moral and spiritual development of humanity. It does not demand of a man to surrender his reasoning faculties nor does it demand a blind faith in obscure and inexplicable mysteries. It teaches the purest form of Monotheism and regards Polytheism as an unpardonable sin.

   Although Islam is regarded as the youngest of all revealed religions, it is NOT A NEW RELIGION, but a continuation of the first religion of God to Man, purged and purified, time after time, from all human adulterations and restored to its original purity.

   Thus all prophets from Adam to Muhammad (PEACE BE UPON THEM) came to preach the same religion; which continued to grow and grow until it reached perfection at the hands of the Holy Prophet "Muhammad".

   Islam is the only religion in the world that commands its followers to respect and revere the founders of all revealed religions, such as Abraham, Moses, Noah, Jesus,etc.

   Muhammad's advent has been prophesied in religious scriptures, including the Bible.* The New Testament says, in the words of Jesus: "And I will Pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter,** that he may abide with you for ever" (John 14:16); "But when the Comforter is come, whom i will send unto you, from the Father, even the Spirit of Truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me" (John 15:26); "Nevertheless I tell you the truth; it is expedient for you that I go away; for the if I go not away , the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you" (John 16:7) ; "I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of Truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth : for he shall not speak of himself: but whatsoever he shall hear, that he shall speak: and he will shew you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall show it unto you" (John 16:12-14).

Vol. II-No. 47

   It is not befitting to the (Majesty of) God that He should beget a son. Glory be to Him! When He determines a matter, He only says to it, "Be" and it is, (HOLY QURAN 19:35).

   Begetting a son is a physical act and is against God's nature. "Son of God" should NOT be taken in literal sense because God addresses His chosen servants as his "sons" - Adam (Luke 3:38) So Solomon (1 Chronicles 28:6), Jesus(Luke 3:22) Israel (Exodus 4:22) and Ephraim (Jeremiah 31:9) were "GOD'S FIRST BORNS". The new Testament also interprets "son of God" to be allegorical, vide Romans 8:14: "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God." "... In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the Devil.." (1 John 3:9-10).

"There is no other object of worship but God; Muhammad is the Messenger of God."

"Say: He is Allah (God), the One and Only; Allah the eternally Besought of all; He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; And there is none comparable unto Him." (HOLY QURAN 112.1-4).

"..To whom then will ye liken God? Or what likeness will ye compare unto Him?"- (ISAIAH 40:18).
"Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence Satan, for it is written, thou shalt worship the Lord thou God, and Him only shalt thou serve. "-(MATTHEW 4:10).

Five times a day, every day, a muezzin climbs to the minaret and calls the faithful to prayer, his voice ringing clear over the rooftops and across the streets... "O you who believe! When the call is made for prayer...hasten to the remembrance of Allah."-(HOLY QURAN 62:9).

"And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, make thee two trumpets of silver...that thou mayest use them for the calling of the assembly...And when they shall blow whit them, all the assembly shall assemble themselves to thee at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation."-(NUMBERS 10:1-3).
(An International anthem of over 1000 million Muslims of the world.) The following is a translation of  "Call to the Prayer," pronounced five times a day from the minarets of Mosques all over the world:

**Allah is Greatest.
*I bear witness that there is no other object of worship but Allah.
*I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.
*Come to prayer.
*Come to Success.
*Allah is Greatest.
There is no other object of worship but Allah.
*  Repeated twice.
** Repeated 4 times.

...the faithful come to the mosque and take off their shoes so that they may enter the house of worship in bare feet... "When he came to the Fire, a voice was uttered: O Moses! I am thy Lord, therefore put off thy shoes, for thou art in the sacred valley of Tuwa."-(HOLY QURAN 20:11-12).

(And God said to Moses), "Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground."-(EXODUS 3:5, also ACTS 7:33).

...but before entering the mosque, they make ablution, washing their faces, hands and feet... "O you who believe! When you rise up to prayer, wash your faces and your hands as far as the elbows, and wipe your heads, and wash your feet to the ankles."-(HOLY QURAN 5:7)

"And Moses and Aaron and his sons washed their hands and their feet thereat; when they went into tent of the congregation they washed as the Lord commanded Moses."-(EXODUS 40:31-32).

"Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them entered into the temple..."-(ACTS 21:26).
...and in the mosque, the faithful face that Great Mosque in Mecca, whether in prayer, or reciting, or seeking the blessings of God in unison with the faithful from all over the world... "So turn thy face toward the Sacred Mosque, and (O Muslims), wheresoever ye may be, turn your faces toward it."-(HOLY QURAN 2:144).
"Now when Daniel...went into his house; and his window being open in his chamber towards Jerusalem, he kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed, and thanks before his God, as he did aforetime."-(DANIEL 6:10).

...the house is a place of peace and serenity, without images or idols of worship, and simple, with a carpet on which to stand or sit, and meditate. "God forgiveth not (the sin of) joining other gods with Him;...one who joins other gods with God, hath strayed far, far away (from the Right)."-(HOLY QURAN 4:116).

"I am the Lord thy God...Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them nor serve them."-(THE FIRST COMMANDMENT, EXODUS 20:2-5).

...and when the time of prayer is come, the faithful stand and bow before God, and make obeisance to Him, by touching the ground before them with their foreheads... They do blaspheme who say: "God is Christ, the son of Mary." But said Christ:" O Children of Israel! Worship God, my Lord and your Lord."-(HOLY QURAN 5:75).

They do blaspheme who say: God is one of three in a Trinity: for there is no god except One God.-(HOLY QURAN 5:76).

And, behold, one came and said unto him (Jesus), "Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?" And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? There is none good but One, that is God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the Commandments.-(MATTHEW 19:16-17).

"O you who believe! Bow down and prostrate yourselves and serve your Lord, and do good that you may prosper."-(HOLY QURAN 22:77).
"And he (Jesus) went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed..."-(MATTHEW 26:39).
"And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and did worship..."-(JOSHUA 5:14).
"And he (Elijah) cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees."-(1 KINGS 18:42).
"And they (Moses and Aaron) fell upon their faces..."-(NUMBERS 20:6).
"And Abraham fell on his face..."-(GENESIS 17:3).

...and invariably, the faithful spreads out his hands to God, asking forgiveness, seeking His blessings, beseeching His protection for mankind... "Our Lord! Give us good in this world and good in the Hereafter, and defend us from the torment of the Fire."-(HOLY QURAN 2:201)

"...when Solomon had made an end of praying all this prayer and supplication unto the Lord, he arose from before the altar of the Lord, from kneeling on his knees with his hands spread up to heaven."-(1 KINGS 8:54).

And Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I knew that Thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that Thou hast sent me.-(JOHN 11:41-42).

...and on Fridays, before the prayer immediately after noon, the imam climbs up the pulpit to preach a sermon that the faithful may listen and heed the words of God, and so shall it be, forever. "When the call is sounded for prayer on Fridays, hasten to the remembrance of God...but when the prayer is ended, disperse abroad in the land and seek of God´s grace and remember God, that you may be successful."-(HOLY QURAN 62:9-10).

BIRTH OF JESUS (A QURANIC CONCEPTION) Relate in the Book (the story of) Mary, when she withdrew from her family to a place in the East.

She placed a screen (to screen herself) from them; then We sent to her Our Angel, and he appeared before her as a man in all respects.

She said: "I seek refuge from thee to (God) Most Gracious: (come not near) if thou dost fear God."
He said: "Nay, I am only a messenger from thy Lord, (to announce) to thee the gift of a holy son."
She said: "How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?"
He said: "So (it will be): Thy Lord saith, "That is easy for Me: and (We wish) to appoint him as a Sign unto men and a Mercy from Us: It is a matter (so) decreed."
So she conceived him, and she retired with him to a remote place...
At length she brought (the babe) to her people, carrying him (in her arms). They said: "O Mary! Truly an amazing thing has thou brought!

"O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not a man of evil, nor thy mother a woman unchaste!"
But she pointed to the babe. They said: "How can we talk to one who is a child in the cradle?"
He (the babe) said: "I am indeed a servant of God; He hath given me Revelation and made me a prophet: And he hath made me blessed wheresoever I be, and hath enjoined on me Prayer and Charity as long as I live; (He) hath made me kind to my mother, and not overbearing or miserable; so Peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life (again).
Such (was) Jesus the son of Mary: (it is) a statement of truth, about which they (vainly) dispute.-(HOLY QURAN 19:16-34).

VOL. 11-No.36

And behold. God will say: "O Jesus son of Mary! Did´st thou say unto men, Worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of God?" He will say: "Glory to Thee! Never could I say what I had no right (to say). Had I said such a thing, Thou would´st indeed have known it. Thou knowest what is in my heart, though I know not what is in Thine. For thou knowest in full all that is hidden. Never said I to them aught except what Thou did´st command me to say, to wit, worship God, my Lord and your Lord." (HOLY QURAN 5:119-120).
Compare with Bible: (1) John 5:30; (2) John 12:49; (3) John 14:28; (4) Isaiah 42:8; (5) Acts 2:22.
VOL. 111-No.4

Say thou (O Muhammad to the people): "I am but a man like you: it is revealed to me by inspiration, that your God is One God: so stand true to Him, and ask for His forgiveness". And woe to those who join gods with God. (HOLY QURAN 41:6)

Some people maintain that Muslims worship Muhammad instead of God, and call them "Muhummedans". The above verse gives the lie to such an allegation as Muhammad never claimed himself to be a god. He was a prophet like any other messenger of God. The word "Muhummedanism" as applied to the Islamic religion is a misnomer. Islam means submission to the Will of God and its followers are called Muslims. How then can man be justified with God? Or how can he be clean that is born of a woman?-(JOB 25:4).

Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know.-(ACTS 2:22).

"And I fell at his feet to worship him. And he said unto me See thou do it not: I am thy fellow servant, and of thy brethren that have the testimony of Jesus: worship God...-(REVELATION 19:10)

For I have not spoken of myself; but the Father which sent me, He gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak.-(JOHN 12:49).

I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true.-(JOHN 5:30-31).

...for my Father is greater than I.-(JOHN 14:28).

And this is life eternal, that they might know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent.-(JOHN 17:3)

Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his Lord; neither he that is sent greater than He that sent him.-(JOHN 13:16)

John 20:17 Jesus saith unto her (Mary Magdalene)... I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.-(JOHN 20:17)

But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.-(MARK 13:32)

But now ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard of God.-(JOHN 8:40).

Concept of Worship in Islam

The concept of worship in Islam is misunderstood by many people including some Muslims. Worship is commonly taken to mean performing ritualistic acts such as prayers, fasting, charity, etc. This limited understanding of worship is only one part of the meaning of worship in Islam. That is why the traditional definition of worship in Islam is a comprehensive definition that includes almost everything in any individual's activities. The definition goes something like this:

"Worship is an all inclusive term for all that God loves of external and internal sayings and actions of a person."

In other words, worship is everything one says or does for the pleasure of Allah. This, of course, includes rituals as well as beliefs, social activities, and personal contributions to the welfare of one's fellow human-beings. Islam looks at the individual as a whole. He is required to submit himself completely to Allah, as the Quran instructed the Prophet Muhammad to do:

"Say (O Muhammad) my prayer, my sacrifice, my life and my death belong to Allah; He has no partner and I am ordered to be among those who submit, i.e.; Muslims." (6:162, 163)
The natural result of this submission is that all one's activities should conform to the instructions of the one to whom the person is submitting. Islam, being a way of life, requires that its followers model their life according to its teachings in every aspect, religious or other wise. This might sound strange to some people who think of religion as a personal relation between the individual and God, having no impact on one's activities outside rituals. As a matter of fact Islam does not think much of mere rituals when they are performed mechanically and have no influence on one's inner life. The Quran addresses the believers and their neighbors from among the People of the Book who were arguing with them about the change of the direction of Qibla in the following verse:

"It is not righteousness that you turn your faces toward the East or the West, but righteous is he who believes in Allah and the Last Day and the Angels and the Book and the Prophets, and gives his beloved money to his relatives and the orphans and the needy and for the ransoming of captives and who observes prayer and pays the poor-due; and those who fulfill their promises when they have made one, and the patient in poverty and affliction and the steadfast in time of war; it is those who have proved truthful and it is those who are the God-fearing." (2:177)

The deeds in the above verse are the deeds of righteousness and they are only a part of worship. The Prophet told us about faith, which is the basis of worship, that it "is made up of sixty and some branches; the highest of which is the belief in the Oneness of Allah, i.e., there is no God but Allah and the lowest in the scale of worship is removing obstacles and dirt from people's way." Decent work is considered in Islam a type of worship. The Prophet said:

"Whoever finds himself at the nightfall tired of his work, God will forgive his sins."
Seeking knowledge is one of the highest types of worship. The Prophet told his companions that "seeking knowledge is a (religious) duty on every Muslim." In another saying he said:
"Seeking knowledge for one hour is better than praying for seventy years."

Social courtesy and cooperation are part of worship when done for the sake of Allah as the Prophet told us:
"Receiving your friend with a smile is a type of charity, helping a person to load his animal is a charity and putting some water in your neighbor's bucket is a charity."

It is worth noting that even performing one's duties is considered a sort of worship. The Prophet told us that whatever one spends for his family is a type of charity; he will be rewarded for it if he acquires it through legal means. Kindness to members of one's family is an act of worship as when one puts a piece of food in his spouse's mouth. Not only this but even the acts we enjoy doing very much, when they are performed according to the instructions of the Prophet, are considered as acts of worship. The Prophet told his companions that they will be rewarded even for having sexual intercourse with their wives. The companions were astonished and asked: "How are we going to be rewarded for doing something we enjoy very much?" The Prophet asked them: "Suppose you satisfy your desires illegally; don't you think that you will be punished for that?" They replied, "Yes." "So," he said, "by satisfying it legally with your wives you are rewarded for it." This means they are acts of worship. Thus Islam does not consider sex a dirty thing that one should avoid. It is dirty and sinful only when it is satisfied outside marital life.

    It is clear, from the previous discussion that the concept of worship in Islam is a comprehensive concept that includes all the positive activities of the individual. This of course is in agreement with the all inclusive nature of Islam as a way of life. It regulates human life on all levels: individual, social, economic, political and spiritual. That is why Islam provides guidance to the smallest details of one's life on all these levels. Thus following these details is following Islamic instructions in that specific area. It is a very encouraging element when one realizes that all his activities are considered by God as acts of worship. This should lead the individual to seek Allah's pleasure in his actions and always try to do them in the best possible manner whether he is watched by his superiors or he is alone. There is always the permanent supervisor, who knows everything, namely, Allah.

Ritual Worship

    Discussing the non-ritual worship in Islam first does not mean undervaluing the importance of the ritual ones. Actually ritual worship, if performed in true spirit, elevates man morally and spiritually and enables him to carry on his activities in all walks of life according to the Guidance of God. Among ritual worships, Salah (ritual prayer) occupies the key position for two reasons. Firstly, it is the distinctive mark of a believer. Secondly, it prevents an individual from all sorts of abominations and vices by providing him chances of direct communion with his Creator five times a day, wherein he renews his covenant with God and seeks His guidance again and again:
"You alone we worship and to You alone we turn for help. Guide us to the straight path." (1:5,6)

Actually Salah is the first practical manifestation of Faith and also the foremost of the basis conditions for the success of the believers:
"Successful indeed are the believers who are humble in their prayers." (23:12)

The same fact has been emphasized by the Prophet (PBUH) in a different way. He says:
"Those who offer their Salah with great care and punctuality, will find it a light, a proof of their Faith and cause of their salvation on the Day of Judgment."

After Salah, Zakah (poor-due) is an important pillar of Islam. In the Quran, Salah and Zakah mostly have been mentioned together many times. Like Salah, Zakah is a manifestation of faith that affirms that God is the sole owner of everything in the universe, and what men hold is a trust in their hand over which God made them trustees to discharge it as He has laid down:
"Believe in Allah and His messenger and spend of that over which He made you trustees." (57:7)

In this respect Zakah is an act of devotion which, like prayer, brings the believer nearer to his Lord. Apart from this, Zakah is a means of redistribution of wealth in a way that reduces differences between classes and groups. It makes a fair contribution to social stability. By purging the soul of the rich from selfishness and the soul of the poor from envy and resentment against society, it stops up the channels leading to class hatred and makes it possible for the springs of brotherhood and solidarity to gush forth. Such stability is not merely based on the personal feelings of the rich; it stands on a firmly established right which, if the rich denied it, would be exacted by force, if necessary.

    Siyam (fasting during the day time of the month of Ramadan) is another pillar of Islam. The main function of fasting is to make the Muslim pure from "within" as other aspects of Shariah make him pure from "without." By such purity he responds to what is true and good and shuns what is false and evil. This is what we can perceive in the Quranic verse:
"O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may gain piety." (2:183)

In an authentic tradition, the Prophet reported Allah as saying:
"He suspends eating, drinking, and gratification of his sexual passion for My sake."

Thus his reward is going to be according to God's great bounty. Fasting, then, awakens the conscience of the individual and gives it scope for exercise in a joint experience for all society at the same time, thus adding further strength to each individual. Moreover, fasting offers a compulsory rest to the over-worked human machine for the duration of one full month. Similarly fasting reminds an individual of those who are deprived of life's necessities throughout the year or throughout life. It makes him realize the suffering of others, the less fortunate brothers in Islam, and thus promotes in him a sense of sympathy and kindness to them.

    Lastly, we come to Al-Hajj (pilgrimage to the House of God in Makkah). This very important pillar of Islam manifests a unique unity, dispelling all kinds of differences. Muslims from all corners of the world wearing the same dress, respond to the call of Hajj in one voice and language; LABBAIK ALLAHUMMA LABBAIK (Here I am at your service O Lord!). In Hajj there is an exercise of strict self-discipline and control where not only sacred things are revered, but even the life of plants and birds is made inviolable so that everything lives in safety:
"And he that venerates the sacred things of God, it shall be better for him with his Lord." (22:30) "And he that venerates the waymarks of God, it surely is from devotion of the heart." (22:32)

Pilgrimage gives an opportunity to all Muslims from all groups, classes, organizations, and governments from all over the Muslim world to meet annually in a great congress. The time and venue of this congress has been set by their One God. Invitation to attend is open to every Muslim. No one has the power to bar anyone.

Every Muslim who attends is guaranteed full safety and freedom as long as he himself does not violate its safety. Thus, worship in Islam, whether ritual or non-ritual, trains the individual in such a way that he loves his Creator most and thereby gains an unyielding will and spirit to wipe out all evil and oppression from the human society and make the word of God dominant in the world.

Arabic Numerals

 Photo: From top - Modern Arabic (western); Early Arabic (western); Arabic Letters (used as numerals); Modern Arabic (eastern); Early Arabic (eastern); Early Devanagari (Indian); Later Devanagari
The system of numeration employed throughout the greater part of the world today was probably developed in India, but because it was the Arabs who transmitted this system to the West the numerals it uses have come to be called Arabic.
After extending Islam throughout the Middle East, the Arabs began to assimilate the cultures of the peoples they had subdued. One of the great centers of learning was Baghdad, where Arab, Greek, Persian, Jewish, and other scholars pooled their cultural heritages and where in 771 an Indian scholar appeared, bringing with him a treatise on astronomy using the Indian numerical system.
Until that time the Egyptian, Greek, and other cultures used their own numerals in a manner similar to that of the Romans. Thus the number 323 was expressed like this:
Egyptian 999 nn III
The Egyptians actually wrote them from right to left, but they are set down above from left to right to call g attention to the similarities of the systems.
The Indian contribution was to substitute a single sign (in this case meaning "3" and meaning "2") indicating the number of signs in each cluster of similar signs. In this manner the Indians would render Roman CCC XX 111 as: 3 2 3.
This new way of writing numbers was economical but not flawless. The Roman numeral CCC II, for instance, presented a problem. If a 3 and a 2 respectively were substituted for the Roman clusters CCC and II, the written result was 32. Clearly, the number intended was not thirty-two but three hundred and two. The Arab scholars perceived that a sign representing "nothing" or "nought" was required because the place of a sign gave as much information as its unitary value did. The place had to be shown even if the sign which showed it indicated a unitary value of "nothing." It is uncertain whether the Arabs or the Indians filled this need by inventing the zero, but in any case the problem was solved: now the new system could show neatly the difference between XXX II (32) and CCC II (302).
If the origin of this new method was Indian, it is not at all certain that the original shapes of the Arabic numerals also were Indian. In fact, it seems quite possible that the Arab scholars used their own numerals but manipulated them in the Indian way. The Indian way had the advantage of using much smaller clusters of symbols and greatly simplifying written computations. The modern forms of the individual numbers in both eastern Arabic and western Arabic, or European, appear to have evolved from letters of the Arabic alphabet.

The Semites and Greeks traditionally assigned numerical values to their letters and used them as numerals. This alphabetical system is still used by the Arabs, much as Roman numerals are used in the West for outlines and in enumerating kings, emperors, and popes. The new mathematical principle on which the Arabic numerals were based greatly simplified arithmetic. Their adoption in Europe began in the tenth century after an Arabic mathematical treatise was translated by a scholar in Spain and spread throughout the West.

Arabic Literature

The Quran, the primary document of the Islamic faith, is the first Arabic book. Its style, at once vigorous, allusive, and concise, deeply influenced later compositions in Arabic, as it continues to color the mode of expression of native speakers of Arabic, Christian as well as Muslim, both in writing and in conversation.
The Quran also largely determined the course of Arabic literature. The earliest Arabic prose came into being not from literary motives, but to serve religious and practical needs, above all the need to fully understand the Islamic revelation and the circumstances of the first Muslim community in the Hijaz. The sayings and actions of the Prophet and his Companions were collected and preserved, at first by memory and then by writing, to be finally collected and arranged by such men as al-Bukhari and Muslim in the ninth century. This material, the hadith, not only provided the basic texts from which Islamic law was elaborated, but also formed the raw material for historians of the early Muslim community. Since each hadith, or "saying," is a first-person narrative, usually by an eyewitness of the event described, they have an immediacy and freshness that has come down unimpaired through the centuries. The personalities of the narrators - Abu Bakr, Umar, Aishah, and a host of others are just as vivid as the events described, for the style of each hadith is very personal.
The hadith also determined the characteristic form of such works as Ibn Ishaq's Life of the Messenger of God, originally written in the middle of the eighth century. In this book, hadith dealing with the life of the Prophet are arranged in chronological order, and the comments of the author are kept to a minimum. Events are seen through the eyes of the people who witnessed them; three or four versions of the same event are often given, and in each case the "chain of transmission" of the hadith is given, so that the reader may judge its authenticity.
During Umayyad times, a number of historians wrote monographs on specific historical, legal, and religious questions, and in each case these authors seem to have adhered to the hadith method of composition. Although few of the works of these writers have survived in their entirety, enough has been preserved by later incorporation in such vast works as the Annals of al-Tabari to give us an idea not only of their method of composition, but also of their wide-ranging interests.
The practice of prefacing a chain of authorities to each hadith led to the compilation of vast biographical dictionaries, like the Book of Classes of the early ninth century author Ibn Said, which includes a biography of the Prophet and a great deal of information on notable personalities in Mecca and Medina during his lifetime. Works such as this allowed readers to identify and judge the veracity of transmitters of hadith; later, the content of biographical dictionaries was broadened to include poets, writers, eminent reciters of the Quran, scientists, and the like. These biographical dictionaries are often lively reading, and are a mine of information about social and political circumstances in the Islamic world.
The spread of Islam naturally found chroniclers, such as al-Waqidi, who wrote in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, and al-Baladhuri, who composed his well known Book of the Conquests in the ninth century. These books, like the hadith, were written for practical motives. Al-Waqidi was interested in establishing the exact chronology of the spread of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula and adjoining areas, while al-Baladhuri was interested in legal and tax problems connected with the settlement of new lands. Their books nevertheless are classics of their kind and, aside from containing much interesting information, they have passages of great descriptive power.
By the ninth century, the method of compiling history from hadith and carefully citing the authorities for each tradition - a process which had resulted in books of unwieldy length - was abandoned by some authors, like al-Dinawari and al-Ya'qubi, who omitted the chains of transmitters and combined hadith to produce a narrative. The result was greater readability and smaller compass, at the sacrifice of richness and complexity. The works of al-Dinawari and al-Ya'qubi, unlike those of their predecessors, aimed to entertain as well as instruct; they are "literary" productions. This form of light history reached its apogee in the tenth century in al-Mas'udi's brilliant and entertaining Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems, a comprehensive encyclopedia of history, geography, and literature. The literary productions of these men would not, however, have been possible without the careful collections of historical hadith made by their predecessors.
Just as the writing of history began from practical rather than literary motives, so the collection and preservation of Arabic poetry was undertaken by scholars with, at first, little interest in its artistic merit. The linguists and exegetes of Kufa and Basra began collecting this poetry in the eighth century because of the light it threw on unusual expressions and grammatical structures in the Quran and the hadith. Editions and commentaries were prepared of the poems of 'Antarah, Imru al-Qays, and many others, and thus the works of the early poets were preserved for later generations.
The Quran a part, poetry has always been considered the highest expression of literary art among the Arabs. Long before the coming of Islam, Bedouin poets had perfected the forms of panegyric, satire, and elegy. Their poetry obeys strict conventions, both in form and content, which indicates that it must have had a long period of development before it was finally committed to writing by scholars.
The principal form used by the desert poets was the qasidah or ode, a poem of variable length rhyming in the last syllable of each line. The qasidah begins with a description of the abandoned encampment of the poet's beloved and goes on to an account of his anguish at her absence and his consuming love for her. The poet then describes an arduous journey across the desert and ends the qasidah with an appeal to the generosity of his host. Although the subject matter is almost invariable, the language is very complex and of great precision.
In the Hijaz during the first century of Islam, contemporary with the first hadith scholars, a group of poets broke with the past and introduced new forms and subjects. Men like 'Umar ibn Abi Rabi'ah wrote realistic and urbane verse, and a school of poetry which expressed the themes of Platonic love grew up around the poet Jamil ibn Muiammar, better known as Jamil al-'Udhri. The lives and works of these poets of the Umayyad period are preserved in the entertaining tenth-century anthology by Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani, the Book of Songs.
The Umayyad court in Damascus patronized poets and musicians. It was also the scene of the development of the type of Arabic literature called adab. Adab is usually translated as "belles-lettres," which is slightly misleading. This literature, at least in its inception, was created to serve the practical end of educating the growing class of government ministers in the Arabic language, manners and deportment, history, and statecraft. Works in Sanskrit, Pahlavi, Greek, and Syriac began to find their way into Arabic at this time. 'Abd al-Hamid ibn Yahya al-Katib, an Umayyad official, and the creator of this genre, defined its aims as follows: "Cultivate the Arabic language so that you may speak correctly; develop a handsome script which will add luster to your writings; learn the poetry of the Arabs by heart; familiarize yourself with unusual ideas and expressions; read the history of the Arabs and the Persians, and remember their great deeds." 'Abd Allah ibn al-Muqaffa', a contemporary of 'Abd al-Ham id ibn Yahya, translated the history of the ancient kings of Persia into Arabic, as well as Kalilah wa-Dimnah, an Indian book of advice for princes cast in the form of animal fables. His works are the earliest surviving examples of Arabic art prose and are still used as models in schools throughout the Middle East.
By the ninth century, Arabic literature had entered its classical age. The various genres had been defined - adab, history, Quranic exegesis, geography, biography, poetry, satire, and many more. Al-Jahiz was perhaps the greatest stylist of the age, and one of the most original personalities. He wrote more than two hundred books, on every conceivable subject; he was critical, rational, and always amusing. His Book of Animals is the earliest Arabic treatise on zoology and contains very modern-sounding discussions of such things as animal mimetism and biological adaptation. He wrote one of the earliest and best treatises on rhetoric and a large number of amusing essays. By the time of his death at the age of ninety-six he had shown that Arabic prose was capable of handling any subject with ease. The most gifted of al-Jahiz's contemporaries was probably Ibn Qutaybah, also a writer of encyclopedic learning and an excellent stylist. His Book of Knowledge, a history of the world beginning with the creation, is the earliest work of its kind and later had many imitators.
The tenth century witnessed the creation of a new form in Arabic literature, the maqamat. This was the title of a work by al-Hamadhani, called Badi' al-Zaman, "The Wonder of the Age." His Maqamat ("Sessions") is a series of episodes written in rhymed prose concerning the life of Abu al-Fath al-Iskandari, a sort of confidence trickster, who takes on a different personality in each story and always succeeds in bilking his victims. These stories are witty and packed with action, and were immediately popular. Al-Hamadhani was imitated by al-Hariri a hundred years later. Al-Hariri was a linguistic virtuoso, and his Maqamat is filled with obscure words, alliteration, puns, and wild metaphors. He too was extremely popular, and many learned commentaries were written on his Maqamat. This purely Arab form can most closely be compared with the Spanish picaresque novels, which it may have influenced.
Rhymed prose, which had come to be used even in government documents, was employed by Abu al-'Ala al-Ma'arri in his Message of Forgiveness, one of the best known of Arabic prose works. Al-Ma'arri lived in the eleventh century, leading an ascetic life in his native Syrian village. Blind from the age of four, he possessed a prodigious memory and great intellectual curiosity and skepticism. The Message of Forgiveness is cast in the form of a journey to paradise; the narrator there interrogates the scholars and poets of the past regarding their lives and works, receiving surprising and often ironic responses. The book is an extended critique of literature and philology, and represents a high point of classical Arabic culture.
One of the other great figures of late classical literature was the poet al-Mutanabbi, whose skill in handling the complex meters of Arabic poetry was probably unsurpassed. His verbal brilliance has always been admired by Arab critics, although it is difficult for those whose native tongue is not Arabic to appreciate it fully.
The period between the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1258 and the nineteenth century is generally held to be a period of literary as well as political decline for the Arabs. It is true that during these five hundred years Arabic writers were more preoccupied with the preservation of their literary heritage than with the development of new forms and ideas. This is the age of encyclopedias, commentaries, and lexicons. Faced with the massive destruction of books by the invasions of Genghis Khan and Hulagu and later of Tamerlane, scholars compiled digests and abridgments of works that had survived in order to ensure their continued existence.
There were also some original works, however. Ibn Battutah, the greatest traveler of the Middle Ages, lived in the fourteenth century, and his Travel provide a fascinating picture of the Muslim world, from the islands of the Indian Ocean to Timbuktu. Ibn Khaldun, like Ibn Battutah a native of North Africa, lived in the later fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. His Prolegomena is a work of brilliance and originality; the author analyzes human society in terms of general sociological laws and gives a lucid account of the factors that contribute to the rise and decline of civilizations. Ibn Khaldun's style is innovative, simple, and very personal, and perfectly suited to the expression of his often difficult ideas.
This post classical period also saw the composition of popular romances, such as the Romance of 'Antar, based on the life of the famous pre-Islamic poet; the Romance of the Bani Hilal, a cycle of stories and poems based on the migration of an Arabian tribe to North Africa in the eleventh century; and many more. These romances could be heard recited in coffee shops from Aleppoto Marrakesh until very recently. The most famous popular work of all, The Thousand and One Nights, assumed its present form during the fifteenth century.
A revival of Arabic literature began in the nineteenth century, and coincided with the first efforts of Arabic speaking nations to assert their independence of Ottoman rule. Napoleon, during his brief occupation of Egypt in the late eighteenth century, introduced a printing press with fonts of Arabic type, and Muhammad 'Ali, ruler of Egypt from 1805 to 1848, initiated a series of projects to modernize Egypt. He encouraged the use of Arabic in schools and government institutions, and established a printing press. Selected Egyptian students were sent to study in France, and on their return assigned to undertake translations of Western technical manuals on agriculture, engineering, mathematics, and military tactics. These works, together with many of the classics of Arabic literature, were printed at the government press at Bulaq and had a profound impact on intellectuals in the Arab East.
Another factor in the literary revival was the swift growth of journalism in Lebanon and Egypt. Starting in the late 1850s, newspapers were soon available through the Middle East. By 1900 well over a hundred and fifty newspapers and journals were being published. These journals had a great influence on the development and modernization of the written Arabic language; their stress on substance rather than style did much to simplify Arabic prose and bring it within the comprehension of everyone.
One of the first leaders of the Arabic literary renaissance was the Lebanese writer and scholar Butrus al-Bustani, whose dictionary and encyclopedia awakened great interest in the problems of expressing modern Western ideas in the Arabic language. His nephew Sulayman translated Homer's Iliad into Arabic, thus making one of the first expressions of Western literature accessible to the Arabic-reading public. Other writers, such as the Egyptian Mustafa al-Manfaluti, adapted French romantic novels to the tastes of the Arab public, as well as writing elegant essays on a variety of themes.
The historical novel, in the hands of Jurji Zaydan, proved immensely popular, perhaps because of the intense interest Arabs have always had in their past, and because of the novelty of a new form. But the first Arabic novel that can rank with European productions is Muhammad Husayn Haykal's Zaynab, set in Egypt and dealing with local problems.
Perhaps the greatest figure in modern Arabic literature is Taha Husayn. Blind from an early age, Taha Husayn wrote movingly of his life and beloved Egypt in his autobiography, al-Ayyam, "The Days." Taha Husayn was a graduate of both al-Azhar and the Sorbonne, and his voluminous writings on Arabic literature contributed a new critique of this vast subject.
The novel was not the only new form introduced to the Arabic-reading public. The drama, first in the form of translations of Western work, then of original compositions, was pioneered by Ahmad Shawqi and came to maturity in the hands of Tawfiq al-Hakim. Tawfiq al-Hakim's long career and devotion to the theater did much to make this one of the liveliest arts of the Middle East.
The history of modern Arabic poetry, with its many schools and contending styles, is almost impossible to summarize. Traditional forms and subjects were challenged by 'Abbas Mahmud al-'Aqqad, Mahmud Shukri, and Ibrahim al-Mazini, who strove to introduce nineteenth-century European themes and techniques into Arabic, not always with success. Lebanese poets were in the forefront of modernist verse, and one of them, Gibran Kahlil Gibran, proved very popular in the West. Poets are now experimenting with both old and new techniques, although discussions of form have given way to concern for content. The exodus of Palestinians from their native land has become a favorite theme, often movingly handled.

In Saudi Arabia, it was not until well into the twentieth century that literary movements in neighboring lands made themselves felt. Poetry, of course, has been cultivated in Arabia since the pre-Islamic period, and it has lately been influenced by new forms and subjects. Hasan al-Qurashi, Tahir Zamakhshari, Hasan Faqi, and Mahrum (the pen name of Amir 'Abd Allah al-Faysal) have won renown for their poetry throughout the Arab world. Hasan Faqi's poetry is introspective and philosophical, while the verse of the three others is lyrical and romantic. Ghazi al-Gosaibi is distinguished by a fresh, fecund imagination that expresses itself in both Arabic and English verse. Two novels by the late Hamid al-Damanhuri have been well received. They are Thaman al-Tadhiyah, "The Price of Sacrifice," and Wa-Marrat al-Ayyam, "And the Days Went By." With the rapid increase in education and communications, presses are now beginning to publish more and more works by writers, and it can certainly be expected that the great social changes that are taking place will eventually be reflected in equally far-reaching developments in the Arabic literature.

Science & Scholarship in An-Andalus

For Europe and Western civilization the contributions of Islamic Spain were of inestimable value. When the Muslims entered southern Spain - which they called al-Andalus - barbarians from the north had overrun much of Europe and the classical civilization of Greece and Rome had gone into eclipse. Islamic Spain then became a bridge by which the scientific, technological, and philosophical legacy of the 'Abbasid period, along with the achievements of al-Andalus itself, passed into Europe.
In the first century of Islamic rule in Spain the culture was largely derived from that of the flourishing civilization being developed by the 'Abbasids in Baghdad. But then, during the reign of 'Abd al-Rahman III (912-961), Islamic Spain began to make its own contributions.
'Abd al-Rahman III was passionately interested in both the religious and the secular sciences. He was also determined to show the world that his court at Cordoba equaled in greatness that of the caliphs at Baghdad. Sparing neither time nor expense, he imported books from Baghdad and actively recruited scholars by offering hand some inducements. Soon, as a result, scholars, poets, philosophers, historians, and musicians began to migrate to al-Andalus. Soon, too, an infrastructure of libraries, hospitals, research institutions, and centers of Islamic studies grew up, establishing the intellectual tradition and educational system which made Spain outstanding for the next four hundred years.
One of the earliest of the scholars drawn to al-Andalus was 'Abbas ibn Firnas, who came to Cordoba to teach music (then a branch of mathematical theory) and to acquaint the court of 'Abd al-Rahman with the recent developments in this field in Baghdad. Not a man to limit himself to a single field of study, however, Ibn Firnas soon began to investigate the mechanics of flight. He constructed a pair of wings out of feathers on a wooden frame and made the first attempt at flight, anticipating Leonardo da Vinci by some six hundred years. Later, having survived the experiment with a back injury, he also constructed a famous planetarium. Not only was it mechanized - the planets actually revolved - but it simulated such celestial phenomena as thunder and lightning.
As in the 'Abbasid centers of learning, Islamic Spain's interest in mathematics, astronomy, and medicine was always lively - partly because of their obvious utility. In the tenth century Cordoban mathematicians began to make their own original contributions. The first original mathematician and astronomer of al-Andalus was Maslamah al-Majriti, who died in 1008. He had been preceded by competent scientists - men like Ibn Abi 'Ubaydah of Valencia, a leading astronomer in the ninth century. But al-Majriti was in a class by himself. He wrote a number of works on mathematics and astronomy, studied and elaborated the Arabic translation of Ptolemy's Almagest, and enlarged and corrected the astronomical tables of the famous al-Khwarazmi. He also compiled conversion tables in which the dates of the Persian calendar were related to Hijrah dates, so that for the first time the events of Persia's past could be dated with precision.
Al-Zarqali, known to the West as Arzachel, was another leading mathematician and astronomer who flourished in Cordoba in the eleventh century. Combining theoretical knowledge with technical skill, he excelled at the construction of precision instruments for astronomical use and built a water clock capable of determining the hours of the day and night and indicating the days of the lunar months. He also contributed to the famous Toledan Tables, a highly accurate compilation of astronomical data. Arzachel was famous as well for his Book of Tables. Many "books of tables" had been compiled before then, but his is an almanac containing tables which allow one to find the days on which Coptic, Roman, lunar, and Persian months begin, other tables which give the position of planets at any given time, and still others facilitating the prediction of solar and lunar eclipses. He also compiled valuable tables of latitude and longitude.
Another important scholar was al-Bitruji, who developed a new theory of stellar movement, based on Aristotle's thinking, in his Book of Form, a work that was later popular in the West. The names of many stars are still those given them by Muslim astronomers, such as Altair (from al-tair, "the flier"), Deneb (from dhanab, "tail"), and Betelgeuse (from bayt al-jawza, "the house of the twins" or "Gemini"). Other terms still in use today such as zenith, nadir, and azimuth are also derived from Arabic and so reflect the work of the Muslim astronomers of al-Andalus and their impact on the West.
Scientists of Islamic Spain also contributed to medicine, the Muslim science par excellence. Interest in medicine goes back to the very earliest times (the Prophet himself stated that there was a remedy for every illness), '' and although the greatest Muslim physicians practiced in Baghdad, those in al-Andalus made important contributions too. Ibn al-Nafis, for example, discovered the pulmonary circulation of blood.
During the tenth century in particular, al-Andalus produced a large number of excellent physicians, some of whom studied Greek medical works translated at the famous House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Among them was Ibn Shuhayd, who in a fundamental work recommended drugs be used only if the patient did not respond to diet and urged that only simple drugs be employed in all cases but the most serious. Another important figure was Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi, the most famous surgeon of the Middle Ages. Known in the West as Abulcasis and Al-bucasis, he was the author of the Tasrif, a book that, translated into Latin, became the leading medical text European universities during the later Middle Ages. Its section on surgery contains illustrations of surgical instruments of elegant, functional design and great precision.
Other chapters describe amputations, ophthalmic and dental surgery, and the treatment of wounds and fractures. Ibn Zuhr, known as Avenzoar, was the first to describe pericardial abscesses and to recommend tracheotomy when necessary as well as being a skilled practical physician, and Ibn Rushd wrote an important book on medical theories and precepts. The last of the great Andalusian physicians, Ibn al-Khatib, also a noted historian, poet, and statesman, wrote an important book on the theory of contagion in which he said: "The fact infection becomes clear to the investigator, whereas he who is not in contact remains safe," and described how transmission is effected through garments, vessels, and earrings.
Islamic Spain made contributions to medical ethics and hygiene as well. One of the most eminent theologians and jurists, Ibn Hazm, insisted that moral qualities were mandatory in a physician. A doctor, he wrote, should be kind, understanding, friendly, and able to endure insults and adverse criticism. Furthermore, he went on, a doctor should keep his hair and fingernails short, wear clean clothes, and behave with dignity.
As an outgrowth of medicine, Andalusian scientists also interested themselves in botany. Ibn al-Baytar, for example, the most famous Andalusian botanist, wrote a book called Simple Drugs and Food, an alphabetically arranged compendium of medicinal plants, most of which were native to Spain and North Africa, and which he had spent a lifetime gathering. In another treatise Ibn al-'Awwam lists hundreds of species of plants and gives precise instructions regarding their cultivation and use. He writes, for example, of how to graft trees, produce hybrids, stop blights and insect pests, and make perfume.
Another important field of study in al-Andalus was the study of geography. Partly out of economic and political considerations, but mostly out of an all-consuming curiosity about the world and its inhabitants, the scholars of Islamic Spain started with works from Baghdad and went on to add such contributions as a basic geography of al-Andalus by Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Razi and a description of the topography of North Africa by Muhammad ibn Yusuf al-Warraq. Another contributor to geography was al-Bakri, an important minister at the court of Seville but also an accomplished linguist and litterateur. One of his two important geographical works is devoted to the geography of the Arabian Peninsula, with particular attention to the elucidation of its place-names. It is arranged alphabetically, and lists the names of villages, towns, wadis, and monuments which he culled from the hadith and from histories. The other was an encyclopedia of the entire world, arranged by country, with each entry preceded by a short historical introduction. It included descriptions of the people, customs, and climate of each country, the principal features, the major cities, and even anecdotes.
In the study of geography such figures as Ibn Jubayr, an Andalusian traveler, and the most famous traveler of all Ibn Battutah, also made important contributions. Born in North Africa, then in the cultural orbit of Islamic Spain, Ibn Battutah traveled extensively for twenty-eight years and produced a travel book that proved to be a rich source for both historians and geographers. It included invaluable information on people, places, navigation, caravan routes, roads, and inns. But the most famous geographer of the period was al-ldrisi, who studied in Cordoba. After traveling widely, al-ldrisi settled in Sicily and wrote a systematic geography of the world, usually known as the Book of Roger after his patron Roger II, the Norman King of Sicily. The information contained in the Book of Roger was also engraved on a silver planisphere, a disc-shaped map that was one of the wonders of the age.
Innumerable scholars in al-Andalus also devoted themselves to the study of history and linguistic sciences, the prime ''social sciences" cultivated by the Arabs, and brought them to a high level. Ibn al-Khatib, for example, who distinguished himself in almost all branches of learning, produced more than fifty works on travel, medicine, poetry, music, politics, and theology, as well as writing the finest history of Granada that has survived. The most original mind of the period, however, was undoubtedly Ibn Khaldun, the first historian to develop and explicate general laws governing the rise and decline of civilizations. In the Prolegomena, an introduction to a huge, seven volume universal history - an introduction longer than some of the volumes - Ibn Khaldun approached history as to a science and challenged the logic of many accepted historical accounts. In a sense, he was the first modern philosopher of history.
Photo: Al-Idrisi's planisphere is considered the first scientific map of the world.
Another great area of Andalusian intellectual activity was philosophy, where an attempt was made to deal with intellectual problems posed by the introduction of Greek philosophy into the context of Islam. One of the first to deal with this was Ibn Hazm, who as the author of more than four hundred books has been described as "one of the giants of the intellectual history of Islam." There were other philosophers too, such as Ibn Bajjah, known to the West as Avempace, who was also a physician and Ibn Tufayl, the author of Hayy ibn Yaqzan, the story of a child growing up in complete solitude on a desert island who, entirely by his own intellectual efforts, discovers for himself the highest physical and metaphysical realities. It was however, Averroes - Ibn Rushd - who earned the greatest reputation. He was an ardent Aristotelian and his works had a lasting effect, in their Latin translation, on the development of Western philosophy.

The list of Islamic Spain's contributions to the West, in fact, is almost endless. In addition to Islamic Spain's contributions in mathematics, economy, medicine, botany, geography, history, and philosophy, al-Andalus also developed and applied important technological innovations: the windmill and new techniques in the crafts of metalworking, weaving, and building.

Arabic Writing

The Arabs gave to a large part of the world not only a religion - Islam - but also a language and an alphabet. Where the Muslim religion went, the Arabic language and Arabic writing also went. Arabic became and has remained the national language - the mother tongue - of North Africa and all the Arab countries of the Middle East.
Even where Arabic did not become the national language, it became the language of religion wherever Islam became established, since the Quran is written in Arabic, the Profession of Faith is to be spoken in Arabic, and five times daily the practicing Muslim must say his prayers in Arabic. Today, therefore, one can hear Arabic spoken - at least for religious purposes - from Mauritania on the Atlantic, across Africa and most of Asia, and as far east as Indonesia and the Philippines. Even in China (which has a Muslim population of some forty million) and the Central Asian republics of the CIS (ex-USSR), Arabic can be heard in the shahadah, in prayer, and in the chanting of the Quran.
Of those people who embraced Islam but did not adopt Arabic as their everyday language, many millions have taken the Arabic alphabet for their own, so that today one sees the Arabic script used to write languages that have no basic etymological connection with Arabic. The languages of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are all written in the Arabic alphabet, as was the language of Turkey until some fifty years ago. It is also used in Kashmir and in some places in the Malay Peninsula and the East Indies, and in Africa it is used in Somalia and down the east coast as far south as Tanzania.
Photo: The basmalah ("In the name of God the Merciful the Compassionate" - the opening words of the Quran) is here done in an elaborate thuluth script with the letters joined so that the entire phrase is written without lifting the pen from the paper.
It is generally accepted that the Arabic alphabet developed from the script used for Nabataean, a dialect of Aramaic used in northern Arabia and what is now Jordan during roughly the thousand years before the start of the Islamic era. It seems apparent that Syriac also had some influence on its development. The earliest inscription that has been found that is identifiably Arabic is one in Sinai that dates from about A.D. 300. Another Semitic script which was in use at about the same time and which is found on inscriptions in southern Arabia is the origin of the alphabet now used for Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia.
The Arabic alphabet has twenty-eight letters (additional letters have been added to serve the needs of non-Arabic languages that use the Arabic script, such as those of Iran and Pakistan), and each of the letters may have up to four different forms. All of the letters are strictly speaking consonants, and unlike the Roman alphabet used for English and most European languages Arabic writing goes from right to left.
Another significant difference is that the Arabic script has been used much more extensively for decoration and as a means of artistic expression. This is not to say that the Roman alphabet (and others such as the Chinese and Japanese, for instance) are not just as decorative and have not been used just as imaginatively. Since the invention of printing from type, however, calligraphy (which means, literally "beautiful writing") has come to be used in English and the other European languages only for special documents and on special occasions and has declined to the status of a relatively minor art.
Photo: Another basmalah in ornamental thuluth script is written in the shape of an oval.
In the countries that use the Arabic alphabet, on the other hand, calligraphy has continued to be used not only on important documents but for a variety of other artistic purposes as well. One reason is that the cursive nature of the Arabic script and certain of its other peculiarities made its adaptation to printing difficult and delayed the introduction of the printing press, so that the Arab world continued for some centuries after the time of Gutenberg to rely on handwriting for the production of books (especially the Quran) and of legal and other documents. The use of Arabic script has therefore tended to develop in the direction of calligraphy and the development of artistically pleasing forms of hand lettering, while in the West the trend has been toward printing and the development of ornamental and sometimes elaborate type faces.
Another and perhaps more important reason was a religious one. The Quran nowhere prohibits the representation of humans or animals in drawings, or paintings, but as Islam expanded in its early years it inherited some of the prejudices against visual art of this kind that had already taken root in the Middle East. In addition, the early Muslims tended to oppose figural art (and in some cases all art) as distracting the community from the worship of God and hostile to the strictly unitarian religion preached by Muhammad, and all four of the schools of Islamic law banned the use of images and, declared that the painter of animate figures would be damned on the Day of Judgment. Wherever artistic ornamentation and decoration were required, therefore, Muslim artists, forbidden to depict, human or animal forms, for the most part were forced to resort either to what has since come to be known as "arabesque" (designs based on strictly geometrical forms or patterns of leaves and flowers) or, very often, to calligraphy. Arabic calligraphy therefore came to be used not only in producing copies of the Quran (its first and for many centuries its most important use), but also for all kinds of other artistic purposes as well on porcelain and metalware, for carpets and other textiles, on coins, and as architectural ornament (primarily on mosques and tombs but also, especially in later years, on other buildings as well).
Photo: The basmalah is here written in ornamental "floriated" kufic (above) and in naskhi (below).
At the start of the Islamic era two types of script seem to have been in use - both derived from different forms of the Nabataean, alphabet. One was square and angular and was called kufic (after the town of Kufa in Iraq, though it was in use well before the town was founded). It was used for the first, handwritten copies of the Quran, and for architectural decoration in the earliest years of the Islamic Empire. The other, called naskhi, was more rounded and cursive and was used for letters, business documents, and wherever speed rather than elaborate formalism was needed. By the twelfth century kufic was obsolete as a working script except for special uses and in northwest Africa, where it developed into the maghribi style of writing still used in the area today. Naskhi, the rounded script, remained in use and from it most of the many later styles of Arabic calligraphy have been developed.
Photo: The ruq'ah script is used for headlines and titles and is the everyday written script of most of the Arab world.
Calligraphy flourished during the Umayyad era in Damascus. During this period scribes began the modification of the original thick and heavy kufic script into the form employed today for decorative purposes, as well as developing a number of new scripts derived from the more cursive naskhi. It was under the 'Abbasids, however, that calligraphy first began to be systematized. In the first half of the tenth century the 'Abbasid vizier Ibn Muqlah completed the development of kufic, established some of the rules of shape and proportion that have been followed by calligraphers since his time, and was first to develop what became the traditional classification of Arabic writing into the "six styles" of cursive script: naskhi (from which most present day printing types are derived), thuluth (a more cursive outgrowth of naskhi), rayhani (a more ornate version of thuluth), muhaqqaq (a bold script with sweeping diagonal flourishes), tawqi' (a somewhat compressed variety of thuluth in which all the letters are sometimes joined to each other), and ruq'ah (the style commonly used today for ordinary handwriting in most of the Arab world). It was from these six, and from kufic, that later calligraphers, not only in the Arab world but in Iran, Turkey, and elsewhere as well, developed and elaborated other scripts.
Photo: The graceful Persian ta'liq script is used in a sentence which starts "Beauty is a spell which casts its splendor upon the universe..."
In Iran, for example, there came into use a particularly graceful and delicate script called ta'liq, in which the horizontal strokes of the letters are elongated and which is often written at an angle across the page. From ta'liq, in turn, another script called nasta'liq was derived which combines the Arabic naskhi and the Persian tailiq into a beautifully light and legible script.
Photo: The diwani script (top) and the so called "royal" diwani (below) were developed by Ottoman calligraphers for use on state documents.
It was in Ottoman Turkey, however, that calligraphy attained the highest development once the early creative flowering had faded elsewhere in the Middle East. So renowned were Ottoman calligraphers, in fact, that a popular saying was that "The Quran was revealed in Mecca, recited in Egypt, and written in Istanbul." The Ottomans were not content merely to improve and develop the types of script that they inherited from the Arabs and Persians but also added a number of new styles to the calligrapher's repertoire.
One important addition by the Ottoman calligraphers was the script called diwani, so called from the word diwan (meaning state council or government office) since it was at first used primarily for documents issued by the Ottoman Council of State. It is an extremely graceful and very decorative script, with strong diagonal flourishes, though less easy to read than some other styles. After its development in Turkey, it spread to the Arab countries and is in use today for formal documents and also as architectural decoration.
Photo: This tughra (monogram or insignia) of the Ottoman Sultan Abdu Hamid shows the three elongated vertical strokes which are characteristic of this style.
Examples of more or less standard types of script such as these do not by any means exhaust the number of styles. Islamic calligraphers have experimented endlessly and have been extremely imaginative. Another distinctive Turkish contribution is the tughra, an elaborate and highly stylized rendering of the names of the Ottoman sultan, originally used to authenticate imperial decrees. The tughra later came to be used both in Turkey and by rulers of t the Arab countries as a kind of royal insignia or emblem, on coins and stamps and wherever a coat of arms or royal monogram would be used by European governments.
Photo: In the muthanna or "doubled" style of calligraphy shown on the left each half of the design is a mirror image of the other. The basmalah in the thuluth script on the right has been written in the shape of an ostrich.
Another unusual variation of calligraphy, not often used nowadays, is the style called muthanna (Arabic for "doubled"). This is not really a type of script in itself but consists of a text in one of the standard scripts such as naskhi worked into a pattern in which one half is a mirror image of the other. Even more imaginative is what may be called pictorial calligraphy, in which the text (usually the profession of faith, a verse from the Quran, or some other e phrase with religious significance) is written in the shape of a bird, animal, tree, boat, or other object. A Quranic verse in the kufic script, for example, may be written so that it forms the picture of a mosque and minarets.
Photo: The angular kufic script is here used to put a well known religious expression into the form of a mosque with four minarets.
The art of calligraphy is still very much alive in the Arab world and wherever the Arabic alphabet is used. The list of everyday uses is almost endless: coins and paper money bear the work of expert calligraphers, wall posters and advertising signs in every town show the calligrapher's art, as do the cover and title page of every book, and the major headlines in every newspaper and magazine have been written by hand. Calligraphy - the art of "beautiful writing" -continues to be something that is not only highly prized as ornament and decoration but is immensely practical and useful as well.

Photo: Preeminent among artists of the Muslim world is the calligrapher, as it is his privilege to adorn the word of God. Here ornamental kufic is used on a Quranic page that typifies the marriage of calligraphy and illumination, an art that reached its zenith in the fourteenth century.

Photo: Cursive script on a section of gold-embroidered kiswah, the black cloth covering of the Ka'bah, which is renewed each year at the time of the pilgrimage.

Photo: Miniature from the Shah-Nameh (Book of Kings), illustrating the epic of Persian poet Firdausi.

Photo: The cursive script shown in detail from a fourteenth-century Persian tile.

Photo: A fourteenth-century manuscript of a pharmaceutical text.

Photo: Cursive script on Quran stand of wood, dated 1360, a fine example of Mongol art from western Turkestan.

The Faith of Islam

Islam, in Arabic, means "submission" - submission to the will of God. Faithful Muslims, therefore, submit unreservedly to God's will and obey His precepts as set forth in the Quran and transmitted to mankind by Muhammad, His Messenger.
Muslims believe that theirs is the only true faith. Islam, they say, was revealed through a long line of prophets inspired by God. Among them are Ibrahim (Abraham), patriarch of the Arabs through his first son Isma'il (Ishmael); Musa (Moses), who received the Torah (Tawrah); Dawud (David), who spoke through the Psalms (Zabur); and 'Isa (Jesus), who brought the Gospels (Injil). But the full and final revelation came through Muhammad, the last of all prophets, and was embodied in the Quran, which completes and supersedes all previous revelations.
Photo: A youth in the pilgrim's simple robe reading the Quran.
As the chief source of Islamic doctrine and practice, the Quran is the main foundation of the shari'ah, the sacred law of Islam, which covers all aspects of the public and private, social and economic, religious and political lives of all Muslims. In addition to the Quran the shari'ah has three sources: the sunnah, the practice of the Prophet; ijma', the consensus of opinion; and qiyas, reasoning by analogy. The sunnah - which supplements and complements the Quran, the Word of God, and is next to it in importance - embodies the meticulously documented acts and sayings of the Prophet recorded in a body of writings called the hadith. Ijma' is the consensus of - qualified jurists on matters not specifically referred to in the Quran or the sunnah. Qiyas is the application of human reasoning to extend the principles found in the two primary sources - the Quran and the sunnah - to cases involving matters unknown in the early years of Islam.
Systematized in the second and third centuries of the Muslim era (the eighth and ninth centuries A.D.), the shari'ah later developed into four major schools of jurisprudence: the Hanafi School, founded by Abu Hanifah; the Maliki School, founded by Malik ibn Anas; the Shafi'i School, founded by Muhammad al-Shafi'i; and the Hanbali School founded by Ahmad ibn Hanbal. Each of these men, all exceptional scholars, wrote or dictated long and learned commentaries upon which their schools of law were founded. Based on one or the other of these schools, learned officials called qadis administer the law in shari'ah courts. Despite the great body of tradition and law, however the practice of Islam is essentially personal - a direct relationship between individuals and God. Although there are imams, who lead prayers and deliver sermons, there are no priests or ministers.
To practice their faith, Muslims must accept five primary obligations which Islam imposes. Called the Five Pillars of Islam, they are: the profession of faith (shahadah), devotional worship or prayer (salah), the religious tax (zakah), fasting (sawm), and the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj).
The first pillar, the profession of faith, is the repetition of the statement, "There is no god but God; Muhammad is the Messenger of God" - in Arabic the euphonious "La ilaha illa Allah; Muhammadun rasul Allah." It is a simple statement, yet also profound, for in it a Muslim expresses his complete acceptance of, and total commitment to, the message of Islam.
The second pillar, devotional worship or prayer, requires Muslims to pray five times a day - the dawn prayer, the noon prayer, the afternoon prayer, the sunset prayer, and the evening prayer - while facing toward the Ka'bah, the House of God, in Mecca. Like all Islamic ceremonies, prayer is simple and personal, yet also communal, and the wording of the prayers, the ablutions which are required before prayers, the number of bows, and other parts of the ritual are set out in detail.
The religious tax, the third pillar, is zakah in Arabic, a word that in the Prophet's lifetime came to suggest an obligatory religious tax. Like prayer, zakah is considered a form of worship. It enshrines the duty of social responsibility by which well-to-do Muslims must concern themselves about those less fortunate. The zakah prescribes payments of fixed proportions of a Muslim's possession for the welfare of the community in general and for its needy members in particular, whether Muslims or non-Muslims. This tax is often levied and disbursed by the state, but in the absence of a government collecting system it must be disbursed by the taxable Muslims themselves. In addition, all Muslims are encouraged to make voluntary contributions to the needy called sadaqah.
The fourth pillar is fasting during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim year. Ordained in the Quran, the fast is an exacting act of deeply personal worship in which Muslims seek a richer perception of God and in which, as one writer puts it, Muslims assert that "man has larger needs than bread."
Ramadan begins with the sighting of the new moon, after which abstention from eating and drinking, as well as physical continence, is obligatory every day between dawn and sunset. It is a rigorous fast, but its object is not mere abstinence and deprivation; it is, rather, the subjection of the passions and the purification of one's being so that the soul is brought nearer to God. Fasting is also an exercise in self-control and self-denial whereby one learns to appreciate the pangs of hunger that the poor often feel. The exercise of self-control extends far beyond refraining from food and drink; to make one's fast acceptable to God, one must also refrain from cursing, lying, cheating, and abusing or harming others.
Although rigorous, however, the fast, by Quranic injunction, also admits of a warm compassion. Those who are ill, or on an arduous journey, for example, may fast the prescribed number of days at another time; those for whom fasting is impossible may forego it if they give stipulated alms to the needy.
The month of fasting is also joyous. In Muslim regions, in modern times, the faithful - at the sound of the sunset cannon or the call of the muezzin - break their fast, perform voluntary nocturnal worship (tarawih), and throng the streets in moods that are at once festive and, in the spirit of Ramadan, communal. For those who retire and rest after the day's fast there are, in some areas, men called musahhirs who, in the silent, predawn darkness beat muted drums and call the faithful to awake and eat before the long day's fast begins again.
The last ten days of Ramadan are particularly sacred because they include the anniversary of the night on which Muhammad received his first revelation from God - "the Night of Power" - and the appearance, on the final day, of the thin edge of the new moon announcing the end of Ramadan. At that moment the favor of God descends upon Muslims and, in a spirit of joyous achievement, they begin the three days of celebration called 'Id al-Fitr, the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast. To cement social bonds further, Islam has instituted zakat al-fitr, an obligatory levy in the form of provisions or money for the poor, so that they can share in the joy of 'Id al-Fitr.
The fifth pillar of Islam is the pilgrimage to Mecca - the hajj. One of the most moving acts of faith in Islam, the hajj is, for those Muslims who can get to Mecca, the peak of their religious life, a moment when they satisfy a deep yearning to behold at least once the Ka'bah - the House of God and the physical focus of a life time of prayer. The hajj is at once a worldwide migration of the faithful and a remarkable spiritual happening that, according to Islamic tradition, dates back to Abraham, was affirmed by Muhammad, and then, by Muhammad's own pilgrimage, systematized into rites which are simple in execution but rich it in meaning.
Photo: Dressed in their simple ihram garments, all pilgrims are equal in the eyes of God.
The hajj proper must be made between the eighth and thirteenth days of the 12th month - Dhu al-Hijjah - of the Muslim year, but in one sense it begins when a Muslim approaches Mecca, bathes, trims his nails and hair, discards jewelry and headgear, and puts on the ihram dress. This consists of two simple white seamless garments symbolizing a state of purity; in donning it pilgrims make a declaration of pilgrimage and pronounce a devotional utterance called the talbiyah: "Here I am, O God, at Thy Service" - in Arabic the joyous cry "Labbayk!" After donning the ihram dress, the pilgrims may enter the haram, the sacred precinct surrounding Mecca, and then Mecca itself, where they perform the tawaf - the circling of the Ka'bah - and the sa'y - the running between two hills at al-Mas'a in Mecca. All this can be part of the 'umrah or "lesser pilgrimage," often a prelude to the hajj but not an integral part of it. One of the main distinctions between the hajj and the 'umrah is that the 'umrah can be done at any time of the year, while the hajj must be performed on specified dates.
Photo: Crowds at the small town of Mina cast pebbles at pillars that symbolize evil.
The major rites of the hajj begin on the eighth day of Dhu al-Hijjah when, with thunderous cries of "Labbayk!" the pilgrims pour out of Mecca to Mina, where, as the Prophet did, they meditate overnight. On the next day they proceed en masse to 'Arafat, even farther outside Mecca, and pray and meditate in what is the central rite of the pilgrimage: "the standing" - a few precious hours of profound self-examination, supplication, and penance in which, many say, a Muslim comes as close to God as he can, on earth.
At 'Arafat many actually do stand - from just after noon to just before sunset - but some also visit other pilgrims or the Mount of Mercy, where Muhammad delivered his farewell sermon. The standing is not the end of the hajj, but is the culmination of a Muslim's devotional life. As the Prophet said, "The best of prayers is the prayer of the Day of 'Arafat."
After sunset the pilgrims move to a place called Muzdalifah, where they gather stones for the "throwing of the pebbles" or "stoning of the pillars," and then pray and sleep. The third day of the pilgrimage, back at Mina, they enact a repudiation of evil by throwing the pebbles at a pillar held by many to represent Satan. According to one tradition it was in this area that Satan urged Abraham to disobey God's command to sacrifice his son Ishmael. At Mina too, begins 'Id al-Adha, the great worldwide Feast of Sacrifice during which the pilgrims sacrifice animals - partly to commemorate Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son and partly to symbolize a Muslim's willingness to sacrifice what is dearest to him. As Muslims throughout the world perform identical sacrifices on the same day, the Muslims at Mina in effect share their pilgrimage with Muslims everywhere.
Photo: A pillar marks the Mount of Mercy the rocky hill rising from the plain of Arafat.
As the pilgrims have now completed much of the hajj, Muslim men now clip their hair or shave their heads and women clip a symbolic lock to mark partial deconsecration. The pilgrims may also, at this point, remove the ihram dress and bathe.
In Mecca the rites are concluded by the tawaf of the return, the Circling of the Ka'bah seven times on foot, an act implying that all human activity must have God at the center. After the last circuit the pilgrims worship in the courtyard of the Mosque at the Place of Abraham, where the Patriarch himself offered prayer and, with Ishmael, stood while building the Ka'bah. The tawaf of the return is the last essential devotion of the pilgrimage; now the pilgrims have become hajjis - those who have completed the hajj. Most pilgrims also attempt to kiss, touch, or salute the Hajar al-Aswad, the Black Stone of the Ka'bah, a fragment of polished stone revered as a sign sent by God and a remnant of the original structure built by Abraham and Ishmael. Many also make the sa'y or running, a reenactment of a frantic search for water by Hagar when she and Abraham's son Ishmael were stranded in the valley of Mecca until the Angel Gabriel led them to water in the Well of Zamzam.
It is also customary for pilgrims to return to Mina between the eleventh and thirteenth days and cast their remaining pebbles at the three pillars there and then, in Mecca, make a farewell circling of the Ka'bah. Some may also visit the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina before returning to their homes throughout the world in the "sudden, glad stillness" of those who have stood at 'Arafat.

Photo: Symbol of the oneness and centrality of God, the Ka'bah stands in the courtyard of Mecca's Sacred Mosque where at the season of the hajj the faithful gather for rituals that precede and end their pilgrimage.

Photo: Symbol of the oneness and centrality of God, the Ka'bah stands in the courtyard of Mecca's Sacred Mosque where at the season of the hajj the faithful gather for rituals that precede and end their pilgrimage.

Photo: Pilgrims at the climax of their hajj, "standing" before God at 'Arafat near the spot where Muhammad delivered his farewell sermon.

Photo: Hajjis spend one night camped at Muzdalifah between 'Arafat and Mina.

Photo: In the ceremony of sa'y they reenact the search for water by Hagar, wife of the patriarch Abraham.

The Holy Quran

Islam appeared in the form of a book: the Quran. Muslims, consider the Quran (sometimes spelled "Koran") to be the Word of God as transmitted by the Angel Gabriel, in the Arabic language, through the Prophet Muhammad. The Muslim view, moreover, is that the Quran supersedes earlier revelations; it is regarded as their summation and completion. It is the final revelation, as Muhammad is regarded as the final prophet - 'the Seal of the Prophets."
In a very real sense the Quran is the mentor of millions of Muslims, Arab and non-Arab alike; it shapes their everyday life, anchors them to a unique system of law, and inspires them by its guiding principles. Written in noble language, this Holy Text has done more than move multitudes to tears and ecstasy; it has also, for almost fourteen hundred years, illuminated the lives of Muslims with its eloquent message of uncompromising monotheism, human dignity, righteous living, individual responsibility, and social justice. For countless millions, consequently, it has been the single most important force in guiding their religious, social, and cultural lives. Indeed, the Quran is the cornerstone on which the edifice of Islamic civilization has been built.
The text of the Quran was delivered orally by the Prophet Muhammad to his followers as it was revealed to him. The first verses were revealed to him in or about 610, and the last revelation dates from the last year of his life, 632. His followers at first committed the Quran to memory and then, as instructed by him, to writing. Although the entire contents of the Quran, the placement of its verses, and the arrangement of its chapters date back to the Prophet, as long as he lived he continued to receive revelations. Consequently, the Holy Text could only be collected as a single corpus - "between the two covers" - after the death of Muhammad. This is exactly what happened. After the battle of al-Yamamah in 633, 'Umar ibn al-Khattab, later to become the second caliph, suggested to Abu Bakr, the first caliph, that because of the grievous loss of life in that battle, there was a very real danger of losing the Quran, enshrined as it was in the memories of the faithful and in uncollated fragments. Abu Bakr recognized the danger and entrusted the task of gathering the revelations to Zayd ibn Thabit, who as the chief scribe of the Prophet was the person to whom Muhammad frequently dictated the revelations in his lifetime. With great difficulty, the task was carried out and the first complete manuscript compiled from "bits of parchment, thin white stones - ostracae - leafless palm branches, and the memories of men." Later, during the time of 'Uthman, the third caliph, a final, authorized text was prepared and completed in 651, and this has remained the text in use ever since.
The contents of the Quran differ in substance and arrangement from the Old and New Testaments. Instead of presenting a straight historical narrative, as do the Gospels and the historical books of the Old Testament, the Quran treats, in allusive style, spiritual and practical as well as historical matters.
The Quran is divided into 114 surahs, or chapters, and the surahs are conventionally assigned to two broad categories: those revealed at Mecca and those revealed at Medina. The surahs revealed at Mecca - at the beginning of Muhammad's mission - tend to be short and to stress, in highly moving language, the eternal themes of the unity of God, the necessity of faith, the punishment of those who stray from the right path, and the Last Judgment, when all man's actions and beliefs will be judged. The surahs revealed at Medina are longer, often deal in detail with specific legal, social, or political situations, and sometimes can only be properly understood with a full knowledge of the circumstances in which they were revealed All the surahs are divided into ayahs or verses and, for purposes of pedagogy and recitation, the Quran as a whole is divided into thirty parts, which in turn are divided into short divisions of nearly equal length, to facilitate study and memorization.
The surahs themselves are of varying length, ranging from the longest, Surah 2, with 282 verses, to the shortest, Surahs 103, 108, and 110, each of which has only three. With some exceptions the surahs are arranged in the Quran in descending order of length, with the longest at the beginning and the shortest at the end. The major exception to this arrangement is the opening surah, "al-Fatihah," which contains seven verses and which serves as an introduction to the entire revelation:
In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.
Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds;
The Merciful, the Compassionate;
Master of the Day of Judgment;
Thee only do we worship, and Thee alone we ask for help.
Guide us in the straight path,
The path of those whom Thou hast favored; not the path of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray.
Non-Muslims are often struck by the range of styles found in the Quran. Passages of impassioned beauty are no less common than vigorous narratives. The sublime "Verse of the Throne" is perhaps one of the most famous: God - There is no god but He,
The Living. the Everlasting;
Slumber seizes Him not, neither sleep;
To Him belongs all that is
In the heavens and the earth;
Who is there that can intercede with Him
Save by His leave?
He knows what lies before them
And what is after them,
Nor do they encompass anything of His knowledge
Except such as He wills;
His Throne extends over the heavens and earth;
The preserving of them wearies Him not;
He is the Most High, the All-Glorious.
Muslims regard the Quran as untranslatable; the language in which it was revealed - Arabic - is inseparable from its message and Muslims everywhere, no matter what their native tongue, must learn Arabic to read the Sacred Book and to perform their worship. The Quran of course is available in many languages, but these versions are regarded as interpretations rather than translations - partly because the Arabic language, extraordinarily concise and allusive, is impossible to translate in a mechanical, word-for-word way. The inimitability of the Quran has crystallized in the Muslim view of i'jaz or "impossibility," which holds that the style of the Quran, being divine, cannot be imitated: any attempt to do so is doomed to failure.
It must also be remembered that the Quran was originally transmitted orally to the faithful and that the Holy Text is not meant to be read only in silence. From the earliest days it has always been recited aloud or, more accurately, chanted. As a result, several traditional means of chanting, or intoning, the Quran were found side by side. These methods carefully preserved the elaborate science of reciting the Quran - with all its intonations and its cadence and punctuation. As the exact pronunciation was important - and learning it took years - special schools were founded to be sure that no error would creep in as the traditional chanting methods were handed down. It is largely owing to the existence of these traditional methods of recitation that the text of the Quran was preserved without error. As the script in which the Quran was first written down indicated only the consonantal skeleton of the words, oral recitation was an essential element in the transmission of the text.
Because the circumstances of each revelation were thought necessary to correct interpretation, the community, early in the history of Islam, concluded that it was imperative to gather as many traditions as possible about the life and actions of the Prophet so that the Quran might be more fully understood. These traditions not only provided the historical context for many of the surahs - thus contributing to their more exact explication - but also contained a wide variety of subsidiary information on the practice, life, and legal rulings of the Prophet and his companions.
This material became the basis for what is called the sunnah, or "practice" of the Prophet - the deeds, utterances, and taqrir (unspoken approval) of Muhammad. Together with the Quran, the sunnah, as embodied in the canonical collections of traditions, the hadith, became the basis for the shari'ah, the sacred law of Islam.
Unlike Western legal systems, the shari'ah makes no distinction between religious and civil matters; it is the codification of God's Law, and it concerns itself with every aspect of social, political, economic, and religious life. Islamic law is thus different from any other legal system; it differs from canon law in that it is not administered by a church hierarchy; in Islam there is nothing that corresponds to a "church" in the Christian sense. Instead, there is the ummah - the community of the believers - whose cohesion is guaranteed by the sacred law. Every action of the pious Muslim, therefore, is determined by the Quran, by precedents set by the Prophet, and by the practice of the early community of Islam as enshrined in the shari'ah.
No description, however, can fully capture the overwhelming importance of the Quran to Muslims.

Objectively, it is the central fact of the Islamic faith, the Word of God, the final and complete revelation, the foundation and framework of Islamic law, and the source of Islamic thought, language, and action. It is the essence of Islam. Yet it is, in the deeply personal terms of a Muslim, something more as well. In innumerable, almost indescribable ways, it is also the central fact of Muslim life. To a degree almost incomprehensible in the West it shapes and colors broadly, specifically, and totally the thoughts, emotions, and values of the devout Muslim's life from birth to death.