The Koran admittedly occupies an important position among the great religious books of the world. Though the youngest of the epoch-making works belonging to this class of literature, it yields to hardly any in the wonderful effect which it has produced on large masses of men. It has created an all but new phase of human thought and a fresh type of character. It first transformed a number of heterogeneous desert tribes of the Arabian peninsula into a nation of heroes, and then proceeded to create the vast politico-religious organisations of the Muhammedan world which are one of the great forces with which Europe and the East have to reckon to-day.
The secret of the power exercised by the book, of course, lay in the mind which produced it. It was, in fact, at first not a book, but a strong living voice, a kind of wild authoritative proclamation, a series of admonitions, promises, threats, and instructions addressed to turbulent and largely hostile assemblies of untutored Arabs. As a book it was published after the prophet’s death. In Muhammed’s life-time there were only disjointed notes, speeches, and the retentive memories of those who listened to them. To speak of the Koran is, therefore, practically the same as speaking of Muhammed, and in trying to appraise the religious value of the book one is at the same time attempting to form an opinion of the prophet himself. It would indeed be difficult to find another case in which there is such a complete identity between the literary work and the mind of the man who produced it.
That widely different estimates have been formed of Muhammed is well-known. To Moslems he is, of course, the prophet par excellence, and the Koran is regarded by the orthodox as nothing less than the eternal utterance of Allah. The eulogy pronounced by Carlyle on Muhammed in Heroes and Hero Worship will probably be endorsed by not a few at the present day. The extreme contrary opinion, which in a fresh form has recently been revived1 by an able writer, is hardly likely to find much lasting support. The correct view very probably lies between the two extremes. The relative value of any given system of religious thought must depend on the amount of truth which it embodies as well as on the ethical standard which its adherents are bidden to follow. Another important test is the degree of originality that is to be assigned to it, for it can manifestly only claim credit for that which is new in it, not for that which it borrowed from other systems.
With regard to the first-named criterion, there is a growing opinion among students of religious history that Muhammed may in a real sense be regarded as a prophet of certain truths, though by no means of truth in the absolute meaning of the term. The shortcomings of the moral teaching contained in the Koran are striking enough if judged from the highest ethical standpoint with which we are acquainted; but a much more favourable view is arrived at if a comparison is made between the ethics of the Koran and the moral tenets of Arabian and other forms of heathenism which it supplanted.